In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Friday, October 22, 2010

Standing in the Need of Prayer, a reflection on Proper 25C

A reflection the readings for Proper 25/C: Luke 18:9-14, by The Rev. Margaret Rose

Standing in the Need of Prayer

The Gospel text from Luke today--Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple reminded me of a children’s story called I’m Terrific. It is the story of Jason Everett Bear, who indeed in every way is terrific. He sweeps the floor and cleans his room regularly, always makes his bed, does his homework and gets enough sleep, and even eats spinach without complaint. He is very aware of how good he is and gives himself gold stars to mark the fact. Indeed his tongue often has a gummy feel to it due to licking the gold stars he offers himself for his daily good deeds. He reminds his schoolmates and neighbors of how terrific he is and give thanks to his mother that he is not like other people. Soon, however, it begins to dawn on the bear that he is rather forlorn and isolated in his greatness since no one can measure up to him. He thus decides to go the opposite route: never make his bed, pick fights with his friends, no more spinach , kick over nut piles carefully laid up by the neighborhood squirrel, tie knots in the fur of the Raccoon. This behavior gains him no less isolation than the former. And he finally understands that life is about give and take in relationship, Jason Bear then goes to each neighbor to ask forgiveness and friendship. The storybook character is neither a perfectly good bear nor a perfectly bad bear. He is in fact pretty much like his buddies--in need or forgiveness, redemption and love. This is a rather moralistic story, written to teach children about self absorption and showing off. But it does relate to Luke.

In the text for today, the Pharisee really is terrific. He is a solid citizen, a faithful hard worker. You really would want him on your vestry. Though we often tend to dismiss him as we read this text, since he is certainly arrogant and self-righteous, but he really is a good man. He has faithfully done what the temple required. He prays regularly, fasts more than the law requires and tithes, not just of the foods and animals that religious law requires, but of all his income. That is nothing to sneeze at. It would be as if we not only gave away a tenth of all Before Tax dollars and a lot more besides. The Pharisee is faithful and righteous.

The tax collector is not. This man who comes before God and stands far off to ask forgiveness, really does need it. He is not an IRS worker as we might know it. He is not a nice guy--maybe not as bad as the thieves and robbers that the Pharisee prays about-- but one who is known for collaborating with the Roman government. He comes, beating his breast, knowing his desperate need for God. He goes away with his prayers heard and deemed righteous.
It would be easy to dismiss this text as simply an attitude thing. But if I am truthful, I admit that I often identify more with that Pharisee than with the tax collector. I spend a lot of time and prayer on doing the right thing. And in the secret of my heart I have sometimes congratulated myself on the avoidance of really bad deeds. I have come close to deeming myself righteous and not quite like those miserable sinners so much in need of redemption. It is a subtle seduction. For we really are called to do good deeds and follow Jesus faithfully in tithing, praying and fasting and caring for others.

I remember some years ago, working in a soup kitchen at a Church in Boston. It was a place where many poor and homeless people came to hang out, so we began to know some of the folks fairly well. We regularly had lunch together and from time to time went on field trips. The big event of the year was the annual Lobster Fest which took place at a beautiful retreat center north of Boston. It was a great time and required an enormous amount of work on the part of volunteers. One year when the party was over and some of the volunteers returned to their cars, it was discovered that the cars had been broken into and money had been stolen--in all I think about 45 dollars though not much else. The convicting words came to the lips of those who had been wronged. Quick to accuse one of our group, the interrogative looks went round. It could have been any number of people who had been milling around the parking area and picnic grounds of the retreat center. But two of our number were identified as potential thieves though there was no real concrete evidence. “Why would THEY do this us after all we have done for THEM. Our money, our cars, our things have been violated. Of course they had. No question about it. It is wrong to steal. But how quick we are to assume that the one who wrongs us is not someone who looks or acts like us. How quick we are to deem ourselves and those like us as righteous--and to separate ourselves from those in so much need or even from those who are indeed miserable sinners.
How often does each of us thank God that we are not like other people. I do it when I read the local paper which seems to delight in front page embezzlements and the misconduct of sports and political figures. I hear myself from time to time thinking self-righteously that I would never be involved in such a thing.

But you know, though I do not like to admit it, I am the tax collector too. I am in my daily life as participant in sin as that man who made no pretense about his worthiness. And there are those moments I am so aware of my need for grace that I know that I am indeed like other people and standing before God in need of prayer. A message I no doubt need to hear.

The point of the story,of course, is that the Pharisee, as good as he is, really is also like other people. We are all in need of forgiveness. More important, we all stand empty-handed before God. We know this, in our hearts and minds and bodies, from time to time—often in our moments of suffering when we realize that no amount of good deeds can make things okay again. We simply ask God to hear our prayers--not because we have tithed or because we have been to church, but because we know our need for forgiveness and God’s love and power in our lives.

People who have battled the demons of addiction know it. Those who have been a part of 12 step recovery programs have it repeated over and over in the first three steps of AA--a recognition of one’s powerlessness over the addiction and the need of a power greater than ourselves to renew us to health.

In point of fact there is a bit of the Pharisee and a bit of the tax collector in us all. One Sunday, as we come to church to pray and worship we are patting ourselves on the back about how good we’ve been this week. And another week we come as miserable sinners, knowing that there is nothing left to give and that we have not done or been much this week worth being full of pride about.

Jesus calls us to confront the attitude of the Pharisee in our own hearts, this misplaced pride in obedience and to recognize that boasting of our virtue, however subtle, separates us from one another and from God. And to receive the fullness of renewal, love and forgiveness when there is nothing left in us but misery. His life, his death, and resurrection were for all of us, tax collector and Pharisee alike--all called to prayer and repentance. All offered forgiveness and renewal of life. AMEN

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Proper 24C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 24C: Genesis 32. 22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3. 14- 4.5, Luke 18. 1-8 by The Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers

Persistence – I think we have had a good example of that over the last few weeks. That persistence paid off when 33 Chilean miners were finally rescued after 69 days trapped underground. I’m sure that none of us who watched any of those men being brought home and reunited with their families can have failed to have been moved by what they saw. We can’t really know what they or their families endured during that time. But it is clear that a certain amount of persistence was required. Being under ground for so long posed a number of problems, those above ground had to get food down to the miners, there were nutritionists who made sure that they had a balanced diet, the miners themselves had to find ways of occupying themselves underground and the engineers had to work out a way of rescuing them. It seems that the miners lives below ground were structured by prayer, they had prayer services at 12 noon and at 6pm daily. I gather that an MP3 audio version of the bible in Spanish was sent to them through their family contacts, as well as an MP3 audio version of the Jesus film which tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, a story that perhaps paralleled their own experience. They also took great comfort from the words of Psalm 95 verse 4 “In His hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks are his also’. Thankfully the perseverance of the Chileans paid off – and not only in prayer, but in working out the solution to a difficult problem - all 33 miners made it back up safely and there was much rejoicing..!

Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is a story about persistence. Taken in context it comes just after Jesus has been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God will come. The Jews of Jesus’ time were of course living under Roman rule, desperate for the Messiah to come and liberate them from Roman oppression. Jesus tells this parable about the widow petitioning the judge for justice because that is what the Jews are also seeking. Some want more than justice, they want revenge.

Luke gives us a picture of a determined widow who brought an ungodly and unjust judge to his senses. Widows and orphans are often used in the bible as a symbol of vulnerability. This widow may be vulnerable, but she is also persistent and that is what wins the day for her. That picture of a persistent woman is a familiar one, I have heard stories of many women who are persistent, particularly when it comes to issues of justice – especially where their children are concerned. I’m sure that at least some of the Chilean miners wives on receiving the news that it would be Christmas before their husbands would be rescued would have badgered the authorities to get them back sooner!

This parable about the persistence of the widow is an important one, and Jesus uses it to teach us that persistence in prayer is vital. From that point of view I find this parable slightly confusing, because the woman is petitioning for something for herself, but not only that, for something AGAINST someone else. This seems to be contrary to what we are taught about prayer. We generally believe that prayer should be altruistic, concerned with the welfare of others, not ourselves. Praying for ourselves is selfish…or is it?

It can be very easy to get into the habit of praying for things that, actually, we don’t care about very much – because we feel we ought to pray for them. Perhaps we shouldn’t be frightened to ask for the things that we really want – at least then we are being truthful and honest and that is important if we are to build our relationship with God. I think that many of the psalms give us a prime example of what it is to be honest with God, they often involve heartfelt pleas to the Almighty.

We must remember that God cannot be fooled, he knows our deepest desires. When we pray silently, deeply and honestly we can acknowledge our inmost thoughts, the things that perhaps we dare not ever say out loud or tell anyone about. I remember my teachers telling me not to be afraid to ask questions – if you don’t know, ask – it is stupid not to! I am pretty sure that the same is true of prayer – there is no wrong way of praying, except to leave a prayer unprayed. We are after all only human, and we quite often make a mess of things, but we should be persistent with our relationship with God and that includes being honest about our deepest desires. We must pray in all sincerity for the things that we most care about. Our prayers may not always be answered, sometimes it might seem that God completely disregards our petitions, but we must be persistent, we must not give up asking. We must be persistent in all things, in prayer, in faith, in proclaiming our faith. We must never give up.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Proper 23C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 23 Year C: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19 - by The Rev. Camille Hegg

The reading from Jeremiah reminds me that for so long women did not have choices in whom they married. I’ll give Jeremiah credit: he was trying to foster hope and rebuilding of the Hebrews during the time of exile. But it’s all up to the men to choose wives for themselves to have sons; choose wives for their sons; and give their daughters in marriage.
Then, in Luke Jesus speaks to lepers, at least one of whom was a Samaritan. Presumably the others were Jews because he told them all to go to the priest to show themselves, as was Jewish law. I put these two together and now will put into a context that came back to me all over again.

It was 36 or so years ago. I was going through the discernment process for ordination to the priesthood. It was a strenuous process which lasted a year. In the “urban quarter” the entire twelve of us (only two women) were encouraged to focus on inner city issues. Among other things we were expected to visit singles, gay and lesbian bars and then reflect on the experience. Long story short, I had two ‘epiphanies’ in the lesbian bar. First, I was welcomed there just because I was a woman. I had only been in any kind of bar or social function with a man. Secondly, the place was raided that night and the bartender told me that happens almost every Saturday night. “Harassment,” I said to myself.
Let me be clear: I had processed this first visit to a gay or lesbian bar in the following way: I believe what Jesus said, “the truth will set you free.” Therefore, if the truth is that I can’t minister to homosexual persons because I am afraid or prejudiced, I need to know it. Further, if one is homosexual how much better for all of society that they be able to live freely, truthfully and safely. With a lot of anxiety my friend and I knocked on the door; and were welcomed. All of my stereotypes vanished during those moments of processing, anxiety, and welcoming of me because I am female.

Lepers of societies, who are they? Women, still, not welcomed, treated as property, abused by employers, governments, male partners and some women; gays; lesbians; blacks; Muslims; Jews; the poor; the ill; foreigners; immigrants; the Other. Whoever is in power seems to abuse, exclude or ignore in order to maintain their power.

And yet, Jesus, over and over, went to the powerless and treated them with respect and dignity. He broke through barriers and called into question authorities and rules which dehumanize another person. In so doing he healed them. Someone has to make the first move to begin to break those barriers. In this story it is they, the lepers who make the overture to Jesus. Jesus took them seriously. Surely that should be my role, the church’s role.

In the Kingdom of God outsiders are welcome. However, neither I nor the church should be the one to wait for the “outsiders” to make the first move. But both I and the church should be the first to listen to those who plea for recognition, healing and health.

Epiphanies are in store for all of us when we seek truth, justice and healing for ourselves and others.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Proper 22C

A reflection on the readings for Proper 22C: Lamentations 1:1-6, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10, by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

It’s early in the month of May, in the year 1848. A young woman boards a ship with two small children in tow, a four year old boy and a two year old girl. The woman is three months pregnant and with her two other children is about to embark on a five month journey from Manchester, England to NYC and then across the United States to Utah. She leaves behind her husband, who will continue to work, earning money to support his family as they make the long journey. The father will follow in a year or so.

The woman and her children cross the Atlantic Ocean; it takes more than six weeks on the ship. A tragic outbreak of small pox claims the life of her two year old daughter. Landing in New York the mother and son take a boat and train from the coast, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, across Illinois to St. Louis. There they meet up with other members who are gathering for the wagon train journey. Soon they will travel northwest through Missouri into Iowa, across Nebraska and Wyoming, arriving some 13 weeks later in Utah. The wagons carry their possessions, the people walk. The woman, now five months pregnant walks too, and by the time she arrives at her new home she is 8 months pregnant. A month after her arrival at her new home she gives birth to a healthy baby.

This woman, my great grandmother, five generations back, made this journey for her faith. For me she stands as a powerful witness of faith in the face of adversity, suffering, and struggles.

For several weeks now the lectionary has offered us readings from Jeremiah. But, today’s reading takes us away from the prophet Jeremiah and offers us instead a reading from Lamentations. Although the author is unknown Lamentations is often considered to have been written by Jeremiah. It’s a collection of laments, in poetic form that echo poems that were common in ancient Mesopotamian cities. In this reading the narrator is actually a city, crying out from deep suffering, blaming God for the pain of the residents of that city. God, the narrator believes, has punished the people for failing to remain faithful to God, and now this voice cries out in sorrow and shame. Losing faith, losing sight of God comes with heavy consequences, or so this passage seems to tell us.

The Letter to Timothy suggests something else. Perhaps suffering is less the act of a punishing God, and more the reality of what people feel when, for some reason, they become disconnected from God. Suffering is not so much the consequence of punishment inflicted by an angry God but more the consequence of our actions and what it feels like when we are separated from the God who loves us. More than that, I surmise that suffering is an aspect of life, it just is. No matter what, the one thing we humans all have in common is suffering. We all experience times in life when we struggle and suffer, sometimes as a result of our own actions or the actions of others, sometimes the cause of our suffering is random, a storm or an illness. Regardless these times of suffering challenge our faith. We cry out to God, feeling abandoned in the desert, suddenly residing in the deep night of the soul.

John Newton, known to us as the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace," also authored a profound book on the spiritual life and the struggles of faith. He was a ship owner and slave trader before becoming a priest in the Church of England. He went through a mighty conversion and from this change of heart worked to end the slave trade and wrote Amazing Grace. He spent his last years as a parish priest in London. In the Works of John Newton from the section titled "Grace in the Ear" Newton lays out a cyclical three step process of the faith journey.

The first step is "Desire." A person has a sudden experience of God and a desire to grow in faith. The person has a profound sense of awe, and a new found awareness of God's grace and love. This first phase is like the Hebrews freed from Egypt, it brings with it a sense of elation. Eventually this “awe-filled” sense of God’s love and grace shifts and the second phase begins.

The second phase is "Conflict." This is the "deep night of the soul" phase where one wrestles with God, with faith, and often faces challenges that were not experienced in the first phase of Desire. If Desire is marked by elation like that of the Hebrews freed from slavery, this phase is marked by a sense of being lost; it’s the Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years. Ultimately this is a time of growing more dependent on God and deepening our trust in God as we travel through one challenge or another. This second phase is the longest phase in the spiritual journey.
The third phase, which Newton calls contemplation, is marked by an internal shift, a sense of peace prevails despite the obstacles.Filled with a sense of peace, one becomes less emotionally engaged in the challenges and more able to view them with some distance, having finally learned to put one's trust in God. Newton is careful to spell out that one is not necessarily a better believer or person in one phase or the other, rather one's sense of dependence on God increases through each phase.

This reminds me of a Mary Oliver poem:

The Uses of Sorrow

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

(Mary Oliver)

Paul reminds Timothy that he inherited from his mother and grandmother gifts of faith which will sustain him through the trials and tribulations of his life, even those that threaten his faith. Paul says: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you....

In the midst of deep suffering it can be difficult to imagine rekindling the gift of God that is within us. The odd thing is, we don’t actually rekindle it. God does. Somehow in the midst of despair, if we remain diligent in our prayer and practice of faith, even through those times when it feels futile, there rises within us a new sensibility, of hope, of peace, that can only be of God. I don’t know how this works. I only know that it is true. God has hold on me, on you. Somehow, being held in God’s embrace, infuses this peace, this hope, into our beings.

I wish I could say that once in Utah, and especially when her husband joined her a year later, that all was well for my great, great, grandmother . I wish I could say that she lived a life content in her faith and grateful she had made this journey. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Historical records indicate that this great great great great grandfather followed the tradition of that church at that time, the 1800’s and took additional wives. He even spent time in jail for polygamy. Some in that church consider him a saint. My great great great great grandmother divorced him and spent the last of her days dependent on her children, poor and struggling. Somehow though she retained her faith, despite the many heartbreaks she suffered.

Recently I watch the polygamist family from Utah, who star on the realityTV show, Sister Wives, talk about their family and their faith on the Today Show. It seems, unlike my ancestors, that these women all feel equal and experience this “marriage,” this family as healthy. At least that is what they are saying publically. Most often though equal and healthy are not the case in plural marriages. Plural marriages tend to treat women as property, conflict and competition rises amongst the women. Young girls are denigrated and married off at tender ages to older men who often mistreat them. Often women and girls have no choice in who they marry, this being a transaction between men, fathers and husbands-to-be. Many women in plural marriages live unhappy lives and are frequently abused.

While suffering is part of life, I do not think that God calls us into lives of suffering for the sake of faith. This is especially true in our most intimate relationships, which ought to be life-giving not life-taking. Marriage is intended to mirror the love of between God and humanity, a love that ought to raise up each person and help them become the best person they can be. It is not love when one person is chattel, owned and governed by another. A life of faith is not intended to be a life of abuse, pain, or suffering.

Likewise, a life of faith does not mean that our lives will be like a Cinderella story, and all will work out in the end. But then again, in a way it does .Life has a way of throwing us curve balls and challenges. We sometimes think that a life of faith means our problems ought to disappear or we will never have problems in the first place. But as we all know the circumstances of our lives will bring challenges; just because that’s life. However a life of faith will remind us, over and over again, that we are held in the hand of God. Our faith, though it be small like a mustard seed, is enough. Timothy reminds us that God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power. Moving through the challenges of life we find a profound sense of peace arises in us. God’s grace is powerful. God’s grip on us is powerful and God isn’t letting go.