When I was a child we sang a song in Sunday School that went like this: “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning. Give me oil in my lamp, I pray. Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning, keep me burning to the break of day.”
That song refers to the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, which we just heard in today’s Gospel. Weddings in the days when Jesus walked the earth lasted an entire week. All regular activities were suspended. Religious obligations were dispensed with by law. It was to be a celebration from start to finish.
The highlight of the week was when the bridegroom went to the home of the bride and took her in procession to his home. No one knew when he would come. It was always at night, and he’d try to arrive after the bride and her ten bridesmaids had gone to sleep. So the groom would make his surprise arrival, wake up the ladies in the middle of the night, and they’d make their way to the bridegroom’s house, lighting the way with their lamps. Once they had arrived, they would go into the house and have more partying. The doors would be closed and barred so that beggars and thieves couldn’t get in. Wouldn’t it have been fun to attend a wedding like that?!
Jesus was comparing life with him with a wedding. He’s the bridegroom; the Church is the bride. We’re the ones who are at the celebration. Is Jesus implying that if you’re a part of the Church life is one big party? I don’t think that’s his point. I do believe that he’s saying that no matter what’s going on in your life, if you’re living in him and with him you’ll have a kind of joy that cannot be extinguished. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Robert Louis Stevenson had it right when he said, “To miss the joy is to miss all.” That applies whether we’re talking about experiencing the birth of your first child, or a baptism, or the first day of school, or, of course, a wedding; whether we’re speaking of a serious illness, or losing a job, or experiencing the failure of a marriage. It applies even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death. No matter what, good or bad, happy or sad, Jesus wants to be present with us and in us to give us greater understanding, to guide us, to comfort and console us.
As is his custom, though, Jesus puts a twist into the parable that’s uncomfortable. When the bridegroom arrives, unexpectedly, five of the bridesmaids’ lamps have gone out because they didn’t bring extra oil. They try to borrow some from the wise maidens who had prepared, but they don’t have enough for themselves and for others. So the five foolish maidens go out to buy more oil. By the time they arrive at the groom’s house the door has been shut and barred and they can’t get in.
You may be a part of the Church, a believer in Christ, a part of the wedding party, yet find yourself outside, wanting to get in but unable to do so. Tennyson, in “The Idylls of the King,” captures this moment in life poignantly:
Late, late, so late! And dark the night and chill!
Late, late, so late! But we can enter still.
Too late, too late! Ye cannot enter now.
No light had we: for this we do repent;
And learning this, the bridegroom will relent.
Too late, too late! Ye cannot enter now.
No light: So late! And dark and chill the night!
Too late, too late! Ye cannot enter now.
Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet?
O let us in, tho’ late, to kiss his feet!
No, no, too late! Ye cannot enter now.
Our faith is that Jesus will come again, at the end of time, to judge the living and the dead. But that’s not the only time Jesus will come. He comes at unexpected times as well. He wants to be with us in our day to day activities. He wants to be able to help us through the crises of our life. Yet for him to be able to do that, we must prepare a place for him in our hearts. As Phillips Brooks said, “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” In other words, we need oil in our lamps for the light of Christ to burn within us. If we’re going to be prepared for him when he comes again in glory, we need to be prepared for him in the ordinary and extraordinary times in our lives.
How do we prepare? Receive Holy Communion. Read, mark, and learn Holy Scripture. Regularly examine your life and make your confession. Give generously of your time, talent, and treasure for God’s work. These things are oil for our lamps and prepare us for the coming of the Bridegroom.
The whole point of the parable is that it’s not yet too late for us. Will you be prepared when the Bridegroom comes? When he does, we want to be able to sing Hosanna at that time. Remember how the song ends? “Sing, Hosanna, sing, Hosanna, sing Hosanna to the King of kings. Sing, Hosanna, sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna to the King.”
Just as the days are getting shorter and the air is getting cooler, our world grows darker, human feeling grows colder, and people from every tribe, tongue, and nation brace themselves for whatever it is that will happen next.
At this time of year, we close our doors. Pull our blinds against the chill of autumn. The temptation is to do the same with our hearts. When history is unfolding at such a break-neck pace, how could we not? Humans are wired for survival. We excel at detecting threats. And now, they’re everywhere we look. After all, the war in the Gaza Strip, the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Myanmar, the battles stretching across Africa — they’re not simply overseas. Each one is playing out in our back pockets.
And so it is that it’s that much more important, that much more providential that today, now, at the turn of the seasons, when the harvest is over and the plants have died, when sunlight is scarce and the winds of change drive us indoors, that the Church flips on the lights and cries with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”
Much as we might believe that what we see is all there is; much as we might fear that evil will triumph even if good wins, the reality of our life, of our world, of all history is summed up in the shout of the saints. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have come before us, who stand even now in the throne room of God — and they will not let us forget the truth.
The saints, our brothers and sisters in Christ, are people throughout the centuries who have shown us what it means to live a life totally devoted to Christ. The saints saw Empires rise and Empires fall. Some fought against heresy. Others fought against demons. But they all weathered the same catastrophes, the same hatreds, the same fears as we do today.
Gathered at the tombs of the martyrs, the early Christians would meditate on their witness and come to believe that they, too, could persevere, even amidst great suffering. “If they can do it, so can I.” And so it has gone from person to person, saint to saint from the earliest days of the church until now. Whether a martyr of third century Rome or a wealthy merchant’s son of 12th century Italy or an expatriate nun in 20th century Paris, the diverse and different people of God speak as though with one voice. “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”
These are the words the saints must cry, the witness they must give, the good news that bursts forth from them because they know with their whole being that the One who makes the hills to dance, who brings rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, who names the stars and knows each sparrow as it falls — He is the one to whom the worst has already happened and been repaired (St. Julian of Norwich), and he is beside us every step of the way .
Salvation belongs to him. It is in God’s nature to save, to heal, to love past the point of death itself. In God alone is our hope — and we see that embodied, incarnate, in the communion of saints. When faced with famine, pestilence, war, and death, the saints knew that no one and nothing could offer them shelter but God. The things of this earth will always fail. Money can’t always buy us out of our troubles; family can’t always love us back. Power, passion, pleasure: They all pass away in the end. Only God remains and remains the same. And only he can give that which the world cannot take away.
Dwelling within us, the Lord reworks our hearts and reshapes our wills, turning earthenware pots into precious vessels of His mercy and fine instruments of his peace, never doubting or departing from us as he removes the scales from our eyes.
Step by step, moment by moment, the Lord works, and in the light of his presence, we see the truth (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein]): God is everywhere we look, in all things and in every place. In the good and in the bad, in the garden and on the cross — we learn to see Christ in all that is (Alexander Schmemann). This is what the saints teach us. It’s how each one of them lived. And it is the wisdom we need so desperately today.
Because anger and hatred and violence breed darkness; and in the fading light, the temptation to take the very weapons of our enemies and recast them as the sacred servants of justice is deeply attractive. Even the best people can be corrupted by the desire for vengeance. Even the holiest, in her own strength, can forget the image of God in her neighbor. The saints teach us to not be numbed or hardened by the cruelty we behold (Etty Hillesum) but to go on seeing, even if it causes us pain — because when forgiveness, when mercy, when love disappear, the best of the human dies, and what we are left with is weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
The saints knew this. They knew, more than most, the depths to which humankind can sink — but nevertheless be redeemed. Holiness does not mean perfection. It means becoming whole. Holiness is a process. A path. A long obedience in the same direction (Eugene Peterson). When we follow our Lord on his way, we dare to risk our life — which doesn’t usually happen in an arena, surrounded by wild beasts, but in the hidden, secret death of dying to our own desires, deliberately sacrificing our own ego, for the sake of Christ and our neighbor.
And yet, in losing our life, we shall find it. Paradoxical as it may sound, what we learn from our teachers the saints is what Jesus was saying all along: We must hate the world so that God can teach us to love it aright (St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalyvia).
This is the constant conversion our lives in Christ will take: Turning, always turning, away from the things of this world toward the love that knows no end, the foolish love of God (St. Nicholas Cabasilas), that changes the world by changing us.
Even the smallest among us — the youngest in terms of age or in terms of faith — can do this good work. Take courage, the saints say, for the most insignificant act done in pure love makes visible the grace of God (St. John of the Cross and Brother Lawrence). That witness to the truth makes present the One who holds us in his hand, who has promised to bring great good even out of great evil, and who has done it in the resurrection of his Son.
To act in such a way may smart from time to time. It may cost us our pride or our self-righteousness, but what we gain vastly outweighs whatever we lose; for with every act of love, with every step on the path of life we come more fully awake to the fact that we live and move and breath in a world charged with the grandeur of God (Gerard Manley Hopkins). We walk amongst a great cloud of witnesses, who sing with endless praise, who know the truth and that truth has set them free, to take what they were given — the good and the bad — and give it back to God with thanksgiving for this miracle that is life now.
Even now, when the world is dark, when the days are short. God speaks in his Word and in his saints. He calls us to persevere in our faith, to imitate the ones who came before us, who are praying for us that we might see what they see and taste what they taste — for they know that all things pass away; God never changes (St. Teresa of Ávila). And those who have God lack nothing because Christ is everything: Joy and life and light, transforming every moment of every day into a foretaste of his kingdom (St. Porphyrios Kafsokalyvia and Alexander Men). This is ours, even now, as we open our hands to pick up our cross and join the great crowd, the numerous throng, in singing “Salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb.” Despite what the world might say and what we might fear, it is finished. Truly, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (St. Julian of Norwich) for those who cling to Christ. AMEN.
We’ve come to that time when we’re asking for your pledges for the coming year so that your Vestry knows how to budget for next year. So, this is my opportunity to talk about my favorite topic and yours! I say that it’s my favorite topic and yours with tongue in cheek, for after talking about stewardship for the 41 years I’ve been a priest, I know fully well how a sermon on stewardship is viewed by the average person in the pew.
I’ve had people say to me things like this: “I invited my friend to come to church with me today, but if I had known you were going to talk about money, I wouldn’t have done that.” My answer to that is, “That’s why I didn’t tell you I was going to talk about money. I wouldn’t want you not to bring your friend to church.”
Or there’s this one: “All the church ever talks about is money!” My answer to that is, “Not so!”
Or this: “You shouldn’t ask people to pledge. You should live on what people put in the plate and let it go at that.” My answer to that is, “How would they know what they should put in the plate if you never talk about it?”
And then there’s this one: “When I come to church, I want to hear about Jesus, not about money.”
Well, I’m glad you said that. Jesus talked a great deal about money. He used it to teach about the kingdom of God, as in the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price and the Parable of the Lost Coin. In fact, 16 of the 38 parables deal with money and stewardship. He warned us that money could be a barrier to our salvation. For example, he taught us that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. He actually told one rich young man that for the good of his soul he needed to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus realized that young man couldn’t love God and his neighbor with all of his heart, mind, and soul because he loved money too much. And Jesus lifted up as a virtuous example the widow who gave all that she had to the temple treasury.
Jesus talked a lot about money. Why? Because money is one of the most powerful forces in life. We all know it’s power. We know the stress produced when there isn’t enough of it, and for some persons there’s never enough. It can ruin friendships and marriages; it can destroy trust; it can become more important than anything else in a person’s life. It’s so crucial to life that three of the 10 Commandments deal with it, including the first and the last.
While there’s much negative power in money, it’s also a powerful force for good. It builds churches, hospitals, and schools; it enables the creation of great works of art and music. Linda and I watched the Ohio State /Wisconsin football game last night. Go Buckeyes! What would college football be without a strong financial foundation?
Money helps those who are called to spread the good news of salvation; and, not to be overlooked, it has enabled the ministry that goes on in and through Emmanuel Memorial for over 145 years, where the sacraments have been administered, the Word of God taught and proclaimed, the sick and shut-in visited, and the poor given relief.
It’s this work that makes it necessary to have a pledge drive, but if we didn’t need to have a pledge drive, if all of our financial needs were met, we still should talk about money, because how we deal with this powerful force in life affects our relationship with God. If we don’t deal with it properly it can be a barrier to our relationship with God and, therefore, to our salvation.
Our stewardship theme this year is “Take the Next Faithful Step.” I love that slogan because it speaks to us no matter where we are in our spiritual journey. We’re not told what the “next step” is, because the next step is different for every individual. It depends upon the place from which you’re starting. “Take the next step” challenges each of us to progress in his or her stewardship of the gifts God has given us.
Only you can decide what that next step is in terms of your pledge. Is it to work closer to a tithe of your income? Is it to exceed a tithe? Perhaps it’s simply to make a pledge for the first time. Prayerfully consider what the next step is for you, and may it truly be a step that brings you closer to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We’re here today to receive what our Lord Jesus wants to give us, and that is himself, in his Body and Blood. Yet, he wants to give us himself so that we, in turn, may give ourselves to others, through the giving of our time, talent, and treasure. As one of our hymns puts it beautifully: “To give and give, and give again, what God hath given thee; to spend thyself nor count the cost; to serve right gloriously the God who gave all worlds that are, and all that are to be.” Take the next faithful step.
Sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr. Fredrick A. Robinson
Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
29 October 2023
One Sunday a priest told his congregation that the church needed some extra money and asked the people prayerfully to consider putting a little extra in the offering plate. He said that whoever gave the most would be able to pick out three hymns.
After the offering plates were passed, the priest glanced down and noticed that someone had placed a $1,000 bill in the offering. He was so excited that he immediately shared his joy with the congregation and said he'd like personally to thank the person who placed the money in the plate.
An elderly lady all the way in the back shyly raised her hand. The priest asked her to come to the front. Slowly she made her way to the front. He told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much and in thanksgiving asked her to pick out three hymns.
Her eyes brightened as she looked over the congregation, pointed to the three most handsome men in the building and said, "I'll take him and him and him!"
We’re soon going to start our stewardship drive and I thought that might be a good way to begin!
Today’s Gospel is about money, too. The religious leaders don’t like Jesus. He has been repeatedly critical of them. He chooses to keep the company of sinners while rejecting them. His popularity among the Jewish people is increasing. The Jewish leaders see him as a threat and they are plotting among themselves how best to neutralize his popularity and influence, and if possible, they’d like to get him in trouble with the Roman authorities.
So they ask him a question, calculated to evoke an answer that would be a problem for Jesus, no matter how he answered. The question is: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If he answers, “Yes, it is lawful,” he’ll make his Jewish followers mad, for they hate paying taxes to Caesar, not only because people in every age in every country don’t like to pay taxes, but because it was against their religious sensitivities for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, if he says, “No, it’s not lawful,” then the Herodians and their sympathizers, who like the benefits that came from being a part of the Roman Empire, will be turned against him. Besides, then he could be turned over to the Roman authorities as a troublemaker.
It was a clever question. Some of the best minds in Israel at the time had come up with it. But, in addition to being a very spiritual man, Jesus is also smart and clever himself. He turns the tables on them. He asks for a coin, and they give him one. In doing just that, they are entrapping themselves, for in possessing a Roman coin, which was the property of the Roman government, they could hardly object to giving some of it back. Then he gives his answer: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.”
So Jesus answers the question not by a simple yes or no, but in such a way that they have to come up with the answer themselves. He’s paid due respect to Caesar, but no more than necessary, and he’s kept the faith with Judaism as well. Jesus’ answer is very satisfying to Jewish teaching. Why is that, while at the same time it’s not really an answer at all? Because everything ultimately belongs to God, even taxes paid to Caesar. The religious leaders knew that. In fact, every good Jew knew that, and springing from that tradition, we know that, too. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”
We remember the exchange between Jesus and his detractors and we still marvel at his clever answer. But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to take to heart the basic truth which that answer recalls, especially as we approach our stewardship season. We need to remember that all that we have and all that we are comes from God, and that all that we have belongs to God, and we belong to him. We need to remember that God continues to sustain us and that he will provide for us.
That’s why it is important that we remain faithful in giving back to God his due. We continue to be faithful in prayer and in reading of scripture. We continue to be faithful in attending mass. And we continue to share our time, our talent, and our treasure for the work of the Church and to help those who are in need.
Have you ever thought about why we make such a big deal out of the offertory? Every Sunday the choir makes an offering of music, your gifts of money are ceremonially collected in beautiful, brass basins, and then with great solemnity, as the organ swells to the fullest, the gifts of money, bread, and wine are offered and placed on the altar.
It’s not that the money, bread, and wine, are important in and of themselves. These substances represent our lives, and as they are placed upon the altar, they represent the offering of our lives upon that altar. By the time of the offertory, we have heard the word of God read and proclaimed, we’ve confessed our faith, prayed for the needs of others, confessed our sins and received absolution, and offered to one another signs of peace.
All of that has led to the offering of our whole self, just as God transforms ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, so he can, and does, transform our ordinary lives into extraordinary lives, fitted for his service. We give to God from his bounty, but we can never outgive God, for what we give to him, he returns to us, transformed into even greater, more precious gifts.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Writing from a prison cell, the Apostle Paul assured his beloved brethren in Philippi that despite every indication to the contrary, there was no reason to fear. His imprisonment only served to further the gospel. His rivals, unwittingly, did the same. Paul’s hands were bound, but his spirits were free. You can hear it in his voice: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
After a week like this past one, when we’ve watched the body count grow, when we’ve found that old hatreds are alive and well, when we’ve seen with horrific detail the fact that there is no winner in total war, we hear this word.
Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry. Tell him what you need. He will protect you.
This exhortation, this encouraging reminder, is important always; but now it is essential, especially when each morning we look at the news and expect to see something worse unfold. Worry stands to become our constant companion. How could it not, with this level of uncertainty. Despite the amount of information at our fingertips, we can’t know what will happen. Good outcomes, bad outcomes, miracles, disasters — hundreds of scenarios race through our minds, until we look up and realize that the day has gone or the night has passed, and nothing has changed for the better. Tired and confused, we buy an extra coffee and check our phones again, hoping to find something that will give us a sliver of peace, a moment of rest, but nothing seems to take the edge off for long.
Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry. Tell him what you need. He will protect you.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to his church in Philippi, he knew that they were struggling. Their founder (St. Paul) was jailed. And when they sent a beloved member of the congregation to bring him aid, that man became terribly ill. The Philippian Christians thought he had died. And while they waited for news of his fate — and of Paul’s — the community was suddenly beset by people who contradicted everything they thought they knew about God and his Christ.
Afraid and unhappy, the Philippian Christians began to argue with one another. Old friendships ended. New strife emerged. Their future looked bleak.
So Paul told them to look at something else.
It’s not for nothing that we tell our kids: Be careful little eyes what you see. That age-old wisdom dovetails with Paul’s concern. Where we bestow our attention will inevitably color our perception, which in turn, shapes our reality. Paul knew that if the Philippian Christians focused on their fears to the exclusion of all else, they would become that fear. If they focused on their anger, they would become that anger. Paul wanted his spiritual children to be free, to be people of faith, hope and love – regardless of circumstance.
Earlier in his epistle, Paul writes this: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . . . that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
At times like these, when our world shakes and shakes us with it, when we can’t help but search desperately for any small measure of peace, the Apostle Paul reminds us of where to look: There is only one God who can make a table in the wilderness.
Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry. Tell him what you need. He will protect you.
When we seek Christ, when we take hold of the gifts he has given us, we begin the lifelong process of learning to see with the eyes of faith. We begin to recognize that the peace we crave is there not because of how hard we’ve tried to find it, but because Christ is at hand. He is in our hearts and on our lips, and he gives generously to all who call on him.
As we allow ourselves to dare to believe that what our Savior says is true — “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” — that wholeness, that rest, that light everlasting will begin to shine in everything we see: in the sun rising and setting, in the faces of each stranger we meet, in the Bread and in the Wine and in the Word; until, our hearts re-tuned, our vision realigned, we wake up to the fact that the banquet has begun and that the king has called us friend and that the worry and the weeping and the gnashing of teeth fade away before the Lamb who was slain for our sake.
Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry. Tell him what you need. He will protect you. AMEN.
In The Rapture of Canaan, by Sheri Reynolds, Leila was the matriarch of a large rural family. Her husband was not only patriarch, but also the leader of the church to which the family belonged, the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind. He ruled with an iron hand, meting out reward and punishment as if from the hand of God, and his punishments were severe. He also regularly used his wife as an illustration of a sinner in his sermons, subjecting her to that humiliation in front of the whole family and community.
Leila, though not very pious, was always supportive of her husband, and really the truly religious one of the two. One day she was talking to her granddaughter Ninah: “Grudges are bad things, Ninah… There’s only so much room in one heart. You can fill it up with love, or you can fill it with resentment. But every bit of resentment you hold takes space away from the love. And the resentment don’t do no good no way, but look what love can do.”
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel. It’s the purpose of the coming of Christ. We’ve been baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Every celebration of the Holy Eucharist re-presents the sacrifice of Christ on the cross—for the forgiveness of our sins. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel, and thus, the heart of our faith.
Peter asks the question, “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Poor Peter, wrong again! Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” That works out to 490 times, but he was really saying, “Your forgiveness must be boundless.”
Peter wasn’t prepared for that answer and neither are we. Throughout my ministry I’ve known many people in many different circumstances. One of the great privileges and responsibilities of being a priest is that people trust me with the deep secrets of their hearts, the wounds that haven’t healed. One theme recurs again and again and again, and that’s the difficulty of forgiving someone who has truly hurt you.
It’s relatively easy to forgive the small transgressions, but when you’re really deeply hurt, forgiveness is difficult. A lying friend, a cheating business partner, a child who continuously disappoints his parents, an unfaithful spouse—these are just a few of the wounds that are difficult to forgive. If there’s one thing that each of us understands, it’s when someone says to us, “So and so did such and such to me, and I’m having trouble forgiving.”
Jesus knows how difficult it is for us to forgive, but he won’t let us off the hook. In fact, the hardest aspect of his teaching on forgiveness, which is found scattered throughout his teachings, is that God’s forgiveness of us depends upon our forgiveness of others. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.“
And there’s the parable in today’s Gospel, which gives the clearest reason behind our Lord’s teaching on forgiveness. A servant owed the king 10,000 talents. A talent was the equivalent of about 20 years’ wages. The king summoned the servant, and since he couldn’t pay such a debt, ordered that the servant be sold, along with his wife and his children, and all that he had, and the money given to the king. The servant begged for mercy, and the king simply forgave the debt. What unimaginable generosity!
Then the servant came upon a fellow servant, who owed him 100 denarii. A denarius was a day laborer’s wage. In today’s figures at minimum wage, 100 denarii would be about the equivalent of $5000– not a small sum, but certainly a debt that could be paid overtime. His fellow servant fell down and begged him to have mercy, and give him some more time to pay his debt, but the man had him put in prison. He had been forgiven an amount that would run a small country, but he would not forgive a much more reasonable amount.
The irony of the situation didn’t escape the king’s other subjects. Greatly distressed, they reported the incident to the king, who summoned the servant, and said, “You wicked servant. I forgave all that debt because you besought me, and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Then he sent him to prison until he could pay off all his debt, which meant forever, for he could never begin to work off that debt in prison.
The parable really is a metaphor in which the king stands for God, and the unmerciful servant, for any of us who chooses not to forgive. God has forgiven us, and continues to forgive us our countless transgressions of his law. We confess those transgressions generally at every Eucharist: “We have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. We have not loved God with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
Again and again we accept God’s forgiveness. The parable asks us and the faithful of every generation, “How can you, who have been forgiven so much by your heavenly Father, have the audacity not to forgive anyone else for any transgression? It’s the height of ingratitude and hypocrisy.
I once confessed to a close friend that I was having difficulty forgiving another friend who had deeply hurt me. My friend to whom I made the confession was surprised. She said, “How can you, a priest, indulge yourself in holding a grudge?” She continued, “You have no choice. If you’re going to be faithful, you have got to forgive. How can you choose not to forgive?” I felt duly chastised, but she was right, but not just because I am a priest, but because I am a Christian.
Do you have a broken relationship in your life because you choose not to forgive? Don’t wait even one more day. Free yourself of that burden and accept our Lord’s teaching. Besides, as Leila so wisely put it, “Resentment don’t do no good, no way, but look what love can do.”
If you look at it on paper, there is no reason why today shouldn’t be the very best time to be alive. We have more money, more medicine, and more information than ever before. Our lifespan is longer, our health better – we can even eat strawberries in the middle of August.
We live in a day and age that is rich, full of everything that you could ever possibly want.
And yet, you don’t need to read the New York Times or possess a degree in sociology to know that beneath the facade of ease and happiness are the same fears and feelings that have accompanied humankind since the very beginning. We’ve just gotten better at hiding them — which only serves to intensify the pain when it comes.
And it is coming. We don’t need a prophet to tell us that the next year will be a minefield. And we don’t need a historian to affirm that the last three have ushered in an age of uncertainty and instability the likes of which have not been seen in a generation. No one brave enough to really look at our society will like what they see.
And though we hear that better education or better politicians or better social media will fix our problems, the reality is that nothing worldly will do.
What we need is a miracle. What we need is a mystery. What we need is a mother.
We need someone who can take us, fractious children that we are, and love us and lead us on to what is good and right and true. We need someone who will help us grow up, without giving up on us in the process. We need someone whose tenderness and compassion knows no bounds.
We need a mother. But not just anyone will do. We need Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God.
The Blessed Virgin Mary has long been esteemed in the church catholic as worthy of the highest honor and praise — for through her, we have Christ. Through her flesh, God the Word took on flesh. This is no small thing; and she is no ordinary person.
Mary birthed the Savior, nursed him, cared for him, raised him, and then walked with him as his disciple. She was at the wedding where he transformed water into wine. She was at the foot of the cross when he was crucified. She was on the mount when he ascended into heaven and with the Apostles when the Holy Spirit came down in tongues of fire.
The story of Jesus is inseparable from the story of his Mother. She was there from the beginning to the very end. Her love never failing, her “yes” always constant. More than anyone, Mary accepted the will of God and dared to live within that, even when it felt like a sword to her spirit. Even when she watched her Son die. Through it all, Mary refused to let go of hope, for her whole life was alight with the knowledge of the One who brings life out of death and joy out of sorrow as surely as the flowers bloom and leaves unfurl each Spring.
And so it is that the same song would always be hers, even when it hurt to sing: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day, all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me, and Holy is his Name.”
She sang with astonished joy at her Son’s conception. She sang through the tears at her Son’s death. The tone of her voice changed, but the truth did not, for God is always bringing up the lowly. He is always feeding the hungry. He is always ready to give in abundance to those who lack. And we see that born out again and again in the Blessed Virgin’s life: for the woman who was bereft is now the mother of many children. She is ours, and we are hers, just as surely as God is our Father.
Now more than ever, when we feel the world pulling us apart, when we are afraid, when we are sorrowful, know that the Mother of our Lord loves you, is praying for you, is pointing you toward Him who is infinitely good. In her life and death, in her assumption into heaven, we receive so much hope: for she is there, even now, sitting beside her Son, never again to be parted. And she is praying that that end might be ours, too. AMEN.
You’d think a person (who shall remain nameless) would learn to carry an umbrella, especially at this time of year, when the high temperatures clash with low pressure, and the cool breezes of autumn provoke the lazy heat of summer. You’d think that, having experienced sudden rain storms for almost three weeks in a row, this person would remember to always have an umbrella in the car. You would be wrong.
Perhaps you, unlike this person who shall remain nameless, would learn that a clear sky can’t promise you anything. But, unfortunately, in the case of this individual, that lesson has never sunk in. Which is why I’ve found myself standing in a parking lot with rain dripping off of my nose while wrestling two kids into their car seats — not once, not twice, but three times in a row.
Are you like me? Maybe. Though I’d hazard a guess that we’ve all been that person who heads out the door unprepared for the storms that will cross our path.
Such is the nature of our world: we can’t always be ready for everything we meet. We can’t always control the tempests that come our way — which puts us in the very same boat as Jesus’ disciples.
For all they knew, this journey across the Sea of Galilee would be like any other, not smooth sailing, surely, but not this. This was different. The wind snapped at their hands, the rain stung their faces, and the waves rose higher and higher. Nothing but thin boards stood between them and the fathomless depths.
Worse than all that, though, was the fear. The helplessness. No feat of strength could save them. No carefully constructed plan could rescue them. They were at the mercy of the elements, which did not know and did not care that 12 lives might end that night.
Trapped aboard that fragile vessel, the disciples faced the heart-wrenching, gut-twisting fact of their own mortality. Of their own limits. Something we’ve all encountered in our own way and in our own time: you don’t have to be in the ocean to know what it feels like to drown.
Maybe it was the difficult work conversation that drastically changed your career. Or maybe it was the same fight replaying night after night at home. Or maybe it was the doctor who couldn’t look you in the eye when he said there was nothing more to be done. The storm clouds gather, the temperature drops, and before we know it, the proverbial waters are up to our neck.
What we wouldn’t give at those moments to run away, to escape the storms without, which are so often accompanied by the storms within; for the rain as it falls reveals much, much that we might otherwise be free to ignore.
We may once have believed that our own strength or our own ingenuity or simply the sheer force of our will would see us through anything and everything. But at moments of crisis or at times when the burdens we bear just get to be too much, that illusion will be torn away, and we will see and we will feel how small and weak and helpless we are.
“When evening came . . . the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.”
Broken open, we, like the disciples in that frail craft, close our eyes and bow our heads, waiting for the waves to descend, waiting for the sound of wood cracking and water rushing, followed by silence.
But at that moment, Someone speaks.
At that moment, Someone walks toward us, unhindered by the waves, unafraid of the storm, raising a hand, saying, “Be of good cheer, I AM.”
When the winds blow and the fires rage, when the earth quakes and all you can see is how wrong everything has gone: Listen. Listen. God is there, the stillness the sign of his presence, his wholeness revealed in the nothingness, in the cry of our hearts, “Lord, save me!”
Our Lord is always the same, always drawing near to the broken-hearted and the needy. Always ready to help those who call upon his name. For as we do so, as we tell his story, as we allow the Word of the Lord to dwell in us richly, we come to expect, to hope for our salvation, which is life with Christ now, union with him, rest in him, security in his love no matter what winds may blow.
No one can prepare for all that is to come. No one, truly, can be ready for the trials and tribulations that will come our way — because we cannot know what the future holds. Ours is not the power to command the seas to still and the rains to cease. All we can do is look for the one who walks on the waters as though they were dry land. He is coming our way, even now. Even now, he is here, holding out his hand, ready to join you in the darkness or in the light of day, ready to bring you in safety ot the other side — for only he knows the way.
When they stepped back into the boat, the winds ceased. The rain stopped. And the disciples looked at Jesus: “Surely, you are the Son of God.” AMEN.
One day, Joe, Bob, and Dave were hiking in the wilderness when they came upon a large, raging, river. They needed to get to the other side, but had no idea how to do it.
Joe prayed to God, saying, "Please God, give me the strength to cross this river."
Poof! God gave him big arms and strong legs. He was able to swim across the river in about two hours, although he almost drowned a couple of times.
Seeing this, Dave prayed to God, saying, "Please God, give me the strength and the tools to cross this river."
Poof! God gave him a rowboat and he was able to row across the river in about an hour, after almost capsizing the boat a couple of times.
Bob had seen how this worked out for the other two, so he also prayed to God saying, "Please God, give me the strength and the tools, and the intelligence, to cross this river."
Poof! God turned him into a woman. She looked at the map, hiked upstream a couple of hundred yards, then walked across the bridge.
I love hiking, but I I’ve never had an experience quite like that! When I’m out there in the beauty of creation, walking for miles, hour upon hour, it’s incredibly peaceful, and I find myself doing a lot of thinking and praying. I especially love hiking in the mountains, getting to the top, and walking along the ridges. I find that I do a great deal of praying when on a mountain.
In encountering God on the mountain I’m in good company. On Mt. Horeb Moses encountered God in the burning bush that wasn’t consumed. Moses also went up on Mt. Sinai and spent forty days and forty nights. It was there that God gave him the Ten Commandments.
Elijah went up on Mt. Horeb to encounter God. On Mt. Horeb Elijah didn’t hear God in the wind or in the earthquake or in the fire, but in a still, small voice. God said to Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I’ve been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with a sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away.” It was on that mountain that Elijah discerned what God wanted him to do. God calmed his fears, assured him that there were others who had not forsaken him, and gave him the direction he needed.
Likewise, hundreds of years later our Lord took three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, up on a mountain to pray. While Jesus was praying, those disciples witnessed Jesus with Moses, the Law-Giver, and Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus about his impending suffering and death.
This was truly an epiphany for Peter, James, and John. They knew Jesus was the Messiah. Peter had recently confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. What that meant exactly, no one knew at that time. Now Jesus is seen with the two greatest figures in the history of Israel, Moses and Elijah. Peter’s response was to make a memorial right there on the mountain. He proposed that they build three booths, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus. He most likely came up with that idea because of the Jewish festival of the Feast of Booths, or the Feast of Tabernacles, in which the Israelites commemorated annually the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai to Moses. But what was happening on this mountain was not the giving of a new law, but a much greater reality.
And then they heard the voice of God: “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him,” and when they heard that revelation, Moses and Elijah had disappeared. Only Jesus remained.
What are the lessons for us of the Transfiguration? First, it was a revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, and so it calls for a response, not only from Peter, James, and John, but also from all who would come after them and hear of this theophany.
Second, it’s another example of Jesus as a man of prayer. There’s no one closer to God than Jesus. In fact, he is God. Yet he needed prayer and regularly sought out times to be with his heavenly Father in prayer. Jesus sets the example for all of us to pray frequently and regularly.
Third, prayer didn’t take the difficulties of this life away from Jesus. In fact, this event served as a preparation for the ordeal he was to face in his suffering and death. We often view prayer as an attempt to escape the difficulties we face, and sometimes God does give us that. But more often, prayer leads us to deeper levels of commitment, taking us into the fray, rather than out of it.
You see, in prayer one of the things that happens is that we begin to see things from God’s point of view, rather than from our own. Are you having trouble in your marriage? Take it to God in prayer. But don’t think that God’s going to say, “If you’re having some problems, then you should get out of the marriage. After all, I want you to be happy.”
Divorce is a very complex issue, and there are times when divorce is the lesser of two evils. But divorce is certainly not where God is going to begin. He’s much more likely to say, “Work at it. That’s what your vows are for. Remember, you said ‘For better, for worse.’”
Jesus is revealed as God’s Son. He gives us the example of a life grounded in prayer, and just because we pray doesn’t mean life’s going to get easier. It might just get harder. God wants us to be happy, but true happiness can only come from living according to his will. When we do that, we experience that peace that passes understanding.
You and I don’t have to go hiking up a mountain to meet God on the mountaintop. We’re on the mountaintop right now. He gives us this opportunity not only for our own good, but for the purpose of sending us into the world in witness to him. That may not always take us to comfortable places, but it will give us peace.
One of the great blessings of being in ministry for my wife, Linda and me, is that we’ve lived in several different parts of the United States. When I was a Methodist minister, I had a parish in Jackson Center, Ohio. Once I became an Episcopalian, I served for a year at St. Boniface, Mequon, Wisconsin, as a Seminarian Assistant. After that year of seminary graduate work, I was a curate at Saint Mark’s Church in Arlington, Texas, and then later on the Rector of St. Andrew’s in Grand Prairie, Texas. After Grand Prairie, we went to Grace Church in Monroe, Louisiana, and after Monroe, we went to Sarasota, Florida, where I had my longest term as Rector, 26 years, at Church of the Redeemer. After I retired, I was Interim Rector of St. John’s Church in Tampa. And now, of course, we are at Emmanuel Memorial, where I am once again the Interim Rector.
We have loved every parish, and every parish was different in one way or another. Each of the parishes has been relatively “high“ liturgically, and each of them was a little higher after I got there!
And each of them were fairly social places. They loved the worship of the church, but they also loved getting together and enjoying a good meal and socializing.
People tell me I have a fairly healthy appetite, some might even say robust. I’m glad I do, because that makes eating pleasurable. There may be something circular in that reasoning, but I’m not going to worry about it! And I have to say that the most unusual place we lived with respect to cuisine was Louisiana. There’s a wonderful point of contact between my experience in Louisiana and the Parable of the Mustard Seed which we heard in the Gospel this morning.
When we first moved to Louisiana, I heard that all Louisiana recipes start out with the same five word sentence: “First you make a roux.” That certainly is how gumbo is made, and gumbo has an interesting history. Back when New Orleans was getting established, the wealthy families who moved there brought their French chefs with them. Many of the ingredients with which these chefs had learned to cook were not available in New Orleans, so they had to improvise, using ingredients that were native to their new surroundings. One of the ingredients they discovered was okra. They wanted to make bouillabaisse, but they had to improvise, and the new ingredient they used was okra.
Okra has an interesting history as well. That history is really the reason I’m talking about gumbo this morning. Okra isn’t native to Louisiana, but to Africa. The black women who were taken to New Orleans from Africa as slaves, hid okra seeds in their hair, so that they could plant them in their new home. The fruit of this African plant is what the New Orleans French chefs used to make a creole version of bouillabaisse called gumbo. Small okra seeds brought in faith from Africa by black slave women brought about a delicacy now known around the world. If God had chosen Louisiana for the setting of the incarnation, I’m sure we would have a parable or two about okra, rues, and gumbo.
Instead of a parable about okra seeds, what we have is one about a mustard seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The things of faith may seem small, even insignificant, but actually produce a life that is richer and more abundant than anything else in life.
Our Lord may have told this parable to encourage his disciples concerning the growth of the Church. After the resurrection, as they spread the Gospel, they would encounter systematic and determined opposition. Jesus warns them that they would suffer persecution, and even martyrdom for his sake. He was encouraging his disciples not to let those who opposed them, those who are much bigger and stronger, to cause the disciples to think that their cause was hopeless. At one level, the parable of the mustard seed is a prophecy that the seed God planted in Bethlehem 2000 years ago would indeed become an organism that would reach to the ends of the earth, transforming the lives of people in countless generations.
Yet there’s another level of meaning in the parable. It’s what you and I probably think of first when we hear of the tiniest of seeds becoming the largest of plants. It has to do with our faith. It’s the tiniest of seeds because the things of faith are basically very simple. Say your prayers, read your Bible, go to church on Sunday, forgive those who wrong you, help the needy. Do the simple things of faith, things that taken separately look very small and insignificant, and eventually that faith will be the most meaningful, most fulfilling, most important aspect of your life. Furthermore, your life will become so attractive that others will find peace and refreshment just being around you, not because of any particular thing that you do, but because of who you have become. For in the process, God has made a dwelling in you.
God has a purpose for you and me in calling us to be a part of his Church. We must never think that our role in the Body of Christ is insignificant for the growth of the kingdom of God. We’re a part of the Church, and specifically, we are a part of Emmanuel Memorial, for a purpose. Through prayer and through talking with other Christians, we discern as best we can what that purpose is, and then we exercise that ministry, by the grace of God, and to the best of our ability—doing all to the glory of God.
And all the while, we continue to do the simple things of faith, for those things are what provide a foundation for an effective ministry. God wants our life of faith to be like a good gumbo, with all the ingredients working together to make for a rich, rewarding life.
We all love to hear a good speaker, an engaging talk, an inspirational message. When we come to church we want to hear a sermon that lifts us out of our everyday life and transports us to the feet of Jesus. We prefer that to be done with some humor and it's especially good if it makes us cry! And if it's memorable, well that's all the better!
All tongue in cheek aside, we want to hear the word from God that will change us, make us less self-centered and more loving, more the people God would have us to be. I suspect that we would all pretty much agree that the quality of the sermon depends on the preacher.
What I would give to have heard Jesus! I know many things that he said, of course, because his words are recorded in the accounts of the Gospel. But I know he said things that were not written down and I don't know how he said those things. How he raised or lowered his voice, how he paused before an important point, his use of gesture.
We all know of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, but we tend to forget that that miracle happened because 5,000 men, plus women and children, walked a long way just to hear our Lord teach. What a powerful teacher and preacher he must have been when he walked this earth. Of course, they didn't always like what he had to say. He was known to make some folks angry, angry enough even to want to kill him. But that speaks of a powerful speaker as well.
Jesus certainly was aware of the expectations of his hearers. He knew the human need to be moved and to be entertained. But in one of his parables he turns the tables on them. In the parable of the sower our Lord shifts the emphasis from the preacher to the hearer. A farmer scatters seed on the ground indiscriminately. Some of the seed falls on the hard earth of the beaten path or on stony ground. That seed never has a chance to take root. Some who hear the word are too hardened by hatred to get anything out of the message.
Some of the seed falls on shallow soil, so the roots can’t go deep, and the plants die from the heat of the sun. Some hear the Word, it makes an impact but the person doesn't allow the Word to touch him where he lives.
Some seed takes root, but the plants are choked by weeds and thorns. Some hear the Word and respond, but golf, and making money, and any number of other concerns soon takes the place of faith.
And some seed falls on good soil, establishes deep roots, and flourishes, producing fruit in abundance. Some hear the Word, respond, and repent, taking the Word to heart and living according to it, and as a result, God is able to do wonderful works of mercy and justice through them.
Jesus has turned the tables ! Yes, the message is important, but the result of the teaching depends upon the quality of the hearing! Linda and I sent to see the new Mission Impossible movie last Tuesday night. In it there was an exciting car chase through the streets of Rome, driving by the colosseum, and St. Peter’s Basilica. A couple of cars even drove down the Spanish steps! It was fun watching that, because it brought back great memories of our trips to Rome.
We saw the place where St. Peter and St. Paul were imprisoned; the Pantheon, a pagan temple to all the gods built over 2,000 years ago, and later converted into a Christian church dedicated to all the saints; the catacombs, where early Christians worshipped in secret and where many were buried. On every block in the city there were magnificent churches, testimonies to the great faith and sacrifice of Christians in ages past. Everywhere we went, we were reminded of our faith. We walked on streets named for the saints. Religiouns artifacts were for sale in all of the stores. Christian icons and paintings were even found on the outside of public buildings. In other words, the seeds of faith were everywhere, wanting to take root in the lives of all passersby.
Yet, ironically, in another way that city looks just like any other city. People shoving and shouting; no one dares carry much money, and what is carried is carefully concealed, because of all the pick-pockets. Poverty abounds. For all of its beauty and for the countless testimonies of faith, Christianity still has a lot of work to do in that great city. The seeds are certainly there, but not all of the soil is receptive. The result of the message depends upon the quality of the hearer.
I have a couple of things I want to say to you concerning this parable of the sower. The first is that whenever I return to the parable of the sower, which
is really more aptly called the parable of the soils, I identify with all of the kinds of soils mentioned. There have been times in my life when I have been too hardened to hear the good news, times when I have heard the Word but not allowed it really to touch me, times when I have allowed worldly concerns to choke out all thought of Jesus, and there have been times when the soil has been good, by the grace of God. And sometimes those kinds of receptivity follow closely upon one another. Human sin is always ready to rear its ugly head. If the soil of our lives is to be truly receptive to God's Word, it is by the grace of God. So we all need to pray that God will continually make us receptive to his Word, that we might bear fruit for him.
And second, the next time you find yourself being overly critical of a sermon, ask yourself if perhaps there might be something in your life that is causing you not to hear what God is trying to tell you. Believe me, that doesn't take the burden off of the preacher, but it does recognize shared responsibility for the resultsl For remember, the result of the teaching depends upon the quality of the hearing.
Whether we’re going to the library or to the park or to church, there are several items I must have in order to avoid a complete parent/child meltdown. You could probably fill in the blank knowing the ages of my children: Diapers. Wipes. Snacks. Change of clothes (which I constantly forget). These things ensure that whatever emotional or biological mess erupts, we can at least begin to clean it up. We can at least start to make things better.
If there is one thing that having children in your life teaches you it’s this: Life together is messy. Life together is complicated — at all ages and stages of human development. Each of us have our own personalities, some of which clash. Each of us have our own preferences, some of which clash. Each of us have our own wants and needs and hopes and dreams, and we are each tasked with figuring out how to pursue those things without shutting out or shutting down our neighbor.
I forgot to ask Deacon Chris how long it’s been since we’ve had this kind of Sunday morning parish-wide social at Emmanuel, though the answer could very well just be “too long.” It’s been a tough three years. The pandemic isolated us. It changed not only how we relate to one another but how we relate to the world. So much that helped us to see the human in our fellow human beings is gone, replaced by InstaCart and Instagram and all the other shortcuts that claim to make life better but really just obscure it. For the past three years, we’ve lived so much of our lives apart from one another — and in many ways, we’ve gotten used to it: A text message is easier than a phone call. A podcast better than a conversation between friends. A life of seclusion, of withdrawal, of homogeneity safer than a life lived in community.
And yet, by the very fact of our gathering here this morning, we say in word and deed that a community is what we want to be. We want to be a community drawn together and bound together by Christ. That is our commitment, which is not easy, especially now, as our society shifts and we are formed more and more not by the liturgies of the church but by the liturgies of algorithms.
Our Lord calls those who follow him to lay down their lives for one another. He calls us to bear one another’s burdens. He calls us to suffer together — because that is what Jesus and his followers have always done. As he said, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master.”
What a thing to consider on the morning of a picnic, perhaps the most quintessentially “happy” and “quaint” postcard moment we could come up with. But just as someone will inevitably knock over a cup of tea or have a tantrum because Mom said no to another cookie: true fellowship, real community, opens us up to the possibility of trouble, of pain, and of suffering. And that’s because when we abide together, when we take the risk of living with one another as we really are, we learn of the terrible weight of grief behind the warm greeting; or the stunning selfishness beneath the kind exterior; or the outsized anger that can bubble up when personalities collide. We learn in no uncertain terms that we are all human.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, Christian community is never an ideal. It is a divine reality.
Only in Christ can people who are so wildly different come together and stay together through the joys and trials of life. Only in Christ can we encounter our neighbor’s needs, our neighbor’s sinfulness, and love them because we were loved first. Only in Christ, can we take that chance and put our own hearts on the line, because only in Christ can the pain and the problems of today be the glory of tomorrow.
Story after story tells us this is true, whether it comes through the song of the psalter or the prophecy of Jeremiah. “Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD. For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” That is who he is.
Let us remember: Humankind was once in strife. We were once estranged from one another because of our estrangement from God. Sin and death ruled our lives — until the Son of God came in the fullness of time to intervene.
Jesus accepted the work of bringing humankind back into community with God — knowing what it would cost. Knowing that the people God had made for himself would turn against him and cast him into the Pit. And what did we do but that exactly? Met with perfect love and perfect holiness, humankind looked at God incarnate and said “‘Perhaps . . . we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.’” And so we nailed him to a cross.
Such are the darkest depths to which human community can sink, the hell that is a mob, that is love turned to hate. And yet Christ responded to it all not with indignation, nor with vengeance, but with his very Body and Blood —that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.
This miracle, this victory is ours. As we cling to Christ, as we work out our salvation in his Church, we share more and more in that victory, becoming the kind of people who can suffer hardship and still sing: “But as for me, this is my prayer to you, at the time you have set, O LORD: In your great mercy, O God, answer me with your unfailing help. Answer me, O God, in your great mercy.”
There is an expectation there, a knowledge deeper than thought, that God will redeem even the worst of wrongs. “For if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
And that resurrection begins now. Here. As we are gathered together under the Word of God, as we are made one in his Body and Blood, we are made alive to God, struck through with the love that would willingly hang on the cross and die that all creation might be saved. This is the love that makes community possible. This is the love that refuses to let Death and Sin have the final say. This is the love that would redeem us, remake us, and so transform the world.
Life together will always bring its share of confusion and heartache as well as its moments of joy and celebration. Whatever mess we may encounter, whatever tears may come, whatever cross we must bear, May we all remember the Lord who died so that we might live and love one another as he loves us. AMEN.
Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought about western civilization. “I think,” he replied, “that it would be a very good idea.“ There are many things that characterize a civilization, but what really makes a people civilized? Let me ask some other questions, that may seem to be unrelated. What’s the secret to happiness? What makes a business worthy of existence? What’s the sign of an emotionally and mentally healthy person? How can we tell if Emmanuel Memorial is faithful to the Gospel? On this Father’s Day, what is a father’s responsibility to teach his children, both by word and example, that will help them the most to lead productive lives?
The answer to all of these questions, whether we speak of whole civilizations, businesses, families, or individuals, is love. The song that was popular when I was a teenager is, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.“ The Beatles sang about it: “All you need is love.” The songs are right to a degree – what the world needs is love, all you need is love—but it’s hardly a kind of love that can be characterized by the word sweet. It’s a love that isn’t an emotions with a feeling. It’s a love that comes from the will. It’s the intention one has for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of another person or persons, and it is expressed in deeds of compassion, forgiveness, and charity, with no expectation of return. This love is sometimes sweet, but more often it’s sacrificial, contrary to human nature, and difficult.
Most of you are old enough to remember a little book, titled, All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum. He tells a story about V. P. Minon, who was a significant political figure in India during the struggle for independence after World War II. Two characteristics of Minon stood out as particularly memorable – a kind of aloof, impersonal efficiency, and a reputation for personal charity. His daughter explained the background of the latter trait after he died. When Minon arrived in Delhi to seek a job in government, all of his possessions, including his money and ID, were stolen at the railroad station. He would have to return home on foot, defeated.
In desperation, he turned to an elderly Sikh, explained his trouble, and asked for a temporary loan of 15 rupees to tide him over until he could get a job. When Minon asked for his address, so he could repay the man, the Sikh said he owed the debt to any stranger who came to him in need so long as he lived. The help came from a stranger, and was to be repaid to a stranger.
Minon never forgot that debt. His daughter said that the day before Minon died, a begger came to the family home in Bangalore asking for help to buy new sandals, for his feet were covered with sores. Minon asked his daughter to take 15rupees out of his wallet to give to the man. It was Minon‘s last conscious act.
And there’s even more to this story. Fulghum relates that this story was told to him by a man whose name he didn’t know. He was standing beside him at the baggage counter at the airport. Fulghum had come to reclaim his bags and had no Indian currency left. The agent wouldn’t take a traveler’s check, and Fulgham was uncertain about getting his luggage and making the next plane. The man paid the claim check fee—about 80cents— and told Fulghum the story about Minon, as a way of refusing his attempts to figure out how to repay him. His father had been Minon’s assistant, and had learned Minon‘s charitable ways and passed them on to his son. Some might call his story “love in action,“ but that’s superfluous, for true love always expresses itself in action.
Jesus sent the 12 disciples out, not just to preach about the kingdom of heaven, which they were indeed to do, but also to do the work of God. “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons,“ our Lord told his disciples. In other words, he told his disciples to give of their all in meeting the needs of people who were hurting, diseased, even dead.
Such loving service is the responsibility of the Church to this day. Every Christian is called to this ministry, not only for the sake of helping people with their problems, but also as a sign to the world that the kingdom of God is at hand,
The extent to which this principle of self-giving love is realized in the lives of people is the extent to which that people is civilized. The business that operates on that principle wins the right to exist. The individual who lives under such a rule is at least on the road to emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being. And on this Father’s Day, the father,l who teaches such self-giving love to his children, and who teaches them from whence that love comes, has given them the best gift he can give; for this is the same love which God the Father has shown us in his Son, Jesus Christ.
A family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up. Opposite in every way, one was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist.
Just to see what would happen, on the twins' birthday their father loaded the pessimist's room with every imaginable toy and game. The optimist's room he loaded with horse manure.
That night the father passed by the pessimist's room and found him sitting amid his new gifts crying bitterly. "Why are you crying?" the father asked. "Because my friends will be jealous, I'll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I'll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken," answered the pessimist twin.
Passing the optimist twin's room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure. "What are you so happy about?" he asked. To which his optimist twin replied, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Perhaps it depends on the circumstances. Our Lord Jesus has some guidance for us. In today’s Gospel we’re back in Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday. The passage we just heard is from Jesus’ Farewell discourse. He’s at the Last Supper. He’s washed his disciples’ feet and shared his last meal with them. Judas has left to prepare for his betrayal of Jesus. He’s preparing his disciples for the terrible events that are about to unfold.
There cannot be a more torturous way to die than crucifixion. The Romans had perfected this form of execution to make it as painful as it could be in order to scare off anyone who might be tempted to commit a similar offense. As Jesus is preparing to suffer that most terrible of deaths, he’s giving his disciples a different way of perceiving what’s about to happen. He’s covering them with the words that will help them to understand his death as something ultimately good, when they would otherwise not be able to see beyond what the Romans wanted them to see. Of course, they would not truly understand until Jesus was raised from the dead.
It’s in that context that Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid; believe in God, believe also in me.” By believe, Jesus isn’t talking about some vague notion that God exists, but putting all of their trust in God’s love for them and that he will provide all that they need to get them through that time of peril, and any time of peril. He’s not saying that evil won’t happen, for it was going to happen; but simply that it will not be victorious, and it certainly will not destroy them.
And, Jesus makes a more astounding claim about himself: “Believe also in me.”---- “Put your trust in me, even though it will look for a while that I have been defeated.”
We Christians need to live with that understanding. No matter what destructive forces are attacking us, we need to cover ourselves with these words: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid; believe in God, believe also in me.” Are you worried about your health? The economy? The stock market? The 2024 election? Russia’s war against Ukraine? Trouble at home or work? Is that difficult person, who seems to be in your life in order to disrupt it, giving you problems? Have you lost a loved one? These words of our Lord apply in all circumstances. Put your trust in God the Father and in his Son who died for our sins. Cover yourself with that understanding.
The way we Christians look at the world around us should always be through this lens. The Christian by definition cannot be pessimistic. We’ve been let in on the end of the story. God wins! And so to be pessimistic is to cast doubt on the fundamentals of our faith. St. Paul said we must be “transformed by the renewal of our minds,” as in all circumstances we put our trust in God.
I have to confess to you, that isn’t always easy to do, and I can be as negative and fatalistic about things as the worst of pessimists, at times. But when that happens, by God’s grace I usually realize that such a response is not being faithful. In fact, it’s sinful. It’s something I have to confess when it happens. I realize then that I have to do my best to perceive circumstances from the perspective of faith, trusting that God has already won the battle. And you know, when I find myself not looking at things from the perspective of faithfulness, the most helpful thing I can do is recall how faithful Christians that I know, and with whom I associate on a daily basis, would deal with similar circumstances, and that helps to get me back on track. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve found that this parish is blessed with many people who cover themselves with their trust in God and they’re tremendous models for me and for others. And I’ve found that to be the case in every parish I’ve been associated with.
The German philosopher Nietzsche said, “Christians will have to look more redeemed if people are to believe in their Redeemer.” All I can say in response to that is that I know many who reveal in their lives on a daily basis the presence of Christ. I wish Nietzsche could have known the people of this parish. He wouldn’t have been so pessimistic.
God grant us the grace truly to put our trust in our Redeemer, so that those who see us, those who hear our conversation and witness our deeds, will be brought nearer to him, who alone can save.
After mass, a stranger approached the priest and said, “I’d like you to pray for my hearing.”
The priest placed his hands on the man’s ears and said a passionate, earnest prayer.
“How’s your hearing now?” He asked.
Looking surprised, the man said, “Well, it’s not until tomorrow.”
The priest, of course, thought the man was looking for a much different kind of miracle!
A couple of years ago I got up from bed and I was seeing brown designs floating across my eyes. I went to my ophthalmologist, who immediately sent me to an eye surgeon, telling me I needed to get there without delay.
I found out I had a torn retina. The cause was that the gel-like substance inside the eye shrinks and separates from the retina as a person ages, causing a tear— just another adventure in the delightful process of aging! He said it needed to be dealt with immediately and he gave me laser surgery. The laser basically burns around the edges of the tear so that it doesn’t continue the separation. He did the operation that day, and then a few weeks later did it some more. I was healed completely after the second time.
Thanks be to God! God healed me, for all healing comes from God. The eye surgeon, who happened to be a member of my parish, was known to be one of the best in the country. He’s God’s instrument of healing, and I give thanks to God for Dr. Niffenegger.
My healing was gradual. It started with my recognizing that I had a problem and then seeking help. Then I went to a well trained and talented surgeon, who basically brought about the healing over a few weeks in a two step process. I’ve had the blessing of sight ever since I was born, but that problem with my retina could have eventually ended up with my becoming blind.
In today’s Gospel, we heard the account of Jesus’ giving of sight to the man who was born blind. St. John gives a detailed description of the miracle: Jesus spat on the ground, made clay from the spittle, and smeared the clay on the man’s eyes. He then told the man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, and after doing that the man was able to see.
Of course, our Lord could have simply said to the man, your sight is restored, and it would have been restored. Yet, in this healing, he goes to a lot of extra trouble.
It was believed in that day that spittle had curative properties, especially the spittle of a distinguished person. While we find such a notion to be unhygienic and superstitious, Jesus used a belief of his time to gain the confidence of his patient. Even doctors today know that the effectiveness of treatments of many illnesses depends, at least in part, upon patients’ beliefs in those treatments. On many occasions in which Jesus cured a person, he told that person, “Your faith has made you well.“
But there’s more to this miracle than simply the gift of sight. When first asked how he received his sight, the once blind man said, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes.” So early on, he describes Jesus as “the man Jesus.” When questioned further by the Pharisees, as to Jesus’ identity, he said, “He is a prophet.”
The Pharisees were upset with Jesus, because he healed the man on the Sabbath. In other words, Jesus worked on the Sabbath, when the healing could have been done just as well on another day. By this time in his ministry, Jesus had done many things that upset the religious leaders, and so the supporters of Jesus were always in danger of being excommunicated, cut off from the faithful, prohibited from worshiping with the community.
When the man born blind continued to speak in defense of Jesus, he was excommunicated. After he had been cast out, which is the way John speaks of excommunication, Jesus sought him out, and told him that he was the Messiah. The man who had been given the gift of sight, then said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshipped him.
Thus, we really have heard about two miracles, one physical, the other spiritual, but both miracles are recalled basically for one purpose: that we might be cured of our spiritual blindness.
Unlike all of the characters in the story, we know the story from the other side of the resurrection. We have the benefit of the insight of countless generations of Christians who have gone before. And yet, we’re still as susceptible to spiritual blindness as people of any age or culture. We still are often blind to the needs of those around us. We’re blind to the fact that our own spiritual health depends upon our willingness to forgive. We’re blinded by prejudice toward and fear of others who are different from us. We’re blinded by the idea that happiness comes from acquiring money and things; we’re blinded by the temptation to believe that what we have and what we are belong to us by right, and not as gifts from God. And a host of other things. One way to state the goal of the Christian life is to be cured completely of our spiritual blindness.
In the 1700s, an Englishman by the name of John Newton was a slave merchant. He took African natives from their homeland and sold them to people in the American colonies. Newton became acquainted with three Anglican priests: George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley. As a result of their teaching and of his reading of Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, Newton was converted to Christianity. He gave up the slave trade, and eventually entered seminary, and became a priest himself.
You may not know the name John Newton, but you have memorized at least part of
one of his hymns. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.”
Newton’s story is a story of conversion. For most of us conversion isn’t a one time occurrence, but a lifelong process. Throughout our lives, we need many conversions, many turnaround’s, and I suppose that’s why Lent comes around every year.
A great mystic once said, “Of what avail is the open eye, if the heart is blind?“ As God gave sight to the man born blind, as he renewed my sight, so he can cure us of a much more debilitating blindness—blindness of heart. You and I may be guilty of some blindness this past week, or of some blindness that lies deep within our personality. As always, Jesus offers us his forgiveness, and a new chance to learn more fully what it is to follow him as Lord.
No matter how hard we try; no matter how many sidewalk cracks we jump; no matter how many vitamins we take or risks we avoid, we will all end up in the wilderness at some point in our lives.
Some of you — maybe many or even most of you — know what I’m talking about. Whether you have encountered the deserts of chronic illness, or the valleys of broken relationships, or the ocean storms that threaten to sweep us away when life slips out of control — we know that these times can leave us feeling unmoored, alone, and afraid. And no matter what we do, no matter what we buy or what ends we will go to to distract ourselves, the horizon stretches out before us, with no oasis in sight.
Which begs the question: What hope do we have when we are lost in the wilderness?
In our OT lesson today, we hear just a snippet from the story of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land — and what we hear doesn’t sound good.
Less than a month had passed since the Hebrew people had left Egypt, weighed down with the riches of their enemies. Less than a month had passed since God had parted the Red Sea, so that all of Israel might be saved — and all of Pharaoh’s armies drowned. Less than a month had passed, and already the people of God doubted that the One who had redeemed them from slavery, the One who had called them into existence, cared for them or could care for them now.
All it took was a little bit of thirst. The people of Israel had just moved on from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Rephidim, where they quickly realized that there was just not enough water to go around. And so the people quarreled with Moses and grumbled against him, saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
So Moses cried to the Lord: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
And no wonder. The human heart so readily turns to anger when we are afraid; and God’s people were afraid. Bad as it had been in Egypt, they had known who they were, known their surroundings, known what they wanted. But now the Israelites walked a seemingly never-ending path of rock and sand and heat and struggle. The present, with all its troubles, loomed before them, taller than the mountains, vaster than the desert. The Israelites could not imagine a future, and they had forgotten their past. Hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and afraid, they were done waiting for paradise.
But God wasn’t done with them.
As the story unfolds we see what most of us would not be able to give: Mercy. Patience. Love. In the face of what wasn’t simply grumbling or quarreling — the Hebrew words used there have more of a sense of open rebellion and strife — God gave water to his people. “Behold,” he said to Moses, “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”
There, in the midst of the wilderness, God provided for his people — not according to their deserts, to use an old term, but according to his love.
Does that sound familiar to you?
This is an age-old story, the only True Story, we might say. For God proves his love for us, again and again, in that while we were still sinners, while we were still weak, he chose to save us. This is the Gospel. This is the good news. This is the water of life and the bread of heaven that will sustain us even when we suffer — because we will.
More than any other season in the church year, Lent reminds us that life is not all sunshine and roses. Every Ash Wednesday, we commit ourselves to following Jesus toward his crucifixion. We fall in behind and pick up our cross and begin (again!) the work of reckoning with the fact that our leader never sought the easy way out. He chose willingly to enter the wilderness of Sin that we might follow him to Paradise. And we won’t walk a different path. This is the way that leads there. God forms his people through the desert and in the valleys; he shapes us in the depths and in the heights. But he also waits for us. Guides us. Nourishes us.
As our Lord said to the woman at the well: “Everyone who drinks of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Our hearts may quake, our faith may fail. We will fall — and then get right back up again. For our God stands before us, the Rock of our Salvation, and the water he would give us can create a garden out of even the driest of ground. AMEN.
Nicodemus is a fascinating character. Nicodemus is a wealthy man. He’s a learned man, a man respected for his great religious knowledge. He’s a leader among the Jews. He’s one to whom people come for answers to deep religious questions.
As someone who knows a great deal about the faith, and unlike many of his friends, Nicodemus can’t simply dismiss Jesus as some religious nut who’s attracting crowds with false teachings. No, he secretly admires Jesus and sees in him something that he himself does not have. And he wants, very much, to have what apparently only Jesus has to offer. By all measures of success, Nicodemus has arrived. And yet, at the top of the proverbial heap, one can almost hear him asking himself, “Is this all there is?”
He has to talk with Jesus. But the “In” crowd, the circle of people in which Nicodemus moves, would surely disapprove greatly of his treating Jesus with anything but contempt. So he has to go to Jesus secretly, at night, under cover of darkness. After all, he has his reputation to protect.
Jesus knows what Nicodemus is up to. He knows that Nicodemus doesn’t have the courage to show his respect publicly. He could send him away with a proper rebuff: “Come back in the daylight and ask your questions, you hypocrite,” he could have said. But that isn’t Jesus’s way. He receives the man, as he is, lack of courage and all, because he perceives in him someone who is genuinely searching for truth.
Jesus doesn’t wait for Nicodemus to ask a question. He gets right to the heart of the matter: “Unless one is born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “You’re wondering how you can have achieved so much. You have it all, Nicodemus—wealth, power, prestige—yet still there is a void in your life that makes everything else insignificant. You want that one added ingredient to your life that will make everything fall into place, give it all ultimate meaning.”
Nicodemus expected perhaps an elaboration on the meaning of the Ten Commandments, or an admonishment to give more money to the poor, or to say more prayers—something he could do to make his life meaningful.
The significance of Jesus’s answer was essentially, “You can do nothing to be a part of the kingdom of God. It is completely God’s doing. Just as you were born into this world through no effort on your part, so you are born into the kingdom of God through no effort on your part.”
And how does God bring about this new birth? Through baptism. At baptism we are reborn of water and the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is given at baptism. One is, therefore, made a Christian at baptism. St. Augustine maintained that baptism marks the soul as the property of the Trinity and that even in the case of an apostate person—a person who has renounced his faith--that character remains just as the royal seal remains on a coin.
Here in the United States it’s not uncommon to be asked, “Are you a born-again Christian?” What is usually meant is, “Have you had an emotional experience in which you sensed the presence of God calling you to commit your life to him, and did you respond affirmatively to that experience? Furthermore, was that experience so strong that you date the beginning of your Christian life from that point?
We Episcopalians as a rule are uncomfortable with that kind of theology and terminology, just as we are uncomfortable with the same kind of question, “Are you saved?” So when someone asks the average Episcopalian, “Are you a born-again Christian, a not uncommon response is, “Why, no, I’m an Episcopalian.” The person who asked the question then believes that what he thought all along about Episcopalians is true and either goes about trying to convert a newly-discovered pagan or takes his leave quickly.
To talk about a born-again Christian is to be redundant. It’s like saying, “I’m a flesh and blood human being.” A person is born anew through water and the Spirit, in baptism. So look up the date of your baptism, memorize it, and the next time someone asks you if you’re a born again Christian you can say, emphatically, “yes,” and give that person the date.
Yet, while baptism does give a person rebirth in the Spirit, it still is only a beginning of a life lived totally in devotion to Christ. The non-Christian, living without Christ, has an excuse, in a sense, for living a self-centered life. The Christian, on the other hand, should live a life worthy of this new birth given at baptism. What does that look like? It means not doing what comes naturally, for one thing. When you have an urge to look at some pornography, a growing problem in our society, you don’t do it because it is not worthy of the newly-born creature in Christ. When you are drawn to cheat on your wife or husband, even when the chances seem slim that you’ll be caught, you don’t do it because of your new-born status. In the old life of sin that might be done, but not in the new life of grace. It means constantly learning about one’s faith—reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. It means putting our Sunday obligation at the top of the list of obligations in life. It means spending time with God in prayer daily. All of these things we do, not in order to inherit the kingdom of God, for we inherited the kingdom at baptism, but in order to reflect that new reality into which we have been born anew.
The sad fact of the matter is that Christians can all too often identify with Nicodemus, asking ourselves, “Is this all there is?,” finding little real meaning in our lives. When this is the case, we have not surrendered everything to Christ. We may be doing a host of right things—saying our prayers, attending church faithfully, giving sacrificially—but it still isn’t really life-changing. We think we want what Christ has to offer us, but we also want to maintain a style of life that isn’t completely Christian. And then we wonder why our lives are not completely blessed.
William Sloane Coffin writes, in Sermons from Riverside, 1987: “…all of us are like Nicodemus most of the time. When we find ourselves in distress, and when we seek guidance, we think we want to change. In fact, we want to remain the same, but to feel better about it. In psychological terms, we want to be more effective neurotics. We prefer the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.” Similarly, Diettrich Bonhoeffer said, “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”
Apparently Nicodemus continued to follow Jesus, although probably always secretly. You may remember that Joseph of Arimathea provided a tomb for Jesus’s body. What you may not remember is that Nicodemus brought for Jesus’s burial about one hundred pounds of spices to be bound up with the linen cloths, which was a Jewish burial custom.
Lent is a time, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, when we examine our consciences and seek by God’s grace, to live more nearly into the reality of the new life we were given in baptism. May this Lent be such a time for us all.
The Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke told of a time when he put on puppet shows for children in a refugee camp during World War II. His show was the greatest attraction in the camp. Every day the hall was filled with children who came to see the puppets. Thielicke’s played the part of the devil. He describes it this way: “I wielded a horrible, fiery red puppet in one hand and mustered up a menacing and horrible voice to represent all the terrible discords of hell. Then, in tones brimming with sulphur I advised the children to indulge in every conceivable naughtiness: ‘You never need to wash your feet at night; you should stick out your tongue at anyone who displeases you; be sure to drop banana skins on the street so people will slip on the!’”
Some people thought he was putting horrible ideas into the children’s heads, but they didn’t want to follow that creature that was opposed to everything that’s good. The result of those puppet shows was that children had abnormally clean feet, never stuck out their tongues at people, and there was no danger in the camp of people falling on banana skins that had been dropped deliberately.
The nature of temptation isn’t that the devil tempts us to do things that we know are in direct opposition to God. The nature of temptation is that without our realizing it we can begin to lose contact with God and be at cross purposes with him. Eve and Adam were not tempted to eat of the fruit of the tree because they thought it was evil. They ate of that fruit because they thought it was good, not believing that God knew better than they what was best for them. After all, the serpent tempted them by telling them the fruit would make them like God. Isn’t that a good thing? To be like our Creator? Yet they were already like God, made in his image, but they wanted to be like God on their own terms.
Adam and Eve’s response to temptation is always one option, and one with which we are all familiar! Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, says that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. We know that way of getting rid of temptation.
When Jesus was tempted, he was tempted not to do what looked to be evil, but what appeared to be good. What could be wrong with making bread from stones, when you’re hungry after a forty day fast? Notice, too, the devil said, “If you are the Son of God,” as if to say, “Prove it to me and to yourself.” But Jesus would not yield to this temptation to serve his own needs, whether physical or psychological.
The next temptation was to throw himself down from the temple, so that the Father would save him miraculously, thereby showing all without a doubt who he was. Faith wouldn’t be necessary at all. His work as God’s Son would be tremendously easier, or so it might seem. But to throw himself down from the temple would be to attempt to manipulate the Father, to put him to the test. So our Lord Jesus rejected that easy path to acceptance.
The third temptation was to be the kind of Messiah everyone expected—one who would rule the world. This temptation had higher stakes. He would have to worship the devil to do it. This is the only temptation in which the devil doesn’t challenge Jesus’ Sonship by beginning with, “If you are the Son of God.” All of the kingdoms of the world were to be his, but they weren’t to be his in the worldly sense, nor were they to be obtained through force and deceit—the ways of the devil—but through the cross. Like Adam and Eve, Jesus had to decide whether to have the kingdoms of this earth on his own terms or on the Father’s terms, by worshipping the devil or worshipping the Father.
When we look at our Lord’s experience of being tempted we’re seeing a cosmic battle being waged. The Prince of Darkness meets the Son of God, and the Son of God wins.
But there’s another instructive element here. First, Jesus was a man of prayer. He kept the lines of communication open between himself and the Father. He knew how subtle the tempter could be, tempting us to do things which might serve our interest in the short run, but which ultimately don’t serve the purposes of God. He knew those purposes because he communicated with the Father through prayer.
Secondly, he knew the scriptures. He used them to fight temptation. He didn’t respond to the devil through his own well-thought-out answers, but with the Word of God. We need to arm ourselves by reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture.
Finally, God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, understands firsthand what we’re up against. Take comfort that at the very point where our relationship with God is threatened, Jesus has already stood. He stands beside us, ready to help us through it; when we fall, he’s ready to forgive, and to guide us back to the Father.
The most dangerous temptations are the temptations we don’t recognize to be temptations. These are the things that take us away from taking time for prayer, reading Scripture, and corporate worship. We’ve crammed so much into our lives that little time is left for God: Facebook, television, email, work schedules, shuttling the children from one activity to another, social engagements—none of these things are evil and some are very good. The tempter has done his most effective work if we don’t even recognize his presence, while we’ve been drawn thoughtlessly to crowd God out of daily life.
If the devil appeared to us, complete with red cape, horns, and pitchfork, and said, “Fill up your time with as much activity as possible so that you don’t think one thought about God, don’t say one prayer, don’t read one verse of scripture, don’t confess your sins, we’d fill our minds with thoughts of God, pray constantly, take time for examination of conscience and confession, and we’d find the time to read the Bible. Those are not the devil’s methods, because they’re not effective. Instead, he draws us away from God without our giving it so much as a thought. And the farther away from God we grow, the more we don’t miss him.
Lent can be a wonderful time to take stock of our lives, our priorities; to look at those things that draw us from the love of God and to structure back into our schedules the habits of faithfulness. Only you and I can decide for ourselves whether or not to use this great season to that end.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”
The Christmas story in St. Luke’s version has to be one of the most familiar of all the stories in the Bible. All of us, no matter our age, are drawn to stories, whether spoken, or written, or portrayed on screen or stage. We love a good story and there has never been a more beautiful nor a more hopeful story than the one told by St. Luke in the gospel passage we have just heard.
I imagine that for most, this is not a new story, though there might be a few here tonight who are hearing it for the first time. For most of us though, it is a story we have heard or seen multiple times.
We begin with the stable, the straw, the poverty, the cold, and the darkness, all these form the setting for the ultimate gift. Into this setting a baby comes, God manifest in flesh. Outside the setting is a regular world but inside is God’s supreme message of Love, given to us in a tiny baby. A baby who can be seen and touched and loved. It is a story of contrasts, the hard life of the poor, the helplessness of infancy and the unmeasured outpouring of divine Love.
Maybe at some time in your past you have portrayed a role in this story yourself. Perhaps you were an animal, a sheep, a cow, or a donkey? Or an angel? Or you played Mary or Joseph or perhaps even the infant Jesus.
Even if you did not personally act in it, I ask you to think about which role in this great story you identify with tonight.
In thinking about this familiar account, I think we can see a part of ourselves in each role. The angels sing out with joy announcing the incarnation, “God has come into the world to become one of us.” The animals seemingly take it all in, bringing their steamy warmth to the family. The shepherds come to see what has happened and kneel in awe. Joseph offers protection to his family, and Mary, lovingly cares for her newborn. Both earthly parents trust that while they do not understand it all, God is with them in their responsibility.
Stay with the story a bit. It is both calming, with the hope it brings, as well as overwhelming in its world-shattering news.
And where do we fit into this scene?
I venture to say that like the generations before us we are an important part of the story. It is not all nostalgia and looking back at an event thousands of years ago.
Rather, tonight we come together and make this story real. We participate in bringing the message of the story real. Real, in the present, real, in the year of our Lord 2022. We take on the traits of all in the story and bring it alive again.
Let me start with the manger. We are told that the infant was laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Much of our world today is like that inn, there is no room for Jesus in it. We who have come here tonight are asked to open our hearts to Jesus. We are asked to become that manger, offering the baby a place to be. In our prayers tonight our hearts are filled with the presence of Jesus.
We are the manger.
The angels who announce this glorious birth do so in song. Even those of us who cannot really carry a tune, sing tonight. Together our singing brings great conviction that Christ is born.
We are the angel choir.
The shepherds, to whom the angels sang, have come to Bethlehem to see what the Lord has done and on returning to their home tell all they see about this. We also have come to see the beautiful wonder that God has brought. And later we will share with others the love of God as we have experienced it.
We are the shepherds.
The animals, the sheep, the cows, and the donkey rest in the calm, grateful to be in the company of this baby. They are the witnesses of this birth. And in return they offer him what they have to give, their company. Tonight, we, who are here now, also rest in the quiet calm of the space. We have come to be near Jesus, offering our very being to him with our presence.
We are the animals.
Joseph, stands near to the manger, in case he is needed, and offers light to the scene. He assists Mary in caring for this infant, whom he has been told is God’s son. While this may have been overwhelming to him, he trusted in what God had told him. We too trust in God’s love.
We are Joseph.
I want to say a bit more about Mary. Like any new mother, after she had given birth, she sits and watches her baby. And as she watches, she takes care of his needs and begins to know him. With all that happened that night, the manger, the animals, the angels, and shepherds, we are told she treasured it all. And more than that she wondered what it will mean, what this baby will grow up to do, and why he has come into the world. We too wonder along with her, even though we know the rest of that baby’s life story. We wonder the meaning of it all.
In that we are Mary. We have begun to know Jesus, and we desire to deepen our knowledge of this special baby. We too, wonder the meaning of his birth. Why has God sent his son, what is his purpose in being with us?
The first sentence from tonight’s epistle helps us to know at least a part of the answer.
We heard from the Revised Standard Version:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.
The New English Bible translates the word salvation as healing. God has appeared to bring healing to all. Healing means wholeness. It is not the absence of disease or pain, nor is it perfection. A life that is truly whole includes everything. It includes the sad and the joyful, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. While we might want to separate it out and take away all the negative, God comes to make our lives whole. He comes to put it all together with His Love. He takes all the parts and unites it through his being.
Some of the people I have known who have demonstrated best this peace of wholeness are those nearing the end of their lives. They may not be cured of their disease, but they are whole. And it is beautiful to experience this God-given completeness. Jesus comes into the world to unite us with God, offering us redemption and a means to connect with God’s love.
We are Mary treasuring and pondering the meaning of this baby.
Regardless of how many times we have heard this story, tonight we become the story. We take on all the roles. We experience the story. We are not just here to commemorate God’s entrance into human life; rather we come to experience God’s coming among us. For the present moment Christ’s manifestation to the world is through us. We will be His presence in the world, but first we must have His presence in us.
Because tonight we too rest with Christ in his mother’s arms being kept safe by God’s grace and God’s love. We are in the story, for sure. We belong in that love; we are a part of that love.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest.” Enter into the story with awe, and sing out His Glory.
“Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Collect of the Day)
The Christian life is founded, sustained, and brought to perfection through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Over and against our mortal desires and fears, stands the revelation of the life and death, and the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The revelation of Jesus Christ is, indeed, our life—for Jesus is revealed as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The Church’s worship on this day—which is the Last Sunday after Pentecost—bears witness to this truth, under the sign of the other designation for this day—the Feast of Christ the King. We have already heard of this sign in the Collect of the Day, “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” The titles “well-beloved Son,” “King of kings,” and “Lord of lords” refer, precisely, to that Jesus Christ who is the very revelation of God—the revelation of the Christian life. And today we focus our worship on the one title: “The King of kings.”
But in doing so, we are thrown up against a question: How does the title “King of kings” serve as a sign for the revelation of God in Jesus Christ? The answer is a bit more complex that we might first imagine. We cannot simply make one short, concise statement and say that we have exhausted the subject. Rather, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ comes to us primarily through the Holy Scriptures, but not in the form of a simple, declarative statement. I would liken the process more to a play or drama, that comes to us through a series of “scenes” or “acts,” unfolding as the play progresses and develops.
Because of this, we can’t watch just one scene and then say we’ve grasped the heart of the matter. Rather we must sit through the whole play, absorbing what each scene has to tell us about the matter as a whole.
I would propose that this play—which we might call “The Play of Jesus-as-King”—has at least three scenes, numbered as follows: Scene 1 is the Passion and Death of Jesus; Scene 2 is the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus; and Scene 3 is the Spirit-filled interpretation of the previous two scenes, represented for us this morning in the first chapter the Letter to the Colossians. So, very briefly…
Scene 1 is from the gospel account of the Passion and Death of Jesus. What account of a “King” do we find there? A rather odd one, to say the least! The scene is set on a mountain called “The Skull,” which does not bode well. Our King—Jesus—is crucified on a cross along with two common criminals, one of whom taunts and ridicules Jesus. Jesus’ “people” stand by as a helpless audience, powerless to do anything. The religious rulers make sport of Jesus and mock him: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God—God’s Chosen One!” And the Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion taunt him unmercifully: “If you are the King of the Jews, [then] save yourself!” If we are honest, Scene 1 gives us no hint, in and of itself, that Jesus is “King,” the revelation of God in the world. At best, we seem to have a story of a pretender to the throne who failed miserably.
But don’t leave yet—for in Scene 2 we have the Gospel-account of the Resurrection and Ascension of this crucified one to the right hand of God in heaven. I will not spend time sketching out the action of this scene; rather, I will say that having watched Scene 2, the whole trajectory of the plot has changed. It is no small thing that in the liturgy for the making of a king, that the-king-to-be is both “raised up” and “seated” on the throne of kingship, which is precisely the story told by the accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension in Scene 2.
And yet, the play is not completed by Scene 2, for we still have the need to interpret what we’ve seen in the first two scenes. And this is precisely what today’s reading from Colossians does for us; and this constitutes Scene 3.
The first chapter of Colossians is breath-taking in its witness to the meaning of Jesus Christ as King—the Christ who suffered and died, and the Christ who was raised from the dead and has ascended into heaven. Each phrase of this chapter could be the text for an entire sermon. I picture this Scene as a single figure, standing alone in the darkness at center stage with a focused spotlight on him, very quietly sharing with us the wisdom of the ages—in this case, the wisdom of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God under the sign of “King.” Listen to a sampling of what he says:
Jesus-as-King is the visible image of the invisible God—the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell bodily.
Jesus-as-King is “before” all created things in time and in pre-eminence because he is also the one “in” whom all things were created and “in” whom all created things hold together.
Jesus-as-King has delivered us—through his passion and death, and through his resurrection and ascension—out of “the dominion of darkness” and has “transferred” us into the kingdom of which he is the King. This is what we mean by the term “redemption.”
Jesus-as-King reigns in this kingdom both as its “head” and as “the first-born from the dead”—the inclusive image of all the redeemed.
And finally, Jesus-as-King is the peacemaker, for by the blood of his cross—his Passion and Death—he has reconciled us to God.
In truth we exit this play of “Jesus-as-King”—if we have seriously engaged with it—gripped by the stupendous paradox of Jesus Christ as the revealer of God. In this play Jesus is not defined by our definition of the term “King”; rather, Jesus—as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnate Word of God—has defined the meaning of “King” for us. And in the revelation of Jesus-as-King we find the revelation of God Himself.
Jesus-as-King is the epitome of power; but it is not the power of the tyrant who lives for himself; it is power wrought from the most profound act of self-giving, self-sacrifice, and love—his Passion and Death. It is not the power authenticated by virtue of self-aggrandizement and self-importance, but by virtue of his Resurrection and Ascension in the love of God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
And the most profound aspect of all is that this Jesus-as-King is King pro nobis—King for us! And as such, Jesus reveals the ultimate nature and will of God to redeem us, to reconcile us, and to make us his sons and daughters who can participate in His life of joy and glory.
It is the Feast of Christ the King—come, let us worship the King!
First let me say thank you for coming this morning. I am grateful for your presence, and I am hopeful you are grateful for each other’s presence. We had a glorious celebration last week; we remembered, we expressed our thanks, and we said our good-byes. Today the reality hits. There are only two at the altar this morning instead of 3. Mother Beth has retired and will no longer be here. That reality brings with it emotions, for many, some sadness, for some, apprehension as to what happens next and honestly for a few, happiness at a new beginning. It is important to pause and acknowledge these emotions, both as individuals and as a community. In some ways it is like a death, a little death. Something important has ended. And being together as a community is what we do in times of mourning. So, thank you for being here today.
A wise friend of mine, Brenda Patten, told me that the “little deaths”, those separations, those ends of relationships, those changes of jobs, those graduations, emotion-filled as they may be, help prepare us for the “big death”. We learn with each moving on what is lasting and what is eternal. It will continue to be important that we come together regularly in this transition time. We can be both comforted and strengthened in each other’s presence in this sacred place.
We are fast approaching the end of the liturgical year and the darkest part of the natural seasons; the days just keep getting shorter. At this time of the year the lectionary focus, both on Sunday morning and in the Daily Office turns to the Parousia, the time of Jesus’ return to earth. While we as a church do believe that Christ will come again, we profess this in most of our Eucharists, I’m not sure we have it in the front of our minds on a regular basis.
As human beings we can be lulled by what is going on right now into thinking that life, as it is, goes on forever. There are times however where we are reminded that is not so.
Sometimes that is at a funeral or even a move away from home. Perhaps it becomes clear as you mark a young child’s growth on the doorframe and see what a difference a few months can make. And sometimes it is a day like today when the meaning of a rector’s retirement hits. The realization that life does not stand still can come through something simple or something large. These moments cause us to see the reality that always is. Our time on this earth is limited. Each day is not exactly the same as the one before. While sometimes change is slow and subtle there are other moments when the truth of beginnings and endings becomes crystal clear.
This is when the central message from today’s lessons can anchor us.
God through his son and through his prophets tells us to get our priorities straight. We do not have forever to put things off. There is a strong urgency that comes through these passages this morning. The challenge for modern day Christians is to hear the urgency they express.
In the readings from Malachi and Luke, the message of the “day of judgement” is clearly spelled out. It is depicted as a time of destruction. The wicked will be burned; there will be great earthquakes; nations will fight against nation; there will be famines and plagues.
In some ways it reads like a current newspaper, doesn’t it?
The problem is that it has seemed so to every generation that has heard these words. And so, people generally have stopped listening. The point being made in today’s lessons is not how to predict when Christ will come again but rather to be reminded that it will happen. These scriptures do that in no uncertain terms.
The question then is how does this change the way in which we live? What are our priorities as we live our day-to-day life in the knowledge that it will come to an end?
That answer comes in part from a closer look at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. In his first letter to that church, Paul reminded them that the Lord’s return will be as a thief coming at night. In other words, only God knows the time. We cannot know it and we will not know it. As we hear in this morning’s epistle, Paul’s second letter to the same church, there were many people who took the fact of Christ’s return as an excuse to sit around doing nothing. The attitude Paul challenges in today’s passage is, oh, well, this is going to end soon so I might as well sit back, relax and enjoy myself.
Instead, Paul taught that being a follower of Christ means that we must cultivate what is lasting. Paul stresses that we are not to give up on our normal practices even when we are not so sure about the future. Sometimes this uncertainty is helpful as it causes us to sort out what is most important.
The questions raised for us through these end-time lessons are especially important for us to consider in this time of transition. What is essential and important in our life? And what is unnecessary and trivial? What is lasting and true and what a is distraction from that truth?
Each November, as the liturgical year is ending, we are called to reexamine our priorities. This particular year, it is even more crucial. We are reminded that God calls us to a just and peaceful life. We are to love God, to love our neighbor and ourselves, and yes, to love our enemies. Living in this way requires our time, especially when there are so many other things that can get in the way.
None of this is easy and we might just as well wish to avoid it. We, like those Christians in the first century can be lulled into complacency and become lazy. But we too, need to heed the reminder from these passages to attend to the important things in life. After all, our time on this earth does have a limit. And, there are some things for our spiritual health that we cannot put off.
Does this mean that we are to get all spun up about this, filled with worry and anxiety? No, our example, as in most things in life, is to follow Jesus. As he neared the end of his life on earth, he did not become anxious, worrying about what he was to do or to say. Rather, he continued in his work, in healing, in teaching and in prayer to the very end.
This is what I believe these lessons today are calling us to do during this time of transition. We are to remember our priorities and to continue in the course we know to be true. We are to pray, to study scripture, and to follow Jesus under all circumstances. We are to continue in our work to spread God’s message of healing love to all. We are to come together regularly at the altar here to gain and provide strength to each other. We are to give of ourselves for the spread of God’s kingdom. These are the Christian basics. This is what it means to be Emmanuel, to be God’s church in this place.
While the scriptures today remind us of the temporary nature of our lives on earth we also are given the wonderful truth of eternal life found in Jesus Christ. Jesus is with us in all times and in all things. God’s love is unchanging and unending. God accompanies us in all our journeys. He will guide us in these uncertain times and comfort us in all our emotions.
In a few moments we will begin the next phase of our journey together. While we have looked at the past with gratitude, now we will look forward with hope. As we commission the search committee to do their work of discerning who God is sending us as the next rector of this place, let us each promise to continue in our work, in our prayer and in our actions for the spread of God’s kingdom.
God is faithful to us, and his love is eternal. We ae called to renew our faithfulness in him.
It is tough to believe that this is my final sermon in your pulpit. The Christian community called Emmanuel has been here a long time and will be here for many years to come, but my particular chapter in your story comes to a close today. And since I announced my retirement last June, you’ve all heard me quote an Episcopal lay leader nicknamed Uncle Norman who was fond of saying, “Priests come and priests go.” And that’s true; clergy move in and out of parishes, but the parishes’ lives go on. I am confident that as you go on, you will be fine. So many of you have told me that you feel that way too, that you are grateful for the past eight and a half years -- and sad, as I am too today -- but that you also know that there is a bright future ahead. It does my heart good to have heard that message from so many parishioners.
Nevertheless, there is a feeling in the pit of my stomach that reminds me of parents calling out after their now-grown offspring as the car pulls out of the driveway on the way to college. “Wear a sweater! Don’t forget to email us! Lock your doors!” It’s a big temptation for me to spend this sermon doing the same kind of thing. I want to send you off into the new era in your life by trying to squeeze some last-minute advice in under the wire. Calling out as the car leaves the driveway: Now remember to keep going back to Scripture every chance you get.
Or: Don’t forget, you can’t just assume people know what Christians believe.
Or: No matter what happens, pray about it.
But I’m not going to permit myself any more than that. Advice is cheap. Advice is annoying, much of the time. And more than that, one of the great Christian insights is that advice doesn’t have much power. Being told what to do is not what the Gospel is about -- the Gospel is about the news of what Jesus has already done, about receiving that news and letting him go to work in your life and the life of your community. So, no more advice.
Instead, let’s look at this magnificent prayer from Ephesians. Paul writes to the congregation at Ephesus: I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. (Certainly true for me right now!) I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.
You see how that prayer just presumes that advice is not what churches need? What we need is the news of Jesus, news that pours out its power through the Word of God and the sacraments into us, power that then motivates us to live in response, to live out of gratitude. Paul doesn’t pray about what he would advise the church in Ephesus to do. He doesn’t pray that they’d start some new program or be more friendly. He prays that they would grasp ever more fully what God has already done in Jesus. He prays for spiritual eyes and ears that are open to see the hope God gives, the inheritance God gives, and the power God gives, which Paul calls immeasurably great.
At our final vestry meeting last Sunday, your vestry members were doing some looking back and looking forward, and one of the things people were sharing that they valued about the past several years was how missional Emmanuel had become, how we’d learned to look outward and engage with our local community. And another one was that they valued the way I’d emphasized teaching the classic Christian tradition and taking seriously the Word of God. Those are both good things, but let’s connect the dots -- the first of those comes from the second. If you only do the first, you are the same as any social service agency. But when the Spirit opens your eyes and ears to the second, to the depth of God’s Word and God’s Sacraments, those naturally create an outward movement fueled by the spiritual potency they have inside them. As Paul prays for. And that, I hope, is what has happened here.
In a few minutes we’ll have the rite of leavetaking that the Episcopal church offers when a rector retires or moves on to a new call. And in that rite, there’s a symbolic passing back to the church of symbols of the rector’s stewardship and authority. That includes my stewardship of this community and this physical place, but also my stewardship specifically on your behalf of God’s Word for you and his sacraments for you. Those two lodestones of Christian life and practice, those covenanted channels through which God has promised to reveal himself to those who gather at his altar for Mass Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
God’s Word and God’s sacraments. They have been ours since the time of the apostles and will be ours until that time when we are in the fullness of the Kingdom and sacraments shall cease because we see God face to face. They are the two most precious things I have to put back into Emmanuel’s hands, and I hope that you all will treasure them and steward them well over the interim period and in your discernment of who is being called as your next Rector. I have so treasured your confidence in me to hold them for you and to help you as a parish system and as individuals to take hold of them yourselves. It has been a great privilege and an immensely fulfilling time. Mark and I will always carry you in our hearts. We are grateful to God for having called us here, and even more grateful to God for being God.
For I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
Many (or maybe even most) of us here know the story we heard in our Gospel lesson just a few seconds ago because it’s one of the most popular Bible stories out there. It even comes with its own theme song: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” The scene opens on a short and kind of bad man who miraculously has a change of heart. Jesus ends up staying at his house, and then Zacchaeus gives away most all of his fortune because God is good. The end. The kids will love it!
But the drama runs deeper than that. Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector. He was the chief of the tax collectors. This is a guy who got started in an entry-level position and decided to make his way to the top, no matter what. Except this wasn’t something as innocent as a tech startup or a fast-food franchise. This was tax-collecting. In occupied Judea.
Tax-collecting was not a nice job, to put it simply. It was actually one of the worst jobs and was typically occupied by the worst people, people who enjoyed taking money from their neighbors and giving it to Rome and then demanding a little extra for themselves. Zacchaeus would have been repulsive to his fellow Jews. He would have been banned from the local synagogue.
St. Luke doesn’t tell us much about him, but I think it’s fair to say that Zacchaeus was almost certainly estranged from friend and family alike, going home to a dark and empty house, night after night, never lacking in money but always penniless when it came to what is actually good and beautiful about life.
Zacchaeus had given his life and, arguably, his soul to a corrupt system, and the maze of deceit and pain that was his past and present would forever prevent him from getting out unscathed. He was in too deep. There would be no happy ending for Zacchaeus.
Or so everyone thought. Everyone, that is, but Jesus.
Jesus had just entered Jericho and was passing through. His face was turned toward Jerusalem and the fate that awaited him there, and yet he had business in Jericho regardless. Nothing Jesus ever did was without purpose. He chose to go through Jericho for a reason; and that reason was staring down at him from a sycamore tree.
You see, Zacchaeus had been seeking to see Jesus — why we don’t know — but couldn’t because he was short and the crowd wasn’t going to budge for such a nasty guy. And so Zacchaeus climbed a tree, not minding, it seems, how foolish he looked. Such was his desire to see our Lord. “And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’”
The whole crowd heard it and still couldn’t believe their ears. Jesus, stay at his house? Didn’t this wandering rabbi know just by looking at Zacchaeus that he was a scoundrel and a cheat and an enemy of Israel? And yet he would dine at his table. The idea was preposterous. Infuriating.
And it meant the world to Zacchaeus.
After all these years of people crossing the street just to avoid him, suddenly there’s this man — this Jesus — who did not look away when their eyes met, who called out to him as though Zacchaeus was a brother or a friend. In an instant, his world was changed forever.
And we have to wonder: What happened in that brief exchange that could transform a sinner’s life so utterly? What happened in the span of a dozen words, that Zacchaeus might go from tax collector to an emblem of generosity?
What happened but the grace of God! There was no justifying Jesus’ actions based on Zacchaeus’ character. This was just a bad guy in a tree. There was no hint that he had been getting right with God or that he had some latent aptitude for good deeds. No. Zacchaeus was the chief of the tax collectors and remained the chief of the tax collectors when Jesus called out to him. Such is the mercy of God, who seeks out and saves the lost because that’s just who he is and what he does.
Observe the gracious kindness of our Savior: “The innocent associates with the guilty, the fountain of justice with . . . injustice.” Having entered Zacchaeus’ house, the Life of the world turns on the lights and dispels the darkness of sin, suffering no stain from the greed and pride gathered there, but dispersing all of it by the bright beam of his righteousness (paraphrased, John Chrysostom).
In just one glance, Jesus knew what Zacchaeus had done; and he was still willing to walk into his home and abide there. And so it is with us today. Jesus knows all that we have done, all that we have thought. He knows what we have kept back. He knows what we have hoarded. And yet he loves us regardless, even when the heart he sees looks as shriveled and stubborn as a miser counting his piles of gold, coin by coin.
To us he says: “I must stay in your house today.” And every day. Jesus would open the doors of our hearts and enter in. He would sweep out the cobwebs and flick on the lights and make a home for himself within us, so that we might behold the Lamb of God and be saved. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
We never deserved such a gift. God in his justice could have decided to have nothing to do with us. And yet he does, choosing us over and over again, even when we fail. Even when we fall.
This is a truth that we need to remind ourselves of again and again — because it’s easy to forget. We so often doubt God’s love, thinking that God doesn’t care about me, or, if I just try hard enough, God will accept me. Those are both versions of the same lie that Jesus refutes by walking through Zacchaeus’ front door. God loves us. Full stop. No matter who we are or what we’ve done, Jesus would die a thousand deaths just to save a tax-collector. Or a prostitute. Or a Pharisee. Or you. Or me. Jesus gave of his own Body and Blood so that imperfect people might one day gaze upon perfection, not from up a tree or from behind some tall guy in a crowd. But face-to-face, as a friend or a family member.
St. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus into his house. But I have to wonder: How much greater, then, is our Savior’s joy when he finds what was lost and brings it home. AMEN.
Sometimes I think God does just about everything in spite of us. We see that dynamic in the Gospel today, as a tax collector is made right with God, in spite of his sins. And as a Pharisee’s prayer goes unheard, in spite of all the evidence he marshals to prove his own piety.
The tax collector is someone who profits at the expense of his own people, supporting the oppression of an occupying army. He’s out of line in the morality department; but when he comes to God he speaks from the heart. He presumes nothing and simply offers up his awe and his honesty. The Pharisee, on the other hand, has traditional moral habits: doing what is expected of him, observing Sabbath and fast days, giving away in his full 10% tithe. Great! But despite all that, his heart is cold. We see that in spite of observing the law, the Pharisee isn't coming to God with sincerity. And in spite of breaking the law, the tax collector is.
Now, before I get them painted too black and white in our minds, let me point out that neither of these people is a caricature. Jesus is smarter than that, and it would be too easy for us. Parables are meant to challenge us, to put us on the hook to figure out how they apply. And we would really be off the hook if this parable were only a story about two stereotypes, two people none of us would ever imitate. That way we could look down on both of them. We’d probably go Jesus’ punch line one better and end up praying, “I thank you God, that I am not like either this good-hearted loveable rogue of a tax collector or like this tight-lipped self-righteous Pharisee, but instead I am an ordinary person who’s just doing the best I can.”
But that's what both of them are too. In fact, all you ever meet in the Bible are ordinary people who’re just doing the best they can, supported by the grace of God. The women and men of Scripture are human beings like you and me, who find their reasons, and make their compromises, and get along through the ups and downs of real life. So we can’t push away this parable by saying it’s about especially good or especially bad people.
In fact, Scripture usually hasn’t got much to say about people in our goodness or badness at all. Taken as a whole, it has a much more subtle view of human nature than that. When you look at the world through the lens of the Bible, you just don’t see a Good group over there and a Bad group over here. In fact, most of the time the Biblical lens directs your attention away from that kind of stereotype and simply asks you to look at God and his mercy. Scripture cares most about passing on the story of what God has done for us ordinary people in spite of it all.
I mean, look at history. Ask yourself how our spiritual ancestors acted in the Bible. They multiplied rules about not working on the Sabbath, while at the same time trying to shorten the holiday because the time off was hurting their bottom line. They hedged their bets by sacrificing to any local idol the pre-existing tribes would slip them the name of, while at the same time boasting that they were immune from disaster because they had built a pretty box where the only true God lived. They scrupulously followed regulations about leavening their bread, but had trouble getting around to sharing any of it with the poor.
And yet how did God respond, in the long run? He chose to dwell among them, to make them his own beloved people, in spite of it all. Yes, there were consequences to their mistakes (we heard some examples in today’s reading from Jeremiah), but God never turned aside from them. In spite of it all, he gave them alone of all the peoples of the earth his Word. He engraved their names on the palm of his hand and counted every tear they wept. From them he brought forth a Savior, in spite of it all.
So we Christians today, are we any better? Don't we do the same things? There are probably a million or so of us all over the world who are right this minute passive-aggressively resisting some call from God. We talk love and act apathy. We talk inclusion, but mostly just include people who are politically and economically similar to us. Compared to what we carefully set aside for our own comfort and leisure activities, for most of us our gifts of money and time to the Kingdom look paltry. Many of us worship idols, usually not by singing or praying to them, but by the much more powerful adoration of quietly living the way they tell us instead of the way Jesus does.
That’s about all we have to say for ourselves, this motley crew of ordinary people. But what does God do about it? He gives his only Son to win us to him, and fills us with his Spirit the minute we ask. He gives us holy places and holy moments, in spite of it all, and surrounds us with the beauty of creation and the wonder of love.
He comes among us every Sunday to feed and heal us in bread and wine. In spite of it all, he weaves our lives into a tapestry of memory, as we’re bound together by the baptisms, the meals, the funerals, the caring notes of support, the inconveniences, and the running jokes that make up parish life. God keeps on providing us the solace and strength we need, even when half the time we hardly even bother to gather it up and take it with us as we go. He never stops loving us, in spite of it all.
And whenever it is that we really hear that news, it changes how we think about things. It changes our response to God and to his church, and it certainly changes the way we give.
I’ve told before here the story of how I finally started giving to the church in my mid-20s, having until then withheld from God the whole area of how I spent money almost completely. It was true that no priest had ever had the courage to tell me that Christians are supposed to tithe, and hearing that and seeing the Biblical and psychological and theological support for it made a huge difference. But basically my motivation for suddenly making a pledge of 10% of my income having never pledged before in my life was that I had finally heard the news that fall that Jesus was real and the Holy Spirit was up to things in our world. I couldn’t say thank you enough, and I wanted nothing more than to be part of what God was doing.
And as we’re focusing this month on generosity, I can't help remembering that that is the way I’ve seen it work over and over again. In my 8 ½ years at Emmanuel, yes, but in every other parish I’ve ever been part of too. People who encounter God want to do something about it. Somehow a desire to respond is poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit. They see and feel that with God there is more than enough, in spite of it all, and they want to say thank you.
People who were hiding in the back pews, wary of committing time and resources, wanting to leave the work to “them” (whoever they are) -- people like that hear the Lord say “I love you,” and the next thing you know they’re greeters and choir members and tithers and going to diocesan Synod.
And if you read through the whole New Testament on the subject of giving, you see over and over again the assumption that the only reason Christians would give their resources away is out of that kind of response. Because we want to. Because we’re overflowing with gratitude for what God has done.
That's what stewardship is meant to be. So I pray that when you make your pledge to Emmanuel for 2023, you won’t be left feeling either like a stereotypical Pharisee congratulating himself on keeping the tithing rule, or like a stereotypical tax collector feeling guilty about not doing enough. None of us is a stereotype. All we are is ordinary people, making our compromises, getting along through the ups and downs of real life -- but, by the mercy of the Lord, ordinary people who keep getting offered an extraordinary chance – a chance to throw caution to the wind and give God back one tiny fraction of the amount he has given us -- in spite of it all.
Jacob is preparing to cross the ford of the Jabbok river. He has sent his family and all his possessions ahead of him, and he remains on the near side to camp out alone for the night before crossing by himself. We didn’t hear the whole background this morning, but somewhere behind Jacob is his crooked father-in-law Laban, now estranged to the point that they brought in the lawyers. Somewhere ahead of him is his successful brother Esau, whom Jacob cheated out of his birthright, also estranged. Jacob is not good at relationships.
So Jacob lies there in the dark, and with no introduction or explanation we get this brief sentence: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Especially if we have been reading about all Jacob’s family conflicts, we might initially guess that this man is his estranged father-in-law Laban or his estranged brother Esau, ambushing Jacob under cover of darkness to take revenge for how he treated them, but the text is going to tell us something else.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." This mysterious man has begun what turns into a protracted wrestling match. Jacob will not give, even when a precise blow puts his hip out of joint, a little reminder of human weakness. How long does Jacob fight the man? Six hours? Eight?
But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.
In Hebrew culture your name is, and manifests, your identity. Jacob is what his name means --supplanter, trickster. And if we haven’t figured out yet, the man is God. He hints at it in saying Jacob has striven with God, but he makes it even clearer in declining to voice his Holy Name in which is the power of a thousand suns. If we’ve read the Bible, we might even remember, now, that a few chapters ago Jacob was also camping out in the dark alone, and God came to him then too, and spoke to him about his destiny. And here God ambushes him again.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Peniel and Penuel are merely spelling variants of one town, by the way, so don’t get confused. This moment confirms the man’s identity again. Jacob has not just seen God, but he has held God, manhandled God, resisted and tried to overcome him, but nevertheless been blessed because God is just that full of unalloyed goodness. We don’t hear what happens to the man, but off Jacob walks, limping, as the sun comes up.
Now if you have been hanging around the church for awhile, I will bet that you have mostly heard this story referred to as Jacob wrestling with God, or in the words of the old U2 song, that “Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome.” And you’ve probably heard the image used to describe people deciding to hash through a problem they have and pray about it. But as I’ve already mentioned, and as is pointed out by the Anglican scholar John Goldingay, the Scripture actually says that the man wrestled Jacob. Same thing with the new name, Israel, that God gives him; yes, it’s about striving, but it actually means something more like “God strives, God persists” – Jacob’s not the subject of the sentence here either. God started the encounter, just as he started the previous encounter when Jacob was camping in the dark the last time.
But wait a minute: If this man is God, how on earth can Jacob not immediately be overcome by him? Isn’t God omnipotent? Surely he’s far stronger than we are. Well, of course. But this is the thing: God strives and persists, just as he has been doing with Jacob, to make us his own and to set us on the path of discipleship. But he will not do that against our will. He could. He could force us to believe in him. His Holy Name has the power of a thousand suns. The touch that dislocated Jacob’s hip could have completely obliterated him. But it doesn’t, because the God who has revealed himself to us is not like that. He respects us too much for that. He gave us free will and he will never violate it. He waits for us to yield, to let ourselves be overcome, to say yes.
And that’s what Jacob just won’t do. He fights all night to avoid doing it. He gets his blessing, but in the very next chapter he fakes a reconciliation with Esau, agrees to meet him again in a few days, and then runs off to a completely different city. God does not violate Jacob’s free will and he will not violate yours. He aims to win you, not force you. He wants your freely given love and obedience.
Humans constitutionally are like Jacob here. We constitutionally resist God. I think way more of us do it in passive-aggressive ways, rather than Jacob’s full body resistance. We get to the ford of the river and the mysterious man comes at us, but rather than let him engage us, we look the other way and keep walking. We politely say, “How interesting” and turn our backs. We just ignore God, over and over, in favor of keeping our sense of control and staying with something more familiar and comforting.
Some of you are probably in this situation right now as we go through this month of focusing on generosity with our theme of More Than Enough. I am sure that there are households at Emmanuel that God has been attempting to engage with over several pledge seasons so he can make them freer, more generous, and happier people. Which is why we really encourage you to pray before you fill out your card or your online form, to make sure you aren’t ignoring God’s voice, to help you reframe giving as an act of love and obedience to him, not something rote or institutional.
I am in this kind of situation right now too, by the way. I have 3 Sundays left as your rector, and the temptation is to look away from the man by the river I have to cross, waiting to take initiative with me about what I need to be doing spiritually right now. I can’t avoid crossing the river: All Saints Sunday is going to come, and the moving truck is going to show up. But I could, if I were not careful, avoid letting God engage me the way he wants to over this process and complain to him that I just have too much work to do right now!
This parish, too, will have probably more than one opportunity to say yes to God in the next several months. I hope you will try not to be passive-aggressive with him or to ignore him. As Bishop Burgess urged you a couple weeks ago, let God engage you in the interim period and let him win. Each of you. As he said, if you’ve been coming to Mass twice a month, make it three. If you go to one daily office, make it two. In this period of standing at the ford of the Jabbok, waiting to cross, when the mysterious holy stranger gives you a chance to engage him, take him in your arms and engage. Don’t accept the complacency that says, “Let’s avoid God and stay right here.”
Don’t get me wrong, right here is good. You are in a strong place as a parish with seasoned leadership. The work we did together last summer that created a new structure for two key ministries, Intergenerational Formation and Sacred Spaces, has produced more fruit and more new lay involvement than I hoped. You’ve welcomed so many households over the past, maybe five years. We’ve increased our amounts pledged by nearly 25%. The physical plant has had improvement after improvement. The music program has strengthened and stayed strong, and you have a superb staff in place. Things are going well. I don’t think God would have released me to retire if they weren’t and if it wasn’t an appropriate time to pass the baton. But churches don’t pass the baton in order to keep everything the same, they pass a baton to continue running the race.
At any rate: It’s the same in a systemic transition like this, it is the same in all the various calls God puts into our individual lives, it is the same in our own basic choice to belong to ourselves or belong to him. Whenever we like Jacob, come up to the fords of the Jabbok, we can ignore God and defend ourselves. God leaves us free to do that, and he will even bless us in spite of the ways we say no to his love. He is just that good. So sure, we can do that. Or we can come up to the fords of the Jabbok, and when we find ourselves met by a God who will not force us but wants to win us, we can open our arms, tell him yes, and cross the river.