Sunday, November 23, 2014

Feast of Christ the King, 2014: Remaining loyal to Jesus

Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

In our first reading, the prophet Ezekiel is warning the rich in the community that disregarding the poor among them will destroy them. These people have been given authority and resources to care for God’s people but they have made themselves, their desires and their will, the priority.

The needy have been dismissed, dispersed, cast out from their sight and their experience. One doesn’t have to help those one doesn’t even notice.

Ezekiel warns them that God will reclaim the scattered and disregarded of the flock. Notice, Ezekiel doesn’t tell them they have to do it. He says God will do it. This is that moment when the parent takes over the job you were supposed to do, but didn’t. “I’ll do it myself…” and you know that won’t turn out well for you.

Ezekiel also offers to the needy the comforting reminder of God’s abiding presence and involvement in their lives. Ezekiel assures them that God will send a shepherd who will care for them properly since those with the authority and resources given to them by God failed to do so.

Ezekiel’s prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus who is David’s descendent. And Jesus tells the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats which harkens back to Ezekiel’s prophesy. As commentator Chris Haslam says, the godly, who are the sheep, have fulfilled God’s expectation to reach out to the disadvantaged. The goats, on the other hand, have ignored the needy.

Jesus clarifies that all people are God’s people and that he, himself, is our promised shepherd. This, Jesus says, will be evident when “the Son of Man comes in his glory.”

Taking Ezekiel’s prophesy to its fulfillment, Jesus says that whatever is done to anyone in the flock is done to the shepherd himself. That is the twist, the shocker in this parable. The poor, the needy, the weak, the very old or very young, women, foreigners – these were counted as unimportant, unworthy of attention, resources, or concern. Jesus turns this cultural habit of dismissing the least among the flock upside-down using the reconciliation he has provided us, the oneness we have with God in him saying, what you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me; and what you failed to do to care for the lease of these, you’ve failed to do for me.

Using apocalyptic language familiar to his listeners, Jesus illustrates the consequences of our choices. The sheep who have fulfilled God’s expectation to care for the least are called blessed and invited to come into the kingdom: life in the fullness of the presence of God where God’s will is being done on earth as it is being done in heaven. This is an eternal reality “prepared from the foundation of the world” as Jesus said.

The goats, on the other hand, have chosen to focus on themselves, thereby separating themselves from their reconciliation to God. And whenever we are separated from God, living outside our reconciliation, we are unhappy, frightened, adrift in darkness, hungering for relationship and thirsty for comfort – and every moment of that feels like an eternity.

Redeemer has been faithful to God’s call to the church. We feed and clothe the needy through our Shepherd’s Table ministries. We visit the sick and infirm through our pastoral care ministries. We welcome the stranger being the only church for miles that welcomes the LGBTQ community and their God-given gifts just as God made them. We are a loving magnet for people with autism and Asperger’s. We are, as one new member described it, like the island of misfit toys – all are truly welcome to come here, deepen their relationship with God, discover and nurture their gifts, then serve the world with us in Christ’s name.

Our ministries at Redeemer have not been without cost, however. Angry, homophobic protesters have disturbed our peace and cost us at least one family we hold dear.

But we don’t do our ministries for any reward or to build a reputation among those who hold local authority and have access to resources. We do them because the light of Christ’s love lives in us and if we reach our hands out, that light extends from us into the very bodies and souls of those we serve. We do them because we are moved by the need of those God has drawn near to us, knowing that God is in them as much as God is in us.

In his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the division which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining the family and leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The disciples will be sorely tempted to desert their Lord. But the end is also near, and they must hold on and persevere until it comes. Only [they] will be blessed who remain… loyal to Jesus and his word until the end.”

On this our patronal feast day, we can look at the life God is living in us through our ministries and be glad. As we struggle to meet our own costs, we continue to reach out and feed the hungry all around us. We suffer the condemnation of friends in our local community whose fear and judgment of some of God’s people have also divided them from us. In fact, the same can be said of members of our own family of faith.

It is at times, sorely tempting to restore peace at the cost of justice. But as our former Presiding Bishop, Edmond Browning once said: “there will be no outcasts in this church!” There may be some who choose to separate from us. That is their choice. And the consequences of staying the course Jesus set before us may be steep and frightening at times, but stay it we will, until the end.

When we started the Shepherd’s Table ministries four years ago, food would come to us from out of nowhere. God provided abundantly to us so that we could provide as abundantly to those in need. Witnessing this provision of God launched many of our members into spiritual renewal. The grace of God overflowed in us and we experienced great joy, unity, and even the reconciliation of some who had been estranged.

Shepherd’s Table guests began coming to our church to worship with us in response to the welcome they received at the meal. This still happens, but less so now.

Recently, we have begun to shift our concern to ourselves again. Our pledge drive has some of our members worried – and rightly so, we don’t have enough pledged yet to run this church in 2015.

But where is our faith in God? Where is our trust that God’s will is being done right here in us as it is being don in heaven? Where is our loyalty to Jesus and his expectation of us?

Yesterday I got a text from a member who had been in the narthex getting something ready for today, when a man knocked on the door. The member was frightened at first, kicking herself for forgetting to lock the door while she was in there alone. But as it turns out, this man had come bringing 500 pounds of food for our food pantry. This food was meant to go somewhere else, but they were closed, so he wondered if we could help him unload it for us!

God always provides – not by magic, but by us opening our hearts and our minds to the new thing God is asking from us. So taking Bonhoeffer’s advice, we must hold on and persevere, remaining loyal to Jesus and his word until the end. And Jesus’ word is this: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pentecost 22: Eternal coexistence

Lectionary: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

I’d like to begin by calling our attention to the Collect once again (BCP, 236) O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom…

Episcopalians don’t focus much on the devil, and the reason is our focus is rightly on our Savior, not the one who slanders and distracts from him. The word ‘devil’ comes from the Gk: diabolos, which means slanderer, false accuser, the one who divides. Our Collect reminds us that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, that is, Jesus came to reconcile us to God, to rejoin all that had been divided, to remember what had been dismembered.

We talked a few weeks ago about the Hebrew word ‘satan’ which many modern-day Christians understand to be a kind of spiritual monster who has the power to trick us and snatch us away from God and our salvation. But in Jesus’ day ‘satan’ which in Hebrew means, tempter or distracter, was anyone or anything that led us away from the truth and off the path of righteousness. And righteousness, simply put, means right relationship.

Remember that famous moment in our gospel reading a few weeks ago when Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt 16:23) In that encounter Peter was unable to see or understand that the path of righteousness for Jesus was the road to Calvary.

Neither Peter nor anyone else could have imagined that Jesus’ death on the cross would not be the end but rather the beginning of the final chapter in the story of our salvation. So Jesus called him ‘satan’ and told him to get behind him, to follow the one who knew the way. That was a pretty harsh sounding thing for Jesus to say to one of his most trusted followers.

Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel sounds pretty harsh too. But like his encounter with Peter, Jesus needs this message heard, so he doesn’t speak softly.

Most scholars agree that in parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. the bridegroom is Jesus; the bride is the church; the bridesmaids are the members of the church; and the Lord is God the Father. Keeping that in mind, a wedding in ancient Jewish culture was a very big deal. It was a week-long party the whole village enjoyed together and everyone had their role to play.

Being chosen to be bridesmaid was a great honor. The bridesmaids were unmarried women whose role was to light the way for the bridegroom, kind of like runway lights, as he came to collect his bride to marry her.

As with most parables, there are surprises and twists in this story. The first one is that the bridegroom is delayed. Anyone who has ever been to a wedding where the bride or groom fails to show knows how awful that is. Barring an accident or medical emergency, the jilted partner is humiliated, and the anticipated joyous celebration transforms into a day of shame.

In this parable, the groom is so delayed that everyone falls asleep. Imagine how the bride and her family are feeling... The next surprise is that the groom shows up at midnight. This would never have happened in real life, but remember, this is a teaching story.

He’s here! someone shouts. Come out to meet him! The bridesmaids’ lamps are needed more than ever in the darkness of this early hour, so they scramble to trim their lamps. The foolish bridesmaids, who didn’t bring extra oil, ask the wise bridesmaids if they can borrow some of their oil. No, say the wise bridesmaids. There won’t be enough for you and for us.

That’s harsh. Where is their generosity?

Go buy some more oil, the wise ones tell the foolish ones – which they do. But when the foolish bridesmaids return with their oil and ask to be let into the party the Lord (God) says, “I don’t know you.”


Jesus concludes the parable saying: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Well, that’s confusing, since both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids fell asleep. In fact, everyone did.

So what’s the point Jesus is making? I agree with the commentators who say the point is about being ready – but I don’t think it’s about being ready to die. I think the point is about being ready to live and fulfill our God-given purpose.

In the parable the purpose of the bridesmaids was to light the way so the groom (Christ) could find his bride (the church). What made the wise bridesmaids wise wasn’t that they remembered to bring extra oil. It was that they realized they if they shared their oil, the path would be lit with 10 lamps, the traditional number, but those lamps would burn out before the bridegroom found his bride.

If they kept their oil, their 5 lamps that would stay lit and the bridesmaids would fulfill their purpose faithfully – even though they might be judged for doing so.

So, what about the shut door? Does God ever shut the door to us?

Remember, Jesus, the rabbi, was speaking for impact in this parable. And remembering also that to ‘know’ in Hebrew usage meant to be intimate relationship with…the Lord said to the foolish bridesmaids, I don’t know you. We are not in intimate relationship.

This isn’t a condemnation. It’s a fact… and it’s meant to wake us up from whatever slumber we have settled into. For example, some church members, come to worship just about every Sunday and participate in most every parish event we hold, but they never enter deeply into relationship with God choosing instead to remain in a superficial, socially acceptable, comfortably undemanding relationship with God.

To those bridesmaids, the Lord says, ‘I don’t know you.’

Other church members seek baptism and confirmation thinking this will get them or their children into heaven, but they don’t come to church to worship God in community and they don’t participate in formation events or church ministries which help us grow into our spiritual maturity.

To these bridesmaids, the Lord also says, ‘I don’t know you.’

And if there’s any message God has communicated to us in Scripture, in the Incarnation, and in the church it’s that God wants to know us deeply and intimately, and dwell with us eternally.

St. Paul tries to get this same message across in his letter to the brand new church in Thessalonica. The bridegroom is delayed. Most everyone was expecting the second coming of the Christ to happen immediately but it’s been almost 20 years now since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. And as the years pass, the people struggle to understand, wondering if those they love who were dying would be resurrected and be with them in heaven on the last day.

Paul assures them that they will be, saying that Christ will descend from heaven and we who are alive will be caught up in the clouds together will all who lived before and died… and be with the Lord forever. This passage is not a description of the rapture (which is a false doctrine). It’s a good first attempt at a description of the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ.

Paul, a Jew and a Pharisee, is using language typical of his time and education. ‘Cloud,’ in Paul’s day, was biblical language for the presence of God. Remember… in Exodus, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way…” (13:21) And again, in the gospel of Mark: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.’” (9:7) And in the gospel of Luke (borrowing from the Book of Daniel): “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (21:27)

Reminiscent of Isaiah, the apostle Paul describes this union as God coming down and us being raised up into a new reality – an eternal co-existence. As one commentator says, “Paul doesn't emphasize spiritual geography here. He doesn't talk about going to heaven, but rather being ‘with the Lord forever.’ That's Paul's concern–– being with the Lord.”

That’s what heaven is: being in intimate relationship with God. And that’s what we’re called to do here, now, together - be in intimate relationship with God and in right relationship with one another, a relationship grounded in the love of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

We don’t achieve heaven by anything we do or know. and we don’t get there after we die. We receive it now, as the gift it is, given to us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Living in heaven means living the fullness of life - all the good and all the bad - in the presence and the grace of God; not judging any single moment or any person, but trusting in God who has promised to redeem all things, all people, all creation.

Dwelling in that beautiful and amazing reality - eternal co-existence with God - we are compelled to share the good news of it so that, as the psalmist says, “the generations to come might know and the children yet unborn that they in their turn might tell it to their children; So that [everyone in every age] might put their trust in God…” (78:6-7)