I'm cruising on the river of life, happy to trust the flow, enjoying the ride as I live into a new season of life and ministry as the Priest in Charge at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves, MO. I am also co-founder of the Partnership for Renewal, a church vitality nonprofit. You are most welcome to visit my blog anytime and enjoy the ride with me. Peace.
Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96,Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
En el nombre del Dios, que en Trinidad en Unidad. Amen.
It’s a strange thing to be in our church yet proclaiming our Good News online. My body wants to sing great Christmas carols, share hugs, laugh and eat with friends, enjoy a chaotic peace where we have to be called back to worship. You see, Christmas is something that happens in us, in our bodies as well as our lives, and this year, in the midst of this pandemic, we ache to feel it.
That’s a good thing - because we are not passive observers in the story of Christmas. We are active participants. We aren’t here tonight simply to recount the first chapter of the greatest story ever told. We’re here to live it - right now.
What Luke’s gospel shows us is that doing our part requires us to trust God’s love, God’s promises, and God’s plan of salvation knowing that God is redeeming all things, all people, all the time.
Joseph had to trust God who asked him to care for Mary and her baby. By taking his pregnant girlfriend 90 miles to Bethlehem to register as a family, Joseph publicly and legally claimed Mary as his wife and Jesus as his son.
Mary had to trust God that she would live to carry and birth the Messiah of God into the world. In her time, coming up pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph, Mary could have been stoned to death for adultery - but she wasn’t because God had a plan.
Mary and Joseph knew they would not be celebrated but shamed, yet they kept taking the next step anyway, trusting God and each other. When we read that there was “no room for them in the inn,” we should remember, this wasn’t a hotel that was full. It was the guest quarters at Joseph’s family’s home. Their own family closed their doors to them because of Mary’s shameful condition and offered them nothing more than a space where the animals were kept.
Even the shepherds, the first to hear of the birth, were as lowly as the manger that held the infant Messiah. Shepherds were dirty, smelly people from whom “good people” would turn away. That didn’t stop them, though. They took their next step and made known what they had seen and been told – and everyone was amazed by what they said.
But these events took place 2,000 years ago. What does it mean for us today?
I think of what Dominican priest, Albert Nolan, once said: “On the whole, we don’t take Jesus very seriously… by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God.” (Jesus Today, Orbis Books, xvii).
Why? Nolan suggests that many of us believe these to be great ideals, but that actually doing them “isn’t very practical in this day and age.”
Well, I think Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds might have said the same thing in their day.
Following Jesus has never been practical. It isn’t supposed to be. Following Jesus is revolutionary!
The love of God made manifest that first Christmas changed everything forever. The spirit of Christ now lives in us as we live in our world. We are the players in the Christmas story we live today, right here, right now.
So then, about what do we need to trust God? Maybe we need to trust that God, who loves us beyond anything we can comprehend, has a plan and is redeeming all things, all people, all the time.
The pandemic isn’t the whole story of our lives right now. Our relationships can survive at-home isolation for a time, and so can our church. In the meantime, people all around us are suffering losses of every kind and need - more than ever - to be able to show up and ask for room in our hearts and our lives, without shame or fear of being turned away.
Y’all, Christmas is happening in us today - in our bodies, our lives, and in our world, so let’s live this truth in the way we can do it now as we worship together by video.
Get up, put your coffee down, and raise your hands in prayer. Let's let our bodies and our voices sing: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room. and heaven and nature sing…. and heaven and nature sing…. and heaven and nature sing….”
Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96,Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
En el nombre del Dios, que en Trinidad en Unidad. Amen.
I love a good TV commercial. One of my all-time favorite commercials
was called “Frogs (Boys night in).” It came out almost a decade ago but the tag line still echoes in my thoughts today, especially today. (Tells the story of the commercial)
A voice-over says, “There was a time when poker night was what you looked forward to all week. So who’d have ever thought boys night out wouldn’t hold a candle to boys night in? Having a baby changes everything.”
Another commercial in that series, asks: “…who’d have ever thought the biggest thing to ever happen to you would be the smallest? Having a baby changes everything.”
The biggest thing to ever happen in the history of human experience came to us in the form of the least: a baby, born to a poor, young peasant woman, in a barn in a remote village in the Middle East.
This baby changed everything.
Sometimes, the Christmas story is so familiar, so sanitized that we forget the harsh reality of it. Mary and Joseph traveled 90 miles to register as a family in Bethlehem according to the law.
She was 9 months pregnant… On a donkey… for 90 miles….
When they finally get to Bethlehem Joseph’s people turned them away claiming there was no room in their guest quarters. The truth is, Mary was pregnant
before she and Joseph had married and that brought shame on them all.
So they sent them to the barn and Mary’s baby had to be born there among the animals. Nothing was sterilized. No one came to help, to comfort or assure them
or feed them, or clean up for them. It must have been so scary for them.
But then… there he was. The baby conceived by the overshadowing of God was born. He was so tiny so they swaddled him which made him feel safe. They talked to him so he didn’t feel alone. They fed him so he could be content and sleep.
And they reveled in him knowing this baby has changed everything.
The first to hear of this birth were some shepherds in the fields. Now for most of us,
the image of shepherds brings to our minds peaceful, pastoral images…but back then, things were different. “Shepherding was a despised occupation…they were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other [people’s] lands.” (Footnote 1)
Shepherds didn’t bathe much so they didn’t smell good and people avoided them. And these particular shepherds were the lowest of the low… working the grave-yard shift.
But God, who sees differently than the world does, chose these lowly shepherds to be the first humans to hear the good news that the Messiah of the world had been born and could be found in Bethlehem.
The shepherds went to Bethlehem to find this child, then ran home to tell everyone they knew about it “…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds
told them.” They must have radiated their good news in such a way that everyone who saw them noticed them, listened to them, and were amazed by what they heard.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.” What if we lived our lives like that? What if we radiated the Good News of our salvation in the child born this night?
The thing is, the good news of Christmas is a present reality, not just an ancient story we remember together. Christ is being born in us today… now.
The radical truth of Christmas is that the extravagant love of God, was made real for all of us to know, see, and experience in Jesus. “It’s one of the most radical things” Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said.“… All belong… All are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go… Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful…gay, lesbian, …straight. All.” (Footnote 2)
Yet even in this joyous moment people all around us are suffering losses of so many kinds in this pandemic. What if we wrapped them in our love to make them feel safe, or talked to them so they didn’t feel alone, or fed them so they could be content and sleep?
On that first Christmas, God took the form of the smallest and the least - a baby who changed everything. What happened once in Royal David’s city, is happening still. God’s love is being born in each of us, in all of us.
So tonight, together with the shepherds and the angels, and with all the saints in heaven and on earth, we sing out our praise: Glory to God and joy to the world! A child is born this night who is Christ the Lord.
En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.
In our Collect today we prayed: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation…” What if God actually visited us the way God visited Mary in today’s gospel? You realize we just asked for that.right? And that God hears and answers our prayers. Just sayin’…
So often we listen to this story of the Annunciation and assume that Mary is afraid because heaven just broke through into earth and an angel is standing there in front of her. Legend describes him as having wings as white as snow and eyes like flames.
We don’t know that - or if the angel just suddenly appeared, walked or flew through the window or door to Mary’s room, or if he found her outside - the gospel doesn’t tell us. All we know is that the angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted her by calling her “favored one.”
Given that Mary’s response to Gabriel’s greeting was to ponder it, it doesn’t appear that his presence made her afraid. If you heard the strength of her faith proclaimed in the Magnificat last week, it’s clear that while Mary may be humble, she is anything but faint-hearted.
I think when Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid he’s referring to what he’s about to say - that God has chosen her to bear the long-awaited Messiah into the world. Still clearly unafraid, Mary responds with a very practical question - how? To which Gabriel replies, the “Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High God will overshadow you…”
There are several times this word, “overshadowed” appears in Scripture. Adam was overshadowed by God in Genesis. (2:21) Moses was overshadowed by God in Exodus. (33:21-23). The disciples were overshadowed by God on the Mount of the Transfiguration in Luke. (9:34) Each time God was affirming for these faithful servants the power, presence, and protection of God, not just in general, but specifically for them, as they set out to accomplish what God was giving them to do.
When Gabriel told Mary that God would overshadow her, she would have known the stories in Genesis and Exodus, and what being overshadowed would mean for her. Her proclamation in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed can then be understood not as a departure from humility, but as an acknowledgment of her destiny.
I’m sure Mary had lots more questions swirling around in her mind as she pondered the reality of what was being asked of her. Like most of us, and like the prophets before her, Mary had to wonder, ‘Can I really do this?’ Do I have what it takes?
As if hearing those questions in her mind, the angel Gabriel assures Mary (and us) that God is already making this happen. Her cousin Elizabeth, who was barren and too old to have a child, is pregnant. Mary now has a companion for her journey, and as we will see later, so do their sons.
“For nothing will be impossible with God.”
One word that does describe Mary, as this gospel makes very clear, is purity. Mary was pure – not in the patriarchal, puritanical sense, but in the spiritual sense. To be pure is to be undistracted, to be completely in line with God and God’s will.
Mary’s response to what she was being asked to do was purity personified: “let it be done with me” as you have said. It is an affirmation of her faith that the God of love is with her and will accomplish through her the part of the plan of salvation designed just for her to do. As we said when we lit the fourth candle today - there is no power greater than love. Mary knew that, trusted it, and so could respond faithfully to God’s call to her.
Mary has been an important part of my spiritual life since I was a little child - a constant presence, strength, and inspiration for me as I have grown in age and spirit. She has truly been for me, Theotokos, the God-bearer, bringing Christ into my life and experience in very real ways.
These experiences taught me that I, too, am a God-bearer. We all are. The Spirit of Christ dwells in each of us, sanctifies us, and calls us to bear that into the world – each in our own way, in very real ways, according to God’s plan.
As this season of Advent draws to a close, I pray we, like Mary, welcome the love of God into our lives and our bodies as God continues to work for the salvation of the whole world. I pray we, like Mary, truly believe that God is with us, in us, and will accomplish through us the part of the plan of salvation designed specifically for us - as individuals and as the body of Christ, the church.
Let us pray…
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation that we may know your presence, and be bearers of your love, mercy, and justice into the world. By your presence in us and with us we know that anything is possible, any risk worth taking, any price worth paying. Because you have asked it, we will give ourselves to it - fully, faithfully, as our Mother Mary did. Amen.
Lectionary: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen.
So, I have a serious question for you… is God Three in One or One in Three? A Trinity who lives in Unity or a Unity who lives as a Trinity?
While the answer to this seems obvious to us - both are true - this actually broke the Christian world apart years ago.
The first Christian churches, whom we now refer to as the Eastern Orthodox Church, began with God as one who lives as three - a unity of three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. The Western Roman Christians began with God as three who live as one - a Trinity that lives in dynamic unity.
The disagreement was so fierce that in 1054 the church experienced The Great Schism when the Eastern and Western Christian churches broke apart. To be fair, there were lots of things they disagreed about like the date of Easter and papal primacy in Rome, but this issue of how to understand God was at the heart of them all and it led to a disagreement that is still being argued today: the procession of the Holy Spirit.
As The Episcopal Church enters a new phase of revising our Book of Common Prayer, you should know that this disagreement is part of the discussion - again. In the Nicene Creed, we say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” That’s the sticking point and it’s called the filioque clause.
The Eastern Christians totally disagree with the filioque clause because in their worldview, the Spirit can’t proceed from Father and the Son since God is One. The Western Christians, who begin with God as Three, would argue that the Son proceeds from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Who’s correct? It all depends on your worldview.
So how do we find a way to live together with such different worldviews that lead to very different experiences and practices in life and worship? The answer to that matters because it will either lead us toward unity or further division.
Another discussion in the revision of our prayer book is about making the language about God more expansive, that is, less male-gendered, except in the sacrament of Baptism where the person will still be baptized in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This decision was made to promote reconciliation between the divergent views on what to call God and to prevent further breakdown of ecumenical relationships among members of the global Christian family.
For some God is only Father. For others, God is also Mother and it’s been that way throughout our history according to the writings of many church fathers and mothers. Both ways of describing God are present in our Testaments, Old and New, but the male-gendered names took priority in our habit, probably due to the patriarchal nature of Jewish and early Christian societies.
Three in One or One in Three. God as only Father or God also as Mother.
What’s all this got to do with our lessons today? In our gospel, John is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. So, the question is: how do we understand sin, repentance, and what a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin means?
In this century, we have such a habit of viewing sin as individual choices for bad or wrong behavior. Repentance then is to stop doing that bad or wrong thing. A baptism of repentance then becomes a transaction: if you stop, you will be forgiven. Then you will be saved.
There is some truth in that. If we stop whatever bad or wrong behavior we’re doing, life will be restored. Ask any alcoholic or addict. But that isn’t the whole of it because it completely overlooks our collective sins like racism, sexism, heterosexism, able-ism, classism, and individualism.
It also has the process backwards. Forgiveness is not a reward for our repentance, but the means by which we are able to choose to repent.
John preached that by forgiveness, we are set free from sin but it requires that we change our minds, change how we think. The Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια (metanoia), means a change of mind affecting the whole life.
When we choose to change our minds in a way that affects all life, ours and everyone else’s, then we will be set free from sin, which can be understood as anything that disrupts the shalom of God - the way things ought to be according to God’s plan of redemption.
Theologian Paul Tillich* describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation is caused by seeking our own will rather than the will of God, and it distorts all our relationships. For Tillich, sin is individual and collective, and it is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that our relationships are restored and we are returned to right relationship with God, one another, and ourselves.
This is the kind of repentance John the Baptist is calling the people to in today’s gospel. John is proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is coming near and people need to change their minds in a way that affects all life so that they can recognize and receive the grace that is coming in the one who would come after him, the one who is more powerful than he is, the one who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.
And the people were flocking to John to hear his teaching - even the religious authorities were coming - because everyone wanted what he was offering: new life in the shalom of God.
In every age, restoration to life in the shalom of God, in the light of Christ, requires us to choose to repent, to choose to change how we think in a way that affects all life, to choose a new way of being in relationship with God and each other.
As long as any of God’s creation suffers lack, degradation, harm, or disrespect, we are all living in sin and God’s shalom is in a state of disruption. But the grace of God breathed upon us continually and patiently offers us forgiveness that will set us all free to repent and be restored to life in the shalom of God.
Let us pray.
Eternal Reality, Breather of Peace and Justice, give us grace to change our minds in a way that affects all life, that your shalom may be restored and all of your children will be transformed by your love, live in your light, and know the peace that comes from your justice. Amen.
* Tillich, Paul, “The Shaking of the Foundations” (Wipf and Stock Pub, Eugene, OR, 1948).
Last Sunday evening I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with our children and youth at their weekly Zoom meeting. One of our youth asked a great question which led to a short discussion about how to understand the apocalyptic language in our gospel readings last Sunday and today.
As we enter this season of Advent, which inaugurates a new liturgical year for us, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic and rising revelations of racism. It is a time of tribulation for us, much like our forebears in the faith knew, so it helps to find the hope in the apocalyptic vision.
Apocalyptic language is a literary form found in several places in our Scripture, but especially in the Book of Daniel and the Revelation to John. Historically, apocalyptic literature arises out of times of trouble and the vision it offers is one of ultimate salvation by God.
Apocalyptic writings are rich with symbolism and dualistic language such as light and dark, good and evil, and groups on the right and on the left. It even has code language meant to tell the story of the tribulation being suffered while protecting the writer and the community from retaliation by their oppressors.
The gift of apocalyptic literature is that it affirms the real suffering being experienced while holding that suffering as momentary - birth pangs that will eventually lead to a new life in a new age, one in which God has set things right.
What trips us up is that apocalyptic literature cannot be read literally. It isn’t history or doctrine. It’s a very dramatic expression of the vision of God’s ultimate plan of salvation, a plan our small human minds can’t begin to comprehend. Attempting to read apocalyptic language literally is like trying to read Dr. Seuss literally. It’s impossible, but more importantly, it misses the point being made, and since Jesus made several really bold points in today’s gospel using apocalyptic language, it’s worth taking a look at them.
Our story begins with, “after that suffering.” In the preceding verses in this chapter from Mark, the disciples are watching the construction of the temple in Jerusalem and marveling at how magnificent and strong a building it is. As he usually does, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach and he describes a terrifying time of the destruction of the temple, war and violence, false prophets and famines.
Shaken from their reverie to fright, the disciples ask when will all of this happen? Jesus’ answer is in today’s gospel reading.
“After that suffering” Jesus says, you will see what looks like the restoration of the chaos God had brought to order in the story of creation in Genesis: the sun and the moon will go dark and the stars will fall from the firmament Then, quoting from the apocalyptic book of Daniel, Jesus tells them they will see the “‘Son of Man’ coming in clouds with great power and glory.” This is the first very bold point Jesus is making.
Jesus, who often refers to himself as the Son of Man, is identifying himself with the Son of Man from Daniel who came to inaugurate a new age for God.
Jesus goes on to say that this Son of Man will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from the farthest reaches of heaven and earth. This is a bold identification of himself as divine, as God.
But the boldest claim is probably at the end of that paragraph. Connecting his listeners to the prophet Isaiah who said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa 40:8) Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Most of us are so relieved by the message that we miss the fact that Jesus is identifying himself here as God in an unambiguous way.
Another huge point so often overlooked is Jesus’ statement that when we see these things taking place, we will know that God is near - “at the very gates,“ he said. Every time we see these things, not just once, but in every age, we must remember that we know it means God is near. So when we hear ourselves asking “where is God in all of our suffering?” our faith reminds us to give thanks because we know it means that God is near, at our very gates.
Sadly, what many people end up focusing on is when the end of the world will happen. Well, try as we might, we can’t pin God down to a moment, a day, or even a millennium because Jesus’ second coming is happening now and will continue until it is completed. Then we will see
and perceive the Son of Man in all of his power and great glory - the fullness of God who is all in all.
Our faith reminds us that Jesus said, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:17), and that he would not leave us orphaned (Jn 14:18).To do that, Jesus breathed his Spirit into humanity uniting himself to us forevermore.
This is the unexpected new thing God did in Jesus: inaugurating a new age where the divine Spirit of Christ dwells in the mortal bodies of each of us, and in all of us as the body of Christ.
This is the hope Advent calls us to remember and ponder and now is the time for us to re-awaken to this new thing already happening in us and through us. The spirit of Christ has been given to us as a gift from God.
Are we awake to the astonishing nature of that gift? Are we sharing it as Christ bid us to do?
The light that has been given to us shines on the darkness in our own hearts as well as into the world. We are mistaken if we believe that being temples of Christ’s spirit rids us of our own inner darkness. It doesn’t. It illuminates it for us so that we can see it and choose to let go of whatever hinders God’s plan for us, for our parish, or for the corner of God’s garden we serve.
This is how we practice the season of Advent. If we choose to now, we can enter this season with hope… the expectation that we can trust the light of Christ that is in us to illumine the path of new life God is revealing to us right now. As we proclaimed at the lighting of the candle for this first Sunday in Advent, “Christ is coming. Christ is always coming… always entering a troubled world, a wounded heart.”
Let us pray.
Give us grace, Eternal God, to prepare ourselves to answer your invitation to new life. We pledge to use this season of Advent to prepare ourselves and to listen, certain that you are with us, leading us into new life. By your redeeming love, transform us and make us ready to be sent forth as bearers of your light, temples of your Holy Spirit, and sharers of your holiness. Amen.
Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
In our Collect today we acknowledged that the people of the earth are divided and restricted by sin. We know that sin binds, isolates, and inhibits us.
Sin disrupts the shalom of God. We have created a world where many of us wonder if we’ll ever feel safe or secure again as we cope with some pretty big issues: a resurging pandemic, rampant racism, melting ice caps, ever increasing food and job insecurity, and an uncertain economic future for our churches, our businesses, our nation, and the world.
When faced with problems as big as these it helps to remember that God is big enough, loving enough, and involved enough to help us. That’s why in our Collect we ask God for restoration and release from the sin that binds and restricts our freedom to love.
Contemplating our current situation in the world, it’s tempting to use today’s gospel as justification for praying to God to heal some and curse others, but that would be wrong. While it is right and good to tell God what we need, the true benefit of prayer is that it brings us into the presence of God where we are given a spirit of wisdom and the eyes of our hearts are enlightened. It is in prayer, both private and corporate, that our minds and hearts are realigned to God’s own, which is what righteousness is.
Then, no matter how desperately we enter into prayer, we remember that God, who created the whole universe and all that is in it, is the strength that covers our weakness and we comprehend that if our behavior is right and good it’s because we are living into the truth of who we are: Christ’s body, “the fulness of him who fills all in all.” Right behavior is not the way to faithfulness; it’s the fruit of it - which is the point of Jesus’s apocalyptic story in today’s gospel.
When the eyes of our hearts are enlightened and we know ourselves to be the actual bearers of the love of God into the world today, then we will notice the suffering of our sisters and brothers and act to tend to their needs because we are connected to God. Our seeing is motivated by the eyes of the divine who dwells in us, so we notice the one who is hungry, or naked, or lonely in our midst.
Here’s a true story that exemplifies that: once upon a time, there was a high school teacher named Keanon Lowe, who came upon a student at school armed with an automatic rifle. "I felt compassion for him,” Keanon said. "In a fraction of a second, I analyzed everything really fast. I saw the look in his face, [the] look in his eyes… [I] looked at the gun, realized it was a real gun and then my instincts just took over."
And his instinct was to hug the boy, (pause) During the embrace, the student cried out that he felt alone, that no one cared about him. “I care about you,” was Keanon’s immediate reply.
Every story could be this way.
Every story. Wherever sin separates us Jesus, who is in us, is ready to act through us to reconcile and make us one, to hold us in the embrace of his love. This is the practice and protocol of the reign of Christ.
One last thing about Keanon Lowe: he believed he was placed there in that moment to save that young boy. I believe that too because I believe that about all of us.
We are the means by which the redeeming love of God happens in the world. By our very presence and preparedness, we prepare the way for the Lord. We remind that world, by our words and actions, that we are all one, held together in an embrace of divine love.
It is because of our connection, our relationship to God that we can notice suffering and tend to it. God will act through us as instinctively as God acted through Keanon Lowe, who by the way, bore the kingdom of God into that school and into that boy that day.
In our gospel story, Matthew talks about eternal life and eternal punishment. Eternity, by its very definition has no beginning and no end, therefore it can’t be something that happens after we die. It’s now. It’s always.
Also, since God is eternal, our connection to God is connection to eternity. Disconnection from God feels like eternal punishment because it is disconnection from the only truth there is, the only life there is, and we don’t have to die to experience it.
I’ve experienced hell more than once in my life. What made those experiences hell for me was that I’d lost my grip on my relationship with God. I felt disconnected, existentially alone, and eternally lost.
I wasn’t, of course, because Christ marked me as his own forever at my Baptism. So, while I may have felt disconnected from God, God was not disconnected from me. God was waiting like a shepherd to guide me back to the rich pasture Ezekiel describes, the richness of relationship with God.
While I was in hell, my entire focus was on myself. I was drowning in my own suffering. I felt alone and lost, scared, and angry about it. I was dying. There truly was no life within me. I had no idea how to go. I was stuck. I couldn’t have noticed anyone else’s suffering because my focus had turned inward. I could only think about me. I was in hell and each moment was an eternity.
We are all God's sheep, imperfect vessels made perfect by God alone. We are imperfect church communities enlightened by the Christ who dwells in us.
When we believe that God dwells in us, we can step into any darkness, any suffering, and allow Jesus to do through us what he always does, what the prophets of old said he would do: set us free from all that separates us and guide our feet into the way of peace.
As a church we are called to be connected to God, to one another, and to our local community so that the least of those among us know they are not alone, they are not lost. As one of my favorite indy artists, Dar Williams, said in a song: “If you're lucky you'll find something that reflects you, helps you feel your life, protects you, cradles you, and connects you to everything.” (Dar Williams, “Hudson” Album: My Better Self)
That’s what church is. That’s what church does.
Today is our Stewardship in-gathering. We are collecting the pledges of financial support for our work as church in the coming year. It is my prayer, as we prepare for our new year together, that we break ourselves open and allow the grace and mercy of God to show us how to be the kind of church through which God can rescue the scattered sheep among and around us and restore them to us, where they can be healed by the presence of Jesus in us…
so that God might continue to build us up with new family who are looking for a place where they can be loved, protected, cradled, and connected…
so that we might have that many more hands, that many more hearts, that many more gifts to use to answer Christ’s call to serve the least, inside and outside our gates, who are members of our family - the family of God.
Then when we come to the end of our lives we can run joyfully into the arms of Christ our King who will say to us with a broad smile and open arms: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Amen.
En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen.
In our Collect today, we affirmed that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, then we asked God to grant us the hope to purify ourselves as he is pure. I wish we could talk together so I could ask you what you make of this prayer. There are two terms in it that stood out for me as a priest and pastor: the devil, and purity. My experience is they are often misunderstood and certainly misapplied, so let’s discuss them.
The devil is a persona that has evolved over the centuries and the meaning today is radically different from the biblical understanding. Remember that Jesus said to Peter, get behind me satán. Satán, however, is not a proper noun but a descriptor - and it means tempter, distractor from the path of the will of God. By loving Jesus and wanting to protect him from the fate that awaited, Peter (the video mistakenly says, Jesus here - sorry!) became satán to Jesus.
The lesson is, we all can - even when we are acting out of love. To purify ourselves then, we must return to the path of the will of God. That’s it. That’s what purity of heart is, biblically speaking, and this connects us to the gospel parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
This is a hard parable to understand. As we know by now, parables are meant to wake us up, shake us up, and cast out our certainty like a rock thrown into a lake, leaving us standing there watching the ripples flow out into the still water wondering what just happened.
As I stood prayerfully on that proverbial lakeshore watching the ripples, I saw the church, the body of Christ in general, and Calvary in particular. Suddenly I understood that the wise bridesmaids are those who know their own divine purpose, the divine purpose of their vessel and how to use it, keeping them on the path of the will of God.
In the parable, the bridesmaids have a purpose - they are to serve the bridegroom who is coming by lighting his path using their lamps. The wise ones knew what they would need to take with them because they understood their own purpose and the purpose of the lamp.
The foolish ones brought their lamps, but no oil. You can almost see the meme for this: You had one job!
The lamp is an empty, useless vessel without the stewardship of the bridesmaids.
This is a powerful wake-up, shake-up kind of moment for those of us who are the church. Our church buildings are our lamps - the means by which we shine the light of Christ in the world. They have a purpose, but without our stewardship, they are useless vessels.
Our stewardship, however, isn’t as simple as weekly attendance, participation in ministry, or annual pledging, although those are important. Our stewardship includes an understanding of our divine purpose as the body of Christ in this time and place and how God is calling us to serve. Our beautiful building is the vessel of our community. It is at once the repository of the many resources God has given us and the vessel from which we serve in our corner of God’s kingdom. It’s our home base but it is a useless vessel without our stewardship.
Another lesson we have been blessed to learn during this pandemic is that our buildings offer us support but are not the source of our identity or our worship. We have been set free from that certainty and our building can now reclaim its rightful spot as a tool, a vessel for the accomplishment of our service to God and God’s people.
The source of our identity is Jesus Christ and he is not constrained by a pandemic or inhibited by an election. Therefore, neither are we.
On Wednesday morning, the day after the election, as I was praying, I heard the wisdom of God speak to me. I was praying out of habit and with a hope that I might not get caught up in the anger and contempt that is peddled in so much discourse right now.
I was brought to remember a Jewish midrash story I heard years ago in a religion class I took in undergrad at Rutgers about the parting of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus. According to the midrash, when Moses and the Israelites got to the other side and watched the sea crash in on the Egyptians, killing them, they rejoiced in their salvation at the hand of God. But God admonished them saying, ‘There is no reason to rejoice! Those now dead beneath the Red Sea waters are my children too.”
The church is not concerned with who sits at the Resolute Desk in the White House. We are concerned with the suffering of our neighbors, many of whom are truly and deeply suffering. Many were suffering before the election and many will suffer as a result of it. How do we serve them - all of them?
The church is concerned with noticing evil, that is, whatever divides us or causes pain, sadness or undue burden or whenever someone is excluded or disrespected. Wherever we discern evil, the church’s mission is reconciliation.
As the Episcopalians, our identity is Via Media, the middle way, established by Elizabeth I in order to stop the killing of Protestants by Catholics, and Catholics by Protestants during the Reformation Era. We are all English, she said, and we must find a way to live together in peace.
To accomplish that, Elizabeth commissioned a team of theologians, writers, and poets, led by Thomas Cranmer to produce a book of worship that would spiritually feed the Catholics and Protestants among her people. Our Book of Common Prayer has its roots there and remains the symbol of our unity today. We do not seek uniformity of doctrine but unity in prayer.
Whatever differences our diversity raises up among us, we are made one body, one spirit when we pray and worship together. As priest and theologian Henri Nouwen says, “Every time we encounter one another we are offered an occasion to encounter the sacred.”
A bond of relationship builds over time enabling us to discern the path of the will of God in our time and live it together, in all our diversity, in the name of God and for the sake of God’s people and creation. One simple but stunning illustration of that is our habit of praying the Lord’s prayer together where we proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. Whether we’re talking about the pandemic, the election, the persistent, destructive malignancy of racism, and the other -isms that divide us, we count on God delivering us from these evils. We repeat this prayer often to remind ourselves of God’s redeeming love so that we aren’t led into the temptation to despair or abandon hope while God acts to redeem - and God is always acting to redeem.
We, as Calvary Church and individually as members of it, are the means by which the light of Christ shines in the world, in downtown Columbia, today. We, in all of our diversity, frailty, and wisdom have a purpose: to radiate with the light and the truth that we all are beloved children of a loving God. All of us.
The church, our church, is a place where the truth of everyone’s belovedness is intentionally and counter-culturally lived out. When the world blames and excludes someone for being poor and hungry, we welcome them into our midst and feed them. When the world derides someone for whom they love, we celebrate that God is the author of all love.
Our church’s divine purpose is to shine the light of the truth of everyone’s belovedness until everyone believes it… and lives it… and glorifies God for it.
I close with a prayer from Bishop Steven Charleston, retired bishop of Alaska, and a member of the Choctaw nation: “Give your heart to love today, not to old thoughts of who you were, but to the new idea that your kindness could change another life. Give your mind to hope today, not to the usual list of impossibilities, but to a single faith that goodness is the purpose of history. Give your spirit to peace today, not to the anger of the moment, but to the welcoming road of grace that leads to the home for which you have longed. Give your hands to the work of justice today, not in resignation but in certainty, knowing that what you do will make an enormous difference.”
Living in covenant relationship can be a challenge. So many things can divide us from within and without. That’s why we prayed in our Collect that God might increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity. As followers of Christ who are pushed beyond our comfort zones on a regular basis, we seek to hold fast to our faith that God is guiding us in every circumstance so that we might embody hope in the face of injustice and respond with charity to hatred or fear.
About every week I have at least one conversation with someone who has hit their wall. The top five culprits in their dead-end experience are the helplessness they feel over how or when we might stem the destructive tide of the coronavirus, their heartbreak over revelations of a systemic racism they simply hadn’t noticed before and what to do about it, their anxiety over an increasing sense of economic instability for so many, the daily assault of our political divisions in the news, and relationships on the brink of rupture or already lost, either to illness or ideology.
We may not have solutions to the ills of the world - yet, but we can do two things; love God and neighbor as self. At least that’s what Jesus recommends.
In today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew, another group of religious experts, lawyers this time, makes their attempt to publicly entrap and discredit Jesus. Feigning respect by calling him Teacher, they ask Jesus to teach them which commandment in the law is the greatest.
Without hesitation, Jesus answers them by holding up the divine command for covenant love - and it is two-fold. Quoting first from Deut 6:5, which is also the second line of the Shema, a prayer his listeners would have prayed every day, Jesus holds up what our part of covenant love with God looks like: we are to love God: totally – with all the strength of our hearts, minds, and souls.
He completes his answer by quoting from Leviticus, holding up what covenant love with one another looks like: we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. This love, agape love, is active and concerned with the welfare of the other. As one commentator says, “The person who loves with agapao love will want to do something positive for the beloved––to find a way to help.” On these two commands, which have equal weight, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets.
Then Jesus asks the Pharisees a question of his own and it seems he had two purposes in mind. The first was to confront the preconceived notion most people, including the religious leadership, had about the Messiah. Whose son is he? They answer David’s son but Jesus proves them wrong using Psalm 110, which says, “The Lord said to my lord…” How can the Messiah be David’s son and his Lord? He can't.
The second was, I think, to stop the useless intellectual battling and open the minds of his listeners, to reveal to them the shocking reality that their thinking and assumptions just might be inadequate in comparison to the abundant graciousness of God.
His plan worked. The religious leadership was confounded and no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions. The challenge of letting go of preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about how God might be acting to redeem, however, continues for us to this day. What do we think?
Are we called as Christians to win arguments? To what end? Does doing so keep the divine law of covenant love?
There is a symbol in the church called the Christus Rex. It’s a cross with the body of the triumphant risen Christ on it, robed in white, arms raised in prayer, and a crown on his head. This symbol visually forces us to go beyond our preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about death and resurrection life. It connects us to the scriptural stories of the resurrected Jesus, who was unrecognizable to his closest companions - at least at first - doing something as spectacularly unexplainable as walking through locked doors, and something as mundane as eating fish with his friends on the beach.
Whenever we think we know something with certainty, all we need to do is look at a Christus Rex to remember that all we know is what we think we know, and our assumptions may be limiting God’s redeeming work in the world right now.
For the early Christians, God’s redeeming work was limited by their preconceived notion of inclusion. Did a person have to be a Jew, and therefore circumcised, in order to be a Christian? In the end, the answer was no.
Today, God’s redeeming work just might be being limited by our preconceived notions and our lack of discipline in keeping the divine command of covenant love. The evidence we have of that is that there are real divisions among us fomenting growing helplessness, hopelessness, and broken or lost relationships.
When we rely on our thinking to address these issues we rely on an inadequate tool. Jesus teaches us to focus instead on the divine command for covenant love and act from that. Our purpose is not to be right but to be loving.
And we discern how to do that, how to practice covenant love, by praying together, holding fast to our friendships instead of our biases. Then we can build our servant-listening muscle remembering that what may sound like anger is often fear, and what may seem like a big to-do over nothing is often a hurt that is inadequately expressed or understood.
Approaching someone with agape love is the only way we will hear what’s behind their words and perceive what’s behind their actions. Only then can we do something positive for the beloved one before us, and find a way to help. Then will the graciousness of God be upon us, prospering the work of our hands. (Ps 90 :17)
Let us pray. God of love and mercy, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, that we may become disciplined practitioners of covenant love. Amen.
Lectionary: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
En el nombre del Dios, ques es Trinidad en unidad. Amen.
The line between religion and politics is always a popular discussion online and in the news. Should religion be involved in politics and vice versa…?
In the gospel reading today, some Pharisees, that is, members of a religious sect who were kind of the religious alt-right of their time, joined up with some unlikely allies, Herodians, who were presumably members of a political party supporting the Roman occupiers. Their purpose of this unholy alliance was to entrap and discredit Jesus using the issue of paying the Roman poll tax.
Here’s some background information that is helpful to know:
1) The Roman poll tax was an annual head tax. Basically, this was Caesar taking money on a per-person basis and in return, he didn’t hurt or kill them. It was rather like a mob payoff.
2) It was required that the tax be paid with the denarius a Roman coin with a value akin to a day’s pay – not an exorbitant amount for each person, but cumulatively it generated a healthy haul for Caesar.
3) Jews held the coin to be a graven image, and therefore, idolatrous. They also held the inscription on the coin to be blasphemous. Since it was also the currency of the land, many Jews used the denarius despite the religious law against it. A few, like the alt-right Pharisees, refused to use them at all, which put them in a bind: break the law of God and use the idolatrous coin or break the law of the land and get punished by the Roman occupiers.
This is the conundrum they brought to Jesus. Would he advise his listeners to break God’s law or Caesar’s? Either way, he would be toast. That was their plan anyway.
But this is Jesus. He knows what they’re up to and he tells them so.
Bring a coin, he says. Whose face is on it? The emperor’s, they reply. Then Jesus gives his answer and it’s theological and political genius: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The political genius of this is: Know the truth of your moment in history. Give Caesar the coin with his image on it, Jesus says. He thinks it belongs to him anyway to do with as he pleases.
Here’s the theological genius: We know as we read this, that Jesus is the 2nd person of the Trinity, the one through whom all things are made. ALL THINGS. What things, then, are not God’s? All things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources - including all coins – everything belongs to God. Genius!
Recognizing this and living faithfully into it, is the very definition of stewardship. If all people belong to God, then who can we allow to be hungry, or homeless, or un-shoed in winter? Whose physical and mental health needs can be overlooked or underfunded? If all people are God’s, who is our enemy?
We can only exclude today those whom Jesus excluded as he died on the cross. Oh right, he died once for ALL as St. Paul said (Ro 6.10). Likewise, we can exclude no one.
If all time belongs to God, then isn’t it important for us to establish a harmony of rhythms of our time at work, with family, and with God in prayer?
Do our activities speak love? Are they serving the welfare of God’s people, including ourselves, and thereby bringing God glory? Do we hold the precious gifts of our earth in trust for future generations?
What about our finances? Ah, that’s the sticky one, as we saw in our gospel today. Do we hold our wealth as a gift given to us for the accomplishment of God’s purposes or do we, like Caesar, think it belongs to us for our own purposes? Jesus made the answer pretty clear, I think.
The world is a difficult place and life is so hard for so many. As the pandemic continues, the numbers among us who are hungry, unwell physically or mentally, lonely, unemployed, or trapped in fear or anger, steadily increases.
But we have Good News to share and the responsibility to share it – by our words and our actions. The world is desperate for the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Just listen to the news (only a little – too much might make you crazy!)
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry once said Episcopalians need to get busy “committing to making a practical, tangible difference…helping the world look more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare… It’s sacred work” he said.
To do that, Bp. Curry recommends we make five things a priority: Formation, Evangelism, Witnessing, Relationship, and Structures that serve our mission. We have much of this happening right now at Calvary. For example, our formation currently includes Inquirers Class, Bible and book studies, and a plan for Christian formation for the upcoming seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany adapted to the COVID restrictions. We’re also working on an Inquirers Class geared to children and youth.
Calvary’s evangelism has blossomed with online Daily Office services that enable people to deepen their relationships with God and one another through prayer everyday - something that wasn’t happening before the shutdown.
Our Interim Parish Summits, which begin today, will lay the groundwork for examining our institutional structures so that we can ensure our structures serve our current divine mission. It’s important, faithful work being done here at Calvary – sacred work.
The Church has traditionally supported its sacred work through an annual stewardship campaign calling on people to ‘give sacrificially’ like Jesus did for us. Over time, this has come to feel more like a Roman poll tax than a joyful offering, so let’s faithfully re-frame it.
Jesus said, “Give… to God the things that are God’s.” It’s pretty simple: everything is God’s - including us. Our bodies, our relationships, our activities, our finances, our resources, our church, our prayer – all belong to God.
So don’t give sacrificially – Jesus already did that – once for all! Instead, let’s give until it feels really good! Let’s give gratefully, generously, joyfully - knowing that each of us has been chosen by God to be here in this time and this place, to activate resources entrusted to us to make the world here in Columbia and Boone Co. more like the dream of God.
Annual campaigns are important. Financial resources are necessary for a church to fulfill its divine purpose. As you consider your 2021 pledge to Calvary, hear what St. Paul says about stewardship: “…For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable… I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need...” (2 Cor 8. 9, 11, 13-14)
We are called to participate in making a tangible difference in our world. We who have enough to eat are called to share food with those who are hungry. We who are accepted according to societal preferences of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or economic standing are called to build bridges of friendship and inclusion with those who are marginalized in our time – modeling Jesus who served those judged to be unworthy in his time.
Those who have financial means are called to take up their responsibility and support the church’s mission and ministries so that Calvary can fulfill its divine purpose: being a living, activating vessel of the Jesus movement.
As St. Paul said in today's letter, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you…” When our church buildings were closed by the pandemic, Calvary let our community know that they matter, by immediately setting up a Blessing Box and adapting the Saturday Café to a To-Go format. The hungry were fed. The houseless were supplied with food and personal hygiene products. Our COVID Help Fund recently saved two families, furloughed from their jobs due to COVID, from eviction.
Calvary is living proof that there is no nightmare the dream of God isn’t already overcoming and the people in our area are seeing the truth of that proclaimed and lived in this parish. That’s why the theme for this year’s pledge campaign is: Serving Community with Gratitude and Generosity.
We are grateful for all God has given us and we want to continue to give generously to our community. I pray everyone will give to Calvary’s ministries during this fall campaign as generously as God has given to us, giving until it feels really good, remembering that all things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources – all of it belongs to God. And that our work, serving our community in God’s name with gratitude and generosity, is sacred work. Amen.
Lectionary: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14
“Many are called, but few are chosen.” That’s such an ominous ending to a pretty harsh sounding story, and I always get nervous when Jesus sounds ominous. So did the Pharisees and Scribes to whom Jesus was directing his remarks.
The parable of the wedding banquet is only found in the gospel of Matthew, and it is in keeping with the author’s purpose to show that Jesus is the Messiah… that in Jesus, “God has begun to fulfill the promises to Israel.” It is also the last teaching Jesus does in the temple before his conflict with the Jewish leadership escalates.
This parable was meant to sound ominous. Jesus was deliberately pointing to a present evil and calling attention to the disastrous consequences that would follow for those, specifically religious leaders, who remained complacent and self-focused rather than faithful.
From the beginning, God called the people of Israel into covenant relationship so that through them the good news of salvation might be brought to the whole world. Remember God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) And in Isaiah: “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6)
In today’s parable, Jesus is announcing that this promise is being fulfilled. In Jesus, God’s plan of salvation is about to break out of the House of Israel and reach the ends of the earth - and the Jewish leadership doesn’t want to hear it.
They, like so many today, have grabbed hold of God’s grace as if it were theirs to own and give to those whom they choose. This is at the core of classism. A few hoard the resources meant for many, then justify and legitimate doing so. When we look at the disparity of resource distribution in our country and in the world today, it seems clear that the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity continues to elude us.
Jesus’ listeners have become so accustomed to being ‘chosen,’ that they have become complacent, even hypocritical, about it ignoring the rest of what being in covenant relationship required of them. They were called to be “a light to the nations,” to be imitators of God in the world, to reveal God’s grace to the world by the example of their lives. (NISB commentary notes)
But the lives of the religious establishment Jesus is confronting were far from that description, and Jesus slams them for their lack of compassion, their lack of justice, and the arrogance of their self-satisfaction. It is a harsh confrontation, but as harsh as it is, Jesus is actually doing what God always does… making room for repentance… giving the Pharisees and Scribes the chance to make a new choice.
He does this using words that have deep meaning to his listeners. For example, they recognize that the ‘banquet’ symbolizes the kingdom of God, that the slaves represent the prophets of Israel, and that those receiving the invitation represent the chosen people of Israel. They know that the invitation is the call of Israel into a covenant relationship with God, but as the parable says, …they would not come.
So more prophets are sent, Jesus says, this time with the message: the king is still waiting, “everything is ready…come to the banquet” but they still refuse. When they finally did respond, they were insolent and violent, mistreating even killing the prophets.
Enraged by their insolence, the king (God) sends armies to destroy them and burn their city. Some commentators have suggested that this reaction by God seems a bit overdone. That was on purpose. Rabbis often used exaggeration to make a point; and Rabbi Jesus’ point was: they are living in a way that is unacceptable to God.
So finally, God sends out a third group of prophets. These are meant to be understood as the followers of Jesus who will soon go out telling everyone they meet about the new age being inaugurated in Jesus, the Messiah of God.
This third group is told to go out into the streets. The original Greek of this word translates as ‘thoroughfare’…which is a road that is open at both ends. Go out beyond the boundaries, Jesus says in the parable, and gather all you can find …the good (the Jews) and the bad (the Gentiles)… and invite them into the kingdom of God.
But then the parable takes a darker turn. The king comes upon one of the new guests, who, though he did respond to the invitation, is not wearing a wedding robe… The king commands that the guest be tied up and thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Why was this poor soul cast out and punished? Well, he made two mistakes which Jesus’ listeners would have noticed.
First, he failed to honor the king by doing what was expected of him as an invited guest. In those days, guests at weddings were expected to wear wedding robes. Vesting, that is, putting on new clothing, represents putting on a new identity. Think about our Baptism and Ordination rites.
The wedding robe is the symbol of a new identity, a converted life. Refusing to wear the robe means being unwilling to be converted. That was the guest’s second mistake.
This part of the parable is a warning to the new guests at the banquet, the New Covenant guests - us. We are the Gentiles Jesus foretold would be invited to the banquet. As such, we are now included among those called to be a light to the nations and bearers of the good news in the world.
As chosen people, we are called to honor God… remembering that our salvation is God’s gift, freely given. We can’t earn it, and we don’t own it.
We have been invited by God to vest in the robes of our new identity and our lives must reflect that identity. The living out of our Baptismal vows must actually happen in our works, not just in our thoughts and prayers.
To be clear, putting on our ‘wedding robes’ and intentionally converting our lives doesn’t mean we weren’t good people serving God well before. It means, as St. Paul said last week, that we haven’t finished the race so we press on…
Vesting in a new identity given to us by God can be unsettling. See if this sounds familiar: “But we’ve always done it this way.”
Well, right now, “this way” isn’t working. The video evidence of the suffering of members of our family in God cannot be denied anymore. Their cries cannot be ignored. This is a moment of holy discomfort meant to call us to conversion of our lives.
By issuing a continual invitation to live a converted life, Jesus gives us the chance to convert in ourselves whatever still needs converting or needs converting again until the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity no longer eludes us or anyone else, but is an apparent reality for all to see. Only then will we live as one in justice and in peace.
I close today with an adaptation of the Collect for the Oppressed, which we shared in our diocesan clergy meeting this past week. Let us pray:
Notice the suffering, generous God, of the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us and help us to notice too. Then lead us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 826)
Lectionary: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Our gospel story today starts with the religious authorities asking Jesus a question: “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” We who read this today have to wonder what were the “things” Jesus was doing?
It helps to look at what led up to this moment. This chapter of Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey with people shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” This was a public reception of the Messiah by the people, and a grand show of the divine authority Jesus possessed.
Then Jesus goes to the temple where he turns over the tables of the money changers in an angry application of this authority while quoting the voice of God in Scripture: “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”
It’s important to remember, as one commentator said, that it is the authority of the religious leaders that “Jesus defied when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers because moneychangers would require the approval of religious authorities to pursue their business in the temple.” Jesus’ usurped the authority of the religious leaders calling out their corruption: lining their own pockets by exploiting the poor who came to pray.
People began to flock to Jesus, and he healed them, even the blind and the lame. This display of divine authority was quickly winning over the crowds and the religious leadership realized they couldn’t control it, which leads us to their question in today’s story.
Jesus is in the temple teaching, as a rabbi would be. The religious authorities, who represent the holders of divine authority, confront Jesus, publicly asking him by what authority he had been doing all of these things.
Jesus answers like a quintessential rabbi: if you can answer my question, I’ll answer yours; and he asks them: by whose authority did John baptize people - was it divine or human?
They can’t answer ‘divine’ since they didn’t believe John or receive his baptism. Neither can they answer ‘human’ since most of the people believed that John was a prophet sent by God and if the religious authorities openly denied that, the people might revolt against them.
The only safe response they could make was, “We don’t know” but their answer only further undermined their authority. True to his word, Jesus replied to them with a victorious dismissal, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
While he had center stage and wore the crown of authority, Jesus publicly challenged the religious authorities to interpret his rabbinic teaching. “What do you think?” he asked, and he told the parable of the two sons: A father tells his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son says, no” but ends up changing his mind later and going. The second son says, OK, but doesn’t go. Which son did the will of the father?
Caught in another spectacularly laid trap, the religious authorities had no choice but to answer, ‘the first son,’ after which Jesus springs the trap. Speaking directly to the religious authorities who refused to repent when John called them to it, Jesus says, know this: even the wretched tax collectors and prostitutes, who are like the first son, will enter the kingdom of heaven before you who, like the second son, refuse to repent.
That’s a pretty scathing rebuke of their authority, their morality, and maybe worst yet, their place in the hierarchy. Being used to being first, Jesus proclaims they will be last, behind even the worst of the worst sinners in their culture.
“So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (Mt 20:16) In case we missed that point in last week’s gospel, it’s repeated for us here.
Why is this such an important point? Because it is at the very heart of our faith and beautifully stated in our Collect today: “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly by showing mercy and pity.” Think about it; God’s almighty power is declared primarily in God’s compassion for those who suffer and God’s willingness to act to relieve that suffering.
We who work in God’s vineyard today, are to declare this same truth and do this same work. I promise, we don’t have to look far to find people who are suffering and in need of compassion. With over 200,000 people dead from COVID, there are that many families grieving right now. Our isolation from in-person contact with friends and family is wearing us out.
Add to that the pain and frustration of African Americans who are denied justice from an unjust system that allows armed white supremacists to storm a government office undisturbed while using lethal force against a black child playing the park, or a black woman asleep in her bed, or an unarmed black man with and obvious mental disability.
We also don’t have to look far to find people who need to repent. In fact, we only have to look as far as the mirror. We all need to repent. We need to change direction collectively and walk in the way of righteousness, as John the Baptist did.
John was in right relationship with God and the people God sent him to serve. His oppositional relationship with the unjust, unmerciful rulers who killed him was right too - because he called out the truth about them, saying what everyone knew but was afraid to declare: that they were corrupt and needed to repent.
Like John, we need to be truth-tellers about our corrupt, unmerciful earthly powers - both historically and presently. We need to have compassion for those who suffer and be willing to act to relieve that suffering.
We can do that by amplifying the voice of the oppressed among us, people who have been systematically executed, impoverished, and tortured by our earthly authorities: African Americans executed today as horribly as they have been for generations; indigenous peoples who suffered near-complete genocide and who continue to suffer in the “third world conditions” of the reservations we exiled them to; Mexican children taken from their parents and put in cages at our borders, and now allegations of forced sterilizations of Mexican women in a detention center in GA.
None of this is new in human history, but our response today can be. We can choose to repent.
We can choose to re-aligned ourselves in right relationship with God, whose almighty power is chiefly declared in showing mercy and pity. We can choose to get into right relationship with one another, respecting the dignity of every human being as our Baptism calls us to do.
We can choose to repent and bear the divine authority of God into our world today by letting down our guards and opening ourselves to feel and acknowledge the suffering of God’s people among us instead of denying it or dismissing it, or blaming them for it in order to maintain our comfort and advantage.
We can choose to repent and bear the divine authority of God into our world by being truth-tellers, calling out corrupt powers and systems in our world, even when that might lead to our own discomfort. If we are to be of the same mind that was in Christ we must, as St. Paul says, look not to our own interests but to the interests of others. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, [Paul says] but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Putting others ahead of ourselves is at the heart of our faith, for the last will be first and the first will be last.
I close with a prayer from our hymnal that sang in me as this sermon wrote through me. It’s hymn #594:
“God of grace and God of glory on your people pour your power. From the fears that long have bound us free our hearts to faith and praise. Cure your children's warring madness; bend our pride to your control; Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days, serving you whom we adore.” Amen. (1982 Hymnal, #594, CCLI # 11330380)
En el nombre de Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen.
There is a theme in our readings today - and it’s perfect for us after nearly 6 months of COVID-restricted living. Can you guess what it is?
The whole congregation, in the story from Exodus, is grumbling that they’re tired of living in the wilderness. They’re tired of having no meat or bread to eat. They’re tired of not being at their final destination. The promised land of milk and honey seems impossibly distant and the hard work of getting there isn’t worth it anymore. They’d rather die than live like this.
Then in our gospel story, the laborers who worked in the vineyard all day grumbled because they were paid the same as those who worked only the last hour.
Even Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, admits that he’s hard pressed between his preference to die and be done with his labors on earth and his call to live and press on for their sakes.
Walking the Christian talk is hard work. The unfairness in the parable makes a lot of sense to us, that’s because we’re looking at it from an earthly perspective. Jesus is teaching us, however, that what seems true and fair on earth isn’t necessarily what’s true and fair in heaven.
From an earthly perspective, fair payment for work is a justice issue we Christians would be called upon to seek for everyone here on earth. But this story isn’t about unfair labor practices. Nowhere in the parable are the laborers exploited.
The unfairness that grabs us and makes us grumble is the generosity of the landowner who treats the last who are hired equally to those hired first, paying them the same amount - not just the same rate. We can identify with the complaints of the first-hired who worked long hours in the scorching heat, partly because we cling to the values of the Protestant work ethic handed down to us by our ancestors: hard work, frugality, and a lingering sense of predestination, that is, that God creates some people of value and they will be blessed with wealth and riches on earth and in eternity, while others whom God created are of no value and they will be cursed here on earth and in eternity.
These values helped form our current society and economic structure where a few at the top of the hierarchy justify their wealth by their chosen-ness and dismiss, even scorn those at the bottom of the hierarchy, whose pitiable state of existence is their lot - determined by God.
The parable Jesus tells turns all of that upside down and convicts us to examine how we as Christians, are working to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, the kingdom described in this parable, where everyone is chosen, everyone is valued, and everyone has a generous share of the bounty that belongs to God.
The parable presents a question for us to ponder: why is generosity unfair?
If we shift into the interpretation of this parable, the laborers are those whom the landowner, God, has chosen to work in the vineyard, which represents the world. The day represents the time we have on earth doing this work, and the payment for our labor is our eternal reward.
The work the laborers are doing is bringing the good news of salvation to the world. They are doing their part toward the reconciliation of the whole world to God, which, the last time I checked our Catechism (BCP, 855) is our ministry too.
We are the laborers in the vineyard today. We were chosen by God to do this work. and are sent into the world to do it. If we recoil at the apparent unfairness in the parable, then we must ask ourselves: do we resent doing the work we were chosen by God to do, and do we expect more reward than those whom God calls later in the day to work beside us?
Part of the Christian talk we must walk is taking up our cross and following Jesus. There is no ambiguity in that. We know the work is hard at times, that it will feel like we’re laboring in scorching heat.
We chose to answer God’s call to work in the vineyard. We choose it continually.
Let’s look more deeply at what the reward for our labor is. Many might say its heaven, by which they mean going to heaven at the end of our life and labors here on earth. But in the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus says that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (19:29)
Somehow, we conflated reward with eternal life. They are different things. Our reward, which comes from receiving the abundance of God’s generosity and grace in our lives, happens now in our earthly lives and takes many forms: freedom from anger or oppression, abundant and diverse family, joy, meaning and purpose for our lives.
Eternal life is life in the eternal presence of God, and it is by definition without beginning or end, so it can’t begin at our death. It is our present, not our future state.
When we own that eternal life is our current reality, it changes how we view the present moment. It changes how we view every moment in our earthly lives.
This parable describes the extravagant, counter-cultural generosity of God, and the question it offers us to ponder is: why is generosity unfair?
Let’s pause for an earthly perspective on day laborers. First of all, they aren’t paid well. When a person is desperate for work, the employer can pretty much pay whatever they want. It’s generally an off-the-books cash transaction.
When they do find work, these day laborers will likely get paid just barely enough to eat, sleep, and return the next day to work again. They rarely, if ever, get ahead. They are also vulnerable to the employer who chooses them and many suffer indignities and injustices at the hands of these employers.
So, the parable Jesus tells is a story of amazing hope. The workers chosen last would be the ones no one wanted, no one valued. Their desperation would be so great that they might have reached the point of hopelessness.
Then the employer shows truly surprising generosity - paying them first and for a full days’ work. These last-chosen ones suddenly realize that they are wanted, valued, and have a share in the abundance of their Lord.
The first-chosen, who are us, should be celebrating this moment of reconciliation, joyfully watching as each last-chosen one is welcomed in and made whole by the generosity and abundance of God’s love. We should rejoice that God, who sought and found us, continually seeks and finds more laborers to join us in our reconciling work.
This parable offers us, who are mostly first-chosen in the world, the opportunity to check the structures we have built or accepted from our ancestors, structures that separate us, elevating some while subjugating others. As followers of Christ, we must all be as invested in the welfare of the least among us as we are in our own for that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Let us pray: Generous God, grant us the grace to dismantle the earthly structures that separate and restrict us that we may be free to receive the abundance you have ready to give to us, remembering that you created us all, you love us all, and you choose us all to be your beloved ones. Unite us into one body by your Holy Spirit, that we may rejoice to serve you, working to make life on earth more like life in the kingdom of heaven. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Note: This sermon can also be found on my website.
I once had a bishop who used to tell our diocese that we are all called to be prophets. I always agreed with that. I still do… because a prophet is an inspired teacher, a person who proclaims the will of God, who speaks in a visionary way about a new idea, belief, or cause that God is revealing to the world.
So much of what is called Christian teaching isn’t Christian at all. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is wont to say, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”
So, a prophet teaches about love, proclaims the will of God, which is the reconciliation of the whole world to God who is love, and envisions a way to go that leads to love on earth as it is in heaven.
We are all prophets, and as Walter Brueggemann teaches, ‘the prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. For those who realize the need for change in society if justice, peace, and the Will of God for the world are ever to be achieved, the new vision that must be molded requires immersion in the mind of Jesus and time, time, time.’
I came across this quote at our clergy retreat this week and it got me thinking… We’ve been living within a disjointed experience of quick and sudden change together with slowing to a standstill. It’s been very disconcerting at times for me to be so rushed and so completely stopped at the same time.
Time has been transformed. For example, for Deacon Janet and me, most of our Sunday is now on Thursday, while part of our Sunday is still on Sunday. My internal rhythms have been so disrupted by this that I hardly know what day it is anymore.
Being off-balance in this way feels vulnerable, but the truth is, for a person of faith, it’s an opportunity for transformation - of ourselves and of the world we serve in God’s name. When we know for sure that we cannot rely on ourselves, on our intellect and our strength, we are reawakened to the reality that what we can, and already do rely on- is God.
This place of vulnerability is our stronghold. Everything we do - from how we understand what we see happening around us to how we respond to what’s happening around us - comes from this foundational reality that we rely on God, not ourselves, to see, understand, and respond.
It’s also the only answer to the problems of racism, classism, sexism, individualism, all the -isms that have risen up into our communal awareness in such a big way right now. How we understand what we’re seeing and how we respond, when they come from God’s inspiration and not our own intellect or strength, can be transforming to us and to the world.
Like many people, I’ve dedicated much of my personal reading time lately to books that help me break open from what I was taught and go more deeply into new ways of understanding race, class, history, and religion, and I’m participating in book studies and discussions that help me hear other perspectives. When we invite God to use our time of imbalance and vulnerability to awaken us to a new reality, we can own that the church, and we the members of it, have sinned.
This isn’t news to us. There isn’t much disagreement that the Crusades and the Inquisition are blights on our church’s history. We all know that our beloved Episcopal Church was complicit with the institution of slavery, segregating African Americans to the balconies in the back of the church, while rich white families sat in their gated pews up front.
But did you know this about our history? “In 1882, a Mississippi [Episcopal] priest launched a virulent attack on blacks, arguing that sparse black Episcopal growth was due to their intellectual, moral and leadership inferiority. The southern bishops then proposed the Sewanee plan to segregate blacks into a racial diocese… In response, the Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People was formed.
This according to the UBE, the Union of Black Episcopalians which is the current iteration of this Conference. The Conferenceof Church Workers Among Colored People “met annually. Every third year, it met at the site of General Convention and appointed lobbyists to press for black goals… through protest and agitation, [the Conference] served as the conscience of the Church, recalling it to its catholic ideal.[As a result,] Segregation was never written into national policy or canon law [in the Episcopal Church].”
Today the Union of Black Episcopalians continues its tradition as the conscience of the church by its prophetic teaching, proclamation, and visioning the way of love. I encourage you to check out their website.
In every generation, we as a church and as individual members of it, fail to love one another as Jesus loved us. That’s why we have to be able to talk to one another about our sin. It isn’t about passing judgment, that isn’t ours to do. It’s about opening the doorway to freedom and walking together on the path of love toward wholeness.
Jesus knew this and showed us how to go here, and it’s really important in our world today to hear this good news. Jesus said, “If a member of the church sins…”
I need to point out here that the words “against you” were added later and weren’t in the earliest manuscripts. The sin Jesus was talking about wasn’t an individual offense, but a corporate one. It was about things like complicity in racism, trans and homophobic segregation, or covering up child abuse.
If a member of the church sins, go and speak to them alone first. Respect their dignity. Humiliation and confrontation are not part of the way of love. If they refuse to listen, take one or two others with you and try again. If they still won’t listen, tell it to the church.
Coming from the deep south, it is a common practice among some Christians who take this passage literally, to force a sinful member to confess their sin in front of the whole congregation. That is not only coercive and unloving, but it accomplishes little besides shaming. More importantly, it misses the point of this teaching.
Telling it to the church is what the UBE does so well, as we heard earlier: “through protest and agitation” they continue to serve as an inner guide, leading to Church back to the way of love, to its all-embracing ideal.
Telling it to the church is why we have required training programs like Safeguarding God’s People and Safeguarding God’s Children - because child abuse in the church was (and sadly still is) real. People didn’t want to believe that such things would happen in church, but they do happen, and the church was called upon to wake up from its collective sleep, be transformed in how we understand what’s happening around us, and respond from that transformed understanding.
The next part of Jesus’ teaching is critical. If, after telling the church, the offender still refuses to listen, Jesus says, “let that one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I hear so many people interpret this as a direction to cast out the offender from the community - but that too misses the point.
All we have to do is look at how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He healed and forgave them, reconciling them back into love, even welcoming one of them - the writer of this gospel - to be his disciple.
There is a place for the separation of an offender from the one they have harmed. It’s in our Disciplinary rubrics (BCP, 409), but that’s a discussion for another time.
The point is, we have one direction to go - the way of love. Right now, the revelation of how far we as a church and a culture have strayed from that path of love is bright with the clarity of Christ’s light. Now is the moment for us to wake up from our collective sleep on the issues of racism, sexism, individualism, and the other -isms that plague our church and society.
Our response, our responsibility as Christians, is to refocus on God’s vision for us and for the world. That will mean shaking ourselves loose from our habitual and comfortable, yet sinful ways of understanding, and binding ourselves to God’s inspiration, that is, God’s breathing into us the divine way of love as it is being revealed to us in this moment.
It will mean listening to the prophetic voices among us, like the UBE, and joining with them as prophets who teach about love, proclaim the will of God, which is the reconciliation of the whole world to God who is love, and envision a way to go together that leads to love on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us pray... “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts” and guide us on your way of love. Amen.