Listen to the homily from the 6 PM Contemporary Eucharist HERE.
This week, there was no written sermon text, but reference was made to the live of the Rev. Edwin Stube, whose partial autobiography can be found HERE.
Listen to the homily from the 6 PM Contemporary Eucharist HERE.
This week, there was no written sermon text, but reference was made to the live of the Rev. Edwin Stube, whose partial autobiography can be found HERE.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
The other night I was moving some books around and came across my old childhood Bible. It’s one of those oversized, picture-and-story Bibles, that helped introduce me to the stories and characters of scripture who have become lifelong companions. The art now looks a little dated to me and the stories leave out a lot of details. But the very best part (for me) is inside the first few pages. There on the dedication page it says, “Christmas 1970. To John Beddingfield, from Santa Claus.”
That one page summarizes a great dilemma in the Christian faith: What is real and what is make-believe? Some would argue that faith of any kind is more make-believe than real-world, but I would disagree. Faith is something very different, and as Christians, we’re called upon to sort out the difference between reality and fantasy.
In today’s Gospel Jesus describes some of the results of living faithfully, with our eyes open. Sometimes our being faithful leads to conflict—with the religious establishment, with the state, conflict with one another. Here, I don’t think Jesus is just talking about people who are simply offensive in the way they share their faith, demanding that others see things as they do. Instead, what he is talking about, I think, is the kind of conflict that comes up in families, among friends and loved ones, and in churches when we disagree because of our faith.
There’s an old joke, “What do you have when there are ten people with twenty different opinions? An Episcopal Church! This can especially be the case, the less authoritative and the more democratic our congregation. We may disagree about the spending of money. We may differ about the direction of ministry or the use of particular resources. We might argue about the way God should be worshipped, or even about who should be ordained or consecrated. We disagree about government, about the use of war, about the advances of science and technology. But this is all a part of our living in a real world of faith— a world in which we disagree, a world in which life is not always just about the peace of Christ, but also about the divisions and disagreements that arise along the way to life in Christ. Our other scriptures today also point to a tough kind of faith, a faith that does not settle for superstition or make-believe.
In our first reading from Jeremiah, there’s a call to honesty. Jeremiah is preaching to the people he’s been called to lead and love, but he’s especially warning the prophets—those who would say they know the direction forward. He reminds them of the difference between a dream and what is lived out in the real world. The dream may inspire, Jeremiah suggests, but never let the dream blind you to the present.
Though Jeremiah’s words are thousands of years old, the same struggle is with most of us who seek to follow God with a faith rooted in history. How do we call upon the best of our traditions, but be alive to a world that moves and thinks in very different ways? How do we be people of faith in a culture that has little use for faith? Some faith traditions respond by buckling down, sticking to the letter of the law and making it all about following the fundamentals. Others faiths do what they can to attract newcomers with whatever it takes—whether it’s buying tanks of gas for people on a Saturday morning or administering baptism in creative ways.
Our own church, too, struggles to live faithfully between a vision and the real world. The Church of the Holy Trinity, was built with a dream and a vision. St. Christopher’s House came first, and it was to be a settlement church, a church alive and sensitive to the needs of the neighbors, especially those in need. That was 119 years ago and since then, there have been times when it must have seemed like that dream was being met, and there are other times when we are painfully aware of the ways in which we fall short. A part of our living with a dream but in reality might involve our being honest about the ways we are different from the people of 1897. We are different from the congregation of the 1950s, the 1970s, and even the 1990s. But we still have a mission and we are still guided by the vision of those who have gone before us. Jeremiah hears God say, “let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” Our calling is that simple and that demanding: speak God’s word. Speak God’s work of grace and welcome and forgiveness and healing to one another, to strangers, and stand still long enough to hear it spoken to yourself.
The epistle reading today, the Letter to the Hebrews, was written to a group of Christians who were getting tired. They were tired of being different, tired of the struggle and tired of the demands of the Christian life. They seemed to be on the edge of turning back to their former faith or to no faith. And so, they are urged to toward discipline, toward doing the right thing over and over, even when the end isn’t clear and even when the payoff is far off. These struggling Christians are urged to rise to the occasion, to turn trials into opportunities and to develop a perspective, to develop discipline.
At Holy Trinity the classic spiritual disciplines are taught, encouraged, and nurtured. We explore together the disciplines of fasting, of almsgiving, of daily prayer, of participating in the sacraments. The discipline of silence and the discipline of joyfulness—all are encouraged, are grown, and are shared. A disciplined life helps us to remain honest with one another and helps us see where we’re going. It helps us move, day by day, toward the ideal while never losing site of the here-and-now.
Finally the Letter to the Hebrews names what so many of us, here, have found to be the sustaining, nurturing, and encouraging answer to living in a less-than-perfect world. “We are surrounded by a great a cloud of witnesses.” Our witnesses here include the living and the dead, those who have gone before us, those who loved us and this place who have died.
At Holy Trinity, our cloud of witnesses includes people all over the country—former members, friends, family members, and with increasingly– visitors and guests who are touched by our worship and our ministries. This cloud of witnesses compels us into new mission opportunities and relationships. In the future we will look very different from the church of 1899 or of 1999, but with faith and energy, will continue to expand and welcome.
This is a GREAT CLOUD, and it is this cloud that gives us the faith as Hebrews says, to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, [but] is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The Gospel today still speaks of hard truth: that sometimes in following Christ, we will find ourselves in conflict. There will continue to be those times when we experience the Body of Christ as broken and divided. We may argue and seem to work against one another—but that great cloud of witness is still here, around us inspiring, strengthening, and reminding us of our calling.
We may not live in a world where Santa gives away personalized Bibles. And we may not yet be the people we are called to be— individually or as a church—but we’re on our way, and by continuing to be honest, to be disciplined and to be surrounded by such a cloud as this, we will grow in faith; we will grow in love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Many of you know that a few months ago, we adopted a dog. She’s a beautiful mix of shepherd and something else (maybe Border collie, maybe Bernese mountain dog… who knows…) and is full of surprises. She tends to be curious about everything, loves everyone and everything and is afraid of very little. Big noises don’t bother her. Other dogs don’t scare her. But what seems to bother her, what makes her growl, and seems closed to really making her afraid are the occasional dust ball she’ll see under a bed. It doesn’t matter if I tell her not to be afraid or try to help her see that it’s just a clump of dust. To her, it’s scary. To her, it’s real.
Things that scare us can be like that, too, can’t they? Sometimes they are real and we have every reason to be afraid. But other times, we might be afraid of something and there’s nothing anyone else can say that will help—no amount of explaining, or putting into context, or praying… we simply are afraid.
Today’s scriptures invite us to think about our fears a little bit. They invite us to think about what we may fear, with God’s desire that we be brought through and beyond fear, and finally, the scriptures offer us a hint of what a fearless world might look like.
In Genesis, the word of God comes to Abram saying, “Don’t be afraid.” “Don’t be afraid, because God’s going to be like a shield, protecting, no matter what. And what’s even more—God’s going to provide Abram and Sara with a child. Even better than that, not just one child, but they’re going to be blessed with generations as plentiful as the stars.
Abram must have worried and must have feared. But through the promise of God, Abram is brought beyond any fears he may have had about the future. His name change to Abra-ham signifies that something big has happened, and he lived on to be the ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And all of that becomes possible because Abram is able to move through his fear and follow God.
The Epistle reading, Hebrews, is a beautiful hymn. It’s a hymn to faith, really—“faith,” being the other side of fear. By faith, Abraham obeys, and looks, and follows. By faith, Sarah laughs, and follows, and conceives. Meditating on people like Abraham and Sarah, the author of Hebrews gives us a famous definition of faith: that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”
Fear often has to do with the power of things unseen. Sometimes that’s a good thing (like being afraid of tics in the woods or sharks in the water). But often on land, and in our lives, fear can stifle. Fear can keep us stuck.
Some of you may know the (1932) novel by Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm. It was also made into a wonderful movie that for many of us, has been our first introduction to the story. In the movie, a young woman, Flora Poste, is a smart nineteen-year-old from London. But she’s orphaned and begins to write various relatives to see where she might live. Eventually, she receives an invitation from the Starkadders, who feel like Flora’s father had been done wrong by their clan at some point, and so they owe it to Flora to take her in.
She arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, the Starkadders’ place that is just about falling apart. And in every direction there are dreary characters. The horse is named Viper, and the poor cows are named Aimless, Graceless, Feckless and Pointless. The whole sad family is ruled by a matriarch who refuses to come out of her room in the attic. Aunt Ada Doom, won’t come out because years ago, as a girl, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” We never learn what she saw, and it doesn’t seem as though anyone in the family knows. It’s not even clear if she still remembers what she saw. But the fear that began in the woodshed has completely infected her. That fear has changed her and made her small, and scared, and sad. And Aunt Ada Doom’s fear casts a spell over the whole farm.
I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you, but I will say that the arrival of Flora Poste, and her commonsense way of interacting with each family member eventually helps Aunt Ada to leave the fear in the woodshed where it belongs, and step into life again. And guess what? As soon as the fear is let go, the whole family finds freedom.
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid, because it’s God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The kingdom of God may look different for each one of us, but for most of us, at some level, I think God’s kingdom has a similar effect in our lives as that of the transformation of Cold Comfort Farm. Whatever fears are gnawing at our insides, whatever fears there are that limit us or hold us back or keep us stuck— God wants to pull us through those fears, beyond those fears, into a world of faith, into God’s kingdom.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Get ready.” And he uses several images to convey a sense of anticipation—to try to help us see what it’s like to greet the kingdom with faith, and not fear.
He says, “Be like those who are charged with taking care of a house while the owner is away. Be like those caretakers who are in charge while the head of the house is away at a wedding. Blessed are those who are awake at the return.” He also says, “Get rid of the things that burden you, that weigh you down, that keep you from moving forward. Because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let go of fear.”
If you think about the people Jesus meets in the Gospel, so often, they are people who are stuck, in some way. They’re stuck in old habits. They’re stuck by past sins. They’re stuck in other people’s stories about them. Or they’re stuck in some warped perspective that creates a world so narrow they can hardly breathe. Think about some of those people:
There’s a woman who has been caught in adultery. They’re ready to stone her, but even if they let her go, she’s caught in her reputation. They’ve got her stuck in a bad place and she’s afraid. But Jesus forgives her and invites her to leave fear behind, and follow in faith.
There’s Zaccheus the tax collector who is stuck in a tree when Jesus walks by. But Jesus calls him out of the tree, and into and among people. Zaccheus doesn’t need to be afraid of being laughed at, made fun of, hated… Jesus says, “stop being afraid” and calls him into the kingdom.
There’s Mary Magdalene, on that first Easter morning. She leaves her fear in the empty tomb and she’s able to see the resurrected Jesus. She’s able to move forward into the kingdom of God Jesus promises.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he’s not talking about a physical place. It is not a location as much as it is a state, a way of being, a type of consciousness, another awareness. The kingdom of God is wherever God’s will is actively done. The kingdom of God is that place where human needs are met, sin is forgiven, and lives are changed—by the truth of God’s love and by the fire of God’s forgiveness. The kingdom of God is that place where people live out the depth of God’s love—where we forgive each other and show love in practical, real ways. The Kingdom is that place where the God of heaven and earth, the God of all time and being, the God of all creation, stoops to wash the feet of a disciple, holds out bread and offers a cup. The kingdom of God breaks into our lives whenever we leave fears behind and do something bravely with faith.
This summer, some of us may be staying right where we are. In life, some of us might not move very far away from one place. But no matter who we are or where we are, Jesus calls us to move—to move out of whatever fearful place keeps us from stepping forward in faith. The First Letter of John reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.”
May the Holy Spirit enable us to leave fear behind, to claim the faith of the saints, and to live into God’s good kingdom.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Sometimes when I meet people and they find out I serve a church, sooner or later they ask some version of the same question: “How big is your congregation?”
I try to answer honestly and usually say something like, “We’re small but growing. We’re especially growing in prayer, in mission, in taking care of each other, and in being the Body of Christ in our neighborhood and beyond.” They usually push the point and ask, “Yes, but how many people come?” I then explain that we have an average Sunday attendance of 100 or so—and less in the summer.
Usually—but not always—I can sense their disappointment.
Our culture leads many people to believe that success is measured in numbers. The more, the better. And sometimes religions (or perversions of religion) actually preach this kind of thinking. A while back, just before the presidential primaries’ “Super Tuesday,” Pastor Mark Burns prayed at a Donald Trump rally saying, “There is no black person, there is no white person, there is no yellow person, there is no red person, there’s only green people!” he shouted. “Green is money! Green are jobs!!” (Time Magazine, http://time.com/donald-trump-prosperity-preachers/) Another friend of Mr. Trump is the televangelist Joel Osteen, who preaches to about 45,000 people who attend his churches every Sunday and reaches almost 7 million a week through television. He preaches a message of positive thinking and material success. And yet, he almost never mentions Jesus. Someone did a survey of Joel Osteen’s posts on Twitter and found that in a year’s worth of 806 tweets, Osteen mentions God 334 times. He mentions Jesus three times. “Christ” gets mentioned three times, too, but two of these misquote scripture and one is within the word “Christmas,” in which Joel and Victoria Osteen wish the world a merry one. (See Pulpit and Pen.org)
I don’t question that such preachers are religious. But I wish they and those who support them could at least be honest and clear about one thing: This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not Christianity. This has nothing to do with the Jesus Christ who lived, died, and rose again for us.
Many of these “prosperity Gospel” preachers point to John 10:10 in which Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But they pluck this verse out of thin air. You don’t have to go to seminary to be a preacher, but you DO have to read and study the Bible and not bend scriptures to say what you want them to say. This verse comes in the middle of the chapter in which Jesus calls us to be as sheep to the Good Shepherd. “Abundant life” has to do with our learning to live together in the sheepfold, close to the shepherd, being in relationship with the One who calls us by name, living like he does, loving like he does, and being willing to lay down a life for the sheep.
Today’s Gospel encourages us to be rich- but RICH TOWARD GOD. This may or may not involve money. It’s much larger. When I look closely at how Jesus deals with money and wealth in the scriptures, and I notice that he wines and dines with rich and poor alike, I get the idea that God is almost indifferent as to whether we are wealthy (or not). God wants us to have enough, to have plenty, to rejoice in bounty, to have everything we need, and God might even want those with special skills and abilities to have lots of extra– but’s that’s so that we can share the wealth, extend the blessing, and help out other people.
God wants us to be full, satiated, complete and lacking nothing. But God doesn’t care if we have one house or five. God isn’t bothered by what one drives, or what one wears, or whether one summers in the South Bronx or the south of France. But as Jesus says, we should be “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).
In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus has been talking with a group of people, warning them about hypocrisy and trying to help them understand what it means to live a life completely dedicated to God. In this context, a man asks Jesus to take his side in a question over an inheritance. We don’t know the exact nature of this man’s question, but biblical scholars would point out that the reality of Jewish inheritance laws at that time held that the eldest son inherited twice the amount that might have gone to a younger sibling. Perhaps the speaker in the Gospel is one of the younger brothers.
Now, if I were one of the younger brothers (not to mention a sister who is left out completely), the part of me that wants a fair and just world wishes Jesus would just take the man’s side. But as with so many issues, Jesus looks beyond the surface issue to explore what’s deeper. Jesus evades the political, cultural, or legal question and instead, goes right to the spiritual question.
Jesus focuses on the heart. Where’s your heart? What’s your heart’s desire? What makes your heart grow and expand and feel alive? THAT’s what God is interested in. It’s not about who has more money, or more stuff, or more power, or more prestige. It’s about how we use it. It’s not about how big the wedding is—it’s about whether you invite God or not.
By way of answering the man in today’s story, Jesus tells a parable. He tells about a man who keeps building up storehouses for all of his grain. But the man builds in vain, trying to build bigger and higher—because he is disconnected from God. The real issue has to do with our relationship with what we have. Does it lead us closer to God and God’s people? Or does it drive a wedge between ourselves and all that is holy?
Being “rich toward God” has to do with “currency” but not just in the monetary sense of that word. Jesus moves with a kind of currency of life, through which the Holy Spirit operates and animates.
In economics, we speak of a “currency” because a currency allows things to move around, to go from one person to another, to have a life and rhythm that allows for free movement. Things in currency are not meant to be kept in one’s hands, but they get their life out of being passed around and shared. Wealth is like that. It grows only through a certain amount of risk.
While it’s surely that way with the currency of money, it’s also true with the currency of our relationships and the currency of time. All of these are ways that we can be rich toward God.
Of course “being rich toward God” will involve money, at some point, and through faith, it will involve the risk of letting go. I grew up in a church in which members tried to outdo one another in giving—anonymously. Over and over, again, there would be some major gift to the parish, some program, some extra music, some new mission begun—each time, with a grant from an anonymous donor. That’s living richly toward God.
Being rich toward God also means being rich toward God’s people, how we spend ourselves through the currency of our relationships—both with the people inside the church and those outside. What would it be like if we lived more richly toward one another, giving one another the benefit of the doubt, offering first mercy instead of judgment, extending first a welcome rather than wondering if the stranger might fit in or not?
And finally, how do we spend our time? Do we give any of it to God—for God’s use, as well as simply time to be with God, to allow God to draw us closer through prayer, through reading of the Bible, through worship? All of this has to do with being rich toward God.
When I think of richness, and some of the richest people I’ve known, a lot of faces come to mind. But among them are a handful of women from my home church who prayed for me while I was in seminary. They met regularly to pray and study the Bible, and every so often I would receive a card from them. Sometimes, in the card would be seven one-dollar bills, sometimes nine one-dollar bills, and one time (perhaps their attendance rose for that meeting), I receive a small fortune: thirteen dollars! Each time, the ladies would scribble a message, something to the effect of, “We know this isn’t very much, but we hope you can do something special with it. Spend it on yourself, don’t do anything too responsible!” That last phrase made it challenging, because I knew they didn’t want me to spend the money on books or tuition. And so, each time, I would do something slightly out of the ordinary— get a really expensive ice cream cone and write them about it. Or when a new coffee shop opened, I would get a rare, exotic, and expensive kind of coffee. I thought of it like the woman who used expensive perfume as a gift to Jesus—my job was not to quibble, but to be gracious and say “thank you.”
What made the dollar bills in the occasional care such a wonderful gift was not only their random sweetness. But even more— I knew these ladies, and I knew that they didn’t have a lot of one-dollar bills to share (and even fewer 5’s, 10’s, or 20’s.) They were not wealthy women. They were counting every penny, trying to cover medications, transportation, rent, contributions to church, support of family and friends…. and out of this, they also chose to give to me. They were not wealthy, but they were sure “rich” toward me, and taught me something about being “rich toward God.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has always been especially good news to those who are poor—those poor in spirit, poor in health, and those who are just, plain poor. The Gospel is Good News not because it says that if we say our prayers, we’ll get rich, or that if we follow Jesus all our problems are solved. Instead, the Gospel promises us a relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, who moves through us like a currency of love, showing us how to be rich toward God and one another. THAT kind of richness lifts up everyone, improves everybody, and blesses all.
The scriptures today work together. The reading from Ecclesiastes reminds us to keep a perspective on life. St. Paul urges the Colossians not to worry so much about clothes, but instead, try to put on “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience.”
Following Christ in abundant life, may the Holy Spirit show us what it is to be filthy rich—rich toward God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Every month or so, I meet with a friend who is a retired priest. We catch up. We talk about friends we share in common. And I usually end up talking about some issue, some problem, or some question I’m wrestling with. My friend listens wisely and inevitably—at some point in the conversation, will ask, “What’s your prayer around this issue?” “Have you asked God about this?”
Usually, I have not.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives a pattern for prayer, a set of words to use, to store up and recall when we need them. But Jesus even more, Jesus gives us a relationship. He shows us a door, an opening, a way for conscious contact with God.
In the Lord’s Prayer we are given the picture of a Father who cares and never forgets us. God will provide. “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Abraham learned this from the angels who came to visit, in the reading we heard last week. Abraham and Sarah had their doubts about whether God was listening, but by the point of today’s reading, Abraham and God are like familiar friends to the point that Abraham and God are engaged in a kind of “holy haggling.”
The back story to what Abraham is asking God is a complicated one. It seems like Abraham has no idea what he’s asking. He has no idea just how awful the people of Sodom really are, or he probably would not have asked God to show mercy at all. Sodom and what is called “Sodomy” has come into our language through a misreading and misunderstanding of scripture. What happens in Genesis is that the angels who meet Abraham and Sarah in last week’s reading, move on and go into Sodom. There they meet Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and Lot invites them in for food and to stay. The men of Sodom are a mean, evil bunch. They demand that the strangers be turned out to them, be given over to them. The men of Sodom want to use them and violate them. Lot does the almost unimaginable thing of protecting his guests, but giving his daughters to the townsmen. It’s an awful story about the lust and violence and bullying of people, and Lot shows himself no better, though his daughters do get back at him near the end. It’s one of those old, old stories shrouded in confusion and mystery, but the point is clear that God wipes out Sodom because it did not welcome the stranger, did not show hospitality to the angels, and could not contain its own insecure lust and drive for dominance. As scripture teaches, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
But all of this is an aside. Abraham is able to talk with God as a trusted friend, and that’s what Jesus is offering. Knock at the door. Say hello. Begin the conversation.
In talking with his disciples about prayer, about knocking on the door of God’s heart, Jesus uses images and sayings from his own day. He mentions a sleepy neighbor who might not get up for just anyone, but with persistence, will answer the door. Jesus speaks of “you who are evil,” and I think it’s important for us to hear that Jesus is simply chatting with his friends here. This is not a formal, moral pronouncement. It’s more like Jesus is saying, “Look, you know how you are, on your worst day. Even on that day, you wouldn’t give your kid a deliberately bad thing when she asked for something simple. Imagine how much more, then, God looks after you!’
St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians explains just why we have the potential for relationship with God, just why we can have the confidence and faith to walk up to the door and knock, or begin to ask God for help. Paul reminds us that God lives in Christ fully, totally, completely; and we have the life of God in us because of Christ. In Christ we were “buried with him in baptism,” and we are raised with him above the death of sin, and we will be raised like him from death itself. Paul goes on to say basically, “don’t forget who you are, and whose you are. Don’t let people drag you into silly debates about this detail or that detail, what you should pray for, or how you should pray, or whether you should pray kneeling, with hands folded, or arms spread out, or standing on your head, for that matter! Hold fast to Christ, the Head of the Church, “from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”
Ask. Knock. Hold on.
When I think of Jesus encouraging us to knock and trust, I sometimes think of William Holman Hunt’s famous painting, “Light of the World.” In his 1850s Pre-Raphaelite way, Hunt shows us Christ as though we have knocked on a door, and Jesus has opened it. He stands with his lantern—light with light—ready to help, ready to love.
The most famous version of this painting is in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and I have to say, I never really liked the painting very much. Hunt’s version of Jesus is a little too blond and white, a little too wispy and ethereal for me, and all the colors looks a little too technicolor for my tastes—but all that changed, and that painting means a lot more to me after a Friday night in summer of 2014.
I was in London for a day to two and had arrived at St. Paul’s early to try to get a seat for Choral Evensong. Not only did I get a seat—I got a great seat up in the choir stalls. The service was sung beautifully and the whole experience felt like the perfect blessing at the end of a long trip. After Evensong, it wasn’t too hot outside, so I began walking to where I was staying. After walking for about thirty minutes, I reached for my phone and it wasn’t in my pocket. My phone— with my calendar including the time of my departure the next morning, the scanned version of my tickets, my contacts, notes, and photos—had been stolen. Or was lost. Or, as I thought about it (I had carefully taken it out of my pocket, turned off the ringer, and placed it in the choir stall), it was back at St. Paul’s.
I prayed. I prayed, “God help me find my phone.” I know my prayers should have been loftier and holier, but they were base and selfish. I needed my phone. I needed to fly out the next morning. As I thought more about it and turned the problem into an all-out catastrophe, I (of course) walked as quickly as possible back to a closed St. Paul’s Cathedral.
When I reached the Cathedral, sure enough: all doors closed and locked. I found a security guard, told her my saga, and while she was sympathetic, she said she thought the best I could do was come back to Lost and Found Monday morning! But, she said, maybe the guard at the other entrance might have an idea. So went around to another entrance. He was equally discouraging, but after listening to my story, he suggested I go across the plaza, down the construction entrance, and look for the security office underground. Maybe they might have an idea.
I followed the directions—across the plaza, down under the street, and told my story to an unsympathetic security guard in his glass-enclosed office. He looked at me, shook his head, and turned the lights out in the office.
But then he opened the door and said, “Follow me.” I followed as door after door opened. We passed an underground loading dock, crates of chandeliers that looked like they were being sent out for cleaning, all kinds of strange things, and I was given this unexpected and impromptu underground tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral. After following the man through the labyrinth of doors, hallways, and tunnels, we went up some steps and another door opened. We were in the nave of St. Paul’s. With a minimum of lights on in that vast space, he told me to look for my phone. I went to my spot and sure enough, it was right there!
I could have hugged the security guard. He had answered my prayer and gone way beyond. Though I don’t remember looking towards the “Light of the World” painting, I have thought about it a lot, and have a new appreciation for it and its placement in St. Paul’s. The next time I’m there, I will thank that particular expression of the Light of the World in person, again, and pay homage, as though it were an icon.
My prayer was silly and selfish. But I hope that when I have deeper worries—prayers for health and healing, prayers for direction and discernment, prayers for the highest and holiest of things—I hope I will remember to ask God honestly and boldly, but also be open to God’s help from every door I see. I would hope that when I ask God to answer a prayer that I would remember God might be trying to answer through doctors and nurses, through professionals and consultants, through family, friends, old ones and children. When I lost my phone, I knocked on doors and risked looking dumb, looking like the worst of American tourist, and looking completely helpless. Some doors closed but others opened. And then, did they EVER open.
Christ offers to take us by the hand and help us knock. He helps open the door. We don’t need to worry about how we pray and it doesn’t matter if we get tongue-tied. The only thing that matters is that we ask and have the faith to walk through the door.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Listen to the sermon HERE.
I was at a conference this week at St. Bonaventure University, a campus about an hour and a half from Buffalo, NY, and somewhat remote—certainly by NYC standards. The distance between events and lectures allowed for a lot of walking. Almost every time I walked by a particular stretch of woods, if I looked carefully, I’d spot a woodchuck. I saw deer several late afternoons, and I even saw a hawk.
Through the week, I noticed a number of young people walking around campus, led forward by their cell phones, as they hunted not so much for wildlife, but for a kind of virtual wildlife, playing the game, “Pokemon Go.” I don’t know if they saw what I saw. And I don’t know what I might have missed. But noticing the animals reminded me of how much is possible when I pay attention.
If I look at a painting closely, I can learn about the painter, the history, and the some of the story around what is being portrayed. If I pay attention to what is said (and what is not said) I can learn a lot about the person in front of me. If a doctor pays attention, she can diagnose the patient. If the teacher is attentive, he can help the student. ATTENTION makes all kinds of things possible.
Simone Weil was a French philosopher who struggled with Christianity at a very deep level. Among her thoughts, written down in her notebooks, was an oft-quoted sentence about paying attention. “Absolute attention,” she writes, “is prayer.”
In the lesson from Genesis we see what happens when Abraham and Sarah simply pay attention. Abraham could have ignored the three strangers. He could have gone on about his business when he saw them. He could have been afraid of getting involved. He might have “passed by on the other side,” like some of those in the Good Samaritan story last Sunday. But instead, Abraham goes out of his way to show hospitality. He seems to recognize something special about these strangers, some hard-to-put-your-finger-on quality. Perhaps it was holiness. Perhaps it was simply honesty. But whatever it was he saw, Abraham decides that it’s worth the risk of being hospitable. And so, Abraham brings some water and lets the strangers wash up; he brings some bread, and dinner is served.
Abraham’s hospitality not only feeds strangers and makes for community. But it also creates a holding space. Henri Nouwen, in his classic little book, Reaching Out, explains that true hospitality does just that. It creates a free and friendly space for the other. Nouwen talks about the difference in visiting a friend who has every moment scheduled and planned, where the rules are firm and the expectations clear. Then he points out how different that is from visiting a friend who says, “Here is a key to my house. The refrigerator is stocked and what’s mine is yours. I hope you will feel at home.”
The way in which Abraham and Sarah receive the strangers creates space, allows for mystery and opens the way for a miracle. It’s the Holy moment captured in our icon, over in the chapel. The three strangers turn out to be angels of the Lord, with the outrageously good news that Sarah is going to bear a child.
Abraham and Sarah were able to be attentive. They were able to be absolutely attentive. They found that absolute attention is prayer, and that absolute attention can allow one to see the miraculous movement of God.
In today’s Gospel, there is both attention and activity.
Martha is active. She is busy, involved, and committed. I’ve always liked Martha. She works hard, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and she makes things happen. I always pray for more Martha’s to be around in my church to help us get things done—to organize, to help, the extend the love of God to radiate out from this place.
Mary, on the other hand, is contemplative. She is quiet, calm, prayerful and deeply, DEEPLY attentive. She attends. She apprehends. She GETS Jesus; and all that he brings; and all that he means; and all that he promises; and all that he fulfills. It is because of this deep attention, this prayerfulness, that Mary is able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, as God Incarnate, as God Among Us. It is because of her attentiveness that Mary has (in the words of Jesus) “chosen the better part.” I also pray for more Mary’s in our church—people to support us with prayer, to listen for God’s voice, to pray for healing, and to hold all we do and become in a cloud of prayer.
While Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, notice that he in no way criticizes or scolds Martha. It’s only when Martha has become exhausted, when she is frustrated and angry and tries to get Jesus to side with her over her lazy sister that Jesus helps Martha see what she is doing. He slows her down. He asks her to breathe. “Martha,” he says, “you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”
This one thing that is needful might be called prayer. It might be called “the ability to see clearly, to apprehend a thing or a person for its true qualities.” It might also be called simply, “attention.”
The Church gives us moments that invite our full attention. These moments are called Sacraments. Prayer is the practice of paying attention. Holy Communion is the activity of giving attention, to God and to one another.
Especially in these days when news comes at light speed, incidents of violence and heartbreak seem too fast to keep track of, and our own lives are often run at speeds that challenge our best intentions and highest hopes for the relationships we cherish, may the Holy Spirit slow us down. May the Spirit focus our energies and help us be attentive.
May the Spirit help us, like Abraham and Sarah, to see miracles in our midst, and like Martha and Mary, to eat and drink and rest with Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
You may not have gotten out of bed today asking yourself the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But I think that in some ways, it’s a question all of us ask—if not out loud, then we ask it by being where we are today—in church. We might ask it especially after weeks like this one, filled with more violence, with more outrage and frustration, and with not much hope. We might not use the same words as the young lawyer, “eternal life,” though we each probably come to this morning with our own search, hope, or desire that yearns with the Eternal. We are looking for something—some kind of resolution, ending, answer, just like the young lawyer in the Gospel. “What must I do?” he asks.
But rather than answer the question directly, Jesus responds with another question. “What does the law [of Moses] say? How do you read it?” The man piously quotes back to Jesus all that he’s been taught: “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” A good Shabbat-school answer. Jesus says, “You’re right, you’ve given the right answer.”
But then, just as he’s moving away, the young lawyer, “wanting to justify himself,” asks Jesus another question: “And who is my neighbor?”
Here, St. Luke gives us some insight into the young lawyer by explaining that he asks this question, “wanting to justify himself.” Or, as the translation by Eugene Peterson (The Message) puts it, “Looking for a loophole, [the lawyer] asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”
Jesus sees what he’s dealing with now. This man asks about his neighbor not out of any real compassion or concern for the neighbor—but in order to justify himself, to make himself look good, to keep making the high grade, to make sure that he’s doing what he needs to do somehow to please God or make God love him. The young lawyer wants clean hands.
And because of this, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
In the story, a man going to Jerusalem is robbed and beaten. A priest walks by but is probably late for an appointment. Maybe he has good reasons for passing on, but whatever those reasons were, they don’t help the poor man on the side of the road.
Next a Levite passes by. Now, the Levites had particular responsibilities, especially related to the synagogue. They were busy people. The Levite might have had very good reasons for passing by, but again, the man by the road is still hungry and hurt.
The Samaritan, however, “moved with pity,” stops. He cleans and bandages the man’s wounds. He puts him on his own animal and takes him to an inn, where he gives the innkeeper some money to take care of the poor guy for a few days.
After telling the story, Jesus quizzes the bright, young lawyer a final time. “What do you think?” Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbor to the one who needed help?” The lawyer replies, “The one who showed mercy,” to which Jesus then says, “Go and do likewise.”
“Go and show mercy,” Jesus says, which is to say, “Go and help others who have fallen into ditches.” “Go and do your work and live your life, but do it all with some understanding, some notion, some perception of what it’s like to be in the ditch.”
We don’t know how the lawyer’s life turned out or what he did next, whether he was able to show mercy, or ever gain the wisdom of the ditch. But I bet it was hard for him. Religious, educated, civically minded, it may well be that the young lawyer had never been stuck in a ditch and never would be. Perhaps he had been protected by family, education, connections, race, and by all kinds of privilege to the extent that there was virtually no chance he would ever fall into a ditch nor much likelihood he might meet anyone who had.
But the Samaritan knew all about ditches. It was easier for him to offer help because the Samaritan had been in plenty of ditches. The Samaritan was viewed as an outsider, a foreigner, a suspect to the majority, someone with odd religious beliefs. To this day, Samaritans are a minority in Israel and thought of as sort of second-class Jews. Though they’re drafted like everyone else into the Israel Defense Forces, in order to be considered “halakhic” Jews, they have to undergo a formal conversion to Judaism. In the Gospel, the Samaritan remembers when he’s been in a ditch. And he remembers being helped out, when someone acted like a neighbor.
Especially on this Sunday, after this week of two high profile killings of black men by police, and an ambush of police by a black man, we can ask ourselves about the concept of “neighbor?” What are we called to do and be, as people of faith?
Last week I quoted from John Winthrop’s sermon of 1630 in which he famously spoke of his strong sense that he and others were being brought by God to the colonies in order to form “a City upon a Hill…” It has been a beautiful and enduring image, but if we are honest, we have to admit that while some have lived on hills, others have been given ditches to live in.
Early on, Native Americans were pushed off their hills, and those who did not die from disease, were driven onto “reservations.” For African slaves brought to this country, slavery was only the first ditch. Laws of segregation, lending policies for home loans, and barriers in education, employment, and social mobility have all been additional ditches. A social construct of race (passed on through families and laws and selective education) has built deeper ditches. Other people came to this country with the same strong feeling of God’s protection as John Winthrop– people from Japan, Ireland, Italy, Africa, Latin America, on and on…and yet, often they have had ditches put in front of them and ditches dug around them.
As people of faith, we cannot settle for life in the ditch. We cannot pass by and pretend not to notice. Christ calls us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch.
The Gospel invites us to see the ditch from several different perspectives. Some of us might be a little like the young lawyer in the Gospel. I imagine him as being protected by his privilege and a long way from most ditches. Others of us might be a little like the Good Samaritan: we have some memories and experiences of ditches that are fresh and perhaps a little raw. And some of us might feel like we’re the one stuck in the ditch. Regardless of where we locate ourselves, the point of the Good Samaritan story, I think, is for us to see ourselves in the ditch. Only after that, can be begin to recognize who is our neighbor and to act like neighbors to one another.
When I identify with the lawyer, in the light of Christ I know to see myself in the ditch involves a kind of poverty—a willingness to notice, name, and recognize the many privileges I enjoy and to understand that they are not of my making. And so, to begin to move toward understanding what it’s like for someone stuck in a ditch, or pushed into one, I can read. I can listen. I can stop trying to justify. And I can pray for God to make me a channel of help, of mercy, and of Christ’s healing.
This fall, our church will read the book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I’ve begun the book, and I’ll tell you, it’s not an easy read. But books like that one can help us to see with new eyes. We can read the work of Cornell West or Ta-Nehisi Coates. We can learn and pray and grow. We can stop talking and trying to justify ourselves, and do the really radical work of keeping quiet and listening.
To those like the Good Samaritan, this Gospel says, “keep on being faithful.” Yes, it hurts. Yes, we’re tired. Yes, it seems like the ditches get deeper and go on for ever. But don’t forget your own past. Be strengthened by it, be empowered by it, and use it to show mercy to another. God told Moses, “What you need is close at hand.” “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
The Good Samaritan types know that not everyone wants to remember being in the ditch. We can look to political leaders, religious leaders, supreme court justices, friends, and even some family and we see people who we REMEMBER were in a ditch, but they’ve forgotten. They act as though getting out of a ditch happens by sheer willpower and they have developed a defensive amnesia about their time and place of need. Well, the Gospel says: never forget. This was what Elie Wiesel spent his life saying, “Zachor! Remember” Remember the ditches and where possible, don’t let them happen again.
And finally, some of you may feel like the character in the story who’s been beaten and robbed and thrown into the ditch. You’re tired of worrying about your children or grandchildren. You’re tired of wondering when you’re going to get the job you deserve or even be noticed in the ditch, much less helped out. Our Gospel today offers the presence of Christ—with you, in you, and also in others. Don’t give up. Yell a little louder. Be open to God’s spirit of healing in some new way and keep your faith.
In Friday’s New York Times, Charles Blow wrote an opinion piece that I’ve read several times. Other commentators have written angrier, harder truths, but Blow’s piece is offered from the standpoint of a father whose daughter tells him simply that “she’s scared.” He agrees that he’s scared too—but especially scared for our country. He writes about the issues and the difficulties, but then he says this:
I know well that when people speak of love and empathy and honor in the face of violence, it can feel like meeting hard power with soft, like there is inherent weakness in an approach that leans so heavily on things so ephemeral and even clichéd. But that is simply an illusion fostered by those of little faith. Anger and vengeance and violence are exceedingly easy to access and almost effortlessly unleashed. The higher calling — the harder trial — is the belief in the ultimate moral justice and the inevitable victory of righteousness over wrong.… (Charles M. Blow, NY Times, July 8, 2016)
Charles Blow writes as one who has one foot on higher ground while keeping another foot firm in the ditch, so as to extend a hand to help others up and out. It’s a secular voice echoing a Christly calling—for us to be neighbors to one another, remembering when others have been neighbors to us.
Remember that Jesus was taken from the heights of Calvary down to the depths of a tomb, but death could not keep him. Death will not keep us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
I don’t know what your plans are for tomorrow, but it might surprise you that our tradition, as we receive it from The Book of Common Prayer, imagines us being in church on July 4. The Prayer Book views Independence Day as a feast day and implies that we would be in a place to hear the appointed scriptures, to pray the Collect of the Day (the prayer that is printed in the bulletin insert), and perhaps to sing a hymn or two—all of us coming together in the freedom to worship and praise our God.
These days around July 4 are good ones to be in church—whether on Independence Day itself, or almost, like today—because they’re good days for us to give thanks for religious freedom, to work on behalf of religious freedom for others, and to think about what it means for us to be God’s people in this place. The scriptures for today help us do this and help us remember especially what it is to practice “independence” in a Christian context. The scriptures can help us remember that while it is “Independence” day—(celebrating independence from a colonial power)—it is not Individualist Day. It is not Isolationist Day. It’s a day for refreshing our understanding of the common good and of the “united” states. The Declaration of Independence reminds us that “We the people” have come together for a “more perfect Union”… for the Common defense… and for the General welfare….Our founding documents stress that we are in this together.
The first reading today from Isaiah can at first seem to be an intimate one, but it’s more public than it might first seem. The image here of God comforting a child is really more of God like a mother who comforts not just one child, but a whole family of children.
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” God says. The “you” is collective, it is communal. The other side of God’s “you” is a “we,” and the “we” that was the nation of Israel who struggled like children for forty years before they were made into a nation. Isaiah’s words come as a blessing– a blessing on their effort to be one family. Isaiah assures them that God sees their desire to be one people and God honors that dream and holds it close, like snuggling with a beloved child.
The Psalm sings of a faith in God who has already brought us a long way and a God who “holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip.” But God keeps us from slipping, not by extending a holy and ghostly hand out of heaven to steady us and prop us up. Instead, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ shows us that God works by becoming human. God keeps us “in life” and prevents “our feet from slipping” by giving us one another to hold on to.
Paul puts it clearly in his Letter to the Galatians. “Bear one another’s burdens.” “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Paul says to help each other out not because it’s a practical way to get more done (which it is.) Not because it will make the other person feel better (which it will). And not even because it makes you feel better (which I guarantee, it does).
Instead, Paul connects our “bearing one another’s burdens” to Christ. It’s as though Paul is saying, “humanitarian reasons are all fine and good,” but if I say I love Jesus Christ, then it’s a part of that love, a natural extension and expression of that love, for me to begin moving out of myself and toward another person. That’s the way Christ’s love grows—for me and for the other person. It’s in the helping, the sharing, the praying for and with, the serving, the feeding, and the lending. And it’s also in the reception of help—the borrowing, the asking, and the allowing.
Paul uses a phrase that is often plucked out of context and misused. “All must carry their own loads,” he says. But notice that this in the context of Christian community, of family, and of network. Each must do something to help with the load because we’re all in this together. Each is connected to the other. Just like in a family, the youngest and the eldest probably do not carry what would be understood as a “full load.” But the young add their energy and brightness and reason to go forward. The old offer their reflection, their wisdom, their prayers, and their love for going forward. Paul understands our living out the love of Christ has no room for the family that would work itself to death to obtain and produce and hoard, yet all the while, looking at their next door neighbor with disdain and judgment: “All those lazy so-in-so’s… they really should get to work.” Instead, Paul commends a picture of community than shows us people helping one another to carry their load, to share their burdens.
The Gospel of Luke is written from the perspective of encouraging us to share the common life in Christ. Among the four Gospels, Luke is often symbolized by the ox. Some suggest the ox is used to represent Luke because it is a beast of burden. This story of Jesus appointing 70 only appears in Luke. It’s Luke that highlights the Jesus who goes out of his way to involve both rich and poor, women, those society things are lost or unacceptable, those who did not grow up in the Jewish tradition, and everyone who will open themselves to God’s love.
An ox may seem slow and plodding to some, but especially in other cultures, the ox is king of the animals—it carries loads, it moves things, it is strong and persistent, it allows for things to grow and develop.
Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs, and he sends us out in a similar way. Sometimes we might be called upon to be the strong one: to be silent like an ox and ease the weight of the other. But there are also those times when we might be out of energy or resources and we need another or others to help with the burdens I’m trying to navigate.
The Christian tradition gives us a variety of ways of sharing our burdens with others.
There is the idea of finding one to talk to and pray with. One of the oldest ways of sharing another’s burden spiritually is what Celtic Christianity calls the “anam cara,” the soul friend, spiritual friend or advisor, prayer partner. This can be as formal as a regular get-together, or as casual as simply calling on another to keep you and your burden in prayer.
We can ask others to pray for us—like on Sundays or through the week.
We can also share burdens in practical, tangible ways—by showing our prayer in a note, or a well-placed word. Money might be a good way to ease another’s burden. And how many of us have had burdens lifted if not disappear altogether when another brought us food or treated us to a meal. And the meal of meals, the Holy Eucharist is a ritual sharing of Christ’s body with each other, to sustain, to nurture, to build up.
We share one another’s burdens by volunteering with Trinity Cares, or Health Advocates for Older Adults, or the Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center. There are all kinds of ways we can experience the strength in community that bearing one another’s burdens can be.
If we can grow in our ability to be like the children of the God of Isaiah who comforts us like a mother, if we can bear one another’s burdens like Paul says, and if we can team up with others so as to draw on their strength and share our own, we’ll grow in our ability to help others live into a Common Good.
In 1630, as people crossed the ocean to come to this country, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a sermon to that early group of Puritans looking for a place to worship and live in freedom. Well into his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” he says,
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of [the Prophet] Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God . . . We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
John Winthrop had a great vision in 1630. May the Holy Spirit renew a vision for our time that includes, “delighting in each other; making others’ conditions our own; rejoicing together, mourning together, laboring and suffering together, … so that we, too, might “keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
I have a friend who commutes from Westchester every day, and he often has trouble finding a seat on the train. There are sometimes seats available, but if the seat isn’t facing in the direction the train is going (if it’s one of those seats that is turned around) he won’t sit in it. He’ll walk from one end of the train to the other in search of one seat, facing the forward direction. If anyone asks him about his seating preference, he just says, “Never look back—on trains; in live.” “Never look back.”
In today’s Gospel people DO want to look back. They’re just not ready to move ahead, and they long for the past. It might be that one prefers a simpler past (or at least their memory of a simpler past). Others are weighed down by to-do lists, and obligations, but really, these thing belong more to yesterday than today. Sometimes living in the present takes the wind out of us, and makes us lose faith. It used to be easier, we think. And having already lived the past, we know what’s there—no surprises and no interruptions of our own will. But there is also very little room for miracle in a staid and static past.
I wonder how much of this was going on in this week’s vote in England to leave the European Union. Along with concerns about jobs that have shifted away, entire trades that are no longer in demand, and cultural challenges with diversity, the European Union became the symbol of all that just felt like it was moving too fast. And so the vote was an effort to stop it all. Freeze things. Take a breath and re-evaluate. But the problem is that the world keeps moving, and if one country simply stops, it will be bypassed and pushed aside.
God, also, keeps moving—sometimes quickly, sometimes at a glacial speed—but moving forward. This is what Jesus is pointing to in today’s Gospel. Luke uses the great phrase that Jesus’s “face was set toward Jerusalem.”
And it’s exactly this direction, this intention, this energy of Christ that points forward and will not be stopped. When Jesus and his disciples visit a village of Samaritans, the Samaritans can’t be bothered. They’re not impressed and don’t feel compelled to follow Jesus.
The disciples are confused by this, and can’t quite figure out how to respond. They err on the side of action, and suggest calling down the wrath of God. James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
But notice that Jesus barely hears them. Jesus is moving forward. He’s already forgotten the unbelieving Samaritans, and has moved an inch or two closer into the Kingdom of God with no time for holding grudges or getting slowed down by people who “don’t get it.”
When we think of some of the bullies and “bad guys” of our world, we might sympathize with James and John—“Can’t we call down fire from heaven on our enemies, on our opponents, on those especially who twist the words of God into words of hatred and violence?” But Christ is saying, “No.” Move forward. There’s a lot to be done. We’re going to Jerusalem and there’s no time to look back. There’s no time to settle old scores. There’s no time for vengeance or gloating.
In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul pushes this point further. If victory, justice, and fairness bring some privileges, he argues, they also bring opportunities that should be carefully navigated.
For freedom Christ has set us free…. Don’t use freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants (slaves, even) to one another…. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” And so, live by the Spirit, whose gifts are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25, passim)
Jesus shows us how to live in that kind of freedom. As the Gospel from Luke describes it, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and the trouble with the Samaritans is only the beginning. The joy and love of Christ is infectious, so as people hear him and meet him, they want more, and they want to follow, but some want to follow on their own terms, or to follow at some future day, just not today.
One volunteers, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus warns him, “It’s not going to be easy. It’s not a life of palaces and fine dining. It will be more often a way of homelessness and heartbreak.”
Jesus invites another to follow, and the man seems willing but offers what sounds like a reasonable excuse for delay. “First, let me go and bury my father.” Here, Jesus sounds heartless as he says, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” But Jesus is calling that man to move forward.
During Jesus’s life, there was a strong sense that the end of the world was upon them in some way. This is a part of the urgency to Jesus’s preaching and living and the moving toward Jerusalem.
But, as the disciples and the early Church began to understand later, even when the end of the world is delayed, the urgency still stands because God’s kingdom is already breaking in on us—on those who will be a part of it. That’s what Jesus is trying to convey—don’t miss the kingdom for the checklist you’re trying to complete. Don’t wait until you’ve got this done or that done, or you’ve gotten beyond this hurdle or that one—the kingdom of God calls us to move forward, toward Jerusalem—the place and way of justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, and love—the place where we do our best to live out those values Paul just talked about in Galatians.
Finally, a third person wants to follow Jesus but first needs to go home to say goodbye. Again, Jesus sounds harsh, saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
In other words, like my friend on Metro North, there’s no time for looking back. God moves forward. We see a bit of this in our first reading about Elijah the older prophet and Elisha, his protégée. Elijah is ready to move with God, but Elisha isn’t sure he’s ready for God’s plan to unfold. Can he just stay with his teacher and mentor a little longer. He’s not ready to go it alone. As so, as Elijah tries to move forward into the full presence of God, Elisha refuses to let him go alone. Finally, Elijah leaves this world, and there Elisha is left—alone, disoriented, and not sure what to do next. But then, he notices something. Before he died, as he was moving away, Elijah left his mantle, his cape, symbolizing all that Elijah had taught the younger prophet. The mantel symbolizes that God is with him and will continue to be with him. He
has what he needs to follow.
No one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. This is not to say we ignore history or ignore the past. But we don’t let it hold us captive, either. Some of us grew up with racial stereotypes. We are slow to move out of prejudice with regard to color, or class, or size, or age. We may have a long way to go before we arrive at the Jerusalem of God’s dream, but with faith, we make our way forward, one day at a time.
The month of June has become a special time in which Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people march, and speak, and love with pride. Some people wonder—especially with the relative advances made in our country—why make such a big deal with a weekend like this one, with rainbow flags and a parade. Well, as with almost any celebration, the occasion will mean different things to different people, but especially for Christians. Not only is the acceptance of all God’s children as they are a basic characteristic of following Jesus, I also think the Pride celebration can serve as a reminder for us to follow Christ forward—in body, mind, and soul. Follow Christ forward, resisting the prejudice of the past, the misplaced shame of the past, perhaps the misunderstanding or rejection of ourselves or others in the past. Follow Christ forward, and once there has been forgiveness, embrace the full calling of Jesus Christ and don’t look back.
Whenever we have a baptism, or when we reaffirm our baptismal vows, after saying the Apostles’ Creed together, there are additional questions.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
The answer to each of those, which we say together, is of course, “I will, with God’s help.” But notice especially the language in the baptismal covenant: “will you continue…,” “will you persevere…,” “will you proclaim…,” “will you seek and serve…”, “will you strive…?” All of these point to following God, together, stumbling and falling along the way, but following God into the future.
Following God and being a part of God’s kingdom can look very different, depending on who we are and how we choose to follow. You might have noticed that the fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died yesterday. Mr. Cunningham was not in any way outwardly way, especially religious, but he pointed to beauty and wonder and delight. And his eye was always attracted to energy and life. He was 87 years old, and until very recently, continued to ride his bicycle all over Manhattan, photographing the latest styles. He took pictures of rich people, and poor people, big and small, famous, and anonymous. But wherever he pointed his camera, he looked for a sense of style, a little flair, a spark of something. He never looked back, but only in front, ahead, to see what was new, what was filled with life.
What if we were able to follow Christ with the spirit of someone like Bill Cunningham? What if we accentuated the good we say in others? That person loves beautifully, notice her. That person cares deeply; notice him. That one laughs with the love of God; remember that one. Another person helps, another prays, another sings, another works— what if we celebrated each of those little ways that we live in the present and move into the future in faith? Wouldn’t THAT create a kind of living rainbow of faith, inviting others into God’s Kingdom?
The Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin wrote,
Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.
Whether we feel Christ’s hand pushing us slightly from the back, or gently leading us from in front, may the Spirit give us what we need to follow in faith.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Some of you may know G. K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” character from literature or from the BBC series. Father Brown is a parish priest who is good at solving murders. Sometimes he seems to see into people’s souls so deeply that they wonder, (like people wondered about Jesus) how Father Brown can possibly know such dark thoughts and impulses. In one very revealing situation, the priest reads the soul of a man so clearly that the man blurts out, “How do you know all this? … Are you a devil?” Father Brown responds, “I am a man,” … “and therefore have all devils in my heart.” (G.K. Chesterton, “The Hammer of God” in The Innocence of Father Brown.)
Whenever there is a horrible event like the killings in the Orlando nightclub last Sunday morning, there’s a temptation to explain it away too quickly by suggesting that it must be the work of evil. The person who kills so easily and so many must surely be possessed or must have been taken over by a demon. When we say such things, at some level, of course, we’re simply trying to find an explanation for something that makes no sense. But when we attribute people and events too quickly to “evil” or the “demonic,” we ignore aspects of our own community and culture that are complicit. And we misunderstand the work of demons.
If you’ve read my newsletter article this week, you know that I can’t help but feel like the Orlando killings are at some level an extension of words and feelings already flying around our culture. Note that the killer did not shoot up a military institution or a post office. He didn’t go to a retirement home or a school. Instead, he went to gay club and he went on Latino night. Even though the laws of our land have gradually protected LGBT people more and more, the violence and backlash and culturally-encouraged self-hatred continue. Latinos (whether refugees, new immigrants, or judges) have been especially attacked by politicians, the media, and in the streets. And while the easy access to high-powered firearms makes all these killings more possible than not, I think it’s crucial for us to notice how the violence acts or reacts to larger themes. Sticks and stones break bones, but words hurt, too. If there was a demon that led the killer into that nightclub, then let’s at least be honest about how that demon was very well-fed and strengthened (not so much by ISIS) but by cultural forces here, in our country.
Jesus teaches us about facing down demons when he goes into the wilderness for 40 days. He shows us exactly how demons work: they tempt us to gluttony, they tempt us to self-sufficiency, and they tempt us to power. Many of you will recall the story from the first Sunday in Lent. The devil suggests Jesus turn stones to bread, symbolizing the getting and gathering of all that might bring temporary fulfilment. But Jesus doesn’t go for it. Next the devil suggests that Jesus jump off the pinnacle of the temple and trust God to pick him up, but Jesus again knows that God will look after him and he has no need to test. Finally, the devil offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world. But again, Jesus is committed to God’s kingdom—which includes everyone, not just a chosen few.
In today’s Gospel we meet up with demons in a sad story. There is a man who is not in his right mind. He can’t keep clothes on. He can’t keep up a household. He’s homeless, living near the tombs, probably in caves. People must have passed him by whenever they went that way, but they didn’t dare go close. He was possessed by demons, after all.
Though we don’t know his name. We sort of know him. This man must have seemed to the Gerasenes like so many people appear to us today—those who live not in natural caves, but the caves made by overpasses, abandoned buildings, and alleys. Their problems seem overwhelming. Often, we do what we can. We say a prayer. We give an occasional dollar or two. We might buy a sandwich, but we wonder, “What’s to be done?” Is it a matter of public funding? Is it a matter of physical or mental healthcare? Is it a family problem?
A demon would have us assume it’s the work only of that demon, and either blame the person, or blame the demon and go on our way. But the reality is much larger and more complex. Walter Wink is a theologian who thinks and writes about the way demons enter not only individuals, but also institutions and structures. Wink points out that one way the demonic works is by rigidly classifying those who are “in” and those who are “out.”
A commentator on Wink, Jeffery John (dean of St. Albans Cathedral, England) uses this idea as he points out, “The profundity of this miracle story [of the man with the demon] is shown in the fact that Jesus goes out to heal the very one…who is the symbol of the alien oppression…Jesus steps outside the territory of Israel into ‘unclean’ territory, heals the most untouchable of the untouchables, and makes him in effect his first apostle to the other Gentiles.” [The Meaning in the Miracles, Canterbury Press, 2001, p. 84-97]
A part of the healing is Jesus’s daring to go where others say it’s useless. Jesus is unwilling to be captive to the demons of prejudice, rumor, gossip, assumptions, or conventions. Jesus heals people throughout scripture in the same way, transgressing societal, cultural, or gender norms in order to bring a human touch, which is also the touch of God.
Demons are not always what they seem. Reading the scriptures closely, in some places it is clear to a modern health profession that a person in the Bible who was thought to be “demon possessed,” was epileptic. Leprosy was not caused by demons, but is what we now call Hansen’s disease, an infection caused by bacteria and curable through medication. Melancholia was thought to be from a demon. Homosexuality was (and sadly is still thought by some) thought to be caused by demons.
The real demonic is, and always has been, in the way that people are separated, kept in ignorance, and never allowed to question received information.
Sometimes the demons are buried deep in the details—in history and in the history of faith as we know it in scripture.
The first scripture reading we heard this morning brought us a story of Elijah, seemingly of his loss of resolve and faith. He questions his calling and God comes to him in a surprising way—not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. Countless sermons are in that small section of scriptures, but notice the context.
Notice the very first line in the reading: “[King] Ahab told [his wife] Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life.” (I Kings 1-3a).
Back in chapter 18 is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. It’s a story many of us illustrated in Sunday school as children. We drew and colored how Elijah and the prophets of Baal had a holy showdown, but Elijah proved to be able to bring down the first of God and the other prophets could not. But spiritual victory was not enough for Elijah. The story ends with the ominous words, “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.”
If we really listen, it’s the sort of reading that it’s hard to reply, “thanks be to God.” But when we read scripture, it’s important to read all of it. A friend of mine likes to say that the trouble with fundamentalists is not that they read Scripture. The trouble is that they don’t read ENOUGH scripture. If we really love scripture, then we owe it to God to read as much as we can and allow God to exercise the demons. Faith helps us rely on God to show us where people of faith were wrong in the past, and to show us where we have been wrong. A demonic faith would use Elijah’s story to justify killing people who don’t agree with us, but a demonic faith would also overlook the violence and pretend it wasn’t there.
Whenever we elevate scripture above Christ, we make it into an idol. When we elevate tradition or reason or law or custom above the ongoing revelation of Christ, we worship idols. And when we worship idols, we are dealing with demons.
Demons make us overlook the details and only see the broad strokes.
Demons thrive on prejudice, ignorance, and scapegoating.
Demons love a fictional view of the past and refuse to take into consideration the reality of the present.
Demons lead us follow a dead god,
while the way of Christ leads us to a Living God who continues to reveal.
Like Chesterton’s Father Brown, if we’re honest with ourselves we can begin to see the demons that are living within us and ask God to free us. We can ask God to exercise the demons that still live in our churches and institutions. Together, we can expose the demons that want us to live in fear and helplessness. We can face down the demons that blame particular ethnicities, or groups of people. And we can call out the demons that get lodged in our laws and our lawmakers.
In the Letter of Paul to the Galatians, Paul reminds us that faith frees us to be children in Christ,
As many of [us] as [have been] baptized into Christ have clothed [ourselves] with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus. And if [we] belong to Christ, then [we] are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Let us notice that last phrase, “Abraham’s offspring,” which means we are brothers and sisters with Muslims and Jews as well as Christians, whether we are of one mind, or have many issues to talk about—we are one family of faith, and God loves us all.
On this day, we offer the Holy Eucharist for the repose of the souls of the victims of the Orlando shootings. Que las almas de las difuntos, por la Misericordia de Dios, descansen en paz. But also, let us offer ourselves anew as followers of Christ, who defeats all demons, and empowers us to live in love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.