The Christian church has a problem, a problem that has caused no end of consternation for the last two millennia.
We are members of the kingdom of God and citizens of heaven — but we still live on earth. We still live in a world that prizes passion and greed and anger and malice above everything we hold to be true. And while we know where we’re headed — while we know that eternal life with Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, is awaiting us — that reality can sometimes or even all the time feel like a daydream compared to the nightly news.
This is not a new problem. And it’s actually one of the reasons St. Paul wrote the letter we heard from today. The church at Colossae was founded by Paul and had been faithful and generous and loving in all that they did. But now, the church faced an unsure and frightening future. Paul had been arrested. He awaited what was probably a terrible fate. The thought of a future without him — without his wisdom and foresight and guidance — made the world around the Colossian Christians to seem louder and larger and eventually the good news of the Gospel didn’t feel like enough.
And so the people in this congregation began to think about hedging their bets. They began to listen when whispers of other promises and easier options came their way. At the moment when Paul wrote this letter, the Christians at Colossae were on the verge of forgetting who they were and whose they were. They were on the verge of allowing their visible reality to re-define them.
Which is something we do, too. It really is the easiest thing in the world to let the nightly news or our personal problems or our worries or fears color our perspective. It’s easy to let these things even rule how we live our lives. And that’s because, naturally, what we feel and see and taste and touch are present to us in a way that is much more “real” than the unseen things we believe by faith.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. When Paul wrote this letter to the church at Colossae, he knew they were struggling — and he knew how to help them. Listen to what he wrote: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Your life is hidden with Christ in God. Paul wanted his spiritual children at Colossae — and by extension, us — to see the world through God’s eyes. He wants us to “have all the riches of assured understanding and . . . knowledge of . . . Christ” because in Christ is every treasure of wisdom and knowledge. But Paul knew that this “state of being,” this life ruled by the peace of Christ, would only be attainable if we hold fast to the story — to the Person — who gave us new life in the first place. He knew that this was only possible if we keep our hearts fixed on what is actually true.
Which is why Paul encourages us to seek the things that are above. Search diligently for all that looks like, sounds like, tastes like Christ. Strive after these things and aim for them. For in so doing, we will find the Truth. When we seek the things that are above, we will encounter Christ in his glory. We will be reminded again and again of who we are: A precious and beloved child of God.
And that reality will illuminate every moment and every aspect of our lives. No longer will we be bound by the race for prestige or the allure of wealth. No longer will we be trapped by what can really feel like the pointlessness of it all. No longer will we judge people on their political views or their social position or what have you — because we will see that Christ is all in all.
That is the hope Paul reminds us of this morning, a hope that truly can make our lives a beautiful and holy offering to God — even in the here and now.
“Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” AMEN.
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray." Jesus responds to this request in two ways: first he gives his disciples a model prayer, which we’ve come to call the Lord’s Prayer and which is included in virtually every Episcopal liturgy. And second, he makes sure the God they are praying to is the real God, the generous and benevolent one he calls Father, the God revealed in Scripture. We’ll touch on both those this morning.
Now, this parish is entering into a time in which prayer is going to be very important. Prayer is always important, of course, but in the life of any spiritual community there come these transitional seasons where having people praying versus not having people praying can make a mammoth difference. As we continue to process saying farewell to this phase of Emmanuel’s life, and to look out towards the horizon for what’s coming and who’s coming, it is very important that people be praying in the way Jesus taught us and to the God about whom Jesus taught us.
If you look through the Gospel today, you see all sorts of evidence of how God desires to do his people good in response to their prayers. Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God has your best interests at heart and he cares about you and your life.
However, people so often try to be more spiritual than Jesus, and raise objections like “God is supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient. Why should I pray for God to send us a good interim rector? If it’s God’s will to send a good interim rector, he can do it without my asking him.” Ah, but the chances are that what God’s will is, is to send a good interim rector in answer to your prayers. This is how God works most commonly, he works with and through his people. He wants us to ask and seek and knock, because he has chosen to confer on us the dignity of getting to cooperate with him in making his Kingdom present in the world.
Of course he’s taking a great risk in doing that, but God is no stranger to risk. He took a risk in becoming a helpless babe in a manger, he takes a risk in becoming bread in the Eucharist. The baby could have been killed. The bread can be dropped in the mud and profaned. But he takes that risk because he wants to let us experience him, right where we are.
Exact same thing with prayer. The way God has designed the universe, stuff he really wants to get done will not happen if we don’t collaborate in it – by our actions, and just as importantly by our prayers. “Ask and you will receive.” If we offer God that channel of prayer to work through, if we ask, we will receive. If we don’t – well, that was the risk he took in inventing prayer in the first place.
So as I said, over the next months, Emmanuel is entering into a time in its life where prayer is going to be very important. There are things God wants for this congregation after I’m gone in November – and I have no idea what they are, of course, that’s up to him and you. But he will only be able to do it fully if Emmanuelites both work and pray. If you just work without having that constant background music of prayer, you’ll get a pale shadow of the good things God wanted to give you.
So I want to suggest some things you might do in prayer these next several weeks. I’m going to do this cautiously, because it’s not appropriate for a priest to influence the affairs of a congregation after they leave. So I’ll just say some generic ways you could put today’s Gospel into practice in this context.
One is to pray for Lisa Kocheril. We have an excellent Senior Warden and an excellent Junior Warden, but an interim period is a time when the Senior Warden in particular will have a lot of responsibility. You could pray that God would guide her, give her energy and wisdom, provide lots of parishioners for her to delegate work to, and sort of grease the wheels for all the connections she has to make with other leaders and with the diocese and so on.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for Lisa. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
Another: pray for our staff. That Mother Marisa and Deacon Chris and Mary Sievers and Fred Bahr and Nick Pothier and Tim Valentine will stay grounded and faith-filled, that they will have the resources to do anything extra they need to do to tide us over – but also the boundaries to say no to extra things people pressure them to do that they should not be doing. A search can be stressful for the current staff, and it will demand the best of them in a way no other phase of a church’s life does.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for the Emmanuel staff. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
Another: pray for God to connect the parish with the right priest to serve in the interim period. That we will receive someone who has the seasoned executive capacity to guide a parish as complicated as Emmanuel through an in-between phase, who loves God and the Gospel, and who is equipped to work transparently and fruitfully with your lay and ordained leaders.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for God to send us the right interim priest. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
And one more: pray for the spiritual health of the parish as a whole. Person after person has commented that what they love about Emmanuel is the sense of holiness combined with openness that they can feel here. I certainly agree with that. But now that you’re aproaching a time which is going to be a little anxious, it’s going to be very easy to let that spiritual vitality sag and to close down and turn inward. The natural reaction to the unknown and to anxiety is sort of to tighten up, to be wary. God’s not into wariness. He can’t slip as much of his Holy Spirit through tightly clenched hands as he can through open ones. And he will build your trust in him if you ask.
So this is the time to ask: God, increase our trust in you. Help us to remember everything you’ve done for us. Help us not to try to take control. Make sure we always have living in your love as a higher priority than getting our ducks in a row.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for the continued spiritual vitality of the parish. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
Eventually, there will be other specific things to pray for: for the search committee, for the interviews, for the right new rector, and so on. But right now, in terms of interceding, it would be great for some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for Lisa, for some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for our staff, some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for the right interim, and some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for the parish to keep rooted in its deep spiritual life.
Don’t leave these needs to someone else. It’s not something “they” need to do, it’s something we all need to do. You choose one. Or God may have let something else specific pop into your mind during this sermon that needs to be covered in prayer. That’s his assignment to you, then, and by all means listen to him rather than to me.
So. Prayer is going to be very important for you over the next months. Jesus has assured us that God wants to give you good things in response to your prayers. And even better than that, he really wants to nourish and form you as you pray, too. You may think it’s an obligation, but you come away blessed. God knows that just praying, just being in his presence and loving him, will probably do you more good than any thing he may give you as an answer. His depths of generosity and mercy and life are always sufficient. All you have to do is ask.
And to make a right beginning of asking, let’s offer all these concerns and hopes together to our loving God in the words our Savior taught us, saying, Our Father….
I mentioned in the July Messenger that as I look across the months remaining until my retirement, I’ve naturally started reminiscing a little about my 28 years in ministry. I was thinking the other day about a Bible study I once led and one of its participants. I’ll call her Maggie. Maggie was a very simple person, and you always got the feeling life was coming at her pretty fast, but she liked to sit with us and listen, even when she didn’t really follow all the ideas.
In the method we used, the final question every week was “what is God calling you to do in response to what we have read?” Depending on the passage, people would say things like “buy canned goods to give to the food pantry” or “pray about forgiving the co-worker who hurt me.” But every week, as regular as clockwork, Maggie was the first to respond. She would inevitably furrow her brow in thought, and then, with a hint of nervousness, as if she might be wrong, week after week give the identical answer: “Help people?”
I had to smile, but over the years I came to treasure Maggie’s weekly reminder for us to help people. And when our Gospel today is the story of the Jewish man who was left for dead by robbers and the Samaritan who assumed all the burden of his care, I expect the majority of sermons we’ve heard on this passage have given essentially the Maggie Interpretation of what it means: Help people. A good answer. Or sometimes, a little more specifically, help people, even those who are different from us. Also a very good answer.
It strikes me, though, that even though that is part of what Jesus wants to say here, if it were all he wanted to say, the whole passage would probably be rather different. The lawyer approaches Jesus, Luke tells us, to test him. He knows that irreligious people, people who do not fully keep the law, even Gentiles, are flocking to Jesus. He has heard rumors that Jesus may have challenged some customs that are based on Scripture. So, he thinks, it’s time to see just how dangerous this teacher is.
And here is his test case question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s likely hoping for Jesus to say something that directly contradicts the Bible. But Jesus’ reply is, as usual, effortlessly dazzling. “You’re the lawyer, you tell me; what does the Bible say?” The lawyer can’t very well recite the entire Torah, so he reels off one of the commonly accepted Jewish summaries of it, one Jesus himself quotes elsewhere in the Gospels. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
“OK. Do that,” says Jesus, “and you will live." Just obey those two commandments fully, and God’s life, his own nature, will be yours. It’s a brilliant move, because it cuts right to the heart of what the problem was in Jesus’ day and still is in ours: reducing the shocking vision of radiant wholeness God generously offers us down to something more manageable, to some kind of finite, controllable duty we can be expected to adhere to.
For most people Jesus interacted with, their technique of reduction was to turn the vision God had given them into a list of detailed rules. If they followed all these rules diligently, they could see themselves as maintaining acceptability before God. Contemporary people sometimes do that kind of thing as well, but I think more of us now reduce God’s vision of wholeness down to a manageable size by heading in the opposite direction, shrinking it into highly generic platitudes on which nobody could ever evaluate you: be a good person, help people, be true to yourself. But the real vision God offers is so much better than any reductionist answer.
The summary Jesus draws out of the lawyer challenges both our generic platitudes, and his specific rule keeping, with a vision that is so deep and beautiful and uncompromising it takes your breath away. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Do that, says Jesus. Do that?! It sounds wonderful, but has anybody other than him ever done it even once? Does any of us love God authentically, with every fiber of our being, every minute of every day, bringing all our intellect and all our heart into that love? Does any of us meet the needs of our neighbor, every time, with every bit as much pleasure and foresight and care and thoroughness as we meet our own needs? One of us? Ever? If you say yes, I won’t believe you.
It’s an impossibly high standard, but that’s the whole point. Jesus is trying to show, by comparison, the ridiculousness of our cramped, boring little reductions of what God sets forth into something we can handle. Trying to show that that the only way we can fully live is to admit we alone can’t fully live, and to accept help from the outside, to accept God’s life as a gift that bridges that gap for us.
That’s what Jesus is trying to help the lawyer see with his “Do this and you will live” answer, but it doesn’t work; it’s not enough yet to put him off his self-justification project. The man thinks, still, that there must be some way to reduce this glorious vision down to an ordinary rule he himself can manage without God’s help from the outside. So he decides to debate the nature of the obligation conferred by the term “neighbor.” “Who precisely counts?” And in response, Jesus tells one of the most famous stories in the Bible. I would love to know what story he would have told if the lawyer had asked about a way of reducing the other half of the commandment, the loving God part, to something manageable. I’m sure that story would have been equally great. But what we have is this neighbor story, and, again assuming that you’ve heard many sermons pointing out that the story recommends helping people, which it does, I’m not going to focus on that.
If Jesus wanted only to convey that we should help the less fortunate, especially those different from us, the Samaritan would have been the one who was robbed and beaten and left for dead, and the Jew would have come along and helped him. The Jew is the obvious person for a Jewish lawyer to identify with and emulate, if emulation is the main point; a hated Samaritan is the obvious less fortunate stock-character outcast whom a well-meaning, religious Jew should help. But that’s not the setup. In Jesus’ setup, the Jew, the fortunate one who has the law, who normally would be the helper, is the guy in the gutter, penniless, useless, unable to do anything to improve his situation. The only way he can live is to accept help from outside. That’s how Jesus wants the lawyer to see himself: he’s not the noblesse oblige privileged person looking for someone he can help, but someone who desperately needs a loving neighbor to save him.
So Jesus paints his picture: the Samaritan comes near to this impotent wounded human; with deep compassion he reaches out to lift him up. The Samaritan puts him on the donkey he himself was riding and leads him down the Jerusalem road; he gives him shelter and stays with him through the night, paying for everything out of his own pocket since, however self-sufficient the man thought he was and whatever status he thought he had, there’s no way now to avoid admitting that he has no way to buy his own life back. In an astonishing act of grace the Samaritan even leaves an extra pile of money, and promises to return and keep on paying and paying and paying, no matter how deep the depths of this man’s inadequacy turn out to be, until he is fully whole.
You rarely hear this now, but is it really any wonder that for centuries, the standard interpretation of this parable was that the Samaritan is meant to be Jesus himself? That’s what the church fathers thought it meant. When God in the flesh came to save us, he journeyed down our road and found us lying in the ditch, weak and broken and unable to go on -- trying so hard to hide that embarrassing fact from ourselves and everyone else, trying so hard to create a reductionist scheme that we can agree to pretend is all there is to wholeness, so we can escape the shattering beauty of God’s true wholeness.
Jesus gave everything for us, laying out riches superabundantly above what could ever be needed, paying a debt we could never pay ourselves so that we could live. Live now, and live forever. Is it any wonder. Is it any wonder he tells the story that way? Is it any wonder he first makes sure to root it in a command so sweepingly perfect that it leaves us flat, knowing full well we can never fulfill it? He doesn’t just want the lawyer to follow different rules or more rules or fewer rules. He wants him to see that shattering beauty and say “Jesus, help me.”
Christian neighboring works far better when “Jesus, help me” comes before “Help people.” Yes. Of course we’re supposed to help people. But to help people in Christ, we first have to let Christ help us. That’s what gives us the humility, and the open hearts, and the recognition of our own weakness, that can keep us from noblesse oblige. Only when we can admit that we too live by unconditional mercy, will we be truly free to extend mercy without conditions to others. When that has happened for us, that rescue, that free grace, then we are truly able, as Jesus finally gets around to saying, in the very last verse of the story, to go and do likewise.
Anyone who has ever had a roommate, anyone who has ever had a sibling, anyone who has ever been through middle school knows that it’s hard work living with people. It’s hard work interacting with people.
And sometimes it feels frankly impossible. Maybe now more than ever.
But just before we decide that this is the way it will be forever; just before we throw up our hands because political discourse is dead; just before we find ourselves shunning or shaming the Other, our Lord calls us to pause — and to remember. Remember the kingdom to which we belong. Remember the God who rules over all others. Remember that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. This is our story, a story that despite its twists and turns, despite its rising and falling, perseveres on to paradise – just as it has done since the very beginning.
Amidst the chaos of conquered Israel, as the foreign armies tore through Jerusalem, the Prophet Isaiah spoke of a future where weeping would end and the wealth of the nations would bedeck the holy city. And the city herself — Jerusalem would flourish. No longer would the barks of jackals or the whisper of wind echo in her empty streets, but Jerusalem would be as alive and as fruitful and as generous as a nursing mother in a loving home.
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,” the Prophet says. “All you who love her, rejoice with her in joy. . . . For thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.’”
At the time of Isaiah’s writing, the people of Israel had lived in Babylon for nearly 50 years. They had heard with grief and terror of the atrocities committed in their beloved home. They had weathered the distrust and dislike of a people who couldn’t understand why “those Jews” refused to bow before Emperor and idol alike. The lives of the Jewish refugees were marked by confusion, anger, sorrow, even despair. But through it all, undeterred by what had brought Israel to this point, the Lord continued to speak. He continued to form and reform the lives of his people according to his Word. For thus says the LORD: “‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.’”
That was the hope the Jewish people had for the future, that God would bring them home and bless them and would be present with them in ways they had yet to experience. That was their hope; it is our reality.
We who are gathered here today taste the glories of the heavenly Jerusalem because we are members of the Bride of Christ. In this gathering and in the voices of the countless others who sing praises to Almighty God, we find comfort, true and honest and unending comfort — for this is the place where life comes from death, love springs from hatred, and unity arises from division. This is the place where the hand of the LORD is known to his servants: Jesus Christ, our King, our Savior, and our Friend.
To the world outside our doors, we are a community that shouldn’t be possible. We come from many places. We bear unique burdens. We look and sound and act differently than each other. Yet we are one, united by love of Christ and brought together by a God who delights in the individual beauty of his individual children as we all grow to look more and more like him.
“We shall see and our hearts shall rejoice; our bones shall flourish like the grass,” when we seek the heavenly city where the LORD has promised to be found.
We live in a world beset by problems and plagued by evil. We live in a world where some days do feel like we are exiles in a foreign land. And yet, despite the voices of doubt and derision, despite the sheer volume of hate we witness on a day-to-day basis, we don’t need to despair – because this world is not our ultimate reality. Nor is it our ultimate hope.
We have been crucified with Christ and so we see our world for what it is: a people and a place in desperate need of the unending, un-qualifying, undying love of a resurrected savior. A love that we possess. For we worship a God who has not and will never despise his creation, who is always ready to meet us in the humble gifts of Bread and Wine.
This is our story, a story that despite its twists and turns, holds true and shines light on every aspect of our lives. May we all today, tomorrow, and every day in the future remember that we are children of God, citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, blessed, comforted, and guided by the one we call Love. AMEN.