Saturday, October 29, 2011

Instructions For True and Laudable Service

30 October 2011/Proper 26A- Joshua 3:7-17, Matthew 23:1-12
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
You Have One Instructor
From our collect for today: “It is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service…” We are those people called to true and laudable service. And today we find Jesus once again giving some shape to just what that means. He says, “You have one instructor.” Guess who? Surprise! It's the Pharisees!

Jesus is usually arguing with the Pharisees. Here Jesus surprises us when he says to do what the Pharisees say and teach. Just don’t follow their example! One of the things they teach, of course, is tithing - and not just 10% of your wages, but of every little thing: crops, herds, dill, mint, mustard seeds, you name it. He also speaks of them laying heavy burdens on others without lifting a finger themselves to help those others. Jesus is into helping others. Just what might tithing and helping others have to do with each other?

Elsewhere he speaks of his burdens being light. Make no mistake about it, however, his burdens in and of themselves are heavier than anything the Pharisees ever thought of or conceived. For starters, Jesus says those who believe in him will do the things he does, “and greater things than these will you do.” John 14:12

He says we are to include all people in the life of His community, especially sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners, widows, orphans and illegal aliens, i.e., people not at all like ourselves. Oh yes, and we are to love our enemies.

We are to turn the other cheek, which, by the way, does not mean becoming a kind of “doormat” rolling over in the face of oppression. In the Roman culture of Jesus’ day, a superior could slap an inferior person in the face with the back of the hand. When one turns the cheek, however, it forces the person to slap with the palm of the hand. To slap with the palm of the hand was to acknowledge the other as an equal. To turn the other cheek is to challenge all false authority.

Therefore it was an act of defiance or civil disobedience, much like Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. That was what Jesus meant about turning the other cheek: asserting righteousness; defiantly not letting others determine your worth or value in the eyes of God.

One can easily see that Jesus calls us to a much higher, and potentially “heavier,” standard. The difference is that he not only lifts a finger to help us, but is in it with us wherever we are, even allowing himself to be lifted high upon a Roman cross to suffer capital punishment as a way of making our burdens light.

The problem of the Pharisees, which is a long time historic problem for the church, is doing things to be recognized as religious, or pious, or a good person, or a superior person, or Number One, or worst of all, The Only One. John Chrysostom in the early church put it best, “Not only does he forbid setting the heart on first place, but he requires following after the last.”

And as another wag has put it, “Many want to be pious, but few want to be humble.”

The church with its titles, its vestments, its pomp and its ceremony, all mimicking something more like the processions of Emperor Caesar or Constantine than the servant of God entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, needs to be careful.

This problem stretches way back to Joshua and then the period of Judges when the people demand that God give them a king like all the other countries. God says, “This is not a good idea.” But the people persist, they get a king, and then the troubles begin.

All because they would not trust God to raise up the leadership they would need at any given time. God must often wonder just when we might be willing to listen to him?

Today’s lessons call us to a good degree of self-evaluation and rededication to the kind of life Jesus calls us to live. One good place to look would be our catechism. Please turn to page 855 in the Book of Common Prayer and read along together:

Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.

Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church;
to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship and governance of the Church.

Q. What is the duty of all Christians?
A. The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.

Jesus calls us to be the least and to be humble. Being least and being humble does not limit our generosity, nor stop us from doing greater things than Jesus does, or living to lighten the burden of others. The Pharisees teach tithing, giving 10%. Jesus says do what they teach. Jesus gave more than 10% - he gave it all for you and for me.

As to burdens, we have a heavy load. We have been carrying a significant deficit budget since 2005. And we can anticipate a significant deficit in our budget for 2012 unless we all look into our hearts and consider what it is we can give in 2012 to fund the kind of “true and laudable service…” we pray for today. The duty of all Christians is to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.

We have a heavy load. But if we let Jesus into our lives and into our midst, we will remember that he lifts more than a finger to help us live into the kind of life he calls us to live. Amen.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Always We Begin Again

23 October 2011/Proper 25A – 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8/Matthew 22:34-46
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Mount Calvary Episcopal Church, Baltimore
As You Know
Paul’s First letter to the church in Thessalonica is the earliest of all New Testament writings – perhaps in the early 50’s of the first century.

One commentary writes, “The letter reflects the life of a congregation that was devoted to its faith and strongly aware of its separation from the society in which its members had until recently found their standards and values. At the same time it was also a community that was threatened by social pressures and at times outright persecution to turn back to the life from which they had come. Paul wrote to encourage the church, stressing that opposition is simply something to be expected.” (Oxford Annotated NRSV, p.291NT)

We have known such separation. And we have known similar social pressures. Outright persecution may be too strong a word, but opposition and conflict have surely characterized life in this place since the Parish Meeting one year ago this weekend. We can safely say that in some very real sense, Paul is writing to us.

I have always felt a particular kinship with this letter. As it begins, I could very well begin our time together on this day.

I give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in my prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

When Bishop Sutton asked me to shepherd this continuing congregation of Mount Calvary Episcopalians, we had not met. Although you no doubt saw me and heard me speak at the meeting the week before when as a member of the Standing Committee I accompanied the Bishop as he addressed the assembled congregation. I spoke of the kinship I felt for Mount Calvary, having served a church that was founded the same year (1842)by Bishop Wittingham for the same reason: to establish an Anglo-Catholic sensibility in the Diocese of Maryland as a way of enriching and diversifying this corner of God's vineyard.

I was uncertain as to what I might do, how I might serve those of you who courageously have withstood the social pressure to follow those who were choosing to abandon our communion and go to Rome. Still, separation was not and can never be easy. But you knew both who you are and whose you are - and knowing that you sought sacramental and pastoral care.

It is, for me, quite fitting that for our last Sunday together in this chapel as this congregation, that this portion of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians is the appointed reading. From the very first days of my ordained ministry I have held the vision of ministry Paul describes as that for which I would always strive - "As you know, and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us." I Thess 2:5-8

When asked to describe my ministry, this is always the scripture I have in mind. You have given me the gift of serving you as Paul suggests, gently, with no pretext, tenderly, determined to proclaim the Gospel of God in Christ, but also to offer you my own self. These past months together have been a gift to me. Your perseverance has both inspired me and brought me closer to God, closer to others and closer to my true self.

I have also come to appreciate more fully those who share this building with us. Despite what can be described as an awkward situation, the hospitality and courtesy extended to me has been genuine. As I have tried to represent Christ and this diocese in this place, I have felt accepted by nearly all those who worship here. I cannot begin to understand the journey upon which they have embarked, but as I have learned from the Hindus, there are many paths that lead to the summit - all streams lead to the sea. Perhaps one day the meaning of this difficult separation will become clear to us. In the meantime, we have had each other, and more importantly we have had Christ Jesus by our side every step of the way.

Believe me when I say, I do not want to leave any more than you do. I will miss each one of you more than I can express. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have served you this past year, and to hold you in my prayers every day.

As Paul writes in that very first document of Christian witness. "Now may God our Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way...and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all persons, as we do to you, so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints." I Thess 3:11-13

I frequently turn to a little book - a reinterpretation of that cornerstone of Anglican Spiritual Formation, the Rule of Saint Benedict - called Always We Begin Again (John McQuiston II, Morehouse Publishing, New York:1996,2011). Benedict, like many spiritual leaders throughout the history of mankind, recognized that each day, each moment of each day, is an opportunity to begin anew. This book has sustained me, and I hope it will sustain you as you move forward with Christ into a new chapter in your Journey with Jesus. Each time you open it, let it speak to you. Each time you open it, know that I will continue to hold you in my prayers. Each time you open it may it bring you closer to God, closer to others, and closer to yourself. As you know, and as God is my witness, you are God's beloved. God is well pleased with you and will continue to guide you every step of the way. Amen.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Everything Sad Will Come Untrue

9 October 2011/Proper 23A - Philippians 4: 1-9/Matthew 22:1-14
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Mt. Calvary Episcopal Church, Baltimore
Are We Ready To Choose
The gospel for today begs allegory and analogy leading inevitably to dividing people into groups of good and bad. It is an invitation to play the Blame Game. Coupled with our innate curiosity, like Pandora, we cannot help but want to know just who is going to be bound hand and foot and cast into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth! I suspect that as we hear this read, we all have candidates that leap to mind. It is the rare person who may reflect on why he or she might be that unlucky soul whose only sin appears to be not making the acceptable fashion statement for the occasion.

No matter how one parses this particular parable in Matthew, the results are baffling at best. Particularly in light of fact that at the end of the day it simply means to express how passionately our God wants us to come to his banquet - how passionately our God wants us to come home - how passionately our God loves us - all of us - all of the time. Many are called, says our Lord, but few are chosen. What remains mysteriously hidden and unsaid here is that it is we who do the choosing. Few choose to return to God, too busy are they wasting time on inconsequential disputes over what is right and what is wrong.

Which message is also at the heart of Paul's correspondence with the Christ followers in Philippi. He returns to the theme with which he began: there is no time for bickering, and no time to contemplate retribution against those who imprison me and those who hate us. There is simply no time for anything but the Love of God in Christ Jesus crucified and raised from the dead.

So please, get these two magnificent women, women who have struggled with me to proclaim the good news, get them back together again. Once you reconcile them you can rejoice! "And again I will say, Rejoice! The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. Then you can get on with the business at hand: spreading the Good News of Christ Crucified and raised from the dead."

Paul is in prison and he believes this is the only way to be: joyful in the Lord. Be joyful in the Lord all you lands! Jubilate Deo! "And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus....Keep doing the things that you have learned and received....and the God of Peace will be with you."

Just what "things" have the Philippians learned? When Paul left Macedonia he issued an invitation to the churches he knew to enter into partnership with him - a partnership of money and ministry. It was to be a partnership of giving and receiving. It is in giving with Christ that we receive, it is in dying with Christ that we live. Christ who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, emptied himself, and invites us to do the same. Of all the churches with which Paul was associated - Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica, Colossae, Galatia, Ephesus, and Philippi - it was only the Philippians who responded to his invitation. It was only the Philippians who sent Paul help, sending one of their own, Epaphroditus, who nearly died in serving Paul in prison.

Paul is the first pastoral counselor. He reminds the Philippians that they know what do to and how to do it. He has personally benefitted from their faithfulness in Christ Jesus. They have sacrificed money and gifts and nearly one of their own to further the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ - that God is at home and it is we who need to return to his banquet hall, fully prepared to do the work God calls us to do in Christ Jesus.

Paul's gift to us is the realization that the Church of Jesus Christ goes way beyond any single person or congregation. It is a vast network of congregations and peoples working together, sacrificing for one another, supporting one another.

But it is we who want to be left alone by the God who has made the most inconvenient men and women our neighbors - and instructed us to love them as much as we love God and love ourselves!

Against this backdrop, writes Paul, there is simply no time for division and argument. And there is no way to go it alone. Stop the dissension and disagreement right now. Disengage from worldly concerns and engage yourselves in God's work - "And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches."

In J.R.R. Tolkien's final book of the Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee, an uncommonly courageous little Hobbit, wakes up after the climactic battle. Thinking everything is lost, he discovers all his friends are around him. He cries out to Gandalf the great wizard, "I thought you were dead. But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?"

Is everything sad going to come untrue? And for those of us who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God's answer is a resounding, "Yes!"

Many are called, says our Lord Jesus, but few are chosen. It is we who do the choosing. Are we ready to choose? Are we ready to choose to keep doing the things that we have learned and received? Are we ready to move on and leave controversy behind us?

For if we are, the God of Peace shall be with us wherever we are, wherever we go. And everything sad will come untrue. Because our God passionately wants us to come to his banquet. And our God passionately wants us to come home. And our God will passionately supply every need, including finding us a new home in Christ Jesus. Our God will make sure that everything sad will come untrue.

So it is that even from a prison cell, Saint Paul and urge us to Rejoice!
And again I will say, Rejoice!
The Lord is near.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus every step of the way!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Other Tenants

2 October 2011/Proper 22A – Exodus 20:1-20/Philippians 3:4b-14/Matthew 21:33-46
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, MD
Do Not Let God Speak To Us!
This is what the people say to Moses after delivery of the 10 Commandments. It is pretty much what the chief priests and Pharisees are saying to one another after Jesus announces that the vineyard of the Lord will be let out to “other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Do not let God speak to us. After which we say, “The word of the Lord,” “Thanks be to God.”

It gets kind of familiar, our response to this stuff. Almost glib. “Thanks be to God.” Are we all that thankful to hear this parable? To be reminded that we are to have no idols, that we are not to covet, that we are to give God the produce at the harvest time. After all, we are the “other tenants.” Just how eager are we to give God “the produce at the harvest”? In the matter of six or seven weeks we will find out.

In the meantime, there is Paul who continues to describe for us, week after week, what it means to be a tenant in God’s vineyard. And as George Harrison put it so well, “You know it don’t come easy!” (It Don’t Come Easy)

Paul writes to the Philippians as a prisoner of Rome, his previous employer, as he points out, while he was still a “persecutor of the church.” He is a prisoner because of his complete turn-around as an apostle of Jesus Christ – that is, one who is sent to spread the Good News – which would be, or to wit, that even one who was as far gone as Paul, one who stood by and watched as other Christ followers were stoned and otherwise put to death at his command, even Paul discovered that he was loved by God despite all that he was and all that he had done.

Now for those of us who, as one observer has put it, want our spiritual journey to more closely resemble a trip to the corner store than an epic journey or a lifetime spent in and out of jail on account of our zeal for Jesus, this all comes as a bit of a shock. Becoming a Christ follower like Paul comes at great expense – and yet Paul makes it abundantly clear, it is all more than worth it once we are able to put all the covetousness and idolatry behind us, just as God had asked us to do all the way back at the very beginning of our story (Exodus 20).

Philippians is perhaps the most sublime of all Christian texts, and one with which we are perhaps the least familiar. Last week it included what many consider the oldest Christian Hymn:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ
Who, though he was in the form of God
Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped
But emptied himself
Taking the form of a servant
Being born in human likeness
And being found in human form
He humbled himself and became obedient unto death
Even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

As always, I find myself intrigued by what is not in our portion for today – for after giving us deep insight into the mind of Christ in chapter 2, the very next verse after our portion begins, “Let those of us who are mature be of the same mind…” (Philippians 3:15a) What falls in between, the balance of chapters 2 and 3, are some examples of what it means to have the mind of Christ, and a constant refrain, “ Rejoice with me(2:18)…Rejoice in the Lord(3:1)…Rejoice in the Lord, always; and again I say, Rejoice!(4:4)” Strange imperative from one who is imprisoned, is it not?

So we have God’s ten principles we are to obey. We have the example of God in Christ humbly being obedient. We have Paul humbled, blinded, brought to his knees to learn just what being obedient really looks like. In the missing verses (2:25-30) there is an example of just how the Philippians have embodied the Good News by sending one of their own to be with Paul in prison, Epaphroditus, to bring Paul nourishment and companionship. If someone did not visit you in Roman prisons, even under house arrest, little was provided for you by the Romans themselves. Evidently Epaphroditus became ill and nearly died serving Paul. So Paul, once Epaphroditus is feeling well enough to travel, sends him back to Philippi, perhaps to carry this letter, and the news that Paul was still alive, well, filled with joy and purpose!

The takeaway from all of this: Christ Followers live for others because an Other lived and died for us. But it gets better – Paul writes, “For his [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him….I want to know Christ and the power of his Resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in death, if somehow I may attain the Resurrection of the dead…I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ.” Rubbish! How much are we willing to consign to rubbish!

At the heart of Paul’s appeal is letting go of everything – emptying himself, resulting in a sense of hope and joy that cannot be equaled. Evidently adopting the humility of Christ results in a joy and hope more abundant than all our idols and covetousness can promise.

So here we are – the “other tenants” of God’s vineyard. The Philippians heard God’s word and life changed completely. The contrast is clear: Rejoice like Paul, or shout out, “Do not let God speak to us!” when we hear the expectations for life lived with God.

The harvest time is upon us. Have we become those “other tenants” who give God the produce?
Or are we still like the old tenants keeping it all for ourselves? Only time will tell. Amen.