Advent I: December 2, 2018
Over the last couple of weeks we have once again been assaulted by disturbing images from around the world and within our own country. The fires in California, genocide in Myanmar, refugees fleeing the violence of their home countries in Central America, acts of anti-Semitism on the increase in the United States even as we remember our Jewish sisters and brothers on this eve of Hanukkah. I’m not sure Black Friday or Cyber Monday is enough of an anesthesia to relieve the anxiety with which we live on the planet. Can we sing the “Kyrie eleison” enough?
Confronted with constant reminders of death and destruction, Advent takes us to the edge in search of that place that longs for a new possibility. We call it hope. In Jeremiah, the people’s lives have been turned topsy-turvy. It is 325 B.C. The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt, but the former glory has not returned. Jeremiah is speaking to a people who have known only hard times and are struggling to make it. A vision of the future is held before them, a time when the Lord will fulfill the promise made to Israel and the house of Judah. A righteous branch will spring up for David; Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. The hope of a new vision changes the manner of living in the present.
Look at Paul writing to the church in Thessalonika. He encourages them to continue to grow in faith and love for one another because this is the way to holiness. They too were in confusing times. The world was a mess. Roman oppression was ever-present, yet Paul encourages them to grow now as “you wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” The first century church, gathered to celebrate the Eucharist as we are doing now, did so expecting the Lord to come at any moment and to bring to consummation all of time in the fullness of God’s righteousness and peace. Seeing the promise of God’s future is to infuse our present with hope.
Even in Luke, natural disasters, stress among the nations, people living in great fear and the powers of heaven shaken are the daily reality. This sounds startlingly contemporary does it not? Yet they have hope. Why? The Kingdom of God is near as they expected Jesus’ return. We do pray, nearly every day, “Thy Kingdom come,” I trust with a similar expectation. We get a sense of it in the desire of people living at the margins, like a Syrian refugee family, fleeing violence and waiting, waiting with bated breath for that one rescuing word of welcome; or a falsely accused prisoner on death row waiting for the DNA tests that prove his innocence. Release. Freedom. That is the quality of Advent.
The annals of former slaves tell us this is how they survived the cotton fields and harsh slave owners, that is, by staying centered in the promise of restoration in Christ. Elie Weisel tells of being able to live through the concentration camp of World War II by remaining centered in one’s hope in God. One can understand giving up. People live out their rage on the world in manifestations of violence, often because of some deep historical injustice that has led to a loss of hope. When hope is missing or been taken away, violence is the only choice many believe they have. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it does help to understand it.
Our call is the transformation of the now so that it more clearly reflects God’s vision made perfect at the end of all time. We make, if you will, the future present. The Kingdom of God is already a reality among us and in us. Our baptism signifies this to us in God’s sacramental promise. Our motivation, and the mission we seek to pass on is the love of God and God’s vision in Jesus to make all things new, on earth as it is in heaven. We persevere as a community through our longing for God even in the midst of duress.
Henri Nouwen once said, “You are a Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society in which you live – so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.” Christian hope always views the reality of the present world, its beauty as well as its destructive forces, from the perspective of God’s desire for the creation. It is not born in mere optimism. It is born in God, or even, God born in us. The end judges the present and is why a Christian is never satisfied until the new heaven and new earth has been realized among us. In this sense we are always an Advent people – unsatisfied with the way things are when they are less than God’s hope for the world. That is, by the way, why the building of walls, religious or racial profiling and any other way we live out our fears by limiting and restricting God’s transformative love is not an option for a Jesus person.
Having said all of that, we know that our hope rests not solely in our human ability to change ourselves or our world. If we could, good people would have done so by now. Jesus is calling forth a whole new creation – changing the world order and overthrowing the empires of domination. Jesus comes not to make us good, but to make us holy. Completely new. The call of today is to wake up and be on alert – acting as if it all depends on us, but knowing that in the end it all depends on God. Our hope is not in our ability to change the world – our hope is in the One whose birth we celebrate in a little over three weeks.
You and I, in our baptism, discover that we belong to a God shown forth in Christ who promises that the end is already secure. We seek to change the world now as an act of thanksgiving for the promised life to come. The promise changes the present. Our hope – past, present and future – is held in Christ Jesus. As Luke would tell us, “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23: October 14, 2018
Today’s Gospel reading presents one of the places in Scripture where many people feel that Jesus has gone from preaching and teaching to meddling. This is because we find Jesus is taking head on the issue of our money. For most people that can feel like meddling, because our money is one of the most closely guarded, personal and sometimes secretive part of our life. Whereas money, in itself, is morally neutral, for a Christian it is to be used first for the building of the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, issues of money can be so consuming that it takes on a power all its own and demands our obedience. That is what Jesus is addressing here.
The rich man has come to Jesus with a curious question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We discover the man is apparently a person of great moral integrity – keeping the commandments since he was a boy. But Jesus, sensing a disconnect in the man’s life, shows his love by telling him he must sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. His response is one of shock and he goes away grieving, for he was a man of many possessions.
Then come those words familiar to most of us: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” Perhaps as you, I have heard many explanations over the years as to what those images refer, but the point is this – it is nearly impossible for a rich person to get into heaven. You might respond, phew! I’m off the hook! Do remember, however, that if you own a house, even with a mortgage, you are wealthier than 95% of the world. If you own one car you are more wealthy than 82% of the world. We are the rich! This is about most if not all us and Jesus has gotten to meddling.
At least two questions now arise for me. Why does Jesus talk so much about money? Except for the Kingdom of God, the topic Jesus addresses more than anything else is the topic of money, our treasure. Second, if it is impossible for a rich person, you and me, to enter the Kingdom of God, then as the disciples said, “who can be saved?”
To the first question as to why Jesus talks so much about money, the answer goes back to how money gains a power all its own. Jesus recognizes in the rich man of today’s reading and in humanity, that money is God’s chief rival. Money and possessions, more than anything else, has the power to supplant the place of God in our lives, our time and our energy. We sometimes organize our life around it. It demands our attention. That’s why money is a spiritual issue for Christians and always will be. It can take a place of ultimate importance, demanding obeisance only properly due to God. As such an idol it can command more attention from us than we give to God and our discipleship.
A response to the second question regarding the impossibility of a rich person entering the Kingdom is a bit more complicated. So let me tell you about a rich person I knew who, in my limited perspective, seemed to be in right-relationship with her treasure.
I met Rebecca in the summer of 1979 when I was serving in a parish as a seminary intern. She was the daughter of a man who had the one industry in a small rural Maryland town. When I met her she was in her mid-60’s and had a solid eight figure portfolio. She spent every working day tutoring reading in the inner city of Baltimore.
Her housekeeper was one of her best friends. Almost every Thursday, after she would return from a day of teaching for a salary of $1.00/year (giving the rest to the PTA), she and the housekeeper would go out to dinner and then the Baltimore Symphony. Rebecca would support everything she could, including her parish, and her dinner parties were known as the most racially, socially, and culturally mixed occasions one could imagine. She often wore a favorite wool skirt purchased in 1946. At her funeral in 1982, hundreds attended across the political, racial, generational (many children were there) and socio-economic spectrum. For me it was a vision of the inclusivity of the Kingdom itself.
Her last act of ministry of which we know the day before she died, this rich woman picked through an entire school day’s garbage until she found a pair of eyeglasses a child had left on a lunch tray. Rebecca incarnated what Jesus is pointing to in the Gospel. It is not about what she did, not her behavior or good works that gains her the Kingdom. If you asked her why she conducted her life in this manner, she would have said to you, “Because I love Jesus.” You see, all stewardship of our life, including our financial stewardship, flows from discipleship and becomes an act of worship. It is not a deadly legalism of “oughts and shoulds.” It is about our time on the earth being a joyful response in thanksgiving for the gift of new life in Christ.
That’s what Jesus, out of his love for him, was challenging in the rich man. He wanted him to see that his possessions had begun to possess him. It is why we bring our gifts to the altar, as an act of honoring God with our substance. It is to be our best, our first fruits, before anything else, and indeed is one way we disarm the power of money over us. The issue here of course is not the amount, but the faithfulness with which it is given in order to glorify God in all things.
Jesus was looking to set the rich man free and yes, seeks to set us free, leading us to a new relationship with our possessions and therefore a new relationship with God and each other. It’s all impossible of course, except that, “For God, all things are possible.”
The 18th Sunday After Pentecost
September 23, 2018
I have been a board member of a human rights organization called Cristosal for almost 20 years. In that time we have grown from a loosely knit yet committed volunteer organization with a scraped together $25,000 per year budget to one with a budget of $1,500,000 and now recognized as one of the top organizations in the world working in the area of human rights and displaced peoples. If you go to the webpage of Cristosal (www.cristosal.org) you will see that the very first statement that appears is this: “We believe every human being is inherently equal in rights and dignity.”
I trust you hear in that statement echoes of our baptismal covenant, when we promise to God that we will “respect the dignity of every human being.” We make this promise because we are disciples of Jesus and we believe that all people are made in the image of God. It doesn’t mean that we, or anyone, always acts out of that truth, but it does mean our discipleship as a part of the Jesus Movement points to such truths as foundational for our identity and belief system. Many scholars believe that this section in Mark is a part of an early Christian catechism that converts seeking the way of Jesus were required to memorize.
So why do I start here today? In El Salvador the Cristosal team on the ground receives up to forty referrals a week from the U.S. Embassy or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as families receive death threats, children are orphaned, and teenage girls flee gang slavery. In El Salvador alone, 5.1% of the population is currently forcibly displaced by violence and threat. We know such horrors occur in other places as well. Syria and Myanmar are notable. And what population tends to suffer the most? Children. Even up the road right now in northeastern South Carolina and eastern North Carolina, as a result of hurricane Florence, the ones most exposed and vulnerable are children.
When we engage Mark’s Gospel in today’s reading we find that the disciples have, once again, failed to understand what it means to be a disciple. Jesus, through the image of a child who he places before them, teaches them what discipleship with him means. You recall what I am sure for you are familiar words: “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
When using this image of a child, Jesus is not here speaking of innocence or humility. Let’s disabuse ourselves of that notion right out of the gate. What he is talking about is what was true of children of his day. They had no legal status and therefore they were helpless. They were powerless and some of the most vulnerable. Now hold on to your seats here. What Jesus is saying in this Gospel is that true greatness is when we treat as first in the kingdom those who have no legal status, are powerless and helpless. It means too that when greatness consists in serving others, especially the most vulnerable, we are welcoming Christ into our midst. To receive a child is to welcome someone with no regard to how we might benefit individually or communally, and to do so for one deemed as insignificant with no hope of reward. James’ Epistle today puts it this way: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
Folks, this is radical behavior. It is why, at least in part, that the disciples have a hard time grasping what true discipleship is. It’s about death and resurrection. It’s about giving up privilege and the abuse of power. Sure, it’s easier to do what the disciples did and try to deflect and start arguing about other things such as who is the greatest in order to keep one’s privileged position. It’s such a human response, even understandable, yet as people of faith we know it as sin because we see it as falling short of the mark to which Jesus calls us. It all gets revealed when Jesus asks the disciples what they had been arguing about as they walked along. It is then that he takes the opportunity to teach them what kind of Messiah he was to be and what it is to be a disciple. To be truly great is to die to the greatness of the world rooted in power and privilege and first-ness, then being raised to be servants of all.
We need always to be asking ourselves, in prayer, some questions. How will we use our privilege to serve those who do not share it? What arguments are we having within ourselves, in our families, in our church, in our nation, that are far from how to be disciples, but are really about fear, privilege, and who’s number one? No easy answers there, and I don’t mean to suggest that there are. But to be faithful we must consider the questions that Jesus’ teaching raises.
We’re not in El Salvador or Syria, Myanmar or Puerto Rico, or even a bit north of us, but we must never allow the helpless or the plight of the displaced, for whatever reason, to be politicized. Not if we’re going to be disciples. The helpless, wherever we find them, are made in the image of God, just as you are. Jesus’ challenge to the disciples shows us that we must be open to new perspectives, be more committed to impartiality in our dealings, and persevere in advocating for others.
We are called by the living Christ to be servants of one another. There is a claim on our compassion and a religious duty to meet the displaced, the powerless and helpless with assistance, yes, and also to challenge and change the systems that keep people in such prisons. Compassion always finds it legs in genuine Christian communities. We can be that community, indeed are called to be that community, grounded in the kind of discipleship to which Jesus calls us.
The Third Sunday after The Epiphany: June 10, 2018
Who is this Jesus? Today’s liturgy, as in every Eucharist, and indeed the Scriptures just read, raise that question. Who is this Jesus we promise to follow with our life on the line? What does it require of us as we walk this planet?
Paul, whom we now call St. Paul, discovered that this Jesus rattled his cage and rumbled through the history of his life so that it would never be the same again. As the writer of many letters to the various new Christian communities, as today to the Christians in Corinth, we must not forget that he had been transformed from being a persecuting enemy of the Church to a proclaimer of God’s Good News of welcome and mercy to all. Indeed he writes that, “…grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” Our call as the baptized people of God is to do just that: out of our own deep gratitude to extend God’s grace to more and more people in order that God might be glorified, and his kingdom come, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” All through the Gospels we find in Jesus one who, if we are listening, leads us to resist oppressive authority, pointing us to a God who works from the underside of every system of power, as we are set free to be who God calls us to be.
So it is that in today’s Gospel we find a Jesus who, as a faithful Jew, once again steps beyond the convention and prohibition of his religion as practiced in his day. Some people levied the accusation that, “He has gone out of his mind.” Others of the religious authorities said that he was an instrument of evil, Beelzebul. Then, in a most clever rabbinical response, Jesus teaches that to name what is of the Spirit to have originated from an evil demon is a blasphemy against God. Next comes those amazing words when Jesus says that those called together in God’s Spirit are a part of a whole new community: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” So you are.
Jesus remains true to his mission. Not only does he not seek the security of his own family and retreat into what is comfortable, he sets aside whatever others may think of him and remains resolute in his faith in God and God’s mission. One more time we discover a Jesus who refuses to be contained in rigid formulas of doctrinal correctness. He insisted that all are beloved sons and daughters of God, who does not rest in promoting the work of God’s Reign that recognizes that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. It doesn’t mean that we or the people of the world always act out of that truth, but it is why we say bold and wildly crazy things like, “we will respect the dignity of every human being,” and will “work for justice and peace among all people” as our lived response to being disciples.
Jesus will not play favorites and has no patience with the so-called devout looking down on others. He gives no countenance to those who believe they are so right that they rise up on the heels of sanctimonious self-righteousness. Jesus’ emphasis is on the way of God and his own sense of urgency to be about God’s reign of justice. He remains centered on God’s mission of love in the place of the constant barrage of violent and hateful actions and rhetoric infecting us on a daily basis; all evidence as described in Genesis of the enmity set into creation by our disobedience to our “loving, liberating and life-giving” God, to quote our Presiding Bishop.
Jesus is plain inconvenient in that way isn’t he? When Jesus enters the scene, we recognize that a new truth has shown up. It’s why he was always getting into trouble – he told and lived the truth. He was the truth. St. Paul says that we “do not lose heart…our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” This is what the world is to see when you or I show up in the name of Christ, not only in our words, but also in our example. If we are going to have a voice in the joy as well as the struggle of what it means to be human, of what it means to be the Church in our time, we must remain hungry for a Jesus that can be taken seriously. The God Jesus preached liberates those who are in death’s prison. They and we are set free to serve in love. This Jesus summons us to something powerful and life-changing and world-affirming. We must reject any view of a Jesus who remains too small, private and disconnected to anything that truly matters.
I had a parishioner in my parish in Southern Virginia who in the early 70’s was outspoken about the overt racism evident in the area. In that day and in that place this was a risky thing to do. Members of the parish told me that Pat’s home, where she lived with her husband, would get pelted with eggs and spray painted epithets too horrible to repeat here appeared on their garage door. When I was her rector in the mid 80’s I heard these stories from others and one day, when visiting Pat, I asked her about those days and why she was motivated to speak out. She said, “Because I promised to follow Jesus.”
I trust the One who was resurrected from the dead who indeed changes lives and brings hope to the captive, the disenfranchised, the despised, the left out, the immigrant, the prisoner, the homeless, the displaced, the jobless, the sick, the disillusioned, the depressed, all of whom are present right here and right outside this door. They too are our sisters, and brothers, and mothers.
Who is this Jesus we proclaim today? Who is this Jesus we are promising to follow, to whom we are once again giving our lives as he has given his life to us? He affirms our infinite worth, encourages our yearning, honors our questions, and trusts us with our honest doubt. Perhaps most important of all: he forbids our indifference, for we have been made into a new community. I cannot get away from him. You cannot get away from him. Nor, at last, should we want to.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.