Who Needs A Prophet?, Advent 2 (C) – December 9, 2018


[RCL]: Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Who needs a prophet anyway? Prophets have an annoying habit of pointing out our flaws, airing family secrets, and being all around nuisances. They love to call us out when we stray from God and when we have lost sight of truth. At best, they are a nuisance; at worst, they are meddling. Who needs these messengers of discomfort and sacrifice? What are they good for? Wouldn’t it be best for them to get on their soap boxes and protest and preach and prognosticate somewhere, anywhere else but here?

It is hard enough trying to be a good upright, churchgoing, tithe-giving, Sunday school-teaching person without one of these annoying prophets calling us to care for the poor, to look out for the downtrodden, to seek after justice and righteousness. Don’t we do enough already?

It would be nice if they would go bother the people in power, the people who can actually do something for the poor and the needy. Why do these prophets insist on bothering good people? But here they are, calling us once again to repentance, and forgiveness, and hope. You would think that they were broken records, spinning the same thing over and over and over again.

Here comes another one called John, son of Zechariah—John the Baptist, some call him. He’s no ordinary prophet; he doesn’t just preach that we need to repent, but he has the nerve to insist that people get baptized in the muddy River Jordan no less. It would be nice if John sang a different tune for a change. He is always running around, “Repent this! Prepare that!” Haven’t we heard this message before? And yet he persists. Like crazy old Isaiah preaching about paths being made straight, and valleys and mountains being filled and made flat.  The thing about straightening crooked places and valleys being filled and mountains being brought low is that we like our paths crooked, our valleys deep, and our mountains high. We like things the way they are and the way they have always been.

Who needs a prophet anyway?

We need prophets. The people who sit in darkness, in deep despair, they need prophets. The people who look around and see destruction and desolation, they need prophets. The people who have no voice, no rights, no hope—they need prophets, because prophets proclaim a new and better way. Prophets are truth-tellers to a world longing and praying and looking for glimpses of hope.

Our world needs prophets. Prophets are harbingers of hope and hope is found in the one whose coming we await. The message foretold by John breaks into our world with deafening silence and shatters the dark of despair with the light of love.

Who needs prophets? We need prophets. We need those annoying, nagging nuisances that call us to be better followers of Jesus. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us, “Biblically speaking, a prophet isn’t a fortune-teller or soothsayer who predicts the future, but rather a truth-teller who sees things as they really are—past, present, and future—and who challenges their community to both accept that reality and imagine a better one.”

We need the voice of one crying out in the wilderness because things happen in the wilderness. In the wilderness, the needs are raw and real, and sweet words and hollow sentiment are not enough. We need prophets especially when we have grown so full of ourselves that we neglect to see the orphan, the refugee, the migrant, the widow, and the stranger. We need prophets to call us back to God, back to a place where hope is found not only in church, but in the world around us—in the interaction of strangers, the joys of difference, and in the radicalness of love.

Like Jesus and John, we are tasked with holding lightly to the things that do not matter, in order to be open to a hope-filled future to which God calls us. Now more than ever, our communities, our nation, and our world are in desperate need of the glimmer of hope found in Jesus Christ. Now more than ever, we need to not only hear the cries of the prophets, but to take on the mantle of the prophets.

We, as the church, the people of God, the followers of Jesus, are called to claim our prophetic birthright and be the voice of the voiceless, the hope of the hopeless, the love of the loveless.

Often in the church, we can feel small and powerless, wondering how we will survive, being concerned about ourselves rather than those in need. But God’s prophetic grace often falls not on the powerful or the mighty, but on extraordinarily ordinary people who turn the world right-side-up. We are called to remember that we are not a group of people who believe all the same things; we are a group of people caught up in God’s plan of redemption and salvation with Jesus in the center.

The question facing us as Christians, who seek to follow where Jesus leads and to heed the call of John, isn’t “Do we need prophets?” The question we must answer is “Are we willing to be prophets?” Are we willing to let God’s light shine through us so much so that we can show the world a new and better way? Are we willing to be prophetic enough to walk out in faith and break bread with people who may not look like us, or talk like us, or vote like us or speak like us? Because that is the Good News that we have to share; that is the prophetic vision that has the power to transform our world.

There are prophets in our midst. There is one sitting next to you right now. Look around. Listen. Keep awake. There is still darkness and despair and shattered dreams. There are still sins to be forgiven and enemies to turn into friends. It may not look like it, it may not sound like it, it may not feel like it, but in Jesus Christ, love has already won. The light of love and the glimmer of hope has broken through the gloom. The crooked places have been made straight, the valleys and mountains made smooth, the rough places made plain. Look and you will see the salvation of our God breaking through in a thousand pinpricks of light.

So, tune your ears to the voices crying from the wilderness, pay attention to the weirdos who speak of Good News and forgiveness and repentance and hope. Be the prophet who points to Jesus coming once more into our world. Amen. 

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

Download the sermon for Advent 2 (C).

We Need A Little Hopefulness, Advent 1 (C) – December 2, 2018


[RCL]: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

On May 24, 1966, a new musical opened on Broadway. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, starring Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur.

It’s the story of the madcap life of eccentric Mame Dennis and how her bohemian, intellectual, arty clique is disrupted when her deceased brother’s 10-year-old son Patrick is entrusted to her care. Rather than bow to convention, Mame introduces the boy to her free-wheeling lifestyle, instilling in him her favorite credo, “Life is a banquet, and most [people] are starving to death.”

At one point in the course of the play, Mame and her new ward are feeling sad. Patrick is mourning the death of his father, and Mame her brother, after all.

She decides to make happy, leading into the song We Need a Little Christmas. In the midst of the song, Patrick protests, “But, Auntie Mame, it’s one week past Thanksgiving Day now,” as if to say it is too early to decorate or celebrate Christmas.

That was 1966, when one week past Thanksgiving was too early for Christmas.

Fast forward to 2018, barely fifty years later. In August, one could encounter Christmas decorations and trees in the local home improvement store. And by November 15th, the Singapore Airport was adorned with “Merry Christmas” banners and the PA system was blaring Frosty, the Snowman. (And that in a country where they recognize four official languages, and the Christians—who are mostly ethnically Chinese—represent less than a third of the population.)

In most of these United States, the stores have unleashed a frenzy of sales events, special promotions, and cheery ads featuring Santa and his reindeer.

The Hallmark Channel is advertising its Countdown to Christmas movie fest, which began on November 1st.

And now there are folks insisting that the twelve days of Christmas begin on December 14 –so they can end on Christmas Day. Traditionally, of course, the first day of Christmas is December 25, and at the end of the twelve days, we have the feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.

And all of this is not about the birth of a Savior, it’s about spending, spending, spending. And spending a lot.

Remember the song I’ll Be Home for Christmas? It’s a Bing Crosby song from 1943. It speaks of “presents on the tree.” These were just little and usually handmade trinkets. Not presents under the tree, huge stacks and piles of purchased merchandise—but simple little gifts that could be hung on the tree’s branches.

And in the midst of all this, the church offers the season of Advent, which is definitely not about shopping for presents. As we heard in today’s gospel story, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

This is a prophecy of the end of times, a.k.a. the apocalypse, the Omega, Armageddon, Parousia, the End Times, the promised return of Jesus to judge both the living and the dead. It makes you feel a bit Scrooge-like, doesn’t it?

But perhaps you too have this odd, peculiar hope. Because we need a little hopefulness:

  • Hope that the severity of our political rhetoric is precisely what we need to come out of our illusionary comfort zones into a dangerous world and stand up for what is right and good and just.
  • Hope that we can rest in an unshakeable belief that we will be cared for in this life, that we will persevere in adversity, and that we will move on to life eternal.
  • Hope that we will be freed from our fear and become bright beacons to the brokenhearted, even as we too face the storm, knowing that God has our back.

But, wait a minute. What about this Christ returning in glorious majesty thing? What about last judgment? When we proclaim, “He will come again in glory to judge,” should that not make us quake in our boots? So—should we not be afraid that God will punish us?

Because, we need a little hopefulness, but, let’s face it, we are perfectly content to demand revenge when we get hurt, to live fat and happy surrounded by poverty, and to pick fights whenever we are confronted.

We are not sinister in this, just oblivious. We see only our own materialistic, xenophobic, retaliatory image. Not the image of God, who is quite different from the powers of empire and imperialism:

  • This Jesus we follow was born as a homeless traveler, whose family struggled to find welcome.
  • This Jesus we follow lived and ministered in poverty, at the mercy of the generosity of others.
  • This Jesus we follow offered no exceptions to his table of hospitality.
  • This Jesus we follow held more power than anyone on the planet—before or since—yet never once used the force of that power in the face of oppression, or violence, or even his own torture and execution.

Jesus showed an unquenchable, confident optimism—even in seemingly dire situations. And he commanded us not to fear, but live in hope.

And we need a little hopefulness.

  • Because horrors run non-stop through our news feeds, fanning our fear.
  • Because merchandise is offered to make us feel better, but really only increases that fear.
  • Because we fill up our lives with mostly meaningless activities, because it somehow is less frightening to keep busy.

In the relentless pursuit of acquisitions and wealth and power, we risk becoming spiritually disoriented, losing sight of anything sure and steady.

And then faith leaks out bit by bit, more and more fear seeps in, and we start sinking.

Once fear becomes the dominant force in our religion and our lives, we end up even more terrified, more desperate, more jittery. So we seek more and more stuff, we fill up more of our time with entertainment and events, and we grow more hostile to others, more contemptible of those who are different, more drawn to self-protection, mimetic violence, and even aggression.

In other words: we become less and less like Jesus. So we seriously need a little hopefulness.

The very heart of Christianity is inclusion and welcome and invitation. It is trust and contentment and hope that cannot be overtaken. It is serving and yielding and sacrificing.

It is not a scared narcissism that vilifies the other, relentlessly accumulates material goods and wealth, and seeks power or prestige.

And we can and will live in hope, not fear. Because you see, Jesus will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, every tyrant that ever was will one day stand before the judgment seat. So we need not fret about judging them—or anyone else.

Now, there’s a little hopefulness: the Last Judgment will put things right.

And, remember: we will stand before the judgment seat, as well.

Christ the King will know everything we’ve done or left undone. Everyone we’ve hurt. Every evil intent, every neglectful moment, every time we gave in to fear.

And he will say, “I forgive you. Welcome into paradise.”

Now, that’s more than a little hopefulness: that’s comfort, reassurance, glad tidings of great joy. “I forgive you. Welcome into paradise.”

So let us not be afraid. Let us prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior. Let us strive to emulate Jesus.

  • Jesus, who offers not fear but forgiveness.
  • Jesus, who offers not hate but sacrificial love.
  • Jesus, who offers not condemnation but life eternal.

What would this world be like if we, each of us, lived more and more into that sure and certain hope?

Father Barrie Bates lives in Jersey City and Michigan. He wishes to draw your attention to the Advent Project (theadventproject.org), which calls for a seven-week season of Advent, something the Revised Common Lectionary already supports. By this means, preachers will have the opportunity to speak of the Advent season and Christmas before the major Thanksgiving shopping rush. It’s worth considering.

Download the sermon for Advent 1 (C).

Servants of Christ the King, Christ the King Sunday (B) – November 25, 2018

Proper 29


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

This sermon is being written the day after the massacre of eleven congregants of the Jewish temple in Pittsburgh. As we approach the end of our Christian year and focus on the reign of Christ the King, we ponder this event and many other events of violence and terror, the mayhem and madness that stalk our land and the people of the world: the destruction and death in Syria and the prospect of famine in Yemen are but two examples.

The collect for today prays that, “the people of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” We cannot escape the awareness that this collect reminds us, that we are divided and enslaved by sin. None of us are exempt from our own complicit responsibility for the world we live in. None of us can honestly claim we bear no responsibility for the sad divisions in our nation. Our dishonesty in pointing the finger at others is graphically described by someone who said, “if you point your finger at someone else, there are three pointed toward you.”

So, how do we move forward with the banner of Christ as our King in a world that still seems to shout: “We have no king but the Emperor”?

The Gospel provides us with some direction. The dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, terse though it may be, illustrates the clashing of worldly and spiritual kingship. One is the threat of raw and absolute power with which we are all too familiar and to which we are often subjected. It is the power that has called us to war as a legitimate, but seldom necessary, solution. The other is a power that comes from disavowing the power of strength and might and turning to the power of love and redemption. The two are not compatible. We have to decide which we uphold.

Another topic in the Gospel is one very much at the center of our politics and culture today, and that is truth. Jesus tells us he came into the world to testify to the truth. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” There is no lie here; there is no shading or twisting of fact. The truth is that God loves the world, all of it, and gave his only Son to redeem it from sin and death.

The Nazis firebombed the industrial city of Coventry in England during World War II. The ancient cathedral was destroyed when the fire melted the lead on the roof and caused the building to collapse. After the war, a modern cathedral was rebuilt on the site, but visitors to Coventry know that adjacent to it are the ruins of an apse in which an altar stands with a charred cross, and behind it on the wall are the words “Father, forgive.” This place is a stark experience of the two opposing powers and the hope of redemption in the new cathedral where Christ in Glory is depicted above the high altar.

Images like this can help us in a time of discomfort and dread about what is happening. And the words of Christ himself remind us that to belong to the truth means listening to his voice, which may mean tuning out the voices of others claiming to have the truth.

So, how do we live in this time as citizens of the Kingdom of Christ?

We live as people of the truth, meaning we offer ourselves as ambassadors of the Good News to everyone. This does not happen by a sheer act of will. It happens by cultivating our attitudes and behavior through regular worship, the reading and study of Scripture, and our prayers. The more we feed from these sources, the more truthful our lives become, and less vulnerable to falsehood.

We live as servants of Christ the King. That means we find ways to serve him by serving others both within and without our faith community. If we think we can’t do that because of our limitations or fears, then we need to ask Jesus to show us what we can do. These actions replenish our depleted resolve and strengthen us for living in a chaotic world.

We live as a people who see opportunity in the community of others. This includes embracing the stranger, the refugee and the homeless, those who have no helper. Just singling out one person in these categories and finding ways to help them are ways to honor Christ the King.

We live as a people who hope in the life of the world to come. That doesn’t mean we discount this world altogether. It is God’s creation, given to us for our joy and benefit. But we know it is not where we are destined. Our hearts are restless as we await what is to come. Next Sunday, we begin a new church year and the season of Advent. As we sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” we are challenged to bring that coming closer with our hearts and minds and strength.

The people of Coventry saw their cathedral rise out of the ashes. They began a ministry of reconciliation, the Cross of Nails, now known around the world, as a vibrant mission of reconciliation and redemption. That vision calls us today to be people of hope and reconciliation, to pray and work for civil discourse and grace towards our neighbors, and especially those who differ from us.

Here is a story that you may have heard. It is a legend from the Cherokee people that has been quoted recently by many:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

As we honor Christ the King today, remember that Jesus is relying on us to be partners with him in bringing the truth to a world that tries to shut it out, but desperately needs to hear it and embrace it. Amen.

Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest who served small congregations in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Arkansas. He was officer for rural and small community ministries for the Episcopal Church from 1999-2005. Helmer currently lives in Holiday Island, Arkansas with his wife.

Download the sermon for Christ the King Sunday (B).

Journey Through Grief, Pentecost 26 (B) – November 18, 2018

Proper 28


[RCL]: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

In a church much like this one, a woman stays behind in the pews after the service. She is sitting at the back, off to the side, so no one notices her as they are tidying things up. Eventually, the priest comes back into the sanctuary to retrieve something and hears her crying. When the priest asks what’s wrong, the woman tells her story: she and her husband have been trying to have a child for over a decade. They have been through every fertility treatment, including intrauterine insemination and in vitro fertilization, as well as complementary alternative therapies like acupuncture and yoga for fertility. Nothing has worked. This week, the woman’s specialist told her that she is entering perimenopause. The couple also had to take out loans from family to pay for the treatments and she is utterly depleted—financially, emotionally, and physically.

Quietly, her husband joins them and puts his arm around his wife. He says to the priest that they have prayed faithfully to God for the blessing of a child. They have attended church, have tithed, have volunteered in their community, and have even bargained with God that they would dedicate their child to a rigorous Christian upbringing, sending him or her to an expensive, private Christian school, no matter what the cost. In essence, they felt like they had done everything in their power as faithful people and they felt as if in some way, God was punishing them. Their desire to become parents had ended up causing them more pain and isolation than they ever could imagine.

The priest listening to this couple’s story felt deep compassion for them. Immediately, the priest thought of the parallels they had to Hannah’s story, except for this couple there has been no happy ending, so how would sharing that be comforting? The priest’s mind then turned to some continuing education they received regarding perinatal grief and loss, remembering the statistics from the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s Reproductive Health report that 12% of women aged 15-44 had impaired fertility; 7.3 million women have used infertility services; in 35% of couples with infertility, a male factor is identified along with a female factor; and about 30% of the cause of infertility cannot be explained. How could the priest or anyone else bring comfort to this type of suffering?

For people struggling with fertility to hear the story of Hannah, on the surface, it sounds like a story about them: a person desperate for a child feels shamed by others and looks to God for succor and hopefully a miracle. They often conclude that if they would just pray hard enough, suffer long enough, and do the right things (whatever those are), God will perform a miracle and give them their longed-for child. The same goes for anyone who is challenged with chronic illness, pain, unemployment, abuse, and really any situation in which a person is not in control and wishes God, looking like Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books and movies, will wave a magic wand and give us our heart’s desire. But God doesn’t work in such a transactional or magical way, so we must look more deeply into what this story is about.

This story is about Hannah, but it is also about Israel and its monarchy. Hannah and her plight root us in what it meant to be a woman in a society that valued fecundity and male offspring. A society that itself was in barrenness, despairing of a leader, and in need of hope. Hannah represents a faithful servant who believes she means something to God in the midst of a social construct that tells her she is only worth the children she bears. If God cares about a marginalized woman, how could God not also care for the plight of Israel—an entire people?

Hannah’s journey through grief is emotional and spiritual, in which her connection and trust in pouring her heart out to God assist her in moving forward. And it is from this marginalized woman that Samuel, who will become a great prophet and anointer of kings, a new hope for the people called Israel, is born.

In response to God’s faithfulness, Hannah prays what is called “Hannah’s Song” in I Samuel, chapter 2, adding her voice to that of Miriam—Moses’ sister, and Mary of Nazareth—mother of Jesus. These women praise God who has created extraordinary circumstances so that the people of Israel may be delivered from distress in ways they could not imagine. The same goes for us as well. God cares about you and me in the midst of joy and pain. When we bring our whole selves to God in prayer and with faithfulness of life, we can become transformed. God is no longer seen as a shopkeeper who should hand over the goods when we believe we’ve paid our price. Nor is God a magical being who grants wishes based on whimsy if we’re on God’s good side that day. Instead, God becomes a constant and faithful companion on the journey, and this relationship bears witness to both who we are in each moment and who we are becoming.

This relationship was vital in the time when Mark’s Gospel was written. There are other prophetic figures going around predicting a variety of apocalyptic events that must happen in order for God to create a clean slate and establish a new creation. Jesus’ concept of prophecy is different. It is not something that predicts the future but instead is used to hasten repentance and reform. Therefore, the relationship that the disciples have with Jesus helps them discern what is true and what is false. When one does not heed a prophet, only then does destruction occur.

In the midst of chaos and swirling rumors of destruction, Jesus tells the disciples not to engage in the apocalyptic zeal going on around them. This speaks to us as followers of Jesus even now. As Christians, we have one charge, and that is to share the Gospel with others – especially in the midst of life and world events. Like Jesus, we have both opportunity and a mission to be with others. Instead of getting drawn into a mob mentality—blindly following others and being affected by their hysteria—we can focus on what is right in front of us and show others how our transformational relationship with God gives us strength and hope in uncertain times.

Jesus has reminded us about what God taught Hannah: that each of us matters, no matter how insignificant we may be in our society and in the world. Like the couple struggling with fertility, we do not know what the ultimate outcome will be. However, the priest at that moment had the opportunity to be the hands, feet, and listening ear of Jesus, as do each of us when in the midst of another’s turmoil. Our faith in God and faithfulness to each other saves us from destruction. This is the Good News, indeed! Amen.

The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, M.Div., MA, LMFTA is an Episcopal priest and Marriage and Family Therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota, and is now serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle. She is also a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. An advocate for spirituality and fertility issues, Danae has written articles and a chapter in the book Still a Mother: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement, been a guest on podcasts, and collaborated on and produced Amanda Aikman’s verbatim play Naming the Un-Named: Stories of Fertility Struggle. She was recently featured in the documentary Don’t Talk About the Baby, which can be found on Vimeo.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 26 (B).

Giving, Pentecost 25 (B) – November 11, 2018

Proper 27


[RCL]: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

She was a woman. She was poor. These are two facts anyone could tell that day in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem.

She was also a widow who was down to her last two coins. These are facts that Jesus also knew about her.

She was a woman of great faith. She became a living sermon. She remains an icon of faith as she put her whole trust in God, not holding anything back.

This unnamed woman is known now by her marital status and her coins rather than her name, for the story is “The Widow’s Mite” and she is “The Widow.” Yet we should be careful to note that it is the story of the widow’s mites as the woman had two small coins. Each of her coins were worth one four-hundredth of a shekel or what we might think of as an eighth of a penny each. Too small to bear a legible imprint, they were the grubbiest of coins in the empire of Rome.

Mark sets the scene for us sparingly. Jesus has been teaching in the temple courts. Now, on his way out, he pauses over and against the treasury to watch as offerings are made. Each person would walk up to one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles, which were lined along the wall of the Court of the Women. As they tossed in their offering, the person was expected to say aloud the amount and purpose of the gift in order to be heard by the priest overseeing the collections.

It would have been an impressive sight to see people in fine clothes tossing in large sums, calling out to all how much they gave. And in such a group, who would notice the widow tossing the two smallest coins in the realm into the offering? Yet, in a move that is so like him, Jesus notices and calls attention to this act of faith.

Jesus calls his disciples together and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus knows that these are not any two coins, but the woman’s last two coins. The text says, “All she had to live on,” but the Greek is starker still. What is really said is that she put in her bios. It’s the word from which we get “biology,” the study of life. For Jesus tells us that the widow put her “life” into the temple treasury that day.

This is not a sermon about tithing, for the woman did not give ten percent of her income. These were her last two coins to rub together, and rather than keep one back, she tossed both into the temple treasury’s coffers. The widow gave 100 percent of her money. The widow is down to two practically worthless little coins, and she trusts it all to God. If this were a gamble, then the widow would be laying all her money on God. But this is not a gamble, for the widow does not bet her money; she trusts her life to God.

It would be nice if Mark filled in more details for us. Was Jesus’ arm around the woman as he said, “This poor widow has put in more …” or was the woman blending back into the crowd, never to be seen again? Or perhaps Jesus asked his own keeper of the purse, Judas Iscariot, to give something to this woman so that she would not go hungry that evening. Or better still, did the widow come to be a Christ follower? Did she join with the other women who journeyed with Jesus from Galilee to the cross and beyond?

The Gospel never answers these questions. The nameless widow who gave two small coins fades into the background. We may want to know her name in order to name churches, schools, and hospitals in her honor. We may want to give her a place of honor in Jesus’ stories alongside disciples whose names we know, though their trust in God wasn’t always so exemplary.

But perhaps namelessness is appropriate for this living parable. And maybe it is best, too, that we don’t find out how her story ends. The nameless woman whose ultimate fate we never know is perhaps an even better icon of trust, for her story was a precarious one. She went to the temple that day not knowing if she would ever have two little coins to call her own again. It could have been her path to a life of begging or even a station on the road to starvation.

But in facing an uncertain future, the widow reached out to God. She trusted that if she gave everything she had to God, even the little she gave would be honored. And whether she was repaid handsomely by Jesus himself, or God cared for her in some other way, we, too, have to trust. We trust that the widow’s story turned out all right. We trust that whether she lived or died, she was God’s.

And by her example, Jesus shows that what we withhold may matter more than what we offer. The widow was a woman of great faith, who held nothing back. She knew what Jesus’ disciples were just learning: we are to give, knowing that everything we have is God’s already. We can’t give God anything. But we can offer our very selves to the Kingdom of God, holding nothing back.

She was a woman. She was poor. She was a widow down to her last two coins. She was a child of God who placed her whole life back in her loving creator’s hands.

This sermon, written by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue, originally ran November 12, 2006.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 25 (B).

The Surprise of the Resurrection, All Saints’ Day (B) – November 4, 2018


[RCL]: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Winston Churchill, arguably one of the greatest political and military leaders of the 20th century, planned every detail of his funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He worked clandestinely with cathedral staff, under the code name “Operation-Hope-Not.” (That code name reveals a lot about humanity’s attitude toward death, doesn’t it?) One aspect of his funeral seems absolutely inspired: a bugler played The Last Post, which is like the equivalent of Taps in the United States, from the west end of the cathedral. When the somber notes of that solo bugle echoed through the cathedral, I can imagine the stiff upper lips of many Brits quivered, as they were no longer able to hold back tears.

Then a full minute of silence passed.

And then, surely a surprise to all those mourners who crowded into St. Paul’s that day, another bugler, this one positioned in the east, rose to play Reveille, the happy morning bugle call that gives soldiers and scouts the “get up and go” they need to kick-start their day. Perhaps after the tears, a few suppressed chuckles slipped out. Always a commanding presence – even from the dead – Churchill relayed two important messages.

First, he offered a testimony to the shock, joy, and surprise of the Resurrection. At the last day, we’ll all rise to the sound of the Lord playing a heavenly version of Reveille and waking us up to the new life, new earth, new Jerusalem. It wasn’t random that the Reveille came from the east, where the sun rises, the direction the altar faces in many churches, the direction from which we expect Christ to return again.

Secondly, Churchill bid them to press on, to attend to the day at hand, and the life ahead, here and now.

But let’s go back in our imagination to that minute of silence because that is where we can locate this great feast day we’ve gathered to celebrate: All Saints’ Day.

That minute of silence is where we find ourselves wondering:

  • Is this really it?
  • What comes next?
  • Do we have enough tears to cry?
  • Is there enough patience to persevere?

Somewhere in the uncomfortable silence, having heard Taps and waiting for Reveille.

Somewhere in the waiting, for God to descend among us and wipe every tear from our eyes.

Somewhere in the hoping, that Jesus’ words are trustworthy and true.

Somewhere in the trusting, that God is preparing, for all peoples – my favorite saints and yours, those dearly departed in this community and abroad, folk we miss dearly and folk we never knew – that God is preparing a feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

Somewhere in the discomfiting silence, where we wait for God to swallow up death forever, even as it abides with us here and now.

And in this quiet and disquieting moment, when we wait, hope, trust on our best days and fight despair on our worst – that is the moment where we meet the Lord.

Today’s liturgy, feast, and Gospel reading all encourage us to feel the grief and sorrow, maybe even impatience at having to wait that long minute before we hear Reveille, or anger at how death takes away, at least in physical form, the people we love. We are given the courage we need to wait for Reveille – together, nourished around this table, hearing God’s story in our stories, and pleading, like Mary did, for Jesus to come and take death away.

Today’s Gospel story is remarkable. In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the event that provokes the necessity of Jesus’ death in the eyes of his day’s elite. After Lazarus was raised, the religious and political leaders were focused on eliminating him. There was something so threatening in Jesus’ disruption of the world on the world’s terms. Jesus is distraught: weeping, disturbed, maybe even angry, and certainly grief-stricken. And yet Jesus is fully in-charge, not operating on our preferred timetable, but on his own with a larger purpose in mind, that of engendering trust or belief in the crowd that had gathered.

Mary articulates what many of us feel when someone close to us dies: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus doesn’t directly respond to this. Instead, he begins to take charge, first finding out where the body is and then issuing a series of short commands:

Take away the stone.
Lazarus, come out!
Unbind him, and let him go.

What would it be like to prayerfully wonder how the Holy Spirit might be telling us in the words of Jesus:

“Take away the stone.” What stones in your life need to be removed so that Jesus can get to you? Ask for the grace to take away the stone.

“Lazarus, come out.” Jesus knows us each by name and calls us o’er the tumult. Even death can’t deafen our ear to Jesus’ call. “Lazarus, come out.”

“Unbind him, and let him go.” Sometimes each one of us needs help becoming free, loosing ourselves from the chains that bind us to death-dealing ways. To whom in your life can Jesus say, “Go, unbind your friend. The abundant life is available for him, for her, for you, here and now, even in your grief, even in your tears, even in your longing to be reunited with your beloved who is now part of that great cloud of witnesses.”

Each of these commands offers good material for our own prayer life. When we pray, just like when we receive the sacraments, we are closer to the saints because we are placing our hearts and minds in the nearer presence of God.

Jesus is very explicit about why he raised his friend Lazarus. He did this so that the crowd back then, and you and me today, might believe, might trust in the God who sent Jesus to raise Lazarus, in the Father who raised the Son on the third day, in the Lord who will swallow up death forever. This story inspires us in our waiting, in our hoping, in our trusting, in that long silence between Taps and Reveille.

And, maybe, just maybe, in heaven, the equivalent of Reveille goes like this:

Holy, Holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts…

And maybe, just maybe, every Sunday, we come back here to hear that tune, to wake up to it, maybe even to join in – with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven – including those saints we remember and grieve and are grateful for and celebrate this day.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy Glory. Hosanna in the highest.

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina as Rector of Grace Church in Waynesville.

Download the sermon for All Saints’ Day (B).

Let Me See, Pentecost 23 (B) – October 28, 2018

Proper 25


[RCL]: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

The ancients used to call sight, “The Queen of the Senses.” I suspect this enthronement of the sense of sight is still understandable to us. After all, what is lovelier than seeing the orange fire of the sky at sunrise? What is more beautiful than the burning leaves of autumn? What touches our hearts more deeply than seeing a smile on our beloved’s face? You can imagine your own feast for the eyes: sights that delight or enchant, sights that you want to linger over and savor. There are so many sights around me that I want to remember, but, I suppose, the sights I want to remember most are the faces of those I love. I want always to remember the sight of my brother’s face as he held his newborn baby. I want always to remember the wonder in my niece’s eyes as she pointed to geese flying overhead. I want always to remember the smiling, laughing eyes of my grandfather at family gatherings. I can understand why the ancients called sight “The Queen of the Senses.”

I guess this is why the language of sight and seeing has come to mean so much more than simple sense perception. In our everyday talk, we use the language of seeing as a metaphor for understanding. When someone tries to explain something to us, they say, “I want you to see what I am trying to tell you.” And when we finally get it, we say, “Now I see it!” “It was right before my eyes all along.” “It was staring me right in the face.” In our religious speech, we also use the language of sight as a metaphor for faith. We talk about those things that are visible only to “the eyes of faith.” In the Nunc Dimittis, we sing, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.” Classical theology spoke of our ultimate destiny as the “Beatific Vision”: a time when we shall behold God face to face. Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.

But sometimes learning to see can be hard work. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes studies done on people who recovered their sight after years of blindness. These people were enabled to see after doctors had discovered how to perform safe cataract operations. Dillard writes, “In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches… [they] learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult.” These people have no idea of space or distance and so they walk around bumping into the sharp edges of the color patches and only then realize that they are part of something substantial. Some people find their new sense of sight so difficult and frustrating that they refuse to use their new vision, and lapse into their old ways of perceiving things. A doctor reported of one twenty-one year old woman who had regained her sight: “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.” Another patient, so upset by the difficulty he has in learning to translate what he sees into something he can understand, says that he can’t stand it anymore and that he wants to tear his eyes out. Dillard also notes that for some, regaining a sense of sight is accompanied by a sense of shame. She writes, “A blind man who learns to see is ashamed of his old habits. He dresses up, grooms himself, and tries to make a good impression.”

Sometimes, learning to see can be tormentingly difficult. This seems to be true not only of physical sight, but also of learning to see the truth in the world around us, and, indeed, of learning to see the truth about ourselves. The pain and sorrow of this world so often make us want to avert our eyes from the truth. Turn on the nightly news and see the latest reports of violence in our communities, and we may feel like closing our eyes and relapsing into total blindness. Look with the prophet Isaiah at the massive injustices in our world, the grinding poverty, the degradation of human dignity, the prejudice, and we may feel like tearing our eyes out. Look at ourselves in the mirror and see the hurts and the wounds we have inflicted on others and on ourselves, and we may feel ashamed. Learning to see can be tormentingly difficult.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, we have the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus. When we look at Bartimaeus, we see that he was not only blind, but also that he was a beggar sitting beside the road. The truth about Bartimaeus is that because of his blindness, he had lost his freedom. Because of his blindness, Bartimaeus had become dependent on strangers. In particular, Bartimaeus had become dependent on folks who would travel the busy road between the major cities Jericho and Jerusalem. We see a blind beggar who had to rely on the handouts of passers-by, whose best bet was to position himself along the pathway of people who might toss him a coin or two.

When Jesus and his disciples walked by, Bartimaeus must have heard them, because he cries out for mercy. And what response do you think this blind beggar gets to his request for mercy? Mark tells us that “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” That’s a polite way of saying they told him to shut up. This poor man, this blind man, this man who is reduced to begging for his subsistence from passersby, cries out for mercy, and many people in the crowd tell him to shut his mouth.

But thanks be to God, Bartimaeus does not keep quiet. He cries out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And despite the attempts of the crowd to shut him up, Jesus hears him, hears his cry for mercy, and calls him to come near. When Bartimaeus learns that his request has been heard, he springs to his feet and runs to Jesus. And what does Jesus do first? He asks him a question: “What do you want me to do for you?” There is such an outpouring of compassion and love in this simple question. This blind beggar who was treated by so many people like a piece of trash along the side of the road, who was told to keep quiet, is now brought to Jesus who treats him like a human being. Notice, Jesus does not presume to know what Bartimaeus wants. Rather, Jesus raises this man up onto his own two feet, he takes him from a position of subservience and raises him up as human being, and asks him genuinely, lovingly, compassionately: What do you want?

And Bartimaeus says to Jesus, “My teacher, let me see again.” The depths of longing in that request are almost too much to bear. My teacher, let me see again, and let me no longer have to beg by the side of the road. My teacher, let me see again, and let me no longer be dependent on strangers. Let me see again, and let me no longer be looked at with pity and scorn by passersby. My teacher, let me see again, and let me go free.

And Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight. He leaves his begging cloak behind. And he follows Jesus on the way.

Learning to see can be tormentingly difficult. But if we are willing to undergo the painful process, learning to see can also transform our lives. Learning to see can lift us up onto our own two feet. Learning to see can free us to love and serve our neighbors. Learning to see can free us to love and follow the Lord.

Annie Dillard also writes about the amazing gifts of learning to see again. She writes of a little girl who visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer. She stands speechless in front of a tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.’” Another woman was so dazzled by the world’s brightness that she kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly explained: “Oh God! How beautiful!”

Oh God! How beautiful! Learning to see can be a painfully difficult process. There is so much about our world and about ourselves that may make us want to look away. In so many ways, we are all imprisoned by our own types of blindness. But the good news is that we do not have to remain in bondage to our blindness. We can learn to see. We can learn to look at our neighbors with compassion. We can learn to unmask the self-serving rhetoric of peoples and companies and governments that tell people to keep quiet while they are subjected to grinding poverty and violence. We can learn to look at our own frailties and failings and ask for help. We can ask people what they need and help them get onto their own feet again. And we can learn to look anew at this amazing, awesome, blooming, buzzing, glorious creation and all the creatures in it, including our own blind and beggarly human race and exclaim, “Oh God! How beautiful! Oh God! How beautiful!”

Let us pray. O Lord our God, hear our cries for mercy. Raise us up from our places alongside the way of life. Heal us from our blindness. Set us free to look with compassion upon those whom you place in our paths. Free us to follow you on the way of self-giving love. And at the last day, bring us with all your saints into that heavenly city where all tears will be wiped away and where we shall behold you face to face. Amen.

The Rev. Joe Pagano is an Appointed Missionary for the Episcopal Church, with Episcopal Volunteers in Mission. He and Amy Richter, his wife, will teach at the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa and visit several Provinces in Africa to work with our partners in the Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens”) project on theological education. He and Amy have a new book coming out in 2019 from Cascade Publishers, a collection of reflections by theologians, writers, and musicians on their experiences of worship in the Episcopal Church.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 23 (B).

Change Your Question – Change Your Life, Pentecost 22 (B) – October 21, 2018

Proper 24


[RCL]: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45 

Here they come: the Zebedee boys. In fact, you can see them coming. They’ve been shopping at Men’s Wearhouse, and they like how they look. They flash whitened smiles, they’ve got just enough grey around the temples to look experienced but not tired; enough tan to look sporty, not like they have to earn a living out of doors. They sidle up to Jesus. “Hey Jesus, can we speak with you in private, just for a moment?” They want to get him alone, out of earshot of the rest of the disciples, because they want something and they’re smart enough to know the others might not appreciate the deal they want to cut with the Lord.

“We’re close, right? Friends?” we can hear them saying. “We’ve had some special times together, you and us, right?” They don’t beat around the bush as they jockey for favor from the Lord. They come right to the point. They are ambitious for the top spots. The Zebedee Brothers want to be co-CEOs of the new Church. They want the cushy corner office with the great view. Toss in a country club membership or, better still for two former fishermen, a mooring at the Galilee Yacht Club. They want the top cabinet posts in Jesus’ administration. They want to give orders, not take them; ask the questions, not answer them.

If this caricature seems a bit caustic, then it captures the tone of the Gospel reading for today. But before we distance ourselves from the Zebedee boys too quickly, it’s worth considering that the reason the church saved this little story of big embarrassment for the disciples is that Jesus knows we all have a little Zebedee in us.

Maybe we don’t aim as high as they in wanting to be at Christ’s right and left hand in his glory, but maybe we do share something of their approach to life.

There has been a lot written about mission statements as a way to guide us as we go through life, about how as groups or as individuals, we can use mission statements to help us set priorities, to keep focus on what really matters most to us.

I think there is also such a thing as a mission question—a mission question that sums up our approach to life. And just like a mission statement, a mission question can guide, for better or worse, how we live our lives. When looking at James and John, we can surmise the question that guides their lives, that leads them into this embarrassing muscling-in on Jesus to ask for special status. Their mission question is, “What’s in it for me?”

Today’s scene is not just embarrassing, it’s heartbreaking, because we’ve seen how James and John left their fishing business and their father to follow Jesus. We’ve seen that they have sacrificed a lot to continue with Jesus down this road of discipleship. But today we see that ugly question, rearing its self-centered head: what’s in it for me?

Now James and John are on the right track in that they do have faith in Jesus’ victory. Even though Jesus has been saying all these strange things, like “the first shall be last and the last first,” and “become like a child,” and “those who are great must be servants,” they have faith that Jesus is actually a good leader, a man with great potential for power. Even though, like the rest of the disciples, they often don’t get what he’s saying, they think he’s the one to back, he’s the candidate who is going to come out on top. They think, even though some of his teachings are pretty upside-down and idealistic, Jesus will be glorified, and they want to be there when it happens, on his right and on his left. They’re willing to follow Jesus because they want to back a winner. And if Jesus is a winner, then maybe some of his prestige and power will trickle down to them. They’re approaching discipleship from this angle: what’s in it for me?

The sons of Zebedee don’t realize Jesus’ talk about service as a way of life, of the abundance that comes from being emptied out, of the security that comes from loosening your grasp on things and power and allowing yourself instead to be grasped by God, is not merely a means to an end. They don’t realize the irony, that if you can give up that question – what’s in it for me? – and instead serve, you will have an abundant, worthwhile, meaningful life. By giving up the question, what’s in it for me?, you’ll get more than you ever dreamed.

Jesus teaches and serves and lives and dies and is raised again for this truth: serving others is powerful. Giving up yourself for another, being emptied out in love is abundant life. But to find your way to these rewards, you have to stop asking the question, What’s in it for me?

What’s in it for me? It’s the question that turns friendships sour when you realize that someone seems only to take and never to give. It’s the question that reveals itself when in the midst of a project the going gets rough, the rewards seem far away, and the thanks even farther, and people originally onboard drift away. When the answer to the question, what’s in it for me?, seems to be less and less clear, so does their commitment. It’s the question that reveals itself when people come to any church as consumers, not worshippers, not servants, looking only for what we can get out of it, not what we might put in, not what God might get out of it through our efforts to be attentive and present in prayer and praise, for just a little while once a week. What’s in it for me? It’s a human question, one that we all ask at some time or another.

Even in our Gospel lesson, the sons of Zebedee are not alone. When the other disciples hear that James and John have put themselves above their peers, they run up to Jesus too. They’re angry. They’re mad. And not because they see that James and John have misunderstood. They’re mad because they didn’t think of it first. They’re angry because they think of power the way the world thinks of power – as something that’s yours if you take it, if you’re the strongest, swiftest, most politically savvy, most well-connected. They think there’s only so much to go around, and those sneaky little Zebedee brothers have gone ahead and grabbed the power first.

But Jesus doesn’t give up on his disciples. Jesus sees beyond all of this. Maybe he could see them as they would become, filled with the Holy Spirit after Pentecost, transformed into courageous witnesses whose dreams of greatness, whose what’s in it for me? attitude had been replaced by the humble goal of serving the Lord they love. Perhaps he could see that someday they would stop asking, what’s in it for me? and start asking the other question in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ question: What is it you want me to do for you?

At first glance, we may imagine Jesus asking this question in frustration. He asks it, after all, just after the Zebedee boys have come up to him and demanded that he say yes, even before they tell him what their demand is: “What is it you want me to do for you?” But this is the question Jesus always asks. Not to step on the toes of next week’s sermon, but we’ll hear Jesus ask it again in next week’s gospel when he’ll ask a blind beggar, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And the man will ask for healing. This is Jesus’ question for all who come to him. This is Jesus’ open, vulnerable mission question – a question that guides his life of service, of his willingness to meet us where we are, to allow us the freedom to tell him what we really want. This means sometimes that Jesus hears requests like James’ and John’s – requests that sound more like a child’s immature grasping – gimme, gimme, gimme. And sometimes, Jesus hears the honest response of those who know that Jesus is our only hope: requests for healing, forgiveness, a second or third or fourth chance, a chance to try again, a chance to come before Jesus empty-handed and say, “Lord have mercy, Lord, let me know your grace and love.”

A task for those who would follow Jesus is to allow Jesus to transform our questions so that we are people who ask not, “What’s in it for me?” but, “Jesus, what is it you want me to do for you?” And be brave enough to listen for Jesus’ answer and open to receive its rewards.

When your question is, “What can I do for you?”, when you concentrate mainly on what you can put into church in the way of personal work and prayer and participation, you feel that you receive even more than you give. You find that service can be challenging, but it also brings deep joy. Service can be demanding, but it also brings pleasure and contentment and hope.

Jesus comes to us and asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?” May Jesus heal and transform us so that we might ask the same of him and be brave enough to listen to the answer.  Amen.

The Rev. Amy Richter, Ph.D., is an Appointed Missionary for the Episcopal Church, with Episcopal Volunteers in Mission. She and Joseph Pagano, her husband, teach at the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa and visit several Provinces in Africa to work with our partners in the Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens”) project on theological education. She and Joe have a new book coming out in 2019 from Cascade Publishers, a collection of reflections by theologians, writers, and musicians on their experiences of worship in the Episcopal Church.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 22 (B).

Possessions, Pentecost 21 (B) – October 14, 2018

Proper 23


[RCL]: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

In today’s Gospel, a man with many possessions encountered Jesus. His wealth of possessions is central to the message.

Possessions – are they good or bad? Blessings or hindrances? Deficits or potential assets?

Like many aspects of life, it all depends. But, perhaps, the more important questions are: What is this Gospel story all about? How does Jesus use the possessions to teach his disciples about God? How can possessions or anything else make all the difference in our seeking ultimate answers about the meaning of our lives?

The man with many possessions started off with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was looking for an inheritance – not a gift or a payment or an allowance or a reward – but an inheritance. The Greek word quoted by Mark seems to convey exactly what it does to us. Did the man with many possessions see himself as a child of God who was due a birthright like one might expect from a parent? Yet, the dialogue that followed his question seems more like an exercise in earning something rather than inheriting it.

Whatever the case, he wanted Jesus to tell him how to secure the benefits of God’s most fundamental values – and to find the key to a meaningful, contented, and fulfilling life.

Jesus’ initial response to “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is also quite interesting. Referring to the Ten Commandments, he offered a list of what the man had to do to qualify. But when the man with many possessions testified to his lifelong practice of following the commandments, Jesus sought to provoke in him, as he provokes in us, a whole new level of understanding about eternal life in God. With love for him, the Lord said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Eternal life does not mean life until the end of time. It is not about quantity, but quality. Eternal life means a deep connection with the ageless and invincible values of the Kingdom of God. Eternal life describes the quality of relationship between human beings and Christ, bringing us into a present knowledge and experience with the loving and living spirit of God.

As we consider our Lord’s encounter with the man with many possessions, we can imagine Jesus’ insight into his heart and soul. He had followed the specific, outward regulations that were spelled out in the Bible – but Jesus perceived that something still blocked him from total obedience to God – his many possessions. Material belongings stood in the way of his following Christ, because, having heard Jesus’ opinion that he needed to give them up, he went away shocked and grieving, stunned and defeated – perhaps with a broken heart. He could not meet the ultimate measure of obedience to God. His love of possessions blocked him from totally loving God and following Christ.

Many scholars are quick to say that this is not necessarily a teaching by Jesus against a Christian’s having material possessions, in whatever quantity. They remind us that the crisis for the man with many possessions was not how much he owned, but that the property owned him, blocking his way to unity with God.

Thinking about such views is a necessary beginning for each of us to examine in our own lives the relevance of today’s Gospel story.

Would Jesus have said to another person, “One thing you lack,” and then listed something quite different from selling possessions and giving the income to the poor? What does Jesus say to you and to me – about the one thing more that we lack? What do we need to give up, to rid ourselves of, to put behind us, that would allow us completely to follow Christ? What can blind us and deafen us from connecting with God?

What is the radical reorientation of our lives that will lead us to follow Christ? What is it that stands in the way of our becoming what God intends us to be?

It is almost certainly selfishness of one sort or another – because putting ourselves first puts God second or third. Because we do this, we become separated from the Holy Spirit’s resources.

What is it that we need to give up in order to gain what is much more valuable? Is it greed or prejudice – ignorance or pride – anger or the need to control others, the inability to acknowledge our sins of hurting others or the “things we have left undone” or something else?

Or is it, after all, a love of possessions that stand in our way of connecting with the eternal life that we can find only in God? It the fate of the man with many possessions at least in part potentially our fate? Is what stood in his way also at least in part what stands in our way, preventing us from totally connecting with God and following Christ?

We live in a culture of materialism in which we measure too much in monetary terms. We are inundated day after day, hour after hour, by advertising that insists that if we buy one thing or another that we will be happier and better off. The push for more and more material possessions insinuates itself into our lives constantly.

For the majority of us who are not impoverished – for those who do not live with severely limited resources, this is a question we must examine.

An Anglican bishop from Africa once declared to an American audience that it was much easier for the Christians of his diocese to truly know God than for those living in the United States. This is so, he stated, because most in his diocese are very poor and that condition leads them to know the need for God in every way. This is so, because their prospects of becoming rich are so remote that they focus on deeper, more spiritual values.

Americans in contrast, he suggested, have a chance to gain nearly every material possession they want. So, we often become convinced, at least subconsciously, that we can buy happiness and meaning. This delusion can leave us void of the lasting, deep-down joy that possessions cannot bring.

Finally, it seems ironic that the man with many possessions asked about “inheriting” eternal life. The truth is, he had already inherited it – as a child of God. The God-within-him existed as a part of the created order – because he, like each of us, was created in the image and likeness of God. He had inherited God’s spirit already – he just didn’t know it. Jesus tried to open him to understanding that reality – to instruct him how to break through what blocked him from recognizing and utilizing the very spirit of God that he only had to put before all else in his life.

What must we do, what must we give up, in order to recognize and put to use the eternal life that each of us has inherited?

The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 21 (B).

Sacred Mysteries, Pentecost 20 (B) – October 7, 2018


[RCL]: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Sometimes we are so familiar with something that we don’t even notice it anymore. The little bit from the second chapter of Genesis that we just heard, and that we just heard Jesus quote, is like that. It’s so familiar it’s invisible. But it is dreadfully important and says some absolutely basic things about our vision of the world and of human life.

Remember the central pronouncement of God in the creation story? Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, God has said one thing about His creation over and over: “God saw that it was good.”

But now God looks at all he has made, everything, and says, “It is not good.” It is not good that the man – and here “man” means not a male person, but a human being – should be alone.

Think about that. Listen to that. Everything else is good, but this isn’t. Notice also that Adam, the human being, was hardly alone in the garden. First of all, God was with Adam in the garden. That’s a lot all by itself. Then, when the animals were all done, all of nature, all of creation, was with Adam in the garden. The whole world was there. The man was not alone.

In fact, this sounds like the perfect situation for much of popular American religion – one man alone, surrounded by nature, with God close at hand. How many times have we heard people say that this is really all the religion anyone needs: just me, God, and the great outdoors? Sometimes this is symbolized by a golf course or a trout stream. But when God saw it, when God saw one person, God, and the great outdoors, God didn’t say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Instead, God said, about this and only about this: “It is not good”.

Creation wasn’t finished yet. As long as the man lived in isolation from other people, the creation of a good, a complete, human being, had not yet happened.

It was in order to complete creation, to make a whole human being, that the other person, Eve, is created.

There are a couple of things to notice here. First of all, this story is not as much about the roles of men and women as it is about what it means to be a human being. Also, it is not saying that everyone should be married or that only married people are whole people. That’s just not true. After all, Jesus, the perfect image of God, was single. But this is saying that we human beings can only grow into who we are created to be with and through the other – through relationship and community. This growth happens in many ways, but it does not happen alone. If you ask an honest monk where his biggest and most important struggles come from, he’ll tell you “other monks.” We do not become whole or complete in isolation, but through community, through the “other.”

It is to this end that God has given us certain structures and situations in which we can, maybe, begin to discover what it means not to be alone, and where we can have our humanity drawn, and sometimes dragged, out of us. God has given us schools of love, places to grow.

Marriage and families are first of all about this. They are schools of love. And while not everyone is called to the vocation of marriage, for those of us who are, this business of helping one another grow into who we are created to be is one of the primary reasons God created marriage. To be sure, there is more to it than this, but that is primary.

In much the same way, God has called us to be the Church, and he has called us into this church, because without something like this we simply cannot be very Christian, in spite of – or more likely, because of – both the difficulty and the joy other people bring.

One of the central insights of Christianity is that being a part of a real, human, chunk of the body of Christ is essential to any serious Christian growth. Like marriage and family, parish life, church life, is not really about agreement, success, having our needs met, or happiness. Instead it is a school of love. It is about growth into wholeness. That is why, in Church as in families, the real ties that bind are ties of love and circumstances, not of any other sort of homogeneity.

Such growth is simply not possible without commitment to a lifetime of effort and intentionally seeking the grace and help of God. God’s intention that marriage be lifelong is not an arbitrary and difficult rule God gives us to make our lives even more difficult. Instead, such intention is a gracious and necessary (if minimal) requirement if a real marriage is even to be possible.

In the same way, our Baptismal vows, which include a commitment to the life of the Christian community wherever we find ourselves, are also for the long haul; for better or worse.

So are life vows in monastic communities and the commitments involved in the other schools of love we are given. These vows are lifelong in intention, because God knows we need at least that long to begin doing what we promise to do.

Sure, there are times when that does not happen. There are sometimes situations in which separation is the only option that contains hope and the possibility of healing. We have all known that reality. People leave churches and find new ones – as most of you know from experience.

And the pain and tragedy of divorce – and the fact that it brings very real possibilities of both destruction and new hope – is, in one form or another, a part of the lives of every one of us. If it hasn’t happened to us personally, we have been affected, often deeply affected, by it. These failures of relationship are devastating, and those who hurt need our love, our compassion, and our support.

But there is also an important thing about these experiences, about the times we fall short. We see them as tragic exceptions to the way we know life should be, and the way we want our lives to be. We know that we often miss the mark of our convictions and our beliefs. Yet even in the midst of our failure, we continue to stand firmly for the truth of God’s vision of life. Our vows, our marriage vows and our baptismal vows, our ordination vows, these are not for just now, they are not for just when it feels good; they are for life. That is our standard and our goal. We may fall short, but we hold to that standard.

All of this is really to say that, at its heart, marriage is not a convenient human institution for protecting property, regulating sexuality, and safeguarding children. And at its heart, the Church is not a voluntary social convenience for like-minded people to share in an essentially private task.

As ordinary and as unglamorous as they usually are, both marriage and the Church are vastly more than this. They are sacred mysteries, built into creation and into human nature. They are schools of love, gifts of a loving God. For it is not good to be alone; and the only way to goodness, to wholeness, is through commitment, relationship, community, and the grace of God.

This sermon, written by the Rev. James Liggett, originally ran October 8, 2006.

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