Out of the Wilderness

LightA sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018.  The scripture readings are Baruch 5:1-9, Philippians 1:3-11, Canticle 16, and Luke 3:1-6

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The year before I was born, Maurice Sendak published his children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are.  I’m not sure when the book came into our family, but I remember that book as among the very first of my favorites.  I grew up with the story of Max, who puts on a wolf costume, gets into trouble, and is sent to his room.  There, whether by dream or something else, Max’s room becomes a wild jungle.  He sets sail on a boat and reaches an island where there are huge, scary, beasts where “the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”

Wild places can seem just like that—full of roars and gnashing, with scary mysteries lurking behind every corner. For Max, the “wild place” a long way from home, where family and food are.

Whether we have spent our whole lives in a city or spend some time in the wilderness, the “wild place” exists in an almost archetypal way.  It represents something dark and uneasy deep in our unconscious.

For many throughout history, it was only the barbarians who live outside the walls of the city. Saint Augustine imagined the ultimate Christian community as the City of God, and throughout the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, Jerusalem is imagined as a place of privilege. The city is the holy place, the place of order and justice, a place of charity and community and faithfulness.

Unlike the city, the wilderness is DISorderly.  Rules shift and change, or don’t seem to exist at all. It’s a place of monsters and demons; of chaos and calamity.  And so, deep down in us is a fear of the wilderness. The people of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus met the devil in the wilderness.

How strange, then, that in today’s scripture readings God’s word comes from the wilderness!

Baruch’s message is that those who are in the wilderness will be brought back. Sorrow and affliction will be turned into beauty and glory. God will bring them back, even on a royal throne, they will return. No one will be forgotten. No one will be lost. But everyone will be included in the new Israel, a place filled with joy and glory and mercy and righteousness.

The word of God comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness, and John seems to have kept one foot in that wilderness experience throughout his ministry, whether his preaching was in the outlying areas or in the courts of King Herod. John’s is the voice of one “crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” John the Baptist seems to have been strengthened by the wilderness. He seems to have felt God’s call in the wilderness.

John’s word is especially appropriate for us, I think, because as much as we might like to live in spiritual cities (those places where things are orderly, harmonious, faithful and connected to God), we, most of us, have some sense of living in the wilderness.

For most of us, every day is not Christmas. Every day is not filled with the excitement and assurance sung by Mary when she knew that God was with her and that from that moment onward, God would be with creation in a new way.

For too many, and certainly for many among our number, the day to day experience of God is less that of being near the manger (an arm’s reach from Jesus), but more like being apart from God, in a wilderness.

One can find oneself in the wilderness almost anywhere.

Especially this time of year, in the midst of an office party, between the laughter and lightness, right when everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, you can find yourself in a wilderness. There is a feeling of emptiness and being alone.

Or as Christmas approaches, travel is expensive, time-off is short and the ones you love are far away. And you feel like you’re stuck in the wilderness.

Or because of health—your own or someone else’s—maybe you simply don’t feel much like celebrating this year, and you feel the wilderness.

Who knows what it is that puts you in the wilderness, that makes us feel like we’ve been sent into exile—the death of a friend or loved one, problems at work, problems in a relationship, family dynamics, questions about God, or just the stress of this time of year—whatever it might be, the wilderness can seem all too real.

But for those who are in the wilderness, or for those of us who know it’s territory, let the word of God be heard: “Prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Because “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the crooked, straight; the rough, smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All flesh, all people, every one of us—will see the salvation, the saving strength, the saving love, the saving mercy and redemption of God. There is hope in this message. There will be a way out and a way forward, and that way will be filled with Christ.

In Sendak’s book, Max is made king of the wild things.  But eventually, something about the wilderness—something he learns from the wild things or perhaps even from the wild things within himself—makes him miss home.  Max renounces his kingship, sets sail, and returns home, where a warm dinner is waiting.  All is forgiven.

Whether we spend our time in the wilderness or in the city, the Spirit of God invites us with words that urge us to know God’s presence more deeply this season. May we prepare our hearts through repentance—that constant turning toward God—that we may know God and know his love for us and for the world.  May we know that God’s Spirit is with us even in the wild places, but also and always leads us home.  With Advent hope in Christ (and with Maurice Sendak) we can say, “let the wild rumpus start” now.

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

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The Gringo and Guadalupe

Guadalupe 2015

Tepeyac, January 2015

People make pilgrimages to all kinds of places. Baseball fans travel to Cooperstown, architects go to see famous buildings, and stage performers often recall their first, life-changing visit to Broadway. People even make a kind of pilgrimage to New York City to visit their favorite store, such as Tiffany’s or Macy’s.

Religious pilgrimages have been an important part of my following Jesus.  The experience of visiting and praying where others have strongly felt God’s closeness has gotten into my spiritual bloodstream, making me more open to God’s presence wherever I might be.  It has made me more open to hearing about God’s movement in the lives of others. Finally, pilgrimage teaches me about Incarnation—that God has come and continues to come into our world in human, bodily, blood-and-sweat ways.

Next week I’ll be making a mini-pilgrimage to Mexico City as I join thousands of people walking, praying, and singing at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

December 12 is the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day that celebrates how in 1531 the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego on a hill just outside Mexico City.  Because she introduced herself in Diego’s native Nahuatl, some suggest that the name sounded like “Guadalupe” to the Spanish religious leaders, and they simply assumed this was an appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe from Extremadura, Spain.  The nickname stuck, but this Mexican appearance of the Virgin Mary was a little different from her Spanish counterpart:  the image that appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak (or tilma) showed a young woman of dark or mixed complexion. Around her image were signs and symbols that blended native Aztec religion with Christianity.  Like the biblical Mary, Guadalupe presented herself as subversively faithful and disarmingly loving, all the while, pointing to Jesus. Whatever happened on the hill of Tepeyac, Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe would become a unifying symbol, a sign of God’s love for all God’s children, and a strong sense of Mary’s encouragement for us to build a place for Jesus—in our land, in our homes, and in our hearts.

I first visited the Basilica in 2015, when I spent some sabbatical time studying Spanish and visiting churches. As someone who had mostly experienced God through my head (reading, learning, and studying), Guadalupe jolted my senses.  Art, music, smell, taste, movement, pain, grief, joy, ecstasy—all combine as pilgrims from all over the world approach the church to say thank you, to ask God for help, or simply to be quiet in the midst of mystery.

I go to Guadalupe next week with gratitude for all life’s blessings.  And, as always, I go with a lot of curiosity.  I will be giving thanks for each of you, for The Church of the Holy Trinity, and that God would continue to show us how to be a home for Christ and welcome others.

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Escape to the Present

Advent WreathA short sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (since the worship service is especially full with The Great Litany and a Choral Eucharist.)  The scriptures are Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, and Luke 21:25-36

Listen to the sermon HERE

In our first reading, Jeremiah warns that things are going to get bad before they get good, but eventually, God’s people will live in safety.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus also warns of rough days, but then he says something that, to me, sounds a little counter-intuitive.  Stay awake, he says. Be on guard. Be alert.

Given all the bad things Jesus talks about (“signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, … distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves… People faint[ing] from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world ….”), most sensible people would do their best to avoid dealing with any of this.

There are all kinds of ways we might sensibly avoid fear of the future—we might dedicate ourselves to our work.  We might pour ourselves into family.  Or more honestly, we might avoid fear of the future through too much food, or drink, or TV, or “fill in the blank” with whatever helps you escape most thoroughly and surely.

But instead, Jesus calls us to “escape to the present.” (Perhaps the most difficult and radical escape possible.)

We just heard his words in Luke’s Gospel, but I’ll read them again:

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Jesus encourages his disciples and us to be alert, that through this alertness, we’ll become strong, strong enough to endure whatever comes.  This kind of teaching by Jesus is often overlooked, as the Church gets caught a bit more on “do’s” and “don’t’s.”  The idea of mindfulness has come into our culture largely through Westerners who have studied Buddhism like Jon Kabot-Zinn and Herbert Benson, or Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama who have helped Westerners understand more about meditation.  But here Jesus is, basically saying to us: Don’t get thrown off-track. Stay centered. Be mindful.

How do we be mindful when our world is racing?  Through deliberate practices.

If I read from the Bible in the morning before I check the news, my day goes better.
If I say a prayer in the elevator or the hallway before visiting someone in the hospital, our time seems more God-filled.
If I pause to breathe a few times before going into a crowded room full of holiday revelers, I find the conversations go better, I gravitate toward sanity, and I’m clearer about my agency in being in the social setting that can easily overwhelm me.

Being alert and at peace requires a certain level of faith:  faith that things will be ok, if we take a minute or two out.  Faith that God is somewhere, somehow in charge.  And faith that we will, indeed be made strong enough, strong enough for anything.

The 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, is often known for his heady theological arguments and attempts to convince or prove the existence of God.  It’s from Anselm that we get the much-loved phrase Anglicans aim for:  “Faith seeking understanding.”  But as philosophical and theological as Anselm could be, he also knew that alertness, wakefulness, and mindfulness to God’s world involves a relationship.  It involves our being open to God.  In the beginning of his Proslogion, Anselm wrote,

…[E]scape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him. Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: I seek your face; your face, Lord I desire. (Proslogian I, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th c.

As we move through this season of Advent, hearing again the prophecies of the Church and the story of God coming, let us take time.  Let us practice being mindful, and may the Spirit help us escape to the present.

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Christ Our King

christ-pantocrator
A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, November 25, 2018. The scripture readings are Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8, and John 18:33-37

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is a little like a New Year’s celebration in the church, since this day works as a kind of exclamation point to the church year. A new church year begins next Sunday with the First Sunday of Advent, as we slow down a bit, breathe deeply, and begin to think about what it means that God has come into the world in the flesh, as a little baby named Jesus.

But today is Christ the King and in the scripture readings there runs the steady theme of the Kingdom of God.

In the Book of Daniel there are some frightening images. There are fires and flames, beasts and burnings. There is conflict and warfare, but the end result is a kingdom, a kingdom that is glorious and everlasting and serves the Ancient of Days for ever.

The psalm invites us to sing the praises of the Lord God who is like a king. So mighty is our God that all creation rises up to praise him, people, nations, even the waters themselves lift up their voices.

The Revelation to John also celebrates the king as victor. While it gives hope to the scattered Christians being persecuted in the first century, it also describes a cosmic battle of good and evil, where the victory is so complete that even we, living much later, become royals. John gives glory, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.” This is a vision of victory that stretches to everyone, making us all kings and queens, princes and princesses, people created in the very image and likeness of God.

In the Gospel, Jesus explains to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews; my kingdom is not from here.” “My kingdom is not from this world.”

From the calling of the disciples, through the healings and parables and teachings, even as they enter into Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover, there is confusion over this kingdom of God as it pertains to Jesus. He explains his kingdom by what it is not, rather than by what it might be. When asked, Jesus gives simple images. The kingdom is like a mustard seed. The kingdom is a like the yeast used by a woman baking bread. The kingdom is like a pearl of great price. The kingdom is here, but it is not here.

How we perceive the kingdom of God will directly affect how we live out our lives in faith.

The Church over time has understood the kingdom of God in different ways. At some points, it has understood the kingdom of God as a goal for the here-and-now. The idea of Christendom, a civilization ruled by Christian kings, following Christian laws and fighting for Christian ideals allowed for and encouraged the crusades.

It has allowed for the persecution of Jews and Muslims and anyone perceived not to fit into the prevailing understanding of what it means to be “Christian.” There are, of course, still those who would have this nation be an overtly Christian one, with so-called Christian laws on the books, just like people in other places advocate for another religion’s laws to rule the day. But whenever people begin to try to create the kingdom of God in time, before long, the kingdom of God often seems to look a lot like us.  It becomes a reflection of our own values and beliefs, and often the uglier side of those believes. However, the words of Jesus are clear: “My kingdom is not from this world.”

Others in the history of the Church have taken our Lord at his word and understood his kingdom as only having to do with heaven, far, far away. Therefore, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness in this world, simply need to wait: they’ll get their justice in the next life. But to believe that the kingdom of God only exists in heaven leaves us with little or no responsibility for the earth where we live.

But there is another view. Instead of the kingdom absolutely now or the kingdom way away in heaven, Christ calls us into a more unpredictable place, to live between the “already” and the “not-yet.” Wherever there are signs of justice and hope and faith, there is a breaking-in of the kingdom. But it’s partial, not yet fully realized.

The season of Advent will give us opportunity to explore this further as we look at what it means for Christ to have come into the world as a child, but also for us to look forward to his coming again in glory at the end of times.

So the kingdom, in some sense, is Christ himself. As he reveals himself, the kingdom unfolds. The kingdom of God spreads out as we receive Christ and come to know and love him and continue to embody his kingdom-goals in our lives. As Saint John realizes from the Revelation, “God has made us (with Christ in us) to be a kingdom.”

This kingdom is not of the world. It is a kingdom of reversals. Our Lady, herself, sang of this kingdom, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away.” To live with Christ as King is to live with an awareness of this reversal.

His is also a kingdom of welcome. When we read the Gospels it is a wild array of people who come to hear Jesus, who follow him, and who make him their Lord. Some are prostitutes, some are tax collectors, some widows, some soldiers; some are very rich, some are very poor, but they are unlikely to meet except in the presence of Christ. To live with Christ as King is to live in continual welcome of the outcast, of those who have nowhere else to go.

And finally, his is a kingdom of possibilities. To live with Christ as King is to live in expectation, to live in hope, and to live in faith. It is a kingdom of second chances, and third chances and fourth and fifth and sixth chances.

Especially on this day, we give thanks for Christ our King. And we give thanks that it is a kingdom that has been given to us, for us to extend to all of those who might believe. May we rejoice in this kingdom of reversals.  May we open our doors to a kingdom of outcasts.  And may we open our hearts to a kingdom of possibilities.

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

 

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A Priesthood of Believers

18_0308_LEADERSHIP_Why-the-Priesthood-of-Believers-Matters_Old-sizeA sermon for the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2018.  The scripture readings are Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16 , Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25, and Mark 13:1-8.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Between the fires in California, the continuing recovery from hurricanes and flooding, the shootings in Pittsburgh and Thousand Oaks, and the political chaos here and around the world, today’s scripture readings —“nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, and famines….”– can sound a little like the evening news.

In various ways, the scripture readings today offer ideas for times such as these—times when it feels like the world is collapsing; or if not collapsing, then at least changing a speed that leaves us lost.

In the Gospel, one of the disciples admires the great temple, but Jesus has an unexpected reaction. Jesus responds, “Do you see these great buildings? The day will come when there won’t be a single stone left, but one upon the other, they’ll all come down.” Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple—something that, in fact would eventually happen.

But we also know that Jesus used the temple as a symbol for his own body. The temple of stones would be destroyed, but a new living temple of the Body of Christ would arise in its place. A world would end, but another world would begin.

Some worlds do seem to end. We know the world of our life could end any moment with our own death. But not only with our death, sometimes it feels like the world ends when someone close to us dies. The ending expands outward. Scientists interpret the signs for us—overpopulation, global warming, hunger, water scarcity, disease, the sun, asteroids—and some tell us our world is ending.

The world of work can sometimes come to an end for us, as the job that seemed safe suddenly vanishes. The world of a relationship can end. A world of ideas or a world of opinion can end when someone challenges us and makes us think. The person we had planned to spend our life with, dies. The home that seemed permanent, but is taken away—worlds can, and sadly do, end.

Given these scary times—whether terrorists, natural disasters, or everyday challenges—we might be tempted to do what Jesus warns against—look for a quick fix, a guru, a temporary authority, or another messiah. Simply numb ourselves with any means at hand. Maybe we’re tempted to pray in a magical way to be delivered without our having to do anything—perhaps to call on the Archangel Michael to rise, and fight, and protect us. Many in our day do believe they are in allegiance with the angel-armies, and given the chaos created by warfare and terrorism, it’s sometimes easy to support extreme measures for a counterattack.

But the middle scripture reading today—the Letter to the Hebrews, offers us something else. In what can at first sound like real criticism of Judaism and the temple priesthood, I think the Letter to the Hebrews actually magnifies another theme of scripture and theology that we sometimes overlook.

The Letter to the Hebrews draws a sharp contrast between the temple priests and another priest—the High Priest, the Super Priest, the Priest-to-end-all-priests: Jesus Christ. The temple priests are always standing, day by day. But Jesus sits. He sits because his work is done. Christ has undone the whole sacrificial system by offering himself, a blameless victim.

Throughout the scriptures, except for the Jewish temple priest, the word “priest” is not really used for a religious leader in charge of a congregation. That has come later, through theology and practice, and brings us to the odd in-between place of the Anglican way, in someone like me is referred to as the minister, pastor, priest, friend—it’s a matter of theological and cultural perspective.

Where scriptures DO talk about priests, however, the scriptures are talking about ALL OF US. Though others had raised the issue, it was Martin Luther who wrote and preached that YOU are priests. Luther wrote, “this word ‘priest’ should become as common as the word Christian because all Christians are priests” (Martin Luther, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained (New York, NY, Anson D.F. Randolph, 1859), 106).

Luther remembered in Exodus where God says, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:6), and Isaiah’s word, “You shall be called the priests of the Lord, they shall speak to you as the ministers of our God” (Is 61:6). God’s talking about everybody here. And finally, Luther points to the First Letter of Peter, “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The passage goes on to say, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession that you may proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2).

When it feels like we live in apocalyptic times, when it feels like the world is collapsing, perhaps it’s an especially good time to reclaim this doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” It’s not just a Lutheran “thing.” It’s not just a “Protestant thing.”

But in Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents out of Vatican II, the Roman Church says,

The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, (103) should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.

[If you want to have a little fun with your Roman Catholic family members over the holidays, just casually ask them how their parish is living into Lumen Gentium’s vision and the priesthood of all believers!]

Art Lindsley is a Reformed theologian who writes about the priesthood of all believers and suggests at least four implications for us—for all of us. [“The Priesthood of All Believers,” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.]

First, we all have direct access to God. It’s not like the old days when only the priest when into the temple once a year to talk with God. It’s not only the one who prays beautifully, or lives a holy life. But each of us—fallen, sinful, tired—in our own blessed way, who can and should speak to God and listen to God. Prayer is our direct line.

Second, even though we don’t offer bulls and turtledoves as sacrifices, as priests, all of us offer spiritual sacrifices. The New Testament is clear that we are to offer but sacrifices such as prayer, praise, thanksgiving, repentance, justice, kindness, and love. This empties our hearts for God and turns us more deeply towards God.

The third implication of our all being priests is that we each have a prophetic role to play. When we see injustice, we’re to speak out. When we see despair, we’re to offer hope. When we see people or institutions or governments heading in the direction of evil, we speak out.

And finally, because we’re all priests, we are to work for reconciliation. Even when it’s hard. Even when it goes against the culture. Even in the face of violence, warfare, and terror. Christ works through us so that we can work for peace. It is the Peace of Christ that we share, after all— not our peace.

As priests, we are a busy people. We have a lot to do, but we all share in this vocation of priesthood— to pray, to sacrifice, to prophecy, and to reconcile.

After 9/11 and still, we often hear the phrase, “If you see something, say something.” But for these times—both outside our walls and within, as Holy Trinity rebuilds its congregation and tries to take care of our building, as we enjoy the visibility in living rooms around the country through “God Friended Me,” yet work to raise visibility in our own neighborhood and city—perhaps the phrase for us should be something like, “If you feel something, DO something.”

If you feel like calling or writing or visiting someone, don’t wait. Do something.
If you feel like giving money or food or clothes to someone you see along the way, don’t wait to analyze the situation or interview the person in need. Do something.
If you feel like there should be a new program addressing a particular issue. Don’t wait for someone wearing robes to approve or disapprove.  You’re a priest– Do something.

The Gospel today ends with Jesus predicting dangerous, unruly times. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” he says. Another version translates this, as “But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming” (The Message, Mark 13:8).  Somethings about to happen. It’s scary and might be dangerous right now. But there’s room for something new to be born.

With Christ as our guide and friend, may we be midwives and helpers as the Holy Spirit creates a new world.

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

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Crazy Generosity

sharingA sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2018.  The scripture readings are 1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, and Mark 12:38-44

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Michael Curry became known to many as “that crazy preacher” at the marriage of Prince Henry and Meghan Markle.  Bishop Curry gets excited. He gets personal, and he invites the listener (whether it’s you, me, or the Queen of England) to consider just how deeply and wildly God loves us.  I mean no disrespect to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church by calling him a “crazy preacher,” because he would like that characterization and find it a compliment. You see, especially in today’s world, Bishop Curry’s message of God’s extravagant love through Jesus Christ can sound crazy—and Bishop Curry himself has often called for more “crazy Christians,” as he puts it. In 2012, Bishop Curry addressed the General Convention of the Episcopal Church and said,

We need some Christians who are as crazy as the Lord. Crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God— like Jesus. Crazy enough to dare to change the world from the nightmare it often is into something close to the dream that God dreams for it.

The widow in our first reading shows that kind of craziness. She’s poor and hungry and out of options for herself and for her son. She’s just about to give up completely, when Elijah the prophet comes by. When Elijah sees her and asks her for something to eat, she responds (perhaps sarcastically? perhaps despairingly?) “As the Lord lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of dough and a tiny bit of oil, and so I’m just going to get a couple of sticks to keep me and my son warm ….. while we starve.” But Elijah, with faith in his heart, with that kind of hopeful persistence that can be irritating when we’re at our wit’s end, Elijah pushes on, “Don’t be afraid. Go ahead and make some bread for me and you and your son, and you’ll find that God will provide.” The widow puts it all on the line.

The widow at Zarephath shows generosity to a stranger. It makes no sense. She seems to forget about her own hunger, and even the hunger of her son. She sacrifices for the stranger, for this wandering prophet who someone conveys to her a sense of God, of God’s presence, and (perhaps) of God’s promise. She gambles, really. She guesses and she risks, not really having any reason to expect receiving anything in return. But perhaps she’s at that needy place of real hunger where she sees the hunger in Elijah and knows so well what it’s like, that she figures she has very little to lose. She might as well help him. But an amazing thing happens. A miracle happens. God provides. God makes a miracle out of very little and they all are fed. They stay warm. And they grow in their belief and reliance upon God.

In some ways, the second part of today’s Gospel parallels this story of the widow at Zarephath. In the first part of the story, Jesus has been teaching and pointing out the hypocrisy and show of the Serious Faithful, in this case, the scribes. The long robes meant to be a means of modesty were being used as a means of pride. Instead of doing their important work – keeping the written documents of the temple, preserving sacred texts, working as lawyers, judges, helping to convey the law of God to the people of God—these scribes were taking advantage. Jesus uses the scribes as an example how NOT to be. And then he points out the poor widow across the way.

Jesus notices how she appears to be poor, but still manages to put in a few coins as an offering. She uses her little bit to help others who may be less fortunate than she is. Many would say she’s crazy. After all, why should the temple need her few coins? Perhaps she even sees some of the indifference and hypocrisy of the scribes. She’s probably all too familiar with the corruption in the temple system that Jesus questions when he overturns the tables, in the story we hear during Holy Week.

But even though this widow might know all of this, even though she seems the religious officials looking down at her, she decides to let God deal with them. She puts her faith in God, and she does what she thinks is right. The widow is crazy for God in such a way that the other crazy aspects of the world don’t keep her from being generous.

Now, let’s be clear: Jesus is not asking poor widows to give everything they have like too many people send money to televangelists or scam preachers.  But Jesus is noticing even the smallest of gifts.  Even the tiniest of offerings, when from the heart, magnifies and increases.

Being crazy in generosity is not always easy for me—I tend to let a lot of incidentals get into the way. There are times when I’ve been to churches or cathedrals and I admire the beautiful music and liturgical vestments, the nice buildings, and all the seemingly thriving programs. And when the collection plate comes around, I would rather not give anything, saying to myself, “Well, they clearly have plenty of money. Just look around.” Or perhaps I think my money won’t be spent correctly, or I don’t like the person in charge. There are any number of reasons for me to be stingy.

But when I’m most faithful, I realize that giving on behalf of others is not so much about those churches, or cathedrals, or programs. Giving has to do with my own faithfulness. Am I willing to sacrifice for others? Am I willing at least to begin to put my body and soul in a place where I can be used by God for greater good? If I remain stingy and judgmental in every situation, I close myself off not only to those who could be helped through me, but I also close myself off to God.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us of a sacrifice we can never repay, never fully imitate, and perhaps (this side of heaven) never fully appreciate. It is a sacrifice made not out of human striving or working or trying to be good. Rather, it’s the very sacrifice of God. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross has worked to take away the power of sin in our lives and in our world. His sacrifice makes the way for us to see God. It makes the way in which God reaches out for us.

In the life of Jesus Christ, God gives us himself. In the death of Jesus on the cross, God gives us himself. In the resurrection from the dead, the full life of God is given to a dying world, in order to show us the power of sacrifice, the power of God to bring us “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”

God invites us to know the grace of sacrificial generosity. Sometimes that might mean going without particular things, while we put our money aside for someone else. It might mean fasting—giving up food—while we use that money to help the hungry, or try to listen to our soul and notice our own hunger, opening ourselves up to God more fully. Living and working in community, especially Christian community, we’re sometimes called upon to sacrifice our ideas or our solutions or our desires for a particular direction or ministry—it might be that the Holy Spirit is putting energy behind someone else’s idea for now, and it’s my turn to wait, to trust, and to pray sacrificially.

The widow at Zarephath and the widow outside the temple with just a few coins show us what it looks like to be truly generous, to be crazy in generosity.

May the Holy Spirit make us all a little crazy and show us how to be generous.

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

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Saints: People who have our back

Fra_Angelico, Forerunners for Christ from the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24
A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, November 4, 2018. The scripture readings are Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14 , Psalm 149 , Revelation 7:2-4,9-17 , and Matthew 5:1-12.

Because of technical difficulties, the sermon was not recorded today.

Every once in a while, someone calls the parish office and needs something done. The caller speaks with Erlinda Brent, our secretary; or the person speaks with me, and at some point, the person will ask, “Could you have one of your people do such and such?” “Your people!”   Erlinda or I will usually put down the phone and then say to one another, “they think we ‘have people!’” And then we laugh.

Our church staff doesn’t really have “people.” We have one priest, one secretary, a half-time time music director, and a one-day-a week bookkeeper.  Most days, we have one sexton working, but on some days, they overlap.

And while we have a tiny staff, we actually do “have people.”  We ALL have people, and that’s a part of what the Church’s celebration of All Saints reminds us: we got people. We’ve (all of us) got people.

Having people, having support, having help makes the words of today’s Gospel possible. Otherwise, the Beatitudes would be hopelessly out of reach. They are lofty ideals, they are high, and for many of us, the blessings they contain are far, far away from our every day experience. How many of us are very often among the poor in spirit, the meek, or those who hunger and thirst after righteousness? When have we been pure in heart, shown mercy, or practiced the art of peacemaking?

To approach the Beatitudes is a little like beginning to climb a mountain. Some in the Orthodox tradition have pictured the Beatitudes as a ladder. In a Ladder of Beatitudes, “Each one leads to the next, and is placed in a particular order. To reach the second step, we need to make the first step.”

Whether we imagine the Beatitudes as a ladder, or a mountain, or simply a series of signs that points us in the way of holiness, the good news is that we are not alone in our journey. There are others who have climbed this ladder, who have ascended this mountain, who have received the blessing upon blessing that Jesus offers. These are the saints. And they offer us holy help.

From time to time I call on holy help. For example, when I am running low on faith and when doubt is about to do a number on me it helps me to know that St. Teresa of Avila once went years wondering whether God was really listening. When the political nature of life begins to get me down and discourage me it helps me to know that Hugh of Lincoln, bishop-saint of the Middle Ages, was able to be prophetic with kings as well as commoners. Our local saints inspire and help me, as well. When I’m discouraged about some problem facing our church, I hear the words of some of our local saints—of Dick Shumacher or Jackie Albert.  At various times, and in different predicaments, I imagine the advice and wisdom of Judith Jones, of Fred Burrell, and some of the saints I haven’t even met personally, but who I’ve learned about from you.  And then, I also have the people I’ve brought with me to this place—the former senior warden, the former music director—both of whom died too young, but who continue to guide and comfort me.

In the New Testament the word “saint” normally just refers to someone who puts her faith in Jesus Christ. In the New Testament sense one does not have to be a martyr or even a particularly holy person to be called a saint. The Apostle Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In helping the Corinthian church sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians.

In Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints—some who have died for their faith, others who have died natural deaths—but ordinary believers made extraordinary by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is a grand and glorious company.

. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”

We have help in heaven and on earth. We’ve got people. We’ve got saints surrounding us. And by the grace of God, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be saints for one another—helping, supporting, encouraging, challenging, growing together into the likeness of God. Thanks be to God that we’ve got people.

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

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Faith and Vision

BartimaeusA  sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, October 28, 2018.  The scripture readings are Jeremiah 31:7-9Psalm 126Hebrews 7:23-28, and Mark 10:46-52

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (probably known best as the author of The Little Prince) wrote that “being in love does not mean looking at each other, but looking together in the same direction” (Airman’s Odyssey, 1939.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about that quotation as I’ve celebrated a recent wedding and talked with other couples who are planning to be married. But I’ve also been thinking about that quotation from Saint-Exupery as I try to wrap my head around the hatred and violence and nastiness in our world and especially as we feel it in our own country.  Love of neighbor is a far-fetched idea when respect of neighbor is no longer a given.  But as people of faith, it seems we are always and forever called to be people of vision.  So, I’ve been thinking about that idea of at least trying “to look together in the same direction.”  Whether in a relationship with another person, with coworker or neighbors, or political and ideological opponents, there seems to be some promise in aiming to at least try to look in the same general direction– not always agreeing on how to get there, where to stop along the way, or how fast or slow we should move.

But which comes first?  The vision or the faith that such a vision exists?

Today’s Gospel brings to life one of the central stained-glass windows at Holy Trinity: The Healing of Bartimaeus.  And this story suggests a deep and mysterious connection between believing and receiving vision. The story and words of Jesus encourage us to step out, to move forward with belief, and then to trust that our belief will take us to a new place of seeing.

The story about Bartimaeus takes place as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. It is near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. All this time, Jesus has been telling his disciples that the kingdom of God is in their midst—right in front of them— if they will only see it.

He tells them about God’s love for all people, if they’ll just notice it. Jesus tells them that they (and we) will all see God, one day. But the disciples keep scratching their heads, trying to understand, trying to make it all fit together, trying to make sense out of what Jesus is doing in their midst.

The disciples here are a little like a person who sees a rainbow, but then runs inside to get the camera. By the time they’ve returned, the rainbow is gone. Over and over again the disciples miss the miracle because they’re reasoning, or arguing, or trying to predict Jesus’ next move.

There is some biblical irony when the disciples (who often are blinded by their own arrogance, their own egos, their own hopes, even), encounter this Bartimaeus, who is really blind. And yet, even with his blindness, Bartimaeus sees more than the disciples. He sees Jesus for who he is. Bartimaeus lets his faith take him forward, lead him into the presence of Jesus, and risks by asking Jesus for the thing he wants. He hears Jesus approaching and yells, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Jesus hears the faith in Bartimaeus’s voice. Jesus hears his desperation and his suffering. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus says, “let me see again.” Jesus says that the man’s faith has made him well, and so sends the man off. Bartimaeus regains his sight, but instead of going off, he begins to follow Jesus, instead.

We know that healing in our world doesn’t always come that quickly or easily, does it? Too many of us, too many we know, have wrestled with sickness or a broken family relationship, grief or addiction for too long. Perhaps we have asked for help with just as faithful prayers as Bartimaeus. And yet, the healing hasn’t happened yet, and we’re forgiven (I think) if we begin to lose faith and become a little cynical.

That happened to God’s people, Israel, throughout scriptures, and it surely continues today. We heard Jeremiah’s words in our first reading, but people must have wondered, What evidence did they have that God was truly going to help them return home? Uprooted, robbed of home and livelihood, a people turned into refugees, how should they hear these happy words of Jeremiah? And today, When will violence against Jews stop?  When will violence against any group of people for their faith, or their color, or their sexual expression, or anything else—stop?

This is where faith comes in, has come in, and always will come in.

There is a place—a holy place, in fact—that exists somewhere between seeing and believing, between the reality as we experience it and the vision God promises. That middle place is the place of faith. With faith we wrestle, we listen for God, we cry, we might yell and scream at God. But we also notice, and we begin to hear, little by little, the whisper of God’s voice. We feel the nudge of God’s hand reaching for our own, to pull us into some new place.

The process from faith to healing can be a long one and its not always easy.  Though the Psalm promises, “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy,” there can be a long time between the tears and the joy.

On Friday, there were both tears and signs of joy at a service of thanksgiving for the life of Matthew Shepard, as his ashes were interred at the National Cathedral.  You will remember Matthew Shepard was the 21-year-old who was brutally beaten for being gay and left to die in the cold. That was twenty years ago, and one reason it took his family so long to lay his ashes to rest was their fear that the resting place might be defaced or desecrated.  And so, in a packed cathedral of 4,000 or so, the ashes of Matthew Shepard were laid to rest.

Of course, such times of faith, prayer, and commitment to a way of peace don’t seem to last very long—bomb threats continued and the synagogue in Pittsburgh was attacked—we celebrate whenever and wherever seeds of hope are planted.

At that service on Friday, an Episcopal priest who is the cousin to Matthew Shepard read the familiar but forceful words of St. Paul:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28)

Nothing can separate us from the love of God, even though we can lose sight of the vision, we can lose focus, and we can even stumble in blindness to God’s work.  But “seeing is not always believing.”  With belief, we can see more deeply, more truly, and more in God’s grace.

And so, we live between seeing and believing, may we draw faith from the persistence and faith of the people of Jews, of Muslims, and of people of all faith, that might gain a new vision, and together follow in the way of peace.

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

 

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A Cup of Strengthening

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

Listen to a version of the sermon HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Saved

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

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who can be saved?

Every single one of us.

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

 

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