The Penultimate – Proper 28(C)

[RCL] Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

There are some words that just sound good, that are attractive all by themselves. A great example, which the Gospel reading especially brought to mind, is ‘penultimate’. It’s a fine old Latin word that means ‘next to the last’. Not the last, not the ultimate, but next to that, before that. The penultimate things are not the ultimate things, but the things that are a step down from them, things come before them.

Penultimate is a great word to hear and ponder as we listen to these wonderful Biblical stories about the end of all things, about “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” and the day of the Lord burning like an oven, and how not one stone will be left upon another. We always hear stuff like this as we get close to Advent; it’s good for us, and these saying are really all about that little word.

Let’s start with the temple in Jerusalem. In the first century, the temple was absolutely the center of Jewish religion, history, culture, civilization and civic pride. It was a beautiful temple, one of the best in the region. Solomon himself had designed it, and King Herod had recently completely renovated it—making it quite a bit bigger and a whole lot more elaborate. In its thousand-year history, the Temple had never been as glorious, as extensive, or as popular as it was when Jesus and his disciples visited. In fact, it may have been the largest man-made structure in the world at that time. It was certainly seen as the ultimate thing in Israel—and as central, indeed indispensable, to the plan of God and the fate of the nation.

When Jesus and his disciples visited the temple for the first time, the disciples were like a bunch of strangers in the big city, staring around with their jaws hanging open, pointing at everything and saying “wow” a lot. Jesus isn’t quite as impressed, and he says two things about the Temple.

First, he predicts, quite correctly, that the Temple would soon be completely destroyed—that not one stone would be left upon another – which is exactly that the Romans did about 35 years later, after an unsuccessful Jewish rebellion.

That’s the first thing Jesus says. The second is more subtle. As he predicts the destruction of the temple, and the chaos that goes with it, Jesus also says, (again quite correctly) “the end will not follow immediately.” The temple will crumble, there will be problems, but things will go on pretty much as before. There will still be much to do. There will be people to help, and evil to resist, and prayers to say – just like before the Temple was destroyed. So, the temple falls, but “the end will not follow immediately”.

That must have been a hard thing to hear. It was almost impossible for anyone in Israel to imagine the destruction of the temple. What would be even harder to imagine was the destruction of the temple and the rest of the whole world not coming to an end right then. After all, everyone knew that the Temple was the ultimate thing, the final thing: if it went, everything else was sure to go, too.

But that was wrong. The Temple was not the ultimate thing after all, it was only one of the penultimate things, something that was next door to ultimate, maybe, but that’s all.

All of creation did not hang on it. The main thing, the one truly important and indispensable thing, is God, and what God is up to. Everything else is penultimate.

Everything else takes a back seat. Everything else can—and will—crumble to dust. Anything else can, and will, crumble to dust. The fate of creation hangs on none of them. Who God is and what God is up to – this is what abides, this is the main thing. This alone is ultimate.

It can be difficult to remember this. When the Temple actually fell, (and the world did not end) the fledgling Christian church in Jerusalem (as well as many Jewish groups) faced a huge crisis of faith.

Lots of people then simply could not separate what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to them from what was most important and most valuable and most immediate to God. For many, the Temple’s fall was devastating, and seemed to prove God false. They had confused the ultimate with the penultimate.

And something very much like that is still with us. We all have our temples, our penultimates. We all have our own ideas of what is indispensable to creation – these may be personal things, or religious things, or social things, or cultural things, or election results, things we cannot conceive being otherwise, or doing differently, or losing – things we cannot imagine that either we or the world or God could ever live without.

So, every now and then, we need to be reminded that these things are not quite ultimate.

It’s very important to be able to make this distinction—to be able to realize that our special concern, our pet project, our current passion, is not really the same thing as the kingdom of God, or the will of God. This whole business of the last things, the end of the world, all of that is here to remind us that our stuff, no matter how important it may be, our stuff is not ultimate. It will all pass away. Remember that word…penultimate.

Instead, it is who God is and what God is doing, right now among us, that is of ultimate importance. Nothing else matters nearly as much, nothing else will matter for so long. The point is not to hang on  tight to what we have. The point is to keep our eyes and hearts open, and our hands busy at what we need to be about.

Written by The Reverend James Liggett. Liggett recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. 

Download the sermon for Proper 28(C).

The Test of all Happiness is Gratitude, Proper 23(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Gratitude has become something of a hot topic among psychologists recently. And what is really interesting is that the research is showing is that gratitude is good for you. It seems as though gratitude has a number of positive benefits and it correlates with higher levels of well-being and health. Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress. Gratitude often nurtures generalized compassion and altruistic behavior in people. And there is even some evidence based on studies using state of the art monitoring techniques that gratitude is good for your heart.

Pretty interesting stuff! We have some scientific evidence which shows that gratitude and the practice of gratitude has positive benefits. But as Dr. Robert Emmons notes in “Why Gratitude is Good” grateful people do not take a Pollyannaish view of the world. He says, “This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.” Gratitude helps us to acknowledge in the midst of our complex lives, the many gifts, large and small, that have been given to us by others and by God. Dr. Emmons and others are showing that grateful people and people who cultivate the practice of gratitude are leading happier and healthier lives.

Perhaps what we are getting is some empirical verification for what philosophers and religious teachers have been telling us for some time. Cicero said, “There is no quality I would rather have, and be thought to have, than gratitude. For it is not only the greatest virtue, but is the mother of all the rest.” Meister Eckhart famously said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” And G. K. Chesterton said, “The test of all happiness is gratitude.”

In our gospel lesson for today, we have a story of gratitude found in an unlikely person in an unlikely place. It is the healing of the ten lepers, and in Jesus’ day lepers were quite literally cut off from the community because of their physical illness. It was a condition that was met with fear and ignorance. The leper was to be removed from sight and isolated from all communal and religious contact. In Leviticus, the law says, “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn cloths and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” Disease and isolation are multiple illnesses.

While Jesus is traveling through Samaria and Galilee on the way to Jerusalem, a group of ten lepers draws near, but they are also careful not to get too close. They drew near out of their need; they keep their distance because of their disease. Their illness creates a barrier between them and others, between themselves and the community. But notice that in the presence of Jesus, the lepers do not cry out “Unclean, unclean.” Rather, they cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Out of the pain of their disease and the depths of their isolation, they cry out to the Lord to have mercy on them.

And he does. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priest as the law requires when someone is healed. And as they go, they are made clean. Restored to health, they will also be restored to the community. No more wearing torn cloths: tattered garments on a tattered body. No more long hair hanging over their blotched and blemished faces. No more yelling out “Unclean, unclean” from covered lips. No more dwelling alone outside the camp.

But a funny thing happens on the way to see the priests. One of the lepers who was healed turns back and praises God. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and he thanks him. And the surprise ending of this story is that the one who praises God and gives thanks for his healing is a Samaritan. He was not only physically ill, but also a social outcast and a religious heretic. The one isolated not only by illness, but also by his culture and religion turns back and gives praise to God. We are not told why the other lepers who had been healed did not turn back.

For some gratitude seems more like a vice than a virtue. It seems to express a sense of neediness and dependence that many would rather not acknowledge or if they do acknowledge it they resent it. But gratitude was a highly esteemed virtue in Judaism. We get a sense of this from the Nishmat, a prayer recited in the Sabbath morning service: “Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, Ha Shem our God and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us.”

It is somewhat ironic then, that it is only the foreigner who returns and gives thanks and praise to God. In the return of the Samaritan leper, we have a story that is not just about physical healing. It is a story about the healing of all those things that keep us separated from each other and exiled from God. Out of our pain, out of our isolation, out of our despair we cry out across the abyss, “Lord, have mercy on us.” In the presence of Christ, in the nearness of the Lord, we are healed, made whole, restored to our community and reconciled to God.

Our earthly lives are a journey, somewhere between Samaria and Galilee, between illness and health, between exile and return. We are all traveling along the way. Because of the frailty of our bodies we will all succumb to illness at some point in our lives. Because of the devices and desires of the human heart, we will all suffer from the fear and distrust that separates us from our neighbors and from God. But rather than remaining within the darkness of our despair and keeping ourselves at a great distance from others, our Lord bids us draw near, even as he draws near. He awaits our cry for mercy and he responds by making us whole, by restoring us to life with others and by reconciling us with God. And he keeps scanning the horizon, looking for the other people whom he has already healed, who will realize one day that they too are already forgiven, that they too are already being made whole, who will return to him, and give thanks and praise to God.

In his memoire, All I Could Never Be, Beverly Nichols, recalls an experience of gratitude in his garden. He says, “It was inevitable, I suppose, that in the garden I should begin, at long last, to ask myself what lay behind all this beauty. When guests were gone and I had the flowers all to myself, I was so happy that I wondered why at the same time I was haunted by a sense of emptiness. It was as though I wanted to thank somebody, but had nobody to thank; which is another way of saying that I felt the need for worship. That is, perhaps, the kindliest way in which a person may come to his or her God. There is an interminable literature on the origins of the religious impulse, but to me it is simpler than that. It is summed up in the image of a person at sundown, watching the crimson flowering of the sky and saying–to somebody—‘Thank you.’”

Saying thank you may be at the origins of religion. Studies show that it may also be good for you.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. Dr. Pagano’s ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. Dr. Pagano’s gifts for preaching, teaching, and care are all grounded in joyful and grateful service to God, to the Church, and to the world. Dr. Pagano received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.  

Download the sermon for Proper 23(C).

An Act of Love, Proper 22(C)

[RCL] Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10 

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” This is according to G.K. Chesterton, who found Christians, including himself, did not put their faith into action. But even the curmudgeon Chesterton would agree there was a notable exception.

Francis of Assisi, the saint who launched a million birdbaths, hundreds of thousands of statues, and the occasional service of Blessing of the Animals was, for Chesterton, the one Christian who actually lived the Gospel.

Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant and as such part of the new Italian middle class that was coming into its own. His father’s wealth and Francis’ own natural charisma made the young man a leader of the youth of his town. Francis gained a rock-star like following by the early 1200’s. He remains famous today not because of his own words and actions so much as because his words and actions conformed so closely to those of Jesus.

As a boy Francis dreamed of earning glory in battle. He got his chance at an early age when he enlisted, along with the other young men of Assisi to fight in a feud against a neighboring city-state. Assisi lost the battle and Francis was imprisoned for a time. Defeat in battle and serious illness in prison caused Francis to turn away from his visions of glory on the battlefield.

Francis’ path toward God took a series of turns closer and closer to God, rather than an all at once conversion. However, the course of Francis’ life was profoundly changed by at least two formative experiences. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis saw a beggar outside of St. Peter’s Church. The Holy Spirit moved Francesco to trade places with the beggar. Francis exchanged clothes with a beggar and then spent the day begging for alms. That experience of being poor shook Francis to the core.

Later he confronted his own fears of leprosy by hugging a leper. Like trading places with the beggar in Rome, hugging a leper left a deep mark on Francis. Shaped by his experiences with the beggar and the leper, he had a strong identification with the poor. Francis cut himself off from the opulent lifestyle of his father and sought out a radically simple life.

By the time of his death, the love of God had compelled Francis to accomplish much toward rebuilding the church. He could look on thousands of lives transformed by his call for repentance and simplicity of life. Yet, Francis of Assisi was simply a man transformed by the love of God and the joy that flowed from a deep understanding of all that God has done for us.

Francis approach to his life of Christian service fits with Jesus words to us in today’s Gospel reading when tells those who follow him that they are to serve with no thought to reward. Jesus said, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink?” Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”

So when you come in from doing something for God, don’t expect a reward, only more work. It’s a wonder the crowds followed Jesus at all. But what exactly is the work of God? In what way are we to serve him? We have the example of Francis, to add to that of Jesus’ own life and ministry. Yet, how can we in our own time and place attempt to live more fully into the Gospel?

First, there is no getting around the fact that the Bible knows nothing of professional clergy serving a congregation. The Bible teaches that all Christians are ministers of the Bible by virtue of their baptism. Then as ministers, each of us has a wide variety of jobs to do in the kingdom of God based on the gifts God has given us. While congregations benefit from the ministry of priests and deacons, the real work of the church happens when the people in the pews live out their faith in their day to day lives. This includes many thankless tasks, showing love and mercy in even small ways and even if no one notices.

You know how thankless these tasks are because you have the same issue at home. Do you get thanked every time you do the dishes? Or cut the grass? Or wash the laundry? Or make your bed? Or do your homework? Probably not. But permit time to pass without doing the dishes, cutting the grassing, washing the laundry, making your bed or doing your homework and you are sure to hear about it. These are thankless tasks and you take them on with no thought to getting praise for doing them.

Notice that in this Gospel reading, Jesus tells of the servant who does what he or she is supposed to do in response to the disciples asking for more faith. First he tells them the parable of the mustard seed and how the tiniest amount of faith is enough to accomplish great things for God. Then he goes on to describe the thankless task of serving God his Father. It is in serving God that we find our faith strengthened.

We are not to serve others for the thanks we get. We are to serve others as serving Jesus, because that is the life God calls us to, knowing that we will benefit more than the people we help. We will benefit in increased faith and increased love. Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to trust that he could hug a leper, though he was terribly afraid. In the process, he found the faith to work among lepers. And so, again and again, his steps of faith emboldened Francis to trust God more. It is the same for us. Each step of faith strengthens our trust in God to follow even more boldly.

To come back around to G.K. Chesterton, he advised, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” That was Francis, living out a love affair with God. When it is me and you living into the love of God, then Christianity will have been tried and not found wanting, nor will it be a series of thankless tasks.

Walking the life of faith then is not done in search of thanks or praise, but is simply an act of love. Then you and I can join Francis in saying that we are merely servants doing what we were called to do. We call ourselves servants knowing that what we do, we do for love, for the one who knows us fully and loves us more than we could ever ask for or imagine.

Frank Logue is the Canon to the ordinary of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia. He serves on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Proper 22(C).

What Separates Us From Each Other and From God? Proper 21(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

From the earliest of times people have told stories about the wicked getting their come-uppance. It’s rooted in the now-popular belief in karma, although the idea of revenge, implicit in the way many now use the term isn’t quite what it means in Eastern religions.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not about ultimate revenge. I hope that’s not too disappointing. It’s more a case of “you just don’t get it do you?”

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a novel about a rich cotton mill owner in Victorian England, or more precisely the north of England. The name given to the ‘fictional’ city where the mill operates is a disguise for Manchester, perhaps the center of industrial growth and the exploitation of cheap labor before laws were introduced to protect working class people and banning child labor. The book was adapted for television by the BBC and shown in America on PBS.

At the heart of the story is the inability of the young mill owner and his hard mother to see beyond profit. The workers are a commodity. Their suffering is irrelevant. They are only visible when they make a nuisance of themselves: when they strike.

Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, although some authorities think his audience had changed and that he was talking to a group that didn’t believe in eternal life, except in the form of Sheol, a shadowlands for the dead. They were called Sadducees and numbered in their ranks the ruling classes and the wealthy merchants. He re-tells a popular story of a rich man and a beggar. The picture Jesus paints vividly is one his audience immediately recognized. They lived in a culture where rich and poor lived in close proximity to each other, where beggars were part of the scenery as were stray dogs. Both beggars and dogs were held in contempt. Beggars were thought to be those abandoned by their families, or who were suffering for the sins of their parents or even great-grandparents. Dogs were regarded as slightly domesticated vermin.

The rich man was clothed in purple clothes. No cloth was more expensive than that dyed purple. Purple dye was only affordable by the very rich or by Roman officials and patricians. You may remember Lydia, the seller of purple, who befriended St. Paul? The rich man dined sumptuously, just as centuries later mill owners dressed fashionably and had tables, copied from those of the aristocracy, groaning with food, while their workers could scarcely prevent their children starving.

Lazarus lay at the entrance to the rich man’s house. He was covered in sores; sores that even the dogs wouldn’t lick. Did he have leprosy, the most feared disease of the ancient world? Dogs love to lick scratches and wounds, but not these. Like the Lebanese woman in another incident, he wanted to “gather up the crumbs under the table.” The rich man swept past this grotesque “scum of the earth” until one day Lazarus was gone; he was dead.

The story now takes as unexpected turn. The rich man in Sheol is tormented by flames. At first his thoughts are still of himself. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to give him a sip of water. Lazarus is still an object, perhaps no longer a beggar but still a servant. Abraham replies that a great gap now prevents the rich man from communicating with his people, the Chosen People, and those numbered among the chosen can’t reach towards those in Sheol. A new barrier has been erected. No longer is it between the rich and the destitute, but now between those chosen by God and those who have rejected that calling by rejecting someone, who despite his abject poverty, was a fellow Jew.

The story twists again: “`Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Now an added layer is added to the story. It’s still about the blindness of the rich to those whose lives depend on the work they provide or the charity they exhibit. The Rich Man suddenly becomes rebellious Israel, a people who have disobeyed God’s laws, refused the vocation to which they have been called, and wouldn’t change their ways even if a prophet rose from the dead. Here Jesus may have meant that they wouldn’t believe even if Abraham or Moses, or Amos or Hosea rose from the dead. In retrospect we identify the resurrection of Jesus with these words.

What are we to learn from Jesus’s story? Beware of gulfs. Beware of being so impressed with your own views, your own possessions, you own intelligence, that you can’t be reached by love and in particular, God’s love. Be careful about that sort of self-justification that thoroughly separates us from God and each other, so that another or others become invisible and in your eyes, die. Note, we may think we have good reason for separating ourselves.

The Rich Man may have told himself that Lazarus was undeserving. The mill owner thought that profit was essential for the economy, for his business and for the workers. We may think we have good reason for creating space between ourselves and those who would take advantage of us, or whose views are abhorrent to us, as well as the more obvious candidates, those people who don’t look like me, sound like me, vote like me, and perhaps worship like me.

However, are we incapable of resisting creating “great gulfs” or walls because we resist believing the one who rose from the dead?

Perhaps our unbelief is nuanced. Perhaps we deploy that ancient sentence, “Well, that’s all right in theory but it doesn’t work in practice: it’s all wonderfully lovely. I only wish it worked.”

The road to Sheol is paved with nuanced intentions.

Written by The Rev. Anthony Clavier. Clavier is Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City, IL.

Download the sermon for Proper 21(C).

God is Good, All the Time, Proper 20(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

There is a wonderful scene in C.S. Lewis’s famous novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Lucy, the youngest the children to cross into the magical world of Narnia, converses with Mr. Beaver. In this magical land of talking animals and evil queens, Lucy feels both wonder and fear after hearing about Aslan, the original Lion King, who rules over the lands of Narnia. Lucy inquires of Mr. Beaver, “Is he quite safe?” to which the industrious rodent replies with an air of indignation “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good.”

Much like Lucy wants to know that the ruler of her mystical realm of Narnia is safe, we want our God and our faith to be safe and comforting, making no great demands of our time or treasure. But if we pay close attention to our Gospel for today, we quickly realize that Jesus is far from safe, but is always good and full of surprises.

Jesus had been traveling around Jerusalem, preaching God’s realm, healing the sick, curing the infirm, raising the dead, and generally stepping on the toes of the good religious leaders around Jerusalem. The Scribes and Pharisees grumbled about his dinner companions being less that savory characters, but instead of answering their criticism Jesus told a series of Parables:

A man had one hundred sheep. One wondered off, got itself lost and the man, leaving the ninety-nine hunts high and low for the lost sheep. When he finds the sheep, he gathers his friends and rejoices. God is not safe, but is always good and seeks us even when we wander.

A woman had ten silver coins. One mysteriously disappears, so she lights a lamp and turns her house upside down until she finds it. When she finds the coin she throws a party with all her friends, costing more than the coin’s worth. God is not safe, but is always good and finds a reason to celebrate.

A father had two sons. One demands his inheritance while his father is still very much alive, runs off to the city and squanders his money. Realizing the error in his ways, he heads home. His father seeing him far off welcomes him home and throws a party to celebrate the miraculous return of his presumed dead son. But his older brother, faithful, generous, and devout wanted none of it. “This son of mine that was dead is now alive, the one who was lost is now found,” says the father. God is not safe, but is always good and forgives even when we cannot.

A dishonest manager is about to be fired for misappropriation of company funds. Because he doesn’t want to do manual labor and is too proud to ask for charity, he goes around to all the vendors who owe his employer money and reduces his portion of their commission and cuts their interest rates. He does this so that they would be hospitable to him when he loses his job. He transforms a terrible situation into one that benefits him and others. In doing this, he actually builds relationships with the vendors instead of simply collecting bills and commissions. Surprisingly the employer commends the manager for his shrewdness, his initiative and his wisdom in business. God is not safe, but is always good, full of surprises and turns our world upside-down.

This is not what many of the religious people of Jesus’ day signed up for and neither did we. We want a God who is just and fair. We want a God who is predictable and follows the rule of law. But instead, what Jesus points to is the realm of a God who seeks the wanderer, celebrates the lost, forgives the proud and repairs broken relationships. This is a God who is certainly not safe but is always good.

Throughout the Bible, and particularly in today’s Gospel about the shrewd steward, we are confronted with a God who takes our norms, our expectations, our perceptions and our preconceived notions and turn them on their heads. Jesus praises the manager’s insanely irresponsible behavior and exhorts us to act more like the manager!

Can you imagine if we, as a church, followed that advice? Can you imagine if we imitated God’s goodness instead of being safe?

  • What if, as a community of faith, we chose to offer forgiveness, love, and welcome to anyone without conditions or requirements?
  • What if we welcomed everyone to feed from the richness of Christ’s table?
  • What if we shared the joy of our worship, fellowship, and companionship outside the walls of our church?
  • What if we became agents of love and mercy in our community?
  • What if we lived as people of resurrection in a Good Friday world?  
  • What if we stopped worrying about what is safe and started doing what is good?

How would our church be different? How would our worship be different? How would our relationships be different?

Jesus invited his hearers to step out in faith and to see an outrageously generous God squander that generosity on each and every one of us. Are we not called to do the same? It will certainly not be safe, but is good and God is good!

As followers of Jesus this is the God we proclaim.

We proclaim a God who is always ready to overturn our understandings and widen our circles. Our society often prizes safety over welcome, fear over compassion, division over unity. We are sometimes too often willing to sacrifice love, compassion, and caring on the altar of safety. But God insistently and consistently points towards the good, and good is not always safe.

Jesus in his life and ministry chose always to do the good at the risk of being safe.

  • Safe says, “Stick to what you know.” Good replies, “Put out into deep waters. Imagine the possibilities.”
  • Safe says, “Follow the rule of law.” Good replies, “Seek compassion and mercy.”
  • Safe says, “Keep score. Hold grudges.” Good replies, “Love your neighbor. Forgive.”
  • Safe says, “Worry about yourself” Good replies, “Consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air.”
  • Safe says, “Take care of our own.” Good replies, “Just as you do to the least of these you do to me.”
  • Safe says, “Come down and we will believe.” Good replies, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”
  • Safe says, “King of the Jews.” Good whispers, “Resurrection!”
  • Safe is tempting, but good is eternal.

The Good News for us is that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus the good-doer. Those footsteps may lead us to places we may never dream or imagine we would go, but we go risking and knowing that God always walks with us, always forgives us, always love us.

God is good, all the time.

All the time, God is good!

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Deon Johnson. Johnson has served as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton MI for the last nine years. A liturgical consultant, Johnson specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time, he enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.  

Download the sermon for Proper 20(C)..

Will you seek God today? Proper 19(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Will you seek God today?

The quote “What you seek is seeking you,” made popular by a 13th-century Sufi mystic and theologian, holds true in our relationship with our Creator God. There is something in all of us that innately seeks out our Creator, just as the Creator seeks us.  Since the beginning of time God has revealed God-self as One who is seeking communion with God’s children.

In the creation story in the garden of Eden we read about God walking beneath the trees seeking out Adam. ‘They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day… Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ (Gen 3:8-9). It’s hard to believe that an all-knowing God did not know where Adam was to be found. But in God’s searching and seeking, in asking “where are you?” it had nothing to do with the physical location, but perhaps more of Adam’s spiritual location.

In this creation story and all throughout scripture we find God seeking man. Luke 15:1-10 teaches us about the joy God gets, when what God seeks is found.

In the parable of the lost sheep the tendencies of sheep to wander off to “greener grass” leads to its separation from the flock and its shepherd.  As it is with humans we stray and wander away from our Creator’s guidance and direction thinking we can do it on our own or that it’s by our own strength and wisdom we are able to navigate this journey.

The story is told about sheep in the Highlands of Scotland and how they often wander off into the rocks and get into places that they cannot get out of, just to get to sweeter grass. But in jumping down ten or twelve feet for sweet grass they were unable to jump back up. After a couple days and eating all the grass, the shepherd would hear them bleating in distress and in those moments of distressed bleating the sheep is seeking the shepherd. The shepherd knowing it’s sheep the best, will wait until each animal was faint before pulling them out.

The story continues, proving that the shepherd is being strategic in the saving the sheep because if the sheep aren’t faint the likelihood of them jolting over the precipice when the attempt to save them is made, causing them to jumping to their death is extremely high.

Perhaps some believe God deals with them in a similar fashion, waiting until we are faint, down, and out before intervening. Like the good shepherd however, God is always strategic in God’s seeking of us and God is always working in our best interest.

The shepherd knows that if the sheep are separated from the flock and the shepherd both parties aren’t whole and can’t operate as they are meant too.

As it is when we are separated from right relationship with God, we aren’t operating in our true, full purpose. That is why God seeks us to be in right relationship and delights in restoration. This seeking is not just for the lost, but for every child of God wherever we find ourselves.

All over scripture we read of God seeking God’s children. In John 4:23, God is seeking “true worshipers that will worship God in spirit and truth.” In Psalm 14:2, the psalmist pens that “The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.” And 2 Chr 16:9 says likewise “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the entire earth, to strengthen those whose heart is true to him.” And in the gospel from Luke 15 we find God giving us a clear view into God’s heart and God’s intentions by comparing God-self with a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to seek the one lost (Luke 15:4-7), and with a woman combing through her entire house on the search for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).

Throughout Scripture we encounter a God who is on a mission, a seeking God, seeking God’s children. A God who is all powerful, omnipresent, and self-reliant. A God who knows all and sees all. A God who parts water and who’s voice the wind obeys, that same God seeks us all, and rejoices when we are found in God. Because we are precious and prized and the One who created us, sees us as rare and our value countless.

And the seeking goes both ways. “What you seek, seeks you.” Just as the sheep seeks the shepherd for help, and the coin reflects the light waiting to be found, something innately in us wants to be found by our Creator God to the point where we cry out like David to “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Ps 51:11). A right spirit to be in right relationship with God.

In Psalm 51 David is honest and upfront about his wrong doings. He realizes that they separate him for God, and accepts full responsibility “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” David sets a great example for us to mirror. An example that shows us that repentance is the first step to restoring and renewing our relationship with God “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” David is appealing to the essence of God’s character. He’s appealing to God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy, rather than what he thinks he deserves or earned.

In Psalm 51 David models how we too can pray when we are seeking God’s cleansing and forgiveness from our transgressions, iniquities, and sins. Our sins separate us from God, but when we confess them, God is gracious and forgives us.

So no matter how far we wander away from God. No matter how far we fall. God still loves us, pursues us and seeks us. Hebrews 13 reminds us that God has promised to never leave us, nor forsake us.

God has made this evident is sacrificing Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins and sending us the Comforter – the Holy Spirit.

God never gives up on us. God never lets go of us. God is seeking us daily.

Will you seek God today?

Amen

Written by The Rev. Arlette Benoit. Benoit is a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned her Masters in Divinity with a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. Benoit was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013 in the Diocese of Atlanta. While at seminary Benoit interned with The Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries. She continues to be involved with the Office of Black Ministries, and assist and provides consultation for the planning of the S.O.U.L (Spiritual Opportunity to Unity and Learn) Conferences for youth and young adults, in addition to working with a team of clergy and lay leaders to develop The Rising Stars (RISE) Experience — a new initiative aimed at countering the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” where children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Benoit was also recently appointed to serve as a Youth Ministry Liaison for the Office of Youth Ministries representing Province Four of The Episcopal Church. She has also served as seminarian at Trinity Wall Street and St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf during her time in New York City. Benoit now serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Atlanta GA, as Associate to the Rector.

Download the sermon for Proper 19(C).

What is God Calling You to Love? Proper 18 (C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

It’s not every day that we read an entire book of the Bible in church. Well, today is no different, but we do come awfully close to reading an entire book from the New Testament.

The book we read, almost in entirety, is Philemon. You may have never heard of it. It only makes an appearance in our calendar of readings once every three years, and that is usually around Labor Day; so if you have missed church that weekend, there is a very good chance you may have never read Philemon. It’s a shame because this little book packs a real punch that we, the Church, needs to hear.

First a little background: Philemon is among the shortest books of the Bible. The letters of first, second, and third John are a bit shorter; but Philemon is number four in the shortest book of the Bible category. It is one of the letters of Paul who wrote most of the New Testament.

Philemon is unique among Paul’s letters because it is written to an individual. In most of Paul’s letters he is writing to a community, a church, like the churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, and Philippi. But Philemon is written to an individual, Philemon by name, as it turns out!

So what we have in Philemon, as we have in all of Paul’s letters, is one side of a conversation. Paul’s letters are a little like overhearing a person’s cell phone call: we hear one side, and we can make out the main point of the conversation but we don’t know what the other one is saying, and we also don’t know why the call was made in the first place.

The letter to Philemon is a mystery, but we can learn a lot with a careful reading. First we see that Paul is writing to someone he knows and loves, Philemon. And not only that, Philemon has a church in his home. This is what the church looked like in the first several generations of the church, believers would gather in house churches. This model of meeting in homes is still practiced widely, especially in places where the church is under oppression and persecution as it was in the Roman Empire.

Since Philemon had a house we might surmise that he was wealthy. As we read along we learn that Philemon actually is quite wealthy because he owned a slave. That slave’s name is Onesimus (O-Nee-si-mus). At one point Paul says to Philemon, the slave owner, that he knows that Onesimus is useless to him. That’s actually something of a cruel joke because the word for useless in Greek sounds a lot like the name Onesimus. Paul likely might be chiding the Christian Philemon for considering and even calling his slave useless.

How Onesimus, the slave, got to Paul is something of a mystery. Paul says that he is imprisoned for the gospel. This is not a metaphor. Paul was imprisoned many times for preaching the improbable and, at that time, illegal gospel of Jesus Christ.

Historians have supposed three possible scenarios: the first is that Philemon, the Christian slave owner, has sent his slave Onesimus to Paul who is in prison, possibly in Rome. Perhaps Philemon sent greetings or supplies.

Another scenario is that Onesimus escaped from his master Philemon and fled to the bustling metropolis in search of Paul. Under Roman slavery it was possible for a slave to appeal to a friend or relative of a slave owner if the owner was abusing the slave; then the friend could appeal to the better nature, if you will, of the slave owner for the better treatment of the slave.

Finally, Onesimus simply could have escaped for good from his owner. This was perilous of course as slaves were not citizens and had very few rights. The slave owner, Philemon also would have possibly been financially ruined as slaves were quite expensive to acquire – anywhere from 300 to 3,000 denarii at the time, that’s somewhere between one year and ten years’ worth of wages.

In either scenario, through this letter, we see that Onesimus the slave has made his way to Paul, has apparently been converted to the faith, and now Paul is sending him back to Philemon.

Now, Paul gets a great deal of criticism from people today because he makes no attempt or statement to usurp, disrupt, or otherwise overturn the evil of slavery. In this letter, Paul does not lay out the immorality of Philemon’s engagement with the sinful institution of slavery. Why? Some scholars say that Paul, and others in the early church, may not have been able to imagine a world without slavery.

In the ancient world, slavery was so pervasive that everyone either knew a slave, owned slaves, or was a slave. But the ubiquity of a sin does not mean that the sin does not exist, what’s going on here?

As we read the letter to Philemon we see that Paul has great affection for Onesimus. He says that he has become his father. It is interesting because it seems that Paul is also something of a spiritual father to Philemon as well. It seems that Paul brought Philemon to faith in Jesus Christ, he says, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self,” which of course is a passive way of saying, “You owe me, you owe me everything because I showed you the path to eternal life.” So being the “father” of both Philemon and Onesimus, Paul urges Philemon to receive the returned Onesimus not as a “slave, but more than a slave, as a brother.”

Here we see that Paul does in fact level a withering criticism and undermining of slavery. His critique though is not general or abstract, it is personal and relational. Paul is not necessarily trying to overthrow the Roman Empire’s slave trade. He’s overthrowing slavery for Philemon and Onesimus!

Paul, through the relationships that have been forged through Jesus Christ, is overturning one of the insidious, debased, and pervasive sinful systems of his day. We see in this letter to Philemon three people in a new relationship because of Jesus Christ, a relationship that moves across the insurmountable barrier of slave and master: “receive him not as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.”

We don’t know if Philemon obeyed Paul or not. But we have the letter; and that means that the church, in her wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, thinks that what it has to say is worthwhile and is descriptive of what a Christian life should look like. It’s too bad though that we don’t have the next letter from Philemon back to Paul because, as revolutionary as Paul’s command to receive Onesimus as a brother was, it’s in the doing that is most interesting.

What would that reunion have looked like? “Here comes old ‘Useless,’” as Philemon called Onesimus, “Paul has sent him back, but I don’t like him! Now I have to love him?!” Or, what if Onesimus had in fact run away? Now Paul has sent him back. What’s Onesimus feeling now that he has to return to this slave owner?

Perhaps Philemon is humbled, humiliated and ashamed that his sinfulness in owning another human being has been exposed to Paul. The return, the reconciliation, is the hard part. It is one thing to be loving in the abstract, it’s quite another to be put arms, legs, and hands on our love.

So what about you? What is God calling you to love? What injustice are you called to reconcile in actual action? We need to get specific here, because the abstract is a temptation. Abstraction, keeping things general, is a way to keep loving reconciliation at arm’s length.

Systemic racism for example is something we all need to overcome through reconciliation. But we don’t individually address systemic racism; we find the one small way that we can undermine racism in our own small circle. Yes, fight the systemic sin, but don’t let your epic war replace the small ways you can fight in your own small seemingly insignificant way.

This is why the letter to Philemon deserves a wider reading, because it shows how all of us are born into sinful systems, but we can, through Jesus Christ, find the love necessary to reconcile broken relationships, not in the abstract but in the really real lives we each live.

Thank you God for showing us the path of reconciliation; thank you Paul for showing us one way to love; and thank you Philemon and Onesimus for showing us that broken relationships and great evil can be repaired through the love of Jesus Christ.

No go, and do likewise.

Amen.

Written by the Rev. Josh Bowron. Rev. Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC.He holds an M.Div. from The School of Theology at the University of the South and is also currently working on a Masters of Sacred Theology there, with a particular interest in modern Anglican theologians. He enjoys a zesty life with his wife Brittany and their three children.  

Download the sermon for Proper 18 (C).

What Seat Do You Choose? Proper 17(C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Proper 17(C).

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.