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

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

Lord, teach us how to pray.

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

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

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

Prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Proper 12 (C).

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

Passionate Spirituality, Proper 11 (C)

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

Passionate Spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Proper 11C.

Written by The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not Amos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we?

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 10C.

Written by The Reverend Marshall A. Jolly

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

————-

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

Be Joyful, Proper 9 (C) – 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Proper 9C.

Written by The Rev. Ken Kesselus

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

Enigmatic Jesus, Sermon Proper 8 (C) – 2016

 

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

That Jesus: he can be quite enigmatic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Proper 8C.

Written By The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 7C. 

Written by The Rev. Richard Burden, PhD

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


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

Justified by Faith, Proper 6 (C) – 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Proper 6C.

Written by The Reverend Jack Lynch

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

Green and Growing, Proper 5 (C) – 2016

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

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

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

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

Sojourner’s Magazine tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Proper 5C.

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


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

 

A Good Mystery, Trinity Sunday (C) – 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Trinity Sunday C.

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

 

Limiting Love, Day of Pentecost (C) – 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the sermon for Pentecost C. 

Written by Jazzy Bostock

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