Archives for September 2016

Bulletin Insert: Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost (C)

Episcopal Historically Black Colleges and Universities/International Black Clergy Conference

black2_2On Thursday, November 10, the Office of Black Ministries of the Episcopal Church sponsored a public recognition event for its affiliated Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which are St. Augustine’s University, Raleigh, NC and Voorhees College, Denmark, SC.

“The purpose of the Recognition Event was to highlight the Episcopal Church’s ongoing commitment to higher education, especially through its support of these two institutions,” noted the Rev. Angela Ifill, Episcopal Church Missioner for Black Ministries

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry presented the keynote address, followed by a question/answer session and panel discussions led by the university presidents and students.

Ifill added, “The remarks of the presidents and student representatives serve to share with the public the continuing value of these and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities in their particular communities, and as they educate and prepare young adults to take their rightful places in the leadership of society and the world.”

International Black Clergy Conference

This week, the International Black Clergy Conference convenes in Houston, Texas. Under the theme, “The Jesus Movement: Embracing Our Call,” the conference begins Wednesday, November 16 and runs through Saturday, November 19.

In addition to priests and deacons from across the Episcopal Church, the conference will welcome participants from the Anglican Church of Canada as well as Anglicans and Episcopalians from the Province of the West Indies and throughout the United Kingdom.

Find Out More

For more information about the work of the Office of Black Ministries, contact the Rev. Angela Ifill, aifill@episcopalchurch.org, (646) 323-0130.

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Bulletin Insert: Last Sunday after Pentecost

Christ the King

Stained-glass window in St George’s Episcopal Church, Newburgh, N.Y. (Photo by Matthew Green)

Stained-glass window in St George’s Episcopal Church, Newburgh, N.Y.
(Photo by Matthew Green)

Today, many parishes within the Episcopal Church celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This feast day falls on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before the beginning of Advent.

According to “The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church” (Oxford University Press, 2005), The Feast of Christ the King was first instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a “celebration of the all-embracing authority of Christ which shall lead mankind to seek the ‘peace of Christ’ in the ‘Kingdom of Christ.’”

Collect for the Feast of Christ the King

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen (BCP 236).

Thanksgiving Day, November 24, is also this week – a major feast day on the liturgical calendar. The Episcopal Church first began celebrating Thanksgiving Day after the American Revolution. The first American Prayer Book, in 1789, replaced the four national days of the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer with propers for Thanksgiving Day. This coincided with the first observance of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday by the United States in 1789. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln instituted the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving Day each year on the last Thursday of November.

Collect for Thanksgiving Day

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen (BCP 246).

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Bulletin Insert: Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

All Saints' Day

All Saints’ Day, celebrated November 1 or the nearest Sunday afterward, is characterized by the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) as a Principal Feast, “taking precedence over any other day or observance” (BCP 15). The day is set aside to remember and commend the saints of God, especially those who are not recognized at other points in the church year.

Detail from “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (circa 1423-24) by Fra Angelico, National Gallery, London. Photo via Wikimedia.

Detail from “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (circa 1423-24) by Fra Angelico, National Gallery, London. Photo via Wikimedia.

According to Holy Women, Holy Men, in the tenth century, it became customary to recognize on a single day “that vast body of the faithful who, though no less members of the company of the redeemed, are unknown in the wider fellowship of the Church” (Holy Women, Holy Men, 664). Over time, the day became associated with special remembrances of an individual’s family and friends.

While several churches abandoned the commemoration during the Reformation, the Feast of All Saints was retained on the Anglican liturgical calendar. All Saints’ Day began to assume the role of general commemoration of the dead: all Christians, past and present; all saints, known and unknown.

Because of the day’s association with the remembrance for the dead, many churches publish a necrology. This reading of the names of the congregation’s faithful departed may include prayers on their behalf. Such prayers are appropriate, as the Catechism reminds us, “because we still hold [our departed] in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is” (BCP 862).

The Book of Common Prayer recommends All Saints’ Day as one of the four holy days especially appropriate for the administration of Holy Baptism (Holy Women, Holy Men, 662). This recommendation strives to make clear themes of newness of life, our membership in the communion of saints.

Finally, the day is often characterized by joyful hymns, including such favorites as “For All the Saints,” “Who Are These Like Stars Appearing,” and “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” These hymns share motifs of rest, fellowship, and continued, joyful service to God—salient indeed on this day, as we remember “those of dazzling brightness, those in God’s own truth arrayed, clad in robes of purest whiteness, robes whose luster ne’er shall fade”!

Collect
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

This insert was originally posted in 2016. You may also view this bulletin insert on All Saints Day, Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.

Bible Study, Proper 25(C) – October 23, 2016

[RCL] Joel 2:23-32; Ps. 65: 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Joel 2:23-32

In the brief writings of the prophet Joel, Israel has suffered a devastating loss of crops due to swarms of locusts. This destruction of natural resources seems to have come as a kind of discipline that pointed toward “the day of the Lord” in which God’s justice would come and eliminate the evil and unrighteous, and restore the faithful. Once again, however, we see the Lord graciously call his people to repentance and restoration — always his primary goal! When the nation turns back to him, a celebration is called for: “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God” (v.23). The Lord promises to restore their crops abundantly – bread, wine, and oil for all! Not only is the Lord’s mercy poured out in his blessing of natural resources, but the promise of his very Spirit is given. Joel speaks of a time when God’s Spirit will be poured out “on all flesh” (v.28). We know this to be fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2), the so-called “birth of the church”.

  • Recall a time that you felt the Lord’s displeasure. How did you go about seeking to be restored? When you turn back to the Lord, how do you rejoice in his grace and in his love for you?
  • How have you experienced the pouring out of God’s Spirit in your own life? Are you aware of particular spiritual gifts God has given you?

Psalm 65

Psalmists know how to revel in the beauty of God’s creation. In today’s psalm, you can imagine the author praying in the temple, barely able to contain his joy. Perhaps his hands are lifted heavenward; perhaps tears of joy, of gratitude, stream down his face. He is bubbling up with thanksgiving that he is invited to dwell in the “courts” of the Lord, the locus of God’s Holy Presence. As Christians, we have the joy of knowing God’s presence resides in us as individuals throughout each day, but also that the Holy Spirit is with us powerfully when we worship corporately in our churches. The One who set the boundaries of the seas, provides grain, and laid green pastures upon the earth, meets us each time we gather for the liturgy, and our hearts are turned toward Him in praise, wonder, and thanksgiving. He then gives us his very Self in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine.

  • How have church buildings shaped the way you think about God?
  • Are there particular things in your church (icons, statues, architecture, etc.) that touch your senses and lift your heart towards God in worship?
  • Do you experience God’s presence in a different way when you are gathered with others than when you are worshiping alone?

2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

Paul is always calling his apprentice-in-the-Lord Timothy to boldly embrace the gifts he has been given, and to proclaim the Gospel in all situations. Here, Timothy is given imagery of Paul’s life as a drink offering, poured out before the Lord. Paul has emptied himself out, giving everything that he may obtain the “crown of righteousness” that God will give to “all who have longed for his appearing” (v.8). Paul had a strong sense that, even in the face of opposition, the Lord was right there with him, enabling him to be bold and to announce the Gospel to all. We too live in an age where the Gospel message is not always received favorably. In some parts of the world, to proclaim that message is to seal one’s imminent fate. Yet, we are called by our Lord to be resolutely committed to the proclamation of his forgiveness and saving love in Jesus Christ.

  • How do you proclaim the Gospel? Have you tried different ways of telling people about Jesus? What has worked best for you?
  • Have you ever felt rejected or scorned by the people around you because of your faith? Were you aware of the Lord’s presence with you in that situation?

Luke 18:9-14

You will often hear people saying that Jesus preferred the company of prostitutes and sinners to the religious folks of his day. Certainly Jesus did hang out with such people, but the statement often becomes an argument for what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” – that is, an understanding of grace which minimizes concern about sin, and simply “rests in God’s grace.” But when someone receives God’s grace, they will show signs of truly loving God, which Jesus says is manifested in obedience to his commandments (John 14:15). And to even recognize the need for God’s grace, one must first recognize a problem in oneself — sinfulness. Jesus’ parable criticizes a self-righteous Pharisee who believes himself to be right with God by contrasting him with a tax collector who recognizes the depths of his own sinfulness. The latter cries out to God, admitting his unworthiness and his need for redemption. Jesus says that this infamous sinner is the one who is justified because of his humility. He doesn’t simply praise him because he is a sinner; he calls him “justified” because of his willingness to admit his sin and to seek forgiveness. To this humble cry, God is always pleased to respond in acceptance, and the angels in heaven rejoice.

  • Have you heard anyone use “cheap grace” theology to justify sin?
  • Notice how Jesus’ interactions with “sinners” often ends – he announces forgiveness and sends them off, telling them to cease from their sinfulness. Why is this cessation necessary for the life of the Christian disciple?
  • Do you use any practices or spiritual disciplines which help cultivate humility? How have they made you more aware of your need for God’s grace?

Written by Cameron MacMillan. He is a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Central Florida. He and his wife enjoy outdoor adventures with their border collie, Charleigh. His passions are cross-cultural ministry, evangelism, and liturgical theology.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 25(C).

The Penultimate – Proper 28(C)

[RCL] Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

There are some words that just sound good, that are attractive all by themselves. A great example, which the Gospel reading especially brought to mind, is ‘penultimate’. It’s a fine old Latin word that means ‘next to the last’. Not the last, not the ultimate, but next to that, before that. The penultimate things are not the ultimate things, but the things that are a step down from them, things come before them.

Penultimate is a great word to hear and ponder as we listen to these wonderful Biblical stories about the end of all things, about “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” and the day of the Lord burning like an oven, and how not one stone will be left upon another. We always hear stuff like this as we get close to Advent; it’s good for us, and these saying are really all about that little word.

Let’s start with the temple in Jerusalem. In the first century, the temple was absolutely the center of Jewish religion, history, culture, civilization and civic pride. It was a beautiful temple, one of the best in the region. Solomon himself had designed it, and King Herod had recently completely renovated it—making it quite a bit bigger and a whole lot more elaborate. In its thousand-year history, the Temple had never been as glorious, as extensive, or as popular as it was when Jesus and his disciples visited. In fact, it may have been the largest man-made structure in the world at that time. It was certainly seen as the ultimate thing in Israel—and as central, indeed indispensable, to the plan of God and the fate of the nation.

When Jesus and his disciples visited the temple for the first time, the disciples were like a bunch of strangers in the big city, staring around with their jaws hanging open, pointing at everything and saying “wow” a lot. Jesus isn’t quite as impressed, and he says two things about the Temple.

First, he predicts, quite correctly, that the Temple would soon be completely destroyed—that not one stone would be left upon another – which is exactly that the Romans did about 35 years later, after an unsuccessful Jewish rebellion.

That’s the first thing Jesus says. The second is more subtle. As he predicts the destruction of the temple, and the chaos that goes with it, Jesus also says, (again quite correctly) “the end will not follow immediately.” The temple will crumble, there will be problems, but things will go on pretty much as before. There will still be much to do. There will be people to help, and evil to resist, and prayers to say – just like before the Temple was destroyed. So, the temple falls, but “the end will not follow immediately”.

That must have been a hard thing to hear. It was almost impossible for anyone in Israel to imagine the destruction of the temple. What would be even harder to imagine was the destruction of the temple and the rest of the whole world not coming to an end right then. After all, everyone knew that the Temple was the ultimate thing, the final thing: if it went, everything else was sure to go, too.

But that was wrong. The Temple was not the ultimate thing after all, it was only one of the penultimate things, something that was next door to ultimate, maybe, but that’s all.

All of creation did not hang on it. The main thing, the one truly important and indispensable thing, is God, and what God is up to. Everything else is penultimate.

Everything else takes a back seat. Everything else can—and will—crumble to dust. Anything else can, and will, crumble to dust. The fate of creation hangs on none of them. Who God is and what God is up to – this is what abides, this is the main thing. This alone is ultimate.

It can be difficult to remember this. When the Temple actually fell, (and the world did not end) the fledgling Christian church in Jerusalem (as well as many Jewish groups) faced a huge crisis of faith.

Lots of people then simply could not separate what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to them from what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to God. For many, the Temple’s fall was devastating, and seemed to prove God false. They had confused the ultimate with the penultimate.

And something very much like that is still with us. We all have our temples, our penultimates. We all have our own ideas of what is indispensable to creation – these may be personal things, or religious things, or social things, or cultural things, or election results, things we cannot conceive being otherwise, or doing differently, or losing – things we cannot imagine that either we or the world or God could ever live without.

So, every now and then, we need to be reminded that these things are not quite ultimate.

It’s very important to be able to make this distinction—to be able to realize that our special concern, our pet project, our current passion, is not really the same thing as the kingdom of God, or the will of God. This whole business of the last things, the end of the world, all of that is here to remind us that our stuff, no matter how important it may be, our stuff is not ultimate. It will all pass away. Remember that word…penultimate.

Instead, it is who God is and what God is doing, right now among us, that is of ultimate importance. Nothing else matters nearly as much, nothing else will matter for so long. The point is not to hang on  tight to what we have. The point is to keep our eyes and hearts open, and our hands busy at what we need to be about.

Written by The Reverend James Liggett. Liggett recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. 

Download the sermon for Proper 28(C).

Bible Study, Proper 24(C) – October 16, 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Jeremiah 31:27-34

 The prophet’s words vividly illustrate the much-anticipated community of the new covenant to a people who have been suffering in estrangement from YHWH for many years. Verses 27 through 30 use a potentially confusing metaphor to describe a common complaint, namely that innocent generations of God’s covenant people are languishing as divine punishment for the sins of their forebears. In the future, Jeremiah tells us, only those who eat the sour grapes of disobedience will experience the troubling results.

Verse 31 is the only place in the Old Testament canon where we find the particular phrase translated here as “a new covenant.” The next three verses, then, may provide us with a uniquely significant vision of this new covenant from a prophetic perspective that is firmly situated within (and honors) the community of the first covenant. This new covenant will be initiated by YHWH, who will write the law on each person’s heart and forgive all sins.

  • Consider the concept of God’s law written on human hearts. How might an intuitive, uniquely personal divine law be more or less useful/interpretable/valuable than a physically written one?
  • Verse 34 speaks of knowing the Lord. What kind of knowledge is being described? Is it an intellectual awareness of God’s existence, or is there something more to Jeremiah’s knowledge?

Psalm 119:97-104

These verses are undeniably beautiful. However, today’s readers may find ourselves confused in the midst of this unrestrained praise of divine law. American Christians tend not to associate words like law, commandments, and decrees with concepts like love and sweetness. Generally speaking, we don’t like being told what to do (even if God is the one telling us)! But the Psalmist carries no such baggage. These verses celebrate and rejoice over the law – not so much as a written document of rules to be followed, but as a dynamic and invaluable revelation of God’s will and character for the benefit of human lives.

  • Compare and contrast verse 97’s “in my mind” with the description of the law being written on hearts from Jeremiah 31:33. How do these two metaphors complement each other, and what differences of nuance might we infer?
  • What might this effusive celebration of divine commandments teach us if we consider it in light of Jesus’s commandments, as recorded in the Gospels? Where can we find sweetness easily, and where are we challenged to find sweetness?

2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5

Paul’s second letter to Timothy strikes a more personal, almost fatherly, tone than his first. In 3:14-15, Paul refers to Timothy’s younger years and the people who first taught him about God, namely his mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois. Paul himself was a later instructor to Timothy (hence the fatherly tone), and his recognition of the foundational importance of Eunice’s and Lois’s teachings may serve to solidify his emphasis on the role of the Hebrew scriptures with regards to the Gospel of Christ. The Old Testament (although of course Paul would not have used such language) is not to be discarded or ignored; rather, it is divinely inspired and perpetually useful alongside the Gospel.

In 4:1-5, Paul encourages Timothy to remain steadfast in his Gospel ministry, with special attention to the challenge of “itching ears” (vs. 3). These “itching ears” do not necessarily indicate malicious or destructive intent on the part of the hearer. One’s ears might itch out of curiosity, intrigue, or excitement, but the potential result of scratching the itch is spiritual disaster. Our “itching ears” can lead us away from the challenging but saving Gospel to the more palatable but empty myths that surround us.

  • How does Paul’s description of the Old Testament as sacred and inspired challenge us, particularly regarding places where we may sense a contrast between OT messages and the words of Jesus?
  • What causes our ears to “itch,” and what practices or strategies can help us resist scratching those itches?

Luke 18:1-8

The parable of the widow and the unjust judge does not appear in any of the other canonical Gospels. Equally intriguing is the author’s statement of the lesson in the first verse. Why does Luke bother recording the entire parable when he has already told us that it means we should “pray always and not [to] lose heart”? Perhaps there is more depth to this parable than is captured in verse 1.

Consider the judge and the widow. This judge appears to be the opposite of what a judge should be – whereas a judge in this context should be the widow’s ally and should use his power to render justice in light of God’s laws and in favor of the needy, this judge doesn’t care about the widow, or her problems, or even God! And the widow, who is powerless in her society, uses the only assets she has at her disposal – persistence and honesty.

The judge eventually rules in the widow’s favor, not because he cares for justice, but because her honesty and persistence are a problem for him. The language of verse 5, where the judge says that the widow is “bothering” him and may “wear [him] out” by repeatedly bringing her complaint, has some illuminating alternate translations including “shaming,” “embarrassing,” and even “slapping [the judge] in the face!” Thus the widow, conventionally powerless, has claimed a righteous power and brought about justice and vindication through her persistence and honesty.

  • Where might we see persistent cries for justice from those who lack conventional power in our own communities, and how might we be called to engage and/or respond?
  • Jesus ends the parable with a striking question: “[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” How can we support one another in persistence, honesty, and faith in spite of tragedy, injustice, and division?

The Rev. Margaret (Maggie) Leidheiser-Stoddard graduated from Bexley-Seabury Seminary Federation with her Diploma in Anglican Studies in May 2016. She earned her M.Div. from Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, CA), and an M.A. in Religion & Modernity from Queen’s University (Kingston, ON). She was ordained to the transitional diaconate in June 2016, and will begin a residency at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington, OH this fall. She lives in Bexley, OH with her husband, son, and guinea pig.

Download the Bible Study for Proper 24(C).

Study of the “Last Things” – Proper 27(C)

[RCL] Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

Each of today’s lessons, in its own way, points us toward the strange and wondrous world of eschatology; that is to say that they speak to our questions about the future and about our ultimate purpose, and they address our aspirations for the Church and for the world in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Eschatology is the study of the “Last Things.” Traditionally, theologians who discuss eschatology write about the topics of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. They try to answer questions like, “Does God have a plan for the world?” and “Does our life have any ultimate purpose or significance?”

Sometimes “mainstream” Christians, including Episcopalians, avoid eschatology out of concern that some people might misinterpret the darker passages in the Bible by focusing on their own deep-seated fears and speculations instead of the Gospel message of God’s mercy and reconciliation, questions about the Last Things address our most fundamental spiritual concerns for justice and seek to clarify our ultimate significance of as God’s sons and daughters. Furthermore, such questions about these topics express our highest and best hopes for the eternal life that God has promised to his people.

As Christians, we whole-heartedly affirm that the God who created the universe has a purpose and plan for the world in which we live. We also proclaim our faith that our individual and lives and our common life as the Body of Christ are part of God’s gracious design for creation.

The belief that God works in the world and in the lives of his children was an essential proclamation of the Old Testament prophets and of Christ’s preaching of the Kingdom of God. The Hebrew prophets, like many people today, were dismayed at the evil, corruption, and brokenness of the world around them.

The Old Testament lesson from Haggai offers a view of the prophet’s world. It was a bleak world in which God’s people felt dejected, found their homeland destroyed, and discovered that the Temple where the Lord’s glory had once shone was in ruins. It was a world that provided few reasons for hope.

This description of ancient Judah at the end of the exile could describe many downtrodden communities at any given period of history and perhaps many towns and cities today where the reasons for hope appear to be few and far-between. To such communities, the prophet Haggai speaks of God’s promise to restore what has fallen to the glory of his kingdom. The Lord’s message to them, and to his people today, is clear: “Take courage, all you people of the land… I am with you…My Spirit abides among you; do not fear.” The prophet offers a word of hope and a vision of God’s restoration of his people to abundant prosperity and peace. The land once again will have provisions, and the glory of God once more will shine among those who trust in the Lord. Indeed, Haggai insists that the future condition of God’s people will surpass all its past triumphs: “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts, and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.”

Like so many visions in the Bible, this is an eschatological vision, a vision of a future full of hope. It is a view toward God’s ultimate purposes for his people. His purpose for them is to fill them with his own splendor and glory in a future restoration and final triumph. We can trust that such a vision is true because it is grounded in God and in God’s essential goodness and sovereignty.

Equally, a close reading of today’s Epistle lesson from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians also suggests an eschatological hope for Christians who may be in a bad way. Saint Paul’s original audience was a church community that felt under assault from outside forces that seemed directly opposed to the grace and love of God as they had experienced it. He warned them not to be shaken or overly worried by their problems and difficulties; rather, the Apostle urged them to remember the promises of God to vindicate his faithful people on the Last Day. Such promises are made in light of God’s purposes for us and for the world.

As we read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians we are reminded that God also chose us to be holy and to inherit the glory of his Son Jesus Christ, like he chose those early Christians. As people of faith, we can stand firm on the Gospel because God’s promises to us in Jesus Christ are certain, and we can take comfort because God’s plans for us are good: “Now may the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.”

Of all the lessons, however, the portion of the Luke’s Gospel that we read today offers us a clear message about God’s plan for our future. On this particular occasion, several Sadducees questioned Jesus regarding levirate marriage, the practice of widows marrying their husband’s brother to carry on the family name and its results on the Last Day at the General Resurrection. Those who questioned Jesus did not believe in the hope that he offered to his disciples. It was an attempt to entrap him and discredit his teaching, but Jesus was not deterred. He explained that God’s promise for the age to come is a promise of transformation.

Rejecting the resurrection, as the Sadducees did, was to misunderstand something essential about who God is. God is the living God, and those who trust in him will become “like angels,” not concerned with the worries of the present, and they shall “children of God” and “children of the resurrection.”

God’s purpose is to make us like the Risen Christ, to make us like Jesus by means of our own resurrection to eternal life. Jesus grounded this hope, not in the problems of the present, but in the living God himself. Jesus reminds us that the Holy One, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of the living who can give life even to those to who have died. The Sadducees were rebuffed because their idea of God´s greatness was too small.

The tremendous greatness of God and this promise of resurrection and future transformation form an essential part of our Christian faith. Day-in and day-out the Church proclaims that we believe in “God, the Father Almighty,” “the resurrection of the body,” and “everlasting life”.

We believe that despite our particular problems and burdens, God will convert our frequently inglorious present into a life of eternal significance filled with joy, peace, and an incorruptible glory—we will become like our risen Savior Jesus Christ. Such a transformation will not be the product of our human devising, nor will it be a reward for our own good works. Rather, it will be fruit of God’s love and grace at work in our lives to bring about God’s good purposes for us through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Written by The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”.

Download the sermon for Proper 27(C).

The Righteous Live By Their Faith – Proper 26(C)

[RCL] Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119: 137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Trouble and distress have come upon me, yet your commandments are my delight. The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; grant me understanding, that I may live. Amen.

Today’s scripture lessons present a unified whole, in lovely, surprising connections.

The prophet Habakkuk is notable because he questions God. He asks, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” and then he announces that he will wait for God’s answer. And indeed, God does answer him, saying, “There is still a vision for the appointed time…it will surely come…the righteous live by their faith.” The message in Habakkuk is clear: even though destruction and violence are all around, the time will surely come; wait for it; live by faith.

In the psalm appointed for the day, the psalmist tells us that he has been consumed by indignation because his enemies forget God’s commandments, yet in spite of his distress, God’s commandments are a delight.

Both the prophet and the psalmist are transformed from questioning and indignation to faith and delight in God’s law, in the certainty that God’s justice is everlasting and the time awaited – the time of salvation – will surely come.

Paul gives thanks for the people of the church in Thessalonia, because he sees their faith growing abundantly, and their love for one another increasing, even during a time of persecution and affliction. Clearly then, we see a theme of holding a steadfast and joyful faith while the world around us is violent and unjust.

Let’s look at the transformation in the story of Zacchaeus. At first glance, we have a perfect narrative of making a new beginning in Christ. The story of the man who is short in stature and climbs a tree so that he can see Jesus is appealing to children and other vertically challenged people, and sheds a new light on the line in the psalm “I am small and of little account, yet I do not forget your commandments” (v. 141).

Perhaps Zacchaeus is not only short in stature, but also in moral status among his neighbors. He is a tax collector, and not just any tax collector, but a chief tax collector and rich. Tax collectors were hated in the community because they collected taxes from their Jewish neighbors for the Romans who occupied their country. In addition, a tax collector could and often did, overcharge their neighbors and keep the extra for themselves. Not only did they serve the Romans, but they also took advantage of their position to steal from their neighbors. The assumption is that Zacchaeus had become rich by his greed and dishonesty, stealing from his community.

So even though Zacchaeus has difficulty seeing Jesus, he makes an effort, humbles himself by doing an undignified, childish thing – climbing a tree – because of his desire to change and become worthy. He welcomes Jesus into his heart and his house, gladly offers to give half of his possessions to the poor, and make restitution if he has taken any money dishonestly. Zacchaeus makes the proper response to his encounter with Jesus.

Our translation states that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus, but the King James Version says that Zacchaeus received him joyfully. Joy is the appropriate response to God’s invitation. He becomes generous, a rich man who is willing to give away his money. Zacchaeus is transformed from sinner to faithful follower of Jesus. He is saved, and, in the words of Paul, Jesus is glorified in him and Zacchaeus in Jesus. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to meet his death, but in the transformation of Zacchaeus, his mission on earth is fulfilled.

Now, Christ’s mission was to save not just individual souls but humankind. Christianity is a corporate faith. How did Zacchaeus’ transformation affect the community? Zacchaeus was disliked, unpopular, rejected by the community. The crowd grumbles when Jesus reaches out to him, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Let’s think about this.

There are two ways of reading verse 8. The original Greek verb might indicate an action that is present and ongoing or a future action. Our translation reads “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor.” Looking again at the King James Version, the verse reads, “And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

Scholars dispute whether Zacchaeus is planning to give his money away in the future, or whether he is actually stating something that he has already done. Perhaps this is the reason that Jesus recognizes Zacchaeus up there in the tree, and calls him down, and invites himself to stay in this man’s house.

We know that Zacchaeus is despised by his community. He is an outsider, labeled as a chief tax collector, a rich man, a sinner. He is short in stature. He is not seen by his community until he climbs a tree and is seen by Jesus. Maybe Zacchaeus had been quietly giving to the poor all along! Who among us, that we have left on the margins, that we have not seen clearly because of our assumptions, might surprise us with their generosity and faith?

While we, and perhaps the crowd in Jericho, might be inclined to feel that Zacchaeus is saved because he willingly gives his riches to the poor, what does Jesus actually say? “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus says Zacchaeus and all his household are saved simply by being the people of God’s covenant with Abraham. Zacchaeus is saved because of his faith, not because of his works. This is the nature of salvation. It is not based on works, but on faith. Perhaps Zacchaeus’ good works are a result of his faith, of his delight in following God’s commandments.

Let’s look again at the words of the prophet Habakkuk: the righteous live by their faith.

Backing up just a bit, Habakkuk says: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Who is proud in this story? Zacchaeus or the crowd? Who is transformed? Zacchaeus or the crowd?

Both ways of reading the story of Zacchaeus are instructive. We might look at Zacchaeus as an individual sinner, who has repented and been granted salvation. Indeed, it is righteous and good to be transformed by an encounter with Jesus. It is righteous and good to respond with joy to the good news of Christ by giving generously to the poor.

And, as corporate Christians, members of the household of God, we need to consider the possibility that we must recognize ourselves in the crowd. Just as certainly, it is righteous and good to look around us and be open to surprise at who among us may be living with faith and generosity of spirit. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” And the unseen, the overlooked, the misunderstood folks on the edges of our community, the ones who need to climb a tree in order to be seen.

Let us pray. Gracious God, grant that we may see and by seen by our savior and brother Christ. Grant that we may respond with joy to the good news, that we may be generous not only with our wallets but with our hearts. Grant us freedom from making assumptions about others. Grant that we may see our neighbors as Christ sees them, and open our hearts to the faith and generosity of those we may not like or trust. Gracious God, grant me understanding, that I may live. Amen.

Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.  

Download the sermon for Proper 26(C).

All the Faithful Gathered to Worship God – All Saints, Year C

[RCL] Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

We have two ways of thinking about the saints, and it turns out that neither one of them is very helpful. We think of “Saints” with a capital “S”: St. Peter, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine, the named heroes of the faith who made their mark in the world and left a legacy of holiness that outlasted their lifetimes. And then we think of “saints” with a lowercase “s,” and here we usually mean someone of heroically long-suffering patience or rigidly upright moral conduct. Either concept is intimidatingly inaccessible to us regular folks who routinely lock our keys in our cars and have been known to shout at the television during a particularly key 4th down of a football game.

We don’t feel like we can live like the people who bravely faced the lions in the coliseum and went down to glorious martyrdom, or even our “saintly” neighbor down the block who never misses Sunday worship (or an opportunity to remind you that she never misses Sunday worship). We don’t feel like we can live like these people, and if we are honest, we don’t really want to live like these people. Dying violently or living joylessly seem to be the two dominant models for sainthood in our society, and neither fulfills Jesus’ hope for us that we might have life and have it abundantly.

The other reason we place the concept of sainthood on an elevated moral pedestal is because that otherness absolves us of responsibility. Saints are so out of touch with what our real lives are like. What does Saint Anselm know about paying the mortgage on time? What does St. John of the Cross’s lofty poetry do for us when we get a flat tire or go through a divorce or are diagnosed with cancer? The saints don’t know what real life is like. And so we don’t have to listen to the prophetic messages that their lives speak, we think.

This is what we tell ourselves to keep us safely distant from sainthood. But the original use of the term saints, particularly by Paul, was meant to indicate all the faithful gathered to worship God. Today is not just about heroes of the faith, and it’s not even just about our own beloved departed who have gone before us. This is not “Some Saints Day.” This is “All Saints Day,” and as the hymn so many of us will sing today goes, “for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

Did you ever think of the commitment you were making as you sang that cheerful little hymn each November? Our job today is to take away some of the haloed awe we place around saints and ask ourselves: “If we are all saints, what does that mean? If it doesn’t mean heroic glory or unhappy perfection, then what should we do? How should we live?”

The great saints of the church, the heroes of the faith who gave their lives for the gospel, were in fact folk just like us. We start there. And if we think about it, we really already know that. Poor St. Peter, God bless him, certainly put his foot in it more than once, up to the point of denying and abandoning Jesus. We can easily picture a 21st century St. Peter losing his temper and making rude gestures in traffic. If St. Teresa of Avila lived today, she might use the last scoop of coffee grounds in the break room and not replace the canister. If St. Bridget or St. Francis lived today, they might have embarrassing pictures on Facebook of their younger and wilder days.

We know that the saints were everyday human beings just like us, and we can be sure they made the same mistakes and had the same frailties. And yet something within them led them to do great things for the gospel, to live and sometimes die with incredible courage and boldness. How did they do that? If we are all saints, then we are all called to live as though our lives and our memories will still be important a thousand years from now. How can we live so that our legacy strengthens generations of the faithful to come after us?

What the saints had was an unshakeable commitment to follow Jesus, no matter where that took them. And we have an incredibly vivid portrait of where following Jesus takes us in our gospel lesson from Luke today. Consider the very first sentence we read: “Jesus looked up at his disciples.” What does that imply? In order for Jesus to look up at his disciples, he had to be at a level below them. So take your mental picture from old Sunday School illustrations of Jesus standing up on a rock above a crowd of people to preach to them, and stand it on its head. Jesus was down on the ground as he taught this most central of his messages. He was crouching or kneeling in the dirt as he healed someone prostrate with pain and illness.

Picture being a disciple standing around in a circle as Jesus gently and carefully lays hands on a pain-wracked man or woman, the entire laser focus of his love trained on this beloved child of God, ready to pour out his healing grace. And hands on the dirty, bad-smelling, sore-laden body of some hopeful soul, he looks up at his disciples and says, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, who are excluded and reviled and persecuted. You are blessed, and you are beloved, and you are mine.”

Jesus speaks to us from the heart of frail, suffering, flawed humanity, because that is where he lives. He chooses to be with and in the pain of the world, and he calls us to follow him there. That was the special charism of the great saints. They weren’t spiritual athletes, accruing an ever-escalating number of holiness points. They knew that their own weaknesses combined with the desperate need of the world created the very conditions for God to work miracles, and they gave themselves to that process wholeheartedly.

That sounds backwards, doesn’t it? It seems like the saints would bring all their strength and intelligence to bear on the levers of power and wealth. But instead they entrusted their weak and wounded selves to the Jesus they found at the bottom of the world, at the bottom of the chasm within themselves, looking up at them and telling them they were blessed. And they heard him there. They followed him there. And through them, he changed the world.

Many of us hearing this gospel today are not literally poor and hungry. But those of us blessed with economic riches and societal privileges are often desperately poverty-stricken in other ways. We are starving for meaning in our lives. We weep silent inward tears of loneliness and depression. We hunger for community without realizing it. We thirst for our own lost integrity and hope in a world driven mad by greed and cynicism.

But we need not fear looking down into the depths of suffering, both inward and outward. Whether the abyss we run from is the hungry and oppressed around the world and in our neighborhoods, or the undiscovered darkness within our own hearts, when we look down into those places, we find Jesus looking up at us.

And where he is, we need never fear to go. That is what the great saints, the heroes of the faith, knew. They saw Jesus look up at them and call them blessed, and so they followed him down into the depths. And there, they found healing, and joy, and communion with God and with one another.

An individual who follows Jesus down to join with him in lifting the whole world up. That’s all a saint is. No glory, no perfection, not even any particular holiness. Just mustering the courage to say yes to his love, his love that reaches out to touch us in our poorest and most wounded places. Want to know if you’re a saint? See Jesus look up at you and say, “You are blessed.” Take that truth into your heart and know that today, All Saints’ Day, is for you.

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice. Rice is the Associate Rector at St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for All Saints, Year C.

Will We Accept God’s Love? Proper 25

[RCL] Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

A prayer by Jacqueline Bergan and S Marie Schwann says, “Lord my God, when Your loved spilled over into creation You thought of me. I am from love, of love, for love.”[i]

What an awesome claim! When God first created, God did it with us in mind. In fact, the reason for creation itself was so God could create us in order to receive God’s love, to participate in God’s love, flourish in it, take joy in it. We are no afterthoughts, no fortunate bystanders, no accidents. God made us from love, of love, for love.

The fundamental question every single human being asks is, Do you love me? And the answer from God is an unequivocal, unashamed, unabashed, yes.

Will we accept that love?

The prayer is beautiful, but it presents a challenge. “Lord my God, when your love spilled over into creation, you thought of me” Really? Isn’t that a little too much? A little over-stated? Can it actually be a fact that not only is there a God, and not only is the nature of God love, but the divine love that threw the stars and molded the dry land and set all the protons and neutrons and quarks and photons humming and buzzing–that divine love is actually directed at us? Us in particular. And God is just longing to love us and rain down on us an abundance of grace and favor, and all we need to do is receive it? Can that really be?

Although biologists and psychologists, physiologists and sociologists say we are hard-wired for relationship, and theologians say we are created for relationship with a God who loves us just because we exist, somehow, we get this idea we have to be worthy of being loved. We have to deserve it, earn it. We turn the question, “Do you love me?” into “What must I do to be worthy of love?”

If you’re not ready to admit this for yourself, think about all the examples of people you know who operate under this assumption. Think of every bad decision a friend has made in a relationship in order to prove herself worthy of love. Think of every poor choice a teenager has made to prove himself worthy of some affection or attention. Think of every child who fears, even for a moment, that something they have done will cause their parent to love them less.

Think of every time you’ve heard something like this: the woman said to the girl, “Remember, we’re going to see Chris. You have to be good when we get there, because Chris only likes girls who behave all the time.” Who is this Chris? Santa Claus? But who knows, what if it’s true? Maybe Chris does only like children who behave all the time.

We do know human love is less than perfect. We know, all too well, that the well of human love can run dry. And we project our small human experiences of finite love onto God. And the result is we think we must be worthy of love, including God’s, and this attendant heresy: God’s only got so much love to give. We sometimes live as if we might hear the following breaking news bulletin: Sources report that the price of God’s love has gone up five dollars a barrel due to high demand and short supply. A break in the pipeline and problems in offshore drilling for God’s love means that further shortages and price hikes are in store. People are urged to decrease their consumption and look for substitutes for God’s love. Current practices of being conduits of God’s love and lavishing it on others, including children, the weak, the vulnerable, and the poor must be stopped immediately.

Rather than thinking of God as God is known in our scripture and our liturgy and our faith tradition, as the source of all love, unquenchable, unstoppable, self-giving love, with oceans full of love to give, we think of God’s love meted out in teaspoons full, eyedroppers full, and we need to qualify, even compete, to get some of it.

So when we hear today’s parable, of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we all too easily hear this interpretation: A Self-Righteous Pharisee says his prayers in the temple. He is prideful and self-congratulatory. A Tax collector also says his prayers, but, unlike the Pharisee, he is humble. God hears the prayers of the humble tax collector, and does not listen to the self-righteous Pharisee. The moral of the story is: be humble like the Tax Collector. The Tax Collector has discovered the secret–he has found the way to win approval in the eyes of God: humility! Be like the Tax Collector and you too will be able to say, Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!

And there’s the trap that betrays this way of interpreting the story. This is not a parable about winning God’s love. This is not a story about substituting one bad way to try to get God to listen to you–being self-righteousness–with a way God likes, humility.

Rather, it’s a story in which two seemingly unlike characters stand before God and are really very much the same. They both need God’s love and forgiveness. They are both loved and forgiven by God. The difference is that one is open to receiving that abundant love and one is not. The Pharisee’s prayer is more of a progress report: Dear God, just wanted you to know, I’m doing quite well thank you. I give more than I need to; I’m keeping the commandments; I’m well-regarded in the community. This is Pharisee signing off. The Pharisee asks nothing of God, and goes home with nothing.

On the other hand, there is the tax collector, a despicable fellow, a traitor to his community, making money off his neighbors to support the occupying Roman forces. For some reason, who knows why, this tax collector comes into the temple knowing he needs God’s love and mercy. He has done nothing to earn God’s love. He is not deserving of it. He just needs it, and asks for it. And he goes home aware of the abundant love flowing down on both himself and the Pharisee. But where the tax collector has opened up his heart and allowed God’s love and mercy to wash over him, the Pharisee has put up an umbrella of self-fulfillment, has cloaked himself in a bubble of self-sufficiency, and all of the love of God rains down on the righteous and unrighteous alike, just runs right off him.

This is a parable about God’s abundant love for us, and about whether we’re going to take off our raincoats and dance around in the rain, or whether we’re going to try to keep ourselves dry and distant and unaffected.

The response to God’s lavish love is to accept it, relish it, treasure it and find as many ways as we can to give it away, to live out the image of God stamped on every one of us, the image of a God of abundant love, to open our hands and hearts and stand in the stream of God’s love and to use every means at our disposal to share this love with others. In church, we call this good stewardship.

In church, we practice accepting that love by greeting one another in the peace of the Lord. We practice accepting that love by gathering at God’s table saying, we need this food. We practice giving that love by praying for people, some of whom we don’t even know, but that they may know themselves to be bathed in the river of God’s delight. We practice giving that love by making our offerings of ourselves through our money, our talents, our gifts. We practice giving that love by going forth from this place rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, to love and serve the Lord.

The Love that moves the sun and the stars, the Love that creates, sustains, and redeems the cosmos, is always uttering its eternal “Yes” to our question “Do you love me?” The only thing we need to do is open ourselves to that love. All self-flattery and self-importance and self-righteousness ends in futility. When we stop reciting our resumes in the temple, the incarnate love of God meets us and embraces us, saying, I know your pain, my beloved, and I forgive your sins. I know your emptiness and I will fill it and I will fill you with my Love. Amen.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter. 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.  

[i] Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and S. Marie Schwan, Freedom: A Guide to Prayer (Winona, Minn.: St. Mary’s Press, 1988), 12.

Download the sermon for Proper 25(C).