Archives for 2016

Nothing Changes Except Everything, Christmas Day (I)

[RCL] Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Nothing Changes Except Everything

Nothing changed. God had broken into our world with sound and beauty. Light and hope pierced the dark of gloom and nothing changed.

The prophets of old had spoken of it; “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The people who sat in darkness waited and hoped and prayed and longed for Light to dawn.

But nothing changed.

A new mother, unprepared and scared, fleeing with her intended, had said “yes”, it seemed so long ago, without knowing the full responsibility, not knowing her voice would echo through eternity. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Longing for deliverance, for a chance to recognize that her life matters in a world dominated by privilege, power and might.  In a backwater town, an afterthought on the best of days, in the middle of nowhere, amid the screaming birth pangs, animal breath and a bewildered carpenter, an unwed refugee teenager brought our salvation, Jesus the Messiah into the numb and noisy world. Into humanity’s quarreling and bickering and warring came forth God’s shimmering light. A whisper, a word so fragile to utter it could destroy it. Hope. God had done the improbable.

And yet…nothing changed.

Angels, winged messengers of fierce gentleness, clothed in light and overflowing with song, heralded the birth of the Word into the world, but the beauty of their song, the fierceness of their countenance, the light of eternity was lost on certain poor shepherds keeping their flocks by night. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Message sent. Song ended. Even the angels turned back to their heavenly duties.

Nothing changed.

Living on the borders, the edges, the margins, the unwanted outcasts who tended the sheep, the hired hands who were counted as two steps above nothing, to these the angels imparted their celestial song. The shepherds filled with fear and awe at the message of the angels, came and saw and stood for a time gazing at the world’s redemption. All of God’s self, wrapped the beauty of a baby, the Messiah, the Lord. But no matter how bright the angels, no matter how beatific the song, the sheep needed tending and life does not stop for a screaming, squirming baby named Jesus.

Nothing changed.

Dull peace sprawled boringly over the earth, filling the holy night with scent of ordinary. Not even the Romans, the purveyors of power paid any attention. It was a night like any other, unremarkable in its blatant ordinariness.

Nothing changed. Except…everything changed.

God, the Great I AM, the sculptor of the mountains, the crafter of the universe, the voice of creation, entered into our world and changed EVERYTHING!

We, unaccustomed to courage, exiles from delight, live coiled in shells of loneliness, until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight, to liberate us into life. [1]

On Christmas nothing changes, yet everything changes. Our world continues along its path, as God breaks into our humanity like a stealthy thief in the small hours of the night, leaving traces of hope and drops of courage along a weary path. We often oblivious travelers seeking the lingering presence of the divine miss the signs of God being born again and again and again in to our world.

We the followers of this helpless child, this Jesus, we are the ones challenged and called to change everything. We who would prefer a God who crashes into the world with power and authority and great might are called to the daily work of Christmas. Nothing changes because we are the ones called to be the change. God coming into our world has no meaning unless we continue the work of Christmas.

God comes into our lives, not with blazing glory but in the quiet of a stable.
God enters our world not with sound and fury but in the whimpering of a new born child;
Not with power and authority but in the helplessness of a baby; not with class or privilege but as a displaced refugee with no nation of his own.
The work of Christmas is our work. God enters and changes everything.

The work of changing and transforming our humanity is ours to fulfill. The work of welcoming the outcast living on the edges and margins; the work of bringing good news of great joy to all the world, proclaiming the transformative power of love in action is now our angelic message.

We are the ones who must love our enemies, turn the other cheek, bless those who curse us, and love without boundaries. We are the ones who must visit the prisoners, feed the homeless, and welcome the stranger. Nothing changes, except everything changes with us. God’s work of redemption is done through the work of our hands. We are the ones who must seek the traces of hope and drops of courage in a world weary by division and strife.

Now more than ever does our world need Christmas, not the pristine angels or the idyllic shepherds of movies and Christmas cards, but the real, messy, unsure and often fearful carriers of the Christmas message. Now more than ever our world needs the followers of Jesus to step out of our places of comfort and our communities of refuge to proclaim, not in words but in action God’s favor, God’s hope, God’s love.

Our world needs Christmas not just today but every day.

God has work to do in this world; it is not enough that we be just, that we be righteous, and walk with God in holiness; it is not enough that we gather and say good things about Jesus in our beautiful places of worship. God needs us. We who are worried and wearied and terrified, the broken messengers with a living message. We must go out, like the shepherds to tell of the Good News in the messy, dirty and uninviting places of this world. We must go out to serve the ones forgotten and counted as nothing, because in them we serve Christ.

God breaks into our world and nothing happens without us.

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”[2]

At Christmas nothing changes except everything.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Deon Johnson. Rev. Johnson serves as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, MI. A Liturgical Consultant, Deon specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time Deon enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.  

[1] Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou

[2] “Now the work of Christmas begins” by Howard Thurman, African-American theologian, educator, & civil rights leader.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (I).

What We Need From Christmas, Christmas Day (II)

[RCL] Isaiah 62:6-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7)8-20; Psalm 97 

For churches across the country, the month of December is devoted to preparation—not only the kind of spiritual preparation that Advent invites; but rather, practical planning: where (and when) to hang the decorations, how to assemble the Christmas liturgies, when to organize the Christmas parties and festivities, and so on. Altar guilds and worship committees across the country are in high gear at this time of year!

And yet, beyond Christmas pageants and church bazaars (that’s daring enough for most of us!), there is a church in just about every community across the country that takes things to the next level and puts on a live Nativity scene!

You know the kind: a makeshift stable is assembled with live animals—a few sheep, a donkey or two, and maybe a camel if the committee started preparing well in advance. Someone dresses as an angel and stands on the rooftop of the makeshift stable, others dress as shepherds or wise men—which we’ll assume arrived a few weeks early. And of course, there are the central figures: Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus—usually portrayed by the youngest child in the parish. For a few nights in the lead-up to Christmas, everyone plays their part, standing as still as possible under the glare of a spotlight.

Most of us have driven by such a scene, and a few of us may have even participated in them. It’s a lovely image because it captures the scene we’ve grown up imagining and brings it to life before our very eyes. It puts us in mind of the Holy Family gathered with the shepherds on that first Christmas, rejoicing in the awesome power of God made flesh in this tiny little child. All is silent as the whole world stops to behold the birth of this child—the birth of God made flesh!

But if you pay careful attention to these scenes, you’ll notice that they are rarely as peaceful and serene as they first appear! For starters, livestock will be livestock: sheep are ornery, donkeys are stubborn, cows are lazy, and camels have a temper! The wind seldom cooperates, costumes fall apart, people fidget, and babies cry!

Despite all of our creative imaginings to the contrary, this unintentional chaos is more similar to the way things actually happened on that first Christmas than the peaceful and serene still-life that we so often imagine.

After all, if you’ve ever visited or worked on a farm, you can imagine the stench that must have accompanied Jesus’ birth; and if you’ve ever been anywhere near a hospital delivery room, you know that there’s no “meek and mild” about the miracle of childbirth! The truth is that the birth of Jesus was anything but silent or peaceful or calm. Mary was a teenager made to grow up way too quickly, Joseph was in way over his head, and the conditions in which Jesus was birthed were less than ideal, even by first-century standards.

And so, why do we dismiss what we know about Christmas: that it was surely a scene of chaos and surprise, in favor of what we imagine about Christmas: that it was a peaceful and serene ode to Jesus meek and mild?

Perhaps the answer has something to do with what we need from Christmas.

In 2016 alone, more than 13,000 Americans have died because of gun violence. Nearly 3,500 of them were children under age 18. There have been more than 300 mass shootings this year, and nearly 300 police officers have been shot and killed.[1]

We have faced the most vitriolic, negative, hate-filled, not to mention expensive, election in modern history. We’re busier than ever, we’re working harder and making less, and the cost of living just keeps going up.

And so, we imagine a peaceful and serene Christmas because that is precisely what we need. We need peace and serenity and beauty; we need a place to worship something pure—something warm and peaceful; something inspiring. We need a Christmas that brings peace and delight, rather than chaos and disorder.

But that’s the paradox of Christmas! On the one hand, we desperately want to believe that Jesus’ birth was a serene, orderly, peaceful moment in which the whole world stood still; but on the other hand, the Gospel stares us in the face and proclaims just the opposite: disruption, disorder, and chaos.

The Christmas of the Gospels reminds us that God in Christ hasn’t come into our lives to make things a little more peaceful or to inspire us to be a little more cheerful. No, God in Christ has come to change everything we thought we knew!

God in Christ hasn’t come to rehabilitate our old lives or to make them a bit more bearable; God in Christ has called us to a new life of redemption and resurrection!

God in Christ comes to us, not in the center of town or in an ornate palace, but in the place where we least expect him: in a tiny little town on the margins of society.

He is born, not in the presence of kings and princes and rulers, but in the presence of dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep. He is born, not of a princess or a queen, but of a poor, terrified, teenaged mother who did not ask for this!

This is the true story of Christmas!

And if we listen closely, we can hear God whispering something to us that, deep down we’ve always known but have been afraid to admit: The life we’ve so carefully crafted for ourselves; this world that we work so hard to manage and control, cannot satisfy our souls.

But the promise of God that was born on that first Christmas speaks to us still: God in Christ has come to us, not to give us more of the life we know, but to give us new life! Christmas is not the celebration of what once was a long time ago, it is the celebration of the One who was and is and is to come! It is the inauguration of God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ—it is the beginning of our salvation!

And that, dear friends, brings joy to the world indeed!

Merry Christmas!

Written by The Rev. Marshall Jolly (@MarshallJolly). Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, an ecumenical, international lectionary-based preaching commentary authored exclusively by Millennials. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.  

[1] Gun Violence Archive, http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (II).

Here’s How Much I Love You, Christmas Day (III)

[RCL] Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14; Psalm 98

In the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman plays Luke, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp, who refuses to conform to prison life. In a famous scene, Luke tries to escape, but he is caught and dragged back in shackles and brought to the captain of the prison. In order to make a lesson of him, the captain berates him in front of the other prisoners. When Luke makes a wise remark, the captain lashes out at him and utters the famous line: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

It’s a great line. It’s also what makes the stuff of both great comedy and tragedy. Remember the comedy routine by Abbott and Costello called “Who’s on First?” Abbott is trying to help Costello out by telling him the names of the players on a mythical baseball team. The lineup is: “who’s on first, what’s on second, I don’t know is on third.” It’s all very funny, and it’s all based on a failure to communicate.

It is also the stuff of great tragedy. Remember the end of Romeo and Juliet? They both end up taking their own lives. And why does this happen? You’ve got it. A failure to communicate. If only Juliet could have texted Romeo rather than relying on a messenger to let him know the plan about taking the potion that made her only appear to be dead, then everything would have worked out. But, alas, it was not so, and never was there a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo. And it was all because there was a failure to communicate.

In our own lives, we know all too well the reality and pain of failing to communicate. One of the leading causes of marriages falling apart is lack of communication. People say, we just drifted apart. We don’t talk anymore. We are leading separate lives. You’ve all probably heard of “the silent treatment.” It’s one of the cruelest things human beings can do to each other. Failure to communicate can cause chasms to open up between us or it can intentionally wound others in the cruelest of ways.

In our collective lives, we also know the pain of failing to communicate. I’ve heard people say that a crowded city is paradoxically one of the loneliest places to live. People don’t know the next door neighbors. People don’t talk to each other on elevators. The difference between being part of a crowd and part of a community is the ability or the failure to communicate. If you communicate with your neighbor, you belong to a community. If you fail to communicate with your neighbor, your just part of a crowd, a lonely crowd.

On the other hand, we all know what a blessing it can be when we really communicate with someone. When we really connect with people we say things like, we had a heart-to-heart talk.

In a Reader’s Digest story, Maureen Macay gives a lovely example of a grace she experienced while traveling in China. She writes, “Traveling by train in China, my son and I shared a sleeping compartment with a Chinese couple. They spoke no English and we knew few Chinese words, so conversation was impossible — until an hour into the trip, when the man called someone on his cell phone. After a few moments, he passed the phone to his wife who also spoke into it. Then, to my surprise, she handed me the phone. Feeling rather foolish, I said, ‘Hello’ into it. The person at the other end was the couple’s daughter, who spoke perfect English. I told her about us and our trip, and she relayed the information to her parents. How delightful that a simple phone call could teach us such a lesson about Chinese graciousness.” And the ability to communicate.

God knows about the struggle to communicate. Our Bible is the story of God’s struggle to get God’s message of love across to humanity. God tried over and over again, to reach us, but we kept turning deaf ears to God’s message of love. We ignored commandments, prophets, and sages, invitations, threats, and promises.

What is the opposite of a failure to communicate? Saying exactly the right thing.

The message of Christmas is this: God found a new way to say exactly the right thing. The letter to the Hebrews says, “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

A baby. The Son of God, the Word, co-eternal with God from before all time, became incarnate, took on flesh, real flesh, a baby’s flesh. God became one of us, and like us, came into the world as a baby. The one at whose “command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets, in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home”[1] became for us an inarticulate infant.

In the words of today’s psalm, God “sends out his commands to the earth, and his word runs very swiftly.” At Christmas, God chose to let his Word have to learn to crawl first. The one whose “Let there be light,” rang throughout the darkness and set off the spark of creation, became for us a speechless baby, limited to communicating through cooing and crying.

The one used to the praise of countless throngs of angels, singing their unending hymn, “Holy, holy, holy,” surrounded himself with new music: a mother’s “hush, sweet baby, hush,” the ahhing and oohing of shepherds leaning over a manger making baby talk to the baby, cattle lowing, the rustling of straw. God found a whole new way to communicate, a whole new way to say exactly the right thing. The Word took on a whole new language, and it turned out to be—baby talk.

What does a baby say? Actually, not much. Without the power of speech, they are, in fact, rather limited. But they do say two very important things: Here I am, and, I need you.

And God, in God’s love, as the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us as a baby, says this as well: I am here. I need you.

Shocking, isn’t it? The Word becomes flesh, a vulnerable, inarticulate baby. And we don’t say, the message is this: someday, the child will grow, which is true, and become an adult, which is true, and will walk and talk and love and live and say things and do things that will show us just how much God loves us—all of which is true. But even here, even in these days of the Christmas season, what we celebrate is not the potential for communication that a baby has—that someday God will speak through incarnate life. What we celebrate is that this baby, the Word made flesh, was already a completely formed message of love, full of grace and truth toward us. Here I am. I am with you. I am for you. I am trusting myself to you. I need you.

In Graham Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter, the character Scobie describes the incarnation, and the amazing risk God took in becoming human in such a vulnerable way, a pattern of openness that would continue throughout Jesus’ life and in the sacraments, as well. The narrator says, “It seemed to him for a moment cruelly unfair of God to have exposed himself in this way, a man, a wafer of bread, first in the Palestinian villages and now here in the hot port, there, everywhere, allowing man to have his will of Him. Christ had told the rich young man to sell all and follow Him, but that was an easy rational step compared with this that God had taken, to put himself at the mercy of men who hardly knew the meaning of the word. How desperately God must love, he thought with shame.”[2]

How desperately God must love. Desperately enough to find a new way to say exactly the right thing, which, even in the cries and coos of an infant, turns out to be: “Here’s how much I love you.”

Written by The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. His ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. He received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.  

[1] Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer, 370.

[2] Greene, The Heart of the Matter.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (III).

Christ the King – Sermon for Last Sunday after Pentecost(C)

Recognizing the various approaches to Christ the King, here are several alternate sermons available for use on this Sunday:


[RCL] Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 16; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

When you think of a king what image immediately comes to mind? A man wearing a crown and regal clothing? Perhaps someone who is powerful living in a royal palace?

In the time of Jesus, the ruling monarch of Rome had absolute power on earth and was worshipped as a son of the gods. Any challenge to Caesar’s authority would be dealt with quickly and efficiently. In ancient Israel the king was not only the head of state, but also served in the role as a type of high priest. Israeli kings were often considered messianic figures sent by Yahweh to deliver the nation from those who sought to oppress them.

The Jews of Jesus’ time continued to long for the day that a messiah would come and deliver them from their oppressors and restore the fortunes of Israel. First Century Jewish messianism was wrought with dreams of military victory over their Roman occupiers, the expulsion of all Gentiles from the Holy Land, and a newly established nation of Israel founded upon biblical principles. It is no wonder that the Roman overlords and King Herod, their vassal king, viewed potential usurpers with extreme caution.

It is into this political turmoil and heightened apocalyptic fervor that Jesus was born – and crucified. Jesus, a poor carpenter and itinerate preacher from a small town, could hardly be confused with being a king. Yet for a brief moment, his followers dared to dream that he may indeed have been the long-awaited messiah.

There was nothing regal about him at all. His rag-tag group of followers were from the lowest classes of society. He attracted Samaritans, lepers, demoniacs, tax collectors, fishermen, women of ill repute, the poor, and those marginalized by the ruling class of religious leaders. At best, Jesus could easily be confused with the many other zealots and rabble rousers that appeared on the scene during Rome’s occupation of Palestine. Adding more irony to the situation is the fact that Jesus’ parentage was questionable due to the fact that Mary became pregnant before marrying Joseph. Everything Jesus owned he wore, down to his worn-out sandals.

Under Pontius Pilot, the Roman governor stationed in Jerusalem, Jesus was condemned to death by crucifixion, a form of punishment reserved for the lowest classes of criminals and traitors. It was the most ignominious form of capital punishment. The sign on the cross proclaiming Jesus as “This is the King of the Jews” was not honorific, but was meant as a joke and an insult. Simply put, it labeled Jesus as a mere traitor and reminder to future rebels what awaited them if they resisted the Roman Empire. Jesus hung with criminals on the outskirts of Jerusalem, naked and bleeding from his wounds, a pitiful sight meant to instill fear among the Jewish population. To the average person, Jesus was no king, but a man whose life and ministry was cut short. But Jesus’ journey to kingship begins on the Cross in accordance with God’s will for humanity.

The Church has done a disservice through the generations in the manner in which it has proclaimed Jesus as King of Kings. Early religious artwork portraying our Lord shows him dressed in the simple clothing of his time, but as the Episcopate became temporal rulers, and the Church gained status in the eyes of emperors and kings, the image of Christ began to take on a more grandiose look. He was portrayed wearing the regal robes of rulers and potentates. By doing so, secular rulers used the image of King Jesus to justify their own dynastic rule – ones that were often despotic and cruel.

The Church became complicit in supporting these secular rulers, and Church rulers often were just as powerful and cruel in their own right. As the Church amassed great armies, King Jesus became a warrior king, leading his faithful troops into battle against the infidels. Jesus, the King of Kings, was no longer a simple poor itinerate rabbi from Palestine who took mercy on the poor and outcast, and submitted to death on the cross, but he now took on the look of European monarchs – white, wealthy, dressed in flowing robes, and wearing a jeweled diadem. Sadly, this is a far cry from who Jesus truly is and the message he proclaimed that resulted in his crucifixion.

Jesus’ journey to kingship was no easy endeavor. Our Lord had to learn humility through obedience to God’s will – obedience even unto death on a cross. Jesus is no ordinary king who rules over his subjects with absolute authority and power. He is the Suffering Messiah, one who came into the world and dwelt among humanity, being tempted in all things without sin.

Jesus earned his kingship by first becoming a servant of all. “If you want to become great,” he taught his disciples, “you must first become a servant.” Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, washed his disciples’ feet, fed the hungry, took pity on those who suffered, ate with sinners, forgave sins, spoke out against injustice, challenged the status quo, welcomed the social outcasts, and took on the mantle of poverty and obscurity. Although he existed in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but became human and lived among those deemed unworthy and marginalized by society.

If we profess Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, do we then live as his subjects? Is Jesus’ kingship just an honorific we bestow upon him without allowing him to have any real influence on the day-to-day actions in our lives, or do we really live as if he is our sovereign – seeking his will in all aspects of our lives? If Jesus who is King and Lord identified with the least in this world, are we willing to also identify with the least as well?

Jesus was not elevated to king status in order for us to dress him in regal roles and place him far above humanity. Rather, his kingdom is not of this world. The least in this world are considered the greatest in his kingdom.

Our king is no ordinary king. He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity. God has put all things under subjection to his Christ who is under God so that God may be all in all. Glory to Christ the King who through sacrifice and humility has shown us the way to God. Amen!

Written by The Rev. Timothy G. Warren. Warren is the founder and pastor of St. Francis Independent Old Catholic Church, an emergent outreach ministry in California’s High Desert Region, and President/CEO of LifeSkills Development, a nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to at-risk young adults.

Download the sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost(C), Christ the King.

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).

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).

Returning to Pray, Proper 24(C)

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

Brother Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) Episcopal Monastery in Cambridge, MA witnessed profound spiritual healing in Cairo, Egypt. Brother Tristram noticed a man kneeling before the altar at Saint John the Baptist Coptic Church. Two others flanked the kneeling man with their hands on his shoulders. Seventeen others stood praying around this trio.

The man kneeling stood up, leading the group to another altar where he knelt again. Brother Tristram inquired about their actions. The man kneeling was dying. Doctors exhausted all options. Family members brought their loved one on a pilgrimage, praying at all the church altars and Holy Shrines in Old Cairo. Brother Tristram reflected on his experience. “I was struck by their fervent faith and their love, both for this man and for God. I don’t know what happened to him. I had witnessed an event of profound spiritual healing.”[1]

Jesus told the parable of a persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8, using her as the model to pray always and not lose heart. Someone wronged her, and she sought justice. It was normal during her time for people to accept their fate. This widow was different because she did not accept her fate. She repeatedly visited the judge saying, “Grant me justice.” When the judge refused, she kept coming. The judge finally granted her justice so that “she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (Luke 18:5) Jesus asked if he would find this amount of faith on earth.

The widow modeled faithfulness in prayer. Her actions expanded the idea of prayer to include the believer’s entire and whole life.[2] The widow showed continual prayer. Continual prayer differs from continuous or perpetual prayer. Some churches have continuous prayer on Maundy Thursday leading into Good Friday, with groups of people praying hourly through the night before the Altar of Repose. Continual prayer is prayer that starts and stops and starts again. Returning to God in prayer day after day is continual prayer.

Prayer is conversation with God. Christians believe that God initiates prayer. When we pray, it is the Holy Spirit speaking to us, calling us to prayer. God is always communicating. We are not always listening. Prayer is a conversation beginning with God and flowing to us. Our response to God completes the prayer cycle.

Brother Geoffrey Tristram of SSJE teaches the importance of Christians having an altar or sacred place in their homes, a place to return day after day to pray. The altar can be a table with candles, a cross, bible, or prayer book. On the other hand, it can be an unassuming place near a window overlooking nature’s beauty. This becomes a place of continual prayer.

Returning to the same place to prayer trains the body to pray. Crossing the prayer threshold signals to the body it is time to pray. This is significant since there will be times in your life when you cannot find the words to prayer: a loved one dies; life’s circumstances weigh you down. Prayer in those moments are the “sigh prayers” of Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Your body will lead your spirit in prayer when returning to the same place to pray daily.

Some couples renew their wedding vows on anniversary milestones. One couple at an Episcopal parish in Dallas, Texas renews their wedding vows each year near their anniversary date. Year after year the couple returns to the church, standing in front of the altar during a weekday Holy Eucharist service, repeating prayers and offering their marriage to God for continued blessing. One year the couple renewed their vows in Jerusalem while on pilgrimage. The couple’s choice to continually return to God and the place of marriage helps shape their marriage.

Jesus uses the widow is his parable to model faith and prayer. Her only weapon is persistence.

We as Christians cannot lose heart. We cannot give up even when prayers seem to go unanswered. Can we find the faith to prayer in the midst of disorderly lives? Return to God in prayer. Return to your place of worship week after week. Return to your home altar, your place of prayer in your house, day after day. Returning to God, church, and your home altar allows the Holy Spirit to mold your body to pray, transforming you into a Christian who continually converses with God. Amen.

The Reverend Jemonde Taylor is the eleventh rector of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, NC. Jemonde serves the Diocese of NC by being a part of Diocesan Council, the Disciple Board, and co-chair for the Nominating Committee for the Twelfth Bishop Diocesan. He is a consultant to the Office of Black Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Prior to serving Saint Ambrose, Jemonde was priest missioner at Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Dallas, TX as a part of the Lilly Transition into Ministry Program. Jemonde studies the spirituality, worship, and history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and leads pilgrimages to Ethiopia for Epiphany.

[1] Tristram, Geoffery. “Intercession.” SSJE. October 20, 2009. Accessed September 29, 2016. http://ssje.org/ssje/2009/10/20/intercession-br-geoffrey-tristram/

[2] Fitzmyer, Joseph, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), 1176.

Download the sermon for Proper 24(C).