The Power of the Spirit, Proper 16 (C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Today’s readings and Collect can be seen as a unit teaching us about God’s power and how it works in us. The opening Collect (prayer) in the Episcopal Church says: “Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples…”

This power is based on the unity of the gathered, not a majority of the divided. It is a power that expresses itself in service, mercy, healing, reconciliation, and includes all of us.

Jeremiah learns about this power when he is called to be a prophet. He protests that he doesn’t know how to speak well, and is merely a boy, but God tells him he is chosen for a life filled with the Spirit. He is to go and proclaim the truth everywhere, and is assured God will put the right words into his mouth. So, in the tradition of the great Biblical prophets Jeremiah goes to “destroy and overthrow; to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah teaches us that God’s power is not always found in those who are mighty, wealthy or politically adroit. Like David against Goliath, God can use even a boy, and one not gifted with glibness to do God’s work.

God’s power sustains us. This is a teaching from the appointed Psalm 71, verse 6: “I have been sustained by you ever since I was born; from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you.” And so, Jeremiah, throughout his prophetic witness is upheld, as is Jesus while he fasts in the wilderness, and Paul as he is shipwrecked and later imprisoned.

The passage from Hebrews develops this theme of God’s power in an eloquent set of verses that illustrate our relationship with the old covenant now supplanted by the New Covenant based on the “sprinkling of blood,” and then ends with the assurance that “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

The Gospel Lesson focuses on the healing of a woman on the Sabbath. Jesus’s rebuttal to the leader of the synagogue is practical: “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” But behind his action and the exposure of hypocrisy is the destruction of an old sacrificial system that operated the other six days of the week. Jesus heals her and asks for nothing except to praise God, which the woman freely does.

It is no longer necessary to obey all of the strict purity code, to make the necessary sacrifices. Now one simply puts one’s trust in God and the power is unleashed, sometimes dramatically, sometimes quietly, but always as needed.

As the national political campaign cranks up and we are bombarded with political ads and slogans that weary us all, it helps to remember that God’s power does not require gigantic sums of money, the latest and fastest technology, or the “packaging” of candidates for office.

Instead, as believers we have access to the power of the Spirit to fill our hearts and minds with God’s love and promise. As the world careens along with chaos and disorder unending, God offers us the power God gave to Jeremiah, the promise to have the right words and actions given to us to do the work of an evangelist.

In our communities, among the people we see every day, are those who thirst for something other than cynicism and despair, but may not know it is there for the asking. A few weeks ago we were reminded to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Those who do so know they can walk through times of difficulty without being overcome.

Here are some pointers to help us remember how and why we are empowered:

(Note: you may wish to elaborate on two or three of these or select one especially appropriate to the context).

  1. We received power in our Baptism through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. One of the Baptismal prayers asks that we might receive inquiring and discerning hearts, courage to will and persevere and the gift of joy and wonder (Book of Common Prayer, p. 308).
  2. We were sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
  3. We do not do serve as a solo act. We are supported by a community of fellowship, love, and prayer, and the power vested in that community is nothing less than the risen body of Christ.
  4. We are given the power of the Holy Spirit for one reason; we are empowered for God’s service and promised that power will sustain us all the days of our life.
  5. The weekly coming together of the faithful is for renewal and strength to be servants in the world and to each other.
  6. Even though we may from time to time fall away from our relationship with God, God never abandons us. When we return to God in penitence we are restored and strengthened again.

So, we are called to show forth God’s power to all peoples. Churches are places from which God’s power and compassion emanate to a hurting and chaotic world, badly in need of God’s mercy and love. We are the people called to that service. Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 16 (C).

Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in Northwest Arkansas.

Great Cloud of Witnesses, Proper 15 (C)

[RCL] Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

In today’s Epistle lesson, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to persevere in our life of faith, no matter what difficulties we face. “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The writer says, you have begun a good thing in becoming Christians. I want you to finish strong in what has been started in you.

A priest from the diocese of Maryland says, “I like to run. I’m not fast, but I enjoy running. Participating in marathons has given me an experience I have enjoyed about running. In marathons, the best runners in the world and normal mortals like myself get to compete in the very same race. I think that’s neat. I will never find myself on the same tennis court with Serena Williams. If I were ever to toss a football, none of the Green Bay Packers would be there to receive it. But, when I ran the Chicago marathon, I (and 25,000 other runners) lined up at the same starting line as runners who held the best marathon times in the world. We ran the same course. We passed the same cheering crowds.”

“But I suppose it’s the finishing that really makes the difference.  The elite runners were crossing the finish line when I was about half way through the course.  They had about two hours to enjoy refreshments and rest, while I still had about thirteen miles of one foot in front of the other to reach my goal, and was wondering if I would really make it. But the beauty of the event is that for many of us, just finishing the race is the accomplishment, the goal.”

Very few have to run a marathon — participation is for fun. But the author of the letter to the Hebrews asks us a similar question: Will we finish the race that is our life with faith? Will we persevere? Or will we run off course, or give up? And the race is hard. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us, if we follow him, if we stand up for what is right, we will experience conflict.

The writer of Hebrews, like a good coach, gives four pieces of advice about how to finish the race. To finish the race: recall who surrounds us. Remove what ways down on us. Rely on strength within us. Remember who goes before us. Recall who surrounds us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” The epistle writer wants us to picture ourselves as athletes in an arena. As we strive toward our goal, to finish with faith, in peace and holiness, we run surrounded by people. The people in the stands are people who have demonstrated faith — faith that persevered, people who by the grace of God overcame great obstacles, and finished the race. These are people of the Bible, the men and women of the Church throughout the ages, people known personally by you and by me whose witness encourages us.

They are witnesses, not just spectators. There is a huge difference. A spectator watches you go through something. A witness is someone who has gone through something herself, and the root meaning of the word witness, from which we get the word “martyr,” is someone who may have given his life going through it. We have witnesses cheering us on, not just spectators, people who have gone through what we struggle with, people whose testimonies of the strength God gave them can, in turn, give us strength and courage. We have witnesses rooting for us, weeping with us when we stumble, calling to us when we wander, urging us to finish the race.

Our coach tells us also to remove what weighs down on us. Have you ever seen a track stars running a race wearing winter parkas, or with weights tied to their ankles, or carrying a backpack full of bricks? “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” says our coach. What attitudes and actions, what past behavior and present entanglements weigh us down? What weights of sin and brokenness do we carry that cause us to stumble rather than sprint? We can set those weights down. God is ready to take them from us. God is ready to forgive and heal whatever we let get between us and God, whatever has come between us and other people, whatever wrongs we do to ourselves.

Our coach also tells us to rely on the strength within us. We are told to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” When the going gets tough, when the road is difficult, when the miles drag on, obstacles come up around every bend, when every stretch of the road seems like another steep hill to climb, we can rely on spiritual resources within us — spiritual resources we develop in training: in gathering with other Christians, in hearing and reading God’s word, in participating in the sacramental life of the church.

The word “perseverance” can also be translated as “patient endurance.” Endurance is one thing. We can endure and whine and complain all at the same time. Patient endurance looks like praying without ceasing for ourselves and others. It looks like encouraging others even in the midst of difficulty. It looks like saying something kind, or saying nothing at all when something unkind comes more readily to mind. It looks like giving of ourselves generously, even when we’re not sure what’s ahead of us and our inclination may be to think of ourselves first.

Most important of all, remember who goes before us.  We can look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

We can and will finish the race strong in faith if we look to Jesus, if we keep our eyes focused on him, not being distracted by other things along the way that can cause us to lose our direction or footing and stumble. Jesus has gone before us, has shown us the way that leads to victory.  If we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow him, we will not only make a good beginning in faith we too will finish and win the race.

In the race of our life, we have people cheering us on. We have someone willing to take on our burdens. We can train for patient endurance. We have a guide who leads us and will not leave us.  Let us keep running until the prize is ours and we hear God say to us, “Well done!”

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 15 (C).

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as Rector of St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. She holds a PhD in New Testament from Marquette University and is the author of Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew. With her husband, the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, she is co-author of Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery, and A Man, A Woman, a Word of Love.  

Transforming Our Vision, Proper 14 (C)

In June 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett announced a new charity initiative for billionaires: the Giving Pledge. So far, Gates and Buffett have received pledges from 137 billionaires from around the world who have pledged to donate at least half of their fortunes to charity. Five years in, a total of 365 billion dollars has been pledged.

365 billion dollars is a lot of money, so much that it’s hard to conceptualize. It’s more than the total cost of damage from Hurricane Katrina, at 108 billion dollars; but far less than the total cost of The War on Terror since 2001, estimated at 1.7 trillion dollars. The total US budget for 2015 amounted to 3.7 trillion dollars—or about 10 times the amount this group of billionaires was able to pledge, for just one year. 365 billion wouldn’t even cover the amount our government spends annually on discretionary items, like education, transportation, and the National Parks.

Of course, 365 billion dollars will make a difference in the lives of many people. This money will filter through charitable organizations and eventually work its way down to people on the ground, people who are hungry and need a meal, or homeless and need a place to sleep, or sick and need help paying for medical care. But 365 billion dollars isn’t enough to fundamentally change the persistent patterns of need in the world.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, reflecting on the charity initiative in his blog, thinks that this demonstrates that America has entered another gilded age, similar to the end of the 19th century, when “robber barons [like the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rockefellers] lorded over the economy and almost everyone else lost ground.” The robber barons of the past, like the tech billionaires of today, could afford to give away huge chunks of their fortune and still maintain their relative position and power. The gap between the rich and everyone else, after flattening out somewhat in the middle of the 20th century, continues to grow bigger and bigger, approaching what it was in that previous gilded age.

Now against charity, as Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, there is no law. However, there is a difference between the popular idea of charity, and charity as a theological virtue. The theological virtue of charity that we are called to as Christians goes deeper than merely taking out our checkbooks and donating money to a good cause. Charity, or Caritas, is that selfless, unconditional, and voluntary loving­kindness we see in Jesus—it’s the way Jesus loves us, and the way we are called to love others. Of course, it’s easy to see how caritas could lead us to the modern kind of charity: one way we can behave with loving­kindness toward our neighbors is by giving them money to help them when they are in need.

But that is not where caritas ends. A Christian heart truly possessed of caritas begins to wonder, sooner or later, why the needs are so endless: why are there so many mouths to feed? Why are there so many people without a place to sleep? What are the conditions that create so much suffering in the world, and can we do anything to change those conditions?

Such questions can be dangerous. As Roman Catholic Bishop Dom Camara of Brazil once said: “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.” Communist is a dirty word, of course, because as a political and economic system, we know that it doesn’t work. Capitalism does better in some ways, but without protections can run roughshod over the poor and weak.

In the end, the hope of the poor will never be in a human political system—human systems always have a tendency toward corruption. No, the place we find hope, the place we are called to live into, to build up, as we listen for and respond to the cries of the poor, can only be the Kingdom of God.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says to his followers: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus’ central message during his life on earth was this: that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It’s coming. It’s near. And Jesus’ hope was that God’s Kingdom would transform life on earth, in the here and now, bringing God’s reign of justice and peace into the everyday lives of the poor people he lived among. In the prayer Jesus taught, we ask “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s the earth that needs transformation into the way of God’s Kingdom.

The same concerns are echoed in the reading from Isaiah. In the very first verses, Isaiah accuses the leaders of Judah: “Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!”

Sodom and Gomorrah were evil places, but not for the reasons you might have heard. According to the prophet Ezekiel, Sodom’s sin was not about sexual violence. Rather, in Ezekiel’s words: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” If that’s the definition of Sodomy—that they had plenty of food for themselves, but didn’t share it with those in need—then who are the Sodomites of our day?

Isaiah accuses the rulers and elite in Jerusalem of behaving like the people of Sodom. They don’t try to “rescue the oppressed,” they don’t “defend the orphan” or “plead for the widow.” They try to win God’s favor by making all the proper sacrifices in the temple, but it doesn’t matter. The only way to please God is to seek justice for the poor.

Justice is at the heart of Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom, there will be no suffering, and the resources God has given us will be shared equitably so that everyone has enough. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we live under the charity, the caritas of God. And as we imitate God’s loving­kindness toward us, as we are charitable toward others, our caritas must lead us inevitably towards justice. When we give to the poor, we move closer to them. When we serve them, we are able to listen to them. And in their cry, we hear God’s voice—and God’s voice cannot help but change us, transforming our vision of what the world ought to be, and inspiring us to strive for the justice of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 14(C).

Written by the Rev. Jason Cox. Rev. Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Listen to Love, Proper 14 (C)

[RCL]  Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

There once was a wise communications professor who had her students engage in an observation exercise. She handed out a picture of an elderly man sitting on some front steps. A young woman stood to his right, looking down toward him, and a child stood in front, facing both of them.

The professor asked the students to tell her what they thought was happening in the picture. “The child and woman are caring for the old man,” one person suggested. Another said, “The child is listening to a story while the mother watches.” “Maybe they are just passing the time waiting for someone to come out of the building,” was another guess. All sorts of stories came up until the professor finally pointed out what was really going on.

“The elderly man and the young woman are listening to the child telling them something. All the signs are there: the way the young woman is fondly looking down toward not just the old man, but specifically at the child. The man is watching the child intently. Notice the child’s hands? They are spread out away from the body and the body is leaning toward the two adults, like the child is emphasizing something and there’s a big smile on their face.” She concluded, “Communication is happening all the time, we just have to pay attention to the signs. We must be watchful and alert like Sherlock Holmes, noticing things that in normal life we gloss over.”

The Christian life is similar as we cultivate the Kingdom of God. We are both communicating our faith in our actions (showing where our treasure is) and also watching for where God is (waiting for the master to return from the banquet). We must ask ourselves whether or not we are being intentional about either. Like the professor in the story said, we are communicating all the time. The question is, “What are we saying as a Christian people?” Whether or not we think anybody is listening, God hears us, and that is the most important measure of all.

In our reading from the prophet Isaiah today, the prophet conveys God’s message to Judah and Jerusalem—a call to repentance. God has been watching the messages they have been sending through their patterns of living: giving lip service through their prayers, sacrifices that are not really sacrificial, festivals that hold little meaning to the heart. God sees a people who are glossing over the work of the soul. The effects have clearly been detrimental to the society. They commit acts of evil. They do not seek after justice. The most marginalized in Israelite society—orphans and widows—are abandoned.

How little have we learned? In our modern society, we can hear God crying out through the oppressed, through the orphans whose parents have been killed by the evil of gun violence, through the refugee widows of wars in foreign lands, and through the sacred places that have been violated by another’s judgment. The signs are all there and God is calling out to us, “Look! Watch! Be ready to do your part!” Are we willing? Are we obedient? Do we have the depth of faith, as a Franciscan blessing charges us, to be foolish enough to think we can make a difference in this world, bolstered by our love of Jesus Christ? The questions are difficult, and the answers take courage.

There’s a bumper sticker that says ‘Jesus is coming. Look busy!’ It is funny, for sure, but it also points to the heresy of believing that as long as we’re being nice people doing nice things, then we are good Christians, or more accurately, nice Christians. To be a follower of Jesus—to be a disciple—requires so much more. A transformed life means that you can never go back to simply being nice. It implies that the church has a deeper quest than humanitarian groups and clubs. Those are good things and we should be part of them, but that is not why the Christian church exists.

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, is quoted as saying, “The church is the only cooperative society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” Think about that. We exist to benefit non-members. The people who are not us.

According to our Catechism, found on page 862 of The Book of Common Prayer, ‘Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ This assurance gives us the faith to share this promise with those who are outside our walls – those who are the reason we exist. Our Baptismal Covenant on pages 304-305 in the Book of Common Prayer reinforces this as it asks us to persevere in resisting evil, repent and return to the Lord, proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seek and serve Christ in all persons, and especially strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. This is a tall order, but we don’t have to strive alone: we have God and we have each other.

We may wonder how we can join in God’s work outside our church walls when we feel that what we are already doing so much within. Perhaps looking outside is overwhelming and we do not know where to begin. Most of all, it is sometimes difficult to find or interpret the messages that we are receiving. In his book Seek God Everywhere, the Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello suggests:

In all actions, in all conversations, Ignatius [of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus] felt the presence of God and contemplated the presence of God. He enjoyed that mysterious gift of seeing God. So we are entitled to be called contemplatives in action if in all things and all actions we feel the presence of God and contemplate the presence of God. We can see that this is not the same as doing the will of God in everything.

To find God, to see God in all things, or to be a contemplative in action means much more than doing God’s will in everything. To feel and contemplate his presence is the experience of devotion, peace, quiet, and consolation… How do we attain this grace of finding God in all things? In all the documents I have read there is a key word: solely, only, or entirely. That is the key word — doing it only for God.

When we become quiet, when we become still, we are finally able to listen to God. Only then can we act. We hear the crunch of the master’s sandals on the road and begin to light the lamps. In Paul Showers’ children’s book, The Listening Walk, a young girl enjoys taking walks with her father and their old dog, Major, who does not walk very fast. “On a Listening Walk I do not talk,” she says. “I listen to all the different sounds. I hear many different sounds when I do not talk.” At the end she tells us, “You do not even have to take a walk to hear sounds. There are sounds everywhere all the time. All you have to do is keep still and listen to them.”

All we have to do is be still and listen to God, to listen to Love. God will take care of the rest. Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 14 (C).

A native of Spokane, Washington, The Rev. Danae Ashley is an Episcopal priest who has served parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is currently serving part-time as an Associate Priest on staff at St. Stephen’s in Seattle. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate and seeks to use art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual, especially for pregnancy and infant loss. Danae is a trained facilitator of the Mandala Assessment Research Instrument (MARI), Prepare-Enrich, and Positive Discipline parenting workshops. She is proud to be part of The Young Clergy Women Project and has written for their online magazine Fidelia’s Sisters and their Advent devotional published by Chalice Press, as well as being a contributing writer to the Episcopal Church’s online ministry “Sermons that Work.” Danae is one of the contributors of the upcoming book Still a Mother: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement that will be released in February 2016 by Judson Press. Her favorite past times include hiking with her husband and beloved dog, reading, traveling, visiting with family and friends, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.  

 

Rich Toward God, Proper 13 (C)

[RCL] Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Right now in the world there is lots of tension on the issues of income and wealth inequality. I am not an economist or social scientist so I will not get into these complicated aspects. However, This Sunday’s scriptures do offer us some reflection from a Christian perspective.

Jesus has taught us the two great commandments; the first is to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. The second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus tells the two brothers who are in dispute of the family inheritance. Jesus reminds them that life is not about owning, or possessing things abundantly. We are to love God wholeheartedly and not to worship possessions as idols.

To emphasize his point, Jesus tells these two brothers the parable of a rich man whom he also calls as a fool, the “rich fool”. This rich man had the blessings of abundant harvests. The produce is so abundant that he does not have enough space to store them. With this abundance, what does this rich man do? The scripture tells his only concerns are “I” and “my.” In his whole thought process, it is only he himself that is in the center. It shows he only loves himself.

We have a few issues here: greed, rich, and fool.

In the Epistles to the Colossians, the author admonishes that “Put to death, whatever in you is earthly: … greed (which is idolatry). (Colossians 3: 5)

Greed is defined as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed” by Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Is desiring for more of something than is needed really bad? Don’t we all want to have abundance? Don’t we all want to have a little leftover money to cushion ourselves in times of need? Isn’t that why we contribute to pension fund, to have 401K, 401C, for our retirement?

I don’t think it is when one prepares for rainy days, or stores up one’s abundance that causes Jesus to call us fools, or does he condemn wealth.

It is the selfish and excessive desire for oneself that becomes greed. It is the way we treat our abundance and our wealth that matters to God.

Jesus further says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  These people end up with spiritual death.

Who are those who are not rich toward God?

Often times, when we mention rich, we think of money, wealth. In the Bible, there are at least fifty times that money, wealth, possession or finances have been mentioned. They are mostly based on the basic commandments that “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

When we love God, we are rich toward God. When we love our neighbor, we are rich toward God. It is because we show gratitude to God of the blessings bestowed to us.

This rich man forgets about God, the one who gives him all the blessings he has. God gives him the talents to grow the crop and receives the produce abundantly. Whatever God gives will eventually be returned to God. Isn’t that what the Teacher tells us in Ecclesiastes?

“I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me.” (Ecclesiastes 2:18) He can’t take all the possessions with him, neither can we.

Isn’t this rich man a fool by hoarding all the produce and thinks he can enjoy it into eternity? He does not know his last day on earth is coming soon. And neither do we.

This man’s rich in produce can be rich toward God by showing God his gratitude. He can show God his gratitude by sharing his abundance with his neighbors who may not have such blessings but are struggling in their lives. He forgets he should love God with his whole heart, whole mind, whole spirit, and whole strength. He forgets he should love his neighbors as himself.

Isn’t this one of the issues of the inequality of income and wealth of the contemporary world? The rich hoard the abundance without showing their gratitude to the creators. Not only do they not love their neighbors by not helping them out but they oppress them so as to hoard more wealth.

Who doesn’t want to be rich? Who doesn’t want to be the 1%? Isn’t that why we want to go to Ivy League schools, to study hard and to work hard and be successful? However, when we get rich, will we be the rich fool? Or will we rich toward God?

The following list has been around in the cyberspace and is something that captures what Jesus said in the Gospel. I would like to share part of it in conclusion.

Things God won’t ask on that day:

  1. God won’t ask what kind of car you drove. God will ask how many people you gave a lift to who didn’t have any transportation.
  2. God won’t ask the square footage of your house. But God will ask how many people you welcomed into your home.
  3. God won’t ask about the clothes you had. God will ask how many you helped to clothe.
  4. God won’t ask what your highest salary was. But God will ask if you compromised your integrity to obtain it.
  5. God won’t ask what your job title was. God will ask whether you performed your job to the best of your ability.
  6. God won’t ask how many friends you had. God will ask how many people to whom you made sure you were a friend.
  7. God won’t ask in what neighborhood you lived. But God will ask how you treated and behaved with your neighbors.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 13 (C).

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour (COS), San Gabriel, a multicultural congregation with English and Cantonese, and English-only services. Ada served seven years as Convener of Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM), recently finishing her term. She is the Chair of Chinese Ministry Advisory Committee in Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. Ada loves hiking and often does her meditative walk.  

Lord, Teach Us How to Pray, Proper 12 (C)

[RCL] Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11: 1-13

Lord, teach us how to pray.

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

This is the Lord’s Prayer as found in the gospel of Luke.

Prayer.

What can one find to say about prayer in an environment where it can be used as a cover for hypocrisy, an easy mantra to fool the vulnerable?  “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” politicians say to bereaved parents whose children were gunned down because these same politicians failed to do what is just and good. Even the ancients understood that empty prayers meant nothing. There was a saying in ancient Greece: “Together with Athena, move your own hands also.” Do something, don’t just pray!

The disciples had witnessed that whenever their teacher, the one they called “Master,” had exhausted himself doing good, he would withdraw from the crowd in order to pray. And they had seen the results of those prayers in his life-transforming deeds and in his unfathomable peace. “Lord, teach us how to pray!” They too wanted that peace and strength, the utter assurance that Jesus had in doing the will of his Father. “Lord, teach us how to pray.”

The simple and profound words that were the response to that request have become known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Throughout the centuries countless faithful have uttered them together, are uttering them still. They are words that rise up and blend into an endless prayer of praise, of supplication, of doxology.

Jesus showed them that first they must know whom they are addressing. The Greek word for prayer used in the gospels means “a wish, a request toward” someone. Luke’s version is pared down, simpler than the prayer found in Matthew’s gospel. The familiar one has been developed from Matthew’s version, and the modern version has some points that were made by ancient authorities. Yet, the core is the same.

“Our Father…” There are people in our world who have mixed emotions about this word because they had the terrible misfortune of living with a bad father. And many of us were blessed with loving and caring fathers and we have no difficulty in identifying the Creator with the word Father. God, who is father and mother, understands.

“Hallowed be your name.”  We are addressing the Holy of Holies, the all-sacred one. We are reminded immediately by Jesus that when we address God we are in the presence of holiness.

“Your kingdom come.” Jesus’ favorite image: the kingdom of God where justice prevails, where love conquers. The kingdom of God where everyone is of equal value in God’s sight. May it come to us also, he teaches us to pray.

“Your will be done.” We long for the kingdom where God’s will is done. Putting it on a marble pedestal, in the public arena, will not save us. All that is for show. God is not mocked. Jesus warned us severely about praying in order to show others how pious we are. True prayer is the private communion between us and God. Even when we pray in unison, in church, we are connecting to God and to each other.

This then is the first portion of prayer: the acknowledgment of God as Father/Mother, as Holy, where God’s rule of love and justice are natural and at home.

The second part is a simple request for what sustains life. Bread was the essence of nourishment in the ancient world. Having bread meant one was not hungry. Not having bread meant starvation. “Give us the necessities for living; all else is superfluous.”

“And forgive us our sins.” The second request that concerns us is the need to forgive. In all the gospels there is an expansion of this need for forgiveness and it helps to seek, find, and read all the references. The plea to be forgiven is followed by the most surprising element of this prayer:

“. . . for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” That God’s forgiveness is dependent on our ability and willingness to forgive is unexpected. Without the grace to forgive our fellow human beings, we would not recognize, or even accept, God’s forgiveness of our own sins. “Those who are indebted to us,” may also be taken literally. In the ancient world, as in our own mean times, being indebted financially was very serious. Many times it meant life or death. Jesus knew that Mammon was a powerful idol, that those who cannot forgive debts because they worship money cannot possibly be forgiven by God first. Think of the people who have lost their jobs because the CEO wanted more money than he could spend in ten lifetimes.

“Do not bring us to the time of trial.” Trials are frequent and no one is spared. We pray to be shielded from trials, but when they do come, they must be faced. So in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed, “Let this cup pass from me,” but he was not spared and he faced his death, convinced of the will of his Father.

This then is the profound and simple prayer that binds us together as we worship. This is the prayer that forms the basis for all our prayers. We are assured by Jesus that we are being heard. Jesus adds more urgency through stories of people known to his hearers, like the persistent child to a father. A father responds to the child’s plea, he tells us. He encourages us to be persistent. God’s will for us is good.

In the midst of despair over the conditions of terror and harm and killing in our world, it is good to remember that millions of the faithful are praying every minute of the day: “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”

Download the sermon for Proper 12 (C).

Katerina Whitley is the author of A New Love, a novel set in the midst of St. Paul’s sphere of influence in ancient Corinth. The author now lives in Boone, NC.

Passionate Spirituality, Proper 11 (C)

[RCL] Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Passionate Spirituality

It’s a brief story, and Jesus delivers the punch line: “Martha, Martha,” he tells his hostess. “You are worried and distracted about many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.”

Everything, therefore, hangs on the one thing that Jesus mentions, the one thing that Mary has chosen and apparently her sister, Martha, has not.

At first it looks as though the one thing that is necessary is to sit at Jesus’ feet, to assume a disciple’s posture; this over even something so useful as bustling about to make your guests feel at home.

It is even possible to set up the two sisters Martha and Mary as examples of different vocations. Mary the contemplative, lucky one that she is can devote herself to prayer, to spiritual practice.  Martha, on the other hand, seems like the rest of us, who struggle with the demands of life in the world, praying on the run, if at all.

The distinction between Mary and Martha, contemplation and action, prayer and service, comes across as a tidy distinction. For that reason alone it should be treated as suspect. Life is rarely neat. Issues of faith are rarely simple.

No, something more is involved here. The story of Jesus as a guest in the home of these women does not justify dividing believers into two classes: spiritual aristocrats and the rest of us. Instead, it challenges all of us, and does so in a way that need not separate us from each other.

What makes Mary of Bethany an example is not that she sits at the feet of Jesus. What makes her sister Martha need her example is not that she labors to accommodate others. What’s at stake lies elsewhere. A contemporary name for it is passionate spirituality.

Passionate spirituality takes many forms. It does not have to be: emotional rather than reasonable, extroverted rather than introverted, or contemporary rather than traditional. What makes someone’s spirituality passionate is prayer, enthusiasm, and boldness. People of passionate spirituality live committed lives. They practice their faith with joy and enthusiasm. Passionate spirituality can spill out through service or study or devotion. It can be apparent in whatever one does.

The problem with Martha is not her hospitality. It is how she does not let her hospitality become a channel for a spirituality marked by passion. Instead, she becomes distracted and complains to Jesus about her sister rather than speaking directly to her sister. While Mary listens to Jesus, Martha presumes to tell him what he must do. It appears that Martha is driven by duty rather than delight. She may be an effective organizer, a great cook, conscientious in all that she does, but she is simply responsible, not inspired, even on the day when Jesus himself comes to dinner. She may even be busy and anxious in an effort not to have to hear what Jesus is saying.

What makes Mary an example is not the simple fact that she listens to Jesus, but that she does so in a way that is passionate and bold. Jesus does not so much commend her behavior as the spirit behind it.

Mary chooses to take some risks. She takes the chance of upsetting her sister: Mary’s not helping, she’s listening. She also risks upsetting plenty of people because she takes the role of disciple, sitting at the teacher’s feet. This is not something women in her society do. It’s a role reserved for men. Still, that’s where she places herself, or rather, where the Spirit leads her.

So, somebody may say, I buy into what you call passionate spirituality. I recognize it as ‘the way to go’ for Christian people. Furthermore I recognize that passionate spirituality does not have to be emotional rather than reasonable, extraverted rather than introverted, or contemporary rather than traditional. How then does it come about?

Passionate spirituality is more God’s gift than it is anything we do. It’s more for us to welcome than for us to achieve. It results from a series of conversions.

Each of us is called repeatedly, invited to turn away from something and toward something else. The conversions that occur in our lives may cause us to turn toward God, toward Christ, toward the Church, toward the poor, toward a life of prayer, toward a certain form of service, toward the world that God loves. These conversions and still others can happen to us in any sort of order, and any of them can occur more than once.

Each of us is invited many times to turn in a new direction. Passionate spirituality happens again and again when we answer these calls and enter into new dimensions of the great gift of life. We cannot make these calls happen. But we can leave ourselves undefended so that we can hear such a call when it does sound forth. Spiritual practices, properly understood, are to a large degree a form of listening.

In this way, prayer, scripture, receiving communion, helping those in need, going on a retreat, these practices and many others are ways for us, like Mary, to sit at Jesus’ feet as a disciple and hear what he wants to tell us.

It was risky for Mary to sit as a disciple at the feet of Jesus in a culture that did not leave room for women to do such a thing.

We may find it risky, for all sorts of reasons, some of them self-imposed, to undertake spiritual practices in a receptive way, to answer the call to continuing conversion, to become aflame with passionate spirituality or what Jesus calls the one thing necessary. We may, after all, find ourselves taken to unexpected places.

Passionate spirituality took a biblical farm hand named Amos away from the tending of sycamore trees and make him into a prophet of God. He responded to his call.

Passionate spirituality took a slave from Maryland’s Eastern Shore named Harriet Tubman and made her into the Moses of her people. She responded to her call.

Passionate spirituality took Oscar Romero, a conventional cleric from the tortured country of El Salvador and made him into a voice for the voiceless. He responded to his call.

Each of these, and countless others, was taken to some unexpected place due to embracing the one thing necessary. And each of them would say to us the journey was worth the cost, that it was a flight on eagles’ wings.

Download the sermon for Proper 11C.

Written by The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Maryland. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications). Many of his sermons appear on Lectionary.org. Email: charleshoffacker8@gmail.com

Are We Ready to Hear the Truth?, Proper 10 (C)

[RCL] Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

On August 28, 1963, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before 250,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and delivered what would become one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century: his “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, he called for civil rights and economic protections for all people, and decried the systemic racism and violence that haunted every corner of America.

In articulating his vision for a peaceful society that moves away from racism and embraces unity and harmony, King declared, “No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 1

With these words, Dr. King, a modern prophet, was recalling the ancient prophet Amos, who first wrote, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

While most modern Biblical scholars confine Amos to the category of a “minor prophet” because of his brevity, if we devote anything less than our full attention to Amos, we do so at our peril. Almost every word of his nine short chapters packs a powerful prophetic word that the Church and culture alike desperately need to hear.

Amos unleashes a prophetic fire against Israel, whose people are suffocating under the weight of systemic injustice and rampant violence. He excoriates the rich and powerful elite who have amassed their position by standing on the necks of the poor, calling out a litany of sins: unfair lending practices, unsustainable agricultural and environmental policy, and gross income inequality – issues that continue to plague our society today.

It doesn’t take long for the people of Israel to realize that Amos is unlike the other so-called prophets of his day. The vocation of prophet itself had become compromised. The so-called prophets that the people were familiar with preached a watered-down message that had more to do with securing their own political and economic position than divinely-inspired truth-telling. And so, Amos proclaims, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” Amos makes clear that he is not on the company payroll, and that social, political, and economic concerns have no bearing on the message he proclaims.

Suddenly, the people of Israel are exposed to all that they have conveniently ignored for so long. And so perhaps inevitably, Amos’ firebrand prophetic preaching lands him in trouble. Amaziah, the King’s chaplain, reports that Amos’ prophecy is a direct affront to the king, and that “the land is not able to bear all his words.” As a result, he is banished from the royal chapel and is commanded to return to his home in Judah. One can’t help but wonder how long Amos and other like-minded prophets would survive in the modern pulpit.

Truth be told, Amos presents a pastoral paradox that every preacher knows all too well: on one hand, the Gospel message bears an unyielding, uncompromising truth. But on the other hand, the sheer force with which it is proclaimed often proves too harsh to hear for the people who need to hear it the most.

As a result, Christians have become accustomed to being soothed on Sunday morning with a feel-good message that portrays God as little more than a Divine “fixer,” taking our failings and jagged edges, and smoothing them over into something sublime and holy. “God works all things for good,” we say.

But not Amos.

Amos proclaims that God’s patience with recalcitrant and hard-hearted people has come to an end. God has set the plumb line in the midst of Israel, and instead of finding an even plane of justice and righteousness, God has found Israel to be angled against the poor and the helpless, and so God summons Amos to stand and proclaim judgment against Israel.

“…the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword…”

It is little wonder that Amos’ prophecy was so threatening to Amaziah and King Jeroboam. He challenged the status quo, demanded justice at the expense of economic gain, and held up faithfulness in the face of the people’s fickle nature.

But what if Amos’ prophetic reach extends beyond Ancient Israel? According to recent studies, we live in a time in which more people are incarcerated in the United States than in any other country on earth;2 today, the US spends more money on defense than every other country—and more than the next seven highest spending countries combined;3 and we live in a time when more than 1 in 5 children in the United States lives in poverty.4

As we listen to this ancient prophecy fully aware of the truths of our existence that we so often ignore, Amos has a way of stepping out of the pages of Scripture, and marching up the aisle of the church, bearing a message that we desperately need to hear.

Amos teaches us that God does indeed work through our failings and jagged edges to bring about God’s purposes, but not with the kind of “cheap grace” that amounts to little more than a spiritual bailout. God’s grace is free to be sure, but it costs us dearly.

In the face of God’s justice, our own injustices are exposed; in the face of God’s mercy, our own contempt is brought to bear; and in the face of God’s constancy, our own insecurity is revealed.

As James Limburg observes, religion that is authentic to the Biblical witness is not, and has never been about avoiding conflict at all costs. Rather, the witness that Amos and the prophetic tradition proclaims brings comfort to the afflicted; but it also afflicts the comfortable.5

The question that Amos leaves us to wrestle with is this: when the prophets of our own day tell us the uncompromising Gospel truth that we’ve been ignoring about ourselves, will the land be able to bear it?

Will we?

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 10C.

Written by The Reverend Marshall A. Jolly

The Reverend Marshall A. Jolly is the Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina (Diocese of Western North Carolina). He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org, a weekly lectionary-based preaching commentary authored exclusively by Millennial-ish preachers, teachers, and lay leaders for preaching the Gospel in the 21st century.

————-

1 Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream,” speech, 28 August 1963, Washington, D.C.
2 Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List (10th edition)” Report from the International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of Essex, http://www.prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/wppl_10.pdf
3 Report from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, 18 April 2016, http://www.pgpf.org/chart-archive/0053_defense-comparison
4 Report from the National Center for Children in Poverty, Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, 2016, http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html
5 See: James Limburg, Amos in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, James L. Mays, ed. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), pp. 79-126.

Be Joyful, Proper 9 (C) – 2016

[RCL] 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Many of us learned to sing these words at summer camp.

I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart (Where?)
Down in my heart (Where?)
Down in my heart
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart
Down in my heart to stay

Is this merely a child’s song, one for happy little campers, freed from care and concern? Is it only about superficial gaiety? Or could it be a song that prepares children to one day learn the deeper, more mature understanding of the value called “joy?” Regardless, joy, with a central role in today’s scripture readings, deserves our attention, especially at this moment in history.

The Psalmist demands of us: “Be joyful in God, all you lands!” More significantly, the Gospel account reminds us about the seventy disciples, sent out to spread the Good News of God in Christ, who returned successfully from their mission with a spirit of joy in their hearts.

No doubt, the seventy began with the expectant enthusiasm of aspiring novices, but they returned as seasoned ministers filled with genuine joy. Perhaps we can discover the quality and meaning of this kind of joy as we think through the guidelines and warnings Jesus set for them in the sending. As we compare what produced for them such joy, we can use it in our ministries as the current generation of Jesus-followers.

He sent them as lambs into the midst of wolves. It was a difficult, hostile world about which Jesus warned, one true to life in every time and place. The social environment included the usual crowd of bad guys, skeptics, Jewish fundamentalists, Samaritans, Gentiles, and Roman officials. In order to undertake the task they had to overcome their fears with courage and resolve.

Jesus told them to travel light – no purse, bag, or sandals. In order to get the job done, they would not have time to care about material possessions or to waste time on other distractions.

He ordered them, when not welcomed by a group, to wipe the dust off their feet and move on to the next place. The urgency of the moment would not allow them to linger in hopeless situations.

They went out among the people, dutifully accomplishing the mission. They were so successful that they returned in a spirit of joy. It wasn’t a superficial, child-like joy of children returning to camp, but a deeper, satisfying, inner joy of the soul.

As the current members of the Body of Christ, we are the seventy for our generation. Our mission is not unlike that of those mentioned in Luke’s Gospel account, and the guidelines and warnings are largely the same. The deep inner joy we can find in our 21st century mission for Christ can prove equally meaningful. As we follow our charge in the Baptismal Covenant, we seek to serve God’s people by offering to them the good news of God in Christ, both in sharing the truth and in the actions of care and love.

We, too, go out among wolves. We live in a world that is fearful, emotionally paralyzed, or aggressively angry as a result of a kind of shell-shock. Many of us suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by acts of terrorism, near financial depression, natural disasters, and unexplainable violence in schools and shopping malls. Far too many of us are driven by fear and self-defensiveness to over-reactive and destructive actions.

Perhaps the hardest example to follow from Luke is to take with us no semblance of purse, bag, or sandal. Many of us are disabled by fear of loss in the midst of an overly-materialist culture, in our desire not to give up anything of our substance, of not being willing to do without what we want and think we need. But we can easily see how the baggage of materialism can disable us from taking committed action.

Making sense of shaking dust off our feet, a practice of pious Jews during New Testament times, is also difficult. Many of us disdain the idea of giving up on any task. But, perhaps the application for us is to make the best and wisest use of our time and energy – a prioritizing intended to maximize the effectiveness of our call to carry out God’s work.

With all this in mind, we can follow these modern warnings and guidelines in our efforts for Christ and to find the deepest joy that life in faith can bring. We use the challenge from Jesus to the seventy as a model to move boldly into our everyday world, into the lives of those around us – our friends and neighbors, strangers and enemies, skeptics and unbelievers, the bereaved and disconsolate, the poor and victims of injustice, the hopeless and diseased – all who are in need of God. We move forward with courage and commitment in telling others about Christ, bringing them into the life of the Church, welcoming those who come anew into our midst, ministering to all in need, sharing with them what we have, so that they may be healed of their brokenness and find the same joy in the Lord we have found.

Above all, it is necessary to overcome the inherent need to avoid vulnerability. To leave behind fear of failure, the inclination to avoid acting because we are afraid we will be embarrassed or rejected or that it will be too time-consuming or too difficult or costly. We must grasp life with joy in Christ and seize the opportunity to be among the seventy for our generation.

We must go about this task with verve and commitment and excitement and joy. We will do well to emulate a bunkhouse-full of Texas cowboys who once said, “We loved working cattle so much that we would be awake in the night crying for daylight so we could saddle up and hit the range.” Can we, too, cry for daylight so we can get to work tending to the call of Christ to reach out to the world in love and sharing?

If we go at our task in this way, following a modern expression of the work of the seventy, we are certain to experience the same deep, meaningful, fulfilling joy found by our forebears in the faith. Not a superficial kind of happiness or delight, but the joy that takes root deep down in our hearts.

Can singing “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy” be an appropriate and affirming response to what we experience in the committed Christian life? Can it serve as a statement of Christian hope and faith that helps us remember that grace and love underlie the foundation of God’s relationship with us and God’s power and support as we go about our Christian ministries?

A final link for us with the seventy of old and Jesus’ instruction to them is found in his sending them out two by two. Like them, none of us acts alone in carrying out the mission and ministries of the Body of Christ. We are all in this together, and we take comfort in the partnerships we share in carrying out Christ’s charge to us as the seventy of this generation.

So there is no “I” but only “we.” Therefore, let us take to heart the words of the old camp song in the deepest and most meaningful understanding of joy, changing its words from “I” to “we” and “my” to “our.” Sing with me, won’t you?

We’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in our hearts (Where?)
Down in our hearts (Where?)
Down in our hearts
We’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in our hearts
Down in our hearts to stay

Download the sermon for Proper 9C.

Written by The Rev. Ken Kesselus

The Rev. Ken Kesselus is a retired priest living with his wife Toni in his native home of Bastrop, Texas, where he serves as the mayor and writes history book and a column in the local newspaper. He is a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and author John E. Hines: Granite on Fire.

Enigmatic Jesus, Sermon Proper 8 (C) – 2016

 

[RCL] 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62

That Jesus: he can be quite enigmatic.

His disciples ask if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume unbelievers, and he sternly tells them, “No.”

A village does not welcome him, and he simply moves on to another village.

A convert says she will follow him, “wherever you may go,” and he replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests.”

He invites a stranger to follow him, and that one replies, “First let me go and bury my father”—and then he says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.”

And another asks simply to say farewell to his loved ones. To this one, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”

So, in sum: he refutes retaliation or violence as a response to inhospitality, and he avoids conflict by simply moving on from an uncomfortable situation.

But then he seems to say something like, “If you wish to follow me, you must drop everything and everyone in your life. Just give up everything and follow me.”

And just where is he leading? To Jerusalem, as it says in this passage “to be taken up.” To his betrayal, crucifixion, and death.

Can he really mean this? Can our Lord and Savior be ordering us to put down our livelihoods, to put aside our relationships, and to abandon our property in order to enter into pain, suffering, and the very jaws of death?

Well, it sort of depends on whether you see Jesus as someone to worship or someone to follow. Now, both of these have merit, both have their supporters, both are completely orthodox. But, for today, let’s consider the possibility that Jesus is asking us to follow. For, were we to worship him, we might expect him to save us from trials, to rescue us from danger, to keep us from harm.

That’s what an omnipotent God should do, right? That’s how the Almighty really ought to treat those he loves. And that’s exactly the problem. For this is to make Jesus into a mere religion, instead of a journey toward union with God.

The theologian Richard Rohr has provided this insight, and we can benefit from following his logic for just a while longer. Rohr tells us that this shift—from following Jesus to worshipping him—made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation. And that’s where the significant difference lies. A religion of belonging and believing is concerned about who’s in and who’s out, about what specific doctrine people subscribe to, and about how they support the institution called the church. A religion of transformation, on the other hand, focuses on change. Changing ourselves into more and more of whom God is calling each of us to be, and changing the world around us into a more hospitable place for all of God’s creatures.

What Richard Rohr is suggesting is much harder work. What Jesus calls us to do is much harder work. We can be like Elisha and ask for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. We can wait around for the whirlwind to pull us into heaven. And we can hope for divine power to part the waters before us. Or we can settle down and do the work given to us: to share love, to spread joy, to wage peace, to foster patience, to nurture kindness, to exhibit generosity, to seek faithfulness, to cultivate gentleness, and to strive for better self-control.

This is what it is to follow Jesus, rather than just worship him. To accept our baptismal calling to become dead to sin and alive unto righteousness. To seek, by word and example, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly—following our God on the same path. This path that may lead us directly into whirlwinds or even through the valley of the shadow of death. But also the path that will lead us from sin and death to the kingdom of heaven and everlasting life. The path can and will leave a world behind us a little better, a little kinder, and little safer. The path can and will leave us stronger, more spiritually fit, and better able to cope with whatever lies ahead.

As St. Paul puts it, we are “called to freedom” and this freedom comes by leaving things behind.

Maybe not every possession, maybe not every relationship, maybe not every thing and everyone—but certainly we are called to leave behind what Paul calls “the works of the flesh.”

To leave behind strife.
To leave behind anger and quarrels.
To leave behind dissensions and factions.

And to follow Jesus on the journey toward unity: union with others, union with the world, union with the universe, and union with God.

Jesus’ promise to all of us—that we will be inheritors of the kingdom of heaven: this does not promise us avoiding all difficulties in this life. The spiritual life is not one without pain, without suffering, without challenge. But if we truly follow Jesus, we have an amazing trailblazer ahead of us.

One who never repaid anyone evil for evil.
One who sought only love—with others, and with God.
One who set his face on Jerusalem, knowing that what lay ahead was torture and death.

And who one who renounced the devil and all his works, renounced the vain pomp and glory of this world, and turned away from all covetous desires of the same—and then on the third day conquered death. So that we might be endued with heavenly virtues, everlastingly rewarded, and become the people of the way.

The way from sin and damnation.
The way through pain and suffering.
The way to unspeakable, unimaginable, ineffable joys prepared for us all.

This is what comes of following Jesus. Not a mere religion of belonging and believing, of who’s in and who’s out, of what’s correct and what is not. But a lifelong journey, following Jesus along his same path. A lifelong journey of transformation of ourselves and of the world around us. A lifelong journey toward greater union with God. Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 8C.

Written By The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates

Written by the Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates. Father Barrie has served Episcopal and Lutheran congregations in California, New York, and New Jersey over the past twenty years—most recently as Interim Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Essex Fells, New Jersey. In his free time, he enjoys boating, opera, and fine dining. On an especially good day off, he finds time to pickle dilly beans. He has led Celtic pilgrimages, served on many a diocesan committee, and participated in the work of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. He welcomes comments, questions, even corrections to his message (revdocbates@gmail.com).