Easter V (Father Fred)
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.
Lent IV (Father Fred)
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.
Lent III (Mother Marisa)
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.
Lent II (Father Fred)
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.
Lent I (Father Fred)
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.
We Are the Story (Deacon Chris)
“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!
Transition Time (Deacon Chris)
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.
In Spite of it All (Mother Beth)
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.
God strives (Mother Beth)
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.
“Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.”
I am going to date myself this morning and let you in on a personal fact: I like old movies and old tv programs. I don’t recognize the names of many of the current stars but give me one from the past and I’m all in. Jimmy Stewart is at the top of my list of favorites and one of his films has a great scene in it that relates to the morning’s lessons. The movie is “Shenandoah”, which was released in the mid-1960s. It is set in Virginia near the beginning of the War between the States. Jimmy Stewart plays the part of a widower farmer with a large family of six sons, a daughter and daughter-in-law. He prides himself in being a self-reliant individual. He and his family work hard to make a living and have no interest in the war going on around them. They own no slaves and do not rely on the government at all. His farm and his family are the center of his world; little else exists. It is as if he is on an island with no connection to the rest of the world or what is going on outside his farmland boundaries.
Early in the film the males come in from a hard day of work and sit at the large kitchen table to eat. The family waits for Stewart to give a blessing, and this is what he says in his very identifiable accent:
We cleared this land;
We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it.
We cooked the harvest.
It wouldn't be here—we wouldn't be eating it—if we hadn't done it all ourselves.
We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel
But we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we're about to eat.
Yeah, Jimmy Stewart in this role, knew he was to say thank you, even if the gratitude was slightly missing.
So, in looking at this morning’s gospel how does this fit? Is Jesus simply talking about good manners, or is there something more to this giving thanks?
The story Jesus tells today is brief. Ten lepers approach him as he is walking in the countryside. They recognize him and call out Master, have mercy. And with that encounter they are healed of their leprosy and restored to life among their community. This is a pretty amazing occurrence. And Jesus, the master, is the cause of this wonderful life-changing experience. And yet only one of the ten who was healed turns back to praise God and give him thanks. That one is filled with joy and has the awareness to acknowledge the gift he has been given. His expression is one of true gratitude, not a half-hearted thank you.
We are not told about the others. Perhaps they too were in awe of the healing, but quickly went ahead with their lives rather than stop to say thanks. Perhaps the busyness of regular life took over and they simply forgot to say thank you. Or maybe they did not see the great nature of the gift they had received. Or perhaps there is some sense of being entitled to that gift. They ran into Jesus so of course he would heal them. Why that nine did not express their gratitude is unknown. The point is that one did and he is the one we want to emulate.
Before we condemn those others, I wonder, do we recognize the gifts God gives us daily and take the time to experience their joy? Because if we do that, I think we naturally want to express our gratitude. It is not just the expected thing to do, but rather the true expression of thanksgiving.
There are times in all our lives when we are aware of the great gift that life is. For some, the pandemic was such a time. The birds seemed to sing more, the sun shone brighter. Not being able to be around other people made the interactions we did have more precious.
For some it was a time of appreciation and gratitude for life that we had overlooked so often in the past.
Of course, being human, as time passes, we often forget. Our minds become clouded, and we do not consciously experience the joy and wonder of God’s creation and God’s support of us. When we lose that awareness, it is more difficult to remember to offer our thanks.
It is for those times that we must consciously cultivate that awareness. Listing how to do that is not the major point of this sermon except to say the church offers us ways to do it. Part of what we do in this space in the Eucharist is offer our collective thanks for God’s presence in our lives. Eucharist means thanksgiving, after all.
The daily offices give us a space to reflect, even if just for a moment, on the gifts God has given us on that particular day. There are multiple ways to pause and see the joy God offers. My point being that gratitude comes naturally through that reflection.
There is a benefit of expressing thanks, whether to God or to another human being, that is more than good manners. Expressing gratefulness is how we are in a relationship; it is a way of connection for the giver and receiver. It makes a circle of sorts, giving and receiving, receiving and giving.
In the example of our gospel today, one of the lepers completed that circle by thanking Jesus. The connection was made between them when he prostrated himself and expressed his awe-filled gratitude to Jesus. First the healing was extended by Jesus, but the bond was formed by the man’s return of Jesus’ gift through his praise of what a glorious thing Jesus had done. That leper gave thanks with his whole heart as the psalm today said.
There were others who had received the same healing but who lost the opportunity of forming a relationship by their lack of expressed gratitude.
Saying thank you, expressing gratitude for a kindness given, forms that connection which allows a relationship to happen. This is true for both human relationships and for our relationship with God. When we offer our thanks, we affirm the importance of others. We understand we are not the only one in creation that matter. When we acknowledge what the other has done for us our relationship grows.
(Even Jimmy Stewart in Shenandoah eventually understood gratitude for God’s gifts in his life, though not without much suffering.)
As Bishop Burgess mentioned last week, October is the month that many churches’ focus on stewardship. You have probably received a letter this week from Emmanuel encouraging you to think about the gifts God has given you and to pray about how you will tangibly thank God for those gifts this year. This is completing that circle of giving and receiving. Our relationship with God is deepened when we offer our gratitude for what He has given us.
Additionally for the next few weeks, there will be an insert in the bulletin offering thoughts on the lessons of the day and the principles of Christian stewardship. Traditionally in the Episcopal Church we have used the phrase of time, talent, and treasure to talk about how we can give back to God. The point being that offering our gratitude to God involves our whole being, not just our money. The writer of today’s insert adds a fourth word to that phrase of time, talent, and treasure. I encourage you to read the insert to find out what that 4th term is!
Being here in this place this morning is an acknowledgement of our collective thanks for the gift of life. As we continue our worship today may we engage our hearts with a true spirit of gratitude.
May we hear and say the words of the liturgy together as a reminder of the gratitude each of us has within our being and truly offer our thanks to God.
To assist in waking up that spirit of gratitude let us take today’s bulletin and read again psalm 111 together in unison.
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
In the assembly of the upright in the congregation.
Great are the deeds of the Lord!
They are studied by all who delight in them.
His work is full of majesty and splendor,
And his righteousness endures for ever.
He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
He gives food to those who fear him;
He is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works
In giving them the lands of the nations.
The works of his hand faithfulness and justice;
All his commandments are sure.
They stand fast for ever and ever,
Because they are done in truth and equity.
He sent redemption to his people;
He commanded his covenant for ever;
Holy and awesome is his Name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
Those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
His praise endures for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
Dives and Lazarus (Mother Beth)
In today’s parable, Jesus takes a folk tale known in his day and turns it into a narrative masterpiece. The story depicts someone who is, in the words of our Old Testament reading, “at ease in Zion.” He’s been privileged and complacent his whole life and Jesus shows us what that choice leads to. The rich man, whom legend names “Dives,” (that just means rich) tends to his own wants while ignoring the world beyond him – and especially his neighbor Lazarus, who is poor and sick. Now we’re not told that he did anything specific wrong, mind you – he might have been an upstanding citizen – Jesus just lets it be understood that Dives failed to let others into his heart.
Well, as we know, death comes to all. It comes to Lazarus first, and Jesus touchingly describes God sending angels who carried him right to the side of the great patriarch Abraham. And then he lets this blunt sentence drop by way of contrast: “The rich man also died and was buried.”
In case we don’t get the hint that Lazarus, though outcast, lived a life pleasing to God, whereas our comfortable homeowner did not, Jesus clarifies the story by placing Dives in what he calls Hades: that’s actually a word from Greek mythology, one of several terms the Bible uses as images of the state of the dead who have chosen against God. Dives in Hades can see Lazarus in paradise and cries out to Abraham, “have mercy on me.” He who used to ignore beggars has started begging himself -- because in God’s way, as Jesus said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
It’s a total role reversal, but the amazing thing is that it hasn’t taught Dives anything. He hasn’t changed. Not only does Dives not apologize for ignoring Lazarus in life, he demonstrates that his main concern is still his own comfort – or in this case, the lack of it. And Lazarus, at Abraham’s side, still looks to Dives like an inferior, someone who could be called upon to run an errand.
In keeping with what Dives still thinks of as his stature, he addresses that call not to the former outcast Lazarus, but to the patriarch Abraham. “It’s hot down here, have Lazarus get me some water.” And when Abraham says that’s impossible, he replies, “Well, then send him over to my father’s house.” He remains centered in death just where he was in life -- on his own wants. Remember Abraham saying that a “great chasm that has been fixed between you and us”? That attitude is what fixed it. The great chasm between Lazarus and Dives in this tale isn’t one of physical distance – they could talk and see across it. What separates them irretrievably is spiritual distance, and that’s something people create for themselves every time they refuse to be open to love.
Even the message Dives wants to send his brothers expresses that refusal. He has realized that if his brothers continue as they are, they will surely end up where he is, in misery. But he doesn’t want to make sure they learn there is a place of eternal joy and comfort in God’s presence; he wants them to hear about torment so they can fear it. Dives has destroyed his own sensitivity to the joy of God, and can see only the isolation he’s made. Abraham points out that the brothers have already been given all the warning and promise they need to make the right choices. They have the Bible, a love letter from God through Moses and the prophets that is so rich and full you could spend twenty lifetimes plumbing its depths. But Dives essentially says, “Oh, who reads that old thing? I said, send Lazarus. If someone comes to them from the dead, that’ll be enough to convince them.”
And here is the brilliant climax to Jesus’ story. “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets,” says Abraham, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The not double, but TRIPLE meaning of this line is heart-stopping. Yes, it refers to the parable’s fictional character Lazarus. But there was also a real, human Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus actually had raised up from his grave. Many of those standing there listening to this story probably knew him personally. Had that been enough to convince them all? It had not.
And aside from Lazarus’ temporary resuscitation, there is a third meaning, the resurrection of Jesus himself on Easter day into an unending life. “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And that’s where he turns the spotlight off these Biblical characters and takes aim at us. Christ is risen. Someone has come to us from the dead. Is it enough for you?
The fact is that if someone really wants to say yes to themselves and no to God, nothing will be enough. When people choose over and over to live for themselves, they can’t help but deaden their spiritual perception, or in Bible terms, “harden their hearts.” God works 24 hours a day trying to break through to them. He puts himself out, goes to ridiculous lengths. Is it any wonder he laments in the book of Isaiah, “What more was there to do that I have not done?” He gives people the Word of God, and some call it fiction or oppressive. He gives us miracles, and some call them coincidence. He even gives us the resurrection we ask for, and some call it an old wives’ tale.
God loved Dives and reached out to him over and over until the moment he took his last breath, just as he does with every one of us. But the man just kept on choosing his own convenience, settling deeper and deeper into himself. The suffering of others was just part of the landscape, and letting himself become vulnerable to them, or to the awesome love of God, never made it onto his radar.
Yeah, it was a comfortable upstanding happy life, but it proclaimed over and over an unrepentant no to everything that is really important.
Dives walked that path, and he stayed on it his whole life, and he found himself still on it after death. Separated from poor Lazarus by a great gulf, just as he had always been, and only barely able to wake up to the fact that the gulf that separated him from his fellow man separated him from God too. You and I are all choosing every day whether to dig that gulf deeper, or bridge it. The chasm that Jesus pictures for us today doesn’t suddenly, arbitrarily appear after death as some kind of random heavenly punishment, or surprising out of left field reward. Of course salvation is about saying yes or no to Jesus, but that decision is worked out day by day as we say yes or no to many smaller things.
As we choose whether to splurge on that really great looking set of patio furniture Instagram showed us, or give that same amount to charity instead. Whether to kill an evening binge-watching another Netflix series, or spend it praying over the Gospel of John. Whether to go cheer at the kids’ football game, or down a couple vodka martinis alone. Whether to keep your Baptismal vows, or pragmatically live a whole different set of values.
Those are the little daily decisions that establish our path in life. Those are the choices that express the opening, or closing, of a heart. It isn’t like right after we die, out of nowhere, someone is going to say to us, “so, would you prefer column A angelic bliss, or column B lake of fire?” Who on earth would have trouble making up their mind if you put it that way?
No, the choice is the same all along, always has been, always will be: yes to Jesus’ life in us this time, or no. And we’re already making that choice over and over every day, until the moment when it turns out to have been made for good.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are all here this morning for a reason. Whether we got up, got dressed, and got here because Mom said so or because it’s just what you’ve always done on a Sunday morning or because you’re desperately searching for answers — whatever the reason we give ourselves, the truth of the matter is that God called you here today. God called you here today because he wants to meet you where you’re at — and then bring you close (to his heart).
If you’ve been at Emmanuel over the last several weeks, you’ll have heard about the shindig we threw this morning. Journey Through the Seasons, a celebration and exploration of the church year, came about because the entire leadership team of this parish — the staff and the vestry and the volunteers who are committed to worshiping Christ here and now and in the future — agreed that as post-pandemic pieces have come back together, it’s time to remind ourselves of who we really are — and to whom we really belong, even when we are scattered. Not only are we a church that has an entire service in Elizabethan English. Not only are we a church with a wonderful choir and chanted masses. We are a church governed and renewed by a story we tell again and again, day after day and year after year.
For many or most of us, that fact is strikingly different than anything we’ve encountered elsewhere. Where else do a group of people with varying passions and different incomes get together to rehearse and recite a single story? Yet that is exactly what we’re doing here today — and it’s what the church has done for as long as anyone can remember.
And that’s because we live in a time of expectation. When the first disciples began to die around the 2nd century A.D., the church realized that no one could predict when Christ would once again arrive on the scene. Truly, as Jesus said, his return would be like a late and long-awaited Bridegroom. There’s nothing for it but to wait and wait well.
This is not easy — because the tick of the clock, the push and pull of the seasons, the births and deaths that crowd all of our lives will inevitably turn our eyes from what is not visible to what is. We want to be all-in for Christ. We want to be ready whenever he comes, but the task is hard; and we are weak, and we are easily lead astray.
Thanks be to God, then, that every day dawns anew. With the rising of the sun, we remember the rising of the Son of Righteousness. With its setting, we remember that we are upheld by the one who never sleeps. God, in his mercy and his might, has taken time in his hands and made it holy.
And so it is that we can see the gifts God has given to humankind. Each moment, each second of the day, is a gift from God to us, a chance to lean more deeply into our relationship with him. Redemption was accomplished in one act, thousands of years ago; but because God has claimed time for his very own, that event has become our reality. It is something alive, something working, something that changes everything.
When we come to believe in the story of Jesus' dying and rising and ruling over everything — the cosmos, the universe — the ebb and flow of our lives, the periods of lightness and darkness, become signs of a deeper life, an eternal life. As this story sinks into our bones, as it becomes the story that explains all others, our spirits are made right and our hearts made clean — because we will have entered the very life of Christ. Our whole selves will be swept up into the drama that is God redeeming and remaking this world.
And what happens then but that we are remade into the image of Christ. What happens then but that we become the kind of people who reach out to the tax collectors and sinners of our age with the good news of a King who sacrificed everything he had in order to save the one who was lost.
This is the mystery of God that unfolds year after year, season after season. It is a journey we are all on together, as we follow Christ from birth through death and on into glory until one day we see him face-to-face. AMEN.
Christ is First (Deacon Chris)
As some of you can attest, I have been preaching from this pulpit for a long time and I have saved copies of most of my sermons. In looking through those old sermons I could not find one that was for today’s propers! Perhaps this is because I was often away for Labor Day weekend but none the less these lessons require looking beyond the surface.
What harsh words we heard in this morning’s gospel! Hate father and mother, wife and children? Carry a cross, an instrument of painful death? Be ridiculed for not having enough building materials? Consider how many soldiers one has, prior to going into battle? Give up all our possessions in order to become Jesus’ disciple? Hate, cross, ridicule, war, choose becoming poor? None of these are desirable things and perhaps we shake our heads and move onto more agreeable passages.
Or we can stop, pause, and see these harsh words as means to catch our attention and consider what Jesus meant by them.
At this point in Luke’s telling of our savior’s life, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he knows he will face the worst that a human being can have happen. He will be ridiculed, spat upon, beaten, abandoned by his closest friends, and put to a painful and shameful death. He knows this is coming and that it must happen. Jesus must die for resurrection to happen. And resurrection is the reason God sent him into the world. Jesus knows this, as he and this large crowd are walking to Jerusalem.
That crowd has seen Jesus perform healings and other miracles again and again. They have heard him speak and listened to his parables and stories. What he has done and said is all very appealing; they want to follow him. Large numbers of people walk with him at this point. But they do not know what will happen next. They do not understand what the cost of being his follower will entail.
Jesus tries to let them know the full story, especially what the next period of his life will involve. He wants them to see all the consequences of becoming His disciple. What he has to offer them is wonderful, but it also has challenges.
Discipleship requires total dedication and is not something to go into on a whim. It is a choice to be made after careful deliberation. It cannot be decided by going along with the crowd. So, Jesus does not lighten it up in today’s passage. He uses strong language to indicate what they may face and that there will be a cost in staying with him.
Jesus begins today’s passage by saying his disciples must put him first, above all else. While I am not a student of Hebrew myself, I have read that in Hebrew there are not words to express a greater or lesser love. The words translate into definite opposites. You either love someone or you hate them. Love/Hate are exact opposites. In saying that they must hate their wife and children, Jesus’ point is that if you choose to be his disciple that must be the first priority in your life. In some cases that may mean losing all your family, or in others it may mean a lessening of relationships that had been close. For many mother, father and so on, will make the same choice to be Jesus’ follower, but that is not a guarantee. He also points out that being his disciple may lead to their death and we know of many martyrs throughout the centuries for whom that was true. Of course, there are far more people for whom it was not the case. Nonetheless Jesus indicates it is a possibility. For the original hearers of this gospel, becoming his follower would be dangerous. Jesus was headed to his own death.
Next Jesus tells the crowd they must carry the cross and follow him. Much has been written about what it means to carry our cross. Study through the ages has made interpretation of this statement. In some eras this phrase has been misused to justify many bad things such as spousal abuse, racism and more. For the purposes of this sermon and its length I will summarize “carrying our cross and following Jesus” to mean we are to obey God even in our pain and loss.
When we face the tragedies and griefs that are a part of life, we do not abandon God; our God does not abandon us. Jesus is with us in our sufferings. He, who experienced the worst pain imaginable, both physical and emotional, understands suffering. Jesus empathy and love come to us most especially when we suffer.
Jesus talks about war and new buildings as occasions to prepare before deciding to go ahead with them. He uses these examples to caution those wanting to be his followers that it won’t be all miracles and high points. The reality is that resurrection comes after the crucifixion.
Jesus ends this reading by stating that to be a disciple we must give up all our possessions. He is not speaking of just things we own, though our need to acquire is certainly a part of this. Other things we need to give up may be our yearning for success, our prejudices, our jealousies, our busyness, and addictions, really anything that pulls us away from placing Jesus first in our lives. It is these things we must put away from us.
Becoming Jesus’ disciple is a process. We are human beings after all. We will try to prioritize him as first in our lives and we will fail. We will ask forgiveness and then try again. Jesus understands this about us. What he said to the crowds of long ago and what he says to us in today’s gospel passage is that embracing discipleship is tough. While the benefits are great, beyond great, there will be difficult times and difficult choices that come with being his follower.
Discipleship is more than being a responsible human being. At times we may have to give up our earthly loyalties and step out of our places of comfort to be a follower of Jesus Christ. This gospel gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect on our own journey of discipleship and ask ourselves how we are doing in giving Jesus the highest priority.
We, living now, have the fortunate place of knowing resurrection and the gift of eternal life that Jesus brings to his disciples. The crowd following Jesus in the morning’s passage did not have that same advantage. With the passage of time, we also know that it is through God’s love we are offered the chance to be Jesus’ disciple and that it is through God’s love we are given the support of living out discipleship. This is our hope, and this is our limitless joy.
Today’s gospel reminds us that accepting Jesus’ call is a serious choice. We know the cost is worth it!
May God grant us peace in reading and understanding scripture.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. The whole reading from Hebrews today is full of instructions, but when the Bible gives us instructions, they are always an expression of some divine truth that makes the instructions possible. And that line, that truth, is priceless: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
That’s not a platitude. It is the reality that makes the Christian way of life feasible. When we come to this altar, when we read the Bible, when we serve Christ in the poor, we are encountering the same living Jesus Christ who walked the roads of Galilee. His teaching has not changed. His power has not waned. His style, his M.O., the way he approaches people and life is just the same as it has always been. And his heart still beats with love and mercy for this world and always will.
We see this in lots of ways. If we take time to read the four Gospels straight through, something every Christian should do, we’ll find the Jesus they describe to be the same person we worship. If we hopped on a plane to meet fellow disciples from across the world, as our Bishop did this summer when he attended the Lambeth Conference with Anglicans from 165 nations, we would discover that whether they live in Angola, Albania, or Azerbaijan they are following the identical Son of God we follow.
Or if we could go back in time and consult the great saints like Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross, we’d discover there too: it’s the same Jesus. He’s still real. He’s still alive. Same truth, same power, same person, for everyone, everywhere, every when. Of course, we change. Our culture changes. Our perception of truth can be unreliable, wavering and fading in and out sometimes. The needs and questions and situations are in flux. But it’s still Jesus who’s standing with us, risen from the dead, alive forevermore, the same yesterday and today and forever. Without his living, consistent presence, Christianity falls apart.
Today’s reading is the closing section of the letter to the Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews, but whoever it was is concluding the letter with some words of advice. All of them are things you could try to do in your own strength, although some of them I doubt anyone whose priority was to rely on their own strength would have much motivation for. But the author doesn’t expect the community to do these things in their own strength. He or she expects them to use a strength which comes from Jesus, and because of that is the same yesterday and today and forever.
So what’s the advice? First, Let mutual love continue. If your ability to love a fellow Christian is rooted in ways that you are humanly similar – educational or cultural or economic similarities, say – it will not extend across dissimilarities and disagreements. If your mutual love comes from the fact that Jesus Christ is within each of you living his life through you, that love is founded on something unchanging and much more important than any current differences of human opinion.
The passage also says: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. This is often a hard thing to do for a Christian community, especially when that community is already good at the mutual love part. It’s hard to remember that on Sunday part of your job, if you belong to Emmanuel, is deliberately not to talk to your best friends or get some church business done, but to look around and notice people you don’t already know, people Jesus has called here and needs you to how love and hospitality to. Talk to your friends the other 167 hours in the week. When you’re at Mass, show hospitality.
Where do we get the power to remember that we may be entertaining angels when we show hospitality to strangers? From knowing that Christianity is about us and our friends and our church, but about the loving mission of Jesus for the world, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
The author of Hebrews continues: Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Now if you believe in everybody earning their own way in life, you’re just not going to obey this, because you’ll think you earned something better and they deserve what they got. But if you believe in grace, if you have grasped how much you need mercy, you can have the empathy to say: “that could be me. Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever, was merciful to me, a sinner. He cares for all my fellow sinners too, and honors me by letting me share his love and empathy with them.”
And then the reading goes on to deal with two things that are uncomfortable to talk about. Things that most people who are not trying to live a spiritual life really would like those who are living a spiritual life to avoid mentioning: sex and money. In our dominant post-Enlightenment Western value system, those two issues are considered private, nobody else’s business. Scripture disagrees.
The passage says: Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. I know that verse is hard to hear for many people, just as much of what Jesus said in the Gospel reading last week was hard to hear. And if you don’t feel accountable to what God has revealed (which most Americans don’t, of course, and that is certainly their prerogative), this verse and the many similar passages throughout the Bible will not be of much interest to you. But if we value what God has revealed in Jesus and in the Scriptures, at the very least we must take seriously that God’s call goes all the way down to what our American culture mistakenly thinks of as the most quote, private, unquote levels of your being. Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever, and there is nothing about you that’s none of his business.
And so the passage goes on with an equally uncomfortable topic we’d really prefer to keep private. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." Again, for people who are not trying to structure their lives by what God has revealed, this principle of being content with what you have won’t make sense. Because it flies in the face of what our culture believes about always trying to get a raise, and buy a a bigger flat screen TV, and all the TV shows about dream vacation rentals and high end real estate and celebrity chefs. We are constantly formed by everything but God to always want more…. even though we are already the richest nation that has ever existed and the poorest person in this room is wealthier than 90% of the globe.
But again, if you want to be a Gospel person – maybe you don’t, but if you do – the Gospel must be taken seriously as having something to say about how you use the financial resources God gives you. It did yesterday, it does today, and it will forever. Because Jesus, who embodies the Gospel, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
And then we get a beautiful reminder: as we live this life, a life that inspires us not to fear, not to focus on finding and expressing your own identify but on discovering the identity you have in Jesus, not to live by a secular post-Enlightenment vision but by a Biblical one, what does it produce? It produces people who can proclaim that verse near the end with integrity: The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid, what can anyone do to me? Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
And finally, our author encourages us to rely on models, people who are already wholehearted disciples, people who mentored us as Christians. She or he says ,“consider the outcome of their way of life.” In other words, bring to mind some person, any person, who really lives out of mutual love for their sisters and brothers in Christ, who exhibits steady hospitality and empathy for the undeserving, who lets God have the last word even on issues secular people consider private, and who radiates confidence in Jesus who is the same yesterday and today and forever – Imagine that person, and consider the outcome of that way of life.
Or, imagine a group of Christians who lived that way, and what the outcome would be. Imagine the outcome of that way of life. Imagine the outcome if a parish were so convinced the way Jesus showed us is the way to live, that they just did it -- showed hospitality and empathy and mutual love and accountability and generosity -- no matter what else was going on. Imagine that.
Or if you like, maybe you won’t have to imagine, because after all, it’s possible. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Proper 16 (The Rev. Marisa Crofts)
This woman knew what it meant to suffer. For 18 years, she had been bowed down by a crippling spirit, her back broken under its weight. Long gone were the days when she could trade smiles with a friend or admire the color of the sky. Her world was upside down and full of pain; and she was alone in bearing it.
Until she encountered Christ.
Walking into the synagogue, she wouldn’t have seen him speaking. She wouldn’t have thought or even imagined anything unusual or special happening that day. But then a voice called her name, and she suddenly found herself the center of attention. A wandering rabbi named Jesus had seen her. He had called her to him, grasped her shoulders, and said, “Stand up. You are healed.”
And for the first time in almost two decades, the woman rose to her full height and looked this man in the eyes. And then she left, praising God.
I could almost stop the sermon there, this story speaks so well on its own. God is a God of healing and redemption, more devoted to restoring his beloved creatures to wholeness than to preserving his own life. The end. But I won’t stop there because I think there’s something about this brief tale that we might not realize at first. And that is simple. We are or have been or will be that crippled woman.
Each one of us knows that the world we live in can be hard and even cruel. Tragedy can strike even the healthiest of families. Debt can accumulate in even the most responsible of households. Anger can rule even the kindest of people. These things happen; and whether or not we have thought of it this way before, the grief or sorrow or worry that results from those kinds of situations can stay with us. Can stay on us. Before we know it, our spiritual and sometimes physical backs bend, and we are bowed down, our eyes glued on whatever problem is before us.
That spiritual posture is in just as much need of divine intervention as the woman in our Gospel text today — and that’s because God doesn’t want us to be fixated on the products and consequences of Sin and Death. He doesn’t want us obsessing over how we might pay the next bill or how we will ever be happy again without this person or that comfort. What God wants for us is freedom, freedom to look him in the eyes and see who he is: A good and merciful God who redeems our lives from the grave. Who satisfies us with good things. Who is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness (Psalm 103).
The God we worship is a God of healing and redemption. He delights in raising fallen, sinful human beings out of the grave so that they — so that we — may live lives of peace and wholeness with him.
Imagine what it must have been like for that woman to walk home and see how the world around her had both changed and stayed the same: how the children had grown up and started their own families, how the night sky held the same, innumerable stars. Imagine the hope she felt for the first time in years. God had saved her. She was free. And though she couldn’t know what the next days would hold, something about the way that rabbi had looked in her eyes, something about the way his voice sounded gave her the feeling that everything would turn out alright in the end.
Everything will turn out alright in the end, even if the freedom we experience in the present life looks and feels different than the miracle we heard today. When we encounter Christ in this life, our burdens may not disappear. We may not suddenly stand tall, having shed every last trace of anxiety or worry. But Christ nevertheless sees us and speaks, reminding us again of the work that he has done and is still doing.
We are a people meant for freedom. For rest. For peace with God. Jesus ensured that this hope could become our reality. He put his shoulder under the cross, bent his back, so that we might be called friends and children of God. And in so doing, he has lifted us to the heights of the earth, so that we might see the future before us, and hope for it. And love it. And believe it is coming.
And in a different kind of way, that is a miracle. All those spiritual blessings will slowly but surely transform our lives. When we come together to hear and speak the words of Holy Scripture, to taste the Body and the Blood of Christ, to share our burdens and cares and victories with those around us, we are changed because those experiences are an encounter with Christ himself. He is here with us now, bringing joy to the sorrowful and healing to the broken. Though we may not see him, he calls us, saying: “Stand up. Be free, beloved child of God.” AMEN.
This has been quite a summer for weather. We’ve had an incredible heat wave or two, a few really severe thunderstorms, and lots of days where we all keep loading the weather app on our phones to figure out whether we can go to Sholem or Meadowbrook in the next few hours or not. We have access to all kinds of weather information these days. You can zoom the radar right in to your street, you can set text alerts, you can check hourly temperature predictions… All the data you could possibly want, just waiting for you to interpret them.
And it’s not just “the appearance of earth and sky,” as Jesus calls it today, that we can easily get input on interpreting. We also have access to all kinds of other sources which tell us what’s happening around us. Load Twitter, turn on cable TV, google it, and you can get all the signs of the times you can handle. If 1500 flights were cancelled last weekend, when should you get to the airport? If we may be looking at a recession, how much of an emergency fund should you keep on hand?
Nor is being able to interpret the data important only in public arenas. There is also the whole area of interpersonal data, what some have called “emotional intelligence.” Being able to interpret things on that level is a somewhat different skill. If an employee leaves a meeting early with no explanation, the boss has to interpret it. Is the worker challenging his authority and ought to be confronted? Does the staff member’s behavior fit in with a pattern of lack of investment in the mission, or unreliability? Or was there a genuine crisis?
And of course, there’s one more kind of interpretation, the whole area of figuring ourselves out. Interpreting things about our own psyches, what motivates us, why we make the same mistakes over and over. Even those who don't do that formally in therapy, usually do something similar from, say, reading self-help bestsellers or following Instagram influencers.
We’re interpreting all the time, whether it be hard data, or interpersonal behavior, or our own emotional lives. Being good at interpreting what’s going on in all three of those areas helps us make good choices -- about our values, our behavior, our vote. Still, in the ending section of today’s Gospel – which really is two little stories, one about division and the other about his rebuke of the crowds – I think Jesus is suggesting that the list we’ve made so far is one short. Jesus rebukes the crowds in our Gospel for not being able to interpret the unique moment of opportunity he offered, not being able to read the signs of what God was doing right in front of them. The missing ingredient, he suggests, is spiritual interpretation.
My first reaction, when I read about Jesus scolding the crowds here, is to wonder what he expected them to know? What indicators should they have been able to use to recognize what was happening around them on a spiritual level? And the question can be as validly asked of us. If you had to name signs you look for to help you figure out where God is in a situation, what is going on on a spiritual level, what would they be? I don’t mean to be flip, but what are the spiritual equivalents of the Dow Jones industrial average or Doppler radar?
As I pondered that question, I thought of one example from my own life. I’ve learned over the years that one fairly reliable indicator of how I am doing spiritually is how I react to Scripture. I pray the Daily Office regularly, both here in the chancel and wherever I happen to be when the hour for the Office comes up, and sometimes the Bible lessons seem relevant, worth slowing down for and ruminating on. Other days I blow through them like junk mail and can’t remember, half an hour later, what they even were.
It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the difference between those two experiences is mostly caused by me. Where I am, spiritually, strongly influences how meaningful I find the Bible. Now everyone has times of dryness in their spiritual life; those aren’t what I’m talking about. I’m just saying that being able to receive the Word of God as a real Word from God has a lot more to do with the shape my receiving abilities are in, than with the Word of God itself.
That’s one personal indicator in my life. Another is whether I react with impatience in a grocery store line or at a traffic light or with someone who calls the church for help with a power bill. If I feel myself getting negative about small things over which I have no control, that signals me that I am closing myself off to the influence of the Spirit. So that's one more indicator.
I wonder what some of yours are? How do you know when you are on track in your spiritual life? How do you know when you need to take time to rekindle your connection with God? How do you know when you've wandered too far from where, deep down, you really want to be? And there's one more question about spiritual indicators. Because of course the spiritual life is not merely a personal or private thing. All Christian life is corporate. So how do we gauge, for example, what is happening on a spiritual level with a congregation, without confusing that with other external indicators like “attendance is up or down,” or “more or fewer people have pledged this year”? This will be an important issue for you to deal with as you begin discerning your next steps after I retire. Where is Emmanuel spiritually? What does Emmanuel need? How do you know?
Now sometimes it's crashingly obvious what God is up to. One night at a leadership meeting at a parish I used to be rector of, we paused the meeting to pray that God would help us get in touch with the needs of people in our area, and just then a woman in need literally walked in the unlocked door and asked for our help. Doesn't take much skill to figure that one out. But some of the signs of God's action among us, his followers, require much more prayer, thought and discernment.
“When you see a cloud rising in the west,” Jesus told the crowd, “you immediately say it’s going to rain. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say there will be scorching heat. You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Using the image of a weather forecast, Jesus reminds the crowds in our Gospel how important it is for them to grasp what’s going on in the unique moment of opportunity he offers, the signs of what God is doing right in front of them. And to us, his contemporary followers, he continues presenting opportunities and signs. Opportunities to hear from him, to rethink our priorities, to act in his name…. signs of his will, of his love, of what he needs me, and you, and your parish, to do.
How much difference will it make whether or not each of you pays attention to God, reads the signs of his involvement and direction, and takes action accordingly? Well, let's put it this way -- enough difference to change the forecast.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
One of the nice things about working at the church during the week is that something different is always happening! Often those coming to the door are interested in just a sack lunch or a bottle of water, or perhaps new socks. Other days there is some crisis looming and they seek prayer or other forms of help. One recent day a man came to offer his thanks to God for waking up that morning! It was a simple prayer and yet so filled with joy. He knew others who had not awakened, and he wanted to give thanks for another day of being alive to enjoy God’s creation.
I wonder, how many of us remember to cherish the gift of each day?
Sometimes I imagine we do but at other times we move quickly to the day’s responsibilities and forget the grace of each day. Following the daily office is one way to regularly help us mark the day through prayer. And, of course, as we approach the end of our lives on earth the importance of each day becomes more apparent.
The followers of Jesus that Luke wrote for in his gospel lived at a time when most thought Jesus’ return to earth was imminent. Today’s passage gives the message to that beloved group to be prepared for that coming, to live each day as though it could be their last.
Fast forwarding to time now, while we know that Christ will come again it does not seem quite as imminent. For most of us, we put that out of our mind, living our lives on earth as though time is endless.
This works until someone close to us has died or is seriously ill. For those entering hospice a single day is very precious. Some at that state of life may actually make a list of what they want to do in their time left on earth.
Those lists contain simple things like sit outside at dusk and wait for the lightening bugs to come; come to church on a Sunday; eat watermelon; sit in a hot tub; see some blooming yellow flowers; listen to particular pieces of classical music. Mostly these are pleasures done often in daily life, things we take for granted but for those making such a list these are things they would like to do one more time.
Often these lists are a recording of names. These are people they would like to see and talk with one more time. Perhaps there is unfinished business, people whom they have wronged or have wronged them. Perhaps they are people whose company they have enjoyed throughout life. Most often they are people whom they love, and they want them to know that in their own words. These lists can bring purpose and meaning to final days.
An Emmanuelite I knew some years ago kept a prayer book and a 24-hour votive candle near the bedside when they joined hospice. Each morning they would light the candle and say a prayer of thanksgiving for being alive another day. As the flame burned down into the night, it reminded them of the precious nature of that particular day.
God’s sacred gift of one day is something we often take for granted. These examples are ones from which we can profit. Life is a gift and not one of us knows exactly how many days we will be given. However, we do have the choice of how we will live each day—whether in joy and gratitude or in fear and desperation.
How might you live today or tomorrow if you knew that it might be your last? What would be on your “most important” to do list? It is an interesting exercise and can lead us to an appreciation of what God has given, bringing us to joy and gratitude versus fear and desperation.
Right now in our world, there is much to fear: the economy, global warming, Covid and other disease, poverty, hunger, random acts of gun violence, terrorism to name a few major fears. Perhaps some more minor ones might be how will I buy that next tank of gas or who will be the next rector here. The list goes on and we know it.
Into these fears and across centuries we hear the beginning of today’s gospel. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We are reminded that God is the one in charge. Our fears that come with earthly living are not how we define our life. God will give us his kingdom that is never ending.
Today’s gospel passage gave that message to those early Christians just as we hear it today. Do not be afraid. The reading instructs them and us to be ready and watchful for Christ’s return. They were told as are we that we need not fear that event because we belong to God. And God always wants the best for us.
Jesus’ words to that early group were to reassure them as well as to challenge them to value the lasting things, the God things, in life. There is a great comforting promise in today’s gospel as well as the admonishment to keep ready.
Make no mistake, the message is there, vigilance is vital. There is no getting around the fact that we are called to live each day, each moment as though it could be our final chance.
So perhaps the exercise of thinking how we would use a final day is a good one.
But if that is personally difficult, then we might look at another phrase of the day’s gospel. What might treasure in heaven look like for us? How would we define heavenly treasure?
I am certain that it includes the love of those around us, but I am also sure it is more than that. Heavenly treasure is based on love and is filled with love but it is more.
Put another way, what do we want in life that is good; what is our godly passion? Is it justice, or faithfulness, or perhaps beauty or compassion? What heavenly treasures do we want to amass? After we have identified our “treasure in heaven” we must then structure our lives with actions to achieve them.
Thinking of how we would spend a last day or personally defining heavenly treasures gives us a clearer understanding of what has lasting value.
So often life’s challenges beat us down, and just making it through each day becomes our objective. This gospel gives us opportunity to remember the larger picture and to focus on what is most important. We are called through this gospel to remember what is eternal and lasting and to put that at the front of our thoughts and actions.
One of my favorite theologians, Evelyn Underhill has said, “The people of our time are helpless, distracted, and rebellious, unable to interpret that which is happening, and full of apprehension about that which is to come. This is largely because they have lost their sure hold on the eternal. It is the eternal which gives to each life meaning and direction and with meaning and direction gives steadiness.”
She goes on to say that focusing on the eternal does not allow us to escape from our problems or to avoid the difficulties of actual life. Rather remembering that our ultimate security is found in the eternal, brings an acceptance and a joy to life as it is.
So, as we engage the words of the scriptures today, may we find hope and joy in the promise they contain.
God invites us into his kingdom. He desires us to live each day knowing we belong to Him. His blessings are boundless.
Our loving God wants to provide good things for each of us; may we be ready to accept the life he offers
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
The Christian church has a problem, a problem that has caused no end of consternation for the last two millennia.
We are members of the kingdom of God and citizens of heaven — but we still live on earth. We still live in a world that prizes passion and greed and anger and malice above everything we hold to be true. And while we know where we’re headed — while we know that eternal life with Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, is awaiting us — that reality can sometimes or even all the time feel like a daydream compared to the nightly news.
This is not a new problem. And it’s actually one of the reasons St. Paul wrote the letter we heard from today. The church at Colossae was founded by Paul and had been faithful and generous and loving in all that they did. But now, the church faced an unsure and frightening future. Paul had been arrested. He awaited what was probably a terrible fate. The thought of a future without him — without his wisdom and foresight and guidance — made the world around the Colossian Christians to seem louder and larger and eventually the good news of the Gospel didn’t feel like enough.
And so the people in this congregation began to think about hedging their bets. They began to listen when whispers of other promises and easier options came their way. At the moment when Paul wrote this letter, the Christians at Colossae were on the verge of forgetting who they were and whose they were. They were on the verge of allowing their visible reality to re-define them.
Which is something we do, too. It really is the easiest thing in the world to let the nightly news or our personal problems or our worries or fears color our perspective. It’s easy to let these things even rule how we live our lives. And that’s because, naturally, what we feel and see and taste and touch are present to us in a way that is much more “real” than the unseen things we believe by faith.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. When Paul wrote this letter to the church at Colossae, he knew they were struggling — and he knew how to help them. Listen to what he wrote: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Your life is hidden with Christ in God. Paul wanted his spiritual children at Colossae — and by extension, us — to see the world through God’s eyes. He wants us to “have all the riches of assured understanding and . . . knowledge of . . . Christ” because in Christ is every treasure of wisdom and knowledge. But Paul knew that this “state of being,” this life ruled by the peace of Christ, would only be attainable if we hold fast to the story — to the Person — who gave us new life in the first place. He knew that this was only possible if we keep our hearts fixed on what is actually true.
Which is why Paul encourages us to seek the things that are above. Search diligently for all that looks like, sounds like, tastes like Christ. Strive after these things and aim for them. For in so doing, we will find the Truth. When we seek the things that are above, we will encounter Christ in his glory. We will be reminded again and again of who we are: A precious and beloved child of God.
And that reality will illuminate every moment and every aspect of our lives. No longer will we be bound by the race for prestige or the allure of wealth. No longer will we be trapped by what can really feel like the pointlessness of it all. No longer will we judge people on their political views or their social position or what have you — because we will see that Christ is all in all.
That is the hope Paul reminds us of this morning, a hope that truly can make our lives a beautiful and holy offering to God — even in the here and now.
“Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” AMEN.
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray." Jesus responds to this request in two ways: first he gives his disciples a model prayer, which we’ve come to call the Lord’s Prayer and which is included in virtually every Episcopal liturgy. And second, he makes sure the God they are praying to is the real God, the generous and benevolent one he calls Father, the God revealed in Scripture. We’ll touch on both those this morning.
Now, this parish is entering into a time in which prayer is going to be very important. Prayer is always important, of course, but in the life of any spiritual community there come these transitional seasons where having people praying versus not having people praying can make a mammoth difference. As we continue to process saying farewell to this phase of Emmanuel’s life, and to look out towards the horizon for what’s coming and who’s coming, it is very important that people be praying in the way Jesus taught us and to the God about whom Jesus taught us.
If you look through the Gospel today, you see all sorts of evidence of how God desires to do his people good in response to their prayers. Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God has your best interests at heart and he cares about you and your life.
However, people so often try to be more spiritual than Jesus, and raise objections like “God is supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient. Why should I pray for God to send us a good interim rector? If it’s God’s will to send a good interim rector, he can do it without my asking him.” Ah, but the chances are that what God’s will is, is to send a good interim rector in answer to your prayers. This is how God works most commonly, he works with and through his people. He wants us to ask and seek and knock, because he has chosen to confer on us the dignity of getting to cooperate with him in making his Kingdom present in the world.
Of course he’s taking a great risk in doing that, but God is no stranger to risk. He took a risk in becoming a helpless babe in a manger, he takes a risk in becoming bread in the Eucharist. The baby could have been killed. The bread can be dropped in the mud and profaned. But he takes that risk because he wants to let us experience him, right where we are.
Exact same thing with prayer. The way God has designed the universe, stuff he really wants to get done will not happen if we don’t collaborate in it – by our actions, and just as importantly by our prayers. “Ask and you will receive.” If we offer God that channel of prayer to work through, if we ask, we will receive. If we don’t – well, that was the risk he took in inventing prayer in the first place.
So as I said, over the next months, Emmanuel is entering into a time in its life where prayer is going to be very important. There are things God wants for this congregation after I’m gone in November – and I have no idea what they are, of course, that’s up to him and you. But he will only be able to do it fully if Emmanuelites both work and pray. If you just work without having that constant background music of prayer, you’ll get a pale shadow of the good things God wanted to give you.
So I want to suggest some things you might do in prayer these next several weeks. I’m going to do this cautiously, because it’s not appropriate for a priest to influence the affairs of a congregation after they leave. So I’ll just say some generic ways you could put today’s Gospel into practice in this context.
One is to pray for Lisa Kocheril. We have an excellent Senior Warden and an excellent Junior Warden, but an interim period is a time when the Senior Warden in particular will have a lot of responsibility. You could pray that God would guide her, give her energy and wisdom, provide lots of parishioners for her to delegate work to, and sort of grease the wheels for all the connections she has to make with other leaders and with the diocese and so on.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for Lisa. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
Another: pray for our staff. That Mother Marisa and Deacon Chris and Mary Sievers and Fred Bahr and Nick Pothier and Tim Valentine will stay grounded and faith-filled, that they will have the resources to do anything extra they need to do to tide us over – but also the boundaries to say no to extra things people pressure them to do that they should not be doing. A search can be stressful for the current staff, and it will demand the best of them in a way no other phase of a church’s life does.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for the Emmanuel staff. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
Another: pray for God to connect the parish with the right priest to serve in the interim period. That we will receive someone who has the seasoned executive capacity to guide a parish as complicated as Emmanuel through an in-between phase, who loves God and the Gospel, and who is equipped to work transparently and fruitfully with your lay and ordained leaders.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for God to send us the right interim priest. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
And one more: pray for the spiritual health of the parish as a whole. Person after person has commented that what they love about Emmanuel is the sense of holiness combined with openness that they can feel here. I certainly agree with that. But now that you’re aproaching a time which is going to be a little anxious, it’s going to be very easy to let that spiritual vitality sag and to close down and turn inward. The natural reaction to the unknown and to anxiety is sort of to tighten up, to be wary. God’s not into wariness. He can’t slip as much of his Holy Spirit through tightly clenched hands as he can through open ones. And he will build your trust in him if you ask.
So this is the time to ask: God, increase our trust in you. Help us to remember everything you’ve done for us. Help us not to try to take control. Make sure we always have living in your love as a higher priority than getting our ducks in a row.
So some of you here just decide right now: my job is going to be praying for the continued spiritual vitality of the parish. This will take two minutes a day. You can do it at a stoplight.
Eventually, there will be other specific things to pray for: for the search committee, for the interviews, for the right new rector, and so on. But right now, in terms of interceding, it would be great for some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for Lisa, for some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for our staff, some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for the right interim, and some of you to take on the commitment of praying every day for the parish to keep rooted in its deep spiritual life.
Don’t leave these needs to someone else. It’s not something “they” need to do, it’s something we all need to do. You choose one. Or God may have let something else specific pop into your mind during this sermon that needs to be covered in prayer. That’s his assignment to you, then, and by all means listen to him rather than to me.
So. Prayer is going to be very important for you over the next months. Jesus has assured us that God wants to give you good things in response to your prayers. And even better than that, he really wants to nourish and form you as you pray, too. You may think it’s an obligation, but you come away blessed. God knows that just praying, just being in his presence and loving him, will probably do you more good than any thing he may give you as an answer. His depths of generosity and mercy and life are always sufficient. All you have to do is ask.
And to make a right beginning of asking, let’s offer all these concerns and hopes together to our loving God in the words our Savior taught us, saying, Our Father….
Help people? (Mother Beth)
I mentioned in the July Messenger that as I look across the months remaining until my retirement, I’ve naturally started reminiscing a little about my 28 years in ministry. I was thinking the other day about a Bible study I once led and one of its participants. I’ll call her Maggie. Maggie was a very simple person, and you always got the feeling life was coming at her pretty fast, but she liked to sit with us and listen, even when she didn’t really follow all the ideas.
In the method we used, the final question every week was “what is God calling you to do in response to what we have read?” Depending on the passage, people would say things like “buy canned goods to give to the food pantry” or “pray about forgiving the co-worker who hurt me.” But every week, as regular as clockwork, Maggie was the first to respond. She would inevitably furrow her brow in thought, and then, with a hint of nervousness, as if she might be wrong, week after week give the identical answer: “Help people?”
I had to smile, but over the years I came to treasure Maggie’s weekly reminder for us to help people. And when our Gospel today is the story of the Jewish man who was left for dead by robbers and the Samaritan who assumed all the burden of his care, I expect the majority of sermons we’ve heard on this passage have given essentially the Maggie Interpretation of what it means: Help people. A good answer. Or sometimes, a little more specifically, help people, even those who are different from us. Also a very good answer.
It strikes me, though, that even though that is part of what Jesus wants to say here, if it were all he wanted to say, the whole passage would probably be rather different. The lawyer approaches Jesus, Luke tells us, to test him. He knows that irreligious people, people who do not fully keep the law, even Gentiles, are flocking to Jesus. He has heard rumors that Jesus may have challenged some customs that are based on Scripture. So, he thinks, it’s time to see just how dangerous this teacher is.
And here is his test case question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s likely hoping for Jesus to say something that directly contradicts the Bible. But Jesus’ reply is, as usual, effortlessly dazzling. “You’re the lawyer, you tell me; what does the Bible say?” The lawyer can’t very well recite the entire Torah, so he reels off one of the commonly accepted Jewish summaries of it, one Jesus himself quotes elsewhere in the Gospels. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
“OK. Do that,” says Jesus, “and you will live." Just obey those two commandments fully, and God’s life, his own nature, will be yours. It’s a brilliant move, because it cuts right to the heart of what the problem was in Jesus’ day and still is in ours: reducing the shocking vision of radiant wholeness God generously offers us down to something more manageable, to some kind of finite, controllable duty we can be expected to adhere to.
For most people Jesus interacted with, their technique of reduction was to turn the vision God had given them into a list of detailed rules. If they followed all these rules diligently, they could see themselves as maintaining acceptability before God. Contemporary people sometimes do that kind of thing as well, but I think more of us now reduce God’s vision of wholeness down to a manageable size by heading in the opposite direction, shrinking it into highly generic platitudes on which nobody could ever evaluate you: be a good person, help people, be true to yourself. But the real vision God offers is so much better than any reductionist answer.
The summary Jesus draws out of the lawyer challenges both our generic platitudes, and his specific rule keeping, with a vision that is so deep and beautiful and uncompromising it takes your breath away. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Do that, says Jesus. Do that?! It sounds wonderful, but has anybody other than him ever done it even once? Does any of us love God authentically, with every fiber of our being, every minute of every day, bringing all our intellect and all our heart into that love? Does any of us meet the needs of our neighbor, every time, with every bit as much pleasure and foresight and care and thoroughness as we meet our own needs? One of us? Ever? If you say yes, I won’t believe you.
It’s an impossibly high standard, but that’s the whole point. Jesus is trying to show, by comparison, the ridiculousness of our cramped, boring little reductions of what God sets forth into something we can handle. Trying to show that that the only way we can fully live is to admit we alone can’t fully live, and to accept help from the outside, to accept God’s life as a gift that bridges that gap for us.
That’s what Jesus is trying to help the lawyer see with his “Do this and you will live” answer, but it doesn’t work; it’s not enough yet to put him off his self-justification project. The man thinks, still, that there must be some way to reduce this glorious vision down to an ordinary rule he himself can manage without God’s help from the outside. So he decides to debate the nature of the obligation conferred by the term “neighbor.” “Who precisely counts?” And in response, Jesus tells one of the most famous stories in the Bible. I would love to know what story he would have told if the lawyer had asked about a way of reducing the other half of the commandment, the loving God part, to something manageable. I’m sure that story would have been equally great. But what we have is this neighbor story, and, again assuming that you’ve heard many sermons pointing out that the story recommends helping people, which it does, I’m not going to focus on that.
If Jesus wanted only to convey that we should help the less fortunate, especially those different from us, the Samaritan would have been the one who was robbed and beaten and left for dead, and the Jew would have come along and helped him. The Jew is the obvious person for a Jewish lawyer to identify with and emulate, if emulation is the main point; a hated Samaritan is the obvious less fortunate stock-character outcast whom a well-meaning, religious Jew should help. But that’s not the setup. In Jesus’ setup, the Jew, the fortunate one who has the law, who normally would be the helper, is the guy in the gutter, penniless, useless, unable to do anything to improve his situation. The only way he can live is to accept help from outside. That’s how Jesus wants the lawyer to see himself: he’s not the noblesse oblige privileged person looking for someone he can help, but someone who desperately needs a loving neighbor to save him.
So Jesus paints his picture: the Samaritan comes near to this impotent wounded human; with deep compassion he reaches out to lift him up. The Samaritan puts him on the donkey he himself was riding and leads him down the Jerusalem road; he gives him shelter and stays with him through the night, paying for everything out of his own pocket since, however self-sufficient the man thought he was and whatever status he thought he had, there’s no way now to avoid admitting that he has no way to buy his own life back. In an astonishing act of grace the Samaritan even leaves an extra pile of money, and promises to return and keep on paying and paying and paying, no matter how deep the depths of this man’s inadequacy turn out to be, until he is fully whole.
You rarely hear this now, but is it really any wonder that for centuries, the standard interpretation of this parable was that the Samaritan is meant to be Jesus himself? That’s what the church fathers thought it meant. When God in the flesh came to save us, he journeyed down our road and found us lying in the ditch, weak and broken and unable to go on -- trying so hard to hide that embarrassing fact from ourselves and everyone else, trying so hard to create a reductionist scheme that we can agree to pretend is all there is to wholeness, so we can escape the shattering beauty of God’s true wholeness.
Jesus gave everything for us, laying out riches superabundantly above what could ever be needed, paying a debt we could never pay ourselves so that we could live. Live now, and live forever. Is it any wonder. Is it any wonder he tells the story that way? Is it any wonder he first makes sure to root it in a command so sweepingly perfect that it leaves us flat, knowing full well we can never fulfill it? He doesn’t just want the lawyer to follow different rules or more rules or fewer rules. He wants him to see that shattering beauty and say “Jesus, help me.”
Christian neighboring works far better when “Jesus, help me” comes before “Help people.” Yes. Of course we’re supposed to help people. But to help people in Christ, we first have to let Christ help us. That’s what gives us the humility, and the open hearts, and the recognition of our own weakness, that can keep us from noblesse oblige. Only when we can admit that we too live by unconditional mercy, will we be truly free to extend mercy without conditions to others. When that has happened for us, that rescue, that free grace, then we are truly able, as Jesus finally gets around to saying, in the very last verse of the story, to go and do likewise.
Anyone who has ever had a roommate, anyone who has ever had a sibling, anyone who has ever been through middle school knows that it’s hard work living with people. It’s hard work interacting with people.
And sometimes it feels frankly impossible. Maybe now more than ever.
But just before we decide that this is the way it will be forever; just before we throw up our hands because political discourse is dead; just before we find ourselves shunning or shaming the Other, our Lord calls us to pause — and to remember. Remember the kingdom to which we belong. Remember the God who rules over all others. Remember that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. This is our story, a story that despite its twists and turns, despite its rising and falling, perseveres on to paradise – just as it has done since the very beginning.
Amidst the chaos of conquered Israel, as the foreign armies tore through Jerusalem, the Prophet Isaiah spoke of a future where weeping would end and the wealth of the nations would bedeck the holy city. And the city herself — Jerusalem would flourish. No longer would the barks of jackals or the whisper of wind echo in her empty streets, but Jerusalem would be as alive and as fruitful and as generous as a nursing mother in a loving home.
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,” the Prophet says. “All you who love her, rejoice with her in joy. . . . For thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.’”
At the time of Isaiah’s writing, the people of Israel had lived in Babylon for nearly 50 years. They had heard with grief and terror of the atrocities committed in their beloved home. They had weathered the distrust and dislike of a people who couldn’t understand why “those Jews” refused to bow before Emperor and idol alike. The lives of the Jewish refugees were marked by confusion, anger, sorrow, even despair. But through it all, undeterred by what had brought Israel to this point, the Lord continued to speak. He continued to form and reform the lives of his people according to his Word. For thus says the LORD: “‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.’”
That was the hope the Jewish people had for the future, that God would bring them home and bless them and would be present with them in ways they had yet to experience. That was their hope; it is our reality.
We who are gathered here today taste the glories of the heavenly Jerusalem because we are members of the Bride of Christ. In this gathering and in the voices of the countless others who sing praises to Almighty God, we find comfort, true and honest and unending comfort — for this is the place where life comes from death, love springs from hatred, and unity arises from division. This is the place where the hand of the LORD is known to his servants: Jesus Christ, our King, our Savior, and our Friend.
To the world outside our doors, we are a community that shouldn’t be possible. We come from many places. We bear unique burdens. We look and sound and act differently than each other. Yet we are one, united by love of Christ and brought together by a God who delights in the individual beauty of his individual children as we all grow to look more and more like him.
“We shall see and our hearts shall rejoice; our bones shall flourish like the grass,” when we seek the heavenly city where the LORD has promised to be found.
We live in a world beset by problems and plagued by evil. We live in a world where some days do feel like we are exiles in a foreign land. And yet, despite the voices of doubt and derision, despite the sheer volume of hate we witness on a day-to-day basis, we don’t need to despair – because this world is not our ultimate reality. Nor is it our ultimate hope.
We have been crucified with Christ and so we see our world for what it is: a people and a place in desperate need of the unending, un-qualifying, undying love of a resurrected savior. A love that we possess. For we worship a God who has not and will never despise his creation, who is always ready to meet us in the humble gifts of Bread and Wine.
This is our story, a story that despite its twists and turns, holds true and shines light on every aspect of our lives. May we all today, tomorrow, and every day in the future remember that we are children of God, citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, blessed, comforted, and guided by the one we call Love. AMEN.
The whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Today we hear from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written sometime in the middle of the first century. At that time the early Christian movement was still tied to Judaism, though many of the new converts were Gentiles. Paul’s travels to spread the gospel meant that most of those he evangelized were not Jews. One of the early conflicts within the developing church had to do with how to handle these Gentile believers. Would they be required to follow Jewish law or not? In this letter to the Galatians, Paul gives his view of the controversy, which was formed by knowing the Gentiles among whom he preached. Paul does not do this in a theoretical way but rather in answer for actual people, actual places, and actual situations. As his missionary work continued, he became even stronger in his views supporting that Gentile Christians do not need to follow Jewish law and customs. Paul firmly believed that this is not a condition for their belief in the risen Lord. And as we know that is the position that eventually won out.
Last week we heard the much-quoted verse from Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, male or female, all are one in Christ Jesus.” This is the core of Paul’s belief, all are one. In today’s passage Paul’s strong remarks are a reminder that in the arguments regarding Jewish law, Jesus’ basic commandment had gotten overlooked. He says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As children of God, this is the crucial part of our identity. Through Jesus Christ we are members in community with one another. And that community is formed and based on love, God’s love for us and our reflection of that same love to others. In this passage Paul uses the word “flesh” as a shorthand for self-centered living and he gives a list of the results of that. He also names the opposite of the flesh and lists the results of God-centered living, a life of loving service for the benefit of others.
In theory it seems simple, but of course in living it out, it is not always that way. Loving our neighbor as ourselves, can sometimes be difficult. People with whom we do not agree, …are still our neighbor. People whom we do not necessarily like, …are still our neighbor. People who do not focus on the same priorities as we do,… are still our neighbor. Our neighbors are children of God, as are we, and we are to love them.
Whenever we are in community with other people, there will occasionally be conflict. It is how that conflict is discussed and resolved that matters. Putting our love of others ahead of the argument we fervently we believe in, takes practice! And at its best, the church can be a laboratory for learning and practicing love and mercy as Jesus intended.
In pre-Covid times most of us were a part of several communities. And this was good. It gave us socialization, a place to have fun, people with whom to share ideas and more. Perhaps these were with members of our physical neighborhoods, or people with whom we worked or attended school, or others in our extended family or those we met in a favorite coffee shop. And perhaps we found community here at Emmanuel as a part of the choir or a particular congregation, the 8 o-clockers, or a common age group, pub theology and so on.
During the shutdown some may have formed new communities through zoom or by taking walks masked and six feet apart in the neighborhood, but for many this was a time of loss of community connections. And now as we are learning how to make our way being with other people again, it can be a time of more intentional community formation. In fact, Emmanuel has made forming Christian community as one of its common themes as we reorganize some ministries.
I wonder today, what makes a church a community, a Christian community, that can be different from other groups?
One thing is a common faith. We say the creed together each time we worship. We profess to believe in Christ is risen and Christ will come again. Even if we do not all believe exactly the same way, at the basic level we believe in our Lord Jesus.
Another thing that sets us apart is common worship. The services here have a recognizable pattern and while the lessons and hymns change daily the structure is the same. Common faith, common worship. I suppose we might combine those two and say one characteristic that sets us apart is the book of common prayer that we share.
Another is Common scripture that we hear and read.
Through these, faith, worship, prayer, and scripture, we have common experiences that are grounded in Christ’s love. This is our foundation.
And yet, we can share these things and still have room to grow as a Christian community, a place where love and mercy are practiced and allowed to deepen.
A step forward in this is learning to use our words about our faith and speaking about what God has done for us. While this may seem awkward at first, it becomes easier with doing it and talking with a smaller number of people, one or two perhaps. If you are involved with Common Table there will be a chance to practice this in a very approachable and easy way this week.
The same is true of the sacred spaces ministry or inter-generational formation, one of the Bible study groups, doing a Meals on Wheels delivery with someone you want to know better, or to get involved with volunteering for the DREAAM program to name a few of the opportunities found here.
This is how we build Christian community by being a safe place to express God’s love for us, as well as our love of God, in both word and action. Christ is at the center of the community and for that to be so, we must acknowledge His presence in our lives. This is what makes Christian community different from the other secular communities in which we live. We can talk about our favorite baseball team in any community (and we do). We can talk about our experience of Christ’s love and mercy in any community, but it is easier to learn how we do this in a group where Christ is the center.
Some of the things we can do consciously to help to foster Christian community are the same as with any other community, but some are not.
The first thing step is to come together regularly. For relationships to grow being together frequently is important, at least at first. If too much time elapses between being in the same place, we have to start over, and this can keep us from forming those common bonds. Getting to know our neighbor is an important part of loving our neighbor.
Being able to express our own experience, the truth as you know it, comes next. Trust can only be built by taking that step of speaking about what is meaningful to you. Take it in small steps! In several of the groups that have met over the last year listening to a passage of scripture together and then saying the word or phrase that stands out to each person has been an easy way to begin. Letting others know us is another important part of loving our neighbor.
Perhaps most importantly we need to allow God to lead us in the process of forming community. Praying specifically about how we might be more involved or perhaps how we might get to know another Emmanuelite is an intentional way to begin. As time goes on, you will find your unique place in the group and learn to know others special gifts. The awkwardness will disappear with practice. And we will be able to see how despite surface differences we do meet Paul’s statement that in Christ, all are one.
With the support of the community, we can then spread out that love, our reflection of God’s love, to others who may or may not be a Christian. I have seen this happen here at Emmanuel many, many times in the past. I look forward to us widening our vision of loving our neighbors through strengthening these community bonds in the months ahead.
While our current day issues and conflicts are not the same as in Paul’s time, the principles and foundation that he speaks are the same.
The whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”