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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

My kingdom is not from this world, Christ the King, Proper 29 – 2015

[RCL] Psalm 132:1-13,(14-19); 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

For most of us, living as we do in a republic, imbued with democratic values, the very concept of monarchy seems remote and eccentric. True, some of us enjoy watching or reading about the latest headlines about the House of Windsor. But in an election year, even the beautiful Duchess of Cambridge or her husband don’t long distract us from the real world of Clinton and Sanders, Trump and Carson.

So when the collect for today has us pray that the restoration of all things is all about a King of kings and a Lord of lords, we are cast into unfamiliar territory. Perhaps we reach out to older translations that have Jesus say that his kingdom is NOT of this world, which, of course he didn’t say.

Nor do the lessons in either track appointed for today help us with our sense of alienation, a disjunction between our life experience and the world of scripture, as the texts talk of a Davidic king, or the “Ancient of Days” enthroned in clouds of splendor. Of course it is true that our spiritual ancestors could only think and write within cultural norms, but nor may we devise a theology of Jesus suggesting that he is to submit to public approval every four years.

Perhaps two suggestions may be of help. Today’s lesson from Revelation points to two things. The first is that the baptized are incorporated into a “royal priesthood”. This means that, in Jesus, we have become those who stand as a body or company. We are given the task of mediating between God and humanity and creation. We are God’s agents of reconciliation. At home, work, school, play, in social interactions – even on Facebook – we echo God’s plea, “Come to me all you who work and are burdened and I will give you rest.” We speak and act not merely as a priesthood, but as a priesthood invested with royal authority, a royal status epitomized in servanthood.

In the same passage from Revelation we read:

“Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Every Sunday when we proclaim the faith of the Church when we say together in the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in Glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” For just as now, the royal priesthood works for justice and mercy, tells of God’s forgiveness and unfathomable love, and lifts up the Cross as the sign and symbol of Christ’s redeeming work. We look forward in hope to the end times. When, in a manner we may only express in poetry, symbolism and ritual, the world will be put right, Eden restored and sorrowing and crying will be no more.

When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, Jesus seems to prevaricate. “My kingdom is not from this world.” Even though he is a descendent of the hero king David, Jesus claims no affinity with the structures associated with nationalism, with monarchy or republics. “My kingdom is not from here.” His kingdom is about truth, ultimate truth, truth that originates with God.

On this Christ the King Sunday we commit ourselves to Jesus, “the way, the truth and the life”, the king who is a servant. Who comes, teaches, heals, reconciles, dies and rises again, who lives through us and who will return. Nowhere is this more evident as in Eucharist when we bring the world to God through Jesus and offer “ourselves, our souls and bodies” as we “dwell in him and he in us”. So the royal priesthood is nourished and strengthened to be Christ in the street and supermarket, Christ beyond the red door of our parish church and the coming of the true King is announced and heralded from the rooftops.

Download the sermon for Proper 29B.

Written by The Rev. Anthony Clavier 

Anthony is the Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City, IL and Co-Editor of The Anglican Digest.

They are resurrected in our hearts, All Saints’ Day, Year B – 2015

[RCL] Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 48; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

All Saints’ Day is one of the most underrated church holidays of the year. It is overshadowed by its more glamorous cousins, All Hallow’s Eve and Thanksgiving, similar to how Holy Saturday gets lost in Holy Week. But All Saints’ Day can bring us a unique blessing just as Holy Saturday does because they are days that are about how some of the darker parts of human experience can be washed in holiness when they are brought before God.

All Saints’ Day is so important because it is the one church holiday set aside during the year to tend to our grief. We experience grief on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but that grief is for the suffering and death of Christ and the grand theological ideas that accompany them. All Saints Day is for us, for remembering the people we loved, who were important to us, who made an impact on our lives and then died and left us behind.

Grief is one of life’s most powerful human experiences, and grief is often very lonely. Many of us have awakened on the morning after the death of a loved one and simply marveled at how the sun can rise another day and the Earth can continue to turn after our world has been abruptly destroyed. We are grateful for all the concern friends and colleagues show us, but find it so strange to realize that while they truly felt sorry for us during the time they were in conversation with us or the moment they kindly took to send us a card or email, this event that turned our world upside down really meant very little to them.

We’re not angry at them. Of course no one would love or care for or agonize over our departed loved one the way our own family would, but it is just so surreal to realize that after someone says something kind to us about it, that person will go right back to thinking about what to put on the dinner table or whether to go to the movies that weekend. It is a realization that all of us have at some time or another that our own personal battles and tragedies and defeats really matter very little in the big picture of the world.

They matter very little 364 days a year in 99.9% of the places on this Earth. But our grief does matter on this day, in this place. On All Saints’ Day, in God’s Holy Church, the losses that we have borne over the years come front and center and are named for all to hear, on holy ground. On All Saints Day, our grief is no longer lonely and isolating, but we gather in this sanctuary and let our grief bind us together in a new and powerful way.

All Saints’ Day is an important ministry to us in our losses because it helps us reenter that place of mourning in a rhythm, year after year after year each November. As the green and life of the summer die and go to their winter rest around us, so we bring up the pain of loss on purpose in this rhythm, year after year. And each year that we revisit the loss, the pain softens and loses a little sharpness, begins to go to its own winter rest. Every time we name our loved ones among the saints, we honor not only their lives but our own long battle with memories both painful and joyful.

And it is so important to honor their memories. Most of our departed loved ones had a funeral to commemorate them. But the funeral happens right after the loss and often our emotions are completely chaotic, not to mention the practical circumstances we are trying to manage. If you have lost someone close to you, either due to sudden accident or long illness, you probably remember the days in the immediate aftermath as a haze of confusion. There are hundreds of details to attend to—notifying friends, organizing a service, pulling together money for a casket and burial plot, thinking about wills and estates, the volatility of family brought together in a pressure cooker of emotion. Frankly it is often not a time to treasure the memory of the departed. Many grieving families float through the funeral in a sort of disconnected shock.

This is where All Saints’ Day comes to our aid once again. There is no chaos, there are no arrangements to be made, no being singled out to sit at the front of the church in a black suit or dress, no finding directions to the cemetery. We are all in this together, and the ones we are remembering are long settled in their resting places. It’s the chance to be private about our grief, taking out our memories in the quiet of our hearts and turning them over one by one, taking our time to remember and reflect. But we all enter that sheltered and quiet heartspace of our own at the same time, in the same place. As you bring up the faces of your dearest departed before your mind’s eye, cherishing the chance to do so peacefully and uninterrupted, your neighbor is doing the same. We enter the valley of the shadow of death together, and walk through it in solidarity with one another.

There is someone else who is in solidarity with us in our grief, and that is Jesus. In our gospel today, we see him in the exact situation we have faced in our own lives—the inevitable but painful death of a loved one. Lazarus had been sick, they all knew there was a possibility he might die. But even Jesus can’t quite believe it at first. He doesn’t want to believe it, and asks if he’s been buried, hoping maybe the message has gotten twisted along the way and Lazarus is still just sick. “He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.”

Jesus sees so much pain in his lifetime, and he bears it so bravely. He sees the suffering of his people crushed under the imperial rule of Rome, and he doesn’t cry. He sees five thousand hungry and poor on a hillside needing him to feed them, and he doesn’t cry. He sees people tormented by demons, bleeding or paralyzed or diseased for years, and he doesn’t cry. He continues his ministry and cares for them.

But here, at last, he breaks, and for the simple, everyday loss of a simple, everyday beloved friend. Nothing grand or dramatic. One of his best friends gets sick and dies, and Jesus weeps. And so perhaps on this day of letting our heartaches step out into the open on holy ground, we can be in solidarity with Jesus as much as he is with us. He always bears the burden for us. Maybe today we can say, “Jesus, we understand how you feel. We’re sorry you lost your friend. We love you. Come be with us for a while and we’ll all be in this together.”

Jesus brought his friend back, just as on the final day we will all be brought back to life by him to live with him and in him. And how did Jesus raise Lazarus up to new life? How did he bring him back from the dead? By calling his name. “Lazarus, come out!” Today, we’re doing the same thing. We’re calling out the names of the ones we loved who have passed on, and they answer. They are resurrected in our hearts, brought to life in this time and place. Whether on one side of the border between life and death or the other, we all want to be with our loved ones. As the communion of saints joins spirits across the divide today, we may realize that we are being called by name today as well, named and loved by the ones who have gone before us.

Download the Sermon for All Saints, Year B.

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice

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

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

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

What do you think heaven is?

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

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

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

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

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

“Fifteen,” said his father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you believe?, Pentecost 20, Proper 21 – 2008

[RCL] Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25: 1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

What do you believe? This question may seem very simple to answer at first. But if we are being truthful, it is not an easy question to answer unless, of course, we have memorized the answer from catechism or intentionally discerned the answer and have practiced articulating it to others.
The gospel today demonstrates why it is important to know the answer to this question. Without knowing exactly what you believe, you are sure to be caught in the situation that the priests and elders are in as they are confronted by Jesus. It would have served them well if they had been prepared and could answer confidently. But more importantly, they would have brought together the community if their interests were not self-serving, selfish, and without integrity.

Based on where we are in our corporate lives in the church, articulating our beliefs has become essential. But before we can be building blocks for growing a larger community of faith, we must know what it is in our hearts and souls. This is not to say that our focus should remain there, only that it must begin there. In the end, we are still called into a corporate life in Christ where, together with our sister and brother believers, we continue the work of building up the Kingdom of God in our world.

If Paul’s letter to the Philippians has any ring of truth for us today, then there cannot be community without unity in a corporate belief. Paul tells us that we must be of the same mind as Jesus, and the only way to accomplish that is through love, humility, and reconciliation – not through conceit or selfishness.

It is very difficult to be a community in our world today. Yet it is essential for a holistic, healthy, and happy life. The world we live in today causes us to struggle for balance between the individualism that is encouraged by society and our desperate need to belong. We struggle to reconcile ourselves and be at peace in a world that is connected by technology but knows little about anyone outside our circles.

Let us not trivialize Paul’s message – love, humility, and reconciliation are not just buzz words. They are deeply connecting words that speak through our hearts and souls. They are foundational words used throughout the gospels as Jesus models love, humility, and reconciliation for us.

These characteristics are evident in the parable we heard in today’s gospel. The father, who is the owner of a vineyard, has two sons, and he asks them both to come to work with him. The first son refuses to honor his father’s request but he changes his mind, repents, and then goes to work in the vineyard. The son has a change of heart that he acknowledges through his repentance – a sign of humility, love, and his willingness to discern and reflect reconciliation. The second son says he will go to work but he does not. His actions are an example of selfishness and lack of integrity.

Jesus does not just tell the story about the father and his two sons, but further describes community-building to the elders and chief priests in the temple through their own attitudes about John the Baptist. Jesus tells them that they had a chance to hear what John had to say about justice and righteousness, but they chose to remain fixed on their laws and those things that secured their power. He confronted their selfishness and lack of integrity directly while simultaneously demonstrating that this did not build up the community of faith.

Jesus uses the faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes who heard John’s message and changed their ways to show community-building at its best. They model the personal responsibility we each have to change, seek justice, listen, and hear the truth in differences. The prophetic words of Ezekiel say clearly that those who have considered and turned toward a change for justice and willingness to hear truth in difference will live. They will find a new heart and a new spirit.

As we listen to these readings and discern our own hearts and souls, we begin the process of answering the question, “What do you believe?”

Listening and hearing our readings in the context of celebrating our corporate lives is another step. The next step requires that we share our hearts with each other and then with everyone we encounter in our lives. This doesn’t mean that we “evangelize” to everyone everywhere. But as St. Francis is attributed as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

What do you believe? It needs to be evident in the way we live and relate. Living with integrity means that there is no break between our words, actions, and faith. Living with integrity means that we can discerns God’s voice in those expected and unexpected places and that we not only listen but are willing to change as we grow in our personal and corporate faith.

We want to be people who, when asked who we are, can reply with confidence because we know our hearts and souls and live accordingly. We want to be a people who dismantle injustice and practice humility as we listen to the Spirit’s call on our lives. In short, we want to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We just need to begin with knowing what we believe.

Written by the Rev. Debbie Royals
The Rev. Debbie Royals is a regional missioner for Native Ministry Development, based in the Diocese of Los Angeles. She is the Province VIII Indigenous People’s Network chair and a CREDO health faculty member. E-mail: debbieroyals@sbcglobal.net.

We are able to resonate with God, Trinity Sunday (B) 2015

During the summer months, we are taking the opportunity to highlight some of the “Best of…” here at Sermons that Work.  Today’s sermon comes from The Rev. Timothy B. Safford, rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia.

Click here to read the sermon for Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8Psalm 29 or Canticle 2 or 13Romans 8:12-17John 3:1-17

“We are able to resonate with God because we are made to be in tune with God, a gift imparted by being created in the image of God.”

Download the sermon for Trinity Sunday.

 

One in the Holy Spirit, Pentecost (B) – 2015

May 24, 2015

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

There’s no better time to celebrate the diversity of the Kingdom of God than on the Day of Pentecost. Separately, our differences are too diverse to list, but put together, our individual uniqueness creates a beautiful kaleidoscope we call the Body of Christ.

Sadly, today we see people and nations torn apart by racism, religious chauvinism, man-made borders and cultural bigotry. We have become a culture of us-versus-them, where the “other” is to be feared and never trusted. This is not a new occurrence, but one would have hoped that humanity would have learned from its past mistakes and recurrent genocides over the ages; however, here we are in the 21st century, repeating history again with chilling efficiency and cruelty.

Pentecost is a reminder that God’s Holy Spirit is given freely to all people with no respect for race, culture, socioeconomic standing, gender or any other distinguishing mark used by people to differentiate one person from another. In God we are one.

On the Day of Pentecost, reported in the Book of Acts, people gathered in Jerusalem from all corners of the Roman Empire. They represented competing economic interests, diverse cultures, a myriad of languages and different religious traditions. Nevertheless, God’s grace was given freely to all who heard the message preached by St. Peter, and thousands converted to Christ. These aliens who converged on Jerusalem returned to their homes and spread the message of Christ, and the church began to spread like a wildfire engulfing dry brush.

From its inception, the church was a diverse group of people who hailed from a variety of cultures and languages. It was in the midst of this great diversity that God sent the Holy Spirit upon his church and started a movement that would change the history of the world forever.

The message of Christ hasn’t changed, but those who claim to be his followers have often failed miserably in living up to that message. The greatest temptation facing Christians isn’t necessarily losing their passion, but rather, losing sight of the fact that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. In God’s kingdom there are no illegal aliens or undocumented workers. We who have died with Christ in baptism are resurrected to be a new people bound in love and service to one another.

The Holy Spirit is given freely, without respect for citizenship or socio-economic class, and God continues today to pour out his Spirit on all humanity.

The Holy Spirit works as a transformative agent in the lives of believers. Just as Jesus glorified humanity when he ascended to the Father, the gift of the Holy Spirit restores our relationship with God.

In the fourth century, St. Basil wrote:

“Through the Holy Spirit we are restored to paradise, led back to the Kingdom of heaven, and adopted as children, given confidence to call God ‘Father’ and to share in Christ’s grace, called children of light and given a share in eternal glory.”

In order for this transformation to take place, we must be willing to die to ourselves and surrender ourselves to Christ and God’s will for our lives.

Jesus promised his disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit whose fruits are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-control. These fruits are the qualities of Jesus that the Holy Spirit develops in our lives as we grow in our faith. That’s who we are and who we are to become as Christians. The Holy Spirit transforms the believer into the image of Christ and obliges the Christian to share in the Church’s apostolic and missionary activity. Just as the disciples’ bold and fearless witness at Pentecost led to the conversion of more than 3,000 people, so too are we called to bear witness of God’s love for the world today. This love is freely given to all humanity.

The Holy Spirit compels us to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. One way we do this is by reaching out to the unloved, the hard to love, and the rejected in our midst and loving them, emulating our Heavenly Father’s love for us who are called by His name.

An elderly man of some affluence once asked a pastor how he could possibly learn to serve the least in society. The pastor answered, “You will be able to serve others when you see the crucified Christ in every person you meet, regardless of their social standing.” That is a tall order to fulfill, but not an impossibility for those who allow the indwelling Holy Spirit to work in them.

Every time we who are baptized into the Body of Christ approach the Eucharistic table, we are reminded of God’s love for us. It is around the holy table gathered with our brothers and sisters in Christ that our Heavenly Father graciously accepts us as living members of his own Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, and feeds us with spiritual food in the blessed Sacrament.

Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we welcome new believers into the blessed family we call the Body of Christ. As they pass through the waters of baptism we are asked to do all in our power to support them in their life in Christ. All of us have an important role to play in their spiritual development. It is no small thing what we do around the baptismal font, since all of us take solemn vows for which God will hold us accountable.

Just as the Holy Spirit was poured out on peoples of every language at Pentecost, so the Holy Spirit today continues to draw people from every culture, language and ethnicity into the family we call the church catholic. Pentecost is an awe-inspiring day of joy and celebration on many levels. Through the Holy Spirit, we welcome strangers into our midst and become family, and we welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives and become transformed into the image of Christ.

May the gift of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost renew us today and stir up within us those spiritual gifts which God has so richly and freely given to us when we were baptized into Christ’s holy church.

 

— The Rev. Timothy G. Warren is a vocational deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church, Redlands, Calif. He is a 26-year retired Air Force veteran with more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Deacon Warren is the founder of Trinity Victorville Outreach, an emergent ministry that reaches out to at-risk young adults and families in the High Desert Region, Calif.

 

Thanksgiving Day (A) – 2014

No ‘other’ in God’s Kingdom

November 27, 2014

Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

Thanksgiving Day can be a loaded cultural icon, an indicator of our place in American culture. The turkey, the football games, the parades, the pumpkin pies. An idyllic image of whole families coming together to feast over the bounty of the harvest year. Of boats and pilgrims and Native Americans all gathered together in peace and harmony. And isn’t this all very lovely? Except it masks darker truths, truths not talked about or hidden away.

What if the harvest that is hoped for doesn’t come? What if you are a parent who says Thanksgiving is at the shelter this year or there will be no Thanksgiving dinner? Does this mean that parent is reaping what he or she has sown, that this family is getting what they deserve?

Paul seems to imply this in verse 6 of today’s reading from Second Corinthians: “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who reaps bountifully will also reap bountifully.” But even so, Paul must be setting the stage to lead us in another direction, toward another way of understanding God’s abundance, especially in times of need.

Instead, could this passage be about us – the “us” who should and are able to give plentifully? A reminder to love God? And out of this love for God comes our love for our neighbors, a rendering of great generosity. As Paul says in today’s reading, “For the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”

Paul is taking his listeners on a journey of questioning: Where do we believe our bread, our seeds of life come from? What is the cost and consequence of not giving? And how does what we offer to others matter to God?

Let us begin to explore and reflect on what we have to give and why we give what we give. If this giving is coming from our hearts, if it is given to glorify our Lord, then the natural outcome of this will be genuine love for others. The emotions we will experience will feel right and good. And it is this sense of righteousness and goodness that will lead us and multiply our efforts; it will be a rendering that sustains us through each harvest year with thankful hearts.

Our gospel passage today has Jesus on a journey toward Jerusalem while passing through a region between Samaria and Galilee. And along the way, Jesus encounters 10 lepers. Lepers are social outcasts, cursed, unclean; they had to live in colonies outside of towns and could not approach people except from a distance.

So knowing they can’t approach Jesus, they start to shout at him, “Have mercy on us.” Somehow these 10 lepers had heard about this master who can miraculously heal people. And if this Jesus can heal others, then just maybe he can heal them.

Jesus pauses, looks at the 10 lepers, asks them no questions – doesn’t berate them for who they are or how their lives suddenly fell apart when they became ill with leprosy. Jesus simply tells them to go show themselves to the priest – because for the lepers, only priests can deem them clean and able to return to society.

The lepers don’t question Jesus, or maybe they looked at each other in awe, hope and fear, but they do as he says. They head toward the priests who can change their social status, provide them with entry back into the lives they once knew.

One, though, stops in his tracks because he has just looked down at his hands and his feet, and he realizes that his whole body has been healed. That’s when he turns around and shouts praises to God as loudly as he can; he is stunned and grateful. This leper makes his way back as quickly as he can to Jesus, and he falls at Jesus’ feet and he says, “Thank you!”

This is where Luke introduces Jesus’ own stunned reaction – a Samaritan and a foreigner has recognized Jesus as the point of entry into God’s Kingdom. Luke is reminding us that Jesus came to bring salvation to everyone, Jew and gentile, known and foreigner – there is no “other” in God’s Kingdom.

How often is it a stranger or guest who points out what we have stopped seeing? How often is it a stranger who helps us remember why we participate in our ministries, or a newcomer who hears with new ears, sees with new eyes, and heartily says, “Thank you”?

How often is it a stranger who reminds us of what it is we have to be thankful for?

And isn’t that the crux of why we come together once a year, on this day of Thanksgiving? To remember and be reminded of God’s grace and bounty in our lives?

It is easy to become like the other nine lepers. They go and do as Jesus says, and they are healed, too. But do we, like them, follow Jesus’ instructions solely from a sense of duty or compulsion? Or is it because we are able to look down at our hands and feet and see something miraculous? See that we are and have always been the Body of Christ? And can we, too, fall on our knees before Christ and praise God for the bounty we receive and are about to receive at Christ’s table?

 

— The Rev. Jimmie Sue Deppe is currently the curate associate at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.

Reaching out to ‘the least of these’, Christ the King (A) – 2014

November 23, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

There is something terribly sad in today’s gospel reading, something so easy to miss that it eludes most of us. That’s probably because this is such a tempting story. It is one of the most straightforward of all the New Testament’s accounts of judgment; and one of the most fun.

Here, judgment is connected to actively reaching out to those in need, specifically to “the least of these,” to those who are at the bottom, those who are the most helpless and who have no other champions – to those with no one else to care for them. These are God’s favorites, the ones God sees in a special way.

And it’s really clear that those who are condemned are not condemned for doing bad things, or for acting unjustly or cruelly. Instead, they are condemned for the good they did not do. You can’t sit out the Christian moral life. There’s just no way, by avoiding engagement, to thereby avoid judgment. “Well, I never intentionally hurt anybody” cuts no mustard at the Great Throne Judgment.

All of which can tempt just about any preacher to shout, “So get out there and serve Jesus in your neighbor. Do good and save your soul from the judgment of eternal fire all at the same time.” Which can make a heck of a sermon, and one most church leaders aren’t opposed to preaching from time to time. Good stuff. Can’t hurt.

But today let’s talk about what’s so sad in this story.

Notice that those who have been gathered up at the right hand of the Lord – those who are called blessed of the father, the ones we want to be – have only one thing to say to Jesus. They say, “Lord, when?”

“When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”

“When?” That’s it; that’s all they have to say.

This is dreadfully sad because of all the loss, and all the struggle and all the pain that question implies. These folks, the sheep, the saved, the good guys, they were right, they did all of the correct things, but they missed the greatest joy of it. They missed seeing the Lord. They overlooked the hidden presence of God in the faces of those they served.

One of the reasons we have this parable may be to help us avoid that loss, to remind us what reaching out and caring and serving can be about at the level of greatest depth. Because it’s very clear: No matter how right you are, no matter how much you serve the presence of Christ in others, if you don’t pay special attention, if you simply don’t look for the Lord Jesus in those you serve, then, like the saved people in the parable, you won’t see him. And most of the joy is lost. Most of the joy of doing good and being right and saving your soul from the judgment of eternal fire all at the same time, most of that joy, is lost.

After all, reaching out in love to the presence of Christ in others, especially in both “the least of these” and in those closest to us, this is quite often a great big pain. It takes a lot of time, and there’s almost never any indication that anything of lasting benefit has happened.

What’s more, “the least of these” are usually at least partially responsible for whatever problems and needs make them the least. And most of the time they don’t look or act or smell the way we imagine Jesus should.

Frequently, they aren’t very nice, and worse yet, they seldom seem to appreciate whatever good we do try to do for them. So, doing good, reaching out to feed, clothe, visit, heal and otherwise minister to “the least of these” tends to frustrate us, and we tend to get burned, and to get burned out.

And much the same sort of thing can happen when the ones we reach out to are not some distant “them,” but are, instead, the people we live with and around, the people closest to us.

One would think that actually serving Christ shouldn’t be as hard, and as disheartening, as it often is. But there we are. After all, just because we’re doing something for religious reasons doesn’t mean that, all by itself, whatever we’re doing will look or feel religious or that it will effect us in a particularly religious way.

Cleaning the kitchen in the church, or anywhere else for that matter, is still cleaning a kitchen. Being nice to a difficult person because you are convinced that Jesus wants you to, is still being nice to a difficult person. Spending time or money or energy out of Christian conviction still means that you no longer have that time or that money or that energy.

The Lord calls us to serve him, in our neighbors, in our brothers and sisters, in the least of these, and – often the most challenging – in those closest to us. That call is real; there are no excuses. But the Lord also calls us to see him in the face of our neighbors, and of our brother and sister, and – we can’t forget – in the least of these. This is a spiritual call, a call to discernment as much as it is a call to action and to service.

There’s not a secret or mysterious way to do this. Here are two quick ideas: First of all, in order to see the Lord, we have to look. At the people around us. Deliberately. All of the time. We need constantly to look as we remember what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we hope to come from it. We need look on purpose.

Second, if we want Jesus to show himself to us, it can really help if we ask him to. Sometimes we have to ask him a lot. That’s one reason why reaching out to others in a way that is not wrapped in prayer, any act of ministry that is not consciously and deliberately offered to God with the request to be shown how the Lord is in it, while certainly not wasted effort, is terribly incomplete.

If our prayers during the day and about the day do not beg the Lord for a look at his face, or a glimpse at his Kingdom in all that is going on around us, then we are cheating ourselves, and living barely on the surface of a much deeper reality.

To try to live the life Christ calls us to live without placing all of that in the middle of some disciplined reflection, prayer and study, this is to risk missing the best part of it all. It is to risk missing the presence and Word of Jesus that can transform a mundane task into an opportunity for insight and for joy – that can make doing the things we are called to do a path deeper into the mystery of God’s life, and of our own.

This story of judgment is more than a call to serve. It’s more than a call to be good, and to do the right thing. Sure, it’s that, but it’s much more.

It’s also a call to look, to notice, to devote our days and our lives in the search for the face of God in all that we do. It’s a call, above all, to see.

 

– The Rev. James Liggett has 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.

Trust, not fear, 23 Pentecost, Proper 28 (A) – 2014

November 16, 2014

Judges 4:1-7 and Psalm 123 [or Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 and Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11), 12]; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Today we should remember something that all of us sometimes forget – that what God requires of us is not success, but faithfulness.

The gospel we just heard is known as “The Parable of the Talents.” That word “talent” has a double meaning. Its original meaning in the Greek of the New Testament refers to a huge sum of money. In the ancient world, a talent was worth what an ordinary laborer earned over the course of 15 years. Thus, giving each of his servants one or more talents, the master in this story is entrusting them with a fortune.

The second meaning of the word “talent” results from one interpretation of this very story. As the master entrusts his servants with talents, so God entrusts each of us with abilities. “Talent” has thus come to mean ability or skill. We say that someone has a talent for music or cooking or business.

But “The Parable of the Talents” isn’t really about money or ability. It’s about something even more important. “The Parable of the Talents” is about trust.

The story opens with an act of trust. The master is about to leave town on a journey. He entrusts his wealth to three servants. Each is given a different sum of money. Yet each is given a big amount – one talent or two or five. It’s clear that the master trusts each of his servants. He even hands over the money without any instructions.

After a long time, the master returns and calls in his three servants. Two of them have doubled their money. The third has made nothing at all; he returns to his master exactly what he received. It turns out that this servant has simply buried the money in the ground, a common security measure in ancient times. He reveals the reason for his action: fear of the master.

His trust in his master was zero, so he reduced his financial risk to zero. Yet he reduced the possibility of profit so that it, too, was zero.

The story as we have it leaves us with an unanswered question. How would the master have responded to the first two servants if they had not brought in a profit? What if they had put the money at risk and come back empty handed?

I think the master would have accepted them. After all, in the parable what he commends is not their profits, but their faithfulness. He does not commend the servant who produced five talents more than the one who produced two. Each receives the same commendation: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant.” Each receives the same invitation: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

And in responding to the third servant, the master makes it clear that he would have accepted anything – even rock-bottom, savings-account interest – that was motivated by faith rather than fear.

Moreover, it’s notable that the servant who is given five talents makes five talents more, and the one who receives two makes two more. This doubling in each case suggests that the growth is automatic. It’s not the cleverness of the servants that produces results so much as their willingness to act out of trust.

The parable is not about money or ability so much as it is about trust. The master trusts his servants and acts on this trust. Two of the servants return the favor by acting out of trust rather than fear, and they come back to their master with one fortune stacked on top of another.

The third servant paints an ugly picture of a grasping master who demands success. What this servant gets for his trouble is exactly the rejection he fears. He’s a small-minded man who insists that his master is just as small minded.

The other two servants, however, recognize generosity when they see it. The piles of money thrust their way reveal a man who’s generous, who takes a risk, who accepts them, even honors them. Finding themselves at the receiving end of such outrageous trust, they feel empowered, and are willing to take risks of their own. The love their master has shown them overcomes their fear of failure. They realize that any master who treats his money managers in this open-handed way is more interested in them than in turning a profit.

This brief story about a master and his three servants turns upside down the standards of the world. It announces that the worst thing that can happen to us is not failure. The worst thing that can happen to us is that we make God out to be a horrible old grouch who rejects us when we fail.

The story tells us that the worst thing is not losing out. The worst thing is never risking. In the eyes of God, the fear that keeps a treasure in the ground is an act of atheism. The freedom that puts that treasure at risk – and may even result in its loss – that is an act of faith.

We can learn from our failures, and often it is failure that provides the most indelible lessons. But fear teaches us nothing – until we leave it behind.

The gospel stage is crowded with people who are there to shock us into the recognition that it is stupid and ugly not to trust God. There’s the snide elder brother who refuses to welcome home the prodigal son. The all-day workers who demand that late arrivals receive less than the daily wage. The Pharisee who tries to talk God into accepting him because he’s kept the rules, not because God is merciful. All these live in a gray, fearful world, where grace is absent and slackers get thrown to the wolves.

We understand these pathetic people because we, too, are given to burying our talent out of fear. We’re made anxious by the ogre idol of our imagination. We know what it’s like to misperceive and mistrust God.

What if the true, living and only God has no interest in keeping score? What if God’s concern is simply that we all get up and take a turn at bat?

The Good News of Jesus gives new meaning to success and security. Success is found not in accumulating more than we can ever use, but in our willingness to risk in response to God’s invitation. Security is found not in keeping pace with our rising paranoia, but in the utterly reliable God who trusts us before we trust ourselves, who risks, and asks that we risk also.

The French scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sums it up nicely in his book “The Divine Milieu.” He writes:

“God obviously has no need of the products of your busy activity since he could give himself everything without you. The only thing that concerns him, the only thing he desires intensely, is your faithful use of your freedom and the preference you accord him over the things around you. Try to grasp this: the things that are given to you on earth are given to you purely as an exercise, a ‘blank sheet’ on which you make your own mind and heart. You are on a testing ground where God can judge whether you are capable of being translated to heaven and into his presence. You are on trial so that it matters very little what becomes of the fruits of the earth, or what they are worth. The whole question is whether you have learned how to obey and how to love.”

“The Parable of the Talents” is not really about money or abilities. It’s a story about trust, a story about risk. Life is the same way. What turns out to be important is not money or abilities in themselves, but our decision to use them in ways that show our willingness to risk and to trust. The central question about life is not “What did we accomplish?” but whether we learned to obey, whether we learned to love.

 

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Md., in the Diocese of Washington and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).