17 February 2010

Misereris omnium - The First Day of Lent

Remember that you are dust - and to dust you shall return.

Reading Isaiah 58 knocks the breath out of our self-righteousness. The prophet’s words are addressed to all people and nations who claim belief in a God of justice and love. As citizens of this country and as people who carry the name of Christ, we are commanded to listen carefully. Ash Wednesday is a time for repentance, not just for us as individuals, but also for us as a people, a nation.

The words of Isaiah fall on our collective soul like a whip:

“Day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that
practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the
ordinance of their God.”

The prophet continues by zeroing in on all aspect of our failure to do justice:

• Serving our own interests
• Oppressing workers
• Quarrelling and fighting among ourselves

How well we recognize all these failings, especially at this time of national unemployment and home foreclosures while the rich thrive.

We no longer practice fasting as the ancient Hebrews did – a fasting that God rejected because it was done only as a ritual by those who ignored the poor. We may not fast, but we do attend church, and we do claim to be a righteous nation – “the greatest nation in the world” is a phrase used across the land.

Yet we allow voices of hate, voices that despise the poor and the oppressed, to populate the airwaves. What would the prophet say about those voices? What would he say about the millions who listen to those voices? How many of us make it a Lenten discipline not to listen to voices on the radio or on television that spew hate and racism, that show admiration for the rich while despising the poor?

The prophet’s words were echoed centuries later by Jesus of Nazareth who responded to the call to loosen the bonds of injustice by the way he lived his life and by his death. Jesus, who called citizens of God’s kingdom only those who fed the hungry, who gave water to the thirsty, who clothed the naked, and who visited prisoners – not those who made a show of praying and giving alms.

On this day, when we allow ourselves to recognize our own faults, our manifold sins, our mortality, we are asked by the prophet and by Jesus to look at what really matters. We should not feel satisfied that just because we may have followed certain rituals, we have done what is just before the eyes of God.

On this day, the words of Jesus as recorded by Matthew, remind us not to be gloomy when we pray or when we work for the kingdom. He wants us to be joyful. Jesus wants us to remember “the least of these” not as a show but because we cannot do otherwise when we are faced with God’s demands and with God’s love.

Above all, in this cultural climate when the very rich are rewarded with bonuses while the poor lose their jobs, we are asked to remember where our treasure lies. Do we treasure things that perish, or is our treasure doing the will of the Father, a will that is never corrupted or co-opted or rewarded with gold?

Oh, let us on this Ash Wednesday wear the ashes with humility and repentance and with a determination not to be silent when the oppressed are ignored, overlooked, or despised. Let us put our hearts where our treasure is – in the love of the One who called us to be God’s righteous people indeed.


-- Katerina Whitley is the author of "Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross" (Morehouse Publishing, 1989), also available in audio form.

14 February 2010

Sunday Next Before Lent - Quinquagesima

The Last Sunday of Epiphany

Year C
(RCL) Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
    Introit: Be Thou unto me a God, a Protector, and a place of refuge, to save me: for Thou are my strength and my refuge: and for Thy Name's sake Thou wilt lead me, and nourish me. -- (Ps. 30. 2). In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped, let me never be confounded: deliver me in Thy justice, and save me.

    O God, who before the passion of thy only-begottn Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance may be strengthened to bear our cross and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; though Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and regneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

    Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray.

    As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

    But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him.

    Then it happened, as they were parting from Him, that Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.

    Now it happened on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, that a great multitude met Him. Suddenly a man from the multitude cried out, saying, “Teacher, I implore You, look on my son, for he is my only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out; it convulses him so that he foams at the mouth; and it departs from him with great difficulty, bruising him. So I implored Your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”

    Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” And as he was still coming, the demon threw him down and convulsed him. Then Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the child, and gave him back to his father.
The linked readings focusing on Moses’ intimate relationship with God and his shining face in Exodus and Second Corinthians, the psalmist’s praise to God for God’s mighty acts in history, and Luke’s story of the Transfiguration seem to have little bearing on the celebration of World Mission Sunday, let alone this year’s theme “World Mission and the Environment.” Yet, as with most of the most important things in our lives, we must delve below the surface to apprehend the depth of the meaning.

Instead of beginning directly with today’s lections, let’s begin with the portion of scripture that has been selected to underscore this year’s theme. The first and second verses of Psalm 24 read: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”

These verses remind us that everything that we see – and don’t see – in Creation, is God’s: plants, animals, people, planet, even bacteria and viruses. By extension, if all is the Lord’s, and we understand God to be a loving, caring deity, then we can begin to see where the connections might be.

Hold the words of Psalm 24 in your mind, and hear now the words of Psalm 99, verses 4 and 5:
O mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.’ Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God and fall down before his footstool; he is the Holy One.
If all of our relationships draw from the understanding of God as a lover of justice and establisher of equity, then we are led to the conclusion that the just and equitable act is the one that is closest to the heart of God. And if all of the earth is the Lord’s, then we are, or should be, compelled to act as just and equitable stewards of the earth, on behalf of the Lord.

We all witnessed the discussions and debate of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Coppenhagen in December of last year. We heard the pleas of poor countries that stand to lose the most if we do not find a way to move from “purely national perspectives to global leadership” as UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said. This is of vital importance to our world, and yet, we must understand it in the context of our faith, our ministry, our call, our mission.

We, as followers of Christ, send out missionaries to the ends of the globe, seeking to bring the light and love of Christ to those who need to see Christ’s effect on and through us. We move into poor parts of the developing world seeking to meet the needs of the people in many wonderful ways. Yet if we are about being just and equitable, if we are about the business of establishing networks and systems that remind all of the gift that we have in this world and in one another, if our mission and our missions are to be fully reflective of the glory of God, then we must be about transformation.

But before we go too far down the road of “transformation,” it might be good for us to deal with the reality of this Sunday’s celebration of the Transfiguration.

We are reminded of the otherworldly event that took place on a mountaintop while Jesus was praying and Peter, James, and John slept. In Luke’s account we are told that Jesus’ appearance is changed, his clothes become dazzling white and Elijah and Moses appear with him to discuss what is to happen in Jerusalem – his passion and death. Instructive for us in Luke’s account are God’s words to Peter, James and John: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" In other words, pay attention to what he says and does.

It is interesting that transfiguration and transformation come from the same Middle English root meaning “to change shape.” Transformation, linguistically, can mean “the process by which deep structures are converted into surface structures.”

Well, that fits now, doesn’t it? The depth of who Jesus is, is brought to the surface during the Transfiguration – his face, appearance, and clothes are transformed. Jesus’ face shines, and in Luke’s words, “They saw his glory.” Jesus is transfigured, that is, transformed showing the truth of who he is with a heavenly voice underscoring the visible evidence that Jesus is God’s son and that we are to listen to him.

It might be that you are still saying, “That’s all well and good for Transfiguration Sunday, but what does any of that have to do with World Mission?”

The connection comes in the transformational aspect of what our mission work can and does accomplish. We send faithful servants of the gospel into areas of the world where needs are high and hope is in short supply. When our efforts are successful, the mission partnership grows and becomes self-sustaining; communities and lives are transformed, and we are a part helping others – and ourselves – to more fully reflect God’s glory.

We are being called into new mission endeavors where our effective ministry will be in partnership with those whom we are sent to serve. We are being called into partnerships that seek to establish sustainable relationships, out of which can grow new possibilities that can transform and transfigure local situations that can have global impact. We are being called into transformational ministries that are modeled after the best of relationships – expecting that each member has something of worth to offer the other.

By understanding the give and take of relationships, we can see the connection between our lives and how we must find ways to focus our resources on those things that, not only speak to the immediate need, but also take into account how the environment is affected and how the communities in which we are called to serve can sustain the benefits that are achieved.

In today’s reading from Second Corinthians, Paul reminds us of the transformational character of our lives in Christ:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
We know that we are called to be stewards of this earth. We know that we are called to serve others, especially the poor and oppressed. We know that we are to seek right relationships: with God, with each other, and with our earth. We know that we are to follow Jesus and imitate his attitude and actions: loving God completely and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We know these things, regardless of our particular political or religious positions. And if we know these things, then we are expected to act on them.

Friends, we are to be agents of transformation in a world that seems, in some corridors, to be resistant to transformation. Our current and future mission work just might need to include focused and intentional work to improve environmental conditions in those places where we are called to serve. We might also look to transform how we understand our call to mission, creating domestic mission teams who work to aid our foreign mission teams in terms of policy reform, and who make connections and build relationships that work locally, but think globally.

The wonderful thing about being called into the ministry and mission of Christ is that we have the chance to become those people that speak life and wholeness in a broken world, confident that our Lord – who made and sustains all life – is smiling on our efforts to be agents of transformation who shine with the light of Christ.

As we celebrate this World Mission Sunday and think of the Transfiguration of Jesus, let our hearts be full of wonder and our souls be full of praise. As our worship today lifts us to the height of heaven, why don’t we come down with faces unveiled and through our actions demonstrate that we have been with the Lord?

-- The Rev. Lawrence Womack currently serves as Associate Rector at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Charlotte, NC, and has served parishes in Baltimore, MD, and Buffalo, NY (as a seminarian). He is active in HIV-AIDS ministry and advocacy and proudly serves as a husband and father of three children. Comments are welcomed at frlmw1@aol.com.