Archives for 2018

Giving, Pentecost 25 (B) – November 11, 2018

Proper 27


[RCL]: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

She was a woman. She was poor. These are two facts anyone could tell that day in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem.

She was also a widow who was down to her last two coins. These are facts that Jesus also knew about her.

She was a woman of great faith. She became a living sermon. She remains an icon of faith as she put her whole trust in God, not holding anything back.

This unnamed woman is known now by her marital status and her coins rather than her name, for the story is “The Widow’s Mite” and she is “The Widow.” Yet we should be careful to note that it is the story of the widow’s mites as the woman had two small coins. Each of her coins were worth one four-hundredth of a shekel or what we might think of as an eighth of a penny each. Too small to bear a legible imprint, they were the grubbiest of coins in the empire of Rome.

Mark sets the scene for us sparingly. Jesus has been teaching in the temple courts. Now, on his way out, he pauses over and against the treasury to watch as offerings are made. Each person would walk up to one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles, which were lined along the wall of the Court of the Women. As they tossed in their offering, the person was expected to say aloud the amount and purpose of the gift in order to be heard by the priest overseeing the collections.

It would have been an impressive sight to see people in fine clothes tossing in large sums, calling out to all how much they gave. And in such a group, who would notice the widow tossing the two smallest coins in the realm into the offering? Yet, in a move that is so like him, Jesus notices and calls attention to this act of faith.

Jesus calls his disciples together and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus knows that these are not any two coins, but the woman’s last two coins. The text says, “All she had to live on,” but the Greek is starker still. What is really said is that she put in her bios. It’s the word from which we get “biology,” the study of life. For Jesus tells us that the widow put her “life” into the temple treasury that day.

This is not a sermon about tithing, for the woman did not give ten percent of her income. These were her last two coins to rub together, and rather than keep one back, she tossed both into the temple treasury’s coffers. The widow gave 100 percent of her money. The widow is down to two practically worthless little coins, and she trusts it all to God. If this were a gamble, then the widow would be laying all her money on God. But this is not a gamble, for the widow does not bet her money; she trusts her life to God.

It would be nice if Mark filled in more details for us. Was Jesus’ arm around the woman as he said, “This poor widow has put in more …” or was the woman blending back into the crowd, never to be seen again? Or perhaps Jesus asked his own keeper of the purse, Judas Iscariot, to give something to this woman so that she would not go hungry that evening. Or better still, did the widow come to be a Christ follower? Did she join with the other women who journeyed with Jesus from Galilee to the cross and beyond?

The Gospel never answers these questions. The nameless widow who gave two small coins fades into the background. We may want to know her name in order to name churches, schools, and hospitals in her honor. We may want to give her a place of honor in Jesus’ stories alongside disciples whose names we know, though their trust in God wasn’t always so exemplary.

But perhaps namelessness is appropriate for this living parable. And maybe it is best, too, that we don’t find out how her story ends. The nameless woman whose ultimate fate we never know is perhaps an even better icon of trust, for her story was a precarious one. She went to the temple that day not knowing if she would ever have two little coins to call her own again. It could have been her path to a life of begging or even a station on the road to starvation.

But in facing an uncertain future, the widow reached out to God. She trusted that if she gave everything she had to God, even the little she gave would be honored. And whether she was repaid handsomely by Jesus himself, or God cared for her in some other way, we, too, have to trust. We trust that the widow’s story turned out all right. We trust that whether she lived or died, she was God’s.

And by her example, Jesus shows that what we withhold may matter more than what we offer. The widow was a woman of great faith, who held nothing back. She knew what Jesus’ disciples were just learning: we are to give, knowing that everything we have is God’s already. We can’t give God anything. But we can offer our very selves to the Kingdom of God, holding nothing back.

She was a woman. She was poor. She was a widow down to her last two coins. She was a child of God who placed her whole life back in her loving creator’s hands.

This sermon, written by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue, originally ran November 12, 2006.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 25 (B).

The Surprise of the Resurrection, All Saints’ Day (B) – November 1, 2018


[RCL]: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Winston Churchill, arguably one of the greatest political and military leaders of the 20th century, planned every detail of his funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He worked clandestinely with cathedral staff, under the code name “Operation-Hope-Not.” (That code name reveals a lot about humanity’s attitude toward death, doesn’t it?) One aspect of his funeral seems absolutely inspired: a bugler played The Last Post, which is like the equivalent of Taps in the United States, from the west end of the cathedral. When the somber notes of that solo bugle echoed through the cathedral, I can imagine the stiff upper lips of many Brits quivered, as they were no longer able to hold back tears.

Then a full minute of silence passed.

And then, surely a surprise to all those mourners who crowded into St. Paul’s that day, another bugler, this one positioned in the east, rose to play Reveille, the happy morning bugle call that gives soldiers and scouts the “get up and go” they need to kick-start their day. Perhaps after the tears, a few suppressed chuckles slipped out. Always a commanding presence – even from the dead – Churchill relayed two important messages.

First, he offered a testimony to the shock, joy, and surprise of the Resurrection. At the last day, we’ll all rise to the sound of the Lord playing a heavenly version of Reveille and waking us up to the new life, new earth, new Jerusalem. It wasn’t random that the Reveille came from the east, where the sun rises, the direction the altar faces in many churches, the direction from which we expect Christ to return again.

Secondly, Churchill bid them to press on, to attend to the day at hand, and the life ahead, here and now.

But let’s go back in our imagination to that minute of silence because that is where we can locate this great feast day we’ve gathered to celebrate: All Saints’ Day.

That minute of silence is where we find ourselves wondering:

  • Is this really it?
  • What comes next?
  • Do we have enough tears to cry?
  • Is there enough patience to persevere?

Somewhere in the uncomfortable silence, having heard Taps and waiting for Reveille.

Somewhere in the waiting, for God to descend among us and wipe every tear from our eyes.

Somewhere in the hoping, that Jesus’ words are trustworthy and true.

Somewhere in the trusting, that God is preparing, for all peoples – my favorite saints and yours, those dearly departed in this community and abroad, folk we miss dearly and folk we never knew – that God is preparing a feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

Somewhere in the discomfiting silence, where we wait for God to swallow up death forever, even as it abides with us here and now.

And in this quiet and disquieting moment, when we wait, hope, trust on our best days and fight despair on our worst – that is the moment where we meet the Lord.

Today’s liturgy, feast, and Gospel reading all encourage us to feel the grief and sorrow, maybe even impatience at having to wait that long minute before we hear Reveille, or anger at how death takes away, at least in physical form, the people we love. We are given the courage we need to wait for Reveille – together, nourished around this table, hearing God’s story in our stories, and pleading, like Mary did, for Jesus to come and take death away.

Today’s Gospel story is remarkable. In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the event that provokes the necessity of Jesus’ death in the eyes of his day’s elite. After Lazarus was raised, the religious and political leaders were focused on eliminating him. There was something so threatening in Jesus’ disruption of the world on the world’s terms. Jesus is distraught: weeping, disturbed, maybe even angry, and certainly grief-stricken. And yet Jesus is fully in-charge, not operating on our preferred timetable, but on his own with a larger purpose in mind, that of engendering trust or belief in the crowd that had gathered.

Mary articulates what many of us feel when someone close to us dies: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus doesn’t directly respond to this. Instead, he begins to take charge, first finding out where the body is and then issuing a series of short commands:

Take away the stone.
Lazarus, come out!
Unbind him, and let him go.

What would it be like to prayerfully wonder how the Holy Spirit might be telling us in the words of Jesus:

“Take away the stone.” What stones in your life need to be removed so that Jesus can get to you? Ask for the grace to take away the stone.

“Lazarus, come out.” Jesus knows us each by name and calls us o’er the tumult. Even death can’t deafen our ear to Jesus’ call. “Lazarus, come out.”

“Unbind him, and let him go.” Sometimes each one of us needs help becoming free, loosing ourselves from the chains that bind us to death-dealing ways. To whom in your life can Jesus say, “Go, unbind your friend. The abundant life is available for him, for her, for you, here and now, even in your grief, even in your tears, even in your longing to be reunited with your beloved who is now part of that great cloud of witnesses.”

Each of these commands offers good material for our own prayer life. When we pray, just like when we receive the sacraments, we are closer to the saints because we are placing our hearts and minds in the nearer presence of God.

Jesus is very explicit about why he raised his friend Lazarus. He did this so that the crowd back then, and you and me today, might believe, might trust in the God who sent Jesus to raise Lazarus, in the Father who raised the Son on the third day, in the Lord who will swallow up death forever. This story inspires us in our waiting, in our hoping, in our trusting, in that long silence between Taps and Reveille.

And, maybe, just maybe, in heaven, the equivalent of Reveille goes like this:

Holy, Holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts…

And maybe, just maybe, every Sunday, we come back here to hear that tune, to wake up to it, maybe even to join in – with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven – including those saints we remember and grieve and are grateful for and celebrate this day.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy Glory. Hosanna in the highest.

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina as Rector of Grace Church in Waynesville.

Download the sermon for All Saints’ Day (B).

Let Me See, Pentecost 23 (B) – October 28, 2018

Proper 25


[RCL]: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

The ancients used to call sight, “The Queen of the Senses.” I suspect this enthronement of the sense of sight is still understandable to us. After all, what is lovelier than seeing the orange fire of the sky at sunrise? What is more beautiful than the burning leaves of autumn? What touches our hearts more deeply than seeing a smile on our beloved’s face? You can imagine your own feast for the eyes: sights that delight or enchant, sights that you want to linger over and savor. There are so many sights around me that I want to remember, but, I suppose, the sights I want to remember most are the faces of those I love. I want always to remember the sight of my brother’s face as he held his newborn baby. I want always to remember the wonder in my niece’s eyes as she pointed to geese flying overhead. I want always to remember the smiling, laughing eyes of my grandfather at family gatherings. I can understand why the ancients called sight “The Queen of the Senses.”

I guess this is why the language of sight and seeing has come to mean so much more than simple sense perception. In our everyday talk, we use the language of seeing as a metaphor for understanding. When someone tries to explain something to us, they say, “I want you to see what I am trying to tell you.” And when we finally get it, we say, “Now I see it!” “It was right before my eyes all along.” “It was staring me right in the face.” In our religious speech, we also use the language of sight as a metaphor for faith. We talk about those things that are visible only to “the eyes of faith.” In the Nunc Dimittis, we sing, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.” Classical theology spoke of our ultimate destiny as the “Beatific Vision”: a time when we shall behold God face to face. Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.

But sometimes learning to see can be hard work. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes studies done on people who recovered their sight after years of blindness. These people were enabled to see after doctors had discovered how to perform safe cataract operations. Dillard writes, “In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches… [they] learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult.” These people have no idea of space or distance and so they walk around bumping into the sharp edges of the color patches and only then realize that they are part of something substantial. Some people find their new sense of sight so difficult and frustrating that they refuse to use their new vision, and lapse into their old ways of perceiving things. A doctor reported of one twenty-one year old woman who had regained her sight: “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.” Another patient, so upset by the difficulty he has in learning to translate what he sees into something he can understand, says that he can’t stand it anymore and that he wants to tear his eyes out. Dillard also notes that for some, regaining a sense of sight is accompanied by a sense of shame. She writes, “A blind man who learns to see is ashamed of his old habits. He dresses up, grooms himself, and tries to make a good impression.”

Sometimes, learning to see can be tormentingly difficult. This seems to be true not only of physical sight, but also of learning to see the truth in the world around us, and, indeed, of learning to see the truth about ourselves. The pain and sorrow of this world so often make us want to avert our eyes from the truth. Turn on the nightly news and see the latest reports of violence in our communities, and we may feel like closing our eyes and relapsing into total blindness. Look with the prophet Isaiah at the massive injustices in our world, the grinding poverty, the degradation of human dignity, the prejudice, and we may feel like tearing our eyes out. Look at ourselves in the mirror and see the hurts and the wounds we have inflicted on others and on ourselves, and we may feel ashamed. Learning to see can be tormentingly difficult.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, we have the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus. When we look at Bartimaeus, we see that he was not only blind, but also that he was a beggar sitting beside the road. The truth about Bartimaeus is that because of his blindness, he had lost his freedom. Because of his blindness, Bartimaeus had become dependent on strangers. In particular, Bartimaeus had become dependent on folks who would travel the busy road between the major cities Jericho and Jerusalem. We see a blind beggar who had to rely on the handouts of passers-by, whose best bet was to position himself along the pathway of people who might toss him a coin or two.

When Jesus and his disciples walked by, Bartimaeus must have heard them, because he cries out for mercy. And what response do you think this blind beggar gets to his request for mercy? Mark tells us that “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” That’s a polite way of saying they told him to shut up. This poor man, this blind man, this man who is reduced to begging for his subsistence from passersby, cries out for mercy, and many people in the crowd tell him to shut his mouth.

But thanks be to God, Bartimaeus does not keep quiet. He cries out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And despite the attempts of the crowd to shut him up, Jesus hears him, hears his cry for mercy, and calls him to come near. When Bartimaeus learns that his request has been heard, he springs to his feet and runs to Jesus. And what does Jesus do first? He asks him a question: “What do you want me to do for you?” There is such an outpouring of compassion and love in this simple question. This blind beggar who was treated by so many people like a piece of trash along the side of the road, who was told to keep quiet, is now brought to Jesus who treats him like a human being. Notice, Jesus does not presume to know what Bartimaeus wants. Rather, Jesus raises this man up onto his own two feet, he takes him from a position of subservience and raises him up as human being, and asks him genuinely, lovingly, compassionately: What do you want?

And Bartimaeus says to Jesus, “My teacher, let me see again.” The depths of longing in that request are almost too much to bear. My teacher, let me see again, and let me no longer have to beg by the side of the road. My teacher, let me see again, and let me no longer be dependent on strangers. Let me see again, and let me no longer be looked at with pity and scorn by passersby. My teacher, let me see again, and let me go free.

And Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight. He leaves his begging cloak behind. And he follows Jesus on the way.

Learning to see can be tormentingly difficult. But if we are willing to undergo the painful process, learning to see can also transform our lives. Learning to see can lift us up onto our own two feet. Learning to see can free us to love and serve our neighbors. Learning to see can free us to love and follow the Lord.

Annie Dillard also writes about the amazing gifts of learning to see again. She writes of a little girl who visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer. She stands speechless in front of a tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.’” Another woman was so dazzled by the world’s brightness that she kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly explained: “Oh God! How beautiful!”

Oh God! How beautiful! Learning to see can be a painfully difficult process. There is so much about our world and about ourselves that may make us want to look away. In so many ways, we are all imprisoned by our own types of blindness. But the good news is that we do not have to remain in bondage to our blindness. We can learn to see. We can learn to look at our neighbors with compassion. We can learn to unmask the self-serving rhetoric of peoples and companies and governments that tell people to keep quiet while they are subjected to grinding poverty and violence. We can learn to look at our own frailties and failings and ask for help. We can ask people what they need and help them get onto their own feet again. And we can learn to look anew at this amazing, awesome, blooming, buzzing, glorious creation and all the creatures in it, including our own blind and beggarly human race and exclaim, “Oh God! How beautiful! Oh God! How beautiful!”

Let us pray. O Lord our God, hear our cries for mercy. Raise us up from our places alongside the way of life. Heal us from our blindness. Set us free to look with compassion upon those whom you place in our paths. Free us to follow you on the way of self-giving love. And at the last day, bring us with all your saints into that heavenly city where all tears will be wiped away and where we shall behold you face to face. Amen.

The Rev. Joe Pagano is an Appointed Missionary for the Episcopal Church, with Episcopal Volunteers in Mission. He and Amy Richter, his wife, will teach at the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa and visit several Provinces in Africa to work with our partners in the Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens”) project on theological education. He and Amy have a new book coming out in 2019 from Cascade Publishers, a collection of reflections by theologians, writers, and musicians on their experiences of worship in the Episcopal Church.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 23 (B).

Change Your Question – Change Your Life, Pentecost 22 (B) – October 21, 2018

Proper 24


[RCL]: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45 

Here they come: the Zebedee boys. In fact, you can see them coming. They’ve been shopping at Men’s Wearhouse, and they like how they look. They flash whitened smiles, they’ve got just enough grey around the temples to look experienced but not tired; enough tan to look sporty, not like they have to earn a living out of doors. They sidle up to Jesus. “Hey Jesus, can we speak with you in private, just for a moment?” They want to get him alone, out of earshot of the rest of the disciples, because they want something and they’re smart enough to know the others might not appreciate the deal they want to cut with the Lord.

“We’re close, right? Friends?” we can hear them saying. “We’ve had some special times together, you and us, right?” They don’t beat around the bush as they jockey for favor from the Lord. They come right to the point. They are ambitious for the top spots. The Zebedee Brothers want to be co-CEOs of the new Church. They want the cushy corner office with the great view. Toss in a country club membership or, better still for two former fishermen, a mooring at the Galilee Yacht Club. They want the top cabinet posts in Jesus’ administration. They want to give orders, not take them; ask the questions, not answer them.

If this caricature seems a bit caustic, then it captures the tone of the Gospel reading for today. But before we distance ourselves from the Zebedee boys too quickly, it’s worth considering that the reason the church saved this little story of big embarrassment for the disciples is that Jesus knows we all have a little Zebedee in us.

Maybe we don’t aim as high as they in wanting to be at Christ’s right and left hand in his glory, but maybe we do share something of their approach to life.

There has been a lot written about mission statements as a way to guide us as we go through life, about how as groups or as individuals, we can use mission statements to help us set priorities, to keep focus on what really matters most to us.

I think there is also such a thing as a mission question—a mission question that sums up our approach to life. And just like a mission statement, a mission question can guide, for better or worse, how we live our lives. When looking at James and John, we can surmise the question that guides their lives, that leads them into this embarrassing muscling-in on Jesus to ask for special status. Their mission question is, “What’s in it for me?”

Today’s scene is not just embarrassing, it’s heartbreaking, because we’ve seen how James and John left their fishing business and their father to follow Jesus. We’ve seen that they have sacrificed a lot to continue with Jesus down this road of discipleship. But today we see that ugly question, rearing its self-centered head: what’s in it for me?

Now James and John are on the right track in that they do have faith in Jesus’ victory. Even though Jesus has been saying all these strange things, like “the first shall be last and the last first,” and “become like a child,” and “those who are great must be servants,” they have faith that Jesus is actually a good leader, a man with great potential for power. Even though, like the rest of the disciples, they often don’t get what he’s saying, they think he’s the one to back, he’s the candidate who is going to come out on top. They think, even though some of his teachings are pretty upside-down and idealistic, Jesus will be glorified, and they want to be there when it happens, on his right and on his left. They’re willing to follow Jesus because they want to back a winner. And if Jesus is a winner, then maybe some of his prestige and power will trickle down to them. They’re approaching discipleship from this angle: what’s in it for me?

The sons of Zebedee don’t realize Jesus’ talk about service as a way of life, of the abundance that comes from being emptied out, of the security that comes from loosening your grasp on things and power and allowing yourself instead to be grasped by God, is not merely a means to an end. They don’t realize the irony, that if you can give up that question – what’s in it for me? – and instead serve, you will have an abundant, worthwhile, meaningful life. By giving up the question, what’s in it for me?, you’ll get more than you ever dreamed.

Jesus teaches and serves and lives and dies and is raised again for this truth: serving others is powerful. Giving up yourself for another, being emptied out in love is abundant life. But to find your way to these rewards, you have to stop asking the question, What’s in it for me?

What’s in it for me? It’s the question that turns friendships sour when you realize that someone seems only to take and never to give. It’s the question that reveals itself when in the midst of a project the going gets rough, the rewards seem far away, and the thanks even farther, and people originally onboard drift away. When the answer to the question, what’s in it for me?, seems to be less and less clear, so does their commitment. It’s the question that reveals itself when people come to any church as consumers, not worshippers, not servants, looking only for what we can get out of it, not what we might put in, not what God might get out of it through our efforts to be attentive and present in prayer and praise, for just a little while once a week. What’s in it for me? It’s a human question, one that we all ask at some time or another.

Even in our Gospel lesson, the sons of Zebedee are not alone. When the other disciples hear that James and John have put themselves above their peers, they run up to Jesus too. They’re angry. They’re mad. And not because they see that James and John have misunderstood. They’re mad because they didn’t think of it first. They’re angry because they think of power the way the world thinks of power – as something that’s yours if you take it, if you’re the strongest, swiftest, most politically savvy, most well-connected. They think there’s only so much to go around, and those sneaky little Zebedee brothers have gone ahead and grabbed the power first.

But Jesus doesn’t give up on his disciples. Jesus sees beyond all of this. Maybe he could see them as they would become, filled with the Holy Spirit after Pentecost, transformed into courageous witnesses whose dreams of greatness, whose what’s in it for me? attitude had been replaced by the humble goal of serving the Lord they love. Perhaps he could see that someday they would stop asking, what’s in it for me? and start asking the other question in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ question: What is it you want me to do for you?

At first glance, we may imagine Jesus asking this question in frustration. He asks it, after all, just after the Zebedee boys have come up to him and demanded that he say yes, even before they tell him what their demand is: “What is it you want me to do for you?” But this is the question Jesus always asks. Not to step on the toes of next week’s sermon, but we’ll hear Jesus ask it again in next week’s gospel when he’ll ask a blind beggar, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And the man will ask for healing. This is Jesus’ question for all who come to him. This is Jesus’ open, vulnerable mission question – a question that guides his life of service, of his willingness to meet us where we are, to allow us the freedom to tell him what we really want. This means sometimes that Jesus hears requests like James’ and John’s – requests that sound more like a child’s immature grasping – gimme, gimme, gimme. And sometimes, Jesus hears the honest response of those who know that Jesus is our only hope: requests for healing, forgiveness, a second or third or fourth chance, a chance to try again, a chance to come before Jesus empty-handed and say, “Lord have mercy, Lord, let me know your grace and love.”

A task for those who would follow Jesus is to allow Jesus to transform our questions so that we are people who ask not, “What’s in it for me?” but, “Jesus, what is it you want me to do for you?” And be brave enough to listen for Jesus’ answer and open to receive its rewards.

When your question is, “What can I do for you?”, when you concentrate mainly on what you can put into church in the way of personal work and prayer and participation, you feel that you receive even more than you give. You find that service can be challenging, but it also brings deep joy. Service can be demanding, but it also brings pleasure and contentment and hope.

Jesus comes to us and asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?” May Jesus heal and transform us so that we might ask the same of him and be brave enough to listen to the answer.  Amen.

The Rev. Amy Richter, Ph.D., is an Appointed Missionary for the Episcopal Church, with Episcopal Volunteers in Mission. She and Joseph Pagano, her husband, teach at the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa and visit several Provinces in Africa to work with our partners in the Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens”) project on theological education. She and Joe have a new book coming out in 2019 from Cascade Publishers, a collection of reflections by theologians, writers, and musicians on their experiences of worship in the Episcopal Church.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 22 (B).

Possessions, Pentecost 21 (B) – October 14, 2018

Proper 23


[RCL]: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

In today’s Gospel, a man with many possessions encountered Jesus. His wealth of possessions is central to the message.

Possessions – are they good or bad? Blessings or hindrances? Deficits or potential assets?

Like many aspects of life, it all depends. But, perhaps, the more important questions are: What is this Gospel story all about? How does Jesus use the possessions to teach his disciples about God? How can possessions or anything else make all the difference in our seeking ultimate answers about the meaning of our lives?

The man with many possessions started off with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was looking for an inheritance – not a gift or a payment or an allowance or a reward – but an inheritance. The Greek word quoted by Mark seems to convey exactly what it does to us. Did the man with many possessions see himself as a child of God who was due a birthright like one might expect from a parent? Yet, the dialogue that followed his question seems more like an exercise in earning something rather than inheriting it.

Whatever the case, he wanted Jesus to tell him how to secure the benefits of God’s most fundamental values – and to find the key to a meaningful, contented, and fulfilling life.

Jesus’ initial response to “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is also quite interesting. Referring to the Ten Commandments, he offered a list of what the man had to do to qualify. But when the man with many possessions testified to his lifelong practice of following the commandments, Jesus sought to provoke in him, as he provokes in us, a whole new level of understanding about eternal life in God. With love for him, the Lord said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Eternal life does not mean life until the end of time. It is not about quantity, but quality. Eternal life means a deep connection with the ageless and invincible values of the Kingdom of God. Eternal life describes the quality of relationship between human beings and Christ, bringing us into a present knowledge and experience with the loving and living spirit of God.

As we consider our Lord’s encounter with the man with many possessions, we can imagine Jesus’ insight into his heart and soul. He had followed the specific, outward regulations that were spelled out in the Bible – but Jesus perceived that something still blocked him from total obedience to God – his many possessions. Material belongings stood in the way of his following Christ, because, having heard Jesus’ opinion that he needed to give them up, he went away shocked and grieving, stunned and defeated – perhaps with a broken heart. He could not meet the ultimate measure of obedience to God. His love of possessions blocked him from totally loving God and following Christ.

Many scholars are quick to say that this is not necessarily a teaching by Jesus against a Christian’s having material possessions, in whatever quantity. They remind us that the crisis for the man with many possessions was not how much he owned, but that the property owned him, blocking his way to unity with God.

Thinking about such views is a necessary beginning for each of us to examine in our own lives the relevance of today’s Gospel story.

Would Jesus have said to another person, “One thing you lack,” and then listed something quite different from selling possessions and giving the income to the poor? What does Jesus say to you and to me – about the one thing more that we lack? What do we need to give up, to rid ourselves of, to put behind us, that would allow us completely to follow Christ? What can blind us and deafen us from connecting with God?

What is the radical reorientation of our lives that will lead us to follow Christ? What is it that stands in the way of our becoming what God intends us to be?

It is almost certainly selfishness of one sort or another – because putting ourselves first puts God second or third. Because we do this, we become separated from the Holy Spirit’s resources.

What is it that we need to give up in order to gain what is much more valuable? Is it greed or prejudice – ignorance or pride – anger or the need to control others, the inability to acknowledge our sins of hurting others or the “things we have left undone” or something else?

Or is it, after all, a love of possessions that stand in our way of connecting with the eternal life that we can find only in God? It the fate of the man with many possessions at least in part potentially our fate? Is what stood in his way also at least in part what stands in our way, preventing us from totally connecting with God and following Christ?

We live in a culture of materialism in which we measure too much in monetary terms. We are inundated day after day, hour after hour, by advertising that insists that if we buy one thing or another that we will be happier and better off. The push for more and more material possessions insinuates itself into our lives constantly.

For the majority of us who are not impoverished – for those who do not live with severely limited resources, this is a question we must examine.

An Anglican bishop from Africa once declared to an American audience that it was much easier for the Christians of his diocese to truly know God than for those living in the United States. This is so, he stated, because most in his diocese are very poor and that condition leads them to know the need for God in every way. This is so, because their prospects of becoming rich are so remote that they focus on deeper, more spiritual values.

Americans in contrast, he suggested, have a chance to gain nearly every material possession they want. So, we often become convinced, at least subconsciously, that we can buy happiness and meaning. This delusion can leave us void of the lasting, deep-down joy that possessions cannot bring.

Finally, it seems ironic that the man with many possessions asked about “inheriting” eternal life. The truth is, he had already inherited it – as a child of God. The God-within-him existed as a part of the created order – because he, like each of us, was created in the image and likeness of God. He had inherited God’s spirit already – he just didn’t know it. Jesus tried to open him to understanding that reality – to instruct him how to break through what blocked him from recognizing and utilizing the very spirit of God that he only had to put before all else in his life.

What must we do, what must we give up, in order to recognize and put to use the eternal life that each of us has inherited?

The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 21 (B).

Sacred Mysteries, Pentecost 20 (B) – October 7, 2018


[RCL]: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Sometimes we are so familiar with something that we don’t even notice it anymore. The little bit from the second chapter of Genesis that we just heard, and that we just heard Jesus quote, is like that. It’s so familiar it’s invisible. But it is dreadfully important and says some absolutely basic things about our vision of the world and of human life.

Remember the central pronouncement of God in the creation story? Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, God has said one thing about His creation over and over: “God saw that it was good.”

But now God looks at all he has made, everything, and says, “It is not good.” It is not good that the man – and here “man” means not a male person, but a human being – should be alone.

Think about that. Listen to that. Everything else is good, but this isn’t. Notice also that Adam, the human being, was hardly alone in the garden. First of all, God was with Adam in the garden. That’s a lot all by itself. Then, when the animals were all done, all of nature, all of creation, was with Adam in the garden. The whole world was there. The man was not alone.

In fact, this sounds like the perfect situation for much of popular American religion – one man alone, surrounded by nature, with God close at hand. How many times have we heard people say that this is really all the religion anyone needs: just me, God, and the great outdoors? Sometimes this is symbolized by a golf course or a trout stream. But when God saw it, when God saw one person, God, and the great outdoors, God didn’t say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Instead, God said, about this and only about this: “It is not good”.

Creation wasn’t finished yet. As long as the man lived in isolation from other people, the creation of a good, a complete, human being, had not yet happened.

It was in order to complete creation, to make a whole human being, that the other person, Eve, is created.

There are a couple of things to notice here. First of all, this story is not as much about the roles of men and women as it is about what it means to be a human being. Also, it is not saying that everyone should be married or that only married people are whole people. That’s just not true. After all, Jesus, the perfect image of God, was single. But this is saying that we human beings can only grow into who we are created to be with and through the other – through relationship and community. This growth happens in many ways, but it does not happen alone. If you ask an honest monk where his biggest and most important struggles come from, he’ll tell you “other monks.” We do not become whole or complete in isolation, but through community, through the “other.”

It is to this end that God has given us certain structures and situations in which we can, maybe, begin to discover what it means not to be alone, and where we can have our humanity drawn, and sometimes dragged, out of us. God has given us schools of love, places to grow.

Marriage and families are first of all about this. They are schools of love. And while not everyone is called to the vocation of marriage, for those of us who are, this business of helping one another grow into who we are created to be is one of the primary reasons God created marriage. To be sure, there is more to it than this, but that is primary.

In much the same way, God has called us to be the Church, and he has called us into this church, because without something like this we simply cannot be very Christian, in spite of – or more likely, because of – both the difficulty and the joy other people bring.

One of the central insights of Christianity is that being a part of a real, human, chunk of the body of Christ is essential to any serious Christian growth. Like marriage and family, parish life, church life, is not really about agreement, success, having our needs met, or happiness. Instead it is a school of love. It is about growth into wholeness. That is why, in Church as in families, the real ties that bind are ties of love and circumstances, not of any other sort of homogeneity.

Such growth is simply not possible without commitment to a lifetime of effort and intentionally seeking the grace and help of God. God’s intention that marriage be lifelong is not an arbitrary and difficult rule God gives us to make our lives even more difficult. Instead, such intention is a gracious and necessary (if minimal) requirement if a real marriage is even to be possible.

In the same way, our Baptismal vows, which include a commitment to the life of the Christian community wherever we find ourselves, are also for the long haul; for better or worse.

So are life vows in monastic communities and the commitments involved in the other schools of love we are given. These vows are lifelong in intention, because God knows we need at least that long to begin doing what we promise to do.

Sure, there are times when that does not happen. There are sometimes situations in which separation is the only option that contains hope and the possibility of healing. We have all known that reality. People leave churches and find new ones – as most of you know from experience.

And the pain and tragedy of divorce – and the fact that it brings very real possibilities of both destruction and new hope – is, in one form or another, a part of the lives of every one of us. If it hasn’t happened to us personally, we have been affected, often deeply affected, by it. These failures of relationship are devastating, and those who hurt need our love, our compassion, and our support.

But there is also an important thing about these experiences, about the times we fall short. We see them as tragic exceptions to the way we know life should be, and the way we want our lives to be. We know that we often miss the mark of our convictions and our beliefs. Yet even in the midst of our failure, we continue to stand firmly for the truth of God’s vision of life. Our vows, our marriage vows and our baptismal vows, our ordination vows, these are not for just now, they are not for just when it feels good; they are for life. That is our standard and our goal. We may fall short, but we hold to that standard.

All of this is really to say that, at its heart, marriage is not a convenient human institution for protecting property, regulating sexuality, and safeguarding children. And at its heart, the Church is not a voluntary social convenience for like-minded people to share in an essentially private task.

As ordinary and as unglamorous as they usually are, both marriage and the Church are vastly more than this. They are sacred mysteries, built into creation and into human nature. They are schools of love, gifts of a loving God. For it is not good to be alone; and the only way to goodness, to wholeness, is through commitment, relationship, community, and the grace of God.

This sermon, written by the Rev. James Liggett, originally ran October 8, 2006.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 20 (B).

This sermon uses Track 2 readings. To see all Pentecost 20 (B) sermons, click the light blue tag below.

Look for the Commonality, Pentecost 19 (B) – September 30, 2018

Proper 21

Pentecost Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

In today’s gospel, we hear the intriguing story of Jesus’ disciples trying to stop a man who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They seem to have become especially upset because the offender was not one of them. In the eyes of the disciples, he was not part of the inner circle, and he was acting differently from what they considered to be the norm.

As soon as Jesus heard about it, he turned the tables on his closest followers and rebuked their blind, unbending exclusiveness. He told them not to stop the man, because whatever good is done in Jesus’ name would put him in a situation of not speaking evil of the Lord. And tellingly, Jesus concluded, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus made it clear that he and his disciples were not a little clique, working in a corner of life, fenced off from others. His world view, his God’s-eye view, made him well aware that God’s actions are not limited to the forms with which his disciples were familiar.

What is the lesson in this for us? Don’t Jesus’ words ring true as a rebuke of our often blind and unbending exclusiveness, our arrogant assumptions that God’s action among us is limited to forms with which we are most comfortable and most familiar?

What Jesus taught his disciples is equally a lesson for us. Christians cannot fence themselves off from others who have different ways of following Jesus and of finding God. The one who is not against us is for us. The one who is not against Jesus is on the side of Christ.

In this, our Lord gives us a model for a broader view. There is an issue of tolerance. Doesn’t Jesus’ message to the disciples help us stop short when we fall into the all too common trap of thinking in terms of “us” and “them” – seeing life only from the perspective of our own groups?

Intolerance of the other is certainly an attitude that Jesus rejected in today’s gospel reading. Possibly, he realized that the disciples considered the man casting out demons as a threat to their inner-circle status. He was an outsider, so they tried to stop him. Jesus rejected this by making it clear that only in a more narrow sense can one be an outsider.

What was true for the disciples has been true throughout history. The world and the church have fought for centuries in such a fence-building frenzy. The stories of the past schisms and divisions are legion. And living out the tendencies of the same human nature, we still act this way in our time, don’t we?

Standing against this, Jesus’ words remind us that Christianity is not the preserve of a privileged few. He reminds us that no one seeking to do the Lord’s work is an outsider. He reminds us to welcome all people who are willing to join the journey, following our Lord. Over and over again, Jesus’ words remind us to be including – not excluding. Over and over again, Jesus’ words rebuke us when we turn against others because they are different. Over and over again, the life Jesus lived and the way he taught his first disciples remind us of the scandal of our divisions.

There is another side to this, of course. Sometimes, conscience and practicality dictate that we separate ourselves from others, but the message here, at the very least, is not to do so lightly – not to draw a line in the sand except as a last resort. Jesus helps us work against the subtle temptation to think that “for me to be right, anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.”

Jesus seems to be telling the disciples something like this: “Look for the commonality. Recognize that there are many among you who might work or think differently, but don’t jump to the conclusion that that makes them against you – or against me.”

He warns us against simplistic solutions to complex problems. He causes us to see that truth is always bigger than any one person’s, or any one group’s grasp of it. Jesus cautions us against inflexibility of thought or deed. He helps us embrace tolerance of a variety of actions and viewpoints. He helps us re-learn what is so easy to forget: that diversity is not only good; it is absolutely essential for the health of the Body of Christ.

Today’s gospel reinforces a belief that what we need in the church is less “either/or” and more “both/and.”

Where do we find commonality? Why not begin by looking to our earliest roots? Those who can declare that “Jesus is Lord” are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ. Those who can follow the steps of Jesus, taking up their crosses and denying themselves for the sake of God and God’s children are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ.

The story of today’s gospel is about the disciples’ attempt to draw a circle around Jesus and themselves – shutting out the one who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps a concise, powerful poem by Edwin Markham can help us remember that Jesus ordered the disciples not to exclude that man and to recall that those who are not against us are for us.

In his poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham writes:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”

This sermon, written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus, originally ran September 27, 2009.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 19 (B).

Vulnerable, Pentecost 18 (B) – September 23, 2018

Proper 20


[RCL]: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Mark’s Gospel was the first written. It is the shortest. Likely it was a one-person play, something that was first memorized and shared via oral tradition. Only in time did it go from one-person dramatic storytelling to gospel text, written down, copied, and eventually read throughout the Church and the world. Mark’s Greek is quick and to the point, not as elegant or poetic as Luke. Jesus and his disciples are always on the move, with Mark constantly saying, “and then.” Mark and the storytellers who gave us his words have a sense of urgency about the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching.

This quick, urgent storytelling also yields excerpts of stories that are very direct and to the point. With such directness and pointedness, the Church in the 21st century can be left asking, “So what?” or “What else is there to take from this?” This is particularly tempting or easy to do if the story is one of familiarity — the likelihood of which increases if a version of the passage is contained in Matthew, Mark, and Luke…like today’s excerpt is.

Jesus is walking through Galilee with his disciples. He’s gathered those closest to him to teach them (not a crowd), and he tells them for a second time what’s to come: that he will die and be raised again. Last week the Church heard Jesus say that the first time in Mark. In the space between last week’s text and this week’s text, Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray and Peter, James, and John see him transfigured with Moses and Elijah there to offer their approval.

On the way down the mountain, Jesus tells those three not to say anything because it’s not time yet. This week he and the disciples are on the move so that others don’t hear the teaching, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Despite Jesus doing a really good job of using his words, saying almost the exact same thing for a second time, having a transfiguration transformation experience, and just healing a demoniac, the disciples don’t understand.

That’s how revolutionary the Resurrection is. Jesus says exactly what he means, and yet the disciples don’t understand. As Christians who find our hope of all things being made right at the end of time in the Resurrection — that death itself has been defeated — we know that Jesus means exactly what he says. The disciples, so used to seeing one self-appointed messiah come and go while their occupation under the Romans remains, can’t fathom that Jesus actually means that he will die and that he will be raised up. It’s not even what they’re looking for! Their imaginations are limited to hoping for a king to lead an army against Caesar, not a man to open his arms on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

This lack of imagination about how the world might be, a world where death isn’t the end, is what fuels the next part of the story from Mark. Jesus and the disciples reach Capernaum and he asks them what they were arguing about. Do you remember being a child and having some argument with your siblings that you were sure your parents didn’t know about? Maybe it was mostly in facial expressions or hushed tones. You may have known it would be something your parents didn’t want you fighting about — or thought wasn’t even worth fighting about — so you kept it a secret. Then they asked you at the end of the car ride or at dinner, “What was that commotion about?”

That’s the disciples with Jesus when they reach Capernaum. He asks what they’ve been arguing about among themselves and they don’t answer him. They probably felt sheepish and might have looked at their feet or food or off into the distance (still inside the house), pretending not to hear him. Again, he sits the twelve down. This is not a crowd or a medium-sized group. This is the twelve, the twelve who have committed to following him — literally following him around the countryside — to whom he is giving the next two teachings.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The disciples — unable to imagine a world where death has been defeated, empire overthrown, and all of creation restored to right relationship — are fighting over who will be first, and Jesus tells them who will be first: the person who doesn’t want to be, the person looked at as not having ambition, the person who shows vulnerability and servanthood rather than seeking their own glory.

Then he takes a child, puts that child in the midst of them, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Children weren’t welcomed in the first century. They were tolerated. They played like all kids do, but children were an economic asset, able and expected to work. They were property until they were either old enough to own property themselves — boys — or sold in marriage to another male — girls. They couldn’t speak for themselves and had no power.

Yet, a child — powerless against the world around her, vulnerable to the powers that existed, and unable to defend herself — is who Jesus tells the disciples to welcome: the powerless, the vulnerable, the ones whose voices are ignored in the world. Jesus says that by welcoming people like that, the ones who can’t influence society and don’t strive to be in charge, they welcome Jesus. Not only do they welcome him, they welcome God who sent him. Welcoming the powerless is a far cry from arguing over who is the greatest!

That’s how these two excerpts of Mark fit together though, the snippet about walking through Galilee and the snippet about being in Capernaum in a house together. When they get to the destination, when the Church continues to come together to a place for understanding, Jesus helps them to see a little more of what he is about and what he’s not about. He’s not about being the greatest. He’s about being a servant of all. He’s not about winning friends and influencing people. He’s about welcoming the vulnerable to be among him and his followers.

Jesus tells his disciples that when they welcome the vulnerable, they welcome him. They’re looking for a leader on a war horse to overthrow the empire. They’re not looking for a vulnerable child. They haven’t been looking for that since he was born, fully God and fully human, as a child himself. Yet Jesus tells him that in welcoming the vulnerable, they welcome him. Jesus tells the Church that in being vulnerable, we are like him.

Being vulnerable, being a servant, being like a child, is what Jesus tells his disciples he’s come to do when he predicts his death and resurrection for a second time. He’s not coming to take over the empire. He’s come to do more than that, something so revolutionary the disciples can’t imagine it: defeat death itself. Death isn’t defeated with a sword, and his revolution is not with generals and battles. Death is defeated with a cross, with Jesus’ cross. And it was defeated in his rising again — just like he told the disciples it would be, even if they didn’t understand him.

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Joseph-St. John Episcopal Church in Lakewood, WA. He began this cure in September 2017. Before moving to the Seattle area, he served as Working Group Head for Communications for the Diocese of California in San Francisco. When not priesting or lifting, Joseph grabs a whistle as a soccer referee. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their cats Maggie and Stanton.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 18 (B).

Tribalism, Pentecost 17 (B) – September 16, 2018

Proper 19

Pentecost Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

The esteemed 20th-century theologian Karl Barth [pronounced “Bart”] reportedly advised preachers to prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and a current newspaper in the other. Obviously, he wanted the Bible to inform us and advise us, for good or bad, about what is going on in our time.

Today, a magazine article satisfies the “news” aspect of Barth’s pairing.

Describing a very troubling dilemma of our time, Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York Magazine (September 18, 2017) about a spirit of “tribalism” in America that has produced an “increasingly dangerous dysfunction,” one that also plagues people around the world.

He identified a prevailing cultural condition that has grown terribly out of hand. It results from what he calls a “compounding combination of… differences into two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Watching this cultural warfare, it seems like almost gladiatorial combat, with Tribe A seeking to destroy Tribe B and Tribe B attempting to destroy Tribe A.

Of course, there is nothing new in this. Remember the Pharisees making Jesus and his followers into their deadly enemies? They tried every means to trick him, to trip him up, to prove he was wrong, and to show that only they were right. If Jesus said it, it must be wrong. If they believed it, it must be right.

This acceptance and embracing of conflict clearly echo in our time. Doesn’t it ring true in almost every aspect of our culture, dividing us into competing camps? Driven by fears and insecurities and feelings of loss and absolute self-protection on every side, this view lures far too many of us into a radical and destructive mindset – one that focuses totally on winning, not seeking right solutions or what is best for all – but winning at all costs.

Sullivan goes on to describe how dramatic this malady is and suggests why it is so easy to become tribalistic. One of the great attractions of tribalism, he contends, is that you don’t actually have to think very much. You only need “to know on any given subject… which side you’re on… A tribal leader calls the shots, and everything slips into place. After a while, your immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible.”

As an example, Sullivan quotes George Orwell from several generations ago. The great social critic suggested that a function of tribalism holds that, “There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it.” This is a belief that anything done by me – by us – must be okay, and whatever is done by you – by them – must be wrong.

Quite interesting – but quite true. And – quite horrible – because this mentality describes much of American thought and practice in 2018. What tribalism creates, obviously, is an “us against them” mentality. Us against Them. Them against Us. Us against Them. Them against Us.

To offer a remedy, Sullivan quotes Pope Francis. In Colombia, as a fragile peace agreement met public opposition, the Pope insisted that grudges be left behind, saying that, “All of us are necessary to create and form a society. This isn’t just done with the ‘pure-blooded’ ones, but rather with everyone. And here is where the greatness of the country lies, in that there is room for all and all are important.”

Francis urges us to reject the view of Us against Them and instead adopt an Us and Them approach to living in a divided world. Us and Them. Them and Us. This can remind us of something we learned in kindergarten but somehow have forgotten as adults – that is, how to play nice with everyone in the sandbox. Us and Them leads us to communicate and cooperate, to respect and recognize mutual needs.

What a powerful perspective, to be sure. But is it enough? Mustn’t we, here in this place today, reach ever beyond a helpful, but incomplete, Us and Them commitment? Knowing our allegiance to Christ, living out our values as a people of faith, isn’t there more?

And that is where the Bible side of Barth’s pair comes in. We juxtapose the redeeming truth of our Lord, the Good News of God, against the bad news of division we encounter so frequently in our time.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells those who would lay their trust in him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Giving substance to this cross of self-denial can propel us into a reality more likely to transform the Us against Them sickness of our time into something more God-like.

Through the fundamental and essential nature of our faith, we can reveal in word and action a new Us/Them reality. What this can mean is taking up our crosses – in denial and love and giving – to reach a view of Us for Them. Us for Them.

Honestly and realistically, there will not likely be a corresponding Them for Us response – at least not at first. Therefore, it falls on us to show the world the way to overcome the tribalism of Us against Them by showing we are for them and all others, regardless of whether they reciprocate or not.

We dare not forget how Jesus teaches us to take up the cross of self-denial, commanding us to love one another as we inevitably love ourselves. To turn love into more than a noun, making it a powerful verb of caring. To remember that Christian love is the transforming example of the Good Samaritan – love and care given without hope or desire of receiving anything in return, given without strings, given only because of the other’s need. Given – in the spirit of Us for Them.

If we can act with such a faith, maybe we can turn destructive tribalism on its head and live as a different type of tribe – one that Jesus models – one opposite from the divisive and self-serving kind of tribes described by Sullivan in his analysis of what ails our country. Maybe we can become a tribe of Christians – a tribe for others.

Maybe we can be a community of people – who at best are what we already are – the body of Christ, working together with committed allegiance to the same powers of creation that Jesus embodied – rejecting and opposing the harmful and divisive and negative ways of thinking characteristic of tribalism. Putting an end to the winner-take-all mentality that infects our cultural health. Maybe that’s who and what we can be.

What if the [number in congregation] of us here today became such a tribe of Us for Them? What if we few would commit to stopping the cycle of demonizing the other and the insistence that we alone are right – opening ourselves to the value we know the others possess as beloved children of God? Maybe our efforts would begin the change that the world desperately needs. Maybe we can become the pebble tossed into the pond that creates ripple after ripple, transforming a destructive Us against Them culture into an Us for Them culture, consistent with the self-denying challenge of our Lord Jesus.

The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 17 (B).

Learning from Proverbs, Pentecost 16 (B) – September 9, 2018

Proper 18

Episcopal sermon proverbs


[RCL]: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” Is this in the Bible? I hope everyone is thinking—no! It’s a proverb, of course, but one of Benjamin Franklin’s, not from the Old Testament. However, it could have been one as the book of Proverbs is full of earthly and spiritual wisdom.

We may think of proverbs as clever sayings thought up by people like Ben Franklin, who was a master at crafting these sayings. Parents have a million of these sayings at their disposal. It must come with becoming a parent. Sayings such as, “Don’t make that face, it will stick that way.” “Don’t go out with a wet head, you’ll catch cold.” “Little pitchers have big ears.” I’m sure you could add many, many more, and aren’t they fun! For the next three weeks we will be treated to a different type of proverb, these are focused on wisdom – words that are not just clever clichés, but rather those that make us think seriously about how we live in our world and interrelate with each other.

Today, in a very concise and clear set of verses, we consider justice and poverty, which is very topical considering what’s happening in the world around us. As with most proverbs, these get quickly to the point, which makes them very memorable. “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity…” “Those who are generous are blessed …” When we think about the former, we should be reminded that not only do those who sow injustice eventually reap the punishment of calamity upon themselves, but sadly, they also reap calamity immediately upon those they persecute. We might usually think about the justice that will be dealt upon those who do wrong when we read scripture verses like these. But don’t we also wonder sometimes why punishment doesn’t seem to come quickly enough (according to us!) to those who deliberately do evil to others. It doesn’t seem fair that those who are unjust seem to get away with their crime against God’s people. People often say things like, “Why did God allow those young girls in Nigeria get kidnapped and tortured by the Boko Haram?” We may even say things like that ourselves. Why isn’t God’s justice immediate and complete?

Why, indeed, but we must remember one of the great gifts God gave to us as human beings is free will. If God had a finger in everything we do, if God pushed and manipulated us as a puppet maker can manipulate the strings of a wooden puppet, then perhaps the world would be full of nice people going about their business like – well, like puppets. We wouldn’t have to think. God would never cause us to do evil if God was the puppet maker. So we have to remember that we live in a very natural world. We live in a world full of human beings who are all made in God’s image and likeness, but all with the free will to behave as they choose. Too many people today forget that most wonderful section of Genesis where God says, “Let us make humankind in our image and likeness.” Part of that is remembering that within God is ultimate and perfect freedom and so we have the freedom to choose to do good or do evil.

Justice will come, but we may not know how those who do evil will be judged or what the outcome will be. It must be enough that we trust God and know that God loves all of us, good, bad, or indifferent. God also hopes that we who try to do good will pray for those who do evil. We will work however we can to show the world that love can overcome hate, generosity can overcome greed, the mystery of prayer can overcome evil.

But, it’s not all grim. We aren’t always faced with evil that we must suffer under or overcome. There is a very positive side to the proverbs. Parents also have those positive proverbs like, “You will always be my baby” or “You’ll understand when you’re older.” In our reading today, we find the proverb that says, “Those who are generous are blessed…” Yes, the generous themselves are blessed by grace, but also those who are the recipients of our generosity are blessed. There is a beautiful interaction there of blessedness. A woman therapist wrote in a blog that as she was waiting in a grocery checkout line one day, she made eye contact with another woman. They didn’t know each other, but they both smiled and, in that moment, the therapist wrote, “I felt such love for her as a fellow human being. There was something beautiful in our acknowledgement of each other.”

We also must know many people who have touched our own lives with love and blessing. So many people touch our lives with their kindness, with the little things that have “made our day” as we so often say. Teachers often are the ones who help us change our lives. Many fall in love with those who have kindled a spark of something special within us. There is so much good in the world if we can only turn away from the news headlines and look into the eyes of our fellow human beings.

The Jewish people use the word mitzvah, which is often translated good deed. And rabbis will tell you that it means more—it comes from the root word tzavta, which means connection or commandment. Connection is a lovely translation. Whenever we share with the poor, speak out against injustice (especially when the injustice is right in front of our eyes), or respond with love to another, we are establishing a connection. That connection is not only between us and another person, but also between ourselves and God.

“The Lord is the maker of us all…” We dare not forget this, but isn’t it a much better mitzvah for us all to look on each other with the same love with which God looks on each one of us!

This sermon, written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz, originally ran in 2015.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 16 (B).