Sunday, October 17, 2021

21st Pentecost, 2021-B: Servants of all

Lectionary: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45  

How well do we listen? So often when we have conversations, we can tell the person we’re talking to isn’t listening as much as preparing their response or formulating their next point. You can see it on their face. They’re looking at you, but not really listening.

Servant listening, as I call it, is listening deeply, with the speaker as the priority. Servant listening is listening attentively, taking in what the speaker is saying, even when it’s hard to hear or accept.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus has already told his disciples of his coming suffering and death three times. This last time (in vv 33-34) Jesus goes into horrible detail about being condemned to death, mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed, then after three days rising again (10:33). He had also just taught them - twice - what greatness is in the kingdom of God, both times saying, the first must be last and the last must be servant of all.

It appears, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, weren’t listening. Maybe they were listening - the way so many listen to the voice of God even today: “yeah, but not really.” Love your enemies: yea, but not really. Turn the other cheek: yeah, but not really. The first will be last and the last will be first: yeah, but not really.

Glory and honor, position and prestige are still things we strive for – just as the disciples did. As one commentator said: “Personal ambition did not start with James and John, nor did it end with them.” (Source: Dick Donovan)

Every time I read this passage, though, I wonder why no one asked for a pause or explanation after Jesus said: “and after three days he will rise again.” We read that knowing he’s referring to his resurrection at Easter, but the disciples didn’t know that was coming. How could they have? Who could have imagined the resurrection?

So, listening with their “yeah, but not really” ears, James and John skip right over that intense statement and drop back into planning for the Messiah they still hold onto – the one who will defeat the Romans, giving the people of Israel a military victory and freedom from occupation.

Make us your top brass, James and John say, and we’ll do right by you. Never mind that their request squeezes their friend, Peter, out of his top-ranked position among the twelve.

Will you, Jesus asks? Can you? You have no idea what you’re asking. You still don’t understand me or what Messiah means. Can you drink the cup I will drink? The one I just described: the cup filled with shame, torture, and death? Will you allow yourselves to be submerged in this path of Messiahship, giving up your life as I am about to give up mine?

Yeah, but not really, right? Sure we can, they reply.

Interestingly, what the ten took away from this discussion wasn’t about Messiahship or servanthood. They skipped over Jesus’ powerful, tragic statement and instead, focused on James’ and John’s subterfuge, and the new pecking order that might create.

You can practically see Jesus rolling his eyes and sighing as he called them together – again – to clarify his teaching on greatness and leadership in the kingdom of God. Don’t be like the non-believers, he says. They hold their power over others as a weapon. You must use yours to serve, and you must serve everyone. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” and to give his life in order to set God’s people free.

It’s comforting to me that even though the disciples still aren’t getting it, Jesus is still planning to entrust the continuing work of his ministry of reconciliation to them. It bodes well for the church today.

One of the greatest lessons (?) challenges (?) I learned from one of my mentors was the spiritual practice of humility, which often sounds like this: ‘I could be wrong,’ or at least, ‘I might have an incomplete picture.’

No one has the complete picture except for God. That is what our readings from Job and the Psalm offer us today. God is God and we are not.

Practicing humility might have prevented James and John from asking for glory for themselves, rather than for those they were about to serve. Practicing humility can help church folks today avoid the: ‘we have to do church my way, and if we don’t, I’ll take my money and myself outta here’ problem.

Practicing humility can help us remember that we often don’t have all the information about a situation or event, so we may not be able to see the big picture. Sometimes our bishop can, sometimes not, but God always can. God, who laid the foundation of the earth and determined its measurements, is constantly creating the big picture, responding in mercy and love to all of us as we attempt to navigate our time on earth.

The church Jesus built upon Peter, the Rock, who was supremely human and definitely didn’t have the whole picture, has been guaranteed to stand – even against the gates of hell (Mt 16:18), so I don’t worry about that. What concerns me as a pastor, is that our church, which is the living continuation of the church Jesus built, takes advantage of the gifts God has brought together in this time and place to serve as we are called to do.

The ministries of each church are continually formed by God to serve their membership and the people in their corner of God’s kingdom. To serve well, every church needs people who pray like St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine of Hippo who was a rogue before he was a bishop. We need people who proclaim the Word like St. Peter or our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry (who probably had very different styles).

We need some who will advocate for justice like Jonathan Daniels did, and others who reconnect us to God in creation, like St Francis did. We need traditionalists and progressives, folks who make meals, administrate programs, and teach our children serving alongside others who practice hospitality and manage money.

Granted, this kind of diversity often makes for messy or challenging church politics, but it’s worth it. No one in this or any church is perfect, and no one has a handle on the big picture, but together, we are greater than the sum of our parts. By the grace of God, and through the gifts of the people present, our church can transform our corner of God’s kingdom through our ministries of prayer and service.

To do that, we are beginning the season of giving to the ministries of the church - our annual pledge drive - which enables us to provide financial support to our church as we strive to bring the dream of God closer to its fulfillment in our time and place.

Let us pray: Abundant God, you made us in your image and breathed into us a spirit of generosity that is both gift and response. Move us, we pray, to give as we have received - abundantly, generously, and joyfully that our common ministry may ever bear witness to your unfailing grace. In the name of the Three in whom we are One. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

20th Pentecost, 2021-B: True relationship

 Lectionary: Job 23:1-9; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

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

I had a friend who once told me that they were wealthy because God trusted them above others to manage the wealth they were given. Not everyone was wealthy, they said, because not everyone could be trusted in that way.

I’ll never forget that conversation because of the look on their face and the tone of their voice. They were kindly but patronizingly informing me that I wasn’t rich because I wasn’t among those whom God could trust in that way.

I remember feeling so sad as I looked at the face of this person, whom I loved dearly, recognizing that they were completely clueless of their hubris. Their implicit insult hurt me, but not nearly as much as the lost-ness of their soul did.

Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart once said, in order for the graciousness of God to be upon us, we must detach from all else and turn our attention to God. Granted, that’s hard to do.

We live in a world that constantly tells us what we should want: to be happy, beautiful, successful, and adored. We live in a world where “true love” is found buffet-style on reality TV, where body plastic has become the norm, where prized positions are won by the most manipulative and deceitful, and where personal value is calculated by the number of followers one has on social media or the heftiness of one’s bank account.

The message is: more is better. More stuff. More clout. More blessing. It’s an addiction in its truest form, and it isn’t so different for the rich man in today’s gospel story.

A faithful believer, the rich man asks an honest question of Jesus – how can I be sure I will inherit eternal life? Jesus answers like a rabbi would: ‘You know the commandments… don’t murder or commit adultery… don’t steal or bear false witness… don’t defraud… and honor your father and mother.'

Isn’t that an interesting group of six of the ten commandments Jesus chose to highlight? So, who can tell me… what number was the “thou shalt not defraud” commandment?

It wasn’t. Jesus interpreted the 10th commandment, “thou shalt not covet” for this rich man, who probably didn’t want much of what his neighbors had.

‘But I’ve kept these commandments from my youth,’ the rich man tells Jesus. I’ve lived a righteous life. You can see how blessed I am.

Jesus looks deeply, lovingly at this man and says to him. ‘Detach from your stuff – from the symbols of your happiness, the evidence of your blessing. Empty yourself and your life of all that distracts and separates you from true relationship with God and your neighbor, including your poor neighbor. Then come and follow me.’

Mark tells us that the man was shocked by what Jesus said, and that “he went away grieving” because he had a lot of stuff from which to detach.

It doesn’t say the man didn’t eventually do it, only that he left deeply saddened and distressed by what God had asked of him. I think most of us have this same kind of response when we get real about what God is asking from us… partly because God’s desire for us is so radically different from what the world teaches us to desire for ourselves; and partly because it’s just plain hard to detach.

After his encounter with the rich man, Jesus turns to his disciples and helps them detach from an inherited belief that distracts them from true relationship with God and neighbor: the notion that wealth is a blessing that indicates God’s approval and poverty is evidence of God’s disapproval. In fact, Jesus says, it’s harder, not easier, for a person with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.

This totally unhinges the disciples, who wonder… ‘if one whose life is clearly blessed by God can’t enter the kingdom of God…’ “Then who can?”

Peter responds like the rich man did. ‘But Jesus, we’ve done that. We’ve left our homes and our families to follow you. What else do we need to do?’

‘Don’t worry,’ Jesus assures them, ‘you’ll be rewarded for your faithfulness, in this life and eternally. But remember, it is God’s way, God’s will that is at work here so what God asks of you, and the reward you receive, may not be anything like what you’re expecting.

To conclude the story I began with at the beginning of this sermon: this couple lost all of their wealth during the Great Recession of 2008. They lost their jobs and their home. They had to share one car and one cell phone. It took some time, but the experience eventually freed them from the notion that they were especially blessed, enabling them to enter humbly into true relationships with others, and I would guess, with God too.

We, too, can unlearn what separates us from God and one another and live differently.

Whenever Jesus encountered a poor person, a hurting person, a hated person, he entered into real relationship with them – and in that relationship, they found healing and wholeness. We can, we must, do the same if we are to call ourselves followers of Jesus.

It’s a risky proposition in real life. When we see a beggar at a traffic light, do we roll up our windows and look away or hand them a dollar and a smile? When the Afghan refugees come to Webster Groves will we fear and resent them, or enter into real relationship with them?

The poor need money, of course. They need clothes, housing, food, a place to shower and go to the bathroom. But they also need to be in real relationship with people.

Being poor isolates people. Jesus told us there would be poor among us always, so our goal isn’t to eradicate poverty but to transform our relationship with the poor, to tear down the barriers that isolate them and welcome them into our community, into real relationship.

The result of that may be the eradication of poverty. Who knows? God knows.

In order to do that, however, we must also transform our relationship with the wealthy. Jesus showed us how to do that, by loving them the way Jesus loved the rich man in our gospel story. 

It is only in God, for whom nothing is impossible, that this can happen. We can’t do it, but we can take the opportunities God presents us and make space for God to do through us what the world says is impossible.

I close with the blessing used at the consecration of our bishop: 

May God bless us with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that we may seek truth boldly and love deep within our hearts. 

May God bless us with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people so that we may work tirelessly for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless us with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done. And the blessing of God the Almighty, the grace of Christ the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us and among us, now and always. Amen. 

Note: This blessing was written by Benedictine nun, Sister Ruth Marlene Fox, in 1985. I adapted it from the second person (you) to the third person (we/us).

Sunday, October 3, 2021

19th Pentecost, 2021-B: Embrace the least

 Lectionary: Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16 

It is comforting and exciting that our readings from Scripture today are so relevant to our current climate of deep political divisions, the continuing presence of the pandemic, and the co-opting of the word “Christianity,” its meaning and embodiment, by voices that seek to control people rather than to trust God.


The story of Job and his ability to endure unfair and humiliating circumstances frees us from the mistaken notion that good people are blessed and bad people are cursed. Job was righteous, blameless before God, yet terrible things happened to him. And no matter how bad it got for Job, he never cursed God or forgot God’s promises. Job acted faithfully, enduring until God’s redemption was made manifest.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to uphold a group of early Christian converts from Judaism who were suffering oppression probably in the form of humiliation and social ostracism. Trying to live out their faith put them at odds with the culture around them so the epistle writer offers them comfort while at the same time reminding of their responsibility to respond in faithfulness to God, saying, we may be
imperfect, but Jesus is perfect and in him is our hope.

The gospel is about God’s faithfulness to us despite our continuing failure to love one another as God loves us, despite our propensity to cling to legality and the narrow justice we can conceive rather than trusting in God’s plan of redemption to establish perfect justice.

The divorce discussion in Mark is about the equality and respect of persons. It is not a condemnation of divorce but of disrespect of a child of God. In this discussion Jesus raises women up to equal footing with men. This is an unheard-of concept in a culture where husbands owned their wives as property and could legally ditch a wife for any reason or no reason at all, at their whim, sending her into a life of ruin, poverty, or prostitution. The law given to them by Moses was necessary, Jesus says, because of their hardness of hearts. They had chosen to legalize the mistreatment of a female child of God.

Then Jesus contrasts this choice with the choice to love and he uses another iconic image – a child. Children expect the best until they learn not to, and they are really good at hospitality because they haven’t learned prejudice or bigotry. They receive what they are given, trusting the giver, especially if the giver is the person meant to take care of them.

Mark tells us that people had been bringing children to Jesus so that he would ‘touch’ them. It’s so interesting to me that the word translated as ‘touch’ also translates to mean ‘to enlighten, to put fire into.’

Do you hear the symbolic message of that? When people bring the children of God to Jesus he puts his fire (his divinity) into them, enlightening them. If that isn’t a call to evangelism, I don’t know what is.

The disciples were stuck in their habitual, culturally given understanding of children as weak and helpless human property. When they tried to stop the children from coming near to Jesus, Jesus became ‘pained in body and mind’ as the Greek translates it. The dullard disciples were still unable to “see” and understand his teaching, so he made it plain, speaking those now-famous words that bring comfort to the oppressed and discomfort to the powerful: “Let the little children come to me and don’t stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom belongs.”

Taking the children into his embrace, Jesus laid hands on them and blessed them. In that culture, to lay hands on someone meant to take them under your protection, to commit to upholding them.

Jesus is embodying two very important messages by this action. First, that those whom the world judges to be the least come first in the kingdom of God. They are welcome and are, in fact, under the protection of the One who calls them.

Second, by laying hands on the children, who represent all of the people of God, Jesus is committing to protect and uphold us. When Jesus touches us today as he still does in prayer, in the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion, and in Scripture, Jesus is promising to carry us through whatever confronts us, like a pandemic that just won’t quit, by enlightening us, putting the fire of his divine love into us.

‘Come to me like this,’ Jesus says, with his arms wrapped around a little child. Trust me enough to receive what I have to give you. Trust me the way this child trusts me. Open yourself to me and expect the best. Forget about prejudice and bigotry, power over or control of another – those aren’t in the Way of Love I am showing you. Let me enkindle you with the fire of my divine love so that you might shine with it and draw others into my embrace as well. Welcome everyone, especially those whom you judge to be least, because to me they are the first priority.’

How’s that for good news? Jesus chooses us and trusts us to be his partners in this work of reconciliation. To the suffering, he promises redemption and relief. To those in power, he promises the freedom to be the child again, to trust God to bring everything to perfection.

Culture doesn’t support Jesus’ approach any more now than it did then. Today we see culture politicizing issues in order to hamstring or silence the church’s response to the least among us, issues like compassion for immigrants, people of color, the poor, or the LGBTQIA+ among us, all of whom are being systemically oppressed.

Calling for their protection and caring for their needs is exactly what the church is called to do, what we’ve always done. In the 4th century, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra learned of three young women whose father couldn’t afford the dowery needed to marry them off, which meant the girls would likely end up as prostitutes, so he went by their house at night and tossed money into their window, some say St. Nick tossed his gift down the chimney, thus saving them from that terrible fate. During the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, Constance and the martyrs of Memphis cared for the sick whom others had tossed out to die, feeding and caring for them, eventually dying themselves from that plague. The freedoms women and people of color enjoy today and the movement toward full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people have an awful lot to do with the advocacy of The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, an Episcopal priest, and race and gender advocate, who in the 1950s – before Dr. King and Ruth Bader Ginsberg - picked up the torch of co-creating systemic change.

We all need to hear Jesus’ good news: “Let my children come to me – all of them - and do not stop a single one; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” We need to hear again and receive the gift of the truth in the letter to the Hebrews: that humans have been crowned with glory and honor – all of us.

We, the church, the body of Christ in the world, are not gatekeepers protecting God from the unworthy. We’re all unworthy, yet all of us have been given the gift of redemption in Jesus. Do we trust him enough to receive it? Do we trust him enough to share this gift with those judged to be “the least” in our time?

The church, and we who are members of it, are bearers of the fire of Jesus’ divine love, and we are called to shine the light of his love until everyone, every child of God, is loved, protected, and welcomed in the wholeness of his holiness. There is no one who is outside the reach of God’s love; and there is no issue no matter how culture works to co-opt it, that disqualifies anyone from our compassion, respect, and our active advocacy.

I love that our church is called Emmanuel – God with us. The truth of that is deeply moving. God is with us. We don’t do this alone.

In fact, God and the whole company of heaven are with us! That’s why we, like Job, can endure whatever difficulty comes our way. Wearing our crown of glory, trusting in the promises of God, and clinging to our hope in Christ, we can reach out and embrace those whom society casts as “least” and welcome them into our lives, our parish community, and our worship where they will find healing and wholeness in Jesus. 

Good news, indeed. Amen.