A Cup of Strengthening

chaliceA sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2018. The scripture readings are Isaiah 53:4-12Psalm 91:9-16Hebrews 5:1-10, and Mark 10:35-45.

Listen to a version of the sermon HERE.

Some of you know Holy Cross Monastery up in West Park, NY. It is an Episcopal community in the Benedictine tradition and hospitality is one of their great gifts.  In the area where there is coffee, there is a whole wall of coffee mugs from churches, from camps, from Episcopal Church organizations, and all kinds of missions.  It’s fun to watch which mug a person chooses.  Sometimes a person simply takes one without noticing that they are actually drinking from a cup that advocates a particular cause or concern. Other times, people choose their mug carefully, making sure that the church, the place, the design is something they are comfortable being identified with.

In today’s gospel Jesus asks James and John if they are sure they’ve chosen the right cup. They have left their former lives; they’ve begun to follow Jesus. But he asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” These brothers, who Jesus nicknamed “sons of thunder,” thunder forth and respond, “Yes. We are able.”

In today’s Gospel and in several other places, Jesus uses the cup as a symbol, as an image that holds within it a number of different things. For Jesus, the cup has to do with suffering. It includes service and sacrifice. But finally, it is a cup that overflows with joy.

It’s a cup of suffering that Jesus encounters in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prays in agony. His friends fall asleep. The authorities are coming. And he prays to the Father, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Through his acceptance, through his prayer and through the love that he continues to show others, Jesus begins to transform the cup of suffering into a cup of redemption.

We need to say one thing for certain: and that is, that suffering is not always changed into redemption. Suffering, itself, is not to be glorified. Children who die of AIDS, women who die from abuse, the elderly who die alone and forgotten—this kind of suffering is pointless. There is no redemption in it and we blaspheme if we in any way suggest that it might be a part of God’s will. Rather, it is the will of God to redeem, to bring to life, to restore and we are most faithful when we do everything we can to lift one another out of such suffering.

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

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

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

“Good service” is not just something we look for in a restaurant, but it should be part of our faith. Our faith comes alive when we are able to serve one another—not just in volunteering or being busy or performing tasks—but really letting down our guard, allowing the other person closer, and even being open to being changed by the other. The cup of service is one the disciples drink from. They share this cup and they pass it on. And we continue to pass it on. After every Eucharist we pray that we might be sent into the world to love and serve God. Well, we accomplish that “loving and serving” not in the abstract, but by loving and serving those made in God’s image.

Jesus drinks and shares a cup of suffering and a cup of service, but the cup he lifts highest and offers to all is, in the end, filled with joy and celebration. It is, for lack of a better term, a victory cup. It is beyond any hope of a Holy Grail because as we share this cup of the blood of Christ, we really drink in everlasting life, here, together and everywhere the Mass is celebrated.

In this Gospel where Jesus explains that greatness comes through service, and honor comes through sacrifice, he also asks if the disciples are truly able to undergo a baptism like his. Just as Moses led people through the water from slavery to freedom, baptism with Jesus submerges us in death. It is a death to sin. A death to the power of the world. A death to the demands of the devil. It is a death to self and a dying to selfishness. But we are brought out of death into new life. Baptism changes us, it changes everything and we are made new. We are born again and enabled through confession and forgiveness to be born again and again and again. If we choose it, that is.

We have many choices, of course. Too often we begin trying to live a good life, giving occasional attention to God, but gradually drinking more and more of this world. Before we know it we are satiated with ourselves, with work, with relationships, with success, with our goals and plans and schedules. We loose our sense of taste for things holy. And so, to sip of religion can at first seem bitter and strange.

Austin Farrer describes this taste as “God’s goodness” on our palates, a taste with a “new and unthought-of flavor”. “God’s goodness,” Farrer writes, “which we taste in wine and in bread, in friendship and in every blessed thing, is the love that died in agony for our salvation. That is where the taste of it comes out; yet it is not a bitter taste; it is the wine of everlasting joy.” (The Brink of Mystery, p. 67)

And so, the suffering, the service, and the sacrifice, are all poured into one cup, one cup that overruns with everlasting joy. Which cup will we choose? Strengthened by the risen Christ, may we choose wisely, with faith and with love.

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


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JesusandrulerA sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2018. The scripture readings are Amos 5:6-7,10-15, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, and Mark 10:17-31.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of us do want salvation. And so, there’s a part of us that perhaps can relate to person in today’s gospel. He runs up to Jesus, excited, asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus has him reflect on the commandments, the basics. The man says, “oh yes, well, I’m pretty good with all of those.” “I haven’t killed anyone, I honor my parents, I don’t steal.” But then, Jesus says to the man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man hears this and is shocked. He goes away, grieving.

But as caught up on this part as we can be, I don’t think that’s the real point of the story. The story continues.

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

It’s almost like another story in scripture, the story of the Prodigal Son. You remember it’s where there’s an older brother who has done all the right things, followed all the rules, stayed at home and worked hard, dedicated his life to the father and the farm, and then there’s this younger brother. The younger brother is the cut-up who goes out, plays hard, and squanders his inheritance. He returns home humble, like a beggar. But it’s for the younger brother that the father throws the big party, gives all the attention, and makes the special feast. The older brother feels like the rules have been changed on him. He’s angry, he’s bitter, and (I bet) he’s more than a little bit jealous.

Both the older brother in the Prodigal Son story and the rich man in today’s story hear what should be good news from Jesus: that one cannot buy or earn the love of God. But these characters are so invested (and I use that word on purpose)—they are invested in what they think God wants, that now they want the return on their investment. Jesus shows that the economics of God’s love work very differently.

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

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

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

In both our readings from the Prophet Amos and our Gospel, there’s an aspect of the scripture that follows an expected pattern, but then ends in ambiguity. There’s wiggle room. There’s some room within what some might see as a forgone conclusion. There’s room for us to move toward God. There’s room for God’s grace to move in us.

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

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

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

Likewise, in the Gospel, one interpretation can have story of the rich man and Jesus end in a pretty sad way. Jesus says to the man, “You lack one thing, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and follow me.” And we’re told that “when [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Notice that it’s not his being rich that was the problem. The rich are neither better nor worse than the poor. The problem is that this man is reluctant to follow Jesus, he’s hesitant to let loose of the things that weigh him down, and to move toward salvation. The Bible story says he went away grieving. But I don’t think the story really ends.

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

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

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

Who can be saved?

Every single one of us.

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


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Bringing Together Opposites (through the St. Francis Prayer)

Francis at Holy TrinityA sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2018. The scripture readings are Genesis 2:18-24Psalm 8Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, and Mark 10:2-16

Listen to the sermon HERE.

October 4 was St. Francis Day and most of you know that it’s our custom to celebrate Francis with the blessing of animals on the first Sunday after the 4th, which we do today.  When people think of Francis, they often think of animals—his preaching to the birds, or his taming of the wolf.  Or, people think of the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis.  It’s actually included in our Book of Common Prayer (page 833):  It’s that famous prayer that begins

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

Given the last couple of weeks in our country, perhaps we should simply make the first phrase of St. Francis’s prayer OUR prayer, and not really worry too much about the other petitions, just focusing on: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…,” And yet, the whole prayer makes a point about a Franciscan view of God’s love, a worldview in which all creation is one.  The prayer asks for a kind of peace that results from reconciling opposites:  hatred/love, injury/pardon, discord/union, doubt/faith, despair/hope, darkness/light, sadness/joy.  We could add to this list, male/female, masculine/feminine, and all kinds of other qualities. The point is that in God’s love there exists a kind of peace in which duality is dissolved. In its place is integrity, unity, wholeness, and peace.
The lack of peace is what creates the dis-harmony we hear about in today’s scriptures.

In the Gospel, the religious leaders ask Jesus about a detail of divorce, to test his knowledge of the Hebrew laws. But Jesus responds by talking about marriage.  He’s more interested in the relationship as it might be, as it can be, and God intends for it to be at its very best.  The provision for divorce, Jesus suggests, is there because of human fallibility. Jesus suggests that the law allowing for divorce is not there to encourage divorce, but as a necessity when there’s no other alternative.  God gave the law to Moses out of compassion, because God knew that humans can sometimes do harm to one another, and there needed to be provision for dealing with broken relations.  Sometimes a marriage needs to end, and so the law of Moses was provided for those situations.

But this doesn’t settle the matter for the disciples.  They want to hear more.  After they leave the Pharisees and go indoors, the disciples push Jesus further.  They want to be clear what Jesus think about divorce, perhaps because they are aware that not everyone agrees about divorce.

Jesus answers by interpreting the religious law of his day.  But if we look closely, we’ll see that Mark, the writer of this Gospel, has already adapted Jesus’s words to the Greco-Roman culture of Mark’s day.  You see, in Jesus’s day, there was no provision for a woman to divorce her husband, a provision that came later.  But by Mark’s time, this was a reality, and so Mark’s community of faith had already begun to grapple with those places in which scripture, tradition, and reason don’t exactly line up.  So already, we see a progression, a change, an interpretation of where God might be in the marriage relationship and where God might be when a marriage ends.  It’s the close reading of scripture and the acceptance of such a theological progression that allows the Episcopal Church to understand divorce and invite people to move forward afterwards and is also evolving to understand marriage as including any two people who are in love.

If we look closely in scripture, various beliefs and customs change over time—the understanding of human relationships, the roles of women and men, the gift of children in society, and many other concepts and principles.  Just as we don’t rely on 1st century dentistry and medicine, we don’t read scripture or understand God in exactly the same way.

The scriptures seem to talk about marriage this morning, about committed relationships between two people, and even though the Church has sometimes privileged married persons over those who are not married, our Epistle reading from Hebrews reminds us that God’s image is not best reflected in marriage, but “[Christ] is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”  Christ is the model and the goal for love, friendship, and all relations, and in Christ are both male and female.

When the disciples ask Jesus about marriage, Jesus responds with Genesis 2 in which male and female are helpers, partners, and part of each other.  Genesis does not mention marriage there, but speaks in larger terms that apply to all.

The union of male and female in Christ is something the saints have aimed for.  And it is precisely this blending of male and female in a graceful and loving way that shows up in people like St. Francis of Assisi.  Describing Francis, Leonardo Boff writes

The feminine and the masculine are ontological determinations of every human being, in such a way that each individual carries something of both within him or herself….The male must integrate the anima that gives him strength, that is, the dimension of gentleness, of care, of attraction, of intuition, of all that is linked to the mystery of life and generation. The female must integrate the animus that is found within her existence, that is, the objectivity of the world, rationality, ordering, and direction—everything that is linked to history….[And so, in Francis of Assisi] without machismo or feminism, without fragility or rigidity, there blossoms in him, harmoniously, a gentle strength and a strong gentleness that are the brilliance and the archetypal enchantment of his personality” (Francis of Assisi: a Model for Human Liberation, p. 26)

God’s intention for humanity is that we be as whole as possible in this life, which prepares us for the next life in which we receive the fullness of God.  If what moves you most into wholeness and completion is being with another person, then link up with someone and let that relationship grow in God.  If you’re moved most toward wholeness by being single, then let God sanctify your singleness and free you to grow more deeply into God.

Whether single, married, in relationship, or out; may God fill us with love so that, with Francis and all creation we might sing,

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.  (Canticle of the Creatures)

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

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Cleaning My Side of the Street

francis_assisi_sermon_birdsA sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2018. The scripture readings are Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29Psalm 19:7-14James 5:13-20, and Mark 9:38-50.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Last Sunday’s sermon had to do with distractions and the kinds of things that get in the way of our doing what we most want to do, being who we most want to be, or following God the way we most might desire. Between last Sunday and this, there have been even more distractions, haven’t there?

In the midst of divisive politics and an anxious and angry country, a candidate is put forward for the Supreme Court. To some, he’s the golden boy with gobs of credentials.  To others, he’s the epitome of mediocre white male privilege.  And then there are the claims of drunken abuse when he was younger.

On Thursday, it was hard to focus on much else. Everywhere one went, the hearing was on, people were talking, crying, arguing.  Regardless of whether this judge is eventually approved, or another one in his place, the dynamics and the issues are not going to go away any time soon.  And so, where does it all leave us, this beautiful Sunday morning?

Well first, I don’t for a second suggest we ignore the news or the world outside these walls.

Ask me what I think about boring white boys who are always promoted in life and get the best jobs simply because they went to the right schools, played football, and got drunk with the right crowd–  I can preach on that for a while.

Ask me what I think about people who bully and exploit others through force, through suggestion, or through sexual innuendo—I can tell you how most of my work in the church has had to follow such men and clean up their messes, and I can preach.

And ask me what I think of people who call themselves “Pro-life” and invoke the name of Jesus and yet seem ruled by hatred, fear, greed, and any means whatsoever justifying their narrow ends?  I can preach.  On, and on, and on, I can preach.

But should I preach those sermons?  While voting, protesting, working for change, advocating, and doing my best to remain awake to the world, how do I also resist being contaminated by the nastiness?  How do we name evil and resist evil while at the same time refusing to be changed into it?

The answer is that we cling to Christ and listening to him this morning, I hear the Gospel saying, “Slow down a minute, John. Fine to notice the evil all around, but you’re no good to those you love, to yourself, or to me if you’re consumed by anger and hatred.”  What is it in YOUR life that causes you to sin? Take care of business at home, before trying to solve all your neighbor’s problems.

At the beginning of today’s Gospel from Mark, the disciples are all in an uproar—about other disciples. It seems that there are other disciples who are casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and yet, they’re not close followers of the present group. (This is not the same as Christians in our day supporting causes we think are at odds with the love of Jesus, but we can learn something from what happens in Jesus’s interaction with the disciples.) His friends and followers, the disciples, want Jesus to criticize the others, to condemn them, and to share in the outrage.

But Jesus doesn’t go for it. Instead, he basically says that if someone is not against him, don’t worry so much about them.

Pay attention to YOUR life, Jesus says.  The anger at your neighbor is killing you. Don’t worry so much about their side of the street. Take care of your side of the street.

A similar problem happens to that early community of belief around Moses. Moses gets help from 70 elders who agree to serve as leaders among the people. But then the squabbles break out.  “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” a young man reports. Joshua buys into the anxiety and agrees that this is a problem. “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses says “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

This problem of losing focus on one’s own doings and starting to worry about others is not confined to the times of Moses or of Jesus. We continue to do this sort of thing both in our own church, among other churches, and outside of church.

In every church, one group every once in a while begins to feel that another group is getting all the attention, or getting all the money, or getting all the volunteers, or getting the attention of the rector. More often than not, if the group that feels ignored would simply focus a little more on its own tasks, its visibility would rise, it would get a budget request in on time, and volunteers would be attracted to the group’s energy and fun.

As a Christian, it’s very easy for me to worry about what others are doing—the Roman Catholics, the Redeemer Presbyterians, or even what other Episcopalians are doing (and often the ones on the far left unnerve me every bit as the much as the ones on the far right.) But when I’m at my most healthy, I worry less about what everybody else is doing, and I begin to focus on what we’re doing here at Holy Trinity.

Are we reaching out as we should? Are we including everyone? Are we paying attention to our neighbors? Are we giving our time, our money, our talent to God sacrificially? Are we doing what we can to help this place be a place of welcome, refuge, joy, health, and new life?

Today’s Gospel ends by encouraging the disciples to be salty, to be distinctive, to stand out, and not to be stale, or just to fit in blandly. Too much salt can (of course) make everything taste the same, can sting, and can hurt. But with careful salting, all the other flavors are enhanced and brought to new life.

As we move towards St. Francis Day and our celebrations next Sunday, it’s good to recall the words attributed to St. Francis:  That we should “preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words.”

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


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Dealing with Distractions

calmA sermon for September 23, 2018. The scripture readings are Jeremiah 11:18-20Psalm 54James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, and Mark 9:30-37

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The other day, I was on the First Avenue bus and I began reading an article on my phone. As I read and read, the bus made its stops and let people off, and continued onward.  It was not until I was at 116th Street, that I realized I had missed my stop at 86th. I’d gotten distracted and completely lost track of the stop.

Distractions get the best of all of us sometimes, don’t they? Whether it’s in the middle of a project, while riding on a bus or the subway, while talking to a friend, or maybe (if not especially) when we’re trying to pray. Perhaps we are distracted now—the sounds outside, the instant messages or pings on a smart phone or watch, the person across the room, the light coming through the windows, unfinished conversations, things left undone.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus tries to tell the disciples something vitally important, but the disciples are distracted. Jesus and the disciples are traveling and Jesus lays it all out to them as he says, “The Son of man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him; and three days after he is killed, he will rise again.” But the disciples aren’t really listening. They are distracted. They are thinking about–among other things–their own futures. They’re anticipating Jesus coming into power, maybe Jesus going into Jerusalem and taking over, and so the disciples are busy wondering about which of them will be the greatest. Which of them will have the responsible job? Which of them will be noticed, will be thanked, will be rewarded?

But the disciples are distracted by other things. I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s hard for me to live in the present, in this very moment, without being distracted by either the past or the future. I love the past (as I have reconstructed it, of course).

Dwelling in the past, I can hold on to old resentments, continuing to build the case to justify myself. I can replay heroic actions, like watching a videotape of me, again and again and again.

Or I live in the future. Maybe you do that too—we live in that place where we finally have the right job, where we finally meet the right person, when we finally have the right apartment or house, or ——- you can fill in the blank.

When I think of my own tendency to be so easily distracted, I can begin to understand some of what the disciples must have been dealing with. Jesus dispels the distractions of the disciples with simple words. The drama of the past, the endless possibilities of the future all crumble as Jesus says, probably very quietly: “To be first, one must be the last of all. To be first, one must be the servant of all.”

And then Jesus takes a little child—probably much like any other child—helpless, vulnerable, and needy. And he says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.”

We miss the point if we romanticize the child. Children in Jesus’ day were not viewed as sweet and innocent and cute. They had no rights. They were not viewed as citizens. Some were viewed as useful, if they were able to help with work, but beyond that, they were mostly to be ignored until they grew up and could help with the work.

As Frederick Buechner puts it: “Jesus is saying that people who get into heaven are people who, like children, live with their hands open more than with their fists clenched. They are people who, like children, are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves. Children can often tell the difference between a phony and the real thing.”

It is we who are distracted by appearances. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.” And yet, Jesus is suggesting that we will find him, we’ll find the message of God in the midst of those who can give us nothing in return.

If you notice in scripture, so often, as much as anything else, Jesus calls from distraction. He calls us to attention. He calls us to absolute attention. (Simone Weil would remind us that this, “absolute attention” is, in fact, a kind of prayer.) Jesus calls into the present, the concrete, the real—the salty sea water underneath, the fresh, clean water from a well, the mud of the earth that becomes healing balm, the freshly caught fish – lunch for 5,000 or so. The bread, the wine, the water, the blood.

Teresa of Avila, the 16th century nun and mystic, knew the overwhelming force of distraction. As she put it in the Way of Perfection, she felt it her calling to offer a little guidance to those with “souls and minds so scattered that they are like wild horses no one can stop.” And so she offers a kind of prayer, a method of prayer, if you will, that has been called the practice of “recollection.” Teresa reminds us that the most important aspect of prayer—whether it’s at the beginning, it’s distracted and frustrated middle, and even at its ending—is to remember that God is near. God is very, very near.  It’s that simple and it’s that difficult:  God is year.

I’m going to a conference later I October that is on mindfulness, meditation, how to resist the distractions and listen for wisdom.  The opening session is entitled, “How to stay mindful in a state of outrage.” One of the people on the panel is US Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio, who’s written a book on maintaining mindfulness (focus, concentration, not getting distracted) in everyday life.  (In 2012, Congressman Ryan wrote, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.  This year, he revised that book and it appears under a new title: Healing America: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Recapture the American Spirit.

Over and over again, if we allow it, the words of Jesus, the presence of Christ, will disrupt our distractions, and like the prodigal son, we are brought to ourselves again. The love and power of Christ works on us and in us both through distractions and attentiveness. It creates unity, and so through the Spirit we are oned with Christ, and with Christ we are oned with the Creator.

Jesus wants us to know fully and clearly what the Gospel of Mark sometimes casts as a great secret—Jesus will die and rise again. We, on the other side of Easter, know this not as a secret but as a truth to be proclaimed throughout the world, even in New York.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Even with all our distractions, we, as his body in the world, already have his life in us. In him, we die and rise again, in faith, in life, and in life eternal.

May God speak to us even in our distractions that we may be brought again and again to the unity that is love eternal.

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

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A Cross of Humility

Cross steelA sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2018.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 116:1-8James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38

Listen to the sermon HERE

On Friday, September 14, churches around the world celebrated what is known as “Holy Cross Day.” The themes of the day include the triumph of the cross, the victory of the cross, the exaltation of the cross. The scriptures appointed celebrate Jesus Christ, who “lifted up from the earth, will draw all [all things and people, all the whole creation] to himself.” As the church venerates the cross, it sings of the power of the cross of Christ, its power over evil and death; and its power for good and life. You get the idea: the day can often seem to be about power and might, strength and victory.

But today’s readings can sound a little different. The scriptures today help us to reflect a little about the Cross of Christ, and how that cross helps us to know God more deeply, not so much through power, but through humility.

The practice of taking up our cross involves humility, especially as it allows for learning, for loving, and following God’s lead.

To take up our cross and follow Jesus involves learning, and we hear about this kind of humility in the first reading. Isaiah says, “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” In other words, God has already brought Isaiah to a place of humility—of realizing that he doesn’t know everything, certainly not everything there is to know about God, or God’s ways. And so, God teaches Isaiah.

Even more, God gives Isaiah “the tongue of those who are taught,” which is to say a tongue that thinks before it speaks, a tongue that wonders where God is in this or that, a tongue that tries to be slow in its criticism of others and quick in its encouragement.

This careful, thoughtful, discriminating tongue is also what James is encouraging in our second reading today. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue.”

If we take up our cross, if we participate in the life of Christ as he calls us in this world, then it’s going to affect what we say and how we speak. This might lead us to speak to people we normally would not. It might lead us to speak UP for people or (and this is another kind of humility)—of not thinking ourselves better than others. On the other hand, if we remember that “humility” is simply a matter of having a right-sized understanding of one’s self, then it’s also humility to understand that my voice is just as important as someone else’s, and perhaps God wants me or you to speak up.

Taking up our cross involves loving. The whole Letter of James is really a love letter, trying to help people understand that taking up one’s cross is not only an intimate, sweet, warm feeling of being close to God. But it’s also a fire in the belly, an uneasiness in the heart, a refusal to call it peace until justice is done, until the neighbor is fed and housed and cared for.

Taking up our cross daily is about learning, it’s about loving, and finally, it’s about having the humility to follow God’s lead. Sometimes we aim to take up a cross, but it’s entirely too heavy. But if we step back for a  second, perhaps it’s someone else’s cross and we’re not the right person to help with it. Perhaps it’s a cross of our own invention and our own making. But we identify it, and we cling to it. “This is my cross, I say. Stand back, I’ve got it. I will carry it in just such a way.”

But over time I become comfortable carrying it, and decide that others should carry crosses just like mine. It becomes less my cross than my cause, my effort and my glory.

In today’s Gospel, Saint Peter is confused by Jesus for exactly this reason. Not only did Jesus seem to keep changing the plan, but the closer Peter looked, the more his own nightmare came true—that there was no plan. Or at least, there was no plan visible to the human eye. The plan was in the mind and heart of God, unfolding just as surely and timely as anything else with God unfolds. The way forward was to be a way of humility, of learning, of loving, and of following where God leads.

Among all the various cross that can be used to illustrate our faith, today, I think especially of the cross that seemed to appear among the rubble soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  You’ve seen the cross section of steel that looks like a cross and has been seen as such.  It’s now in the 9/11 Museum downtown.  The day it was noticed and for a few days afterwards, it worked as a symbol of hope, a symbol to unite people with one another and to offer assurance that things would get better.  Of course, it didn’t take long for that cross to be thought of as a weapon, to be used over and against others– but at least at the beginning, the 9/11 Cross represented something of what Jesus is talking about when he invites us to take up our cross and follow in the way of humility.

On Holy Cross Day, an ancient chant sings, “We venerate your Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection: for by virtue of the Cross, joy has come to the whole world.” By virtue of the Cross, JOY has come to the whole world—the quiet, steady joy that comes through humility. By moving with the humility of Christ’s cross, by learning, by loving, and by letting God take the lead, joy continues to come to us and to the whole world.

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

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An Inside Job

Pentecost JesusA sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018. The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9Psalm 15James 1:17-27, and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s a great cooking story about a couple who have just gotten together and one person notices his spouse carefully cutting both ends of a ham before putting in the roaster and placing the ham in the oven. “Why do you cut the ends off?” asks the husband. “Because that’s the way mom always did it,” replies the other.

At the next holiday, there’s a family gathering and the mom is in the kitchen. They notice she cuts both ends off the ham, puts it in the pan, and the pan in the oven. “Mom,” they ask, “Why did we always cut the ends off the ham before cooking it?” The mother looks at them and explains, because that’s the way your grandmother did it. Why don’t you ask her? She’s on the back porch.

And so out the couple go, and they ask grandma about cutting both ends of the ham. Grandma bursts out laughing, and says, “Forty years ago, I did cut off both ends of the ham. I only had one roasting pan, and it was never big enough. That’s the only reason I did it and stopped doing that years ago!”

Sometimes practices, rules, and regulations begin for very good reasons. But then sometimes, they’ve lost all connection to reality. And sometimes, those rules become the most important thing. Sometimes the rules might be in the kitchen. Sometimes around work, and sometimes around church and the way we worship.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks to any who would be tempted to place a higher value on rule-following than community.

Jesus is dealing with the dedicated religious of his day, the Pharisees and the scribes. The scribes preserved the Law of God. Form was their business, and had it not been for the scribes, much of the tradition would have been lost. The scribes were the memory, the archives, and the tradition of the Jewish faith.

The Pharisees were the seriously religious of Jesus’ day. Though they are harshly criticized for often failing to see what God was doing in their midst, they were nonetheless the people who cared, the people who were most concerned with God, the people who most tried to follow God.

The Pharisees and scribes see Jesus and his followers and they don’t approve. From their point of view, those who follow Jesus are taking religious shortcuts. They don’t seem to value the tradition, or even to be acquainted with the tradition in some cases. And the particular point in today’s Gospel revolves around these religious people noticing that Jesus’ followers don’t wash their hands properly before eating.

Mark, the Gospel-writer, gives us a little more background of these folks. He says “The Pharisees do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.”

But when the Pharisees ask Jesus about this, Jesus sees to the very heart of the matter. Jesus quotes Isaiah to them, suggesting that they’ve strayed from the commandments of God (which are really very simple) and they’ve gotten all clouded up with rules and traditions made by humans. And then Jesus delivers his zinger: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come ….” and then Jesus goes on to list the whole host of evil things that might come out of us.

Are there ways in which our rules, our order, our ritual, our procedures ever create barriers between people and God? That’s the real question that Jesus puts to us. Are there things we need to be free of, in order to follow God more closely, more directly? Are there ways in which we may be called to “loosen up” spiritually, so that we might see or hear or know God, as God is trying to meet us?

It’s not what we put into our bodies that gets us into trouble: it’s not what we eat and drink, or how we say our prayers, or whether we kneel or stand. It’s what comes out. Our words—our words to strangers, our words to family, our words to other people of faith. Our actions matter, as the epistle from James made clear earlier: “…[B]e doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

But it’s easy to get caught up in the outward form of religion and forget the substance.

Some years ago, after I was first ordained, I was set to celebrate the Holy Eucharist at a weekday service at my church. Ten or fifteen people, at most, would usually be at that service. But I also knew that the Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, probably the preeminent liturgical (or worship) scholar in the Episcopal Church, was visiting. When I came out to begin the service, there he was: second row on the right. I was self-conscious about everything. I worried about how I stood, was my voice right? My pacing? Was my orans (the use of my arms in prayer) too narrow like a field goal post, or too wide like a group hug? On and on, I went, worrying about the details. It’s a testimony to a loving God that I was able to get through the service and the bottom line was reached: everyone fed, and no one got hurt.

After the service, I greeted the handful of people and then I went over to Father Weil. I asked him if he noticed anything about my celebration that stood out or was wrong. Did I forget anything? Was I too fast or too slow, too deadpan or too dramatic? Did I do anything annoying or distracting? Father Weil looked at me with the most incredulous expression. “Oh John,” he said, “I have no idea. I wasn’t paying any attention. I was here to worship.”

Whether he was telling me the absolute truth or not (and he probably was), I got the point.  When our faith only follows forms and rules and conventions, we’re like those cutout figures—less than our reality, less than our potential, shadows of the people God has created us to be.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the details—for the Pharisees it might have been the washing of hands in just the right way, at just the right time. For us– who knows what it might be?

Today’s Gospel speaks to newcomers and to long-term church folks.  To newcomers, Jesus is saying, don’t get caught up on the details, for now. Focus on what’s inside—following Jesus, loving God, being made new by the Holy Spirit.  Don’t get too caught up on whether you cross yourself at the right time or kneel in just the right spot.

To those of us who have been around for a while, Jesus asks us to think about our piety and religious practices.  Do our outward actions flow from our inward experiences and beliefs?  Are we being called to change anything, or re-evaluate, or perhaps adopt some new spiritual practice?

It is from within that bad things can come. And it is from within that all the mercy, grace, forgiveness, insight, wisdom, and love of God-working-through-us can come.

There’s an ancient prayer from Salisbury, England that has been used for centuries to ask for God’s help, for God to integrate us in the fullness of his image.  May it be our prayer as we seek to integrate what’s inside with what’s outside:

May God be in our head, and in our understanding.
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our heart, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.

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

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Clothed by God

JulianA sermon offered on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018.  The scripture readings are Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18Psalm 34:15-22Ephesians 6:10-20, and John 6:56-69

Listen to the sermon HERE

Gareth Southgate has become known for wearing a waistcoat.  He’s the manager (or coach) of the England National Soccer team, made famous in the recent World Cup.

What do we “put on” that makes us feel strong? What do we put on ourselves that helps us fight the things we fear? Do we put on a particular label? A lucky shirt? Makeup? Jewelry? Does wearing a cross help us when we’re afraid. Do we carry a talisman or a lucky object?

Most of us probably have something. The tie we wore when we got the big job. The shoes we wore when we fell in love. The ring, the blouse, the t-shirt… you name it. In today’s second reading, St. Paul suggests a whole wardrobe, but he’s not really talking about physical, material things. Just the opposite, in fact. Paul is suggesting that when we’re afraid, when we’re insecure, when we’re not sure we’ve got the strength or the confidence to get through the morning (much less the day), that there’s an entire closetfull of things at our disposal that well keep us safe. In fact, they will save us.

“Put on the whole armor of God,” Paul says. The physical things we fear, though they might be scary, are not really the things to fear at all, Paul says. Rather, it’s the spiritual things that can level us, that can bring us down the deepest, and that can even kill us. And then Paul goes on to talk about these various things we might do well to put on, or at least to try on.

Put a belt of truth around your waist. The waist is at our center. What if truth were really at the center of all that we are, and all that we do? There would be no fudging, no little white lies—instead, I guess we’d simply keep silent, rather than telling a lie.

Put on a breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate would cover the heart. Paul imagines our hearts to be covered with righteousness. “Righteousness” comes from an Old English word, “right-wise”—to be both virtuous and wise, to be right wise. To live from the heart, remembering that the heart and the head are in separable.

Paul says that for shoes, whatever makes us ready to proclaim a “gospel of peace” will do. He’s talking about our having a good foundation, a foundation that allows for peace, for us to talk about peace, to work for peace among other people, and to encourage peace in what we say, in where we go, and in what we do. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

Faith, itself, Paul says, is like a shield. It protects us from all kinds of things. Even if our faith is weak, it’s a shield. Even if our faith is confused, even if it’s conflicted, when arrows from the evil one come toward us.

Senator John McCain died last night and for most of his life was a faithful Episcopalian. He knew so much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart that when he was captured as a prisoner of war, he could recite whole sections, psalms, and prayers. He could lead religious services in prison that helped sustain himself and helped sustain others.

God gives us a helping hand and our shield of faith is enough. Whatever faith we have is enough, and God works with that, and God honors that.

Any faith, any faith at all, becomes what Paul puts so dramatically as the “shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” A “helmet of salvation” and a “sword of the Spirit” might sound vague, like they are accessories that we really don’t need. Except that the sword of the spirit is the Holy Scriptures, and the Holy Scripture is the way in which we come to understand salvation—salvation being, God’s plan from the beginning of time, to save humankind from itself.

So, here, St. Paul gives us an inventory of a kind of holy closet … The things we can use to protect us, to strengthen us, to keep us strong and faithful against any foe.

Julian of Norwich had a vision of God, and in reflecting upon it, she writes “God is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us.” (Showings, Chapter 5, Long Version)

Clothes do, perhaps, make the person. But not the physical clothes—it’s the spiritual ones that count. And the best thing is that we don’t have to worry about back-to-school sales, or being up on the new fall fashions—God provides us with the means to be clothed in exactly what we need.

In the Gospel, the disciples say to Jesus, “This is a hard saying.” But Jesus suggests they clothe themselves in his spirit, in his light, in his love.

God gives us armor: a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, peace-making shoes, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation and sword of the Spirit— and all of them are custom-tailored to be exactly what you and I need. God does not give us a size that’s too big, or too small, but always knows what will be right. It is for us to step into that which God provides.

As Julian says, “God [himself] is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love.”

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

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Tired, Hungry, and Needy

breadA sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 19, 2018.  The scripture readings are Proverbs 9:1-6Psalm 34:9-14Ephesians 5:15-20, and John 6:51-58.

Listen to the sermon HERE

Why is it that food just tastes better sometimes?

After a long day at the beach, you’re sunburned and tired, but no matter what you put on a grill, it tastes better. Or in other seasons (that will be here before we know it)—cleaning out or volunteering somewhere on a chilly or cold day and the soup, the lasagna, the pizza from around the corner— whatever it is, just tastes better.

The food tastes better, I think, for at least three reasons.  It tastes better because we come tired, because we come hungry, and because we come in need.

And it’s those same three conditions that draw us to another table, to another meal, to a meal in which the superlative has less to do with taste than it does with substance.  At this meal, we receive life.  We gain the life of Christ, now and eternally.

Sometimes we come to Holy Communion tired, tired from what the great prayer calls those things “we have done, and those things we have left undone.”  Sometimes, we approach the altar with a feeling of having had a good day, or a good week.  We’ve done our best.  We’ve thought of other people. We’ve shared.  We’ve offered help.

And so we approach the altar tired, needing a little renewal, a little push to keep on.  But other times, we’ve maybe fallen down a lot during the week.  Things have not gone well—we have mis-spoken and we have mis-stepped.  Maybe we’ve even stepped on others.  And so, again, we’re tired, we’re beaten down, and so we almost limp through the liturgy and reach for the table.  We come tired.

I’m tired, this week, of more horrible news of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and the continued reliance upon a system that encourages power, greed, and silence. At such times, it’s tempting to champion the Episcopal Church—catholic in worship and theology, but reformed with lay leadership, transparency, shared power, and publicly aired dirty laundry. And yet, we all suffer. Victims look for healing.  And those who are already skeptical of history faith point to the latest news of why they should simply spend a Sunday morning with yoga, the park, and brunch with friends.  [Those interested in Holy Trinity’s Policies and other resources can look here.]

I get tired—we all do—of trying to say to a cynical, over-informed but under-read world, “But our church is different.”  And so, I bring my weariness to the table.

We come hungry for various reasons.  Often we “travail and are heavy-laden,” and we look for refreshment.  We’ve eaten too much of the junk food of the world, and so we look for nourishment, for things are taste like what they are, rather than what chemicals or preservatives have made us imagine.  Some starve for friendship, for healing, for work, for purpose.

Writing about food has grown over the last last twenty or thirty years, and with it the word, “umami” has come into our vocabulary from Japanese to describe a kind of “fifth taste,” beyond sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  It’s a pleasant, savory kind of taste.  It’s brothy, and meaty, and mouth-watering. As the Umami Information Center says, it is “subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.

I think the Bread of Heaven has a kind of spiritual “umami,” to it.  It fulfills a kind of hunger, offers its own taste, and while it satisfies, it also encourages us to want more, to ask for me, to live for more.

This brings us to the third condition we bring that makes food so good.  If we’re honest, we bring some kind of need to the table.

I say, “if we’re honest,” we acknowledge our neediness.  Sometimes we come already full—full of ourselves, full of resentments (against God or other people), full of thinking, or full of emotion.  Sometimes we can come to the altar full of expectations, expectations for which there is not god big enough to meet.

But Christ feeds us most when we approach his table empty-handed, in the humility of saying simply, “I need.”  How we fill in the blank almost doesn’t matter as much as our saying—our praying—our need.  While our culture frowns on neediness of any kind, here at church, in worship, at this Holy Table, we have a place to bring our need—all of it, whether petty or seemingly insignificant, or overwhelming and larger than life itself.

The Gospel today tells us about a meal, and the first two readings work almost as invitations to the meal.  They speak of wisdom, but it’s a homey, kitchen-table kind of wisdom.  In Proverbs, Lady Wisdom has dinner ready.  “Turn in here,” she says, “ lay aside all the baggage you’ve got.  Leave all that outside, and come in, sit down, eat and enjoy.”

The Reading from Ephesians continues with the added advice of how to arrive at the feast, what to bring, and how to act.  Don’t be foolish. Don’t drink too much.  “Make the most of the time.”  In other words, leave regrets and expectations behind.  Don’t try to run away from the moment, but live—live fully, live woken up, live NOW, here.

One of favorite newer hymns in our hymnal is one that sings of this message of Ephesians:

Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;
Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;
Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,

Jesus says, “I am the living bread.”  The people of his day worried and wondered what it meant to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  The apostle Paul writes that some misunderstood this to the point that there were rumors about the Christians being cannibals.  The Church ever since has tried to place Holy Communion on the spectrum between completely symbolic or completely literal.

St. Augustine put it well when he wrote, “That which you see is bread and the cup, which even your eyes declare to you; but as to that in which your faith demands instruction, the bread is the body of Christ, the cup is the blood of Christ … these things are called sacraments for this reason, that in them one thing is seen, another thing is understood.”  At its most faithful, I think, the Church has lived somewhere in-between, in the middle, in place of faith, a place of “spiritual umami,” the place in which the Real Presence of Christ is Now—not yesterday, not this afternoon, but NOW.

I’ve invited you to think about times when food tasted especially good—after a long day of work or an exhausting project.  But just imagine, for a moment, the feast that awaits us after a life well-lived.  Imagine the table, the tastes, the company, the eternal goodness of it all when we meet God face to face with totality of tiredness, a life of hungering for the good, and a need only for God, who greets with a smile, saying, “Life forever begins now.  Bon appetit.”

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

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Raised Up

Raising of LazarusA sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2018. The scripture readings are 1 Kings 19:4-8Psalm 34:1-8Ephesians 4:25-5:2, and John 6:35, 41-51.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel and the one for next week put a hymn in my head that I can’t get out very easily.   I bet you’ve heard it or sung it somewhere.  It’s often sung at youth conferences and is popular at funerals. The hymn, “I am the bread of life” is not the easiest to sing—the words don’t match the notes in the same way from stanza to stanza, and so, a lot of us tend to sort of mumble as we sing the verses.  But things clear up when we get to the refrain.  Everyone sings.  Whether they are on pitch or off, whether they sing well or not so well, almost everyone does their part with the words that sing, “And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Christians often have made a big deal over the raising up of Jesus.  In the history of the Church, belief in the resurrection has been used as a test for admission to Baptism, for ordination, for being considered a true follower of Jesus Christ.  But in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that the point of his rising is to raise up others, to raise up you and me, that we might walk tall and strong in this life, and that we might join one another in the next.

Throughout the Gospel stories, the Greek word that we translate as “rise up” [anistemi] occurs again and again.   The man who is healed of a withered hand, the daughter of Jairus, the prodigal son rises up and goes to see his father.

Jesus also uses the same word when he is talking with the disciples about the Son of Man, this special one of God foretold in scripture. Jesus says that the Son of Man will be delivered over to the people, mocked, spitefully treated and spit upon, and they will put him to death; but on the third day he will rise again.

In this life Jesus raises up.  He raises up the sick and the wounded.  He raises up those who are brought down low by others.  His mother Mary sings of this power before his birth, prophesying what will be as she affirms, “He has lifted up the lowly.”

And he lifts up still and he empowers us to be his hands in the word to help lift up others.

Christ lifts us up in this life, but he also lifts us up into the next.  We believe that through his death on the cross and his descent into hell, he has gone through the very worst of what evil and death can do.  No matter how lonely, no matter how painful, no matter how horrible—Jesus has endured it.  And he has overcome it.  With his resurrection, we are given the power through God to make it through anything death can deal us.  With the power of Christ, we too rise to new life, we rise to everlasting life.

Just as wheat rises to become bread, bread rises in us to make us become more like God.  Each time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we are nourished by Christ.  We are fed by his body and blood and made strong and made faithful.

At the beginning of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, the celebrant bids us, “Lift up your hearts.”  And we respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord.”  This is a statement of faith, in a way.  It is a statement of faith that even in our prayers, as we celebrate the sacrament in this life; we are made one with God.  We are united with Christ through his body and are lifted up into the presence of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

The Eastern theologian and catechist, [7th century Byzantine] Maximus the Confessor worked hard to help people understand and believe basic Christian beliefs.  Underlying all of his teaching is his belief that it is God’s intention to raise up all things and to bring them to a new and extraordinary place in the presence and the heart of God.  Maximus wrote, “…it is clear that He who became man without sin will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake.”(page 178 PHILOKALIA Volume II) According to Maximus, God is working to bring all thing together and to raise them up.

In our Old Testament lesson, we read about the prophet Elijah, who was at the point of giving up.  He’s been doing his best, but it isn’t paying off.  Because of his prophecies, Jezebel, the wife of the king, if after his head.  No place is safe. People aren’t listening, and so Elijah feels sorry for himself.  He prays to God to take away his life.  And then he goes and sits under a tree and falls asleep.  An angel wakes him up and something awakens deep within Elijah.  Elijah is told, “Get up. Eat. God will provide.”  Elijah is raised up by God, or rather, by God’s messenger—whether that messenger was an angel with wings who hovered and flew or an angel that looked a lot like a thoughtful lady from down the street.

That’s the way it works so often.  We are raised up by one another—when we feel the prayers of other people, they sometimes feel like we’re being given a boost, and we are raised up.

When someone offers us a hand or a kind word, and we though nobody noticed how down we were, we are raised up.  When someone offers another way of seeing a quandary or tackling a problem, we are raised up.

God’s raising work can surprise us, sometimes, even when we’re praying for it. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, remembers an occasion when this happened for him. He and his wife were visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Goma. They were at a refugee camp where there were some 25,000 people, sheltered on volcanic rock, with almost no food. Welby went into a hot tent with disabled children who’d been abandoned. They lay, basically dying, on filthy mattresses, while overstretched doctors tried to make them comfortable. In the midst of that, having sat with an elderly woman, who was blind, hungry, and had lost her entire family, the Bishop came over to Welby, and said, “Say something to encourage them.” Archbishop Welby recalls,

I did what I’m afraid I tend to do when I can’t think of anything to say I talk for a while to see if I’ve got any ideas . . . I started off by saying: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” And I was then going on to say something about bringing practical help or something […… but] the crowd started clapping and cheering. [They went on clapping and cheering.]

The Archbishop goes on to reflect, “The gospel is good news to the poor in and of itself. Yes, it changes society, yes, it transforms our existence, yes, it does all that. But it is in and of itself, by itself an end in itself, not a means to an end. It is good news for the poor.” (From “Prayer and Community as the First Priority,” Religious Life and Renewal: Exploring Roots and Shoots, The Archbishop’s Day Conference at Lambeth Palace, Friday 28th March 2014).

Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, we can sometimes take the Gospel a little bit for granted and forget its power to lift others up. Our bearing witness to the Gospel (whether with words or in action) can lift up others. Maybe it’s through conversation, through prayer, through political action, or charity; maybe it’s a stranger, a family member, a friend, or a fellow parishioner—the opportunities abound for us to participate in God’s work of raising up all of creation, and gathering us to himself. As hard as we might work at it, the Archbishop’s story reminds us that it is the liberating power of Christ to resurrect that saves us all.

Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

Let us give thanks to God that we have been raised up; we are being raised up, and that on the last day, we will be raised up into the full love of God.

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



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