Archive for September, 2012

A Capable Wife Who Can Find?

September 24, 2012

With the Revised Common Lectionary we are using these days in The Episcopal Church, there are some choices as to the First Reading from the Hebrew Bible each Sunday. I allowed this one from Proverbs today with some fear and trembling!  In a day when we are all so conscious to try and use inclusive language and concepts and to avoid stereotyping people, especially women, into filling certain “roles,” how dare we begin our Readings from Scripture this morning with this question, “A capable wife who can find?” (Proverbs 31:10)
But I ran across a reflection in The Christian Century magazine this week by a Presbyterian pastor in Florida which I thought was worthy of our consideration. He was worried about using this passage just like I was. But he writes, “Those of us who follow the lectionary have encountered the industrious woman of Proverbs 31 many times. Every three years she appears with her wool and flax, her distaff and spindle, her keen eye for both fashion and a good deal, her open hand to the poor, and her penchant for providing her husband bragging rights at the city gates.”
“But [in our concern for unhealthy gender stereotypes] we haven’t always welcomed her…[Yet perhaps today] enough water has passed under the bridge to allow us to take a second look at this virtuous woman. She is indeed a marvel of enterprise and hard-nosed stewardship. She makes the ant in Aesop’s fable seem like a slacker. If you translated her duties into a modern job description, it would jibe with that of the most successful of CEOs. Today she would be running a corporation, selling a line of handmade clothing on the Home Shopping Network and chairing the local United Way. Her husband could brag about her if he wanted, but she would be far beyond the need for that kind of attention. She would be a self-made woman…”
“That’s why I welcome the arrival of the wise woman from Proverbs 31. If she can find the time, I’d love to have her as an elder on my session (a member of the Vestry). I don’t think she’d ask for her husband’s permission to serve. If she did, he’d be a fool to stand in her way.” (Brant Copeland, September 19 edition of The Christian Century, page 20)
Well, I thought that was a delightful piece. But it also says volumes about how we are to read and understand Scripture. Too often, Christians feel that they have only two ways to understand the Bible in the modern, or post-modern, world. One way is to consider it “literally” and, by that, I mean what the fundamentalists call the “verbal inerrancy” of Scripture. That is, that it was dictated by God, word for word, to the writers of this sacred text, and that it is as reliable on issues of science and sociology as it is on issues of faith and morals.
The other way, according to people like Richard Dawkins and Steven Hawking, is to reject the Bible completely as an ancient, out-dated, superstitious series of documents produced by primitive people who had no other way of making sense of the universe.
But, there is a third way – a way suggested by this Q and A from The Episcopal Church’s Catechism: “Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?” the seeker asks. And the Church – speaking through her official catechism — answers “We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” (BCP page 853) Look carefully at what that says.
It affirms that we believe the Bible is inspired. You cannot spend as much time as I have with the Bible, reading it every day for over 40 years, sometimes cover-to-cover, without acknowledging that this is no ordinary book…this is a special kind of literature, and a combination of history and myth, poetry and law. It was written by human beings, human beings inspired by One much greater than themselves, but human beings – like us – shaped and formed by the times in which they lived and the cultures of which they were a part.
So, it’s not enough just to read the Bible. You have to study the Bible. You have to find out how it came to be written. You have to understand something about the historical contexts in which the various books were formed. And that takes, at the very least, owning a good, modern translation of the Bible with introductions to the various books, and footnotes which help explain some of the more difficult and obscure passages.
That means reading the Bible in community! In church, yes, surrounded by liturgy and song. But also reading it in small groups where you can really discuss it, really ask the hard questions, even do what the rabbis have done for centuries — argue with the Bible, wrestle with the Word of God like Jacob wrestled with the angel…until finally, it blesses you.
That’s what our Presbyterian friend did with the wise woman from Proverbs 31. He wrestled with that text until he discovered that it revealed a woman he’d like to have on his session. In our case, on the Vestry…or, as rector of our parish… or as Presiding Bishop of our church!

Teachers, Tongues, and Opinion Polls

September 17, 2012

It’s pretty ironic that, when we have spent all last week hearing about the teachers’ strike in the city of Chicago, our Second Lesson begins with these words: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness!”

Of course, St. James is talking about Christian teachers and catechists in the early Church, the ones who were charged with the responsibility of preparing the followers of Jesus for Baptism and Confirmation which sacraments we are celebrating here today in the lives of Don and Scott. But teaching IS important – whether in the church or in the “secular city” like Chicago. My daughter-in-law is an elementary school teacher in a charter school for homeless children in Phoenix, and my son has just resigned his position to go back for teacher certification himself. I can’t think of a more important “ministry” today than that of teaching.

I think James’ primary point in saying that “not many should become teachers” is to highlight the importance of that ministry, and to recognize the fact that not everyone can do it. Not everyone has that particular gift…any more than we may have other specific gifts.

Actually, St. James doesn’t spend much more time in his letter developing that idea, but moves along to write about the importance of guarding our tongues, and pointing out how destructive slanderous speech and partial truths can be. We need only look at some of the attack ads by both political parties gracing our television screens these days to know the truth of that warning. Why can’t we be civil to one another in this political season? Why can’t we “disagree” agreeably? Well, I guess Christians have been wondering about that since James wrote his Epistle! (Pause)

But, speaking of politics, today’s politicians are not the first people to pay attention to public opinion polls. Even Jesus did that from time to time according to today’s Gospel! In this story, Jesus and his disciples are journeying through the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and he asks them “Who do people say that I am?” In others words, what are people saying out there? How am I being received? How is my message being understood? And the disciples give a variety of answers – presumably different things they’ve heard in their travels – because there was still a lot of confusion about just who this new rabbi was!

Well, some say that you’re really John the Baptist; others that you may be the “Elijah” written about in the Prophets; others that you may actually be another prophet.  And then Jesus gets specific: “But who do you say that I am?” It was apparently important for Jesus to get some kind of reading about what people were saying about him, about what the general population was thinking at this point in his ministry. Doing his own “opinion polling,” if you will.

But what he was really interested in was what his closest followers thought! Who did they think he was? Because, in the final analysis, it wasn’t going to be what popular opinion happened to be that was going to preserve his message. It was going to be what the disciples thought, that would come down to us through the ages! They were the ones who were going to preserve, carry on, and even in some sense enlarge upon, his teaching.

Well, Peter gets it right – at least initially – and speaks up: “You are the Messiah.” In other words, you are God’s Anointed One, the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who is finally going to deliver us from this endless oppression by the Roman government, and set us free!

So, he was on the right track but as Jesus began to sketch out how all that was going to happen, and that it was not going to be by starting a war, but rather by undergoing great suffering and rejection and even death, Peter loses the thread and suffers a pretty severe rebuke himself from the One he has just called “Messiah!”

But even that blunder gives Jesus the opportunity to teach the disciples some important lessons; lessons about self denial, about taking up their own crosses, and about what following him really meant. About the “cost of discipleship” And, finally, he leaves them with the insight that it’s not really about “getting it right.” It’s not about “perfection.” It’s about…being “faithful.”

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed…” Conversely, if we’re not ashamed of him, he won’t be ashamed of us! So, it’s not so much about getting it right, Jesus is saying. It’s about not being ashamed of me. It’s about being willing to share the “knowledge and love” you have of me with those to whom I send you.

That’s what we are hoping Don and Scott will help us do after they receive the laying on of hands and the strengthening of the Holy Spirit in their lives today –which is what we’ll be praying for in a few moments. We want them to join us in not “being ashamed” of Jesus and his message, but to help us share it with others – in our families and neighborhoods and schools and workplaces, anywhere we come in contact with other people.

Years ago there was a poster put out by our evangelism office in the Episcopal Church. When you first looked at it, it appeared to be a chalice. But it was really an optical illusion and, when you looked at it more closely, you could see that it depicted two people, in profile, looking at one another. And there were three words beneath the picture – Go, Listen, Tell.

That’s a pretty good “evangelism strategy” – for Don and Scott and for every one of us in this church. Go – back outside the doors of this church when we are dismissed from worship. Go into those families and neighborhoods and schools and workplaces. And then,
Listen – listen to the pain and the longings of those with whom you come in contact. Listen for their deep desire (even if they are not completely aware of it) for purpose and for meaning in life, even for a relationship with the Living God. And finally,

Tell – tell them about what you’ve found here. A loving community of Christian people, a place to hear about and experience a God of grace and a God of glory. That’s what we should be teaching others by our words and by our example.

That’s what we should be using our “tongues” for, rather than slandering and criticizing others. That’s what it means “not to be ashamed” of Jesus and of his message. That’s what it means when we sing in our Gospel hymn today:

“I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back…No turning back!”               Amen.

Faith By Itself, If It Has No Works, Is Dead!

September 9, 2012

We hear a lot today in the news media about the widening gap between rich and poor in this country. Both political parties are engaged in a fierce race for the White House and to secure both Houses of Congress with rival solutions to our economic difficulties. There is a lot of talk about strengthening the middle class (which most of us feel we are part of), but very little mention – in either Party – about the truly poor, those below the official, “poverty level”  in our nation and around the world.
According to our Lessons from Holy Scripture this morning, concern about the poor is hardly a new problem. The wise author of Proverbs writes, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils those who despoil them…Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed because they share their bread with the poor. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” (Proverbs 22)
In the Epistle today, St.  James provides a scenario to bring this concern for the poor closer to home for members of the early Church. He describes Sunday morning in a congregation when an obviously wealthy person comes into church and is shown all kinds of favoritism by the ushers and the clergy. And he contrasts this with the way a homeless person might be treated (“Stand there” or “Sit at my feet.”). And James concludes, “Is it not the rich who oppress you?  Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” (James 2) Sounds sort of like a speech at the Democratic National Convention!
But the last line makes it clear that James was referring, first and foremost, to the Roman empire which was, even as he wrote,  persecuting those early Christians, hauling them into court for refusing to worship the Emperor, and — by Christian standards — blaspheming the Name of the one, true, God by their pagan practices.
And the Gospel today even shows our Lord himself wrestling with the prejudices of his people against the Gentiles, against “the other,” against those who are “different,” as he hesitates at first to heal the Greek-speaking Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, but relents at the last minute as he sees her faith, perhaps remembering our Lesson from Proverbs this morning, “the rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all!”
And that, in the final analysis, is why Christians, and people everywhere of good will,  are to care about the poor and seek to make their lives better — because we are all “children of God.” We are all linked together by our common humanity. We are all in this together!
I think it’s this concept of working for “the common good” which inspired “the Five Marks of Mission” adopted by the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops and the General Convention of our own Episcopal Church. These “marks of mission” are intended to be a kind of short-hand way of remembering our “job” as Christians, the task God has given us to do.
The first “mark” is to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That’s pretty basic, and it simply means that we are called to remind the world that God is King…and that we are not! God is Sovereign…and we are not!
Mark number two is to baptize, teach and nurture new believers. That’s what the Church is for. Once people come to believe in God, they need a place to learn more about God, to hone spiritual practices designed to keep them in touch with God, and to be strengthened in their faith by associating with other believers. That’s why we come to church every Sunday — to be taught…and to be fed!
Number Three:  we are to “respond to human need by loving service.” That gets us back to our Lessons today — “those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” It’s why we put our money in the collection plate every Sunday (because hopefully some of it goes to support local charities, and some of it goes on through the Diocese to the wider Church’s efforts to respond to human need). And it’s why we’re encouraged as Christians to get involved in our local communities and to make a difference.
The Fourth Mark of Mission reminds us that we are called to do more than simply charity. We are also to work to “transform the unjust structures of society.” An analogy might be that, while it’s a noble thing to pull people out of a rushing stream before they drown, at some point it may be necessary to go upstream and find out who’s throwing them in! There is such a thing as “systemic injustice” and we are called to challenge those structures as well.
Finally, we are to work to sustain the integrity of creation and to protect the environment and the planet we live on — what the Prayer Book calls, “this fragile earth, our island home.” Our efforts to secure justice and peace on the earth won’t matter very much if the earth itself becomes uninhabitable at some point.
So our Anglican “five marks of mission” are a helpful “check list” to see if we are responding  to the challenge of our Lessons today — to share our bread with the poor as the author of Proverbs suggests…to love our neighbors as ourselves as the Epistle of James cites and as Jesus demonstrates in the Gospel stories of his healing ministry. These marks of our mission seek to respond to the stark question asked by St. James:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead!” (James 2:14-17)

Labor Day – The Fruit of Good “Work”

September 3, 2012

Whenever we observe the Labor Day weekend, I make a kind of strange connection. And I think of a priest and monk named James Huntington. Fr. Huntington was the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross, the first permanent, Episcopal, monastic community for men here in the United States. I’ve been an Associate of Holy Cross for over 30 years and used to make my retreat regularly at their mother house in West Park, NY while I was serving at our Episcopal Church Center.

Holy Cross has always been a community committed to active ministry rooted in the spiritual life. They take seriously the admonition in our Epistle today when St. James writes, “…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22) Today’s Collect sets out the process for the Christian life – for monastics like the brothers of Holy Cross, but also for everyday Christians like you and me:
“Lord of all power and might, the author and give of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works…” See the pattern? First, the love of God must be grafted (implanted) in our hearts. Then we begin by practicing the disciplines of our religion (increase in us true religion); as we live that life we begin to experience the goodness of God; and then finally, God begins to bring forth from within us “the fruit of good works.” We start being doers of the word…and not hearers only.

That’s exactly the path James Huntington followed. He experienced what he believed to be a call to the religious life in the early 1880s while attending a retreat at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Then he, and two other priests, began to test that vocation by living a common life at Holy Cross Mission on New York’s Lower East Side, working with poor people and the immigrant population there.
That challenging ministry, especially working with immigrants and young people, drew Huntington to the social witness of the Church and he became increasingly involved with the single-tax movement, with the fledgling Labor Movement, and really led the way for The Episcopal Church to become increasingly committed to what became known as the “social gospel.”

This was an early 20th century movement which applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as wealth perceived of as excessive, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, child labor, and inadequate labor unions. The leaders – some of whom overlapped with Huntington – were people like Richard Ely, Washington Gladden, and especially Walter Rauschenbusch.
This movement was not without its critics, even at the time, in The Episcopal Church and the wider Christian community, but it sowed the seeds of our increasing involvement in issues of justice and peace and the realization – arising again in our day in the so-called “emergent church”– that “Jesus did not come to found a church; he came to announce God’s Kingdom!” That the Reign of God begins Now! And we need to work to build a society that reflects those values.

What does all this have to do with Labor Day? Well, of course, Labor Day – as a commemoration on the first Monday in September — was a creation of the labor movement and was dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers and to the contributions they have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country. It began to be celebrated in the early 1880s (just about the same time as James Huntington experienced his call to the religious life!)

There is some debate about who originally proposed the Labor Day observance, but records seem to indicate that it was Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, first suggested the day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold” (History of Labor Day, from the DOL)
Of course, no one can deny today that the labor movement itself has been fraught with its own internal problems, but the ideals of its founders, as well as the commitment of people like James Huntington over the last century reflect Gospel values and are well worth celebrating. Perhaps our Collect for Labor Day in the Book of Common Prayer puts it best, in a spiritual context:

“Almighty God, you have so linked our lives with one another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord…” (BCP 261)
With the unemployment rate still hovering around 8.3 per cent in the sure – but oh so slow – economic recovery we are in the midst of, I hope we will redouble our efforts in this country and around the world to see to it that our people have adequate and meaningful work to do. It’s part of being a human being! And the Collect has it about right…

We are so intertwined with each other in this world that everything we do affects all other lives. What we do for good and what we do for ill — affects others. So let’s remember not to just look out for number one, but to realize that we are all in this together. And, as we expect to be paid a living wage ourselves, let’s see to it that others are paid fairly for the work they do. Most of all, let’s remember those who, this day, are out of work. Very few of them want to be. And everyone deserves a chance for meaningful employment.

So, enjoy your Labor Day. But don’t forget where it came from, and what it’s ideals are. For if we are to become “doers of the word and not hearers only,” we need to follow  James Huntington’s example and let God’s name be grafted in our hearts…to put our religion into practice..and to be nourished by the goodness and grace of God…so that we may bear good fruit — the fruit of good WORK !