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 Righteous Live By Their Faith – Proper 26(C)

[RCL] Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119: 137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Trouble and distress have come upon me, yet your commandments are my delight. The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; grant me understanding, that I may live. Amen.

Today’s scripture lessons present a unified whole, in lovely, surprising connections.

The prophet Habakkuk is notable because he questions God. He asks, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” and then he announces that he will wait for God’s answer. And indeed, God does answer him, saying, “There is still a vision for the appointed time…it will surely come…the righteous live by their faith.” The message in Habakkuk is clear: even though destruction and violence are all around, the time will surely come; wait for it; live by faith.

In the psalm appointed for the day, the psalmist tells us that he has been consumed by indignation because his enemies forget God’s commandments, yet in spite of his distress, God’s commandments are a delight.

Both the prophet and the psalmist are transformed from questioning and indignation to faith and delight in God’s law, in the certainty that God’s justice is everlasting and the time awaited – the time of salvation – will surely come.

Paul gives thanks for the people of the church in Thessalonia, because he sees their faith growing abundantly, and their love for one another increasing, even during a time of persecution and affliction. Clearly then, we see a theme of holding a steadfast and joyful faith while the world around us is violent and unjust.

Let’s look at the transformation in the story of Zacchaeus. At first glance, we have a perfect narrative of making a new beginning in Christ. The story of the man who is short in stature and climbs a tree so that he can see Jesus is appealing to children and other vertically challenged people, and sheds a new light on the line in the psalm “I am small and of little account, yet I do not forget your commandments” (v. 141).

Perhaps Zacchaeus is not only short in stature, but also in moral status among his neighbors. He is a tax collector, and not just any tax collector, but a chief tax collector and rich. Tax collectors were hated in the community because they collected taxes from their Jewish neighbors for the Romans who occupied their country. In addition, a tax collector could and often did, overcharge their neighbors and keep the extra for themselves. Not only did they serve the Romans, but they also took advantage of their position to steal from their neighbors. The assumption is that Zacchaeus had become rich by his greed and dishonesty, stealing from his community.

So even though Zacchaeus has difficulty seeing Jesus, he makes an effort, humbles himself by doing an undignified, childish thing – climbing a tree – because of his desire to change and become worthy. He welcomes Jesus into his heart and his house, gladly offers to give half of his possessions to the poor, and make restitution if he has taken any money dishonestly. Zacchaeus makes the proper response to his encounter with Jesus.

Our translation states that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus, but the King James Version says that Zacchaeus received him joyfully. Joy is the appropriate response to God’s invitation. He becomes generous, a rich man who is willing to give away his money. Zacchaeus is transformed from sinner to faithful follower of Jesus. He is saved, and, in the words of Paul, Jesus is glorified in him and Zacchaeus in Jesus. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to meet his death, but in the transformation of Zacchaeus, his mission on earth is fulfilled.

Now, Christ’s mission was to save not just individual souls but humankind. Christianity is a corporate faith. How did Zacchaeus’ transformation affect the community? Zacchaeus was disliked, unpopular, rejected by the community. The crowd grumbles when Jesus reaches out to him, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Let’s think about this.

There are two ways of reading verse 8. The original Greek verb might indicate an action that is present and ongoing or a future action. Our translation reads “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor.” Looking again at the King James Version, the verse reads, “And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

Scholars dispute whether Zacchaeus is planning to give his money away in the future, or whether he is actually stating something that he has already done. Perhaps this is the reason that Jesus recognizes Zacchaeus up there in the tree, and calls him down, and invites himself to stay in this man’s house.

We know that Zacchaeus is despised by his community. He is an outsider, labeled as a chief tax collector, a rich man, a sinner. He is short in stature. He is not seen by his community until he climbs a tree and is seen by Jesus. Maybe Zacchaeus had been quietly giving to the poor all along! Who among us, that we have left on the margins, that we have not seen clearly because of our assumptions, might surprise us with their generosity and faith?

While we, and perhaps the crowd in Jericho, might be inclined to feel that Zacchaeus is saved because he willingly gives his riches to the poor, what does Jesus actually say? “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus says Zacchaeus and all his household are saved simply by being the people of God’s covenant with Abraham. Zacchaeus is saved because of his faith, not because of his works. This is the nature of salvation. It is not based on works, but on faith. Perhaps Zacchaeus’ good works are a result of his faith, of his delight in following God’s commandments.

Let’s look again at the words of the prophet Habakkuk: the righteous live by their faith.

Backing up just a bit, Habakkuk says: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Who is proud in this story? Zacchaeus or the crowd? Who is transformed? Zacchaeus or the crowd?

Both ways of reading the story of Zacchaeus are instructive. We might look at Zacchaeus as an individual sinner, who has repented and been granted salvation. Indeed, it is righteous and good to be transformed by an encounter with Jesus. It is righteous and good to respond with joy to the good news of Christ by giving generously to the poor.

And, as corporate Christians, members of the household of God, we need to consider the possibility that we must recognize ourselves in the crowd. Just as certainly, it is righteous and good to look around us and be open to surprise at who among us may be living with faith and generosity of spirit. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” And the unseen, the overlooked, the misunderstood folks on the edges of our community, the ones who need to climb a tree in order to be seen.

Let us pray. Gracious God, grant that we may see and by seen by our savior and brother Christ. Grant that we may respond with joy to the good news, that we may be generous not only with our wallets but with our hearts. Grant us freedom from making assumptions about others. Grant that we may see our neighbors as Christ sees them, and open our hearts to the faith and generosity of those we may not like or trust. Gracious God, grant me understanding, that I may live. Amen.

Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.  

Download the sermon for Proper 26(C).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for All Saints, Year C.

Will We Accept God’s Love? Proper 25

[RCL] Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

A prayer by Jacqueline Bergan and S Marie Schwann says, “Lord my God, when Your loved spilled over into creation You thought of me. I am from love, of love, for love.”[i]

What an awesome claim! When God first created, God did it with us in mind. In fact, the reason for creation itself was so God could create us in order to receive God’s love, to participate in God’s love, flourish in it, take joy in it. We are no afterthoughts, no fortunate bystanders, no accidents. God made us from love, of love, for love.

The fundamental question every single human being asks is, Do you love me? And the answer from God is an unequivocal, unashamed, unabashed, yes.

Will we accept that love?

The prayer is beautiful, but it presents a challenge. “Lord my God, when your love spilled over into creation, you thought of me” Really? Isn’t that a little too much? A little over-stated? Can it actually be a fact that not only is there a God, and not only is the nature of God love, but the divine love that threw the stars and molded the dry land and set all the protons and neutrons and quarks and photons humming and buzzing–that divine love is actually directed at us? Us in particular. And God is just longing to love us and rain down on us an abundance of grace and favor, and all we need to do is receive it? Can that really be?

Although biologists and psychologists, physiologists and sociologists say we are hard-wired for relationship, and theologians say we are created for relationship with a God who loves us just because we exist, somehow, we get this idea we have to be worthy of being loved. We have to deserve it, earn it. We turn the question, “Do you love me?” into “What must I do to be worthy of love?”

If you’re not ready to admit this for yourself, think about all the examples of people you know who operate under this assumption. Think of every bad decision a friend has made in a relationship in order to prove herself worthy of love. Think of every poor choice a teenager has made to prove himself worthy of some affection or attention. Think of every child who fears, even for a moment, that something they have done will cause their parent to love them less.

Think of every time you’ve heard something like this: the woman said to the girl, “Remember, we’re going to see Chris. You have to be good when we get there, because Chris only likes girls who behave all the time.” Who is this Chris? Santa Claus? But who knows, what if it’s true? Maybe Chris does only like children who behave all the time.

We do know human love is less than perfect. We know, all too well, that the well of human love can run dry. And we project our small human experiences of finite love onto God. And the result is we think we must be worthy of love, including God’s, and this attendant heresy: God’s only got so much love to give. We sometimes live as if we might hear the following breaking news bulletin: Sources report that the price of God’s love has gone up five dollars a barrel due to high demand and short supply. A break in the pipeline and problems in offshore drilling for God’s love means that further shortages and price hikes are in store. People are urged to decrease their consumption and look for substitutes for God’s love. Current practices of being conduits of God’s love and lavishing it on others, including children, the weak, the vulnerable, and the poor must be stopped immediately.

Rather than thinking of God as God is known in our scripture and our liturgy and our faith tradition, as the source of all love, unquenchable, unstoppable, self-giving love, with oceans full of love to give, we think of God’s love meted out in teaspoons full, eyedroppers full, and we need to qualify, even compete, to get some of it.

So when we hear today’s parable, of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we all too easily hear this interpretation: A Self-Righteous Pharisee says his prayers in the temple. He is prideful and self-congratulatory. A Tax collector also says his prayers, but, unlike the Pharisee, he is humble. God hears the prayers of the humble tax collector, and does not listen to the self-righteous Pharisee. The moral of the story is: be humble like the Tax Collector. The Tax Collector has discovered the secret–he has found the way to win approval in the eyes of God: humility! Be like the Tax Collector and you too will be able to say, Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!

And there’s the trap that betrays this way of interpreting the story. This is not a parable about winning God’s love. This is not a story about substituting one bad way to try to get God to listen to you–being self-righteousness–with a way God likes, humility.

Rather, it’s a story in which two seemingly unlike characters stand before God and are really very much the same. They both need God’s love and forgiveness. They are both loved and forgiven by God. The difference is that one is open to receiving that abundant love and one is not. The Pharisee’s prayer is more of a progress report: Dear God, just wanted you to know, I’m doing quite well thank you. I give more than I need to; I’m keeping the commandments; I’m well-regarded in the community. This is Pharisee signing off. The Pharisee asks nothing of God, and goes home with nothing.

On the other hand, there is the tax collector, a despicable fellow, a traitor to his community, making money off his neighbors to support the occupying Roman forces. For some reason, who knows why, this tax collector comes into the temple knowing he needs God’s love and mercy. He has done nothing to earn God’s love. He is not deserving of it. He just needs it, and asks for it. And he goes home aware of the abundant love flowing down on both himself and the Pharisee. But where the tax collector has opened up his heart and allowed God’s love and mercy to wash over him, the Pharisee has put up an umbrella of self-fulfillment, has cloaked himself in a bubble of self-sufficiency, and all of the love of God rains down on the righteous and unrighteous alike, just runs right off him.

This is a parable about God’s abundant love for us, and about whether we’re going to take off our raincoats and dance around in the rain, or whether we’re going to try to keep ourselves dry and distant and unaffected.

The response to God’s lavish love is to accept it, relish it, treasure it and find as many ways as we can to give it away, to live out the image of God stamped on every one of us, the image of a God of abundant love, to open our hands and hearts and stand in the stream of God’s love and to use every means at our disposal to share this love with others. In church, we call this good stewardship.

In church, we practice accepting that love by greeting one another in the peace of the Lord. We practice accepting that love by gathering at God’s table saying, we need this food. We practice giving that love by praying for people, some of whom we don’t even know, but that they may know themselves to be bathed in the river of God’s delight. We practice giving that love by making our offerings of ourselves through our money, our talents, our gifts. We practice giving that love by going forth from this place rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, to love and serve the Lord.

The Love that moves the sun and the stars, the Love that creates, sustains, and redeems the cosmos, is always uttering its eternal “Yes” to our question “Do you love me?” The only thing we need to do is open ourselves to that love. All self-flattery and self-importance and self-righteousness ends in futility. When we stop reciting our resumes in the temple, the incarnate love of God meets us and embraces us, saying, I know your pain, my beloved, and I forgive your sins. I know your emptiness and I will fill it and I will fill you with my Love. Amen.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter. 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.  

[i] Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and S. Marie Schwan, Freedom: A Guide to Prayer (Winona, Minn.: St. Mary’s Press, 1988), 12.

Download the sermon for Proper 25(C).

Returning to Pray, Proper 24(C)

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

Brother Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) Episcopal Monastery in Cambridge, MA witnessed profound spiritual healing in Cairo, Egypt. Brother Tristram noticed a man kneeling before the altar at Saint John the Baptist Coptic Church. Two others flanked the kneeling man with their hands on his shoulders. Seventeen others stood praying around this trio.

The man kneeling stood up, leading the group to another altar where he knelt again. Brother Tristram inquired about their actions. The man kneeling was dying. Doctors exhausted all options. Family members brought their loved one on a pilgrimage, praying at all the church altars and Holy Shrines in Old Cairo. Brother Tristram reflected on his experience. “I was struck by their fervent faith and their love, both for this man and for God. I don’t know what happened to him. I had witnessed an event of profound spiritual healing.”[1]

Jesus told the parable of a persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8, using her as the model to pray always and not lose heart. Someone wronged her, and she sought justice. It was normal during her time for people to accept their fate. This widow was different because she did not accept her fate. She repeatedly visited the judge saying, “Grant me justice.” When the judge refused, she kept coming. The judge finally granted her justice so that “she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (Luke 18:5) Jesus asked if he would find this amount of faith on earth.

The widow modeled faithfulness in prayer. Her actions expanded the idea of prayer to include the believer’s entire and whole life.[2] The widow showed continual prayer. Continual prayer differs from continuous or perpetual prayer. Some churches have continuous prayer on Maundy Thursday leading into Good Friday, with groups of people praying hourly through the night before the Altar of Repose. Continual prayer is prayer that starts and stops and starts again. Returning to God in prayer day after day is continual prayer.

Prayer is conversation with God. Christians believe that God initiates prayer. When we pray, it is the Holy Spirit speaking to us, calling us to prayer. God is always communicating. We are not always listening. Prayer is a conversation beginning with God and flowing to us. Our response to God completes the prayer cycle.

Brother Geoffrey Tristram of SSJE teaches the importance of Christians having an altar or sacred place in their homes, a place to return day after day to pray. The altar can be a table with candles, a cross, bible, or prayer book. On the other hand, it can be an unassuming place near a window overlooking nature’s beauty. This becomes a place of continual prayer.

Returning to the same place to prayer trains the body to pray. Crossing the prayer threshold signals to the body it is time to pray. This is significant since there will be times in your life when you cannot find the words to prayer: a loved one dies; life’s circumstances weigh you down. Prayer in those moments are the “sigh prayers” of Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Your body will lead your spirit in prayer when returning to the same place to pray daily.

Some couples renew their wedding vows on anniversary milestones. One couple at an Episcopal parish in Dallas, Texas renews their wedding vows each year near their anniversary date. Year after year the couple returns to the church, standing in front of the altar during a weekday Holy Eucharist service, repeating prayers and offering their marriage to God for continued blessing. One year the couple renewed their vows in Jerusalem while on pilgrimage. The couple’s choice to continually return to God and the place of marriage helps shape their marriage.

Jesus uses the widow is his parable to model faith and prayer. Her only weapon is persistence.

We as Christians cannot lose heart. We cannot give up even when prayers seem to go unanswered. Can we find the faith to prayer in the midst of disorderly lives? Return to God in prayer. Return to your place of worship week after week. Return to your home altar, your place of prayer in your house, day after day. Returning to God, church, and your home altar allows the Holy Spirit to mold your body to pray, transforming you into a Christian who continually converses with God. Amen.

The Reverend Jemonde Taylor is the eleventh rector of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, NC. Jemonde serves the Diocese of NC by being a part of Diocesan Council, the Disciple Board, and co-chair for the Nominating Committee for the Twelfth Bishop Diocesan. He is a consultant to the Office of Black Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Prior to serving Saint Ambrose, Jemonde was priest missioner at Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Dallas, TX as a part of the Lilly Transition into Ministry Program. Jemonde studies the spirituality, worship, and history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and leads pilgrimages to Ethiopia for Epiphany.

[1] Tristram, Geoffery. “Intercession.” SSJE. October 20, 2009. Accessed September 29, 2016.

[2] Fitzmyer, Joseph, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), 1176.

Download the sermon for Proper 24(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

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!


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?


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).