Search Results for: Whitney rice

O Come All Ye Faithful, Bored and Irritated, Christmas Day (II) – December 25, 2018


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

Why are we here today?

That’s actually a more complex question than we might think. Many of us are here out of habit and/or tradition. We’re here either because we come to this church every Sunday and Christmas Day is part of the deal, or we’re here because we simply always go to church on Christmas and Easter.

We might be here because our parents made us come, or we might be here for the sake of the children or grandchildren. We might be here to sing favorite carols and see the greenery and just generally feel festive. Every one of those reasons is a fine and good reason to be in church today.

But there might just be another reason working in the background, whether we realize it or not.

Think about the people who were at the first Christmas. Mary was there because she literally had no other choice. Biology took over at that point and she was obviously present at the birth of her child. Joseph was there because he loved his fiancée and wanted to do right by her and take care of her. The sheep and camels were there because their stable had been invaded by this couple who could find no room at the inn. And the shepherds were there probably out of curiosity, to find out if their vision of the angelic host was real or just a result of being oxygen deprived in the thin air way up on the hillsides with their sheep.

And the fact that they were in Bethlehem was not on purpose either. Mary and Joseph would probably have wanted to have the baby at home in Nazareth where they had friends and family to help them. They were only in Bethlehem because they had to go there for the census ordered by the emperor. Perhaps it was an equally strange mix of seemingly meaningless circumstances that brought you here today.

The old Christmas hymn, Adeste Fideles, calls all of us to this moment. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” We hope to feel joyful and triumphant on Christmas. Mary likely felt joyful and triumphant after just going through labor with no family or friends to help her and successfully delivering a healthy baby boy.

But it’s okay if you’re not feeling joyful and triumphant. O come, all ye faithful, bored and irritated. O come, all ye faithful, exhausted and worried. O come, all ye faithful, cynical and angry. O come, all ye faithful, heartbroken and grieving.

Simply come, all ye faithful, no matter what you’re feeling.

No doubt Joseph and the shepherds had mixed feelings as they entered the stable. But once they gazed on the face of the Christ Child, the Baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, everything changed. Whatever reason had brought them to this moment no longer mattered, and all of their complex, self-directed emotions faded to simple awe. When they saw him, their hearts cried out to do only one thing: fall to their knees and adore him.

What does it mean to adore someone?

It’s a term that we use lightly all the time to express admiration and love for someone: “Oh, I just adore her, she’s wonderful.”

The term “adore” is actually used very sparingly in the Bible. There are a variety of words used in relationship to worship: praise, glorify, rejoice. But adoration only happens in circumstances when people feel their smallness and imperfection in the face of the greatness and perfection of God. But rather than the people feeling bad about how small and imperfect they are, they are instead completely taken outside of themselves and enraptured and lost in the love and wonder of God.

Most of us probably do an okay amount of praising God, and we sure do a whole lot of petitioning God, asking God to fulfill our wishes and plans. But how often do we adore God? How often do we let go of our own agendas completely because we can’t help it, because we are so overwhelmed by the goodness and love of God streaming over and through us? Maybe not often enough.

There’s something in us that resists adoration. With praise and petition and even rejoicing and glorifying, we’re still in control. We’re generating action toward God based on our evaluation of God’s goodness and what we want to get out of it.

But to adore God is something else. Adoration means we are brought to our knees by the grace we’re experiencing, and it’s no longer about us. For once, we have forgotten our needs and our wants, and simply bask in how very good God is.

But if we find it hard to adore God in God’s majesty and greatness, it seems even less likely that we will want to go to our knees in a dusty, dirty stable for a newborn baby in a manger. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about a helpless baby. What has a baby done to impress me? What can a baby do to answer my prayers?

But even as we’re thinking these thoughts, we suddenly do stumble to our knees. God could have come to earth in any giant, majestic, theatrical way God wanted to. God could have shown up with lights painted across the sky and trumpets and fireworks and earthquakes. But God came as a child. God sent God’s beloved and only son as the most vulnerable and fragile creature imaginable: a human baby.

And that is what strikes us dumb and finally, finally takes our focus off ourselves and our needs. The raw power and depth of love that God must have for us to send Jesus to us this way when something terrible could so easily have happened is humbling. Think about how astronomically high the rate of infant mortality was in those days. Cold, exposure, infection, injury—a thousand things could have gone wrong in the first hours, not to mention the days and weeks and months to come, days and weeks and months in which Jesus had nothing to protect him, no modern medicine, no safe shelter, nothing but love.

The courage of that love, to come to earth as a fragile human baby and risk it all for us in this obscure and humble place—suddenly there is nothing we want to do more than go to our knees at the manger and adore him. The fragile courage of this small child awakens a similar fragile courage within us, to kneel down and open ourselves completely to this love, to let go, to adore.

Jesus had no protection from the many dangers that could harm him as a human baby, and he has no protection from the coldness of our cynicism and indifference. But the love and promise that he radiates emit a light brighter than the star shining overhead, a light that can melt the cold shield of ice we have wrapped around our hearts to protect ourselves from the intensity of pain and joy that comes with loving.

So we the faithful have come as we were called. Joyful and triumphant, bored and irritated, cynical and angry, exhausted and worried, or grieving and heartbroken, we have come.

Maybe we expected to drift off into daydreams during church, or ask God for something special in our stockings, or simply relax and have a good time with friends and family, and all of those things are fine to do. Maybe we came here worrying that we would have to hide the fact that we are afraid that we are the only ones that sometimes can neither see nor feel the magic of Christmas.

But as we approach the manger and see that God has had the courage to risk it all for us, out of the sheer depth and passion of God’s love for us, let us answer that courage with a courage of our own. Let us answer with the courage to let go of our agendas and our needs, kneeling at the manger and gazing into the face of love, fragile in form but stronger than steel in intent.

O come, all ye faithful. O come, let us adore him. 

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She is a graduate of 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. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com). Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (II).

Christmas Is a Choice, Christmas Day (I) – December 25, 2018


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

Christmas is not an event. Christmas is not a holiday. Christmas is not a church service.

Christmas is not a set of familiar carols or decorations of red and green or a jolly man in a red suit with eight tiny reindeer. Christmas is not an occasion or a party or a festival. It is not a piece of history or time off work or a gathering with family.

All of these things are connected to Christmas, but fundamentally, Christmas is not an event.

Christmas is a choice.

Mary didn’t have a choice about being on the road when she went into labor. Joseph had to register for the census and that meant traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Joseph didn’t have a choice about the fact that this child was not biologically his own. It was a done deal by the time he found out about it. Neither of them had a choice about the fact that Jesus would be born in a stable. There was no room at the inn, so it was either the barn or a ditch by the side of the road.

They were made vulnerable by their circumstances: vulnerable to gossip about Jesus’ parentage, vulnerable to physical pain and danger in Mary’s case, vulnerable to a feeling of failing to provide for his family in Joseph’s case.

The shepherds didn’t have a choice about being out in the fields with their sheep in the dark and the cold. The sheep needed tending and guarding, and the sheep were the shepherds’ livelihood, their means of economic survival. The shepherds were vulnerable to the weather and the terrain. They also didn’t have a choice about the visiting angels. The heavenly host descended on them out of nowhere, and suddenly Glorias were filling the air. They were terrified, and had no defense against their fear.

As you think about your life this year, where do you feel like you didn’t have a choice? It’s likely that many things come to mind. You don’t have a choice about the Alzheimer’s or dementia that has taken over not just the life of your spouse or parent, but your life as well. You don’t have a choice about the heart attack or cancer that took away a loved one all too soon. You don’t have a choice about the job you hate or the job you lost or the job you can’t get. You don’t have a choice about your own struggles with food or relationships or sleep or alcohol, the fight to make good choices that you seem to lose over and over.

And so, we come to Christmas. And Christmas is all about God giving us a choice.

God places the power in our hands. God comes into the raging inferno of our insane world and says to us, “Do you want me? Will you allow me to be born among you? Will you accept this tiny infant as your savior and your friend and your hope?”

And we’re free to say no. Because underneath that choice is another choice, and that is the true choice of Christmas.

We have to choose to be vulnerable to joy. Vulnerable to joy? That doesn’t seem to be much of a choice. Who doesn’t want to experience joy?

Well, it’s more complicated than that. Despair and cynicism and even hatred are actually the paths of least resistance. When something offends us or frightens us, the easiest response is to lash out in anger and vicious self-defense. And with the difficult situations in our lives compounded by the conflicts in our society, our walls are very, very high right now. We will not be caught defenseless. We will not be left unaware. We will not be caught off guard, made to look foolish, victims of a surprise attack. Our fear almost makes us seek out darkness everywhere we go, if only to justify the walls we’ve built around our hearts.

And how does God answer our minds and hearts and communities bristling with self-defense so aggressive that it actually seems to be offense?

God gives Godself to us in the most vulnerable form possible: a fragile human baby.

And how could we respond with anything but joy?

Joy is surprisingly difficult to let ourselves feel fully. We hedge our joy. We celebrate and give thanks, but in the back of our minds, there is the knowledge that this goodness could be lost in a moment, that it will probably all turn bad in the future, that even this light does not erase the darkness in our lives. We hedge our joy, unwilling to let go those last shreds of defended self-consciousness, the final walls that protect us from being utterly vulnerable, able to be hurt.

That is why true joy requires vulnerability. We have to set down our weapons, take off our armor, lay aside our power and control, in order to even see the infant Christ in each other, much less kneel and adore him. It is a terrifying prospect.

But the choice of Christmas that we make is in answer to the choice that God made, the choice to come to us fragile, undefended, vulnerable, utterly reliant on us humans for his survival in the world. And God took joy in giving Godself to us in this way. So if we can take the same risk that God did, we can feel the same joy God feels. Light meets light, joy touches joy, and the darkness itself bows in awe at the radiance that shines out of the fragile infant Christ.

And what happens when we do take off the armor? What happens when we stop trying to be right all the time, safe all the time, in control all the time? What happens when we let the light radiating from that small face in the manger penetrate our hearts?

Oh, it is so beautiful. You may laugh. You may cry. You may laugh through your tears and cry in your laughter. Joy is deeper than happiness or celebration or giddy exuberance. Joy is a force that knocks down all the walls around our hearts and levels us with the goodness, the grace, the unearned and unending love and healing that is our newly arrived Jesus.

Joy remakes us, tears down our cynical and fearful identities and gives birth to a self that is trusting, patient, believing, knowing that all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Joy is the reward of the long nurtured faith that got us here. Joy is a quiet and lasting foundation that endures while the currents of happiness and grief wash back and forth over the surface of our hearts.

Joy is the first breath the resurrected Christ takes in the tomb on Easter morning. It is the breath behind the healing words he speaks to you when you clutch at the hem of his robe. It is the quiet, sweet breaths of the sleeping baby in the manger as we look on, feeling our hearts overflow. The joy of Christ becomes our own breath, and if we surrender this far to grace, we could no more choose not to live in him than we could choose not to breathe.

That is what awaits us behind the choice of Christmas. That is what being vulnerable to joy feels like. That is what joy can do to us if we let it—if we have the courage to let go into the miracle.

It’s all up to us. What choice will you make?

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She is a graduate of 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. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com). Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (I).

Sermons for Advent and Christmas 2018

Now available!

Sermons for Advent and Christmas EpiscopalSermons That Work, a ministry of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Communication, has provided free and high-quality sermons, Bible studies, and bulletin inserts since 1995. Every week, it is our pleasure to source, review, and publish these pieces; we hope they are edifying as you hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these and their corresponding scriptures.

It is our pleasure to present a compilation of this year’s Advent and Christmas sermons from some of the best preachers in the Episcopal Church. Whether you use this book for private devotionals and inspiration, small group study, or reading from the pulpit, we pray that you will find this holy season brightened by the Everlasting Light himself.

Contents

  • We Need a Little Hopefulness, by the Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates
  • Who Needs a Prophet?, by the Rev. Deon Johnson
  • What Should We Do?, by the Rev. Canon Dr. Ada Wong Nagata
  • A Song of Hope , by the Rev. Anna Tew
  • Christmas Is a Choice and O Come All Ye Faithful, Bored and Irritated, by the Rev. Whitney Rice
  • Beyond Words, by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue

Download the free compilation here.

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive, Easter 2 (B) – April 8, 2018

Easter 2 Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday. Low Sunday—that’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church. Last week we presented the triumph of the church year. We announced to the world the Good News of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us. And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom. Ouch. Was it something we said?

It may well have been. It’s a shocking gospel, frankly quite hard to believe. It was hard to believe even for people who knew Jesus in person while he was alive and witnessed his many miracles. Today we tell the story of Doubting Thomas, the apostle who had to see to believe.

Thomas, along with Peter, is the most human of the disciples, and this story is rich with interesting questions. The first thing that we notice is that Thomas misses out on Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples. It’s Sunday night, and they have been locked in the Upper Room, afraid for their lives since Friday night.

But not Thomas. Where is he? Was he terrified and trying to hide by himself, not wanting to be found by the Romans right in the middle of a pack of ringleaders of Jesus’ rebellion? Was he instead full of stoic courage, the only one brave enough to venture out and bring back food to his friends?

Whatever it was, he was definitely not there when Jesus appeared in the locked Upper Room. He missed the Resurrection. Many of us can identify with that sort of frustrated futility. We wonder if we’re missing the Resurrection in a lot of areas in our lives. God is raising things to new life and our attention is elsewhere, checked out, missing in action, like Thomas.

Thomas does eventually show up with the rest of the disciples, and they tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” And what is he supposed to think? If he was the only one who had been brave enough to leave, he has watched his brothers and friends driven nearly mad with fear and grief over the last three days. He probably feels great compassion and love for them. They so desperately want their dead friend and leader not to have been condemned to death and executed, that they have dreamed up this vision they experienced.

And who knows, Thomas wouldn’t put it past Jesus to come to them as a ghost. Lord knows he did stranger things than that when he was alive. But he is no longer alive. He is dead, and Thomas knows that denying that won’t help anyone. It’s never brought back any of the rest of the family and friends he’s lost over the years, and it won’t bring back Jesus.

Thomas remains in this state, unable to trust the word of his friends, for an entire week. What was that week like for him? The rest of the disciples were floating on air knowing that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But where was Jesus for that week? And why did he leave the disciples alone? It’s like Low Sunday. Last Sunday we saw him raised from the dead. Now we’re back and starting to wonder, did we really see what we thought we saw? At least we have witnessed him alive. Thomas has had only his own stubbornness to keep him going.

Stubbornness and maybe a tiny spark of hope. Because what made Thomas stick around for an entire week with what he believed to be friends driven to delusions by grief? If Jesus was truly dead, there was nothing left for him anymore with this group of people. By all rights, he should have gone home to his fields or his fishing boat. Remaining with the disciples was a dead end—the longer they stayed together, the greater the danger of being arrested by the Romans. And spending time with them would only serve to bring home every minute of every day that their friend Jesus was dead.

But Thomas did stay. Is it possible that a small part of him wondered if this story his friends were telling him might possibly be true? He reveals himself a bit in his answer to their claim that they have seen the Lord. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

He doesn’t say, “You people are crazy, I’m leaving.” He sets up a hypothetical condition under which he will believe in the Resurrection. He’s laying out the challenge to Jesus. He’s saying, “Come and show me, Jesus, come and prove it to me. Just come to me, Jesus, on any terms.”

Thomas wants to be tough and uncaring and skeptical, but he loved Jesus. He is grieving as deeply as the others, and although they are now joyful since seeing him alive again, Thomas has had no such comfort. He’s throwing out this challenge to provoke Jesus into coming to them again, because Thomas just wants to see his friend. Ghost or vision or real person, it doesn’t matter.

And Jesus does not disappoint him. Thomas has had a grim week, the lone skeptic among the believers. But as soon as Jesus arrives, as soon as he bids them peace, he calls Thomas to him and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

How fascinating and revealing that even in his resurrected body, Jesus’ wounds remain. And how very appropriate to Thomas’ story, and our own story. Resurrection is possible for us in so many areas of our own lives. But our wounds remain, the scars that, painful as they were in the making, have made us indelibly who we are.

Jesus is resurrected to new life, but he’s still himself. And he helps Thomas recognize him through his wounds. That is a potent lesson for us. When we look at ourselves and at each other, part of the proof of our true resurrection is that the past is brought forward to coexist with the present. Our wounds are not erased as though they had never existed. They are still present but no longer cause us pain. They are proof to one another that we are new and whole, but it was our woundedness that got us to this day of resurrection in the first place.

There was one other thing that happened on Low Sunday in the early Church. Those who were baptized on Easter received a new white robe and wore it all week. On Low Sunday, they took it off and went back to their regular clothes. There’s something very poignant about that and our story of Thomas. Today is the day when the loud and public festivities are over, and we return to our normal, everyday lives. But today is also the Day of the Resurrection for Thomas. It is the day when the new white robe falls away and Thomas sees the wounds on Jesus’ body, the same physical person that he knew and loved and now recognizes as both wounded and whole, alive and breathing.

Can we recognize that same type of resurrection in ourselves? In each other? When the fancy Easter dresses and suits are put away for another year, what is left? Our same wounded selves that we fear to show to one another. But we need proof of the Resurrection, and we will only find it in each other. If we are brave enough to show each other our wounded places, we will find that they don’t hurt quite so much. We will find that we are indeed both wounded and healed.

Thomas was a week late to the Resurrection, but he made it all the same. Where do you find yourself today? There is still time for you to come back to life. Reach out to touch the wounded, living Jesus and feel him touch your wounded, living soul.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana.  She is a graduate of 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. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com).  Find more of her work at her website, Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Easter 2 (B).

Let Go into Jesus, Tuesday in Holy Week – March 27, 2018


[RCL]: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12:20-36

Being there for one another in times of trouble is harder than it appears on the surface. We often define a friend as someone who will be there for us when we need them, but what does that really mean?

Our first instinct when something terrible is happening is to turn away, to run and escape, to get out before the terrible thing can suck us in as well. Car accident, cancer diagnosis, job loss, lingering battle with grief—we shy away as if they were contagious.

If we make the decision that we’re not going to run away but instead stay with our friend who is suffering, our next instinct is to try and fix it, to say, “No, look, do this, change this, fix this and you’ll be fine.” It takes a very disciplined and patient sort of love to truly be there for someone in crisis without trying to fix it, an art that many of us sometimes despair of ever mastering.

It is exactly that sort of love that we can often look back on and recognize in God’s response to our own dark moments. God doesn’t abandon us, but neither does God very often step in and fix us or our circumstances. God stands with us with the bravest and strongest love of all, the love that undergoes suffering with us rather than sparing us or Godself.

Holy Week is the test of whether we can summon that sort of love within ourselves for Jesus. The Greek visitors to Jerusalem for the Passover in our Gospel today say something that has the potential to convict us in our relationship with Jesus.

They come to Philip, one of the disciples, and say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We have to ask ourselves, is that statement true of us? Do we wish to see Jesus? Do we really wish to see him completely, in his fullness, in his moments of glory and his moments of pain?

Each of us will find one aspect or another of Jesus difficult to want to see. Some of us find ourselves drawn to Jesus most in his times of humanness and trial. We love him most when we see him summon his courage in his moments of human vulnerability. Others find themselves drawn to Jesus in his moments of glory and power. They love the heavenly Christ, the cosmic Word who undergirds creation and subdues the raging waters and scatters miracles from his fingertips. Jesus is all of these things. He is fully human and fully divine.

We see both sides of his nature in this very Gospel story. You can find which part of Jesus you relate to and which part seems foreign to you by how you react to his words in different parts of this text. When do you love Jesus more? When he says, “Now my soul is troubled”? Then you’re probably in closer relationship to the human side of Jesus. Or do you find yourself thrilling when he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”? Then you’re probably in closer relationship to the divine side of Jesus.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding yourself touched and moved to see Jesus as a man or Christ as God, one more than the other. But it is important for us to reach for understanding and encounter with the opposite side of Jesus, the part we don’t understand and identify with as much. And that is because we want the words of the Greeks in Jerusalem to be true of us. We want to be able to say, “We wish to see Jesus,” Jesus in his fullness, Jesus in his complexity, Jesus as all he came to us to be and do.

What can the parts of Jesus we neglect teach us about the parts of ourselves we neglect? Are we comfortable with our own power? Are we comfortable with our own weakness? Which do we run from when we see them in ourselves? Which do we run from when we see them in each other?

It is a lifelong quest of spiritual growth to step into our fears rather than running away from them, to step into what we perceive as darkness that should be hidden away and find it the very path to resurrection and new life. If we can learn to embrace the wholeness of Jesus, the parts of him that we understand and identify with, and the parts that seem mysterious and foreign, we are one step closer to embracing the sun and the shadow within ourselves and each other. We are one step closer to seeing that humility and glory each have their place and their value.

There is something about approaching this precipice with Jesus during Holy Week, entering these days with him that are literally a life and death situation, that should make us want to abandon all our complex plans for ourselves and our churches and our loved ones. As Jesus’ allies and earthly power are stripped away from him and he bears it with such grace—more than that, he uses the lessening of these extraneous things to drive him to the center of his purpose on Earth—it leads us to repent of our attempts to control people and events around us. It leads us to let ourselves be willingly stripped of the illusion of power and control. We long to be reduced to the simple and heartfelt and honest desire in the Gospel, “I wish to see Jesus.”

For what is Holy Week but Jesus letting go of all control of his life and his power? We know he could have swept away all resistance to his rule, saved himself from trial and execution without breaking a sweat. But he let go. He abandoned himself, not to hopelessness and death, but to hope and faith. He let go and believed that his love for us was worth sacrificing everything, and the love of his Father would call him back to life on the third day.

Can we approach these final days with Jesus that lead us to such a terrifying and painful place with the same faith that he displays? Can we really be there for him with the faithfulness that a true friend shows in time of crisis, the ability to be present through suffering without trying to fix it? Do we really want to see Jesus as he is in all his glory and all his pain?

The answers to those questions will be the answer to a deeper quandary, whether we’re ready to submit ourselves to death and resurrection, our full selves, the spectrum of our strength and weakness, to the cleansing and purifying fire of Calvary.

Can we let go of our plans, our defenses, our precious control, and go to the Cross with naked honesty, nothing hidden and nothing denied?

It becomes clear that we cannot force honesty or courage on ourselves. We cannot force ourselves to be faithful to Jesus or to ourselves or our friends.

We have to follow Jesus’ example and let go. Let go into what? Into the one whose every human cell and every divine power was filled with one compelling purpose, to love us. Let go into our beloved Jesus.

Amen.

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.

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Monday in Holy Week

Wednesday in Holy Week

Maundy Thursday

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Great Vigil of Easter

In the Beginning…, Christmas 1 – December 31, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John are certainly well-known—“In the beginning was the Word.” But this passage can seem too floaty, too esoteric, too obscure, abstract, and idealized. It’s poetry, yes, but it’s not particularly helpful poetry, and when we read the Bible, most of us like to gather some sort of concrete idea of what to do in our lives on an everyday basis.

But if John thought poetry was the best way to introduce Jesus and encourage us to encounter Jesus, why was that?

This text reveals that we need to think differently about who we are. It’s very easy as we go about our daily lives making our daily mistakes to get very down on ourselves, to believe we are constantly disappointing God and everyone else. And while it’s important to never lose sight of our feet of clay, the fact is that God created us but a little lower than the angels, and sometimes we need to rise into the stratosphere with John and live into that a bit.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means being changed. We are born blessed by God, created in the image of God, but salvation makes us a new creation in Christ. Listen to how Isaiah talks about how God has changed him in our lesson today: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels…You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.”

Our trust and faith in God that we struggle so doggedly to maintain and renew makes us, who are already cherished by God, into souls who shine with new potential and the beauty of life immersed in God. This is true even when we are sinning because the underlying reality of our desire and hunger for God will always drive us to stand up again when we’ve fallen, to reach out again when we’ve lost contact with God, to open up again when we’ve hardened our hearts.

What can we learn about what Jesus wants us to be from what we learn about who Jesus is in John’s prologue? John says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” You were part of a process much greater than your parents creating a biological exchange. Jesus Christ himself, the great and eternal Word, was the vehicle of your creation, was the medium and the messenger that spoke a unique word into the universe that never was before and never will be again. That’s you.

You might not believe little old you could be that special or important. But John says it himself: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” You are a child of God born of the will of God.

In fact, we were so important to God that Jesus chose to leave all his heavenly glory, emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave, as Philippians says. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,” John goes on. That’s what we’re celebrating today, on this first Sunday of Christmas. God chose to humble Godself to the level of a poor, limited, human creature. And more than that—notice that John adds, “And we have seen his glory.” Jesus didn’t just become human for a minute or an hour or a day and then go right back to heaven. He lived among us for thirty-three years, enduring the messiness, the heartbreak, the inconvenience, the joy, and the pain of human life.

And he never walked out on that pain. He could have used his power at so many moments to ease his way. It would never have affected his healing or his teaching. There was no reason for him to suffer the pain he went through, from getting sick to getting in arguments to having clueless disciples, to having friends die, all the way up to the excruciating suffering he experienced on the cross. But he did it because he loves us, and he would never abandon us to suffer alone.

He entered the pain willingly because he wanted to go to the darkest depths of human suffering, because that is where all of us end up at some point in our lives, some of us more than once. That is what John means when he says “and we have seen his glory.” Not his glory in the sense of being powerful or mighty or wearing a robe that shines like the sun and ascending to heaven on a cloud. We have seen his glory as he dwelt among us because there never has been and there never will be any place of pain, lostness, suffering, or addiction that we can go and not find him there with us, bearing it with us and for us.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known,” John says. This can help us see the Incarnation and the Christmas season in a whole different way. If Jesus had not been born, that first sentence, “No one has ever seen God,” would still be true. Mary and Joseph and Peter and John would not have seen God, and we would not have seen God. But because God made the choice to share Godself with us in human form, we have seen God in Jesus Christ, and it is amazing.

And that second sentence, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” This shows us once again what Jesus gave up and sacrificed to come to us, a completely different sacrifice from the giving of his life on the cross. He was close to the Father’s heart. That was where he lived, in the perfect Trinity of love. And he left that peaceful, radiant and loving place, the place close to the Father’s heart, for us. And why? To stay with us forever? Yes, but more than that. To bring us to that place. To bring us close to the Father’s heart. He told us so himself: “I go to prepare a place for you.” He doesn’t even take his special place back for himself. He gives it up for us. And this is the fundamental reordering of the universe that happened on Christmas that we celebrate today.

It’s worth living in the poetry sometimes. We can get frustrated when we don’t get concrete direction from a Bible passage. But the poetry is what explains the why of all the literal actions of discipleship we’re trying to do. What takes tithing and studying and praying and worshipping and serving from being rote, mechanical duties to being our offering of our very selves to the living God, is the cosmic story of God and humanity of which John sings. The beauty of the words, and underneath that, the beauty of the truth that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—that poetry is what makes our souls catch fire for God and all God asks of us.

This is why scripture matters so much. Because when real life comes crashing in, when the divorce papers are served, when the job loss happens, when the cancer or Alzheimer’s diagnosis comes through, we have to have somewhere to anchor our souls. And we do, in a few simple words a man named John wrote a very long time ago. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The hard knocks of life plus the poetry of scripture give us the chance to build our lives so that we become a word of poetry ourselves, one little phrase expressed by the great Word that is God.

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 Christmas 1 (B).

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).

 

Let go into Jesus, Tuesday in Holy Week (A) – April 11, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12:20-36

Being there for one another in times of trouble is harder than it appears on the surface. We often define a friend as someone who will be there for us when we need them, but what does that really mean?

Our first instinct when something terrible is happening is to turn away, to run and escape, to get out before the terrible thing can suck us in as well. Car accident, caner diagnosis, job loss, lingering battle with grief—we shy away as if they were contagious.

If we make the decision that we’re not going to run away but instead stay with our friend who is suffering, our next instinct is to try and fix it, to say, “No, look, do this, change this, fix this and you’ll be fine.” It takes a very disciplined and patient sort of love to truly be there for someone in crisis without trying to fix it, an art that many of us sometimes despair of ever mastering.

It is exactly that sort of love that we can often look back and recognize in God’s response to our own dark moments. God doesn’t abandon us, but neither does God very often step in and fix us or our circumstances. God stands with us with the bravest and strongest love of all, the love that undergoes suffering with us rather than sparing us or Godself.

Holy Week is the test of whether we can summon that sort of love within ourselves for Jesus. The Greek visitors to Jerusalem for the Passover in our Gospel today say something that has the potential to convict us in our relationship with Jesus.

They come to Philip, one of the disciples, and say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We have to ask ourselves, is that statement true of us? Do we wish to see Jesus? Do we really wish to see him completely, in his fullness, in his moments of glory and his moments of pain?

Each of us will find one aspect or another of Jesus difficult to want to see. Some of us find ourselves drawn to Jesus most in his times of humanness and trial. We love him most when we see him summon his courage in his moments of human vulnerability. Others find themselves drawn to Jesus in his moments of glory and power. They love the heavenly Christ, the cosmic Word who undergirds creation and subdues the raging waters and scatters miracles from his fingertips. Jesus is all of these things. He is fully human and fully divine.

We see both sides of his nature in this very Gospel story. You can find which part of Jesus you relate to and which part seems foreign to you by how you react to his words in different parts of this text. When do you love Jesus more? When he says, “Now my soul is troubled”? Then you’re probably in closer relationship to the human side of Jesus. Or do you find yourself thrilling when he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”? Then you’re probably in closer relationship to the divine side of Jesus.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding yourself touched and moved to see Jesus as a man or Christ as God, one more than the other. But it is important for us to reach for understanding and encounter with the opposite side of Jesus, the part we don’t understand and identify with as much. And that is because we want the words of the Greeks in Jerusalem to be true of us. We want to be able to say, “We wish to see Jesus,” Jesus in his fullness, Jesus in his complexity, Jesus as all he came to us to be and do.

What can the parts of Jesus we neglect teach us about the parts of ourselves we neglect? Are we comfortable with our own power? Are we comfortable with our own weakness? Which do we run from when we see them in ourselves? Which do we run from when we see them in each other?

It is a lifelong quest of spiritual growth to step into our fears rather than running away from them, to step into what we perceive as darkness that should be hidden away and find it the very path to resurrection and new life. If we can learn to embrace the wholeness of Jesus, the parts of him that we understand and identify with, and the parts that seem mysterious and foreign, we are one step closer to embracing the sun and the shadow within ourselves and each other. We are one step closer to seeing that humility and glory each have their place and their value.

There is something about approaching this precipice with Jesus during Holy Week, entering these days with him that are literally a life and death situation, that should make us want to abandon all our complex plans for ourselves and our churches and our loved ones. As Jesus’ allies and earthly power are stripped away from him and he bears it with such grace—more than that, he uses the lessening of these extraneous things to drive him to the center of his purpose on Earth—it leads us to repent of our attempts to control people and events around us. It leads us to let ourselves be willingly stripped of the illusion of power and control. We long to be reduced to the simple and heartfelt and honest desire in the Gospel, “I wish to see Jesus.”

For what is Holy Week but Jesus letting go of all control of his life and his power? We know he could have swept away all resistance to his rule, saved himself from trial and execution without breaking a sweat. But he let go. He abandoned himself, not to hopelessness and death, but to hope and faith. He let go and believed that his love for us was worth sacrificing everything, and the love of his Father would call him back to life on the third day.

Can we approach these final days with Jesus that lead us to such a terrifying and painful place with the same faith that he displays? Can we really be there for him with the faithfulness that a true friend shows in time of crisis, the ability to be present through suffering without trying to fix it? Do we really want to see Jesus as he is in all his glory and all his pain?

The answers to those questions will be the answer to a deeper quandary, whether we’re ready to submit ourselves to death and resurrection, our full selves, the spectrum of our strength and weakness, to the cleansing and purifying fire of Calvary.

Can we let go of our plans, our defenses, our precious control, and go to the Cross with naked honesty, nothing hidden and nothing denied?

It becomes clear that we cannot force honesty or courage on ourselves. We cannot force ourselves to be faithful to Jesus or to ourselves or our friends.

We have to follow Jesus’ example and let go. Let go into what? Into the one whose every human cell and every divine power was filled with one compelling purpose, to love us. Let go into our beloved Jesus.

Amen.

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

Download the sermon for Tuesday in Holy Week (A).

 

Sermons for the remainder of Holy Week can be found here:

Wednesday in Holy Week

Maundy Thursday

Good Friday

Great Vigil of Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for All Saints, Year C.

What Seat Do You Choose? Proper 17(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

So American monk Thomas Merton tells us something we may not really want to hear, but we can immediately connect his uncomfortable truth to Jesus’ teaching in our gospel today.

We find it easy to connect with Jesus as a healer, as our savior, as a teacher and even as a prophet. But Jesus as a countercultural revolutionary, someone who speaks against the way our society works? That’s harder to stomach, especially when we realize that he is preaching against behavior that we engage in regularly.

In ancient Israel’s society, who sat where at a dinner party conveyed status as clearly as who has the corner office, who gets the Employee of the Month parking space, or whose child has the most attendees at her birthday party. Our lives are full of subtle status signals and we use them to communicate who we are and how we want others to see us.

Our clothing, what car we drive (or whether we have a car to drive), what neighborhood we live in, where we socialize—it all sends a message about our worth and prestige, usually based on our economic power. We buy a rung on the ladder as often as we “earn” it.

These signals were conveyed in Jesus’ time by the seating at a meal. And the seating as arranged by the host was not just a signal but a tool. If you hosted a dinner and wanted an advantageous marriage match with a certain young man for your daughter, you could seat her father at a higher place at the table than he usually would have. If a competitor in business shorted you in a deal, you could seat him lower at the table to communicate your displeasure. Seating at the table was currency, and it was the stage on which political and social relationships were played out. It was the public display of an individual’s or family’s place on the spectrum of honor and shame.

A similar display in our society with similar messages might be the public encounter with a grocery clerk at the check-out counter. When you pay with food stamps, people draw many conclusions about you. And when you pay with an exclusive, members-only platinum credit card, people draw other conclusions about you. You are labeled and judged and placed within a strict hierarchy based on that public encounter. That is how these dinner seating charts worked in Jesus’ time.

One of the most interesting parts of this gospel is what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “This entire status-by-seating system is bogus and I want you to chuck the whole thing.” Jesus proceeds on the assumption that we will work and live within this system. Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So Jesus leaves the status system intact. That kind of seems like a let-down. You would think that he would get rid of it entirely. He seems to be promising us, “You’re not in the corner office now, but if you take the rattiest old cubicle purposely, one day you will be in the corner office.” At least that’s how we would interpret it. But what if there’s another way to think about it?

Let’s think for a moment about what it feels like to jockey for position as we do so often at work and socially and at church. The endless competition. The unspoken cues and subtle put-downs. The unfairness of who is rewarded and who is shoved down to a lower rung. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? When we get caught up in these games of who’s getting promoted or who’s chairing the new church committee or who’s got a new car in the driveway—we are disconnected from God and our true selves. And that drains us of life and vitality.

Jesus says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” What if he’s referring to the soul-sucking exhaustion of the rat race? He’s telling us that as long as we search for satisfaction in ways to put ourselves above others, we will find ourselves with many shiny things and diplomas and titles, but cold and empty hearts. Exalting ourselves drives us to new lows of integrity and new poverty of happiness.

Jesus says, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” What if the exaltation Jesus promises is not the corner office? What if it’s not the most Facebook likes? What if it’s not letters after our names or the senior warden’s role or a clergy collar around our neck? What if the exaltation Jesus promises is liberation from the whole status system?

If we decide we’re not going to play the game anymore, we start to make different choices. We stop searching for a leg up at work and look for a chance to lend a hand. We stop thinking we’re too important to set out chairs or wash dishes at church and instead show up early or stay late to do humble tasks. We keep our cars and our clothes and our phones an extra year, thinking of those around the world who make do with so much less than what we’re blessed with, no longer needing to display the latest and the flashiest.

Those choices begin as a spiritual discipline. It goes against our nature that drives us to seek comfort and status and power. But what begins as a discipline—choosing over and over to humble ourselves as Jesus asks us—starts to transform us. Suddenly, that craving to be the best, to have the most, to win at everything, starts to ebb and die away. This is the exaltation Jesus promises the humble. And if we keep working at it, small choice by small choice, the seed of peace that was planted by hard-earned discipline starts to flower.

“Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” When we are still trapped in the status system, we might assume that Jesus means that at the Great Dinner Table in the Sky, the humble will finally, finally get to have the choice seats at the head of the table. They’ll have an eternal corner office, a never outdated smartphone, and an infinity sign where their Facebook like number used to be. But that would not be heaven. It would be the same prison we lived in on earth.

We read in the Letter to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The only way out of the chains of the status system is to follow Jesus in his example of downward mobility. We must of course avoid the trap of ostentatiously taking on humble tasks and refusing honor loudly—that’s simply climbing a rung on the ladder of martyrdom and noble morality. It’s the same prison.

We can’t free ourselves from the status system. Jesus points that out by assuming that there will always be a table and there will always be fighting for higher positions at the table. Where we have a choice is where we choose to sit. And if we ask Jesus to be with us and help us to take the lower seat, help us to quit playing the game, help us to abandon the quest for success and money and power, he will exalt us to freedom from the need for status at all.

We won’t need to make a big show of it. We will know our true worth. We will know deep in our bones that our worth is not determined by where we sit, but by whom we are loved. And we are loved by Jesus. Amen.

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

Download the sermon for Proper 17(C).