Lament, Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

[RCL] Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

After the sermon ends in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, it is customary for the minister to invite us, “in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.” The Church invites us to self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word. Many of us recall what we have “given up” in Lents past: chocolate, wine, social media, even meat. Or maybe we remember gathering for soup and bread suppers in the fellowship hall. Or trying to decide whether we keep the ashes on our forehead all day or wipe them off.

Most of us have associations with Lent, and often they focus on ourselves. After all, the Church’s invitation to a holy Lent includes two references to the self: self-examination and self-denial. This focus on the self makes sense to some degree; there is truth in the slogan that “the only person you can change is…yourself.

But I wonder if this Lent, we might expand the focus of our Lenten discipline – nudging beyond the boundary of self, or even our church communities, toward the wider world, toward society. None of us exists in a vacuum apart from societal influences, and societies are collections of selves. If we change ourselves, we change society. And the reverse is also true: if society changes, we are changed, too.

While this understanding of porous boundaries between self and society is not especially apparent in the Church’s invitation to a holy Lent, it is evident elsewhere. The ancient baptismal liturgy is a good example; in it, we renounce evil on three different “levels,” if you will: the cosmic level, by renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God”; the social level, by renouncing “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” and, of course, the personal level, the level of the self, by renouncing “all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.”

Lent provides a concentrated period of time—40 days—to do all we can, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to “get right with God.” God can do some pretty amazing things with us in 40 days’ time. And this year, one marked by excessive political rancor and a torrent of natural disasters, you are invited to expand the focus beyond the self with the traditional practices of praying, fasting, and giving alms, as presented in Matthew’s Gospel, toward a practice suggested by the prophet Joel: communal lament.

Joel writes, “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” Try to imagine this in your mind’s eye: instead of a somber procession with the priest following the cross expressionless, she is weeping and wailing as she goes down the center aisle! Most of us would probably want to run for the hills, or at least get her a tissue so she could get it together. Crying in public is something that most of us try to avoid…we don’t want to be accused of getting overly emotional.

But Joel encourages weeping priests – priests who can cry out, mourn, lament over the tragedy playing out in society. In the first chapter of Joel alone, either God or Joel, speaking on God’s behalf, prescribes or describes lament, mourning, crying out, or groaning no fewer than seven times. Even the animals and the soil are mourning and crying out!

Why all of this lamentation, this mourning, this crying?

Well, we don’t know exactly what prompted Joel’s prophecy. We do know it was a time of tremendous crisis: the land, literally the soil, the foundation supporting all life, was being destroyed either by locusts or a foreign army. Joel sounds the air raid siren: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain. Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble” (Joel 2:1a).

Perhaps lament is the first step toward repentance, at least on the social level. And maybe the weeping priest models for all of us how to lament. We lament as we approach the holiest place in our lives: the altar.

The place where we remember Christ’s death, proclaim his resurrection, and wait for his coming again.

The place where we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection to new life.

The place where we receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where there will be crying no more, and nothing, personally or socially or cosmically, to weep about.

Of course, lament is not something we do easily in our culture. In fact, it is almost anathema to us. One of our favorite ways to avoid lament is to play the blame game. Recently an editorial cartoon came out, poking fun at both the political left and right. It showed a man complaining about President Obama and a woman complaining about President Trump, and at the bottom their complaints were identical: “And because of him the nation is divided.” Instead of looking at the growing partisan divide and feeling the pain of it, we often prefer to blame “the other side” for it and stoke our anger.

Another popular way to avoid lament is to deny that there is any pain. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think about ways we deny our pain – substance abuse comes to mind first. And not just street drugs or the opioid crisis, but the significant increase in alcohol consumption we see across the board and especially among women, minorities, seniors, those with less formal education, and lower incomes. Instead of feeling the pain and offering a lament to God, many of us choose, consciously or not, to become numb.

But what happens to us and for us when we lament, instead of denying our pain or blaming something or someone for it? And what, might we imagine, happens to God?

When we lament, we recognize the limits of our ability to control the world around us. We are at our wit’s end, as the Psalmist put it, and out of desperation cry out to a power greater than ourselves; we cry out to the Lord. We allow ourselves to feel the pain of social problems and injustices that result from systems that are too complicated, too entrenched, too big, for any one of us to fix. We air our complaints, we tell the truth of our suffering, we question God’s love, we confess our despair, we cry our tears. And we beg. We beg, and we plead for God to intervene, to act, to have mercy on us, to help us “turn and be healed” as the Prophet Isaiah has put it.

And for God’s part? Well, the testimony of Scripture shows us that God has responded in many and various ways to lamentations. In the Book of Lamentations, God is silent. More often, however, God’s response is one in which both judgment and salvation seem to happen simultaneously. And sometimes, God intervenes and saves us in ways we hope for. That’s what happens in the prophecy of Joel. In the midst of the great social crisis, the people lament, not about their personal sins, but about what has happened to their society.

Together they fast. They pray. They beg. They return to God.

And they discover, again, in their own time and place that God is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,” a God who is eager to leave a blessing behind.

So today, we hear the Church’s invitation to observe a holy Lent – to pray, to fast, to read God’s Word. Let’s remember Joel’s invitation to us to lament. To cry aloud, to mourn, to weep, to feel and express the pain of the world. What is that pain for you, in your place? Is it violence? The political divide? Addiction? Is it generational poverty that we can’t seem to legislate our way beyond? What does your community lament? And how might your community cry out together to God about it?

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning…Who knows whether [the Lord] will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind…?” (Joel 2:12, 14). 

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 Ash Wednesday.

Names, Feast of the Holy Name – January 1, 2018

[RCL] Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story.

One of the pleasures of reading literature is discovering the meaning of characters’ names. Authors will often give their characters names that tell us something important about who they are and about what they will do in the story. The great master of giving characters names is Charles Dickens. He gives us the policemen, Sharpeye and Quickear; the family physician, Dr. Pilkens; and the surgeon, Dr. Slasher. The Bigwig Family are the stateliest people in town, Mr. Bounderby is a self-made man and social climber, and the Reverend Mechisedech Howler is a preacher of the Ranting Persuasion.

One of the things that children seem to like about the Harry Potter stories is the names of the characters. They have fun sounds, and their meanings are none too subtle. Severus is a Latin word for “severe” or “strict,” and Professor Severus Snape is a strict teacher if ever there was one. “Malfoy” sounds like the French for “bad faith,” mal foi; and draco means “snake” or “dragon” in Latin. Put them together and you get Draco Malfoy, a real bad apple. And the headmaster Dumbledore’s first name is Albus, which means “white,” so we may suppose he is the leader of those on the side of light.

Today in our church calendar we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. In the New Testament, we are told that God is the one who gives Jesus his name. And in giving Jesus his name, God is telling us something important about Jesus’ character and the role he will play in the story of God’s love for the world.

In our gospel lesson for today, we hear that “after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” It was apparently the custom in Jesus’ day to name a male child at the time of circumcision, which was the act by which he was made a member of the people of God. That Jesus’ parents had him circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth demonstrates their piety and fidelity to the Law of Moses. The beginning of the story of Jesus is part of the larger, ongoing story of God’s love for God’s people. Jesus’ name tells us about his place in this story.

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, through the angel Gabriel, God tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son and that she is to “call him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” In naming Jesus, God is telling us something about who he is. The name “Jesus” is a Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “the Lord helps” or “the Lord saves.” When we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus, we are celebrating the one through whom and in whom the Lord helps or saves his people.

This is a rather audacious name to give to a baby. Since many of us know the end of the story, it may seem less so, but we should not overlook what an extraordinary thing the naming of Jesus is. Before his teaching and preaching, before his healings and miracles, before his death and resurrection, Jesus is already identified by God as the one through whom He will save his people. An 8-day-old baby named Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High.” In the naming of a tiny child, we already catch a glimpse God’s audacious plan to save the world through the gift of a vulnerable human being.

It may surprise many of us to learn that we have also been given an audacious name. The Catechism in older versions of the Book of Common Prayer used to begin with this question: “What is your Name?” After saying your name, you were then asked, “Who gave you this Name?” The answer to this question was to be the following: “My Sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” When we were given our names in baptism, we were made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

Our names, given in baptism, tell us something important about our characters and the roles we are to play in the story of God’s love for the world. Who are we? Most fundamentally, most deeply, we are beloved children of God, members of Christ, and through him heirs of the promised kingdom. How are we to live? We have our roles to play in God’s story of salvation by turning away from evil and wrongdoing, but putting our faith and trust in Christ, by believing in the articles of faith, and by keeping God’s commandments.

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story. Yes, we are vulnerable human beings with ordinary names like Harry and Sally and Sue. But we have also been given names in baptism that identify us as extraordinary participants in the story of God’s love for the world.

Today we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. It was given to him when he was eight days old, when he was circumcised and made a member of the people of God. The angel Gabriel told his human parents to name him “Jesus,” which means “the Lord helps” or “the Lord saves.” It tells us that Jesus is the one through whom God’s love will embrace the whole world. This is an extraordinary and audacious name to give to a tiny baby. It is also an extraordinary and audacious plan to save the world through a vulnerable, flesh-and-blood human being. The audacity of God’s plan continues in our own names given in baptism. Those names identify us with Jesus and his story. In his Holy Name, we claim our true identities as children of God and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story.

This sermon, written by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano, originally ran for the Feast of the Holy Name on January 1, 2011.

Download the Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name.

In the Beginning…, Christmas 1 – December 31, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John are certainly well-known—“In the beginning was the Word.” But this passage can seem too floaty, too esoteric, too obscure, abstract, and idealized. It’s poetry, yes, but it’s not particularly helpful poetry, and when we read the Bible, most of us like to gather some sort of concrete idea of what to do in our lives on an everyday basis.

But if John thought poetry was the best way to introduce Jesus and encourage us to encounter Jesus, why was that?

This text reveals that we need to think differently about who we are. It’s very easy as we go about our daily lives making our daily mistakes to get very down on ourselves, to believe we are constantly disappointing God and everyone else. And while it’s important to never lose sight of our feet of clay, the fact is that God created us but a little lower than the angels, and sometimes we need to rise into the stratosphere with John and live into that a bit.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means being changed. We are born blessed by God, created in the image of God, but salvation makes us a new creation in Christ. Listen to how Isaiah talks about how God has changed him in our lesson today: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels…You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.”

Our trust and faith in God that we struggle so doggedly to maintain and renew makes us, who are already cherished by God, into souls who shine with new potential and the beauty of life immersed in God. This is true even when we are sinning because the underlying reality of our desire and hunger for God will always drive us to stand up again when we’ve fallen, to reach out again when we’ve lost contact with God, to open up again when we’ve hardened our hearts.

What can we learn about what Jesus wants us to be from what we learn about who Jesus is in John’s prologue? John says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” You were part of a process much greater than your parents creating a biological exchange. Jesus Christ himself, the great and eternal Word, was the vehicle of your creation, was the medium and the messenger that spoke a unique word into the universe that never was before and never will be again. That’s you.

You might not believe little old you could be that special or important. But John says it himself: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” You are a child of God born of the will of God.

In fact, we were so important to God that Jesus chose to leave all his heavenly glory, emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave, as Philippians says. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,” John goes on. That’s what we’re celebrating today, on this first Sunday of Christmas. God chose to humble Godself to the level of a poor, limited, human creature. And more than that—notice that John adds, “And we have seen his glory.” Jesus didn’t just become human for a minute or an hour or a day and then go right back to heaven. He lived among us for thirty-three years, enduring the messiness, the heartbreak, the inconvenience, the joy, and the pain of human life.

And he never walked out on that pain. He could have used his power at so many moments to ease his way. It would never have affected his healing or his teaching. There was no reason for him to suffer the pain he went through, from getting sick to getting in arguments to having clueless disciples, to having friends die, all the way up to the excruciating suffering he experienced on the cross. But he did it because he loves us, and he would never abandon us to suffer alone.

He entered the pain willingly because he wanted to go to the darkest depths of human suffering, because that is where all of us end up at some point in our lives, some of us more than once. That is what John means when he says “and we have seen his glory.” Not his glory in the sense of being powerful or mighty or wearing a robe that shines like the sun and ascending to heaven on a cloud. We have seen his glory as he dwelt among us because there never has been and there never will be any place of pain, lostness, suffering, or addiction that we can go and not find him there with us, bearing it with us and for us.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known,” John says. This can help us see the Incarnation and the Christmas season in a whole different way. If Jesus had not been born, that first sentence, “No one has ever seen God,” would still be true. Mary and Joseph and Peter and John would not have seen God, and we would not have seen God. But because God made the choice to share Godself with us in human form, we have seen God in Jesus Christ, and it is amazing.

And that second sentence, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” This shows us once again what Jesus gave up and sacrificed to come to us, a completely different sacrifice from the giving of his life on the cross. He was close to the Father’s heart. That was where he lived, in the perfect Trinity of love. And he left that peaceful, radiant and loving place, the place close to the Father’s heart, for us. And why? To stay with us forever? Yes, but more than that. To bring us to that place. To bring us close to the Father’s heart. He told us so himself: “I go to prepare a place for you.” He doesn’t even take his special place back for himself. He gives it up for us. And this is the fundamental reordering of the universe that happened on Christmas that we celebrate today.

It’s worth living in the poetry sometimes. We can get frustrated when we don’t get concrete direction from a Bible passage. But the poetry is what explains the why of all the literal actions of discipleship we’re trying to do. What takes tithing and studying and praying and worshipping and serving from being rote, mechanical duties to being our offering of our very selves to the living God, is the cosmic story of God and humanity of which John sings. The beauty of the words, and underneath that, the beauty of the truth that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—that poetry is what makes our souls catch fire for God and all God asks of us.

This is why scripture matters so much. Because when real life comes crashing in, when the divorce papers are served, when the job loss happens, when the cancer or Alzheimer’s diagnosis comes through, we have to have somewhere to anchor our souls. And we do, in a few simple words a man named John wrote a very long time ago. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The hard knocks of life plus the poetry of scripture give us the chance to build our lives so that we become a word of poetry ourselves, one little phrase expressed by the great Word that is God.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Associate Rector the St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1 (B).

The Work of Christmas, Christmas Day (III) – December 25, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Note: There are three approved lectionary readings for Christmas Day. Find sermons based on other readings here.

This is John’s Christmas. This is incarnation. No shepherds, no angels, no crèche, no Magi. John’s story is so utterly unlike the familiar crèche or pageant. How on earth could one make this, John’s story of the incarnation, into a pageant? It begins before time itself!

Note the opening words: “In the beginning…” The first to hear or read John’s Gospel had heard these words before. We all have. The entire Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning, God created…” Jesus’ origins are cosmic – at the very root of the universe, “all that is, seen and unseen.” And we now know that fully 95% of the created universe is unseen: dark matter and dark energy. Only 5% is anything at all like us, and animals and rocks and trees and stars and planets. God’s creation is mostly unseen.

John puts Jesus, the Word, the logos, present before anything was made. Before God said the word, “Light!” and there was light! God speaks and things come into being. Before God speaks, however, there was the “Word.” In Greek that is logos – word.

But for Jews and Gentiles alike in the first century, this word logos meant more than what we think when we say “word.” For at least six centuries before Christ came into the world, logos had currency among philosophers, and meant something like the principle of reason that rules the universe. Logos could also describe the Hebrew idea of wisdom – hokma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek. According to the rabbis, wisdom was responsible for creation. So universal is this Word, this logos, that it is in everything that has been created. There is nothing “made that was made” that is not made through this Word. This is why we promise in our Baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Christ as logos is in all persons and in all things. Thus, our need to care for the Earth and everyone and everything therein.

The Word, says John, is life. And this life is light – the light of the world. This light is a beacon that shines and cuts through all darkness – and darkness does not overcome this light. That is, there is evil, not just in people but in all the created order. Our redemption in and by the Word – the logos – is a vital part of a larger project – the redemption of the entire universe of God’s creation.

Yet, we who come from this Word, this logos, do not readily recognize him. He comes to those of us who claim his name as our own – Christian – and yet we know him not. This continues to be a problem. Just look around us. Two thousand years of claiming his name as our own, and just how brilliantly does the world around us reflect this life-giving light? In a world of ongoing brutalities – torture, killings, mass shootings, capital murder as retribution, bombings, not to mention hunger, loneliness, hatred, bigotry, poverty, and rejection of strangers. We are promised that all who do receive him, accept him, follow him, are given power – power to become “children of God.” We say we receive, accept, and follow Jesus the Word, but is this at all reflected in all that we do or say? Or, in all that is done or said on our behalf by others who claim to know, receive, accept, and follow this Word?

It makes it all the more remarkable that this Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. The text literally says he “tabernacled among us.” That is, he pitched his tent; this Word, this logos, set up shop right in our midst despite our not knowing him. We are meant, of course, to recall that other time in our tradition’s past when God tabernacled among us in the tent of meeting in the wilderness – that place where “the glory of the Lord filled the tent.” Again, we behold his glory!

For John, this is Christmas. The Word of God comes and pitches his tent to sojourn with us, giving us another chance to know, accept, and follow him. We behold his glory. He adopts us as his own.

A story is told about some Navy SEALs sent to free a group of hostages in one of the corners of the world. As they storm into the hiding place, they find the hostages huddled on the floor in a corner of the room. The SEALs tell them they are there to take them home. Get up and follow us. No one moves. They are so damaged by the experience of their captivity that they do not believe these are really people sent to set them free. So, one of these SEALs does something: he takes off his helmet, puts down his gun, gets down on the floor, softens his face, and huddles up next to the captives, putting his arms around a few of them. No guards would do this. He whispers, “We are like you. We are here to be with you and to rescue you. Let us take you home. Will you follow us?” One by one, the prisoners get up and are eventually taken to safety on an aircraft carrier and brought home.

Lots of rhetoric and ink have been spilled to explain the miracle of the incarnation – how it is God becomes one of us to take us home – to redeem us as a step in redeeming a broken world and broken universe. God sees us captive to many things, unwilling to simply step away from those things that keep us in prison – often prisons of our own making. In Jesus, God takes off all his glory, gets down on the floor with us, huddles up with us – tabernacles among us, pitches his tent among us – and whispers, “It is OK. I am with you. I am one of you now. Come with me, follow me, and I will take you home.”

John tells us that the essence of Christmas does not need a crèche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word. To accept the Word. To get up and follow the Word. There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Christ, the Word, we can see his light and the logos. He will lead us home. This is incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the work of Christmas to begin.

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations 

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day.

Love in Translation, Christ the King Sunday – November 26, 2017

[RCL] Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the season after Pentecost is coming to a close. It is the longest season of the church year, marking the time by reminding us what it means to live as a disciple, be good stewards of what we have been given, and how to grow in relationship with God. Our church year isn’t a normal, linear calendar. Instead, it is circular, beginning with Advent and ending with this day, the last Sunday after Pentecost. “Always, we begin again,” as the Benedictine saying goes.

Many of the church’s yearly celebrations have gone on for centuries, with over a millennium of tradition and history enriching them. They mark the events of Jesus’ life: his birth, his journey to the cross, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his sending of the Holy Spirit to remain with us. We tell these stories in our church calendar, year after year. They shape us in a multitude of ways as we become part of the stories—and they become part of us.

Now, here we are, at Christ the King Sunday, the feast day that dates back all the way to…1925. Yes! This tradition is not even 100 years old, yet it came at a time in the world where God seemed to be losing ground. As explained on churchyear.net, the devastating First World War had been fought, and the powers of nationalism and secularism were rising. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King to lend courage to Christians whose faith might be flagging, to remind nations that the Church has a right to freedom and immunity from the state, and in hopes that leaders and nations would be bound to give respect to Christ.

Initially, the feast was celebrated on the last Sunday of October but was then moved in 1969 to its current place in the liturgical calendar to be a vision of Christ to which the rest of the year points. And what a vision it is! The scriptures today help us understand the shape of what the Messiah is to be and it’s not quite what we expect.

There’s a large mural on the side of a building in downtown Spokane, Washington, that is a copy of artist Pat Marvenko Smith’s painting of the book of Revelation’s vision of the King of Glory. Jesus is depicted crowned with many crowns, with fire in his eyes and a light streaming from his mouth as he rides a white stallion, cavalry following behind him through a cloud. It is quite terrifying and at the same time completely expected of a Messiah who is coming to judge the quick and the dead. Yet, our scriptures today speak of God as shepherd and Jesus as a just and merciful king, not a militant figure who looks like a ring-wraith from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Instead, the focus of today’s scriptures is not on what Jesus as the great judge looks like, but on how we, as followers of Jesus, have responded to God’s call in our lives. This is the last Sunday after the Pentecost—the end of the intentional time in our lectionary of exploring what it means to be a disciple. This is about discipleship and so it is about us.

Think for a moment about the churches that you hear about in your area. What do you hear about them? How do you hear about them? What are they known for? Most churches have some measure of the Christian virtues that we all value: faith, love, and hope. They always have since churches began, but some have a reputation and others don’t. Of course, all the communities are supposed to be living out their faith, bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth while they await Jesus. But the community in Ephesus has especially been noticed because of their reputation. The author of the Ephesians epistle has been impressed by the word-of-mouth reputation that the community has for having faith in the Lord Jesus and demonstrating that faith in love. They don’t just get together to do nice things for other people and talk about Jesus on occasion. Instead, they believe that Jesus is risen and sits at the right hand of God and they have experienced God’s power in their lives. They have been changed. They have been transformed. This transformation informs every single thing they do, individually and as a community.

This section of Ephesians is called a thanksgiving prayer, and it tells us something else about what God values in a community: people knowing their destination. They have a goal and because they know what direction they’re going, they have become people of hope. In our modern times, we sometimes get the meanings of ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ confused, but not the Ephesians. They know that faith means you entrust your life to Jesus today, in the present tense; and hope is about the future, about where our present trust in Jesus eventually leads.

This understanding about the Christian life reflects one of the mottos of the Roman Catholic order of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. They are to be contemplatives in action. In other words, to be grounded and centered in our faith in Jesus, so that we would know where God was calling us to action in the world around us. If we are all contemplatives that don’t do anything with the experience of God’s power that we have, then what’s the point? If all we do is reach out to others, but don’t go back to the wellspring of God’s living water and drink deeply, then we’ve missed our call and can become empty shells. We must have both.

Our Gospel of Matthew story of the sheep and the goats asks us a searching question that can be difficult to bear: are we admirers of Jesus or are we followers? The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes the difference like this: “The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.” Becoming a disciple of Jesus is no easy task. Many throughout the ages have admired Jesus, but far fewer have chosen the sacrifice of following.

There is a sign in a church that has gone around on Facebook for the past few years and it says, “Sometimes I want to ask God why [God] allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when [God] could do something about it, but I’m afraid [God] might just ask me the same question.” As Christians, we believe that God has full claim on our lives. We are coming into the season of Advent next week and are reminded that God loved us so much that God would become human—become one of us—so that we would fully understand what that claim was and how deep the love goes. How do we translate this love to others? Jesus tells us in our Gospel today that when we feed or welcome or give clothing or visit the sick or those in prison that we are, in turn, feeding, welcoming, clothing, and visiting him. When people respond to human need—or fail to respond—they are responding or failing to respond to Jesus himself.

Through our belief in Jesus, we have the power to heal other people’s lives, just by our presence in theirs. We are called to be healers. We receive our strength, not from ourselves, but from God. On this Christ the King Sunday, our scriptures are clear about the “immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” As we complete another turning of the wheel of liturgical time, may we renew our commitment to be grounded in this power to seek Christ in all persons and love our neighbor as ourselves, even though we may look foolish to the world for loving so lavishly, and we may fail. With God’s help, we can also, thankfully, begin again. AMEN.

The Rev. Danáe M. Ashley, MDiv, 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 currently part-time Priest-in-Charge at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. She is also the Director of The Episcopal Center for Embodied Faith, an online resource for the intersection between our bodies and faith, and a proud member of Thank God for Sex, a psycho-educational group that puts on community education events to promote healing for those who have experienced shame around their bodies and sexuality in faith communities.

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

Love Is Risky Business, Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 19, 2017

Proper 28

[RCL] Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? You would try something pretty risky, right? After all, if you knew you wouldn’t fail, why try something easy? What risky thing would you do? Would you write the Great American Novel or sail around the world? Would you tell someone, “I love you,” or would you find the courage to leave? Would you go back to school to finish that degree or would you call your mother or father and say, “I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. When can we get together again?”

If failure were not an option, human history would have been marked with more bold attempts at both greatness and villainy. Failure is all too real and many bold plans have never gotten past the stage of dreams.

There are all kinds of risks and all kinds of rewards, but there is a common reason why we are naturally risk averse—fear. Fear is a natural, healthy reaction that can keep you safe. Healthy fear of fire prevents you from getting burned. Unhealthy fear of fire can also keep you from enjoying the simple pleasure of making your own s’mores on a campfire.

There has to be a balance between fear and reward. Those with no fear fill our cemeteries at an early age. At the other extreme, too much fear is unhealthy and paralyzing. Fear keeps hope locked in a room of doubt.

Great ships were not built to cling to the coastline. They were created to cross oceans. Few great discoveries were made by playing it safe. There is also no risk-free way to fall in love or to raise children. And there is no risk-free way to mend broken relationships and make amends for past hurts.

In our Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus tells a parable of risk and rewards and the responsibility that comes with great gifts. In the parable, a very wealthy landowner entrusts his servants with vast sums of money. A talent was a measure of gold worth roughly fifteen years’ wages for a day laborer. The life expectancy of the time for common laborers was such that making it to forty was never a sure thing, even though many lived longer. Fifteen years’ wages was more than half of what you might expect to make in a lifetime—maybe all you hoped to make in a lifetime. Each talent in this parable is that kind of wealth.

The master gives one servant five talents, another two, and the last a single talent. Now, this is where the parable gets hard to hear. The problem is that we have a word, “talent,” that means “ability” or “skill”. Singing, for example, is a talent. So, when we hear of a servant given one talent and another given five talents, it sounds like we are talking about abilities or skills, and then the parable immediately sounds different.

This is not a coincidence. Our English word, “talent,” comes to its current meaning through the preaching of the Middle Ages. In that time, when the English language as we know it was being forged, this parable was being preached. In preaching the story, congregations were told how these servants were given these large sums of money to watch over for their master. As the preaching went on through the centuries, it became easier to directly see the talents in this parable representing God’s gifts to us, posing the question, “What have you done with the talents God entrusted to you?” This created the meaning of our word, in which “talent” refers to our God-given gifts and abilities.

For the first hearers of the parable, it was clear that it was large sums of money with which the master entrusted his servants. The one in whom the master put the greatest trust made a vast sum of money, but to do so, he had to put at risk seventy-five years’ wages for a day laborer. If his plan for using the money entrusted to him failed, that servant could never have hoped to pay back his master.

The parable tells of three persons entrusted with great responsibility. Even the one who was given the care of a single talent was entrusted with much. Each of them would have to risk much if they wanted to show a return on investment.

In the parable, the first two servants doubled the master’s money. Each was rewarded with more money. Not money for themselves; they didn’t get a big payday. Each was given more money to invest for their master. The reward for faithfulness was more responsibility. Then came that fateful last servant. He, not too diplomatically, tells the master, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

This last servant risked nothing. He took what was entrusted to him and hid it. It was safe. There was little risk in digging a hole and hiding the loot. There was also no potential gain. And for not taking any risk with the money entrusted to him, the servant gets the worst possible punishment as his reward.

Jesus taught that the heart of the Good News is love. Our world was created for love, which means the freedom to do great evil as well as good. There is no other way. God gave us choices and through our choices, we can get hurt and we can hurt others. A universe where real love is an option is a risky place, as pain and suffering are not only possible, but likely. And yet, this world of choice founded on love is also what makes possible all the noble acts of self-sacrifice. This world is not only a world of pain and suffering, but also a world of generosity, kindness, and self-sacrificial love.

God invested so much love in you through Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection. You can never repay that love. The good news is that you don’t exactly have to pay Jesus back, as much as pay it forward. God is not looking for a return on investment in quite the same way as the hard landowner in the parable. Jesus calls on a muscular faith that is put to work and so grows stronger.

At the heart of this parable is really faith and trust that when we step out in faith, God will not leave us alone. This is like the Apostle Peter asking if he can walk out on the water to join Jesus. Jesus calls him out of the boat. This is Peter stepping out in faith. But once on the waves, with his whole life at risk, Peter is paralyzed by fear and begins to sink. Then Jesus rescues Peter. Christ was with him on the water; he couldn’t fail.

Living the Gospel always involves risk. Risk is inherent in saying, “I love you,” or in asking for forgiveness, or in offering to reconcile with someone who hurt you. God has shown you great love and asks only that you share that love with others. When you take the risk to love, it is the grace of God working through you that does the heavy lifting. Living into the love of God happens through concrete actions toward others as we give as we have been given, and forgive as we have been forgiven.

How might you share the love of God with someone today? Who do you need to ask for forgiveness? Who do you need to forgive? In whom might you invest the love that God has shown you? What would you risk for love if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. He blogs at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Awakening to God’s Presence, Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – November 12, 2017

Proper 27

[RCL] Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Archbishop William Temple said, “The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake? Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in. So trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to encourage and promote neuroplasticity is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or go watch the ball game?

Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for the God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest promotes neuroplasticity. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

So what are we waiting for? Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake!

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age. No waiting required. He is here. Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.

What is Jesus calling us to do? Wake up and keep awake!

The time and effort put into doing less and doing nothing will awaken us to the clever truth buried deep within this tale of lamps and oil and bridesmaids: He is here. His door is open to all at all times of day and night.

When we wake up to this truth all things are made new – including most importantly we ourselves.

 

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

 Note: This sermon originally ran for Proper 27 on November 9, 2014.

Download the sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Do You Feel Burdened?, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost – November 5, 2017

Proper 26

[RCL] Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

 Do you feel burdened? The writers of our epistle and gospel want to know. “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul says. Jesus speaks of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” What is the difference between the two? What separates those in the Beloved Community who impose burdens on others, and those who remove them?

The topic of burdens is important throughout the Bible. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We all know what it is like to feel burdened by life. Every single person we know is bearing a burden of some kind, some seen, some unseen. Cancer, financial hardship, caregiving for an elderly parent, a child struggling in school, addiction—the burdens add up and weigh us down. And we all feel the collective burdens of lives lost or altered in natural disasters, mass shootings, and the global struggles of poverty and disease.

It’s no surprise that the bearing of burdens shows up all over scripture. And in our texts for today, we have the contrast between how Paul is trying to relate to his spiritual community, and how the scribes and Pharisees are. What differentiates the two? After all, Paul began religious life as a Pharisee. What helped him escape being a burden to his community? And more than that, how did he become someone who lessened the burdens of others?

We can immediately see from how Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees that they are creating burdens for others because they are carrying crippling burdens of their own. Their burden is made of a toxic combination of trying to earn God’s favor by their works and demanding that everyone around them acknowledge their superior efforts. They have taken the sacred Law of Moses, which Jesus upholds in this passage, and burdened it with the deceptively heavy weight of their fragile egos.

The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus describes do not believe that God loves them freely and fully regardless of what actions they do or do not take. They are constantly hustling for God’s favor. They do not believe in an unconditionally loving God in their heart of hearts. This is not the fault of the law, but the predictable result of any religious person who has never grown beyond the petty and fearful tyranny of the ego. There are many Christians today who suffer from this unseen burden of functional works righteousness. We say we believe God loves us, but we feel safer hedging our bets by racking up good works.

And those good works are usually seen by others. That public do-gooding starts to earn us the approval and congratulations of others, and we get addicted to it. Before long we start to think we’re better than other people who aren’t working as hard as we are to build the Kingdom of God. It can be a short road from “trying to help and care for others” to “holier-than-thou and insufferable.”

What began as an honest search for the love of God and a life in the center of God’s will has turned into our becoming a burden to our faith community. Why did this happen? What is missing?

What is missing is the space, silence, and vulnerability necessary to actually receive the radiant love of God. When we approach the Christian life as a constant stream of virtuous activity directed as loudly as possible both at God and at our faith community—“Look at me! Look at all the wonderful things I’m doing!”—the still, small voice of the Spirit is very easily drowned out. Our self-imposed burden of a needy ego, never patient enough to learn the love of God, will sooner or later become the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the scribes and Pharisees in our gospel passage today.

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul tells us. This “labor and toil,” “night and day,” that Paul speaks of consists in large part of patient and faithful prayer. Going within in silence and stillness, engaging in spiritual disciplines, finding and remaining faithful to daily spiritual practice—this is the labor and toil that over time, lifts our false internal burdens and makes us free. The freely chosen work of prayer and building spiritual intimacy with God slowly transforms us from being burdens, to merely having burdens, to one day lifting the burdens of others.

That’s one half of the equation—the labor and toil of prayer and individual encounter with God. The other half is the night and day patient engagement with one another in community. Moving from being a burden to others to lifting burdens from others requires exactly that—others. The quest for gospel transformation does not take place in a bubble. There are some of us who might enjoy sitting alone all day and thinking beautiful thoughts about God—but that is not love. Individualistic spiritual practice taken to an extreme will make us a burden to our community as surely as no spiritual practice at all.

Anyone who has had to carry heavy burdens will know that balance is the key. Trying to carry heavy bags of groceries up flights of stairs in only one hand is very difficult. Shift the bags to carry them equally in both hands and the burden is suddenly much easier to bear. So it is with our balance of individual and community spiritual intimacy. Keep it all on one side of the equation and we are quickly out of balance, becoming heavy to both ourselves and others. Seek an even distribution of time alone with God and time together with God, and suddenly progress forward is smoother and easier.

Paul says in our epistle today that the Word is at work in us as believers. That’s the most important thing of all as we seek to carry our own burdens and those of our fellow disciples. No burden we shoulder is ours to carry alone. The Holy Spirit within us is always present and ready to do the heavy lifting. Jesus says it himself in the Gospel of Matthew: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The burdens of life and community may never go away, but when the love of God pervades them, they are no longer crushing weights. Our burdens become a steadying presence, anchoring and grounding us in the faithful pursuit of grace and truth. For it is when we commit to turning our burdens over to God that we are at last empowered to bear the burdens of one another. And a burden shared becomes a burden halved, as the old saying goes. Perhaps we could modify it for ourselves—a burden shared becomes a burden graced.

 The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Associate Rector the St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana.  A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

 

The Beatitudes and Barriers, All Saints’ Day – November 1, 2017

[RCL] Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

When we hear Jesus’ beatitudes, what do we think? Maybe, we think, “Wow, these are the most beautiful words I have ever heard.” We may think, “Wow, these are beautiful words, but like so many beautiful words, they’re fanciful, and they can’t really be followed in the real world.” We may think, “Wow, these are beautiful words, and, oh my, they are another reminder of all the ways I fail to live up to the high calling of being a disciple of Christ.”

Well, if you have ever thought any of these, you are not alone. The Beatitudes have been a source of inspiration and challenge throughout the history of the church. Today, I want to mention a few major approaches to them.

During the Middle Ages, many people saw the Beatitudes as “Counsels of Perfection”. That is, they were things that applied to a spiritual elite made up of priests, monks, and nuns, but not to ordinary folks. Monks and nuns took extraordinary vows of poverty and obedience, so these things about blessings of the poor, the meek, the hungry, the merciful were about folks seeking perfection, but for other people, keeping the Ten Commandments and loving God and our neighbor is enough. This approach recognizes the real challenge these sayings put upon believers, but it limits the full force of them by saying that, in this life, they are only for a spiritual elite.

During the Reformation, Martin Luther took issue with the whole notion of a spiritual elite. The idea that there were higher and lower levels of Christians was repugnant to him. Luther famously proclaimed the priesthood of all believers, that is, that we are all on the same level—no higher, no lower—all called to share in the priestly ministries of the Church. So, Luther saw the beatitudes as applying to all Christians, not just to the few.

But Luther also had a pretty interesting take on the Beatitudes. He saw them as commands of God. And for Luther, while commandments were things that were given by God, and, therefore holy and binding on all people, Luther also felt that human beings, given our fallen nature, can never really fulfill the commandments. Rather, what the commandments do for Luther is point out very clearly that there is no way that human beings will ever be able to earn their salvation by perfectly following God’s will. The upshot is that what the commandments end up doing is pointing out our need for the forgiveness and mercy of God and drive us into the arms of Christ. This approach sees the Beatitudes as so challenging that we will never be able to fulfill them on our own. We need to turn to the grace and mercy offered in Christ if we are ever to be made right with God.

Most New Testament scholars these days don’t find these approaches helpful. Rather, they see the Beatitudes—and indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount—as something that Jesus saw as applying to all his disciples, not just an elite few, and he probably thought that they were, in fact, doable. Certainly not easy, after all, he says, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Still, most scholars think that he probably meant for his followers to live this way. That’s probably why they stress that these were things that need to be lived out in the context of Christian community. These are not things for spiritual superheroes, but for communities to live out. And that’s probably also why Jesus stressed the need and reality of forgiveness and reconciliation in our communities. These things are going to take practice.

So, one of the reasons why we have this Gospel lesson on All Saints’ Day is because they are practices for all the saints. And by all the saints, we mean everybody who has been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are practices for all of us ordinary saints of God.

Today, I want to focus on just one beatitude and explore how we might try to live that out in our ordinary lives. We will have other All Saints’ Days to deal with other beatitudes. So, let’s focus on, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” Most of us probably will not be Nobel Peace Prize winners. But that doesn’t mean we are not called in our own ways to be peacemakers. How may we go about this in our lives? Paul Wadell gives us some practical guidance on how we all can be peacemakers. He reminds us that in Ephesians, Paul speaks of Christ and his cross breaking down the walls that divide us, removing all the barriers that keep us apart, and overcoming the hostilities that so often leave us living more in enmity with one another than in peace.

Wadell says, “There is no shortage of barriers that need to be dismantled if God’s dream of peace is to become a reality. We create barriers through our attitudes toward others. We create barriers when we freeze people out or simply ignore them. We create barriers when we refuse to talk to certain people. We create barriers when we refuse to deal with problems that weaken relationships. We create barriers when we refuse to give ourselves to others. We create barriers when we hold on to grudges and refuse to forgive. We create barriers when we nurture cynicism, bitterness, and resentment instead of seeking peace.”[1]

In Ephesians, Paul tells us to get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. Paul says leave all that behind, get away from it, and refuse to be ruled by it, because all those things put walls and barriers between ourselves and others. Instead, Paul says be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ. These are the practices of peace. We nurture peace among ourselves and others when we are people marked by kindness, compassion, healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Happy All Saints’ Day to all you saints of God. The Beatitudes are for you!

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

[1] Paul Wadell, Becoming Friends (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002) p. 36.

Download the sermon for All Saints’ Day.

Everything Hangs on Love, Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 29, 2017

Proper 25

[RCL] Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

An authority on the Law of Moses gives Jesus a pop quiz: name the greatest commandment. The request is not to name the top commandment of the Ten Commandments. Specifically, Jesus is to consider the 613 commandments found in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, or The Teaching, and to select the cornerstone. These commandments include 365 “negative commandments”, sometimes described as one for every day of the year, where you are ordered not to do something, like, “Do not commit murder.” Then there are 248 “positive commandments” which describe what one is to do to faithfully follow the Torah, the teaching given to Moses.

But we know this is not a casual conversation among colleagues. Matthew reminds us that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, the priests who served at the Temple in Jerusalem. They asked their thorniest question about the Torah, and Jesus aced that test. Now it is the Pharisees’ turn. We use the term Pharisee today as a term of derision; we say someone is pharisaical if he or she is hypocritical or self-righteous. But this would not have been true during Jesus’ ministry.

The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism, which worked as a social movement seeking to change society with a greater faithfulness to following the Torah. The Pharisees championed synagogue worship in addition to going to the Temple. Jesus taught faithfulness to God and worshipped in the synagogue. Many persons would likely have seen Jesus as a Pharisee or at least being in line with the Pharisees’ school of thought. So this debate is a bit of an in-house argument.

The stakes are higher though, as the Pharisees in Jerusalem see Jesus’ growing influence on the crowds, and they seem to want to shut down this movement before it goes any further. The question then comes from a place not of wanting to learn but desiring to trip up the rabbi from Galilee. Jesus immediately answers with what is the most succinct statement of everything he taught and his every action:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

We are not just to love God, but our neighbor, and not just God and our neighbor, but we are to love ourselves, as only then can we love our neighbors as ourselves. Everything hangs on love.

The love Jesus is talking about here cost him his life, so this is love beyond mere sentimentality or emotion. Jesus teaches about the form of love that in Greek is called agape. This is a self-giving love, which is more concerned about the other person than oneself. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for me, I can then begin to see other people as God sees them. I can even begin to see myself as God sees me. From this experience, I reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

The love that is within the Trinity is not merely a feeling or emotion. And so, God’s love for your husband or wife is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood, or anything else so changeable. God’s love for your brother or sister does not depend on whether he or she just got on your nerves. God’s love for your co-workers does not depend on their lovability. God’s love for your friends does not depend on whether or not they let you down. God’s love for everyone else is a lot like God’s love for you. This love is a lot more dependable than you or I, even on our best days.

Love that is more concerned about others than yourself is not about self-loathing, or being abused. Real love can also come with a hard edge, for it is not loving to become co-dependent and support someone in their abuse of their own bodies with drugs—legal or illegal—or alcohol abuse. Real love can mean setting clear boundaries. Love more concerned for the other can be lived in many ways that involve standing up to abuse and not letting it continue.

The love that wants something better than abuse and acts to make changes to end such needless suffering is part of the love God has for all creation. The love of God that was in the Trinity before creation overflowed into this world of ours, and that love continues even though we are fallen and not deserving of it. This love that was in the very life of God before Creation is the love that never fails. This is the love Jesus had, so that as he died on the cross he could look out at those who killed him, as they mocked him, and say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Forgiving those who killed him was the most precarious thing an all-powerful God could do. And in these words of forgiveness from the cross, we see that God’s love is more concerned about the other than your own self.

Agape love is a decision, an act of the will. Decide to see others as God sees them. Act on this decision rather than just whether you feel the emotions of love. Do you want to experience that sort of godly love for your friends, your family, your spouse? Then the love you have for them cannot start with you and go out to them. The love you have for others must start with God. Ask God to give you this gift. Pray for God to reveal to you the way God sees these other people in your life, especially the difficult people you deal with.

Trying to decide what to do? Put agape into the equation. Should you forgive? Should you pick up the phone and make a call? Should you write a letter? Should you make a visit? Setting aside people who have a pattern of abuse that you must avoid, in the many garden-variety painful relationships in your life, the answer is love. The decision to forgive, or call, or write, or visit, or whatever it is that will make this love concrete should not depend alone on whether you have been hurt or could be hurt. The answer should depend on answering the question, “What would love do?”

This is how the ideal of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself is made real. During this sermon, perhaps you have thought of someone who has hurt you, someone with whom you have lost contact, or broken off your relationship. Trust that the Holy Spirit has been involved in this person coming to mind. If this applies to you, then love is speaking to your heart—the love of God calling you to act on agape love.

This love I am talking about is a choice, a decision, an act of the will, and it belongs in the heart of your relationship with your spouse, your children, your parents, your siblings, your friends, your co-workers. Have the courage to not simply talk of love, but to put love into action. The love God has for you is patient and kind and will never fail. Choose to share that same amazing love with the people in your life.

Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (A).