Saturday, January 29, 2011

What Does The Lord Require Of Us?

30 January 2011/Epiphany4A - Micah 6:1-8/Psalm 15/Matthew 5:1-12
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Mount Calvary, Baltimore, MD

What Does The Lord Require Of You?

Often overlooked in the Hebrew Scriptures is the basic description of God's character: "...a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishment." (Jonah 4:2, Micah 7:18, Psalm 86:15, Numbers 14:18, etc)

So it is an extraordinary occasion to find the prophet Micah, preaching around the 8th century bce - roughly the same time as Isaiah, placing the people Israel on trial by such a patient and longsuffering God! Note that the jury box is occupied by creation. Hear God's plaintive cry, "O my people, what have I done to you? In what have a wearied you? Answer me!"

Of course it turns on what we have or have not done. They have not remembered a story. Seems like a minor infraction, but it is an important story - that of King Balak of Moab, a gentile who gave the people a blessing before they entered into the Land God had promised. Balak represents for us a gentile who although a foreigner pledged to utter only the words of YWHW, the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. This "forgetting" of the story amounts to forgetting what God had done for them, falling out of right relationship with God. And the importance of including outsiders like gentiles as agents of God’s will.

Important for us, however, is how the people propose to make things "right." They seem to believe that what YWHW is most interested in is offering the Temple sacrifices in just the right amount and right manner, even proposing to offer their own firstborn! They seem to believe that meticulous worship and sacrifice is what most interests our God.

And it would make sense, if only this merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in love had not repeatedly outlined in covenant and subsequent Word what really matters: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. This confirms the declaration of William Temple, the late, great Archbishop of Canterbury: It’s a great mistake if you think that God is primarily interested in religion.

Our God is interested in how we treat one another - all others - long before He gives how we worship a second thought. This is worth pondering given recent events throughout the Episcopal and Anglican Church.

This sentiment of Micah is echoed in Psalm 15: O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your Holy Hill? That is, no matter where your sanctuary may be, O Lord, whether on the move in a tent in a field, or in the Holy Temple on top of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, who is qualified to enter before your Holy Presence?

One notes, again, no mention this time of anything at all to do with proper worship. Rather, what we do is of utmost importance: walk blamelessly, speak the truth, do not slander, do no evil to your friends, do not reproach your neighbors, fear the Lord, stand by your oath, do not lend money at interest, do not take bribes against the innocent.
Instead of right worship we are given a moral code of right behavior. No mention of tribe, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender or any other sort of qualification. Hmmmmm.

"Those who do these things shall never be moved!" saith the Lord your God who is slow to anger, merciful, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishment! Not being moved is a good thing. You are in God's tent, you are in God's covenant community, you are in God's commonwealth, you are in God's kingdom if you do these things. Who would ever want to be moved from such a solid relationship with God and with others – all others?

Look and see, listen and hear, what our Lord and savior Jesus Christ has to say on the mountain top to anyone and everyone willing to listen. You are blessed if you fall into any one of these categories: poor in spirit, in mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, or persecuted by those who fear these core qualities of God's people.

There is an underlying assumption of humility here, over against a self-assured religion of exclusivity.

Note, those who receive God's favor and blessing are not the privileged classes of the Roman Empire, or the aristocratic priestly elite of the Jerusalem Religious Establishment. Jesus is talking about common people who already embody the core moral code that both Micah and Psalm 15 have long ago put forth - Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly with our God.

In all of these revelations, one is struck by the simplicity, hopefulness and compassion embodied in God's expectations for all of us. It is also striking that we are asked to be something and to do something – we are asked to be a people of moral character and act in accord with God’s moral will. It is a matter of character shaped by what some have called “a Be-Attitude” – an Attitude of Being!

All of this is set in contrast to the social, political, and religious context of the present time, whether that is the corrupt elitism of the eighth century bce world of Micah, the Roman Occupation and Empire of Jesus' world, or our present situation.

So here we are, a small yet faithful community struggling to see and hear what God has in store for us next. We need not draw the lines and connect the dots to see where this is going. And we need not worry about anyone else but our selves here and now.

It does not take too much prophetic imagination to figure out what the outcome would be were God to put creation in the Jury Box and put humankind on trial today.

The good news is that our God throughout the past three thousand years has been consistent in what He requires of us - Justice, Love, Mercy and Humility. It is pretty easy to see where that can be found. We give thanks for the God who has brought our small and humble community of Christ together at this time in this place.

What does the Lord require of us? An attitude of Being that reflects God’s character: "...a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishment.” Amen

Saturday, January 22, 2011

You Are The Way Part 2

23 January 2011/Epiphany 3A – Matthew 4:18-22
Saint Peter’s At Ellicott Mills, Parish Annual Meeting

For those of us in parishes named Saint Peter’s, this passage, The Calling of the First Disciples, is one that we read over and over again. Perhaps the most important element of this Gospel story of Call is the fact that it is Jesus who offers the invitation. We are not here because we want to be here. We are here because Jesus wants us and calls us to be here. Yet, as we face into an uncertain future (and let’s face it, this is the true nature of life itself), it is that time of the year to stop and ask ourselves the pivotal question: what next? What is Jesus calling us to do?
It is a question the Israelite prophets pondered often in the history of God’s people. It was the question in the minds of the remaining eleven disciples after Good Friday as they huddled together in a room trying to absorb the events of what we now know as Holy Week. But as we know, again and again the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus always has, if not a surprising, an utterly astonishing answer to this question over and over again. And in every instance it results in new people rising to the occasion with the gifts, energy and vision necessary to meet the present need and circumstances.
Which is one way of saying, you are, we are, the “what next” in God’s plans for Saint Peter’s. As I said on Epiphany 2, each one of us is unique and has a unique role to play in the unfolding of God’s next adventure. You are an essential piece of the puzzle, an essential part of God’s unfolding future for Saint Peter’s. What an adventure it is going to be! I am confident that through faithfulness in prayer and study, God will reveal to us a new way to walk, a new song to sing, a new way of being the Body of Christ known as Saint Peter’s – and more affectionately Saint Eaters!
We will all hear this morning that we will be looking back to reconnect with what Saint Peter’s has been all through the years stretching back to 1842 when we began as a mission to the mill workers at Ellicott Mills. That mission, together with Bishop Wittingham’s desire to set up an Anglo-Catholic outpost in what was to become Howard County, has wheat, flour, and bread at its center. The staff of life, bread is also the essential sacrament through which we know Christ, and Christ knows us.
As important as it is to look back, however, it will be more important to take a long hard look at who we are right now. Much has changed in the world since 1842, much has changed in the Episcopal Church, and much has changed at Saint Peter’s. We need to identify those changes, and accept those changes, and discern just what it means to be an outpost for the Gospel in Howard County in the 21st Century. We need to be clear on who we are, and whose we are.
We should not, however, become preoccupied with ourselves, but rather turn our attention to the world. This will necessitate getting to know our neighbors. Next to loving God with all our heart, all our soul and all our might, loving our neighbors as ourselves is the great commandment given to us all. Jesus says there is no commandment greater than these two. That love must begin with getting to know our neighbors. In the 17 years I have been privileged to serve among you, the neighborhood has undergone an axial shift. Across Rogers Avenue lies a veritable field of mission - a vast array of townhouses and single family homes stretching from here all the way up to Ridge Road. Through the years the inhabitants have turned over, I suspect, nearly 100%. Yet, do we know any of the people who are our nearest neighbors? Do we know anything about their needs, concerns and hopes? That is, have we any idea how to serve them and love them as our neighbors?
And we have just begun to reconnect ourselves with Historic, Downtown Ellicott City. Thanks to Julian Manelli, and initial work of Kennette and Guv Mitchell, Katherine Schnorrenberg and Diane Six, Saint Peter's has become a fixture at the monthly Farmer's Market, and we participated in the Christmas-time Midnight Madness. People stop at our table and ask who we are and where we are. They purchase copies of our parish history, while purchasing and munching on baked goods at the Name Your Price sale. The merchants and shoppers in the Historic district, site of our original church building, are also our neighbors. How might we love and serve them in the name of Christ?
As to church growth – yesterday I attended the first of several strategy and planning sessions for the Diocesan Horizons 2015 initiative. We heard a lot of personal stories about how different people came to be members of the Episcopal Church. In nearly every instance, they attended an Episcopal Church because someone took the time to ask them to come. It is as simple as that.
It is possible, however, with the help of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, that we might become a multi-cultural congregation with the ability to serve the still growing Korean and Asian communities of Howard County. The Reverend Barnabas Lee has a vision of bringing people from different countries and different backgrounds together in the name of Christ. To be clear, this means integrating an English speaking congregation, not starting a Korean speaking congregation or separate service. If we do this, it will mean change, but we must always remember: at every Baptism we promise to do all that is in our power to support each new person in his or her life in Christ. Again, each person we baptize is someone new, someone unique and original, something that never existed before! Their needs are new, unique and different. To do all in our power to support them in their life in Christ we need to be about doing new, unique and different things than we have ever imagined. Being the Church is about serving others, not teaching them to become like us. In the end, nothing canever stay the same, least of all the church. Everything is changing. Tich Nhat Hanh, the revered Vietnamese Buddhist puts it best: "It is not because of impermanence that we suffer, but because of our ideas about permanence."
Jesus was all about change. Jesus was all about celebrating the new, the unique, the never before seen gifts of each and every person with whom he came in contact. Each one of you in this parish, each one of you who worships here week in and week out, is a unique expression of God's love for this sinful and broken world. Jesus calls us do to something beautiful with our lives and bear much fruit. As Jesus proclaimed, the world needs you, the church needs you, Jesus needs you. They need your light and your love. There is a hidden place in your heart where Jesus lives.
Perhaps the First letter of Peter puts it best:
A New Life
3-5What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we've been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you'll have it all—life healed and whole.
6-7I know how great this makes you feel, even though you have to put up with every kind of aggravation in the meantime. Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it's your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory.
8-9You never saw him, yet you love him. You still don't see him, yet you trust him—with laughter and singing. Because you kept on believing, you'll get what you're looking forward to: total salvation.
10-12The prophets who told us this was coming asked a lot of questions about this gift of life God was preparing. The Messiah's Spirit let them in on some of it—that the Messiah would experience suffering, followed by glory. They clamored to know who and when. All they were told was that they were serving you, you who by orders from heaven have now heard for yourselves—through the Holy Spirit—the Message of those prophecies fulfilled. Do you realize how fortunate you are? Angels would have given anything to be in on this! (The Message – Eugene Peterson)
Right now it is time for us to realize just how fortunate we are. Let Jesus live in you. Let your light shine. Sing a new song! You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. You are the way others will come to know Christ. I know this to be true because I have experienced it myself here in this place. Through worship, through song, through prayer, through service to others, through the light and life that shine through the love of every single person who makes Saint Peter's his or her spiritual home, I have come to know Christ in new, deeper and more exciting ways than I could ever have imagined the day I arrived, Advent 1, 1994.
We have before us an opportunity to move forward with Christ together, to serve the hopes, needs and concerns of the world around us. Today is a new day. You are the way others will come to know Christ. God bless us, everyone.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

You Are The Way

16 January 2011/Epiphany 2A - Isaiah 49:1-7/Psalm40/1Corinthians 1:1-9/John 1:29-42
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter's at Ellicott Mills
You Are The Way
Today we pray, “Christ is the Light of the World…Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory…”

Going back some 600 years before Christ, so-called Second Isaiah delivered a message to a people who lived in darkness – the darkness of exile and slavery, the darkness of a people who were no longer at home and yearned to return to the land the Lord had given to them. It is a message to a restless and displaced people who saw the world as increasingly hostile, dangerous, with no way out.

The prophetic imagination takes over and proclaims, in effect, you are the way out! I will give you as a light to the nations! That my salvation shall reach to the end of the earth!

Psalm 40 echoes this surprising answer to the people’s prayers for deliverance. Again the psalm opens with a people mired in a pit, in a muddy bog – a sense of hopelessness has set in. Yet, we are to sing, sing a new song….as U2 puts it, “I will sing, sing a new song, I will sing, sing a new song…..”

St. Paul then declares to a young church in turmoil – a church at odds with itself, a church torn by infighting, strife, and even worse, indifference to others, even others within the community let alone those beyond and outside the community in need of the light of the Gospel.

To the church divided in Corinth Paul writes, “…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is, we have been endowed by Baptism and the Holy Spirit with any and all spiritual gifts necessary to pull together and become a light to the nations, to sing a new song, to overcome our divisions, and instead shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory – if only…

If only we allow ourselves to be illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments – if only we will let the light of Christ, of Christ the Light of the World to shine in us and through us in all that we do and all that we say – and the people respond, “I will with God’s help.”

So what’s the problem? What is holding us back? Why are we not like Andrew and his brother Simon, following Jesus wherever he goes? Tailing Jesus to find out where he lives? Better still, why is it that we who have been incorporated into the Body of Christ by water and the Holy Spirit, are not being tailed and followed by countless people like Andrew and Simon seeking to find where we are staying with Christ? Why aren’t people lined up and down Rogers Avenue waiting to get a glance of Jesus here in St. Peter’s?

I wonder if we have misconstrued our role in all of this. Much is said about following Christ, and classic texts urge us to Imitate Christ. Our incarnational theology asserts that we are the Body of Christ in the world. It is a staple of Christian spirituality to say we are the hands, feet and eyes of Christ in the world.

On one hand it can feel impossible to do this - to ever possibly “imitate” Christ. Who can imagine? We are truly called to live lives that embody Christ. On the other hand, it is equally important not to take on a messianic identity that says “we are Christ in the world.” Such hubris can lead and has led to all kinds of problems for the church and for the world.

The story is told of a pastor who was the very epitome of a Christian leader - always on the go, always starting new programs, always allowing himself to be interrupted day and night to serve others. One day he was asked to sit down with an old friend. The pastor was looking tired and bedraggled from keeping a much too busy and hectic schedule. The friend said, “I have really good news for you. The Messiah has come!” The pastor, at hearing this, looked confused as to what the friend was getting at. Then the friend said she had even better news, “And you are not him!”

The problem of taking incarnational theology too seriously is that it distorts our understanding of what God is calling us to do, and we come to believe that if the world is going to be saved, we have to do it. Perhaps what we are called to be is something more like John the Baptist who walks around pointing people toward Jesus and calling out, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” Instead of asking ourselves “What Would Jesus Do,” maybe we need to be asking, “What Would John The Baptist Do.”

Perhaps we need to be calling out to anyone who will listen: Hey, Look! Come see what I see! Come hear what I hear! Come see the Holy Spirit working through us! In fact, come see how the Holy Spirit is at work here even in spite of us! Behold the Lamb of God!

At the end of the day, God does not need us to be Jesus. God does not need us to be Moses, Isaiah, Peter or Paul. God needs us to be the unique person God creates us to be. As Rabbi Zusya, an eighteenth century Hasidic rabbi summed it up for his disciples just a short while before his death: "In the world to come I shall not be asked, 'Why were you not Moses?' Instead I shall be asked, 'Why were you not Zusya?'" Martin Buber, The Way of Man, (Citadel Press, NY:1966) p.17

Martin Buber, reflecting on this classic Hasidic tale writes: "Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never before existed, something original and unique. It is the duty of every person ... to know and consider that he or she is unique in the world in his or her particular character, and that that there has never been anyone like him in the world. Every single person is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfill his or her particularity in the world. ... Everyone has in him or her something precious that is in no one else." ibid. p16, 18

So it seems for the radiance of Christ's glory to shine through us we need to be our selves. And we need to cry out to others, "Look, it is the Lamb of God! Come and see what I see. Come and hear what I hear."God in Christ is busy saving us and saving the world. It would seem Jesus needs us to be more like John the Baptist to announce to the world why we are here week in and week out.

Know, my sisters and brothers, little by little – it takes time – Jesus will reveal to you how unique you are - that you are the way and the light. He calls you to follow him so that you may do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit. The world needs you, the Church needs you, Jesus needs you. They need your love and your Light. There is a hidden place in your heart where Jesus lives. This is a deep secret you are called to live. Let Jesus live in you. Let your light shine! Sing a new song! You are not lacking in any spiritual gift! You are the way others will come to know Christ! Amen!