Message Archive

The Rev. Anne Edge Dale

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.

02
Oct

Gift of Faith

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4  Psalm 37:1-10  2 Timothy 1:1-14  Luke 17:5-10

In the verses prior to those we have read from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been leading a discussion with the disciples concerning the demands of true discipleship.  The disciples have asked Jesus to give them the faith to live into the Kingdom – to provide the quantity of faith necessary to be his true followers through the difficult times that were sure to come.  Surprisingly, Jesus responds that the faith the size of a tiny seed is all that is necessary.  Jesus is saying that the disciples do not need faith measured by quantity – they do not need some kind of magical concoction of faith.  In fact, he is telling them that they already have the faith they need; they just need to go live that faith.

Faith is a way of life.  Faith, we might say, is really not a noun, but a verb – an action verb.

Jesus is saying, “Just keep being faithful.”   Jesus’ message to his followers is not to judge our faith based on its strength or weakness or quantity.  Essentially, don’t focus on your faith; don’t focus on the obstacles to your faith; don’t worry about what lies beyond the light that illumines your next step on the path.  Rather, focus on the One in whom your faith is bound.  Just keep following the One in whom your faith is bound.  Just keep taking that next step of life in the kingdom.  “Just keep being faithful.”

Mattamuskeet Lake is the largest lake between Maine and Florida.  It is clearly visible from space; its origin is a mystery.  And, it is unique in that it is sliced through the middle by a land bridge that provides a highway corridor for north/south passage.  To preserve that land bridge there are a number of concrete culverts passing under the road.  The lake is rather shallow and swimming at the culverts is quite desirable because of the concrete surface of the culvert.  Swimming is forbidden, however, because of an eminent danger.  Moving away from the roadway, at a distance unknown to the swimmer, the concrete surface ends, dropping off into an abyss.  Water rushing through the culvert and swirling downward at the edge of the concrete surface sucks the swimmer down into the abyss, where he or she is helplessly drowned.  Many visitors, as well as local teens and adults knowing full well the danger, have drowned at the Mattamuskeet culverts.  Some years ago, father standing on the shore, agonizing through the minutes that grew to hours as a diver searched for his son’s body said something that I have never forgotten, “I just can’t stand this but I have to.”

It is our faith that allows us to go on “standing it,” when we feel we just can’t.

Our faith is a gift.  But, our faith is not our faith; it is faith through the work of the Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit that binds us to Jesus Christ.  Faith is a gift – an undeserved, unearned gift for which we strive to be worthy in the face of tragedy, in the face of apathy, and in the face of prosperity.  God doesn’t change at these times of tragedy or times of prosperity; we change in our reception of God’s gift of faith.  And, the gift of faith is constant.

Faith in God is a mutual relationship of responsibility and accountability.  Jesus, through the words of Luke, uses the phrase “worthless slaves” to describe our position in the relationship.  Certainly, this is a phrase that conjures up all sorts of frightening and distasteful images for us.

But, if we can put away those images for a moment and focus on our “worthlessness” in terms of our ability to “earn” faith through our own prideful egos, we recognize the fruitlessness of this me-focused endeavor.  Our faith cannot be earned; it is a gift for which we owe thanks to God.   Acknowledging our faith as gift allows us to relinquish our senseless, fruitless efforts to take the control of our lives out of God’s hands and into our own.

Being faithful, then, is not something for which we expect God to thank us any more than the slave of our parable anticipates being thanked for doing what is expected of him.  Being faithful is the most basic demand of discipleship.  Thus, when we accept this gift of faith as God intends that it be accepted, we are slaves to His will – the prideful ego, the self, is not the focus.  The focus is the next step in and toward the Kingdom of Christ – the Kingdom that is now and is to come.

Faith is a way of life – an action verb.  Jesus Christ came to show us faith; our faith in Christ should mirror the faith of Christ.

In our epistle lesson from the second letter to Timothy, which may or may not have been written by Paul, the writer is grateful to God for the faith that has been mirrored for Timothy by his Jewish grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.  Timothy is being encouraged to model his Christian faith from this example.

Timothy, like most followers of Christ in this mid-first century, would have been subjected to persecution; non-believers would have sought relentlessly to mock him and heap great shame upon him for his faith in what they considered to be a crucified criminal.  Certainly, death on a cross was the most shameful of all means of execution.  There were those who espoused that God can be recruited to insure one’s good health, great wealth, and undeterred success in this earthly life.  Thus, the sign of poor health or tragedy or mere lack of prosperity was a sign of too little faith in God.  Imagine how this principle might be perceived to apply to Timothy’s crucified savior.

This gross misinterpretation of the gift of faith through which God can be recruited to assure our earthly success is termed “prosperity gospel.”   There are still today, perhaps more than ever, those who preach this misconception, which remains as spiritually dangerous and frightfully misleading and far too common in religious networks as it was in Timothy’s day.

Faith is a gift not measured in quantity or quality.  The gift of faith that God has given you is the same gift that he has given me, the same as that gift he gave these disciples in our Gospel lesson.  Acknowledging that gift and remaining faithful is the basic expectation of us as disciples of Christ.  It is our way of life.

Through the imagery of the mustard seed, Jesus is saying, “Just remain faithful.”  Just keep walking step by step in and toward the Kingdom.   Remember the words addressed to Timothy, at the end of our lesson, which we read earlier, “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Just keep being faithful.  Even when you feel that you are being swept down into the abyss, just keep being faithful.

25
Sep

Complacency

Amos 6:1a,4-7  Psalm 146  1 Timothy 6:6-19  Luke 16:19-31

One of the greatest joys of being a priest in the Episcopal Church is the awareness of our being the offspring of the Church of England, continuing our place in the Anglican Communion, ministering and praying with Anglicans all over the world.  And, even more so here at the Church of the Advent, I have the pleasure of being surrounded by so many of close British decent, so that I am reminded over and over of the gentleness of the British voices, seemingly so less threatening than our Americanized harshness of diction.  In London, as you board the Tube, you are gently exhorted to “Mind the gap.”  Returning to the US, boarding the DC Metro, you will hear, “Step back, doors closing.”  This morning’s parable from Luke’s Gospel always brings to mind these contrasting exhortations.

The authors of our lessons this morning from Amos, Paul’s first letter to Timothy, and Luke’s Gospel bring us the message:  “Mind the gap” and instill a bit of fear of hearing the words, “Step back, doors closing.”  Neither message allows for complacency.

The prophet Amos is the vessel of God’s message to the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom of the mid-8th century BC.  During a respite from the threat of Assyrian takeover, the Israelites have become complacent in their faithfulness to God.  Amos indicts them for their state of ease, feeling secure in their high positions, lounging and feasting, and anointing themselves with the finest oils.  All this is the state of affairs while, at the same time, the Israelites ignore the impending ruin of their nation by their Assyrian adversaries – the Assyrians being the mere instrument of Israelite destruction – the root cause being their complacent faithlessness and spiritual blindness.
Paul’s exhortations in his letter to Timothy encouraging Timothy to fight the good fight are similar.  Paul warns Timothy and us against our desire to be surrounded in earthly riches, which cause us to fall to temptation; to wander away from the faith; falling prey to senseless, harmful desires; plunging us into ruin and destruction where we are pierced with many pains.

And, in our lesson from Luke’s Gospel, the unnamed man of earthly wealth and royalty is not inherently bad.  But, his attention to wealth and his absorption in its comforts have allowed for his complete oblivion to the suffering Lazarus who lay at his gate.  Like the Israelites, he is complacent in his ever-increasing faithlessness and spiritual blindness.

The earthly gap between the unnamed rich man and Lazarus is extreme.  The rich man is finely dressed in royal robes of purple as he feasts at his bountiful table.  Lazarus, in contrast, is dressed in rags, exposing the sores that infest his starving body; he longs for the crumbs that might fall from the rich man’s table; only the dogs pay him homage as they lick his sores.  The symbolism of the association with dogs further accentuates the uncleanness of Lazarus’ earthly state contrasted to that of the rich man by whose gate he languishes.

As in our Sunday Gospel lessons for so many weeks now, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees.  Here, Jesus condemns the Pharisees as lovers of money in the words of this parable, which quickly flip-flops the state of affairs for these main characters.  “Step back, doors closing.”  From the words of Father Abraham, the rich man finds himself eternally condemned to hell for his complacency in seeking to aid poor Lazarus.  Lazarus, on the other hand, after lying in suffering at the rich man’s own gate day after day, is now swept up into the wings of angels.  The gate that separated them on earth is now a vast chasm, to the point that the rich man continues so oblivious to reality that, even from his position of eternal damnation, he speaks from his state of assumed greatness, commanding that Lazarus be summoned to bring him comfort in his fiery agony.  The gap that separated the two on earth – the gap that could have been so easily bridged by the rich man’s attention to Lazarus’ suffering – has now become a “great chasm, fixed so that those who might want to pass” from one to the other cannot do so.

The rich man was not inherently wicked; his wealth did not bring about evil.  It was his complacency – his oblivion to the suffering right before his eyes that cast him into the eternal torment of Hades.  He failed to mind the gap that separated him from his neighbor who suffered so severely.  He failed to see and accept the gift of God’s grace.

If you have been here at times when the Food Pantry and Clothes Closet are open, you become more aware of minding the gap.  You are aware that the needs of our community are great, overwhelming the resources we have available.  But for the individuals who are rewarded with the warmth and empathy of our compassionate volunteers as they load their bags of much needed food and clothing, the love of Christ is exchanged; they are lifted up; their hungry bodies and spirits are filled with good things.  In this way, we do our best to mind the gap.

With God’s help, we seek to do our best to love without fear – to share our rich blessings with the needy, some of whom may not be as clean as we would desire, who may smell of alcohol and stale cigarettes, and who may slur their words as the result of the world’s abuses.

It is said that over the bathtub where Mother Teresa bathed those near death and freshly rescued from the streets of Calcutta, there is a sign that reads: “This is my body.”  If our Food Pantry and Clothes Closet volunteers hear the words of our Lord, “This is my body” as they assist each patron with his or her bag of food and much needed clothing, others will hear the same words on their behalf.  If, as we minister in so many ways to this community, we see Christ in the eyes of the sick and suffering, these sick and suffering will see Christ in our eyes.  If we share with great intention the Peace of Christ with those seated near us in worship, that Peace will be returned with the same sincerity and intention.  Being good stewards of God’s blessings as we contribute generously to the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ, those served by our many ministries will see Christ in the eyes of the Church of the Advent.  Living faithfully and intentionally into the Body of Christ is our goal, closing the gap of earthly separation is our goal.

The rich man of our parable is not condemned to Hades because of his wealth; he is condemned because his love of earthly things renders him complacent, unaware of his true place in the Kingdom, and oblivious to the gap that separates him from the needy – those desperate for the love and comfort he is so well equipped to provide.  This is Jesus’ urgent message.

Live faithfully and intentionally into the Body of Christ.  Mind the gap; keep the door of your heart open and unlocked to the needs of the suffering, remembering always that each one joins us in the Body of Christ.

22
Sep

Wealth and Security

Amos 8:4-7  Psalm 113  1 Timothy 2:1-7  Luke 16:1-13

Friday was a red-letter day for iPhone enthusiasts. Did you know?

Neither did I, or at least, I had not paid attention well enough, until we arrived at Macarthur Mall for an appointment at the Apple Store. Approaching the vicinity of the store we were confronted by a rather organized mob – a long serpentine line of seemingly hundreds of plugged-in Millennials. And, I quickly began to recall the series of daily emails announcing this earth-changing event: Today was the day the iPhone7 was available for pickup. The outright cost of the iPhone7 is $650; by the time we arrived at mid-day, over 500 had already been sold and the long line out front of the store continued to form.

Now, I remind you, we were there for our own techno support, seeking to untangle some of our baby boomer issues with our own multiple Apple purchases, so I’m not casting judgment. I, too, was taking valuable hours out of my day to devote to costly questionably meaningful electronic communication.

But, as I reflected on this continuously growing line, I began multiplying the hours per person times hundreds of persons times hundreds of dollars. WOW – to be an iPhone7 for just an hour. How would God attract a devoted crowd such as this? What would God do with all these hours and all the dollars? You just can’t help but wonder what life would be like if God was an iPhone7.

Intermingled in that reflection was the pervading awareness of another group from which I had recently departed, another group that was waiting. This group huddled together anxiously at Norfolk General Hospital as a loved one was undergoing major surgery.

In contrast, the serpentine line and my own appointment in this e-world seemed so very superficial. Our Gospel parable spotlights the superficial.

Bible scholars far beyond my scope of interpretation remain stumped by this parable that is the focus of our Gospel lesson. We find it entitled “The Dishonest Manager” or “The Dishonest Steward.”

Of course, Jesus is not encouraging us to be dishonest, even with earthly possessions, which in the end are meaningless. Taken in context, it is obvious that Jesus is condemning the religious leaders in his audience who lord exploitive power over the lower class; Jesus is comparing these religious leaders to the abusive landowners and brutal government officials in this first century society who typically greedily exploit their dependents. These are good and important messages that we take from the parable and that are supported by our other lessons. But, just what point is Jesus making? Is Jesus being flippant in sharing this parable?

Do you sense the shallowness of life for these characters in our parable?

It feels like a game of checkers. This middleman, the manager, is journeying merrily along until he is called to account for mismanagement of his rich boss’ business affairs. Threatened with the loss of his job, the manager fears homelessness. With that legitimate concern, he plots a strategy that will buy his favor with the rich man’s debtors. He presents them with a cut-rate deal to settle their debts, collects the reduced amounts, and presents those payments to the rich man, who for whatever reason is happy with what he gets, heaping accolades on the savvy self-serving middleman.

Everyone seems to have gained something monetarily. The debtors have their debts forgiven at a reduced amount; the rich man gets the debts paid to him, none the wiser of the actual amount he was due; the middleman keeps his lucrative job and is elevated to hero status. Everyone received something in exchange for giving up something.

Yet, no one in the parable is truly credited with being righteous. The debtors knew they owed more, but were delighted in getting by with less; the rich man, we can assume, was charging too much for his goods anyway; and the middle manager was likely skimming off the top, maybe jacking up the price to pad his pocket and keeping poor account of what was due his employer.

It’s all just stuff – stuff that provides tenuous stability in life. It feels like a game of checkers – you king me; I king you. Jesus says we must forego earthly possessions -superficial wealth and stability. Just two weeks ago we read that this dispossession of earthly stuff is the cost of true discipleship. If we are devoted to earthly possessions we cannot also be devoted to God.

Are we dishonest stewards as we stand in line awaiting the latest iPhone? Who am I to judge?

We are called to be honest stewards of all God’s creation. We are called to share our resources and possessions generously and unselfishly. We are called to be spiritually formed representatives of Jesus Christ. We are called to account for our time and talent too often devoted to superficial materialistic trappings and unhealthy behavior. Certainly, we are called to put God ahead of our desire for earthly wealth and security.

If we are dishonest about our obsessions with earthly trappings, how can we be honest about our time and talents devoted to God? God does not make unreasonable requests of us. When we strip away the demands of worldly luxuries and extras that stand in the way of our relationship with God, we find the pure grace of his love and we experience the sincere desire to return a portion of God’s gifts for His use.

Jesus does not tack on exploitive duties that make our debt to him impossible to pay. Jesus, in fact, has paid the price of our sin and death and has won for us everlasting life. All he asks is that we hear his call to stewardship – the giving of our time, talents, and monetary contributions to the glory of God.

Noting the context of our parable, Jesus is, quite realistically, preparing his disciples to go forth into the world as apostles of the Good News. Going forth, they would be confronted by the shrewd “managers” of worldly goods. They would need “street smarts”; like the manager of our parable, they would need to be shrewd. Neither the rich man nor Jesus is complimenting the dishonesty, but both recognize the necessity of shrewdness; both recognize the essence of good stewardship.

As the Church year draws to a close over the next couple of months, our call to stewardship becomes an intentional focus. I invite you to listen, with a renewed sense, to the call to be good stewards of God’s blessings. I’m afraid we, too often, view our stewardship campaigns with the same level of contempt as we view telemarketers. My prayer is that you will open your heart to a new way of thinking.

Like the master in our parable, we all like to get a good return on our money. God is asking us to apply the same shrewd business expertise to our stewardship of His gifts that we apply to our personal worldly investments. There is no better return than seeing our contributions put to use through Christ’s mission within these walls as we care for one another; in this community as we care for the poor, the homeless, and families in distress; and outwardly to this suffering world plagued by hunger and hopelessness. There is no better return than the anticipation of eternal life in Jesus Christ.

Imagine. What would eternal life be like if God were an iPhone7?

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.