Archives for October 2017

Awakening to God’s Presence, Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – November 12, 2017

Proper 27

[RCL] Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Archbishop William Temple said, “The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake? Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in. So trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to encourage and promote neuroplasticity is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or go watch the ball game?

Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for the God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest promotes neuroplasticity. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

So what are we waiting for? Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake!

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age. No waiting required. He is here. Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.

What is Jesus calling us to do? Wake up and keep awake!

The time and effort put into doing less and doing nothing will awaken us to the clever truth buried deep within this tale of lamps and oil and bridesmaids: He is here. His door is open to all at all times of day and night.

When we wake up to this truth all things are made new – including most importantly we ourselves.

 

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

 Note: This sermon originally ran for Proper 27 on November 9, 2014.

Download the sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Do You Feel Burdened?, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost – November 5, 2017

Proper 26

[RCL] Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

 Do you feel burdened? The writers of our epistle and gospel want to know. “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul says. Jesus speaks of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” What is the difference between the two? What separates those in the Beloved Community who impose burdens on others, and those who remove them?

The topic of burdens is important throughout the Bible. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We all know what it is like to feel burdened by life. Every single person we know is bearing a burden of some kind, some seen, some unseen. Cancer, financial hardship, caregiving for an elderly parent, a child struggling in school, addiction—the burdens add up and weigh us down. And we all feel the collective burdens of lives lost or altered in natural disasters, mass shootings, and the global struggles of poverty and disease.

It’s no surprise that the bearing of burdens shows up all over scripture. And in our texts for today, we have the contrast between how Paul is trying to relate to his spiritual community, and how the scribes and Pharisees are. What differentiates the two? After all, Paul began religious life as a Pharisee. What helped him escape being a burden to his community? And more than that, how did he become someone who lessened the burdens of others?

We can immediately see from how Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees that they are creating burdens for others because they are carrying crippling burdens of their own. Their burden is made of a toxic combination of trying to earn God’s favor by their works and demanding that everyone around them acknowledge their superior efforts. They have taken the sacred Law of Moses, which Jesus upholds in this passage, and burdened it with the deceptively heavy weight of their fragile egos.

The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus describes do not believe that God loves them freely and fully regardless of what actions they do or do not take. They are constantly hustling for God’s favor. They do not believe in an unconditionally loving God in their heart of hearts. This is not the fault of the law, but the predictable result of any religious person who has never grown beyond the petty and fearful tyranny of the ego. There are many Christians today who suffer from this unseen burden of functional works righteousness. We say we believe God loves us, but we feel safer hedging our bets by racking up good works.

And those good works are usually seen by others. That public do-gooding starts to earn us the approval and congratulations of others, and we get addicted to it. Before long we start to think we’re better than other people who aren’t working as hard as we are to build the Kingdom of God. It can be a short road from “trying to help and care for others” to “holier-than-thou and insufferable.”

What began as an honest search for the love of God and a life in the center of God’s will has turned into our becoming a burden to our faith community. Why did this happen? What is missing?

What is missing is the space, silence, and vulnerability necessary to actually receive the radiant love of God. When we approach the Christian life as a constant stream of virtuous activity directed as loudly as possible both at God and at our faith community—“Look at me! Look at all the wonderful things I’m doing!”—the still, small voice of the Spirit is very easily drowned out. Our self-imposed burden of a needy ego, never patient enough to learn the love of God, will sooner or later become the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the scribes and Pharisees in our gospel passage today.

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul tells us. This “labor and toil,” “night and day,” that Paul speaks of consists in large part of patient and faithful prayer. Going within in silence and stillness, engaging in spiritual disciplines, finding and remaining faithful to daily spiritual practice—this is the labor and toil that over time, lifts our false internal burdens and makes us free. The freely chosen work of prayer and building spiritual intimacy with God slowly transforms us from being burdens, to merely having burdens, to one day lifting the burdens of others.

That’s one half of the equation—the labor and toil of prayer and individual encounter with God. The other half is the night and day patient engagement with one another in community. Moving from being a burden to others to lifting burdens from others requires exactly that—others. The quest for gospel transformation does not take place in a bubble. There are some of us who might enjoy sitting alone all day and thinking beautiful thoughts about God—but that is not love. Individualistic spiritual practice taken to an extreme will make us a burden to our community as surely as no spiritual practice at all.

Anyone who has had to carry heavy burdens will know that balance is the key. Trying to carry heavy bags of groceries up flights of stairs in only one hand is very difficult. Shift the bags to carry them equally in both hands and the burden is suddenly much easier to bear. So it is with our balance of individual and community spiritual intimacy. Keep it all on one side of the equation and we are quickly out of balance, becoming heavy to both ourselves and others. Seek an even distribution of time alone with God and time together with God, and suddenly progress forward is smoother and easier.

Paul says in our epistle today that the Word is at work in us as believers. That’s the most important thing of all as we seek to carry our own burdens and those of our fellow disciples. No burden we shoulder is ours to carry alone. The Holy Spirit within us is always present and ready to do the heavy lifting. Jesus says it himself in the Gospel of Matthew: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The burdens of life and community may never go away, but when the love of God pervades them, they are no longer crushing weights. Our burdens become a steadying presence, anchoring and grounding us in the faithful pursuit of grace and truth. For it is when we commit to turning our burdens over to God that we are at last empowered to bear the burdens of one another. And a burden shared becomes a burden halved, as the old saying goes. Perhaps we could modify it for ourselves—a burden shared becomes a burden graced.

 The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Associate Rector the St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana.  A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

 

The Beatitudes and Barriers, All Saints’ Day – November 1, 2017

[RCL] Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

When we hear Jesus’ beatitudes, what do we think? Maybe, we think, “Wow, these are the most beautiful words I have ever heard.” We may think, “Wow, these are beautiful words, but like so many beautiful words, they’re fanciful, and they can’t really be followed in the real world.” We may think, “Wow, these are beautiful words, and, oh my, they are another reminder of all the ways I fail to live up to the high calling of being a disciple of Christ.”

Well, if you have ever thought any of these, you are not alone. The Beatitudes have been a source of inspiration and challenge throughout the history of the church. Today, I want to mention a few major approaches to them.

During the Middle Ages, many people saw the Beatitudes as “Counsels of Perfection”. That is, they were things that applied to a spiritual elite made up of priests, monks, and nuns, but not to ordinary folks. Monks and nuns took extraordinary vows of poverty and obedience, so these things about blessings of the poor, the meek, the hungry, the merciful were about folks seeking perfection, but for other people, keeping the Ten Commandments and loving God and our neighbor is enough. This approach recognizes the real challenge these sayings put upon believers, but it limits the full force of them by saying that, in this life, they are only for a spiritual elite.

During the Reformation, Martin Luther took issue with the whole notion of a spiritual elite. The idea that there were higher and lower levels of Christians was repugnant to him. Luther famously proclaimed the priesthood of all believers, that is, that we are all on the same level—no higher, no lower—all called to share in the priestly ministries of the Church. So, Luther saw the beatitudes as applying to all Christians, not just to the few.

But Luther also had a pretty interesting take on the Beatitudes. He saw them as commands of God. And for Luther, while commandments were things that were given by God, and, therefore holy and binding on all people, Luther also felt that human beings, given our fallen nature, can never really fulfill the commandments. Rather, what the commandments do for Luther is point out very clearly that there is no way that human beings will ever be able to earn their salvation by perfectly following God’s will. The upshot is that what the commandments end up doing is pointing out our need for the forgiveness and mercy of God and drive us into the arms of Christ. This approach sees the Beatitudes as so challenging that we will never be able to fulfill them on our own. We need to turn to the grace and mercy offered in Christ if we are ever to be made right with God.

Most New Testament scholars these days don’t find these approaches helpful. Rather, they see the Beatitudes—and indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount—as something that Jesus saw as applying to all his disciples, not just an elite few, and he probably thought that they were, in fact, doable. Certainly not easy, after all, he says, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Still, most scholars think that he probably meant for his followers to live this way. That’s probably why they stress that these were things that need to be lived out in the context of Christian community. These are not things for spiritual superheroes, but for communities to live out. And that’s probably also why Jesus stressed the need and reality of forgiveness and reconciliation in our communities. These things are going to take practice.

So, one of the reasons why we have this Gospel lesson on All Saints’ Day is because they are practices for all the saints. And by all the saints, we mean everybody who has been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are practices for all of us ordinary saints of God.

Today, I want to focus on just one beatitude and explore how we might try to live that out in our ordinary lives. We will have other All Saints’ Days to deal with other beatitudes. So, let’s focus on, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” Most of us probably will not be Nobel Peace Prize winners. But that doesn’t mean we are not called in our own ways to be peacemakers. How may we go about this in our lives? Paul Wadell gives us some practical guidance on how we all can be peacemakers. He reminds us that in Ephesians, Paul speaks of Christ and his cross breaking down the walls that divide us, removing all the barriers that keep us apart, and overcoming the hostilities that so often leave us living more in enmity with one another than in peace.

Wadell says, “There is no shortage of barriers that need to be dismantled if God’s dream of peace is to become a reality. We create barriers through our attitudes toward others. We create barriers when we freeze people out or simply ignore them. We create barriers when we refuse to talk to certain people. We create barriers when we refuse to deal with problems that weaken relationships. We create barriers when we refuse to give ourselves to others. We create barriers when we hold on to grudges and refuse to forgive. We create barriers when we nurture cynicism, bitterness, and resentment instead of seeking peace.”[1]

In Ephesians, Paul tells us to get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. Paul says leave all that behind, get away from it, and refuse to be ruled by it, because all those things put walls and barriers between ourselves and others. Instead, Paul says be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ. These are the practices of peace. We nurture peace among ourselves and others when we are people marked by kindness, compassion, healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Happy All Saints’ Day to all you saints of God. The Beatitudes are for you!

The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, Maryland.  Dr. Pagano’s ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. Dr. Pagano’s gifts for preaching, teaching, and care are all grounded in joyful and grateful service to God, to the Church, and to the world. Dr. Pagano 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, 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] Paul Wadell, Becoming Friends (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002) p. 36.

Download the sermon for All Saints’ Day.

Everything Hangs on Love, Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 29, 2017

Proper 25

[RCL] Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

An authority on the Law of Moses gives Jesus a pop quiz: name the greatest commandment. The request is not to name the top commandment of the Ten Commandments. Specifically, Jesus is to consider the 613 commandments found in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, or The Teaching, and to select the cornerstone. These commandments include 365 “negative commandments”, sometimes described as one for every day of the year, where you are ordered not to do something, like, “Do not commit murder.” Then there are 248 “positive commandments” which describe what one is to do to faithfully follow the Torah, the teaching given to Moses.

But we know this is not a casual conversation among colleagues. Matthew reminds us that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, the priests who served at the Temple in Jerusalem. They asked their thorniest question about the Torah, and Jesus aced that test. Now it is the Pharisees’ turn. We use the term Pharisee today as a term of derision; we say someone is pharisaical if he or she is hypocritical or self-righteous. But this would not have been true during Jesus’ ministry.

The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism, which worked as a social movement seeking to change society with a greater faithfulness to following the Torah. The Pharisees championed synagogue worship in addition to going to the Temple. Jesus taught faithfulness to God and worshipped in the synagogue. Many persons would likely have seen Jesus as a Pharisee or at least being in line with the Pharisees’ school of thought. So this debate is a bit of an in-house argument.

The stakes are higher though, as the Pharisees in Jerusalem see Jesus’ growing influence on the crowds, and they seem to want to shut down this movement before it goes any further. The question then comes from a place not of wanting to learn but desiring to trip up the rabbi from Galilee. Jesus immediately answers with what is the most succinct statement of everything he taught and his every action:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

We are not just to love God, but our neighbor, and not just God and our neighbor, but we are to love ourselves, as only then can we love our neighbors as ourselves. Everything hangs on love.

The love Jesus is talking about here cost him his life, so this is love beyond mere sentimentality or emotion. Jesus teaches about the form of love that in Greek is called agape. This is a self-giving love, which is more concerned about the other person than oneself. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for me, I can then begin to see other people as God sees them. I can even begin to see myself as God sees me. From this experience, I reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

The love that is within the Trinity is not merely a feeling or emotion. And so, God’s love for your husband or wife is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood, or anything else so changeable. God’s love for your brother or sister does not depend on whether he or she just got on your nerves. God’s love for your co-workers does not depend on their lovability. God’s love for your friends does not depend on whether or not they let you down. God’s love for everyone else is a lot like God’s love for you. This love is a lot more dependable than you or I, even on our best days.

Love that is more concerned about others than yourself is not about self-loathing, or being abused. Real love can also come with a hard edge, for it is not loving to become co-dependent and support someone in their abuse of their own bodies with drugs—legal or illegal—or alcohol abuse. Real love can mean setting clear boundaries. Love more concerned for the other can be lived in many ways that involve standing up to abuse and not letting it continue.

The love that wants something better than abuse and acts to make changes to end such needless suffering is part of the love God has for all creation. The love of God that was in the Trinity before creation overflowed into this world of ours, and that love continues even though we are fallen and not deserving of it. This love that was in the very life of God before Creation is the love that never fails. This is the love Jesus had, so that as he died on the cross he could look out at those who killed him, as they mocked him, and say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Forgiving those who killed him was the most precarious thing an all-powerful God could do. And in these words of forgiveness from the cross, we see that God’s love is more concerned about the other than your own self.

Agape love is a decision, an act of the will. Decide to see others as God sees them. Act on this decision rather than just whether you feel the emotions of love. Do you want to experience that sort of godly love for your friends, your family, your spouse? Then the love you have for them cannot start with you and go out to them. The love you have for others must start with God. Ask God to give you this gift. Pray for God to reveal to you the way God sees these other people in your life, especially the difficult people you deal with.

Trying to decide what to do? Put agape into the equation. Should you forgive? Should you pick up the phone and make a call? Should you write a letter? Should you make a visit? Setting aside people who have a pattern of abuse that you must avoid, in the many garden-variety painful relationships in your life, the answer is love. The decision to forgive, or call, or write, or visit, or whatever it is that will make this love concrete should not depend alone on whether you have been hurt or could be hurt. The answer should depend on answering the question, “What would love do?”

This is how the ideal of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself is made real. During this sermon, perhaps you have thought of someone who has hurt you, someone with whom you have lost contact, or broken off your relationship. Trust that the Holy Spirit has been involved in this person coming to mind. If this applies to you, then love is speaking to your heart—the love of God calling you to act on agape love.

This love I am talking about is a choice, a decision, an act of the will, and it belongs in the heart of your relationship with your spouse, your children, your parents, your siblings, your friends, your co-workers. Have the courage to not simply talk of love, but to put love into action. The love God has for you is patient and kind and will never fail. Choose to share that same amazing love with the people in your life.

Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (A).