Sunday, November 17, 2019

Pentecost 23, 2019-C: A path to new life

Lectionary: Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19



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I’m not much of a TV watcher, but when I watch, I’m often more interested in the commercials than the shows, and not just at the Superbowl. To me, commercials offer fascinating commentary on culture. They expose our priorities, unmask (sometimes create) our fears, and propagate the illusion of our personal power.

The shows we choose to watch tell us a lot about what matters to our culture too. The most popular show on TV right now is The Walking Dead, a post-apocalyptic series in which regular people must survive attacks by walking dead bodies whose goal is to transform everyone else into walking dead bodies. How metaphoric is that?!?

The question this begs is: are we more than just our bodies? The deep fear in our culture seems to be that the worst possible outcome is that we could be reduced to bodies animated by death instead of life. I agree and I hear Jesus’ voice echoing: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

The cultural fallacy revealed by our “entertainment” habits is that we can mitigate our fears by preparing for the end of the world or life as we know it. We can make ourselves stronger, better armed, or even super-powered. We can hoard supplies and just wait out the apocalyptic moment hidden in a bunker somewhere. That’s what “Preppers” do. A New York Times article quotes a prepper store exec who said, “By prepping, “you’re actually alleviating fear.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon, though. Has there ever been a time in history when there were no plagues or famines, natural disasters, or wars? No. Neither, it seems, has there been a time in history when people weren’t trying to figure out how to survive an apocalypse.

Archeological evidence shows that there were some people in the ancient city of Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 A.D., who tried to hoard food and survival supplies in an attempt to survive the impending volcanic eruption, but their preparations were no match for the power of Mount Vesuvius.

The only way to calm this fear is to stay close to God, the Giver of the breath of life.

The Jews in the first century saw their temple destroyed and church as they knew it was ended – but the Jewish faith continued (h/t to Rev. Rob Field for this comment). The disciples saw their long-awaited Redeemer executed, and what seemed like the end was, in fact, only the beginning. It was the divine plan in action, the redeeming love of God at work in the world.

In today’s readings, both Jesus and Paul address this. Jesus says, when you see these dreadful events, “Do not be terrified... the end will not follow immediately.” And Paul urges the church in Thessalonica, who had been waiting for the second coming that never happened, not to be idle – not to sit back and just wait for the end to come. There is work to do in the now. People are suffering. “Do not weary in doing what is right,” Paul says.

When “the end” is, you see, isn’t our concern. Our role, as Christians, is not to escape the dreadful events in the world, but to enter them, carrying in the Spirit of Christ who dwells in us, bringing relief to the suffering, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and comfort to the frightened, lonely, orphaned, or those in times of trial.

As he addresses his disciples’ fear, I think Jesus knows what lies ahead for them, not because of any divine knowledge but because he can see where the road ahead of them is leading. What the powers of the church and world are about to do to him, they also will do to his followers.

So he exhorts them to trust God and surrender to the Spirit when that happens. Don’t prepare your defense, he says. Let me speak it through you, for “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Let’s not let that amazing statement pass by unexamined. Jesus is promising that HE will give them the words they should use AFTER he has been killed. Did they wonder how he would do that? Do we?

That statement confirms God’s redeeming work fulfilled in Jesus who gave his Spirit to us. Jesus’ Spirit now lives in us, speaks for us, and acts through us. When we surrender our need to judge, to escape suffering, and to survive, and choose instead to trust in the redeeming love of God, we find life, hope, and true super-hero style strength. I think of saints like Peter, Paul, Catherine of Sienna, Gandhi, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr, Thomas Cranmer, and Corrie Ten Boom – to name just a few.

The end of anything is not something we dread or avoid or prepare to survive. It is for us, the revelation of a path to new life. Our reading from Isaiah shows us that God has been bringing new life from death for a long time.

At the end of this gospel reading, Jesus makes yet another amazing statement: “By your endurance you will gain your souls." This is often taken to mean that when we suffer we “earn” our salvation, but that isn’t what Jesus is saying. Jesus never said stuff like that.

Jesus is saying that when we are suffering, if we wait in the discomfort we will awaken to the fact of the presence of God within us. When that happens we become fully ourselves, human bodies housing the divine spirit. Then there is no circumstance, not even death, that has power over our ability to live; for we live and breathe in communion with God, according to the will and plan of God.

What we are witnessing in the larger Church, and what we are living in this particular church, is the redeeming love of God at work. It may feel like an end of something is coming, but it isn’t.

As Corrie ten Boom once said, “…I know that …memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work he will give us to do.”

Our own history at St. David’s affirms that. We are a resurrection church. We have died and been reborn once already. God clearly has a plan for us and breathes life into us, and so we have nothing to fear.

We can, therefore, let go of our desired outcomes, be undistracted by fear, and choose instead to be awake, aware, and alive in the present moment which is a gift from God, taking each step as it comes, trusting that God is guiding us on a path that leads only to life.

Amen.


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Pentecost 22, 2019-C: A broader perspective

Lectionary: Haggai 1:15b-29; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38



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En el nombre del Dios, creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Have you ever been in a situation where your whole life blew up on you? Maybe a spouse or parent or spiritual mentor died. Or maybe your child died – in utero or in the world. Maybe you were betrayed by someone you loved and trusted. Maybe you were arrested for drunk driving or possession of something illegal. Maybe someone you know was killed or war happened in your homeland. There are so many ways we experience life blowing up on us.

Our reading from Haggai speaks to this directly, offering a broader perspective. In this story, the first exiles are returning from Babylon to Judah and see that everything they knew about their life there had been destroyed. They were heartbroken, lost, and afraid.

That’s how it feels when our life blows up on us.

The prophet proclaims to the people God’s response to how they feel. God says, “take courage” three times, then makes that very familiar promise: “My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”

Then God says something that should catch our attention: “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine.” When I read this my brain is jolted out of my usual perspective of this world and the other and I remember the truth of their co-existence in God.

Then and now, we work for silver and gold and treat it as if it’s ours. My income, my pension, my house… This is what Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel from Luke: the co-existence of earth and heaven in God.

In this story, some Sadducees ask Jesus about a confusing detail: what happens in the next life to a woman who marries her husband’s brother according to the law? It’s a fair question. According to the law in Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), the levirate marriage (the marriage of a widow to her husband’s living brother) was an important pastoral move on the part of the Jewish people. It ensured that the widow, who was her husband’s property, would not end up alone and impoverished and that the man’s heirs, unborn as yet, would not lose their inheritance. In addition, the dead man’s posterity, his name would, as a result of the marriage, not be lost.

It’s important to note that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection since it was not in the Torah. The Pharisees did, so there was an element of deceit in the question in that they were hoping to force Jesus to pick a side. If Jesus aligned with either side, the other could move against him and stop him.

Jesus, however, lived, embodied, and taught about the co-existence of this earth and heaven in the unity and oneness of God. In this world, he said, you marry and have children. In the other, you are all children of God. There is no need to protect widows and heirs. There is no need to be concerned about property or posterity.

But as a quick nod to those Sadducees who hold to their Scripture as the only authority on truth, Jesus points out that this is, in fact, in the Torah, if they had eyes to see and hearts to understand. Reminding them of the story of Moses where God spoke of being in relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were long dead on earth, but clearly alive and with God in heaven, Jesus offers a broader perspective without picking a side. He just changed the playing field, reconciling life in this world and in the other in God once again, saying that to God, “all of them are alive.”

This is where St. Paul picks up the discussion in his letter to the church in Thessalonica. Everyone was waiting for the Day of the Lord when Christ would come again, end this world once and for all, and bring all the good and faithful people to heaven while casting the rest into eternal punishment.

But Paul offers them a broader perspective. The day of the Lord is already here, he says. It’s an astounding short phrase that Christians throughout history seem to overlook. That day has come. Christ has come again by coming into us, dwelling is in us. We are the first fruits of salvation. Hear that again: we are the first fruits of salvation, and we have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit and called to proclaim our Good News.

The rebellion and lawlessness revealed on earth would be necessary first so that we, the first fruits of salvation, could know where the one destined for destruction was so that we could carry our light, the light of Christ in us there, and open the way for reconciliation. For God desires the reconciliation of all, not just some.

Jesus told us over and over that he came to reconcile the whole world to God; to reconnect all who have been exiled, to re-member all who have been cut off, reclaim all to have been lost. The second coming of Christ is in process; it’s happening now, through us who have his spirit in us. We are called to continue his work of reconciliation and bear more fruit of salvation in his name.

As our bishop said in his convention sermon: there is spiritual hunger in this world. The world is hungry for what we have. Then he asked, “Where do we find opportunities to bear fruit and be people of healing, reconciliation, and justice-making? Well, when we ask that question, we're a bit like that little fish that would swim up to other fish and ask, "where's the ocean? Where's the ocean?" Finally, one of the other fish said, "what do you mean, 'where's the ocean?'" And the little fish said, "I'm looking for the ocean -- but all I see around me is water..."

So how do we do this? How do we proclaim the Good News we know?

Well… we discussed this too at our diocesan convention this weekend! Stephanie Spellers, who serves as the Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, offered us information and, more importantly, processes we can use to practice this together. So, I’m going to do as she suggested, and add of her exercises to my preaching today.

Exercise of the great meal memory. Find a partner. Determine who is Partner A and B. B goes first. Stop and think of a wonderful meal you’ve had ever or recently. Then tell your partner (30 seconds). Partner B goes first. (pause) Now Partner A - do it again.

How did that go? Were you able to recognize the presence of God in the story you heard? In the story you told?

(Invite sharing)

That’s evangelism the Episcopal way, and you’ve practiced it twice already.

That’s how we do this. That’s how we proclaim the Good News we know. No Bible-thumping required. No Bible verse wars. No intrusion into someone’s wound or yanking the foundation on which they stand.

The Good News we have to share is that the spirit of God dwells among us, in each of us, in all of us. The more we practice having eyes to see and hearts to understand that, the more we broaden our perspectives, the better we can recognize and share those moments. God, to whom all are alive, all are worthy, all are beloved, does the rest. Amen.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

All Saints Day, 2019: A plan of love

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



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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

The early church considered a saint to be anyone who believed that Jesus is the Christ. We still do. That’s why the Saints we remembered today in our Litany today include Catholics and Protestants, civil rights advocates, medieval mystics, military generals, and peace activists. They are lay and ordained, women and men: they are all of us.

As Episcopalians, we don’t hold sainthood and heaven to be things we achieve after our death. For us, these are both eternal and present realities.

The communion of saints, something we profess to believe in each time we say our Creeds together, includes all those who were, who are, and who are to come who believe that God’s promise of salvation has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The work of the saints is to proclaim by word and example this good news to the world and to continue Christ’s work of reconciliation until he comes again.

The Catechism in our Prayer Book, says that “the communion of saints is 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.” (BCP, 862) Our unity in Christ brings down every boundary that separates us, even the boundary between life and death.

It boggles the mind, but as we saw in the gospel reading today, those beautiful and challenging Beatitudes, when Jesus taught he tended to boggle the mind, turning everything inside out and upside down. Jesus embodied his teachings too, showing us how – in real life – one can do good to those who hate us, pray for those who abuse us, withhold nothing from anyone, and turn the other cheek. These aren’t metaphors for Jesus – or for us. They are a way of being in the world.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram saw that Steve and I went to see Les Miserables last week. It’s one of our favorite modern operas. The story is powerful and the music brings the message deep into your soul. In that play, the law and order policeman, Javer, is a dedicated protector of the law and carries out his work as a duty to God. But Javer is completely undone when a man he has judged to be a worthless criminal, Jean Val-Jean, turns out to be the embodiment of Jesus’ teaching. Val-Jean was the faithful one, the saint.

In the letter to the Ephesians, the author is praying for the believers at the nascent community of faith in Ephesus whom he calls the saints. He congratulates and blesses them in the work they are doing and prays that God will give them, over time, a spirit of wisdom and revelation. Then as they learn to look with the eyes of their hearts, that is, with a perspective informed by the divine presence in them, they will choose to and be empowered to act in the ways Jesus lived and taught.

Jesus exemplified his Beatitudes teaching in his life and in his death. At the end of his short ministry, Jesus could see – with the eyes of his heart - that both worldly and church powers were seeking to destroy him and his message, yet he stayed in relationship with them both. He gave to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and didn’t quit the church even when it behaved very badly and acted in ways he totally disagreed with; even when it conspired to destroy him. He responded to being stripped, beaten and tortured with meekness and patience. Then he prayed for the criminals who were crucified with him and with his last breath, he prayed for those who crucified him.

Since Jesus was looking at the circumstance of his life with the eyes of his heart, he was certain that the love of God would redeem – and it did. It always does.

That is the bottom line of our good news: God can and will redeem all things. All things. There is no power on earth, no power in the church that can interfere with God’s plan of love for the world.

That’s why we can trust God even when the news continually reports about the chaos, injustice, and suffering in the world. Looking with the eyes of our hearts we are empowered by the divine spirit within us to discern the ways we can act to bear the love of God in Christ into our chaotic, unjust, and suffering world.

It’s why we can trust God even when all the “experts” tell us that the church is dying. Death is, for us, simply the gateway to new life. Yes, the process will be painful and scary at times, but in God’s plan of love and endless mercy, all of that is transformed into redemption and reconciliation.

That’s why we can trust God even when our own community is transitioning into a new chapter of its life story. Bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise, we can be certain that God is using each painful, scary, joyful, and healing moment we share for our redemption and reconciliation.

God has a plan and it’s a plan of love. So, as the psalmist says, “Let the faithful rejoice” because ours is the kingdom – right here, right now. Ours is the promise that we will be filled beyond satisfaction and our joy will be complete.

Our work, as saints on earth, is to be in an ever-growing, ever-deepening relationship with God and with one another, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise in this mystical body we call St. David’s in the Valley. Our hope is that we will be corporately transformed by the love of God until we are able to see with the eyes of our hearts, to bring down every boundary that separates us, and to live in this world the way Jesus taught us to do.

I offer a closing prayer taken from our Sacrament of Baptism. Let us pray…

Holy God, we thank you that you have bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sin and raised us to new life of grace. Sustain us in your spirit. Give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage and will to persevere, an endless hunger and thirst to know you and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. (Adapted from Holy Baptism, BCP, 308).