Wearing the Right Thing (to the Heavenly Banquet)

Priscilla Catacomb Banquet
A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 25:1-9Psalm 23Philippians 4:1-9, and Matthew 22:1-14

Listen to the sermon HERE.

It used to be easy to know what to wear to a wedding. If it were in the afternoon, you wore one thing. If it were in the evening, that meant something else. But today, it can be confusing. If the wedding is not in a church (but in a park or a restaurant or a public space), what do you wear? If it’s the second or third wedding, does that factor into it?

In today’s Gospel a wedding guest gets it wrong, and there are consequences to pay.  But there’s a little more going on in the story than initially might meet the eye. In the kind of wedding feast that is talked about in the Gospel, one given by a king, a person didn’t just get party favors or good food.  One was also sent a garment to wear. For a guest NOT to have the right wedding garment on really meant something. It meant that one was for some reason refusing the hospitality of the host. It meant not only a breach in etiquette, but it could easily be understood as an insult, a refusing of generosity, a vulgar assertion of pride.

St. Matthew, the writer of today’s Gospel, understands that his Christian community has problems. They struggle with a number of questions. How is it that we’re so small, they ask. Why aren’t more people believers? How do we continue without a temple? How do we live as outcasts from the religious establishment?

To the people of Matthew’s community and to us, Jesus tells us to focus on the kingdom of God. Focus on the kingdom—that place, that day, that way of seeing that is far off in the future, but also has already begun to unfold even in our midst.

Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a king who gave a marriage feast. He sent out a first wave of invitations, but a lot of those people couldn’t be bothered. Then he sent out another wave of invitations, and some of those people not only ignored the invitation, but abused the servants and even killed them. Finally, the king says, “ok, then invite everyone. Throw open the doors, put the food on the table, tap all the kegs and invite as many as you can find.”

This is feasting that brings together both the bad and the good. Feasting that draws in people no matter what their background, no matter what their nationality, no matter what their intelligence or qualifications or talents.

In today’s Gospel, the problem is not that the wrong person got in. Everyone was invited. But the person refuses to wear his wedding garment. And the king shows no mercy. Here again, we see that Jesus is talking about much more than simply a wedding feast.

All are invited, but there are expectations of the guest. In today’s Gospel, so much hinges on the wearing of the right thing. When we get to that final feasting, will we be ready? Will we be wearing the right thing?

Of course, the garment is a symbol. St. Paul helps us unpack that symbol in his letter to the Colossians, when he says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col. 3).

We are to clothe ourselves with Christ himself, with his words, with his actions, with his heart.

If that feast were today, what would we wear?

Perhaps some of us might be overdressed. We’ve worked so hard at faith that we almost wear our faith—our theologies, our ideas, our understandings of the world. We have seen what we have seen and can no longer be surprised, or angered, or delighted. We moved along heavily in our garb. A wedding garment can seem like a light thing, lighter than we might have imagined, simpler, and easier.

Others of us might be underdressed. We might have accepted the invitation, but refuse to come to the table. Perhaps we don’t think we’re worthy. Perhaps we’re still suspicious. Or perhaps we’ve simply not noticed that even though all are invited, few are chosen, or rather few chose to be a good guest.

At our baptism we are washed clean. We are made new. In some churches, a white garment is placed over the baptized person and as the garment is placed on the baptized, the person is told “you have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ so that you may have eternal life.”

We’ve been talking about a feast of biblical proportions. We have a sense of what we should wear. But how do we lean toward that vision? How do we develop a foretaste of things to come? Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest who died last year, helps us think about this. In a wonderful prayer, he helps us set our palate for things to come. He prays:

“O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.” Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), 278.

If we try, each meal, each Eucharist can be a foretaste of what is to come. What we wear to the feast matters, but not in the way we usually assume. Faith calls us to change our clothes, so that what we wear increasingly resembles that white garment of our baptism, that same garment given to us by God. May we continue to practice our feasting. May we have minds and hearts large enough to perceive the wideness of God’s mercy.

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

 

 

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Stewards of the Vineyard (with St. Francis)

st_francis_birds-300x278
On October 8, 2017, The Church of the Holy Trinity celebrated St. Francis Sunday with the Blessing of Animals within the regular Sunday services.  The scriptures were Isaiah 5:1-7Psalm 80:7-14Philippians 3:4b-14, and Matthew 21:33-46

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The feast day for St. Francis was October 4, but today, we use our worship time to give thanks for him, to learn from him, and (of course), to bless animals.  While many people are familiar with St. Francis’s kindness and charity towards animals, this was only a part of the way in which Francis almost understood the world as upside-down.  He treated the poor as though they were powerful, and when he encountered the powerful, he showed them a kind of humility that even they found refreshing, attractive, and inviting.

One of my favorite St. Francis stories has to do with some notorious robbers.  Francis was away, and one day those robbers came to where some of the Franciscan friars were staying.  They demanded food and money.  But Friar Angelo, the guardian on duty, gave those robbers an earful:  “You robbers and murderers! You aren’t ashamed to steal the hard work of others and now you’re bold and shameless enough to try to devour the alms sent to the servants of God! You aren’t worth the ground to hold you up!”  And he continued.  Eventually, the robbers left, ashamed and angry.

When St. Francis returned, Brother Angelo reported what he had done.  I imagine he was looking to be rewarded.  But instead, Francis was angry.  “You’ve acted cruelly, Brother Angelo.  Don’t you recall how Jesus said that he has come for the sick, not the healthy?”  Francis made Brother Angelo take the bread and wine that Francis has just gotten, and track down the robbers and offer it to them.  Francis told Brother Angelo to apologize to the robbers for being so cruel and to ask for their forgiveness.

Brother Angelo did just that.  He took the bread and wine—the only that the friars had, at that point—and shared it with the robbers and murderers.  But after a little while, the robbers came to see Francis.  They marveled at the kindness he had shown and wanted to learn more about this Way of Jesus.  To make a long story short, the robbers repented of all the bad things they had done, and became friars along with Francis and the rest. (“Little Flowers of St. Francis,” Chp. 26, FA:ED III, 609-614.)

In this little story about St. Francis, we see a number of clues to his strangeness, and to his faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  First, he was able to hold on to the words of Jesus in the Spirit of Jesus—that Christ came to save people from themselves sometimes, and from all that would harm us.  Much like Jesus, Francis saw the robber, the murderer, and anyone else who might seem like the ultimate moral failure as JUST the kind of people to get close to and befriend.

But second, we see in this little story how Francis viewed all creation as belonging to God.  The bread and the wine, creatures provided for out of God’s bounty, are to be shared, not hoarded, not wasted, and not held from others in need.

Both our Old Testament and our Gospel readings today speak of vineyards.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel itself is pictured as God’s vineyard—a place of beauty and goodness.  And yet, Israel has fallen behind on the weeding, and the vineyard is overrun with bad things. It’s choking out the fruit and the produce is spoiling.

In the Gospel, Jesus makes this same point, especially aimed at the religious officials of his day, but the point is valid for everyone:  we are called to be good stewards of what God has given us.  We’re called to be good stewards of creation.  And we called to be careful stewards of the Gospel.

That word, “steward” is thought to come from Old English, originally having to do with a house guardian or overseer. The Germanic roots to the word also carry a sense of “being on the lookout,” being perceptive, and wide-eyed.

St. Francis is thought of as a patron saint of the environment for good reason. He understood all creation as sisters and brothers.

Praised be my Lord for sister moon and the stars, which thou has set in the heavens, clear and precious and fair.
Praised be my Lord for brother wind, and the air and the clouds, and clear skies and all weathers by which the life of thy creatures is sustained.
Praised be my Lord for sister water; most useful is she, and humble, and precious and pure.
Praised be my Lord for brother fire, who illumines the night and gives us warmth; bright and merry is he, and mighty and strong.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, mother earth, who sustains and teaches us, and brings forth divers fruits and the many-hued flowers and grasses.

Christians may disagree on HOW we should be good caretakers of creation.  We can disagree about methods and percentages and who pays for what, but there can be NO question of our responsibility.

As another Francis (Pope Francis) stresses in the encyclical Laudato Si,

It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience. (217)

We’re called to be stewards of creation, but as followers of Jesus Christ, we’re also called to be stewards of his message, his way of life, his love, and his joy.

Today’s Gospel has harsh words for those who trample on the gifts of God, for those who reject the way of love and peace.

Francis of Assisi was someone who followed Christ as closely as possible.  He looked foolish to many.  He did things that didn’t make sense in the 12th and 13th century, or in the 21st. But he lived with humor, with joy, with passion, and with deep sensitivity to all of God’s creation.  Francis understood stewardship of God’s vineyard, of his sisters and brothers in creation, and of Christ’s message of love, welcome, and acceptance.

As we welcome brother and sister dogs, cats, birds; as we greet brother wind and sister rain; may we also follow Christ by living more gently towards one another.

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

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With our lives as well as our lips

HelpingA sermon for October 1, 2017, the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32Psalm 25:1-8Philippians 2:1-13, and Matthew 21:23-32

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Often, when I meet people for the first time and they learn that I am the rector of Holy Trinity, they will, at some point, ask me something like, “How big is your congregation?” I usually pause and try to figure out exactly what they are asking.  It’s not that I’m tempted to be dishonest and inflate the numbers. Do I answer with the total number of people for whom we have records? (Just under 700 members).  Or, do I say that our total average Sunday attendance is around 125?  But what about all the other people who come and go from our building and experience the presences of God, the presence of Love, the presence of a Higher Power?  When people ask me how big is my congregation, I really want to include the hundred or so people who come every week for programs of Health Advocates for Older People, the forty-or-so Senior Lunchers, the 80 to 100 neighborhood dinner guests, the 20-30 men who stay with us over five nights of our shelter, and the several hundred people who attend Twelve Step Recovery Meetings.  I’d want to include all these people because to do so, I think, would be the most honest answer, since Christ is known and being made known in each of those contexts.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to help some of the religious people of his day, as well as his disciples, understand that “religion” is one thing.  But encountering the presence of God is another.  God shows up in religion, but not always and not necessarily.

From time to time in the Gospels we hear about the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a particular group of religious people who were extremely concerned with following the laws of God as closely as possible. Many were good and faithful Jews. But some were all caught up in appearances. They worried about how they looked (what people thought when they saw them). They worried about how they sounded, as they spoke to one another and said their prayers.

And they worried about how people regarded them, whether they were seen to be people of authority or not. And so, when Jesus comes on the scene—preaching, teaching and healing—the Pharisees are curious and they feel threatened.

They try to get Jesus into a conversation about authority—by what authority does he teach? Where did he go to school? Who did he study with? What are his credentials? But Jesus refuses to get bogged down by these people. Instead, he looks at them, and he looks at the people who are gathered, and Jesus sees a more important point to be made. Almost to prove to the Pharisees how out of place their question is, Jesus asks them the strange question about John the Baptist. Sure enough, it stumps the Pharisees, and when they can’t answer it, Jesus moves on to his larger point.

Jesus tells this story about two children. The first is asked to go into the vineyard and do some work. Evidently, this child has other things on his mind, so he tells his father, no. But after a little while, this first child feels bad about what he has said, and so, he goes to the father and apologizes.

He repents not only of his rudeness, but also, of his unwillingness to work. Presumably, the father accepts his repentance and then the child goes into the vineyard and does a fine job. There is also another child, a second son. And this one is very polite and initially tells the father, “Sure, of course I’ll go and work in the vineyard. But the second child doesn’t follow through.

The Pharisees are listening to this story, but they’re listening with a particular context and tradition. The Pharisees had a teaching that almost seemed to place intention above practice. They may have explained this by arguing that one needs first to have the “right intention” to act; and then, maybe with God’s grace, the right action might just follow the right intention. There is truth to that, but Jesus also sees the problem if one only stays at the level of intentions.

But when Jesus puts the question of faithfulness to them, the Pharisees answer correctly. They agree that the first son did the will of the father, since he repented, whereas the second child was all talk and no action.

And then Jesus sharpens his point. He tells the Pharisees that of all the people who will enter heaven, of all the people who will be received into God’s closest presence, the first will be those who have been honest with themselves and with God, who have shown true repentance, and who have then followed through with the living out of their faith. The last ones to enter will be those who say one thing with their lips and another with their lives.

In the parable that Jesus tells, the first child may sound brash or rude, but the second sounds so polite, doesn’t he? The second son sounds like the sort of person that could be called “a good egg.” But as CS Lewis points out, a person can’t just always be a good egg. An egg has to hatch at some point, or it rots. The polite son is like a good egg that never hatches. It doesn’t produce. It lives only for itself. It sits there and eventually begins to rot. (Darkness at Noon by CS Lewis)

If we were to use this story to think about our world, we could probably say that we all know people who are like the first child and the second child. I wonder if the first child—the one who initially told the father that he would not go into the vineyard—I wonder if this first child is a little like the folks we might know who, Sunday after Sunday, have no intention of coming to church. Maybe their talk is a little course, their lives pretty rough in places; but their hearts are pure in their dealings with other people. They’re blunt, but they’re honest and they don’t make any pretense.

We might know some like the second child, the one who seems so polite and well-intentioned. I sometimes fear that some who go to church every Sunday resemble the second, polite child. We fill pulpits and pews, we sound good enough, and we talk the talk. But do our lives show that the words and life of Jesus really mean anything to us? Do we ever become more than merely “good eggs?”

We have plenty of modern-day Pharisees who would suggest that appearances are everything. They suggest that how we look, how we sound, where we live, what we do for a living—that all of these things reveal who we really are. But the God of Jesus Christ says otherwise. Jesus tells the Pharisees that there are a whole lot of people who are ahead of them on the road to heaven, and chief among them are the prostitutes and the tax collectors. Leading us all into the heaven are some of the poor, the uneducated, the dirty, the foul-mouthed, the alcoholic and addicted, the out-of-shape and unfit, the sick and the dying— Given such a procession, some might wonder if heaven is a place they really want to go? I can only say, that it sure is a place where I want to go, because it’s a place where there’s no makeup, no costume and there’s no pretense. There’s no “better than,” or “worse than” but a place where each one of us is received by God and made holy, made perfect, made beautiful.

May we be moved each day of faith bring to being a little more our most honest selves—where we speak the truth and live it, and where we don’t really have to even say very much because people can look at our lives and see the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

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

 

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Last Minute Grace

Red Vineyard
A sermon for September 24, 2017.  The lectionary readings for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost are Jonah 3:10-4:11Psalm 145:1-8Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16

Listen to the sermon HERE.

During my first year at the University of North Carolina, Michael Jordan was still playing college basketball. Because there was such a huge demand on student basketball tickets, there was a lottery system. Tickets were free with a student I.D., but they were given out beginning at 8 AM on Monday morning. Most of us wanting tickets would plan way in advance. We would get together in groups, and beginning sometime on Sunday, we would set up camp outside the ticket office. With snacks and radios and sleeping bags, and maybe even a book or two, we would wait for Monday morning. On Monday morning, the tickets would be given out, but in a random, lottery-type method. Most of the tickets would be gone in a couple of hours.

My college roommate would try to get tickets every week. But he would sleep in the dorm room, have breakfast, go to his first class, and between classes, would stop by the ticket office, show his I.D., and try his luck. Almost every week, he would get far better tickets than those of us who slept out all night.

As surely as there was basketball season, each year, there would be student protests at the unfairness of the lottery system for tickets. Students of alumni claimed that since their parents gave a lot of money to the athletic program, they should get first dibs on tickets. Freshman claimed that since they were the newest students, they should get the best seats. Graduate students made their case. The loudest of all were those students who customarily camped out and waited for tickets. The system was unfair, they all said. It goes against any system of justice— those who took the time to plan, to schedule, to be responsible enough to get all their affairs in order and give up time to wait— they deserved the best tickets. The University’s response, year after year, was, “You are getting free tickets. Everyone is allowed a ticket. You have nothing to complain about.” This echoes of the householder’s words in this morning’s gospel: “Do you begrudge my generosity? (RSV, verse 15).

We just heard the story proclaimed in the Gospel. A householder needs work done, so he goes to hire some people. He makes a deal that he’ll pay them the day’s wage. And then three more times during the day, he goes to get more workers. At the end of the day, the workers are paid, beginning with those who only worked an hour. Even those are paid one denarius, the typical wage for a day of work. Well, guess who complains. Those poor folks who had worked all day— why should they, too, only be paid the daily wage. If those who have worked only an hour are paid the amount, how much more should those who worked longer be paid! But the landowner replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

In the first lesson of the morning, the story of Jonah, God asks Jonah a similar question. God has asked Jonah to prophecy to the Ninevites. Jonah does this and the Ninevites repent. God forgives them. But then Jonah feels like they’ve gotten off too easy. Jonah complains, and God replies that it is for God to forgive whom he chooses. Forgiveness, blessing, bounty, is God’s for the giving. God’s goodness is not restricted, even when we try to make God’s system fit into our own systems of what we think might be fair play.

The Gospel today asks in the old Revised Standard Version, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” or in the New Revised Standard Version, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Those words can seem like an indictment to us who come to church. We can easily imagine that Jesus might be telling this story primarily for those who are a little selfsatisfied, those who might feel as though because they have been faithful Jews, or because they have followed Jesus the longest, then they should gain special favor in God’s kingdom.

But I wonder if such an interpretation is simply too self-centered. I wonder, if in talking about those who come at the last hour who get the fullness of the blessing, I wonder if Jesus doesn’t mean this story primarily as a story of welcome for the newcomer, welcome for the anyone regardless of how much they have studied, accumulated, or succeeded. It’s about God’s love for all of us—for BEING—regardless of our “doing.”

I wonder how much of our love of what we perceive to be “justice” underlies the difficulty in our country of achieving any kind of universal healthcare.  I think there’s a little voice inside a lot of people that says, “Those people don’t take care of themselves. They eat the wrong things, drink the wrong things, do drugs, and don’t exercise. They don’t deserve healthcare.  And I (who exercises, eats right, and takes great care in my living) shouldn’t have to have my taxes pay for it!  But that’s not the mentality of the kingdom of God.

This parable that Jesus tells about the householder and the workers in the field is one of Jesus’s “kingdom parables.” Over and over again, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as more than we can possibly imagine, bigger than we might ever suppose. In the kingdom of heaven, loaves and fishes are multiplied so that everyone is fed. Water is turned into wine. Mustard seeds sprout into huge trees, and even a little, tiny bit of faith can move mountains. And the kingdom of heaven is also a place where Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first last.”

The Gospel we proclaim this morning is Good News. We have all been promised the inheritance of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Is it ours as a gift of grace. It belongs just as much to unbaptized and the newly baptized, to the person who walks into the church from the street for the first time, as it does to the oldest, holiest person around. We do not earn God’s grace.  Not by the hours we’ve put in at church.
We have not earned it by the tears that have gone into our confessions. Not by the money we’ve earned, or the degrees we’ve accumulated. God’s love, God’s eternal life, is a pure, undeserved GIFT.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; there is no end to his greatness.

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

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Losing Weight Through Forgiveness

pleaA sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 50:15-21Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13Romans 14:1-12, and Matthew 18:21-35

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s a story from the Desert Tradition that has to do with forgiveness. As many of you know, the Desert Tradition began in the 3rd century when women and men left cities to live in caves or small communities in the Egyptian desert, some looking for holiness, some trying to find themselves, and most trying to find God. Abba Moses was one of the most revered of these, and he was always being asked to stand judgment or as witness about some matter. One day a bunch of the brothers came to him. They wanted him to be a part of a council that would pass judgment on another brother who had committed some terrible sin. Abba Moses was not interested in being involved. But eventually, they convinced him to go to such and such a place on such and such a day and join them. He went. But he put on his back a jug of water. The jug of water leaked as he walked. It leaked in such as way as to drop a little water out with each few steps.

When he reached the gathering, the others saw him, but they were puzzled about the jug strapped to his back. When they looked at him for an explanation, Abba Moses said, “My sins pour out behind me wherever I go, and yet I have the audacity to come here and judge someone else’s errors?”

Simone Weil writes that when we say “forgive us our debts” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking God to “wipe out the evil in us.” But, she says, God doesn’t have the power to forgive the evil that is in us—while it still remains there. “God will have forgiven our debts,” she says, “when he has brought us to the state of perfection. Until then God forgives our debts partially in the same measure as we forgive our debtors.” (Waiting for God, “Concerning the Our Father,” p. 225)

Simone Weil hardly represents orthodox Christian teaching, but her words give me hope. They give me hope because they point to the difficulty of forgiveness. They point to the incompleteness of forgiveness in our lifetime. That gives me hope when I can’t bring myself to forgive (yet.) It gives me hope when I have to live with the fact that someone else may not be able to forgive me.

Our scriptures today have to do with forgiveness, and with the weightiness of sin. Sin, evil, wrongdoing—whatever you want to call it—weighs. It is heavy stuff. It’s like a full jug of water strapped to our back, only it doesn’t leak nearly quick enough. It slows us down, it encumbers us. Sometimes it is so heavy, it disables us.

Last week, we remembered Shakespeare’s Shylock (The Merchant of Venice) who demanded a pound of flesh for the forgiveness of a debt. As primitive and gruesome as that sounds, Shylock at least understood that debt can get heavy.  But then Shylock slowly realizes that whatever measurement or weight one attributes to a debt or a wrongdoing, it cannot easily be weighed.  A pound of anything doesn’t amount to so much, and many debts might more appropriately be weighed in tons.

As Christians, we are to be on the side of lightening the load, of lifting the weight. But the really good news this day is that ultimately, that is not our work. Rather, it is the joyful, loving work of Jesus Christ.

The sermon today is not a simple one. Especially in the context of 9/11, I am not suggesting that the scriptures are calling us to an easy or quick forgiveness; if, in fact, they are calling us to forgiveness at all. (Forgiveness may almost entirely belong to Christ.)

But I am suggesting that ESPECIALLY today, the scriptures are calling us to notice the weight. Notice the weight of sin or resentment as it increases the longer we carry it. And remember and notice whenever that weight is lifted.

In the first reading, from Genesis, Joseph forgives his brothers. But a long story has brought us to this point. This is the same family in which the brothers have enough of Joseph being the favored son, and so they almost leave him for dead. But at the last minute they decide to sell him into slavery, instead. Later, the tables are turned. Joseph is in a position of power and his brothers approach him (not recognizing him), asking for help. Joseph gives them a little help, but begrudgingly. He tests them. In a way he even taunts them. He does not forgive easily or quickly. But eventually Joseph becomes aware of the weight he’s been carrying.

In chapter 45, Joseph “could not control himself before all who stood by him; and he cried.” He cries as he lets go. He cries as he forgives. In today’s reading Joseph and his brothers’ father, Jacob, has died. The brothers are afraid Joseph will now get revenge on them.

But Joseph has forgiven once and for all. The weight is gone. Why would he pick it up again? It’s for his brothers to trust and to feel the lightness they have received.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues a conversation about forgiveness that we’ve heard parts of on previous Sundays. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” And then, as if to look for some kind of approval, some recognition for his efforts at forgiving, Peter adds, [Should I forgive them] “as many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

And then Jesus tells this story about a person who has a debt forgiven. No sooner is this one’s debt forgiven, and he forgets. He sees someone who owes him and demands repayment immediately. The point of the story is not about the fickler forgetfulness of people. The point has to do with the source of the forgiveness, the place and person from whom the forgiveness begins. In the story, it’s the king who forgives. In the story of our faith, it’s God who forgives.

God forgives. We receive that forgiveness, that lightness, that removal of all that is heavy, and binding, and weighing us down. And it for us to help others lighten their loads. Sometimes we do this by forgiving, or as last week’s Gospel put it, “by loosening, or unbinding.” But sometimes, we begin the work of forgiveness (I think) by handing it all to God, for God to work on. There are times when the work of forgiveness is just too much for us, and so (it seems to me) the most faithful thing to do is to turn it over to God the Author of All Forgiveness.

Those of you who know the older form of worship that appears in our Prayer Book, “Rite I,” the Elizabethan-sounding service, may know of “The Comfortable Words.”  After the Prayer of Confession, at the Absolution, the priest says words from Matthew, Chapter 11.  They are intended as words of comfort. They are words of assurance, refreshment, and promise. (from Matthew 11:28-30)

Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

Other versions include:
Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.
Come to me all you who are weary and burdened (NIV) . . .
all ye that labor and are heavy laden (NKJV) . . .
all who are tired from carrying heavy loads (Good News) . . .

Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, called, “The Message,” puts it even more bluntly:  Jesus asks,

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Freely and lightly. Those are indeed comfortable words and words of refreshment. May we hear and know the forgiveness of God, so that even in this life, we might begin to be made holy, forgiving, and free.

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

 

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Forgiveness

forgivenessA sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 33:7-11Psalm 119:33-40Romans 13:8-14, and Matthew 18:15-20

Listen to the sermon HERE.

As we gather this morning, I know that we are all especially mindful of those needing God’s presence and care—those recovering from Hurricane Harvey and those even now being affected by Hurricane Irma. They are in our spoken prayer and in the prayer of our hearts.  We have already seen and read of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but we will keep praying that God would strengthen the weak, protect the helpless, and make miracles wherever possible.

Though storms of this magnitude take our breath away and shake even old-time stormwatchers, I’ve been thinking this week about the observation of one of my favorite Southern writers, Walker Percy. Though Percy was a devout Roman Catholic, but his fictional characters often had a kind of world-weariness, fighting against what Percy called “the malaise”—except for when there was a hurricane.  Percy felt that some people were actually happier during a hurricane because the crisis not only brought adrenaline; it also brought focus, and clarity, and purpose.  Heroes and saints are made during a hurricane.  Priorities readjust, conversations are had, and I would add that often during a crisis—whether a hurricane or a sickness or something else—there are sometimes amazing opportunities of forgiveness.

Today’s Gospel talks about forgiveness as a powerful thing, as a force of nature, almost.  Not forgiving is a kind of bondage—both for the one who might forgive and the one who could be forgiven.  To offer forgiveness is to unbind, to free, and to loosen.

The Greek work meaning “to loose,” or “to loosen, or unbind” is a word that appears a number of times in scripture. And in several of these appearances, the word changes everything.

When Jesus sees a woman who is bent over from a disease, he heals her, and power is released. (Luke 13:16) He helps her to break loose from her sickness, from her deformity, from her embarrassment, from her isolation, from all that is limiting her and holding her back.

When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died, he goes to see Martha and Mary. Jesus gets to the tomb. The entrance is cleared and Jesus prays to God. Then he says with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes. He gets up, he walks out, and then Jesus says, “Unbind him, (loose him) and let him go.” Lazarus will die again, on another day, but for now, Jesus has shown the power of setting loose. He has foreshadowed his power of freeing us even from the bonds of death.

A couple of weeks ago we read of Saint Peter’s encounter with Jesus in which he is named as a rock on whom Jesus will build the church. Jesus gives Peter what he calls the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and then goes on to explain what these “keys” really are. “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven,” Jesus says. “And whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, this power of binding and loosing, is the power of having keys, of being able to keeps something locked up, or to unlock it and let it be loose, free and fully alive.

This power to bind and to loose is not just kept by Peter. He hands this power on to the early church community.

What developed was the tradition of the victim confronting the person who has offended or done wrong. If that doesn’t work, then take a couple of others with you. If the person still does not address the wrong she or he has done, then you tell the whole church, and if the person still doesn’t repent, she or he is put out of the church. We recall this tradition of repentance and reintegration into the full life of the church every Ash Wednesday, as we begin the season of Lent.

The Prayer Book reminds us that Lent is a time for preparing new converts for Holy Baptism, but also, when those who, “because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church” (BCP 265).

It is in that context, the context of owning the power of forgiveness that Matthew’s Christian community remembers the words Jesus spoke to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The power to loose, to set another person free from guilt, from worry, from fear—this power clearly does good for the person who is separated or feels cut off or left out. We have all probably had times when we felt like the prodigal son or daughter, first who feels like a stranger and an outcast, but eventually (inexplicably) we are welcomed home. The power of forgives works wonders on the person forgiven, but it also sets loose the one who is able to forgive, or accept, or welcome.

Those who study connections between mind, body, and spirit are telling us how anger and resentment affect the body. Not only do they contribute to the obvious problems of high blood pressure and heart problems, but anger “bound up” seems to contribute to depression, addiction, and some studies are showing a connections with other conditions such as arthritis and even some allergies. To forgive, or to move a little in the direction of forgiveness, begins to loose some of this anger, resentment, or whatever it is that has built up deep inside. The release of anger and resentment (through meditation, through prayer, through mindful exercise) helps us to live healthy and holy lives.

As the Church, we are stewards of this power to loosen and to heal. The Church gives us prayer, We have the saints to teach us and show us how to forgive. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which many call simply “confession.” We confess and are unburdened and freed, but a part of what we can confess includes the anger and resentment and the other ways in which we keep people bound up in us, with us, to us.

And we have the Holy Eucharist—this meal of forgiveness, in which we drink new wine and eat new bread, symbols of our being re-made into new bodies of Christ to extend the message “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).

In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, who owes him three thousand ducats and can’t pay. Lady Portia, posing as a lawyer, tries to talk Shylock out of his vengeance. A part of her argument is subtle, but powerful (because it points to truth.) She says that Shylock should show mercy. Shylock asks, “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.” Portia replies simply, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” [Merchant of Venice, 4.1.175-176].

Mercy is not “strained.” It’s not forced, it’s not going to be demanded of you. You don’t have to do it. But if you do, if you can— the one who shows mercy, who forgives, who unloosens and unbinds… that one sets loose also a double blessing.  And we don’t have to wait until a crisis or a dangerous storm in order to offer it.

I don’t know which is more powerful or more healing: to say with conviction and faith and hope and love, “I forgive.” Or to say with all belief in a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagining, “I am forgiven.” But through prayer, through the liturgies of the church, through the quiet wrestlings of our consciences, our Risen Lord whispers those words into our ear, and prays that we might hear them, live them, and carry them in our heart. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we are forgiven, and we have the grace and power to forgive. Thanks be to God.

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

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Strong (and weak) like Peter

Jesus reaching to PeterA sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 15:15-21Psalm 26:1-8Romans 12:9-21, and Matthew 16:21-28

Listen to the sermon HERE.

As I’ve followed the news about Hurricane Harvey in Houston and the surrounding areas, I’ve thought a lot about faith in such a situation.  I know a couple who are priests in Houston and have followed them on social media, praying for them, but also admiring their tenacity and focus in the midst of so much that could overwhelm.  (Our bulletin insert and our newsletter list a number of ways we can respond and help, and I urge you to be generous as your heart suggests.)

Whether it’s a natural disaster, a human-made disaster, or a smaller-day-to-day disaster at home or at work—it’s easy to feel unmoored, to be thrown off center, to be knocked off our foundation.

But we’re not alone in this.  In today’s Gospel, we hear about the disciple Peter, who last week was strong as a rock, but this week is sinking in quicksand.  What causes that kind of change?  And when we lose faith, when we’re less than solid in our footing, how do we find our way back to a firm foundation?

Last Sunday, Peter was on top of the world. Having misunderstood Jesus on several occasions, having lost his faith and found it again several times over, having denied Jesus after the Resurrection, but then being redeemed—in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus renames Simon Peter. He emphasizes “Peter,” which in Aramaic means “rock.” And so on Peter the Rock, the whole church is founded. But this week is different.

If CNN were following the story, I think Peter might appear under the “Worst Week” heading: “It was a ‘worst week’ for Peter; for getting in the way, slowing down the coming of the kingdom of God, and being called ‘Satan’ by Jesus Christ… you had the worst week.”

Last Sunday’s readings showed us Peter as “rock,” the one who had full faith in Jesus.  But this week, Jesus calls Peter a stumbling block.

How, exactly, has “Peter the Rock” become “Peter the problem?” Well, I think it has to do with Peter’s image of Jesus and Peter’s perception of what God is up to. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter recognizes Jesus is the Messiah, and he says as much. But very quickly, Peter begins to get his own ideas about what all of that means. He begins to imagine Jesus not in the image of God’s making, but in the image of Peter’s making. Jesus becoming a king or, becoming a great leader like the Caesar, or at least like a Temple priest or local ruler. Like the other disciples, Peter may have also come to have certain expectations about how he would fit into this new kingdom of God, with Christ as King—maybe Peter would be put in charge of something important. Maybe Peter would have a position of responsibility. After all, hadn’t Jesus called him the Rock? Great things were sure to be coming, it was only a matter of time.

But then when Jesus begins to explain to the disciples that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” Peter says, “No.” No way, Lord. God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” And with that statement (a statement that surely represents Peter’s unwillingness to accept the will of God), Peter falls out of his place as a foundational rock for the church. He becomes a stumbling block. Jesus is sharp with Peter: “Get behind me Satan,” he says.

The word that is translated as “satan,” means “accuser,” one who (like the devil when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness) suggests cutting corners, taking the easy way out, and looking out for number one above all else. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus says. “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

It’s when Peter’s OWN agenda gets in the way of God’s, that things get “clogged.” It not only slows down what God can do in Peter’s life, it also slows down what God can do around Peter.

A similar thing happens to Jeremiah in our first reading. Jeremiah has the work of speaking hard truth to a lazy and self-satisfied Jerusalem. With Babylon to the north and Egypt to the south, Jeremiah warns Jerusalem that it should look to God. But then, even as he warns the city, Jeremiah falls victim to his own despair, and becomes self-consumed. He laments to God, “I’ve done my part. I’ve said the difficult things and I’ve stood up for you, God, but no one listens.” Jeremiah begins to doubt his ministry and even to doubt the goodness of God. He asks, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” Jeremiah, through his own doubt and despair, becomes a kind of stumbling block to God’s way, but God picks him up and puts him where he needs to be, as God says, “I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the LORD. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”

Last week, Peter was called “the Rock.”  The scriptures helped us to think about how we, along with Peter and believers from every age and place, are called by God to be like building blocks, like living stones that make up the church. As living stones we do our best to be the Church, Christ’s Body in the World:  to provide strength for the weak, refuge for those not accepted elsewhere. We attempt the feed the hungry (both the physically hungry and the spiritually hungry) and we do our part to be rock-with-rock, stone-alongside-stone. But sometimes we fall out of place, like stones that fall out of a wall?

We fall out of place like Jeremiah. It’s hard to live a life of faith, and so we might get to a place of doubt and despair. We become self-consumed and wonder when we’re going to get our share. Or perhaps we fall out of faithful place like Peter. We get our own ideas about what God’s kingdom should look like and what our place should be within it. We are filled up with our own sense of what we want, or what we think we deserve, or how God should be blessing us.

We might do it in other ways. St. Paul warns us against becoming stumbling blocks for others through our living—when we say one thing with our lips, but say another with our lives. We can become stumbling blocks for God’s way through our attitude or outlook, through arrogance that holds ourselves apart from others, or even through negligence that surrenders to the world, assuming that God has no plan, or that God has forgotten us.

The Good news of today’s Gospel is that once we are called, carved, created to be God’s living stones, God never forgets us. There’s no flood strong enough to wash us away.  Each of us is precious and has his or her place in the building of God’s kingdom. Whether the storms of this world threaten to dislodge us from places of spiritual stability, or whether we become stumbling blocks ourselves, God, in his grace, gently kneels down to scoop us up, brush us off, and places us in again in a more faithful place. We can give thanks that God’s grace and favor go with us always, helping us to be God’s house of living stones.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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Who is Jesus for you?

Jesus of Many FacesA sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 51:1-6Psalm 138Romans 12:1-8, and Matthew 16:13-20

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In my first semester of college, I took a creative writing course. Though I can’t remember what our first essay was about, I think I must have included something about faith or belief.  When the professor handed our papers back to us, he included with mine a little book, saying that he thought I might find it interesting.  I don’t know if he thought it would shake me up, or what, exactly, but I don’t think he imagined how the book would only encourage me more to keep thinking about God in unconventional, creative, and personal ways.

The little book was called Jesus Christs, written by a man named A.J. Langguth.  Langguth was an author and journalist whose view of the world was surely influenced by his having been the South East Asian correspondent and Saigon bureau chief for “The New York Times” during the Vietnam war.

This little book, Jesus Christs is a compilation of Zen-like appearances, episodes, and conversations that Jesus has with various people, across time, culture, and geography.  It’s unorthodox, unconventional, and I’m sure to some– blasphemous.  But for me, it deepened my sense of prayer.  It encouraged me to imagine Jesus not so much in a first-century-Palestine kind of guy, (a bearded Jesus in sandals, wearing what looked vaguely like a bathrobe), but instead, to imagine even more vividly a Jesus in the grocery store, the library, the street, and everywhere I might go or imagine.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is walking along with his disciples and he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”  We just heard some of their answers.  People then (as now) connect to Jesus based on their own background, their own projections and hopes, their own experiences and expectations.  “Some say John the Baptist,” they tell Jesus.  Some say the prophet Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  But then Jesus gets personal and asks them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Whenever we have a baptism or renew our baptismal vows, the bishop or priest presiding asks us, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”  In the Baptismal Covenant (Book of Common Prayer, p. 304), we hurry along and answer that question in a way that has developed over two centuries of scripture, reason, and tradition. But I wonder what would happen if we paused right there?  What would happen if we stopped and thought a little about that question.

Do we believe in Jesus Christ?  “Well, yes,” I might say.  But then if you asked me to say exactly WHO Jesus is for me, my answer (my honest answer, my true answer) would be different depending on the day and the circumstances in which you asked me.

Sometimes Jesus is the fullest divinity I can imagine.  All the superlatives of scripture seem to fit with my understanding of him and my answer would sound orthodox in the first century, the tenth century, or the twenty-first century.  I can agree with Peter, who speaks up to Jesus and cries, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

But other days, I would answer differently.  Sometimes Jesus is more of a teacher for me.  Sometimes a stranger.  When I meet people who are suffering or read about people undergoing incredible hardship, I see Jesus as one of them, among them, suffering with them, not in some special category of divinity.  Sometimes I feel Jesus almost as an opponent, as someone who challenges me in ways I really don’t care to be challenged.  At times Jesus is like a buddy, sometimes a sibling and sometimes a parent.  Like some of the medieval saints, I’ve sometimes imagined Jesus in romantic, erotic, and sensual ways.  And I sometimes see Jesus as a jokester, the kind of Divine Jester who spoke so deeply to St. Francis and others.  For me, sometimes Jesus is a Jewish rabbi who I imagine looking on the Christian Church was great sadness, shaking his head and saying, “That’s not what I was talking about.”  Other times, I see Jesus more like a Hindu holy man, or a Zen master, and my Jesus is not always male.

Who do I say Jesus is?  Well, it depends.  But my belief only gets stronger as I allow Christ to fill my imagination and make himself known in new ways.

Jesus reveled himself to his friends, family, and disciples in new ways.  Just when they might think they understood him, he’d show up in a slightly different way.  No wonder people questioned whether he was God, a prophet, a holy man, or a prankster.

The Gospel writers continue this tradition by presenting to us four very different portraits of who Jesus is. Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus as a heroic man of action. He heals, he casts out demons, he works miracles, and while he’s the Son of God, he insists that this be kept a secret. Luke shows a compassionate and justice-oriented Jesus, who always takes the side of the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden.  In Matthew, we have the most human Jesus, a Jewish teacher, a good rabbi, but one who is as human as we are, though also divine.  And then John gives us the opposite of Matthew, a Jesus who is more divine than human, who’s always in charge, knows exactly who he is, and has total power of everything and everyone.

Who do you say Jesus is?  It’s an important question—perhaps the most important question, if you think of yourself as a Christian.  But the sad thing about much of Christianity, is that we’re so seldom encouraged to ask and live the question for ourselves.

Isaiah gives us a hint at one way to begin to answer the question of who Jesus is.  Though Isaiah is writing in a very different context, we understand Isaiah in the light of Christ.  We heard in our first reading,

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the Lord.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.

In other words, dig deep within yourself to ask who Jesus is for you. Who was he when you first met him? How have you changed since? How might your sense of Jesus have changed since? What provides the “rock” in your spirituality and how does this relate to who Jesus might be for you?

Paul tell the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Evangelical Christians love to ask strangers, “Do you know Jesus?” or “Have you met Jesus?” That question is really just another way of asking what Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” While I’m asking you and myself today, please also hear that I believe God wants us each to answer that question honestly for ourselves.  My Jesus might sound like blasphemy to you, and yours might sound simplistic, or judgmental, or foreign to me.  The Holy Spirit is large enough to embrace us all, gathering up all our images, hopes, experiences with those of scripture, tradition, and reason, to bring us into deeper life in Christ.

In that little book, Jesus Christs, which was so important in blasting open my understanding of Christ, there’s a section in which Jesus is in prison. The jailer offers to give Jesus a tour of the place and show him one section in particular.  The jailer explains, “We have a cell filled with people who think they are Jesus Christ.” Jesus replies, “They might be right … I would not be surprised to meet myself here, and when you began to speak so urgently to me, I wondered whether you were a Christ.”

Who do you say Jesus is?  Can you see him in others?  Can you see him in yourself?

May the Holy Spirit bless us with eyes to see, hearts to love, and spirits to soar with the Risen Christ this day and always. Amen.

 

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Across the Deep

across the water
A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017.  The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 19:9-18Psalm 85:8-13Romans 10:5-15, and Matthew 14:22-33.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Friends of mine recently shared some photographs of their son learning to swim.  The time span of the photographs was about a week or two, but the first few photos showed a little boy of 4 years old with a look of absolute terror on his face. The next few pictures showed the little boy in the water, with a lot of splashing.  But the final photo was unmistakable: there was a proud kid with his head popping out of the water, a huge smile for the camera, clearly having learned to swim.

Those pictures have stayed with me.  They remind me of my own learning to swim so many summers ago.  But they also give form to some of the feelings I have been having this week with increasingly dismay at our leaders, escalating conflict with North Korea and others, and then with the violence in Virginia this weekend around the demonstration of white supremacists and nationalists.  Those pictures make me remember when I was afraid of the water and when I was nervous about going into the deep.

The scriptures today don’t give precise answers for how to deal with the mixture of fear, ignorance, and hatred that result in white supremacy and blind nationalism. But the scriptures do speak to fear and how God will show up in the midst of fear and bring us to deeper faith.

I love how God shows up for Elijah in our first reading.  Elijah is terrified.  He’s been doing his work as a prophet, but Jezebel (the wife of King Ahab) has had enough of Elijah and has threatened to kill him.  Elijah is tired and scared, and so he basically hides in a cave, looking for God, waiting for God.  But God comes not in power and might.  Not in light and strength.  God comes not in earthquake or fire or in any way that Elijah has been taught to look for God.  Instead, God shows up in a still, small voice, the “sound of sheer silence.”

When it comes to fear of the water, it’s not only my friends’ son and me when I was little who are afraid.  As people of faith, we join a long tradition of aquaphobia.  Some theologians have pointed out that it seems that many of the people of Israel were afraid of the water. Remember Jonah who is brave enough to refuse the will of God, but when a storm comes on the sea, he loses all heart. It was a brave thing to be a fisherman or a tradesperson who traveled the seas. And that fear can be seen in the disciples of Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ miracle of feeding thousands of people has just happened. Jesus is exhausted. He tells his disciples to get back in the boat and cross the Sea, while he will go up the hill to pray. The skies grow darker, it gets late, and the boat drifts into deeper water. The disciples are quite a way from shore and the wind is against them. Suddenly, they see Jesus, walking towards them on the water. They think it’s a ghost until he speaks and he says to them, “Take heart. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” But Peter, being a little skeptical, says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So Jesus says, “Come.” And so, Peter gets out of the boat, and he begins to try to walk on the water. He’s doing it. He’s making it. It’s working, it’s a miracle, but then there’s a wind, a strong wind. The wind picks up, Peter gets scared, and he begins to sink. Jesus grabs him, but then asks him, “What happened? Why did you doubt?”
What a question! “Why did you doubt,” which, coming from Jesus, as he looks Peter in the eye with love and honesty, is really asking, “Why did you doubt me?” It’s a question we can certainly forgive Peter for not answering. I don’t know how I might have answered it.

Imagine the faith it must have taken for Peter to step out of the boat. Would you have done that? Would I have dared? Peter took that initial step, maybe one of the biggest steps he’d ever taken in his life and it goes well….. until. Until there’s the wind that really symbolizes and embodies fear of all kinds. Fear takes over. Fear of being alone. Fear of wondering if Jesus really has as much power as it seems. Fear about whether Peter has made the right step. Fear of looking ridiculous in front of the other disciples. Fear of deep water.

I don’t know about you, but I relate a lot to Peter. I get that kind of fear and it usually tries to pull me down. The deep water is scary.

We’re in deep water, as a country.  Institutions, traditions, and hierarchies that used to give a sense of structure and order have crumbled or are no longer valued.  The reaction for many people is fear—and often, with no reflection or center, that fear becomes a self-centered fear: basic and primal. We see that fear in narrowly myopic leaders, in people who cannot see beyond themselves to think of neighbors or the Common Good, and we obviously see that kind of fear in movements that target “the other” as the enemy.

My friends with the child who’s learning to swim are afraid, as are most parents.  But because they don’t really go to church much or think very deeply about God, my friends retreat into a fundamentalist kind of Roman Catholicism, taking a phrase or scriptural verse here and there, and then put all their trust in whatever religious-sounding voice reinforces their fear.  When they’re feeling like they’re in deep water, such people refuse to figure out how to use a float, and instead, put their trust in the promise of a golden life raft. It’s same whether we mean Buddhist fundamentalism (like in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, or Thailand), Hindu fundamentalism (in India or Pakistan), Muslim fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, or Christian fundamentalism in its various stripes.

The opposite of fundamentalism is faithfulness, and we’re called to move out on deep water in faith.

We move toward deep water personally whenever we feel God calling us into a new direction. We feel suddenly dropped off in the deep, perhaps through no intention or desire of our own. Deep waters are the stuff of new jobs, new responsibilities, new relationships, new ideas or opinions, new perspectives, even a new level of Christian discipleship.

If we’re feeling strong, if we’re on our game, if we have a bit of faith, then we’re like Peter and we take that first step. We’re amazed that we’ve done it. We’re out of the boat, we’re on the water. It still feels murky, a shadowy figure of Jesus calls us forward, but we step into the new place, the new job, the new relationship, the new reality. But then the wind comes, and we begin to sink. Maybe the wind sounds like the words of another person suggesting that what we do is foolish and makes no sense. Perhaps the wind sounds like someone with no faith saying, “you can’t walk on water. You have no right to expect a miracle.” Or maybe the wind is simply a memory of the past, some past failure that blocks my trust of the future.

But Jesus calls Peter out of the deep. He lifts him up from sinking, and he does the same thing with us. But we meet him in the deep. The life of faith calls us to swim, to jump, to step into the deep water, into the thick of things, using the wind—and it is there that we will meet Christ.

In the James Michener novel, Chesapeake, Michener compares ships to people. He writes,

A ship, like a human being, moves best when it is slightly athwart the wind, when it has to keep its sails tight and attend its course. Ships, like [people], do poorly when the wind is directly behind, pushing them sloppily on their way so that no care is required in steering or in the management of sails; the wind seems favorable, for it blows in the direction one is heading, but actually it is destructive because it induces a relaxation in tension and skill. What is needed is a wind slightly opposed to the ship, for then tension can be maintained, and juices can flow and ideas can germinate, for ships, like [people], respond to challenge” (Chesapeake [1978], 445.)

If you’ve ever sailed, you’ll know the truth of this passage more than some of us, but I think we can all hear in the sailing image a symbol of how we are called to go forward, we take risk and take a chance, and THAT’s where God meets us. He lifts us up, he gives us strength, he renews us and holds us and takes us where we need to go. Today’s Gospel shows us how to use the wind to take us into the presence of God. Use the wind to remember that Jesus and Peter walked on the water. Use the wind to remember that Jesus didn’t let Peter fall and he won’t let us fall.

God doesn’t show up in simplistic ways or easy answers.  But God is always present, if we will notice, if we will receive God’s strength and support, if we will take the hand that is offered, especially as we’re sinking.

Let us use the wind to receive the power of the Holy Spirit to keep us going, to keep us living, to keep us growing into the presence of God.

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

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Transfigured

Villalpando_Transfiguration

The Transfiguration, Christobal de Villalpando, 1683.

A sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, August 6, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Exodus 34:29-35Psalm 99 or 99:5-9 2 Peter 1:13-21, and Luke 9:28-36

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel tells the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Transfiguration describes the physical change in Jesus as his disciples watch on and the light overtakes him and his face becomes like the face of God. But there are other transfigurations that take place as well. It may be here that Jesus’ own self-identity changes, his future becomes clear in a new way, and he sets his face toward Jerusalem. The disciples themselves are perhaps transfigured as they come to understand Jesus in a new way. They don’t fully understand, but they’ve learned that in a time of confusion, things may seem to get even more cloudy, but through prayer, through an ongoing relationship with God, clarity comes in the end.

Our Gospel tells of a dramatic transfiguration, but the Gospel also signals to us that transfigurations happen in our lives as well. We may not use that word, and we may not see them as dramatically, and we may not ever be alert to them, but God often works through confusion, a cloud, and eventual clarity.

The key to moving through this transition, the key to making it up the mountain and back, the key to transfigurations, is at the very beginning of today’s Gospel. They went up on the mountain to pray.

Prayer keeps us open and alive to Jesus Christ. It is our being with him and our listening to him. Prayer enables us to endure confusion, because our focus is on God and not on whatever blows around us. Prayer takes us into the cloud and there we find God in a deeper way. From there, prayer shows us the way out of the cloud, the way forward, the way down the mountain.

In the 14th century an anonymous monk wrote a book that has been called the Cloud of Unknowing , and it has helped spiritual seekers for centuries ever after. The author counsels that sometimes our effort to know, our need to understand everything, to get it sorted out in our head, can be the very stumbling block to a deeper knowledge of God.

The author talks about prayer in simple ways, ways that are sometimes described in what modern spiritual writers call Centering Prayer. But the praying is simple, and easy, it’s not complicated. It’s simply sitting with God, being available for God, trying to un-clutter the mind so that we’re not constantly thinking and talking to God, but listening, being, breathing.

We may think that the presence of God is unattainable and so, “Why bother?” We may have tried some kind of prayer in the past and felt like we failed at it, but the author of the Cloud of Unknowing suggests that heaven is closer than we might have imagined.

The author writes

“Spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that! So that whoever really wanted to be in heaven, he is there and then in heaven spiritually. For we run the high way (and the quickest) to heaven on our desires, and not on our two feet.” (Chapter 60).

Stephen Cottrell, bishop of Chelmsford (England) writes about prayer and captures nicely the way so often we think about praying, but we put it off. ( From the Abundance of the Heart: Catholic Evangelism for All Christians , London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006, p. 93.) We imagine that tomorrow we’ll have more time, or the apartment will be quieter, or we’ll be less distracted and somehow more available for God later.

Cottrell thinks of the way people sometimes will be driving down a highway and notice the gas gauge is moving toward empty. But there’s a kind of game we play—we see a sign saying that gas if available in 5 miles and also in 50, and so we pass the 5 mile marker and try to make it to the 50 mile mark. We don’t save any time doing this—it will take the same amount of time to fill up later as it might sooner, but we delay. And sometimes, we end up almost driving on empty. Cottrell suggests that too many of us are often running on empty, spiritually—we need times of prayer, we need patterns of prayer that are woven into our days. That might look like Morning or Evening Prayer with a Prayer Book, or it might look like a prayer while walking or jogging in the morning. It might mean meditation or Centering Prayer, or it might mean journaling, or prayerfully listening to music or any number of things that you choose to be your prayer.

Prayer gives us the means to make into through any cloud and beyond. One Transfiguration story I’ve been spending time with this year has to do with painting that is reproduced in this week’s “News from 316.”  There’s a detail next to my article and a full version later in the newsletter.  It’s of Christóbal de Villalpando’s Transfiguration, a massive painting for a chapel altar in the Cathedral of Puebla, Mexico.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Bank of Mexico have teams up to remove the painting, clean and restore it, and now share it with people through exhibition.  It’s at the Metropolitan in the Lehman wing through October, and I encourage you to go and see it and the art that accompanies it.

Villalpando paints an odd Transfiguration, pairing it with the scary story from the Book of Number about how the people of Israel disobeyed God and God sent a plaque of serpents.  Moses prayed for the people and God said, “Build an image of a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and have the people look at it. Then they will be healed.”  Jesus refers to this story when he meets with Nicodemus and relates it to the way in which Jesus will be crucified, hung on a cross, but through his sacrificial death and resurrection, we will find healing.

What’s new, and what Villalpando does is to pair the bronze serpents with the Transfiguration, rather than the Crucifixion.  It’s as though Villalpando is saying that through the cloud, we find healing—no matter what the cloud may bring.

One person who would have seen that painting and understood it in many different contexts was the Mexican Hieronymite nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695).  Sor Juana was a largely self-taught poet, theologian, playwright, composer, and philosopher, and the Bishop of Puebla did not appreciate her larger-than-life ability to outsmart, outwit, and outpray all of her contemporaries.  The Bishop of Puebla, the patron of the Transfiguration painting by Villalpando, wrote a letter basically  condemning Sor Juana, and reminding her of all the old prohibitions against women—they should be submissive, not speak in church, etc, etc.  Sor Juana wrote a famous Respuesta, or Response, in 1691, in which she masterfully defends the right for women and girls to be educated, to think and write and talk, and she obliterates the feeble-minded argument of Bishop Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz.

Sor Juana, through her prayer life, through her intellectual life, through her deep connection with God inside herself, navigated the cloud of conflict and condemnation, and found a peaceful place to continue to function with integrity and purpose.  Eventually she retired from writing and speaking publicly, not out of defeat, but out of a sense of having said her peace.  Tragically, shed died while ministering among her sisters in a plague in 1695.

On this feast of the Transfiguration, may we, like the disciples, like Sor Juana, and like so many others, be strengthened through prayer to withstand any storm or cloud that might come our way.  May we always remember that prayer draws us into the cloud of God’s presence and can help us move forward with new clarity. May we, too, be transfigured and changed by God’s love.

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

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