Archives for February 2016

Gestures Made of Love, Lent 5(C) – 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8; Psalm 126

Realistic. Practical. Sensible. Those are words we all like to use to describe ourselves and our churches. We are Christians who believe in an amazing story of death and resurrection, but in the end we have to come back down to earth and live in the real world. Someone has to make sure the budget balances.

This is exactly the attitude of Judas in our gospel story today, the attitude Jesus condemns.

We don’t normally think of ourselves in the same category with Judas. And a great deal of the time, those practical considerations do need to guide our behavior as individuals and communities.

But Jesus profoundly values Mary and her gesture in this gospel. He finds her pouring of fragrant oil over his feet and wiping them with her hair deeply meaningful, and he will not allow this beautiful, intimate moment to be ruined by the mean-spirited practicality of Judas.

What makes Judas even more blameworthy – and even more of a warning to us – is that he overlays his criticism of Mary with a virtuous moral justification. “We could have used that money to serve the poor!” He laments with outward heartfelt piety and inward smug self-righteousness. Have you ever seen this happen at church? Someone takes the moral high ground, not out of love but because it places them in a position to score points on someone else. “I’m more Christian than you are,” is a game that has no winners.

Jesus saw this and Jesus cuts right through Judas’ posturing. In this moment, Mary and her gesture mean more than Judas and his proposed action. That’s hard for us action-oriented Americans to take! All the beautiful gestures in the world won’t get the pledge campaign launched or the nave vacuumed or the food pantry stocked.

Or will they? Why does Jesus value Mary’s extravagant and loving but essentially useless gesture so much? Because the things that inspire us to greatness are often exactly that: useless gestures. Here’s an example of that phenomenon.

In June of 1941, Dmitri Shostakovich was a successful composer and the head of the Leningrad Conservatory’s piano department. He and millions of others were suddenly uprooted by the surprise bombardment of Leningrad by German forces, breaking the non-aggression pact Hitler had signed with Russia and beginning a siege that would last almost two and a half years. Although Shostakovich was evacuated, his heart remained with his besieged city, and he began writing what would become the defining work of his career. His massive Seventh Symphony began to take shape, music that told the story of war and sacrifice and heroism, inspired by and dedicated to Leningrad.

The siege wore on through the terrible winter of 1941. Once the starving residents had eaten all the dogs, cats, and rats in the city, they moved on to leather handbags and suitcases. By January 1942, they were subsisting on wallpaper paste and sawdust. Thousands of frozen, starved bodies littered the streets every day, and the survivors, barely clinging to life, soon no longer had the physical strength to clear the corpses away. The death toll climbed to 1.2 million.

In February, Shostakovich finished the symphony, and it premiered to worldwide acclaim in Moscow, London, and New York. But Shostakovich knew that the true premiere had not happened yet. The Leningrad Symphony, to truly come to life, had to be played in Leningrad.

The sheet music was smuggled into the city across German lines. Leningrad’s premiere orchestra, the Philharmonic, had been evacuated before the siege closed in, and the leftover Radiokom orchestra was all that remained. Of their ranks, 70 had frozen or starved to death in the siege, and only 20 were left alive. And yet, rehearsals began.

The musicians were utterly physically debilitated. They barely had the strength to lift their instruments, and rehearsals, limited to 15 minute intervals, were frequently punctuated by orchestra members fainting from hunger or cold. In fact, they never had the physical strength to play the entire symphony through at once until the actual performance.

In one incredible episode, a percussionist was reported dead, and the conductor, who needed him desperately for the symphony, went to the morgue to check. He saw movement in one stack of corpses, and it was his percussionist, still alive but too weak to protest being carted off with the dead. The conductor rescued him and he went on to play in the performance.

On August 9, 1942, the cobbled together starving orchestra in Leningrad performed the entire Symphony Number 7 for their audience of emaciated but defiant fellow citizens in an epic triumph of the human spirit. This was the exact date Hitler had boasted he would have a victory dinner in the Hotel Astoria to celebrate conquering Leningrad.

The symphony played by the starving orchestra – this is essentially a useless gesture. It did not shorten the siege or provide any food or help defeat the Nazi forces. In fact, three musicians in the orchestra died during the rehearsal period, their lives undoubtedly shortened by having exerted themselves physically to play.

But this useless gesture helped a city beaten down almost to death hold on long enough to be liberated. And we have to wonder if Mary’s useless gesture in our gospel story today functioned in the same way. This was Jesus’ farewell dinner with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. He knew he was going to his death, and he knew it would not be an easy death.

Mary would soon face the grief of losing her beloved teacher and friend to an unjust, violent execution. They both had ordeals before them that were on par with or even exceeded what the besieged citizens of Leningrad underwent.

All of us, while perhaps not driven to the extremes that Jesus, Mary, and the Leningraders were, have faced times in our lives where our bodies, minds, and spirits are pushed far beyond what we think we can endure. Sitting by the bedside of a loved one as she slowly succumbs to cancer. Bearing the pain of a spouse with dementia no longer recognizing us. The moment when we hear that our child has been in a terrible car accident. Battling through the pain of a chronic illness or debilitating injury that renders our own bodies deaf to our commands and consumed with pain. These moments when comfort and reason and relief seem like bizarre and foreign concepts happen to all of us. And what gets us through those moments? Is it the moral pontification of Judas, the building up of our virtuous self-image through studiously practical good works?

No. What helps us survive is the useless gesture, the impractical moment, the unfiltered communication of love and joy and hope that we remember with photographic clarity – the first time our baby smiled at us, the look on our spouse’s face when we exchanged our vows, the warm arms of a parent or grandparent around us as a child. These small moments of devotion between people who love each other – these useless gestures – they are what sustain our courage when the chips are down, and that is what we see between Jesus and Mary in the gospel.

Because even the great inspiring moments of life, like the Leningrad performance of the 7th Symphony, are made up of a thousand small actions. The moment that inspired a city to triumph over fascism was built by one violinist raising his violin to his shoulder and mentally begging his trembling fingers to find the notes, by one trumpeter fighting through the lightheadedness that swamped him every time he drew breath deep enough to play, by one percussionist beating out the rhythm that echoed his own heartbeat that everyone else thought was extinguished.

These are gestures made of love. They are the hearts and spirits of musicians giving the feeble strength of their bodies for their city. And as they gave themselves to create the music, in their minds they didn’t see a vast metropolis. They saw the faces of their children, their parents, their wives and husbands.

When Jesus surrendered himself to the authorities, he did not see the broad sweep of the cosmos he was about to die to save. He saw your face.

So ask yourself: have you made an impractical gesture of love today? Have you done something useless that has no other value than to give of yourself to another? Search for that chance to make that useless gesture of love, because somewhere down the road, it may save someone’s life.

Download the sermon for Lent 5C. 

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Priest-in-Charge of the Shared Ministry of St. Luke’s Shelbyville and St. Thomas Franklin. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.  

Ambassador for Christ, Lent 4 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32

The Prodigal Son is a story familiar to all of us and movingly depicted in art, drama and dance. We like stories like this; ones with happy endings where people come to their senses and are restored to the family.

But that isn’t how it always happens, is it? We know of many estrangements between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. A mother recently phoned her ex husband whom she had divorced many years ago. She wanted to have his help to restore her relationship with her lost daughter; but, as her husband told her, “That ship has sailed.” Her daughter was no longer interested, and there was apparently nothing her mother could do to change that.

The parable emphasizes that God is not like that in how God loves us. God desires our return, which is one of the themes of Lent. We, like sheep, have gone astray.

Now, deep in Lent some of us begin to learn the cost. We are hungry for the bread of life; weary of the cheap and tawdry excesses that we choose because that is what we are taught is living by the world.

Today we are invited to holy living, a turning around, and a return to sanity; a restoration of our relationship with our creator and redeemer. Even though we took the cheap route and asked for grace in advance, even though we tried it all in our flagrant lives of spending and using the resources we should have husbanded and shared, there is a pull to return.

Perhaps you have decided Lent hasn’t worked out for you this year. There were too many distractions: projects at work, income taxes, wintery weather, stress, nothing offered at Church you were interested in – the list can be as long as you like. Maybe next year.

Or, maybe now? All it takes for the prodigal son is to turn around. Just one action changes everything. He has a speech rehearsed, but picture in your mind the father seeing his son from afar and running to meet him. Do you think he waited for the son’s speech? Of course not. He ran to him and embraced him. The time to talk came later. In one sequence from a ballet version of this story the son crawls up to his father, then the son climbs up onto him, and his father, who is wearing a voluptuous robe, embraces his son until he is completely enfolded in the robe. That is the vision that awaits us.

So, harmony restored and back in the fold, life for us can go on. But that is not why we have the story of the Prodigal Son today. The intention of this parable is more than just a restoration of relationships with a loving God.

The passage from Second Corinthians begins with the words:

“From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view… we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

This business of being reconciled isn’t about us as much as it is about what we are commissioned to do. We are to be ambassadors for Christ. Or, as we are instructed in the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, we are “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [we] may be.”

We cannot do this without our relationship with God and each other, and that restoration gives us the energy and guidance to do the work for which we were baptized. As is often said, “You may be the best Christian someone has ever met.” And then, like the father in the parable, we wait patiently, prayerfully, for the return of those to whom we are sent.

Lent is not just about each of our journeys and us. It is also about to whom we are sent and how we minister to the other, the stranger, the friend, the family member who see no need for a relationship with God or the community of faith. It is about having the strength to give a cup of cold water to the least and the lost. It is about sorrowing over what we have done to creation and finding ways to help restore it. It is about sewing seeds of hope in the midst of darkness and chaos.

So far Lent may have been nothing to you. But today determine it is the time for you to approach the holy table with repentance and faith that God meets you and will feed you with the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Savor this moment as a time when God is reaching out to you, hoping you will return. Let God’s arms enfold you, and feel the removal of all your sins. Then, having been fed the bread of life, walk out the door into God’s world prepared to be an ambassador for Christ. The Spirit will direct you to whom you are to go. Amen.

Download the sermon for Lent 4C.

Written by Ben E. Helmer

Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

 

What Did They Do to Deserve That?, Lent 3 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8

What did they do to deserve that?

Jesus knew questions like this were on people’s minds when they came to tell him horrible news: Pilate – yes, the same Pontius Pilate who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus – slaughtered some Galilean Jews. Making Pilate’s appalling action even more offensive is that he did this terrible thing while they were offering their sacrifices in Jerusalem.

It’s Jesus who asks the questions on everyone’s minds: Is it because those Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans that this happened to them? Did they do something to deserve such an awful death?

And it’s Jesus who gives the answer: No.

Or when the tower of Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed, crushed because they stood in the wrong place at the time, is that because they were sinners? Jesus says no.

The question is this. Is God keeping track in some gold-leafed ledger who’s been naughty or nice and whether to respond with earthly punishments or rewards? The answer is no. Does God allow tyrants to kill people or tsunamis to drown people because they’ve done something to deserve it? No.

Another time some people ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither.” says Jesus, and he cures the man of his blindness. Jesus denies a correlation between the man’s problem and someone’s sin.

Yet, it’s a persistent question. And it goes with a persistent assumption, that somehow what people get in life is what they deserve – that there must be a connection between the sorts of people they are and the bad or good things that come their way in life. We’ve heard people say, “I wonder what he did to deserve that?” or make pronouncements, “this plague/natural disaster/fill in the blank is God’s punishment for their sin.”

Well, says Jesus, take it from me, that is not how it works. Sometimes we do suffer as a direct result of some wrong we have done, some bad decision, some action we’ve neglected to take and we suffer the consequences. Mistreat your body, and you will get hurt. Mistreat a friend, and you may damage your friendship. The negative consequences of our actions can be clear. But sometimes we’re confused, not when we can see how a mistake or bad action has led to suffering, but when we’ve been good, done right, tried hard, and still, nevertheless, we suffer.

As Christians, we really shouldn’t be so surprised when this happens. The idea that only good things happen to good people should have been put to rest when Jesus was nailed to the cross.

Christian faith is no magic protection against tragedy. The cross is our central symbol – the cross, where an innocent man died the death of a criminal. Nonetheless, Christians have long wondered why bad things happen to people, even good people. In his book The City of God, St. Augustine considered the great suffering that occurred when the barbarians sacked Rome, and he noted that when the barbarians raped and pillaged, Christians suffered just as much as non-Christians. Faith in Christ did not make them immune to pain and tragedy. Augustine wrote, “Christians differ from Pagans, not in the ills which befall them, but in what they do with the ills that befall them.” The Christian faith does not give us a way around tragedy. Faith gives us a way through tragedy.

So, no we can’t look at tragedy and assume that someone did something to deserve it.

“But,” Jesus says, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What kind of a reply is that?

Jesus is not saying that questions are bad or that ‘why’ isn’t a vital human question. Jesus is saying, don’t be distracted by the wrong question. To Jesus, the ‘why’ isn’t important. God made us in love and gave us free will, freedom to choose how to respond, how to act. In freedom, humans have written symphonies and started wars. God made a dynamic world in which natural things change and evolve into beautiful new forms of life and into cancer cells.

A good question to ask, according to Jesus, isn’t: what did she do to deserve that suffering? The much more important question is: how is your relationship with God? Jesus says don’t be distracted by looking at what happened to someone else. Don’t spend your time wondering what must someone have done to deserve what they are going through. Instead, look at yourself – while you still have time.

Jesus refuses to get caught up in the question of whether or not someone else deserves to suffer, and instead asks another question: What in your life needs repenting, acknowledging, and turning around? What needs to be turned over to God? What needs to be forgiven?

Things will happen. And while the gift of earthly life is still ours, we need to ask ourselves, how is our relationship with God? Do we love our neighbors as ourselves? Are we relieving the suffering of others or just pointing our fingers at them and trying to connect the dots between their suffering and sin?

Our own repentance is the issue, because deserving isn’t. The scandal at the heart of our faith is that God already loves us; that God doesn’t need a ledger or tally sheet because we don’t do anything to deserve God’s love. We have no favor to earn, because God already sees us as God’s beloved ones. All we have to do is live and explore the amazing mystery of our acceptance. We can’t lose God’s favor and make bad things happen to us because we don’t earn God’s favor in the first place.

Life is short. Don’t be distracted by the wrong questions. And don’t be disappointed if Jesus asks you to love God more than you love answers. Because Jesus will do that. When people asked him questions he often responded not with an answer, but with a story. Like he did in the next part of the Gospel lesson.

A man planted a fig tree. The fig tree used up a lot of nutrients but didn’t produce any figs. “Why should I let this do-nothing fig tree use up good soil?” asked the man. “Cut it down.” But the gardener replies, “Let it be for one more year. I will do everything I can for it. If it bears fruit, great! If not, cut it down.”

The gardener in this story is not efficient, practical, or exercising his authority to do what’s most logical. He’s going to waste more nutrients, efforts, and space on a tree that doesn’t show any signs of producing figs.

Does the fig tree deserve it?

That’s not the question. It’s just a story about a fig tree and an extravagant gardener who should remind us of another gardener from way back in the beginning, who just couldn’t help it when he picked up some dirt. God just had to form it into a human and breathe life into it. God just had to make it into someone to love, someone who would be free to choose to love in return. Maybe we can hear this gardener at work in our own lives, saying, “Wait. Give me another year. I’ll do all that I can to nurture this tree.”

Download to the sermon for Lent 3C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. Amy Richter

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as Rector of St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. She holds a PhD in New Testament from Marquette University and is the author of Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew. With her husband, the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, she is co-author of Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery, and A Man, A Woman, a Word of Love.

 

Loving Like a Mother Hen, Lent 2(C) – 2016

[RCL] Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

One moonlit night a Fox was prowling about a farmer’s chicken coop, and saw a Hen roosting high up beyond his reach. “Good news, good news!” he cried.

“Why, what is that?” said the Hen.

“King Lion has declared a universal truce. No beast may hurt a bird henceforth, but all shall dwell together in brotherly friendship.”

“Why, that is good news,” said the Hen; “and there I see someone coming, with whom we can share the good tidings.” And so saying she craned her neck forward and looked far off.

“What is it you see?” said the Fox.

“It is only my master’s Dog that is coming towards us. What, going so soon?” she continued, as the Fox began to turn away. “Will you not stop and congratulate the Dog on the reign of universal peace?”

“I would gladly do so,” said the Fox, “but I fear he may not have heard of King Lion’s decree.”

What do you think is the moral of Aesop’s fable? The answer: Cunning often outwits itself.

There are parallels between this fable and our Gospel story today. Herod is the Fox, Jesus is Hen, perhaps John the Baptist is the Dog, and King Lion is God, of course. Although the Fox lied to the Hen about King Lion’s decree of universal peace, we know a different story from God. The truth is that the kingdom of God is at hand and it is present in deep and surprising ways.

How often do we use the term ‘mother hen’ when we refer to a person who is especially nurturing to and protective of those they love? What an interesting metaphor Jesus uses in the Gospel reading – God trying to gather God’s children together just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. A hen is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of a protective animal. We would sooner imagine a lion or a fierce bird of prey, something with fangs or talons. Yet, the lowly chicken is the image that Jesus chooses to demonstrate this relationship between God and us. God, the mother hen, calls us to the safety of the nest, underneath those downy wings, behind the heart that beats beneath her vulnerable breast. There is power in this image. Power tied to Abram’s covenant with God. Power tied with strength in vulnerability and with relationship.

Today, fear is our fuel: fear of those who are different, fear of death, fear of our own shortcomings, and fear that the things we value will be taken away from us. In response, we write contracts: contracts for services, contracts for jobs, prenuptial contracts, and, as wonderful and helpful as wills can be, they too, are contracts to make sure the people and things we value will be cared about in the way we want them to be when we are gone. Contracts are about legal protection within relationships. This is where they differ from a covenant, especially a covenant with God.

When Abram creates the covenant with God in our reading today, he is executing an ancient practice. A covenant, ratified in blood, is all encompassing. If you were to make a covenant with your best friend today, it would mean that everything that belonged to them also belonged to you and vice versa. If your best friend happened to have a mansion and a heap of creditors hounding them, guess what? You’ve got that, too. A contract would protect you from the bad, but a covenant guarantees that you are in relationship and if one goes down, you both go. On the flip side, that also means if one succeeds, so does the other.

God has established covenants with a variety of people and under a variety of circumstances: with Noah, the rainbow promising that God would never again destroy the earth with a flood; With Abram, through animal sacrifice, and later, as Abraham, through circumcision; With Mary, through the blood that came with birthing Jesus, and Jesus himself, who sets his face to Jerusalem so that his blood can become another tie that binds us.

Jesus knew his identity as a prophet and the Son of God. He tells the Pharisees, “Go and tell that fox [Herod] for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” Jesus knows the stakes of being what he is and yet, he follows God’s call to him. He sees the role of God as one of a mother hen gathering her brood under her protective wings, safe from the ravages of the foxes of life. In Luke’s time, that meant not just Jerusalem or Israel, but the Gentiles as well. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus encounters, we are often not willing to be gathered in with people that are not like us, instead taking our chances elsewhere. We think we are truly free, but instead are even more at risk and vulnerable to the sly seductions of the foxes among us.

If you are familiar with what happens when a fox gets into a hen house then you know that most times the mother hen herds her chicks under her wings for protection and bares her breast so that the fox must kill her first before it can get to her chicks. It is the only defense she has. Later, there will be a flutter of feathers and motherless chicks running around but at least they are alive, though their mother may be dead. They are given the chance to live. This is the image that Jesus chose to bring to us: our covenant with God means that everything of God’s is also ours, even Jesus, God’s own son.

The season of Lent is a time of repentance and a time to consider what it means to be in covenant with a vulnerable God. We learn that faith grows through use. The more we encounter our vulnerable God, the more we understand the strength of our own vulnerability. We must choose to live this type of faith each day. When we received the cross of ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, it reminded us exactly how vulnerable and human we are in this world. We are called to something more than living for ourselves and satisfying our contracts. Our God is not the belly, as it says in Philippians. We are called to be the chicks that lead the way to our mother hen: our God.

In our baptism, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever. We are charged with an imperative call to love like that mother hen who opens her wings wide and exposes her heart to the foxes of the world in the hope that our loved ones may live in the light of our vulnerability. Called to love like someone who is in covenant with God. A fierce and trusting love that encompasses all that which God possesses. When we live this way, we will know the reign of universal peace described in this Franciscan blessing:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. May the peace of God and the God of peace be with you for evermore.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Lent 2C.

Written by the Rev. Danae Ashley

The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the Associate Priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, and is also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC.