Staying Centered

labyrinth2A sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2019. The scriptures are Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, and Luke 20:27-38

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Some of you are familiar with the practice of Centering Prayer. In past, we’ve had a small group of people who would meet for Centering Prayer, and a number of us continue that kind of prayer or a similar kind alone. In Centering Prayer, one returns to a word or image. Distractions come in prayer—always, but after noticing the distraction, one returns to the word.

It’s good to have some kind of practice to go to when we’re thrown off center. A few years ago, I used a washing machine that would occasionally get off-center, out of kilter. It would just stop. \ That happens with machines, but it can also happen in life. Something throws us off, and we freeze, not quite knowing how to re-set.

In the Gospel we just heard, a group of religious leaders are trying to do their best to throw Jesus off center, to bog things down, and throw him off his mission. Jesus has come into Jerusalem. The procession we recall on Palm Sunday has already happened. Jesus has overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple and he has gotten some attention.

The Sadducees were a powerful group in Jerusalem, and in today’s reading, Jesus comes up against them. Their beliefs were based on the first five books of scripture only, and they believe that these had been authored by Moses. If it wasn’t contained in those books, then there was no reason to believe it.

But Jesus talks about things not contained in the books of Moses. And Jesus talks about eternal life. But the Sadducees don’t believe in eternal life, not for a minute. So when they ask Jesus a question about it, he suspects that they’re trying to trick him.

Both Jesus and the Sadducees know the longstanding Jewish practice that if a man dies and he has no children to continue his family, his brother should marry the widow to provide for the brother’s family to come. And so, the Sadducees ask Jesus a hypothetical: what if each of the seven brothers dies, but at each point along the way, a remaining brother marries the widow. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Jesus sees the attempt to throw him off center but refuses to let it happen. He tells them that if they were really so concerned about the resurrection and believed in it, then they would be more concerned about getting their own lives in order, not obsessing about marriage. Marriage is for those of “this age,” Jesus says—those who need to provide for a family or provide for the wellbeing of others.

The typical marriage in First Century Palestine, like much of the first millennium, was more about property and possessions. It was about taking care of folks and making sure life could continue. But whenever Jesus talks about marriage, he talks about it as something that always points beyond itself. Marriage doesn’t exists as an end in itself. It doesn’t exist simply for the two partners, or even the nuclear family. Marriage is a preparation for something to come, a training ground for love, a hint of something even more incredible to follow, something that will be even better than the closes of human relationships, at the resurrection.

In talking with the Sadducees, Jesus is not thrown off by talking about marriage or the treatment of widows or even of the justification of the Sadducees as a religious group.
Instead, Jesus keeps his focus. And he keeps moving toward the cross.

He tries to wake up this crowd when he says, “Ours is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all of them are alive.” Anything that is not a part of that life—the life of God—is less than it can be, and anything that tries to turn us away from that life is a distraction.

Last weekend, we observed All Saints’ and All Souls’. We gave thanks for the famous saints and their example to us, and we also gave special thanks for those saints (those ordinary believers) who we have known and loved, and who have died. Though we feel death—its pain, its shock, its disruption, we also know that death can throw us off center. Sometimes for weeks—or months, or years. But faith in Jesus who died on the cross, who battled down death in the grave, and who rose again—faith in Jesus and his resurrection centers us again.

The other readings for today, in their own way, also attest to this power of God to dispel distractions and to bring us gently back to center again. In the Old Testament reading we see Job, who even in the very midst of death—the death of his family, the death of his career, his health, even his future (it seems)—he clings to the life of God. Job refuses to be done in by the distractions around him, especially when his friends try to create complicated theological justifications for what he is experiencing. Instead, Job goes to what he knows deep down in his heart. He cries out for life: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”

Likewise, to the people at Thessalonica, Paul says, “the Lord is faithful. He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” These are appropriate words as we approach Veterans Day tomorrow, when our country remembers those who have often strengthened and guarded us.

We still get thrown off center. We may not have Sadducees coming up to us and trying to trick us with questions about the resurrection, but we do have plenty of people who will try to trick us with religious arguments, with scripture taken out of context, with confused theology, with simplistic thinking.

Whether it is the campaigns political or the campaigns theological that attempt to sidetrack us; whether it is the attack from the right or from the left, from the friend or from the stranger; or just our bodies growing old and rebelling against us—there are always things and people who can make us feel like those children’s toys that lean this way and that, and almost fall down.

The cross of Jesus Christ calls us to re-center.

We center on the cross in prayer. Prayer helps. Meditation lessens the distractions; contemplation keeps us clear. In the midst of whatever comes—sickness, through any challenge, through any test—even through death into eternal life. The cross of Christ is a reminder of where we’re headed, and that there is life and resurrection on the other side.

We also center on the cross in the Eucharist. At the altar, we meet and receive Christ crucified. We meet and receive Christ broken, transformed, and shared for us, calling us back to the center of what matters most.

Our worship itself can center us. Whether it’s the prayers of morning or evening prayer, the prayers we may say alone or with our family, or the weekly return to this community of prayer. We spin and run and tilt all week long, but when we return, there’s a calm and a centering that can happen in this place, with God’s people.

Whether we picture the cross in our prayers, hold onto it, or reach for it, may the cross of Jesus Christ lift us in this life, and life us again into life eternal.

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With All the Saints

Fra_Angelico, Forerunners for Christ from the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24
A sermon for November 3, 2019, celebrated as All Saints’ Sunday. The scripture readings are Daniel 7:1-3,15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, and Luke 6:20-31

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Not too long ago, I met someone at a gathering who goes to a Baptist Church. Her church wanted to do something for the children around Halloween, but a number of their church members were uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging kids to dress up as devils or vampires… or perhaps even worse as popstars a little too sexy for their age. And so, my friend asked about the tradition of All Saints’ Day. If her church were to encourage children to dress as their favorite saint, where should they look for the official listing of saints?

I hesitated. Should I point her to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops site, for the official listing of Roman Catholic saints? (Even there, there’s a problem, since the official saints vary from country to country.) Should I send her the Book of Common Prayer listing of saints, or the latest official listing called, “Holy Women, Holy Men”? Or, does she just want the Biblical saints, or the famous saints from over time? [I ended up suggested a book of general saints that includes lots of pictures, thinking maybe the kids could look at a picture and choose something that attracted their eye, and then hear about the particular saint and dress like them.]

Our own tradition is mixed regarding saints. We name churches St. Mary’s, St. Botolph’s, St. James’, or even All Saints’—but then, sometimes we’re not really sure what we should do with these saints. Do we put them in stained-glass windows and keep them two-dimensional? Do we think of the saints as lucky charms, good for the naming of a child or the excuse of dessert on a saint’s day? Or are the saints simply a religious affectation, the romantic indulgence of an Anglophile, or the superstition of Catholic grandmothers?

The idea of communicating with the saints—especially our familiar ones—has gained new popularity with the 2017 movie, “Coco,” which has to do with the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. In parts of Mexico (and increasingly, in much of Mexico and parts of the United States) home altars are made that include photographs of loved ones who have died, some of their favorite foods or drinks, and marigold flowers, which (from Aztec times onward) have helped guide the souls of the ancestors to return.

While the Mexican Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, emphases the close communion of the saints around the 2nd of November, the Christian hope in eternal life assures us that we are close to those who have died every day—not just around the Celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’.

We can look to the New Testament for some help, as we notice that writers use the word “saint” somewhat loosely. In many places all the faithful are referred to as saints. Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In helping the Corinthian church sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians. In Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints in light, ordinary believers—some who have died for their faith, others who have died natural deaths—but ordinary believers made extraordinary by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One thing for sure is that saints are marked people. They are marked by God with the word, Sanctus, or Holy. Some teach and lead, moving us closer to God. Some antagonize and agitate, all for the glory of God. Some offer mercy and show justice for the glory of God. And some really do exude a kind of holiness. They live transparent lives through which one sees the love of Christ. Saints are marked people.

But we too are marked. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. We carry the mark of holiness and while the best of us might reveal a bit of the holy here and there, for the most part Sanctus is a name and a way that we are growing into.

In Revelation, John has a vision of what heaven must look like when people have fully grown into their sainthood.

. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Revelation shows us the future but it also helps us understand the past. Those everyday saints who struggled to be faithful in this world, who prayed to God and prayed for each other have been raised to new life into heaven. There they do what they did in this life—they show forth God’s love, they sing God’s praises, and they pray. They pray for one another and they pray for us.

I know that when various of my ancestors were alive, they prayed for me. I know that my Sunday school teachers prayed for me. I often feel the prayers of a certain former senior warden. Friends and perhaps those I didn’t even know prayed for me.

Though they have died, faith tells me that they have been raised to new life in Christ. They are with God and they are changed, but they are still praying for me and for all the world to be consumed in God’s love. Like love itself, love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” prayer, too, never ends. And so the saints, the great ones, the ordinary ones, and those who are still improving—they pray for us.
That the saints surround us and help us and pray for us, gives us what we need to live into those various blessings we hear today in the words of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount can sound like an impossible invitation to holiness.

But we have holy help. We have help in those who have gone before us who wrestled with these words of Jesus. Some might have failed miserably in those qualities Jesus talks about. But others struggled, prayed, and gradually got better. Others became so closely identified with the blessings, that they themselves became blessings in the lives of others.
The saints remind us to stay on track, and they help to show us the way.

As the great children’s hymn reminds us

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

May the saints inspire us. When we are tired, may they strengthen us. When we are lazy, may they shame us. When we are alone, may they surround us. And may they fill our lives with increasing love until the day that we join them before God in everlasting praise.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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No Comparison

pharisee and tax collectorA sermon for October 27, 2019, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Sirach 35:12-17, Psalm 84:1-6, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18, and Luke 18:9-14

Listen to the sermon HERE.

A couple of Saturdays ago, several of us from Holy Trinity joined others from the Diocese at a Global Missions Fair in Poughkeepsie. It was held at Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, a church I had never seen before. Christ Church goes way back, having been founded in the 1760s, it received a royal charter from the King George III in October 1773. The current building (the parish’s third) was built in 1888, and is a wonderful gothic mixture of wood, glass, color, and texture. I loved the red walls of the inside of the main church and I kind of envied the way they had built a big kitchen on the side of their social hall, separated by a glass and wood partition. As I spent the day in their buildings, I found myself comparing and contrasting with Holy Trinity. Their location is a bit suburban; we’re in the middle of a busy city. They had great stained glass; we have magnificent stained glass. Our space is grand, but their space if more versatile. On and on, the comparisons went, until I began to realize that I was wasting a whole lot of energy playing this mental and sometimes verbal game of “notice what’s similar or different in this picture.” I began to realize that I was missing some of what was right in front of me.

Perhaps the content of the talks and presentations, the people around, me, and even my experience of the church itself might better be enjoyed, might better be understood, by my simply receiving the place as it is and not trying to fit it into my view of the world based on where I come from and what I perceive as the norm. As I noticed myself doing this with a church, I thought about how often I do it with people. This person dresses differently. That person eats different food. This person travels around the world like they have money to burn; that person seems not to have much extra. Sometimes consciously, but often unconsciously, I compare myself to other people—sometimes feeling a bit superior, but often feeling for some reason or another inferior.

It was the diplomat and economist, Dag Hammarskjöld, who wrote, “To be humble is not to make comparisons.” He wrote,

Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe.  (Markings).

While I certainly don’t claim humility, I do think Hammarskjold’s words speak to my own experience (when I go into other churches as well as when I encounter other people). Hammarskjold’s words also speak to the point of today’s Gospel.

If we were to take Hammarskjold’s advice, I think we would be very careful in our reading and hearing of the parable in today’s Gospel from Luke. Jesus is not calling us to compare ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax-collector. Instead, he wants us to try to move beyond comparisons, and begin to depend upon the grace of God.
Perhaps the Pharisee seems familiar from what we’ve heard in church before. Since Sunday school—even in popular culture—the Pharisee is almost always typecast as the “bad guy.” It’s hard to imagine a good Pharisee, one who is kind or generous. It’s perhaps hard to imagine a female Pharisee. But the fact is that the majority of the Pharisees were probably good folks—hardworking, law-abiding, giving, praying, “doing” believers who tried as best they might to follow the ways of the God of Israel.

The Pharisee in today’s Gospel says as much in his prayer. I don’t think his prayer is as boastful as it is factual. He’s simply repeating what he’s done. He’s undertaking a kind of spiritual examen, reviewing his day, reviewing his week. Where did God show up? Where did God not show up? He has fasted twice a week, he has tithed (giving at least a tenth of all he has). He’s an upstanding member of the community.

In our day, the Pharisee would most likely be in church on Sunday morning, serve on community boards, attend PTSA meetings, maybe even coach soccer, and probably volunteer for a local charity or run in a money-raising marathon. If you can picture respectability, then you can picture a Pharisee. And it’s wrong for us to assume that this respectability is just a veneer. The Pharisee feels strongly about his beliefs, takes his commitments seriously, and lives out his values.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is a traitor. Palestine at this point is under Roman occupation. And so, the tax collector is a Jew who is collecting money from his own people to give to the Roman state. Tax collectors in the popular imagination were no good. They were thought to be liars and cheats, greedy and only interested in themselves.
In our Gospel, the Pharisee thanks God for the gifts God has given him. But the tax collector—strange even that he might have wandered into the temple—the tax collector asks for nothing but the mercy of God. There is no indication that the tax collector has quit his dirty-work. He hasn’t suddenly decided to take a new job or follow a different course. And it’s not even clear that the tax collector expects to be heard by God, much less answered by God.

The issue here is not that Pharisees are bad and tax collectors are good. It’s not about comparing the good, honest, upstanding folk who might be in church on Sunday with the folks who partied so hard last night that they’re still in bed this morning. The point of the Gospel come out in the prayers of the two characters.

The prayer offered by the Pharisee was very close to a common prayer offered by any faithful Jew in the temple, with one exception. There’s one little word that pops out, translated in the English as the word, “like.” The Pharisee gives thanks to God that he is not “like” other people, especially the tax collector. For the Pharisee, gratitude has crossed over into a sense of elitism—something that happens easily whenever we get into “we/them language.” The Pharisee’s prayer is false prayer as he compares himself with the tax collector. And had the tax collector in some way compared himself with the Pharisee, whether favorably or unfavorably, it would have been just as false. Neither person is any more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than the other.

Effective prayer reminds us of our complete dependence upon God. Faithful prayer is not a listing of what we’ve done right, or even what we’ve done wrong. The tax collector never loses sight of that. He knows that he really has nothing going for him but the grace of God, and so it’s for this reason that Jesus says the tax collector left the temple “justified,” or “in line with God.”

Those words of Hammarskjöld come back to me: “to be humble is not to make comparisons.”

And I think the same dynamic plays itself out in our relationship with God and with other people. Though we are created in community and God loves us as God’s children, each of us is unique. Each is incomparable. Each lives and dies by the breath of God.
As Paul writes, each of us is “rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue [us] from every evil attack and save [us] for the heavenly kingdom.”

May we resist the temptation of making comparisons. May we rest in the grace, mercy, and love of God that sustains us and keeps us alive.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Perseverance

PersistenceA sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2019.  The scripture readings are Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, and Luke 18:1-8

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The Collect of the Day prays that we might “persevere with steadfast faith.”

Many of us know the meaning of that first word, “persevere.” Some have persevered through hard financial times, through bad health, or through long programs of study. Others have persevered with difficult children or spouses, with situations in which your whole life prays for change.

But what does it look like to do what our prayer suggests and persevere with steadfast faith? How do we look for God when we’re just about ready to give up?

In the reading from Genesis, we see Jacob as he is just about ready to give up. He’s “greatly afraid and distressed,” according to scripture—but that probably doesn’t even begin to describe it. He is scared because he is about to meet his brother Esau, who he has cheated twice before. In fact, Jacob had even tricked out of their father’s blessing. And so, now he’s heard that Esau has 400 men with him, and there is to be a confrontation. Jacob gets ready and tries to prepare for what’s ahead. He divides his family and possessions in case of an attack from his brother. But then, the night before the meeting, he sends everyone away and spends time alone. But Jacob is left alone with his worries, alone with his fears, and alone with his God. In that loneliness, there is a wrestling match. A mysterious figure appears and struggles with Jacob, but Jacob refuses to give in. He persists. He perseveres. In the struggle, Jacob is wounded, but he continues to fight. He presses on and eventually asks the stranger to bless him. The stranger, who is actually an angel of the Lord, changes Jacob’s name. Jacob becomes Israel, a name that includes the power of this struggle, and the stranger then leaves Jacob. He blesses Jacob, but also throws his hip out of joint, to give him something to remember the occasion.

Not only is this a great story, but it’s also an important story for the church. It’s important because it frames our struggles, and urges us on. It suggests that when we are struggling to persevere, says something about our own struggles with faith, even with God. The answer to our questions doesn’t always come easily or in the light. Sometimes we bare the wounds of the struggle for some time afterward. But we can also come to know God through the struggle. It can even feel like God is giving us a new name, a name that perhaps leaves us wounded, but in another sense, we are stronger and more driven and more directed. After all, some of the most dramatic paintings of Jesus show him resurrected in glory, but with wounds still visible.

In the Gospel there’s another kind of struggle. We don’t know the lady’s name—but perhaps we know someone like her. Maybe we know someone who perseveres and refuses to give up, who demands what’s right and refuses to settle. This judge, we’re told, fears neither God nor any man or woman. The judge is filled with himself probably, and looks no further.

And so, this woman brings her complaint to the judge day after day. The judge doesn’t really care about the woman’s case and ignores her for a while. But finally he gives up and says, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The verb that the judge uses in describing the tenacity of the woman is a verb used with boxing. It’s the same word that Paul uses in First Corinthians when he says that all of his preaching and teaching is not just a kind “boxing in the air” or aimless pommeling.”

Likewise, this woman knows her target and she’s ready to hit. Whether the judge is worried about getting a black eye from the woman, or whether he’s just worried about getting a tarnished reputation—he is worried enough that he give her what she wants. It is by her perseverance that she wins her case.

Jesus does not mean to compare the uncaring judge with God. What he’s doing instead is making an argument popular in rabbinic teaching in which he argues from the smaller thing to the greater. If this judge, who is unjust and respects no authority outside himself, hears the plea of this persistent woman, HOW MUCH MORE, Jesus suggests, does a loving, caring God hear those who are persistent in prayer.

Just as Jesus was human and divine, it makes sense that in our own spirituality—in our own prayer life (whether it is full or whether it is underdeveloped), that in our own prayer life we might reflect both the human and, with God’s grace, the divine.
We pray out of our very human hearts when we ask for what we want and need, when we persist, when we argue with God, when we struggle, when we nag, even when we whine. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus, after all, prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”

But there’s also the other part of our spirit that is called to imitate Christ and to struggle with the angel of the Lord as we try to discern what God’s will for us might be, and how to pray that prayer. Jesus concluded that prayer in the garden, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” And one version of Luke’s Gospel continues, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” Strength sometimes comes in that moment of giving up and over to God’s will, even when that will is veiled.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells this parable to remind the disciples that they should “pray always and not lose heart.” Both the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and the story of the woman who perseveres with the judge can make the spiritual life sound lonely, as though it is an individual path. But remember that we hear and reflect on these stories together. The story of Jacob was handed down in community, just like we hear it today. The story of the “woman before the judge” Jesus told to the disciples, and Luke tells it to the early church, and we hear it as a parish family today. All of this is to say that while we may struggle or persevere in particular ways as individuals, we are never left alone. Like Jacob, even on the darkest of nights, the entire family of faith is just over the hill.

May we be strong in our faith, and may God be merciful even as we are strengthened, that we truly may “persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The Blessing Right Here

Oct 13 2019 croppedA sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2019, which included the Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.  The scriptures are 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, and Luke 17:11-19

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s an old story about a man who goes rents a summer house in a beautiful valley. From the first day of his time there, he notices one house all the way across the valley, so far that he can barely make it out. But in the late afternoon, he can see it because it has golden windows. The house he’s in is not so bad. It’s small and somewhat simple, sure, but it’s nice. And yet, he looks across, and there’s a house so that much be so special, so amazing. He begins to imagine what IT must be like—its rooms, the materials that make it up, it probably has a HUGE kitchen. And so, and after weeks, the man decides to try to hike across the valley and visit this golden-windowed house. He takes provisions, knowing that it will take him a few days to hike the journey. Off he goes, all the time, noticing that there’s a growing excitement inside him—who would live in a house with golden windows? Is it someone famous? Are they going to be friends? Is this the beginning of a new, amazing adventure? Over the several nights that he’s camping and hiking, he can barely sleep for the curiosity of wondering what he’s find.

Finally, he close. He sees a trail and eventually a driveway. He makes his way up to what seems like a house in the right spot, but not THE house. This must be the groundskeeper’s house, or some out building, but surely the person here will have information on the golden-windowed house. And so he knocks on the door. A older woman opens the door, and he explains that he’s looking for the house with the golden windows. “Is it close by?” he asks. The women looks at him with a surprised look and says, “Why, no. Actually, the house with the golden windows is way over there, across the valley, but it’s so far away that you can only really see it in the morning.” She points in the direction from which the man has come, and says, “There’s the house with the golden windows.”

How often do we miss the blessing that is right in front of us, the common, wonderful, gift-of-God right where we are?

In the first scripture reading, Naaman, the tough, smart military commander has a problem: he has leprosy. A young girl mentions to Naaman’s wife that there’s a great prophet in Israel who can heal the commander. He should go and see him, and so Naaman makes the trip to see Elisha. Elisha sends a messenger out to Naaman with simple instructions: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Naaman is furious. Can’t Elisha at least pray over him, or give him some special medicine, or do SOMETHING extraordinary? They’ve got better rivers at home—why should he bother with the River Jordan? Naaman turns in a huff, but his servants point out to him, “Sir, if the prophet had asked you to do something complicated, you would have done it, right? But how much easier simply to do the thing in front of you?” Naaman washes in the river, and is made clean.

The source of healing was there, all along. All Naaman had to do (and it’s a lot for most of us) was to put himself second, try on a little humility, take advice from someone else, and receive the good that was right there in front of him.

In the Gospel, ten lepers are healed and told by Jesus to go and show themselves to the priest for a final blessing. Nine of them just keep on going. They move on, perhaps looking for the next thing to fill them with happiness, or satisfaction, or safety. But the one healed leper—the Samaritan (the foreigner, the outsider, the one who was made fun of and talked about)—came back to Jesus to thank him. He understood that Jesus was the connected to the source of all healing and that he didn’t need to look any further for truth, for peace, or for love.

In both our primary scripture readings, we hear about people who are healed, but a big part of their healing has to do with what is right in front of them. Naaman in the first story and the leper in the second realize that they already live in a house with golden windows. They have all they need right where they are.

Today we celebrate and bless the love of Margie and Patsy. They have found in each other healing, wholeness, peace, and love—all centered and rooted in a life with Christ. Like golden windows, their affection radiates outward. Like cool waters that heal and renew, the current of their relationship offers safety and welcome to others.

As we celebrate the courage and faith of Patsy and Margie, may God help us to see the blessing in our midst, to claim that blessing, hold onto it for dear life, and for the love of God, protect it at all costs.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Following Francis in Humility and Peace

st_francis_meets_the_wolf

A sermon for October 6, 2019, celebrated as St. Francis Sunday at The Church of the Holy Trinity.  The scriptures are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel can sound rough on the ears. Jesus speaks casually about “slaves,” who were a given segment of his culture. It can be disturbing for us to hear Jesus this way, and not call out aspects of culture that today we find abhorrent. But scriptures like these do remind us of the humanity of Jesus along with his divinity. As a human, Jesus lived and moved in his own time, taking on the mindset, and even some of the un-examined assumptions of his culture, such as slavery.

The point of the Gospel today is, of course, not about slavery, but about humility. It begins as the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus then seems to suggest that their faith will be increased if they learn the way of humility. “Don’t go into something, looking for an engraved thank you note.” “Don’t look for special notice for doing what is simply expected.” Jesus is saying, “Try to be right-sized. Remember your place in creation.”

Today, creation and our place in it are themes that run through our worship. We celebrate St. Francis of Assisi today because it’s the closest Sunday to his feast day, October 4. Francis loved animals, but he even loved the fiercest, most dangerous, most unpredictable: Francis even loved humans.

There’s a story about Francis that has to do with this love of animals AND his love of humans.

As St. Francis and his band of brothers were preaching through the Umbrian countryside of what would become Italy, there was a report that an evil wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio. The wolf was fierce like no one had ever seen: it killed sheep and shepherd, alike. The mayor of the town sent for Francis, having heard that Francis was a kind of “animal whisperer.” He had a way with them, so maybe he could do something.
The people prayed. Francis’s brothers prayed. And Francis walked into the forest to look for the wolf. Murray Bodo tells the rest of the story:

Francis saw the wolf, who was frothing at the mouth and growling. The crowd stood motionless and silent. Francis stared at the wolf. Anger flashed in the wolf’s eyes and he was working his jaws, slobbering onto the ground. Francis dared not move, but he said in a simple, low, quiet voice, “Brother Wolf.” The wolf quieted down in an apparent response. “Brother Wolf,” Francis continued, “in the name of Jesus, our brother, I have come for you. We need you in the city. These people here have come with me to ask you, great ferocious one, to be the guardian and protector of Gubbio. In return we offer you respect and shelter for as long as you live. In pledge of this I offer you my hand.”

Francis stretched out his hand. The wolf seemed calm, but remained immobile, scanning the crowd. Then slowly he walked to Francis and lifted his paw into his warm, steady hand. The two remained in that position for a long time and what they said to one another Francis never told a living soul. (Murray Bodo, Francis: the Journey and the Dream (Cincinnati: St. Anthony’s Messenger Press, 1988), 53.

The story of Francis taming a wolf spread, and people still tell the story. But some have suggested that the story has another meaning.

You see, in 1219, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Francis wanted to go and meet the Sultan of Egypt, a Muslim—at first, with the idea of telling him about Jesus Christ and converting him Walking right through the battlefield, Francis went and was received by Malik al-Kamil. The sultan seems to have regarded Francis as a harmless holy man or a kind of Christian Sufi. After sharing conversation, and perhaps a meal, Francis left. Francis went straight to Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander in the crusades, and pleaded with him for peace, to stop fighting, to lay down arms.

Francis also told his Franciscan brothers (who were preaching the Gospel life in all directions) that when they went to a Muslim place, they first should preach Jesus Christ, but if the Muslims are not interested in converting, then the Christians should live among them in peace.

Some have suggested that this story of Francis and the “wolf” is really a re-telling of Francis going to meet the Sultan and attempting to broker some kind of peace. But such a peace would have been bad for the business of the crusades, counter to the intentions of Rome at the time, and so (some believe) the real story of Francis’ mission of peace went underground in the form of a fairy tale about a wolf-taming.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to remember our place in creation, to be right-sized, and to follow the way of humility into greater faith. Francis shows us what following Christ in the way of humility looks like: not taking others’ word for who is an enemy, befriending creation (whether it’s a reportedly deadly wolf, or a rumored murderous Muslim), and by doing what he can not only to work for peace, but to embody peace, looking for God’s blessing in every living creature.

Who in our world are we led to believe is a big, bad wolf? Are there ways we can move toward a perceived enemy in the spirit of peace? Are there modern “crusades” that try to get us all swept up in their fury but are quick to label the stranger or foreigner as the enemy (when sometimes the real enemy is closer to home)? What brings you deep peace, so that you can begin to be a person of peace for others?

Especially in these early October days when the Church honors and remembers St. Francis, may we certainly notice the animals around us and give thanks. May we befriend them and share peace with them. But may we also work harder to notice the people around us, giving thanks, doing our part to be people of peace.

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One who fights for us

window5-victory

“Victory” window from St. Martin’s Church, Brampton, Cumbria

A homily offered on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (transferred) at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ, on October 1, 2019. The scripture readings are Genesis 28:10-17Psalm 103 or 103:19-22Revelation 12:7-12, and John 1:47-51.

In the news and elsewhere, there’s a lot of talk about “strategy.” One develops a strategy in order to win an argument or court case.  One develops a strategy to accomplish a goal. But we develop strategies for smaller, more personal things, as well, don’t we?

I am very much the grandson of a Southern grandmother who did her part to elevate passive-aggressive speech patterns to the level of an art form.  I blame my grandmother when I ask things like, “Does it seem just a little bit cool in here to you?”  When what I really mean to say is, “Would you turn off the air-conditioning?”  I speak in riddles and round-about ways to accomplish what I want without seeming selfish or willful. It’s a strategy.

A friend of mine who was trying to give up smoking a while back had a strategy for dealing with his temptations to light up—he’d reach for a sugar-free candy and text or call a friend.

We have strategies for all kinds of things and many times they are helpful.  They show us how to move forward in order to get things done. But sometimes we strategize rather than pray.  The strategy becomes a way to manipulate and control, to get something or someone to conform to our will.

Nathaniel is someone who has no strategy. In our Gospel reading, Jesus points out Nathaniel as one in whom “there is no deceit” (John 1:47).  The old Revised Standard Version had Jesus proclaim Nathaniel as one “in whom there is no guile.”  This is one of those verses where I really like Eugene Peterson’s version in The Message.  He has Jesus say about Nathaniel, “there’s not a false bone in his body.”

Nathaniel doesn’t strategize. He has faith in God and later, faith in Jesus as the Son of God, and that’s enough for him. With faith, he’s able to see people for who they are.  He sees things for what they are, without clutter or prejudice or complication.  I think this is why Jesus says Nathaniel will be able to see, like Jacob, “the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Before Vatican II, a Prayer to St. Michael was often included near the end of the Mass.  Though it was officially suspended in 1964, a number of churches have begun using it again, careful to do so after the Mass has officially ended, so they’re not adding or subtracting from the official liturgy. The prayer is a serious one:

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.  May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.  Amen.

While I don’t plan on introducing the Prayer of St. Michael any time soon, I do appreciate its acknowledgment that the fight against evil belongs to God.  My job is to have faith and stand on the side of Good.  My job is to be as much like Nathaniel as I can be: without deceit or guile, with no bad bone in my body.  Whether it’s God or the Angels of God who do the fighting, it’s their battle and not mine.

The Orthodox have an interesting word for Michael.  They refer to him as the “archistrategos,” chief commander, the leader of the heavenly troops.  Our word, “strategy” comes from the Greek, “strategos.”  On this day for remembering Michael and All the Angels, may the Spirit give us faith to leave the strategy to the “archistrategos,” that we might see more clearly and follow more nearly our risen Savior Christ.

 

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Crossing the Chasm

spanning the divideA sermon for September 29, 2019, the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Amos 6:1a,4-7, Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, and Luke 16:19-31

Listen to the sermon HERE.

A young person in the neighborhood asked me the other day if we would be doing our usual Thanksgiving project. (If you’re new to Holy Trinity, you may not know that through HTNC, volunteers come through the week leading up to Thanksgiving and prepare several hundred Thanksgiving dinners that are then delivered to homebound neighbors on Thanksgiving Day.) She wanted to know so that she could use us as a reason why she would be unable to join her family in New Jersey for Thanksgiving Dinner. She explained that she was looking for a good reason to stay here because last year’s Thanksgiving dinner with family—some of whom support the current President of the United States and some of whom cannot stand him—last year’s dinner was pretty miserable, she said. And she feels like this year will be even worse because her family is so divided. There was a big distance between them last year, and that distances is only growing wider by the day. Who knows where we will be, come late November?

Whether we’re divided by political beliefs, cultural differences, or who knows what… we can all probably think of areas of our lives in which we experience division—perhaps a great distance, a divide, a kind of chasm.

Today’s Gospel talks about such a chasm, one caused primarily by the expanse between rich and poor. The poor man is named Lazarus (the same name as Mary and Martha’s brother, the one who was raised from the dead, but a different Lazarus, altogether). We’re not told the name of the rich man, though tradition often calls him, “Dives,” from the Latin word meaning, “rich man.”

Jesus tells the story to the Pharisees as a way of showing how they are misinterpreting great tradition handed down by Moses and the Prophets. The Pharisees are twisting religion and using it for their own ends. And so, it’s in that context that Jesus tells them of a very rich man, a man so rich that every meal is a feast. But outside the man’s house is this person named Lazarus. Lazarus is always there, waiting for a little food, hoping for a little money, or maybe just praying for a break.

The two men die: Dives (the rich man) and this poor man, Lazarus. They both go off to the place that Jews and Christians in the first century believed the dead went.

There in Hades, Dives looks over and sees Lazarus walking with Abraham—Abraham the father of the faith; Abraham, the greatest ancestor; and in this case, Abraham, the most important person at the party. Dives calls out, probably hoping to remind Lazarus once again of his place and maybe show Abraham what a bigshot Dives is. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’”

But now it’s time for Dives to be surprised. Abraham say, “Remember, Dives, that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” And then, almost as an afterthought, Abraham adds, “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.”

A “great chasm.” A distance, an expanse, a void… it’s THIS that dooms Dives. It’s this distance that keeps him from knowing much about Lazarus or about Lazarus’s life.

We should note that Jesus is not telling this story to paint a geographical picture of heaven. Nor is he offering a theologically accurate picture of heaven. Jesus is not for a minute justifying a miserable life on earth by saying that “one’s reward will be in heaven.” Neither is he suggesting that all of those who have known blessing in this life will see a reversal in heaven. But instead, I think Jesus wants to point out to those words of Abraham, to the chasm, the divide, the gulf—the problem of separation, that—if not dealt with here on earth—can follow us into heaven.

If we don’t attempt to lessen the chasms in this life, they may be so deep as to keep us from entering heaven.

When Jesus describes the rich man on earth, he never says that the man is bad. The rich man is not an evil man, nor is he especially sinful. It’s never suggested that Dives gained his wealth by dishonest means, nor are we even told that he is stingy—it seems that he was at least generous with his friends, and he remembered the poor with his leftovers.
But he kept himself apart. He kept himself away, separated, and removed from the pain of Lazarus and others like him. Dives had kept to his side of the chasm. And he had been quite happy there.

What are the chasms that separate us from others?

There are the obvious ones. We gather this morning in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, where power, money, education and opportunity are concentrated. Some of us might be on one side or the other of this chasm of wealth and privilege, and it’s hard to know how to stretch a hand across to the other side.

Within religion and within the Anglican Communion, in many parts of the world—the separation has to do with race or gender; sexual identity or orientation. But we should never be so smug as to think that we have crossed over those chasms, even here. What eventually becomes a chasm might more often begin with a hairline crack–we notice the differences in income or fashion or speech pattern or intellect or age. But if we’re not careful, the differences we notice become distances between us. We drift, we become separate and the chasm widens.

And we have these difficult, painful chasms inflamed by politics and so-called “cultural wars.” We imagine chasms sometimes that are simply not there. I’ve met people in other parts of the country who are surprised to hear that even though I live in New York City, I grew up shooting guns and can often have fairly conservative economic opinions. And I’m sometimes surprised to meet people in other parts of the country who might have thick accents different from mine, but listen to Public Radio and live a vegan lifestyle. Our world is too wonderful and complicated to waste time and energy on prejudice.

We have several means of navigating the chasms. First, we can befriend the stranger. Spend time with the one we perceive as different and really try to listen without prejudice, without forming our response, without needing to be on the offense.

Second, we can pray for people who at a distance. Sometimes we give thanks for the distance, but we pray for them anyway and pray God’s best intention and love for them—even, for them.

And third, in this Sacrament of Holy Communion, we practice the simply sharing of food and drink that are the Body and Blood of Christ. Through the mysteries of Holy Communion, Christ’s Body and Blood become part of our body and blood, and so they empower us to grow into the prayer that asks,

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

May God help us to move closer to others across all chasms, real or perceived.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Crafty for the Kingdom of God

workplaceA sermon for September 22, 2019, the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scriptures are Amos 8:4-7 , Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and Luke 16:1-13

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I have a date on my calendar next month for meeting with the church’s investment committee.  That committee is chaired by Jean Geater and is filled with some very good, very smart members of the parish.  I don’t go to all of the meetings, but I like to go, when I can.  I learn more about the current state of the world economy, how the church’s investments are faring, and – I suppose I should admit it—there’s something kind of fun about wearing a black suit and clergy collar into offices filled with financial people.  Perhaps it’s good, at some level, for a priest to be seen, walking through such a secular building; but even more, it’s good for me to remember that only a small percentage of God’s work is done in a church building—the larger part of God’s work and mission play out in offices, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, subways, and wherever God’s people go.

Today’s scriptures invite us to think about how we move with God out in the world, and how we sometimes might place barriers between what is perceived as “the spiritual” and “the worldly.”

The prophet Amos thunders forth from our first reading. “Hear this,” he says, “you that trample on the needy. You who cheat the poor and push around the defenseless. [God] will turn your feasts into mourning, and … your songs into lamentation.” The point to Amos’s preaching is not to criticize formal or elaborate worship. The point is that with all the resources at Israel’s disposal, with all the wealth in their temple, in their homes and in their hands, they are (at the end of the day) showing themselves to be a stingy, selfish people.

Amos points out the hypocrisy in Israel’s worship, in the ordering of their lives, in their culture. They have forgotten when they were poor. They have forgotten when they were aliens. They have forgotten when they were not the majority. But God never forgets. And God will bring justice. God holds God’s people accountable.

If the Old Testament reading reminds us about some of WHAT we should be doing, the Gospel suggests that the MEANS of our doing—our living out the Gospel, our working with God to bring about his kingdom, may involve some strange relationships. This means that we’re called to move in a world of faithful people—followers of Jesus who take their faith into the marketplace and the boardroom can help others to navigate these spaces.  It means that God calls us to be smart, shrewd and resourceful not in some future realm, but in the here-and-now.

In today’s Gospel, we hear about a rich man who has a dishonest manager. This manager is not only underperforming, but seems to be either skimming off the top or manipulating the funds in some other way. The accounts do not add up, and the rich man gives the manager notice. But the manager sees some of this coming. He knows his days are numbered, so he makes plans, and his plans involve building up “credit” with others. Before he leaves, the manager goes around to all of those who owe the rich man. He cuts his losses. He lowers each person’s total, collects what he can and tries to prepare for the future. He is a pragmatist and his quick thinking seems to get him back into the favor of his boss.

In this parable, Jesus is simply telling a story. He does not mean for his disciples or us to identify specifically with one character or another. He is not encouraging us to be cheats. He is not suggesting that the kingdom of God is achieved by dishonesty or duplicity. But there is the suggestion that the kingdom of God benefits from a shrewd mind and from a willingness to make use of all the resources at one’s disposal. The Christian faith is not helped by feeble-mindedness or by a kind of pious naïveté. Rather, in Jesus’ words, the “children of light” can learn a few things from the “children of this age.” That is to say that those who seek to follow Jesus can learn even from, and perhaps especially from some who are secular and even nonreligious. This idea is echoed in Matthew when Jesus sends out his disciples to be “as sheep in the midst of wolves, to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Today’s readings suggest that we have a role to play in the ongoing life of God and the unfolding of God’s kingdom. It matters what we do with what we have, whether we have just a tiny bit or whether we have a whole lot. Whatever we have can be used for God’s good will. What we have in terms of our energy, our mind, our faith, our compassion, our talent, our money— all of this has a role to play in God’s unfolding kingdom.

Using what we have, for God, is the central message of today’s scripture. It is what Jesus is saying to his disciples—that even though the manager in the story is less-than-honest, perhaps he’s even a little shady and maybe even a little underhanded, the manager does everything he can to prepare for the future—he uses all of his resources in the most creative way he can, and it’s that creativity and resourcefulness that Jesus is lifts up for us.

Very soon, we’ll be talking about “using what we have” for God’s glory in very tangible ways, as our church enters Stewardship Season.  A pledge form is not only for money (though we use pledges so that we can create the operating budget for the next year, and we NEED your pledge—whether it’s a dollar or thousands of dollars).  A pledge form also has various ministries and efforts of the church listed, inviting you to consider where God might be calling you to spend some time, or spend some energy.  Don’t underestimate the things you have, the skills you possess, the relationships and connections you enjoy—God calls and consecrates the WHOLE person, and wants us to be creative and crafty as follow and serve Christ.

Maybe you can volunteer with HTNC (Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center) with the Tuesday lunch, the Saturday dinner, or the weeknight homeless shelter. Or maybe you can volunteer with Trinity Cares, our network of people who can help with odds and ends, going with you or picking you up from a doctor’s appointment, or just visiting. Or maybe you don’t have time, but some of your extra money could not only support the music and museums around the city, but could help underwrite the programs here that invite people into God’s love through the “beauty of holiness.” There will be time in the days ahead for us to consider prayerfully (and honestly) how God might be calling each of us to be a part of God’s work at Holy Trinity and beyond.

Our Collect of the Day prays that even as we are surrounded by earthly things, that we would not be anxious about them, but hold on to what lasts, what endures, what helps others, and what furthers the community and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we learn to use all that we have and all that we are for God, and never be afraid to be crafty for the kingdom of God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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A God of Lost and Found

shepherdessA sermon for September 15, 2019, the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-11, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, and Luke 15:1-10.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Scripture can sometimes sound remote. We are a long way from the people of Israel wandering in Egypt. We don’t seem to have religious leaders like Moses who receive direct communication from the Almighty. And especially as we look at today’s Gospel, at first, it might seem to refer to people of another time and place altogether. Jesus talks about someone who has lost a sheep (and most of us have never had a sheep to get lost, in the first place.) When you read today’s Gospel in many bibles, it still uses the word for the specific Greek coin, the “drachma,” – not exactly a word we hear every day. And yet, today’s Gospel is not so much about lost sheep and lost coins. It’s more about lost people. And that’s something most of us have some experience with.

Especially in our culture, especially in our age, people get lost. Someone leaves their small town, goes to school, and comes to a new city—maybe this city—and quickly falls into a new pattern of work and striving. Sometimes such a person becomes lost in her work. Or, five, ten, or even twenty years later, a furlough hits, or a reorganization. She loses her job, but it’s not the job that becomes lost. The woman who has invested so much of herself in her work and career—she’s the one who feels lost.

The news this week explained that of the 2,753 confirmed victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center, only 60 percent have been identified. Another way of putting it would be that 60 percent of those who were lost have been found. And yet, DNA testing continues, and the medical examiner’s office continues its painstaking work of looking and finding.

Alzheimer’s or dementia can take a person to some far away place. Disease, drugs or addictions can make a person lost from family but also lost to himself. And then there’s the euphemism we so often hear for death—“I’ve lost my grandmother. Or, I’ve lost my spouse.” But so often it’s not the loved one who is lost. That person is very much found in the heart and heaven of God. But it’s US—it’s you and me, the surviving, who feel lost.
However the loss happens, whenever we feel it or know someone who is overtaken by it, the question can arise (in a lot of us, anyway), “Where is God?” Have we lost God, too? Where is God when someone can’t find their way out of addiction? Where is God when someone’s mind no longer allows her to recognize her family? Where is God when people die senseless deaths?

Our scriptures today tell us exactly where God is. God is there. God is here. God is wherever God needs to be, seeking the lost, doing whatever it takes, changing divine plans, changing the course of history if it takes that, just to save and find one lost person.
In the first lesson today, the people of Israel feel lost. They feel afraid and cut off from God. They feel so lost that they begin to substitute other things for God—stuff of silver and gold. They begin to worship pretty things, expensive things. Finally Moses returns and he gradually helps them find their way again. And God actually changes his mind—changes his plans, changes the course of history—just to make a way so that his children can find love again, can find God again.

The second reading has the Apostle Paul explaining to Timothy how he, himself was lost, until Christ came for him. Paul had hunted down Christians, he had persecuted them, and he had done all he could to undermine the way of Jesus and the people who followed him. But in what Paul describes as the “utmost patience” God found Paul, and that helped Paul find himself.

In the Gospel, we see a God who will go to desperate means for us. God will do whatever it takes to find someone, and to bring that person home.

Jesus tells the story about a shepherd who has 99 sheep. One wanders off and can’t be found, so the shepherd leaves the 99 and pursues the one.

There is a lost coin. A coin that has fallen out of reach, or has gotten behind something, or has seemed to disappear altogether. So, the woman stops what she’s doing and basically turns her whole house upside-down to find the lost coin.

The point in all of these stories is that God goes out of his way to find what is lost, to re-claim what is lost, to recover and restore anything and anyone who is lost. God reaches out for us. God looks for us. God does not stop calling our name.

I learned an important lesson about the seemingly when I was first ordained and was leading a simple worship service at a nursing home. At this little service, my rotation was once a month, and it took a lot of energy to try to be present, to be “with,” and to be engaged, when only about five or six people seemed alert, and another twenty or so seemed— well, they seemed sort of “lost.” On one particular day, I had led them in singing a hymn, and the five faithful helped me sing it. Then, I invited them to join me in reading Psalm 23, which was printed in a large printed card for them to use. The five faithful joined along. But so did several others. One woman, in particular, who never spoke and never looked one in the eye, but always seemed far away in another world almost—her lips began to move, as she recalled from some deep, old place, the words of a Good Shepherd who finds us.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” God leads us into green pastures—not that we’re cows or sheep, but the green pastures become a symbol for whatever is for us a place of rest and refuge, a place of nurture and sustenance. God lead us beside still waters, stilling the rapids of our life, slowing us down, and collecting us in one place. God restores our soul. Even when we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” we have nothing to fear, because God is there. Even if we don’t see God, even if we don’t particularly feel God in that moment—God is there. Even when (as we recalled this week on the Anniversary of September 11) there are those who die all too suddenly, those whose lives are taken– God nevertheless calls, God loves, and God welcomes by name.
Psalm 23 reminds us that God leads us into a place where there’s an enormous feast, a feast so big that it includes not only everyone we’ve ever loved, but even our enemies, transformed into friends. There in the full presence of God, in the fullness of love, God anoints us and calls us by name.

No one and nothing stays lost from God. God seeks and searches and calls out by our truest name, and calls us into love, into laughter, and into life everlasting. As the church, it’s our job to help one another hear God’s calling. Whether we are the lost who are found, or whether we are among those who fling open the door and welcome those who return—we are, all of us, called to join in the celebration.

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