October 4, 2015

Pentecost – Proper 22

Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10: 2-16


Today is officially Episcopal School Sunday. This means people in Episcopal churches all over are celebrating the rich history of education in the Episcopal Church. Here are some fun facts to know and tell:

  • There are 577 Episcopal Early Childhood programs
  • Texas has 121 Episcopal Schools and Early Childhood Education programs in 6 dioceses
  • Episcopal Schools and Early Childhood education programs serve over 160,000 students from diverse religions, ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds
  • Trinity School, NYC, founded 1709, is the oldest continually operating Episcopal School
  • Our own school is starting it’s fifteenth year and thankfully we are at capacity and have a waiting list twice the size of our current enrollment
  • You might be wondering, “What does this have to do with the readings today?”. There is actually a direct reflection of today’s Gospel in our school here at St. Andrew’s

Let me explain:

In the Gospel story we just heard, the Pharisees were testing Jesus.  In modern Christian thinking, we tend to paint a picture of the Pharisees as bullies. In fact, we often demonize them. Other than Satan, they were the only ones who tested Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. The truth is, they were really devout, pious Jews who wanted to follow the law. In this case, their question to Jesus about divorce was to see if he could reconcile his message to the law.  The Pharisees were great rule followers, of course. Jesus’ answer is, as always, tremendous; tremendous because he points them away from rules, and directs them into their own hearts.  

In many ways, we really aren’t very different from the Pharisees. All parents want to know the right rules, the right formula to raise their children safely, to give them a secure environment and the opportunity to have a good life. We want to make sure they not only stay out of any kind of danger and have the essentials of food and shelter, but we also want them to be comfortable: to have joyful experiences, to laugh and play, a good education and ultimately to have someone to love and, someone who loves them.  Parenting is the hardest job in the world. We tend to want it to be a recipe that has rigid guidelines - - something with rules that we can follow - - so we can ensure a positive outcome.

Frequently good parenting is easier said than done.  The best parenting is accomplished when we opt for inspiration instead of coercion. We do this by discovering the child’s natural desires and unique abilities and by encouraging the behavior that will allow him or her to develop accordingly.  It starts at the infant stage when we work hard to encourage babies to sleep on their own, and as they develop, to eat on their own.

Think about long ago and the custom of a midwife using crushed dates in order to massage the palate and gums of a newborn. This encouraged the baby’s natural instinct so that nursing could begin as soon as possible. In other words, she stimulated the baby’s gums in order to encourage the kind of behavior that would benefit the child. She wisely and deftly utilized the baby’s natural instinct to guide him toward what is best.

This is not to say that as they grow up we should allow children to do as they please or that we should avoid correction. Think about the training of a horse. Imagine a horse’s bridle, which is used to subdue a horse for the purpose of directing its natural energies without breaking its spirit. In this image, note that the bridle isn’t a yoke; a yoke is for pulling heavy loads; a bridle is for guiding. Only a novice puts a bit in a horse’s mouth to dominate it. Experienced riders know that the horse’s bit is a point of contact in a relationship with the animal. Horses want to run because God gave them a desire to fulfill their created purpose. A wise, caring rider uses the bit and the reins to help the horse achieve its purpose safely and effectively.

Episcopal schooling and a Montessori environment both value the uniqueness and talents of each child.  The whole purpose behind Montessori philosophy is to:  

  • Foster each child’s individual identity
  • Encourage independent thinking and problem solving
  • Create a sense of community
  • Demonstrate compassion and kindness

If you walk into our classrooms you will see children:

  • Working independently on language or math skills
  • Problem solving
  • Using the democratic process to decide what to name the class pet
  • Being kind to one another, saying “please and thank you” without prompts
  • Inquiring and searching
  • Taking ownership of their work
  • Sorting to create a sense of order
  • Older children will be sharing work

Pedagogy, psychology, and theology all suggest that these qualities that make us who we are as human beings and are already in us. We don’t have to make or create these traits, we just have to recognize, nurture and support them.  

The real message of today's gospel isn’t about divorce or, defining the law. The real message is that God looks upon our hearts, not the ledgers of our wrongdoings.

Maybe we should think of rules as landmarks, helping us see the road; but the rules are not the road itself. The road is our day-to-day experience in the mystery. Our daily walk is jumbled with all our responsibilities:  getting to work on time, juggling carpool and errands, completing a project, interacting with our boss or, peers or, spouse, managing all the thoughts and emotions that go along with each interaction, much of which we is unconscious.  

We talk a lot about Mystery in the Episcopal Church. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines mystery as “something that has not been or cannot be explained”. The reading from Genesis this morning is one of two stories in Genesis about the beginning of time and mankind.  In many ways, it is a mystery, too.  Children are much more comfortable with this notion than most adults. Children always ask “why”.  They might ask, “why is the door shut” or, “why are you wearing a dress today” or, “why does that lady have only one arm”.  It might seem easiest to try and answer the question.  But, instead of coming up with the answer yourself, try reflecting the question back, and ask “why do you think the door is shut?”, “why do you think I am wearing a tie today”, and “what do you think about the lady who has only one arm”? If you allow them enough time and space, children will typically come up with several ideas of “why” Some of the ideas will be outrageous and imaginary; some ideas will be very interesting; some will be truthful; all will be their wondering. The wondering isn’t about the right or wrong answer.

Unsatisfied with Jesus, the text says that the Pharisees ask Jesus AGAIN to answer the question about divorce and the law - they just won't let it go. He responds with:

"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." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Sometimes our adult rules and guidelines get in the way of our child-like understanding and our wondering. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have rules. Rules are what keep us together as a society, and they are important.  Sometimes the rules we live by can keep us from accepting the mystery. When the Holy Spirit enters into us, it doesn't come in as a rulebook. It comes in as Spirit. Grace. Mercy. Truth. Joy. Mystery.

Look at the way a child is perfectly at home in the Mystery. That's where Episcopal Schools and Montessori environments do more than teach - they preserve the mystery in the hearts of their students.

October 19, 2014

Pentecost Proper 24

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22 


Today's scripture lessons say a number of things about IMAGE. Image is something most of us care about inone way or another, and it seems we begin caring about image from an early age. Variously, we concern ourselveswith our physical image, our professional image, ourimage in the mirror, the image our house portrays in the neighborhood, the image of our family that our childrenproject, the image our children project of US as parents,and our image as decent folk. In all these examples, theimage of concern is self-image.

Moses, in the reading from Exodus, is seeking an imageof God. Moses has obeyed God's command to lead thepeople out of Egypt and is now needing some assistancein managing them. Recall that earlier in the story of Moses, he encountered an image of God in a burningbush, so perhaps this particular quest on the part of Moses is understandable. Moses and God are engaging in conversation. God: “I know you by name and you havefound favor in my sight.” Now that is an image we would all desire.

Moses essentially is discerning what is it that God wantshim to do next. Although he understands that God hasfound favor with him and that God has promised to bewith him, Moses seeks a SIGN - a physical IMAGE sohe can know without any doubt that God is keeping hisword. But God says, “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest. You cannot see my face, and when I have passed by, I'll take away my hand that has covered you and you shall see my back.” What sort ofimage is that?

Now to the Gospel lesson. When the Pharisees, in yetanother of their attempts to trap Jesus with his ownwords, ask him if it was lawful for them to pay taxesto the emperor. Jesus holds a coin and looks at theimage stamped on it. The inscription on the coin required for the tax reads: Augusti Filius August Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”). The people of Jesus' time were expected to worship the emperor, who held himself to be divine. Ourown coins and paper money contain images - images ofdead presidents and founders of our nation. Today, the people whose images are on our coins are not worshiped, yet in many ways the metal and the paper on which theyappear certainly are worshiped. In answer to the question posed by the Pharisees, Jesus said, “Render unto the emperor that which is theemperor's and render unto God that which is God's.”

So, what kind of image is Jesus portraying or creatingfor us with his response? Some have interpreted thispassage to mean that things spiritual and things earthlyor commonplace are total opposites, one being “good” and the other “bad.” I am inclined to believe there ismore to this image than that.

Recently I was at a gathering where one of the speakerswas head of a management district near here. His jobis to work with businesses in the interest of economicdevelopment in a specific geographic area. His area,as is usually the case, is in transition and is becominggentrified, not unlike the Heights. The speaker citeda number of financial statistics reflecting increasedrecent investment and profits; new businesses created,and influx of certain desirable population segments.Then, he reported on the low rent apartments thathad been demolished and the new mega-mansionsbeing built. Cluttered, dingy little shops had beenrazed and replaced by fancy upscale retail centers.

Much has been accomplished through the efforts ofthis man's organization and he was quite proud of theirachievements. In truth, the area does have an imagemuch more pleasing to the eye than was the case just afew years ago.

Now, his audience was primarily clergy representing anumber of faith groups and religious organizations of longstanding in his area. Their churches must be benefittingfrom an increase in attendance and financial offerings.Yet, immediately the question was raised, "Well, are youaddressing the needs of these displaced people?" Are youincluding plans for low-cost housing and small businessloans or other means for family businesses to continue?Who and where is the voice of those who have been heremany years or who cannot afford to leave?

You see, image can be complex. If the image ofthe neighborhood is gleaming brick and mortar andbeautifully manicured lawns, and yet those who perhapscreated and sustained the neighborhood for many years,who labor and service the neighborhood are forced outand cannot find even modest shelter and are forced tolive in food deserts; if small family businesses are forcedto close because of increased taxation or influx of highend corporate merchants and unemployment figuresrise sharply - then what is the reality behind the image?

Heads or tails? Face of God or God's back?We live in the real, solid, brick and mortar, down anddirty, noisy world that is filled with images of violence,poverty, cruelty, sickness, and evil. That same world isalso filled with images of love and kindness, generosity,and beauty - and it is filled with the Holy Spirit. We maynot see God's face, but we surely see where God hasbeen.Paul was pleased with the image the Thessalonians projected. He wrote, "We know, brothers and sisters,beloved by God, that he has chosen you because theGospel message came not only in word, but in powerand in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. Serve aliving and true God." Paul urged the Thessalonians tobe an example to others of the love of Christ and of thetruth of the Gospel. And he could see that, in spite ofpersecution, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit andknew joy.

We, like Moses and the Thessalonians, we have a Godwho is very much alive and who has promised to bepresent with us always. This God of ours made us in hisimage, then came to us appearing in a human image,to reconcile us to himself when we had repeatedlyand foolishly ignored his love, his promises and hiscommandments. When discouraged, impatient, orstruggling through difficult periods, Moses' people soughta concrete image to follow, and, absent one familiarto them, invented one to follow, to worship and adore.Remember the golden calf. And perhaps that could besaid of modern man as well as of the Hebrew people- perhaps of us. We have silver coin and green paperidols and a plethora of daily reminders and seductivemessages of how these gods will bring us happiness.

Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland:One day Alicecame to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in atree. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do youwant to go?" was his response. "I don't know," Aliceanswered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

As I mentioned, image can be a complicated matter.Living as the image of God we were created to be, neednot be either/or. By God's grace we each have gifts;some of wealth, some of time, others of various talents,and knowledge. Paul exhorts us to be examples toothers: examples of this living God who favors us andknows our names.

But How?

Just like Moses, we must enter into conversation withGod and discern the path/road God has prepared for us. Ifirmly believe God equips the willing. I firmly believe theHoly Spirit will, if asked, guide each and every one of usto the way we are to use our images of dead presidentsand all our other gifts and sometime idols, not only forour own well-being, but also for the furtherance of thekingdom of our living God. We can use them to be thevoice of those who have no voice and to support theministries of those who walk among the least of them.

So - Where do you want to go? What example, whatimage of God do people see when they see you? Areyou one who calls on the Lord, acts with steadfast beliefthat your prayers will be answered - in God's time and inGod's mercy and grace? What kind of example are we?What image are we projecting?