Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost November 11, 2018

It’s clear that we’re nearing the end of the year – our lectionary readings are beginning to sound like lessons on stewardship and the cost of discipleship.  In two weeks we’ll have reached the end of this church year and our lessons will be about the return of Christ the King.

But in this moment, before we reach the end, our lessons reflect the cost of discipleship.  What does it mean to give our all?  What does it mean to follow Christ?  What will we give up?  What will we gain?

Our first lesson is from near the end of the book of Ruth.  You remember this story?  Naomi, her husband and her two sons leave the land of Israel because there is a famine.  In their travels, each son takes a wife – Ruth is the name of one daughter in law, Orpah the name of the other.  The sons are barely married when they both, with their father, take ill and die.  Naomi is left with two daughters in law, in a foreign land.

Naomi tells the young brides to return home, to their fathers’ houses.  They’re young.  They’ll marry again.  Naomi will return home and throw herself on the mercy of her extended family.  Perhaps someone will have pity and take her in.  Orpah reluctantly leaves Naomi and returns home.  Ruth stays.  Don’t ask me to leave you, she says.  Wherever you go, I will go.  Your people will be my people and your God, my God.  So Naomi and Ruth return to Israel.

It is Ruth, with Naomi’s guidance, who finds the right relative to ask for help.  Boaz is a kinsman of Naomi and takes Ruth to be his wife.  Not only does Naomi find a home, she finds joy again in the birth of a son to Ruth.  And Ruth becomes great-grandmother to the great King David.

Ruth took a huge step of faith when she traveled with Naomi back to the land of Israel.  Neither woman knew what the future held – Naomi made no promises about what they would find.  It would have been easier for Ruth just to return home.  But Ruth takes the more difficult route, steps out of her comfort zone, leaving all she had known and moving with Naomi to a new homeland.

As disciples, we are called to follow Christ wherever he leads us.  We’re called to leave our comfort zones, our families, our homes and travel with Christ.  When we step out in faith, we do not know what the future will hold.  We don’t know exactly where we are going and we don’t know what we’ll find when we get there.  And that’s true for churches as well as individuals.  If St. David’s is committed to following God’s lead, if the parish is going to go forward in faith, we’ll have to leave our corporate comfort zone, do things differently, think about church differently.

Our lesson from Mark’s gospel takes place very close to the end of the life of Jesus.  He’s just entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, with people lined up along the route shouting, “Hosanna,” and waving palm branches – the triumphal entry.  He’s thrown the money changers out of the Temple and riled up the authorities.  Now Jesus sits, watching people enter the Temple and give their offerings.  The widow, with her two small coins, captures his attention.  Jesus praises her for giving, not out of her wealth, but out of her poverty.  She gave all that she had, everything she had to live on.

Perhaps Jesus sees in the poor widow his own journey, the cost of his own decision to follow God’s lead.  The widow gives all that she has.  And Jesus is about to give all that he has, as well.  They are companions in the journey towards God.

We don’t know anything more about this widow.  We don’t know what happens to her, how she finds food, how she is able to survive.  We’re simply left with the image of one who has given all to God – leaving her totally dependent on God’s provision and guidance.

What does it mean to be a disciple, to follow Christ?  If we look at Ruth as an example, it means we leave the familiar and journey to a new land.  If we look at the widow, it means we give all that we have.  In the case of the widow, we don’t know what she gained – beyond the freedom and joy that comes from giving of ourselves.  In the case of Ruth, she gained a new life, literally a new life in her son.  In the birth of the child, she enters the bloodline of King David and a few generations later, becomes an ancestor of Christ, born of David’s line.

When God calls us and we answer that call, we leave behind the old life and begin a new life following Jesus.  We don’t know all that we will have to give up.  We don’t know where we’ll end up.  But this we do know.  When we follow, when we leave behind the old life, when we give up what we have to give up, what we become is more than we could ever have imagined.

Peter and Andrew, James and John never imagined that they would leave fishing the Sea of Galilee and instead become leaders of the early church – fishers of men, as Jesus called it.  Saul, who held the coats of the men that stoned Stephen never imagined that he’d have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment on the road to Damascus, that he’d change his name and change his direction and become the Apostle to the Gentiles – our own forefather in the faith.

God made more of the disciples than they imagined they could be.  God made more of Ruth than she imagined she would be.  God will make more of us than we imagine we can be.  All it takes is for us to give up all we have and follow Christ.  It’s a huge challenge and a great blessing.  It’s terrifying and a sure thing.  God will make more of us, if we dare allow it.  Amen.

Posted on November 15, 2018 By Kristen

All Saints Sunday November 4, 2018

Today we remember all the saints who have preceded us into the kingdom of heaven.  This feast is ancient – growing out of festivals to honor martyrs – and somewhere in the 4th Century, both in the Eastern and the Western Christian traditions, the festival grew to include all the saints who’ve died, not just martyrs.  Today’s feast is a time to consider what it means to be a saint and what it means to live as a people who know that death is not the end.

Our lessons for today, from the Book of Wisdom, the Book of Revelation, and from the Gospel of John, all emphasize that death is not the end of our story.

The Wisdom of Solomon, the source of our first reading, is an Apocryphal Text – which means that it’s not part of the Old Testament or the New Testament, but one of those books that not all the churches believed ought to be a part of the canon of the Bible.  The Anglican and the Episcopal Church, along with others, does include The Wisdom of Solomon in our Bible.  If the name of the book doesn’t sound familiar, that’s why – it’s an apocryphal text, full of wise sayings, but it doesn’t come up often in our cycle of readings.

His words are beautiful and comforting.  ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.’  Isn’t that what we want for all the people we have loved and lost?  Isn’t that what we want for ourselves?  Death breaks our hearts, but death is not the end of the story.

John’s words in Revelation are comforting as well, ‘and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’  What a wonderful vision of our future.

In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus does not say anything when Mary confronts him ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died.’  Before Jesus meets Mary, he had a conversation with her sister Martha, recorded in the verses before the section we read today.  To Martha, Jesus says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

As Jesus moves closer to the tomb of Lazarus, meets Mary and the other mourners, he weeps at the loss of his friend.  When confronted with death, even Jesus weeps and mourns.  We have permission to mourn, just as Jesus mourned.  Death breaks our hearts, but death is not the end of the story.  This death certainly was not the end of the story for Lazarus.

We need the words of Solomon, the vision of John, the reassurance of Jesus when we lose people that we love.  We need to know that they are okay, that whatever pain they suffered, whatever struggle they experienced, they’re now at peace.  Our texts remind us that death is not the end of the story.

Today is All Saints, the day we celebrate those we have lost.  One definition of the word ‘saint’ comes from the Catholic tradition of one who was responsible for miracles, during their life or after their death.  That’s a much stricter understanding of the word than what we know from the New Testament.  The Apostle Paul tells us that all Christians are called to be saints and he often addressed his letters ‘to the saints at … ‘ Rome or Corinth or Philippi.  To Paul’s way of thinking, each Christian is a saint; each Christian leads others to faith by the example of their life.

Human beings are relational creatures.  We are born into families, we learn who we are through our interactions with our families and our relationships with other people.  Other people help form us, help make us who we are, for better or for worse.  We wouldn’t know love without other people.  We wouldn’t know God’s love without other people.

We have direct a relationship with God, but we wouldn’t know God without other people.  The people who have loved us, who have shown us God’s love, introduced us to faith, challenged and taught and led us into deeper faith – these folks are our saints.  Because of them, we learned faith.  Because of them, we believe.

You and I are also saints.  In the web of human relationship, others know love because we love them.  Others know God’s love through us.  Others’ faith is deepened, challenged, made stronger through the faith that we exhibit.  Our faith matters.  Our example matters.  What we do, what we say, how we live – it matters.  Someone else is depending on us to show them the way.  We are called to be saints.

How we live matters.  Many people fear death.  Now, some fear of death is inevitable – we don’t know what death is like, we don’t know what the passage from this life to the next is really like.  But too often, death becomes the enemy – something to be avoided at all costs.  The notion of a ‘good death’ seems like an oxymoron – how can anything about death be good?

As Christians, believing as we do that death is not the end of the story, we do not have to see death as an enemy.  Death is simply the doorway from this world to the next.  Death is the pathway into the presence of God.  Often death means the end of pain and suffering for the one who dies.  They die and as the Wisdom of Solomon says, ‘they are at peace.’

How would our lives change if we could live as if we believed that death is not the end of the story, if we believed that death is just a part of our lives, the doorway from this world to the next.  How much fear could you and I let go of, how much more energy would we have to really live if we were not afraid to die?  Jesus came to bring abundant life to us and we tiptoe around trying to avoid death.  We do not need to be afraid.  Death might break our hearts, but death is not the end of our story.

May God give us the courage to live deeply unafraid of the future.  May we live boldly, as vibrant examples of faith for those to whom we are saints.  Amen.

Posted on November 7, 2018 By Kristen

Pentecost 23 October 28, 2018

A number of years ago, I heard the Rev. Tony Campolo preach.  You may have heard of him – he is an evangelical preacher/teacher who has a strong peace & justice voice.  He often works with Jim Wallis, another strong peace and justice preacher who leads Sojourners.  Pastor Campolo does not fit neatly into any one category.  You might think, as he’s an avowed Evangelical, that he’s a died in the wool Republican Trump supporter.  But he’s not.  He’s Conservative and Liberal, Left and Right.  Pastor Campolo says that he prefers to be called a  “Red-letter Christian.”  In fact, he wrote a book about it…

Red-letter is a reference to those Bibles that put the words of Jesus into red print.  Pastor Campolo said that he feels that rather than looking to a political party or a litmus test of social concerns as indicators of right living and righteousness, the Christian community would be better served to just follow the red-letter words in the New Testament, to put into practice the words of Jesus.  If we did just that – put into practice the red-letter words – and left the rest to God, we and the world would see the Kingdom of God come to earth much sooner than if we continue to concentrate on our differences and try to judge who is right and wrong on various issues.

My heart has been sick this week with so much violence and the threat of violence and the hatred and division found in this political season.  I’m weary of it.  So today, let’s just be ‘red-letter’ Christians and see what Jesus has to say to us.

In today’s gospel reading from Mark, Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem.  As you know, Mark’s gospel is short and he doesn’t mince words.  So we begin with Jesus entering Jericho and in the next sentence leaving Jericho with the same people he entered with and an additional crowd.  You remember from last week that the disciples have just heard James and John ask for special treatment when Jesus comes into power – perhaps thinking that this trip into Jerusalem is when Jesus is going to overthrow the Roman government and take power as Messiah.  And Jesus tells the two and the rest that those who wish to rule must serve – a continuation of his conversation with the people about how difficult it is for the rich to get into heaven and that the last will be first and the first last in God’s upside-down kingdom.

Jesus passes through Jericho, adding on to the crowd around him as he moves through the town.  And as they pass on through, blind Bartimaeus cries out for help.  “Have mercy on me.”

Aren’t the needy annoying?  This crowd had not yet mastered the art of not seeing and not hearing that we have perfected…  Look maybe, but don’t respond, don’t acknowledge, do NOT make eye contact.  This crowd tries to hush Bartimaeus, tries to keep him quiet.  But he kept on crying out for help.

This is where that red-letter stuff kicks in.  Jesus hears Bartimaeus’ cry.  God hears the cries of the needy.  Even when we try to keep them quiet.  God always hears the cries of the needy, no matter how we might try to ignore or deny them.

Jesus hears the cry of Bartimaeus and asks that he be brought forward.  Now the crowd encourages the blind man.  Jesus has a teachable moment for his disciples, both then and now.  Jesus knows Bartimaeus’ obvious need – he can see that the man is blind.  Yet Jesus asks him what he needs.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  There it is.  There are the red letters.  Our response, if we are following Jesus, if we are disciples, is to listen to the cries of the needy and ask them what they need from us.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  The Messiah, the ruler of the universe, hears the cry of the needy and humbly asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”  And then Jesus does as Bartimaeus asks.  Jesus gives him his sight again.  And so the needy man, healed, becomes a follower of Jesus.

I don’t know where you find yourself in this story this morning.  Perhaps you feel like blind Bartimaeus – needy, hurting, not part of the inner circle but out there on the margins.  There is good news for you – God always hears our cries, God always hears the cries of the needy.  Jesus asks you, “What do you want me to do for you, today?”  Tell God what you need – be as bold as Bartimaeus.

Or, you may identify with the crowd around Jesus.  Your life isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough, and you are staying as close to Jesus as you can.  Then, the message for us is to follow Jesus and listen for the cries of the needy.  We are Christ’s hands and feet in this world.  God delights in using us to meet the needs of the world.  As part of the crowd, we are called to listen for the cries of the needy and to meet the need, whatever it is. We must practice saying, “What do you want me to do for you?”

I know it can be overwhelming to think about meeting the need we see in our world.  There is so much work to be done and we can’t possibly meet every need.  But, you know… Jesus didn’t heal every sick person in Palestine while he walked this earth.  Jesus didn’t bring every dead man back to life.  Jesus didn’t end poverty in his lifetime.  Neither will we.  We don’t need to feel guilty about what we can’t do, but we DO need to see the needy and we Do need to do something.    I don’t know who you will run into this week.  I don’t know who I’ll meet up with this week.  I don’t know what will happen, but I can almost guarantee that some need will present itself and that as faithful followers of Jesus, we will be asked to see and hear and respond, to give of ourselves in some way to meet the need of a person whom Jesus loves.  We will have a red-letter moment.  We will be asked to live what we profess.

Almighty God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.  May we always be ready to love.  Amen.

Posted on October 31, 2018 By Kristen

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost October 7, 2018

The story of Job and the teaching of Jesus on divorce – these two readings are very difficult to hear and to preach.  Hearing them, reading them together allows us to think about these lessons in conversation with each other.  Every Sunday, as I prepare my sermons, I look for a theme or a strain of thought that ties them all together.  And the theme I hear running through these lessons is commitment.  The book of Job has something to teach us about commitment.  So does the book of Hebrews and our section of the Gospel of Mark.  Commitment.

Biblical scholars aren’t sure when the book of Job was written – but its theme of loss and perseverance in spite of loss makes the book universal.  Job reminds us that life isn’t always what we would like it to be – and that God doesn’t prevent awful things from happening to us, even when, like Job, we haven’t done anything to deserve our misery.  Job reminds us that suffering is part of what it means to be human.

But Job also teaches us what it means to be committed to God.  The test that Satan proposes is meant to prove that Job loves God because of all the good things God has given him.  In spite of all that befalls him, Job is faithful, committed to God, unwilling to ‘curse God and die’ as his wife suggests he should do.

Job gets angry – he questions God.  There are some marvelous chapters in the Book of Job in which God and Job discuss how big God is and how small humans are: in understanding and in power.  As angry as Job gets, though, he does not walk away.  A friend of mine, now an Episcopal priest, had fallen away from belief after he left college and began life on his own.  He married and had a daughter who died a few days after her birth.  It was the death of his daughter that brought him back to faith.  When we asked him why that death brought him back to faith instead of driving him farther away – he said that he came back to faith because… he needed to cry out and complain, to shake his fist and yell at God.  And if he didn’t believe in God, he would have no one to yell at.  That has always made sense to me.

Job gets angry; he questions God.  And Job is committed to God and does not turn away.  In the end, Job’s good times will return – he will have more children and regain his health and become wealthy again and Satan will no longer accuse God that Job is committed only because he has an easy life.

The book of Hebrews has Jesus as our Great High Priest as its theme.  We begin reading it this week and will continue to read portions of it through most of November. The writer of Hebrews tells us that because of the faithfulness, the commitment of Jesus, we have direct access to God.  Jesus is the perfect example of what commitment to God looks like – Jesus was committed to God’s plan, even though God’s plan included his own painful death.

If we think about our reading from Mark’s gospel in terms of commitment, we see a little more clearly why Jesus stresses that marriages are meant to last.  At its best, marriage allows us to understand God’s love and unconditional acceptance.  At its best, marriages allow each partner to love and accept the other unconditionally.  For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, til death do us part – that’s what we promise to each other and that is a reflection of how God is ‘for’ us, how God is committed to us.

Unfortunately, marriages are not always at their best.  Because we have hard hearts, because we so often fail in our promises and intentions, divorce has always been part of human relationships.  Jesus says that we are called to something different, something more than hardness of heart and failure – we’re called to total commitment to the one we have married, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, til death do us part.

And in Mark’s gospel this teaching about marriage, which was just as hard for those first disciples to hear as it is for us to hear, this teaching is followed by a story about Jesus and children.  Children don’t really have a choice in their commitment to the adults in their lives.  Children aren’t independent, they can’t make it on their own, they depend on us to take care of them.  They know how to receive and they respond with commitment.  Jesus says that we are to be like children – depending on God, receiving from God and totally committed.

What would our lives be like if we were 100% committed to God, fully committed to Christ?  What would be different?  This weekend many churches will celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi with a Pet Blessing.  Francis was born into a wealthy family – one of his hagiographers wrote

Almost up to the twenty-fifth year of his age he squandered and wasted his time miserably.  Indeed he outdid all his contemporaries in vanities and he came to be a promoter of evil and was more abundantly zealous for all kinds of foolishness.

After his conversion, Francis did what he could to renounce his evil ways and tried to be as committed to God as he had been to his former life.  He not only gave up his partying, he also gave up his inheritance, and all his worldly goods.  What Francis found was that the more he gave up, the more he gave away, the more joy he knew, the more love he felt.  His commitment to loving God and to loving his neighbors (including all the animals he met) transformed his life and still impacts ours today.  We bless the animals in remembrance of St. Francis. We sing his prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love…”

We sing his hymn to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

Francis was totally committed to God and he changed the world.  What about you?  What about me?  How will we change the world?  All that Jesus asks of us is everything.  May we be like Job.  May we be like St. Francis.  Amen.

Posted on October 11, 2018 By Kristen

Nineteenth Sunday in Pentecost September 30, 2018

What do we do when we experience injustice?  What do we do when we see injustice?  How we treat each other matters.  And what we do and say when we see or experience injustice matters.  And, it should go without saying, WE are to love our neighbors as ourselves, which means that we should not be unjust with each other…

Are you familiar with the Feast of Purim?  I will occasionally see Hamantaschen cookies in the grocery store – they are the traditional Purim cookie.  Purim is the Jewish feast day that Mordecai asked the people to keep – a feast day in celebration of their escape from destruction.

The book of Esther tells the story of King Ahasuerus, King of Persia, his Jewish Queen Esther, her uncle Mordecai, and their enemy and the King’s trusted official, Haman.  Mordecai did not show Haman the respect he expected, so Haman wanted revenge.  He knew that Mordecai was Jewish and so plotted, according to the story, to kill off the Jews in the Persian kingdom because they did not obey the King’s commands.  He persuaded the King, who did not know that Esther was Jewish, to let Haman send letters throughout the kingdom giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews…

Esther, hearing of the letters and listening to the wisdom of Mordecai, invites both the King and Haman to several banquets, so charming the King that he promises to give her whatever she wants.  She speaks up in defense of herself and her people.  She speaks against the injustice and harm that Haman intends and is successful in changing the King’s mind.  Haman is destroyed and the Jews are saved.

Esther speaks up against injustice.  The disciples speak up because they’re not sure if what they see is just or unjust – a man who was not part of their group of disciples healing in Jesus’ name.

Jesus reminds his disciples, reminds us we’re not the ONLY good people.  Anyone who does good in the name of God also is part of US – our brothers and sisters.  We might not use the same language or pray the same prayers or feel welcome with each other in worship – but we belong to the same God and the same Spirit works in us.

Then Jesus goes on to say that if we put stumbling blocks before one of ‘these little ones’ we’d be better off thrown into the sea.

Okay, what is Jesus saying here?  What does he mean?  Jesus has just had the conversation with the disciples about how those who want to be first will be last and that we’re supposed to welcome the children.  And we remember that in the first century, children were possessions, not considered worth much, and near the bottom of any power structure.

Jesus seems to be saying that if our actions cause children to abandon the faith, we are in trouble. It’s a powerful gospel for us as we consider how we treat our own children or the kids in the neighborhood around the church and around our country or around the world.  If people know that we claim to be Christians, they will also know how we’re supposed to treat others.  And they will know when we fail.  I’ve been interested to read how other countries around the world have watched our conversations and interrogations of Dr. Ford and the Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.  We claim to be a Christian nation.  The world is watching.

Jesus then talks about salt and fire.  What we lose in translation is that the word Jesus uses to talk about hell is ‘gehenna’ – that place outside the city of Jerusalem where those following the god Mollech sacrificed their children.  The region became known as a place of fire – the fires of hell, the fires of gehenna – a terrible place.  Jesus warns his disciples to avoid sacrificing our children and then says that we will all be salted with fire.

These words from Jesus are part of his ongoing conversation with the disciples – those who wish to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will find them.  Somehow, as Christians, we are to give up the lives we intended.  We’re to allow the Spirit to burn away anything that doesn’t fit, that distracts us from right living and the kingdom way.

Fire may destroy.  Fire also purifies.  Fire gives warmth and light.  Salt preserves and seasons.  For everyone will be salted with fire…  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.  Fire to purify and salt to preserve.

We may not have the whole world’s eyes on us personally, but every day someone is watching what we do, what we say, and how we live.  Every day someone is being brought closer to God or driven away by our words and actions.  Most days we probably do a bit of both.

When we find ourselves being a hindrance, when we realize we’re not living up to our call, what are we to do?  James reminds us: Pray.  Pray for ourselves, pray for others, ask other to pray with us and for us.  We aren’t perfect, we will never be perfect.  But we can be forgiven and empowered to do better by the Spirit of God at work in us.

When we see others in danger or being abused or misused, what are we to do?  Pray like James and act like Esther.  Speak up.  Be salt.  Preserve peace.  Bring warmth, kindness, and light to the situation.

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we may be salt and light to your beloved world.  Amen.

Posted on October 3, 2018 By Kristen

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost September 16, 2018

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  James is right, isn’t he?  We see it in our gospel reading, Peter claiming that Jesus is Messiah and then with his next breath rebuking Jesus for talking about Messiah’s mission.  And it’s just not the First Century folk that had difficulty with their tongues.  Our politicians can hardly keep from saying mean things and unhelpful things and stretching the truth so far it breaks.  Even good Christian folk, like you and me, have been known to say mean things and unhelpful things.  Sometimes even we stretch the truth to breaking.

Our tongues can say the most wonderful things, tender words, kind words, comforting and comfortable words.  And our tongues can also say the meanest, most hurtful, nastiest, untrue things.  The good and the bad are part of who we are – remember Jesus said that it isn’t what is brought into us that makes us unclean, but what comes out of us that reveals our uncleanliness.  Our tongues catch us up; show us what we are inside.  Our tongues stir up trouble as often as they calm things down.

We have here another week of lessons that show us, in practical ways, how we ought to live as followers of Jesus.  Our words are important, what we say and how we say it is important because our words, what we say and how we say it will help bring people closer to God or push them farther away.  We are the ambassadors of Christ.  We are followers of Jesus, disciples, and so we are examples to the world of what Christianity, what God’s love and the redeeming grace of Jesus are all about.  Our speech ought to reflect God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for each other.

I fear that respectful conversation is fast disappearing.  I am dismayed by the lack of respect in our national conversations about almost every political topic.  It is fine to disagree on the issues.  It isn’t fine to condemn those who disagree with us or make personal attacks on each other’s character or patriotism.   I know that passions run high – I feel very strongly about MY positions, too – but that doesn’t give us leave to be rude to each other.  And the same goes for our conversations about life in the church.  We MUST be kind when we speak to each other and of each other.  One of my seminary professors told us to be careful when writing our theology down or speaking about others.  ‘Use sweet words,’ he’d say, ‘you might have to eat them one day.’

Peter claims that Jesus is the Messiah and then almost immediately tells Jesus to stop talking.  Why does Peter rebuke Jesus?  Because Jesus is explaining what Messiah is going to do.  Peter doesn’t want Jesus to say such things because, as we see over and over in the gospels, the disciples expect that Messiah will overthrow the Roman government and set up God’s kingdom on Earth.  Peter and the disciples expect that they will reign in Messiah’s kingdom – they expect to come into power with Jesus.

What Jesus proposes, though, is the opposite of what Peter and the others expect.  God’s kingdom is an upside-down kingdom, where Messiah gives up his life, where the greatest is the least, where those who want to lead must serve.  Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them.

It is precisely at this point where it becomes clear to me how difficult it would be to have a Christian nation – a theocracy with God in charge under a Christian banner.  There may be nations, ours included, which are made up primarily OF Christians. Please hear me clearly – Christians have been and should continue to be involved in politics, Christians will continue to be of great service by their leadership in our communities and the world. We can and should debate America’s moral role in the world, what we ought to do with our power and our wealth, how to help in the refugee crisis and what we should do about the refugees and migrants within our own borders.

But Christianity and America are not interchangeable terms – they can’t be.  God is not an American, a Republican, a Democrat, a Capitalist or a Socialist and God’s kingdom requires something quite different from the power and the wealth we possess as Christians.  The Kingdom of God is an upside down kingdom and it’s more widespread than any one country and requires our complete allegiance.

If we are going to be light and salt in our world, if we’re going to use our tongues to spread the gospel of God’s love, we’ve got to give up our notions of power and entitlement and supremacy.  We are called, not to be first, but to be last.  We’re called to serve, not to rule; called to share what we have, not remain content because we have ours.  By giving up our lives, by giving up our need to lord it over others, by sharing our treasure, we have the freedom to be with others, no matter where they might be, no matter their need, no matter their social standing or background.  By following Jesus, in his humility and his gentle strength and his powerful service, we bring hope and God’s love to the world around us.

In God’s upside-down kingdom we receive when we give, we are forgiven when we forgive, we find new life as we die to ourselves.

We are called to use gracious words, to do what we can for this world that is so precious in God’s sight.  God has promised that the Spirit will guide us in what we should do and how we should live, if we give ourselves over.  God has promised that when we don’t know what to say, the Spirit will speak through us to bring hope and healing.  May we allow the Spirit to guard and guide our tongues and to lead us in all things.  Amen.

Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost September 9, 2018

In this week’s readings we have more instructions from the Letter of James on how we ought to live, on what we ought to DO and NOT DO, and we have more examples from Jesus – more on loving our neighbors as ourselves.  These readings come to us as we’ve just celebrated the lives of Milt & Miggs Coleman and all the work they’ve done for the parish, the diocese, and the national Episcopal Church (they are our good examples, this morning.)  And we’ve heard all sorts of craziness from our political leaders this last week – about a White House in chaos (or not), led by the President (or not), and rumors that children of immigrants will continue to be held beyond what the courts have decided is fair (good examples of bad examples, perhaps?)  What does it mean to love our neighbors – the folks who live and work around us and the folks scattered around the world?

James has some ideas as he continues his train of thought from last week.  At the end of chapter one, which was last week’s lesson, James said that ‘true religion’ included taking care of widows and orphans – the poor and disenfranchised of his day.  In chapter two, which we begin this week, James says that favoring the rich is NOT the way we should behave and he says that we will be judged by the law of liberty.  There’s that phrase again, the law of liberty, which we recognize as the law of love – the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  ‘For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment,’ James writes.

Mercy triumphs over judgment.  We could spend several months discussing the outgrowth of that statement…  What would our lives look like if we valued mercy over judgment?  How would we behave differently?  How would our conversations about politics, about the poor, about any kind of reform be different if we were concerned more with mercy than judgment?  How would conversations between those who differ theologically be different if we valued mercy over judgment? And isn’t living out a mercy that triumphs over judgment another way of loving our neighbors as ourselves?

James goes on to talk about faith vs. works.  What we say we believe ought to have some impact on what we do and how we live.  Faith without works is dead, our words of faith meaningless.  It’s so easy to say that we believe in a God of love and that we love ALL of God’s children, too.  It’s much more difficult for me to say how I love all God’s children when my African American colleagues point out the difference between my life and theirs and the subtle racism I participate in.  It’s much more difficult for me to say how I love all God’s children when people do things I vehemently disagree with and I want to lash out at them.  James reminds us that what we do is as important as what we say – we put feet to our words when we put our faith into action.

Jesus is our good example.  We have these two stories of healing – of the Syrophoenician’s daughter and of the deaf man with the speech impediment.  I love how the gospel writer makes the conversations sparkle!  Jesus has gone out of Jewish territory into the Gentile area of Tyre, apparently trying to find a place to rest, since the text says that he did not want anyone to know he was around.  But word gets around and the Gentile woman from Syrophoenicia has a need that she desparately hopes Jesus will meet.

Biblical scholars say that perhaps Mark makes such a big deal about her being a gentile because Mark’s community was a community of Gentile believers.  This story would make it clear that Jesus included them in his ministry, even before his crucifixion and resurrection.

The Gentile woman comes to Jesus with her request.  Jesus is tired and looking for a place of peace and quiet and she isn’t even Jewish.  She asks for healing and Jesus turns her away with some rather harsh words – the food goes to the children first (meaning his ministry is to Jewish folk.)  It’s not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs.

The written word can’t give us the tone of voice or the sense in which Jesus speaks these words.  We don’t know whether he’s gently turning her away or completely annoyed that she’s bothering him or if it’s something in between.  But whatever the tone of voice, or perhaps because where our children are concerned, parents tend to be fearless, this woman is not going to be put off and she responds as quickly as he brushes aside.  ‘Even the dogs are allowed the crumbs that fall to the floor.’  I imagine that no matter the tone Jesus took with her, her response made him smile and he recognized her concern for her daughter and her belief that he could bring healing.

If Jesus makes room to help a woman who is outside of his community, if he shows compassion even though he’s exhausted and looking for a break, ought not we to do the same?

Mark’s community understood that they were included in the ministry of Jesus.  We have lost the knowledge that our Christianity was first of all a Jewish religion and we are the outsiders, grafted onto the family tree, as the Apostle Paul describes it.  We believe that we are included, and we are, but we should never forget that EVERYONE is included in God’s Kingdom  – regardless of how they behave – and we have a responsibility to reach out to all with compassion and mercy.

What are the practical implications of our lessons for today? How are we treating the folks we meet as we go about our lives and how are we reaching out to those in need?  Do our actions back up our words?  Can we prove our faith, as it were, by our work?

Our world is in such disarray.  There are moments when I’m not sure the country will survive the meanness and vitriol expressed by our leaders.  And while they’re arguing, poor folks are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer, and there are even more desparate people outside of our borders trying to get into our country, looking for a safe haven somewhere, anywhere in the world.  WE can’t mend things overnight – but we can pay attention to our assumptions about each other and treat everyone with kindness and respect.  James reminds us that if we show partiality, we commit sin and are convicted as transgressors…

The good news is that every day presents us with at least one chance to make the world a better place by living out our faith, putting the law of love, the law of liberty, into practice. And God’s Spirit is with us, so that even when we’re exhausted, even when we sigh, as Jesus did, at the overwhelming sense that there is never enough time or money or resources, God will enable us to do the work that needs to be done.  We are not left alone to depend only on ourselves.  God wants to work with us. God wants to work through us.

May our lives be full of good work.  May the world know we are Christians because of our love.   Let’s close with a prayer.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Fifteenth Sunday of Pentecost September 2, 2018

Why do we do what we do?  For the next few weeks we’ll look at what the letter of James tells us our lives should be like, if we are living faithfully.  And alongside what James tells us, we’ll see what Jesus has to say about how we ought to live.

But perhaps more important than what we do is: why we do what we do.  Both James and Jesus have something to say to us about why we do what we do.

The Epistle of James almost didn’t make it into the Canon of the New Testament.  Luther thought that James put too much emphasis on ‘works’ rather than ‘faith.’  I’m glad that Luther was overruled because the tension between faith based on works and work as an outgrowth of faith cuts to the heart of lived out Christianity.

Over and over again the book of James tells us what our lives ought to look like, how we ought to behave.  Our passage today is part of that theme: we ought to be doers of the word and not just hearers, we need to look at the law of liberty and then live into it.  James says that pure religion is found in caring for orphans and widows and keeping ourselves unstained by the world.

What does James mean by the phrase ‘the law of liberty?’  And how are we to live into his ‘pure religion?’

On the face of it, ‘the law of liberty’ sounds like an oxymoron.  Isn’t law the antithesis of liberty?  Liberty is all about freedom and law is all about rules.  And yet…  If we go back to what Jesus said are the greatest commandments, if we go back to the ‘new commandment’ that Jesus gave his disciples just before he died, we see that Jesus teaches the Law of Love.  The new commandment Jesus gave?  Love one another.  The greatest commandment, that sums up all of the other commandments?   Love God with your whole heart, soul and mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus gave us the law of love.  Is James saying the same thing or something different when he talks about the law of liberty?  I’d say they are really the same thing.  The peace of mind, the freedom we have when we are in right relationship with God, when we are in right relationship with each other.  This is what both Jesus and James are talking about.  It’s the peace we experience when we know we are forgiven, by God or by someone we have wronged. It’s the joy that comes when we help someone.  It’s the freedom we feel when we share what we have with someone else.  God’s law is summed up in love.  And loving each other, loving God, being in right relationship, brings freedom.  The law of love binds us.  Obedience to the law brings us freedom.  That’s why James can call it the law of liberty. The law of love brings us freedom.

James goes on to say that true religion is found, not in what we say, but in how we treat others and in how we treat ourselves.  Take care of orphans and widows.  Orphans and widows represent the disenfranchised in James’ world.  Men were the source of income, property, and protection.  Without a father, without a husband, a family had little means of support.  All throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to care for the orphans, widows and strangers – those with little means of support.  Pure religion is loving our neighbor and taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

James’ last phrase – that true religion means we keep ourselves unstained from the world – complements the conversation that Jesus has with the Pharisees in our reading from Mark.  James says we are to keep ourselves unstained from the world and Jesus says that what comes out of us, not what goes into us, stains  us and makes us unclean.

The Pharisees charge that the disciples aren’t keeping themselves ‘clean.’  Jesus counters with his argument that too many keep the traditions of the elders but not the law.  Maybe we need some background to understand this argument…

Remember that the Israelites, in their attempt to follow the law given to them in the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) built a “fence” around the law.  The fence was built of traditions meant to preserve obedience.  So, for example, Exodus 23:19 ends with the command: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”  To ensure that this law is kept, a fence is built – keep all dairy products separate from meat products and eventually becomes keeping two sets of dishes in a kosher kitchen; one set of dishes for meat, another for dairy.  If you obey the ‘fence’ laws – keep meat and dairy separate – you will never break God’s law – do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

The Pharisees spent their lives living according to the traditions, the fences built around the law. Ritual washing of the hands before eating was a tradition meant to ensure that if one had accidentally touched someone or something unclean, cleanliness would be restored before the food was touched.  The tradition was based on the rituals the priests and people performed when they HAD touched someone or something unclean.

When the disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat, the Pharisees confront Jesus.  How can Jesus be a great teacher of the Law if his disciples don’t even obey it?

Why do we do what we do?  The Pharisees do what they do in order not to break the traditional law.  Jesus looks deeper.  The Pharisees are concerned with outward cleanliness.  Jesus says that inward cleanliness is what God looks for – following the law of love, the law of liberty.  The evil intentions that come from within us break the law of love.

Jesus tells the crowd that if they want to be clean, they must attend to the evil within themselves.  James reminds us to watch what comes out of ourselves – our anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

Why do we do what we do?  Are our actions meant to make us look good on the outside?  Or do our actions reflect who we are on the inside?  It’s the difference between looking good and being good.  They might look the same but God knows the difference and so do we, deep down.  So we ask ourselves:  Are we following the law of love, the law of liberty out of gratefulness for all that God has given us?  Are we doing the things we’re supposed to do because we want to be seen as good?  If our actions are not coming from love, but from the desire to be seen as good, then we’re working on self-righteousness and we are bound to fail.  If our actions come from love, the Spirit will sustain us even through difficult and seemingly unsuccessful times.  Why do we do what we do?

May we allow the  Lord of all power and might to increase in us true religion; to nourish us with all goodness; and to bring forth in us the fruit of good works. Amen.

 

Posted on September 6, 2018 By Kristen

Pentecost 14 August 26, 2018

Some years ago I was in Chicago at a preaching conference where my own preaching professor was preaching on our Ephesians text.  Barbara Lundblad is a wonderful preacher and storyteller and she had us laughing as she began her talk.

When her children were small, her Lutheran church based their Vacation Bible School week on the Ephesians passage and they ‘dressed’ the children with the ‘whole armor of God’.  You can imagine it – gallon bleach bottles, cut in half, for the helmets of salvation.  Strips of cloth for the belt of truth.  The breastplate of righteousness and the sword of the spirit made of cardboard boxes covered with aluminum foil.  Shoe boxes turned upside down, holes for the feet made in the top, and then covered with black or brown paper so that they would be ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  The whole armor of God!

Rev. Lundblad went on to say that what works for children – the use of imagery and imagination to provoke theological truth – doesn’t always work as well for us as adults.  We would never be content with a cardboard sword or bleach bottle helmet.  We are too literal, too practical for such things!

This is the same problem Jesus was having with his listeners in the Gospel of John.  Folks were taking him literally.  He was speaking in poetry, analogy, and symbolic language…

What does Jesus mean when he says that we have to eat his body and drink his blood?  What is he talking about when he says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”   And how are we supposed to put on the whole of armor of God?  No wonder some of the disciples stopped following…

If we were going to be honest, and this is church so it’s okay to be honest here, we might consider leaving, too.  It is pretty easy to call ourselves ‘Christian’ in America.  We still consider ourselves part of a ‘Christian’ nation, even while we stand firmly with the separation of church and state.  And we don’t really identify with any other religious tradition – we’re not Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist.

But following Jesus is another matter altogether.  And we might need to reconsider what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a disciple, along with those who stopped following Jesus when his words got too difficult to understand.  I believe most Americans DO understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to be a Christian, but we don’t like to live into the difficult pieces of our faith.

For example, what does it mean when Jesus says that we are to love one another.  As part of his last supper with the disciples, later on in John’s Gospel, Jesus will say that he’s giving them a new command: Love one another.  He says that the world will know we are his disciples because of the loving way we treat others.

It’s pretty easy to say that we love everyone.  It’s really difficult to love the people right in front of us.  Have you met them?  People are mean.  People are annoying.  They don’t listen to us. People do terrible things to other people and to us.  What does it mean to love?

How are we supposed to show love to the unlovely?  How are we supposed to be kind to the unkind?  How are we supposed to keep our tempers when the other person is yelling at us?  What does it mean to love?

Is Christianity, following Jesus, supposed to be about certain cultural norms?  If it is, what would those norms be?

Eat this bread.  Drink this cup.  Abide in me.  Love one another as I have loved you.

What we do to ‘the least of these’, to the folks on the margins of society, to the widows and orphans and strangers or aliens, we do to Christ himself.  It’s as if we are treating Christ himself as we embrace or reject other people.  How we treat others either shows love to them or not.  And we ought to show love.

These are our cultural norms as Christians.

Jesus speaks in poetry, analogy, and symbolic language and yet, he’s very clear on what he expects of us.  Even in the letter to the Ephesians, we can see clearly what we ought to do.  We ought to love – to speak the truth, to spread the gospel of peace, to live rightly and to protect ourselves with the fact that God loves us (our salvation) and that with our faith and the words of God, we will be able to stand against those who wish to do ourselves or our brothers and sisters harm.  We don’t do this work alone.  The whole armor of God is the Spirit working in and through us for justice and peace.  And we have Jesus with us, too.  The strength we need is found by feeding on his words and feeding on his body at the Eucharist.

When Jesus asks the twelve whether they want to go, too, Peter is right when he says, “…to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Where else could we go?  It is difficult to live the Christian life.  It is difficult to live up to the expectations God has for us.  It is difficult to love.  But without love – what good is life?

We must let the love God has for us – that unconditional, undeserved, without reservation, knowing everything we’ve ever done wrong and loving us anyway, love – seep down deep into our bones.  We must KNOW beyond any doubt that God accepts us and loves us.  God loves us.  That’s our armor.

And then we must love.  Share in communion with God and each other.  Eat the body of Christ.  Drink his blood.  Remember that God loves all those who share our Eucharist just as much as God loves us.  In fact, God loves all those who celebrate the Eucharist in this place or any place around the globe.  In fact, God loves all those who celebrate the Eucharist and all those who do not.  God loves everyone.  As God’s people, as followers of Jesus, we ought to love everyone as well.

May we allow the words of Jesus to fill us with the Spirit and give us life.  May we find the strength we need in his body and blood.  And may we live as faithful disciples as we love others in the name of Jesus as we have been loved.   Amen.

Posted on August 30, 2018 By Kristen

Pentecost 13 August 19, 2018

Three ministers walk into a church – a Catholic Priest, a Baptist Minister, and an Episcopal Priest.  The question is asked:  Where do you find the Body of Christ?  All three of them smile:  Finally!  A theological question that is easy!  The Catholic Priest points to the Tabernacle, where the Reserve Sacrament is kept – “Right there,” he says.  The Baptist Minister sweeps his arm across the congregation – “We’re all right here,” he exclaims.  And when they turn to the Episcopal Priest?  She points to the Reserve Sacrament and then sweeps her arm over the congregation – ‘It’s both!’ she says.

Now, obviously, that’s a very simplistic version of the very deep theological issues raised by trying to understand what we are about in the Eucharistic Feast.  If it makes your head hurt a little, imagine what it was like for those first disciples.  Manna from heaven?  We understand that – it’s part of our formation story.  But Jesus saying that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood?  What is he talking about?

Our ears hear his words and we think of Communion.  But Jesus hasn’t had his ‘last supper’ with them yet.  He hasn’t been eating the Passover with them and passing around the bread with the words, ‘This is my body,’ or sharing the last cup of wine with the words, ‘This is my blood, shed for you…’   The words Jesus speaks today are difficult to understand.

We recognize, after all these years, that Jesus is using the symbols of bread and wine to represent his body and blood.  And yet, even after all these years, we still struggle to make any rational sense of what Jesus is saying.  As Episcopalians, we say that the Eucharist is a ‘mystery.’  That’s the best we can do.

The Catholic Priest, in identifying the Body of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, is right in line with what Jesus was saying in John 6.  ‘The one who east this bread will live forever.’

The Baptist Minister, in identifying the Body of Christ as the congregation, is right in line with the Apostle Paul’s writings.  We are all members of Christ’s body Paul says – in his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians.  Paul uses the imagery over and over again as he deals with divisions in the early church.  We are one body in Christ and so we can’t just throw each other out or pretend that we don’t need each other.  One body in Christ.  All Christians, everywhere.  One body.

The Episcopal or Anglican branch of Christianity usually tries to find some middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism.  So we’re pretty comfortable talking about the mystery of Christ’s body being found in the consecrated bread and wine AND among the people, as well.  Listen as we pray the Eucharistic Prayer later – you will hear both that the bread and wine represent the Body and Blood of Christ AND that WE are the Body of Christ.  We take Christ in with the bread and wine.  We join with each other is representing Christ’s Body in the world.

So what difference does it make where we find the Body of Christ?  What earthly good is all this theological juggling?

If it’s true that we participate in the Body of Christ, by taking in the bread and wine and being part of the gathered community, then the earthly good comes from remembering that Christ is part of us and we are part of Christ.  What we say represents Jesus.  What we do represents Jesus.  How we live represents Jesus.

How are we doing?  Do our words and deeds reflect the love of God, the compassion of Jesus?  Are we known by our love for each other?  Are we known for how we take care of the least, how we treat those on the margins of our community?

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out how we should live.  Should we be kind?  Yes.   Should we tell the truth?  Yes.  Should we cheat?  No.  The Ten Commandments are pretty clear and mostly easy to keep.  But then there are all those instances where it’s not completely clear what the loving thing is…  What do we do then?

Pray like Solomon.  Ask for wisdom.  The writer of the letter to the Ephesians puts it: Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.   My old Baptist minister friend said that we should err on the side of love when we’re not sure how to act.  Even when standing against evil, we can act with gentleness and peacefulness, rather than returning hate for hate.

May God give us grace to follow daily in the steps of Jesus our Savior.  Amen.

Posted on August 23, 2018 By Kristen