For most of the world’s Christians, today is New Years’ Day. Happy New Year! We begin a fresh liturgical year this morning. If the liturgical year is unfamiliar to you, you actually pass a diagram of it every time you walk in that back door, so stop and look -- and you can pick up a free calendar with its dates and times in the Great Hall to take home today. Living by that calendar rather than by the secular American calendar is one of our important Christian tools.
The liturgical year is our way of letting the Spirit teach us that that time itself belongs to God, and that every day and hour is given its real meaning by the work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. The liturgical year is our way of letting the Spirit demonstrate that no matter how many times we approach Jesus together in Scripture and Sacrament, there is always something new to find. The meaning of who Jesus is and what he has done is inexhaustible, so we live it out in our calendar year after year, even though most Americans barely know our calendar exists.
The diagram of if you pass on the way in shows the liturgical year a circle, which is a common image, but one scholar has suggested a better image may be a spiral, ascending as it moves. Because every time we come back to the readings for today, the collect for today, there has been change in us, change in our world, and we discover that God is competent to address it. We learn by experience that he has ever new guidance and insights and challenges for us, as we spiral through the liturgical year and re-encounter the same readings and prayers over and over. So if you are choosing to live as a disciple of Jesus, one thing that will help you is to pick up this tool of the liturgical calendar and begin using it. Your clergy can recommend more resources.
Now you might have noticed in our readings today that on this day of new beginnings, we begin at the end. All three readings do this, but let’s look right now at the Gospel from Luke. Luke is our Sunday Gospel for the next 12 months, and we’ll be focusing on it this whole liturgical year, until Advent 2022. In Luke today, Jesus talks about the passing of the present order of things and the hope of the future, when he is revealed in his fulness and the universe finally, fully works God’s way. And again, we see a similarity to that difference of what calendar you follow: there is a difference between us who belong to Jesus, and those who belong to something else.
Jesus explains, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Do you see those two reactions? Some people are filled with fear and foreboding when God gets his way, but how do disciples react? We stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.
If we are invested in the present order of things – and I think even we who belong to Jesus fall into that investment at least some of the time – we are likely to want to stay inside that order and all the things we’ve invested in. Now if you are in an oppressed group that’s getting a raw deal systemically, it may immediately hit you as good news that the present order is not permanent. Many Christians live under that kind of oppression. But if the present order is basically working OK for you, you are likely to want to keep it going.
But the problem there is that the more we limit our vision to the present order of things, and the more we feel like doing so is working out OK, the more placing our hope in Jesus’ order of things will stop coming naturally to us. The more our motivation to live as a disciple will peter out. God just won’t seem as real. So you can see why, if we habitually focus our hearts and our time on adjusting to the present order of things, we probably would be filled with fear and foreboding when we have to face the truth that that whole order is not ultimate. All the things we’ve focused on and invested in will in the end let us down.
But it’s not like that if you have begun at the end, as Advent gives us the chance to do year after year. If you have looked past the present order of things and gotten your perspective in line with Christian truth, you will have a more realistic view. If you have put Jesus first in life and trusted that he is able to arrange all the other good things in the way that he knows is best, when the end comes – either your own end, or the real last days – you will find yourself able to stand up and raise your head and know that while loss of things you’ve been used to is hard, your redemption is drawing near. It’s one of the many great gifts of discipleship. Because we begin at the end, we don’t have to cry out: our world is being shaken! Run for your lives! We cry out, Come, thou long expected Jesus! from our fears and sins release us, now thy gracious kingdom bring!
If you’ve ever rewatched a movie or re-read a book, you have experienced the difference it makes to know the end. When you know the end, you can see the beauty of the construction of the story, the hidden references you missed the first time, you appreciate how it was all put together. And so in Advent, we begin at the end. We begin with ultimate questions: Where is my life headed? Where is the universe headed? What’s the last chapter of the story of the world? What is the real situation we are in as human beings? What deserves to be my top priority?
Many of us, these last months, have lost sight of those kinds of questions. Of course those who have most completely lost sight of them are not with us at Mass anymore. But even those of us who are here, let’s be honest, we have been shaken these past months, nearly all of us. Even those of us who do know the end. We have found ourselves staring dully as we scroll endlessly through our phones, or having one too many cocktails a few too many times, or being too numb to make the simple efforts of showing up in the communities that used to mean so much for us. And today, the Bible warns us, 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.
The first Sunday of Advent is a time to accept the grace of starting again. To come to Christian truth, and Christian tools, and Christian belonging, afresh. On the first Sunday of Advent, we begin at the end: where is all this going? Who holds the future? The present order of things has no idea of the answers to questions like that. But your Bible can tell you. The liturgical year can tell you. The Mass can tell you. Jesus can tell you. Happy new year.
If someone had sat us down two years ago and told us that much of what we love would be changed or taken away from us entirely over the course of 2020 and 2021, I think we would have laughed. A catastrophe of this magnitude and length would simply have been beyond our ability to imagine. It wouldn’t be worth thinking about seriously because dwelling on the cost of prolonged isolation, mixed scientific and political messaging, and the death of hundreds of thousands of people is pretty clearly an unhealthy exercise.
Yet here we are. Everything we love has changed, and we’re still scrambling to make something of what’s left.
I begin there today because I think our collective pandemic experience puts us in a unique position to empathize with Jesus’ disciples, who have just learned that the Temple they love will be destroyed. “‘Do you see these great buildings?’ Jesus asks. ‘There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’” Everything you love will change, Jesus says — and the disciples simply don’t know what to do with that knowledge.
So they ask him privately, “‘When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’ And Jesus begins to tell them about the false prophets who will come bearing his name and how the disciples will hear of wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and famines. “Do not be alarmed,” he says. “This must take place, but the end is not yet. . . . These are just the beginning of the birth pangs.’”
We can almost see the expressions on the disciples’ faces — their wide eyes, their clenched jaws — at hearing this news. Everything you love will change, Jesus says. The places you go, the people you see, the little things you took for granted because they were so much a part of your life — all of it will change, will be gone in an instant. And that’s just the beginning.
What could be worse news? Wars and natural disasters are life-changing events; but to have the core of one’s faith left in rubble is a waking nightmare, the kind that you can’t shake even months and years later. The Temple was a part of the disciples’ home, a cherished part of their lives. And it would all be destroyed.
To make way for something better.
Not that that was the thought that came to them in the moment. The worry was too present, like a weight on their shoulders or pressure in their chests. They couldn’t possibly imagine the gift that would be given them when the Temple was destroyed, only to be raised three days later.
And yet this is the path onto which the disciples have stepped. The path we also walk.
The disciples will suffer. We will suffer. Everything we love will be radically changed — whether by the marching armies of Rome, by a years-long pandemic, or simply by time; but like the woman who cannot imagine surviving the pain of childbirth, there will come a moment when the suffering is nothing compared to the new life before us.
Looking back, the disciples will grieve what they have lost, just like we grieve what we have lost. We shed tears over what once was, knowing that the past held both beauty and goodness. But then there will come a day when the story resolves, when the pieces click into place, and we turn our eyes toward the one who is life incarnate, who “by a single offering . . . has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified,” knowing that by his sacrifice, the path our lives take will never end in the valley of the shadow of death.
And in that moment, when our hearts are lifted up to the heavens, we will praise God, saying, “O Lord, you are my portion and my cup . . . I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.” Because God is at our right hand, we will not be shaken.
We shall not be shaken because we are washed, we are clean, we are made new in the blood of the Lamb. Through our Savior’s sacrifice, we have a certain hope that we will not be abandoned to the Pit, that we will not be left to struggle forever against the corruption in this world; but that our minds, our hearts, and our bodies — our whole selves — will be redeemed, will be brought into the very presence of God.
And that is a promise that cannot be broken. A fortress that cannot be overrun. A reality that will never change because Jesus himself, God himself, has given his own life to guarantee it.
Brothers and sisters, we are living in a time of loss, a time when our lives have changed before our eyes into something we wouldn’t recognize two years ago. The pain of that is real and present; and we will wrestle with it for years to come. But it is also not the end, for we walk a road that ends in resurrection.
“I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall. My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” AMEN.
The clergy have had a lot of questions about this, so let me start by saying: No, the Episcopal church does not have a formal canonization process. In other words, while we have feast days on our calendar that commemorate particular Christians, there’s no committee that grades their holiness as an individual and passes judgment on it. In the Anglican communion, we do not pronounce people saints.
Instead we follow what was the practice in the first 1000 years of Christianity, which was not to grade individuals’ virtue, but instead to pay attention when faithful Christians continued to be inspired by someone after their death. Were Christians continuing to find this person’s witness to the Gospel inspiring, were local traditions growing up to celebrate and remember the person, were Christians naturally asking for the person’s prayers? So in essence, was this a believer whose story and actions were still inspiring many people to love Jesus better even several years after their death? Was this a believer whose story and actions might inspire us to love Jesus better right now? Then let’s remember them.
David Brown from Durham Cathedral, who wrote Through The Eyes of the Saints, comments that this is a more useful way to think than saying “Well, St. So and So was perfectly holy. God bless them. Of course, I could never be like that, so I’m off the hook.” Saints are actually meant to put us on the hook, precisely because they are like us. They are not superhuman or superperfect. But they are people who have been notable in letting the presence and teaching of Jesus reveal itself through them, and specifically, reveal itself in the context of a different culture or time period than first century Judea. And that’s really the Christian life, isn’t it? We’re not here because we’re interested in first century Judea, but because we long to experience and reveal Jesus in our own culture and our own time.
Emmanuel has been running a series of Instagram quiz posts on saints the past couple weeks, and they kind of made an effort to point out the different backgrounds of many of the people Christians commemorate: Egyptian, Syrian, African, Asian. Not because we are aiming at checking boxes, but because the Good News of Jesus is that big. I’ve mentioned before that the historian of Christianity, Andrew Walls, has pointed out that most of the great world religions are centered in the same region of the globe where they began. Buddhism has spread, but the Far East is still where the majority of Buddhists live. Islam has spread, but Mecca is still its center today. Hinduism, born in India, remains a predominantly Indian religion.
Christianity is an exception to that rule. Its center keeps moving. Most of its adherents were first in the Middle East, then in North Africa and the Roman Empire. After that, most Christians were in Europe for awhile, and now the center has moved to the Southern Hemisphere. There are about 685 million Christians in Africa, for example, most of them in locally-based churches that have no equivalent in the West. Jesus is wide enough for all of us, and if we act like Christianity is only good news for one kind of person, we are misrepresenting Jesus and the Gospel. The good news of what Jesus has done is for absolutely everybody.
So when we look at the wide variety of the saints, we are helped to imagine how big and how accessible and inclusive the Gospel is. We are helped to notice that Jesus is enough for everyone, of every race and culture, every era, every gender expression, every generation, every body. When Christians are bearing authentic witness to Jesus, we will look as different from each other as the saints do.
In fact, the genuineness of my and your profession of faith can probably in part be evaluated by how much being Christian has connected us to people we would not ordinarily spend time with. People where the only explanation for our connection is Jesus. If we come to church, but while we’re here we limit our relationships to people who are our own age or our own economic group or our own education level, we are simply importing the sinful patterns of the world into the Kingdom.
After all, we come together at church to have sort of a lab -- to live the Kingdom, to show each other and the world what the Kingdom of God looks like. We’re nourished by the life of the Kingdom when we hear the Word of God, fed by the life of the Kingdom when we receive the Blessed Sacrament. Yet you know as well as I do how easy it is, even here right in the middle of our lab for the Kingdom, to behave in ways that contradict the Kingdom. To import the sinful habits of this age that undermine our own faith and our own witness. Of course there are lots of those habits of this age, and we’ve all seen them imported into the church in discouraging ways. But on All Saints Sunday that habit of churchgoers acting as if the world’s groupings define us even here, is particularly worth renouncing.
This is one reason we’re deliberately inviting everyone to mix it up today – to form scavenger hunt teams that are not just people you already know you enjoy, to rotate among stations with Emmanuelites you wouldn’t naturally get to know. It’s why, especially at the food table, we have discussion topics, so that we won’t stand around and import secular norms for chit-chat that undermine why we came to church in the first place. We don’t want to have a secular gathering that just happens to be taking place at the street address of an Episcopal parish. Our situation in the churches today is far too urgent for that. We don’t have that luxury anymore. We need to learn what Christian belonging means, and we need to learn it now.
And we have the saints to help us. We have the proof in them that any distance we think exists between us and Jesus can be bridged. We have the proof that the Gospel is big enough for everyone. We have the proof, in all these very different human lives, of what is possible when you surrender to God. And we have their prayers, that we, too, would surrender.
All you Holy Apostles and Evangelists, Pray for us.
All you Holy Martyrs, Pray for us.
All you Holy Bishops and Confessors, Pray for us.
All you Holy Priests and Levites, Pray for us.
All you Holy Monks and Hermits, Pray for us.
All ye holy men and women, saints of God, make intercession for us. Amen.
“The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.”
It seems like many things I read these days reference the longer lasting effects of the pandemic. There are disagreements over vaccinations, wearing masks, and rules and regulations. While designed to keep us healthy, I think many people are tired of it all. Negative emotions abound. Grief over actual loss of life and grief over loss of life as we knew it are both very real. Anger is close to the surface for many and that anger comes out, not always at situations related to the pandemic. I find that simple kindness is often a rarity. One example that comes to mind is the increase in speeding and what I would call reckless driving. This is both in town and on the interstates. After much reflection over several times of distress, I have concluded that making what I consider poor choices in the use of a motor vehicle is one area where people can have control of their environment. Rather than let another car into a long line of traffic, said cars often speed up to close that gap for themselves. Winning at small things seems to give glee. Driving too fast, dodging in and out of traffic, has become a way of life that affects us all. I often find myself yelling out, “People live here! Slow Down!” Now that is also showing my anger—inside my car no one can hear me yelling, except me! So why do I continue to do that? I am angry at the other’s anger. Hmm.
Fear, Grief, Resentment, Anger, and more have become part of the pandemic life. We can certainly see evidence of the broken or fallen world on a day-by-day basis. We need our savior Jesus more and more.
My reflection in witnessing and experiencing these emotions and actions has gone on to pondering, how can we change this cycle? Perhaps a better way to phrase this is how can we allow our Lord to change us?
Always when I am feeling stuck, I find that turning to scripture and prayer helps. For me it is scripture first and then prayer. And most often for me the psalms are the best place to start.
So, this morning I will take a closer look at Psalm 126, the lectionary appointed one for today. This particular psalm is one of a group of 15 together called the Songs of Ascent. These were sung by the Hebrew pilgrims as they walked to Jerusalem for major feasts, such as the Passover. Jerusalem is a city on a hill so no matter the direction from which you travelled you always were going up. To break the monotony of the long journey they would sing. I can relate to this as before we had our “devices” my family would sing to break up long car trips. How wonderful that the Hebrews would use these Songs of Ascent as they walked.
Professor and writer of Old Testament Interpretation, James L May has said that the songs of ascent are both “Joy remembered and joy anticipated.” Joy remembered and joy anticipated. Why don’t you look at your bulletin for a moment and we will see this joy expressed.
This psalm recalls the historical events of the Jewish exiles returning from Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple in 6th century BCE. That time was a grand scale restoration of the Israelites and brought with it intense joy. In singing this psalm the people would remember the marvelous things that God had done for them in the past. The first two verses: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” And then the next two recall how grateful they were for what God had done for them. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” Then the tone changes a bit and in the next verses they speak with confidence to ask for God’s restorative power now. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev.” And then continued to express their trust that “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” Remembering what God had done assured them that God would be with them time and again. It was God who would replace their sadness with joy.
Psalm 126 and the rest of these Songs of Ascent were community songs of trust. Remembering God is the one who brings joy out of sorrow, laughter out of tears and good out of evil, strengthened their trust in him.
Joy remembered brings joy anticipated.
While we can certainly use this for our personal joys, this morning I propose that we try this collectively, looking at our community. What joy has God brought to Emmanuel in the past?
The first joyful memory that first comes to my mind is the result of the rectory fire. Seeing the flames going high out of the rectory roof was a time of shock and fear. However, due to the wonderful fire fighters and to the grace of God that fire was put out with little damage to the rest of the building. The nave, sanctuary, offices, Great Hall and Mowry building were fine. That in itself was a joy. But the future has brought even more joy as the rectory has been redone saving the beauty of the original structure and repurposing the space to offer more to the surrounding community. Plans are currently in formation as to the specific details of how the building will be used but the joy at seeing it fully completed is wonderful. It is more beautiful than we could have imagined. Our gratitude to all who worked on it and our gratitude to God is something wonderful to remember. And, if you want a reminder of the devastation of the fire, for now you can still see the paint peeling off the pillar of the porch in the courtyard. God has brought us out of tragedy and into joy!
The second joyful memory of mine is also of a fire. This was smaller in scope and occurred on the high altar. While the flames destroyed the altar linen and a few other things it was quickly extinguished by the lay reader before the space was totally gone. There is a reminder of this joy on the front of the tabernacle on the altar. The carving of the agnus dei, the lamb of God is charred black. It has been left that way purposefully as a reminder of God’s providence and saving power.
As we remember the joys, we are grateful, and that gratitude extends to all the people who listened to God to help achieve His purposes here. The Polks, the family who gave the money to build this structure, are a part of that group, as well as those who gave the stained glass windows and other items to reflect the beauty of God’s world and God’s story. The committees who planned and saw to it that the additions to the building were made to reflect the needs of the 1960’s. The people who worked tirelessly in the late 1980’s to see that this space would continue to be a beacon of Christ’s light in the world of downtown Champaign. There is much joy to be remembered here.
And as we remember the joy that God has brought to us we can also find the assurance of his presence with us through the more difficult times. “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” The times of sadness are like a season of growing and they will come to an end.
The psalms of ascent promise that; God promises that.
Joy remembered and joy anticipated.
Take home the weeks psalm. Read it and remember your own times of joy at what God has done for you. Be grateful for those and be assured that joy will come again. God is present with us always and doing good for us in all things. Our gratitude will overflow! And we will want to give back to the one who has given us all.
Perhaps now instead of yelling at those other drivers I can pray for them to know God’s kindness, presence and joy!
The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed!
As we’ve commented, this fall is a time when our lectionary readings reveal Jesus showing himself at his most challenging. Just to remind you where we’ve come from, before we talk about where we are:
Last week Jesus left his disciples “exceedingly astonished” by teaching that not even a moral pillar of society, a man who had it all economically, socially, and spiritually, had the slightest chance at entering the life of God without giving up reliance on his skills and achievements and relying on Jesus instead. When the man walked out on that offer, the disciples were not happy. (I mean, he could have been a potential big donor. An important supporter of the ministry. And Jesus won’t compromise the message to keep him happy.)
You’ll remember that Jesus commented to the disciples, “It’s so hard for people like that to enter the Kingdom.” And at this point they can’t contain themselves: “If not him, Jesus, who?” And Jesus, true to form, cheerfully replies, “Nobody. Nobody can enter the Kingdom. It’s impossible. Except with God.” What can you say? He is so confident in his Father that he just has no fear.
So as we come in today, the disciples have been trying to process this event. And their conversation eventually morphs into a hypothesis. It’s the kind of hypothesis you come up with when you try to fit Jesus and his message into your preconceptions about religion.
So here’s their hypothesis: all this security that makes Jesus so completely confident, all these resources he acts like he has, and that he seems to think so outweigh money and achievement that you could drop those in a second if you only understood -- maybe all those riches and power and security are going to show up. Maybe Jesus is going to be crowned King, and reign in glory, and they’ll be the Cabinet. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen.
And so two members of his inner circle, James and John, want to call the best seats. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Now there is going to be glory. There are going to be infinite resources revealed. But it’s not going to happen in a way that fits their preconceptions about religion. The Son of Man is going to be glorified, all right, but glorified by being lifted up on a Cross, by showing the lengths to which God will go to give himself to us. Glorified not by collecting glory, but by giving it away, liquidating his assets and pouring them out over us in love.
Not exactly what James and John were thinking of. But you can’t blame them; we all think like that without God’s help. As Jesus says it’s impossible to enter the Kingdom for us. We have to let God bring us in. Without God, we all turn everything back to how it affects us, what we think we and others deserve, how we will benefit. We think that’s normal, because we think sin is normal. But as I said a couple weeks ago, Jesus knows what’s actually normal, what God originally intended.
Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ request is gentle, but also comical in its level of understatement: “You do not know what you are asking.” They don’t know that the way they interpret Jesus, according to their preconceptions about improving yourself and managing your own resources – all of that comes from being trapped within the worldly system that Jesus came to save us from. And so Jesus tries to tell them. He tries to help them imagine how it is, in God’s system, God’s kingdom, which, remember, he has already launched and is already available.
Jesus tries to explain, as he does over and over, that the way God does things isn’t the way this fallen world does things. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. He came to give his life away, a ransom for many.” With God, the primal movement is not inward, it’s outward. It’s not about what comes to me, but about what I let go. It’s not about who respects me, but about giving honor and opportunity to others. It’s not about safeguarding our blessings, but about being a blessing to others.
This principle is all through the Bible, and it baffles me how often churches act as if it weren’t. In so many churches you would swear someone just cut all those pages out of the book. In so many churches the attitude is like, yes, that’s what’s in the Prayer Book and the Hymnal and the Bible, but once we walk out of Mass into the parish hall – never mind walking out of the parish hall into the parking lot – once we leave the service we are going to act as if God were very limited in his abilities and very narrow in his priorities, and we need to ration our resources and make sure we don’t get too involved, because apparently the Holy Spirit has been kidnapped and tied up in a closet somewhere.
But all those pages are in the Bible, and God knows what he’s doing with this infinite blessing stuff, and the most heartstoppingly beautiful example of that is Jesus. The way he emptied himself on the Cross for us is so beautiful that when we really see it, when it really connects, it opens up the opportunity to feel all those other things that have taken over our priorities being drained of the power we mistakenly thought they had. We thought we needed them, but that was just the way the world did things. The way God does things is different. Acclaim is just acclaim. Time is just time. Money is just money. In Christ, we can have them, or let them go. He is enough for us.
You don’t have to believe that, of course. Christianity is hard to believe. And the Episcopal church is, thank God, a safe place for people who aren’t yet ready to believe it, a safe place to ask questions and dip your toes in the water of Christian life. But it’s not meant to be a place that encourages you to stay in the shallows forever and never go past your toes, either. It’s meant to help you learn to swim. God the Holy Trinity is an infinite ocean of joy and creativity and love and the sooner you strike out into the depths the better your life will be. And the better the lives of others will be, because as you become secure in God’s blessing he will be able to use you to bless others.
God is always seeking to give more and more out of his infinite resources -- even to us Episcopalians, who so often hold back, lingering right on the shoreline in case some better option comes along. Who so often can’t be bothered to realize how much God is offering us because we’re far more motivated by trying to hold on to what we’ve got.
But when we do open our hands, when we do even start to look at Jesus and let go of trying to deserve and control and plan, when we swim instead of backing away from the beautiful big waves, we’re filled with blessing. And the same blessing spills out from us, and we say “Is that how Christianity works? Why did I miss this for so long?”
You don’t have to believe that. But I want to tell you, it’s worth a try.
A man ran up and knelt before Jesus, and asked him, “‘[What] must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You know the commandments: You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal . . .’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘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.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Few passages in the Gospels put us on edge as much as this one can — because no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from Jesus’ teaching, we can’t shake the feeling that he is speaking to us. And despite the fact that we consider ourselves to be fairly nice people who are also fairly generous, we have a feeling that the story would end the same way: with us going home disheartened. For we, too, have great possessions.
Much as we’d like to deny it, however, that is exactly what’s going on. Jesus is here among us and he is speaking to us now and his words are sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the center of our hearts, revealing what it is that really matters there.
And, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not him.
Not that we don’t think Jesus isn’t great. We do; but we have a habit of pushing him to the side when the real stuff of life comes up. Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with my finances, with how I live my life or spend my time. We hear “Go sell all that you have and give to the poor and come follow me,” and we immediately begin equivocating, pointing to the good things we’ve done, to the plans we have, to our intentions — anything to avoid the fact that Jesus so frankly reveals: We don’t love him most of all.
Which is an uncomfortable reality to face. Like the disciples, we watch in amazement as the rich young ruler leaves. But he’s a good person, we think. We’re all good people and we just want to follow you, Jesus. Isn’t that enough?
And Jesus says that it’s not.
“Then who can be saved?”
Who can be saved when the rich can’t buy their way into heaven and when even the most decent person among us can’t meet the bar Jesus sets — because try as we might, we can’t make ourselves love God as he deserves. We can’t make ourselves stop worrying about the cares of this world. We can’t make ourselves stop wanting and needing the things that Jesus literally tells this young man to leave behind.
So what do we do when we come to this point? What do we do when Jesus confronts us with the truth? Will we cling to the gold and jewels of this life? Will we go away sad because we simply can’t give up our possessions? Or will we open our hands and our hearts and reach for the pearl of great price, the silver coin, the treasure hidden in a field, knowing that he is more beautiful, more valuable, more precious than anything, than everything, we’ve left behind?
If that sounds impossible, it’s because it is. In our own strength, we will not, indeed, we cannot make ourselves love God more than money or family or whatever idol rests on the altar of our hearts. For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible — even the saving of a rich young ruler. Even the saving of us.
Jesus, looking on the young man kneeling before him, loved him. Jesus, looking on each and every one of us today loves us, too. He loves us so deeply that he gave up the riches that were his own and emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, so that we might be saved — so that his riches might become our riches and his life our life.
God himself chose to make the poverty of our sin his own so that we might share in his abundance, so that the poor in spirit and the poor in body might be blessed according to God’s generosity, not according to some worldly standard or worldly standing.
This is the gift Jesus offers us today, a gift of riches beyond all reckoning hidden within the humble body of our Lord.
We are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because of Christ — and we will grow to desire him, to long for his presence more than we long for even the most beautiful things our world would give us as we follow him, as we cling to him, as we choose to set aside our burdens and our cares bit by bit and day by day and look to him instead.
Together with the psalmist, let us pray: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands — O prosper the work of our hands!” AMEN.
saw in the News-Gazette recently that a local grocery chain is cutting back its hours because of staffing problems. That reality of “this is the best we can do under the circumstances” has really become part of life, hasn’t it? The MTD is having to make all kinds of service reductions, too. And you have that sentence we’re all used to now: There are supply chain issues. These have become the routine experiences of life post-Covid, where we all regularly accept that this is the best everyone can do under the circumstances.
The theological equivalent of “the best we can do under the circumstances,” probably, is something we’ve all been living longer than any of us can remember -- existence in a fallen world. That term, fallen, comes from the Christian claim that the world no longer works the way God intended it to. That nature, relationships, systems, everything around us and within us, has been distorted by what we Christians call the Fall. But in this case, we’ve gotten so used to the distortion we often treat it as normal. But it isn’t, or at least Christians believe it isn’t.
However you read the picturesque story about Adam and Eve itself, our narrative as Christians claims that the universe that originated from God mirrored his perfect justice and love. It was a world in which for example there was no racism, no sexism, no disease or decay, no lies or betrayals. That’s what originated from God. But people said “no. We don’t trust you, God. We know better than you what’s good for us.” And thus began the decay of God’s universe in favor of a universe shot through with human self-centeredness. From that rupture in love, that rupture in trust, the ripples of distortion spread. And in Christian theology, we call that the Fall.
So living in this fallen world means that we are often faced with the best everyone can do under the circumstances. The things we deal with in life often express not God’s full dream for us, not his ultimate purpose for society, not his vision of what’s normal, but the best everyone can manage amidst the abnormal distortions human sin has caused. I mean, God sees sin as abnormal, whereas we see it as normal. No wonder we miss the point.
There’s an interesting instance of that in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees come with one of their attempts to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him. In this question, they are referring to an existing political controversy about King Herod’s family, but they frame it abstractly, asking whether a man can divorce his wife. Jesus starts by referring them back to the law of Moses, one of the ways God helped his people deal with the reality of a fallen world before Jesus came. What did the law of Moses say, Jesus asks.
It actually doesn’t directly say anything, but there is one passage, Deuteronomy 24, which is about remarriage after divorce. It just assumes, given the circumstances of a fallen world, that there are going to be divorces. That passage, which the Pharisees turn to because they have nowhere else to turn, takes for granted that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, that sending away a spouse is common and unremarkable, and takes for granted that the husband should write up a document testifying to the divorce for the wife’s protection.
That’s not a Biblical command, but this passage assumes that’s how it works when divorces happen. Given the circumstances of a patriarchy. Given the circumstances of broken relationships. Given the circumstances of a subsistence economy for most people. Given the circumstances, that’s the best Deuteronomy can do right now – at least provide for the poor woman economically. Our culture also assumes that there are going to be divorces in a fallen world, but we have extremely different ideas about what the process should look like. And when Jesus pushes them, the Pharisees go to that passage because they have nowhere else to go.
But the astonishing thing about Jesus is that he has somewhere else to go. He goes not to the Law that addresses life after the Fall, not to the sad realities of a broken world, but back before all that. Because he knows what God’s normal is, what the world is like without sin and shame. Yes, he says, "Moses wrote you that law because of the hardness of your hearts. To help you manage the circumstances of a fallen world. But I can let you in on my experience, the experience of a world that isn’t fallen." Jesus says to them and us, I have a cure for hardness of heart. I have a cure for the Fall.
It’s just audacious. But it’s why he came. Jesus didn’t come to assist us in muddling through as we make the best of a fallen world. Having him in your life does help with that! But God came to earth in person not to improve our muddling somewhat, but to cure the Fall. Jesus’ role is to open the door for us to share with him in living God’s original intention. To open the door to the new creation, which begins the moment he enters the world and will continue until the great last day when God’s designs are perfectly realized and the universe is set right.
So Jesus just changes the terms of the discussion. He does it here, he does it all over the place. Jesus repeatedly says things that clearly set a stricter standard than the Law. Why does he do that? Because he’s rooting his answer in God’s vision before the Fall, before sin entered the world. When things were normal. Jesus gives these shocking answers to underline the radical change he has made in the order of the universe. To underline that there is a new reality at hand, the kingdom of God, which he has launched, which makes it possible to be set free from bondage to sin. To be set free to experience something of what God intended from the beginning.
Jesus knows what it would be like if God’s infinite compassion and justice were fully manifest in every situation. Jesus knows what normal was before the Fall, what normal will be when God is all in all, and he won’t shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, given the circumstances, what do you expect. Just try and make do the best you can.” He won’t conceal from us what God’s intentions for wholeness are. He won’t dumb it down.
Moses wrote this law for you, Jesus says, because of the hardness of your hearts. But Jesus can cure hardness of heart. Jesus can bring into your life and mine experiences of new creation, just as if sin had never wreaked havoc among us. We’ve reminded ourselves over and over at Emmanuel that this new creation, launched by Jesus when he came, will run along parallel to the old creation until the end of time, when God will be all in all. But it is possible now for us to throw our arms open and welcome moments of joy and healing that give genuine tastes of the new creation.
I’ve talked often here about how I’ve experienced new creation and a cure for my hardness of heart around money since I threw my arms open at age 23 and took the risk of trusting God that he meant what he said about tithing. You’ve heard me say there is nothing, ever, that could make Mark and me stop giving away at least 10% of what we receive. For us, that’s just normal now. And doing so has proved to us that the new creation is happening, and when you take the risk of saying yes to it, you have joy. It also happens that after 35 years, a whole lot of other signs of new creation and moments of joy have been paid for in part by our giving, but that comes second for us. Trusting enough to take a step into God’s world where generosity is normal comes first.
Whenever we send out letters and ask our members to estimate what you will give to Emmanuel in the coming year, as we’ve done this week, I pray that some of you will actually change the terms of the discussion in your heads, just as Jesus does to the Pharisees today. Like Jesus’ words about divorce, his words about money are not meant to make life harder for us as we try to muddle through under the circumstances, but to remind us how beautiful and freeing and desirable God’s original intentions are. Jesus changes the terms of the discussion to help us notice that now that he has come, we have another alternative. We could trust God. We could be lavishly loving. We could throw our arms open to new creation.
Now, I’m not naïve. I know that many, many Christians do not consider changing the terms of the discussion when they start filling out their pledge cards. I know the boring, post-Fall, broken-world questions all too well: “What’s the best I can do given the circumstances?” “What did we pledge last year?” “What’s a nice round figure?” There’s nothing to stop us from thinking about giving that way. Now that Jesus has come, though, we do have another alternative.
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.” There is absolutely no doubt about it in the psalmist’s mind: God’s word is good. It is beautiful. It is life giving. It is more to be desired than gold and sweeter also than honey.
Which is a totally understandable thing to say and even believe when you lived 600 years before Jesus said these ominous words in our Gospel lesson this morning:
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two and to be thrown into hell, where . . . the fire is never quenched.”
How refreshed and restored do you feel after hearing that?
Jesus’ words are not exactly what we’d call good news — because we have a feeling that his warning is meant for us.
All we have to do is take a quick look at our hands and our feet and ask what we’ve been doing with them or where we’ve been going with them. All we have to do is think of what we’ve seen, what we haven’t looked away from, that is not noble or true or pleasing to God. We have all stumbled, and even with the most surface-level evaluation, we know that Jesus’ words implicate us.
But what do we do with that? Jesus’ words are hard. We hear “cut off your foot, chop off your hand, pluck out your eye,” and we quite understandably freeze up, wondering if our Savior could possibly be serious, or if he was just having a really bad day or playing a really bad joke.
The writer of Proverbs famously said, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy,” which is a poetic way of saying that it is actually better for us to be rebuked by someone we love than commended by someone who doesn’t care for us at all. And that’s true because the person who loves us wants what’s best for us, wants us to thrive, and they want this so much that they will sometimes risk hurting us so that we are saved from more and worse pain further on down the road.
I bring this up because I think it’s part of what’s going on in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus knows, just as we all do, that we are imperfect people, unable to keep our eyes fixed on God because we keep getting distracted by ourselves. We keep wandering off on wayward feet. We keep reaching out for what we should not have. Jesus knows that our situation is so dire that even if we were to cut off our hands and our feet and pluck out both eyes, we would still be unable to stand in God’s presence — because we are sinful, and we cannot save ourselves. That is not a truth we like to hear. Not a reality we want to deal with. But it is what Jesus tells us today.
And that testimony does revive the soul and make wise the simple because “by them is thy servant warned . . . . Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”
When Jesus came to earth to save us, he didn’t come to inflict strange and painful religious ceremonies on us. He didn’t come to command us to do violence to ourselves and then just move on, as though that would overcome our separation from God. What he did come to do and what he asks of us today and every day is much more serious than losing an eye or a hand or a foot. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says, “for whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” The stakes are high, so Jesus asks for everything — but only because he wants to give us everything in return.
In a few moments we will hear, “This is my body, broken for you.” And that is the truth to which our Gospel lesson ultimately points us. God so loved the world — God so loved you and me — that he sent his son into our world of sin and violence and sickness and death, so that his back might be whipped, his hands pierced, and his side broken open for us. Only then, only through the broken body of God himself, are we saved. Only then are we counted blameless and innocent of great transgression. Only then are we welcomed into a future more beautiful and safe and holy than we could ever imagine.
This is the hope we have. The hope that rests not on our efforts but on the Cross of Christ. And we can truly and with our whole hearts say that it is more to “be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” AMEN.
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
We’ve looked quite a bit at James this month, one of the New Testament letters, which we’ll finish reading at Mass next week. As both Deacon Chris and Marisa have mentioned, this letter focuses on behavior – how those of us who belong to Christ live out that belonging. So James doesn’t really address the baseline question of what makes somebody a Christian; he’s focused on the next step, what it looks like when Christians express the identity God has given us.
Luke Timothy Johnson, a NT scholar from Emory University, points out that throughout his letter, James speaks about two measures for human behavior. How do we measure what’s good and admirable? How do we decide what’s the best way to live? James teaches that either we can measure this by God, our creator and source, or we can measure it by the way human priorities, oriented around us, measure things. Throughout the NT, and here in James, that second attitude is often called “the world,” that whole bundle of human priorities independent of God -- “what looks worth it to me by my own lights, what everyone else is doing, what just feels normal.”
When you hear the word “world” in the NT, that’s usually what it means, which is worth remembering because by “world” we often mean the whole planet or the beauty of nature or something positive. So when James says “friendship with the world is enmity with Christ,” or the apostle John says “do not love the world,” they don’t mean Christians shouldn’t value natural beauty or enjoy life. They mean we shouldn’t love approaching existence as if we were on our own to get what we want out of life.
So there are these two measures, in James: we measure what’s worth doing by God, our creator and owner, or we measure what’s worth doing by us. And where James is especially interested in making inroads, is in waking up people who think of themselves as accepting God but are actually measuring what’s good and helpful and valuable by themselves, by the values of the world. James calls this “double-mindedness.” He says that we can either be a friend of the world, or a friend of God. But we can’t live by two measures at once.
What you measure by, what counts for you as a good way to live, affects your behavior in all kinds of ways. So we’ve already heard James address over these past few weeks what it looks like when you use God to measure how you respond to economic inequity, as well as when you use God to measure how you respond to the way language can be a tool for violence and exclusion. In the whole first section of today’s reading he talks about how disputes and compromises are handled when you use God as your measure.
In all of those areas – dealing with economic disparities, with our speech, with conflicts -- measuring the best way to live by God produces very different results than measuring the best way to live by us, by the world. In fact those two measures produce different results in every single thing we do all day. And James is trying to tell his readers: OK, we’re sitting in church right now, but in our routine assumptions, what measure of value are we actually going by? What ideas of the best way to live are we actually putting into practice? Because that will tell you whether you are living as a friend of the world, as he calls it, or a friend of God. Far more than what you say, what priorities you put into practice tell you who you really are.
James applies this today in a really subtle way to prayer, and I want us to try and notice how his flow of thought works here. First he talks about cravings that we have and how we respond to them. Just these baseline, I want it experiences, whether big or small. This could be anything at all. You’re at an event and someone is being made a fuss over and you think, how come I’m not getting any credit? I work way harder than her. Or my flight is delayed and we have to sit on the tarmac for an hour. Or I went to my lunch restaurant and they didn’t have the tuna salad today and I only went because I wanted the tuna salad. Our lives are full of experiences where our cravings get denied. Where we don’t get what we prefer.
And James uses this very common experience to ask us to notice what measure we use in prayer. Up till now he’s talked about daily life, now he talks about prayer. You do not have, because you do not ask, he says. In other words, whatever craving is getting frustrated right now, have you prayed about it? If you’re measuring the way you live by you, not by God, will you think to pray in situations that don’t seem quote, religious, unquote? Probably not.
You know, you can pray in absolutely every situation. On the tarmac. At lunch. God is present in every millisecond, relating to you, loving you, closer than your own breath. There is no situation in which it isn’t possible to measure by God. Now, probably only the greatest saints live minute to minute with that perspective. But it’s always possible.
So James first says: you’re measuring by yourself, so you do not ask. And then he goes even further: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. When someone’s measuring by themselves, even if they do pray, they’ll tend still to pray with that self focus. They will tend to measure what’s important by themselves, even in prayer. It’s such a subtle point James is making. That’s what he means by “you ask wrongly.” If someone is measuring what’s valuable by themself, their prayer will be mostly trying to recruit God for their agenda, to treat him as a resource for satisfying cravings.
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
So if we are willing to be as subtle and self-aware as James this morning, we can look at our prayer lives. Are we mostly praying when we have a want or a craving? Are we praying in order to get things? Or are we praying, if you will, in order to get God? In order to draw near to God and allow him to draw near to us? When you’re a friend of the world, in James’ language, you’ll talk to God about the world.
When you’re a friend of God, you’ll naturally start to talk to God about God. To thank and adore him for who he is. To just sit in his presence in silence and soak up his love. To let yourself steep in the words of Scripture so that your perspective can get bigger. To receive his limitless forgiveness. Just to enjoy him. Our Presbyterian friends say in their Westminster catechism, that the chief point of being a human being is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Praying not to get things, but to get more of God, to enjoy God, to draw near to God, to allow God to draw near to you. And those of you who know what I’m talking about know that what often happens is that we start our prayer with self, and then God widens us out to enjoying him and seeing things from a broader perspective. We start with the worldly concern we have: “God I’m so angry about this flight being late,” and then as that prayer goes on he opens everything up for us, widens our vision, and changes our reactions. We see this all the time in the Psalms; today’s is a good example though we don’t have time even to look at it. It alternates prayer based on that human measure, that self-preoccupation, with God widening out the preoccupations and pouring down his love and his spaciousness.
If you think you might be stuck in that human measure, if you talk to God mostly about things and mostly when you want something, rather than spending time routinely enjoying him and letting him broaden your mind, I’m going to suggest you use today’s collect as an initial little bit of leverage to begin changing that. Take the bulletin home, or use the Forward Movement app or your Book of Common Prayer, and spend 10 or 15 minutes in the presence of God with this week’s collect. You do not have because you do not ask. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
It boasts of great things because the words that cross our lips can never be taken back — though we don’t often think of them that way. We’re so used to the constant stream of information and perpetual noise of TV and social media that when we speak we imagine the words disappearing, as short-lived as our attention spans. The sarcastic comment toward our loved ones may be bad but it doesn’t really have a lasting impact. The muttered insult at people who cut us off in traffic won’t really change anyone or anything. But the reality is that nothing we say will truly go unheard. Our words make up our reality. They linger on in our memory. They make us who we are and lead us toward who we will be.
But we don’t often speak as though that is the truth. Words have a power we don’t fully understand, a power that St. James refuses to downplay: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. . . . For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
James makes such an impassioned case against the human tongue because he knows that our words matter more, much more, than we think they do. Listen to what the Proverbs say:
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” and
“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”
Our words matter. But it’s not only in the here and now that they weigh on our lives and the lives of others. We are told in Scripture that one day we will give an account for our words. For all of them. Jesus said that on the day of judgment we will stand before God himself, and he will weigh everything we have ever said: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
If we think about that for a second, it should scare us. Every careless word we utter, every backhanded complement, every passive aggressive aside — we will give an account for it.
Where, then, does that leave us? If every word we say will be examined before God’s judgment seat, then what hope do we have that mercy awaits us?
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ . . . Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another . . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up . . . so that your words may give grace to those who hear . . . . [Be] kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
The Father has spoken one Word, the Word who took on flesh. The Word who has come to us full of grace and truth. This Word is Jesus Christ, the one through whom all things were made and through whom all things will be redeemed. He is the certain hope that we have because he offered himself up for us, that we might become one with God himself, his words becoming our words, his grace our grace.
It is only through Christ, living in us and among us today, that we can speak grace and truth to one another. Our human hearts are hard, quick to judge and quick to hate; yet Jesus remains with us, never leaving nor forsaking us, leading us on to better things. And as we travel with him, as we walk his road, we are changed. Christ Jesus shines into our hearts and our minds and our voices, revealing the depth behind every kind word, the consolation behind every sorrow. His story becomes our story, his life our life. As St. James says, “Draw near to him and he will draw near to you. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” May these words sustain us today, tomorrow, and in the coming weeks. AMEN.