Saturday, July 30, 2011

Want To Know What’s Really Wrong With The “Economy”?

31 July 2011/Proper 13A - Isaiah 55: 1-5, Matthew 14: 13-21
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter's at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

We keep skipping over the good stuff this year. At the beginning of Chapter 14 in Matthew, we have the story of Herod’s banquet wherein John the Baptizer lost his head for speaking truth to power – Herod was messing around with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Said John, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” News of the beheading reaches Jesus. So it is he goes off in a boat to a deserted place “by himself.”

Which on the Sea of Galilee is nigh on impossible! From the shore one can see around the whole of the lake. Wherever you are, you can see where Jesus goes, and so the crowd follows. So much for some quiet time, contemplative prayer and to deal with his own grief at the news of John’s demise.

Once the people are there, he returns to doing what he does best – healing them. Little known fact: at the southern end of the sea was a spa with healing springs – like those you find in West Virginia, southern Indiana and the like. People came from all over the ancient world to these spas, paying good money to bathe in the healing waters. Hotels and restaurants had sprung up all around Tiberius to meet the needs of those who were coming to the springs. Now there is this itinerant preacher, teacher and who knows what else, healing people for free. It’s not good for the local economy those in the moneyed classes are murmuring.

But that’s not all! He’s feeding people for free as well! Even the disciples are shocked at this news. They want him, Jesus, to send the people away to “buy food for themselves.” That’s how it works around here – there are plenty of places to catch a meal, buy some bread and fish. Jesus has other plans. He has been reading Isaiah 55 and taking it seriously. Why he was probably even reading the book of Exodus and taking that seriously as well.

The 55th chapter of Isaiah is a marvelous piece of text, and it is a shame we get such a small number of verses to chew on. In it the prophet-poet challenges all the basic assumptions of life in this world – which at the time meant life in the captivity of Babylon, which looked, smelled, tasted and felt an awful lot like life back in Egypt, and to Jesus and his “crowd” it must of sounded a lot like life under the domination of the Roman Empire (not yet Holy!).

Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the opening verse was thought to inspire missionizing and colonizing Asia since it appears to begin with a Chinese word, “Ho!” As it turns out that “ho” is not in the Hebrew text, and a lot of modern day problems may have been avoided had our translators not put it in there. But we digress!

“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and he who has no money, come, buy and eat. Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
That is, in the old-fashioned vernacular, “Come and get it!” The poet announces, on God’s behalf, a return to manna season – a bracketed time in the life of Israel when everyone got enough, no one got too much, and if you tried to store it, it soured. That is, there was a time when everyone had enough and no one had too much. We can argue over the specifics of that no doubt, but take a look around and ask yourself, “Are we in manna season? Or, are we in ‘Needing all the cash and credit we can get our hands on just to feed ourselves’ season?” Once that’s figured out, just try to imagine what it sounds like to those who are credit-bound and in hock up to their necks in the current Empire to hear that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus is offering free milk, free wine, eat what is good and “delight yourselves in fatness!” So sorry Jenny Craig, it is fatness that the Lord is offering this week!

Then comes the pivotal question in Isaiah 55: Why do we bust our tails for that which does not satisfy? And why do we spend our money on that which is not bread? There is so much we can do on those two questions alone that we will have to leave it to one another to ponder those over the next few days, weeks and months!

The implication, of course, is that the dominant economy does not control the bread supply – that is the “real bread” supply. Only God and His Son can provide bread that satisfies all your hunger, and drink that satisfies all your thirst. Understanding, of course, that we really hunger and thirst for more than just food – and at the same time there are those among us, more and more every day, who hunger for just that.

As Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives away the bread and fish, resulting in copious leftovers for those who come to our doors Monday through Saturday, we are to recall Isaiah 55, Manna Season and of course the Eucharist – the banquet of Thanksgiving for all that God provides daily. This all has something to do with his teaching us to pray for bread which is given daily.

So we can assume the crowd to be made up primarily of those who cannot afford to go to the spas, the hotels and restaurants of Tiberius. We can assume they are indeed hungry since they will walk half way around the Sea to hear Jesus and be healed by Jesus. We can assume that Jesus recognizes that he is not going to get a moments peace to himself until everyone is given provision for the day, and until the economic gulf between those at the spa and those in his crowd is breached and healed. While under the brutal yoke of Rome, people at the other end of the lake are taking care of only their own needs, spending lots of money to do so.

Jesus offers a meal that no money can buy. No one can offer any amount of money for it because it is priceless. How frustrating must that be for the folks in town and at the spas? How wonderful must it be for those in the crowd to get this free meal by the sea? To be healed for free? Where do we go to be fed? What do we feed on? Where do we go to healed and made whole? Do we really trust in bread that is given daily? If not now, when?

A Wedding Day: Sue Pikounis and Jerry Hebert

Jesus is on a mountain, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
He is blessing people – all sorts of people. (Matthew 5:1-10)
People who when you look at them – poor, hungry, mourning – Do not seem particularly blessed.
Yet Jesus sees things differently, Jesus sees them differently, Jesus sees us differently than we ever see ourselves.

Since we made plans to be here this morning it has been quite a ride for the two of you and all those you love, and all those who love you.

Not unlike the unlikely love story of Tobias and Sarah (Tobit: 8:5-8) from which we get a snippet of their tale this morning: his father is blind and wants to die, Sarah has lost seven husbands and wants to die, Tobias, led by God’s angel Raphael is off on an adventure that will change everyone’s life. It all seems doomed from the start, and yet, there is the happy ending – “and they slept through the night!” Signifying that God really does care about us. God really does get involved in our lives. God will provide a way.

Neither of you ever lost sight of this simple truth – this basic act of what we call faith. And now you are blessed.

Blessed to enter into the kind of life St Paul outlines for all who choose to be active members of the Body of Christ – a live of patience, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, with grateful hearts, singing psalms and hymns, and whatever you do, in word or deed, do in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for each and every moment of each and every day. (Colossians 3:12-17)
You are truly blessed. Everyone here this morning has already agreed to do all in their power to support the two of you in your marriage. Not a little of what’s in their power, not what they feel like, not what they think they can afford to do, but all that is in their power – such is their love for you.

Right now, you stand before us as a sign of God’s love for a sinful and broken world. You are a sign of what Love looks like. Turn around for just a moment before exchanging vows, and look out on all those of us who are committing ourselves to do all in our power to support you. Because this is what Love looks like! A roomful of blessed people standing beside you on this most auspicious occasion!

We are here to witness and to bless you both as you become no longer two but one – one in the love of Christ.

And of course there is one final blessing for you and for us all. Your beloved Sissy, Connie, your sister, gives you this day, the day of her birth, as the day that you begin the rest of your life together as husband and wife.

We come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around. You surrounded her with God's love every day of her earthly pilgrimage. She now resides in the very heart of God’s eternal love, sending her blessings upon you both. As the psalmist sings, "May you live to see your children’s children, may Peace forever be upon you and your household!" (Psalm 128)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Behold I Am With You To The End of the Age

17 July 2011/Proper 11A – Gen 28:10-19a/Psalm 139/Rom 8:12-25/Matt 13:24-30,36-43
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Know That I Am With You
Jesus tells this odd little parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat. Odd in that he addresses a largely peasant, agricultural crowd and ignores “best practices” raising grain that is broadcast as opposed to being planted in rows: try to sort out the weeds and you trample the wheat. Odder still in that in the previous parable of The Sower he demonstrates a consummate knowledge of best practices, so we might assume he has a reason for telling the tale in just this way.

This will get people’s attention, since they will be wondering, “Just where is he going with all this?” Keeping in mind that in The Sower (Matt 13:1-23) in an aside to his disciples he makes the comment repeated in verse 43 today: Whoever has ears ought to hear! Ought to hear!

It is crucial to know that at least three times a day Jesus and his fellow Jews recite the Shema Y’Israel, which begins, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one...,” and continues in part, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might…” To which we already know Jesus adds, “And the second is like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Hearing is central to being God’s people. Hearing is central to Biblical faith. Hearing leads to faithful living.

At issue in the parable of Weeds Among the Wheat is the serious problem Jesus addresses in all of Matthew chapter 13: what to do about growing opposition to his proclamation of God’s kingdom which focuses principally on teaching, healing and sitting at dinner tables with all sorts of people – especially those deemed “unclean” by the reigning religious establishment.

So it is easy to hear, to get, that the wheat are those people who buy-in to Jesus’ vision of God’s reign, and the weeds are those who do not. The master’s slaves take a shot at him saying, “We thought you planted good seed. Why all these weeds?” Strangely the master suggests an “enemy” has infiltrated the field and sown bad seeds – later identified as “the devil.” This is somewhat strange in that all the way back in chapter 5 (v 44-45) Jesus himself instructs us to love our enemies, which by and large we do not do. Nor do we turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven times, bless those who curse us, share what we have with the poor and put our whole trust and hope in God. That is, we do not tend to take Jesus seriously. To paraphrase him, we ought to hear, but we choose not to. This is a problem.

So are the weeds. The slaves offer to weed the field. The master says no, I will take care of that at the harvest – at the end of the age. Remember, at the end of the gospel I promise I will be with you always to the end of the age. I will take care of it then. The bad stuff will burn in unquenchable fire! For now, it is all about Amazing Grace. Can you hear me now?

We sense a good degree of tension between God's Grace and God's Wrath and Judgment. Someone once said, “The wrath of God is God’s relentless compassion, pursuing us even when we are at our worst.” (Maggie Ross, The Fire of Your Life, p.137)

So the weeds are to be allowed to flourish amongst the wheat. Plucking up, casting out, separating out evil is not our task. Excommunication is not our task. Being gatekeepers for the kingdom is not our task. Being exponents of God's Amazing Grace is our task. As he says way back in chapter 5, “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun shine on the bad and the good, and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” Leave them there. Get used to it. Get used to them. Like the poor, they will always be with you. The crowd, we might assume, is astonished at such offensive, radical tolerance!

They shouldn’t be. You would think they had forgotten about Jacob. Remember, the one who stole his brother Esau’s birthright not once but twice! Jacob, after all, means “the deceiver.” He is on the lam, running for his life. Esau is not happy, his mother Rebbeca has urged Jacob to get away. He is a bad brother. On the run he falls asleep and has a vision – a ladder or a stairway linking heaven to earth – yes, The Stairway to Heaven! Angels are ascending and descending. More importantly, however, the Lord himself comes and stands beside him, Jacob, the deceiver, the bad son, a fleeing scoundrel and makes a series of amazing promises: you will have lots and lots of offspring, they will cover the whole earth, all the families of the earth shall be blessed by you and your offspring, I will return you to your home, I will keep you and be with you always! To which Jesus simply adds, “to the end of the age.” He receives God’s special blessing. It is completely God’s initiative. Jacob has done nothing to deserve all this. It is all God’s grace!

Let’s see: Old Testament, God’s Amazing Grace, New Testament Jesus offers to burn all the bad guys. Whatever happened to the notion that the Old Testament is nothing but God's judgment, and the New Testament is nothing but God’s Love? Got to love the tension and paradox!

So what does this all mean? We are not on our own in an otherwise evil world. God himself promises to be with us on our earthly journey home. Even when the way leads through the valley of the shadow of death, darkness is not darkness to God, the night is as bright as the day! I am with you always. Emmanuel – God with us. Do we hear this? Do we believe this?

Oh yeah, and we should love our enemies and pray for those who do not like us. That is, we are to take Jesus more seriously and learn not just to tolerate others, all others, but to befriend them like Jesus does. This is what knowing, accepting, believing he is always with us really means.

A woman came to the office door the other day. She had been laid off by Super Fresh. Shoppers is hiring from within. She has been out of work since May. She has a family. She needs food, gas money, rent money, you name it. I took her down to the Food Pantry. On the way upstairs she says, “I always used to believe in God and all, but since I was laid off I now know that God loves me – he really loves me and is with me wherever I go.”

"Know that I am with you." She knows this. Jacob knows this. As long as the weeds are among the wheat, there is a good chance the weeds will know it too! How about me? How about you? Amen.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Rich Soil

10 July 2011/Proper 10A – Isaiah 55:10-13/Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Mount Calvary Episcopal Church, Baltimore
“Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
At the end of his parable of the sower, Jesus makes an outlandish prediction of what the yield will be for the seed that falls on “rich soil” – one hundred, sixty and thirty fold! The crowd would be incredulous. Such an expectation is insane – perhaps this teacher and his disciples are all insane as well! To which Jesus replies, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Hearing is central to Israel and Judaism. Three times a day for the past three or four thousand years the faithful of God’s people recite the following words: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might….” It is called the Shema Y’Israel. So when Jesus invokes the importance of hearing, he is calling upon this daily ritual of his people, God’s people.

Once again, there is a gaping hole in our Gospel – verses 10-17. And once again, these verses appear to be central to our Lord’s teaching in chapter 13. Following chapters 10-12 which center around conflict and opposition to Jesus and his disciples, Chapter 13 presents a series of parables which offer reflection on the nature of the opposition and on the bountiful hope for those who have ears to hear. All of this is presented in the context of the failure of an attempted revolt against Rome resulting in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and therefore desperate attempts to hold the community of God’s people together. Jesus represents a radical new attempt to hold the community together.

At this point in his ministry he resorts to telling stories – parables – stories with familiar themes but surprising conclusions. We need to observe that the church has often turned these parables into allegories in an attempt to “make sense” of them or reinterpret them, and that this act of reinterpretation is already at work in the gospels themselves.

This should not be surprising since Jesus, in the missing verses, is himself reinterpreting Isaiah to meet the needs of the people in the current crisis. In the missing section, the disciples ask Jesus a question. They do not ask, “What does the parable mean?” Instead they want to know, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” “Them” would be the crowd. And in this missing section Jesus draws a clear distinction between the disciples (“Us”) and the crowd. To make his point he quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 which talks about those who “hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and are turned (repent), converted, and I heal them,” over against those who do not.

How this conversion and healing will be recognized was announced at the outset by John the Baptizer who declares that those who return to the Lord and the Lord’s way will “Produce good fruit as evidence of repentance.” Matt 3:8

Jesus further assures the disciples that the “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven have been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted…This is why I speak to them in parables…” Then come the words of Isaiah, as a way of explaining why it is that the first will be last and the last will be first – that is, the Empire and the religious authorities have it all wrong, only those who have turned and repented will hear and understand and be healed of the current crisis. Not only shall they be healed, but this small band of little people shall produce miraculous, outrageous, results!

It will be, says Jesus, as we hear in Isaiah 55 – God’s word shall not return to God empty, but shall accomplish that which “I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out with Joy, and be led back in peace – the mountains and hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands,” as all creation celebrates a new Exodus, a new deliverance from Exile, a new deliverance from the constraints of the Old Empire!

And, oh yes, Jesus is that Word – that logos – that incarnation of God’s purpose made flesh and blood, moving into our neighborhood as the New Moses leading God’s people out of crisis once again. Jesus is the seed of a new deliverance.

So here we sit. Oddly enough the empire that has precipitated our crisis is still Rome. As the parable of the sower suggests, there is still hardness of heart at work. There are still shallow assertions and responses. There are still cluttered souls that cut off and choke the word of the mysteries of God’s kingdom - even arrogant assertions that God’s kingdom has no mysteries but is somehow carved in stone, set, impervious to anything new, to any new interpretation of God’s Word, to any movement in new directions by God’s Holy Spirit.

As we gather here week after week, it seems as absurd to us as it does to the crowd of “Them” that our faithfulness will result in the kind of good and rich soil Jesus talks about – the rich soil of faith, which the ancient author of the Letter to the Hebrews asserts is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Heb 11:1

When we assert week after week our faith in a God who is the creator of all there is, seen and unseen, we say we are those people who know that the story of God’s redemption is far from over. That our God, the God of the Shema Y’Israel, the Lord our God who is One God, has not only new and unimaginable things in store for us, but will increase the yield of our faithfulness thirty, sixty and one hundred fold if only. If only we will let his Word take root in the rich soil of our souls, our hearts and our minds. If only we will receive and respond to his Word.

Our God does not maintain the status quo! Jesus did not die on the cross to maintain the status quo. Jesus invites anyone – any-one without qualification, male or female, free or slave, native or resident alien – to join us because “them” who cannot hear are merely isolating themselves from that which Jesus, the Word of God, above all comes to bring them: healing. Healing from hardness of heart, souls cluttered with superfluous doctrine, and shallow assertions of certainty and self-righteousness.

Jesus concludes the missing verses with a kind of prayer or beatitude of hopefulness for the few who hear and receive what he is saying: “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears because they hear. Amen I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” Matt 13:17

We are called to be the rich soil and allow his message of grace to grow within us and beyond us. God’s Word shall accomplish that which it proposes: our healing and our growth in the kingdom! “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

My Yoke Is Easy?

3 July 2011/Pentecost 3- Zechariah 9:9-12/Matthew 11:16-19,25-30/Song of My Beloved
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Mount Calvary Episcopal Church, Baltimore

There is quite a bit missing in our Gospel selection for the day. One should always be suspicious of the editors, and in this case it does render the reading somewhat mysterious and unintelligible. Chapter 11 verses 1-15 form a critical transition in Matthew’s proclamation of the Good News. In the previous chapter he has just commissioned the 12 disciples and given them instructions to shape their ministries. Suddenly a question comes to Jesus from John the Baptizer: Are you the One?

This signals both opposition which is mounting against Jesus, and confusion among those who would be his most ardent supporters. John and his disciples are looking for a military king after the mold of say David, someone who would once and for all remove the yoke of Rome. (One has to admit this has a curious sort of resonance for us in this chapel this morning!) From his prison cell, John is not receiving any reports of Jesus mounting a revolt and questions whether this is really the messiah he was expecting and announcing.

Jesus gives a quite simple reply – tell John what you have seen and heard: “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk again, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Then, so as not to appear to be putting John in a bad light, Jesus offers extensive testimony concluding that John is the greatest of all prophets in the mold of Elijah!

Then Jesus goes to work on “this generation.” As the Jesuit scholar Brendan Byrne in his commentary on Matthew makes clear – we are to understand that in Matthew we are “this generation.” That is, we are to read, reflect and react to the narrative as addressing us directly. As Byrne puts it, we are not to go back to Jesus to discover some meaning in the past, but rather we are to go forward with Jesus here and now. Matthew addresses a church community that was in terrific turmoil and change – the very place we find ourselves today.

So as Jesus addresses us he likens us to children in the marketplace. Where do we spend more time these days? In the church community and its various ministries? Or, in the marketplace, to which we are directed by a never ending stream of invitation called advertising, which has recently taken a page from the Gospels and become more and more narrative every day. How many commercials begin with a storyline begging you to imagine, “What are they selling with this story?” To give it all more impact, the story lines are accompanied by nostalgic music.

Jesus appeals to music – the flute and wailing. The flute represents the approach of Jesus inviting all persons of all kinds to sit at the dinner table. This includes all the persons traditionally considered “unclean” and “unacceptable” to the majority of society. That might include women, those with seemingly incurable diseases, those whose social customs seem outside the norm, slaves, and so on. For his mission to include everyone Jesus is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard! Yet, his approach to “religion” is to bring people together, not set them apart from one another.

As to the wailing, or keening as it is known in some circles, this represents those people in many ancient and contemporary societies (think New Orleans) who make up a class of vocational wailers for funerals. These “wailers” serve an important function in letting the community know that there is cause for mourning – that someone within the community is suffering loss. John calls society to mourn the fact that we have lost our way, that we have gone astray from God’s way and that this is serious business. He is declared a demon for being the messenger.

Then take careful note: Jesus likens himself to Wisdom – who throughout scripture is depicted as a woman! Make of that what you will. The wisdom of his ministry, he says, will show forth in the deeds themselves. And we need John's wailing to hold our feet to the fire, and Jesus' radical hospitality to extend our love for God to others - all others.

Then another chunk of text is missing – a discussion of towns that have rejected his ministry, including his base of operations, Capernaum –saying that for those who side with the ruling majority against his ministry of inclusion, it will be a dark day indeed, worse than it was for Sodom (who paid the penalty for wicked-poor hospitality to strangers, not for sexual deviancy!).

Finally comes the metaphor of the yoke. A yoke both constrains one to a certain task or discipline, while at the same time makes the task easier by sharing the load with another. A yoke both restrains and enables, it is both burden and possibility.

Throughout Matthew, Jesus has called the disciples of his, his followers, you and me, to a higher standard than that of the Pharisees and Scribes who were the professional and accepted interpreters of God’s law, God’s Torah, God’s Way, and God’s Covenant. Their interpretation was leading to divisions within the community and against all strangers, especially resident aliens (think here of the Dream Act). Jesus ups the ante, and at the same time asserts that the more people of all kinds we let sit at the dinner table, the easier it all will be since we can then share the load among more and more people. My yoke is easy.

And since the “load,” if you will, is what God wills for all people and for all the earth, then it appears that John is right in calling society to task, and Jesus is right to let anyone – any one – sit at the table. And that this, not military might, will be the only way to escape the yoke of Rome – representing “The Empire”, which in biblical terms is Pharaoh’s Egypt where we are all slaves to the dominant culture. The irony is that the Church later became the empire.

The question for the church, which is the question for all of us: are we willing to change yokes? The irony may be that in becoming less and less a majority people within the empire we may become more and more the church community Jesus and John call us to become. Amen.