Message Archive

Sermons

27
Nov

Resourcefulness

Isaiah 2:1-5 Romans 13:11-14 Matthew 24:36-44 Psalm 122

As my daughter, stepson, dear friend, and I embarked on the first legs of our trip these past two weeks, in Atlanta, our Boeing 777 had been successfully loaded with nearly 400 passengers prepared for the 8,439-mile trip to Johannesburg, South Africa.  It is complicated, frustrating, and time consuming to get 396 passengers of every imaginable description on board, carry-ons stowed in the overhead compartments, seat belts fastened, and everyone settled in for the 14½ hour flight.  It was late evening; we were already tired and ready for bedtime, hoping at least for some decent catnaps as we cruised all night high above the Atlantic.

But, we had indeed accomplished the boarding and were prepared to back away from the gate when my pastoral senses detected the veiled urgency in the flight attendant’s voice and footsteps as she approached her coworkers from the back of the plane.  “Did you hear that?” she said, with calm but obvious concern.  Uh oh.  I remember thinking this was going to be potentially good sermon material.

Silence reigned; moments passed; an ominous air of uncertainty began to prevail.  Finally, the loud speaker brought word from the captain: a massive luggage carrier, backing away from the plane had collided with one of the engines of our enormous plane, leaving it extensively damaged.  Finding another plane was only a remote possibility.  Our fate was undetermined.

We deplaned, muscling our heavy baggage and returning to the gate where we first heard the inkling – something about crew timing out if we didn’t get in the air by 10:00 p.m.  Surprisingly though, bringing a glimmer of hope, another plane was located and brought to the gate; we were told the hour-long servicing and fueling process had begun, and we were instructed to reload as quickly as possible.  But again, hope faded; seated and prepared for take off the second time, the diminished presence of crewmembers became noticeable.  Ten o’clock had come and gone; the announcement about which we had been warned came over the microphone: our crew had timed out; it would be illegal for them to make the flight.  We were to deplane once again and cue up to receive alternate flight arrangements and/or overnight accommodations.

Now, we recognized that this was an unexpected crisis, and we sympathized with the unfortunate baggage handler team whose negligence had created this mess.  But, we were a bit incensed by the airline’s seeming lack of crisis preparedness.  Surely, this was not the first ever last minute crisis occurring mere hours before the required crew change.  It must have been immediately obvious that this plane wasn’t going to fly.  What caused such delay in finding a backup plane and calling in a back up crew?  We’re talking 400 passengers, most of us with baggage for multiple weeks.  Herding us and our baggage on and off two planes with obviously little chance of making the flight seemed monumentally inefficient.  How long did it take to determine that the obvious and only resolution would be to re-accommodate 400 unhappy travelers cued up and waiting for assistance into the wee hours of the morning?

The experience, of course, is simple in comparison to the urgent message of necessary preparedness in anticipation of crises as described in our Gospel lesson.  But, comparing the two situations, we see that we can learn from our very earthly experiences such as these to gain insight into the reality of what seems for us very ominous, even frightening warnings of the consequences of being unprepared for the second coming of Christ and/or the end times – predictions of doom and gloom.  Jesus implores us to be ready in anticipation of the unexpected hour of the return of the Son of Man.  Jesus provides our resources for rising above the crisis.

Do we ring our hands, lash out at one another, and melt down in panic; or do we remain calm and focused on the resourcefulness that our faith in Jesus Christ provides?  – Finding Christ in one another and all creation, worshipping regularly together, studying the scriptures, praying endlessly, focusing on our relationships within the Body of Christ.  These are the resources our Christian faithfulness provides.

Did we ring our hands and throw a tantrum and browbeat the flight crew of our doomed flight to Johannesburg?  No, my dear friend and I remained patient while the youngsters got on their phones to make alternate plans.  As anxiety grew for many of our fellow flight companions mired in uncertainty, the four of us were in a dead trot toward the Air France gate for our successfully rebooked flight through Paris.  Hours later we found ourselves on a delightful late afternoon taxi tour of the City of Lights all decked out for Christmas.  Our driver quite skillfully planned our arrival at the Eiffel Tower just at the top of the hour when the lights covering the entire tower sparkle for a full five minutes.  Afterwards, we returned to the airport in time to attempt again the overnight flight to Johannesburg, arriving finally a half day later than expected – a full 48 hours after leaving home on Monday morning, but with a great story to share!

Jesus never promises that our earthly life will be an unhindered primrose path.  In fact, he warns us time and again that our Christian discipleship will be filled with uncertain detours and pitfalls and threatening crises.  But, Jesus provides us with the resources to work through the crises that threaten; he admonishes us to take up these resources and be prepared and open to the unexpected inbreaking of God into our daily lives.  And, above all, Jesus admonishes us to remain unafraid.

The Season of Advent that begins today is a joyful time of preparation – getting our house in order for the coming of the Christ child – joyful expectation of the celebration and opportunity to experience anew the glorious Christmas story that we have loved since earliest childhood.  Today’s Gospel lesson alerts us that we are also to anticipate and prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which he has promised at an unexpected hour.

The words of our Gospel lesson, words from the mouth of Jesus, may seem ominous and confusing and even quite distressing.  We are reminded that God’s judgment is real, but God’s judgment is meant to restore our relationship with God; God’s judgment is not intended as retribution.  And, we are reminded of our responsibility to one another in seeing that all are prepared to meet Christ when he comes again.  If, when Christ comes, our neighbor in the field is left behind, we who know the good story of the saving grace of Jesus Christ have neglected the fullness of our Christian mission.

Sharing our Christian relationship with one another, worshipping together regularly, praying endlessly, studying the scriptures that contain all things necessary for our salvation – all these are the necessary ingredients of our preparation for the promised second coming of Christ; all these are the necessary elements of our Blessed Advent; all these are the essentials that allow us to kneel amongst the sweet smelling hay of the cattle stall and embrace the monumental glorious reality of God Incarnate – the Word made flesh – God coming to earth in the human person of Jesus Christ to live and die as one of us.

What could possibly stand in the way of your resourceful preparation in anticipation of these glorious promised events?  Jesus’ words are not ominous to those who are prepared, and we are all gifted with the resources to be prepared.  These are words of inspiration for the journey – a journey far-surpassing even an unanticipated sparkling evening in Paris.

Therefore, you must be ready, for the Son of Man – Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, our Savior and Redeemer – is coming at an unexpected hour.  Believers rejoice!  From today’s words from the prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

13
Nov

Stewardship

Malachi 4:1-2a  Psalm 98  2 Thessalonians 3:6-13  Luke 21:5-19

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, the people gathered around Jesus in the Temple are admiring the Temple’s magnificent adornments.  Jesus is speaking to them prophetically about the chaos and tragedy of the coming destruction of the Temple.  This glorious earthly Temple, the crux of Jewish religion and society, would be destroyed for the final time by the Romans just a few decades after Jesus’ time there.

Jesus’ words are rich in meaning and symbolism.  It is more accurate to say that he is speaking metaphorically about the chaos and tragedy of the days surrounding the Crucifixion that is to come.

Even more significantly, he is speaking of the “birth pangs” of the end of time, which tends to strike fear in all of us.  From our Gospel lesson, we learn that characteristic of these fear-filled times are false leaders exalted by others and claiming to be the “one” who will save the world.  These times bring violence and turbulence – wars and insurrections; there will be arrests and persecutions.  Being prepared to confront these times is to know Jesus Christ, so that keeping our eyes focused on our faith, we are led through the chaos, whether it be the simple chaos of our daily lives or the ultimate chaos of the end of time.

Those who are prepared will be able to endure the violence and persecutions.  To be prepared requires the understanding that the true temple of our faith is not a magnificently adorned earthly building; the true temple of our faith is Jesus Christ.  Jesus says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  “Not a hair on your head will perish.”

The writer of the second letter to the Thessalonians implores us to be prepared by fulfilling our fair share of responsibility to one another.  In these years not so long after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, the Thessalonians took to heart the expectation that Jesus would return again soon.  In fact, they were so self-assured of Jesus’ soon-to-be return that they had become complacent in their ministry to one another; they began to see no need to do the work of the Church.

These words in the letter to the Thessalonians remind us that we are called to continue being faithful and recognizing our responsibility as members of the body of Christ, regardless of our life situation.  It is our responsibility to explore the expectations of our faith – to be prepared to endure the “birth pangs” – to be prepared not as consumers of church but as members of the Body of Christ – the Church. 

As consumers in the marketplace we expect, at the least, a fair deal that corresponds directly with our cash input.  We want quality products and good customer service.  From the Church, however, we too often expect way more than a fair deal.  If we are consumers of Church, we expect high standards of perfection from the Church regardless of our input.

I use the example of the car going to the gas station.  Once a week, I drive to the gas station; I get just enough gas to drive back home and get back to the gas station the next week.  There is not any extra fuel that allows for trips to visit friends during the week, to drive a neighbor to the doctor, or to venture to the grocery store to purchase food, not even enough fuel to stop along the way for lunch with family as I make my weekly journey to and from the gas station.  Even so, I demand that I have the very best customer service in response to my once a week limited purchase and that the gas I purchase be of the very best quality at a discounted price; I want my visit to the gas station to be pleasant, uplifting, and well worth my valuable time.

If my car could speak, it would say, “My purpose is to go to the gas station and get fuel; I have fulfilled my purpose in life.”  But, life is an end in itself, not at all fulfilling, and my car and I are not at all prepared for any opportunities or emergencies that might arise.

If we are consumers of Church, we misinterpret our purpose and duty as going to church; we fail to recognize that we are the Church.  We are the Body of Christ.

It is our responsibility to recognize ourselves as the Church – the Body of Christ – and to be prepared for the coming of the kingdom just as Jesus exhorts us to be prepared.  It is in our preparation – our understanding of ourselves as the Church that we are able to endure the birth pangs of the end of time.

Stewardship is a huge piece of the theological practices expected of us as members of the Body of Christ – the Church.  There are many misconceptions about stewardship, specifically, money and the Church.

We might feel that the Church is not doing the same great things that other charitable organizations are doing, or that somehow the Church should be able to go on meeting our high expectations for great ministry with limited funds.  In tomorrow’s mail, as in everyday’s mail, millions of glossy eye-catching mass solicitations will go out across the country from organizations and institutions that have no shame or hesitation about begging for your money.  In fact, these groups invest enormous amounts of your contributions in these well-crafted initiatives to solicit your continued financial support.  They do that because it works.

Certainly, many of these are wonderful organizations that oversee great charitable and educational causes throughout the world.  They build homes and feed the hungry and educate our children.  But, they don’t baptize our children; they don’t visit us and pray with us and bring us Communion when we are in the hospital; they won’t be there to commit our bodies to the ground – earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  These organizations, as wonderful as they are, won’t be there to continue to pray that our souls may rest in peace; they won’t be there to console our grieving loved ones.  Who will be there for these most sacred life changing events?  The Church will be there.

On Wednesday afternoon a young woman arrived at the church office with a pickup load of items for resale.  She is moving and wanted us to have these things to raise money for our mission and ministry.  In the course of getting the truck unloaded and the items stored, the young woman said time and again, “Everyone in the neighborhood knows about this church; y’all are wonderful; you do so much for so many people; this is a wonderful church; everybody around here knows that, because you do such wonderful things for this community.”

Being prepared for the end times about which Jesus is speaking is to know Jesus Christ, to experience Jesus Christ in one another.  Being prepared for the end times is accepting our responsibility to see that others around us know Jesus Christ.

Knowing Jesus Christ and making him known is the essence of our faith – the essence of our stewardship of God’s creation.  “Brothers and Sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  [2 Thessalonians. 3:13]

06
Nov

Saints in the Kingdom

Daniel 7:1-3,15-18  Psalm 149  Ephesians 1:11-23  Luke 6:20-31

All Saints’ Day is the day set aside to remember, honor, and celebrate those gone before us who accepted the call of God in striking and meaningful ways – those among God’s children who humbly recognized most intensely their poverty in their need for God – those who truly hungered for the fullness of constant awareness of the presence of God.  We might explain this kind of life as living into God’s Kingdom.  Living into the Kingdom is a way of life.  Jesus describes the characteristic of living into the Kingdom in our Gospel lesson for this All Saints’ Day.

Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who weep.  Blessed are you who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed on account of your faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus is saying, “Blessed are you who suffer for the brokenness that we have brought into this world as we turn against one another, against God.  Blessed are you when you are not part of the world.”  Saints give themselves to the suffering necessary to bring God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.

The list of saints from ancient times and saints more modern goes on and on.  Checking the calendar in the Prayer Book, we find someone’s feast day celebrated almost every day.

How does one become a saint?  We need saints.  Every day brings news of tragedy – humans lashing out in violent actions against their neighbors; desperate suffering as the result of natural disasters, wars, crime-riddled streets, and corruption in governments and corporations all over the world.

Many will say, “How can a just God allow this to happen in his creation?”  Many will say… , but not the saints.  Saints hear God’s voice speaking to them, “How could you let this happen to my creation?  I created this all for you.  How can you let my people suffer?  What are you going to do about it?”

In our Old Testament lesson, we read of Daniel in exile in Babylon at the time of King Nebuchadnezzar.  The lesson describes Daniel’s dreams of the world powers that would rise and fall in this war torn area of the world where some of these same earthly powers continue to rise and fall – the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks.  The four evil beasts represent these four earthly powers and the four winds, indicating threats from every corner of the world.

The Book of Daniel is the account of the many ways Daniel and his faithful Jewish friends, exiled in Babylon, are threatened by their captors who attempt to force them into submission to this earthly king and his court.   Daniel and his friends remain faithful to the one God, the one King of all kings.  Daniel would not pay homage to the pagan king; he would go to the Lion’s Den rather than turn from his faith and submit to these earthly kingdoms that would rise and fall.

Like Daniel, saints prefer the Lion’s Den to a life of separation from God – a life of misdirected faith in earthly powers that rise and fall.

Saints understand that God’s Kingdom does not rise and fall as do our earthly powers; God’s Kingdom is victorious, confirmed in victory through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Saints help us to understand that our greatest fear is not the evil and death of this world; our greatest fear is separation from God.  As we live into the Kingdom alongside the saints, we come into constant awareness of the presence of God.  God does not separate from us.

What saint do you honor today?  Perhaps it is one of those from our parish, listed in our bulletin, who died just within this past year.

Marcia told me the story this week of her first call to the Church of the Advent upon moving into the area, first to Ward’s Corner.  Leda Hood answered the phone and assured Marcia that, yes indeed, Advent was the very closest Episcopal Church to her new location.  It was a while before Marcia realized Leda had manipulated her map a bit – We’re so glad she did.  Being a saint requires seeking the greater good, which sometimes means stretching the truth a bit.

Often someone becomes a saint for us through a seemingly simple action.  If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share a very personal story:

As the mother of two daughters under 2 years of age, life was a stretch.  With a very delicate prematurely born infant confined to home through the winter, I was unable to attend worship on Sundays at the Methodist Church where I was a member.  An acquaintance, who had recently retired and returned to town, had taken the task of beginning a Sunday school at the nearby Episcopal Church.  Learning of my situation, she called to offer to come by each Sunday to pick up our older daughter so that she could be a part of the newly formed Sunday School.  I can still recite her exact words on the phone that day.  She kept her promise; neither of our daughters has any recollection of childhood without Sunday School; years after my friend’s death, Sunday school continues to thrive at St. George’s Episcopal Church.  And, when spring came that year, I was assured God was calling us to the Episcopal Church; our family became increasingly active members.  Twenty-five years later I was ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.

I share this story because it exemplifies simple actions that God uses to guide us into being saints for others.  And, I share this story to emphasize the importance of our living into the Kingdom, living into God’s constant presence, in such a way that we are open to God’s guidance.

In the midst of our pledge campaign, we live into God’s Kingdom, listening to God’s call.  What time and talent is God calling you to share through the mission and ministry of the Church of the Advent?

Live into the Kingdom of God.  Pray fervently as you consider your pledge of time and talent as you seek to be a good steward of God’s creation.

Consider:  What saint, through a seemingly simple act, has been the catalyst for redirection in your life?  What life is God calling you to redirect?

30
Oct

Radical Redemption

Isaiah 1:10-18  Psalm 32:1-8  2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12  Luke 19:1-10

Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem, passing through Jericho when he encounters Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus, as all of us learned as children, was a wee little man.  Though small in stature, Zacchaeus loomed large in political power – a tax collector, chief tax collector no less – the first century IRS.

As we have walked along with Jesus through the accounts recorded in Luke’s Gospel, we have plodded along slowly with burdensome intention, like the ox that symbolizes Luke.  Through the miracles of healing and the lessons of the parables, we have witnessed and learned from Jesus’ teaching and examples.  Luke’s Gospel is recognized for his focus on the marginalized – foreigners; outcasts; the poor; women desperate for help that only Jesus can bring; widows and children destined to be cast underfoot until Jesus intervenes.

Fulfilling his short three-year ministry in Galilee, Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem, fully knowledgeable that he would die there.  Along the southward journey, passing through Jericho, Jesus’ attention was drawn to wee little Zacchaeus, perched in a sycamore tree.  Luke tells us that Zacchaeus hurried toward Jesus, happy to welcome him.  Of great irony is the fact that the joyful Zacchaeus sought out and embraced by Jesus was a tax collector – a man of material wealth in a profession associated with ultimate corruption.

Typically, tax collectors were of Jewish heritage; their vocation required that they purchase the privilege from the Roman ruling party to collect taxes from their neighbors – taxes for the purpose of supporting the Roman government.  And, typically, tax collectors were wealthy, likely corrupt; accumulating their personal wealth from the excess amounts they would collect above the amounts they turned over to the government.  As you would speculate, tax collectors were not among the most popular of the Jewish community; time and again, throughout the Gospels, tax collectors are referenced as the epitome of sinfulness; not only greedy, but deceitful traitors to their own people.

Yet, even Zacchaeus, the tax collector, is redeemable.  Jesus invited himself and was welcomed into the home of Zacchaeus presumably to share a meal – the sharing of a meal being recognized in Jewish tradition as an opportunity of shared hospitality and the sealing of a relationship.  This public exhibition of redemption and acceptance is a radical and reckless act for Jesus – a radical and reckless act that heightens the controversy that surrounds Jesus, accumulating evidence that will culminate in his crucifixion.

The extent of God’s redemption of us is radical and reckless and extreme.  Even I am included; even you are included.  God is reckless in his redemption of us.

God’s radical and reckless redemption of Zacchaeus is not a new thing.  The prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of 8th century BC Judah who have fallen into faithlessness and are desperately in need of redemption.  The prophet Isaiah, whose name translates “the Lord gives salvation,” brought God’s message to the people of Judah.  Isaiah is comparing them to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah whose faithlessness led to total destruction.  For the people of Judah, thankfully, a remnant would be preserved.

By this time in the history of God’s people, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been annexed into the Assyrian Empire further to the north.  Judah, the Southern Kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital, existed in a tenuous security and stability, under constant threat by surrounding enemy powers.  Time and again, Judah’s kings had sold themselves short, desperate to appease their pagan enemies rather than trust God, depending upon their earthly powers to remain sovereign in the face of looming disaster.  It was not to be; in the decades to come, Judah and its capital Jerusalem would be destroyed and her people taken into exile.

We learn from Isaiah that God’s people had rebelled, were continuing to rebel.  Isaiah laments, “Why do you continue to rebel?” – suffering “bruises, sores, and bleeding wounds” from the sole of the foot to the head.  The rebellion continued; the people of Judah were carried off into exile, the great Temple of Solomon destroyed; the people of Judah were scattered, forced to struggle to maintain their identity, struggling to remain God’s chosen people.

God’s judgment is real; God’s judgment is a cleansing fire.  God’s judgment became a cleansing fire for the people of Judah.  The words of the Lord through the voice of Isaiah assure the people of Judah that their sins, which are like scarlet, shall be like snow.  Scarlet is the color symbolic of wickedness; snow represents the white of purity.  Isaiah words bring hope and comfort to a people who surely considered themselves non-redeemable.

Even the people of Judah with the bruises and sores and bleeding wounds of sinful rebellion were redeemed, restored to their homeland in the years to come just as Isaiah indicates.  God’s redemption of his people – of all creation is radical and reckless.  God’s redemption is radical and reckless because God’s love for us is radical and reckless.  God’s love is radical and reckless in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Is our love for one another radical and reckless?  Do we love without fear of our love being rebuked or misunderstood?  Do we share our blessings freely and generously without concern that those gifts will be squandered?  Do we “redeem” one another in our acceptance and respect for one another?  Jesus did and does show us how this is to be done.

Zacchaeus came down out of that sycamore tree with great joy to greet Jesus.  When have you been greeted with such joy?  When have you greeted others with such joy?  When we greet one another with great joy, when we love (even those difficult to love) without fear, we live out God’s radical reckless redemption of all creation.

Jesus, going knowingly to his death, embraced Zacchaeus, sharing the joy of Zacchaeus’ faithfulness, sharing the joy of Zacchaeus’ redemption.  Our embrace with Jesus is equally joyful, joyfully living into God’s radical and reckless redemption of all creation.  “Happy are those whose transgressions are forgiven, and who sins is put away!”  [Psalm 32:1]

23
Oct

Crown of Righteousness

Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22  Psalm 84:1-6 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18  Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee about whom Jesus is speaking stood praying alone in the Temple, surely dressed in his finest elitist array of robes and tasseled stoles, praying loudly enough to be heard by those in the vicinity.  “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  How fully confident, he was, that he had secured his place in the kingdom through his own earthly efforts and religious prowess.   This bold misconception or distortion of faith repeats itself throughout the history of God’s people.  The Church’s culpability in the misconception continues.

One thousand years after Jesus’ time and throughout most of the Middle Ages, the Church found security in the notion that God’s favor had to be earned through works or monetary offerings.  Faithful Christians would pursue monastic orders or participate in a Crusade or pilgrimage – or sponsor others to go on their behalf, too often guided by the misconception that these efforts were necessary to earn entrance into heaven.  The practice of requiring the purchase of indulgences was to become a common and quite corrupt means of funding the works of the Church.  Priests were known to insist that salvation was dependent upon these burdensome offerings – offerings used to support the building and maintenance of the great cathedrals and, even at times, to support the lavish lifestyles of the religious elite.

In this atmosphere, the faithful were not only concerned about their own salvation, they were compelled to assure the salvation of deceased loved ones – turning over oppressive amounts of their livelihoods in the false assurance of shortening loved ones’ time in the tormenting experiences of purgatory – that ominous state after death in which debts must be paid before entrance is granted into heaven.

By the late 15th century, the Church’s sale of indulgences had increased significantly.  That practice was that once Christians had confessed their sins, as required, to the priest, the appropriate penalties were imposed for sufficient punishment of those sins; these penalties were the price paid in exchange for the granting of remission of those sins.  The payment of adequate penalties on earth either monetarily or through particular works would be considered by the Church to be satisfaction of the debt owed as penance for sins – penance that would duly shorten one’s time in purgatory.  That’s quite an aggressive stewardship campaign.

As you might imagine, this arbitrary selling of indulgences led to serious abuse, and guilt-ridden Christians could be easily exploited by unscrupulous church leaders seeking monetary support for their buildings and positions.  By the early 1500’s this exploitation had drawn the ire of a little known Augustinian monk and professor in the German town of Wittenberg by the name of Martin Luther.  It would be Martin Luther who would post his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle of Wittenberg for all to see – 95 disputations against the practice of collecting indulgences under the assumption of earned salvation.  And, with the help of the most modern of innovations known as printing, Martin Luther would circulate his theses throughout Europe.  Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of this event.  The following year, 1518, this circulation of reformist complaints would win Luther’s excommunication by the Roman Church and it would ignite the Protestant Reformation that would adopt various forms and groups with various causes.  Protestantism was born; Martin Luther had unknowingly and unintentionally sparked the Lutheran Church.  The sparks became a roaring fire; the Ante Baptists, the Calvinists, the Anglicans, and numerous other faith traditions would follow suit.

Martin Luther drew upon the apostle Paul’s use of the phrase justification by grace, a doctrine repeated time and again in Paul’s letters to the early churches.  Paul instructs his followers of the state of righteousness granted as a gift of God’s grace by virtue of our redemption by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  It is our Lord who has paid the cost of our redemption.

Martin Luther continued to argue this theology in opposition to the Church of Rome.  Luther shared his fervent zeal with fellow reformer John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism who was igniting his own sparks.  Together, Luther and Calvin maintained that the receiving of this justification requires no human cooperation with God – it is all from God.  Thus, it is justification freely given; never lost; without the necessity of purchase through crusades, pilgrimages, indulgences, or strict obedience to a particular set of norms; and certainly not because we deserve it, as exhibited in the self-righteous grandstanding of the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable.

Justification by faith, in the words of Martin Luther – a uniting of Christ to His believers in which the good of Christ belongs to us who believe, and our sinfulness belongs to Christ.[1]  By faith in Christ, we are in direct relationship with God.  Of course, God sees all our misconceptions and weaknesses that allow us to miss the mark – to sin time and time again.  But, in one holy event – God’s coming to earth in the human person of Jesus Christ to live and die as one of us and to rise victorious over sin and death – we are made holy; we are justified by faith; we are united in peace with God, made holy in the gift of God’s grace.

So, then, are we to assume from this understanding of God’s gift of justification that works are unnecessary or unexpected?  Absolutely not!  Good works are the manifestation of faith.  Jesus came to earth to live and die as one of us.  The faith that is divine is manifested in the life and works of the human Jesus.  We are justified through faith by God’s grace; our sanctification is the process that follows; our good works are our natural response to the love and acceptance.  We cannot separate our good works from our faith anymore than we can separate the divine Jesus from the human Jesus.  But, works are defined on God’s terms.

Like the tax collector of our parable, humbly, we stand before God, acknowledging our dependence upon God’s mercy.  Humbly, we keep fighting the good fight, until we, like the Apostle Paul, have finished our course.  Our Lord, the righteous Judge, has reserved for each of us our crown of righteousness, no indulgences required; all expenses paid.



[1] Martin Luther, “Martin Luther on Justifying Faith,” in The Christian Theology Reader, 441-442 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 441.

16
Oct

Persistent Prayer

Genesis 32:22-31  Psalm 121  2 Timothy 3:14-4:5  Luke 18:1-8

When Dorothy’s house comes down in the Land of Oz, she is immediately aware that she is not in Kansas anymore.  She is eventually joined by her committed friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.  But, she wants to go home, and she is persistent in that goal.  Together, with her new friends, they begin the difficult journey along the Yellow Brick Road, encountering witches and flying monkeys, as the trek to the Emerald City where they are told the Wizard, and the Wizard only, can make it possible for Dorothy to return to Kansas.

Arriving, finally, after the long and frightening journey to the Emerald City, they are initially refused entrance.  It is Toto who pulls back the curtain and reveals the self-proscribed Wizard.  Through pure determination that overcomes their fears, Dorothy and her friends break down the barriers and gain the Wizard’s cooperation and friendship.

It is only after this long arduous ordeal that Dorothy learns that she has had the ability all along through her possession of the ruby slippers to orchestrate her return home.  Her leaving is bittersweet, but what a joy to return home and find all her friends had mysteriously joined her there.  She had been home all along.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is continuing to emphasize this same kind of perseverance we find in Dorothy, the same perseverance we find in Jacob in our lesson from Genesis.  Jacob is alone; he has sent his family away for safekeeping as he awaits a visit from his estranged brother Esau.  Jacob had stolen the family birthright from Esau many years ago; he is fearful of the encounter.  Night falls and Jacob is accosted by a stranger with whom he wrestles through the night.  Jacob is alone, afraid, fighting for his life in the dark.  The stranger would be identified as God; Jacob’s perseverance through his nightlong struggle with God culminates in a covenant.  Jacob would now be known as Israel – “the one who strives with God.”

 Jesus needs to foster this kind of perseverance in his disciples.  He is urgently preparing them for a time when he is no longer present with them on earth.  Jesus continues to emphasize to his disciples that their lives of mission and ministry going forward will require persistence in faith.  And, to accomplish this persistence in faith, they will need to be persistent in prayer.

Prayer is a mysterious throughout our lives.  Does God really answer our prayers?  Do we change God with our prayers, or does God change us.  Prayer may not make all things right in our estimation on our terms, but I do know that without prayer, things seem to go very wrong.  Being persistent in prayer sometimes requires praying that we might be persistent in prayer.

It is through persistent prayer that we best determine God’s will for our lives, that we best determine God’s answer for our prayers.  Sometimes God says “yes;” sometimes God says “not now;” usually God says, “I have a better idea;” through persistent prayer we see that better idea more clearly.  It is through persistent prayer that we see more clearly the injustice in our world and in our own hearts.  We pray to be persistent and constant in prayer.  We pray that we will come to be totally aware of our dependence on prayer.

There is an old story of a girl watching a holy man pray by the riverbank.  Approaching the holy man, the girl asks that he teach her to pray.  In response, the holy man leads the girl into the river and instructs her to hold her face close to the water.  There the holy man pushes her face under the water until she struggles to be free.

Gasping for air, the girl asks, “Why did you do that?”

“This is your lesson,” responds the holy man, “When you long to pray as much as you long to breathe, then you can learn to pray.”

Prayer is the breath we breathe.

Jesus, instructing the disciples how to pray, begins by encouraging them to pray that their earthly existence will be equivalent to that in heaven.  Jesus instructs the disciples and us to pray that on earth as it is in heaven, God’s name will be hallowed; God’s kingdom will come; and God’s will will be done.

Whether it is a Yellow Brick Road, or rosary beads, or a comfy chair in a quiet meditative spot in our den, Jesus exhorts us to focus our prayers with intension, to make our prayers the breath we breathe – to pray without ceasing that our earthly sense of separation from heaven will become thinner and thinner.

Think of our war weary world and our bitterly divided country.  Imagine hundreds of millions of prayerful people of God, praying that God’s kingdom will reign here as it does in heaven.  Imagine the hundreds of millions of hearts that would be changed by persistent prayer.

God has known each of us from the time we were formed in our mother’s womb.  We are in his midst and he has called us by name.  God wants only what is best for us.  Keep open that conversation with the one who loves you beyond imagination; don’t stop, even if confronted by the Wicked Witch; don’t stop, no matter what.  There you will find strength for the journey; there you will find rest in God’s unconditional love; there you will find your clear call to the mission of God’s kingdom – the kingdom that is here and now and is to come.

10
Oct

Reflections on Hurricane Matthew

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c  Psalm 111  2 Timothy 2:8-15  Luke 17:11-19

“Hellooo, this is Les.”  Had he said, “Hello, this is Angel One,” it would have sounded the same.  Les is a highly skilled “lumberjack.”  He took down several big trees for us many years ago without leaving a trace.  His deep nonchalant voice over the phone nearly reduced me to tears.  Yes, as the tree wedged against our bedroom wall continues to shift and crack, I am in serious need of an expert.  Les committed to be here before day’s end to assess and alleviate the danger.  I know Les to be a man who keeps his promises.  We’re all ministers; Les is a minister of tree removal.

As rescues continue in numerous storm ravaged areas, I hope this cool fall morning with intermittent glimmers of sunshine finds you all safe and “powered up.”  Numerous lives and livelihoods have been lost in the path of Matthew.  The people of Haiti have received another disastrous kick to the gut.  The Diocese of Haiti is the largest diocese of The Episcopal Church.  Please continue prayers for our Haitian sisters and brothers in Christ as they seek to endure even more incomprehensible suffering.

For most of us there have been some anxieties and inconveniences, but we are counting our blessings on this Monday morning after our quite unpredictable unexpected assault on Saturday night.  I know you share my renewed gratefulness for the simple pleasures of life as well as the resources available to us for renewal and rebuilding, much of which goes unappreciated until times like these.

Our Gospel lesson for yesterday, the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, was the account of Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers.  More than an account of healing, our theme for this account is thanksgiving.  Ten lepers were healed, only one, the Samaritan, returned to give praise and thanks to God for his healing.  Reflecting on this lesson from the “safe space” of my closet floor throughout the dark hours of Saturday night, I confronted the numerous blessings in my life for which I, like the other nine, have neglected to give thanks. 

Storms are a reality of life; without these humbling heart wrenching experiences, we’d be a pretty sorry lot of ungrateful humans.  These experiences cause us to confront our fragile humanity and the fragility of our earthly treasures as we rest in the hand of our all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God.

In her book The Hour of the Tiger – Facing our Fears, Megan McKenna addresses our fear of losing.  Experiences that remind us of the real possibility of losing precious loved ones and possessions are most effective in bringing us to our knees in thanksgiving for the people and things we love and need the most.  Relating an anecdote of a young boy fearful of losing his grandfather, McKenna includes this statement from the grandfather in response to the young boy’s fear, “All I’ve learned is that something that is yours forever is never precious.”[1]

Our earthly existence is not ours forever.  Matthew has reminded us of that, and perhaps we can consider this reminder an important blessing of the storm.

Returning to our Gospel account, the one healed leper “turned back,” indicating a major turning in his life, as he encompassed Jesus’ gift of grace of salvation.  The healed leper turned back, praising God as he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and gave thanks.  Recognizing this display of sincere thankfulness and praise, Jesus’ words are emphatic, “Your faith has made you well.”  The man’s healing and salvation was synonymous. 

The Greek word used by Luke to describe the healed Samaritan’s thanksgiving is eucharisto.  Again and again, we begin The Great Thanksgiving [eucharisto] with these words.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give him thanks and praise.

With thanks and praise, from the words of Jesus, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 



[1] Megan McKenna, The Hour of the Tiger – Facing Our Fears (New York: New City Press, 2009) 40.

11
Sep

Finding

Exodus 32:7-14  Psalm 51:1-11  1 Timothy 1:12-17  Luke 15:1-10

This is not a day that we let pass without pause to remember the losses of September 11, 2001 – lives, livelihoods, dreams, idealism – irreparable, irreplaceable loss. This morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke, which cycles every three years, was the Gospel lesson for the Sunday following the 9/11 attack in 2001. We pause to contemplate the Good Shepherd searching for his lost sheep in the rubble of the towers and The Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania.

Quite certainly, in many serious or trivial ways, each of us has felt lost at one time or another. I clearly remember a Saturday afternoon in WT Grant’s at the Great Bridge Shopping Center when I was following my mother’s camel colored coattail. Until, and I believe I could return to the exact spot, looking up from that lowly perspective, I realized with horror that that coat was being worn by someone else’s mother – not mine. Apparently, I was soon reunited with the correct camel coat; I don’t remember that part, but I have never forgotten, from my toddler perspective, the horror of what it was to be lost, or at least believe I was lost, even though I certainly was not.

We have all felt lost – physically, spiritually, or otherwise; simply or severely lost.

But, our Gospel message and our Gospel mission that we have come to celebrate today are not about loss; the Gospel message and our place in God’s kingdom are about finding and being found. Throughout Jesus’ ministry on earth, he assures the Father that none that the Father has trusted to him is lost.

And, as he does so often, Jesus most effectively elucidates his message with parables. In today’s Gospel, we hear the beloved comforting parable of the lost sheep.

Sheep are interesting creatures and, throughout the Bible, provide numerous spiritual metaphors and symbolism. Sheep are creatures of community; when they become separated from their fold and their shepherd, they are likely to panic. Being lost from their companions may cause them to become traumatized to the point that they cannot call out. A shepherd searching for a lost sheep must search behind every rock and shrub and in every gully. The lost sheep cannot utter a sound to assist his rescuer. But, as we hear in our parable, the rescuer does not give up until the one who was lost is found, and, then, with his friends and neighbors there is great rejoicing for this one who was lost that had been found.

Thus, more important than the theme of loss is the theme of finding and being found. God is the finder in our parable. We are never lost to God; he searches us out and redeems us. He knows us by name and He treasures each one of us. We are the lost sinners only when we do not realize we are already found, only when we refuse to open ourselves to being found and to receiving God’s mercy.

We are the lost sheep being sought, but at the same time we have always already been found. We are never lost; we just too often fail to realize that we have been found. And, like the shepherd of our parable, God’s rejoicing upon our being restored to the fold is great – each and every one restored with most joyful celebration. That part of the whole that was missing is once again complete.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are about being found – being found by the King of Kings, being sought by the Good Shepherd who never ceases to reach out to us when we lose our way. He calls each of us by name, and when he hears our voice in reply – when He sees that we recognize that we have been found – He gathers His entire kingdom with great celebration. “Rejoice with me.” Our Lord says. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

We are all ministers; we are all called to the carry forth the Gospel mission of gathering those who believe themselves to be lost, perhaps so traumatized that they cannot call out for help. Whether you have assisted the clothes closet or the food pantry, whether you have served as a greeter and usher, whether you have directed our young people, assisted on the worship team, contributed school supplies for local children or dental supplies for children in remote areas of Honduras, or reached out to make a guest feel welcome in the seemingly simplest way – Regardless of the bigness or smallness of your task, you are a minister. You are the hands and feet and heart of the Christian mission to rescue the lost.

Jesus Christ rose from the tomb and vanquished death forever. Even a day so horrible as September 11, 2001 cannot thwart the saving power of our Good Shepherd. Our earthly death, no matter how horrible, cannot separate us from God’s unrelenting search for us. As his ministers, we carry this message to those believing themselves to be lost. Christ the King, Christus Rex, reigns forever, and He will come again to restore each and every one to His kingdom. Try to hide if you wish, but you have already been found.

04
Sep

The Third Way

Deuteronomy 30:15-20  Psalm 1  Philemon 1-21  Luke 14:25-33

We could soften Jesus’ words with some reinterpretation. We could assume our English language doesn’t have an adequate translation for the word Jesus uses for “hate,” as he seems to tell us we cannot fully love him and are not fully devoted disciples unless we “hate” the members of our immediate family, even “hate” life itself, and give up all our possessions.

We could speculate that we have only the two options: love or hate. If I were presented with chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream, I’d have to choose chocolate as my preference. If I were to have to answer a survey question on the terms presented in our Gospel lesson: Which do you love? Which do you hate? My survey answer would indicate that I love chocolate and hate vanilla. Yet, that is not true.

If instead, I were presented with Rocky Road ice cream – a sinful and irresistible combination of chocolate ice cream implanted with dark chocolate bits, nuts, and marshmallows, my desire for the Rocky Road concoction would be so far superior to the vanilla choice, that my desire for the vanilla could not even come close; my taste for the vanilla could not be described with the same words. There would be an indescribable vast chasm between my love for the Rocky Road and my ho-hum acceptance of the vanilla as a consolation. My love for the Rocky Road is so enormous that it would gather my full devotion making it seem that I hate vanilla in comparison.

Still, I don’t hate vanilla, and the truth is, the chocolate starts out as vanilla. Ah, then, there is a third answer. I can love the vanilla along with the Rocky Road; the vanilla is part of the Rocky Road.

So, do we pass off the harshness of the surface interpretation of Jesus’ words with the excuse of lack of adequate translation over the 2,000 years? Or, perhaps, there is such an extreme chasm between the spiritual self-sacrificing love of true discipleship – the self-sacrificing love we share as spiritual brothers and sisters within the Body of Christ – and the love we experience with earthly family members that the same word cannot be used to describe both emotions. The scriptures speak in the extreme. God’s love for us expressed in the redemption of all creation through the life and works and Jesus Christ is extreme, so beyond human words and interpretation, the explanation leaves many vast chasms in our ability to articulate.

Or, is there a third way of reading this text – an answer that exists in the ambiguity? Certainly, our love of family and our love of life take on new meaning – a reinterpretation – when we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, when we become true disciples. As true disciples, we incorporate all that is earthly into all that is sacred. Our earthly family becomes our spiritual family as do all with whom we share the Body of Christ. Our earthly possessions become sacred as they are devoted to God’s will – devoted toward the furtherance of God’s kingdom.

Oh, well. Our Gospel lesson is another one of those passages that we spend our life deciphering; it will be clear to us in eternity. For now, we live with the ambiguity. Mostly, rather than getting mired down in literal murky interpretations, we turn our focus to the crystal clear message: Jesus, our Savior, goes to the extreme to be sure we understand that the journey of discipleship is not a primrose path.

Jesus wants us to know that our discipleship is on a vastly different plain than our earthly familial relationships and our tangible earthly possessions. We should be prepared to walk away from any of those bonds that inhibit our discipleship. As with any investment that promises a worthy return, our sacrifice is significant and should be recognized and affirmed at the outset.

The cost of discipleship is dear; the cost of the Cross is earthly life. The reward is the empty tomb – victory over death; the reward is eternal life. How can we possibly explain, except to strive to live in the presence of Jesus Christ, always open to the “third” way, often the less obvious answers – answers that require our constant discernment – our being constantly in the presence of Christ?

In our lesson from Deuteronomy, we read the words of God spoken by Moses to God’s wayward people, in this case the Israelites. If we walk in God’s ways, we will be blessed. Conversely, if we stray, we will perish.

Prior to the time of Moses, God had destroyed creation through the flood, reserving only the remnant of Noah and his family. From that time until now, humans have continued to waver in faithfulness to God’s law. Would God go on destroying his creation every time humankind reached the red line of faithlessness?

But, if God didn’t enforce his laws through the threat of perishing, would we humans, per our human nature, ever be faithful to God’s laws? Do we perish for our sinfulness as God promises? Or, do we live on faithlessly and recklessly thumbing our noses in the face of God’s empty threat?

Or, is there a third answer? Our Father God, creator, is above all creative. God would send the Son to redeem us of our faithlessness, to pay the price to rescue us from the grave, to save us from perishing. The cost of our faithlessness would indeed be paid. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, would die to pay the cost of our sins; God, in the person of Jesus Christ, would overcome death and rise again to insure that we would never perish but have everlasting life. Only God could suggest this “third way” out of our predicament.

The Apostle Paul provides a learning example: Paul, from prison, begs for the freedom of his brother in Christ, Onesimus. Onesimus is a slave, owned by Paul’s friend Philemon. Together with others, Paul and Philemon had established a church house. Onesimus has run away or been sent away; the letter leaves these conditions unclear. In either case, Onesimus has broken free of his bondage and come to Paul, giving Paul aid in prison. The portion of the letter that we read today is written by Paul from prison; it is a plea to his friend Philemon for Onesimus’ freedom.

We do not learn the outcome of Paul’s request. Is Onesimus punished and taken back into slavery upon his return to Philemon? Is he released, essentially abandoned, to fend for himself? Or, is there a third answer – as Paul requests? Is Onesimus received by Philemon as a brother in Christ – an equal in the household of God?

Whether it is Rocky Road ice cream, or the reception into the Body of Christ of Onesimus, or our salvation by grace through faith, as disciples of Christ, we are called to live with the endless possibilities, the difficult questions, the ambiguity of life in the presence of Jesus Christ. We are called to maintain the non-anxious presence in the face of crisis and chaos. Love/hate, life/death, freedom/bondage: is it one or the other or something different, entirely unimaginable?

God is a god of endless possibilities. Remain constantly in the presence of Jesus Christ our Savior. There, you will discover the “third way” – the endless possibilities of true discipleship – the endless possibilities of the life and works of Jesus Christ brought forth in us.

28
Aug

Humility

Sirach 10:12-18  Psalm 112   Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16  Luke 14:1, 7-14

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” These specific words of our Lord are unique to Luke’s Gospel.

As we journey through the Gospel of Luke this distinctive message evolves – the message of the necessity of humility in our relationship with God and our neighbor. It is Luke who describes the humble birth of our Lord. It is in Luke’s Gospel that we read of the angels carrying the news of the Savior’s birth to the humble shepherds – a lowly profession at the time of Jesus’ birth. Luke, most intentionally, avails himself to Jesus’ urgent message of necessity of humility.

It was particularly common for the religiously and politically elite of Jesus’ time to set themselves far above those of lower station. This is a tradition that sees that those among society’s elite are most entitled to the greater bounty of God’s blessings, thus considering the elite more fit for God’s kingdom.

To challenge this societal norm was dangerous. And, Luke, like the other Gospel writers, does not soft shoe the controversy that builds around Jesus with every encounter in which Jesus fervently defies this tradition that sets the elite apart from the lowly.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus is a guest at the table of a leader of the Pharisees – the very elite among his Jewish people. Jesus is observing the proficiency of the other guests as they “work the room” – choosing their seats at the table based on their presumed status in the community.

This show of hubris prompts Jesus’ parable of humility – a parable obviously intended to shatter the prevailing illusions of importance and grandeur. We can imagine that the subsequent dinner conversation was not of trivial pleasantries. Jesus has rocked the boat once again. And, as we learn in the first verse of our lesson, Jesus has offended the elite, and Jesus has done so under the close scrutiny of these legal officials who were documenting just such offenses as this.

Why is lack of humility such an important pitfall that Jesus is willing to toss it so boldly in the face of these religious elitists – and not just these religious elitists, but all of us who fall victim to the prideful ego of our human nature?

What is it about humility that makes it such an integral need for us in the furtherance of the Kingdom of God? Humility is our awareness of our dependence on God; humility is our understanding of our personal responsibilities as members of the Body of Christ; humility is our window into God’s pure unconditional love.

Thoughtful reflection on humility opens our realization that humility is the basic foundation of our faith and honest discernment. Humility is the big tent that encompasses our faith and good works. With humility, we recognize our dependence upon God for every aspect of life. Our power and wealth and prestige and good health have a tendency to cloud the reality of our dependence on God. It is easy to suffer from the illusion of self-sufficiency. In humility, we recognize the impotence of our worldly gains and the necessity of emptying ourselves of all shallow worldly ambitions, allowing God to come in and fill us fully with his grace. This awareness of dependence on God shapes our faith.

Humility allows us to be silent in God’s presence, awaiting God’s command for the ministry to which we are called – asking God to reveal his will for our lives and grant us the energy and courage to pursue God’s will according to God’s command.

As our increasing sense of humility increases our awareness of our dependence on God increases, allowing the burdens of each day to be taken from our shoulders and placed in God’s hands. Through humility, our eyes are opened to our weaknesses for which God is offering healing. And, through humility, our eyes are opened to our strengths that God is nurturing for his use in service to our neighbors.

Humility is not degradation of our selves; that would be a denial of God’s gift of our creation. Rather, in humility, we come to God seeking to see ourselves as God sees us – seeking to see our place in God’s plan for the redemption of the world. It is not about us – our grandeur and self-made abilities; it is about God in us – Christ in us – making his kingdom known through us – the Body of Christ.

In just a few moments you will have an opportunity to stand and exchange the Peace of Christ with those seated near you. This exchange is not about us. It is not separate from our worship. It is a significant time in our worship together when we have an opportunity to take our neighbor by the hand, look intentionally into his or her eyes, and say with sincerity, “the peace of the Lord be always with you.”

It is not about us; it is about Christ who is in us. In humility, we open ourselves to the presence of Christ in us, and we desire that everyone around us has that same experience of the presence of Christ.

Humility allows us to keep our focus on our dependence on God. Humility alerts us to the responsibilities of being the Body of Christ as we are called to be. Humility keeps us mindful that we are loved, not for our impressive elite place at the table, but because we are children of God, God who loves us unconditionally and wills us to do the same.

In seeking to be humble, we will be exalted in the presence of God. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”