Crafty for the Kingdom

 

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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

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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

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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

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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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Real World Faith

Foot of Jesus (2)
A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 23:23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, and Luke 12:49-56.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The other night I was moving some books around and came across my old childhood Bible. It’s one of those oversized, picture-and-story Bibles, that helped introduce me to the stories and characters of scripture who have become lifelong companions.  The art now looks a little dated to me and the stories leave out a lot of details. But the very best part (for me) is inside the first few pages.  There on the dedication page it says, “Christmas 1970.  To John Beddingfield, from Santa Claus.”

That one page summarizes a great dilemma in the Christian faith: What is real and what is make-believe?  Some would argue that faith of any kind is more make-believe than real-world, but I would disagree.  Faith is something very different, and as Christians, we’re called upon to sort out the difference between reality and fantasy.

In today’s Gospel Jesus describes some of the results of living faithfully, with our eyes open. Sometimes our being faithful leads to conflict—with the religious establishment, with the state, conflict with one another. Here, I don’t think Jesus is just talking about people who are simply offensive in the way they share their faith, demanding that others see things as they do.  Instead, what he is talking about, I think, is the kind of conflict that comes up in families, among friends and loved ones, and in churches when we disagree because of our faith.

There’s an old joke, “What do you have when there are ten people with twenty different opinions?  An Episcopal Church!  This can especially be the case, the less authoritative and the more democratic our congregation. We may disagree about the spending of money. We may differ about the direction of ministry or the use of particular resources. We might argue about the way God should be worshipped, or even about who should be ordained or consecrated. We disagree about government, about the use of war, about the advances of science and technology. But this is all a part of our living in a real world of faith— a world in which we disagree, a world in which life is not always just about the peace of Christ, but also about the divisions and disagreements that arise along the way to life in Christ.  Our other scriptures today also point to a tough kind of faith, a faith that does not settle for superstition or make-believe.

In our first reading from Jeremiah, there’s a call to honesty. Jeremiah is preaching to the people he’s been called to lead and love, but he’s especially warning the prophets—those who would say they know the direction forward. He reminds them of the difference between a dream and what is lived out in the real world. The dream may inspire, Jeremiah suggests, but never let the dream blind you to the present.

Though Jeremiah’s words are thousands of years old, the same struggle is with most of us who seek to follow God with a faith rooted in history.  How do we call upon the best of our traditions, but be alive to a world that moves and thinks in very different ways?  How do we be people of faith in a culture that has little use for faith?  Some faith traditions respond by buckling down, sticking to the letter of the law and making it all about following the fundamentals.  Others faiths do what they can to attract newcomers with whatever it takes—whether it’s buying tanks of gas for people on a Saturday morning or administering baptism in creative ways.

Our own church, too, struggles to live faithfully between a vision and the real world. The Church of the Holy Trinity, was built with a dream and a vision.  St. Christopher’s House came first, and it was to be a settlement church, a church alive and sensitive to the needs of the neighbors, especially those in need.  That was 119 years ago and since then, there have been times when it must have seemed like that dream was being met, and there are other times when we are painfully aware of the ways in which we fall short.  A part of our living with a dream but in reality might involve our being honest about the ways we are different from the people of 1897.  We are different from the congregation of the 1950s, the 1970s, and even the 1990s.  But we still have a mission and we are still guided by the vision of those who have gone before us.  Jeremiah hears God say, “let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” Our calling is that simple and that demanding:  speak God’s word.  Speak God’s work of grace and welcome and forgiveness and healing to one another, to strangers, and stand still long enough to hear it spoken to yourself.

The epistle reading today, the Letter to the Hebrews, was written to a group of Christians who were getting tired. They were tired of being different, tired of the struggle and tired of the demands of the Christian life. They seemed to be on the edge of turning back to their former faith or to no faith. And so, they are urged to toward discipline, toward doing the right thing over and over, even when the end isn’t clear and even when the payoff is far off. These struggling Christians are urged to rise to the occasion, to turn trials into opportunities and to develop a perspective, to develop discipline.

At Holy Trinity the classic spiritual disciplines are taught, encouraged, and nurtured.  We explore together the disciplines of fasting, of almsgiving, of daily prayer, of participating in the sacraments. The discipline of silence and the discipline of joyfulness—all are encouraged, are grown, and are shared.  A disciplined life helps us to remain honest with one another and helps us see where we’re going. It helps us move, day by day, toward the ideal while never losing site of the here-and-now.

Finally the Letter to the Hebrews names what so many of us, here, have found to be the sustaining, nurturing, and encouraging answer to living in a less-than-perfect world. “We are surrounded by a great a cloud of witnesses.” Our witnesses here include the living and the dead, those who have gone before us, those who loved us and this place who have died.

At Holy Trinity, our cloud of witnesses includes people all over the country—former members, friends, family members, and with increasingly– visitors and guests who are touched by our worship and our ministries.  This cloud of witnesses compels us into new mission opportunities and relationships. In the future we will look very different from the church of 1899 or of 1999, but with faith and energy, will continue to expand and welcome.

This is a GREAT CLOUD, and it is this cloud that gives us the faith as Hebrews says, to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, [but] is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Gospel today still speaks of hard truth: that sometimes in following Christ, we will find ourselves in conflict. There will continue to be those times when we experience the Body of Christ as broken and divided.  We may argue and seem to work against one another—but that great cloud of witness is still here, around us inspiring, strengthening, and reminding us of our calling.

We may not live in a world where Santa gives away personalized Bibles. And we may not yet be the people we are called to be— individually or as a church—but we’re on our way, and by continuing to be honest, to be disciplined and to be surrounded by such a cloud as this, we will grow in faith; we will grow in love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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Beyond Fear

fearless pic
A sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 7, 2016. The lectionary readings are Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22 , Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, and Luke 12:32-40.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Many of you know that a few months ago, we adopted a dog.  She’s a beautiful mix of shepherd and something else (maybe Border collie, maybe Bernese mountain dog… who knows…) and is full of surprises.  She tends to be curious about everything, loves everyone and everything and is afraid of very little.  Big noises don’t bother her.  Other dogs don’t scare her.  But what seems to bother her, what makes her growl, and seems closed to really making her afraid are the occasional dust ball she’ll see under a bed.  It doesn’t matter if I tell her not to be afraid or try to help her see that it’s just a clump of dust.  To her, it’s scary.  To her, it’s real.

Things that scare us can be like that, too, can’t they?  Sometimes they are real and we have every reason to be afraid. But other times, we might be afraid of something and there’s nothing anyone else can say that will help—no amount of explaining, or putting into context, or praying… we simply are afraid.

Today’s scriptures invite us to think about our fears a little bit. They invite us to think about what we may fear, with God’s desire that we be brought through and beyond fear, and finally, the scriptures offer us a hint of what a fearless world might look like.

In Genesis, the word of God comes to Abram saying, “Don’t be afraid.”  “Don’t be afraid, because God’s going to be like a shield, protecting, no matter what.  And what’s even more—God’s going to provide Abram and Sara with a child.  Even better than that, not just one child, but they’re going to be blessed with generations as plentiful as the stars.

Abram must have worried and must have feared.  But through the promise of God, Abram is brought beyond any fears he may have had about the future.  His name change to Abra-ham signifies that something big has happened, and he lived on to be the ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And all of that becomes possible because Abram is able to move through his fear and follow God.

The Epistle reading, Hebrews, is a beautiful hymn.  It’s a hymn to faith, really—“faith,” being the other side of fear. By faith, Abraham obeys, and looks, and follows. By faith, Sarah laughs, and follows, and conceives. Meditating on people like Abraham and Sarah, the author of Hebrews gives us a famous definition of faith: that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”

Fear often has to do with the power of things unseen.  Sometimes that’s a good thing (like being afraid of tics in the woods or sharks in the water).  But often on land, and in our lives, fear can stifle. Fear can keep us stuck.

Some of you may know the (1932) novel by Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm. It was also made into a wonderful movie that for many of us, has been our first introduction to the story. In the movie, a young woman, Flora Poste, is a smart nineteen-year-old from London.  But she’s orphaned and begins to write various relatives to see where she might live. Eventually, she receives an invitation from the Starkadders, who feel like Flora’s father had been done wrong by their clan at some point, and so they owe it to Flora to take her in.

She arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, the Starkadders’ place that is just about falling apart. And in every direction there are dreary characters. The horse is named Viper, and the poor cows are named Aimless, Graceless, Feckless and Pointless. The whole sad family is ruled by a matriarch who refuses to come out of her room in the attic. Aunt Ada Doom, won’t come out because years ago, as a girl, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” We never learn what she saw, and it doesn’t seem as though anyone in the family knows. It’s not even clear if she still remembers what she saw. But the fear that began in the woodshed has completely infected her. That fear has changed her and made her small, and scared, and sad. And Aunt Ada Doom’s fear casts a spell over the whole farm.

I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you, but I will say that the arrival of Flora Poste, and her commonsense way of interacting with each family member eventually helps Aunt Ada to leave the fear in the woodshed where it belongs, and step into life again. And guess what? As soon as the fear is let go, the whole family finds freedom.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid, because it’s God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The kingdom of God may look different for each one of us, but for most of us, at some level, I think God’s kingdom has a similar effect in our lives as that of the transformation of Cold Comfort Farm. Whatever fears are gnawing at our insides, whatever fears there are that limit us or hold us back or keep us stuck— God wants to pull us through those fears, beyond those fears, into a world of faith, into God’s kingdom.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Get ready.” And he uses several images to convey a sense of anticipation—to try to help us see what it’s like to greet the kingdom with faith, and not fear.
He says, “Be like those who are charged with taking care of a house while the owner is away. Be like those caretakers who are in charge while the head of the house is away at a wedding. Blessed are those who are awake at the return.” He also says, “Get rid of the things that burden you, that weigh you down, that keep you from moving forward. Because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let go of fear.”

If you think about the people Jesus meets in the Gospel, so often, they are people who are stuck, in some way. They’re stuck in old habits. They’re stuck by past sins.  They’re stuck in other people’s stories about them.  Or they’re stuck in some warped perspective that creates a world so narrow they can hardly breathe.  Think about some of those people:

There’s a woman who has been caught in adultery. They’re ready to stone her, but even if they let her go, she’s caught in her reputation. They’ve got her stuck in a bad place and she’s afraid. But Jesus forgives her and invites her to leave fear behind, and follow in faith.

There’s Zaccheus the tax collector who is stuck in a tree when Jesus walks by. But Jesus calls him out of the tree, and into and among people. Zaccheus doesn’t need to be afraid of being laughed at, made fun of, hated… Jesus says, “stop being afraid” and calls him into the kingdom.

There’s Mary Magdalene, on that first Easter morning.  She leaves her fear in the empty tomb and she’s able to see the resurrected Jesus. She’s able to move forward into the kingdom of God Jesus promises.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he’s not talking about a physical place. It is not a location as much as it is a state, a way of being, a type of consciousness, another awareness. The kingdom of God is wherever God’s will is actively done. The kingdom of God is that place where human needs are met, sin is forgiven, and lives are changed—by the truth of God’s love and by the fire of God’s forgiveness. The kingdom of God is that place where people live out the depth of God’s love—where we forgive each other and show love in practical, real ways. The Kingdom is that place where the God of heaven and earth, the God of all time and being, the God of all creation, stoops to wash the feet of a disciple, holds out bread and offers a cup. The kingdom of God breaks into our lives whenever we leave fears behind and do something bravely with faith.

This summer, some of us may be staying right where we are.  In life, some of us might not move very far away from one place.  But no matter who we are or where we are, Jesus calls us to move—to move out of whatever fearful place keeps us from stepping forward in faith.  The First Letter of John reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.”

May the Holy Spirit enable us to leave fear behind, to claim the faith of the saints, and to live into God’s good kingdom.

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

 

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Getting Rich

Helping
A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Sometimes when I meet people and they find out I serve a church, sooner or later they ask some version of the same question: “How big is your congregation?”

I try to answer honestly and usually say something like, “We’re small but growing.  We’re especially growing in prayer, in mission, in taking care of each other, and in being the Body of Christ in our neighborhood and beyond.” They usually push the point and ask, “Yes, but how many people come?”  I then explain that we have an average Sunday attendance of 100 or so—and less in the summer.

Usually—but not always—I can sense their disappointment.

Our culture leads many people to believe that success is measured in numbers.  The more, the better.  And sometimes religions (or perversions of religion) actually preach this kind of thinking.   A while back, just before the presidential primaries’ “Super Tuesday,” Pastor Mark Burns prayed at a Donald Trump rally saying, “There is no black person, there is no white person, there is no yellow person, there is no red person, there’s only green people!” he shouted. “Green is money! Green are jobs!!” (Time Magazine, http://time.com/donald-trump-prosperity-preachers/)   Another friend of Mr. Trump is the televangelist Joel Osteen, who preaches to about 45,000 people who attend his churches every Sunday and reaches almost 7 million a week through television.  He preaches a message of positive thinking and material success.  And yet, he almost never mentions Jesus.  Someone did a survey of Joel Osteen’s posts on Twitter and found that in a year’s worth of 806 tweets, Osteen mentions God 334 times.  He mentions Jesus three times.  “Christ” gets mentioned three times, too, but two of these misquote scripture and one is within the word “Christmas,” in which Joel and Victoria Osteen wish the world a merry one.  (See Pulpit and Pen.org)

I don’t question that such preachers are religious.  But I wish they and those who support them could at least be honest and clear about one thing:  This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is not Christianity.  This has nothing to do with the Jesus Christ who lived, died, and rose again for us.

Many of these “prosperity Gospel” preachers point to John 10:10 in which Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  But they pluck this verse out of thin air.  You don’t have to go to seminary to be a preacher, but you DO have to read and study the Bible and not bend scriptures to say what you want them to say.  This verse comes in the middle of the chapter in which Jesus calls us to be as sheep to the Good Shepherd.  “Abundant life” has to do with our learning to live together in the sheepfold, close to the shepherd, being in relationship with the One who calls us by name, living like he does, loving like he does, and being willing to lay down a life for the sheep.

Today’s Gospel encourages us to be rich- but RICH TOWARD GOD. This may or may not involve money.  It’s much larger. When I look closely at how Jesus deals with money and wealth in the scriptures, and I notice that he wines and dines with rich and poor alike, I get the idea that God is almost indifferent as to whether we are wealthy (or not).  God wants us to have enough, to have plenty, to rejoice in bounty, to have everything we need, and God might even want those with special skills and abilities to have lots of extra– but’s that’s so that we can share the wealth, extend the blessing, and help out other people.

God wants us to be full, satiated, complete and lacking nothing. But God doesn’t care if we have one house or five. God isn’t bothered by what one drives, or what one wears, or whether one summers in the South Bronx or the south of France. But as Jesus says, we should be “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus has been talking with a group of people, warning them about hypocrisy and trying to help them understand what it means to live a life completely dedicated to God. In this context, a man asks Jesus to take his side in a question over an inheritance. We don’t know the exact nature of this man’s question, but biblical scholars would point out that the reality of Jewish inheritance laws at that time held that the eldest son inherited twice the amount that might have gone to a younger sibling. Perhaps the speaker in the Gospel is one of the younger brothers.

Now, if I were one of the younger brothers (not to mention a sister who is left out completely), the part of me that wants a fair and just world wishes Jesus would just take the man’s side. But as with so many issues, Jesus looks beyond the surface issue to explore what’s deeper. Jesus evades the political, cultural, or legal question and instead, goes right to the spiritual question.

Jesus focuses on the heart.  Where’s your heart?  What’s your heart’s desire?  What makes your heart grow and expand and feel alive?  THAT’s what God is interested in.  It’s not about who has more money, or more stuff, or more power, or more prestige. It’s about how we use it. It’s not about how big the wedding is—it’s about whether you invite God or not.

By way of answering the man in today’s story, Jesus tells a parable.  He tells about a man who keeps building up storehouses for all of his grain. But the man builds in vain, trying to build bigger and higher—because he is disconnected from God. The real issue has to do with our relationship with what we have. Does it lead us closer to God and God’s people? Or does it drive a wedge between ourselves and all that is holy?

Being “rich toward God” has to do with “currency” but not just in the monetary sense of that word.  Jesus moves with a kind of currency of life, through which the Holy Spirit operates and animates.

In economics, we speak of a “currency” because a currency allows things to move around, to go from one person to another, to have a life and rhythm that allows for free movement. Things in currency are not meant to be kept in one’s hands, but they get their life out of being passed around and shared. Wealth is like that. It grows only through a certain amount of risk.

While it’s surely that way with the currency of money, it’s also true with the currency of our relationships and the currency of time. All of these are ways that we can be rich toward God.

Of course “being rich toward God” will involve money, at some point, and through faith, it will involve the risk of letting go. I grew up in a church in which members tried to outdo one another in giving—anonymously. Over and over, again, there would be some major gift to the parish, some program, some extra music, some new mission begun—each time, with a grant from an anonymous donor. That’s living richly toward God.

Being rich toward God also means being rich toward God’s people, how we spend ourselves through the currency of our relationships—both with the people inside the church and those outside. What would it be like if we lived more richly toward one another, giving one another the benefit of the doubt, offering first mercy instead of judgment, extending first a welcome rather than wondering if the stranger might fit in or not?

And finally, how do we spend our time? Do we give any of it to God—for God’s use, as well as simply time to be with God, to allow God to draw us closer through prayer, through reading of the Bible, through worship? All of this has to do with being rich toward God.

When I think of richness, and some of the richest people I’ve known, a lot of faces come to mind.  But among them are a handful of women from my home church who prayed for me while I was in seminary. They met regularly to pray and study the Bible, and every so often I would receive a card from them.  Sometimes, in the card would be seven one-dollar bills, sometimes nine one-dollar bills, and one time (perhaps their attendance rose for that meeting), I receive a small fortune: thirteen dollars! Each time, the ladies would scribble a message, something to the effect of, “We know this isn’t very much, but we hope you can do something special with it. Spend it on yourself, don’t do anything too responsible!” That last phrase made it challenging, because I knew they didn’t want me to spend the money on books or tuition.  And so, each time, I would do something slightly out of the ordinary— get a really expensive ice cream cone and write them about it. Or when a new coffee shop opened, I would get a rare, exotic, and expensive kind of coffee.  I thought of it like the woman who used expensive perfume as a gift to Jesus—my job was not to quibble, but to be gracious and say “thank you.”

What made the dollar bills in the occasional care such a wonderful gift was not only their random sweetness. But even more— I knew these ladies, and I knew that they didn’t have a lot of one-dollar bills to share (and even fewer 5’s, 10’s, or 20’s.)  They were not wealthy women. They were counting every penny, trying to cover medications, transportation, rent, contributions to church, support of family and friends…. and out of this, they also chose to give to me. They were not wealthy, but they were sure “rich” toward me, and taught me something about being “rich toward God.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has always been especially good news to those who are poor—those poor in spirit, poor in health, and those who are just, plain poor.  The Gospel is Good News not because it says that if we say our prayers, we’ll get rich, or that if we follow Jesus all our problems are solved.  Instead, the Gospel promises us a relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, who moves through us like a currency of love, showing us how to be rich toward God and one another.  THAT kind of richness lifts up everyone, improves everybody, and blesses all.

The scriptures today work together.  The reading from Ecclesiastes reminds us to keep a perspective on life.  St. Paul urges the Colossians not to worry so much about clothes, but instead, try to put on “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience.”

Following Christ in abundant life, may the Holy Spirit show us what it is to be filthy rich—rich toward God.

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

 

 

 

 

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Prayer with a Knock on the Door

Hunt_Light_of_the_WorldA sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 18:20-32Psalm 138Colossians 2:6-19, and Luke 11:1-13.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Every month or so, I meet with a friend who is a retired priest.  We catch up.  We talk about friends we share in common.  And I usually end up talking about some issue, some problem, or some question I’m wrestling with.  My friend listens wisely and inevitably—at some point in the conversation, will ask, “What’s your prayer around this issue?”  “Have you asked God about this?”

Usually, I have not.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives a pattern for prayer, a set of words to use, to store up and recall when we need them. But Jesus even more, Jesus gives us a relationship. He shows us a door, an opening, a way for conscious contact with God.

In the Lord’s Prayer we are given the picture of a Father who cares and never forgets us. God will provide. “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Abraham learned this from the angels who came to visit, in the reading we heard last week.  Abraham and Sarah had their doubts about whether God was listening, but by the point of today’s reading, Abraham and God are like familiar friends to the point that Abraham and God are engaged in a kind of “holy haggling.”

The back story to what Abraham is asking God is a complicated one.  It seems like Abraham has no idea what he’s asking. He has no idea just how awful the people of Sodom really are, or he probably would not have asked God to show mercy at all.  Sodom and what is called “Sodomy” has come into our language through a misreading and misunderstanding of scripture.  What happens in Genesis is that the angels who meet Abraham and Sarah in last week’s reading, move on and go into Sodom.  There they meet Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and Lot invites them in for food and to stay.  The men of Sodom are a mean, evil bunch. They demand that the strangers be turned out to them, be given over to them.  The men of Sodom want to use them and violate them.  Lot does the almost unimaginable thing of protecting his guests, but giving his daughters to the townsmen.  It’s an awful story about the lust and violence and bullying of people, and Lot shows himself no better, though his daughters do get back at him near the end.  It’s one of those old, old stories shrouded in confusion and mystery, but the point is clear that God wipes out Sodom because it did not welcome the stranger, did not show hospitality to the angels, and could not contain its own insecure lust and drive for dominance.  As scripture teaches, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

But all of this is an aside.  Abraham is able to talk with God as a trusted friend, and that’s what Jesus is offering.  Knock at the door.  Say hello.  Begin the conversation.

In talking with his disciples about prayer, about knocking on the door of God’s heart, Jesus uses images and sayings from his own day.  He mentions a sleepy neighbor who might not get up for just anyone, but with persistence, will answer the door.  Jesus speaks of “you who are evil,” and I think it’s important for us to hear that Jesus is simply chatting with his friends here.  This is not a formal, moral pronouncement.  It’s more like Jesus is saying, “Look, you know how you are, on your worst day.  Even on that day, you wouldn’t give your kid a deliberately bad thing when she asked for something simple.  Imagine how much more, then, God looks after you!’

St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians explains just why we have the potential for relationship with God, just why we can have the confidence and faith to walk up to the door and knock, or begin to ask God for help.  Paul reminds us that God lives in Christ fully, totally, completely; and we have the life of God in us because of Christ.  In Christ we were “buried with him in baptism,” and we are raised with him above the death of sin, and we will be raised like him from death itself.  Paul goes on to say basically, “don’t forget who you are, and whose you are.  Don’t let people drag you into silly debates about this detail or that detail, what you should pray for, or how you should pray, or whether you should pray kneeling, with hands folded, or arms spread out, or standing on your head, for that matter!  Hold fast to Christ, the Head of the Church, “from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

Ask.  Knock.  Hold on.

When I think of Jesus encouraging us to knock and trust, I sometimes think of William Holman Hunt’s famous painting, “Light of the World.”  In his 1850s Pre-Raphaelite way, Hunt shows us Christ as though we have knocked on a door, and Jesus has opened it.  He stands with his lantern—light with light—ready to help, ready to love.

The most famous version of this painting is in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and I have to say, I never really liked the painting very much.  Hunt’s version of Jesus is a little too blond and white, a little too wispy and ethereal for me, and all the colors looks a little too technicolor for my tastes—but all that changed, and that painting means a lot more to me after a Friday night in summer of 2014.

I was in London for a day to two and had arrived at St. Paul’s early to try to get a seat for Choral Evensong.  Not only did I get a seat—I got a great seat up in the choir stalls.  The service was sung beautifully and the whole experience felt like the perfect blessing at the end of a long trip.  After Evensong, it wasn’t too hot outside, so I began walking to where I was staying. After walking for about thirty minutes, I reached for my phone and it wasn’t in my pocket.  My phone— with my calendar including the time of my departure the next morning, the scanned version of my tickets, my contacts, notes, and photos—had been stolen.  Or was lost.  Or, as I thought about it (I had carefully taken it out of my pocket, turned off the ringer, and placed it in the choir stall), it was back at St. Paul’s.

I prayed.  I prayed, “God help me find my phone.” I know my prayers should have been loftier and holier, but they were base and selfish. I needed my phone.  I needed to fly out the next morning.  As I thought more about it and turned the problem into an all-out catastrophe, I (of course) walked as quickly as possible back to a closed St. Paul’s Cathedral.

When I reached the Cathedral, sure enough: all doors closed and locked.  I found a security guard, told her my saga, and while she was sympathetic, she said she thought the best I could do was come back to Lost and Found Monday morning!  But, she said, maybe the guard at the other entrance might have an idea.  So went around to another entrance.  He was equally discouraging, but after listening to my story, he suggested I go across the plaza, down the construction entrance, and look for the security office underground.  Maybe they might have an idea.

I followed the directions—across the plaza, down under the street, and told my story to an unsympathetic security guard in his glass-enclosed office.  He looked at me, shook his head, and turned the lights out in the office.

But then he opened the door and said, “Follow me.”  I followed as door after door opened.  We passed an underground loading dock, crates of chandeliers that looked like they were being sent out for cleaning, all kinds of strange things, and I was given this unexpected and impromptu underground tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  After following the man through the labyrinth of doors, hallways, and tunnels, we went up some steps and another door opened.  We were in the nave of St. Paul’s.  With a minimum of lights on in that vast space, he told me to look for my phone.  I went to my spot and sure enough, it was right there!

I could have hugged the security guard.  He had answered my prayer and gone way beyond.  Though I don’t remember looking towards the “Light of the World” painting, I have thought about it a lot, and have a new appreciation for it and its placement in St. Paul’s.  The next time I’m there, I will thank that particular expression of the Light of the World in person, again, and pay homage, as though it were an icon.

My prayer was silly and selfish.  But I hope that when I have deeper worries—prayers for health and healing, prayers for direction and discernment, prayers for the highest and holiest of things—I hope I will remember to ask God honestly and boldly, but also be open to God’s help from every door I see. I would hope that when I ask God to answer a prayer that I would remember God might be trying to answer through doctors and nurses, through professionals and consultants, through family, friends, old ones and children.   When I lost my phone, I knocked on doors and risked looking dumb, looking like the worst of American tourist, and looking completely helpless.  Some doors closed but others opened.  And then, did they EVER open.

Christ offers to take us by the hand and help us knock.  He helps open the door.  We don’t need to worry about how we pray and it doesn’t matter if we get tongue-tied. The only thing that matters is that we ask and have the faith to walk through the door.

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

 

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