Christ’s Coming Among Us

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Today we begin the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching. The symbols are all around us. The purple reminds us that this season is special. It is different. The Early Church used it as a time of preparation for baptism, and it also foreshadows royalty, as we await the coming of a King. The Advent wreath is another symbol of our waiting, as each Sunday, another candle is lit. Those who keep Advent Calendars open one window or door each day– a practice of focused waiting and watching. The lessons that the Church gives us for this morning and the next few Sundays are all about waiting and watching and preparing. But for WHAT are we waiting? For WHAT are we on the watch?

It is traditional during Advent to talk about the two aspects of waiting and watching for the Lord. It is, we are told, a sort of two-track season, and we travel both tracks at he same time. One aspect has to do with our re-telling the story of the coming of a Messiah, the one who was born in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth. The other aspect of our waiting and watching has to do with the Second and Final coming of Jesus, as is hinted in the prophetic scriptures and especially in the Revelation to John. 

But I wonder if the season isn’t more about a third way that Jesus asks us to watch and be ready. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of such a way, but it’s also something Jesus point to whenever he talks about the kingdom of God. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God. You are not far from the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is very near you. 

And finally, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you!” Jesus invited apostles, disciples, strangers, friends and enemies, to see the kingdom of God that was already around them. And that’s his invitation to us. 

Learn from the fig tree, Jesus says. “From the fig tree learn the lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer in near. So also, Jesus says, when you see these things taken place you know that the Son of Man is near.” 

That other day will come, when the Son of Man parts the clouds and the angels gather up the elect. But Jesus tells us, “don’t spend your time looking for signs or clues. Instead, look at what’s right before you.” Jesus invites us to watch for the kingdom of God’s presence all around us. Not just in the re-telling of the Bible stories. Not just in the waiting for the final coming of Jesus. But right now, right here, in these in-between times.

The kingdom of God is in the midst of you, Jesus says. It is for us to notice. To watch. To look, to see, to taste, to smell and to feel. 

How do we spot the kingdom of God? There are several clues. The kingdom of God is among us when we see acts of mercy. Our world talks a lot about justice, but when we’re on the receiving end, which of us really wants justice? But when we are shown a kindness that we did nothing to deserve, when we are given a gift that we did not earn or expect, when the hungry are filled with good things and the lowly have been looked upon with favor. The kingdom of God is in our midst.

The kingdom of God is among us when we see acts of forgiveness. Forgetting may be impossible, but through the love of Jesus Christ, there is such a possibility as forgiveness. Even when we can’t bring ourselves to forgive, we can pray that Christ might forgive on our behalf and move us toward the day when we, too, can forgive even as we have been forgiven. When we say we’re sorry, and someone else looks at us with a convincing smile and says, “It’s ok,” the kingdom of God is in our midst.

And the kingdom of God is among us when we see acts of love. There are still those people in the world who put others ahead of themselves. Sometimes they are parents. Sometimes they are children. Sometimes they are friends. Love happens when we throw out all of the planning, the percentage-based giving, the calculating, the expecting a return— and we simply love for loves’ sake. When we love like God loves— God’s kingdom is in our midst. 

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, 

“We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth . . .  In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, … The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; . . . Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation. . . . Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.

Today at the 11 Holy Eucharist, the choir sings one of my favorite anthems. “E’en so, Lord Jesus,” based on Revelation 22. I remember the first time I heard it: I was in seminary and it was my first semester. I had signed up for too many classes and had gotten involved in too many other things and was completely overwhelmed. Relationships seemed to be falling apart. I had no idea whether I should be aiming for ordination or not. I wanted Jesus to come, alright, and I wanted him to come quickly. I wanted that semester to end. I wanted my depression and confusion to end. I wanted change of some kind and in some ways, I wished the world I was experiencing might end and a new world begin. And about this time of the year, I heard that anthem. A recurring part of the hymn sings, “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more; They need no light nor lamp nor sun, For Christ will be their All!”  After hearing that anthem, after praying those words, it was as though something had shifted.  There was a new sense that, one day, somehow, Christ would be “my all,” and that would be enough.  It was enough now to hope for.  It would one day be enough to experience.  
That Christ might “be our all” is what Jesus asks, invites and promises.

May Jesus quickly come, and may Christ become our All. 

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

 

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Living with Faith that All Shall be Well

To watch a video of the Evensong, click the photograph below:

In mid-March of 2020, the Bishop of New York asked us to close our churches. We did so, and remained closed for public worship until July, when we opened as fast as we were able. Especially during those first few months of the lockdown, when NYC was filled with the sound of ambulances, we checked in on each other.

I asked my friend if she needed anything, and she explained how she and her neighbors were managing and doing all right. After a few seconds of silence, she said, “But all shall be well.”

Coming from another person, that phrase might have sounded trite or artificial. But I knew that my friend meant it and believed it. I also knew that my friend was footnoting an Anglican saint, Julian of Norwich.

That little phrase, “All shall be well” (especially in Episcopal and other Anglican churches) is a kind of hyperlink to the life, faith, and words of a medieval holy woman named Julian of Norwich. Scholars think that Julian probably lost her son and her husband in a plague, and so she committed her life to service in the Church of St. Julian in Norwich. She began a life of prayer and before long, people began to come to her for advice and wisdom. She became a kind of spiritual guide.
She received a vision from God and she wrote down two versions of that vision—a vision a little like our scriptures today—a vision in which God assures Julian that love prevails. Love wins. Love is never defeated.

Julian of Norwich takes to God her deepest question: Why is there sin? And more specifically, why has there been sin in my life? Why did I do that, say that, think that, go down that road, etc, etc, etc. Julian writes about this and says,


… Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved. (Showings, Long Text, Chp. 27)

Through her prayers, by taking to God her deepest questions and worries, Julian didn’t necessarily find the answers to her questions, but she found a loving presence who could sit with her in her questioning.

It could not have been easy for Julian, she was living through times of plague, times of religious unrest—opponents of the ruling religious party were being burned at the stake, and that would have been just down the street from Julian’s window in Norwich. She, herself, faced problems of being misunderstood, doubted, or slandered. But she kept her faith and continued being of counsel to anyone who came to her window to speak.
Ann Lewin is a British writer and poet who reflects on those words of Julian,

“All shall be well….”
She must have said that
sometimes through gritted teeth.
Surely she knew the moments
when fear gnaws at trust,
the future loses shape,
The courage that says
all shall be well
doesn’t mean feeling no fear,
but facing it, trusting
God will not let go.
All shall be well
doesn’t deny present experience
but roots it deep
in the faithfulness of God,
whose will and gift is life”.

Many of the questions and heartaches of the past year go unanswered for us and for too many.

But we have a loving God who invites our questions, our fears, our worries, our anger, our rejoicing, our hopes.

The vision from the Revelation to John reminds us of God’s movement towards us:

To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Even as we express outrage, sadness, anger, grief… whatever emotions we may feel today, let us be still and allow God’s loving presence to come close, to hold us, and whisper in our ears, “All shall be well.”

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Restored in Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

In today’s Gospel, we have the famous conversation between Pontius Pilate, just before Jesus is handed on through a set-up process that will lead to his crucifixion.  It might seem more appropriate to Holy Week, but we hear it today because this Sunday is referred to as Christ the King Sunday. The language and imagery of kingship and royalty run through the prayers and readings today, and they invite us to think about how we understand Jesus as the authoritative force in our lives.

If you or I have a problem with the idea of “kingship,” in relation to Jesus, we can see in today’s scriptures that our confusion is nothing new. We might take issue with the term or idea for different reasons, but it’s important to notice that people questioned the image a long time ago.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king…”

And so, we’re left with that same question, really: Is Jesus a king or not?  Or if so, what KIND of king might he be?

Our first reading today, from Daniel, imagines kingship with fairly traditional images and dynamics.  Daniel imagines a wise, white-bearded figure, taking his throne. Another comes to the Ancient One and is given power and dominion.  But if we stay with these images, not only are we stuck historically, but we’re stuck theologically and spiritually, as well.   

Though the scriptures for Christ the King Sunday are strong and each one could have its own sermon, our first prayer today, known as the Collect of the Day, seems to focus our readings and prayers in a particular way.

The Collect, of course, is written or chosen to pull together the scriptures into an overall theme or idea, to “collect” the themes of scripture, with the day in church year, with our own intentions and needs. 

In the classic form of the Collect, the second phrase usually describes God in some way, and today’s prayer says of Almighty God, “whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords…”  Since this last Sunday after Pentecost, just before Advent begins is nicknamed Christ the King Sunday, I’ve always skipped over part of that phrase in the prayer, racing to the part that highlights Jesus in royal images.  But what’s shimmering for me, inviting me to pray more deeply, is the idea of God’s “restoring all things in Christ.”

When we think of “restoration,” we probably think of something being put back into its original condition, or earlier state. The Restoration in English history refers to the return of King Charles II and various institutions of church and state returning to the way they had been before the commonwealth period of Oliver Cromwell.  Restoration on buildings (especially ours that are landmarked) usually needs to use original materials, doing things as much like they were done, as possible.

This is what Pontius Pilate gets confused about.  If God is going to “restore” a Jewish king on the throne, in the sense that he’s hearing from the gossip and the ones who have turned Jesus over to him, then Pilate and the whole Roman Empire have a tangible, human opponent to deal with.  It’s like King Herod, when Jesus was an infant, thinking that by killing all the male babies, he could get rid of a potential king.  But that’s not the kind of restoration God has in mind.

Restoration can mean simply putting something back in its place.  But often, it means much more.

Hugh Whelchel directs the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, and points out that when he restores an old car, the finished product is not just as it used to be. It’s better.   He explains,

“The paint is better, the interior is better, it’s even mechanically superior to the original factory specs. Yes, it is the same car as it was when it was new—just better.

That is God’s goal for restoring this broken world. In place of what we see now will be a new heaven and a new earth, and it will be better than the original. Why is God going to do this? Because he loves his creation.”  (https://tifwe.org/better-than-new-gods-grand-restoration-plan/)

In Christ, God is doing something entirely new. And it’s just going to keep getting “newer.”

The Epistle Reading today is from the Revelation to John, which can be confusing to people. It speaks at two levels:  On one level, it’s offering courage to persecuted Christians in the First Century, but it’s also giving a framework, a paradigm (almost) of how to look for God in to come in the future.  Notice that John writes in symbol and poetry. He speaks of God in images that go beyond images, as if to say, the whens, wheres, and how’s of God’s coming again in fulness will be so different, so creatively new, that there’s not way to really even express it.  God in Christ is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, and everything in-between.

NT Wright (Surpised by Hope) writes,

You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange as it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.

And this brings us to today, and ourselves. We pray for restoration, but are we praying theologically or historically?

I know that I spent the bulk of the last year and a half hoping and praying for the restoration of life as we understood it.

I’m slowly beginning to understand that the kind of restoration we are witnessing is different.

Christ lives and directs our hearts in ways that keep growing and renewing and changing.  

Acts 3:20-21
God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”

And so, even heaven is temporary, awaiting the time when God restores all in all.

This means we live in repentance.
We live in hope.
We live in evermore deepening reliance and trust in God.

 

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Living into Priesthood (of All Believers)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:


At yesterday’s Diocesan convention, several hundred of us were gathered in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. We were excited to be back in that beautiful space together, joined by others online in our first Diocesan hybrid convention. We all did our best to celebrate faith and enjoy the day. Parts of the worship, prayer, and program were glorious. 

But there were parts that were sad, and hard, and worrisome. As we move into November, all our churches are nervous about the coming year’s budget and programs and possibilities. Will families move back to the city? Will people who have drifted come back to church? Will groups that lease space return again? Will we stay healthy and faithful and creative enough to make it through?

If we pay attention to the news, we might feel like some of today’s scripture readings from Daniel or Mark are coming true in our times. With climate changes, famines, and storms, the pandemic continuing to flare up here and there, and wars and rumors of wars, we know the uncertainty of the times.

We might be tempted to do what Jesus warns against—look for a quick fix, a guru, a temporary authority, or another messiah. Maybe we’re tempted to pray in a magical way to be delivered without our having to do anything—perhaps to call on the Archangel Michael to rise, and fight, and protect us.

But the middle scripture reading today—the Letter to the Hebrews, offers us something else. In what can at first sound like real criticism of Judaism and the temple priesthood, I think the Letter to the Hebrews actually magnifies another theme of scripture and theology that we sometimes overlook.

As I was reminded yesterday, that beautiful prayer asking God to “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new” is not only used on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but also in the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons. But it’s a prayer that involves all of us.

The Letter to the Hebrews draws a sharp contrast between the temple priests and another priest—the High Priest, the Super Priest, the Priest-to-end-all-priests: Jesus Christ. The temple priests are always standing, day by day. But Jesus sits. He sits because his work is done. Christ has undone the whole sacrificial system by offering himself, a blameless victim. 

Throughout the scriptures, except for the Jewish temple priest, the word “priest” is not really used for a religious leader in charge of a congregation. That has come later, through theology and practice.  

Where scriptures DO talk about priests, however, the scriptures are talking about ALL OF US. Though others had raised the issue, it was Martin Luther who wrote and preached that YOU are priests. Luther wrote, “this word ‘priest’ should become as common as the word Christian because all Christians are priests” (Martin Luther, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained (New York, NY, Anson D.F. Randolph, 1859), 106).

Luther remembered in Exodus where God says, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:6), and Isaiah’s word, “You shall be called the priests of the Lord, they shall speak to you as the ministers of our God” (Is 61:6). God’s talking about everybody here. And finally, Luther points to the First Letter of Peter, “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The passage goes on to say, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession that you may proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2).

When it feels like we live in apocalyptic times, when it feels like the world is collapsing, perhaps it’s an especially good time to reclaim this doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” It’s not just a Lutheran “thing.” It’s not just a “Protestant thing.”

But in Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents out of Vatican II, the Roman Church says,

The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, (103) should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.

Art Lindsley is a Reformed theologian who writes about the priesthood of all believers and suggests at least four implications for us—for all of us. [“The Priesthood of All Believers,” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.]

First, we all have direct access to God. It’s not like the old days when only the priest when into the temple once a year to talk with God. It’s not only the one who prays beautifully, or lives a holy life. But each of us—fallen, sinful, tired—in our own blessed way, who can and should speak to God and listen to God. Prayer is our direct line.

Second, even though we don’t offer bulls and turtledoves as sacrifices, as priests, all of us offer spiritual sacrifices. The New Testament is clear that we are to offer but sacrifices such as prayer, praise, thanksgiving, repentance, justice, kindness, and love. This empties our hearts for God and turns us more deeply towards God.

The third implication of our all being priests is that we each have a prophetic role to play. When we see injustice, we’re to speak out. When we see despair, we’re to offer hope. When we see people or institutions or governments heading in the direction of evil, we speak out.

And fourth and finally, because we’re all priests, we are to work for reconciliation. Even when it’s hard. Even when it goes against the culture. Even in the face of violence, warfare, and terror. Christ works through us so that we can work for peace. It is the Peace of Christ that we share, after all— not our peace.

As priests, we are a busy people. We have a lot to do, but we all share in this vocation of priesthood— to pray, to sacrifice, to prophecy, and to reconcile.

The Gospel today ends with Jesus predicting dangerous, unruly times. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” he says. Another version translates this, as “But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming” (The Message, Mark 13:8).  Somethings about to happen. It’s scary and might be dangerous right now. But there’s room for something new to be born.

With Christ as our guide and friend, may we be midwives and helpers as the Holy Spirit creates a new world.

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

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Human (Along with All the Saints)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

A few years ago, the Episcopal Church changed the list of official scripture readings that are used on Sundays. In the back of our Prayer Book is a listing of these, called a lectionary, and it’s arranged in a three-year cycle: years A, B, and C. What the General Convention in 2006 did was to substitute that listing with what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary. Overall, the newer lectionary exposes us to readings that the church otherwise might not read, but where the changes are most obvious is on certain holy days—and All Saints’ Day is one of them.

We no longer hear those majestic words from Ecclesiasticus, “Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. … those who ruled in their kingdoms, … those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; …those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; ….(Ecclesiasticus 44). We still get a bit of Revelation, with the “new heaven and new earth,” but we no longer get the Beatitudes as the Gospel. That particular Gospel was great because a sermon would basically “write itself” from the words

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. |
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled….

While a part of me misses those older, more familiar readings for All Saints’ Day, I’m learning to appreciate the newer choices. This year, in which we get Martha and Mary, it’s just as good as those other readings, if not better. It’s perhaps “better” because Mary and Martha seem so real. They seem a little like us.

Sometimes Mary and Martha are portrayed in overly-simplistic terms. We hear the story about Jesus eating in their home. You remember the one: Martha was busy getting food on the table and got frustrated with her sister Mary, who was simply sitting there, listening to Jesus. Sometimes they are used to symbolize two aspects of the spiritual life: Mary the contemplative, and Martha the active. But they remain thin characters—a bit stylized and idealized.

But in the story we hear in today’s Gospel, when their brother Lazarus has died, we see both Mary and Martha at full strength and in full humanity. Mary sees Jesus and honors him as a teacher and friend, but she doesn’t hold back. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Had we read earlier in Chapter 11, we would have heard her sister Martha say the same words. I love what this shows us about Mary and Martha—they are secure enough in their relationship with Jesus that they can be honest with him. They can get angry, be hurt, be disappointed, question him and question the will of God. And THIS is precisely what a saint is.

In the New Testament the word “saint” normally just refers to someone who puts her faith in Jesus Christ. In the New Testament sense, one does not have to be a martyr or even a particularly holy person to be called a saint. The Apostle Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” Again, 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. And finally, in Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints—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. And it is a grand and glorious company.
. . . [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!”

But more than anything else, a saint does what Martha and Mary show us how to do: talk honestly with Jesus the Son of God. Be honest with our emotion—our anger, sadness, jubilation, worry, and every possible feeling we can name or can’t name—and make it into prayer.

Sometimes our feelings lead the way and only later might be followed by prayer. A faithful response to death is not always quiet, prayerful, and pious. Faithful people wail at their bereavement and rail at God. Faithful people tear clothes and sometimes tear up other things. Faithful people respond as humans, because that’s how we’re created. Jesus as Jesus wept human tears when he heard that Lazarus had died, we weep human tears when we grieve.

The great children’s hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God” pictures saints in all kinds of ways and situations.

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.

And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
The whole of their good lives long.

And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
And there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
Why I shouldn’t be one too.
Why not, indeed?

The two feast days of All Saints’ and All Souls’ are always a little confused in our liturgical celebrations and in our hearts. All Saints’ initially was for remembering the “red-letter” saints, the famous ones, the ones in stained glass and sculpture. All Souls’ Day was more intimate, more personal, for us to remember those we have loved who have died. The two days are days for remembering the Resurrection and clinging to the assurance of eternal life.

Thanks be to God for the stories of the saints, for those lives who inspire us and strengthen us, but also who remind us that we get closest to God by being fully human. Thanks be to God for those we have loved who have died in faith. May they rest in peace and rise in glory. And finally, thanks be to God for giving us this life of faith, that keeps us together, one family, through life and through death and into life eternal.

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

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Faith to Have Vision

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Today’s Gospel brings to life one of the central stained-glass windows at Holy Trinity: The Healing of Bartimaeus.  And this story suggests a deep and mysterious connection between believing and receiving vision. The story and words of Jesus encourage us to step out, to move forward with belief, and then to trust that our belief will take us to a new place of seeing.

The story about Bartimaeus takes place as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. It is near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. All this time, Jesus has been telling his disciples that the kingdom of God is in their midst—right in front of them— if they will only see it.

He tells them about God’s love for all people, if they’ll just notice it. Jesus tells them that they (and we) will all see God, one day. But the disciples keep scratching their heads, trying to understand, trying to make it all fit together, trying to make sense out of what Jesus is doing in their midst.

The disciples here are a little like a person who sees a rainbow, but then runs inside to get the camera. By the time they’ve returned, the rainbow is gone. Over and over again the disciples miss the miracle because they’re reasoning, or arguing, or trying to predict Jesus’ next move.

There is some biblical irony when the disciples (who often are blinded by their own arrogance, their own egos, their own hopes, even), encounter this Bartimaeus, who is really blind. And yet, even with his blindness, Bartimaeus sees more than the disciples. He sees Jesus for who he is. Bartimaeus lets his faith take him forward, lead him into the presence of Jesus, and risks by asking Jesus for the thing he wants. He hears Jesus approaching and yells, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Jesus hears the faith in Bartimaeus’s voice. Jesus hears his desperation and his suffering. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus says, “let me see again.” Jesus says that the man’s faith has made him well, and so sends the man off. Bartimaeus regains his sight, but instead of going off, he begins to follow Jesus, instead.

We know that healing in our world doesn’t always come that quickly or easily, does it? Too many of us, too many we know, have wrestled with sickness or a broken family relationship, grief or addiction for too long. Perhaps we have asked for help with just as faithful prayers as Bartimaeus. And yet, the healing hasn’t happened yet, and we’re forgiven (I think) if we begin to lose faith and become a little cynical.

This is where faith comes in, has come in, and always will come in.

The people who heard Jeremiah’s words so long ago, words we heard in our first reading this morning, must have been a little cynical. What evidence did they have that God was truly going to help them return home? Uprooted, robbed of home and livelihood, a people turned into refugees, how should they hear these happy words of Jeremiah?

The people of Israel must have wondered if these were empty words. Violence continues. Useless warfare keeps on happening. There are more and more refugees, and even as science progresses, we don’t use that science to feed the world.

In Jeremiah’s day, as in ours, many doubt. Others get angry and wrestle with the words of God.  Some become cynical.  

But a few—then, as now.  Laugh.  We sometimes laugh out of nervousness or fear. But also, we sometimes just have to laugh at the audacity and outrageousness of God.  

One of the most famous stories of someone laughing at the promises of God is referred to in our Holy Trinity icon, as we see Abraham and Sarah on each side. In the middle shows the angels who bring the news of God’s promises.

But when Abraham and Sarah hear that they are going to be parents in old age, they laugh.

The writer Frederic Buechner points out the graphic nature of the Hebrew in these verses. He recalls that Abraham “falls on his face and laughs.” And Sarah laughs too. And so, when she gives birth to a son, it’s no wonder that she names the child “Isaac” or, “laughter” in Hebrew.

Buechner reminds us that like it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, that faith is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” faith is also about laughter at the outrageousness of God’s work in our world. 

When have you trusted what you’ve sensed or heard from God, and people laughed?  Maybe when you joined a church.  Maybe when you joined the Episcopal Church. Maybe when you decided to unite with THIS Episcopal Church. 

People often laugh when they hear hopes born of faith. Back in 1896, they must have laughed at Serena Rhinelander, as she began to outline her plans for a mission house and church, here on East 88th Street.  People laughed at Father Paul in 1950, when he led Holy Trinity from being a mission of St. James’s Church to being our own congregation.  People have laughed at Sue Chandler, as she began Search & Care. They’ve laughed at Gretchen Buchenholtz, as she started a children’s playgroup that became Merricats Castle School, which grew into the Association to Benefit Children. People have laughed as crazy Holy Trinity reopened for worship as soon as we could in July 2020, and they’ve probably laughed as we’ve continued on, trying to be faithful.

When people hear some of my hopes for this parish, they continue to laugh. My hopes of people returning to church, of new Sunday school programs for children, of particular programs for older adults that are not just what a nonprofit can offer but actually suggest a way to age with Christ, to grow older, holier, and happier all at the same time.

Just get me started, and I can talk about a new kitchen in the basement of St. Christopher’s House, and renovations to make an accessible entrance. I’ll tell you about ideas for accessible restrooms, a meeting room for classes where we can actually hear each other, a restored belltower, a new garden patio in the East side of the front garden…. on and on and on.

Just as it wasn’t always easy to stay faithful in the past, there will surely be challenges in the future. New and different parishioners and volunteers with new and different strengths and weaknesses.   New visitors and members and gifts and abilities.

You may laugh, but as Buechner reminds us, “The reason [Abraham and Sarah] laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough” (Peculiar Treasures, 153).

Abraham and Sarah laughed.  Mary laughed for joy at the wildness of God’s promises. I bet Bartimaeus laughed, and if we were to look closely enough in our window, we might just see it.

And so we are called to live between seeing and believing, in the place of faith, grateful that it is also a place of laughter. May God continue to give us faith, so we can have eyes to see, and keep us filled with laughter. 

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

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Living Towards Others

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I love the honesty in today’s Gospel. We see James and John, sons of Zebedee BEFORE they show themselves to be the future St. John (the beloved disciple, the one who Jesus sees as family from the cross, as he entrusts John to his mother Mary, and his mother to his friend, John. This is James, more like Jimmy, long before he is known as James the Greater and patron saint of Spain.

No, here, we see plain old James and John who are a lot like people we know. Maybe even a lot like us. They are so eager to get ahead, to make sure they get their due, that they come right out and ask Jesus to help them understand what their assignments will be in the future kingdom of God.

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  I suppose we have to give them points for honesty. But Jesus tries to help them see that the they have no idea what they’re asking for because the kingdom of God is a kingdom of reversals. Jesus will be elevated by first making himself low.

The Reading from Hebrews refers to this as the “reverent submission” of Christ.  In those beautiful words the anonymous writer of that scripture says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Greatness comes not through position or power, but through service, by putting others first, and the self second (or third, or fourth, or fifth.)

We need to say one thing for certain: and that is, that suffering is not always changed into redemption. Suffering, itself, is not to be glorified. At yesterday’s Global Mission Fair, the Rt. Reverend Dickson Chilongani, Bishop of the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, Tanzania, was talking about the various ministries in his diocese.  Among one of the health issues some of his people face, the bishop almost casually mentioned leprosy.  Several of us looked at each other, as if to ask, “Did I hear that right?”  I looked it up later and found that according to the CDC, some 2 million people in the world are still disabled by leprosy, and in Tanzania and elsewhere, it still has social stigma, like we read about in the scriptures.

We are called, with others, to work to alleviate all who suffer. There is no redemption in pointless suffering, and we blaspheme if we in any way suggest that it might be a part of God’s will.

Rather, it is the will of God to redeem, to bring to life, to restore and we are most faithful when we do everything we can to lift one another out of such suffering.

A book I’m reading has reminded me of how the poet Walt Whitman served and suffered, and in so doing, found his own greatness.  Greatness, for Whitman, didn’t come by being a cultural superstar—either in New York or in Philadelphia. But the depth of his writing emerged from his own witness of suffering.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Whitman was living with his mother in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, picking up odd jobs, carousing around town, and really looking for himself, as much as anything or anyone else. His brother George enlisted in the Union Army, and the next year, it was feared that George was killed in battle.  Walt Whitman left Brooklyn and went in search of his brother, but in searching, he found a vocation, a purpose, a life-giving force.  Whitman began volunteering as a nurse, of sorts, visiting soldiers, writing letters for them to their families, getting them small things they needed, listening to their stories, accompanying many in death.

Whitman felt more alive, even as he exhausted himself. He became a witness to the senseless suffering of the war, but also to a higher nobility of those who served on behalf of others. The Civil War ended up saving the Union. But even more, it offered salvation to Walt Whitman. He died at the age of 72, exhausted, with a combination of tuberculosis, mal-nutrition, and selfless living. But his suffering was very much on behalf of others and opened beauty to generations.

Jesus invites us to feel and be affected by others. Suffering that is on behalf of others can be of a particular quality.  In today’s first reading Isaiah speaks of a Suffering Servant. In words we also read on Good Friday, we typically see Jesus as the one who has “borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. . . by whose bruises we are healed.” But the interpretation of Isaiah by faithful Jews before Jesus (and after) is also relevant. Israel understood itself as the suffering servant. As the nation suffered but remained faithful, others would be see and would be brought to God. Through the suffering of a remnant, the whole world might be saved.

The idea that redemptive suffering is communal rather than individual may sound odd in a culture as self-focused as ours.  But if I think about it for a minute, it invites me to worry less about what I, alone, might accomplish. It encourages me to think and pray about what we might all be called to do together. In what ways might we be called to suffer so that others might know redemption and life? (Not a popular question, and not a question easily answered.)

When Jesus asks James and John if they are able, he is asking if they are able to endure suffering. He is also asking if they are willing to live a life of service. Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom of God is not built on power or greatness, but on serving one another.

Holy Trinity has a long history of community service.  We have done that and we continue to do it. St. Christopher’s Mission House has been a part of that. Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center is a part of that. Our Thanksgiving dinner preparation and deliver (which we’ll be doing next month, by the way) is a part of that.

But this parish has also offered service (a little bit of suffering alongside or suffering for) those who live in other parts of the world. The parish was active with Carpenter’s Kids, in Tanzania. Individuals have visited other places and created direct links for ongoing support and mission.  But I invite you to pray along with me about how God might be calling us to participate more fully in mission (that suffering with or suffering alongside or suffering on behalf of) people in another part of the world?

Several of our parish have visited Tanzania, and perhaps that is a place to think about. Others have relationships and we have former parishioners in Puerto Rico. Our link parish in London has a particular relationship with churches in Myanmar or Burma. Several here have supported Christians in Iraq.

Whenever we’re tempted to think like the apostles James and John and ask God “what’s in it for us?” may the Spirit remind us of Jesus’s invitation to share in his cup of service-even-unto-suffering, to share, to get involved, to sacrifice, and in so doing, be transformed more deeply into the Body of Christ. 

Each day at Morning Prayer, we conclude with a Prayer for Mission, one of which I will use now. Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

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Saved

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

The disciples ask Jesus a good question. “Who can be saved?”

Though we may not always use that kind of language, and though we may even be a little embarrassed by the vocabulary of “the saved,” and the “un-saved”— it’s probably a question we ask, even if we don’t put it in those exact words. Who doesn’t want to be “saved,” if “salvation” means heaven, or peace, or serenity?  It’s because we want to be “saved” in one way or another that many of us are here today.

Of course, “salvation” can look like a lot of different things, depending on our perspective.

For some, salvation looks like eternal life; for others, it might look healthy children or a healthy spouse. For one or two, salvation might be like a day without pain, given a chronic condition that seems not to respond to medicine. Salvation might look like sober, thoughtful living, it might even look like prayer.

For others, salvation has more communal characteristics, it is saving on a more global scale. Salvation might look like equal rights and opportunities for all, regardless of race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or income, or physical or intellectual ability, or anything else. Salvation might look like everyone fed, and sheltered, able to call some place, somewhere “home.”

And for still yet others, “being saved” might be as simple as a moment or two that are worry and burden-free—not worried (for the minute) about the aging parent, no longer worried about the child who can’t quite fit in, no longer worried about the spouse who is looking for work, just no longer anxious, or preoccupied, but just alive.

Most of us do want salvation. And so, there’s a part of us that perhaps can relate to person in today’s gospel. He runs up to Jesus, excited, asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus has him reflect on the commandments, the basics. The man says, “oh yes, well, I’m pretty good with all of those.” “I haven’t killed anyone, I honor my parents, I don’t steal.”

The man who approaches Jesus understands religion as “cause and effect.” “If I do these things, then these other things will happen.”  This idea can be reinforced by a concentration on the Covenant of the Old Testament, but prophets and faithful seekers poke holes in this cause and effect system even in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the reading from the Prophet Amos there’s a sense that the way of faith follows an expected pattern. But both in Amos and in our Gospel, this expected outcome ends in ambiguity.

Amos thunders about injustice and oppression. His words often indict the people, and he predicts the culture’s crumbling in, upon itself, because of its greed, because of its selfishness, because it ignores the way of God. But then Amos has these words,

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;[and] it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

“It may be,” says Amos. In other words, the future of those who seek God is not set in stone. It is open for change, for growth, for repentance, for (dare I say it) salvation.

There’s some room within what some might see as a forgone conclusion. There’s room for us to move toward God. There’s room for God’s grace to move in us.

In the Gospel, we might be cheering for the man who approaches Jesus:  Yes, we follow the way of faithfulness, and in so doing, we are saved, right? 

But Jesus interrupts the man’s expectations and says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man hears this and is shocked. He goes away, grieving.

We can get caught up on the part about selling possessions and go off on a tangent about wealth and poverty, but that’s a secondary point in Jesus’s conversation with the disciples today. 

The story continues as the disciples hear Jesus’s response to the man, and they’re confused. Here is this very good guy, who keeps all the commandments. He does exactly what the whole tradition has taught. He keeps the Sabbath day, he doesn’t lie, he certainly doesn’t murder. But then Jesus seems to reinterpret everything. He changes the rules. He broadens the perspective. In some ways he blows apart the whole idea of what it meant to follow God.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Ok, then, who can be saved?” And while Jesus doesn’t answer this question, he instead, poses the real question: Not, “who can be saved,” but “Who can do the saving.” And it’s that question, that Jesus answers:

It is God and God alone who does the saving. In God’s own way, in God’s own time, in God’s lavish self-giving, self-offering, overflowing love.

God saves us. God saves us from ourselves. God saves us from becoming too attached to our possessions, to our ideas, to our friends, to our family, even to our own sense of ourselves.

One interpretation can have story of the rich man and Jesus end in a pretty sad way. We read “when [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” But notice that it’s not his being rich that was the problem. The rich are neither better nor worse than the poor. The problem is that this man is reluctant to follow Jesus, he’s hesitant to let loose of the things that weigh him down, and to move toward salvation. The Bible story says he went away grieving. But I don’t think the story really ends.

I wonder if the man turned around and met up with Jesus the next day. We don’t know if later, after hearing about the amazing events in Jerusalem: Jesus’ crucifixion, his death on the cross, his rising again in glory… that the man might then have had a change of heart and decided to follow Jesus. The story leaves room for us to imagine. It leaves room for grace, just as our own lives—no matter where we might be in our own calling to follow Jesus, no matter what might currently stand in the way of our being more faithful disciples of Jesus, not matter what might seem to be in our way of living freely— there is room for us to respond to God. There is room for God’s justice to smash the barriers, God’s mercy to forget all sin, and God’s grace to break through and bring us closer.

From time to time, in train stations and in public places, sometimes at family reunions, we come across those earnest believers who look at us and ask, “Have you been saved?” I have a friend who has a great answer. He looks these people dead in the eye, smiles, and says, “Every day, friend. Every day, I’m saved.”

The good news of Jesus Christ is that God is eager to take away whatever burdens us, whatever makes us sluggish to follow him, whatever keeps us from love. God offers to empty our hands, to take whatever we cling to, and gently lay it aside, so that our hands might be free and open—our hands and our hearts, so that we can receive the love of God and share it with others. With God, all things are possible.

Who can be saved?

Every single one of us.

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

 

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Following St. Francis in Following Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

The first reading today, from the Book of Job, is more poetry than preaching—until we remember its context. If you recall the story of Job, his whole dilemma asks the question, “Why bad things happen to good people?”  “If Job, who is faithful and loyal to God, loses his family, his livelihood, and eventually even his health—what good is faith in God?”  What we hear in today’s scriptures is a part of God’s answer, or really, God’s non-answer.

These words of God can sound intimidating and almost threatening, as though God is really trying to put Job in his place, to force Job into a kind of submission. 

But instead, I think God sings this symphony of creation as an invitation to Job. Get out of yourself and be a part of life. Step into the world. Look around. Smell. Taste. Feel. Get involved. The world is far more complicated and beautiful than you have imagined. Yes, it’s painful (and the reasons for that will have to wait for another time). But for now, move into the beauty of creation.

If you looked up the scripture readings appointed for today, you will be surprised at what we’re reading in church. That’s because I’m bending the rules for what scriptures are read on which Sundays by replacing the regular Sunday readings with the readings appointed for October 4, the day for remembering St. Francis of Assisi. Like many churches, we celebrate the day with the blessing of animals, but I also think it’s important, when thinking about Francis, to notice how Francis showed reverence towards all of creation—not just the animals. And in some ways, Francis allowed creation to preach to HIM, showing him to learn humility and follow Jesus more closely. 

Francis is famous for rescuing turtledoves that were on their way to being sold in the market, for preaching among birds and having them listen with attention. But my favorite St. Francis story is about Francis and the wolf in the little town of Gubbio.

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.

Francis followed Jesus in many ways, but chief among them was in the way of humility.  Recall that humility is related to hummus– of the earth. To be humble is to be down to earth– not high and might, floating ABOVE the earth. But also, not hiding in a hole, or allowed dust to be kicked in your face, or stationing yourself BELOW the earth.  Down to earth. Right-sized. Understanding one’s place in creation.

That’s what God is trying to get Job to understand in today’s first reading. The story of Job is complicated and raises huge questions about why bad things happen to good people, about what use being faithful is, if calamity still comes… but God’s answer to Job is that if Job will simply be JOB and allow God to be God, Job will find that he is taken care of and that things will work out all right. God’s words to Job are also an invitation for Job to notice a little more the creation all around him, to find in creation beauty, majesty, awe… and somehow, some way, this regard for creation will center Job in the presence of God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays to God and gives thanks that God has hidden certain things from the wise and intelligent, but reveals them to infants.  This is another place where Jesus says that we need to be childlike in order to understand the Christian message. 

The second part of the Gospel sounds comforting and soothing, but let’s really hear those words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Ok, so far, so good. Who of us doesn’t want help carrying whatever burden we might be under… but look what comes next: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”   Taking a yoke upon myself doesn’t sound all that appealing. I’m not a farm animal. After all, doesn’t God give me the intelligence I need to make good decisions, and aren’t I equipped with tools for the journey… and off I can go, rationalizing why I don’t want to “take his yoke upon me.”  I’m my own person. I can think for myself. etc, etc….

Jesus is calling us to humility. The yoke is not something rough and difficult like would be used for a farm animal. He promises it’s light. It’s invisible, in fact. But it’s strong and sure and never fades, because it’s made of love. If we allow Jesus to love us fully— every part of ourselves (the good, the bad, the embarrassing, the parts we might think are irredeemable…) … if we accept his love and try to return it, the yoke is in place, and we’re taking care of.

Jesus is inviting us to be childlike in our faith. In prayer and meditation, we sometimes lament what we call “monkey mind,” or “puppy mind,” as though out thoughts are so scattered, they’re like a puppy running in every direction. But rather than try to restrain the puppy, Jesus is inviting us to be a little more like a child who grows through exploration and play, until both he child and the puppy find calm and peace.

The life of St. Francis invites us to befriend creation, learn, and grow together. This has obvious implications for our care for the environment—not only in practical, energy and waste-saving ways, but also in deeper ways that make for lasting change. The life of Francis also reminds us of Jesus’s love of the poor—those poor in material wealth, but also those poor in body, mind, spirit, and soul. Even as we are befriended, we are to befriend. Even as Christ comes to serve us, he empowers us to serve one another.

I close with a favorite prayer of St. Francis:

May the power of your love, Lord Christ,
Fiery and sweet as honey,
So absorb our hearts
As to withdraw them from all that is under heaven.
Grant that we may be ready
To die for love of your love,
As you died for love of our love. Amen 

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Loving Neighbor as Self

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

When I was little, I learned in Sunday school that it was important to remember the two dimensions of the cross. A cross has an upward axis and that reminds us of our relationship with God. But the cross also has a horizontal axis, which reminds us of our relationships with each other. Both need to be in order for us to be right with God.

I learned that incredibly simple (if not simplistic) understanding of the cross maybe 40 years ago. But I’m not sure if I’m any closer at all to reflecting that kind of balance as I try to live my own life in the way of the cross.

The first great commandment: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength;” and the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” are at the center of what it means to walk in the way of the cross. Those two great commandments are at the center of the scripture readings today.

Some churches remind themselves of these words, sometimes referred to as “The Summary of the Law,” every Sunday at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist. Today, we hear it reverberate in the first lesson from Deuteronomy. Moses tells his people that God has promised to watch over them and to love them and to keep them safe. They will pass over from slavery into freedom, from bondage into liberty. They will be free. They will live. And so, he says, give thanks to the God who saves. The Lord is one. Love him with your heart, and your soul and all your might. Moses urges people to love God with their soul, but that word he uses for “soul” is a rich one.

It means to love God with your whole self, with your life, with the creature that you are, with your whole person, with your appetite, with your mind, with your desire, and with your passion.
The Second Commandment, “to love your neighbor as yourself” is sometimes thought by Christians to have originated with Jesus. But it is older. Rabbis long before Jesus had joined the commandment of loving God, with the command of loving neighbor. It’s found in the Book of Leviticus (19:18) and elsewhere. When Jesus links the love of God with the love of neighbor, he is simply following the great prophets of Israel, continuing the witness of Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Amos.

In today’s Gospel Jesus has a conversation with a man who is called a scribe, a man who is educated in the laws of God and in their interpretation. As the conversation plays out, the scribe and Jesus agree about the commandments. They agree that the mark of faith is to “love God and love neighbor,” and for that agreement, Jesus says to the man, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This scribe agrees with the teachings of Jesus, in his head. He can assent to the essential doctrine and can even affirm the interpretations of Jesus. And according to Our Lord, this man is “not far from the kingdom.” But it is that distance, that space between apprehending the kingdom of God and actually reaching the kingdom of God that makes all the difference.

“Almost” doesn’t count, except in a couple of things, and neither of them are Biblical.

The Gospel of Mark has a momentum to it, and this momentum is moving toward the cross. The scribe is lacking something. Like the rich man in an earlier story, the scribe here is lacking the follow-through. It’s not enough just to agree with Jesus. It’s not enough simply to be familiar with his teaching. Faithfulness is shown in one’s willingness to follow the cross—and this means the whole cross, including the love of God and the love of neighbor. And that whole issue of “loving the self.”

During the month of October, at the 9:30AM hour, we’ve been reading from a little book by Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Friedman’s Fables offers odd little stories that point out various aspects of family systems theory, which tries to help us understand how we deal with family, friends, and coworkers. Throughout these fables and the theory of family systems is the important of what psychology calls “differentiation of self,” the idea that a person needs to spend some time understanding where he or she begins and ends, in relation to other people. In other words, if I don’t have a good sense of who “John” is, I might get all caught up in trying to be who you want me to be, or who I think I ought to be, or borrowing too much of your “self,” thus creating all kinds of problems for relationships.

When Jesus talks about loving neighbor as self, or when others scriptures refer to denying self, they assume what Friedman is getting at– that as each of us is created by a loving God, we are worthy of love and respect and life.

Love of neighbor without love of self can result in a kind of mission-driven frenzy that forgets people for the sake of success. Love of self without love of neighbor ends up with a preoccupation with what’s good for me and my family, while the rest of you have to fend for yourself.

Jesus calls us to love neighbor as self, but notice the emphasis is on the neighbor. He assumes we are operating out of a love of self.

As I think about the practicalities of trying to love my neighbor as myself, in the context of Christian teaching and practice, I think it involves two aspects of love.

I’ve been thinking and praying about this over the last few weeks in different contexts, but on Thursday, I had a good example to work through my own current practice of loving my neighbor. A collection of unions representing fire fighters and other first responders held a demonstration at Gracie Mansion, just down the street.

The first part of loving neighbor as self involves accepting that my neighbor HAS a self– her own self, his own self. They are not me.

The second part of loving my neighbor as myself involves wanting the very best for my neighbor– the best in terms of material goods and the best in terms of spiritual goods. Materially, loving my neighbor affects how I spend my money. How I contribute to helping others. How I vote, as my vote affects policy, which affects other people. And how I pray, as I pray for the very best thing to come for those other people.

Outside the church walls, it’s Halloween and people are dressing up– sometimes as things that scare them, to get power over them. Other times to dress up as something they admire and wish they were more like. That second idea might be a take-away for us today. As we think about Jesus’s encouragement to love your neighbor as yourself, who would you like to emulate in doing that? Is it a saint or someone in the Bible or religious history? Is it a relative– maybe someone living, maybe someone who has died? Or is it a neighbor, a coworker, or fellow church-member? I’m not suggesting we dress up as the person we admire for Halloween, but responding to today’s Gospel and with All Saint’s Day in mind, how might we begin to live towards being that person who balances love of neighbor and love of self? How might we live more deeply into that cross shaped faith connecting us to God and to others?

May all the saints, living and dead, show us the way.

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