Sunday, December 12, 2004

3 Advent A

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

It's a simple yes or no question, right? Are you the one who is to come?

John the Baptizer had invested a lot in Jesus. He had invested his whole life, really. I mean, what options are left for you after you've spent years wearing camel skin and eating locusts and running around the wildnerness shouting, "Prepare the way of the Lord! Prepare the way of the one who is to come!" The one had better be coming, or 'fool' is the nicest things they'll call you, and you'll likely never work again.

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

Not so very long ago, John was standing face to face with Jesus, waist deep in the Jordan River, and in that moment he knew instinctively that Jesus was indeed the one. I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? he asked Jesus in awe. But Jesus would have it no other way - how John must have trembled as he immersed the head of the Messiah in the swirling water.

After the baptism, with renewed passion, John the Baptizer surely continued to stir up the people, calling them to repent, for the kingdom of heaven, he knew, was very near. We heard John's favorite speech in last week's reading from the gospel: One who is more powerful than I is coming after me....His winnowing fork is in his had, and he will clear the threshing floor and will gather wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

John, along with many others, was desperately waiting for the one who was to come, the one who would come in the name of God and save Israel once again from darkness. John knew the story of the Passover, when God stirred up great power and freed the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. He knew the story of the Exodus, when God stirred up great power and led the people through the desert, providing food out of thin air and water when the rivers ran dry. He knew the stories of Joshua and the long succession of judges, when God time and again stirred up great power to protect he Hebrew people as they finally settled into the Promised Land.

John Knew the passage we heard this morning from Isaiah, words written to stir up hope in the people of Israel after their cities had fallen to invading armies and they had been forced out of the land God had given them, forced to leave behind the pile of stones that had once been the holy temple, the House of God. From the darkness of exile, they wondered if God would come for them, to rescue them, to restore them, to bring the home. Come, O Lord, and save us. Isaiah, holding on for all he was worth to his conviction that God does come, wrote some of the most stirring words that have ever been said. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water....A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way. For a second time in history, the formidable desert that separated the people of Israel from the Promised Land would give way to their passing, and God would bring them home.

But by the time of John the Baptizer, darkness was returning to Israel in the form of another invader: Rome. Judaism was permitted in the Roman empire, but the privileges grudglingly afforded Jews on account of their religious convictions made them unpopular with Roman citizens and leaders alike. Recalling the stories of God's power to save, many Jews called upon their brothers and sisters to repent of their sins and hang on for all they were worth to their conviction that God does come. They looked fervently for a messiah, one anointed by God to deliver God's people, to defeat God's enemies, and to inaugurate the kingdom of God.

John perhaps got a little carried away when he challenged King Herod to repent of some particularly notorious sins. It got him arrested and thrown in prison, and there in the darkness, John began to doubt. Where was the one who was to burn the chaff on the threshing floor? Where was the one who was to take an axe to the trees that bore no fruit? Where was the one who was to come with great might to speedily help and deliver God's people? At one point he had thought it might be Jesus....he had been so certain....

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Yes or no, Jesus. Did I pick right? Have I wasted my faith and my breath and my life? Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

Would that Jesus would say, why yes, I am the one. I'm God and I'm here to save the world. You picked right. Excellent job.

But we know that Jesus was never in the habit of giving yes or no answers. He answered questions with parables, with questions of his own, and with statements like the one he offered John's disciples: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Now you tell me, John, am I the one who is to come, who has come, who will save God's people?

Jesus knew that John would hear echoes of Isaiah speaking to those living in darkness in another time, awaiting the light. When God comes to save, Isaiah had told them, Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Hear and see what is happening, John. All of you, hear and see what is happening, Jesus says. Hear and see how lives are being changed. Aren't I the one who is to come? Haven't you heard? Haven't you seen? Strengthen your hearts, for the kingdom of God is here.

It would have made sense for the Messiah to be a great warrior, riding in to do battle with darkness, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to tear down all those who stand in the way of God's mighty kingdom. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.

But it turns out that God's speedy help and deliverance have not to do with vengeance but with mercy. Not with judgment but with compassion.

From the darkness of prison, John was so busy looking for the one who was to come that he didn't realize the anointed one, the messiah, was already there. The answer to his anxious question had been there all along, stirring up God's power to bring light in dark places, to bring life in dead places. The kingdom of God is not about wiping out but building up, not keeping out but bringing in.

We have only to look at the life of Jesus Christ to know that he is, indeed, the one who is to come, the one who has come, the one who will come again, and the one who is still in the world through us, his body, the Church. The answer is in how Jesus lived each day, how he loved each person, and how he calls us to live and to love the same way.

And yet we are still waiting for the day when sorrow and sighing shall flee away, when the last shadow's of hatred, fear, violence, suspicion, and judgment disappear into light. It is not hard to sympathize with John as we sit in our own dark prisons, wondering if perhaps we, too, got it all wrong. We wait and we wait and we wait, and nothing happens.

Today's readings, deep into the season of Advent, of expectation of the one who is so soon to's readings remind us that waiting for the kingdom of God is not about anticipation of the future but attention to the present. What do we hear and see right now, this moment? We are called to bring our gaze down from what might be to what is, that in our desperate hope for a blaze of glory we won't miss the first sparks going up.

Waiting is about living fully in the present, with all that life as the body of Christ calls us to do and be. If we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, if wee seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, if we strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being....if we do these things each and every day, then we will find there is already a Holy Way beneath our feet. If we do these things each and every day, then others will find there are blossoms in the deserts and springs of water on thirsty ground.

Jesus is the one who is to come. Are we the ones who are to follow, or shall he wait for another? It's not just a yes or no questions. What does he hear and see in our lives?

He would see that St. Paul's recently raised over $1600 for Love's Kitchen. Good news for the poor. He would see that one of our youth spent Thanksgiving morning at Love's Kitchen preparing a meal. Food to those who hunger. Jesus would see that many at St. Paul's are Christmas shopping for Wesley House families, that some are spending their own money rather than outreach committee funds. Caring for the stranger. He would see that many here have been on the annual Honduras medical mission. The blind receive their sight, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. Jesus would see that many or our young people have put in hours and hours of service work, and that they bring new friends to youth group or bible study each week. Their lives are a witness - they go and tell what they see and hear. Jesus would see that we are joining with parents and godparents today in welcoming a new life into the household of God, the Body of Christ, and he would hear us say again the words of our baptismal covenant: I will, with God's help.

Jesus is the one who is to come. Are we the ones who are to follow, or shall he wait for another? May we pattern our lives this Advent, this Christmas, and beyond, so that Jesus may hear and see our yes. Amen.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Proper 29 C (Last Pentecost)

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:35-43

Well, I bet most of us didn't see this one coming. Here we are, a little less than five weeks away from Christmas, and Jesus is hanging on a cross, being scoffed at by leaders, mocked by soldiers, and even rebuked by the criminal hanging beside him. If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself....Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us....

It is dark. The fires of Pentecost have become glowing embers, and the star has not yet risen in the east. This is the last Sunday of Pentecost, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the last Sunday before we begin again with Advent, and it has been called the Sunday of Christ the King.

Christ the King - we should see Jesus lifted upon his throne, seated at God's right hand, clothed in dazzling white, surrounded by a blaze of glory.

Instead, we see Jesus lifted upon the cross, hanging at a criminal's right hand, barely clothed in rags, surrounded by enemies. Christ the King indeed. Who is this king?

Jesus was fine a couple of weeks ago, still miles and miles from Jerusalem, walking with the disciples, telling stories and parables, healing lepers, sitting at dinner tables. And he'll be fine a few weeks from now, a baby warmly wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, his mommy and daddy smiling down at him, shepherds and wise men on their way to see the tiny king....

So what brings us this day to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where Jesus is not fine - where Jesus is dying an agonzing death on the cross? If our liturgical year didn't cycle around to this day each November, I don't think I would have seen it coming. And I don't think I would have called it Christ the King Sunday when it got here.

When I think of kings and queens, my mind is more apt to wander into fairy tales and history books than into the real-life state of monarchies today. Even the wedding of Charles and Diana seemed more like a fairy tale than a live broadcast to this little girl in her pajamas, up way past her bedtime, wishing she might become a princess one day and wear a beautiful dress and a tiara....

In fairy tales and history books, kings and queens are powerful. They sit on their thrones surrounded by people just waiting to do their bidding. From King George to the Queen of Hearts, they yell, "Off with their heads!" and it happens. Kings and queens wear velvet and satin, they attend balls and banquets, the live in huge castles and the ride the best horses. Kings and queens, perhaps a little more often in fairy tales than in history books, are wise and brave, able to defeat fearsome enemies on the battlefied and to make everyone in their kingdoms live happily ever after.

A peculiar feature of fairy tale kings and queens, though, is that very often, crowns are conferred on the littlest, the youngest, the least likely to rise to royalty. If it didn't happen so often in fairy tales, we might be surprised that the servant-girl makes a wish and wins the heart of a prince, that the farmer solve a riddle and wins the hand of the princess. The real kings and queens, in fairy tales, are not always who we might expect them to be.

Of course, long before fairy tales taught us to expect the unexpected, the Hebrew scriptures recounted tale after tale of those least likely to succeed in leading the people of God. In fact, the most powerful, most notable king in the entire history of Israel started out as a scrawny shepherd boy, too young and too small to join his father and brothers on the battlefield to fight the Philistines. He wasn't exactly king material. But when it counted most, he used his faith in God to help him save his people, and that got him noticed.

You know I'm talking about King David, and you know that once he became king he did some really rotten things. But he always turned back to God not simply with an acknowledgement of his guilt but also with a confession of his faith that God alone was powerful enough to save.

There is something in us that cheers for the little guy, the underdog, the person least likely to succeed. For all we like to get ahead, to earn more money, to make a name for ourselves, to get the bigger house, the bigger car, the bigger office, we all like to see the underdog have his or her day. We're all Red Sox fans, really, cheering like crazy for the players who have almost realized their dream....

We look at rags to riches stories and we think how clever, how talented, how fortunate that someone beat the odds and made it. It's like a fairy tale. But here, finally, is where we return to Jesus, the king born in a stable, the king touching lepers and dining with sinners, the king dying a criminal's death on a cross. This king calls us from riches to rags, calls us to give up all that we have - even our own lives - and walk with him into the darkest corners of the earth. This is Emmanuel, God-with-us. God-with-us. In the story of Jesus Christ, which in our baptism becomes our story, the only way up is down.

Christ the King indeed. Jesus is a king, but not one whose power is in yelling "Off with their heads!" or in raising great armies or securing great wealth. Jesus is not the kind of king we expect, because the kingdom of God is not the kind of kingdom we expect. In the kingdom of God, all power resides in Love. Love that created us. Love that came to save us. Love that died to show us that all the power in the world cannot, in the end, hold a candle to Love. Even from a cross, Love tells us, Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

In the kingdom of God, nothing is what we, with our eyes fixed on the kingdom of get-ahead, might expect. Our wealth means nothing unless it is given away. Our successes mean nothing unless they are in the business of proclaiming the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, who invited those on the margins and in the cracks to join him at the table, to join him in the kingdom, to be with him in Paradise.

The Reverend Mark Sargeant writes, "By this time in Luke's Gospel, we shouldn't be surprised at reversals of this kind....We've seen this coming all along. Luke has been getting us ready ever since Jesus' mother sang a song when she learned she was going to have a baby. You remember what she sang about her boy who would become king? He will scatter the proud. He will bring down the powerful from their thrones. The lowly he will lift up. He will fill those who are hungry, and empty those who are full."

In just a few short weeks, the story of salvation will renew itself as we once again celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, Emmanual, God-with-us. We will once again see that tiny king wrapped in swaddling clothes grow up to show us how to live in the kingdom of God now by loving those whom God loves, which is to say, everyone, even - perhaps especially - those we find most unlovable. On Good Friday we will return to this very spot, to the cross on the hill, where Jesus will die showing us how to live in his kingdom.

In Luke's gospel, Jesus' promise to the criminal is the last thing he says to another human being, and really, it isn't a surprise - it's the entire gospel in miniature form. Jesus Christ, king of kings, hated by the kingdom of get-ahead and surrounded by outcasts, telling a sinner - it could be any one of us, right? - telling a sinner who confesses faith that Jesus alone is powerful enough to save, that he is welcome in the kingdom of God.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God has come near, and we are all its ambassadors - from the littlest to the biggest, from the newest who we will baptize today to the oldest, from the least likely to the most likely to succeed. Not one of us is really fit for th job, but then we do not do it as solitary persons - for together we are the Body of Christ in the world, the Body of Christ the King, whose power is in Love.

Today, you will be with me in Paradise. Happily ever after isn't just for fairytales. Amen.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Sunday after All Saints' Day

Ecclesiasticus 2:1-11; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-36

When my brother and I were little, my dad read to us every evening after dinner. We climbed up on the sofa and listened as he read to us about brave adventurers, great journeys, talking animals and distant lands. The books we read together are still among my favorites, and I look forward to reading them to my own son, to little Charlie, one day.

Already story time is an important part of our routine. When his pajamas are on and his teeth are brushed, Charlie rushes to his room to pick out his favorite books. We climb up on his bed and take turns reading or telling the stories. Charlie knows the books as well as we do, which isn't hard when you've read The Cat in the Hat eighteen nights in a row....

I hope that Charlie will always love story time. We've actually been reading to him since a few weeks before he was born, when we discovered the first Harry Potter book and decidd to read it out loud. It was a fun way to mark off the evenings - each chapter one night closer to Charlie's due date. Harry Potter will always remind me of Charlie, just like the books my dad read will always remind me of him.

I will never forget the day I arrived to pick up Charlie from daycare just minutes after he had fallen and bumped his head pretty hard. His teachers had cleaned up most of the dirt and tears, and when the sniffles finally stopped I asked him what had happened. And then Charlie told me a story. I didn't catch all the words (he was just 2), but the story definitely ended with a dramatic, "and...and...and then, crash!"

The goose egg on Charlie's forehead was impressive. But even more impressive was the long, thin, red scratch right down the middle. He looked like Harry Potter.

In the book, Harry learns that the scar on his forehead was the result of an evil spell gone awry, cast at him by an evil wizard, but intercepted by his parents. The scar marks him, but underneath it is a deeper mark still. Harry's wise old teacher explains, "Your parents died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort (the evil wizard) cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your parents' for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign....but to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loves you is gone, will give you some protection forever. It is in your very skin."

We, too, are marked by such a love. Do you feel it, just there on your forehead? At our baptism, our foreheads were marked with a cross. Not a scar, no visible sign....but to have been loved so deeply....With the sign of the cross we are sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever. It is in our very skin, and as we rise dripping from the waters of baptism, it seeps into our souls.

Harry's mark sets him apart from other people, and so, in one sense, does ours - we are set apart by God in baptism. Set apart to do the work of God in the world, to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. Set apart to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Set apart to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

Doing the work of God sets us apart, because it is so often not the way the world works. The world asks us to proclaim ourselves; to seek and serve what is best for us; to be in competition with our neighbors; to strive for getting even or, worse, getting ahead; to rank rather than to respect the dignity of every human being. It is not easy to be set apart by God.

Which makes this morning's gospel take my breath away. I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

It seems the baptismal covenant lets us off easy. In these words from Luke's gospel, we are given our most basic - and most difficult - instruction in what it means to bear the mark of Christ. The instruction? Love. Love. At all times, and in all places, Love. For in everything we do - at home, at school, at works, in the streets - in everything we do, we carry with us our vocation as baptized people. The mark of the depth of God's love for us is indelible - it goes where we go, and it meets who we meet.

We are set apart. But, unlike poor Harry Potter, we are not set apart alone. Today we are celebrating the great feast of All Saints, celebrating the lives and witness of all those who have gone before us in the faith. The dictionary defines a saint as "a holy person, a faithful Christian, one who shares life in Christ." A holy person. A faithful Christian. One who shares life in Christ. Almost as an afterthought, the dictionary adds, "the term may also indicate one who has been canonized or formally recognized as a saint by church authority."

And so All Saints' Day is about Mary and Jospeh, Peter and our own Paul, Augustine and Julian, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. But it is also about us - it is about Bryan and Greer and Suzanne and Bill. It is about Christopher and Laney, who we will be baptizing today. It is about Edna and Faye and Christopher and Louise and all the others we will name in our prayers, those whose faces we no longer see but whose mark has been left on our lives and in our hearts. Holy people. Faithful Christians. People who have shared with us life in Christ.

Every Sunday we affirm our belief in the communion of saints, which the catechism of our prayerbook defines as "the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise." We are not set apart alone. We are set apart into a family, into a community - the household of God, the Body of Christ.

In just a few moments, when we are asked, "Do you believe in God the Father?", let us imagine as we respond how many voices across time and space have said, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth." When we gather around the font, let us imagine how long must be the procession of those who have entered the waters of baptism. When we kneel at the table, let us imagine how many hands have reached out to take Christ into themselves. We are not alone.

In this place, at this font, at this table, our stories come together with the stories of all who have gone before us and all who will come after. Our stories come together and are rooted in the story of God's love for us, in the story of the cross, in the mark on our foreheads. Not a scar, no visible sign....but do deep a saturation of love in our souls that, as we go out from this place to do the work of God in the world, we may say together with conviction, "I will, with God's help." For we are all of us saints of God, and I mean, God helping to be one, too. Amen.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Vera and Charles' Wedding

Tobit 8:5b-8 (NEB); Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; John 15:9-12

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love...I have said these things to you so that my joy may be complete in you, and that your joy may be complete.

We are here this afternoon because Vera and Charles have found abiding love. They have found joy, and here, in just a few moments, they will stand before God, their family, and their friends, and make their joy complete.

Love. Joy. Complete. Do any words better describe the smiles we’ve seen so often on their faces? They are the same words Jesus chooses to describe the kind of relationship we are able to have with him, the kind of relationship we are able to have with God. Love. Joy. Complete.

Love is a word we use so very often for so many different things. "I love you," we say to our beloved. "I love you," we say to our dearest friend. "I love you," more than one of us, I’m sure, has said to a chocolate dessert. When it can be used in these different ways, what does the word love really mean?

The Greek language of Jesus’ day used at least three different words for love. There was eros, desire, a sense of being drawn toward a thing or a person that we love. Eros was often associated with a very physical, intimate kind of attraction, which makes sense - we are, after all, human beings with skin and hair and eyes and hands....Eros - desire for the beloved.

There was also philia, mutuality, a sense of enjoying the company of the person we love and knowing that our company is enjoyed in return. It was often associated with a deep friendship, especially between persons who share something in common. Philia - friendship with the beloved.

Finally, there was agape, selfless love, a commitment to seek and do what is good, what is best, for the person that we love, no matter what the cost. Does it sound familiar? Agape is the word Jesus uses when he speaks of abiding in God’s love. Agape is the word Paul uses when he said that love is patient and kind. Agape is the word that is used when we read, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...."

Christian writer and classics scholar C.S. Lewis had a different take than the ancient Greeks on love. He wrote, "We murder to dissect. In actual life, thank God, the elements of love mix and succeed one another, moment by moment." Even agape - selfless love - is flat and lifeless without the passion of eros, desire, and the intimacy of philia, friendship. God’s love for us is complete, made up of desire and friendship and selfless giving, and Vera and Charles’ marriage will be for us a mirror of that all-encompassing kind of love.

The word joy has not been spread quite as thin as the word love in common usage. It still retains a sense of sparkle, a sense of pureness - pure happiness, gladness. Surely this marriage will also be a mirror for us of the joy Jesus anticipates when we return our love, however imperfectly, for his perfect love. Jesus knows that we will sometimes fail him, that we will sometimes fail one another. And yet he uses the word joy to describe being in relationship. It is no accident, then, that we use the word joy to describe the marriage relationship, as we heard just a moment ago - The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy.

And last, the word complete. Here it means something like being full, even full to overflowing, of who we were made to be. We are made to be in relationship with God and with one another. Of course Vera and Charles are both whole people, with full lives and rich histories and their own tremendous gifts and strengths. And yet, in their marriage, they will become, in some sense, more complete, more full of who they were made to be. And their marriage will be a mirror for us of the way we, too, become more fully ourselves when we enter into a relationship with God, and with others through God.

Love. Joy. Becoming complete. We are here this afternoon because these words describe what Vera and Charles have. We are here this afternoon because these words describe what we can all have with God through Jesus Christ.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love....I have told you these things that my joy may be complete in you, and that your joy may be complete. Amen.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky

Wednesday Healing Service
2 Corinthians 4:11-18; Luke 24:44-48

"Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky....that's my name, too. Whenever we go out, the people always shout, there goes Samuel...."

Little Charlie can sing this song (well, John Jacob's version) at least 15 times in a row without ceasing to find it hilarious. I could read Samuel Isaac's story at least 15 times in a row without ceasing to find it inspirational.

I'm preaching on him tomorrow at the healing service. It's just a short homily, and I really am not supposed to use any notes, but there's so much I'd like to share about this incredible man. Perhaps I will just read from Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

Born in 1831 to Jewish parents in Lithuania, Samuel Isaac was studying for the rabbinate in Germany when a group of missionaries and his own study of a Hebrew translation of the New Testament introduced him to Christianity. He moved to America to train for the ministry in the Presbyterian Church, but switched teams midway through and finished his training as an Episcopalian at General.

After his ordination, Samuel Isaac accepted his bishop's call to serve in China. On the way there he learned to read and write Chinese. Good grief. Samuel Isaac would eventually become Bishop of Shanghai, found St. John's University in Shanghai, and make literally an entire life's work out of translating the Bible and other documents into various Chinese languages. Paralysis forced him to resign his cure in 1883, but he continued his work of translation until his death, typing more than 2,000 pages with only the middle finger of one partially paralyzed hand.

Late in his life, Samuel Isaac said, "I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted." This faith, this perseverance (the most raw display of faith we can make) - not what he accomplished with it - is, I think, what makes him a saint.

So do not lose heart, we will read in 2 Corinthians. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. Do not lose heart. We may have more wrinkles - laugh lines, right? - around our eyes and mouths, we may have more gray hairs on our heads, we may lose the ability to use our bodies in the ways we were accustomed, but we do not lose the ability to serve as witnesses to God's work in the world.

The collect we will read says, "Lead us, we pray, to commit our lives and talents to you, in the confidence that when you give your servants any work to do, you also supply the strength to do it." We do have permission, if our gift is not learning new alphabets and new languages in the length of time it takes us to travel to a new land, to do a smaller thing. The work we are given to do, whatever its size, is a piece of the coming of the kingdom of God, and so it is significant.

May we learn from Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky that perseverance - from taking the time to answer the call to taking time to finish a task - is a sure act of faith. May we learn from him that God does indeed provide us with the strength to do the things God calls us to. God wouldn't call us to do them otherwise. May we learn from Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky something of what it means to be a Christian, for that is our name, too.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Proper 23 C

Ruth 1:1-19a; Psalm 113; 2 Timothy 2:3-15; Luke 17:11-19

I cannot count the number of essays I wrote toward the end of high school and into college on the topic of "the most influential teacher you've ever had." Every application asked for it. On each one, I wrote about Dr. Bates.

At the beginning of 10th grade, I probably wouldn't ever have suspected I'd be writing positive things about him. From the first day of class, we knew we were in for something different. His survey of world history took us on a journey of thousands of years, and we felt every single step of it.

Looking back, of course, I see that Dr. Bates was up to much more than world history. He knew we were capable of learning more than names and dates, and he treated us as such. We read, we wrote, we debated, we challenged, we imagined....the single question that made up the final exam was: "Explain the history of the world." The amazing thing is, by the time we sat down with paper and pencil to answer that question, we knew how.

Dr. Bates paid careful attention to how we expressed ourselves, and he constantly challenged not only the content of our class discussions but even the turns of speech we used. Poor Bill Irwin (a well-liked boy with the unfortunate distinction of having a face that, when he was embarrassed, turned redder than tomato) was dragged up to the chalkboard one day to explain how one could "center around" an idea. Who knows what Bill had been talking about, but apparently he had said something was centered around something else, and Dr. Bates would have none of it.

Bill was asked to draw a point on the chalkboard - simple enough. Then Dr. Bates instructed him, "Now, with the chalk, center around that point." Bill stood there for a moment, his face practially pulsing red, and then finally drew a circle around the point. For the rest of the class period, we learned that "circling around" is not the same thing as "centering on." The center is the point in the middle, not the stuff around the edges.

From the safety of nearly seventeen years, I would humbly submit to Dr. Bates that perhaps God is indeed capable of what we are not. God, I submit, centers around. God, the center of the universe, walks to the edge of creation in the person of Jesus Christ. It was the sinners, the outcasts, the lost sheep Jesus came to redeem - not the folks safely tucked in the center. Jesus called everyone worthy of being in the center of God's love, and then sends us out to the margins with that love.

Jesus is feeling every step of his long journey toward Jerusalem. On the outskirts of a town, he encounters ten lepers. It is the only place he could have encountered them - their skin diseases kept them marginalized from the rest of Jewish society. Incredibly, Jesus tells these unclean, outcast people to go into town, all the way to the temple, and present themselves to the priests. It was probably not what they were hoping to hear. "You are healed," would have been nice. Only then would it have made sense for them to make for the temple - one cannot present one's self as healed and clean until one has actually been healed and made clean.

Let's give credit where credit is due. There is no good reason for any of these ten lepers to follow Jesus' instructions - in fact, in doing so, they could be risking their lives. They were not welcome in the temple. And yet, each one gets up and begins the journey from the margins to the center because Jesus told them to. It is a remarkable show of faith.

Perhaps that is why, somewhere along the way, they are healed. I wonder who noticed it first. I wonder what they said, what they did, what they thought had happened. We only know the response of one of those ten - the one leper who, finding himself healed, returns to Jesus. Luke doesn't tell us why this man returns and the others didn't - perhaps that's not important. What does Luke tell us?

He tells us the man was a Samaritan - a man on the margins of the margins. Even healed of leprosy he would not be welcome in a Jewish town and certainly not in the temple. And yet Jesus sent him off with the others to the temple in the center of the Jewish town to the temple, the center of the Jewish faith. Jesus had called him worthy to be healed. Jesus had called him worthy to stand in the center. And Jesus would tell him that his faith, although he was not a Jew, had made him well.

Luke tells us the man returned with shouts of praise to God. He threw himself down at Jesus' feet and thanked him. Perhaps he realized he would not be welcomed in the center. Perhaps he realized that the center of his newly healed life was still on the margins of town. And so he returned to the outskirts of town, where Jesus was still lingering, and offers thanks not in the holy of holies but before the Holy One himself. Perhaps the other nine did make it to the temple as Jesus had told them to do, and perhaps they gave thanks there. Apparently, that detail is not important. For Luke, it is important that one returns and gives thanks in the presence of God, where God is in that moment - on the margins.

Where are we in this story? Are we characters, or are we onlookers? Are we at the center or the margins? The answer must be....yes. We are centered around this story. We suffer from many diseases, as people have in every time and place, but the one that seems rampant among us is a sense of entitlement, a sense of deserving the good life, to the extent that we are easily able to become distanced and isolated from much of the world. We assume things are our "right", our "due" - we become preoccupied with our needs. Another preacher wrote, "It enables me to maintain my distance in the illusion of absolute independence. Healed of illness [of want, of need - when we get what our lives have been aching for] we wander off like the nine, because, after all, we're entitled to health."

The tenth leper turned back from his way, from the protection of distance, from the protection of the center, and threw himself at Jesus' feet on the margins of society. This was a second act of tremendous faith for him, for one who had so long been untouchable because of illness and would still be untouchable because of ethnicity. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and offered thanks, and in so doing, proclaimed his absolute dependence on God.

The same preacher wrote, "We cannot live at a distance and be truly healed at the same time. We are not really entitled to health or to joy or even to righteousness. Like the food that nourishes our bodies, these things do not grow up independently within us, but are literally foreign, alien to us, gifts from beyond ourselves that lure us into mutual interdependence with all others [which is to say, everyone] who have been embraced by a God who reached beyond the boundaries that we and the world have established to tell us we belong."

Jesus calls us to the center - to the center that is our faith community, to this worship space literally in the center of town, to the altar at the center of our worship space....and then he calls us to the margins, where Jesus himself is waiting, to the world "out there" where there are Samaritans all around - those whom we have pushed to the margins because they are not like us. The thanksgiving we offer at his feet here is a meal intended to prepare us, to strengthen us, to nourish us for the thanksgiving we will offer out there. After all, the beginning of our eucharistic prayer - the very beginning - acknowledges, "It is a right, good, and joyful thing always and everywhere to praise you...." Not just from the safety of the center.

And so, Dr. Bates, I humbly submit that as Christians, we are indeed called to center around Jesus Christ, himself the center and the margin and the place beyond the margin of love.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Proper 22 C

Habakkuk 1:1-13, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:3-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

We all know the story by now....the small group of companions traveling the road to the great city, their journey full of interruptions and side-trips, sometimes even full of danger. At every turn they complain about what they lack, what they are unable to accomplish or understand. The one who has brought them together is kind and wise and powerful, but never satisfactorily explains the significance of their journey or how they might make the way easier. Finally, certain that their lives cannot go on in the same way without serious intervention from the most powerful person they know, they cry out, "Increase our....our brains....our hearts....our courage...."

I don’t remember the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz. But I remember being afraid of the Wicked Witch, and I remember dressing up as Dorothy one Halloween night, and I remember learning how to play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on the piano and singing along for all I was worth....We watched it every year when it came on television, cheering when Toto escaped from Miss Gulch’s bicycle basket, peering from behind pillows when the Witch appeared and disappeared in clouds of red smoke, giggling when the Lion’s tail wouldn’t stay hidden under his castle guard disguise, crying with Dorothy when she said goodbye to her friends.

The movie has managed to stay magic for me all these years. Who hasn’t wished, with Dorothy, that all the gray dreariness of life would give way to something more colorful, more exciting, more....alive. Who hasn’t been convinced that just on the other side of somewhere that better world was waiting, and all we had to do was get away from here and get to there. Who hasn’t been certain, like the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, that if we only had a little more of something, our lives would be just right? If they only had the brains, the heart, the nerve....

At this point in Luke’s gospel, the disciples have been walking the road with Jesus for quite some time - we’ve been hearing about it since Pentecost. They’ve had all sorts of interruptions and side-trips - remember when Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the kingdom of God? Remember when they stopped by Martha and Mary’s house? And they’ve come face to face with danger - at least, Jesus has, in the form of religious leaders who are increasingly uncomfortable with what he is teaching. Remember when he talked about the narrow door that yet would admit all sorts of riff-raff into the kingdom? The Pharisees hadn’t liked the sound of that. And throughout this section of the gospel, Luke drops all sorts of hints that Jesus knows exactly what dangers are waiting for him in the great city of Jerusalem.

Most recently, Jesus has been talking about discipleship, about what it means to follow him on this road. He’s talked about giving up all one’s possessions. He’s talked about placing God before family. He’s talked about persevering in the face of opposition and evil. In the verses just before today’s gospel begins, he’s talked about the need to forgive people without exception, without limit, without conditions.

It must have been this forgiveness bit that pushed the disciples over the edge. They had been struggling to understand the meaning of Jesus’ parables, to be compassionate toward those Torah called untouchable, to be loyal to Jesus despite the danger....they’d used up all the brains and heart and courage they had, and they cried out in desperation, Increase our faith!

Who among us hasn’t wished, with the disciples, that we had more faith? That, with more faith, we could transform gray dreariness into color; that then, we could make the world better; that then, surely, our lives would be fulfilled? If we only had the faith....If only....If....

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request hinges on the word "if." In the Greek language, conditional clauses beginning with "if" either show that a situation is contrary to fact (as in "if you were me, which clearly you are not") or they show that the situation is in accordance with fact. It is this second kind of conditional clause that Jesus uses. If you had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, which is to say, you do have at least this much faith.... you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I’m not sure if it’s what the disciples wanted to hear or not. Jesus wouldn’t increase their faith, but he didn’t judge them by how much faith they had. He affirmed their faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, and told them even that was enough to do impossible, absurd, unthinkable things, like planting mulberry trees at the bottom of the ocean. Faith the size of a grain of mustard seed - barely visible, barely there at all....

The thing is, I don’t think Jesus was measuring their faith at all, not as they were, not as we are inclined to do, as though an extra pound or two of faith would make them or us more competent as disciples, would make it easier to understand, to love, to be brave. Faith isn’t measured by more or less - faith is either there or it is not.

Robert Farrar Capon writes, "It is not as if we have a faith meter in our chests, that our progress toward salvation consists in cranking it up over a lifetime from cold to lukewarm to toasty to red hot....If we have anything in our chests, it is....a simple switch: on, for yes to Jesus....and off, for no. The head of steam we work up in throwing the switch, either way, has nothing to do with the case."

Jesus tests our faith right away in yet another difficult-to-understand parable, which many have called the parable of the "unworthy" slave. But this week a friend whose brains and heart and courage I admire suggested a better title might be the parable of the "faithful" slave. This slave works hard all day in the fields, and then returns home not to eat a well-deserved dinner but to cook and serve dinner for the slave owner. There is no thanks, no reward. The slave was only doing faithfully what slaves were supposed to do - it’s not as though he went above and beyond the call of duty.

It is an imperfect parable for us today, because we regard slavery in such a different light than those in Jesus’ time. But it can still teach us, perhaps all the more powerfully, because the only parallel that might even begin to make sense to us is that of a disciple. Christian discipleship is hard work, so hard that even those who walked with Jesus in the flesh believed they were inadequate for the task. Christian discipleship is a Christian’s duty - it is not something above and beyond what we are called to do. Increase our faith!

If we have said yes to Jesus - even a mustard-seed-sized yes - then we have the faith we need. Faith, the willingness to imagine God at work in us and through us, doing impossible things. If we can imagine a mulberry tree being uprooted and planted in the sea, if we can imagine bread and wine filling us with God, if we can imagine an empty tomb, can’t we also imagine an end to hunger, poverty, war, genocide, discrimination, hatred, fear? Are these things really so impossible?

Christian discipleship is hard work, it is long work, and it is work that is not rewarded, not in the way we are accustomed to being paid for our efforts. It does not earn us God’s favor - we already have that. Christian discipleship is, in fact, our response to the faith that is already given to us by God. Christian discipleship is our living of that faith, our imagining that God can and does work through us, growing our mustard seed efforts to impossible heights. Faith is not measured by more or less - it is measured by the effort, by the life we put into it.

The slave is faithful to his life calling, and although it is an imperfect image for us, we might redeem it by considering that we, too, should be faithful in our work, the work we were called to in our baptism, proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace.

After they have finished all the tasks set before them - traveling to the great Emerald City, defeating the Wicked Witch of the West, and bringing the witch’s broomstick to the Wizard’s chambers - after they have done all the work they were given to do, Dorothy and her companions were angry and hurt to discover that they would not be rewarded for their efforts. The things they so desperately longed for in their lives would not be given to them.

The Wizard did not increase their brains, their hearts, their courage - instead, he shows them that all they had accomplished together was made possible by the ways in which they had already acted wisely, compassionately, and courageously. They didn’t need more - they needed to learn to see what they already had, and to see that it was more than enough.

I think, perhaps, L. Frank Baum might have liked our baptismal liturgy if he had seen it, for the prayer said over us after the mustard seeds of our faith have had their first good soaking reads: "Give them an inquiring and a discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you...."

Increase our faith! No, Jesus tells us. Release your faith. Let it live, let me work in you and through you and together we will do impossible things. Amen.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Proper 18 C

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

So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. What could Jesus possibly say to us that would be less appealing, less encouraging, than this. Let’s see. Oh, I know. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters....That’s less appealing. Tack on the also unpopular Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple, and we’ve got this morning’s not-so-encouraging gospel reading.

There were large crowds traveling with Jesus that day, presumably because they liked what they had been seeing and hearing. Blessed are the poor and hungry and those who weep, he had preached on the plain. I say to you rise, he had said to a widow’s dead son, and the boy sat up and began to speak. Your sins are forgiven, he had told a woman, known to be sinner, who knelt to wash his feet. He had chased away demons, calmed raging seas, fed thousands with bread and fish, healed countless diseases and infirmities, turned dinner parties literally upside-down, and he never lacked for a good story to tell about the kingdom of God.

There were large crowds traveling with Jesus that day, their hearts and minds and bellies so full of miracles that they were ready to follow him anywhere. I wonder if any of them noticed that the road they were on led to Jerusalem. I wonder how many would then have turned away had they known what would happen to Jesus there. Would their hearts have melted, their minds clouded, and their bellies turned?

I think this is what Jesus might have been wondering that day. Wondering if the crowd that so enthusiastically clung to his words and his works would still be clinging at the cross. Wondering if the crowd followed him because he helped them feel good, or if they followed him because he helped them feel God.

You really want to walk this road with me? he asked them. You really want to be my disciple? Because it’s not enough to have eaten my bread, to have had your hurts healed, to have sat at my feet and listened to my stories. Here’s what you will have to do. Unless you hate your family, unless you carry a cross, unless you give up all your possessions, you cannot be my disciple.
It’s not exactly an inspiring recruitment speech, is it? Not at all like the one Moses gave, when he told the Israelites that if they followed God they would receive blessing upon blessing. Choose life, Moses urged them, choose God, for that means life to you and length of days. Choose life, loving the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments....and the Lord your God will bless you.

That’s the deal the crowds thought they were getting. Blessing upon blessing. Hadn’t their lives already been blessed in so many different ways since they began traveling with Jesus?

But suddenly Jesus seems to offer a much different deal. Choose life, he urged them (and he urges us), choose life, choose God, and you will have to hate your family, take up a cross, and give up all your possessions.

I wonder how large his crowd was the next day. Luke doesn’t say. We only know that by the time he did make it to Jerusalem, the crowd that had so enthusiastically clung to him began to whisper and then to shout crucify him, and at the foot of the cross, only a handful remained.

How can it be that to choose life, to choose God, to choose God who is the creator and sustainer of all that lives - how can it be that to choose life we must also choose death? To choose love we must also choose hate? Didn’t Moses say it was an either/or? We can choose life and prosperity or death and adversity? How can Jesus tell us that to choose life we must hate life?

When texts are difficult, like this one, we tend to search for a way out. Sometimes there really are contexts particular to the time and place where Jesus was speaking that make his words sound harsher than they are. Sometimes there are nuances in the Greek text that become lost when translated into English. But there doesn’t seem to be a way out today.

In the Ancient Middle East, family was terribly important. It was the source of one’s identity, the source of one’s standing in society, and very literally the source of one’s life. Without family, a person was invisible, on the margins of society, and without any assurance of a place to live or food to eat. Today our families are more scattered, and we are less likely to be dependent on our extended families for food and shelter. But to be asked to hate our mothers and fathers, our spouses and children, our brothers and sisters....even in the most fragile of family relationships this demand melts the heart a little, clouds the mind, and makes our bellies turn.

So does the thought of carrying a cross - we no longer execute criminals this way, but we are well aware that a cross is a mark of shame and an instrument of death, and that it is indeed where Jesus was headed as he traveled toward Jerusalem. And then to give up all our possessions - how much more difficult is this command for us than it was for the large crowds who traveled with Jesus that day, the poor, the hungry, the weak, the outcast....and we who have three meals a day, a roof over our heads, a car to take us shopping, and probably so much more....

The contexts have shifted in 2000 years, but Jesus’ words still sound harsh.

And there is nothing in the translation to help us, either. The Greek word we translate as "hate" may not actually mean the opposite of "love," but it does clearly mean to place as a lower priority than something else. We are to place our families and even life itself as a lower priority than God. A little easier to stomach, perhaps, but still bitter to the taste.

If we give up our families, if we give up our possessions, if we give up our fears of ridicule and suffering and death, what do we have left to sustain our lives?

We have God. We have God.

And having God, we need nothing else. This is what Jesus wanted those who would be his disciples to know. I think it is what Moses wanted the Israelites to know. Having God, we need nothing else because having God, we have everything.

We have Love, the kind that does not fear, that does not judge, that does not end. That’s how God loves us. And it is this Love that then becomes the source of our love for our fathers and mothers, our spouses and children, our sisters and brothers. It is this Love that makes sisters and brothers out of all of us here, and all those whom we meet out there, and even all those who we will not meet. I will never forget the letter my mom sent me at a youth retreat when I was in high school - she wrote, "It gives me joy to know we are not just mother and daughter but sisters in Christ."

Having God, we have everything. We have Strength, the kind that does not force, that does not give up, that does not lose hope. That’s how Jesus walked to Jerusalem, and it’s how he was able to endure the cross. It is this Strength that then becomes the source of our strength to take up the cross in our own day, to risk humiliation, rejection, and perhaps even death in order to bear witness to God’s love for the world. We do not bear the cross alone.

Having God, we have everything. We have Life, the kind that does not fear being lost but knows that it is for ever found, the kind that does not live for itself but lives for others, the kind that does not know scarcity but only abundance. It is this Life that makes us able to regard our possessions not as ours alone but as gifts we have to share. One of the many desperate people who come to St. Paul’s daily seeking financial assistance delivered the best sermon on stewardship I have ever heard. He said, "It’s not like we’re being asked to give up what’s ours - it all comes from God anyway, right? From God having made us able to do certain things and be certain things...."

Love, Strength, Life....blessing upon blessing upon blessing....Jesus wasn’t changing the deal Moses offered - I think he was just highlighting the fine print. Moses warned the Israelites, because he knew them all too well, if your heart turns away....if you are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish. When we put anything, anything before God who is Love, who is Strength, who is Life, then we are living as less than who we were created to be. Our lives are diminished, even if they are filled with family and possessions and security.

When we put God before everything else, then everything else in our lives is transformed. Choosing God, choosing Life, choosing discipleship is not just about clinging to the One who fills our hearts and minds and bellies with miracles. Choosing God, choosing life is also walking with Jesus to the cross. Love that does not end, Strength that will not lose hope, and Life that will cannot be lost sustain us as we go.

Let us pray in the words of Julian of Norwich, "God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me. If I ask anything that is less, I shall be in want, for only in you do I have all." Amen.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Proper 16 C

Isaiah 28:14-22; Psalm 46; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-29; Luke 13:22-30

Until a few months ago, I had absolutely no idea how easy it is to say, "Because I’m Mommy and I said so." At 3 ½, our son Charlie is a pretty good guy, but he’s finally figured out his mommy and daddy stay awake after he has gone to bed, and lately he’s been quite concerned that he might be missing out on some serious fun.

I remember getting out of bed at night when I was little, tiptoeing down the stairs, and peaking around the door into the living room where my parents were watching TV. They always knew I was there, which I thought must be magic, but now I know it's because they could see my reflection in the window beside the sofa. We catch Charlie that way now.

"But why do I have to go to bed?" he always asks as we walk back to his room. And at first we crafted imaginative replies about the sun going down and stars playing in the sky, about resting our bodies and dreaming happy dreams. But a few weeks into this pattern.... "But why...." our answers shrank with our patience, and we would simply tell him, "Charlie, because it’s night time and you need to sleep."

One night, after the fourth or fifth escort back to bed, he asked as always, "Why do I have to go to sleep?" And I couldn’t believe the words as they were coming out of my mouth.... "Because I’m Mommy and I said so...."

We’ve learned that the less we say when we tuck him back in, the less likely we are to catch his reflection in the window later on. So we save the stories about stars and dreams for before bed, and keep our late-night answers short and to the point.

When we read this morning’s gospel passage at senior high bible study this week, we agreed that it sure would be nice if Jesus could just give a straight answer once in a while. A simple yes or no, and get on with it.

Lord, will only a few be saved? If he could just say, "As a matter of fact, yes," or "I’ve got to say, no." Short and to the point. And if anyone asked why, he could say, "Because I’m God and I said so."

But it seems Jesus was more inclined to the stars and dreams approach, to long, winding answers filled with images, encoded in parables. His teachings often twist and turn, so that by the end of his answer, we are left with more questions than we started with.

Lord, will only a few be saved? And Jesus takes a deep breath and answers, "Strive to enter through the narrow door. Many will try but few will make it. When the door is shut it is shut, and you will not be able to get in no matter what you say. And you will watch all sorts of folks come from north and south and east and west to eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

Uh-huh. So, Jesus, is that a yes or a no? Will only a few be saved?

Jesus’ stars and dreams response, which I think begins with a yes but ends with a glorious no - no, not only a few people but people from north and south and east and west....his response is, I think, less an answer to the question and more a statement about the question itself.

You see, Little Charlie’s question makes some sense, at least the first few hundred times he asks it...."Why do I have to go to bed?" He’s only just discovered that it’s possible to stay awake later than he usually does. But the question in this morning’s gospel...well it doesn’t really make any sense. So many of the questions Jesus fields in the gospels don’t make any sense, not any more. It’s just that the folks asking them don’t realize that yet.

The folks asking Jesus questions, most of the time, were faithful Jews living under an increasingly rigid observance of Torah. Keeping God’s law was the only way they were able to preserve their identity as God’s people, the only way they were able to remember that their true covenant was with Yahweh, and not with the Roman governments and gods whose power was a constant threat to them.

And then here comes Jesus, healing on the Sabbath, touching unclean people, eating in the homes of sinners, taking tax collectors as disciples. He broke the law. I suppose Jesus didn’t make much sense to those who were trying the only way they knew how to be faithful to God. They didn’t yet realize that in Jesus, God was showing them a new way.

I have to trust that there is wisdom in the way our lectionary is put together, but I’m not sure I understand why we are reading this morning’s passage without having read the two parables that precede it. Jesus has been talking about the kingdom of God, comparing it first to a tiny mustard seed that, once planted in the garden, is filled with life and grows into an enormous tree that becomes a refuge for many birds of the air. Do you hear echoes of our tale of a tiny, narrow door becoming a table that seats many?

The second parable Jesus tells, just before today’s text begins, is that the kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. It’s less familiar to us than the mustard seed, but Episcopal priest, theologian, and amateur baker Robert Farrar Capon suggests it is one of the most remarkable things Jesus ever said. Capon writes, "Just as yeast enters into the dough by being dissolved into the very liquid that makes the dough become dough at all - just as there is not a moment of the dough’s existence, from start to finish, in which it is unleavened dough - so this parable insists that the kingdom [of God] enters the world at its creation and that there is not, and has never been, an unkingdomed humanity anywhere in the world."

There is not, and has never been, an unkingdomed humanity anywhere in the world.

Lord, will only a few be saved? The question doesn’t make any sense, because we are, all of us - you, me, the people we like most and the people we like least - we are all of us already saved. Jesus has made certain of that - he gave his life to make certain of that.

Lord, will only a few be saved? CS Lewis wrote something to the effect of, "It’s like asking what color is the number three?" What kind of answer can you give to a question that doesn’t make any sense?

Jesus’ answer seems to suggest that the deeper question, the real question, the honest question is this: Who might I have to sit beside at the table?

Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. The door is not an image for salvation - we are all already saved. The door is our willingness to live like it, to live as though Jesus died for us and for all sinners everywhere, to love the world that much, to engage the world that deeply. The door is narrow because it squeezes out of us every ounce of how the world tells us to live, in judgement, in competition, in self-preservation, in fear. By the world’s standards it doesn’t make sense - when we try to walk through alone, believing we have earned access to the table and others have not, we cannot fit through the narrow opening. But when we walk through hand in hand, side by side, believing that God’s grace has set a place for everyone, there is somehow more than enough room.

Jesus asks us to live in the world right now as though we were all already eating together at that banquet table on the last day. If someone is hungry and needs a second helping of bread, by all means pass it. If someone is sick and weak and having trouble cutting their roast beef, by all means help them cut it. If someone is weary and fumbling with words to a prayer, by all means help them pray it.

One of our stars and dreams attempts to keep Little Charlie in bed at night was a story about the moon watching over him and keeping him safe. We thought it had done the trick, but he soon wandered back out to the living room, worried that the moon was going to get him. Our long-winded answer kept him up at night.

Jesus’ long-winded answer keep us up at night, too. It doesn’t make much sense. We are all already saved, and the door is wide open for us all to join him at the table. But we might not make it to the feast. Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, "Some may find themselves shut out from Jesus’ table in the only way one can make that happen: by refusing to share it with the others invited."

The answer is simple, but it is not easy. And so we are first nourished at this table, where we come together from just a little bit north, south, east, and west to feast on grace, to be filled with the One whose love saw beyond the boundaries we place between ourselves. May we go out from this place hand in hand and swing our doors wide open, and begin to reveal to the world the kingdom already in its midst. Amen.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Proper 14 C

Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-15, 18-22; Hebrews 11:1-16; Luke 12:32-40

Happy new year!

No, the Florida sun during this week’s family vacation has not baked my head or distorted my sense of time, although the week went by far too fast.

It is actually hard to know anymore how to mark a year in the life of the church. Do we go from Advent to Advent, following our liturgical cycle? Do we celebrate on January 1, when the calendar announces a new year has arrived? Or do we look to Easter morning to tell us we’ve arrived again at the beginning?

All of these events mark time in our life together as a parish community. But I think a significant period of time has passed, whether or not it’s been quite a full year, when we come together on this day. Today. It’s the first day of Sunday School.

So, happy new year! We’re even having a party this afternoon to celebrate!

Many of us have been busy marking the new year for some weeks now, getting in last minute vacations, shopping for school clothes, registering for classes, preparing lesson plans....the first day of, as Little Charlie calls it, "School School" (as opposed to "Sunday School") has also arrived.

Of course, I want to encourage everyone to become part of our Christian formation programs that are beginning over the next few weeks - Sunday School, EYC, Bright Beginnings, Wednesday evening dinners and programs, and Stewardship. But it is even more important to encourage everyone, whether you come to Sunday School or not, whether you have children in school or not, to take advantage of this time when we do, for all intents and purposes, start a new year, when we are so focused on beginning new things.

This morning’s readings are all about beginning new things, and the measure that marks them all is faith. Our reading from Hebrews lists example after example - by faith the world was created, by faith Abel offered his sacrifice, by faith Enoch lived a life that pleased God, by faith Noah built an faith Abraham and Sarah, the favorite example, set out for a place they would never see with the promises of children they did not yet have and a blessing they had no reason to think they would ever receive.

Just a few weeks ago we heard about Abraham and Sarah’s faithfulness to the laws of hospitality, when they fed and sheltered three strangers who were later revealed to be divine guests. God told them then and there that the first of the starry host promised to them so long before would soon be born. Abraham was stunned speechless and Sarah laughed, so extravagant was the grace.

This morning’s Old Testament reading takes us back in time from that glorious day to one in which Abraham was filled with despair. He and Sarah were considering giving up a secure and stable life to become wanderers, all because God promised that from them would come a chosen people who would live in a chosen land and receive God’s most choice blessing. There was not one shred of evidence that God would deliver on any of it, but - was it faith yet, or boredom, or reckless whim? - Abraham and Sarah packed everything up and set out for Somewhere.

I don’t blame Abraham for being frustrated at first, for complaining that the one thing he and Sarah ought to be able to accomplish for themselves - having their own child - seemed impossible. What happened next changed Abraham and Sarah and the whole world forever. God brought Abraham outside and said, Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. Then God said to him, So shall your descendants be.

What did Abraham and Sarah see in the sky filled with stars that night? Certainly the limitless constellations spoke of abundance, of extravagance, of God’s joy in creating life and light. But sheer numbers aren’t enough to fire real faith, because faith is more than something we can grasp with our minds, especially if we have to do it with a symbol representing a number to which we could never count...

In the stars, Abraham and Sarah saw light in a dark place. Not enough to cast light on the end of their journey, the nature of their blessing, or the face of their child. Not enough to drive away the darkness, but enough to make the darkness dazzle, enough to help them see beyond the darkness filled with uncertainty and fear and frustration and doubt to a God for whom darkness is not dark and the night is as bright as the day.

They believed, and they put one foot in front of the other, and plunged into the deep and dazzling darkness of faith. This is faith, going forward when it would be easier to turn back, or at least stand still - going forward with God simply because God has invited us to. And God has invited us, as surely as God invited Abraham and Sarah, to go forward in faith, to leave behind security and stability as the world measures it and find our safety in God, who is our shield. Faith does not earn for us God’s promise, God’s blessing - faith is our response to God’s promise already given.

Isaac may have been the first new star in Abraham and Sarah’s night sky, but of course he would not be the last. Countless stars have appeared, women and men who, like Abraham and Sarah, went forward in faith simply because God invited them to. We read about them in Holy Scriptures. We read about them in historical documents of the Church. We read about them in newspapers. Most of them we’ll never read about, for their lives are as ordinary as ours. Of them all, we heard it read they died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

It is the beginning of a new year in the life of our parish, the year by which we measure our intentional formation and education in what it means to be chosen by God, to be numbered among the stars. Through classes, bible studies, youth programs, shared meals, pledge cards, outreach activities, and worship we train our eyes on the heavens to guide us as our feet make their day-to-day journey through the world.

May we all be challenged this morning by Abraham and Sarah and all those others to begin something new, something really new, something that requires us to give up a piece of the stability and security we so fear giving up. It will probably look different for each of us - go to Sunday School for the first time, begin volunteering weekly at LOVE’s kitchen, start praying as a family every day, give more than feels comfortable. By faith, may we go forward with God simply because God has invited us to.

Saint Clare of Assisi, one of the starry host whose feast day we celebrate this week, would give us this blessing on our journey into the unknown: "Go forth in peace, for you follow the good road. Go forth without fear, for God who created you has sanctified you, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother." Amen.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Proper 11 C

Genesis 18:1-14; Psalm 15:1-7; Colossians 1:21-29; Luke 10:38-42

Every summer growing up, I went to camp. Camp Gravatt in Aiken, South Carolina, the Episcopal camp and conference center for the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. After a bout or two with homesickness, Camp Gravatt became a second home to me, and I believe that much of who I am today began to be formed there, surrounded by pine trees, sand burs, and chiggers….surrounded also by counselors, staff, and kids who got to know each other by playing, and singing, by swimming and telling stories around a campfire, by making God’s Eyes and lanyards, by trying a little bit more of the ropes course each year….

I was actually pretty shy, sticking close to my counselor and whichever friend I had talked into coming to camp with me. But when I was ten, my mom gave me her old guitar - I was so excited, and took it to camp because I wanted to be just like Ashley Byrd, my counselor from the summer before, who was always the music leader and who told me I was braver than I thought I was.

She was right, and I did learn to be something like Ashley Byrd. In time I would become the music leader at Camp Gravatt, and at other camps and conferences, and, to make a very long story short, here I am today….In the meantime, though, I am certain that I broke the world record for receiving the “Best Musician” award on the last night of camp.

I was excited about it the first year – Ashley herself drew the award on pink construction paper with a rainbow and some music notes. And then the next year some other counselor gave me the “Musician” award, and then another, and then when I was on staff the campers gave it to me….Just once, I thought it might be nice to get the “Best God’s Eye” or “Most Valuable Player in Capture the Flag” or “Most Improved at Lighting Campfires”….But those never came.

So I can sympathize with Martha in this morning’s gospel reading. With Martha and Mary, I suppose, although we usually imagine that Mary is happy with her “Better Part Award” while Martha is disappointed to have received the award for “Most Anxious Hostess.” Heaven help the counselor who had these sisters in her cabin – Martha busy making perfect hospital corners on everyone’s bunks during cabin clean-up and glaring at Mary so wrapped up in studying the way the lake ripples in the breeze that she’ll probably miss the activities bell again.

Reflections on this passage nearly always cast Martha and Mary as types, contrasting the active life and the contemplative life, the traditional woman and the modern woman, the anxious presence and the non-anxious presence. Listeners are drawn to their story, finding themselves in one or the other sister, and hearing Jesus speak to them personally. If you are a Mary, you hear Jesus commend you for your devotion, for your hunger to hear his teaching, for your ability to unclutter your mind and your life.

If you are a Martha, though….well, different Martha’s hear different things. Some Martha’s hear Jesus giving them permission to slow down, to take a break, to put things on hold in order to indulge in a little devotional time. Some Martha’s hear a Jesus who obviously doesn’t have homework, carpools, deadlines, bills, grocery lists, soccer games, business trips, e-mails... These Martha's hear Jesus, who apparently doesn’t have pots to juggle, telling them that they should just let their own pots boil over and burn up while they indulge in a little devotional time.

Eventually, these type-readings of the gospel passage conclude that we all have a little Mary and a little Martha in us, that we are all called to be both intent in prayer and study and active in serving the needs of others, that being grounded in God is what gives us strength to face the challenges of the day. Jesus himself had a little Martha and a little Mary in him, healing and feeding and preaching one moment and stealing a little private time with God the next.

In our fast-paced world, with palm pilots that can hold more tasks than we can ever hope to accomplish and cell phones that connect to more people than we can ever hope to call, this is an important reading of this morning’s gospel. But if we stop there, we’ve missed something. We’ve missed something of who Martha and Mary are, and, so something of who we are. There’s something deeper to the story, something deeper to these women, deeper than the awards we’ve handed to them year after year after year.

Let’s look at them again. Martha is the head of her household, which for Jewish women in the first century was a mark of great tragedy. Either she was widowed, or she was never married – in either case, she held no position in society, and her condition was considered the result of God’s displeasure. She was expected to be invisible, silent, and grateful for whatever handouts came her way.

When Jesus passed by Martha’s house on his way to Jerusalem, something about him compelled her to invite him in and offer him a meal – an unthinkable gesture for any woman, especially one like Martha. “A bold and reckless action,” says the Reverend James Liggett. “A bold and reckless action that struck at convention, ignored propriety, and was totally scandalous.” And yet, she could not let the opportunity that was Jesus pass her by. In another gospel, it will be Martha who first confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of God.

Mary must have watched all this with some anxiety herself, not knowing why Martha would risk their already marginal life by inviting Jesus into their home. But as he began to speak, she, too is compelled, and finds herself at a moment of decision. She can go with Martha to the kitchen and perform her social obligation as hostess, or she can stay in the room with Jesus and be taught with the disciples. Surely she and Martha and Jesus had heard the rabbinic saying, “It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman.” But Mary could not let the opportunity that was Jesus pass her by, and so she sat at his feet and listened. It was a bold and reckless action that struck at convention, ignored propriety, and was totally scandalous. And yet, in another gospel, it will be Mary who, having heard Jesus’ word, will take up the mantle of hospitality and anoint his feet.

Martha and Mary were more alike than perhaps even they knew. The sisters were both willing to risk everything when the opportunity that was Jesus passed by. They both weighed the difference between having Jesus in their lives and not having Jesus, and they both found that not having Jesus was not worth all the safety, all the comfort, all the convenience in the world. And Jesus honored their choices – he accepted Martha’s invitation to come inside, and he encouraged Mary to sit among the disciples, actions that were themselves bold and reckless for any respectable rabbi.

When Martha and Mary invited Jesus into their lives, things changed. But Martha didn’t see at first that things were different. She thought she would go on living the same way she always had, and that Mary would do the same, so when Mary suddenly turns her back on the old way of doing things, Martha is thrown for a loop. Jesus gently reminds her, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.

There is need of only one thing, and both Martha and Mary have risked it all for that one thing – the presence of Jesus in their lives. Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says, not because she is in the living room instead of the kitchen, but because she understands and accepts that her life will never be the same again. At some point, they’ll get hungry, and it very well may be Mary’s award-winning pot roast that feeds them and Martha’s quiet prayer that blesses the meal.

When we invite Jesus into our lives, things change. Old rules and patterns get mixed up, and we are faced with a decision. We choose the better part when we allow his presence to transform us, even if the changes are strange, uncomfortable, counter-cultural, or inconvenient. If you once had Sunday mornings free for breakfast and browsing the paper instead of coming to worship, you already know this. If you used to spend Sunday evenings catching up on homework instead of going to EYC, you already know this. If you used to keep everything you earned for yourself instead of giving to the church, you already know this. When we invite Jesus into our lives, things change.

Like Martha and Mary, we cannot let the opportunity that is Jesus pass us by. And once he is here, we cannot expect our own lives or the life of our church to remain unchanged. For we have seen that, in the presence of Jesus, those who are on the margins become hosts and hostesses of God. Those who are called unworthy or who are deemed incapable are chosen and welcomed as God’s disciples. It is no coincidence that on July 29th, the Feast of Mary and Martha, thirty years ago, the first women were ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, a bold and reckless action that struck at convention, ignored propriety, and was totally scandalous.

If we are to be stereotyped, may it be as people who are ever open to the transforming grace of God working in and through us. When we invite Jesus into our lives, things change. Could we expect anything different from One who has made the blind to see and the deaf to hear, who has called sinners friends and Samaritans good neighbors, who changed has death itself into life? Is anything too wonderful for God? Amen.