A sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 32:22-31Psalm 1212 Timothy 3:14-4:5, and Luke 18:1-8.

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

Many of us know the meaning of that first word, “persevere.”  Some have persevered through hard financial times, through bad health, or through long programs of study.  Others have persevered with difficult children or spouses, with situations in which your whole life prays for change.  And then, given these final days leading up to the elections, we all probably feel like we are persevering, at best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as Jesus was human and divine, it makes sense that in our own spirituality—in our own prayer life (whether it is full or whether it is underdeveloped), that in our own prayer life we might reflect both the human and, with God’s grace, the divine.

We pray out of our very human hearts when we ask for what we want and need, when we persist, when we argue with God, when we struggle, when we nag, even when we whine. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus, after all, prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”

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

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

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

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

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Returning Thanks


A sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016.  The lectionary readings are 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, and Luke 17:11-19.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Tomorrow may be Columbus Day in the United States, but in Canada, it’s Thanksgiving Day, complete with turkey, a Canadian football double-header, and a few parades.  Like in this country, it’s a day rooted in giving thanks for a good harvest, and in a post-agricultural culture, it’s used to give thanks for all God’s blessings, however one might have experienced them.  Our scriptures allow us to do Thanksgiving a little early, so perhaps we can join our voices with those to the north.

Way back in the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan said “No duty is so urgent as that of returning thanks.” I’ve always loved that phrase: “returning thanks.” It almost suggests that thanks comes from somewhere else, that it moves through us or visits us for a little while, and so we should be careful with it, hold it gently, and then, when it’s time, let it go back to the its source.

In reality, we don’t always return thanks. It’s more like we misplace it or forget about it. Or we squander it and pretend it wasn’t a gift, but rather, something we deserved and earned and won. We don’t always consider that the thanks we get, the thanks for which we are grateful, the thanks we return (or don’t return) is a blessing—it is pure gift.

In our first reading, it takes Naaman a while to return thanks, to return to give thanks, or to understand where his blessing has come from.  Naaman might be powerful and successful, but he also has leprosy. Lepers were called “unclean,” and the belief was that they were not only physically unclean (and people assumed that’s how they got the skin disease in the first place) but they were also thought to be spiritually unclean, as though they were being punished by God for some reason.

We can understand something of what the culture of fear and suspicion around leprosy might have been like, if we remember the early 1980’s when the outbreak of AIDS meant also an epidemic of fear and ignorance. Some of you may remember what it was like in the early 20th century around polio, as well.

Though Naaman must have been petrified at his own leprosy, he doesn’t show it.  He’s a military man, after all. No tears, no whining.  But he does look for healing. Naaman hears about the prophet and healer Elisha (the heir to the prophet Elijah). And so, Naaman gets to the opening of Elisha’s cave, and Elisha sends a servant out to talk to him. The servant says, “Here’s what you need to do: Elisha says for you to go and wash in the River Jordan seven times. That should do the trick. You’ll be fine.”

Well! This great military commander Naaman is insulted. Did he travel all the way to Israel only to be told by a servant go and wash in the river? Does he not even get to see this supposedly great prophet?

Naaman is angry, he criticizes Elisha. He makes fun of Israel and its rivers, and on and on he goes, in an absolute rage. Had he continued to mouth off, had he continued to try to fit things into his own way of seeing, he would have completely missed the opportunity before him. He would have missed the presence of God, and the healing of God. Just before they leave Israel altogether, one of Naaman’s servants pulls him aside and begins to talk a little sense into him.

It’s as though this servant understands the nature of grace, the nature of blessing—that when a blessing comes from God (whether it’s in the form of healing or some other blessing), it comes lightly, and so it should be grasped and grabbed, but received and allowed room. Naaman eventually goes down to the water, he bathes seven times, and he is healed. Not only is he healed of the leprosy, but it also sounds like he might have been healed from a little of his arrogance and pride. And then Naaman returns to Elisha and makes a big statement. It’s a statement of faith, but also a returning of thanks: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Your God is God.”

In our Gospel, there is healing, as well. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and is approached by not one, but ten lepers. They greet him with words that will echo on Palm Sunday, recognizing his power and his ability to forgive and cleanse: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Their words are a desperate cry for help, they’re from the heart, and they seem to get his attention.
With these 10 lepers, Jesus does an astounding thing. He responds to them as though they’ve already been healed—he doesn’t send them to bathe in special waters, he doesn’t spit into the dirt and make a potion out of it for their healing—instead, he effects the healing in them even as they ask for it. Next, he follows the Jewish custom of encouraging them to go and show themselves to the Temple priests.

Jesus heals the disease, but he knows that it will take a little more for the fear and suspicion around the disease to heal, as well. It’s a little like when one of us has been healed, has gotten better, has been restored to health, and yet friends and family treat us as though we’re still fragile. Jesus knows that for the lepers to be received back into their families and villages, they needed the official approval of the Temple priest, the sort of cultural equivalent of a “clean bill of health.” And so the ten former lepers follow Jesus’ instructions and they go to the temple. All, except for one.

One comes back, and returns thanks. The one, cured leper happens to be the Samaritan, the foreigner, the half-breed, the one despised by both Jews and the Gentiles. This cured leper has now been doubly cured. Not only is he cured of a disease, but he’s healed from the prejudice and racism he’s experienced, from all the cultural divides that have been heaped on him as an outsider.  This Samaritan (perhaps because he’s so often been among the left out and thrown-out) understands the giftedness of  blessing, the nature of a grace, the nature of thanks— as something that visits us, and gains life when it is shared and returned.  Christ was born on the “outside,” and always brings those who are left out, in.

Today’s Gospel has been interpreted in various ways through the life of the Church. Among the disciples and the very early church there were concerns about those who were newcomers to the faith, especially whether non-Jews who became Christians were as faithful as the Jewish followers of Jesus. Stories like the one about the healing of the ten lepers reminded the early church of their own minority status and that the price of admission into the Church of Jesus Christ is gratitude.

Another interpretation of the story of the one leper who returns to give thanks has to do with Jesus’s own emphasis on welcoming the foreigner. In this, there’s the reminder that we should do what we can to welcome the stranger, the one who doesn’t exactly fit in, the one who is new.   Our mission house, the first building at Holy Trinity, was named for St. Christopher the patron saint of travelers.  To a community of immigrants, that meant welcome and hospitality.

And then, given that we are approaching stewardship season, I should include the not so-subtle point that some have seen in this story the image of the tithe—the biblical teaching that we should aim to return one-tenth of our possessions, our income, to God. Recall that there were ten lepers. One comes back to Jesus, and his coming back was accompanied with joy and thanksgiving. The story reminds us that all God gives us is a blessing, but there is particular joy when we return at least a tenth out of gratitude.

However we might hear the Gospel speaking to us, the scriptures work together today to help us think about the grace God has given us, and how we might begin to return that grace—to God, and to other people.

In the Collect of the Day we have prayed that God’s grace might always precede and follow us, making us continually given to good works. It’s important to notice the order of the words in that prayer.  It’s not our works that produce the grace. It’s not our works that even provide the setting or space for grace. But it is grace itself—God’s free and unmerited gift— that allows us to do good and faithful work. Grace that comes before, during, and after. But it is always and everywhere God’s grace, not our own. And so the Spirit helps us to live lightly in a state of grace, and return it.

With those in today’s scriptures, can pray for God’s healing of disease and ailment. We can pray for God’s healing of creation, where it is broken or wasted or in trouble. We pray for God’s healing of racial and ethnic and cultural divides. But let us also pray for God’s Spirit to help us return thanks and always live lightly with grateful hearts.

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


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Following Francis into Humility and Peace

A homily offered at the Blessing of Animals on Sunday, October 2, 2016.  The lectionary readings are those for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel is a little course.  Jesus speaks casually about “slaves,” who were a given segment of his culture.  It can be disturbing for us to hear Jesus this way, but it does remind us of his humanity along with his divinity, that as a human, he lived and moved in his own time, taking on the mindset, and even some of the un-examined assumptions of his culture, such as slavery.

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

Today, creation and our place in it are themes that run through our worship.  We celebrate St. Francis of Assisi today because it’s the closest Sunday to his feast day, October 4.  And some of us who love Francis do everything possible to say that Francis is much more than Patron Saint of the Birdbath, I also know that a lot of you might be wanting a good Franciscan animal story.

And so I’ll tell one.

As St. Francis and his band of brother were preaching through the Umbrian countryside of what would become Italy, there was a report that an evil wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio.  The wolf was fierce like no one had ever seen:  it killed sheep and shepherd, alike.  The mayor of the town sent for Francis, having heard that Francis was a kind of “animal whisperer.”  He had a way with them, so maybe he could do something.

The people prayed. Francis’s brothers prayed.  And Francis walked into the forest to look for the wolf.  Murray Bodo tells the rest of the story:

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

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

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

You see, in 1219, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Francis wanted to go and meet the Sultan of Egypt, a Muslim—at first, with the idea of telling him about Jesus Christ and converting him Walking right through the battlefield, Francis went and was received by Malik al-Kamil. The sultan seems to have regarded Francis as a harmless holy man or a kind of Christian Sufi.  After sharing conversation, and perhaps a meal, Francis left.  Francis went straight to Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander in the crusades, and pleaded with him for peace, to stop fighting, to lay down arms.  Francis also told his Franciscan brothers (who were preaching the Gospel life in all directions)  that when they went to a Muslim place, they first should preach Jesus Christ, but if the Muslims are not interested in converting, then the Christians should live among them in peace.

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

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

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

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


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Crossing the Chasm

A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Amos 6:1a,4-7Psalm 1461 Timothy 6:6-19, and Luke 16:19-31

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Do we notice the people we pass on the street? Would we notice a friend or a loved one?

Several years ago, the New York Rescue Mission teamed up with a foundation several years ago to conduct an experiment that was made into a video.  Several people come face-to-face with their relatives and significant others dressed as homeless people.  But not a single participant recognizes their mother, brother or wife.  Something stands between the family members.  There’s a distance and a divide that prevents recognition, much less compassion or empathy.  [The video can be seen at ]

Today’s Gospel tells us the story of the rich man and the poor man named Lazarus is one of those biblical stories that finds its way into popular culture through music and literature.  Though the scriptures don’t tell us the rich man’s name, tradition often calls him, “Dives,” from the Latin word meaning, “rich man.” Whether the story comes to through Chaucer, an opera, or a reading on a Sunday morning, it is a difficult story for those of us who prefer happy endings and like all our questions answered.

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

This Lazarus is a different Lazarus from the one who was the brother of Mary and Martha, the Lazarus who is raised, and is pictured in the stained glass window over our altar.  Today’s Gospel is about the lesser-known Lazarus, one who is poor, covered with sores, and lays at the gate of a rich man’s house. The two men die: Dives (the rich man) and this poor man, Lazarus. They both go off to the place that Jews and Christians in the first century believed the dead went.

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

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

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

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

When Jesus describes the rich man on earth, he never says that the man is bad. The rich man is not an evil man, nor is he especially sinful. It’s never suggested that Dives gained his wealth by dishonest means, nor are we even told that he is stingy—it seems that he was at least generous with his friends, and he remembered the poor with his leftovers.

But he kept himself apart. He kept himself away, separated, and removed from the pain of Lazarus and others like him. Dives had kept to his side of the chasm. And he had been quite happy there.

What are the chasms that separate us from others?

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

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

But we have a means to navigate any distance, to stretch over any chasm, and it begin with baptism.

In just a few minutes, we will baptize Theodore Singh.  In the back of the Prayer Book, our Catechism reminds us that in baptism is more than water, prayers, light, and love.  There is an “inward and spiritual grace” that is “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” (“An Outline of the Faith,” Book of Common Prayer, p. 858)

I remember seeing the power of baptism to cross all kinds of separation when a young parishioner, during her senior year of high school, became pregnant.  At first, there were all kinds of divides—with the boyfriend-turned-father, with the boyfriend’s parents, within the family, with neighbors, and on and on and on.  Over the next few months, there were a lot of tears, a lot of talking, and even more praying.  The whole situation was not tidied up as neatly as some might have wanted it, but when a beautiful little girl was baptized in our church, everyone was there.  There had been chasms so deep and wide that people would not be in the same room with one another, but beginning with that baptism, there was healing.  There was movement.  There was new life.

When Jesus was baptized by John, he did so to show a way of cross all separation, of moving from darkness to light, from sin to forgiveness, and from death to life.  Baptism is the ultimate bridge from one place to another, and though we are baptized only once, we return again and again in our mind, in our heart, and in our prayer.  The ancient sign of the cross is just that:  a reminder and a return to baptism.  In the fourth century, St. Augustine wrote:

What else is the sign of Christ but the cross of Christ? For unless that sign be applied, whether it be to the foreheads of believers, or to the very water out of which they are regenerated, or to the oil with which they receive the anointing chrism, or to the sacrifice that nourishes them, none of them is properly administered” (Tractates on John 118)

Baptism is not magic.  But it is power—the power to remind us of our common humanity, the power to move us out of isolation and toward another, the confidence to leave the safety of “my side” of a chasm, and to move across—whether that be a step, a leap, or a lunge across.

Let this morning by Theo, may we remember our baptisms, may we recall the power of the Holy Spirit, and may we be moved with Christ to cross the chasms in our world.

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

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Crafty for the Kingdom



1909 painting The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan.

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 18, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and Luke 16:1-13.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops is currently meeting in Detroit.  When they meet, they worship, they study the Bible, they talk with one another, and they also hear from people who they think have something to say to the church.  On Friday, they heard from John Danforth, the three-term Republican senator from Missouri.  In retirement, Senator Danforth briefly served as Ambassador to the United Nations, and has continued to write and speak widely.  As early as 2005, Danforth criticized changes in the Republican Party, he’s continued to speak out, and on Friday, he called our House of Bishops to lead the Episcopal Church to take up a ministry of healing our country.  Political opponents are not “enemies,” he reminds us.  And he encourages the bishops to help us all remember, articulate, and work for the common good.  In a book he wrote last year, Danforth argues for a “theological disarmament,” pointing out that, “Politics is not the battleground for universal truth. It’s a process for negotiating compromises.” Politics matters less than the ideologues insistand that to make a policy position non-negotiable is to turn it into an idol. (The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics, Random House, 2015.  A good article on the book and Danforth is at Salon, Dec. 28, 2015).

Senator Danforth always catches my eye because he’s thoughtful, he’s faithful, and he brings a kind of complexity to whatever issue he approaches. Part of this is, I think, because he is both a lawyer and an Episcopal priest.  He worked at a Wall Street law firm before entering politics, and is rare in the way he never compromises his lawyerly mind or his Christian soul.  He uses all he has to follow Christ.

Even though few of us might follow our vocations to the extremes of God and mammon the way Mr. Danforth has, we all move in circles that are sometimes religious and sometimes very worldly.  Today’s scriptures, in some ways, help us navigate both the religious, the worldly, and the in-between.

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

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

If the Old Testament reading reminds us about some of WHAT we should be doing, the Gospel suggests that the MEANS of our doing—our living out the Gospel, our working with God to bring about his kingdom, may involve some strange relationships. This is the world people like John Danforth can help us navigate, those places in which our being faithful to God sometimes means our getting smart, shrewd and resourceful in the here-and-now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Found by God


One World Trade Center as seen from Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, also the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  The lectionary readings are Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-11, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, and Luke 15:1-10.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

When I think of that bright, sunny Tuesday fifteen years ago, several things stand out for me. The brightness of that September sky is one of them. It was so bright and beautiful earlier that day, and then it turned dark.   Cuban food is another memory.  Cuban food was brought into the church where I worked in midtown, as a restaurant nearby began to close for the day, and transportation was temporarily shut down, and we were anticipating having to shelter people at the church that night.  I remember the smell—that smell that hung over Manhattan for weeks.  But almost more than anything, I remember the signs, the handmade signs with photographs on them that began to appear everywhere.

Transportation opened up later on September 11, and I took the subway as far south as 14th Street.  But coming up onto the street, that’s when I saw them.  Covering a fence, mounted on a wall, there were homemade signs announcing that someone was lost. Someone was missing. Someone was unaccounted for.

Over the next few days, there were a few stories about people who were found; people who had simply not been able to communicate with loved ones. A friend of mine had had been evacuated from downtown and taken over to Staten Island, but was only able to reach his wife the next day.  In some cases what was lost was found—found to be shaken up, but thankfully, very much alive.

People become lost in different ways. Alzheimer’s or dementia takes a person to some far away place. Disease, drugs or addictions contribute to loss. And of course when someone dies, we sometimes say that we have lost them.

Whenever a person is lost, however the loss happens, sooner or later, we sometimes wonder about a kind of ultimate loss.  “Where is God?” Where is God when someone is lost?  Where is God when someone can’t find their way out of addiction, or when a person’s brain won’t let her recognize her family any longer? Where is God when people die senseless deaths?

Well—our scriptures today tell us exactly where God is.

God is there. God is here. God is wherever God needs to be, seeking the lost, doing whatever it takes, changing divine plans, changing the course of history if it takes that, just to save and find one lost person.

In the first scripture lesson, the people of Israel feel lost. They feel afraid and cut off from God. They feel so lost that they begin to substitute other things for God—silver and gold and pretty things. They begin to worship their stuff. Finally Moses returns and he gradually helps them find their way again.  He helps them find themselves again. And in the midst of all of this, God does an amazing thing:  God changes God’s mind.  God changes his plans, changes the course of history—just to make a way so that his children can find love again, and can find God again.

Our Gospel also shows us a God who will go do desperate things for us. God will do whatever it takes to find someone and to bring that person home.

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

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

The point in these stories is that God goes out of his way to find what is lost, to re-claim what is lost, to recover and restore anything and anyone who is lost. God reaches out for us. God looks for us. God never stops calling our name.

This Gospel about a shepherd who loves and looks for a lost sheep always reminds me of Psalm 23 and the power of that psalm help us find ourselves once again in the love of God.

I especially remember soon after I had been ordained and I was a part of the rota for offering a Sunday afternoon chapel service at a retirement home.  I had been warned that the people who came to the service were in various states of health, and that there were a few that suffered from dementia and were not very present.  But I recall my little service there.  For much of the first reading and the prayer, I felt like I might as well have been speaking to the walls.  Very people seemed engaged, alert, or present.  Several seemed lost—in years ago, or in sweet dreams of a Sunday afternoon.  But then I read Psalm 23.  Suddenly, I notice several people who I thought had been asleep, or unable to follow along, were moving lips, and sounding words, and one older man was reciting the words of Psalm 23 with passion and certainty.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

God leads us into green pastures, where there is rest and refuge, nurture and sustenance. God lead us beside still waters, slowing the rapids of our life, washing us in healing waters, and helping us find ourselves again.  God restores our soul. Even when we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” we have nothing to fear, because God is there. Even if we don’t see God, even if we don’t particularly feel God in that moment—God is there. Even when there are those who die all too suddenly, those whose lives are taken, God calls, God loves, and God welcomes by name.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God leads us finally into a place where there’s an enormous feast, a feast so big that it includes not only everyone we’ve ever loved, but even our enemies, transformed into friends. There in the full presence of God, in the fullness of love, God anoints us and calls us by name.

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

We gather in this place at one table, eating from one bread and drinking from one cup. What we do is variously called the Mass, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. But throughout all, it is the Eucharist, that Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” We give thanksgiving because we were lost but are found, perhaps because we were kept out or left out, but now are welcomed. We give thanks because through this meal we are invited to be more forgiving, more merciful and more welcoming. Thanks be to God for finding each one of us and for bringing us home and giving us this day of life and love.

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



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Cross in Community

Taking up our cross

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, and Luke 14:25-33.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I began my ordained ministry in Havre de Grace, Maryland where they used to keep a really wonderful tradition on Good Friday. All of the churches in the town get together to walk the Way of the Cross. A hundred or so people usually attend and the procession makes a stops briefly in front of each of the churches. Prayers are offered. A meditation is said. Each year, there is a giant cross made of 4X4 lumber. The cross is big and heavy, but the tradition is that throughout the afternoon, people volunteer to carry the cross. One person at a time carries the bulk of the weight on his or her shoulder, but it’s really not the case to say that one person carries the cross alone. There is backup. There are people on either side ready to take over, ready to lend a hand, ready to offer support.
There was always a woman from the Methodist church in her eighties who wanted to carry the cross. I watched as people allowed her to think that she was carrying it all by herself, yet I could see they were carefully supporting most of the weight themselves. A man in a wheelchair would carry it for a stretch, and a few of the children would team up to lend a hand. A retired priest helped, as did a Baptist missionary, and one of my own parishioners. It was, for me, a powerful reminder of what it means to carry the cross, to share in carrying the cross.
To speak of the Way of the Cross may seem like a very strange thing on this Sunday of Labor Day, this Sunday at the beginning of September as many return in their minds to September 11, 2001.  I might have picked something a little more uplifting, like the wedding at Cana, or one of the parables about the Kingdom of God. But instead, the church would have us focus on these lessons, to strip away all that is secondary and to look at the basics of our faith and motivation for being here. The Gospel invites us (at least for a few minutes) to put aside our hopes, our expectations, our passions, our resentments, our misgivings, even our joys…. And concentrate on the cross.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” I think we misunderstand these words if we take them to mean that Jesus is calling us to some kind of individualistic or self-involved piety.

Sometimes we misunderstand the term and when we have an old car, or a problem we’re facing, we think of this as “our cross to bear.”  Sometimes that term is used to justify all kinds of things.

When one person in a relationship abuses another, that’s not “a cross to bear” for the victim.  That’s wrong and has nothing to do with God’s intention.  Parts of the church have justified slavery, suggesting that this is “one’s cross to bear.”  Again, falsehood and nonsense.

To bear one’s cross, or to be ready to bear one’s cross is a way of expressing what it means to follow in the way of Jesus. And “to follow in the way of Jesus” means to follow with others. It has no meaning in isolation. It has to do with our being ready to give up our place for another. To give up our privilege, to give up our rights, even. It has to do with our attempts to put our own needs and desires and passions on hold long enough to look around and notice the needs of others.
A few minutes ago I described a Good Friday celebration that had to do with a literal carrying of a cross, but there are other ways that we engage in cruciformed community. There are other ways that we share one another’s burdens and can come to see the risen Christ in our midst.
When friends gather around one who is sick or awaiting results from a biopsy or test or is undergoing surgery, there is participation in the cross of Christ. The friends put themselves second, and lift up their friend who is in need.
When someone dies and the whole community is able to gather around the one who lives on, the cross of Christ is shared. In such times the cross can begin to feel like a kind of lifeboat or raft, the community of faith begin the only thing that perhaps keeps us afloat. Whenever we move out of ourselves in mission, whether that is by hammering nails with Habitat for Humanity, adopting a family after a hurricane, volunteering to tutor a child, or even writing a check [yes, writing a check is a form of mission]—there is the possibility if not the probability of sharing in the cross of Christ. Our lives are re-oriented. Our priorities are realigned. We make choices based on our faith.
Moses knows something about making choices. We hear about this in our first reading. Moses talks about setting our heart on God. The section we heard from Deuteronomy comes near the end of Moses’ life. He has spent forty years with these people: they are his people and he loves them. He wants them to prosper. He wants them to live. And so he reminds them of what is at stake. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God,” Moses says, “by loving God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live. But if your heart turns away, then you shall perish.” “Before you [is] life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.” Love God, obey God and cleave to God.

It turns out these scriptures have quite a lot to say to us at Holy Trinity at the beginning of a new fall? We have choices before us. Some of you perhaps wondering whether this is the church for you. Should you commit? Should you sign on the dotted line? Should you say out loud that this is your church home?
There may be others who are wondering whether it is time to return, to come home again. With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, the truth is that you can come home again, and we’re glad to see you.
And perhaps there are those whose church home is elsewhere but there’s something about Holy Trinity that tugs on your heart. There’s a place for you, too. And we want you to feel welcome, whenever you can worship with us.

And then there are the troops; the loyal, the faithful, the tireless (but tired) who are the backbone of this place; the saints. You have choices as well—how do we best carry the cross into the future? What will carrying the cross together look like? How much will it cost? What will we sing and how will we pray along the way?
Moses puts before his beloved and before us, the question of life and death, of blessing and curse. What will it take to keep us moving in the way of life, of health and of wholeness. What will it take for us to avoid the way of compulsion, addiction, and selfishness? It’s not about what church is closest. It’s not about the organist or the preacher or even about the Sunday School—it’s about what kind of community will help us to carry our cross? What kind of community will stand by us? What kind of community will pray for us and accept us, no matter what?
The Stations of the Cross at Holy Trinity are only put up in Lent.  And in a way, I really like that practice.  It means that when they are up, we are invited to find ourselves in those stations, and try to relate to the characters portrayed.  Jesus carries the cross, but he is also supported by others.

There is his mother Mary. There is Simon of Cyrene. There is Veronica. There are the strangers who walk along side, ready to support, ready to help, eager to share. And if you look really closely, you’ll begin to see people who look familiar—people from this church family who stand ready to help, to support, and to befriend.

When those Stations of the Cross are taken down, the image of them remains in our mind as an invitation for us to take their place.
Friends in Christ, I invite you to re-commit to the Way of the Cross that begins in this place. May we pray for each other, may we support each other, may we grow in faith with each other, may we walk together in the shadow of the Cross of Christ until we see God face to face.


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Marriage of Words and Wisdom

A homily given at the marriage of Jennifer Young and Evelyn Duffy on September 3, 2016 at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. The scripture readings are Proverbs 3:13-18, Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7, Romans 12:9-18, and Matthew 7:24-29.

I’m not sure how each of you were invited to this day.  You may have gotten reminders (weekly, monthly, quarterly) for over a year, now.  Or, you might have gotten a phone call. You could have gotten a carefully designed paper invitation.  But if of you got the artful invitation by email, you might noticed something unusual about the email address. A little like Brad and Anjelina, like Ben and Jennifer, Jen and Evelyn created a new word:  JENXEVELYN.  The emails come from Jen Evelyn or jenxevelyn@emailaccount.

I like that they created a new word.  For two people who love words so much, who choose their words so carefully, and who share their word with others, it seemed most appropriate.

It won’t surprise you that Evelyn and Jen picked all of the scripture readings today.  They chose the music and edited the liturgy with the care and dedication that only two people who love words can do.  I knew they were a little nervous when one of the early worship leaflet drafts actually had two mistakes.  (And they were good ones.  At the offering of the Holy Eucharist, the typo had the priest say, “Take, eat, this is my bod.”  And the other was at the fraction, or breaking of the bread, and they had me saying, “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;  Therefore let us keep the feat.”  It was a mighty feat, indeed, but that would have been a slightly jarring liturgical change.)

If there were a primary word for the readings of this marriage, that word might be Wisdom.  Wisdom runs through this service just as surely as the Bible describes Lady Wisdom running through the streets.  The Book of Proverbs describes her

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:  (Proverbs 1:20-21)

The reading we have puts it simply: “Happy are they who find wisdom.” Happy are they are hear Wisdom’s invitation, who stop to listen, to invite her home for a cup of tea.  Happy are those who make Wisdom and her words the stuff to live by.

Theologians who think about such things sometimes trace the path of wisdom from the very beginning, from God’s ruach, or breath, that hovered over the abyss in the very beginning.  Throughout creation, God speaks, and something is created.  God’s breath, filled with wisdom, animates all of creation.

This spirit finds expression in the form of Lady Wisdom, Sophia, who runs through the streets and sometimes chases us down to bring us to truth, but this same Spirit, this same Sophia finds form in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.  God’s breath finds a home in flesh and blood and Jesus then moves through the streets, calling all who will listen, saying such things as in today’s Gospel:

Be like the wise one who builds a house on rock.
Don’t be like the one who builds a house on sand—hurricanes of all kinds can take it away.
But build a good foundation.

Those from this church who watched as we built that wing for accessibility remember well the excavating, planning, building, and rebuilding (not to mention the “paying for”) of a foundation.  If a massive storm were to hit Woodley Park, it might easily take away the main church, the administration building, the apartment buildings, the million-dollar houses on this street— but I can almost guarantee, that the new wing of All Souls Church is not going anyway.  It’s staying put, on helical piers and stone.

Jesus is saying, “Pay attention to your foundation.”

And this brings us back to words.

In the early times of the Christian Church, especially in the 4th century, there were holy women and holy men who left the cities and went into the desert.  They were looking to pray, to get to know God, and to lose a few demons along the way.  Those who managed to live with themselves (and tame the demons that more often than not were within, rather than without) became people others would seek for advice or four counsel.  When a pilgrim would go to visit an Amah or an Abba, the standing question was, “Holy One, give us a word.”  “Give us a word.”

Sometimes that word might be spoken.  Sometimes it might be shown.  But always, it was shared.

Jen and Evelyn already have a great foundation for their marriage, a foundation in which almost everyone in this room has played a part.  Some of you taught them their first words, and many of us have benefitted from the right word, the best word, the gifted word from Jen or Evelyn at just the right time.

Jen and Evelyn:  Keep creating words.  Keep making new ones that (like God) create new being, and new possibilities.  Keep using words to push, to pray, to promise.

And keep embodying words.  Sometimes when a pilgrim would visit a desert mother or father, and ask, “Amah, give me a word,” the holy woman might give them a bowl of soup and say very little.  At your table, at others’ tables, you often treat a meal with its sacramental potential.  Words are eaten and savored and slurped up in thanksgiving to God.  So keep embodying words with your presence, your hospitality, and your embrace.

And finally, keep sharing words. Sometimes a word is to be kept in a safe place for a time, and offered only in silence.  But offered, it is—to one another, to God, to the universe.

Brother Curtis Almquist, at an Episcopal Monastery in Cambridge, Mass. (the Society of St. John the Evangelist) has written this about the dessert way of wisdom,

The early desert monastics learned what is repeated again and again in the wisdom literature of the Scriptures: you cannot do it alone. Left alone, to our own devices, cleverness, and calculations, we are incredibly vulnerable to self-deception.

In your commitment to one another leading up to this day and celebrated in this marriage, you affirm that you follow wisdom in each other and you cannot do it alone.  Remember that.  Share in accepting the words of others, share in the Word of God, and continue to share your words (spoken and unspoken) with those God puts in your path.

People through the ages have looked for the right word, have listened for the word of Wisdom, but as God assured the people in Deuteronomy, don’t ever doubt.  Don’t ever lose heart. God promises, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”  (Deuteronomy 30:14)

May you know and love the Word of God fully and ever more fully, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Daring to be Humble

A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Sirach 10:12-18Psalm 112 Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Some of you know that some years ago, in 1989, I was the seminary intern at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, which meant that for a year, I lived and worked at 73rd and Madison.    One of the great gifts of being at that church—at that time—was that its pastor of 33 years was retiring and I got to know him, and then be part of all the celebrations. Dr. David H.C. Read was of a generation, Scottish, learned, funny, and warm.  And so, it was only fitting that his retirement celebration should be done over the course of several months.

Some of the more creative people in the congregation decided that there should be a musical review of Dr. Read’s life and work, and so (pulling me into their effort) we combined Broadway music with new words to describe a typical day in the life of the beloved minister.  We practiced and practiced, and finally felt like we were ready—just before Christmas, when we were to perform at a black-tie fundraising event for Dr. Read at the University Club

We got to the club the afternoon of the event, we practiced hard, and we got more excited about our performance.  And then someone noticed the place cards. One of our group pointed out that in the entire hall, we had been given a table at the far end, almost a block away, half-obscured by a column, exactly next to the kitchen door.

It took one of our gang about three minutes to think of switching the place cards.

The night came, and all of the people dressed in their formal clothes who had bought expensive tickets, eventually found their places.  But eight of them were probably a little surprised that their places were at the very back of the room, behind a column, next to the kitchen door.

I don’t know how the other of our little gang felt that night, but I know I kept looking over my shoulder.  I never felt comfortable in my seat, wondering if we were going to be found out, worrying that we would all be thrown out and sent to eat at Sbarro’s or something.  As great as the night was, it was not as good as it could have been.  The food didn’t taste as good.  To me, we didn’t seem to sing and play as well.  Something felt “off.”  And I think that “something” had to do with the seats our group had insisted on taking.

Our Gospel today tells of another banquet.  The places are set, the seats are taken, and people have “found their place,” in more ways than one.  Jesus notices that some of the guests seem to be scrambling (not for bread, but) for the places of honor, and so Jesus speaks to them in what first sounds like common sense. “Don’t always go for the very best seat.  Someone more important than you might show up and then you’ll be embarrassed when you’re asked to move.  Instead, sit in the worst place.  That way, you’ll be honored when you’re invited to sit in a better seat.”

But Jesus keeps on going.  He says (perhaps to the host, perhaps to anyone who will listen), “When you have a banquet, don’t just invite those from whom you expect a reciprocal invitation.  Instead, be radical.  “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  (It doesn’t seem like Jesus is concerned with getting invited back to this particular Pharisee’s house!)

We can easily imagine the look on the Pharisee’s face when he hears these words. Maybe we can even imagine our own reaction if a guest began to lecture us about who should and who should not be invited to the gathering.

But imagine the reaction to those who are not sitting at the table.  Imagine how those words must have sounded as they drifted out the window to the people looking over the hedge, trying to get some leftovers, digging through the trash to see what’s there, perhaps begging the cook for anything that might be thrown out.  Imagine THEIR reaction.

At this party, at this banquet, Jesus offers both the guests and the uninvited a view of how God sees the world and how God throws a party.

In God’s eyes—at God’s great banquet—(the feast that has already begun, the feast (God willing) that we will one day join)— at that feast, those who exalted themselves in this life are humbled.  “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart [that has been] withdrawn from its Maker.” (Sirach 10:12) And those who were humble find themselves exalted.

In this teaching of Jesus, we are, each of us, confronted—wherever we may be in life, whatever our position, perceived or real.  To those of us who might be feeling pretty proud of ourselves, who might be feeling as though we enjoy some special blessing from God—Jesus reminds us, “Don’t assume the best spot because there may be others ahead of you.  They may not look like you expect.  They may not speak your language.  They may not dress or act like you. They may not understand religion like you—beware:  Those who exalt themselves, will be humbled.

But Jesus’ words also confront those who may have confused humility with humiliation.  Jesus speaks to those who don’t think they’re invited—whether because they don’t feel good enough, or holy enough, or smart enough, or attractive enough, or talented, or rich, or clever, or… fill in the blank.  There is a place for you at the table, God says.  You are enough. You are God’s beloved!  Just as you are.

Our Gospel, really, is about humility—humility that happens when one lives like Jesus lived.  Humility has to do with being grounded, with being “right sized.”  The word comes from “hummus,” meaning “earthy,” and “earthiness.”  And so, to be humble is to be rooted in the earth, to reflect and recall one’s own humanity.  (From dust we have come, and to dust again we will return.)

What if the church were a place where humility could be practiced, could be taught to the young, modeled by the wise, and developed?  What if the church were a place where humility became something everyone worked at—sometimes with success, but often with failure?

The poet Ann Weems such a church in one of her poems as she begins by wondering, “Where is the church?”  She then answers by suggesting

The church of Jesus Christ
is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious

The church of Jesus Christ
is where home is
is where heaven is
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees.

(excerpted from “The church of Jesus Christ” in Reaching for Rainbows, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980)

In other words, the church, is where people risk humility.  The French philosopher and social critic Simone Weil read today’s Gospel and thought of the cross of Christ.  The cross, she suggests, can be understood as a balance, as a lever.  “Heaven coming down to earth raises earth to heaven.”  We lower what we want to lift, she points out.  And so, to lower oneself, raises not only the other person, but can raise the whole other side of the equation.  Weil loves physics and she looked at the cross and its way of humility almost as a kind of spiritual physics.  (Gravity and Grace, London: Ark Paperbacks, 1987 (1952), p. 84.)

The “cross as balance or lever” makes me think of the cross as a kind of seesaw.  And that feels less like a law imposed (“Be humble”) than an invitation extended (“Try on humility, and see where it leads you.”)  The invitation to humility is a little like the one to come and feast at the banquet.

Christ invites us to try the seesaw. Just try it and see what happens.  Try lowering the self so that another can be raised and see what happens.  See how it feels.  See if it changes anything.  See if you notice anything about God.

“The church of Jesus Christ
is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious. . .

May have the faith occasionally to get on the seesaw, to lower ourselves, and with grace help each other learn true humility, so that all might join in the feast of God.

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


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Healed for Healing

Bent Over Woman

A homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 58:9b-14Psalm 103:1-8Hebrews 12:18-29, and Luke 13:10-17.

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.

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