Saturday, May 24, 2008

Stewards of the Mysteries of God

25 May 2008 – Pentecost 2: 1:Cor 4:1-5; Matt 6:24-34

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

Servants of Christ and Stewards of God’s Mysteries

“Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.”

The most fundamental description of who we are and what we are meant to be is found, of course, in the first Chapter of Genesis when it says that we were created, all of us, male and female, imago Dei, in the image of God. Gen 1:27

Further, God says we are to exercise dominion over the earth. There has been considerable misunderstanding around this word, dominion. We tend to make it mean something like subdue, dominate, and exploit.

Whereas, the Bible means for us, men and women together, to share the task of being God’s stewards on earth – to share the task with one another, but more importantly to share the task with God, alongside God. Dominion is meant to suggest working with God as God’s representatives – stewards of God, of dominus, Latin for Lord. And as we learn from the ubiquitous John 3:16, God’s stewardship consists of loving and giving – “God so loved the world that God gave….” Which suggests further that our loving and our giving is for the world – the same world for which God gave – and we all know that God gave more than ten percent.

As the oldest Eucharistic Prayer in our Prayer Book, Prayer D, has it, “You formed us in your own image, giving the whole world into our care, so that, in obedience to you, our Creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures.” Eucharistic Prayer D, BCP 373Ruling comes easy to us – serving and stewardship do not.

Jesus understands this - which is why this significant portion of his Sermon on the Mount addresses the core issues surrounding our difficulties in becoming servants and stewards.

Jesus does not beat around the bush. He does not work his way up to it, he simply states the problem from the outset: You cannot serve God and Wealth, period. The word in the Greek text of course is Mammon – a personification of Wealth. So that the choice is between a commitment to serve God, or, a commitment to serve wealth.

And take note that the problem is not that wealth is evil or bad – it is just that it becomes a source of constant worry. Note how many times Jesus states the problem of wealth: “do not worry…” “why do you worry…” “Therefore do not worry….” And if we somehow missed the main theme here he concludes with, “So do not worry….”

Jesus also challenges what is perhaps the single most misunderstanding we have of the entire Bible: the assertion that Solomon was wise. We often speak of “the wisdom of Solomon.” And of course we do, for what Solomon represents in the Bible is the consolidation of conspicuous consumption – Solomon is the patron saint of greed driven consumption!

Just listen to what Solomon’s household consumed in just one day: “…thirty cors of flour, sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebuck, fatted fowl…” and a partridge in a pear tree! “For he had dominion over all the region…” 1Kings 4:22-24

So what Jesus knows is that Solomon represents the consolidation of wealth, greed and consumption – that is a form of “dominion” that does not consider partnership with Dominus, the Lord, as a form of servanthood and stewardship at all. And Jesus knows that all such a consolidation of wealth, greed and consumption can bring is more and more worry.

To make his point perfectly clear, Jesus says that with all his consolidation of wealth, greed and consumption, Solomon is not as well off as a bird of the air or as a lily in a field. That is, Solomon is not wise at all since all wisdom is meant to reflect the heart and mind of God – a God who creates us to be servants of “all God’s creatures,” and “stewards of the mysteries of God.” And of course Jesus knows that Solomon’s kingdom of worry resulted in Israel becoming a carbon copy of the Empire of Pharaoh in which everyone becomes a conscripted laborer, slaves in hock to the empire and the central bank.

The core economic belief at the time of Jesus, and dating back to the wilderness sojourn, was that God has created enough. Remember, says Jesus, manna season – everyone had enough, no one had too much, and if you hoard the manna it sours, that is, it becomes worrisome. It is worrisome because if someone takes too much and hoards it, someone else is getting little or nothing, and this troubles God as much as it ought to trouble us. It is called robbery.

Now, says Jesus, consider the lilies of the field. Fortunately a friend of ours, Frances Howard, some years ago took this wisdom of Jesus to heart and considered the lilies of the field. During a period of shared silent meditation she sketched them in colored pencil – tiny bluebells wrapped in a fur coat and a stylish woman’s raincoat. The more one looks at them, the more one considers these lilies, the more one begins to get the playfulness and irony in our Lord’s dissertation on the choice we make between making a commitment to God and God’s priorities and God’s Kingdom, or to Mammon, Wealth and the priorities of the Kingdom of Solomon. We are all free to substitute modern day analogs for Solomon there being so many from which to choose!

Just this week, for instance, we had the representatives of Big Oil on Capitol Hill defending record breaking corporate profits – more than any in the history of the world – and, and, demanding more tax cuts if they are to drill for and refine more oil. Who are the representatives of the Kingdom of Solomon and Pharaoh today? Didn’t we used to call them “Robber Barons”?

This is why the Holy Habits of Daily Prayer and Bible Study, Sabbath Time, Weekly Corporate Worship and Tithing are so crucial to our own time. Bishop Bennett J. Sims once put it like this: “Of all the money I have spent on myself, I would love to get most of it back. Of all the money I have given away, I don’t care to see any of it ever again….When we ask people to give, to pledge, to tithe to the life of the Kingdom and the life of the church, the Body of Christ, we are doing them a favor. We are encouraging them to be the people God created them to be – imago Dei, created in the image of a loving and giving God….Finally, the only thing that can rebuke the rising tide of greed, violence and consumerism in our society will be an increase in Christian Giving.”

Be sure, the church does not need your money – the world does. The church just happens to be God’s economic strategy for collectively gathering resources for the love, care and stewardship of the world God created and continues to create.

Besides, how much cooler does it sound to be “a steward of the mysteries of God,” than to be a slave in the Kingdom of Solomon? Placed in those terms, how difficult can the choice really be? “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you as well.” Amen.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

May The Circle Be Unbroken

11 May 2008 Pentecost * Acts 2:1-22/I Corinthians 12: 3-13/John 20:19-23

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…”

The day of Pentecost was at the time of our story, as the name suggests, the Fiftieth Day after Passover. For those who called upon the name of the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus, it was a Harvest Festival. It also had become a time to celebrate the giving of Torah, God’s Word, God’s law, on Mount Sinai back when the people God had gathered were beginning their wilderness journey.

It was this Festival of Harvest and Torah that the disciples and assorted followers of Jesus were in Jerusalem to observe and celebrate. They were all together in one place. Suddenly things began to happen. The wind blows. Fire appears. All of them were filled – filled with the Holy Spirit. They all began to speak. People from all over the world, no matter what language they spoke, could understand what was being said.

Since everyone was seemingly speaking in different languages, different tongues, some folks outside the house sneered and accused them of being drunk.

Peter sets them straight. “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning, they cannot be drunk.” I am guessing Peter never saw the nightshift coming out of Sparrows Point or Bethlehem Steel stopping off for “a pint” or “a shot” on their way home.

Peter goes on to say that the prophet Joel imagined a day just like this one. A day when God says, “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy…young men, old men, ..even slaves…shall prophesy. Then everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

All people, everyone, are included. Think about it: bringing all people into unity with God and one another. As Peter recalls, and he is right, hundreds of years before this particular Pentecost God rolled out a plan that included men and women, sons and daughters, slave and free, Gentile and Jew, proclaiming the Word of God – proclaiming a vision of a New Creation where all people are included, united, filled with the same Spirit

Isn’t this what harvest was meant to be about? Isn’t this what the giving of Torah was meant to bring about? A world in which, as Paul puts it, everyone has a gift, not everyone has the same gift, yet every person and every gift is necessary for the common good.

“We were all made to drink of one Spirit,” Paul concludes. (1 Cor 12:13)

In this vision of Joel, Peter, Paul and Pentecost, there are many different people into which to pour this one spirit. Here we have an ice tray, a glass and a tea pot. What these different containers have in common is that they can be filled with the same thing: water.

Once in each container (as the water is poured out) the water takes a different shape. And when the containers are used to their best purposes, the same water can take on different properties: ice, steam, and water. Yet, it is still the same water. So it is, says Paul, with the Spirit. Various gifts are given to each of us “individually just as the spirit chooses.”

“To each,” says Paul, “is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The common good. Or, as our Catechism puts it on page 855 of the Book of Common Prayer,
”according to the gifts given to us” we are to complete “Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.”

The good news here is we are not all meant to be doing the same things – we are not all meant to be on the same page. This is a truth hard for us to accept, but it is a truth after all. And no one is expected to do any more than God has equipped us to do through this pouring out of God’s Spirit. Of course we know for sure that we are also expected to do nothing less that what God has gifted us to do.

Another saint of the church, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) had visions of what this community of common good is to look like. She painted these visions, and almost all of them look like this one: a circle, a mandala, with everyone and everything united within the circle. No lines are drawn to divide us, but rather concentric circles of God’s angels holding us all within the circle of God’s community. (Pass around the mandala)

I was in the Carl and Lilian Sandburg home earlier this week. A marvelously simple place in the mountains of North Carolina – Flat Rock – where he wrote and sang poems and songs, and she bred and raised goats. In a video of an interview with Edward R. Murrow, Sandburg was asked “What is the most terrible, most detestable word in the English language?” Without hesitation and tremendous energy and animation Sandburg replied, “The most terrible and detestable word in the English language is the word ‘exclusive!’ Because with the word ‘exclusive’ you can write off whole parts of humanity and not give them another thought!”

In our story of Pentecost we see God going to great lengths to break down the barriers that divide all those whom God has created – to make the world inclusive. In our Baptism, God calls us to be about the work of breaking down all barriers and live up to our evangelistic calling – to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

It is significant that Peter recalls the vision of Joel, because it comes from a passage we read on Ash Wednesday, a passage that calls us to repent of all the ways in which we have failed to contribute to the common good, and we have failed to break down the barriers that continue to divide the peoples of the world – barriers that divide us even within the Body of Christ itself.

Any attempt to live into our Baptismal Promises, our Baptismal Vows, needs to begin with a serious call to repent of all those ways throughout the centuries down to our own day that the Church has been about the work of drawing lines instead of circles, and failing to recognize the great variety of shapes and forms the same Spirit takes when poured into the vast diversity of individuals we know as humankind.

Then we need to be so filled with this Spirit, and so joyful and celebrative in our proclaiming the Good News that people might actually think that we are “filled with new wine,” so delirious will we be in bringing all people into unity with God and each other!

“I will sing to the Lord as long as I live,

I will praise my God while I have my being.

May these words of mine please him;

I will rejoice in the Lord. Hallelujah!” (Psalm 104: 37) Amen!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

To Be In Christ

4 May 2008/Easter 7A * Acts 1:6-14/1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11/John 17:1-11

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

Become A New Creation

Our Diocesan Convention began the morning after our Ascension/National Day of Prayer Service. To get to the ball rooms of the Baltimore Convention Center we had to take as many as four long escalators up, up, up to the top floor of the building. Stepping off after an ascension that felt like it very well might end up in heaven, I fully expected to find Jesus standing there, arms outstretched announcing, “Welcome to my Father’s House!” Instead, there were the obligatory registration tables and long rows of so-called “exhibitors” hawking all kinds of ecclesiastical bric-brac for those who arrived with both too much money and too much time on their hands!

Today stands between our Lord’s Ascension into heaven witnessed by the gathered community, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the gathered community some ten days later on the Feast of Pentecost

This Seventh Sunday after Easter is layered and richly imbued with deep and, given the High Priestly Prayer from the Fourth Gospel, even mystical meaning. It is important for us to stop whatever we are doing and to just let ourselves “be.” For in the deepest sense of being human, being a person, it is of utmost importance that we simply let ourselves “be” before we set about any kind of doing.

The ancient Greeks would say, “Know thyself.” I believe that is what Jesus has in mind as he prays for his disciples – that is, as he prays for us – that we may be one as he and the Father are one. And he says that this is eternal life: that we may “know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

That is our being is informed by a deep sense of who we are and whose we are: we are to be of God and Christ. As God and Christ are one, we too are meant to be one.

This was the message we received from our Bishop-in-Charge, John Rabb. Recorded from his hospital bed at GBMC, he reminded us of a most important fundamental aspect of our being – that is that we do not choose to be disciples of Jesus Christ, but rather we have been chosen. “You did not choose me,” says God in Christ. “Rather, I chose you!” It is Christ who has chosen all of us.

Take careful note in our gospel for today of the number of times Jesus says that we are those people “whom you gave me” – “you gave them to me” – “all whom you have given [me]” – “those whom you gave me.” We are those people who have been chosen by God and given to Christ Jesus.

This is a truth of our very existence that seems to fly in the face of all modern sensibility that wants us to believe that we can be whatever we want to be, and that we can choose to be whatever and whoever we want to be. Such a modern understanding is precisely the “roaring lion” our “adversary the devil” that “prowls around, looking for someone to devour.”

Our calling is given to us. Who and what we are meant to be has been chosen before all time, before all creation – Jesus calls us to be his disciples, his followers and his Body, his ambassadors as Paul would put it, to a world that does not know Him. The only true God has given us to Jesus. “It is Jesus Christ who has chosen all of you,” said Bishop Rabb. “It is about who we are in Christ Jesus.”

This same theme was taken up by our Bishop-Elect, The Reverend Canon Eugene Sutton.

“What is the vision of God for us?” he asked. And then quoting Paul’s Second Letter to the community of Christians in Corinth he offered this answer: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.” (2 Cor 5:17) “How can we become a “New Creation?” he asked. “How can we Be in Christ?”

Being precedes doing. Until we “know” the only true God, and Jesus whom God has sent, we do not know ourselves – we do not know who we are and whose we are. Such knowing makes all the difference. It makes all the difference in how we view the world, how we view others in the world, and how we view one another in the household of God in Christ.

Our Bishop-Elect gave some ideas of how we might become a “new creation” – how we might “be” in Christ.” It will be, he said, through becoming a people of prayer. A people who know how to stop doing, and “be still, and know that I am God” in a place of stillness and silence – two very foreign locations in our present creation.

It will also mean becoming more and more a people of reconciliation so that we might “heal the breaches of the past.” Bishop Claggett, the first Bishop of Maryland, like most Anglicans and Episcopalians in Maryland at the time, was a slave owner. Our new bishop, a descendent of slaves, will be consecrated at the Washington National Cathedral, the place where Bishop Claggett is buried. Bishop Claggett was our nation’s first Chaplain to the US Senate, and The Reverend Dr. Barry Black, the current Senate Chaplain and native of Baltimore will preach at the consecration. Eugene Sutton believes that Bishop Claggett is rejoicing even now that such breaches of the past in which he and the church participated are even now being reconciled in Christ.

The Bishop-Elect made use of our Lord’s own metaphor of our being branches of the vine, and that our unity does not demand uniformity, but rather an acceptance of our inherent diversity as witnessed in the diverse community of the Trinity itself. He also suggested we might become a new creation by addressing the problems of Education in the city of Baltimore where fewer than 25% of African American young men graduate High School. He sees us becoming involved in addressing the complex issues of our nation’s and our state’s current economic crisis. And he sees us being a people who become a new creation by our concern for how we treat creation itself. “People are dying because of how we choose to live our lives and waste our resources,” said our Bishop Elect.

Finally, to be in Christ, to become a new creation, he said, will entail building a lot of bridges. To that end he finished his sermon on Friday with the following poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson, one of the Harlem Renaissance Poets (1890-1966):

Let’s build bridges here and there

Or sometimes, just a spiral stair

That we may come somewhat abreast

And sense what cannot be exprest,

And by these measures can be found

A meeting place - common ground

Nearer the reaches of the heart

Where truth revealed, stands clear, apart:

With understanding come to know

What laughing lips will never show:

How tears and torturing distress

May masquerade as happiness:

Then you will know when my heart’s aching

And I when yours is slowly breaking.

Commune - the altars will reveal...

We then shall be impulsed to kneel

And send a prayer upon its way

For those who wear the thorns today.

Oh, let's build bridges everywhere

And span the gulf of challenge there.

-Georgia Douglas Johnson