All posts for the month November, 2002

Thanksgiving Day at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

November 28, 2002

Sirach 30:22-24 + 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 + Luke 17:11-19

There are some strange details in this text that should raise our curiosity and by doing so, should lead us to what is revealed by the Luke in this wonderful, familiar story. The Samaritan lived outside the requirements of Judaism. He did not and should not have gone to the priest, which was required by the laws of Judaism. The law required in Leviticus 14 required that anyone cleansed could return to normal life with the certification. What the others did was not out of the ordinary. By their obedience to the command of Jesus, they simply did what the law required. We have every reason to be curious about the reproach directed at them. They did only what they were told, and they did what was expected of them. In fact, their healing occurred in their going, that is, in their obedience. Finally, the statement about faith to the Samaritan is curious since they were all cured, and there was no comment about the faith of the others.

Now left with these curious facts, we can make some sense of this by realizing that there are two parts to this story. One is a typical healing story with the usual elements: a cry for help; Jesus responds, the healing occurs in the act of their obedience. The second part of the story concerns the faith of the foreigner who returns, praises God and gives thanks. When Jesus says: “Your faith has made you whole.” something else is going on. The others were healed, but this man got something else. The word that Luke uses is the same word he uses in the Zacchias story when Jesus proclaims that he came to seek out and save what was lost. The word for SAVED is the same word used in this case to mean “Heal.” What we have here is one story about nine being healed, and one being saved.

The deeper issue here is the difference between the Samaritan and the Jews, and Luke’s Gospel explores that issue more and more deeply as the verses go by. Why were the Jews missing their chance, why were they turning away from the Messiah, what was happening that brought in the gentiles, the marginal, and the outcasts into the glory of God before the one so highly favored? The story anticipates what is coming in Acts of the Apostles: a growing blindness in Israel and an openness among the Gentiles. The special place in God’s plan for the world had turned in upon itself, their favor had turned into familiarity, and duty had turned into privilege. In one sense, Luke suggests that Israel had lost the spirit of Gratitude.

We assemble here today not like the one who returns however, but more like the ones who do what is expected: keep the law, and be obedient. Here we gather to make Eucharist in ways we often simply take for granted on a day that suggests that Thanksgiving is not a holiday nearly as much as it is a way of life. What we might hear in this Gospel today is an invitation to look again at all the little things we simply have begun to take for granted; for in this is revealed the true spirit of gratitude.

It’s easy to be thankful for the big stuff, the things that happen once in a lifetime. But it is God who stays with us day in and day out who has come to bring us salvation. It is a God who continues to be revealed in the daily routine of things, who cares for us in the ordinary ways that longs for our praise and thanksgiving. This was the problem for Israel, a problem made obvious by Luke’s story, and its telling is not for the purpose of pointing out their error nearly as much as it is to get our attention that we might avoid the same mistake. Whatever we have taken for granted, whatever has ceased to amaze us as the free gift of God, whatever we have begun to expect because of some notion of our privilege or right has become a stumbling block, and today this Gospel urges us to notice the difference between the ones who are healed and the ones who are saved that we might see and understand the difference.

The 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

November 24, 2002

Ezekiel 34:11-12 + 1 Corinthians 15:20-26 + Matthew 25:31-46

….and so ends the narrative portion of Matthew’s Gospel on this last Sunday of our present Liturgical year. With these final verses of Chapter 25 we conclude thirty fours Sundays of Matthew’s instruction, his companionship, and his vision of the Kingdom of God. As Matthew tells his story, the Passion now begins.

In fact, the scholars tell us that with all the Gospels, the Passion of Christ was written first, and then the earlier parts of the Gospel were written to set the scene and introduce the characters. That would suggest that we might imagine Matthew’s Gospel to be a great drama allowing us this kind of overview……

The Narrative of the Birth and Infancy of Jesus is a prelude before the curtain opens. While we are getting settled in our seats, the lights go down, the orchestra plays some of the themes that will be lead us through.

The genealogy, the annunciation to Joseph (which in Matthew gets more lines than Mary’s annunciation because of his connection to David’s lineage), a story of the visitors from the east, the reaction/introduction of Herod and his authorities. This Christmas story is all an introduction, and we ought to remember that at this time of the year as the greed of cash-registers and profits twist this event way out of proportion. Then, the curtain goes up. John the Baptist walks on, baptizes Jesus, and act one begins with a trip to the desert.

From then on a series of scenes unfolds one after another that some call “discourses” or “sermons” all leading to the final one given at the Temple in Jerusalem. That is the scene we have just concluded, and it is now time in the Gospel for the finale – the final grand act that resolves the conflict which in Matthew’s Gospel has been a conflict of Justice and Mercy, Law and Love.

Now we know what Advent is about, not Christmas, but the coming of the Son of Man. Our expectation and imagination of what this shall be like for us is shaken by this scene and the little drama within the big drama. The little drama is this story Jesus tells. It is a radical departure from the common idea of virtuous action bringing a reward. The usual understanding is that one is rewarded for good works done on earth. The idea that “Justice” will come because someone is keeping track of all things in a great “book of life” is shattered by this story. As Matthew sees it, there is no record that the righteous can point to when called before the King. Both the blessed and the condemned are unaware of what really matters. What does matters, it seems, is the stuff they never thought of. What determines their destiny and seals their fate are things to which they never assigned any significance. All that stuff they were doing to look good and win favor didn’t matter at all. In the end, it was something else entirely.

This whole idea flies in the face of what we think Justice is all about. We want it to be something clear-cut. We want to be sure that we’re right. We want to be certain that we are orthodox; that we have all the answers, and possess the truth, and of course, then we can call the shots. That is why this scene is so surprising. Both sides are astonished that the Son of Man does not share their notion of “Justice” and their idea of balancing the books. In fact, the Son of Man does not make the final judgment. He confirms the depth of their actions. He ratifies their behavior. The King, not necessarily the same person, calls and dispatches one group and then the other.

Matthew suggests here that inconsequential acts of human generosity and compassion that people do without thought of reward or of profit have profound significance for the future as well as for the present. It is not what we got out of it now or ever that matters. In fact, the things from which we get nothing seem to have the most potential. Spontaneous acts of reaching out to another human being make the most difference in this kind of justice, not those where the consequences are measured and chosen for the maximum benefit. In the world’s eyes, that kind of behavior is folly, but not so in this Gospel.

This is not a program of virtues that gains a reward. It suggests with some subtlety that the moment we decide what to do by what we get out of it, we’ve lost it. It suggests the spontaneous acts of human kindness which spring out of a heart tuned to the presence of Christ are the ones that matter. The message of this final scene is that whenever we give up our rights, our time, even our lives wasting ourselves for others, even for God, then we enter in the company of fools in the eyes of this world. Yet we know and discover perhaps only at the end that the leader of the fools is hidden among the unimportant ones of this world.

The 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

November 11, 2002

Wisdom 6:12-16 + 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 + Matthew 25:1-13

In the next three weeks we proclaim the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. This chapter is the end of the public teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, and it provides his final instruction about discipleship during this time before his return. It becomes an extended meditation on discipleship, and the church leads us in that meditation with some clues from the Old Testament that help with these verses today. Following that clue, the writer of our first reading today gives us the focus for reflecting on this Gospel. We are easily distracted by details of the story, and it is easy to be troubled by those who will not share what they seem to possess. Great sermons have been preached about staying awake, but all of them fall asleep. It is not the foolish ones who serve as model for disciples, but the others, called “Wise.” The oil they do not share may well be something they cannot share, and once we let go of the words literally, we are free to move into the Life this Word of God can give. The Life of a disciple of Jesus is filled with Wisdom, and the author insists that those who seek it will find it.

Biblical “Wisdom” is an attribute of God, and attribute that “Godly” people may possess if they find it. In behavior it shows itself as Prudence, which is the behavior often used to describe these wise “virgins” of the Gospel story. The Prudent are those who seek the best way of doing things. They are those who look ahead, who look around, who live for more than the moment. The point with Prudence is the doing. This is a quality of action, an element of decision, a way of life that is responsible and accountable. Those who lack Prudence are negligent, procrastinate, hesitant and inconsistent. They rationalize and blame and expect others to bail them out like those in the Gospel story whose lamps go out. They are left to live in the darkness. We will never learn from this story whether the foolish found any oil. What we do know is that when they returned, it was too late. Works of love and mercy cannot be shared. They are the results of Wisdom in a Prudent Life.

The Prudent are people of action; wise, accountable, and reasonable. They are disciples of Jesus Christ, and they know what to do with their lives while they wait for his return.

The 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

November 03, 2002

Malachi 1:14-2:10 + 1 Thessalonians 2:7-13 + Matthew 23:1-12

The disputes are at an end. Jesus alone speaks, and now he speaks to his disciples: to you and to me. He is still in the Temple where he was confronted by first one group and then another. These groups: Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, are all part of the hierarchy that has too much to lose by his teaching. They have all been dismissed, and now, still in the Temple with all the authority the place itself can give, he speaks to his disciples, then at the end of this chapter he will leave the Temple. This is a kind of final instruction, a wrap up of all that has been said, and the last words of direction to set us on our mission.

As always, the focus and the issues reveal a great deal about the church of St. Matthew which was obviously beginning to struggle with internal disorder from what we would today call: “clericalism.” These words stand as a reminder to the church in every age that pride, privilege, and power are not tools for the building of the Kingdom, but tools of its destruction. There is danger in this text taken and clipped out of context as it is. It is the danger of standing back and thinking that it is all about them: all about those Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, or all about that early church creeping into clericalism with abuses frequent enough that Matthew thought he should raise this warning. Buried in all the words and dimmed by the intensity of the moment, there is in these verses a piece of Matthew theology far more important than warnings about clericalism. There is a powerful reminder about who is the center of all faith and the source of all things: Christ Jesus.

As Matthew says, he is the only teacher, the only Rabbi, and father-like source of life. Verse eight in the passage ought to get the attention of everyone: “As for you….” he says. Suddenly it’s not about Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees; it is about us. It is not about titles and clothing it is about humility, the virtue found in the heart of every disciple of Christ Jesus. “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” Humility, not power is the only authority worthy of us. Humility is the only virtue that most clearly identifies us with Christ Jesus and gives us a share in the mystery of his power. That identity is the issue here.

Our likeness to Christ Jesus is the measure of our authority, not our power. That likeness comes from concern for the other, service, compassion, and commitment. That likeness comes from friendship with God, from the honest recognition that we are all children of God, made by God, called by God and redeemed by God. There is no one here who is better or worse, good or bad; this is the truth as humility sees it.

It springs out of the embracing love of God and the gift of Spirit that lets us see as God sees, and love as God loves. The true disciple imitates everything about the master. Disciples of Christ Jesus do nothing to call attention to themselves, but rather lose themselves in imitation of their master. They never address this world or any other person with the thought of what they can get for themselves, but only with wonder about what they can give. They have power that reduces every threat and fear to nothing. It is the power that comes from a humble heart, the power of kindness, the power of love, and the power of compassion. It is the power that quiets every rage, and stills all anger.

The humble have that power, for they are close to God, and they see as God sees. They see through the postures of offense and anger, through the costumes of pride and self-serving authority, through the arrogance of sin and presumptions of privilege. They know and they believe that the way of Jesus is the only way to peace, to the unity of the human family, and to a life of joy and holiness. This is what Jesus proposes there in the Temple that day, and it is how he suggests we find our way into the Kingdom.

The Solemnity of All Souls at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

November 2, 2002

Daniel 12:1-3 + Romans 6:3-9 + John 6:37-40

Roman Catholics often visit a church to be alone with God, and in a Protestant church they have a feeling of emptiness. I often look into open churches, and I do not remember a time I have ever seen anyone praying alone in a Protestant Church. It may be a coincidence of my timing; but I am not mistaken about my feelings. There is no sacrament reserved there, and that does affect my feelings about the space. This is not the experience of Byzantine Christians. When they enter a church they do not proceed to their private prayers at a central altar or tabernacle without first going round to visit the icons. They kiss them and light candles before them. They salute them and join in communion with them. The walls of their churches are covered with images of patriarch and prophets, preachers and teachers. They rub shoulders with local saints and national martyrs. Their family histories are filled with songs and hymns and legends to tell again and again in every generation, for in telling them, they recall the acts and blessings of God.

That is what we do here on this Feast of All Souls. Devotion to the saints and to the dead are really the same thing; the sense of unity with a common past that is so strong in the worship of the East. Those we remember today do not cease to exist because we cannot see them or know their presence through our senses. They live as always, but without this frame of flesh and blood with which they approached and held correspondence with us. The life they have now is present, not future, past, nor distant. It is not above the sky, it is not beyond the grave, it is now and here; the Kingdom of God among us.

John Henry Newman in a sermon left behind these thoughts to make sense of this day. “We are looking here for the coming of the day of God, when all this outward world, fair though it be, shall perish; when the heavens shall be burnt, and the earth melt away. We can bear the loss, for we know it will be but the removing of a veil. We know that to remove the world that is seen will be the manifestation of the world that is not seen. We know that what we see is like a screen that hides from us God and Christ, and the angels and the saints.”

We sit today in their presence. They surround us and bear us up as they always have and always will. We share with them a common beginning in mind and in the heart of God; and we shall share with them a common eternity in the arms of that God who calls us all his own.

The Solemnity of All Saints at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

November 1, 2002

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14 + 1 John 3:1-3 + Matthew 5:1-12

It is Matthew who speaks to us today with his unique vision of the Kingdom of God shaped by the adversity his church experiences historically. Later, when another generation has passed and a wider experience of the community’s life allows, there is different focus to the words of Jesus we proclaim today. It even changes location in Luke. The mountain is leveled, and the prophetic parallel with Moses is no longer important in the Lukan vision of life for the citizens of the Kingdom and those who would be one with Christ Jesus.

The location from which these words of Jesus were spoken is the least of the differences however. Matthew’s additions and shift in emphasis says far more. Blest are you poor, the reign of God is yours, says Luke. Blessed are the poor in spirit, says Matthew. Blessed are you who hunger, you shall be filled, says Luke. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, says Matthew. A shift from the passive to the active is found in Matthew. He urges activism. Hunger and thirst become verbs. Matthew speaks of action: Don’t just be hungry – thirst for it – go after it, seek it! There is an ethical side of Matthew’s proclamation of these words of Jesus that urges the Blessed into action for the sake of the Kingdom of God. For these blessed, the kingdom of God is not just something they inherit because they are there and identified by the one who passes on the reward. Being blessed is a sign of God-given status not an affirmation of character. The Blessed for Matthew are not simply those who are hungry and wait without complaint; but rather they are the ones who, in a sense, chose to fast and discipline themselves for the sake of bringing justice for those who have no choice but be hungry.

This is what we call to mind on All Saints day; not just those who have been found blessed by reason of their place in time and the conditions of their lives, but those who take action for the sake of others, those who hunger, thirst, mourn, show mercy and make peace. This too is holiness, and for those have choices in life like you and me, the call to holiness is a call to action and service. If persecution leads one to reward, our persecution will have to come from what we have done not from the color of ethnic origins, economic condition, sexuality, and nationality. We will have to be persecuted for what we have done. We are not going to ride or slide into the Kingdom of God because of our helplessness. We will have to work our way there, and Matthew gives us the tools and points the way.