(Audio from Holy Cross Faith Memorial can be found here)
The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 31, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
If all of Scripture were to be lost to us and I could choose only one piece to keep, today’s Gospel is the one I would have remain. I believe it is THE Gospel parable. Let’s do some exploring.
In our readings over the past few weeks and including today, Jesus is consciously and deliberately on his way to Jerusalem, the place of his execution. Along the way he comes upon a group of religious and political leaders in Jerusalem who will not accept a Messiah who works by dying. To be sure, Jesus desires to gather all people under the banner of God’s love, but it is becoming increasingly evident that it will only happen through his death. The human race’s attempt to get its act together has not worked. This is true corporately and individually. The evidence is clear enough by simply gazing at the news or even our own life if we are honest. Our only home is Jesus’ self-offering on the cross and the radical forgiveness it offers, for like the lost son in today’s parable, you and I, on our own merit, are no longer worthy to be called son or daughter; although, as we will see, the father begs to differ with that assessment.
Our “lostness” is not the focus of this parable. We can get caught in an inappropriate and overly exaggerated sense of our unworthiness to a degree that it is spiritually damaging, even abusive. I recall a woman some years ago with whom I was doing spiritual direction. She recounted to me that as a child, she would practice going out to the family car and jumping for the steering wheel, for her Christian upbringing had so convinced her of how awful she was, she was convinced that when Jesus returned her parents would be taken by God and she would be left. She had to be prepared to grab the wheel to avoid a horrible accident. That’s spiritual abuse.
Many non-churched people out there think that is what we all believe inside these walls and will never darken the door much less stay. Poll after poll tells us that the primary way Christians are seen by the un-churched world is that we are mostly a people of judgment. Jesus, however, would have us look more closely at the behavior of the father, who is really the focus of the parable. If we read it closely, what we find is that rather than a parable of the prodigal son, the emphasis is on the generous, welcome-home, beyond-all-bounds-and-reason, gracious father.
Look at what happens! When the son who had run off in “dissolute living” found all of his resources depleted and decided his only resort was to make his way home, “while he was still far off,” he hadn’t yet got home, his father “ran to him, put his arms around him and kissed him.” All the father could see was his lost, even dead to him son, and in a moment of completely undignified glee completely inappropriate for a proper first century Jewish man, the father “sprints,” the actual word here for “run,” in absolute, self-abandoned joy. He does this because raising dead sons, or daughters, to life and throwing fabulous parties for them is his favorite thing to do.
Somehow, in that incredible moment, the son realizes that being the father’s child is who he is. He is not a hired hand – the father wouldn’t hear of it. The welcome is overwhelming. In the embrace and kiss he discovers that he is a dead son who is alive again, all because the father was willing, out of love, to allow the risk of the possibility that his son would never come back. It can be the hardest thing a parent can ever do, as in when a dear friend of mine recently had to allow her severely addicted daughter to walk away as she watched her daughter’s self-destructive choices ruing her life and that of the family. She never stopped loving, but her heart was breaking, longing for the day when she might welcome her home.
Jesus’ point here I trust you see, is that God is like the father of the story. That’s why the story is really about his behavior. Not until we are confronted by the unqualified gift of someone who died to forgive us no matter what, can we see that confession really has little to do with getting ourselves forgiven. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Instead, confession is the last gasp, like in the son, that acknowledges and accepts the need for new life. The father had already forgiven the son who was still far off. My friend has already forgiven her daughter and has never stopped loving her. The gift is already there and waiting, looking out the window, longing and waiting for us to come home so that love and kisses and hugs can be offered and the party can begin.
This is the kind of God we have Jesus is telling us. We are forgiven not because we have made ourselves forgivable or even because we have faith. WE ARE FORGIVEN BECAUSE WE HAVE A FORGIVER! The parable reveals the way God is toward everything God has made. My son was dead and is now alive. So just like God, the father throws a party. The story goes right to it. Notice – no testing of behavior first to see if the son means it or has integrated the learning into his life. We see the best robe, best ring, best shoes, best calf – so let’s eat, even if we do have a kill-joy of an older brother who like us sometimes struggles with this kind of life-giving grace. We’re so afraid someone will get something they don’t deserve of haven’t earned.
This is about God’s party of love. It’s all grace! And note it is not cheap. A calf, the best one, is sacrificed for the meal. It costs something, just as it cost Jesus his life and it costs us our life as we place our life on this altar for this Eucharistic meal. We are offering our life to God who welcomes us home, who sprints to meet us in our far off places and even before we get home on our own, embraces us with love and kisses all around. And note here, that the most frequently used word in the NT Greek translated “worship” is “proskuneo,” which means, “to kiss toward.”
The whole Gospel story today turns on the kiss, the kiss extended by God to us even at this table. We dare to approach the Holy Table because we have first been kissed. The kiss does not mean that anything goes, but it does mean that God’s radical welcome of you and me is a call to offer our own kiss to the world that so desperately needs it. Kissed by the Christ is who we are.
The Last Sunday After the Epiphany: March 3, 2019
Listen to Good Shepherd's podcast of this sermon.
We stand at the edge of the season of renewal we know as Lent. Ready or not, we transition into its wilderness of honest introspection of who we are as God’s own people. Yet before we make this shift, we are given the opportunity to look through the window of the Transfiguration, the crowning event of this season of light, as we are introduced once again to the clarity of Jesus’ identity. From the holy mount we hear: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” His Baptism and Transfiguration are bookends of the season after the Epiphany, each a manifestation – an epiphany – of who Jesus is.
Note, however, that this day is not only about who Jesus is. It is also about who you and I are. We are invited to contemplate the heart of God as seen reflected in the radiant Christ, and see ourselves through the One who is unbounded love, shown forth perfectly in his departure, that is, his exodus, on the cross.
On the holy mountain Jesus’ identity was affirmed amongst the community of Peter, John and James, descendants of the historical witness of Elijah and Moses, the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. They also had experiences of the glory of God on holy mountains. We too are descendants of what occurred on the mountain, as the identity of those receiving the laying on of hands by the bishop is reaffirmed. Just as Jesus, you are God’s chosen, sealed by the Spirit, Christ’s own forever, and empowered for service to be God’s ambassador of love and grace for the sake of the world.
One of the purposes of the liturgy is to draw us into a relationship with God and one another, where the veil is pulled back just a bit, in order to catch a glimpse of the glory of God. We are given the opportunity to fall in love with the Holy One as we bask in the light of God’s love for us. Hopefully, we find ourselves reminded of who God is, who we are, and what God intends the world to be. We see on the holy mountain a vision that all creation is full of God’s glory, that beauty is everywhere, and that each moment vibrates with God’s presence, if only we had eyes to see and hearts ready to be opened. Such awakening, or heart-opening, is the primary purpose of prayer, where bit by bit our marination in the Spirit occurs, and we are formed more deeply into the mind of Christ.
Some years ago I was travelling on a warm summer day on my way to a diocesan meeting. Part way there I came upon road construction where one lane was shut down. There was the guy doing his job, holding the sign that said “Stop!” in large letters, causing us to wait for the other side to clear. I found myself irrationally irritated that this interruption in schedule might cause me to be late, because clearly, the universe is all about me.
While waiting, however, by grace I was able to slow my breathing and look around, slowly letting it all go. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a Wooly Bear, one of those fuzzy fat caterpillars walking across the yellows stripe of the road. Each undulation of its body and the manipulation of its many legs moved it along at a rather rapid pace. I found myself relieved when it made it to the side of the road not being squished by a tire.
I looked out the window on the other side and gazed upon a red-winged blackbird, perched on a cattail as it swayed back and forth in the breeze, glowing iridescently in the sun. Transfiguration? All of the sudden what seemed like an inconvenient interruption was transformed into a moment of grace, even contemplation on the beauty of God’s creation. I was awakened by that grace to a reality that was present whether I noticed or not, but fortunately circumstances caused me to slow way down, pause, and see with different eyes. The veil was being pulled back.
I wonder if you have heard of something called “the sacrament of the moment?” In essence it means that each second of life, every breath we take, is full of the grandeur and wonder of God. Too often, however, we are too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted to notice. Someone has said that in our time we are not suffering from a decay of beliefs as much as a loss of solitude. We are being called to stand boldly before the radiance of Jesus. Today, as some of you come forward, I hope you will know that it is not as much about standing before the bishop as it is standing before the Christ, veils removed, in the desire to be made new.
That is what this day seeks to do as it calls forth from us a new way of seeing. This life isn’t the only one there is, but we are called to live this life in a way that respects what God has made, including ourselves, and calls us to be stewards of every relationship on earth to which we are called. What we discover in Jesus’ Transfiguration is that each human being is made in God’s image. How we treat every human being matters, and is why we promise again today in the Baptismal Covenant to “work for justice and peace among all people” and “to respect the dignity of every human being.”
The nature of life is always to be in transition. We often resist since we human beings really like the status quo. Yet this day teaches us, once again, that the journey into holiness is not only to change, but to change often. Or to put it more eloquently from today’s Collect as it echoes II Corinthians, to be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Hopefully, by grace, we’ll be opened to the possibility, discover the joy of being co-creators with God for the “metamorphosis” of the world, and find ourselves transfigured along the way.
The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 10, 2019
The symbol of fishing, of which we have heard in today’s Gospel, has a rich background in antiquity. Since Luke was writing for those familiar with Greco-Roman traditions, he singles out that aspect of the symbol which was exploited by teachers who “lured” people to themselves (yes, pun intended), and through their education of them transformed their lives. That aspect is the “bait.” Peter will now be catching women and men with the bait of God’s word and thereby bringing them new life.
I like the imagery of fishing, especially as I am one who is passionate about the sport of a particular kind of fishing, that of fly fishing. If you look closely at this chasuble I am wearing today, you will notice that on the central front panel there is a depiction of a rainbow trout rising to a fly. The means of catching, whether it is a net, or live bait, or a fly, is not what’s important here. What is important is the catching. So let’s be a bit playful and look at the scriptures to see what God is up to in the drawing of people to himself and then what that might mean for our role in the catching.
First we have an account of the call of Isaiah. He “saw God’s face,” indicating he had an experience of divine presence that was compelling and potentially life-transforming. This led him to accept God’s call as a prophet, a truth-teller to Israel and also to the power domination system of Assyria. As is often true in call stories in Scripture, he is at first resistant, even horrified, to be chosen in this way by God. Why? He knew of his foul mouth, but a seraph is sent to Isaiah with a burning coal to burn away anything not of God.
So God first caught Isaiah with a vision of his transcendent holiness: “Holy, holy, holy,” three times holy, meaning really, really holy. Then, after Isaiah has been cleansed for this new role by God’s gift of grace, Isaiah is prepared to be one who dares to tell God’s truth with beauty and power, to catch others with divine love and mercy. I wonder if we, individually and as a community of faith, might be caught if you will, by a vision of God renewed in our passion to be radical truth tellers to power, calling forth the changing of hearts wherever we see God’s hope for humanity being threatened? It can be risky to be sure, but that kind of integrity just might be attractive bait to the world out there to which we are called to minister.
Then we have St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian Church. As you will recall, he was caught by a compelling experience of God’s call when he was knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus to continue his persecution of the followers of Jesus. Again by the gift of grace (there’s a theme developing here), he is granted a new vision of God’s liberating truth, where God’s net is cast wider than St. Paul ever could have imagined. The net was cast wide, and it was cast deep. It transformed his life and it transformed not only the lives of the people of the churches to whom he wrote, but eventually the entire world. So much so, it is the reason you and I are here today. We at some point were “caught.”
Don’t forget that the Church to which Paul was writing was a church in conflict. Some things don’t change. The bait he offered in the part of his letter we read today is the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of new life not just after we die, but the “life-giving, liberating, loving” truth available to us even now. Any Gospel worth sharing is one that sets us free to be fully who God calls us to be. That is the bait—when people see us set on fire with God’s love, transformed as God’s people to a new vision of hope and peace for the world. Our call is never to threaten people into the Kingdom, but to love them into it with a love that knows no bounds. No bait and switch allowed once people join us. “All are welcome” on our signs needs to mean just that, all are welcome, no exceptions. What is that to look like here at Christ Church and through you to the people of Denmark and beyond?
Then we come to Luke’s account where we specifically find the fishing metaphor played out. Peter took the bait, “hook, line and sinker,” as they say. He, the expert fisherman who had caught nothing after an entire night of fishing, was so overcome with amazement by the abundance of the catch, he totally abandoned the life track he was on in order to follow Jesus.
We hear stories like that all the time and I have experienced it myself. In the late 70’s I was all set to go off to Frenchman’s Reef in the Virgin Islands to be the assistant manager of a new hotel there, but because of the call of Jesus went to seminary instead. Gosh, I was all set to retire 2 ½ years ago, but because of an experience of the beauty of God in God’s people while meeting with the Standing Committee, followed the Spirit’s call to come be among you in South Carolina. I’ve watched young people go with us to El Salvador for mission work with one life-goal in mind, then be encountered by God in a way that they shift those goals completely in service to God’s people. I hope you have seen such life-changing grace in your own life.
The compelling call of Jesus shown in the grandeur of God through the great haul of fish caught the imagination of Peter’s heart. He then was able to hear God’s call that from then Christ’s life in him was to be the bait as he was to be fishing for people. To be clear, Isaiah, Paul and Peter were not the bait, but it was the Good News of God in them. Just as the net was let down into the deep water, we too are called to go deep, not willing merely to play around on the spiritual surface, but to plunge the depths of our faith in ways that make us irresistible in our all-embracing love, in our extravagant mercy, in our never-ending hope.
It was Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple who said that the Church exists primarily for those who are not a part of it. Filled with gratitude for God’s life-changing presence in our life, let’s go fishing.
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany: January 27, 2019
So, why are you on the earth? Why are you here at St. Mark’s Church in Charleston? Why gather in this beautiful place to celebrate this meal of thanksgiving to God we call the Eucharist and confirm and receive three wonderful people of God? Today’s Gospel raises such crucial questions for all of us.
Make no mistake – here in Jesus’ first sermon as recounted by St. Luke, standing in the synagogue in Jesus’ home town, he identifies his reason for being on the planet, why he came to us as a babe in Bethlehem. He quotes from Isaiah 61 and says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Wow. That’s quite an agenda. Here we have Jesus’ mission statement. If we are the Body of Christ as St. Paul so clearly indicates in today’s reading from his first letter to the Church in Corinth, then is this not our mission too, our primary reason to exist as a parish church and the primary ministry to which each of us is called through our baptism?
This past week Bonnie I attended a presentation at the Charleston Museum. It was an event to introduce the newly released book Unexampled Courage. It addresses the story of Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a young African-American soldier returning from World War II in 1946, who on the day after his discharge was taken off of a bus and brutally beaten by a Batesburg, South Carolina police chief to the point of blindness. This incident, long buried and untold in our history, served as a wake-up call to Judge Waties Waring of South Carolina as well as President Harry Truman, leading to the desegregation of the military as well as the grounding argument leading to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown versus Board of Education.
Sometimes in life, corporately and individually, we get wake-up calls, those times when we are awakened, even jolted out of our slumber to a new perspective. The light is shined on a moment in time exposing a truth, perhaps even confronting us in some significant way to ask of ourselves ultimate questions about purpose and meaning. They can come in many ways. Without getting caught up in any one political perspective, anyone paying attention can see that our country is now, as in other times in history, in the midst of a wake-up call. We are in the midst of a cultural struggle to define once again what we want to be and what we want to become. How does Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue form our answer as disciples?
So too for us in our parishes, we live in odd times in the life of the Church. The split in our life as an Episcopal Church in South Carolina is another kind of wake-up call. We, even as we wait (and wait and wait) for courts to move and make decisions, we get to decide what the quality of our waiting is going to be in faithfulness to Christ and the work we are given by the Spirit to do. Jesus’ sermon is not saying we sit idly by for others to act. There is Gospel work to do to set at liberty one another and the people we are called to serve.
Beyond our immediate particularities, the cultural realities around us are shifting faster than many might have ever imagined. By 2044 we reach a tipping point when minorities will make up the majority of people living in the United States. What will this mean for the mission of the Church? The old days of being church are gone forever, arguably for the good. Many of us are anxious, however, even fearful about our future. Yet we do have a choice. We can choose to live out of fear and hunker down to mere survival mode, or we can see this time as a call from the Holy Spirit to reorient, plant our feet once again deeply in God’s love and hear a call for us to re-awaken to our purpose for being as a community of faith in the discipleship of Jesus. What kind of church do we want to be?
This is the new thing being celebrated in Nehemiah today. Why were they weeping? They had been set free to the joy of God after they realized how far off they had wandered and were introduced afresh to the divine healing of their brokenness as a people. They heard once again the call of God on their life. They had forgotten their purpose for being and when they heard again that God was with them, had not abandoned them and would never abandon them, that God was in their midst and even had joy for them, they were stirred to new faithfulness and a new sense of purpose.
God, in Jesus, is always looking to restore his people, in every age, in every time. It is true today and right here at St. Mark’s Church. It may look different in every age, but what we do know is that God desires to be in relationship with us. Out of that relationship we are to take on God’s agenda of justice for the world which is one where all things are set right in our relationship with God, one another, and the entire creation. Perhaps we can even move from the mere tolerance of diversity to being able to celebrate the diversity with which God has endowed the creation.
If we are the Body of Christ, then our mission must be Jesus’ mission. We must not settle for the status quo. We must be a people of radical hospitality and generosity of spirit, known by a love of God and one another so deep, so significant, that through us everyone will see the beauty of the Way of Jesus. We are to be known by our revulsion at injustice and our committed attention to the most in need of our community. By this we will show our love of God as we identify with Jesus in the ministry he describes as the center of his mission, our mission, on earth. It is why we are here.
The Baptism of Our Lord: January 13, 2019
In just a couple of weeks we have jumped some 30 years in Jesus’ life, from his birth, then his naming on January 1 when we celebrated The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (you see it’s not just New Year’s Day), to The Epiphany and the visit of the Magi, to today, his Baptism. We have gone from infant to adult, from his birth to the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry, leaving out all of those intervening years.
We do have one account of Jesus as a 12 year-old in the temple, but even though we may have curiosity about what kind of child Jesus was—have you ever wondered if Jesus ever gave Mary a hard time—we won’t spend too much time there speculating. The Gospel writers want us to clearly see that Jesus was born, chosen and sent for a purpose. Today’s celebration then, is to help us claim our own baptismal identity and see that we too are born, chosen and sent for a purpose.
Born. We just spent the 12 days of Christmas, from Christmas Day up to The Epiphany, echoing the hymn of the shepherds – “Glory to God in the highest.” I hope we discovered the message that Jesus’ birth was no accident. It was a dramatic unfolding of a tapestry showing forth God’s desire to be in relationship with all of creation. God acts in history. I realize the sweeping theological implications of what I am about to say, but I am going to risk it. Part of what we discover in the birth of the Christ is that in God’s amazing providential love, even under circumstances that may confuse us, no birth is an accident. I am not saying that every birth story unfolds in a manner God wills it, but no birth is an accident. In other words, no person is an accident.
Hear again the words of Isaiah: “…Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” This is true for each of us and for all of us. One of our responsibilities as we claim our baptismal identity is to help each person among us discover that she or he was born for a purpose and is of infinite value, loved by God beyond our wildest imaginings. In so doing you will discover that you too were born for a purpose. What might that be?
Chosen. “…when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” In his baptism Jesus is beloved and God is well pleased, and he hasn’t even yet started his ministry!! God’s favor comes before he does anything.
Too often we go about life trying to earn favor, to prove our worth. Unfortunately we often feel like we have to do that with people, even those closest to us. I am here to tell you, however, that you do not have to do that with God! In baptism we already have God’s favor. God is already pleased. When the water was poured over you at your baptism, God was saying– “you are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We cannot impress God; we cannot earn God’s love; we get no brownie points. The love is given and we are Christ’s own forever. You were chosen for a purpose. What might that be?
Sent. This is Jesus’ inauguration day, the beginning of his public ministry. Even though we sometimes used to do private baptism, except in an emergency it is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing in Christianity as private believing. Jesus was baptized to be sent. This is where the rubber hits the road, for we are baptized to be sent. It is what the word “apostle” means – “one sent.” Martin comes forward today in Confirmation in order to be sent, to live out his faith in the world as one transformed by the Spirit’s love and hope. Our call, no different than that of Jesus himself, is to give our life, so deeply secure in the embrace of God that we will be resolute about bringing healing, freedom and hope in collaboration with God’s vision of justice for the world God has made.
In the birth of Jesus we might say that God hit the streets. We take our faith and go into the streets of our living. In that sense faith is more a verb than a noun. You will remember that Jesus asked if a city built on a hill can be hidden, or if you would light a lamp and put it under a basket so that no one could see that light. I do not want to stretch this too far, but private baptism can lead to private thinking, which can lead to private believing, which can lead to private Christians, that is, those who may believe but keep it unseen and hidden. You are sent for a purpose. What might that be?
Faithfulness is meant to move us through life so that even when we find ourselves in darkness, and there is plenty of that to go around, we who are the beloved in God’s Spirit will be a source of light to touch and change the world with God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. Each of us must be able and willing to tell our faith story, just why it is we are disciples of Jesus, and why it matters. That’s why we baptize and confirm. Our baptismal identity is to infuse everything we are and everything we do.
Jesus was born, chosen and sent for a purpose. You were born, chosen and sent for a purpose. And especially Martin receiving the bishop’s laying on of hands today, you were born, chosen and are sent for a purpose. The joy of life is in knowing it and living it if you have the courage and will to do so.
The Feast of the Epiphany: January 6, 2019
As we conclude the Christmas season today in our celebration of The Epiphany, sometimes known as The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, the lessons reveal to us people who could dare to imagine. Imagination is creative. It takes what we know and what we hope for and projects it into a future not yet foreseen. I recall a conversation with a U.S. Episcopal bishop many years ago who was adamantly opposed to the ordination of women. It became apparent that his objection was less theologically based than one might have expected. It was more that he just could not imagine a woman in that role. We cannot do what we cannot imagine.
Isaiah, St. Paul, the Magi – they were all imaginers to the full. They could see the present for what it was, along with the challenges with which they were faced. Yet they could also see the future in grace-filled visions. They knew God was with them and that God already held the future. That was the key.
We too often shrink from creative solutions to things. Being cautious we tend to merely tinker with what we already know. “Going boldly where no one has gone before” works on Star Trek, but going exactly where others have gone before is the pattern for most of us. Now that’s not always wrong, but our Scriptures call us to faithful risk-taking. In times of anxiety, especially when the future is filled with unknowns, we often find it a time to entrench, to batten down the hatches, to circle the wagons – choose your favorite metaphor – when in fact the moment is crying for a new boldness and sense of adventure. Now is such a time for us, for our Diocese and entire Episcopal Church, and gosh yes, for our country.
In the faith story we inherit, the people of God put their imagination in service to God. Someone has said that prayer is precisely that – imagining with God! Through this prayerful imagination God speaks, makes his will known in the community of the faithful, and a revelation comes. A messenger is heard. What if Mary, Jesus’ mother, had played it safe? What if the Wise Men had said gee, the journey is just too long and too tough? What if St. Paul had decided to stay home and ignore the voice that called him into an entire new way of being faithful?
In today’s reading, Isaiah imagines a whole new future for Jerusalem and its people. The Wise Men found themselves compelled by astrological forecasts of all things, and followed a star. They risked a long journey in search of a King whose significance was beyond even their own understanding. Paul imagines a grand plan of God revealed in Christ to bring all people to himself, unified in the person of Jesus. He took risks and resistances were overcome.
I wonder if we remember the amazing words of the baptism liturgy when we pray for the one just baptized: “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” God works through our imaginations! It is one of the gifts of our baptism for which we pray. It is God’s hope for Harriet being confirmed today. What we cannot imagine we cannot do.
If we are to carry out God’s desire for our life individually and even corporately as a parish church, we must hook our star to the star of Christ. Being fearful is easy and the pundits around us are constantly trying to manipulate us with fear tactics. If we give in and allow our anxiety to rise above what is reasonable and even creative, then we tend to move to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy to mere survival. But God is about creativity and life. Whatever God is calling forth from you, the people of God at Good Shepherd, you have an opportunity to imagine what that is and even, if you are so bold, to imagine a whole new future for yourself. This kind of trust, faith if you will, is not built on certainties. It is built on the promise of God that is the core ingredient of hope.
So when we pray for someone who is sick, we are to imagine him or her well. If a married couple cannot ever imagine the possibility of joy in their relationship, then they probably will not experience it. If a congregation cannot imagine an invigorated and committed people with empowered mission being offered in the Spirit, vigorous life-giving worship that captures people’s hearts, than they will never attain it. If a country cannot imagine a Congress that can actually get along and get something done that is constructive for the good of all, then it will not occur. If the world cannot imagine peace, it will not be realized.
I recently read of a man who had lost his job and was down on his luck in every phase of his life. He was in danger of losing the things he loved the most and could have given up and thrown in the towel. But instead of that, he went around to people on the street, collected food stamps and got a group of folks together to feed one another and the homeless of his town. He cooked a turkey on the street in an old file cabinet drawer. To do such a thing required his imagination and a bold desire of the will. We have a God who throughout Scripture proclaims to ancient peoples and to us, do not be afraid. Do not be anxious. To God they are diseases of the soul when we allow them to control us.
Today is Epiphany time. It is a time when our hopes and dreams can be revealed. We begin by bringing our gifts, our very selves, to the manger, even this altar, with all we have to give. In this act we give ourselves to Christ himself and ask to be renewed in the power of the Spirit. Imagine yourself faithful. Imagine yourself whole and full of love. Imagine God at work in and through you. Imagine God calling you, yes you, and say in response, “Yes God, we will imagine a new world with you.”
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.