Monday, February 28, 2011

Daily Office Reflection: Forgiveness

Psalms 1, 2, 3 * 4, 7; Deuteronomy 4:9-14; 2Cor 10:1-18; Matthew 6:7-15

We have Matthew's rendition of The Lord's Prayer in today's Daily Office Gospel reading. Forgiveness plays a key role in our praying to God: as preparation for that prayer and as a component of the prayer. This forgiveness is for those who have wronged us, and our asking God for forgiveness for our missteps. I am struck by how hard it is for us, as humans, to forgive, to let go of those feelings of anger, betrayal and the resulting behavior we may exhibit toward (and about) those people for whom we have these hard feelings. We can see the detritus on the side of the road-of-life all around us caused by those very human, and very real, feelings.

Jesus was fully human, and somehow, miraculously, fully divine, fully God-in-human-form. Being fully human, he had to have those same emotions creep up on him and try to overtake his actions and thoughts. He found a way around this human tendency of ours to dwell in anger and resentment.

I had lunch with a priest friend of mine recently where we talked about anger and forgiveness. He said that he thought about anger as something we have to physically travel through, like Moses leading the fledgling (well, yet to be established) nation of Israel through the Red Sea. They had to walk through that sea-bed, with the raging waters on each side of them, to reach the other bank of safety and peace. And they did reach that point, they did travel through to the other side. This is an apt metaphor for anger, as it is an emotion that we cannot ignore, or just toss aside as if it does not exist. We need to travel through it, knowing that we can reach the other side where the gift of forgiveness is waiting on the banks of the shore.

The gift of forgiveness is as much for us as it is for those who have trespassed against us. For we can be consumed by those passions and thoughts emanating from our feelings of betrayal, and completely lose our way. I am sure Jesus knows those emotions and passions, but also knows the Godly gift of forgiveness is always possible once we recognize those emotions as just that, emotions to get through, and not something to allow to have control over us.

What river-bed of emotion do we still have to get through to allow us to find that place of peace and reflection that allows for our forgiving nature to blossom? We can, and we must, find our way to that far shore and not let those tempestuous waves surrounding us, overwhelm our progress toward the Kingdom.

Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer, All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Eighth Sunday after Epiphany

Preached @ St. Mary Magdalene, Wheaton, MD. 2/27/11 Matthew 6:24-34


e are gifted a Gospel reading we do not get to hear very often. Today is the 8th Sunday after the Epiphany: a long Epiphany season, as Easter comes just about as late as it can come in our church calendar. Today’s readings, as well as the Collect, are good stewardship readings (you finance people and treasurers take note for your stewardship drives later this year), as they talk about wealth and worry, and being good stewards, as well as setting our priorities correctly.

Today’s Gospel reading is a rather challenging one, in particular given the harsh economic times in which we currently live. For those who are unemployed, how can worry not be a part of life’s daily routine? Worry about food, and clothing. Worry about paying the rent or mortgage, as well as all the other bills that pile up. There is a seeming incongruity between the Gospel’s beginning about serving wealth and the second part with Jesus telling us to cast off worry and focus on today, not tomorrow. This is challenging stuff to wind our way through.

We need to look closely at today’s Gospel in order to not miss the nuances of Jesus’ message to us. Our translation has Jesus saying “No one can serve two masters.” This translation does not do the original Greek justice. We can only imagine that the intent of the translators was to soften the harsh and embarrassing memories of slavery throughout history, as the Greek is more appropriately translated as “No one can be a slave to two owners.” Listen to the difference: “No one can serve two masters” and “No one can be a slave to two owners.” I won’t bore you with the parsing of the Greek words, but the stronger of the two statements reflect Jesus’ message better…..because slaves had no rights while someone who “serves” gentles the notion, and owners provide a stronger inference to having absolute authority over others, than does the word master. This distinction is important because Jesus than goes on to say “You cannot serve God and wealth,” and these two statements are closely linked.

The Greek word translated wealth here is mamon. Originally, mamon was a word meaning wealth and possessions. Over time, and when this Gospel account was written, mamon had grown to be a slur. Mamon was used to describe people who put their trust in material things. In essence the slur meant that people who had this word mamon associated with them, were tagged with the label of putting their trust in possessions over their trust in God, owned by possessions as opposed to owned by God. Another translation of “You cannot serve God and wealth” could be “You cannot trust God and trust wealth.” And that leads into Jesus exposition on worry. All these verses are closely tied together.

Some may believe Jesus is attacking people who are wealthy, who have numerous possessions. Jesus is not doing this as he is ridiculing the worship of wealth and possessions. The possession of wealth does not automatically make us sinful. The sin comes from not being responsible with the utilization of those possessions and that wealth. With wealth comes responsibilities Jesus is saying, including not allowing that wealth to control us, and just as importantly, not allowing those possessions, and that wealth, to usurp the rightful place that is God’s.

Jesus goes on to talk about worry and trust. He uses the word “worry” six times in the course of eight verses. By all of the examples that Jesus uses concerning what not to worry about, the carefree nature of birds, the beauty of the lilies in the field, Jesus is saying that by worrying we are not trusting God, and are placing our energy and focus on the wrong thing. Think about how disabling worry can be to us: like possessions and wealth can control us, so can worry and anxiety.

The prolific writer, retreat leader and Episcopal priest from the Diocese of New York, The Rev. Barbara Crafton has written “ Of course, we cannot escape pain in our lives. People may or may not love you, but God certainly loves you, but none of that has anything to do with whether you are hurting. One’s own well-being is a poor barometer of God’s loving presence in our lives. It is precisely when life hurts that we need God most, not as the perpetrator of our suffering, but as a companion of it.”

I visited an elderly parishioner who was in the hospice area of a nursing home. Being in the hospice unit was a clear indication that he was soon going to be leaving this world and enter God’s loving embrace. His family was around him and they were not only sad but markedly worried. He, in contrast, was content. Although his body was failing him, his mind was as sharp as any person I have met. As I approached his bedside, with the oil for last rights in my hand, he smiled at me and told me that he was not worried. He said he had been blessed with a full life, a loving family and that he knew God’s love for him was secure. He then motioned me to come closer so his family couldn’t hear what he was about to say. I leaned over and he said, “this anointing you are about to do is to calm their worries, not mine. Please take care of them after you are done with me here.” What a wonderful model for us to mimic and a particularly poignant and strong message for the anxious family surrounding that dying man: all highlighting the message of today’s Gospel.

We are challenged today to search for and live into this place where worry and anxiety are held at bay. We are challenged to think of the wealth and possessions we have as blessings from God and tools to be utilized for the furtherance of the Kingdom Jesus is announcing. If we are able to find that calm place we will be avoiding the trap we are warned about in our Collect: not falling into faithless fears and worldly anxieties.

Not worrying, not being anxious, trusting that God will be with us through the harsh changes and chances of this life is not easy. Nevertheless this is where Jesus is directing us: to a different perspective on life. On being focused on today, the world around us, and giving our best efforts to live into the kingdom he is creating. Not ignoring our future and the concerns about life, but putting trust in the knowledge that God is travelling this challenging life with us. Although we may not get all we desire, and more than likely we will not walk this journey pain-free, we can walk courageously into whatever faces us based on our faith that we are not alone and that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginings. Life will almost certainly be different than how we planned it, but that does not mean we should not trust and have faith that we are better off because of those differences.


Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Preached @ Grace Church, Georgetown, 2/20/11 Matthew 5:38-48


e began our service today with a Collect praying that God pour into our hearts the greatest of gifts: love. We define love in that prayer by saying love is the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which we are the living dead. This is how we began our Eucharistic Service today, asking for the gift of love to be imbued into ourselves, so that all we are, and all we do emanates from that place of love. We then follow that prayer up with readings that surround us with rules and obligations that, when they were promulgated, were meant to offer us a way to live into this prayer with which we began our service.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, we are provided with five examples of how we are to act in love as followers of Jesus. We are not to resist or to retaliate when someone hurts us. We are not to fight people in courts over property. If we are called upon to do a duty that seems unworthy or unfair, we are to do even more than demanded or asked. We are to give to everyone who asks us. If someone wants to borrow something we are to give it over willingly, no matter whom that person might be. How are we doing acting on these demands by Jesus? If our fulfilling these examples by Jesus is one of the yardsticks by which we are all going to be measured as Christians, most of us are going to fall short.

The rules set forth by Jesus are compounded by the last line of the Gospel. In fact, we may become befuddled when we consider Jesus’ demand that we “Be perfect.” The way this Gospel ends begs us to ask the question, Is this realistic? Are we setting ourselves up for failure by understanding these teachings of Jesus as the way to being full members of the Body of Christ? This can certainly lead us to a place of frustration where we throw our hands up in the air and say: impossible! We cannot be like this!

What does it mean to “be perfect”? This is not some theoretical, philosophical or abstract talking point or question. Matthew is using a word here that has roots back to a Hebrew word, “tamin”, which is not theoretical. Instead of “perfect” a more apt translation is “wholeheartedness”. When we translate Jesus as saying “be perfect”, what he is telling us is that the life-style we are to follow, must be done with a wholehearted approach. So, to “be perfect” for Jesus, here in Matthew, we are being directed to being “all in”; with a wholeness of our being Jesus is pushing us to refocus our world-view….. and to love. Love the evildoer, the one who is violent to us, who persecutes us, everyone we meet.

How do we define love…… There are four different words used in Greek that encompass a rich and more nuanced understanding of this word we use broadly as the one word love. There is storge’ which is a familial-type of love: the love a parent has for a child. Another Greek word for love is eros, which is a passionate and sexual love. There is philio, which is a bit more complicated to explain. Philio encompasses the idea of a deep and affectionate love: like that which we have for our best and dearest friend. And finally, there is the Greek word agape, that is of course the hardest and most nuanced of these words for love to try and define: and is the one used by Jesus today.

Agape has a complex set of ideas that surround the word. Some may be familiar with this word because of the Agape Meal many parishes celebrate on Maundy Thursday, following that service and before the stripping of the altar to ready the space for Good Friday. The theologian William Barclay defines agape as an “unconquerable benevolence, an invincible goodwill.” The sense behind this word agape is that the mind, and not the heart, is what rules the interactions with people. This agape, this love, Jesus is talking about is what is to govern all of our personal relationships outside those that fall into storge, eros and philio. (familial, sexual, friendship]

What Jesus is saying is that no matter how nasty people may be to us, how intolerant of us they may be, no matter what they do to us or how we are treated, we are not to operate from a place of bitterness or anger. We are not to let any other emotion enter our hearts or minds than wishing the best for them: being invincibly benevolent in our desire to reach for the highest good for ourselves and for those who abuse us…..Well, that understanding makes this passage from Matthew much easier for us to follow.

Think about our Collect for today where we are asking God to pour this gift of love (this agape) into our hearts, for without it, whatever we do is worth nothing. Jesus is asking us to center our understanding of how to operate in this world on embodying this concept of agape, of benevolent goodwill for everyone…..everyone we meet. And our Collect helps us pray to be given God’s grace to live into this different way of being in the world.

Douglas Hare, a commentator and theologian, says “we are to communicate the reality of God to the world by reflecting God’s all-inclusive love” is all that we do. Jesus says today that God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous, that the sun rises on the good and the bad. That love God has is for all, and must shine forth from us….for how else, Jesus says, will the world change unless we model this “new” (2000 year old) paradigm?

When we use the word “love”, we should always be clear about what we intend: storge’, eros, philio or agape. The first three have their place in our personal lives: family, lover, friends. Having a heart filled with agape, this unfaltering benevolence and desire for the well being of everyone we meet, is the nuanced understanding of love that Jesus is driving us toward and that we pray to receive in our Collect…..Being perfect in our love for our neighbor. Wholeheartedly embracing this unquenchably benevolent goodwill that will shock us, and shock those around us, into seeing Christ’s Kingdom coming to fruition among us, right here, right now.

Those five examples Jesus uses of how to live a Christian life violate all our base instincts and cannot be made to appear to be reasonable. They are polar opposite to what we consider common sense….But that is the point….Jesus is readying us for the ultimate thing that defies common sense and defies all logic….the Passion. Jesus’ persecution, murder, resurrection and ascension are proof that God defies common sense and logic. We are challenged today by Jesus to look clearly at our lives, how we interact in the world and to live in that world by being centered in agape: centered in a place of unconquerable benevolent goodwill. By the grace of God, may we find a way to that place of love.


Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Daily Office Reflection: You Are Quite Wrong

Psalms 105:1-22 * 105:23-45; Isaiah 65:1-12; 1 Timothy 4:1-16; Mark:12:13-27

There is an acquaintance of mine who has a particular way of operating in the world, a way that at one time in my life I admired. This individual has a cockiness, a surety about opinions and events that seems to give weight to those ideas and opinions. It is something more than confidence that exudes from this person.

I wonder if Jesus felt those same waves of uber-confidence being pushed at him from the Pharisees and Sadducees that come testing him today in Mark's Gospel. They come at Jesus with a sureness of their understanding of how the world works, a confidence in their own knowledge and experiences, that they shut out the ability to see and be open to a different perspective.

One of the things we are taught in seminary when preparing to work on a sermon is to look at the Scripture readings for that day through different lenses. To try to appreciate and understand these known stories from an angle which makes us uncomfortable. By being so completely certain of our "rightness", by being set in our ways so securely, we are setting ourselves up to having Jesus look at us and say "you are quite wrong."

Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Daily Office Reflection: Keeping On

Psalms: 101, 109:1-4(5-19)20-30 * 119:121-144; Isaiah 63:15-64:4; 1 Timothy 3:1-16; Mark 11:27-12:12

We have a complicated reading from Mark today: long and filled with nuggets to examine. There seems to be a thread that ties this complex selection together that is both inspiring and troubling. Jesus returns to the temple in Jerusalem today, after having recently chased out the money-changers and those who created a market atmosphere in that sacred space, and he is challenged by the elders of that place: who are obviously upset with him bringing change to the traditions and customs that had settled in over time. He challenges them right back and then tells a parable about ungrateful and self-involved individuals who ignore the workings of God around them, and ends by saying that the dismissed thing becomes that upon which an unimaginably grand thing is built....being God's marvelous work.

Throughout these verses there is a persistence that resonates: God does not give up. We may be, and are, and will be, challenged to examine what we are doing. We may, and will, and are getting "it" wrong on occasion. But we also, at times, get "it" right too. Just as God keeps knocking at the hard-headed doors of our conscience and hearts, so we should never be discouraged enough to give up. We pick up the pieces at those times when things fall apart, and start again, knowing that this love that God is surrounding us with will help us to keep on keeping on.

Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Daily Office Reflection: A Different Kind of Entitlement

Psalms 88 * 91, 92; Isaiah 61:1-9; 2 Timothy 3:1-17; Mark 10:32-45

We have all met people who walk around with an obvious attitude of entitlement. Their demeanor is something along the lines of: I deserve this, get it for me. This is a question about expectations and attitude.

Jesus tells the apostles for the third time today about his approaching Passion, and James and John take the opportunity to ask for special treatment once Jesus "comes into his glory." The other disciples get pissed-off at the brothers and Jesus than proceeds to sum up the entirety of the Gospel of Mark when he makes his thesis statement: whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

We see Jesus pointing us to a different understanding of how we operate in the world. He is telling us to adopt a different attitude than the one that we see all around us. But how do we begin to adopt this kind of approach to life? There are some very simple things we can do that will not only change our interaction with the world, but the life and attitude of those we meet on the way. Thank the waiter and the bus-person at a restaurant for their service (smile and say thanks every time your water glass is filled). Smile and say hi to the bus-driver or the crossing guard or the check-out person at the store you wander into, no matter what their attitude or demeanor may be. Volunteer your time at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter, smiling and greeting those who are forgotten. Knock on an elderly neighbor's door and say hello, offering to pick something up at the store for them.

Simple things can change us, and those we interact with on a daily basis.

Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Daly Office Reflection: Receiving The Kingdom

Psalms 119:97-120 * 81, 82; Isaiah 59:15b-21; 2 Timothy 1:15-2:13; Mark 10:1-16

Mark has Jesus say to the disciples, who were trying to prevent him from being bothered by people bringing their little children to him for a blessing, Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

Children can sometimes be little devils, exploring their boundaries of appropriate behavior. Jesus is not talking about those moments of a child's development. Jesus is talking about the wonder, excitement, joy, captivated involvement, that a developing child can exhibit when captured by something new and enticing. Many of us have had a similar experience as adults when we recapture our faith....finding a community in which we can worship after years of wandering....There is an innocent freshness to which Jesus is referring when he looks at these little children....a scent of unspoiled delight.

One of the things we are challenged with in today's Gospel reading is to think about those moments in our life where we have been dumbstruck by that innocent freshness of God's love for us, and wonder how we can bottle it.....share it with those who need to have that experience.... and uncork that bottle when we need to smell that scent of newness again.

Copyright 2011. The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Daily Office Reflection: Salty

Psalms 78:1-39 * 78:40-72; Isaiah 59:1-15a; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Mark 9:42-50

If today's Gospel selection doesn't prove the point about Jesus talking metaphorically with an intention that we not take his words literally, I don't know what passage would. Otherwise there wouldn't be enough millstones to tie around an eyeless, footless, handless world. Jesus says quite clearly that we are not to get in the way of people who are on the journey to God's kingdom, no matter what their age. Many interpret "little ones" as children, but scholars disagree if Jesus was referring only to children, or to those who are infants in their spiritual growth, no matter their age. I prefer the latter.

Now this might lead us to believe that we must be bland and unseasoned, to fit in and not stand out in order not to get in the way of others. Jesus takes care of that misunderstanding by saying that we must be salty, seasoned, personally involved...Salt is an amazing flavor-enhancer. This seasoning can take something that seems bland and grab and bring to the forefront the nuances of its essence. Salt can also overwhelm the product we are seeking to enhance and so must be used thoughtfully. This is kind-of-like being introspective on a walk to the beach at dusk, while at the same time being engaged in a deep conversation with a dear friend or loved one. Striking that correct balance needs thought and care....a real engagement with what we are doing and who we are.

Where in our lives today can we thoughtfully bring forth our own salty-being to enhance the nuances of life, enhancing the essence of the kingdom we, and others, have yet to experience?

Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Daily Office Reflection: Differences and Exclusivity

Psalm 80 * 77 (79); Isaiah 58:1-12; Galatians 6:11-18; Mark 9:30-41

Even back then, when Jesus was among the folks he hand-picked to be his apostles, they couldn't agree and they argued, and they wanted to exclude people who weren't like them, who weren't part of the club. How are we supposed to do any better?

Today's reading from Mark has the band of Jesus traipsing through Galilee and on to Capernaum. Jesus is trying to teach them yet again about the upcoming Passion, death and resurrection he is heading toward, and they don't get it. He hears them arguing while they are walking and asks them when they reach their destination what that was about, and they don't want to tell him. He knows though, and tells them to be like a child, to welcome a child and care for children. Then the beloved John tells Jesus about this outsider curing people in Jesus' name and how they tried to stop him because he wasn't one of them. Jesus says Don't do that, let those who act in my name, act.

The apostles and the other followers of Jesus were a special club....they knew that and wanted to protect that status. They also argued inside that special club about who was better. This is part of our human nature, our individual (and at times group-think) desire to be special, set apart, important. And to be able to decide who is in, and who isn't.

Part of the challenge of today's Gospel reading is to ask ourselves: who are we excluding from our lives in the kingdom because we see them as different, not one of us? A challenging question when so many of us feel excluded and looked down upon by others. One of the things Jesus is saying today is that we need to get over those feelings, and no matter how much we may want to go tit-for-tat, responding/reacting to prejudicial behavior, that isn't our job or purpose as the Body of Christ in the world today. Not easy, but a way of being in this world to work toward.

Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Daily Office Reflection: But Only Jesus

Psalms 69:1-23(24-30)31-38 * 73; Isaiah 56:1-8; Galatians 5:16-24; Mark 9:2-13

Peter, James and John accompany Jesus up the mountain today and witness a shocking event. We are told this is six days after Jesus has predicted his own torture and death, having to rebuke Peter for trying to hush him up. At the end of this mountain-side event, Mark tells us "Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus."

Today, in Holy Women, Holy Men, we remember and honor Anskar who died in 845. He laid the groundwork in Scandinavia for the church to grow and prosper, although his work didn't take root and begin to flourish until a hundred years after his death. HWHM tells us that "Anskar is looked upon by Scandinavians as their apostle" for building schools and creating missions with little support or financial resources.

Anskar answered God's call to spread this news about Jesus, and although he was frustrated by the events that swirled around his world at that time, Anskar stayed focused on the one whose call he was following. His is a life that illumines an important part of of our individual faith journeys. So often we do not see the fruit born from our faithful tending of the fields, and this can be frustrating and wearing on us. It is natural and expected for us to want to see those results. Many times, God's time turns out to be very different from our own understanding of time. God's scope of vision is different than our impatient demand for results, now. The Collect for Anskar says in part:

you sent your servant Anskar as an apostle to the people of Scandinavia, and enabled him to lay a firm foundation for their conversion, though he did not see the results of his labors: Keep your Church from discouragement in the day of small things, knowing that when you have begun a good work you will bring it to a fruitful conclusion

Much like those three confused apostles walking down the mountain-side with Jesus today, we need to remember in those times of frustration and disappointment and confusion, when there appear to be road blocks to our self-defined success, that our work of creating the kingdom bears unknown fruit well beyond our imaginings and our sight and knowledge. We need to stay focused on the truth of our faith, and that when we may feel alone, or it appears that our efforts may seem to bear no fruit, our faithfulness needs to remain only with Jesus, and not anything or anyone else. This may not seem like enough, but it is.

Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Daily Office Reflection: Take - Bless - Break - Give

Psalm 61, 62 * 68:1-20(21-23)24-36; Isaiah 52:1-12; Galatians 4:12-20; Mark 8:1-10

Mark's Gospel can be so disconcerting at times. The herky-jerky nature of the flow of the story can be so off-putting, un-balancing. Perhaps that was the intent of the author. Perhaps this was caused by the manner in which the original was translated. Yet, if we think about life, the ebb and flow of each of our individual stories does not flow in a pretty manner: that herky-jerkiness we experience in Mark's narrative is quite analogous to life's unevenness.

We have Mark's second feeding of the masses in today's Gospel selection. The four-fold action of our Eucharistic Prayers is once again on display: taking, blessing, breaking, giving the limited quantity of bread that somehow feeds a multitude. Where in the herky-jerky activities of our busy lives can we take some seemingly insignificant piece of ourselves, recognize and give thanks for its holiness, do what is necessary to divvy that gift up, and than distribute it to those around us?

In the midst of chaos and confusion, we must be able to find a manner in which to appreciate and take in those gifts God gives us each and every day, give thanks for them and share them by giving a piece of ourselves to something, or some person who can benefit from that piece being broken off us. Perhaps, just perhaps, that rocky-feeling will dissipate some..... And we will never miss that piece of ourselves we give away.

Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.