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"

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Great Power in Mercy and Pity

A reflection on the readings for Proper 21A: Philippians 2:1-13 by The Rev. Margaret Rose

This week the UN General Assembly has been meeting in New York. Heads of State are arriving from all over the world. There are speeches and accolades, hopes and plans for peace, all the trappings of power. For those of us who work near the UN, the power shows itself primarily in giant traffic jams and motorcades with darkened car windows. As I write, there are plans for a vote on Palestinian statehood which is almost guaranteed not to go well. And there is jockeying for power about whose voice really freed the young American hikers or who really made a difference in Libya. As I watch the dramas on the news and read the paper and maneuver in and around the jersey sand barriers and security men, I reflected on the notion of power. What is it really? We hear about power in lots of different contexts. Americans are citizens of the most powerful nation in the world. We want our machines to have the power to do the job with lots of volts or watts or horsepower. We don’t have to be rich if at least we have power. On cartoons or video games when someone gets punched out that is often signified by a fist and a word in all caps beside it, “POW”, meaning punching with power.
Then there is God Power, preachers speaking of it: softly by the more timid among us, but forcefully by the true believers: Trust in the MIGHTY POWER OF GOD. The implication here of course is that God is bigger and stronger than all of us. We describe that bigger and stronger in the very same way we represent power in worldly terms. You have power if you are richer or stronger or smarter or have a bigger arsenal or more of something that someone else wants or have influence or know certain people. Power is big not small. God is big not small.
Yet, for the last weeks and today our scripture readings tell of a God whose power is shown in forgiveness and mercy rather than in judgment. Forgive. Don’t hold a grudge. Bless those who persecute. Give food to your enemies. It is easy to pass these off as pious religious platitudes. But in fact, I believe it is the heart of the Gospel. Today’s collect says it clearly. The opening Collects are meant to set the theme for the scriptures which follow. This one is clear: “O God you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” Mercy and Pity-- NOT by creating the universe in one big bang. NOT by parting the Red Sea, or many other might acts, all of which are indeed of God and noteworthy. But the true mark of God’s power is in mercy and pity. Imagine.
I suspect that, in spite of the world’s standards and even our own successes in it, we know that this God is so powerful precisely because of the seeming contradiction. Real power is found in the measure of forgiveness, in the depth of mercy and compassion; not in domination but in mutuality and common love.
Jesus of course was always trying to tell this to his followers: Bless those who persecute you, give food to your enemies, or your cloak to one who has none. The disciples had as hard a time as we do understanding this. They always wanted to put Jesus up on a pedestal, build a booth for him, help him start building up an army. Any hint from Jesus that his call was to lose his life, offer good news to those who had nothing, freedom for the captives, often fell on deaf ears. Finally, he was called “King of the Jews”. And the ultimate expression of his “kingly” power was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, not on a great white steed, but on a donkey.
If the disciples wanted Jesus to build an army to overthrow the government, so too do some in our 21st century religious context yearn for a “Christian America”. Others tend to privatize God. We spiritualize, imagining Jesus is talking of other worldly power. God will rule when we die “up in heaven”. Or Jesus helps us in our private spiritual world of personal need or care.
Attention to the scriptures we have read each week and the collect for today offers a view of power here and now quite different from either the spiritualized private view or that of the head of state. Paul’s letter to the Philippians today describes the nature of God in the incarnate Jesus in poetic beauty: “Jesus, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” We, disciples of Jesus are to act in the same way. Here is an expression of power that claims the self , yet gives it away.
The danger here, especially for women, is to believe that “taking the form of a servant” means that we are to deny ourselves. But in Jesus and by extension for us, Paul describes a kind of self-emptying which does not deny the beauty and worthiness of the self, but which calls us to offer ourselves for others, to offer the gifts we have been given for the good of all, not in order to dominate and rule, but to love and to live in community--in right relationship with one another.
Power in mercy, power in unselfish acts, not in domination--that is the power of God. I think we know this. Yet practically speaking it is not always what comes naturally, not our default position. Yet, when we do let go of ourselves, of our own need to be right, or best or dominant, when we empty ourselves entirely for another, there is a glimpse of the power of mercy and of great freedom. True power sometimes comes in giving it up or offering it to another. In small way and in the larger context—privately and personally. And we should call on our leaders to do the same.
Some years ago I heard Colonel Collins, first woman commander of the space shuttle give a speech. She was asked how it felt to be in charge, to be the first woman commander. How did it feel to have so much power? She did not respond by saying “Great! How nice it is to be able to l everyone what to do.” She didn’t even speak “modestly of the awesome responsibility, but rather that it was the team that mattered and all were called to use their gifts to the fullest. I was reminded recently of two instances where gunman handed over a pistol when someone called them name and looked them in the eye and asked them for the gun. I am not na├»ve enough to think this happens often. But it can.
We all know the story of the sun and the wind who bargained to get the man’s coat off. The wind blew and blew and the man pulled his coat tighter. But the warmth of the sun caused him to remove his coat to enjoy the day.
A special ed teacher I knew once told me the story of her student, a boy named Devon. Among other problems, Devon constantly yelled at himself, “Devon is a bad boy” he would say over and over among other things. One day the teacher decided to quit trying to yell over Devon’s racket and spoke directly to him , first in a normal voice, then softer and softer. Devon followed along and finally stopped the repetitive talking altogether. Something about power and the process of emptying seems relevant here.
Desmond Tutu does that too when he speaks. On a couple of occasions I have heard him on a variety of topics. He is always a joyful unprepossessing presence. His demeanor and his words are always merciful even as he recounts the horrors of the apartheid days in South Africa. But at the end in response to a question about what God may be calling us to, he did something extraordinary. To a room of a thousand people, he whispered. Here and everyone God is asking for our help. “Help me!” he whispered as if the voice of God.
Imagine the picture: Desmond Tutu, leaning over a podium, whispering. And all thousand of us leaning our ears to hear what God was calling us to do. It was an amazing and empowering moment.
These are small examples of power in mercy, not much but a beginning. When we come to larger issues there is no guarantee, and maybe even not a good track record. I am wishing today that there had been some merciful power by the state of Georgia before Troy Davis was executed this week. But it was not to be. I am not naive about the safety of our actions in attempting this more merciful way. Jesus wasn’t either. And it got him killed. Yet in following this way of God’s call to us -of exchange in relationship, of power in mercy we live into the baptismal mandate, respecting the dignity of every human being. that is what mercy and pity are about anyway, I think. Amen.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Proper 20A

Reflection for Proper20, 14 Pentecost
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6,37-45; Philippians 1:20-30; Matthew 20:1-16
by The Rev. Camille Hegg

The gospel for this week is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The owner hires people at several times during the day. The first ones hired are promised the usual daily wage. The others hired throughout the day are promised ‘whatever is right.” At the end of the day all of the laborers are given the same wage. The early hires are unhappy that the later ones received the same, but the owner says to them that he has done them no injustice and that he chooses to be generous.
There is a cute TV commercial in which two elementary school sisters come running into their house after school and run for the snacks in the kitchen. They find that there is only one cookie left in the bag. They look at each other for a moment and after pondering, the older girl gives the younger one the cookie. She says ‘thank you’ and runs off. The older girl looks down at the empty bag and, lo and behold, there is a cookie there.

I think the commercial has something to do with the parable for this week. At first glance one might think the ad is more a loaves and fishes story. It could be. I also think it is a story of generosity, just as the parable for this week is.

Sometimes we get caught up in the ‘fairness’ of the parable. I have had classes over the years on the parables and I almost always include this one. I talk about God’s generosity and how God wants us to look at things upside down from what we would usually do, and to act the same. Jesus certainly turned upside down thinking and assumptions of God. Sometimes this suggestion makes people mad.
A generous God who gives not according to what we think is fair? Who might want us to change our thinking and actions? Probably expects us to do the same?
I once had a man throw down his Bible and pen and walk out and say ‘that is not fair!’ We look for ‘fairness” when God is trying to show us generosity.
I enjoy the parable because of the generosity of the owner. I think it gives us a unique understanding of Jesus’ understanding of God and his own mission. It also gives us a glimpse of how we might try to respond to the generosity of creation and the creator. Generosity is the value in the parable, not fairness. The little girl in the commercial probably could have asserted her power and age and grabbed the cookie for herself. She chose to give it away.

I discern a sense of generosity lacking in our culture. People are scared about the economy and hold back. People with power are treating minorities badly, trying to make voting access harder, trying to take away take away bargaining power rather than working together to come to solutions for financial wellness. Children of immigrants are being punished by possible deportation, lack of access to education. A generous look at immigration, especially children, would probably engender thriving of our country rather than taking away anything. There is a backlash against women, minorities and even children that at best is not generous and at worst prevents the thriving of our churches, schools, government and the humans involved in these institutions.

In our churches, those with the power could foster welcome and inclusion of newer ones to participate. Yet I have seen long-time members of churches express resentment that a new person puts forth an idea, or ‘sits in their seat.’ I have seen a distinct impatience and lack of generosity toward children.

(I have also seen the opposite, where new people, children, homeless, people with accents – probably illegal -- were welcomed and generously received.)

In this parable, the one with the power, the owner, chooses to be generous. The creator, generous as the creator is, has implanted in us the ability toward generosity and calls us to be so. If we choose to ignore or deny this God-given given yearning toward generosity, we are losing out on one of the fundamental, mysterious and miraculous gifts of creation. If ‘fairness’ is our only guide and value in making decisions we are missing out on the depth of satisfaction and joy with which we were created. The child in the commercial gave the only cookie away not expecting anything in return.

Generosity has its own mysterious reward. Generosity is God’s pleasure, our gift and task.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thoughts on Proper 19A and the Tenth Anniversary of 9-11

Reflection by the Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

I thought I’d better write this early – not because I have a sermon ready for Sunday (hardly!!) but because I have spent considerable time over the past two days reading and watching resources that are shaping what I am likely to preach on Sunday. I share this with blog readers, in hopes that you will read this, maybe be inspired to look up some of the references I have found, and to add your own thoughts. Perhaps for this Sunday we need a communal blog post.

At the Odyssey Network Scripture site, I found a helpful piece by Barbara Lundblad (with a link to a video conversation as well). She notes how challenging it is to read the Exodus lesson of the death of the Egyptians in the Red Sea on this Sunday of all Sundays. It is precarious to read this lesson; do we not fear it will allow people to evoke feelings of vengeance and triumphalism? “Why couldn’t the Exodus story have ended earlier?” she writes. “Did we have to see their bodies dead on the seashore?”

I found it helpful that Lundblad then introduced some midrash, where rabbis over the centuries had struggled with this same discomfort. Lundblad writes, “In one story from the Babylonian Talmud angels were watching as the sea covered the Egyptians: ‘In that instant the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but He rebuked them, saying, 'The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence.!’ ‘” The midrash would never contradict the text, but in struggling with the militaristic implications of it, she continues, “A new word was spoken. … Delighting in the death of enemies is not a paradigm for every generation. The rabbis found a way to live with the tension: to hear the text of Exodus, yet also to hear God chastising the angels for singing songs of victory.”

Two contemporary rabbis wrote wonderful pieces as well, using different pieces of Jewish tradition to make sense of this tenth anniversary commemoration. Rachel Kahntroster wrote in the Huffington Post,

“The Fast of Tisha B'Av, which begins this year on the night of Aug. 8, has been a way for the Jewish community to confront and contain trauma through the telling of stories. First established to commemorate the destruction of First Temple in B.C.E. 586, it has become the day to relive the trauma of many other national calamities. … The rabbis tell the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua visiting the ruins of the Second Temple after it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Rabbi Joshua bursts into tears, anguished that the place where Israel atoned for its sins had been destroyed. Rabbi Yochanan comforts him, declaring that deeds of lovingkindness (chesed) had more power to achieve atonement and heal a broken world than sacrifice ever could. Chesed is not just something God shows us; it is our obligation to our fellow human beings in light of unimaginable tragedy. Chesed and not hatred or revenge.”

Arthur Waskow, author of the 1960s “Freedom Seder,” and a sage of our modern times, noted that in 2011, the Jewish feast of Sukkoth came three weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Poignantly, he compared the fragility of a sukkah booth with our vain attempts at fortress building:

“For much of our lives we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness: Pyramids, air raid shelters, Pentagons, World Trade Centers. Hardening what might be targets and, like Pharaoh, hardening our hearts against what is foreign to us. But the sukkah comes to remind us: We are in truth all vulnerable. If ‘a hard rain’s gonna fall,’ it will fall on all of us. Americans have felt invulnerable. The oceans, our wealth, our military power have made up what seemed an invulnerable shield. We may have begun feeling uncomfortable in the nuclear age, but no harm came to us. Yet yesterday the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah.”

I also found this comment on Psalm 114 illuminating. Marcia Brown-Ludwig (of the UCC Massachusetts Conference wrote

“At the time this was written, the God of Jacob supposedly belonged to the Israelite people – but now at least three faiths claim this same God as the One God: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As we consider how divided people of faith remain at our time of history – especially on the anniversary of a day when so many felt it was one religion against another (September 11, 2001), may we remember that the Earth is home to all of us, these three faiths and all the rest of the people who live on this planet. May we not then be like the Earth, and all of us tremble in humility, skip with sheer joy, together in the presence of our God?”
Given the Gospel, forgiveness must be the central focus of the day, it seems to me. Kate Huey, also of the UCC, whose commentaries I read weekly, quoted this memorable line:

"We know too well that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose" (Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

Fire hose. The most unorthodox “commentary” on the text and on 9/11, and in some ways the one that has shaped my thoughts the most today, was watching the series finale of Rescue Me Wednesday night on television. The firehouse crew, emotionally scarred with survivors’ guilt, somehow manages to say good-bye and move, with resilience, to new lives. Never maudlin or mawkish, the show paid tribute to the heroism and courage of those first responders, who finally began to see a future not trapped by the loss and tragedy of the past.

Summing all my thoughts up are reflections from Rob Voyle, whose workshop on “Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment” I attended last fall. When I preach this Sunday on forgiveness, I will preach on how it is we who forgive are freed – freed from our imprisonment to our anger and resentment, freed from living and re-living that painful past in our heads and hearts. We cannot forget that these terrible things happened, but we can let go of them enough so they do not determine our future. We can imagine the future God has in store for us, and we can imagine how we can build our lives in order to get to that future. Even the Rescue Me firefighters, drowning their survivors’ guilt in alcohol, food, sex and danger, can move beyond that horrendous past into a future in which they can live and thrive.

Finally, if you have an hour to spare this week, listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of “A Service of Hope and Healing” from Washington Cathedral. Sam Lloyd, the Dean and preacher, said this:

“In a world as interconnected as ours it could not be clearer, that unless we human beings learn to deal with one another with respect, understanding, and even compassion, the fate of the human race on this small planet is uncertain. … Hope for our world lies in the religions of the world embracing their deep and best convictions that we human beings are made to be repairers of the breach, as Isaiah says, to care for the least and lost, as Jesus taught, to live lives of compassion, as Mohammed declared. The test of any person’s faith in the coming years will be this: Does it make the world of the believer larger, more generous, more embracing of God’s vast world, or does it make the believer’s world smaller, more shrunken, more like ‘them’? 9/11 opened the door to a new world, but the shape of that world has yet to be determined. … May we learn to love as the God of all nations loves. May we be people of compassion as the God of the universe is compassionate. May we recognize in the face of the stranger the face of the One who made heaven and earth, and every one of us.”

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Proper 18A

A reflection Proper 18, Ezekial 33. 7-11, Psalm 119. 33-40, Romans 13. 8-14, Matthew 18. 15-20 by the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers

I wonder how many of you have gone out to bring into line a member of the church who has gone astray, either as an individual or as part of a gang of two or three?
I think perhaps the clergy end up doing this as individuals quite a lot of the time, usually to resolve a dispute between members of a congregation. After all, sitting down for a cup of tea and a chat can be very constructive and productive.

Why does it usually fall to the clergy I wonder?

Well, perhaps the clue is in the text of Matthew’s gospel – or rather the differing translations of it!

The original Greek uses the word ‘brother’ to describe the person that has caused offence. This is not unreasonable – earlier in this chapter the word ‘child’ has been used and then ‘little ones’. The implication is of course that we are talking about ‘family’. More recent translations use ‘brother or sister’ or ‘member of the Church’. After all, the church is family and even in times of conflict we are all part of the same body – we belong to each other. In Wales we often refer to family members as ‘belonging’, we say ‘she belongs to me’, or we talk about ‘our Paul’, meaning ‘my brother’, or ‘my son’. I suppose the reason clergy often end up in the firing line, patching up disputes between individuals is because, rightly or wrongly, we are seen as ‘the head of the family’, or at least of the local congregation, and so act as the ‘go-between’ trying to reconcile members of the congregation who are in dispute. If we the Church are one body then surely the responsibility lies with us ALL.

It is not an easy thing to go and say to someone ‘you have hurt me’, ‘you’ve upset me’ or ‘you have wronged me’ and then to sit quietly, both parties, and talk it through – yes, there are more sensitive ways of wording it, but ultimately that is what we are saying. It places you in a vulnerable position and open to abuse from the other side. Even then, if a calm conversation can ensue, then you might find out that you are wrong, when you thought you were right. When you listen to the other person’s side you may begin to understand and perhaps find more good than you expected. As members of a family we grow up with our siblings, we fight, we make up, we grow together, learn from each other, and learn about each other. The same is true of the family of the Church. But still, it can be difficult, where there is conflict, to really LISTEN to one another.

If talking one-to-one fails then it seems we are advised to progressively ‘gang-up’, to take one or two other people along to observe, to act as witnesses to what is said and done and to offer advise – in effect to mediate. If that approach fails then the task falls to the whole church.

How would you feel if one day you opened the door to find the whole church standing there pointing their fingers at you?

Well, perhaps the text doesn’t really mean that. In Jesus’ time communities were small, people would have known each other, people would have taken an interest in local disputes and also taken responsibility in resolving them, rather than turning a ‘blind-eye’. There was perhaps a collective responsibility to resolve anything that upset the ‘status quo’. There is plenty of evidence for that, consider how easy it was to gather a crowd to stone someone – that may be one way to resolve a dispute or deal with someone who in your eyes has done wrong, it is not something most of us would condone today and Jesus leads us away from that. Ultimately, if all else is lost the offender is simply excluded completely from the community. Not that that need be the end of the story, there is always hope of reconciliation and for the ‘prodigal’ to return.

Whatever decisions we make about what is right and what is wrong, however we resolve disputes, we should look to each other for advice, guidance and help in dealing with a situation to ensure that every member of the family is taken care of, respected and included.

I can’t help wondering how this works out on the global stage and within the Anglican Communion as a whole. There are many disputes within the communion, not least those surrounding women priests, women bishops, gay priests, gay bishops. I wonder is exclusion of one of the parts really the answer? Is exclusion really being used as a last resort, or simply as a way to avoid addressing the issues?

In all things we must remember that no decision must be taken alone, it must be the decision of at least two. If we read the text literally then there is only a requirement for two to be in agreement before a request is granted. That suggests to me that all things are possible, it is usually easy to find one person who agrees with you. That gives me great hope. I don’t think we will get resolution to all conflicts in our time, although all things are possible with God we have no say in when our requests are granted.

One to one contact increases our understanding and trust of one another, but there must also be a readiness for the church to act together, to pray together and to forgive. There are no boundaries and no limits, for when two or three are gathered together Jesus Christ himself is present and that makes all things possible.