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).

Relationships are Tricky, Sermon for Proper 7 (C) – 2016

[RCL] 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a; Psalm 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

Relationships are tricky. They require both well-formed individuals and a cohesive communal whole. Individuals who are too isolated, and deprived of human contact are often quite damaged. Mad and raving at the edge of society, in the tombs, in either literal or metaphorical deserts, in places where demons dwell… And people who are too group-centered, who have no boundaries, who can’t tell where they end and where anyone else begins are often equally damaged and damaging. We are built for and called into relationships by God. And this central truth about us reveals some profound paradoxes at the core of our being: We crave independence and we fear being alone. We long for togetherness and we fear being assimilated.

To hear Paul say “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” is both a comfort and a challenge. It’s wonderful to feel like we’re not alone in the world. And it’s terrifying to lose our identity.

Assimilation to any kind of hive-mind destroys so much of what we value about human experience: uniqueness, beauty, and difference. We hold independence, identity, and free will as prized, positive values, but we also highly value, and need community, togetherness, and connection. The idea of becoming one with Christ, one with all that is, if it means losing our whole identity, can be frightening.

The demons understood this. They “begged him not to order them to go back to the abyss.” The abyss is that primordial “deep;” the undifferentiated soup that God’s spirit moves over in the beginning of creation. It’s the dismal mass of chaotic stuff that God creates from—that God separates and orders into the beautiful and good creation. To return to that is to disappear into murky sameness. Losing their identity is terrifying even for demons.

Learning to balance our genuine need for independence with the equally important and likewise genuine needs of our communities is a lifelong work.

The demons appear to insist on isolation; they torment this man into breaking the bonds with the community, and they drive him into the wilds alone. But the people of Gerasene are perhaps exacerbating the situation by forcibly keeping the man in relationship, in the community, by keeping him “under guard and bound with shackles.” Thus, we have an image of a person simultaneously tormented by his isolation and his chains.

Individuality and community are twin poles we are often stretched between. How many of us were raised to “stand on our own two feet” and “take care of things ourselves” and then found it hard or impossible to ask for help when we really needed it? How many of us have been taught that it’s better to “go along to get along” and “not make waves” only to occasionally be overcome with resentment because we agreed to do something for the good of the community that we really didn’t want to do? How we navigate this tension, and live with one another in relationship matters a great deal.

Finding the right blend of independence and togetherness is hard; it’s an ongoing balancing act—a kind of marriage—between independence and community. And as Christians we have a model for the kind of relationship that both guards our independence and ensures community; it’s the model of Christian marriage. Marriages and weddings are different things: a wedding is a single event on a particular day; a marriage is an ongoing relationship that lasts for years. Sadly, in the secular culture marriage is too often viewed as a kind of chaining together of two people. But Christian marriage is a sacrament. An outward and visible sign of the kind of vital relationships that God calls us into. For Christians, marriage is a symbol, an icon, a representation of all holy, covenantal relationships. Marriage signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and Christ’s church. And as such it is a model for all Christian relationships, every one of which is to be based in mutual joy, shared help and comfort, in sickness and health, in prosperity and adversity. Marriage, in other words, is a microcosm of community. And like all communities it requires well-formed individuals who are committed to the well-being of the whole.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to this understanding. In one of his letters when he writes:

“Marriage is in many ways a simplification of life, and it naturally combines the strengths and wills of two people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than they did before…The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of their solitude… A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side by side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”[1]

Alone and naked in the tombs or chained and under guard no one was able to see the man as whole before Jesus came. Our need for both independence and community means that too often we seek to create quick commonalities by tearing down boundaries instead of loving the expanses between ourselves. We opt for the quick fix of chaining ourselves and others to an ideal of superficial sameness. We insist that others are welcome as long as they look and act just like us, and if they don’t there must be something wrong with them; something that needs to be corrected.

This is the movement of the demonic impulse that insists on isolating and universalizing experience… “My way is the right way! The only way.” The demonic drive for too much independence creates disconnected individuals that assume “my” individual or “my” group identity is THE standard, THE norm for every other group or individual. In this way, individuals are turned not into a community, but into “Legions.” And the great diversity of human experience is thus reduced to a single point of view, and held to a single (often unattainable) standard. That might make some of us feel more comfortable in the short run, but it’s deadening in the long run.

The movement of God always goes the other way. The movement of God respects diversity. It brings together and binds up diverse experience in a cohesive whole. It constantly invites into community those who are outside the cultural norms: women and men, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, us and them. And that’s often frightening.

When the demons had left and the man was sitting at the foot of Jesus “clothed in his right mind” the people were afraid. Yes, real relationships are scary. Especially those that strive to be icons of the relationship between Christ and those who sit at his feet—the Church.

Relationships often feel safer when we’re around people who are similar to us. People who like us, and whom we like. Yet, the walk with Jesus is constantly asking us to open up that circle and to accept, and even love, people who aren’t like us. Not by chaining them to us, but by allowing and loving the expanses between us. God is constantly moving us from “even them?” Even the Greeks? Even the slaves? Even the ones who live in the tombs? Even them? To: Yes. Even them.

Relationships are tricky, and these are the kinds of relationships we as Christians are called to. Neither a radical isolation nor an undifferentiated togetherness, both of which lead to madness and the breaking of community. We are called to relationships where a marvelous living side by side takes place. We’re called to love the expanses between all of us, and to seeing ourselves and all of God’s children as whole, and complete and gathered together before an immense sky.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 7C. 

Written by The Rev. Richard Burden, PhD

The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden was called as Rector of All Saints Parish in 2014. Born and raised in Colorado, Richard received a BA in Theatre Arts from Colorado State University, an MA in history from the University of Colorado at Denver and a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he studied Christian conversion in early 20th century China. He began his first career as a bookseller working at the Tattered Cover in Denver, and after a journey through academia he discerned a call to ordained ministry which led him to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, CA. Richard was ordained in 2009 and was first called to the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington to serve as Priest in Charge, and also to help develop a groundbreaking program of leadership and congregational development known as The Network for Pastoral Leadership. In 2013, he began to sense God calling him in a new direction, this time to New England. He is a Fellow of the Beatitudes Society. He says, “I went into ordained ministry because I wanted to be a catalyst for individuals and communities to become the people that God needs them to be and to do the work God so urgently needs them to do.” With his spouse Monica he is also a parent to two school aged children. His recorded sermons are available at allsaintsbrooline.org, you can contact him through the All Saints Brookline Facebook page, twitter @allsaintsbline, and instagram.  


[1] Letter 24, to Emanuel von Bodman, 1901, Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke – Vol I: 1892-1910, ed. Jane Bannard Greene, Read Books, 2007, ISBN 1406729655

Justified by Faith, Proper 6 (C) – 2016

[RCL] 1 Kings 21:1-10 (11-14) 15-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

As Christians we believe that God freely justifies us by faith in Jesus Christ.

“Justification” and the related verb “to justify” are funny words because they can have different meanings depending on the context. In regular modern American English, to justify something (often an action like a big purchase or some bold statement) is to be put on the defensive possibly after being accused. It requires answering the why’s and why not’s of judges and questioners. It usually feels acutely negative. Alternatively, when it comes to using a word processor on a computer, justification is about which margin to make straight. Aside from editors and English teachers, no one gets very excited over the subject. However, in the context of Christian theology justification is word with a positive meaning that ought to resonate in every heart. It is an idea that is at the very core of the Gospel and the Church’s understanding of God’s great and merciful love. Unfortunately, it seems all too often that even in the Church people misunderstand what justification is all about.

So what is the Christian understanding of justification? In short, justification is how we are reconciled and placed in a right relationship with God. Despite some historic arguments among theologians about certain nuances of the doctrine of justification, Christians of all stripes recognize that the Holy Scriptures offer one clear answer to the question of how sinners are restored to communion with God. The answer is that our relationship to God is restored by faith in Jesus Christ.

In today’s reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we hear: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ… by works of the Law no one will be justified.” It seems to be a straightforward message. We are restored to communion with God, and we are made right with God by trusting in Jesus Christ to save us. It is something that God does for us when we believe in God’s Son.

The Articles of Religion that are printed in the Book of Common of Prayer beginning on page 867, state this idea in words that Episcopalians have affirmed for centuries: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.”

Despite the clarity of the New Testament and historic Christian theology, our sinful pride often gets the better of us, and we begin to think that we have fellowship with God because we are well behaved and do the right things. We look at our good things, the things we have accomplished in life and the good things we would like to do, and we begin to believe that we are closer to God because of them. We become good people in our own eyes rather than seeing ourselves for what we are, sinners in need of forgiveness. Sometimes, acknowledging our mistakes, we become convinced that if we put in the effort to fix some of our problems, God will love us more. Perhaps the worst version of this bad theology is when people try and fail so much that they start to believe that God could not and would not ever love them or forgive them.

These errors are nothing new. They are simply versions of an old heresy known as Pelagianism, named for the British monk who promoted the idea. Pelagianism is the belief that we can earn favor with God on the basis of our own merits and good behavior. It is an ideology that leads to spiritual pride. The words of the Psalmist “Braggarts cannot stand in [God’s] sight” remind us there is no place for pride or self-righteousness in God’s kingdom. We know that such self-righteousness is wrong because the Scriptures tell us, “By the works of the Law, no one shall be justified.”

The Good News for those who will receive it is that God’s love and mercy for us are not dependent on our good works, our feelings, or our failings. God does not love us more because we give money to the right causes or protest the wrongs of the world. God does not love us less because we as broken creatures keep trying to improve ourselves and we still fall short. God does not justify us because we deserve it – we certainly do not – rather God justifies us because God loves us.

Theologians call this gift of God’s love “grace.” Grace is simply a gift. Grace is wildly gratuitous and undeserved. It is something we have not earned and frankly cannot earn, because, as Paul reminds us, if we as sinners could have earned our justification, Christ would have died for no purpose. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Apostle writes, “By grace you have been saved not by works, and this is so that no one can boast.”

Jesus provides a good example of what justification looks like in today’s Gospel reading. Luke tells us about a dinner party at the house of a very religious man named Simon. Simon apparently believed he was right with God because he was a devoted Pharisee and was therefore different from the common lot of sinners. The Pharisees were known for trying to make themselves holy by following the precepts of the Law and by performing good works. In contrast, by all accounts the woman at the dinner was a sinner. She made no appeal to her righteousness or her good works. Instead, threw herself at Jesus’ feet, seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus forgave her. He told her to go in peace because her faith had saved her. He restored her to communion with the Father, and he justified her because she trusted in him. The woman’s signs of affection were responses to Jesus’ overwhelming love and kindness.

So long as we are convinced of our own righteousness like Simon the Pharisee, we will miss the point of the Gospel, and the point is that God gives us what we cannot earn when we trust in Jesus Christ. He justifies us freely by his grace. Jesus restores our broken relationship with God the Father through the merciful gift of his love.

Upon hearing Jesus’ words to the woman: “Your faith has saved you,” we might ask, “What is faith?” The best answer to that question is that faith is trust. Faith is trust that God truly loves us and wants to forgive us and to restore us to his family. Like the woman who trusted Jesus not to condemn her, we trust that Jesus will not condemn us, and we trust that he will forgive us because he died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us eternal life.

The fruit of God’s gift of justification then is that we have a new life in Jesus Christ. At Holy Baptism when our faith in Christ is proclaimed before the world, God’s love is poured into our hearts in such a way that we can join the Apostle in saying, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no long I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who love me and gave himself for me.” This new life in Christ sets us free from sin and dead works that could never justify us before God. We are now free to know, love, and serve God. Our response to God’s incredible gift should be to share his love and mercy with the whole world. Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 6C.

Written by The Reverend Jack Lynch

The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”. 

Green and Growing, Proper 5 (C) – 2016

[RCL] 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

Today, we continue our journey in “ordinary time.” Sounds rather boring when you say it like that, but the term “ordinary” does not mean common or plain or boring, but rather it comes from the term ordinal which means “numbered.” These are the numbered weeks of the church year outside of the major feasts and the seasons that surround them – like Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter. Ordinary time, or the Sundays after Pentecost, are the Sundays in which we focus on various aspects of faith and life in the world as a people of God.

Sometimes when we refer to this time in the liturgical calendar, it is spoken of as the long, boring season in which nothing happens. In a way that is true because we don’t have a major feast like Christmas or Easter, but if you look at what happens during this ordinary time, you will see that the Scripture and scheme of the lessons want it to be something much more than ordinary and boring.

The color for Ordinary time is green – a color associated with new life and growth. This is sometimes referred to as the “green growing season”. It is the green, growing season not only because of the liturgical color or because it begins in the summer months when things are growing and thriving. It is the green, growing season because this is the season that gives us the room to breathe, to explore, to learn more about Jesus and his teachings and to find where they intersects with our own lives. This season after Pentecost focuses on the mission of the church in the world and its responsibility in carrying on the work that Jesus gave us to do.

Sojourner’s Magazine tells us:

“There’s nothing ordinary about what’s known in the lectionary as ‘ordinary time.’ Not Christmas, not Easter, not Pentecost, but the everyday miracles of God with us, of life on earth. Ordinary time is the time when we try to understand and live the teachings of Jesus. Nothing ordinary about that – a lifetime worth of challenges instead.”[i]

We have a great set of lessons to start off this time of growth, new life, new perspectives and change. The readings for today only come around every so often because of how the liturgical calendar works and I believe that they have a lot to offer us as we begin this journey into ordinary time; into the green, growing time.

In our Gospel lesson today from Luke and in our Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings, we hear of people being healed. These are miraculous stories that are wonderful to hear, and they leave us in amazement. We too often hear stories like these and think that they are great stories, but that they have nothing to do with us. I mean, we can’t raise people from the dead, can we? We cannot simply say that these are inspirational stories and leave it at that. Jesus did not come to earth and become one of us so that we could be inspired, but came to earth as one of us so that we could learn from him and change the world around us into the Kingdom of God. Jesus is constantly reminding the people around him that they are called to live as he lived. It is not only Jesus who is reminding them to live as he lived, but also the Torah called them to follow and live in this way. Thus, we too are called to live as Jesus did.

Our Baptismal Covenant reminds us time and again that we are to live as Jesus did, that we are to be a people of God to everyone around us. It doesn’t matter if we can’t raise people from the dead like he and Elijah did, because we can do other things in this world that are just as important. We are called to be vehicles of God’s grace, love, and peace in the world around us. As we are reminded in our Baptismal Covenant we are to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers, we are to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord, we are to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, we are to seek and serve all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself, we are to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

Our life mission is described in the words of the Baptismal Covenant and we see them being enacted today in the Gospel lesson. Jesus comes upon a woman who is in deep grief over her son’s death, her husband’s death, and the fact that she is alone in the world. He does not pass her by thinking that there is nothing that he can do for her, but rather he stops – he stops the funeral procession – and acts out of compassion. He tells her not to weep, not in the way that someone would tell us to stop weeping if they were uncomfortable with it, but in a way that tells her that he will take care of her and show her great care and compassion. In raising her dead son to life, he completely changes the outlook for this woman. She once again has social standing in the community, she once again has a family, she has what she had lost.

Jesus’ great love for this woman is just a glimpse of the love Jesus has for each of us. After Jesus gives this mother her son, the people say, “God has looked favorably on his people.” Those words are also heard in Mary’s song, the Magnificat and Simeon’s song, the Nunc dimittis. God looks with favor on God’s people. It is all throughout scriptures and it is all throughout our lives. No, our lives are not one happy, hunky-dory moment; but our lives are enriched with those around us and they are brought to fullness and grace through God. Yes, there will be difficulties in our lives, yes we will suffer hardships, there will be war and violence and oppression around us AND it is our duty as people of God to serve in a way, to live in a way as to help stop these horrible things from happening and continuing to happen. God looks with favor on us, God looks with love on us, God looks with grace and unconditional caring upon all of us. It is then our job as people of God to turn and do the same.

There are times in all of our lives when we wonder where God is. How could God be letting this happen? Why didn’t God come and save the day and perform a miracle like it happens in the Bible? Where is God in those moments? God is with us. In our moments of pain and suffering and aloneness, God is there in the people who are around us, God is there in that compassionate card or phone call. God is there in the offerings of help, the hugs, and the people who will sit with us as we journey into the depths of our lives. God does not promise that life will be easy. God does promise to be there and to look with favor on us. God is a God of compassion and caring, of peace and justice, of love and grace. We, by our Baptismal Covenant and through scriptures are called to be conduits of God in the world through are actions, through our words, and through our very being.

The Practice of Prensence, is a book about Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk who lived in the 17th century. People are fascinated, mystified and intrigued by this man because he simply lived every moment with God and lived every moment acting out of God’s presence in his life. He was assigned to work in the kitchen of the monastery, not anything that he was particularly good at, but did it with faithfulness and with a mind toward God. There was not anything that was beneath him because there was no task that was too mundane or routine as each thing was a medium for God’s love. For him, it was not about how sacred or important the task, but more about the motivation behind the task.

As people of God, we are all called to see our tasks as part of our life with God. Mowing the lawn, taking care of our children, driving people to and fro, cleaning, helping, being with others… I could go on and on. Our everyday lives are full of moments with God, it is up to us to remind ourselves and those around us that God is in those moments, just as much as God is in other moments. Who we are, how we act, how we treat others… this is how we are God in the world.

So, in this ordinary time, as we continue to explore where God is calling us to grow, where God is calling us to serve in the world, know that it may be in the everyday, it may simply be in our actions and in our words that we will best serve God. Keep the words of the Baptismal Covenant in mind as a directive and know that God is with you in all that you do.

Download the sermon for Proper 5C.

Written by The Rev. Shannon Ferguson Kelly
The Rev. Shannon Kelly serves as the Missioner for Young Adult and Campus Ministries for The Episcopal Church. She wrote and edited God of My Heart a book of prayers written by youth, for youth. She lives in on Cape Cod with her husband, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Ferguson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, their son, and dog. 


[i] Jim and Shelley Douglass, Sojourners, July 1996.

 

God is Much Bigger, Proper 4 (C) – 2016

[RCL] 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Psalm 96:1-9; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

The Great Fifty Days of Easter have come and gone. We prepared ourselves in Lent for the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. During the Great Fifty Days of Easter we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday where I am sure you learned about the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, here we are, in the season after Pentecost. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling among us. What does that mean to us then?

Today’s scriptures give us some good pointers: Solomon intercedes for the “foreigners”, Jesus is amazed by a centurion’s faith, and Paul is astonished by how fast the early Christians forgot what they were taught.

In today’s Hebrew scripture, we read part of I Kings Chapter 8. In the beginning of chapter eight, which is not included in today’s reading, King Solomon has just finished building the grand temple for God. He “assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites” (I Kings 8: 1a) and prayed to God. The part we read is about Solomon praising God and God’s faithfulness. The reading then jumps from verse 23 to 41. Solomon pledges to God to hear the foreigner who is not God’s people of Israel, to hear this foreigner’s prayers so “that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.” (1Kings 8:43). The missing verses are general prayers for the Israelites. Doesn’t that tell us our care for foreigners is important?

In the Gospel, we have two persons of power. One holds military power, the other spiritual power. The one with military power is desperate because his valued slave is ill. He could have sent his soldiers to take Jesus to go to his place to heal his slave. Nevertheless, he asks Jewish elders instead to invite Jesus to heal his slave. Not only does he choose not to use violence, but he also uses his humility to show forth his trust and faith in Jesus. He has faith in Jesus and lets him know that there is no need for him to go to his humble dwelling, but asks Jesus heal his slave from a distance. Jesus, the spiritual leader is amazed at his faith. Jesus says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” The cultural and class boundaries between these two leaders are brought down. A person is healed.

The scriptures today reminds me of an inspiring, and amazing story I want to share with you about the beginning of a Christian organization in a place where Christianity is not the dominant culture.

In Hong Kong, there is a place called St. James’ Settlement. This settlement is a triad consisting of an Anglican Church, an Anglican school, and community service center. The story of how this place was founded is very inspiring. In 1949, the late Bishop Ronald Hall who oversaw the Anglican Church in Hong Kong saw the need to minister to a group of youth in a small town named Wanchai. The youth were hanging out in this town and had gotten into trouble. There were very limited resources then. He had no place available to gather them. The need was really great. A Taoist Temple in the neighborhood had some rooms that were available for use. He worked with the minister in charge and was able to use a room to gather the youngsters and started the Boys’ and Girls’ Club. By gathering the youth, offering them the love and guidance that was lacking from the families, these youth escaped a downward path into juvenile delinquency. Because of their love of God’s children, two different religious leaders were willing to work together to help the young people. This humble beginning of youth ministry in a Taoist Temple eventually became the triad it is today: a church, a school, and a community service center.

By not confining ministry to one’s religious establishment, and focusing instead on the love of God’s children, a Christian institution was formed with the help of Taoists. Great things have been done. Services have been extended beyond serving youth spiritually and academically to serving the wider needs of the community, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the elderly. The people of Hong Kong certainly know God’s name through this Christian organization.

This is the message of today’s Gospel. Because of the centurion’s love for his slave, who had much lower social status, he is willing to seek help from another leader. Jesus shows us he is not confined to healing only Jewish people, but has compassion for the centurion’s slave.

Due to instability and violence in the Middle East, the United States is experiencing an influx of refugees. However, the fear of terrorists infiltrating our country is so great that people, even Christians, oppose to the humanitarian act of accepting these people.

Saint Paul admonishes the Galatians and says that he is “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…” Jesus has commanded the disciples “to love your neighbors.” What has happened to his teaching? Isn’t this St. Paul’s admonition? We are so quickly deserting the Gospel of Jesus, rejecting the neighbors who are foreigners and in dire situation. Can we learn something from the Centurion and the Taoist minister in Hong Kong?

In this season after Pentecost, we are learning how to apply Jesus’ teaching in our ministries. Fresh into this season, we are shown Solomon’s intercession for foreigners. This is what is expected from us, to love our neighbors even when they are not the same as us. Although they are foreigners, they are faithful like the centurion.

The Guthrie Center in Massachusetts was transformed from a church to a holy space that honors the traditions of many faiths. On the door entering the church, it is written:

One God – Many Forms
One River – Many Streams
One People – Many Faces
One Mother – Many Children

King Solomon has built the house for God, but he asks, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1King 8:27) Let us not confine God to our liking, our church, or our belief. God is much bigger than that. Let us follow Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbors.” Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 4C.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata
The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour (COS), San Gabriel, Diocese of Los Angeles. COS is the oldest Protestant church in San Gabriel Valley. It has become a multicultural congregation in the last few years with English, Cantonese, and English services. Ada is very involved in multicultural ministries, especially Asian Ministry. She served seven years as Convener of Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) and just finished her term. She is the Chair of Chinese Ministry Advisory Committee in Diocese of Los Angeles. She is a member of Multicultural Ministry, Commission on Ministry, Disciplinary Board, and EAM in the diocese. She is also a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, a Chinese Ministry Center of The Episcopal Church; and Bloy House, Episcopal Theological School at Claremont. She recently had visits to Asian Anglican Dioceses accompanying the Rt. Rev. Diane Bruce, Bishop Suffragan of 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.

A Good Mystery, Trinity Sunday (C) – 2016

[RCL] Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15; Psalm 8 or Canticle 13

Many of us love a good mystery. It’s no accident that BBC television manages to churn out series after series of delightfully entertaining mystery programs. Sherlock Holmes is ever popular. Some of us probably have favorite mystery writers whose novels we love to read.

But when it comes to today, Trinity Sunday, it’s not unusual for preachers to note that this is our only liturgical feast day devoted to a doctrine, to a great mystery. Many preachers will then dive into a pithy attempt to explain the mystery of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in five minutes or less. These efforts are rarely successful, and they are often heretical. You see, the Trinity is a rich mystery, and it does not lend itself to bumper-sticker summaries. More to the point, to reduce deep mystery into a size that we can rationally comprehend misses an opportunity to open ourselves up to divine mystery rather than to close down possibilities.

All that said, if you want a manageable introduction to the Holy Trinity on the occasion of this great feast day, the Wikipedia article is actually a pretty good history of the development of the doctrine and a decent explication of our current understanding of it. If that sounds daunting, you can head over to YouTube, and there Lutheran Satire has produced a four-minute video that hilariously shows the pitfalls of simplistic views and then takes us right to the threshold of the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Rather than trying to shrink a vast mystery into a short explanation, it seems better to ask ourselves what the Trinity has to do with us today. How does the Holy Trinity connect to our day-to-day lives? How can we can be drawn more deeply into an unfathomable mystery?

Last Sunday, on the Day of Pentecost, we focused on the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. This theme continues today in our Gospel reading from the sixteenth chapter of John, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Jesus was speaking to his disciples – his close friends – just before his final meal, arrest, and crucifixion. In addition to his promises that we would be raised to new life on the third day, he wanted his followers to know that God would never abandon them, that the Holy Spirit would be their companion and guide forever. He was reassuring them that though they were about to face seemingly insurmountable challenges, God would be with them.

We humans are programmed to look for answers in our own minds. We are trained to rationally define our reality, not to seek deeper reality. We are trained to be leaders, not followers. And Jesus says we don’t need to do any of that. We are freed from the limitation and the tyranny of rationalism. We are freed from the limits of materialism. We are freed from the pressure to act as if we have it all figured out.

Imagine, if you will, a different way of approaching the challenges of our lives. Imagine listening to God, rather than informing God of how we’d like things to work out. Imagine that we come to see that there is a deeper meaning to our reality than material goods and the accumulation of more stuff. Imagine that we can turn to God for guidance when we face difficulty.

Friends, we don’t have to imagine: that is our reality. In the Trinity, we see a God who is with us always, who shows us perfect love, and who never abandons us.

Some years ago, a priest from the US was traveling to another part of the world on a mission trip. There, the priest struck up a conversation with the local Anglican bishop. It turns out that the bishop had visited the US several times and knew The Episcopal Church pretty well. The priest asked the bishop about his perception of The Episcopal Church compared with the local Anglican church. With great gentleness, the bishop replied something like this:

I love your church. The problem is that you have too much. When you have too much, it is easy to forget that you are dependent on God. Here, we do not have enough of many things. Every day, we are reminded that we are utterly dependent on God. This means that we must pray fervently to God every day. We know that we are utterly dependent on God.

The bishop’s point was that comfort breeds complacency. Material abundance makes us think we have our important needs met already. We can then start to think of God as a person on whom we call when we want something. We can forget that God offers us everything, and we are always dependent on God, whether or not we can see this.

In Jesus Christ, we see everything there is to see about God’s love. We see a person who entered our world in the humblest, most ordinary way possible. We see a person who loved everyone and who challenged everyone to be transformed. That’s an important point: Jesus never said to someone he met, “You’re perfect just as you are” but rather invited every person to be transformed by the power of God’s love. Using prayer book language, Jesus invited everyone to “grow into the full stature of Christ.”

In Jesus Christ, we see that God was willing to endure the pain and suffering of our humanity in order that we might see the wide embrace of God’s love for all people. And in Jesus Christ, we see the triumph of God’s love over death itself. We see, in the Resurrection, that God’s love can make us fearless – that we don’t need to be afraid of anything, not even death.

But the mystery of the Holy Trinity pushes us to look further. Last Sunday and today, as we think about the Holy Spirit, we see yet another dimension of God’s love for us.

In the Holy Spirit, God has promised to be with us always, to guide us into all truth. The Holy Spirit’s guidance and love is inseparable from the love of God the Father and from the love of God the Son. The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus, and Jesus and the Father are one. There is a mutual glorification at work, and each person of the Holy Trinity reveals something about the other persons of the Trinity. And that is what can draw us into the heart of God’s eternal love: the Trinity represents how God’s very being is about relationship and love. The Holy Trinity is itself the manifestation of God’s abiding promise to be with us at every turn, through every struggle.

This is Good News in our time. So often our temptation is to tear apart the fabric of society and put others down, but we see in the Holy Trinity a God who unites and glorifies. So often our impulse is to separate ourselves from that which challenges us, but we see in the Holy Trinity a God who is eternally steadfast. So often we limit our reality or our possibilities to what fits into our own finite understanding, but in the Holy Trinity, we see a God who promises to lead us into all truth, into deeper mystery.

Today, let us not try to explain away something that is unfathomable. Instead, let us join heartily in songs of praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And let us give thanks that this Triune God loves us more than we can imagine. Let us give praise for our God’s everlasting presence in our lives in this age and in the age to come. Let us savor a God who offers us the very best mystery of all, a love that is beyond anything we can ask or imagine. Amen.

Download the sermon for Trinity Sunday C.

Written by The Rev. Scott Gunn
The Reverend Canon Scott Gunn is executive director of Forward Movement, a ministry of The Episcopal Church focused on inspiring disciples and empowering evangelists. In his role at Forward Movement, Scott travels across the church speaking about discipleship. He has served as a parish priest in the Diocese of Rhode Island and, prior to that, as a technology leader in non-profit and commercial organizations. Educated at Luther College, Yale Divinity School, and Brown University, Scott lives in Cincinnati with his spouse, the Rev. Canon Sherilyn Pearce, who serves as Canon Pastor at Christ Church Cathedral. Scott is known in the wider church for Lent Madness, the Acts 8 Movement, and as a blogger at www.sevenwholedays.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @scottagunn.

 

Limiting Love, Day of Pentecost (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9; Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, (25-27); Psalm 104:25-35, 37

“Have I been with you all this time, Phillip, and still you do not know me?” This question, asked to Phillip in the Gospel today, jumps out at me, staring my doubt in the face. I would like to think that I know Jesus, that unlike the disciples I would be able to recognize Jesus. That my faith (unlike that of so many others) is unshakeable. This would paint a flattering self-portrait – but it would be one full of pride, arrogance, and denial. In reality, I know that this question is being asked of me – “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me?”

One of my favorite hymns lyrics is – “But we make God’s love too narrow, with false limits of our own”. I think, in part, this is the culprit for why I might not know God, in God’s fullness. I am guilty, of making God small enough to fit into the confines of my life and into the confines of my mind, instead of allowing myself to enter the breadth and depth of God.

In some ways, the Pentecost story of flaming tongues is about this very same breaking down of barriers. God will not be confined by a certain language and so becomes transcendent of it. Suddenly, the words we are using are one and the same. And this is not an erasure – it is not a homogenous system imposed by an empire on another people. Rather, it is a wide-open embrace – God meeting us, exactly where we are.

And in this way that God meets us, language seems particularly significant. We speak of our “mother tongue” not just because language is learned from our parents, but also because there is something about language and the culture it perpetuates that is soul-deep. It connects us to our mothers, and grandmothers – it connects us to our ancestors.

When I was nine years old, we moved from England, my father’s country, to Hawaii, my mother’s. My mom had tried to explain to us for years that we were kanaka maoli, indigenous people, but from an ocean away her words didn’t have meaning to me. I understood myself solely as British – I was in Brighton College, I wore a uniform, I was just like all of the other English children. Shortly after we moved to Hawaii, Leilani, my younger sister, was enrolled in a Hawaiian immersion pre-school. This became a family experience, complete with gardening every Friday, expectations of cleaning the classroom once a month, and Wednesday night language classes.

Sitting in that classroom, on the too-small chairs in the lingering heat of the afternoon sun, I first heard the language of my mother’s people. I heard it all at once, strung together in sentences, vowels cascading over each other in ways that sounded rich and full-bodied. I had only ever heard pieces before – like the drips from a kitchen faucet, and all of a sudden I was swimming in a salty open ocean, not understanding the cool blue water that enveloped me. Something in me was soothed, and at peace. Something in me was connected. Something in me felt like I had finally come home.

This is the way God speaks to us, and longs to have relationship with us. In God’s fullness, we are swimming in an open ocean, connected to something that feels like home. In the ways that are soul-deep, that connect us to who we have been, who we are, and who we will be. In this moment of Pentecost, when tongues of fire appeared over the heads of the disciples, God breaks down the barriers between what is divine and what is worldly, between what is sacred and what is profane, between what is me and what is you.

Suddenly, we can understand each other perfectly. Suddenly, I see you for who you really are, for the perfect image of God in which you are cast and there are no barriers. You are God, and so am I and we are talking to each other, sharing in this transcendence. Because we have allowed God to be big and deep and wide and broad, God is doing a new thing.

“Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me?” I miss God because I do not expect or look for the new things that God does. I do not look for creation anew. I expect to find God in church, maybe, but forget to see the breath of the Divine in the dewy spring grass. Or, I expect to meet God during my daily moment of prayer, maybe, but forget to see Divine fingerprints in the kindness of a stranger. I miss the ways that God is always with me, because I confine God with limits of my own. I stop seeing God travelling with me, because I build walls around where God “should” be. I dictate where I think God “belongs”.

Instead of building up these walls, we are challenged by today’s Gospel lesson to be open to seeing the Beloved in new ways. Jesus asks us to open our eyes wider, and see anew where God is in our lives. In doing so, we must heed Jesus’ advice, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” I find a certain irony in having the lectionary pair together a reading about flaming tongues of fire with a reading that commands us not to be afraid. Sometimes, the new movement of God can be scary. It can be unfamiliar, and it takes us outside of who we think God to be, to open us up to who God is. As our barriers are broken down, we must hold on to the promise of God, “Peace I give to you – my peace I leave with you.” When our barriers and limitations are broken, there will be an element of the unknown. And yet, in this unknown, we will be embraced – swimming in an ocean of God, feeling as if we have finally come home.

Download the sermon for Pentecost C. 

Written by Jazzy Bostock

Jazzy Bostock is a sun-loving, big-dreaming, laugh-adoring, God-praising Native Hawaiian woman, in my first year at seminary. She believes deeply in the power of kindness, compassion, gentleness, and most of all love. Jazzy is grateful for the opportunity God has given her to be here, and for all that God is. Mahalo piha. 

 

The power of God, Pentecost 21, Proper 24 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:27-34 or Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 119:97-104 or 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” — Genesis 32:26

We often hear Jacob’s name in church. He is third in that list of three patriarchs whose names identify the God we are worshipping: “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and sometimes we add “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I like this specificity; it reminds me that no matter how often I mutter, “Oh, God!” in everyday life, addressing nobody in particular, this is the God of our life, faith, and worship. And of the three patriarchs, Jacob is the one whose story reminds me why our ancestors remembered him so often and so vividly that they named themselves in him and for him: Israel, “one who strives with God.”

The Genesis stories about these root ancestors portray them as God’s friends, and like all good friends Abraham and Jacob, particularly, speak boldly and argue with God, not letting God get away with anything. When God and Abraham are looking at the wickedness of the inhabitants of Sodom, Abraham nudges his friend and says, “You are surely not going to destroy the righteous with the wicked, are you?” Persistently, insistently, hopefully, the patriarch will not let God go until God has agreed to change his mind about destroying the city. And here is Jacob, wounded, panting, exhausted after a long night’s wrestling with the mysterious one he is sure is God; persistently, insistently, hopefully he hangs on and cries out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

It seems our ancestors were so impressed by the daring confrontations these patriarchs had with this God, that when they came to polish up the all-important foundational memories and traditions of Moses the Lawgiver, they drew Moses’ character in the same fashion. Not a deferential character, this Moses; he repeatedly, insistently, persistently, hopefully confronted God with the burdens of leading the people of God through the wilderness. Just like Abraham and God surveying the city of Sodom, Moses and God surveyed the sons and daughters of Jacob worshipping a golden calf and Moses insistently, persistently, hopefully refused to let God wipe them off the face of the earth.

These are surprising scenes for us as we look at our own relationships with God, our habits of worship, our attitudes to prayer. We look at the widow in today’s gospel, insistently and hopefully banging on the judge’s door, and we realize she was a pain in the neck and we do not want to be like that. We look at Jacob’s story with even more horror: the man was a liar and a cheat, his life-long modus operandi was to manipulate and make deals, with his brother Esau, his father-in-law Laban, and even here at the ford of the river wrestling with God himself. We surely do not want to appear in the presence of God like that.

Years ago, in a little book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard – herself, at that time, an Episcopalian – mused:

“Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a package tour of the Absolute? … On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church: we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life-preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pews.”
Ms. Dillard was making a different point, but it seems relevant to the discourse of insistent, persistent, loud-mouthed, courageous confrontation with God, full of hope and even certainty. The widow in Luke’s Gospel is like the patriarchs and like Moses: she is very sensible of the conditions she lives in, and of the conditions of God’s power and might. God can be moved to listen, to respond, to care, to act with justice. When we bring our own situations into the voice of prayer – honestly, insistently, persistently, courageously, hopefully – then the conversation with God moves in life-changing ways. So Abram became Abraham, and Jacob became Israel: new names for newness of life. And the woman yelling and knocking at the judge’s door received justice: the transformative gift of salvation for her.

Some parishes are going through something of a crisis at the moment. Vestry members gather in quiet prayer together. They are reasonably well dressed for the most part, though without velvet hats. They recite prayers in soft urgency, and they discuss the issues courteously. But perhaps they should wear crash helmets and yell honestly, insistently, courageously, hopefully – even with certainty – that the power of God to move in life-changing ways might hurt us as it hurt Jacob. For only in such wrestling, sensible of such conditions, can our lives together be preserved. Send up the signal flares!

Amen.

Written by the Rev. Angela V. Askew
The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York. E-mail: aa659@mindspring.com.

What do you think heaven is?, Pentecost 18, Proper 21 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 (Track 2: Amos 6:1a, 4-7 and Psalm 146); 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

What do you think heaven is?

A man told this story of his experience just before his father died. The man and his sister were taking care of their father who was in the last stages of cancer, the man staying with their bed-ridden father during the day and his sister staying with their father through the night.

It had been a hard day. The man and his father had not always gotten along well, and on this particular day his father was especially irritable and giving him a hard time. The man was impatient, waiting for his sister to come for the night shift. He had his coat and shoes on so he could leave as quickly as possible when she arrived. But he heard his father call to him from the other room. He went in, and his father asked, “What do you think happens to us after this life?”

A big question. A serious question. The man didn’t have many words, but he thought he could show his father his answer. He got into the bed and lay down beside his father. He asked him, “Dad, do you love me?”

“You know I love you,” his father said.

The man touched his own chest and then touched his father’s, right above his heart. The man asked, “How much of our ability to love do you think we use during our lives? Ten percent?”

“Fifteen,” said his father.

“Okay,” said the man. “In heaven,” he said, touching his own chest and then his father’s, “100 percent.”

The next day the man got a call from his sister, telling him his father had died, quite peacefully. But before he died, he made a gesture she didn’t understand. Just before he died, he looked at her, and he touched his chest – his heart – and then reached up and touched hers.

In heaven, 100 percent: true connectedness, true love, right relationship, no chasms between us.

We were made for relationship. We were made to be in right relationship with God and one another, 100 percent. But we don’t live that way. We always have a relationship with something else, something that takes up part of that heart space so we don’t use all 100 percent for loving God and loving our neighbor. Sometimes that something is money or seeking our own comfort over the needs of others.

In our reading today from 1 Timothy, Paul exhorts the faithful not to get too close to the uncertainty of riches, but instead draw close to “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” If you live in right relationship with God, it will show in this way, says Paul: doing good, being rich in good works, being generous and ready to share. And living this way will allow us to “take hold of the life that really is life.” Not the appearance of life – what this world trumpets as the good life – material comforts – but the life that really is life, the abundance that comes from living heart to heart, 100 percent now.

The story Jesus tells in the gospel could be an elaboration on this reading. It is easy to talk about righteousness in general, as a concept, in the abstract. It is quite another matter to deal with it in the particular.

“Poverty” doesn’t lie outside the rich man’s gate; a poor, starving human being does. He is covered with sores, willing to eat scraps; a man, with a name: Lazarus.

The rich man, although his sumptuous lifestyle would have him deny it, has a need too. The rich man needs to serve Lazarus as a brother. Together they could help each other experience “the life that really is life.” But during this life, the rich man does not notice Lazarus, much less care for him. It’s as if Lazarus doesn’t exist for him. A great chasm separates the two men, a chasm of the rich man’s making.

The scene shifts to heaven. All is reversed. Lazarus is content. The rich man is in torment. The rich man longs for even a drop of water to cool the tongue that had tasted so many pleasing foods during his life.

And yet, the rich man still does not care about Lazarus. In his torment, he wants to use Lazarus as a servant. “Send him to put a drop of water to cool my tongue,” he asks.

“No,” says Abraham. The chasm between you that you dug during your life has become impassable. The gulf by which you were comforted in life has become un-crossable.

The truth of this parable is that the rich man needs Lazarus as much as Lazarus needs the rich man. The independence that riches seem to bring is only an illusion. The rich man thinks he can afford not to see Lazarus lying outside his gate. The rich man lives under the illusion that we are islands, contrary to John Donne’s wisdom, entire of ourselves. We are separated by gulfs, and we can only build so many bridges. The rich man lives with the illusion that we are intrinsically separate beings, our own possessions, and that to be responsible only for ourselves is enough.

Like Cain in Genesis, the rich man shrugs, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” assuming it is a rhetorical question, not dreaming that the answer may be “yes.” Yes, you are responsible, and your choices – to see, to notice, to serve, to love, or not – matter.

Perhaps for the rich man the gulf between himself and the beggar with his sores brings him a sense of safety. Perhaps he feels there is little he can do, little difference he can make. Perhaps he sees the gulf as a necessary evil. Perhaps the rich man is afraid of really being seen – of being revealed as inept or powerless or empty despite his material success.

Jesus’ parable points to something better for us, something better and more real – the reality that we were created not to be alone, but to be loved; not to be users of one another, but to be partners in the world. We were created not to dig chasms and let gulfs separate us, but to build bridges.

Who are we in this parable? We are not Lazarus, although we may be longing for something. We are not the rich man, although we may have more than we need of material possessions. We are the five brothers, the brothers and sisters of the rich man, still living, whom the rich man wishes to warn, to save from the torment of being on one side of a chasm; the torment of being separated from God; the torment of being able to envision only using people, not loving them, and ignoring the poor, not serving them. We are the five brothers, in danger of waiting for some spectacular sign from God before we will take the message seriously.

No, says Abraham, you have all the sign you need.

And we do. We have the Word, we have the prophets, we even have a man risen from the dead.

All of us have someone sitting by our gates – someone who gives us the opportunity to fulfill the promises of our baptismal covenant, promises to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every person. We have a choice: to build bridges or dig chasms. And we can choose to use 100 percent of our capacity to love now and not wait for heaven.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter
The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland, along with her husband, associate, and fellow Sermons That Work contributing writer, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano.