Royal Families, Pentecost 8 (B) – July 15, 2018

Proper 10

Royal Families Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Ever wondered, even for a moment, what it would be like to be royalty? Ever indulged in a daydream that you’re really the child of a king or a queen? Did you watch even a few minutes, maybe even just the sermon, of the recent royal wedding and wonder what it would be like to be part of the family?

In today’s first reading and gospel lesson, we get a glimpse into the lives of two royal families. Neither has a happy, fairy tale ending. Both may leave us wondering what it might really mean to be part of a royal family.

The first couple, in our first lesson, is King David and Michal, his wife, who was the daughter of King Saul. If we know the backstory of Michal and David, there’s a line in this lesson that really sticks out. It’s when Michal looks out the window and sees David dancing before the Lord. And then we hear, “and she despised him in her heart.” The line should break our hearts a little because this is not the happy story that their romantic beginnings portended.

Michal was the second daughter of King Saul. Saul had vowed that whoever killed Goliath would obtain his first daughter in marriage. You remember Goliath, the gigantic Philistine warrior David brings down with a slingshot and a stone? But when David kills Goliath, Saul is jealous of David and reneges on his vow and marries the older daughter to someone else.

Turns out that’s good news for Michal, because, the Bible says, “Michal loved David” (1 Samuel 18:20). Michal loved David. When her father Saul finds this out, he decides to use this to his advantage in his hostility toward David. He tells David he can have Michal as his wife – he can marry into the royal family – if David kills one hundred Philistines. [What the Bible actually says is that David is required to bring Saul the foreskins of one hundred Philistines (1 Samuel 18:25), but don’t imagine one hundred Philistines are going to let David get away with just that piece of them.] Saul is certain David will end up the victim of some really cranky Philistines, but David actually kills two hundred. He gets to marry Michal.

Michal loved David. Saul sends his soldiers to kill David, but Michal protects him. She lowers David out the window, then dresses up an idol like David, complete with his clothes and a goat-hair wig, puts it in bed, and pulls the covers over it. Saul’s soldiers burst into the room, pull back the covers, and—no David (1 Samuel 19:11-17).

With David on the run, Saul gives Michal in marriage to someone else. And in the meantime, David also takes a couple more wives.

Michal loved David. But we never hear that David loved Michal.

Eventually, David becomes king and demands Michal back. Maybe it was love after all. Maybe it was just getting back what belonged to him.

We aren’t told when exactly Michal stopped loving David. Maybe it was when they were separated, and she didn’t know what had happened to him. Maybe it was when he took her back from a man who begged him not to.  Maybe it was when she met the other wives he had married in the meantime. What we do know is that day, watching David dance for the Lord with joyful abandon, she sees David and she hates him.

After the dancing, David throws a dinner for all the people, and then, in the section after our reading ends, David goes back to his home. Michal meets him out front and tells him he’s made a fool of himself, dancing like that, so un-kinglike, and in front of the servants’ maids too. David says, basically, “Well, I was dancing for the Lord, the one who made me king instead of your father, and I’m going to do a lot more embarrassing and debasing things than this, but, sure, I’ll be a hit with the servants’ maids” (2 Samuel 6:21-22).

David was a great king, but a great husband? Michal might say not. No fairytale “happily ever after” here.

King Herod, in our gospel lesson, has other troubles in the marriage and family department. He has divorced his first wife and married Herodias, his brother-in-law’s wife. Since his brother-in-law was still alive at the time, this was against Jewish law, and John the Baptist calls him on it. Herod is supposed to be keeping Jewish law, not flouting it. But neither Herod nor Herodias like John the Baptist criticizing their marriage in public, so John the Baptist rots in jail.

That is until King Herod throws himself a birthday party and makes a promise that is supposed to make him seem like a big man, a stupendous, powerful man. He promises to give his stepdaughter whatever she asks because her dancing has pleased him so much. Herodias sees her chance, not to change her husband’s mind about John the Baptist, not to practice good conflict resolution skills and see if they can come to some compromise about John, but to get rid of this meddlesome prophet once and for all. And big macho man Herod doesn’t have the guts to say no, to go back on his word in front of his guests. Herodias tells her dancing daughter to ask for the most repulsive possible dish at a dinner party—John the Baptizer’s head on a platter. So, check out these royal family values: Herodias is willing to use her daughter to get the horrific thing she wants. Herod would rather be taken for a murderer than a fool. The daughter doesn’t seem to have the moral sense to recognize she’s being used to commit a horrific tragedy.

So much for fairytales. Our own families may not include utter hatred or gatherings that descend into murder, but we’ve all had our experiences of people who are supposed to be partners becoming enemies, of people using one another, people feeling discarded, or being manipulated. We know deep in our bones that this isn’t what families are for.

In today’s Epistle lesson, we hear God’s plan for an alternative family, a different kind of royal family in which we are adopted as God’s own children through Jesus Christ. Our inheritance as members of this family is redemption, forgiveness, knowledge of God’s will and God’s desire to gather all things on heaven and earth together in Christ. No divisiveness, no abuse or manipulation. No discarding of people or disregard of feelings. No using of others. Love that endures. Love that shows forth, not in empty promises or dangerous ones, but in praise. In baptism, we have been adopted into God’s family, the ultimate royal family. As members of God’s family, we are loved beyond all knowing and with a love that can reach out in love and service to others, even to the puzzling person we’re seated across from at the dinner table every night.

What happens next in Mark’s gospel, right after today’s lesson, right after Herod’s horrible feast, is that Jesus throws a dinner party. It’s the Feeding of the More than Five Thousand, and it’s completely different from Herod’s feast. There’s no guarded palace, just a beautiful open field where all are welcome. There’s no head table; everyone is a guest of honor. There’s no boasting, just thanksgiving. There’s no pompous vow-making and self-aggrandizement, just simple food, blessed, broken, and shared, and enough for all. No horrible silver platter of death, just twelve baskets full to the brimming with abundant life-giving bread and fish.

At which royal family table would you rather dine? Ours is prepared. The host, the ruler of heaven and earth, awaits with open arms.

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, 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. 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 8 (B).

Hometown, Pentecost 7 (B) – July 8, 2018

Proper 9

Pentecost 7 Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Several years ago, a diocese was celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary. At the time, the diocese had produced a beautiful coffee table book that contained short histories of each of their parishes, along with a generous helping of pictures. At the diocesan convention that year, the book was being sold everywhere and anywhere, between legislative sessions, in the exhibition hall, you name it. There had even been a table set up in the narthex of the church where the convention Eucharist was being held. The book was being sold to folks as they walked in.

When the diocese’s retired bishop took to the pulpit for the sermon, he began with saying, “I’m sorry if you heard the commotion a few moments ago, there was a homeless, long-haired man that got into the church. He was shouting something about his father’s house and he turned over the tables where we are selling our book. Don’t worry, we got rid of him.”

Don’t worry, we got rid of him. Of course, he was kidding, there was no commotion, no long-haired, homeless man. But the bishop also wasn’t really kidding. He was leveling a clear criticism using the story of the clearing of the Temple to critique the diocese’s overzealousness in selling the book. The bishop was afraid that the zeal for the book was getting more energy than the mission of the church.

Don’t worry, we got rid of him.

Where is Jesus to be found? Where do we encounter the Holy? Is it at church? Is it only at church?

Can Jesus be found at church, or do we get rid of him?

Let’s dive into the gospel story to see if there are any hints as to where Jesus can most reliably be found.

The story opens in his hometown, and his disciples follow him. It’s an interesting detail. Jesus is from Nazareth and his disciples are from Galilee. They have walked with him back home. It is an interesting and significant detail; Jesus is returning home, but he’s different in several ways now, not the least of which is that he has followers.

The ones in the synagogue who hear Jesus preaching are astounded. They are into it. They are in awe.

Then the analysis comes on: “Don’t we know this guy; didn’t he install your cabinets?” “That’s right! I know his brothers and sisters, I just saw them at the falafel stand on Wednesday.” Something like that.

After all this wondering and recognition, the next sentence the gospel uses is: “And they took offense at him.” Why do you suppose that was? They were astounded, but when they saw that he was “one of them,” all of a sudden, he is offensive. Jesus then demonstrates a masterful use of the double negative, “Prophets are not without dishonor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And the narrator tells us that Jesus couldn’t do any deeds of power except a few healings. Indeed, Jesus is amazed at their unbelief and it seems that there is some connection between trusting Jesus and Jesus being able to work. This matter of Jesus not being able to work is not the same as praying harder, by the way, but there is a connection between Jesus working and the offense the people feel at his presence and teaching.

Jesus and his followers then leave Nazareth. They leave Jesus’ hometown and enter the villages that presumably surrounded the big city. And then something interesting happens. You would think that given the cold reception Jesus received in his hometown that Jesus would then give them the old razzle-dazzle, he would heal and work miracles. Instead, Jesus heals and then pairs off his followers and sends them out with special instructions. They are to travel light. They do, they preach repentance, they heal, and they call out evil when encountered.

Jesus doesn’t give them the razzle-dazzle, he doesn’t do a deed of power to embarrass the old home locals; he instead authorizes others to go out in his name to heal, testify to God’s love, to call out evil. This is very instructive about how our God operates generally. Never a braggadocious moment, never a moment of old-fashioned power like lightning from above—instead, it’s a new-fashioned power that points away from itself and pours into others.

This is how God operates, and it is something for us to remember as we move through this season after Pentecost: the Holy Spirit is God’s sharing of God’s-self with us: God’s empowering of us for the work of establishing God’s Kingdom, God’s way of living, right here in our own communities.

Besides all this, we see something in the story that is as troubling as it is interesting. Jesus is unrecognized in his hometown. He is recognized of course, but he is not accepted as one who is deeply connected with God. Indeed, once they do begin to recognize him, they are offended by him. And it’s in this offense and un-trust, this unbelief, that Jesus cannot work as powerfully as he would have normally.

This should concern all of us who claim to know who and what Jesus is. The church is the hometown of Jesus, as it were. Are we offended by him? Do we allow Jesus to be Jesus or have we domesticated him into a mere kindly carpenter? The church has, at times, carefully kept Jesus in a safe and contained box, but Jesus keeps leaving the familiar, keeps empowering others, and most importantly keeps showing up in strange places that are not his hometown.

That’s where we will most reliably find Jesus, outside of the hometown. Of course, we meet in this space each week. We come for solace and strength. We certainly believe that Jesus is present with us, especially in the Holy Eucharist; but Jesus is also found outside, in the villages, in the world. Don’t you know that we disciples are always playing catch-up to the Risen Lord? Ever since that day when the women found an empty tomb, ever since then, we have been going to where Jesus has gone ahead of us, into Galilee, into the villages, into our neighborhoods. And once we go there, seeking him in the face our neighbors, he will be revealed, and we just might be empowered to do his work: healing wounds, preaching God’s love, and calling out evil.

Let us go from here, into the villages following Jesus where he has already gone—and not simply following him, but being empowered by him to do his work of love and healing which the world so desperately needs.

Amen.

Joshua Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte NC where he lives with his wife Brittany who is a Jedi-level catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atria. 1,2,3,4: They have 1 dog, 2 cats, three children, and 4 chickens.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 7 (B).

A Beloved Child of God, Pentecost 6 (B) – July 1, 2018

Proper 8


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Jesus sees beyond the outward appearance to the heart, revealing, as he does so, the very heart of God. A crowd presses in on Jesus, clamoring to see the miracle worker some were claiming to be the Messiah. As he makes his way to Jairus’ home, he is interrupted by an encounter with a woman who would have seemed destined to die unknown, unremembered, unremarked. But this woman showed her great faith in trusting that all she needed to do was reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. Nothing more was required, but nothing less would do.

Clearly, she had heard of Jesus’ reputation as a healer. As we learn from Mark’s Gospel, for twelve years, “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”

A faithful Jewish response would have been to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem, seeking healing by offering sacrifices. But just as with the lepers Jesus made whole, this woman would have been declared unclean. Because of her hemorrhaging, she was no longer fit to be in the Temple—not even in the Court of the Women.

Knowing the state of medicine in the first century, we know she would have eaten every conceivable combination of herbs, applying endless creams and ointments, doing anything someone asked and paying everything she had. A woman of some means now reduced to poverty. But there would have been the other, harsher, side of her malady. Jesus often contends against the perception in the culture of his day that if someone was suffering, this was God’s punishment for sin. The ongoing hemorrhage would have left her increasingly cut off from community.

We know this because we still have diseases that come with a stigma. Fighting cancer is seen as heroic, but less so mental illness, chronic pain, or addiction. As soon as anyone found out that she had been bleeding for five years, seven years, ten years—whatever it was by that point—judgment would follow. The sickness came to define her for everyone who knew how she suffered—that is, everyone except for Jesus. Beyond this, we also know that her standing in society would have been in relation to a man. Just as Jairus goes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter, the way of that part of the world in the first century would require the woman to be in the company of a brother, uncle, or son. Instead, she is presented as without family.

Through her faith that she just needed to touch the hem of his garment, we see how much she invested in this one last hope of healing. Some people spoke of Jesus’ teaching with great authority. Others speculated he was Elijah or one of the other prophets returned. Many hoped Jesus would overthrow the Romans so that Jews could once more rule Israel on their own. But for the real sufferers, cut off from others because of disease, there would have been only one tidbit about Jesus that mattered. His reputation was clear. Wherever Jesus went, he cast demons out of the possessed. Jesus touched people who were blind, deaf, and lame, making them see, hear, and walk.

The most difficult part of her disease was that her bleeding did not just make her ritually unclean, and so unable to worship in the Temple; the religious law of her time mandated that anyone she touched would also become unclean. To have Jesus touch her might bring her healing, but it would have made him ritually unclean as well. She would have to push against a lot of pressure from her society just to reach Jesus.

He would have been difficult to find in those days anyway, as he was always crossing back and forth around the Sea of Galilee and then traveling down to Jerusalem for the festivals. Then she found him that day on the seashore. She gathered with a large crowd of others, all bent on hearing Jesus, many wanting healing as well. An important religious leader named Jairus came to implore Jesus to heal his daughter.

As Jesus started toward Jairus’ house, the woman knelt down, reaching out for the barest edge of his robe and grabbing hold as if touching the very throne of God, as life and healing from the one God flowed through it. And her plan worked. The bleeding stopped. Her body was finally healed after twelve years of suffering.

Then everything the woman planned went wrong. Jesus stopped. He stopped everyone. The whole crowd. Jesus cried out wanting to know who touched him. His disciples couldn’t believe the question; with such a great crowd rushing around, a lot of people had been bumping into Jesus. Jesus kept looking because he too felt the miracle.

There is so much power in this moment as the woman everyone came to ignore became the center of attention. Mark’s Gospel tells us in fear and trembling she fell down before Jesus. How could she not be terrified? In so many ways, everyone told her she was unworthy, cursed by God. And now this—once more, she would be humiliated. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet and recounts her whole story. Twelve years of suffering. Trembling, she tells Jesus the whole truth down to the hem of his garment.

After so many people had cast her down, Jesus lifts her up, looks into her eyes and says the words which make her healing complete. With the eyes of love on her, he said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

“Daughter.” Not an outcast. Not a woman alone in a society that treated you in connection to the men in your life. She was a beloved child of God. In Jesus naming as daughter the woman afflicted with suffering for twelve years, we see the very heart of God. Others may have judged her harshly, but God never forgot her, always loved her, and wanted to welcome her home.

“Your faith has made you well.” Jesus knew what great faith she had come to have that even the very hem of his robe could heal. His disciples were often clueless. The crowds were fickle. But this woman’s faith knew no bounds.

“Go in peace,” he said. Shalom means so much more than a lack of war. This peace is health, well-being, and wholeness. Her body healed, but Jesus was so much more interested in healing her mind and soul—he was interested in complete healing and setting her free from the prison of suffering.

Sickness had defined her. Then Jesus set her free to be a daughter of God. She didn’t continue to follow Jesus that day, at least not physically. She could cut away from the crowd, confident that Jairus’ daughter would be healed, as she began the journey to Jerusalem. Her duty would be to offer sacrifices for thanksgiving for healing. Beyond this would be the simple fact that she would be allowed once more into God’s Temple. Jesus does this so often with his healing. He doesn’t just cure disease but restores people to their community. She wanted, needed, the bleeding to stop, but what she needed more—and Jesus knew it—was to be accepted once again. To have God look into her eyes and call her “daughter.”

So often, people, beloved children of God, are judged by society and found wanting. They are named in various ways as outcasts and treated as less than human. And until all of God’s children, the whole human family, are welcome at the table, we will be falling short of the kingdom of God. For those of us with a seat at the table, we can pray for the grace to see the world as God sees it and the courage to act.

But if you are one whom others have seen as unworthy and judged as lacking, know that God loves you as you are and wants better for you as well. You don’t have to even touch the hem of his garment. You only have to reach out your heart in prayer and offer God your pain and suffering. God wants to take that hurt and give you shalom—the health, healing, and wholeness—he gave to a woman not named in scripture, but whose faith is unforgettable.

This is something we can all experience every time we gather for the Eucharist. In this Great Thanksgiving, Jesus is the host. At this table, all of us are known and loved. In the meal of bread and wine, we are fed. And in this meal, we find ourselves beloved children of God. Then we are empowered to share that same love with others.

Amen.

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

Download the sermon for Pentecost 6 (B).

The Other Side, Pentecost 5 (B) – June 24, 2018

Proper 7


[RCL]: 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

“Let us go across to the other side,” he says.

Why? What’s over there, on that dark shore, with those menacing black clouds? Why do we have to go to the other side when there’s a storm brewing?

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you will remember boggarts. A boggart is a shape-shifting creature that takes on the form of your worst fear. Ron’s worst fear was giant spiders. Hermione’s was having a professor tell her she failed. Harry’s boggart was a dementor.

That’s what’s over there – on the other side – boggarts! Things that take the shape of your worst fears. The people you don’t like. The conversations you’d rather avoid. The places you really don’t want to go. They’re all over there, on the other side.

Mark starts this Gospel with, “When evening had come.” – you see, there’s always a growing darkness in these kinds of stories – “When evening had come,” he said to them, “let’s go across to the other side.”

If this were a screenplay instead of scripture, he might have said, “Let’s go into the cellar of this old house,” “Let’s check out this abandoned hospital,” “Let’s head toward that cabin in the woods.” And one of the disciples would turn to the camera and say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Maybe one of them did, just before they stepped onto the boat, because they knew what was on the other side – or they thought they did. Gigantic Philistines are over there. Mad kings. Gentiles. People possessed with legions of demons. Anyone and everyone who doesn’t like them and everyone they don’t like.

“The Others” are over there, on the other side.

——————–

Mark is writing for a community grappling with how to include those who are different, those who have historically been enemies, those looked upon as sinners, as outsiders…as dangerous.

Mark’s community is wrestling with questions like:
If Gentiles come into this mostly Jewish community, do they have to be circumcised? Do we all have to follow the same dietary laws? How do we accept someone into this community if they don’t read scripture the same way we do? How do we accept someone who looks different? Someone who speaks another language? Who doesn’t fit our boxes of gender, race, or class? How do we live with these others in our midst? Especially if they have a different understanding of how we do things? What if they are fearful, and violent, and want to do us harm?

——————–

Mark’s community is in the midst of a voyage into this dark, fearful, and uncharted territory. Sound familiar? It’s a journey that is always chaotic. How do we live alongside the Others in our community? Do we change them, or do they change us?

It’s a crossing that is never easy, but we make it many, many times in our life. Every crossing feels like sailing in the dark. With all the changes around us, we are sailing in the midst of a storm. How do we cope when the structures and institutions we’ve always relied on to support us can no longer be counted on? When so many of them are visibly shaking under the strain of so much change?

What do we do when our life situation changes, when the wind shifts, and the seas rage, and the resources – the money, the people, the time – that we’ve come to rely on are no longer there? What do we do then?

What do we do when the weapons of terror and hate are raised against our brothers and sisters? “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing!?”

——————–

Jesus makes this sea crossing to “the other side” with the disciples twice in Mark. Both times are at night; both times there is a storm. This time, Jesus goes with them and sleeps in the stern. The next time, he will make them get in the boats by themselves and go on without him. When they get in trouble, he will walk to them in the midst of the storm.

Each time, he gets a little more impatient with them for simply expecting that he will perform a divine act and relieve them of their fear. Mark seems to be telling us that we have to do some work. That we are to learn how to respond faithfully in these situations, rather than simply reacting out of fear.

We are to find the strength and some kind of inner calm that will allow us to endure, and even grow, through these storms. Through faith. Through the faith, the trust, that Christ is here with us in the boat. Christ is with all who suffer. Christ is the peace, and the strength, and the calm that we draw on.

We need to continually seek that inner calm—that courage—because Jesus will keep calling us to go to that other shore.

——————–

What or who is on the other side for you? What are your boggarts? We all have them; there are all kinds of “other sides”. For the young, growing up and becoming an adult is an other side. For those who are older, retirement is an other side. What will I do, who will I be, if I’m not working? The other side might be getting married, or getting divorced, facing an operation, or saying goodbye.

For the many who are well-off, poverty can be the other side. The lived experience of people of color is the other side for many Americans. The lived experience of so many on the margins is the other side for many others.

For all of us, the other side is ultimately death.

We all have other sides, places that we don’t want to go. But that’s where Jesus invites us to go. That’s where Jesus wants us to go. That’s where Jesus is taking us: to the other side, into that foreign territory, to that place we’d rather not go, wherever those “others” are.

Jesus wants us to go there, not because it’s our job to change them. Jesus doesn’t insist on a night voyage on a stormy sea to make an impact on the ones who live across the sea. He does it to change the ones making the voyage. He does it to change the disciples, to change us.

He does it so that we will experience a change in ourselves, so that we will discover that reservoir of hope, that endless supply of peace and courage, that grace that enables us to keep making these voyages. That enables us to open wide our hearts to any and all who seek Christ, to all who are marginalized, to all whose stories we need to hear in order for us to recognize—and more fully participate in— the spread of God’s reign of justice and peace, so that we might one day live together with all our sisters and brothers, in unity.

Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden is the Rector of All Saints Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 5(B).

Be Faithful, Keep Planting, Pentecost 4 (B) – June 17, 2018

Proper 6


[RCL]: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4,11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17; Mark 4:26-34

The lessons we read today seem to be mainly about planting. Most of us probably do not live on farms, but we might have some knowledge about the growth of plants.

We know that planting requires someone to sow the seeds. The seeds need to have soil, and the soil needs to be tilled and cultivated to allow the seeds to have space to germinate. There needs to be sufficient water and nutrients in the soil to nurture the seed. Therefore, people must apply water and fertilizer regularly in order for the seed to sprout into a small plant, gradually grow branches and leaves, and then bear fruit.

This seed-sowing and plant-growing seem to be simple and straightforward. Nevertheless, we know Jesus uses simple images for his message, but the message is never simple and straightforward.

Usually, when we plant the seeds, they are buried in the soil. They dwell in the darkness. While in the darkness, they may absorb nutrients from the fertilizers in the soil and go through transformation. How long will this transformation take place? We can guess, but do not know the exact timing. What exactly occurs in the darkness? We do not know. Will anything grow from the seed? We do not know that, either. As a matter of fact, the sower may put in the best fertilizer, water as often as he or she should, and tend to the seed passionately, but sometimes nothing grows from it. However, we have faith that something will grow from seeds and plant them anyway.

That is what our first parable in today’s Gospel is about: God’s grace and our faith. The parable talks about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not far away, or in the future, after we leave the world, but rather like growing seeds. We need to be faithful planting the seeds of love and have faith in those God-given seeds. God created the seed, God will graciously take care of it. We just keep planting, keep proclaiming the good news of God’s love.

Actually, planting is a wonderful metaphor for our spiritual journey and spiritual growth.

When we first come to know God, it probably is because someone has planted the seed in us. We go to church to worship and listen to the messages, and to study the Bible and other teachings. We may join some fellowship, enjoy hospitality, hear and see the testimony of other Christians, and slowly understand the Word and the Way. After planting, the nurturing takes place. Eventually, some may be moved to accept God, whereas some may not. How long will this transformation take place? We do not know. There may be charismatic preachers or well-known theologians who inspire people and plant the seed, but most likely it is a friend’s testimony that does so. The companionship of a regular parishioner can nurture us along our spiritual journey.

In our Episcopal tradition, the decision to accept our Lord Jesus leads to Holy Baptism. The transformation has begun. During Baptism, the celebrant blesses the water and says, “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 306). It tells the candidates to bury their past lives after baptism.

This is like the metaphor of planting. Someone plants the seeds, but if the seed is not buried and never releases its old form, it is difficult to sprout into new shoots and have new life. Therefore, following our Lord Christ, we need to die from our old lives before we can be born again.

When the seed is buried in the soil, it dwells in the darkness. While in the darkness, it absorbs the nutrients from the fertilizers in the soil and goes through transformation. Our life journey can be the same. Sometimes it is when we feel buried in dark moments, surrounded by stinky manure, that we are actually receiving God’s gracious blessings in our life. However, we may become afraid and reject the presence of God. Then we get choked by the darkness and the smelly environment and no spiritual growth occurs. By accepting the grace of God, we go through transformation and have new life. Eventually, the plant inside the seed will break through the soil and sprout into a small plant, grows leaves, flowers, then fruits. Endure the dark moments; a new life will come out of it.

In our other lessons, we also read about planting. In Ezekiel, a twig is planted and bears fruits. We might have thought that a young twig would not have a chance to survive since it has no root, but because of God’s grace and love, it grows into a noble cedar tree and offers shelters to God’s other creations. Let us also look at the second parable in the Gospel. It talks about the smallest of all seeds growing to be the largest shrubs. These are about something small that turns out to be big and great—but this greatness is not about the product itself, but about its effect of offering protection and a resting place to others. In God’s kingdom, anything is possible. The kingdom of God is not for material gain, but God’s love for us, and our love for God and each other.

The Eastertide is over; the Holy Spirit has come. During the Great Fifty Days of the Eastertide, the lections have been about love and the transformation of the followers of Jesus who once were doubtful, fearful, and nearly faithless. They had gone through dark times, but finally got over their fear and became leaders of the Church. They proclaimed the love of God to the ends of the earth.

The Most Reverend Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, likes to talk about a movement. He says he heard someone talk about a revolutionary movement begun by Jesus of Nazareth nearly two thousand years ago. This movement was based on the unconditional love of God for the world. He urges people to “go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us free.” Bishop Curry says, “This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world.”

So, do not be afraid of dark moments. Keep the faith. Do not underestimate the small or weak, for God has a plan for God’s creation. Let us keep planting and loving God, carrying on the Jesus Movement.

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Priest in Charge and Director of Ah Foo Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation with English and Cantonese worship in Chinatown, New York. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, an Asian Ministry Center of The Episcopal Church based in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and Honorary Canon of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. She served as Convener of the Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) from 2009 to 2016. Ada loves hiking and meditative walk.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 4 (B).

Where Are You?, Pentecost 3(B) – June 10, 2018

Proper 5

Pentecost Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35 

It’s a familiar scene: parents and grandparents lingering in conversation on the steps of the parish hall after coffee hour, as their children and grandchildren make the most of the beautiful early summer day. They scamper through the churchyard with cheerful squeals and, after a few moments of frolic, they decide to organize a game of hide and seek.

One little girl volunteers to be the “seeker,” and the other children scatter, searching out the perfect hiding place. The seeker begins her count: “Twenty… nineteen…eighteen…” One child scampers behind the bushes; another under the stairs… “thirteen…twelve…eleven…” Time is running short, and all the good hiding places have been snatched up! Quick! Behind the recycling bins! “Three…two…one…Ready or not, here I come!”

The seeker gleefully stomps around, looking under bushes and behind trees, calling out, “Where are you?”

The child’s joyful and innocent question rings out across the churchyard, but it also rings in our ears, drawing our attention to today’s reading from the third chapter of Genesis. The scene unfolding there is also familiar—and perhaps one of the most familiar scenes the world has ever known. Eden is the backdrop for the creation stories of both Christianity and Judaism, and although it is spoken of differently in the Qur’an, it nonetheless figures prominently in Islam.

By the time our reading begins in verse eight, the serpent (who by the way is never identified as Satan in Scripture) has already deceived Adam and Eve into disobeying God’s command. Now they are engaged in a hide and seek game of their own—and the stakes are high.

As they hunker down in the garden like children attempting to hide their trespasses, God seeks after them, fully aware that something has gone very, very wrong.

We listen as God calls out to them, “Where are you?”

This is the first question that God asks in Scripture and, as is the case with every good story, it is asked not just of the characters on the page and in the scene, but of every single one of us.

At once, the question assumes an answer—we are not where we should be—and poses yet another question—where should we be?

The last one hundred years have been marked by the exponential growth and sophistication of technology. The world is undoubtedly more connected than ever, but it may also be more distracted than ever. Scientists have long warned about the dangers of getting distracted by technology. When left unchecked, it can distract us from everything from our ability to have meaningful face-to-face conversations, to keeping our eyes on the road and off our screens as we drive.

So it is with our lives of faith.

In his commentary on the Book of Genesis, Walter Brueggemann suggests that the serpent in the Garden of Eden is the world’s first theologian because it is the serpent who convinces humankind to exchange obedience to God for theology about God.[1] If we think about God narrowly enough, we can distract ourselves into believing that we can think our way to salvation. Our knowledge becomes a means of self-preservation and protection, rather than a means of transmitting and communicating faith in the living God.

And yet, God cuts through our thick underbrush of words and ideas, persistently calling out to us, “Where are you?”

In the same way, when moments of tension invariably arise in our communities of faith, instead of turning to prayer and patient discernment, we get distracted by arguments and anxieties and self-interests, and so we take our ball and go home. We cut ourselves off from community and, in turn, we short-circuit the possibility of reconciliation.

God’s voice calls out after us as we stomp away, “Where are you?”

In order for us to consider this question, we must discern deeply as to where we are in relation to where God is inviting us. Discernment, though, is tricky. Much has been written about discernment, but decidedly less attention is afforded to the actual vocation of discernment.

One place to start is to take account of all that distracts us from living lives of faithfulness. Distractions may look different for different folks, but their central characteristic is the same: they draw our attention away from focusing on the life-giving parts of our lives.

We can become distracted from our relationships with friends and family, and even from our romantic partners. Work that once brought much joy to our lives can become occluded by the desire for position and power, influence and wealth. Even our days of rest and vacation can become muddled with concerns about what we might be missing at work or in the world. All these things distract us from the places in our lives that afford us peace and joy and love, and ultimately, they distract us from our life before God.

But we as individuals aren’t the only ones who can become distracted; our churches and communities of faith can get distracted, too. One way that churches become distracted is by focusing on innovation rather than faithfulness. When churches focus on innovation, they define themselves by their programs and ministries, rather than by their witness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. They focus on the building rather than the builder.

Another way that churches can become distracted is by focusing on entertainment rather than transformation. When churches focus on entertainment, it is almost as if they exist in a vacuum. Walk in the doors, and it is as if you’ve entered another dimension, completely cut off from the cares and concerns of the real world. Here, the sky is always blue, the water is always calm, and the boat is never rocked. Sermons are as soft and as sweet as cream puffs, offering more self-help than Gospel. When churches fall into the trap of offering individual members a custom-ordered faith—sanding off every jagged edge and smoothing out every rough place—they possess about as much transformative power as the society club at prayer.

The possibilities for getting distracted in our lives, and particularly our lives of faith, are many. But the Good News is that ours is a God who, no matter where we wander or try and hide, relentlessly pursues us, calling out after us, “Where are you?” and inviting us back to Godself.

May we listen intently enough to hear God’s voice and discern deeply enough to answer God’s call.

Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 47-48, 54-55.

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is the editor of ModernMetanoia.org—a lectionary-based preaching resource authored exclusively by Millennial clergy, lay leaders, and teachers. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef, all while completing a doctorate at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 3 (B).

Bread, Law, and Spirit, Pentecost 2 (B) – June 3, 2018

Proper 4

Episcopal Sermon Pentecost


[RCL]: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:36

“During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night, the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”

Dennis, Matthew, and Sheila Fabricant Linn tell this story at the beginning of their book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life as an introduction to the Ignatian concept of the Spiritual Examen, specifically teaching how to discern spirits of consolation and desolation in one’s life in a fairly simple way. Each day, a person asks, “Which moment am I most grateful for today?” and, “Which moment am I least grateful for today?” If those initial questions are not enough, the Linns suggest other questions that get at the same concept, such as, “When did I give and receive the most love today?” “When did I give and receive the least love today?” or, “When did I feel most alive today?” “When did I most feel life draining out of me?” The idea is that, over time, patterns emerge to help a person discern how God is calling him or her in life. In essence, when one follows this spiritual discipline, that person is sleeping with bread—truly holding on to what gives him or her life.

Most of us have asked the questions: “What am I supposed to do with my life?” “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose?” We often wish that we were like Samuel in our Old Testament lesson today, who heard God’s voice calling him directly. This theophany, or call narrative—the appearance of God or a representative of God in sound, vision, or through our other senses—also happens to Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, and Mary, just to name a few. In making themselves available to God, Samuel and the others’ lives are changed. They have a purpose given by God, but it may not have been what they were hoping for in their lives. Instead, the call is something they could not have asked for or even imagined, and it transforms the world.

To those of us today who are used to being the gods of our own lives, this may sound terrifying. We may think we want to hear and know God’s call to us, but secretly we don’t, because it will change us. After all, when we are focused on living from a place of love and not fear, it does change us. The simple questions that the Linns propose in their book bring us slowly and gently closer to where God is beckoning. In truth, we are like Samuel, who hears God’s call but does not understand the call’s source. We need a variety of ways to help us discern whether the voice we are hearing in our lives is from God or our own desire. The Spiritual Examen is an excellent framework for this task.

Additionally, the Linns suggest talking with others about the answers to the two questions, in order to get a communal perspective. This is similar to the example set in Samuel’s call narrative, where he keeps hearing God’s voice, mistaking it for Eli’s, and finally gets advice from Eli about it. It is useful in our own faith journeys to talk with a person or small group of people who are faithful and trusted about where we hear God calling. Receiving an outside perspective can help us see things that we cannot see ourselves. In this way, we are able to say, “Here I am,” to God thoughtfully and with an openness of heart that occurs when we are supported in our exploration. This is life-giving and aids us in sleeping with bread, each in our own way.

Eating bread to sustain life is seen as a teachable moment in our Gospel story today. When the Pharisees criticize Jesus and his disciples for gleaning from the fields on the Sabbath, Jesus reminds them that when David, called by God and anointed by Samuel, was a fugitive being hunted by Saul, he stopped in the “house of God” for safety and food. The high priest gave David the consecrated bread that was reserved for priests in order to sustain the lives of David and his companions. Jesus highlights this story in conjunction with the reminder that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” The benefits of God benefit everyone, for God created the Sabbath, and to get mired in the rigidity of human law limits the scope of any benefits it may have held. The reason for the Sabbath was and is to promote life and praise God as our creator and liberator. The Pharisees knew this, but were focused on the letter of the law and not the spirit in which Jesus applies it. Jesus is directly stating that he is the Son of Man and Lord of the Sabbath, which affirms his authority and puts him in conflict with the Pharisees. Jesus is doing God’s will, while the Pharisees are focused on gathering evidence against him.

Jesus takes this life-giving stance even further in the synagogue when he cures the man with the withered hand, restoring him to wholeness and to his community, while at the same time knowing that the Pharisees were watching and hoping to gather more evidence against he who was scandalously claiming to be more than a mere mortal teacher. Human nature has not changed much in the intervening centuries. How often do we go to a worship service with a preconceived idea of what we should see or get or feel from it? We mount our own evidence against who is there and what they are doing. As with many things, we see or get or feel exactly what we put into an experience, and that often means we leave, like the Pharisees in this story, self-satisfied with the knowledge we were expecting—instead of open to God’s vision. Again, we find Jesus leading us by example, following God’s will and speaking God’s truth in the face of those who want to maintain the status quo.

These stories of Jesus bringing life and truth on the Sabbath are instructive to us today. How is the Sabbath life-giving for us? Do we keep the Sabbath with the same spirit as Jesus in these stories? Think about it this way: we see Jesus, the Son of God, healing and giving life, while the Pharisees and Herodians seek human vengeance to destroy life. Not just to slander him or do something to complicate Jesus’ life, but to outright destroy him. That choice of powerful language explicitly implies annihilation of another person. Herein lie the answers to understanding what the spirit of consolation and spirit of desolation are. How are we paying attention to the life-giving spirit of God in our own lives, and how can we support others in doing the same? When we find the spirit of desolation hovering within us, how do we return to following Jesus? Reflecting on those places of life-giving energy—where we light up and the world lights up with us—can refocus our eyes on the new thing that God is doing in our lives. Sometimes others have to hold the Christ light for us when we do not know the path, and sometimes others must share their bread with us, so we may sleep through the night, like the refugee children during the war. In turn, it is our commission to do the same for others, as Jesus did.

Discernment is a never-ending process that is part of our lifelong Christian faith. As we engage the questions of what gives us life and what does not in this season of our lives, God will beckon us to another path, another way to the heart of the Sabbath at another time. Where we find our grateful moments today may be different in ten or twenty years. The most important thing is that we continue to seek and follow Jesus wherever he leads us with truth and love. AMEN.

The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFTA is an Episcopal priest and Marriage and Family Therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota. She is serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle. She is also a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. Her favorite pastimes include hiking with her husband and beloved dog (Alvie Anne), reading, traveling, visiting with family and friends, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 2 (B).

The Ordinary and the Extraordinary, Trinity Sunday (B) – May 27, 2018

Pentecost Trinity Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Every extraordinary experience sparks from the ordinary. Take a moment and reflect on the moments that have made you who you are today. Some of them may be spectacular, earth-shattering, heartbreaking, and more. But when we really take the time to reflect on what made us who we are right now, today, this moment, we will come up with the names of people who have filled our lives. Little things they did or said to us, that they may not even remember today, but that stayed with us and changed us. In reflection, we will realize it was the mundane, weekly habits and rituals that ordered our lives, thus shaping us into the people we are today. This truth is a hint to us that God – our awesome, all-knowing, omnipotent God – is right there with us, taking what might be the most ordinary of moments and breathing that little extra into it, so that over time it becomes something extraordinary.

On a not-so-special night, full of curiosity, Nicodemus sought Jesus out for a conversation. Here we see God at work with that little extra. Jesus transforms what was an inconspicuous evening into a remarkable, life-changing event. By the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus is a new person. If someone asked him what made him who he was at that time, he may have found himself returning to this night.

The power of this Gospel is the way in which we readers, thousands of years later, are turned into witnesses. We become witnesses to not just fact-based, hard-nosed, “real news,” but to God’s reality on earth. We become witnesses, not to an ideology, but to the Movement of God. With the telling of a simple story, we are suddenly standing alongside Nicodemus, bound by our physical bodies and limited perspective, about to have our minds blown by a completely new way of seeing and being in the world.

In this particular story, we see Jesus launch the transformation of Nicodemus from questioning leader, in verse 1, to witness, in verse 11, to the Movement of God. The Movement of God is Trinitarian – physical, spiritual, and divine. It takes our full selves to be part of this movement. We cannot compartmentalize it to one hour or one day; we cannot compartmentalize it to a single choice and belief.

This is difficult for us to grasp because our entire world is about compartmentalization. We count the minutes and hours of our days, divvying up our time for work, relationships, goals, celebrations, conversations, and chores. This is also difficult for us to grasp because so much of our lives is about reaching certain dates, milestones, and achievements. We live by the idea that once we reach that particular place, we will have “made it.” Nevertheless, the Movement of God blurs and smudges the lines by which we have ordered our lives. The Movement of God never stops. The Movement is, in essence, God’s full self – Father, Son, and Spirit – set loose in all of creation to breathe that extra into the ordinary.

During this late-night conversation, Jesus invites Nicodemus to wake up, be “born again,” move beyond the limits of his occupation and title and join the Movement. Jesus is not interested in simply answering Nicodemus’ questions, or giving him a summary highlighting the most important information that he can then mull over and decide whether he agrees or not. Jesus is inviting him to participate in an entirely new way of seeing and living—a way of seeing and living that only happens with the participation of his full self.

In The Divine Dance, Father Richard Rohr describes the Movement of God as flow. To join God’s movement is to step, jump, or dive into the flow of God’s full self with our full selves. The tide of God’s movement leads us to a way of life that is always growing, evolving, transforming; a way of life that is about unification, alignment, and action.

Like Nicodemus, it takes a little time for us to catch on. It’s hard to be moved from all that we know – this one body, this one life, our understanding of science and creation. Yet, even without fully understanding Jesus’ words, Nicodemus is caught up in the tide of conversation and can’t stop himself from asking, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus doesn’t back down. With Jesus’ response, we 21st-century readers are no longer merely observers of a late-night conversation. Jesus’ reply vibrates and echoes from the pages of the Bible to us, today. “You must be born from above.” With these words, Jesus calls us to move beyond dualistic thinking into a Trinitarian way of being, the place where our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits meet.

Jesus calls Nicodemus, and each of us here today, to live into the realization of all that we are. We are not just machines, a body moving by habit and functionality. We are not just spontaneous balls of unaware reactivity to the life being lived around us. God made us to be part of the Movement. While we struggle with discernment, wondering what God is truly calling us to, remember that the answer will always involve our full selves, it will involve our transformation (often over and over again), it will involve us physically moving, following the example of Jesus, and getting into it.

Consider the social movements we witness in history books and the news today. These movements do not appear from nowhere. They are products of an accumulation of factors, but we often wonder where they came from. Like the wind, we hear the sound of it and see the effects of these movements, but we do not always know where they came from or where they will go. Yet, once these movements are set into motion, we often speak of them as though they were inevitable. Isn’t this just like the Movement of God? Isn’t this exactly what Jesus is calling Nicodemus, and all of us, to join?

The Essence of God, our source of life, surrounds us. Often when we look back on our lives, we speak of the inevitability of God’s hold on us, even if we did not know it at the time. This story of Nicodemus is an opportunity to not just look back on our lives with this knowledge, but to move forward, fueled by it as witnesses to the transformative power of the Trinity. Jesus doesn’t just want us to pass on information like simple gossip. Jesus calls us to live fully immersed in the abundant life for which we were created.

Jesus knows we are suspicious. Jesus knows we are trapped by our need for tangible, provable facts. Yet, in this conversation, Jesus doesn’t stop there. We are called to join the Movement. Despite ourselves, we are made witnesses. We are not witnesses of our own understanding, but of God’s action, movement, in the world, for the world. Receive the testimony given to us by the Living Word who walked among us. Bear witness. Wake up. Be moved with your full self – your emotions, your mind, soul, and strength. Rise up. Join the Movement of God and breathe in that little extra that comes from the fullness of God with us.

Casey Cross is the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. You can read more of her sermons, devotions, thoughts, and youth ministry ideas at caseykcross.wordpress.com.

Download the sermon for Trinity Sunday (B).

This Sacred Discontinuity, Day of Pentecost (B) – May 20, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Pentecost


[RCL]: Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-37 or Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

The Bible and the church year commemorate many moments of grace. One of these moments of grace is what we celebrate here on this day of Pentecost: how the Holy Spirit fell like fire upon the infant church, equipping that small assembly for their global mission, energizing that community with nothing less than the life of God.

Here are other moments of grace we remember from the church year and the Bible: the universe summoned into existence; Israel called to be God’s people; messages spoken by the prophets; Jesus born and baptized; his suffering and resurrection; his ascension into heaven; and the witness of countless martyrs and saints from many centuries and many places.

We recall these moments of grace, and they help us recognize where grace works in our lives. For what God brings about in that story which we hear in Scripture and present in worship, God also brings about on the more intimate stage of our lives. Time and again, we die with Christ and are raised with him; time and again, the Spirit energizes us for some new venture.

Moments of grace are manifest through Scripture and worship. Moments of grace are manifest in our not so ordinary lives.

Still other moments of grace are manifest in cosmic history and human history, still other occasions of sacred discontinuity when the Lord of life, the God of surprises, decides to do something new. We can recognize these as well; we can honor them.

Here are several such moments of grace: when human beings first controlled fire; when spoken language appeared; when the first gardens were cultivated; when people started making pottery.

The Bible and Christianity present a God who keeps doing things never done before, and often God does these things through human agency.

Yes, there are cycles in this world that repeat with obvious reliability: the changes of the seasons, the stages of a human life. But God is notorious for also doing what seems unprecedented, such as freeing his people from Egypt or raising his Son from the dead. These novelties belong to a plan and purpose we can only begin to recognize.

The Christian faith says that the Holy Spirit is ceaselessly at work in every moment of grace, not only the ones we celebrate in church. The Christian faith does not claim the Holy Spirit as a prisoner constrained by the Church. Far from it: the Holy Spirit, who is Creator and Giver of life, makes and sustains and brings to fulfillment every creature that exists.

The Holy Spirit is a subtle power, the secret force behind all beauty, truth, and goodness; every act of kindness and compassion; every wise insight and every noble decision. The Spirit’s work is apparent in the stars we see in the night sky and in the microscopic wonder of single-cell organisms. Travel at the speed of light if you can; you will never outrun the realm of the Spirit.

So then, moments of grace on whatever scale are not rare, but plentiful. To thrive in the Holy Spirit means that we become more adept at recognizing ways in which the Spirit operates.

Have you noticed? The future constantly becomes the present on its way to becoming the past. As this happens, we must confront problems and challenges and tragedies. We must also open ourselves to obvious moments of grace, strange and unexpected gifts that appear in our lives, our communities, and in human and planetary history. Through such moments, the Holy Spirit acts and summons us to obedience, to creative cooperation with the high purposes of God.

A resource for our creative cooperation with the Holy Spirit is the vision offered by Thomas Berry. In his nineties when he died in 2009, Berry was an eminent cultural historian, an historian of religion, and a Christian, specifically a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Order. The Great Work and other books he wrote late in life have become popular and influential, and Berry has sometimes been called “the leading spokesperson for the Earth.”

Berry believed that humanity in our time faces a moment of grace regarding the future of life on this planet.

He does not minimize the environmental disaster that confronts us on every side. “For the first time,” he tells us in The Great Work, “the planet is disturbed by humans in its geological structure and its biological functioning in a manner like the great cosmic forces that alter geological and biological structures of the planet…. So severe and irreversible is this deterioration that we might well believe those who tell us that we have only a brief period in which to reverse the deterioration that is settling over the Earth. Only recently has the deep pathos of the Earth situation begun to sink into our consciousness.”

While well-versed in the details of environmental disaster, Thomas Berry dares to point us ahead to a promising future when he announces that a “comprehensive change of consciousness is coming over the human community, especially in the industrial nations of the world. For the first time since the industrial age began we have a profound critique of its devastation, a certain withdrawal in dismay at what is happening, along with an enticing view of the possibilities before us.”

He then characterizes this moment of grace by contrasting one dream with another, claiming that the “distorted dream of an industrial technological paradise is being replaced by a more viable dream of a mutually enhancing human presence within an ever-renewing organic-based Earth community.”

Thomas Berry emphasizes that the old dream remains powerful. In The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth, he assesses it, declaring, “there is no dream or entrancement in the history of Earth that has wrought the destruction that is taking place in the entrancement with industrial civilization. Such entrancement must be considered as a profound cultural pathology. It can be dealt with only by a correspondingly deep cultural therapy.”

In the Acts passage we heard this morning, Peter quotes the prophet Joel about how in the latter days, God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and the result will be people prophesying and experiencing visions and dreams. Joel’s prophecy came true in that moment of grace we call the first Christian Pentecost.

Our time is also the latter days and may well be a moment of grace, an occasion of sacred discontinuity when the Lord of life decides to do something new and do that something new through us.

Already the Holy Spirit has launched a great work: washing away the sin of our assault on the environment, inviting the Earth and humanity to a new reconciliation and peace.

For those with eyes to see, the Spirit is even now engaged in this unprecedented enterprise: inspiring scientists and environmentalists, activists and educators and legislators, business executives and farmers and urban planners, people of diverse religions and spiritualities, to take part together in a new and great work. Yes, the Holy Spirit is humble, moving among people everywhere, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged.

The newer generations of humanity include many who are responding to the Spirit’s lead with especially generous hearts. They are putting into effect the vision God has given them.

Today’s psalm declares that God sends forth his Spirit and thus renews the face of the earth.

This is a glorious truth! But will we all become partners in the divine renewal of this planet?

Will we recognize and welcome this current moment of grace, this divine discontinuity where the Lord is leading us to peace as we struggle with something unprecedented?

Will we act upon this opportunity, and will we do so in time?

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland with his wife Helena Mirtova and serves as priest associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beltsville, Md. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications). Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com. He can be reached via Email at charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

Download the sermon for the Day of Pentecost (B).

My kingdom is not from this world, Christ the King, Proper 29 – 2015

[RCL] Psalm 132:1-13,(14-19); 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

For most of us, living as we do in a republic, imbued with democratic values, the very concept of monarchy seems remote and eccentric. True, some of us enjoy watching or reading about the latest headlines about the House of Windsor. But in an election year, even the beautiful Duchess of Cambridge or her husband don’t long distract us from the real world of Clinton and Sanders, Trump and Carson.

So when the collect for today has us pray that the restoration of all things is all about a King of kings and a Lord of lords, we are cast into unfamiliar territory. Perhaps we reach out to older translations that have Jesus say that his kingdom is NOT of this world, which, of course he didn’t say.

Nor do the lessons in either track appointed for today help us with our sense of alienation, a disjunction between our life experience and the world of scripture, as the texts talk of a Davidic king, or the “Ancient of Days” enthroned in clouds of splendor. Of course it is true that our spiritual ancestors could only think and write within cultural norms, but nor may we devise a theology of Jesus suggesting that he is to submit to public approval every four years.

Perhaps two suggestions may be of help. Today’s lesson from Revelation points to two things. The first is that the baptized are incorporated into a “royal priesthood”. This means that, in Jesus, we have become those who stand as a body or company. We are given the task of mediating between God and humanity and creation. We are God’s agents of reconciliation. At home, work, school, play, in social interactions – even on Facebook – we echo God’s plea, “Come to me all you who work and are burdened and I will give you rest.” We speak and act not merely as a priesthood, but as a priesthood invested with royal authority, a royal status epitomized in servanthood.

In the same passage from Revelation we read:

“Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Every Sunday when we proclaim the faith of the Church when we say together in the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in Glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” For just as now, the royal priesthood works for justice and mercy, tells of God’s forgiveness and unfathomable love, and lifts up the Cross as the sign and symbol of Christ’s redeeming work. We look forward in hope to the end times. When, in a manner we may only express in poetry, symbolism and ritual, the world will be put right, Eden restored and sorrowing and crying will be no more.

When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, Jesus seems to prevaricate. “My kingdom is not from this world.” Even though he is a descendent of the hero king David, Jesus claims no affinity with the structures associated with nationalism, with monarchy or republics. “My kingdom is not from here.” His kingdom is about truth, ultimate truth, truth that originates with God.

On this Christ the King Sunday we commit ourselves to Jesus, “the way, the truth and the life”, the king who is a servant. Who comes, teaches, heals, reconciles, dies and rises again, who lives through us and who will return. Nowhere is this more evident as in Eucharist when we bring the world to God through Jesus and offer “ourselves, our souls and bodies” as we “dwell in him and he in us”. So the royal priesthood is nourished and strengthened to be Christ in the street and supermarket, Christ beyond the red door of our parish church and the coming of the true King is announced and heralded from the rooftops.

Download the sermon for Proper 29B.

Written by The Rev. Anthony Clavier 

Anthony is the Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City, IL and Co-Editor of The Anglican Digest.