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Monday, January 31, 2011

How, Then, Shall We Answer?

Epiphany 4, Yr. A
Micah 6:1-8
1 Cor. 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

We live with two cats, Streak and Noel. They're both quite wonderful—affectionate and engaging—but whereas Noel is fairly well-behaved, Streak gets into a lot of trouble. When we find pieces of trash strewn about, it's "Streak, what did you get into?" When a bagel is suddenly missing from the toaster or a sandwich is on the floor, it's "Streak, why can't you stay out of what you aren't supposed to be into?" When we hear a crash or a bang, it's "Streak, what have you done now?" And as he—well, streaks—out the door to where he does not belong, it's "Streak, not again!"

I don't know why we bother talking to him, because when we look to him for a response, he proceeds to wash himself obliviously or to rub lovingly against our legs; occasionally, he bounds away from the scene of the crime, casually distancing himself and leaving the dog to take the blame. But we always know that before long, he'll be back to his old tricks, his basic nature getting him into trouble again. I can't really blame him, because that's just who he is, and he can't be any other way.

In today's reading from Micah, we hear that the Lord has a controversy with his people, and I there’s some of the same mix of frustration and irritation and even despair that I use with Streak, or that any of us use with someone who's wearing us out. "Oh my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!"

In response, we stand before God and we act as if nothing has happened and we're just minding our own business, or we try cozying up to God, being especially charming for a while, or we run away and leave someone else to take the blame. But I'm sure God knows that before long we'll be back to our old tricks, our independent nature getting us into trouble again. Yet God keeps hoping, because although that's how humans are, we—unlike cats—can be another way.

That "being another way" is the response God is waiting for when pleading again and again, "Answer me!" God doesn't want our excuses; God doesn't want us to explain where we think God has gone wrong; God doesn't want our fleeting apologies and momentary love. God longs for us to be transformed, to change—or allow to be changed—our hearts, and from that to change our actions. Our basic nature may be to get into trouble, to act as if our human desires are the paramount rule, but our potential to choose change and the hope that we'll use that freedom is what keeps God crying to each generation, "Answer me!"

How, then, shall we answer? Paul's words to the Corinthians make clear that the kind of response God is looking for isn't the same as what the world would suggest. Our concern shouldn't be with redoubling our efforts to appear wise, or powerful, or pious, or wealthy. Success in achieving those goals isn't the answer God wants, because those categories are all self-centered; they're all boasts based upon saying, "Hey, God! Hey, world! Look how good I am now!"…and it's just that sort of self-focus that's gotten us into trouble again and again.

How, then, shall we answer? What does the Lord require of us? Micah puts it as well as anyone ever has: "To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." Boy, that sounds simple…and it is so darn hard! This is the answer God wants from us, for us to undergo a change of heart, releasing the world's concern with power and wisdom and status, and re-orienting ourselves to God and God's priorities.

Our conversion begins as we learn to walk humbly with God. That means not only accepting the possibility of being weak and foolish and despised by the world, but in fact celebrating that our most inept and helpless moments may be exactly the ones when God is most able to work in and through us. It's right there: "We proclaim Christ crucified…" At the heart of the Good News is God restoring creation in the midst of derision, shame, ridicule, and helplessness…not despite those circumstances, but through them. The power of God is completely revealed when all human power has been cast aside.

We begin our answer by saying to God, "I don't know a thing about what it really means to walk with you, but here. I. am.," and then trusting that somehow, as that encounter with God is repeated again and again, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, God will transform us, God will begin to draw a faithful response from us. It's a process that, above all, requires us to be with God—not pretending we don't care, nor trying to appear exceptionally devoted, nor slinking away from our sin and hoping someone else will face the consequences—just being with God.

After a while, our answer acquires depth, because when we're walking humbly with God, when our hearts are being changed, our actions will follow. Remember, the goal isn’t being smart or powerful or wealthy; those are the world's indicators of success, but not God's. If they happen, fine, but they aren't the scale we're called to use. When we're being converted from the self-centeredness that causes us to allow injustice and unkindness, when our heart and soul are finding release from the world's measures, then we're more able to answer as God desires, by doing justice and loving kindness.

That probably sounds moderately reasonable when we're sitting here on a Sunday, supported by one another, surrounded by the signs and sacraments of our faith, focusing on God. But Monday morning, when we get up and embrace the day, it may seem a lot crazier, a lot more foolish, and maybe a lot more impossible. Then—in the face of everything and everyone telling us to do otherwise—we need to return again to that humility, to continue saying to God, "Here I am," and trusting that God will guide us in being peacemakers and showing mercy, will give us a hunger and thirst for righteousness, will help us bear the laughter and derision that comes with going against the tide. In everyday language, that means sitting with a friend who's hurting, or introducing ourselves to a person who makes us uncomfortable, or not laughing at a joke that demeans someone else, or sticking our neck out to come to the defense of others when they're oppressed or abused. We're called to be a blessing to those who are in need of God's love. And we're called to do this without counting whether it will make us more popular or more powerful.

It's not easy to change, to be transformed, but it's possible; that potential, that freedom, is one of God's greatest gifts to us. We can choose to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. But conversion is a process, with some turns in the right direction and others down the wrong path. And so each day God cries out to us again, "Answer me!" How, then, shall we answer?

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Support Your Local Sailor

Henry Carnevale, that is! Henry shipped out for Navy basic training in mid-December, and he's now able to receive mail. If you'd like to write to him--and we know he'd love to hear from his Saint Mark's family--here's his address:

SR Carnevale, Henry M.
Ship 09, Div. 076
Recruit Training Command
3451 Sailor Drive
Great Lakes, IL 60088-3515

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Spirit of Wisdom

Christmas 2, Yr. A
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Luke 2:41-521/2/11
Baptism of Joanna Mary Bradforth

I love today’s gospel! As the mother of a teen and a 12 year old, and still having some memory of being a teen myself, I find it to be a story to which I can totally relate. The Bible is filled with tales of people who are very, very good and those who are horrid, but this one is simply about Jesus and his parents being absolutely normal. The verging-on-adolescent Jesus impulsively decides to stay in Jerusalem to hang out at the temple, ignoring the fact his parents are leaving town, not bothering—in those pre-cellphone days—to let them know where he is, and utterly oblivious to the anguish and inconvenience he’s caused them. You can practically hear his dismissive, irritated tone of voice when they finally track him down and he says, “Well, duh…didn’t you know I’d be here?” One can imagine the conversation with Joseph that ensued on the trip home: “You may be the Son of God, but as long as you’re living in my house, you’ll follow my rules!”

The fact is, Jesus may have been wise, but he wasn’t all that smart when it came to dealing with his parents, not at this age, the one growing-up story we have about him, and it’s worth noting the difference. Smart is knowing how to get what you want or how to solve a problem. Smart is having lots of facts in your head. Smart is recognizing relationships. But wisdom is something else, something bigger and deeper. Wisdom is knowing what’s worth getting, or comprehending what lies behind a problem. Wisdom is understanding why the facts are important or not. Wisdom is perceiving the value in relationships. C3PO is smart; Yoda is wise. Smart can be used for good or evil; wisdom can only be put to good. Most of all, Star Wars aside, smart is a human trait, but true wisdom is a gift from God.

We can hope and presume that Jesus got smarter as he grew; we know from this reading that he increased in wisdom as the years went by. More and more, his life reflected an awareness and understanding of, and responsiveness to, the Spirit of God, which is, in one line of interpretation, the definition of wisdom. We’re called by God into a covenant, and wisdom is the gift of faithfully living out that relationship. In Jesus, Wisdom—understood in personal terms in some of the Hebrew scriptures—appears, fully and perfectly. What that means for us is that when we’re following Jesus, we’re living in wisdom, living with “the eyes of our heart enlightened” as the letter to the Ephesians puts it, embracing the whole of the good God intends for us. That’s one heck of a lot more than being smart!

Emma and Gwen, I have a special charge for you today, something for you to do. It applies to your parents and Joanna’s godparents and everyone here, but most of all to you. Joanna is going to grow up watching you, learning from you, wanting to be like you, because you’re her big sisters. I know this, because I have two older sisters. Teach her well. By all means, show her what it means to be smart, to know how the world around her works, and how to make friends, and how to do things from kicking a soccer ball to baking cookies to picking a good book. But even more importantly, guide her in growing in wisdom. Help her understand what really matters in life, and what it means to be and act like a beloved child of God. You don’t have to understand this completely yourself, nor do you have to be perfect at doing it; just keep her company as you all grow into being the people God has created you to be, and encourage her to keep learning, and help her find her way again when she’s confused. That’s a big job, an important one…just do your best, and that’ll be plenty good enough.

The second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, ends with a prayer that sums up God’s desire for Joanna and for all of us, on this occasion of her baptism and as a new year begins: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” And all God’s people say, “Amen!”

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