Saturday, July 30, 2011

Proper 13A 2011

We were all shocked and dismayed by the bombing and murders in Norway last weekend. We share the grief of the parents and families of the young people and adults shot down by a gunman dressed as a policeman. He appears to have done this vile act to attract attention, and Oslo court denying him access to the media for at least six weeks seems reasonable.  We remember Timothy McVeigh detonated a similar bomb in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995 and was finally executed 10 years ago. And we read often of terrorist murderers in Afghanistan dressing in army and police uniforms, evil masquerading as good.

          One thing all these have in common is fear. Anders Breivik feared Muslim immigrants would end traditional European Christian civilization. After the Waco siege two years earlier McVeigh feared government power. Afghan terrorists fear Western influence. Many of us to a greater or lesser degree have a number of fears.  

          The first epistle of John (4:18) says “love casts out fear.” Christians know the love of God in Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit dwells within us. The Spirit of Truth gives a right judgment; the Spirit of Power enables us to wrestle with our fears and transform them love. Overcoming fear with divine love is not easy, but by God’s grace it is always possible.

          We see examples in today’s Scripture lessons. Jacob had good reason to fear his brother Esau; Paul feared for the salvation of his fellow Jews; the disciples feared a hungry crowd. In every case God’s love prevails. In the midst of our fears and troubles God’s love prevails. We do not always see the result; we live in hope that God’s love will prevail. We look for how God is at work in the world redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus and we celebrate God’s presence in every situation.

          There may be people alive who have always been obedient to the will of God, whose calm and productive lives have never awakened them at 4 am to pray, “Dear God get me out of this mess and I’ll never do it again!”  Such people might exist; I’ve just never met any.

          St. Paul reminds us (Romans 3:23 and 5:12) that “all have sinned” and all of us fall short of the glory of God. After Peter’s first sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38),  the crowd were cut to the heart and said, “What should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Repentance helps replace fear with love.

          Paul knew this. On his way to persecute the church at Damascus n experience with the risen Lord threw him to the ground and blinded him.

          In today’s Genesis reading Jacob spent all night wrestling with “a man” and finally received a new name. No longer was he to be called Jacob, the second born twin, grasping his brother’s heel, the cheater and liar, but Jacob’s new name was to be Israel, combining the words for fight and for God – Israel who contends with God. Before that long night struggle Jacob had tried to cheat and connive to get his own way–with his brother Esau, with his father Isaac, and with his uncle Laban, only to fail and fail again. 

Jacob had come through the Golan Heights to a stream  near the mouth of the Sea of Galilee. Laban was north; Esau was south. Esau had tried to kill him once. What was to prevent his trying to kill him again? Jacob sent his family and herds before him. If Esau was still angry he could capture them and Jacob might again escape, or might not. Fear, fear of losing his property, fear of losing his family, feat of losing his life, all these were natural responses to his situation. To work through that fear to a new response of faith required considerable wrestling, wrestling with his history, wrestling with his conscience, wrestling with his life and for his life, repentance and faith.

          But the love of God won through in Jacob’s life. The love of God won through in Paul’s conversion experience, and the love of God wins through in our lives. Truly, God’s love casts out fear.

          We see this in the Epistle, where Paul’s fear for his fellow Jews’ salvation brings him to deeper faith in Jesus the “Messiah who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”

          And finally the disciples worried fear about feeding 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish is met by the overwhelming love of God in Jesus blessing.  God’s love casts out fear. “God be blessed forever. Amen.”

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Proper 11A 2011

          Today’s Bible readings are about hope. St. Paul sums it up. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

              We live in hope. As the committal in the burial service begins, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother (or sister)” We have learned to trust God and to live in the sure and certain hope that at the end our trust will not have been in vain and God will fulfill all his promises.

              We read from Romans 8 as the Epistle lesson at funerals. This chapter is the clearest expression of our hope for new and eternal life in Jesus Christ, and not only for our new and eternal life, but for new and eternal life for all creation. In 1961 I graduated from college the Rev. James Bertram Collins, a Church of England priest, published a book, “Your God Is Too Small.” Philips was well known for his translation of the New Testament into contemporary English. His book was important in helping a whole generation to see God at work not only within the church but in all of creation. Philips and those of us influenced by his work took seriously St. Paul’s teaching that the whole creation has been redeemed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We wait in hope for the final consummation of God’s work in Jesus Christ.

              Some in our culture seek to reduce religion to the personal and private. Theydeny any common moral vision beyond a heavily edited version of three of the Ten Commandments. Stealing, killing, and telling lies are still not approved of, with some exceptions, but the rest are generally ignored. Their God is not too small; he is not present at all. In a largely godless culture our task is to witness to God’s presence and God’s hope – God’s hope in us and our hope in God.

              In our Old Testament reading Jacob is truly hopeless. We read last week how he extorted the birthright from a hungry Esau. Later he deceived his dying father Isaac by dressing in skins, impersonating Esau, and receiving the father’s final blessing. His deceit did him no good. Their mother Rebecca warned Jacob that Esau sought to kill him, and Jacob fled for his life. His conniving and lies has brought him nothing but trouble. Jacob headed back to his mother’s people in northern Syria and southern Turkey, and stopped at a spring about 10 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It was a familiar area. Near there Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had received the Lord’s covenant promise (12:7) “To your offspring I will give this land,” and “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (15:1). Jacob was sleeping rough, and in danger from wild animals and bandits, but he was exhausted, and slept. In his dream he received his own promise from the Lord, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

              Jacob had heard of the promise of God to his father and grandfather. We have heard of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus from our parents, teachers, and clergy. But the promise came real to Jacob in his own experience of God’s promise, received in faith and hope. God continues to speak to each of us directly and each of us directly and calls for our response. That response may come in prayer; it may be as simple as reciting the Creed as our personal commitment; it may be a road to Damascus experience throwing us off our high horse. It is a personal renewal of the vows of baptism. But with Jacob all of us say in faith and hope, “Surely the LORD is in this place.”  And in thanksgiving we offer “our selves, our souls and bodies” to God’s service in Jesus Christ.

              Jesus told a parable of good and bad seed. A weed called the bearded darnel looks like winter wheat when it is growing. Only when full grown can the grains be told apart. Without Jesus we are like the bearded darnel, but we are  transformed by God’s grace in Jesus into good seed. God is good and lets both wheat and weed to grow until the harvest. Jesus promises he will come again and take us to himself. This present world will not continue for ever. The harvest is coming, “the whole creation,” and “we ourselves” wait for redemption, and we love and serve while we wait in patience and hope. Amen.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

Proper 10A 2011

          Today we hear about Jacob and Esau, St. Paul’s teaching about “no condemnation,” and Jesus’ Parable of the Sower.  We pray that our prayers may be heard and for the grace to know and do what we ought to do.

          The Parable of the Sower is explained as a parable of soils – the hard-packed road, rocky ground, thorns, and finally good soil that bears much fruit.  None of us are naturally good soil, but by God’s grace working in us we can become so.  But we all contain all the kinds of soil. Parts of our lives are as spiritually hard as a well trodden dirt path in a drought; parts of us are full of rocks; much of us is prickly with busy thorns, and part of every one of us is good soil bearing fruit. Our spiritual task is to increase the good soil, digging out the rocks and thorns, breaking up the clods, softening the ground with the water of tears of repentance, digging out the weeds with the hoe of faith and good works.

          The traditional evangelical sermon begins with condemning sin, which leads to hell fire and damnation, and then proclaiming the good news that the death and resurrection of Jesus have set us free from sin and given us new life. All of us when we are honest with ourselves know from personal experience that we “have all sinned and come short of the glory of God” so I skip the condemnation and move straight to the good news. St. Paul rejoices, “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and ends, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

          The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds of the difference between free grace and cheap grace. Free grace is the gift of God in Jesus Christ. We receive the gift of free grace by faith, and witness to that faith in repentance and a new life. Free grace led Bonhoeffer to oppose Hitler and led him to Flossenburg concentration camp and execution April 9, 1945, just 2 weeks before the camp was liberated by the American Army.

          Bonhoeffer says, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

          Cultural religion believes in cheap grace.  Christians have convinced most people that God loves us and forgives us regardless of how we behave, and that is true. But many folks have missed the necessity of faith in Jesus, and repentance and holiness of life as our response to God’s love and forgiveness.

          It is subtle. From the outside the behaviors look very similar. What we do in response to God’s love in Jesus, in response to God’s free grace, guided by the Holy Spirit, and what we do from motives of self – what St. Paul calls “walking by the flesh” may be the same actions. It is only from the inside, from examining the heart, that we can tell which is which. And sometimes our motives are very mixed, part led by the Spirit and part by the flesh.

            An example is entertaining friends. How often have we said, “We owe them.” We’ve been entertained and want to respond in love. Or, we’ve been entertained and we don’t want to look ungrateful by not entertaining in turn. We give wedding presents because we want the couple to have something useful or beautiful – or because we want to show off, or not be considered cheap.  We make our best effort to be spiritually honest, but only God fully knows our hearts. “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.” In repentance and faith we receive God’s word, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

          We don’t know Esau’s heart or Jacob’s heart. At the death of parents’ property was divided into as many parts as there were sons, plus one – 4 sons 5 parts. The eldest got a double portion as his birthright. We’re told, “Esau despised his birthright.” We’re also told that he married two local girls, abandoning the faith of his father and grandfather. The biblical tradition treats all these as real historical people. Another interpretation is that these are groups of peoples who gradually move from northern Syria into Palestine, some as hunter-gatherers, others as shepherds, and others as farmers. Today’s reading may reflect a conflict between two groups with a memory of common ancestors. For the next 3 weeks we will hear stories of Jacob’s mostly faithful obedience to God’s will.

          So repent of your sins, seek to know God’s will, and trust in his free grace to do it. Amen.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Proper 9A 2011

Proper 9A 2011

          We continue to hear from Genesis, Romans, and St. Matthew. Abraham sends his servant back to his relatives near Haran on the SyriaTurkey border to seek a wife for his son Isaac. Rebecca is the girl; she leaves her family to marry her cousin Isaac.  St. Paul wrestles with his desire to do God’s will his experience of sin. And Jesus teaches, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

          Jesus’ sayings make sense from inside the community of faith, but not from outside that community. Christian faith is profoundly counter-cultural. A society based on power and violence and status and law cannot understand a gentle and humble heart. A society that rewards striving and hard work places little value on rest for the soul. We’ve been described as a society of self-made men worshipping our creator – ourselves.

          Most of us live in two worlds. Our hearts are in kingdom of God, but our bodies are in the material world, and our task is to discern how to live from our hearts in our bodies. Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca almost 4000 years ago dealt with the same task. Jesus and St. Paul 2000 years ago dealt with the same task.

          The stories we read this summer about Abraham and his family tell why Abraham’s people behaved in different ways from the people around them. Why do Abraham’s people not sacrifice their children to the gods? Let me tell you about Abraham and Isaac and the ram caught in a thicket. Why do Abraham’s people circumcise boy babies. Let me tell you about the command Abraham received from the Lord. Why do Abraham’s people require free consent by women being married? Let me tell you about Isaac and Rebecca.  Why do Abraham’s people not intermarry with the people around them? Let me tell you more about Isaac and Rebecca and also about Jacob and Esau.

          Last week we left Isaac on the mountain, mighty glad to see the ram caught in the thicket. Then follows another promise of God’s blessing on Abraham and his descendants that they will be “as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the sea.” Then a list of Abraham’s brother Nahor’s children including Abraham’s nephew Bethuel. Sarah died at age 127 at  Hebron and Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah to bury her as a sign that he is no longer a nomad passing through but intends to become a permanent resident. Time had come for Isaac to have a wife, but Abraham did not want a marriage alliance with the local people.

It may be they did not want an alliance with him. Continuing into our own time – 4000 years after Abraham - the agricultural and urban Arabs do not intermarry with the sheep and goat herding Bedouin. And the Bedouin prefer to marry within the family, particularly first cousins. The text says that Abraham required of his servant a solemn oath not to marry Isaac to a local girl.  Archaeological evidence shows that the local Canaanite religion was a earth religion where worshippers called on the storm god Baal to bring fertilizing rain to goddess Earth. Abraham’s God is God of history. God cares not only about crops but about the whole world and all creation, including all humanity made in the spiritual image of God.

Abraham also did not want to send Isaac back to Haran on the SyriaTurkey border.  He sent a trusted servant back to his nephew Bethuel. The servant waited by the well for someone to show the traditional hospitality of offering him water. Bethuel’s daughter Rebecca did so and extended extraordinary hospitality by watering 10 camels as well. Abraham’s servant loaded Rebecca with gold, 10 shekels weight, about 5½ ounces or $8000 worth. That’s a good size tip, and it is also evidence of wealth. Today’s lesson includes some of the marriage negotiation. Laban was Rebecca’s brother and both were Isaac’s first cousin once removed. The story as recorded is not very romantic by our standards, but different times, different customs.

We’re not told Rebecca’s side of the story but we do learn that Rebecca had an opportunity to accept or decline and chose to agree. Just as from the time of Isaac the people of God unlike their neighbors never sacrificed their first-born sons, so from the time of Rebecca marriage has required free consent. We are told that Isaac loved Rebecca. She had twin boys, Jacob and Esau. More about them next week.

It is consistent with the Jewish tradition and I think reasonable to read into the story as told a call from God to Rebecca to accept the offer made by Abraham’s servant and approved by her family. We are told that Isaac loved Rebecca. She had twin boys, Jacob and Esau. More about them next week.

St. Paul is wrestling with the human experience of wanting to do God’s will and yet in fact doing something else.  We  “do not understand our own actions. We do not do what we want, but do the very thing we hate.” Ask anyone who has tried to lose weight. But St. Paul ends by rejoicing that he is not – and we are not – set right with God by our behavior, but we are set right with God by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Jesus has indeed rescued St. Paul, and rescues us, ” from this body of death.”

Jesus speaks to the crowd, and to the church, about the difference between living in the kingdom of God and playing the world’s game by the rules of the world.  He calls us to repent and believe, to lay aside the burdens of a life focused on the self-sufficient and self-important, and to trust in the gentle and humble power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of spiritual Truth and spiritual Power, the spiritual power that makes it possible for us to love, and forgive, and receive forgiveness.

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Crossroads Summer 2011

This article appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Crossroads, The Episcopal Rural Workers Fellowship magazine.

            I’ve been interested in rural and small town ministry since I was a little boy riding out with my father Dr. Nelson Rightmyer to the 2:30 Sunday afternoon service at St. George’s Indian River Hundred in Sussex County, Delaware, while my mother took a richly deserved nap.  My father served there 1937-47. We lived in Lewes in winter with Sunday services at 8 and 11 and in Rehoboth Reach at 9:30. From Memorial Day to Labor Day we moved to Rehoboth Beach and the schedule was reversed.

            St. George’s parishioners were local farmers, Some of the families had been members since the chapel was built in 1719. The service was usually Evening Prayer. I must have been six when I insisted one spring Sunday on wearing my first pair of long pants. I used to sit next to the organist and while I was standing for the sermon hymn an early wasp crawled up the inside of my pant leg. When I sat down it stung, and the congregation waited while my father took me out, removed the stinger, daubed my leg with mud, and I quit crying.

            The church was built near a stream. One year beavers built a dam and the pond washed over the road. Another time the farmers at St. George’s asked for prayers for rain. They were offered at 8, 9:30, and 11 and by 2:00 the rain was coming down so hard the road was covered over and St. George’s service had to be cancelled.

            My father taught church history and liturgics at the Divinity School in Philadelphia from 1947 to 1952 and then served at St. John’s Western Run Parish near Glyndon, Maryland. This was a rural parish but most landowners were gentlemen farmers who worked in Baltimore financial institutions. Much of the money had been made importing guano from Chili for Midwestern farms. The Greenspring Hunt used to meet on Thanksgiving Day after church and the blessing of the hunt was a tourist attraction.

            I went to Johns Hopkins and General Seminary and served first at St. Anne’s Annapolis and then at a new suburban mission at Joppatowne in Harford County. After six years there my wife Lucy, our son, and I moved to Good Shepherd, Asheboro, a county seat town in the center of North Carolina.  Most of the parishioners were mill executives, small businessmen or professionals, very few farmers, though a number of them had been raised on the farm and had gardens. When I arrived I was told to roll up my car windows and lock the doors in summer. If I didn’t, I was told, I would return to find in the front seat a bag of zucchini. We did operate an informal garden exchange. We put a card table in the narthex; gardeners left produce; others left money for the needy. Our daughter was born in Asheboro.

            Six years later I was called to Redeemer, Shelby, North Carolina, another county seat town west of Charlotte with a similar congregation, many gardeners but very few farmers. The congregation encouraged my participation in the community and as President of the ministers association I came to know many rural clergy. One of the country Baptist clergy introduced me to the “prophet’s chamber” – a bedroom and bath in the educational building for visiting revival preachers. This room kept the parishioners from arguing about or fighting over who was to keep the visitor, and also took the pressure off the church pastor.

          After nine years, the last five marked by the deaths of all four parents and other family stress, we moved to Durham where I served on the staff of the General Board of Examining Chaplains, helping write, administer, and evaluate the General Ordination Examination. I also served as priest-in-charge at Good Shepherd, Ridgeway, off I-85 near the Virginia line, home of a distinctive and delicious local cantaloupe. It was a small congregation with no running water in the church but surrounded by large trees which sufficed when it was served by male clergy. Then they were served by a woman priest and built an outhouse. Shortly after I came the county decided to run water and sewer lines down the road in front of the church. To connect while the ditch was open would cost much less than to connect later. We got a grant from the diocesan foundation and with local support built a large picnic shelter with an enclosed bathroom, later named in my honor. The story told locally was that their city preacher got them running water.

            The General Board office moved to Connecticut and we retired to Asheville where our daughter lives with her husband and daughter. Our son is in Knoxville, Tennessee. In retirement I served St. Paul’s Lake James, near Morgsanton, a small congregation of local people and retirees and supply in western North Carolina. I serve at the healing service at St. George’s and once a month at Craggy Prison.  Throughout my ministry I have worked in Christian Ecumenism, helped begin the Moravian Episcopal Dialogue which recently resulted in a full communion agreement, and served on the North Carolina Episcopal United Methodist dialogue which has now become a national dialogue.