Being Willing to Love

fullsizeoutput_2eA homily offered at the marriage of Shane Davies and Dale Lewis on December 9, 2017 at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.  The scripture readings are 1 Samuel 18:1b, 3, 20:16-17, 42a, Psalm 98, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, and John 15:9-12. 

In just a few minutes, Dale and Shane will make vows.  Shane will be asked, “Will you live together in faithfulness and holiness of life as long as you both shall live?”   And he’ll say, “I will.”

And then Dale will be asked, “Will you live together in faithfulness and holiness of life as long as you both shall live?”   And presumably, he’ll say, “I will.”

Then the questions come to us.  “Will all of you here gathered uphold and honor Shane and Dale and respect the covenant they make?”  Our response: “We will.”

And then, a final question: “Will you pray for them in times of trouble and celebrate with them in times of joy?”  And we will thunder forth another response, “We will!”

I will.  They will.  We will.  There’s a lot of “willingness,” this afternoon, if you notice.  And even though all kinds of qualities bring us to this day–maturity, decisiveness, generosity, patience, and fortitude.  Willingness has to be highly prized among them.

On October 6, 2013, Dale and Shane met.  It was on that day that this church offered what is called an “Instructed Eucharist,” a slowed-down version of what we do in church with explanations throughout.  Afterwards, there was dinner and a discussion.

Dale was willing to be a part of this church and this program that sought to welcome and invite newcomers, regardless of whether they prayed like us, looked like us, or believed like us.

Shane, too, was willing.  He was willing to try a new place, a new way of thinking and looking.

And so, in many ways it was willingness—to be open, to explore, to risk—that allowed Dale and Shane to meet in the first place.  And willingness carries them still.

We get hints of this quality of willingness in today’s scriptures. In the first reading, we get a quick view into the relationship between Jonathan and David.  Jonathan, we’re told, loved David “as his own soul,” and “as he loved his own life.” They made a covenant to one another and promised fidelity.  Jonathan was willing to risk his relationship with his father the king, with his standing in the royal household, and perhaps his life, for the love of David. David risked his life being as close to Jonathan as he could, for as long as he could.

Willingness is the context for the beautiful anthem we just heard. It’s based on words from the Song of Solomon, “Set me as a seal.” Again, the theme of willingness runs throughout as the poetic language of the scriptures describes a kind of love willing to bear the heart, willing to share love, willing to break social taboo, and willing to wage everything on love. [If you’ve never read Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, get a Bible, or read it online.  It’s hot stuff.]

St. Paul chimes in, as well, with his First Letter to the Corinthians.  There he basically qualifies as a fellow believer, a fellow struggler, as he talks about his own reluctant willingness to grow up, to move beyond childish selfishness and to begin to be open to other people, to wisdom and insight for other sources, and finally, to the way of God’s love.

For Christians, Jesus is the Way of love.  And Jesus relates his way of love to following the commandments of God.  But he doesn’t get caught up on rules and regulations.  Instead, Jesus basically says, “Be willing.”  Be willing to let love guide you.  Be willing to love and to be loved.

The course of love between Dale and Shane, the course of love that leads one to love others—all might seem like it’s just the natural flow of things.  But really, Dale could have easily gone on by himself—unwilling to risk, try something new, or let someone in.  Shane could he easily gone a different direction—unwilling to explore a new faith perspective, a new friend, or a new direction in life.
Instead, their openness has brought them here, with us, today.

Willingness is that ability to stop for a second and just suppose—maybe I don’t have all the answers myself.  Perhaps I could let down my guard with this person.  Just maybe there’s something ahead I haven’t even imagined.

Willingness is cracking the door open—to possibility, to love, and to God.  Willingness is unclenching a fist so that the hand can be relaxed, open in a new way.  It’s an open hand that can then actually hold or be held by another.

This marriage is celebrated in the Season of Advent, the time when Christians prepare to hear again the Good News of Christmas—that God was willing to come into the world in the form of a helpless little baby to show us what love looks like.

And so, Dale and Shane, my prayer for you is simply that your willingness will continue.  Be willing to risk, willing to grow, willing to screw up, willing to say you’re sorry, willing to get up again the next day and fall more deeply into love.  Be willing to turn your lives and your love over and over again to God.

As Dale and Shane make their vows and we offer our support, let us also vow to be more open, more available, more attentive, and more willing for God’s love to live in us.

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

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Praying for God to Come

Blue ChristmasA short homily offered at Evensong for a Blue Christmas Service, offering us to come together with others in order to acknowledge the “blue” feelings that might occur during the holidays. For many who have lost a loved one, this is a time of sharp loneliness. For others, who have lost a relationship, health, a job, or had a financial setback it may be a time of pain, confusion, or fear.   The scripture readings are Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 and John 11:21-26a. 

Listen to the homily HERE.

The following poem by Thomas Merton, “Advent” was included in the remarks.

Charm with your stainlessness these winter nights,
Skies, and be perfect! Fly, vivider in the fiery dark, you quiet meteors,
And disappear.
You moon, be slow to go down,
This is your full!

The four white roads make off in silence
Towards the four parts of the starry universe.
Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry earth.
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in Advent,
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets’ stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

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Pots and Possibilities

Festive face jugs

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 64:1-9Psalm 80:1-7, 16-181 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37

Listen to the sermon HERE.

If you’ve been in the rectory living room, you’ve probably noticed some of the pottery on the bookshelves.  Certainly the pottery has noticed you:  because the pottery are face jugs, and they keep watch.

Face jugs, these pottery jugs with faces on them have an uncertain history. Most of mine come from the Piedmont and Mountain areas of North Carolina. Some say the practice of making jugs with faces on them came from African slaves and had to do with burial rites or memorial practices. Another tradition suggests that the ugliest face jugs were made to keep moonshine, and they were made ugly so they’d scare children away.

I like them because they come from the earth near where my people are from and they make me laugh.

And sometimes, they make me think. I wonder about the faces. Was the potter thinking about a particular person? When the face is especially ugly or contorted, was the potter using the clay as a kind of exercise in aggression– making a version of someone in particular’s face, and then making it look really ugly? Or was the potter somehow conveying something the potter felt deep inside?

If anyone has ever worked with clay, you know that the object made really does come from the potter. It is shaped by the potter’s hands. Its image comes from the potter’s mind. The potter’s time and talent are expressed in the object. And sometimes, given the ingredients of the glaze or paint that might be used (especially in the old days of using lead glazes); the potter actually risks his or her personal health in crafting the object.

In firing up a kiln, in overseeing the process, sometimes the potter bears marks or wounds that result directly from the process of making pottery. For all of these reasons, it makes sense that Isaiah would use the image of the potter and the clay to express an aspect of our creation and existence from God.

In today’s reading Isaiah begins by lamenting the condition of the world. “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence . . . to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Isaiah is tired of people ignoring God and God’s ways, and so he’s asking God a question that comes up again and again in the scriptures, and maybe comes up in our own prayers—“Get ‘em, God. Make them pay. Why do you let the wicked prosper? Why don’t you do more for the poor and the oppressed?” Isaiah goes on for a bit, ranting and railing at God. But then, in the midst of his prayer, Isaiah begins to reconsider. Like a little child who throws a tantrum and then finally, exhausted, falls into the arms of her mother, Isaiah falls back into the arms of God. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.” And then, the line I like so much, “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Isaiah begins in a vengeful, angry place and eventually moves to one of compassion. We might expect that in a prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures, but we may be surprised when we encounter language of wrath and vengeance from Jesus.

But that’s what it sounds like in today’s Gospel. Jesus speaks out of a tradition of Jewish apocalyptic literature, an old tradition in which people of faith looked to God to come and save them, especially when things in this world looked bad. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and especially Daniel, all contain sections though of as apocalyptic literature—literature that looks for the end of the world as we know it, as God ushers in a new reality for those who have kept the faith.

Christ tells us that everything has a process. Baking a loaf of bread has a preparation time, a time in which changes can be made and the actual bread formed and set, and then a time when the bread is baked and either must be eaten, given away, or will go bad. Everything has a process. People are born, grow mature, and eventually die. The world itself is created, groans and grows through maturity, and will one day come to an end.

But Jesus is saying simply this: The process continues. God is not finished with us yet. The end is not quite here. It may be tomorrow. Or it may be hundreds or thousands of years away. We don’t know, and it doesn’t accomplish much to muse on it. It will come when it will come. The point is—we’re in the middle now. There is still time—for us, and for others.

We are like the finished face jugs and we are NOT.  We are like them in that we are being fashioned into something rare and unique by a potter. The clay has been dug, we’re being shaped and formed and molded, but there’s still time for contours and new expressions and new inputs.  The face jugs have already gone into the kiln. They’ve been fired and hardened.  They are stuck with the faces the potter gave them: whether they sneer, or laugh, or have an evil grin, or gracious smile.

But we are still in God’s hands, able to be shaped and changed, and formed for good, formed for love.

Today we begin the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching, a season of God making and remaking things new. The symbols are all around us. The purple reminds us of the penitence of Lent (and Advent is as good a time as any for spiritual house cleaning) and of Jesus’ royalty—a kingship not like this world. The Advent wreath is another symbol of our waiting for increasing light, as each Sunday, another candle is lit. Those who keep Advent Calendars wait actively, as they open one window or door each day– a reminder that every new day brings a surprise from God.

The lessons we’ve heard today are not meant to scare us into right living or to make us so preoccupied with the Christ’s coming that we miss the holy right before us. Just the opposite. The intention is that we treasure each day, live it as best we can, and rejoice in the fact that we are all in process.

The world may seem beyond repair, but the good news is that God isn’t finished with it yet. Our families may seem broken, but God isn’t finished yet. Our relationships may seem completely out of shape, our own lives might seem like a badly formed clump of clay, but the good news—the really great news, is that God the Potter is not finished with us yet.

May this season bring us increasing light, increasing joy, and increasing love.

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

 

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On the Eve of Advent

night_sky
At our Advent Quiet Day this morning, we explored some of the Marian poetry of Thomas Merton. Especially fitting for the day (and tomorrow’s full moon) is this poem:

Charm with your stainlessness these winter nights,
Skies, and be perfect! Fly, vivider in the fiery dark, you quiet meteors,
And disappear.
You moon, be slow to go down,
This is your full!

The four white roads make off in silence
Towards the four parts of the starry universe.
Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry earth.
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in Advent,
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets’ stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

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A Kingdom of Service

baby kingA sermon for Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 2017.  The scripture readings are Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24Psalm 95:1-7aEphesians 1:15-23, and Matthew 25:31-46.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In 2008, Peggielene Bartels was going about her life. She worked as a secretary at the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington, DC, and kept busy supplementing her income by working as a receptionist at a nursing home. In spare time, she would take Ghanaian art and crafts to church bazaars and markets, raising extra money as she could.

But then she got a call from Ghana. Her uncle the king had died. The village elders had met, and Peggielene Bartels had been made King of Otuam.  King Peggy.

Since that phone call, she has continued her routine in Washington DC, but travels to Ghana whenever she can to preside at court, help solve village complaints, and continue to do what she can to improve the lives of her village.

In our day, when the news is full of examples of men in authority abusing that authority, and worse—not even comprehending the problem, it’s helpful to know about King Peggy.

What I love most about King Peggy is the way she understands her calling as one of service. In her memoir, King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village, she writes about working in the embassy one day—running this way and that, covering details, doing everything necessary to make a reception happen. She noticed a phrase on the wall that said, “He who wants to be king in the future must first learn to serve.” Peggy says she barely slowed down as laughed to herself, “This king serves, sure enough. I serve coffee.  I serve tea.”

That sense of service, and its refusing to stand above or apart from others, is at the heart of the meaning of Christ the King Sunday, this last Sunday before the Season of Advent.

Jesus himself tried to reinterpret what a king looks like, as he said, “My kingship is not of this world.”  When pressed by Pontius Pilate, “But, are you a king?” Jesus simply responded, “You say that I am….”  Jesus is the sort of king his own mother sang about, one who would

show mercy …,
scatter the proud …,
cast down the mighty …,
lift up the lowly …,
and fill the hungry with good things…

One way of understanding the person and work of Jesus begins in the Hebrew scriptures: the idea of a shepherd king.  King David is the forerunner and today’s first reading, from the Prophet Ezekiel, deepens this image. The shepherd is one who seeks out and saves, who finds who’s lost and brings her home.  The shepherd king offers shelter, nurture, and protection.

At the same time, the shepherd is no wimp.  He shows strength when needed and encourages the problem sheep to shape up or move along. The shepherd king is not sentimental, like some Victorian watercolor of a blond, blue-eyed, “Good Shepherd.”  Instead, the Good Shepherd is tough as nails when he needs to be, is ready to risk his life for the sheep, but still treats each one with gentleness and care.

A similar idea appears in our Gospel. Now, if you haven’t been in church for a while, you might have a tendency to fixate on the language of judgment, judgment between the sheep and the goats.  Judgment, unfortunately, is all some people hear from religion.  But notice that in today’s scripture and everywhere else, judgment is none of our business. It doesn’t belong to us.  It doesn’t belong to any religious leaders.  Judgment belongs to God alone.

Our task is to imitate the shepherd-king and look after one another, help each other, especially watch out for the least well-off and the neediest.

Jesus explains that his is a kingdom of service, a commonwealth of helping others:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

At every turn, Jesus chooses service over privilege. When he enters Jerusalem for what will be his final days (the entrance we remember on Palm Sunday), Jesus rides on a donkey—risking ridicule and comedy. He rejects a crown, and so his persecutors have to make him one of briers and thorns. He rejects power, prestige, and popularity—he even rejects success, at least in the eyes of the world.

He serves alongside us, in front of us, in back of us. Jesus is the king who is mopping the floor after we’ve gone home from the party.

One of the earliest stories about Jesus has to do with the moment he approaches his cousin, John the Baptist.  Jesus wants to be baptized.  But John says, ‘No. It should be the other way around. I should be baptized by you.”  But Jesus insists—he wants to be baptized by John just like other people.  Jesus wants to stand in that same water over which the Spirit of God hovered at creation; the water through which the children of Israel were led to freedom. Jesus shows his humanity and his humility. As he is baptized in the love and mercy of God, he’s also baptized into the service of humanity, so that he, too, can then invite others into the water—for refreshment, for cleansing, for healing, and for renewal.

In just a few minutes, we will baptize Jason Watters.  Baptism marks a beginning—a new beginning in love, in relationships, in worldview, in self-understanding, but also it marks a deepening into Christian service.  Like King Peggy of Otuam, Jason might his time filled with serving coffee, or providing calm in the chaos of feeding hundreds on Thanksgiving.  Who knows where the Spirit may lead next.

For us, whether we remember our own baptism or come from a completely different perspective and simply take what we can from this sacrament—today is a good day to renew our own sense of service.  Question and reject the kind of authority that props itself up at the expense of others.  Instead, let us be a part of the kind of authority that sneaks up through compassion, care, and service.

In the scripture readings earlier, we heard beautiful words from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.  May they come true for Jason, for us, and for all–that we may be given that “spirit of wisdom and revelation [that] … with the eyes of [our] heart enlightened, [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us], what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe,….”

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

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Uncovering Talents

digging for treasureA sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017.  The scripture readings are Zephaniah 1:7,12-18Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 121 Thessalonians 5:1-11, and Matthew 25:14-30

Listen to the sermon HERE

There’s an old preacher’s story about two farmers. Bob and Carl meet over the fence one day, and Bob says, “Well, Carl are you going to plant corn this year?” “No,” says Carl. “I’ve been reading about a blight that afflicts corn, so I think I’d better not.” “Well,” asks Bob, “How about potatoes? Are you going to plant potatoes?” “No, I don’t think so, Carl says. I’m worried about the potato mite.” “Well, Carl, if you don’t mind my asking, what are you going to plant?” Carl pauses for a minute and looks at Bob and finally says, “You know, I’m don’t think I’ll plant anything this year. I’m just going to play it safe.”

The Gospel today is about resisting the urge to “play it safe.” It’s about investing—about investing money, surely.  But it’s also (and even more) about investing one’s energy, one’s ability, one’s faith, and one’s life.

When the Gospel speaks of “talents,” it’s referring to a particular sum of money, a kind of currency. Our modern word, talent, is derived from this older talent. Ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans spoke of a talent of gold or a talent of silver—meaning a weight, a measurement of something that translated into money. Scholars don’t really know exactly how much a talent would have been in scripture, but the sense is that it would have been a lot of money to an ordinary servant.

The story is an old one, perhaps told in the oral tradition and handed down to Jesus, who tells it in his own context.  Today, when we reflect on a biblical story that speaks of slaves, we in no way normalize the practice of slavery, but rather, we notice the movement of history, confess our troubled history, and seek to hear God’s message for today. In Jesus’ day (as with antiquity), slavery was a given.  Over time, both Greek and Roman cultures created laws protecting slaves, and both Stoicism and Christianity taught that all people are equal.

In the story that Jesus tells, the first two servants invest their money and they get results. But the third servant goes to the boss and tries to explain himself. “Sir, I know you to be a hard man, often unfair and rarely understanding, and so I was afraid. I went and hid the talent in the ground, but look here, here it is, exactly as you gave it to me.”

Jesus tells this story in the context of other stories having to do with the kingdom of God. He’s trying to help his disciples see that the kingdom of God is unfolding around them and even from within them, if they will just notice.  “Look!  Believe! Let faith overcome fear.”

Fear is at the heart of the problem with the third servant, the one who simply buries his money.  He says he’s afraid of the boss, but I wonder if he isn’t also afraid of the possibility of other things, too.  He’s afraid of failure, afraid of losing control of the money entrusted to him, afraid of what others might say if he comes in second or third place… on and on, his fears must have gone. Fear paralyzes this servant. Fear freezes him, prevents growth, and separates him from action, moving him into isolation.

Some people have noticed that the word, “FEAR” can stand as a kind of acronym—especially when it seems to control us. FEAR might sometimes feel like “false evidence appearing real.”

Fear does that, doesn’t it? It’s tempting to play it safe. If we play it safe with our emotions, then we don’t ever look foolish. If we play it safe in relationships, then we never risk getting hurt. If we play it safe as new opportunities in work come along, then we never risk rejection. If we play it safe with God, then maybe we won’t ever have to change anything about the way we live, or talk, or treat people, or spend money, or spend our leisure time.

Whenever Jesus spoke, people had the option to play it safe or to move forward with the risk of faith. Scripture tells us about some of those who wrestled with just this issue—Nicodemus, the Roman Centurion, Saint Thomas, Saint Peter. But the death and resurrection of Jesus transformed their faith and deepened it.

The church throughout the ages has wrestled with this question—what do we do with the Good News we have received? Do we sit on it, write it down and bind it in leather and place it on just the right table in our homes? Or do we move out, inspired by the Holy Spirit to continue the risk, to continue the sharing, to continue the investment?

That third servant in the parable must have thought he was breaking even—by burying his money in the ground, he avoided risk, but he must have felt like he at least didn’t lose anything. But he also forgot about that nasty little thing called depreciation. He forgot that while the money is buried in the ground, the rest of the world is changing, and so what is buried or hidden away actually decreases in value.

We know that’s the case with money (called “talents” in today’s scripture). But it’s also that way with all those things we know as talents. If one has the talent of singing, but doesn’t use it, it eventually goes away. If you play golf for a few years and then put your clubs away, your game is going to suffer.  Sadly, we all bury a talent or two along the way. We do it sometimes because of fear, sometimes because of fatigue. We bury a talent sometimes because we’ve been hurt in the past, or maybe when we expressed a particular talent it was ridiculed or went unnoticed.

As kingdom people, as people with faith in Jesus Christ who makes all things new, we have the opportunity to create a community that supports one another and encourages each other’s talents. When we see someone who has buried a talent or a gift or an ability, it’s an opportunity for to gently hand that person a shovel and suggest they dig it up and uncover the treasure.

When I think of people who’ve been able to move through fear and make something new, I think of people like Mohammad Yunus, who founded the Gremeen Bank.  When he looked at some of the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, he was able to turn fear (false evidence appearing real) into F-E-A-R representing “face everything and recover.”  By pioneering the practice of micro-lending (in which collateral comes in the form of trust and loans are often very small but very important), Yunus went against the advice of banks and government, to create a system of “village banks.”  With over 2,500 branches, serving more than 80,000 villages, the Grameen Bank collects an average of $1.5 million in weekly installments. Of the borrowers, 97% are women and over 97% of the loans are paid back, a recovery rate higher than any other banking system. Through micro-lending, talents are uncovered and encouraged, grown and multiplied.

There are lots of opportunities for us to help uncover some of the talents around us—the monetary ones and the creative ones. When you hear someone near you singing well, compliment them and suggest they think about singing in the choir.  If you see someone who seems to enjoy the worship here, suggest they join the acolytes and help us at the altar.  If someone enjoys cooking and sharing their food—suggest they help with coffee hour, or hospitality at Holy Trinity, or the Saturday supper.  If someone strikes you as especially sharp or faithful or generous—suggest they stand for vestry, or another board of the church.

We are in a season of stewardship, and Holy Trinity needs everyone and every gift.  We need your money—and so, invest it well in the secular markets, but also invest it well in this sacred place and the people who meet God in this place. But also, as we celebrate Ingathering Sunday with the offering of our tithes and monetary pledges, we will also offer the talents and volunteer energy of our parish.  If you look in the weekend newsletter, you’ll see a variety of ministries listed, with the contacts for each.

Wherever there may be buried talents, may the Lord show us where to start digging. Wherever there is fear, may it be banished and dispersed. And may God give us the faith to risk and invest deeply.

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

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Waiting in God

Second ComingA sermon offered on November 12, 2017, the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost.  The scripture readings are Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16Psalm 701 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Matthew 25:1-13

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Earlier this week, I saw a friend who is not a church goer.  In fact, he’s Hindu but extremely respectful and curious about Christianity. We talked about a number of different things, and then he said, “Well, changing the topic, I’d like to ask you about something.  What do you say to your congregation about the shootings in Texas?”

I hesitated, trying to answer honestly, and so, I said that, regarding the shooting in a church in Texas–as with so many other issues—we name the evil and pray for the victims, but then I tend to try to talk about whatever aspects we might have some influence over—usually that comes down to ourselves.  I often can’t influence the violent thoughts and impulses of others, but I can pray that God would help with those aspects of myself.  If you’ve heard me preach and teach—you will recognize that way of dealing with hard issues.

But I wasn’t entirely happy with my answer to my friend.  A part of what I’m doing is waiting.  As I try to make sense of a culture that continues to lower the bar for decency and public discourse, I’m waiting for people to get tired of it and say, “Enough.”  As person after person uses a gun in anger or frustration or stupidity or accident, I’m waiting for those who profit from the weapons industry to wake up in the middle of the night with a conscience and say, “Enough.”  I’m waiting for answers, waiting for direction, and (to some extent) waiting on God to step in and fix things. I’m waiting of Christ to come back, clean house, and make everything new.

Even as I notice myself “waiting” on God in so many ways, I hate waiting in most other areas of life. Waiting, usually, is not easy—whether it’s waiting for coffee, traffic, or the subway. We wait for appointments, for returned phone calls or emails.

But we wait for the big things, too. We wait for test results. We wait for graduation, for a visit by a family member. We wait for a sickness to pass or a disease to end. We wait for the right person to come. We wait for an appointment with the specialist, only to show up on the long-anticipated day to be told calmly, “the doctor is running about an hour and a half late, but if you’d like coffee, please help yourself.”

Waiting can be an exercise of faith. Waiting can be faithful waiting when it is active, when it has meaning, when it is productive in some way. When it’s not only waiting FOR God, but perhaps, waiting also WITH God.

But waiting can become procrastination.  It can be empty and fruitless. Waiting is worthless when it becomes an excuse for doing nothing. You know that kind of procrastination:

I think of when a couple has issues in their relationship, and so they focus on something in the future and they wait: for a house, for a baby, for better job, for more income. They focus so much on that future goal that they lose the opportunity in the present for the deepening of that relationship. And so, strangely, and to the surprise of others, the relationship fails at the very moment they achieve the long-awaited goal. The waiting has not worked.

I think of all those issues about which we say to ourselves, “I’ll get around to that when I’m retired.” New hobbies, books to be read, people to spend time with, places to visit— all are put off and postponed for what is planned to be the golden time of retirement. But the stock market intervenes, or there is sickness, or there is any number of unpredicted obstacles, and the waiting has not worked.

The Gospel today has something to say about waiting fruitfully, about being alert and prepared and getting the things done one needs to do, in the waiting. In this Gospel, Jesus teaches that if we wait for the future and do nothing in the meantime, the future will be upon us, and we may be caught unprepared.

A wedding in ancient Palestine involved traveling around from house to house. And so the bridegroom and his party might visit a number of places before coming to the place where the bride and her bridesmaids are waiting. Then, as now, weddings parties were often delayed. And so, the bridesmaids who were waiting should have known that the bridegroom would be late. No promises were made. It was a part of their job to be prepared. But when the groom’s party appears, half of the bridesmaids are ready, and the other half is caught without enough oil to see.

Jesus tells this story to instruct his followers about the nature of waiting. Matthew tells this story to the Christians in his community in an effort to say to them, “Don’t just gaze off into heaven and wait for Jesus to come again. There’s work to be done. There’s love to be shared. There’s bread to be broken. The kingdom of God is like a wedding feast that welcomes all. It’s like a party, but if your waiting slows you down in the present, you just might miss all the fun.”

In our Gospel, the bridegroom eventually comes. Throughout scripture, the bridegroom is often a symbol for Jesus Christ. The Church, itself is the bride, and so we wait. We wait for the full return of Jesus Christ, at the end of times, whatever that may look like. We wait for all of those smaller joys that we hope will come into our lives. We wait for a new administration to be formed in our country, we wait for stability in the financial markets, we wait for work or love or health. But the real question for each of us is this: how do we spend our time in the waiting?

Faithful waiting includes prayer, leaning on others, and acting with faith.

Prayer
The Gospel suggests we fill our lamps. We prepare ourselves by filling ourselves with pray and the study of the things of God—they sustain us like good oil in a old lamp.

Leaning on Others
We prepare ourselves by meeting the risen Christ when we serve the poor and when we serve by their side. We prepare ourselves by sacrificial giving—both with our time, our talents, and our money. We prepare ourselves with the simple stuff of bread and wine, bread and wine turned into Bread of Heaven and Cup of Salvation.

Acting with faith
Leaping as well as investing.
We prepare for the future feast of God by savoring each day as a gift, by taking each new day as an extraordinary morsel of food, letting it rest on the tongue, letting each day be tasted and smelled and touched and loved and shared and enjoyed.

In the 4th century, Saint Basil preached powerfully about living faithfully in the Now: He asked,

What keeps you from giving now? Isn’t the poor person there? Aren’t your own warehouses full? Isn’t the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? “I’m not doing any harm,” you say. “I just want to keep what I own, that’s all.” You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone’s use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. (Sermon on Luke).

Sometimes we wait.  Sometimes we act.  In both cases and especially in the middle, may we be sustained by the words of the Psalmist: “Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy and blessed are those who put their trust in God.” (Psalm 34:8)

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

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Reflecting on (and with) the Saints

Fra_Angelico, Forerunners for Christ from the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24

A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, November 5, 2017.  The scripture readings are Revelation 7:9-17Psalm 34:1-10, 221 John 3:1-3, and Matthew 5:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday, out in Long Island, I officiated at the wedding of Erica and Michael Wosczyk.  Michael’s mother, Linda, is the longtime director of the Merricats Castle School, which is located over in St. Christopher’s House, above our social hall.  At one point at the wedding reception, I was a little jarred to see another priest across the way, awkwardly trying to dance when there was one of those command performances, after everyone had been compelled to join the dancing.  But, then I noticed that it was actually not another priest. I was looking across the way into a mirror and the awkward dancing priest was me!

While it’s not always easy to look into a mirror, in some ways, the feast of All Saints invites us to do just that:  to look into a mirror, to notice our reflection and all that makes that reflection what it is.  We’re invited to notice what in our own lives reflects those who have gone before us, and to consider what, of God’s goodness and love, we might occasionally reflect to others.  As we consider the saints, we first can notice. Then we ask for help. And finally, we can give thanks for the resemblance and the ability to grow in faith, wisdom, and love.

This may sound strange on a day that often encourages us to look at others. All Saints’ often points us to the images in stained glass windows. The day asks us to think about the statues and memorials in our churches and cathedrals, to meditate upon those who have lived strong lives of faith and who have been rewarded for their living with life eternal.

But it seems to me that the very best way of observing All Saints’ might be to notice the windows, the statues and memorials, the famous faithful we have read about and heard about and known, AND THEN, to do, perhaps three things:  Notice the saints, ask for their help, and then give thanks for the resemblance.

If you’re at all like me, you might find it really difficult to think of yourself in the same context as a saint.  When we compare, it’s easier to see the distance and the difference. We get stuck on shortcomings and failures, the places where we have been less than faithful, and certainly less than perfect. But the saints are closer (and we are closer to them) than perhaps we have noticed.

In the New Testament, the word “saint” normally just refers to someone who puts her faith in Jesus Christ. In scripture, 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.” 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—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!” (Rev. 7:9-10)

And so, the saints are the ordinary and the extraordinary faithful. They’re the ones in the stained glass windows and the ones in our photo albums. And they live eternally with God to pray for us and to offer us help.

In the Middle Ages, it became popular (and profitable for the Church) to pray for loved ones who were imagined to be stuck in a purgatory, and in-between place, and need our prayers in order to move on to heaven.  Sometimes, perhaps our beloved dead, do need our continued prayers of love and encouragement in order to know a peace that perhaps they never knew in this life.  But more than anything, the faithful departed watch over us, pray for us, and encourage us.

From time to time I call on holy help. For example, when I am running low on faith, and doubt is about to do a number on me, it helps me to know that St. Teresa of Avila once went years wondering whether God was really listening. When the political nature of life begins to get me down and discourage me it helps me to know that Hugh of Lincoln, bishop-saint of the Middle Ages, was able to be prophetic with kings as well as commoners. Our local saints inspire and help me, as well.

When I’m discouraged about some problem facing our church, I can ask Dick Schumacher for wisdom.  When I need a more practical understanding of people and their confusing behavior, I can call on the words of a former senior warden, Nancye.   On and on my list of support goes, as I ask for help, insight, and confidence.  It’s through the encouragement of the saints that we grow along the path of the Beatitudes, those blessings Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount.

And so, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we notice the saints, we remember to ask for help, but we also should pause to give thanks for the ways in which we resemble some of our spiritual forebears.

At yesterday’s wedding, it was great fun to trace the family resemblances. Though I knew Michael’s mother and had met his sister, I was able to meet more of the extended family, and to meet Erica’s larger family.  The best part was watching the resemblances.  A smile might come from a grandmother. Eyes from an uncle. A booming laugh from a cousin, and a few dance moves from a parent.  But we also have those deeper qualities that we have received from the saints—the famous saints and the familiar ones.

In a few minutes, as we pray the names of those saints we have known and loved, I encourage you to use the prayer as a kind of mirror, and to notice those places where we you are most like the saints—those parts of yourself that are loving, merciful, and wise. Notice those parts of your own spirit that have stood for justice and fairness and God’s way. Notice that part of yourself that is generous and kind and Christ-like, and give thanks—not only for all the saints, but also for the saintliness that is within you. May God give us “grace to follow (and become) the blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.

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

 

 

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To Love One’s Neighbor

Neighbor
An informal homily offered at the Sunday night contemporary service.  The lectionary readings are  Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18, Psalm 1, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, and Matthew 22:34-46 .  Since the morning sermons were offered by the parish deacon, I did not write out a sermon today (so the recording is what there is.)
Listen to the sermon HERE.

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Belonging to God

christ-and-pharisee--ivan-filichev

“Christ and the Pharisees” by Ivan Filichev

A sermon for October 22, 2017, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) , 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, and Matthew 22:15-22.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

One of my favorite stories from the Desert Tradition of early Christianity is about a younger monk who went to see his teacher because he had gotten stuck in his spiritual life.  The younger one, asked his teacher, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”   The old teacher remained silent for what seemed like an hour and then slowly stood up.  He stretched out his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.  Without looking at the young monk, keeping his focus on the flame, the teacher said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Stories from the Desert Tradition are sometimes a little baffling and like biblical parables, they can have various meanings and interpretations.  But I think one of the points the older teacher is trying to convey has to do with the unity of all things.  The young monk has tried a number of separate practices, trying to strike a perfect balance of this and that, but he has lost sense of the whole of things, the totality, the unity that is found with God.  “Becoming all flame” is bringing all everything together and offering all to God who is All in All.

In life and in death we belong to God. Our minds are his. Our bodies are his. Our dreams are his. Even our nightmares are his. All that we ever were, all that we ever may be, has God as its source and creator.

Isaiah understands this clearly and we hear it today’s first reading:

I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.

The Right Reverend Richard Grein, the retired (fourteenth) Bishop of New York, used to say that we often ask God what we should do. But God responds by reminding us who we are.

We ask God what we should do. God reminds us who we are.

Jesus is saying something similar in today’s Gospel.  The seriously and outwardly religious people in Jesus’ day- the Pharisees, pester Jesus with questions. Their questions are almost always about behavior: What should be done about this woman who sinned? Who gives you permission to preach the way that you do? Why are you eating and drinking with sinners? Should we pay our taxes to Caesar?

This last question gets our attention. It does so for obvious reasons: we spend so much of our time worrying about making money, spending it, saving it, who has more, how has less, whether we get what we deserve… on and on—money gets our attention.

This Gospel reading about “giving to the Emperor” or “rendering unto Caesar” in the old versions, is one that occurs in many churches during the fall. It often coincides handily with fall stewardship campaigns.  The reading and preaching of the passage carries with it the not-so subtle request and reminder that pledge packets have been mailed, and please fill out your pledge card, so that the budget & finance committee and the vestry can get a clear idea of what our budget can look like next year.

But to focus only on money is to miss the point of the Gospel. The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the ruler who calls himself a god?” Jesus asks them whose inscription is on the coin? If it’s Caesar’s then it must belong to Caesar. If it’s God’s, then it must belong to God. But the question Jesus really asks is larger. Never mind about coins, “Whose inscription is upon you? To whom do you belong?”

The Pharisees brought their questions to Jesus and we bring ours.  How much should we give to charities and of that, how much to our church?  What if I support other cultural or arts organizations—doesn’t that count?  What if I don’t have much?  What if I’m on a fixed income?  What if my church is only a small part of where I put my energy, faith, and resources?

Saint Augustine said “Our hearts are restless until they rest in [God],” and in our hearts, we know the truth of that saying. Taking seriously that we belong to God, that all we have and all we do belongs to God, the questions find their proper perspective, and the answers are allowed to rise up.

Remember again that quotation from Bishop Grein: “We ask God what we should do, and God answers by telling us who we are.”  God says, “You are my beloved child.” You are the one for whom I have risked creation itself. You are the one for whom I have died and risen again. You are the one I love now and for ever.

Living in the strength of our identity, knowing we belong to God, all the other questions begin to find their proper perspective. Often they settle themselves.

Let us we render to God what is Gods: presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.

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

 

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