Christmas 2018

In this week’s New York Times OpEd section, Peter Wehner has written a piece called, “The Uncommon Power of Grace.”  It’s a wonderful article – read it if you get the chance!  Grace has been defined as “unmerited favor.”  Wehner’s contention is that the unmerited favor of God arrived on Christmas in the form of Jesus and with it we are all blessed.  In our best moments, we pass along the grace we have received.  He writes, “…when we see grace in action – whether in acts of extravagant, indiscriminate love, in radical self-giving, or in showing equanimity in the face of death – it can move us unlike anything else.”

The babe in the manger is God’s grace given to us.

Most babies feel like grace – so vulnerable and beautiful – a wondrous gift who looks just like us but so much more fragile and perfect.  I’m sure Jesus felt like grace to Mary and Joseph in those first few hours after his birth.

But there is more to this particular baby than meets the eye.  Jesus will be the embodiment of God’s love and acceptance – Immanuel, God with us, God for us – to remind us that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love.  Jesus will be accused of spending too much time with rough people – with prostitutes and drunks, tax collectors and notorious sinners.  His disciples will be accused of not being pious enough, of not following the religious codes religiously.  If we listen closely we will realize that it is not our perfection, not our adherence to a set of beliefs or practices, that makes God’s love and grace available to us.  It is God’s radical self-giving that makes grace available.

Jesus, as grace, is a giver of extravagant, indiscriminate love.  Love that is bestowed, not because we deserve it, but simply because we are, because we exist.  Jesus is the light of God’s presence, born into our world because we are so often lost in the dark, hopelessly trying to make sense of the chaos of our world and the chaos in our lives.  God’s grace and love, in the person of Jesus, meets us where we are, shines a light into our lives, leads us out, forgives us of our failings, supports us in our grief, and gives us hope for the future.

In response to Wehner’s article, Aelwyd (forgive my pronunciation, it’s Welsh and I’m not…) writes:

“Grace is beauty in action: the elegance of kindness; the strength of compassion; the courage of forgiveness.  Grace is the desire to ennoble those who have been shredded by life, and whose lives are lived in the shadows.

Grace is the unobtrusive response to need, the hand that touches the wound, the quiet ‘I am here’ to those who may never have known what it is like to be listened to; to be heard.  Grace flows through every moment of the startling, achingly beautiful realization of what it means to be alive, its potential, and its vulnerability.  I try to live by Grace, and in Grace I hope to die.”

May we, like Aelwyd, try to live by grace.  May we allow ourselves to be so filled by the grace of the Christ Child that grace overflows and spills out of us into the world.  Amen.

Posted on January 2, 2019 By Kristen

Advent 3 December 16, 2018

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people…  I love that end to the Gospel reading.  With many other exhortations like, “You brood of vipers” John proclaimed the good news.  Why would anyone consider John’s words good news???

This gospel follows on from last week’s gospel lesson in Luke chapter 3.  John the Baptizer is out by the river Jordan, calling people to repentance and baptism.  A clergy friend of mine decided that the outdoor blow up figures of Santa or Snoopy or snow globes just don’t capture the spirit of Advent.  He wants to design a John the Baptizer outdoor figure, with ratty, crazy hair, disheveled beard matted with honey and bugs, arms raised in exhortation.  That, he says, is a true symbol for this season.  Repent, the kingdom of God is coming.  Prepare for the coming of judgment.  Don’t think that because you are a child of Abraham you’ll be alright…

Not exactly our picture of Christmas preparation.  We prefer baby Jesus in the manger with clean animals and angels and shepherds.  We prefer a children’s pageant, rather than John’s call for justice.  Isn’t this week supposed to be about the candle of hope?  That’s why it’s rose this week, rather than purple or blue.

John offers a vision of the kingdom of God that has God’s love and God’s justice at the center.  That’s why his message, although difficult to hear, is also a message of hope and exactly what we really long for at Christmas.

We long for a silent and holy night.  We long for peace and good will among all people.  We want the hungry fed, we want the homeless sheltered, we want illness and disease done away with.  We are uncomfortable with the hate speech we hear and the violence that hate engenders.  We want to live in a just society where all people are welcomed and no one is an outcast.

John says that we have a responsibility to live into that kingdom now.  The good news is that the kingdom of God, the world that we long for is coming.  More difficult to hear, from this wild man, is that the kingdom of God comes through us.  Not from outside into us, but from inside us out into the world.

We have been given so much.  We have warm homes, we have several changes of clothes and enough food.  If you’re like me, you spend most of this month running around making and buying wonderful things to give to the people you love most in the world.

John tells us that we have been given good things – not to indulge ourselves and those we love, but to share with others who don’t have what we have.  He tells those with two coats to give one away, to share their food, not to extort or cheat others.  John preached that we bring peace and justice into the world through our actions.

John’s exhortations are right in line with the commands of Jesus:  Love God, love your neighbors as you love yourselves.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Because of the terror and war in the world, we are hearing a barrage of language, including from some good Christian people, that we ought not trust the strangers and refugees, that we ought to fence in our borders and keep ‘those people’ out.  And maybe we should even carry a gun so we can shoot them before they shoot us.

Hate speech, warring language, the demonization of certain groups of people who are ‘not like us’ – it’s understandable that our anxiety about the future will produce such things.  BUT.  We are not called to be anxious or fearful.  We are called to be Easter People, loving people, gentle people, as Paul writes to the Philippian church…  living examples that all are welcome in God’s kingdom – there are no outcasts, no strangers.  We are called to love and care for all of God’s children, to work for justice and peace, to spread the good news of God’s compassion and care for each one we meet, regardless of who they are, regardless of their feelings towards us.  Do unto other as you would have them do to you – NOT as they have done to you…  NOT before they do to you.  We are to treat others as we want to be treated, the way God has treated us.  Graciously.  Kindly.  Lovingly.

Are we ready for this good news?  The kingdom of God is coming.  We are either helping to usher it in or we are getting in the way.  One day we will meet God face to face.  Peace and justice will reign.  Are we ready?

Our collect says it well – Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us – because it is only through God’s power to love us that we find the power and strength to love others.  May we heed John’s words and live as flames of love shining into the darkness of hate and despair.  Amen.

Posted on December 20, 2018 By Kristen

Advent 2 December 9, 2018

This week, Advent 2, and next week as well, the main character in the gospel is John the Baptizer, that odd forerunner of his cousin Jesus.  It was John’s task to fulfill the prophecies about preparing the way for the Messiah – Isaiah spoke of it and we hear the echo of Isaiah in our reading from the book of Baruch, “For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.”

In place of the psalm in today’s readings, we have the Song of Zechariah – a song about John the Baptizer by his father.  You remember that Zechariah is a Levite, a member of the tribe of Israel that served in the Temple in Jerusalem.  And each year, one priest was to go into the Holy of Holies and perform certain rituals.  When it was Zechariah’s turn, he met an angel in the Holy of Holies who told him his wife would bear a child.  This was incredible news to Zechariah, because he and Elizabeth, his wife, had longed for children but had none.  They were getting older and it seemed that what the angel said was impossible.  Zechariah was told that the child would be the forerunner of Messiah.  When Zechariah expressed his doubt, he lost his voice and he didn’t regain his speech until John was born.

The Song of Zechariah is this father’s song over his impossibly newborn son:

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

It must have been an odd life for John – he must have been told the story of his own birth, as well as the story of his cousin, Jesus.  John is set apart for God’s work from his birth and he goes into the wilderness around the Jordan River, living on locusts and wild honey, the Gospel of Matthew says, until God shows him his life’s work.

John’s work is to call people to repentance and as a sign of their repentance, John baptizes them in the River Jordan.  Washing their old life away, the people rise to live anew.

What can John’s ministry teach us?  What does it mean that the mountains are brought low and the valleys raised up, that the crooked places are made straight and the rough places smooth?

In a way, God is leveling the playing field through John’s ministry.  Rather than some being naughty and some nice, we are reminded that each of us is a mix of both light and dark, good and bad.  We are all made in the image of God and each of us chooses our own way rather than God’s way much too often.  In God’s kingdom, the high and mighty are no more righteous than the lowly, the good church people no closer to God than those who never darken our doors.  We all stand convicted of not measuring up to God’s expectations.

But before we feel lost, before the hopelessness of our situation sets in – we also see that in leveling the field, God has made it easier for us to meet God down by the river, easier to repent and begin anew.  No high mountains to climb in order to reach God.  No valleys to drag ourselves out of – in bringing the mountains low and raising the valleys, God is making it easier for us to reach the kingdom, the place where Messiah is born.

Bringing the mountains low, raising the valleys, making the crooked straight and smoothing the rough places are also descriptions of the work God does in us, through the Holy Spirit, after we’ve made our way to the river and been baptized.  The self-righteousness that puffs us up is brought low.  The valleys of despair we fall into are raised up – if God is our end and loves us without measure, what do we have to fear?

Our crooked places are straightened out, our rough places are smoothed – both of which might feel painful when we experience them…  Physical therapy on crooked places hurts but is highly effective.  And abrasive sand paper or steel wool is what a master carpenter uses to smooth the rough places.

John’s ministry is good news.  God is coming near; we’ve got to get ready.  God will make it easy for us to come, and once we come to God, our lives will change forever.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

Posted on December 13, 2018 By Kristen

Advent I December 2, 2018

Here we are at the beginning of a new church year, it’s Advent – our time of waiting patiently to see what God will do.  Advent may be the most difficult time in the church calendar – in part because our culture begins the Christmas season almost before Halloween is over.  Christmas decorations and Christmas carols – all are on the shelves and blasting on the speaker system in the grocery store as soon as the Halloween candy is sold.

But in the church, we refrain from Christmas until December 24th.  We practice restraint, we leave the church plain, we don’t sing Christmas carols, we WAIT for the coming of Jesus. If the world could wait thousands of years for the first advent of Christ, we ought to be able to wait the four weeks through the season of Advent.  Patience is not only a virtue; it’s a discipline and one of the gifts of the Spirit.  So we wait for Christ’s coming and we begin our wait with the season of Advent.

We wait because Advent reminds us that even in our instant gratification world, not everything comes immediately.  We wait through Advent because we’re still waiting for peace on earth.  We wait through Advent because the refugees have yet to find a new home.  We wait through Advent because there is not yet silence in the night – a time when the guns of war and terror have ended.  We wait because the world is not yet what it ought to be and we are not yet who WE ought to be.

This week we concentrate our waiting minds on the second coming of Christ.  Jesus told his disciples that when they saw the signs they should ‘lift up’ their heads, because their redemption was drawing near.  The redemption of the world will be a wonderful sight – and we hold out hope, still.

There is a feeling that the changes we are experiencing all around us mark the end of the world as we know it.  This presidency, the level of political turmoil we see, the deep divides we see between those who have and those who have not, between Republicans and Democrats – all these and more portend the end of the world as we know it.  The talking heads on television and the radio and the internet all do their best to raise our fear about what’s coming next.  It’s the end of the world.  It’s the zombie apochalypse.  America is lost, the Democrats are lost, the Republicans are lost…  We are about to become a socialist state, a communist state, a police state, a place where everyone just does whatever they want or nothing at all will ever get done…

When Jesus warns his disciples to keep awake and aware of what’s going on in the world, when he tells them to watch the fig tree and look for the signs, it’s not meant to bring fear – it’s about hope.

Do we really want to keep the world as we know it?

Do we want to stay at war in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, possibly in Yemen?  Do we want to continue seeing our military stationed at our Southern border?  Do we want to see the middle class continue to shrink, to see more of people go hungry, become victims of violence, lose their homes and flee their countries?  Do we want to continue to see the people we love get sick and die?  What would be so awful about exchanging this world, for God’s kingdom, God’s country?  Exchanging this place for a place where no one goes hungry, no one gets sick, no one is homeless or orphaned or a stranger.

Sisters and brothers, we need not fear the future.  The final end of the world as we know it, with ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ is a good thing.  We don’t need to drown our sorrows or wrap ourselves in worry – our redemption is coming.

We don’t need to fear the near future, either, even if it’s not the final end of the world as we know it.  In fact, as Christians we are called to be always working for the end of the world as we know it.  We are called to care for the widows and orphans and strangers in our midst.  We’re called to feed the hungry and clothe the needy, to take care of the sick and visit the prisoners.  Jesus asks his disciples to work for the kingdom’s coming right here, right now – Jesus asks us to work for the end of the world as we know it.  Waging peace instead of war.  Making sure there is food and shelter for all instead of just for those who can afford it.  Caring for the sick and the destitute rather than turning a blind eye.

You are already doing this work.  Collecting food for the food pantry, making sandwiches to give away at the Samaritan Center, purchasing a gift for a child you’ve never met through the Giving Tree – these are ways of working for God’s kingdom and the end of the world as we know it.  Even the changes we’re experiencing as our congregation grows older and smaller is a way of changing the world as we know it.  And although change always brings anxiety, it’s also the chance for us to ask God how we might be serve the Kingdom now, in this place, with the resources we have.

The world as we know it is a far cry from the world as it ought to be, a far cry from the kingdom of God.  But we should never lose hope.  God is always at work, bringing life out of death, bringing the new out of the ashes of the old.

The prophet Jeremiah lived during the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem.  He lived IN Jerusalem and he spent his time warning the king about what he ought to do and what he ought not to do.  The times were desperate and Nebuchadnezzar would eventually destroy Jerusalem and the entire kingdom of Israel.  But even in those awful times, Jeremiah had a vision of hope for the people, a message of restoration and the reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom.  ‘In those days and at that time,’ God said through Jeremiah, ‘I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…’

Even when it seemed that David’s line was cut off for good, God tells the people that new life can be expected from the stump they thought was dead.  Messiah would come from Jesse’s line, from the stump of David’s family tree.

God always brings life out of the ashes, God always brings resurrection just when we think we’re finally dead and gone.  Our job is to work for the end of the world as we know it, not fearful of the end, but rejoicing, because the end of the world as we know it means the kingdom of God will arrive and Christ will return.  Justice and peace will reign, all needs shall be met, death and dying will be no more and we will know the love God has for us without hesitation or qualification.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Bring the end of the world as we now know it.  Amen.

Posted on December 6, 2018 By Kristen

Christ the King Sunday November 25, 2018

Today is ‘Christ the King’ Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in the church year.  Next week our new year begins, at least as far as the church calendar is concerned, with Advent I.  Our lessons today are aimed at the pivot point – on the one hand looking back at the story of David’s line, at the story of Jesus in the moment before everything changes, and on the other hand, looking forward to the day when we will all see Christ the King and all the tribes of the earth will wail, according to Revelation.  Looking back, looking forward.  What do we learn from these lessons?  What hope can we find?

I’m struck by Pilate’s question to Jesus:  What have you done?  The question is a challenge to Jesus – he wouldn’t be standing before Pilate if he hadn’t done something to make someone very angry.  Yet, it’s an honest question – Pilate really doesn’t know what Jesus has done because Jesus hadn’t done anything wrong that any of his accusers could agree upon.  What have you done?

The disciples thought they knew what Jesus was doing.  The disciples thought that God was reestablishing the throne of David through Jesus.  They expected to see Jesus assert his authority, overthrow the Romans and take his place on David’s throne in the Holy City Jerusalem.  They expected to reign with him, serving their King in places of honor, fulfilling the promises David claimed in our reading from Second Samuel.

What God had planned was larger than the Holy City of Jerusalem, larger than the throne of David in the Kingdom of Israel.  What God had planned was bigger than the disciples, bigger than Pilate, larger than the Roman Empire.  God’s plan called for Jesus to give his life, every last breath, so that the whole world would know, so that you and I would know that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  God’s plan allowed Jesus to die so that God could raise him up again, proving that nothing – not our sin, not our power, not even the power of death, nothing – can withstand God’s power of life and love.

There’s no way that Jesus could truly answer Pilate’s question, ‘What have you done?’  Jesus could only say that he had come to testify to the truth and that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his words.  What have you done?  I’ve come to bring abundant life, Jesus said in another place.  What have you done?  I’ve come to be the bread of life, the great shepherd, the vine that brings life to the branches.  What have you done?  I have come to be Emmanuel, God with humans, on the side of us humans.

How could Pilate understand what Jesus had done, what Jesus was about to do?  Not even his closest companions understood what Jesus had done and was about to do.  Jesus was facing his death.  He was about to be buried for three days.  And then he was about to be resurrected, spending 50 more days explaining to his disciples what had just happened to him, happened to them.  He was about to return to his Father and take his place at God’s right hand.  He was about to become King of all those who willingly follow and the King of all at the end of time.

God’s kingdom is unlike any of our own, unlike any kingdom on Earth.  We have the choice to join the kingdom of God or not.  We have the choice to follow the King or not follow.  So the question comes to us, ‘What have we done?’  What choice have we made?  Have we chosen to be followers?  Are we living up to our calling?

As disciples, as followers of Christ the King, we are called to spread the good news that God loves us all and wants relationship with us.  I expect that, like me, you are always both following and not following our King.  On our best days, our actions, our words show God’s love to the world.  And yet…

These days we seem to be faltering – it’s a struggle to live a life of love when there is so much going on that we disagree with and so many people shouting at us and at each other.  Folks on both sides of almost any issue claim to be Christian, claim to be followers of Jesus.  Where is God in this mess?  What does God want us to do?

God’s love calls us to live in love.  Regardless of what others might think of us, we’re called to be loving.  Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with someone, we’re called to be loving towards them.  Regardless of how we’re treated, we’re called to be loving.   Regardless of the issue, we are called to stand on the side of love.  The question to ask about every issue is, “What would be the most loving thing to do?”  Immigration – what would be the most loving thing to do?  The war in Yemen – what would be the most loving thing to do?  Poverty – what would be the most loving thing to do?  If the position we take on any issue isn’t loving, we ought not claim that it is God’s position…  As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry always says, “if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

God’s love is the mirror that shows us who and what we are, the mirror that convicts us when we fail.  And God’s love forgives our failures and empowers us to love again.   As we give ourselves to God and God’s love, God works in and through us more and more to make God’s love known.  We don’t have to have all the answers.  We don’t have to be perfect.  And we don’t have to fear for our futures – we are Easter People, after all.  We believe that our loving God will hold on to us no matter what the future brings.  What is required of us is that we love each other as God loves each of us.

At the end of time, when we’re asked, ‘What have you done?’ may we be able to answer that we’ve loved as best we could.  At this pivot point between the old year and the new, let us recommit ourselves to Christ’s kingdom.  May we live this new year fearlessly in God’s love.  Amen.

Posted on November 28, 2018 By Kristen

Pentecost 26 November 18, 2018

It’s difficult to hear Jesus’ words at the end of our Gospel lesson, isn’t it?  It sounds apocalyptic AND like our news reports right now…  Wars and rumors of wars.  Nation rising against nation.  A growing famine in Yemen.  Fires that leave communities burned out, with too many deaths and so many missing…  We feel the birthpangs but don’t know what is coming into the world!

We must never forget that we are Easter people in a Good Friday world – and so for us, every ending has within it a new beginning.  We believe in resurrection.  We can’t help it.  In every beginning we know there is an end and in every ending we know there is new life.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus and the disciples take a good look at the Temple in Jerusalem.  This isn’t just any building.  This is Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple that Solomon had built.  Herod had some bad feelings to work off, he needed to make amends to God and to the Jews, so he built a magnificent building.  The disciples were impressed and probably interested in hearing what Jesus might say about Herod the Great– a great builder of buildings, but a cruel, cruel man.

Jesus tells his followers that none of the buildings will stand the test of time.  And then when they ask further, he tells them that things are going to get worse – nation rising against nation, wars and rumors of wars, earthquake and famine – the end of the world as they know it.  Yet Jesus finishes this warning by saying, ‘This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.’  This is but the beginning of new life out of the death of the old.

We Christians are creatures of habit, just like all human beings.  We like the familiar, especially in church, especially around our worship, because it’s in our liturgical practice, in our routine, that we’ve met God.  When the world is changing all around us, we want to enter these doors and hear the familiar words and remember that God is present here.

But we are at the beginning of the end.  We feel the birthpangs.  It used to be that small communities and towns were the backbone of America.  It used to be, at least for a time in our history, that if we built a church and opened the doors, it would fill up.  Church was the center of social life.  There wasn’t enough room for the children’s program, for Sunday School.  We expanded, added classrooms and teachers.

But the world is changing.  Our small towns are dying out.  Industry isn’t what it used to be.  Church isn’t the center of our social lives – not like it used to be.  WE open our doors, but people don’t just flock in.  Children have sports on Sunday mornings, families have other responsibilities.  People travel, have second homes, spend time with grandchildren.   It’s just not the same.  It’s the beginning of the end.  It’s not clear what will happen to the church – not just ours, but to churches across our denomination and our country.

It’s also the beginning – there is something new being born but we can’t yet see what that new thing is.  We are in the birthpangs – one foot in the old and one foot in the new – unable to hold onto the past and a bit fearful of the future.

What can we do?  We can heed the instruction from Hebrews: let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.  Scholars are not entirely sure who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews nor are they sure to whom the letter was written – except that they are Jewish Christians.  What’s interesting to me is that the letter was probably written between 60 and 95 CE or AD.  And that’s interesting because the writer spends a lot of time explaining why we Christians don’t need to make Temple sacrifices – Jesus, our high priest, has taken care of that for us.

We know that Herod’s Temple, the one that the disciples admired, that Jesus says will not remain forever, was destroyed by the Romans about 70 CE or AD.  So Hebrews was perhaps written as a response to that destruction.  It was the beginning of the end for everyone who had made Temple worship the center of their lives – both Jews and Christians.  New ways had to be created for worship to go forward.  In the ending – a new beginning.  Jews and Christians around the world found new ways to worship God and faithful living has continued to this day.

Here we are, near the end of the liturgical year, near the end of the calendar year.  We’re entering the holiday season – and for many people, this year will not be the same as last year.  For some of us, people we love will be missing.  For some of us, new members have joined our family gatherings.  Some of us will end the year healthier than last year.  Some of us will end the year with a new diagnosis, a new health concern.  Some of us will find new jobs in the coming year.  Some of us will retire.

Whatever our losses or gains, whatever our joys or our sorrows, we are facing the beginning of the end and we have nothing to fear.  These are just the birthpangs of the new world being born.  God is in our beginnings and God is in our endings, watching over the details, making sure that nothing and no one is lost.

So let’s provoke one another – not with our anxieties or our fears – but with love and good deeds.  Let us look with compassion on each other and on the world around us.  And may our compassion and love inspire – provoke – us to acts of kindness and generosity.  Endings and beginnings can be terribly frightening – but we are Easter people.  We know that with every death there is new life and God in the midst of it all.  We have no need to fear the beginning of the end or any ending at all. We are Easter people in a Good Friday world – and so for us, every ending has within it a new beginning.  We believe in resurrection.  We can’t help it.  In every beginning we know there is an end and in every ending we know there is new life.  The One who promised this is faithful.  Amen.

 

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Posted on November 27, 2018 By Kristen

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