A God of Lost and Found

shepherdessA sermon for September 15, 2019, the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture 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.

Scripture can sometimes sound remote. We are a long way from the people of Israel wandering in Egypt. We don’t seem to have religious leaders like Moses who receive direct communication from the Almighty. And especially as we look at today’s Gospel, at first, it might seem to refer to people of another time and place altogether. Jesus talks about someone who has lost a sheep (and most of us have never had a sheep to get lost, in the first place.) When you read today’s Gospel in many bibles, it still uses the word for the specific Greek coin, the “drachma,” – not exactly a word we hear every day. And yet, today’s Gospel is not so much about lost sheep and lost coins. It’s more about lost people. And that’s something most of us have some experience with.

Especially in our culture, especially in our age, people get lost. Someone leaves their small town, goes to school, and comes to a new city—maybe this city—and quickly falls into a new pattern of work and striving. Sometimes such a person becomes lost in her work. Or, five, ten, or even twenty years later, a furlough hits, or a reorganization. She loses her job, but it’s not the job that becomes lost. The woman who has invested so much of herself in her work and career—she’s the one who feels lost.

The news this week explained that of the 2,753 confirmed victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center, only 60 percent have been identified. Another way of putting it would be that 60 percent of those who were lost have been found. And yet, DNA testing continues, and the medical examiner’s office continues its painstaking work of looking and finding.

Alzheimer’s or dementia can take a person to some far away place. Disease, drugs or addictions can make a person lost from family but also lost to himself. And then there’s the euphemism we so often hear for death—“I’ve lost my grandmother. Or, I’ve lost my spouse.” But so often it’s not the loved one who is lost. That person is very much found in the heart and heaven of God. But it’s US—it’s you and me, the surviving, who feel lost.
However the loss happens, whenever we feel it or know someone who is overtaken by it, the question can arise (in a lot of us, anyway), “Where is God?” Have we lost God, too? Where is God when someone can’t find their way out of addiction? Where is God when someone’s mind no longer allows her to recognize her family? Where is God when people die senseless deaths?

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 lesson today, 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—stuff of silver and gold. They begin to worship pretty things, expensive things. Finally Moses returns and he gradually helps them find their way again. And God actually changes his mind—changes his plans, changes the course of history—just to make a way so that his children can find love again, can find God again.

The second reading has the Apostle Paul explaining to Timothy how he, himself was lost, until Christ came for him. Paul had hunted down Christians, he had persecuted them, and he had done all he could to undermine the way of Jesus and the people who followed him. But in what Paul describes as the “utmost patience” God found Paul, and that helped Paul find himself.

In the Gospel, we see a God who will go to desperate means 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.

There is a lost coin. A coin that 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 all of 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 does not stop calling our name.

I learned an important lesson about the seemingly when I was first ordained and was leading a simple worship service at a nursing home. At this little service, my rotation was once a month, and it took a lot of energy to try to be present, to be “with,” and to be engaged, when only about five or six people seemed alert, and another twenty or so seemed— well, they seemed sort of “lost.” On one particular day, I had led them in singing a hymn, and the five faithful helped me sing it. Then, I invited them to join me in reading Psalm 23, which was printed in a large printed card for them to use. The five faithful joined along. But so did several others. One woman, in particular, who never spoke and never looked one in the eye, but always seemed far away in another world almost—her lips began to move, as she recalled from some deep, old place, the words of a Good Shepherd who finds us.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” God leads us into green pastures—not that we’re cows or sheep, but the green pastures become a symbol for whatever is for us a place of rest and refuge, a place of nurture and sustenance. God lead us beside still waters, stilling the rapids of our life, slowing us down, and collecting us in one place. 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 (as we recalled this week on the Anniversary of September 11) there are those who die all too suddenly, those whose lives are taken– God nevertheless calls, God loves, and God welcomes by name.
Psalm 23 reminds us that God leads us 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.

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Following the Cross into Fall

lozano-piedad-en-el-desiertoA sermon for September 8, 2019, the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, and Luke 14:25-33

Listen to the sermon HERE

One of the most moving times of the year for me to be in church is on Good Friday. I love the old prayers, the music, and the slow pace of the worship that allows us to imagine what Jesus went through in his death on the cross. But I especially love the part of the service we call the Veneration of the Cross. In this church and many, many churches, a simply wooden cross is brought forward and the faithful are invited to come forward and “venerate.” Veneration is different from “worship.” To venerate is to show respect, to give thanks, to show love, even; all the while understanding that the thing or image venerated points to a deeper, greater reality. What I love so much about the act of venerating the cross is that while it’s an individual decision—whether to come forward, whether to kneel before it, stand near it, touch it, or even kiss it—we venerate the cross together. Two volunteers usually hold the cross. Ushers help direct people. Usually one or two of us is on hand to help those who wish get to a kneel and then help them get back up again. While it’s deeply personal, it seems like everyone around understands this and respects this.

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. We practice taking up our cross on Good Friday. We practice in our own prayers and our faithful living, but we also do it together.

Speaking of one’s “cross to bear” is sometimes used more casually, as though a difficult member of the family, or a coworker, or a challenging commute to work is one’s “cross to bear.” But we should be careful about that. Everyday difficulties are not “crosses” to bear. A difficult person is not a “cross to bear.” And we should be very clear than if one is ever in a relationship of abuse, it is never a theological justification for the victim to stay in such a relationship by telling herself or himself that this is just “a cross to bear.”

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 that part of the Good Friday liturgy that focuses on the cross, but there are other ways that we engage in becoming a “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 as 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. Well, you can always come home again to the church, 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?

Here at Holy Trinity, the little icon images that show The Stations of the Cross are only hung around the church during the Season of Lent. And while I sometimes wonder how permanent Stations might look along these corridors—in another way, I really like the practice of putting the stations up and then taking them down.

While the Stations are up, the images and characters speak to us and invite us to identify with them, to relate to them, and imagine what their experience was like.

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 those faithful followers who helped Jesus with his cross remain in our mind’s eye. The characters missing from the room invite us to take their place.

Friends in Christ, as we move into a new Fall and a new program year at church, I invite you to re-commit to the Way of the Cross. 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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Invited

seesaw

Children play on a seesaw constructed through the border between the US and Mexico.

A sermon for September 1, 2019, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Sirach 10:12-18, Psalm 112 , Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, and Luke 14:1, 7-14

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Our Gospel today reminds me of a big dinner several years ago. It was a dinner that was part of a fund-raiser for a charity.  While I supported the cause, bought a ticket, and sent my check, when time came for the event; I pictured what would happen. I imagined the event with an obligatory cocktail time, an awkward time of trying to find a place to sit (with flashbacks to junior high, when some tables have the popular kids and random spaces are left for the misfits), for a likely dinner of mediocre chicken, boiled vegetables, and some kind of overly sweet dessert.  Then, there would be a series of speakers, awards given, a final pitch for us to give more money, and then I’d get home around 10 pm. I had given my money, supported the cause, and wouldn’t be missed. So I didn’t go.

The next day, when I glanced on Facebook, I was surprised to see pictures from the previous night’s dinner.  It turns out that my place card had been at a table with several good friends, an Episcopal bishop, and the president of the organization, who was hoping to welcome me back to New York, after my several years in Washington.  The way I knew this was that a friend with a great sense of humor not only took a picture of my name on the place card and my absence, but then went around the table, holding my name tag between herself and the various table guests.

Of all the various dinner scenarios I had imagined, I hadn’t imagined there might be assigned seats, much less, that it might be a really fun event with wonderful people!

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 to the servants, the cooks, or those who felt like they should sit in the far corners of the room.  Imagine how Jesus’s words of welcome 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 or what might have been 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.

Some of us might feel a little like I did about the fancy charity dinner I talked about a few minutes ago. We sometimes under-estimate the importance of our showing up—that people might be expecting us, needing us, or wanting us.  Sometimes, folks can confuse humility with humiliation.  In this Gospel, 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.  He’s saying, “There is a place for you at the table.”  You are enough. You are God’s beloved!  Just as you are—just as you are, in God’s eyes, though perhaps you have forgotten.

But Jesus also address those of us who might be feeling pretty proud of ourselves, who might be feeling as though we enjoy some special blessing from God.  He reminds us, “Don’t assume the best spot has your name on it, just because you’ve worked hard, or shown up early, or put in your dues.  There may be others ahead of you, and you might be surprised.  They may not look like you expect.  They may not speak your language.  They may not dress or act like you.  They may not be “deserving,” in your eyes. But beware: Those who exalt themselves, will be humbled.

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 we 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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A Consuming Flame

AFiery Heart sermon for August 25, 2019, the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, and Luke 13:10-17

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Last Saturday, I was to lead a service and celebrate Holy Communion at a retreat center in Pennsylvania. I thought I had come fully equipped: the pottery chalice and paten (plate) we use on Sunday nights, Eucharistic wafers and a host, and even gluten-free hosts, wine, and even the various little altar cloths we use with all the funny-sounding names like “purificator” and “lavabo towel.”  But I didn’t bring candles.

It turns out that even though the conference center was built on to the back of a huge church, no candles are allowed in the center.  I asked the receptionist if we might be allowed an exception for the service, and it sent her into a flurry of worry and anxiety.  After she suggested she might look around for some electric candles they used for Christmas, I thanked her and told her not to worry.  “We’ll just be our own fire,” I told her.

For me, somehow the Christmas candles that look nice in a window during the holidays just wouldn’t quite work on an altar. There’s probably some kind of faith equivalent for an electric candle. It’s ok, but not quite the real thing.  It might look like someone whose practice of faith is artificial—it is “turned on” perhaps for Easter and Christmas, but otherwise the batteries can be removed for safekeeping. Or an electric candle faith might be like the kind of person who keeps his or her faith on a shelf. It is so private, so personal, so individual as never to risk – certainly never risking causing a fire, but also never risking helping another warm to the flame, helping another see by the light, helping another burn with the love of God.

But when we’re open to it, that’s what the Holy Spirit does within us. The flame offers warmth, light, and love.

In Isaiah, we’re told just that, that if we can just stop pointing fingers at each other and speaking in (what Isaiah calls) “evil ways,” then all kinds of things are possible. Our “light shall rise in the darkness, and our (previous) gloom, be like the noonday.” Through our faithfulness, others are blessed—they find food and have their needs addressed. Water comes to the parched and keeps on coming. Old divisions are healed; separations overcome. When the fire of God burns within us, it spills over onto others.

In Jesus we see the light of God’s love burning brightly, so brightly that it attracts people from all over. When people see him, they want to follow wherever he’s going, because it seems to lead toward increasing light. When people meet him, they want to become different people, more like him, more like God. And when people feel him, they are healed. That’s what happens in today’s gospel reading with the poor woman who is bent over, who’s been crippled for some eighteen years. Jesus looks at her and refuses to see someone who is limited, someone who’s old, someone who is pitied, someone who doesn’t matter. Instead, he sees her as the child of God that she is. With his whole treatment of her, he loves her. The light of God shines on her like the light of the sun on a seedling, and love (and life itself) calls her to grow taller and stretch high so she can come to touch even God.

Whenever God burns within us there is warmth for others, there is light for others, and there is love. And when we’re open to it, there’s no risk of its being artificial, or temporary. There is no on/off switch. Instead, the fire of God that burns within us is a consuming fire.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds the faithful of the way God’s fire went before the people of Israel, illumining the way, keeping them from stumbling. That same fire burns brightly in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the symbol of our meeting place with God, where the light is thick in its strength, amid innumerable angels feasting and celebrating, with the spirits of all those who have tried to live faithfully finally fulfilled, made holy, and made one with God. This is no flicker of a candle. It’s an eternal flame, so bright that is even gives light to those of us still on earth. We notice its glow. We move in its warmth. We are made holy by its light.

Both last week and the week before, we celebrated the Sacrament of Baptism—last week, with a one-year-old at the 11 AM service, and the week before, with a 30-year-old at the 6 PM service.  We offered them both a little of that heavenly, eternal, consuming fire as a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within them. We baptize with water. We anoint with oil that seals with God’s spirit. And we offer a lighted candle. Some like to bring their candle out on the anniversary of their baptism. Others like to put it away with baptismal keepsakes. Either way, the real message is that God’s light burns within Elle and Alex, and especially from their baptismal day forward, God will continue offering light in the world through them.

There’s a wonderful story that comes from the early years of Christianity, when women and men would go to live in the desert as a means of purifying and strengthening their faith. The desert itself was a bright place, but these people were looking for the light of God. They were looking to increase their own burning to be as much and as pure as possible. These desert fathers and mothers were called abbas and ammas. And so, there’s a story about Abba Lot, who goes to see the older and wiser Abba Joseph.

Abba Lot says, “Abba Joseph, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

And then, Abba Joseph, the old man, stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

May the Holy Spirit quicken the flames that burn within each of us. So that we might be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

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

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Baptized for Action

Water tableA sermon for August 18, 2019, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Jeremiah 23:23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, and Luke 12:49-56

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The thing I remember most about my confirmation in the Episcopal Church was the slap.  Some of you may be familiar with the old tradition of after a bishop confirms someone, the bishop sometimes adds a slight slap to the confirmand’s cheek, or simply touches it.  Some say it’s a carry over from when Roman soldiers were conscripted into military service as a reminder to be touch, be reach, there are battles out there to be fought, and every day will not be an easy one.  Especially because I was confirmed in adulthood, had read tons of history about the confirmation rite, my rector told Bishop Taylor, “be sure to give John a good slap. He’ll be disappointed if you don’t.”  Well, you could have heard the slap throughout the church.  Rather than hurt, it made me laugh, so then I had the problem of trying to contain my laughter at one of the holiest moments imaginable.

A few years ago, we were planning for a bishop to visit church and offer confirmations, so I asked the diocesan official helping us plan, “Is he a ‘slapping’ bishop?”  “Certainly not,” was the answer I got, and I was a little disappointed.  In a day like ours when people of faith are called upon to stand up for justice, for goodness, for truth, for kindness, and for love—we could use a few “slapping bishops” leading us forward.

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 120 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 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 2019, 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.

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

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Out of Fear

faith

A sermon for August 11, 2019, the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture 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.

On Thursday night, we got caught in the thunderstorm.  Rather than wait it out, I decided to run the two blocks home.  My foot decided that was not a very good idea, and so after I felt something “pop,” if knew I had done some kind of damage.  I planned to see a doctor on Friday morning, but for Thursday, the fears all set it:  What if I had broken something? What if I need surgery? What if I can’t drive next weekend for a conference in which I’ve agreed to take people and celebrate the Eucharist?  What if I can’t exercise the way I’ve been doing, and get completely out of shape, depressed, and useless?  On and on, the fears go. When I saw the doctor on Friday, it turned out to be far less involved than I had imagined.  I pulled something. I need to stay off my foot and be patient, but didn’t do any major damage and certainly don’t need surgery.

All that energy that went into fear and worry—but we’re often like that, aren’t we?

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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Richness out of Poverty

generous spirit

A sermon for August 3, 2019, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scriptures are Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21

(Sorry, but due to technical problems, there was no recording today.)

On a day in which we wake up to more news about shootings—one is El Paso yesterday, and another in Dayton last night—our first Reading from Ecclesiastes might come close to suiting our mood. “All is vanity.”  When we “apply our minds to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it [can seem] an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.” We work hard, we try to live good lives, we do our best with children and relatives. We inform ourselves on the issues and march, vote, protest, write, and try to stand for justice, but then, as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes puts it, “For all [our] days are full of pain, and [our] work is a vexation; even at night [our] minds do not rest.”  And even this, is vanity. Easier to read about Duchess Meghan’s birthday today (it will be a quiet affair, maybe with tea at Balmoral.) Or celebrate Barack Obama’s birthday today and reminisce about a president who could be articulate and kind. “All is vanity,” anyway, right?

Well, no.  The story of our faith doesn’t end with Ecclesiastes.  The world weariness is overwhelmed by the Word made Flesh.  God’s coming into the world in the form of Jesus the Christ changes everything.  It lifts us out of the doom of the devil and the dead end of cynicism.  Christ leads us in the difficult direction of hope.  He leads us in the painful way of love.  He teaches us how to find love in the presence of hatred, life in the presence of death, and richness in the midst of poverty.

Jesus suggests that we should be “rich toward God.”  When we’re poor in money, poor in spirit, or poor in faith, we might wonder how on earth we’re to do this, but that’s again where Christ comes through and gives us what we need.

Jesus has been talking with a group, probably a group of bystanders and some of the disciples. He’s been 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.

I don’t know about you, but the part of me that longs for a world that is fair and just wishes that Jesus would take the man’s side. But that’s not the real issue here. Like he does in so many other situations, Jesus evades the political, cultural, or legal question. Instead, he goes right to the spiritual question.

Jesus uses the moment to point out to the crowd that the real issue is about where one’s heart is. 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.

Then Jesus tells the parable about a man who keeps building up storehouses for all of his grain. But the man builds in vain 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? Jesus says we need to be “rich toward God.”

Being “rich toward God” has to do with the currency of things.

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

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

Being rich toward God does involve money, at some point, and with the risk involved 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—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 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, I certainly think of Bill and Melinda Gates and their active philanthropy.  I think of Robert F. Smith, the amazing donor who is paying off all the student debt of the Morehouse Class of 2019. But I also think of the richness of spirit shown by a woman on the Select M-15 bus yesterday.  If you know the “select service,” you know that one has to obtain a paper ticket out of the kiosk at the various sidewalk stations.  Then, one simply gets on the bus and only shows the ticket, if asked—usually at random stops when getting off the bus, when the Transit Police do their checks.
Yesterday, we got our tickets in time for the bus and got on.  We noticed a man sort of angrily mumbling to himself about a ticket.  I slowly realized that he hadn’t quite understood the difference between the select bus and the regular bus, and so he had no ticket and was angry about the confusion. This being New York on a hot Saturday morning, most everyone simply ignored the man—perhaps he had emotional problems, or psychological problems, or drug problems.  But then, a woman who was sitting near him began to engage him and try to explain the bus system.  He said a little more, but seemed unconvinced about the system or what should happen next.  After a few minutes of his mumbling, the woman then said, “Look, I’m getting off on the next stop.  Why don’t you take my ticket in case anyone asks you for one. Ok?”  The man’s who attitude changed.  The anger went away.  He kept mumbling, but his frustration actually turned to flirting, as he reacted to the fact that a nice person had helped him—and that nice person happened to be a pleasant-looking woman.  She got off a the next stop, and the man got quiet, holding his new ticket.

We see these little acts of kindness all the time, and at our best—perhaps we perform some of them. They are reminders that we don’t have to be wealthy to be generous; we don’t have to have a lot of money to be rich. And even when we’re poverty-stricken– in spirit, in faith, or in money, the love of Christ gives us something to hold on to and to share.

May the Holy Spirit save us from cynicism and help us to live in richness of spirit.

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

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Knocking on the Door of Prayer

Hunt_Light_of_the_WorldA sermon for July 28, 2019, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Genesis 18:20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19), and Luke 11:1-13

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I was talking with a friend this week about a book on prayer.  I told her that I thought I had read it. As she mentioned the section of the book that she has found so helpful, I kept wondering, “HAVE I read this book?  Did I hear about it?”  Later, I looked at home, and sure enough: there it was on my shelf. But it still looks new.  I have not read it.

I’m often interested in prayer—new ways of praying, how other people pray, what people have experienced in their prayers.  But sometimes, I do this INSTEAD OF PRAYING.  I get hung up on technique and skill, forgetting that the basic thing about prayer is simply to do it!

I understand the disciples in today’s Gospel.  They’ve seen the disciples of John the Baptist, and they want to have special prayers like John’s disciples.  Who knows exactly how John and his disciples prayed, but however it was, it was impressive.

In the forgiveness of his mercy, Jesus looks at his disciples (and us) with compassion, and gives us the prayer we know as The Lord’s Prayer. It can be disappointingly simple. It is not fancy and does not seem very mystical. But it’s impressive in the only way that really matters: it works.

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.”

Last week, we heard about how Abraham and Sarah learned this from the angels who came to visit. Until then, 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.

If we lack the courage to knock on the door, we can remember another scripture in which it’s Jesus who is knocking on the door. In Revelation 3, Jesus says, “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

This passage is illustrated beautifully in the famous painting of Jesus entitled, “Light of the World.” The painting is by William Holman-Hunt and one copy is in a side chapel of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  People line up to see it and huddle around it.  Jesus stands in a doorway holding a lantern. As one commentator points out:

The door represents the human soul, which cannot be opened from the outside. There is no handle on the door, and the rusty nails and hinges overgrown with ivy denote that the door has never been opened and that the figure of Christ is asking permission to enter. The morning star appears near Christ, the dawn of a new day, and the autumn weeds and fallen fruit represent the autumn of life.

We have courage to knock on the door of prayer because Christ has already knocked on the door of our heart.

Christ offers to take us by the hand and help through any 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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Paying Attention

Mary and Martha-QiA sermon for July 21, 2019, the scriptures are Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15 , Colossians 1:15-28, and Luke 10:38-42.

Listen to the Gospel and a short version of the sermon HERE. (Because of an excessive heat warning, the sermon is slightly shorter than usual.)

Simone Weil was a French philosopher who struggled with Christianity at a very deep level. Among her thoughts, written down in her notebooks, was an oft-quoted sentence about paying attention. “Absolute attention,” she writes, “is prayer.”

In the lesson from Genesis we see what happens when Abraham and Sarah simply pay attention. Abraham could have ignored the three strangers. He could have simply gone on about his business when he saw them. He could have been afraid of getting involved. He might have “passed by on the other side,” like some of those in the Good Samaritan story last Sunday. But instead, Abraham went out of his way to show hospitality. He seems to have recognized something special about them, some hard-to-put-your-finger-on quality. Perhaps it was holiness. Perhaps it was simply honesty. But whatever it was he saw, Abraham decided that it was worth the risk of being hospitable. And so, Abraham brings some water and lets the strangers wash up; he brings some bread, and dinner is served.

Abraham’s hospitality not only feeds strangers and makes for community. It also creates space. Henri Nouwen, in his classic little book, Reaching Out, explains that true hospitality does create space. It creates a free and friendly space for the other. Nouwen talks about the difference in visiting a friend who has every moment scheduled and planned, where the rules are firm and the expectations clear. This is very different, he notes, than visiting a friend who says, “Here is a key to my house. The refrigerator is stocked and what’s mine is yours. I hope you will feel at home.”

The way in which Abraham and Sarah receive the strangers creates space, allows for mystery and opens the way for a miracle. It is these three strangers who turn out to be angels of the Lord, with the outrageously good news that Sarah is going to bear a child.

Abraham and Sarah were able to be attentive. They were able to be absolutely attentive. They found that absolute attention is prayer, that absolute attention can allow one to see the miraculous movement of God.

In today’s Gospel, there is both attention and activity.

Martha is very active. She is busy, involved, and committed. I’ve always liked Martha. She works hard, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and she makes things happen. I always pray for more Martha’s to be around in my church kitchen. But Martha also scares me a little, because I see a lot of her in myself.

Mary, on the other hand, is contemplative. She is quiet, calm, prayerful and deeply, DEEPLY attentive. She attends. She apprehends. She GETS Jesus; and all that he brings; and all that he means; and all that he promises; and all that he fulfills. It is because of this deep attention, this prayerfulness, that Mary is able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, as God Incarnate, as God Among Us. It is because of her attentiveness that Mary has (in the words of Jesus) “chosen the better part.”

While Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, notice that he in no way criticizes or scolds Martha. It’s only when Martha has become exhausted, when she is frustrated and angry and tries to get Jesus to side with her over her lazy sister that Jesus helps Martha see what she is doing. He slows her down. He asks her to breathe. “Martha,” he says, “you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”

This one thing that is needful might be called prayer. It might be called “the ability to see clearly, to apprehend a thing or a person for its true qualities.” It might also be called simply, “attention.”

Anthony de Mello tells a story about someone practicing this quality of “attention.”

Disciple: “Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?”

Teacher: “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”

Disciple: “Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”

Teacher: “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
(Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom, 1998.)

The Church invites us to practice paying attention. These moments are called Sacraments. Prayer is the practice of paying attention. Holy Communion is the activity of giving attention, to God and to one another.

May the Holy Spirit slow us down and help us be attentive. May the Spirit help us, like Abraham and Sarah, to see miracles in our midst, and like Martha and Mary, to eat and drink and rest with Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

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Being Neighborly

HelpingA sermon for July 14, 2019 (the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost).  The scriptures are Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 25:1-9, Colossians 1:1-14, and Luke 10:25-37

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel contains a famous story, the story of the Good Samaritan.  Even those who may never go to church are often familiar with the basic outline of the story: that of a person who is left by the side of the road for dead, and then of all the people who pass by, a foreigner—about whom there were all kinds of cultural assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices—is the one who offers help.  Of course, the story offers a nice moral and serves as a gentle reminder for us to be helpful, to live on the lookout for those in need, and for us to remember to practice charity.  But the story goes much deeper if we notice the context of Jesus’ telling.

The story comes in a conversation Jesus is having with a young lawyer.  We don’t know if the lawyer is serious at the beginning, or not.  He could be genuinely asking Jesus about eternal life, or he might be trying to show off, to score points in front of his friends and impress the visiting holy man.  And so he asks Jesus his question and Jesus responds with another question, “What does the law—meaning the teaching of Moses, the inherited and interpreted law of God—what does the law say?  How do you read it?”  The man piously quotes back to Jesus the famous teaching of Israel, the Shema, one of the first things a Jewish kid might learn, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ead,”  Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”  The lawyer knows his basics, and Jesus says, “You’re right, you’ve given the right answer.”

And at this point in the story, I imagine Jesus is ready to move on.  There are people to heal and hearts to reach.  This lawyer seemed to want recognition from Jesus, and he got it, he got what he wanted.  But then, just as Jesus is moving away “wanting to justify himself, [the man] asks Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

I love that phrase “wanting to justify himself.”  There’s a lot in those few words.  The translation by Eugene Peterson (The Message) makes the lawyer’s intention a little clearer:  Peterson’s version says, “[But] Looking for a loophole, [th]e lawyer asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

The lawyer asks about his neighbor not out of concern for the neighbor, but to justify himself, to make himself look good, to make sure that he’s doing what he needs to do somehow to please God or make God love him.

I stumble on that little phrase because the lawyer’s motivation is familiar to me.  That’s the sort of thing I might ask Jesus—well, which neighbor?  The lady who gets seems to scam people at the intersection or the guy who begs and then goes and spends the money at the liquor store?  Are they my neighbors?  What about the ones in far away places whose pictures are used for fundraising—if I send money, will it get to them?  Should I help those who don’t care a thing for me, or my tribe, or my country, or my religion? (I get creative trying to justify myself and can spend quote a bit of time doing that– all the while, the neighbor in need has either been helped by someone else or has simply vanished.)

The young lawyer wants to justify himself, and so, Jesus then tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  He tells the story to try to explain to the man who his neighbor is, what his neighbor might look like.  But even more, Jesus tells this story to change the focus of the lawyer.  With every word, every look, every move, Jesus has communicated that God is love and Christ brings God’s love to all people.  There’s nothing to do to earn it, or argue for it, or win it, or buy it.  There’s no loophole to exploit. There’s no self-justification.  Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in an artful and compassionate way to say to the lawyer—“this isn’t about you.”  It’s about helping someone in need.  It’s about service.  You want mystical religion?  You want a spiritual experience?  You want to see God?  Then offer yourself to another in service, and strange things will happen.  You’ll find yourself a part of God’s kingdom—unfolding, transforming, making a new heaven and earth.

The story of the Good Samaritan illustrates this.  The man going to Jerusalem is robbed and beaten.  A priest walks by but is probably late for an appointment.  Maybe he’s told someone else he would meet them, or is expected elsewhere.  He might have good reasons for passing on, but whatever those reasons were, they don’t help them the poor man on the side of the road.

Next a Levite passed by.  The Levites had particular responsibilities, especially related to the synagogue.  They were busy people. They were important people and they were concerned with God’s law, too—in macro-ways, in institutional ways, in communal ways.  The Levite might have had very good reasons for passing by, but again, the man by the road is still hungry and hurt.

But the Samaritan does help.  Why?  Somehow, he’s jolted out of his own head, out of his own needs for self-justification or approval. He’s able to move out of weighing the pros and cons of the situation.

What jolted the Samaritan out of his own head?  Out of his own routine?  Out of his own sense of importance?  It may have been that he recalled a time when he had been helped.  Or it may have been because he saw something in the other person that reminded him of someone he once knew and loved.  Or it might even have been because the Samaritan was simply oriented outward, he aimed his energy, his affection, and his interest toward other people.

Jesus says to the young lawyer, “It’s not about you.”  Jesus says the same thing to me and to you and to all who want to know God, experience life in its fullest terms.  It’s about service; about serving one another.

The Good Samaritan in scripture works as an example for us, but sometimes I’m helped by examples in our own day.  Sister Norma Pimentel shows up in the news from time to time as the voice and witness of someone who works among immigrants at the US border in Brownsville, Texas. If you read the words of Sister Norma or hear an interview with her, you’ll hear echoes of the Good Samaritan.  [If you don’t know of her, look her up online, or read about her here.]  You’ll hear echoes of Jesus.  Sister Norma is not new to working among immigrants and their families—she’s been doing it for over 30 years.  She was one of the first people allowed entrance into US detention centers for children—created by the Obama Administration, by the way, which deported more undocumented immigrants quietly but aggressively. Sister Norma responds to a complicated situation with the love of Christ:  she helps those in front of her who need help—while, at the same time—working with, respecting, and praying for border guards, police, and political officials.  She faces each challenge and setback with a power deeper than herself, because it’s the power of Christ’s love within us.  We just have to allow Christ love to flow, to move, to touch, to heal, and to extend kindness and mercy.

Who knows what will move us out of ourselves, beyond the need to self-justify, to be noticed, or to find a loophole that lets us appear moral without ever sacrificing.  But whatever it is, I pray we might be open to it.  May God move us out of ourselves—whether it be through our own sense of need, our sickness, failure or challenge, or perhaps simply by hearing familiar words in a new light—may God move us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.

 

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