Sunday, January 29, 2023

Epiphany 4-A, 2023: Happiness-making partners

 Note: Today is also our Annual Parish Meeting day. 

Lectionary: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; and Matthew 5:1-12 

Are you happy? That’s a loaded question, isn’t it? My mother used to ask me that after I’d screwed something up and the answer, of course, was, “No. I’m not happy.”

Being happy is a complicated thing, yet it is something we value so much it’s secured in our Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right. True happiness is an internal state of being not dependent on external circumstances, and it encompasses contentment, peace, satisfaction, completion, connection, joy, and bliss.

In today’s reading from the prophet Micah, the people have strayed from God, and they are not happy. It seems they have forgotten who God is and what God does, so God, who is also not happy, asks them to remember… remember how I brought you out of exile … remember how I redeemed you from slavery… remember that I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to comfort and guide you… remember how I brought you safely across the Jordan into the promised land. Remember who I Am and what I do for you.

Hearing this, they do remember, and they want to reconnect because they know it is only by reconnecting with God that they will have happiness. You’re right, God, they say. How can we make this right?

This is where Micah reaches his prophetic pinnacle: God has already told you: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Such elegant simplicity and power in that statement.

Micah teaches us that God seeks an internal conversion from us, a shift in our attitudes toward God, ourselves, and the world. The question, then, isn’t what do we do, but what do we expect God will do?

This is what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel. The context is this: Jesus has been going around Galilee teaching, healing people, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. He’s become a phenom. Huge crowds were following him everywhere he went, pressing in to get from him all kinds of physical and spiritual healing, and as the gospel writer said earlier, he cured them all. (4:24)

Our story picks up here. Another crowd is closing in, so Rabbi Jesus takes his disciples apart and sits down (as Rabbis do) to teach them.

This lesson, however, isn’t what it may seem at first. Theologian and Anglican Bishop NT Wright says, “If we think of Jesus simply sitting there telling people how to behave properly we will miss what was really going on… This is an announcement (Wright says), about something that’s starting to happen… It’s good news, not good advice.” (Matthew for Everyone, Part One (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 36.

What is the good news Jesus is announcing in the Beatitudes? That in him, in this moment and forever more, the kingdom of God is happening on earth as well as in heaven and everything is changed as a result. Then Jesus explains how this will work and it seems upside down and inside out – until we remember who God is and what God does.

Recently, a woman came to the church to ask for help with a car repair. Her request was outrageously high, and we couldn’t come close to giving her what she needed. Some of us were put off by her audaciousness and flabbergasted when she told us that our contribution wasn’t enough and demanded we do more.

This woman was simply asking for what she needed. Rather than blame her for our inability to meet her need, we should have thanked her for her courage in asking and for demanding that we do more because that made space for God to work. The woman was able to get her car repaired because our contribution, together with her portion, along with a gift from another church made it possible.

The transformation we experienced in that example is the same one Jesus is teaching his disciples: how to perceive and connect with those who are coming up the mountain to get what they need and how to make space for God to act in every circumstance. As Henri Nouwen once said, 
“Living a spiritual life requires a change of heart. Whether we are asking for money or giving money we are drawn together by God, who is about to do a new thing through our collaboration. To be converted means to experience a deep shift in how we see and think and act.”

In our world today there is war, unrelenting gun violence across our country, growing numbers of unhoused people struggling to survive winter, hunger, and the indignities heaped on them by so many. That is the way of the world.

The Good News is that the way of God is different. God’s way is a way of happiness-making, connecting us, and bringing us contentment, peace, satisfaction, completion, joy, and bliss no matter the external circumstances.

When we walk humbly with God, seeking justice and practicing kindness, the world will push back on us and those with the power to do so may try to harm or otherwise stop us from making God’s happiness happen.

It’s OK, God says, they do that to all my prophets. Stand firm. I will bless you, care for you, and protect you - and together we will not be stopped.

After our Holy Eucharist, we will gather for our Annual Parish Meeting and steep ourselves in God’s happiness as we celebrate our life as a church devoted to God’s way. Together we will remember who God is and what God has done for us, how God has redeemed us, cared for us, and brought us to this day. And we will give thanks that God continues to choose us to be happiness-making partners in the world. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Epiphany, 2023-A: Thrilling moments of connection

Lectionary: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

I like today’s Collect, except for the part where it says, “we who now know you by faith” as if those who were in Jesus’ physical presence didn’t need faith to know him. That just isn’t so. Even Jesus’ closest disciples didn’t really know him as the Christ, the manifestation of the fullness of God on the earth, while they were with him. It took time and dreams and experience for them to get to that understanding.

The same is true for us. Knowing God in Christ comes to us with exposure (bring the little ones to church), experience, and the still small voice that speaks in our bodies and dreams. Jesus is present for us in real and manifest ways every day. With experience, we begin to notice just how true that is.

Our forebears speak in the Old Testament of not being able to see the face of God and live. We have seen the face of God – Jesus – and we still see it, literally and mystically.

Once when I was on a spiritual retreat, I was prayer doodling - which is a familiar prayer discipline for those who joined us at our recent Christian formation gathering on this topic. The image of the yoni came to my mind. The yoni is an ancient symbol for the divine womb, the procreative energy of God. Incidentally, this symbol is on all of our bishop’s seals and many diocesan logos. Isn’t that a beautiful notion?

Anyway, I was prayer doodling the yoni symbol using watercolors, with no real intention for the image. When I hung the paper up to dry and stepped back a little, I saw a bearded face which I recognized in my heart as Jesus. I was startled by the revelation. My heart was thrilled, as the psalmist says, and I laughed like Sarah as I praised God for this manifestation.

The manifestation of God to us is almost always like that – a surprise that thrills the heart. This is what Matthew describes in his telling of the Epiphany story. Upon seeing the child, Jesus, the visiting magi were overwhelmed with joy. In response, they paid him homage and offered him expensive gifts. Their hearts were thrilled by the manifestation of God they saw in Jesus – and they were Gentiles who had no expectation of the coming of a Messiah to save them.

Following their own tradition, these magi noticed an unusual star at its rising, signifying that an important person, a king, had been born. This is a reference to the ancient Eastern understanding of a king who was often called the son of God due to their importance. Some even thought that kings were gods or at least demigods.

So, these magi (however many there were – and it wasn’t three of them) followed the star, stopping in Jerusalem to ask for directions. Hearing about this Herod called the chief priests of the temple and the scribes to ask where this child could be found and they told him Bethlehem, according to the prophecy – which also said this child would be the ruler of the people, the shepherd – another word for king.

This sent Herod into violent paranoia again, which apparently happened a lot with him. Herod lied to the magi, asking them to return to him once they found the child so he could pay homage too. They didn’t. God spoke to the magi in a dream and told them not to return to Herod, so they went home by another road.

This, I think, is the crux of the story of the Epiphany. As one commentator said: Epiphany is “a celebration of the breaking down of dividing walls––the end of hostilities between groups of people (Eph 2:14). Epiphany challenges us to reconsider all the people whom we see as outside the pale––outside the boundaries of God's love. It challenges us to abandon our tribalism (racially, nationally, denominationally, etc.) and to expand our tents to welcome even those whom we would prefer not to love. It is a burning issue, because loving those outside our tribe is difficult––but Christ makes it possible. That is the Epiphany message.” (Dick Donovan)

The magi were outside the pale in those days. They were thought of as sorcerers who worked magic usingdemonic power and they would have been treated with suspicion, even contempt, by faithful Jews. Yet God tapped them on their spiritual shoulders and using their own traditional and spiritual understanding, sent them to find the Christ-child.

When they found him, their hearts were thrilled and they, like the shepherds in the fields before them,were overwhelmed with joy… for such is the lavish love of God, who brings down every boundary that limits inclusion in God’s love.

I want to point out that the magi did not get converted. They didn’t become Jewish proselytes, or get baptized, or change their religion. And God had no problem meeting them where they were, utilizing their religious understanding to connect with them and lead them to love.

How did they know Jesus? Was their understanding of this child-king like that of the Jewish people of the time? Is ours?

It is in this way: we all know Jesus as the manifest love of God who was, and is, and always will be. The magi’s encounter with Jesus was an experience of the love of God which thrilled their hearts and caused them to rejoice. There were no strings attached to their inclusion in Love, just as there are none for us today.

Any barriers we humans put up crumble in the face of the love of God in Jesus, and sadly, we still put up barriers. If you need help identifying them, just watch the news for a few minutes – you can’t miss them.

The first recorded smashing of a boundary in our Christian narrative was the one between Jews and Gentiles as St. Paul points out in his letter to the Ephesians: “…the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This was the start of a reconciliation cascade which is ongoing today.

Like Paul, we are also servants according to the gift of God's grace that was given us, and we are called to bring the good news of the boundless riches of Christ to anyone and everyone on the other side of one of our barriers. We are called to abandon our tribalism and expand our tents to welcome even those whom we have a habit or justification to exclude.

Each time the love of God is made manifest in our world, we are all in the presence of Jesus. Think of the many ways that happens: when a child smiles at us melting our hearts; when someone offers us an unexpected kindness; when a hymn or anthem lifts us to heaven; or when a sunset works us over like a work of art as Dar Williams says.

I’m willing to bet that we’ve all had moments that thrill our hearts and overwhelm us with joy. Honestly, one would be enough for a lifetime, but the love of God for us is so lavish that we get these thrilling moments of connection often, continually. 

All we need to do is learn to notice them and let them change us from glory to glory. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Christmas, 2022: God chooses us

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14-20

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

Tonight (today) we celebrate that Christmas is about God choosing us. God chooses life for us. God chooses joy and peace for us. God chooses redemption and reconciliation for us, and God chooses us to be partners in the reconciliation of the whole world to God. God chooses to be born in us again on Christmas, to dwell in us and renew us, to make us vessels overflowing with God’s own grace, mercy, and love for the world.

As author Marianne Williamson once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.” Source

That is the real meaning of Christmas – the manifestation of the glorious love of God in the world. Sadly, so much distracts us from that and instead, we get caught up in public and moral outrage over whether or not to use the Greek letter chi (which looks like an X) when writing the word Christmas, or whether to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. The shaming I see on social media about this is just nuts. And who remembers the Christmas coffee cup debacle a few years ago? The coffee company changed their cup to a solid color which led a pastor to accuse them of hating Jesus.

Focusing on the wrong thing, like buying presents we can’t afford, or moralizing over how others get Christmas wrong, leads us to miss the overwhelming, life-changing, world-changing good news of Christmas – that the glorious love of God is being made manifest in the world.

If it helps, the same thing happened that first Christmas.

According to the Gospel writer, Joseph, who is descended from the house of David, must travel to Bethlehem to register in accordance with a decree from Caesar Augustus. Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, is pregnant and near delivery, so they travel together.

Ordinarily, travelers like Mary and Joseph would have stayed with family or friends who live in the area. But Mary and Joseph can find no place to stay. The Christmas story, which we know so well, says ‘there was no room for them at the inn.’

Mary and Joseph were only offered a rough, dirty place in the part of the house where the animals were kept. The baby would have been placed in a feeding trough to keep him from getting trampled by an animal.

Joy Carroll Wallis, author and priest in the Church of England, suggests that Joseph and Mary were being shunned…their family and friends morally outraged, because Joseph showed up on their doorstep with his pregnant girlfriend and everyone knew it wasn’t his baby.

The Messiah was being born right under their noses, and they missed it because they were busy moralizing. They judged Joseph and Mary to be sinners whom they felt justified in rejecting and excluding, unaware that God had chosen them to be partners in the reconciliation of the world.

The judgment of God, who is the only real moral authority, is salvation in Jesus who is the Christ. By taking on flesh like ours, Jesus links heaven and earth, eternity and time, from ages past to this present moment reconciling us to himself and ensuring that everyone is included in God’s plan of salvation …the clean and the unclean, the Jew and Gentile, the saint and the sinner.

So many "religious" people would rather God offer grace only to those who deserve it. The truth is, none of us deserves it, and yet all of us receive it because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

A perfect example is the shepherds in the fields who were the first to hear of the birth of the Savior. In those days shepherds were seen as a group of dirty, low-class nobodies. Yet, God chose them to be the first to hear these tidings of great joy. God chose them to be the first to see the Christ-child. When the shepherds told about what they saw, the grace of God flowed through them so that all who heard them were amazed, and the shepherds themselves could do nothing but praise and glorify God.

Today, God chooses us. We are the believers described in the letter to Titus - people transformed by God’s love and, therefore, zealous for good deeds, remembering of course, that our good deeds are simply the manifestation of God’s grace moving through us into the world.

Tonight (today) we are reminded that Christmas is about God choosing us. God chooses to be born in us again, to dwell in us and renew us, to make us vessels overflowing with God’s own grace, mercy, and love for the world.

God chooses us because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

Like Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, we must remember that God will love us, protect us, care for us, and bless us, while providing us with everything we need to do what God asks us to do. All we need to do is choose to trust God.

Merry Christmas! 


Sunday, December 18, 2022

4 Advent, 2022-A: Reciprocal love

Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25 

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

I commend to you a non-profit group called StoryCorps whose mission is to build connections between people by sharing real-life stories. Most of the stories are about ordinary people doing ordinary things: a grandmother telling her grandchildren about falling in love with their grandfather; one friend telling another what their friendship means to them.

StoryCorps has produced several books of these stories. One of them is called, “Listening is an Act of Love” and, as they say on their website: “Everybody’s story matters. Every life counts.”

We have a similar mission as Christian churches – to build connections among all people, languages, races, and nations within the shared story of our redemption until the whole world is reconciled to God in Christ. It is true for us too, that listening is an act of love – reciprocal love with God.

We believe that all creation has been spoken into being by Jesus through whom all things were made. He is the Word of God, the reason or plan of God eternally active in creation. At Jesus’ Baptism by John God said, “This is my beloved, listen to him.” (Lk 9:35) Listen to him… Hear and respond to him...

We feel like we do listen to him – or at least we try to. We try to obey Jesus’ command to us to love God, neighbor, and self. We try to obey the rules of our faith as we live our lives in the world. But when God said, “listen to him” at Jesus’ baptism, we weren’t being told to obey Jesus. We were being invited to respond with our “yes” to him, reciprocating his love for us with our love for him.

In today’s Old Testament story, King Ahaz (whose name means, “has held”) demonstrates what happens when we do not reciprocate God’s love. Ahaz is a faithful Jew and holds fast to the Jewish law in Deuteronomy, the one that says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (6:6) so when God invites him to ask for a sign from God, Ahaz says “no, I can’t.”

God, however, is ready to do a new thing and be known in a new way. God is waiting to save the Jewish people besieged by war, but Ahaz can’t say “yes” to God because he has put his obedience to a rule ahead of God’s offer of comfort. For Ahaz, this encounter is outside his expectations for who God is, what God wants, and how God acts.

Seeing this, the prophet, Isaiah, clears things up, proclaiming that God is already acting to save the people and will give them a sign. Look, Isaiah says, a young woman is pregnant, and by the time her child grows up, the city and the nation of Jerusalem will have been saved from their enemies. This child will be named Immanuel, which means “God with us” because he will be the sign of God’s presence, a reminder of God’s promise of salvation.

The story of Ahaz stands in contrast to the story of Joseph, who in the gospel story today, listens with reciprocal love.

An angel appears to Joseph in a dream saying what angels always say: Don’t be afraid… God is acting in this moment. Your Mary is pregnant and the son within her is from the Holy Spirit. When he is born, you must name him Jesus, actually ‘Jehosua’ in Hebrew – Joshua - which means ‘God saves,’ for he will save his people from their sins.’

Both Matthew and Isaiah proclaim a God who knows what the people need and acts to redeem even before they ask for it. This is how God has always acted.

The prophecy in Isaiah was not about Jesus being born of Mary in Bethlehem. It was about God - who loves us, is always present with us, and is already acting to redeem even before we ask.

In Isaiah, the young woman bore a son who was a sign that God would save the people from their enemies. In Matthew, the young woman bore a son who would save them from their sins.

The story of Joseph’s “yes” to God offers us so much to talk about, but for now, the gift I want to focus on is what it cost Joseph to say “yes” to God.

Nobody around their village would know - or believe - that Mary came up pregnant by the Holy Spirit. They’d have done what folks usually do – put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to them. The obvious conclusion would be that someone besides Joseph got Mary pregnant.

According to the law, Joseph was supposed to have Mary stoned to death for adultery. His inclination, however, was to dissolve their marriage contract and “dismiss her quietly.” That would have spared Mary’s life, but it also would have destined her and her child to a lifetime of poverty, and shame.

When the angel asked Joseph to take the already pregnant Mary as his wife, Joseph knows saying “yes” to God means he will have to sacrifice his righteous reputation and live out his days as the pitiable man with the unfaithful wife.

Joseph could have said to himself, ‘God doesn’t speak to someone like me.’ Or he might have reasoned that God wouldn’t ask him to violate the very laws God gave his people to follow. He could have written off the whole thing as nothing more than a delusion. But he doesn’t.

When he awakens, Joseph gives his “yes” to God because he was righteous. Joseph was in right relationship with God. His conscience was pure, that is, aligned completely with the Word of God given to him.

In our Collect today, we asked God to purify our conscience, to align us completely with the Word of God who dwells in us. The voice of God within us, individually and as a community, leads us forward in the way we are meant to go. It tells us what our divine purpose is and how to live it out.

St. Paul tells us that we have been prepared to do this, having received grace and apostleship from Jesus. We are by definition a gathering of apostles – a people sent on a mission. And what is our mission? To use everything we’ve been given, and risk everything we have, so that God can be made known, and God’s love made manifest in the world in new and unprecedented ways, until all people, languages, races, and nations are “restored to unity with God and one another in Christ.” (BCP, 855).

As we practice our last week of Advent together, I pray that we will listen faithfully and fearlessly to the voice of God within us and respond as Joseph did, with our “yes.” Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

2 Advent, 2022-A: Peace in our believing

Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12 

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

As a pastor and a spiritual director, I have the privilege of being invited into deep conversations with people when their faith is being challenged, or they’re experiencing a “dark night” where they feel no sense of the presence of God in their lives. Some are seeking faithfully to discern God’s path for this moment in their lives. Others are just trying to stay connected. 

In all of these conversations, what is foundational is the person’s relationship with God. Who is God to each of these? How do they relate to God and how do they experience God relating to them?

Some of us who grew up in the church learned how to understand and relate to God in certain “acceptable” ways. Others among us either didn’t grow up in the church, or grew up being taught awful, sometimes unfaithful doctrines that continue to affect how we relate to God. Still others have had personal, mystical experiences of God leading to an intimate, convincing relationship with God. Whatever religious doctrines or practices or theology we have, when life is challenging, it’s our belief in and relationship with God that carry us through.

(Photo credit: VM Sherer, "God" by Manuela Rivera Mulvey)

What I’ve noticed is that the challenging moments of our lives often affect our belief in God. I think of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich whose physical challenges led her into an experience of God that completely transformed her believing, and therefore how she related to God, leading her to her famous description of Christ the Mother of Mercy and her equally famous proclamation that “God is not wroth” which she clarifies by saying that wrath is found in humans, but not in God who loves us mercifully, tenderly, and completely.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul is encouraging the members of the new Christian church in Rome to relate to one another differently: to live in peace and harmony. Jews and Gentiles, Roman occupiers and those they occupied are now members of a new community of faith. The Scriptures, he reminds them, foretold that God’s plan of salvation would be revealed through the Jews, but that it would reach all nations and peoples, and habitual enemies would live together in peace.

This is what we heard described in the reading from Isaiah. The coming of the king will signal the inauguration of a time of profound peace born of right relationship. In this new era, the peace will be so deep, so complete that even natural enemies will share cooperative, peaceful lives.

Looking around then and now, this seems like a dim possibility, but our belief assures us that with God, nothing is impossible. So, Paul exhorts the church in Rome to continue to hope and believe praying this beautiful blessing over them: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Peace in believing…

If we believe that God is just and kind, full of compassion and mercy, that God cares for those who suffer and hears their prayers, that God’s love for us is steadfast and sacrificial, then even when things have gone array, we can have peace in our believing. Even when the world has gone wrong, our belief that God chooses to be in loving, sustaining relationship with us will sustain our hope.

What gets in our way is sin, but that’s one of those words… How do we understand it?

I offer you what German-American theologian Paul Tillich wrote just after WWII came to an end. Tillich describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation, which is caused by the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, distorts all of our relationships. It is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that our relationships are restored and we are returned to righteousness, that is, to right relationship. (Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Whipf and Stock Pub., 1948)

This is the kind of repentance John the Baptist is calling the people to in today’s gospel. John proclaims that the people need to repent so they can receive the grace about to come in the one who would come after him, the one who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And the people were flocking to John to hear his teaching. They wanted what he was offering – a new way of being in relationship with God and each other.

Even the religious authorities were coming, but when they arrive, John doesn’t mince words with them. Why was he so caustic with them? We can’t be sure if the Pharisees and Sadducees came to observe what John was doing in order to prepare an “official response” or if they were, like many others, coming to him drawn by the message of this new way of being. My guess is, it was probably a bit of both.

John’s prophetic teachings used apocalyptic language familiar to the listeners of the day. We have taken them to be punitive, but they really are promising and uplifting. Otherwise, why would so many flock to hear him?

The scariest thing John says in this gospel is probably this: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So let’s look at that more deeply.

The Messiah is coming. The winnowing fork enables him to separate fruit that is ready to be used, from the chaff. Chaff is a natural by-product of the process, and of itself isn’t bad. It just isn’t useful in its present form so it is burned.

The habitual association with hellfire and eternal punishment often clouds our thinking on this, but John says the chaff will be burned in “unquenchable fire.”

As we’ve discussed before, fire is biblical language for the presence of God. Think of the burning bush and of John’s proclamation that Jesus would baptize them with fire. God’s steadfast love and mercy cannot be quenched by us or anything we do. In God, whose mercy endures forever, all who aren’t ready in their present form will be made new by the unrelenting love of God.

We sin. That doesn’t make us bad – just human. Advent calls us to own that and repent, trusting that God loves us and stands ready to restore us to right relationship. When we choose to repent, we may find ourselves “struck by grace,” as Tillich says, “the way St. Paul was on the road to Damascus, knowing deeply the truth that God loves us with an incomprehensible love...”

Repentance opens the way for all of our relationships to be changed, empowered by the grace of God’s unquenchable love. Trusting in the steadfast love of God who is always faithful, we can choose to repent in the way John the Baptist taught and change the way we’re in relationship with God and with one another. 

Then we can live together in peace, and we will have within ourselves peace in our believing. Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

23 Pentecost, 2022-C: The new creation

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

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

One of the greatest mysteries of our faith – to me – is us. We who are bound up in skin, so marvelously made that the intricacies of our physicality are still being discovered by science… we who are also temples of God’s own Spirit, dwelling places of the Eternal One. We are walking, talking miracles: embodied spirits - form and formlessness, time and timelessness dwelling in our humble, complicated, beloved selves.

Our mortal nature allows us to kiss a loved one, walk on a grassy field, swim in the ocean, and nap under a tree. The Immortal One dwelling in us enables us to know love that transcends time, space, and persons; and to connect to all creation and our Creator in mystical union.

Our Collect today addresses the wholeness of our natures: our mortal selves that hear and see and learn, and our spiritual selves that open to holy Scripture and find it a doorway to hope, and eternity. Most of us know what this feels like – that moment you’re reading something in Scripture you’ve read 100 times before, but suddenly, it breaks you wide open and you are flooded with joy, insight, and truth – the whole thing leaving you breathless and amazed.

This is the moment we recognize how corporeal God’s presence is in us and at the same time, how transcendent we and all creation are in God. Like I said, it’s a mystery.

In our Old Testament reading today, the Prophet Isaiah speaks to this mystery. God is promising a new thing, a new Jerusalem a new place where God’s people will live in joy and the things of the earth that bring sadness or distress will be transformed by the love of God. This transformation will be corporeal, such that “ the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…” It will also be transcendent: “Before they call, I will answer, while they are yet speaking, I will hear.”

That is the new creation: the symbiotic dance of earth and heaven, God and creation, time and eternity. That is what we sing out in our moments of tranquility and what we cling to in faith when the world is crashing around us.

In the conversation between Jesus and his disciples in the gospel from Luke, we see Jesus guiding his students into this understanding ahead of their own trials. The plot to destroy Jesus is underway and Jesus knows what’s coming – for him and for them. The world is about to crash down around his disciples, so they need to learn how to look beyond the present moment on earth and embrace and ever hold fast to the eternal plan of God. 

So do we.

Has there ever been a time in earth’s history when there weren’t wars and insurrections? Nations rising against nations? Earthquakes, hurricanes, famines, and plagues?

Those aren’t the things to dread, Jesus tells his disciples because, before all of that, the powerful on earth will seize you and throw you in prison. You will be brought before kings and governors who will accuse you on account of me. This isn’t something to dread either, Jesus says, because it will be an opportunity for you to witness to the truth you know, the truth of the new creation prophesied by Isaiah fulfilled now in me.

Let’s pause here for a minute to notice something in this part of the story. Jesus says to his disciples: “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Jesus is promising his disciples that he will give them wisdom and the words they should use after he has been killed - which he also told them was going to happen. Did they wonder how he would do that? Do we? 

Do we remember that we are walking, talking miracles: embodied spirits - form and formlessness, time and timelessness dwelling in our humble, complicated, beloved selves because Jesus’ eternal Spirit lives in our mortal bodies, speaking for us, and acting through us in every moment of our earthly lives?

Corrie ten Boom was a perfect example of this. She was a Christian who put her own life at risk hiding Jews from the Nazis during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Her resistance resulted in her being sent to a concentration camp which she survived but most of her family didn’t. Corrie once said, “I know that the experiences of our lives when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work [God] will give us to do.” (Source)

When we surrender our need to judge, to escape suffering, or even to survive, and choose instead to embrace and ever hold fast to the redeeming love of God, we find life, hope, and true super-hero style strength. I think of saints like Corrie ten Boom, Catherine of Sienna, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – to name just a few.

As Christians, 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 very long time.

At the conclusion of this gospel reading, Jesus says, “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 a pandemic, not even death, that has power over us for we live and breathe in communion with God, according to the will and plan of God.

We can, therefore, let go of our desired outcomes, be undistracted by fear, and choose instead to be awake, aware, and alive in this present moment which is a gift from God. Embracing the hope of eternal life in Christ and holding fast to it no matter what we see or experience in the world is our faithful response.

I close with a poem about hope: 

“Hope is a state of mind not 
 dictated by what appears 
to be, but a promise 
built on faith. 

We look beyond 
fear. And begin to trust 
 what we do not yet see.

We listen 
for though we prepare
and plan
and strive to organize, Love 
will take us in
a new direction, a re-birth
beyond our comprehension. 

 In prayerful surrender
we discover who we are.
By faith we continue
to become
truly ourselves.”                                        Poem and photo: © Valori M. Sherer, 2009. All rights reserved. 


Sunday, November 6, 2022

All Saints, 2022-C: Bound together in Christ

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

En el nombre del Dios: que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

I love the feast of All Saints because it reminds us that our experience of reality in this world is only part of a larger picture. The larger picture, for Episcopalians, includes heaven and earth and all that is in them: the vast expanse of interstellar space and this fragile earth, our island home… along with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven (BCP, 370-371) who sing their praises with us each time we gather for Holy Eucharist.

In that larger picture, the will of God is the only reality, and that will is most simply and most accurately described as reconciling love, love that seeks, finds, and joins together all things and all people. We are, therefore, never alone. The saints who were, who are, and who are yet to be are united to us in and by God’s eternal love.

In our earthly lives, we witness and experience a world that often isn’t safe for us and it seems like we need to take care of ourselves even as we profess our belief in God’s redeeming love. The Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ ends up being reduced to a set of beliefs or practices that function more like ecclesiastical fire insurance (you know, staying out of hell) rather than as an invitation to live transformed lives.

When we are baptized, we are baptized first into the death of Christ, and everything we think we know about God, the world, and even ourselves dies there. In Baptism we are reconciled to God in Christ, becoming part of that larger picture of love. We take on the title and the identity of saint: one who shares life in Christ.

We are baptized into new life and we emerge from the baptismal waters already living a new reality. We then spend the rest of our lives sharing the Good News of that truth by living it so that all who know us know that God’s love is the true reality of the world.

In his book, “Proof of Heaven,” neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, M.D., admitted to being a C&E Episcopalian who wasn’t particularly spiritual – until he contracted E.coli and nearly died. Dr. Alexander talked about having a near-death experience in the hospital after which everything he understood about everything was changed. He said he was transformed by a Love he encountered in a place he calls heaven while his earthly body lay in a coma in a hospital bed.

He described his experience of heaven saying: “It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming part of it – without joining with it in some mysterious way (45) … Everything was distinct, yet everything was also a part of everything else…” (46)

Dr. Alexander goes on to describe other worlds, higher worlds that “aren’t totally apart from us, because all worlds are part of the same overarching divine Reality.” This is reconciliation and it is what the world witnessed for the first time at Jesus' baptism when the heavens opened and the voice of God declared Jesus the beloved Son. It's what we continue to witness today at this and every Baptism.

Our earthly experience that we are separated from God is replaced by the reality of our eternal oneness with God in Christ, and that transforms how we live and the choices we make, which Jesus kindly outlines for us in today’s gospel from Luke.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” These aren’t declarative statements, they are descriptive. When you begin from your oneness with God, you will love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and bless and pray for those who harm you.

It’s the outcome of the reality of our oneness with God. As Jesus’ disciples in this moment of the Christian narrative, we can expect that the world’s response to us will be much like it was for those first disciples: we will be hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed by those who choose to live as if they are separated from God’s love, power, and mercy. When that happens, Jesus says, “Rejoice,…and leap for joy, for …your reward is great in heaven.”

Episcopalians don’t see this reward as something we collect upon the end of our earthly lives. We understand it to be an eternal reward, eternal – having no beginning and no end. It doesn’t start later, it’s happening now. The reward is that we are able to look beyond the circumstance of any earthly moment and trust the continual working out of God’s plan of redeeming love on earth as it is in heaven.

Our Catechism reminds us that we believe that “the universe is good… the work of a… loving God who
creates, sustains, and directs it. We believe that the world belongs to its creator; and that we are called to enjoy it and care for it in accordance with God's purposes. We believe that all people are worthy of respect and honor because all are created in the image of God…” (BCP, 846) We believe that the communion of saints is the whole family of God, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

Living this larger, heavenly reality, in the face of a very different earthly reality isn't something we can do on our own. It's something we must do together as the church, the mystical body of Christ on earth.

Today, we have the great joy of baptizing Vincent Johnson into this heavenly reality, and we invite the heavens to open up as we all declare Vincent a saint, a member of the family of God in Christ among the communion of saints on earth.

I invite the family to join me now at the Baptismal font.