Sunday, November 26, 2023

Christ the King Sunday, 2023: Refined, remade, and restored

Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46 

(Note: there is no video of this sermon due to the Thanksgiving holiday. This sermon, as part of our service, can be viewed on Emmanuel Episcopal Webster Groves' YouTube channel.)

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

Grant O God, that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule.

Freedom takes many forms, and when we lose it, we are truly lost – like scattered sheep - and we begin to die. Some of us lose our freedom to alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling. Others lose our freedom to money, power, reputation, or celebrity. Still others lose our freedom to people or churches with twisted theology. Our freedom also can be surreptitiously lost to mental or physical illness or to fear, hate, or hopelessness.

Some of us lose our freedom because it’s stolen from us – by an abuser or an oppressor. This is the kind of thief specifically described by the prophet Ezekiel who said: “…you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with horns until you scattered them far and wide…”

Abuse, in all its forms, is about power… misused power… and the Good News Ezekiel offers is that God sees when the sheep, that is, the people, have been scattered by this misuse of power; and God says, “I myself will search for them… I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered… [and] feed them with good pasture… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… I will seek the lost… bring back the strayed… [and] strengthen the weak…"

Picking up on Ezekiel’s metaphor, Jesus takes this teaching even further. It isn’t just what God will do, but also what we must do as his followers. The main point of this teaching is about responding to the power of the world using the power God has given us.

This power is something we all possess. It’s a power that has nothing to do with money, or position, or age, or ability. It’s the power of Jesus’ presence within us – a power that can only be used properly when we are living in righteousness, that is, in right relationship with God and our neighbor.

That seemingly scary last sentence in the gospel story is not a threat. The word we translate as “punishment,” is actually “pruning.” While cutting away what is superfluous in us may be fearful and rightly anticipated as painful, the object of pruning is to increase growth and fruitfulness. It is a gift, not a penalty.

The penalty would be self-inflicted: cutting ourselves off from God. Disconnection from God feels like punishment because it is disconnection from the only truth, the only life there is.

I’ve mentioned having 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 right relationship with God and neighbor.

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 couldn’t have noticed anyone else’s suffering because my focus had turned inward. I was in hell and each moment was an eternity.

That’s why this promise from Jesus is so vital: the accursed, that is, those whose attention is solely on themselves, or those who live in such a way that they cause pain, division, or hardship for the poor and vulnerable, will be sent into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the adversaries of good. Since “fire” is Bible-speak for the presence of God - remembering the burning bush that spoke to Moses in Genesis and the pillar of fire that led the Israelites to the Promised Land in Exodus – Jesus is promising that they will be sent back into the eternal presence of God where they will be refined, remade, and restored to right relationship with God and neighbor.

I can attest to this. I have experienced first-hand the refining fire of God’s love and I highly recommend it! It is the gateway to freedom. This freedom that includes us but extends far beyond us and the path to it is right in front of us all the time.

How many times have we walked or driven past a panhandler and ignored their plea for help? We may soothe our consciences saying they are addicts and we don’t want to support their habit - for their sake, or we may reason that they choose to be homeless, or that our little bit of help won’t make a difference in the long run.

The truth is, we don’t want to engage with them the way Jesus engaged the Gerasene demoniac or the woman being stoned for adultery. It’s dangerous and scary. So instead, we find a way to relieve ourselves of our Christian responsibility to respond to them.

Then we hear the prophetic voices call us back to truth, voices like Nelson Mandela who once said, "…to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said, “[Christians] are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Living into our Christian responsibility isn’t easy, but thanks be to God, we don’t do it alone. We do it as the body of Christ.

Just this past week churches from various denominations in Webster Groves gathered together at Webster United Methodist Church for our annual community Thanksgiving Service. We raised awareness of and money for our vulnerable siblings in Christ here and in the Rosebud Indian Reservation in SD. 

This ecumenical group also has spent the last year driving a spoke into the wheel of racism through our efforts to inform about racist statements still present in many of our homes’ deeds from the past and to ensure that racism finds no place in home deeds in the present. We have pushed back on the shoulders and flanks that butt out and scatter the weak as we work for affordable housing options in our fair city.

Each Sunday we gather as a family of faith to be nourished by Word and Sacrament so that we can go out into the world to enhance the freedom of others and drive spokes into the wheels of injustice in our time. When we truly 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.

Grant O God, that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule. Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

All Saints, 2023-A: Blessed, holy, and worthy of praise

 Lectionary: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12 

(Note: there is no video of this sermon due to being at the diocesan convention through Saturday afternoon. This sermon, as part of our service, can be viewed on Emmanuel Episcopal, Webster Groves' YouTube channel.)

En el nombre del Dios Omnipotente, Cristo el Hijo, y el Espiritu Santo. Amen.

In his book, The Magnificent Defeat, American theologian, Frederick Buechner, said: "…to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one's mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full." Source

“To be a saint is to be a little out of one’s mind…” he said. Finally, a qualification for sainthood I can meet! I live a little bit out of my mind all of the time. I always have, especially when it comes to my spiritual life. I know many others (even some here) who could say the same but mostly don’t because, well… people will think they’re out of their minds.

The early church considered a saint to be anyone who believed that Jesus is the Christ. The current church still believes that. That’s why the saints we remembered today in our Litany included people of many faiths, civil right advocates, medieval mystics, military generals, and peace activists. They are lay and ordained, women and men: they are all of us.

The gospel reading today reflects for us the character of saints. These aren’t people who rise above their human frailties. On the contrary, Jesus makes very clear that saints are deeply and totally human, and he calls them blessed, that is, holy and worthy of praise.

Jesus says that saints are blessed when they come before God in absolute poverty of spirit, because knowing they need God, they place themselves into God’s care. Saints are blessed when they suffer loss, or desire justice …when they are generous with mercy in the face of sin, … when they work to bring peace out of conflict …when they keep God’s will as their priority, even though they themselves may suffer indignities and injustices for it. Blessed are they, Jesus says. They are holy and worthy of praise.

One saint I loved was an 8-year-old beggar I met when I was part of a mission trip serving the street children in Romania. This little boy was smart, savvy, and doomed by his poverty. Yet his smile, playfulness, and laughter were ever-present. One day, as we walked along the streets of Cluj-Napoca, this precocious little guy begged some money (which, by the way, he could do in about 5 languages), then went and bought a banana. As he returned to where I was sitting on the curb, he broke the banana in two and offered me half. I was overcome by the generosity that came so naturally to him. This precious little one was a saint in heaven by age 10, a victim of his life on the streets. Blessed was he, holy, and worthy of praise. (Pic is a Romanian street child, but not the one I mentioned)

The call to purity in these Beatitudes is about our willingness to rely totally on God. This complete reliance, no matter the circumstances of our lives, keeps us in the will of God. It’s a choice: waiting on God’s redeeming love to act rather than asserting our wills (and solutions) into it. This was made real for me by my beloved aunt and godmother, whose bitterness and anger, though justified by the circumstances of her life, made her quite unlovable for many. But as she would tell me the stories of how she made it through terrible ordeals, I saw how she trusted God and waited the very long time it took for redemption to happen. I knew even as a small child, that when I was with her, I was in the presence of purity of heart, and it made her beautiful to me. Blessed was she, holy and worthy of praise.

In his address to our convention, Bp. Rafael Morales of Puerto Rico, exhorted us over and over to go – get out of our churches and into the world and share the good news of the amazing, transforming love we know in Jesus.

Thankfully, Jesus taught us how to do that by embodying the Beatitudes, showing us – in real life – what it looks like to do good to those who hate us, pray for those who abuse us, withhold nothing from anyone, and turn the other cheek. These aren’t metaphors for Jesus – or for us. They are a way of being in the world.

So, let’s choose to bring down the boundaries we’ve built up in our minds and in our faith - the ones that keep us safe and sane but separated from one another. Let’s be a little out of our minds and be led by God, taking our place in that eternal procession of saints who were, saints who are, and saints who are yet to come.

Then we too will be blessed, holy, and worthy of praise. Amen.