Origin Story – An Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge is seeking out the stories of how you came to be a Christian and an Episcopalian.  The fun, or perhaps quirky, twist being that the 120 word abstract should sound like a superhero origin story.  You can find out more by clicking the link at the bottom of this post.  Without any further ado, I offer you my origin story.

I was a senior in High School and it was Young Life Banquet time.  My YL leader, Flecth, had asked several of us to share our testimonies at the tables of some of YL Lancaster’s biggest donors.  I remember feeling some strange mixture of trepidation and relief as I prepared my story.  I was terrified because my story of how God found me is pretty boring.  I was relieved because I didn’t have to tell my friends’ parents and my parents’ friends about the day I woke up in the middle of a corn field with a needle sticking out of my arm and saw Jesus standing in front of me.  I feel a similar strange mixture today.

I grew up as the quintessential first child.  To this day, I am a ruler follower ad nauseam.  When I was 16, I spent three weeks in Germany with my high school German class.  There is no legal drinking age in Germany, but I still only drank once while I was there, and I still feel guilty about it.  The Church and the moral life to which she calls us has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.  After the youth group at Saint Thomas crashed and burned as I entered into high school, I spent several years bouncing between the CMA church’s youth group and Young Life.  I remember pulling my Saturn over on Manheim Pike one Friday morning to write down the date and time I had invited Jesus into my life, but the truth is, he had always been there.

My entrance into The Episcopal Church happened when I was three years old.  My dad had been transferred from R.R. Donnelly’s home base in Chicago, IL to a brand new plant built to produce TV Guides in scenic Lancaster, PA.  As the story goes, the Realtor my parents used to find a new house was a saintly woman named Jeanne Ritter.  After selling them the perfect house for a family with two small children, Jeanne said something like, “I go to Saint Thomas’ Episcopal Church.  You should try it out.”  They tried it out, and it stuck.

Though I attended an Episcopal Church with my family from early on, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be an Episcopalian, to be imbued with the rhythm of life and the words of the Book of Common Prayer really until I entered the discernment process.  It was there that I learned what all those words I could say by heart: from the opening acclamation to the dismissal; really meant.  I guess that’s why I have such a passion for liturgics, Church history, and general church-nerdery these days.  I want everyone to know how these words that seem rote to the outside observer can be living, active, and offer so much more than the rules and guilt that are so often associated with Christianity.

My origin story doesn’t have superhero qualities to it, but I’ve come to realize that that’s OK.  God enters our lives in all sorts of different ways, but most often, it is by way of a simple invitation.  Thanks be to God.

Judgement and Grace

Sometimes you just have to laugh at life, and life in the Church is no exception.  We had one of those moments this past Sunday after the Zephaniah reading.  For those of you on Track 1 of the RCL or in case you don’t remember, the lesson from Zephaniah for Proper 28A includes this gem of a line, “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the LORD, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.”  After eight tough verses of judgement and condemnation, the lector concluded the lesson with the familiar Prayer Book phrase, “The Word of the Lord.”  Without hesitation, at all three services on Sunday, the congregation replied, “Thanks be to God.”

Thanks be to God!?!?  Really?  Were you not paying attention?  The reading said that the Lord would pour out people’s flesh like dung for God’s sake.  Thanks be to God?!?!

Well, yes actually.  You see without judgement, there is no grace.  One can not be forgiven if there is no need of forgiveness.  So, as is the case so often in the prophets, judgement is pronounced by Zephaniah in as stark a terms as possible.  If this didn’t get the people’s attention, nothing would.  Knowing that judgement always precedes grace, we are able to, even if it is through gritted teeth say, “thanks be to God.”

And while it is dangerous to jump between books of the Bible, the Lectionary offers a gift for those who are paying attention in the Ezekiel lesson for Christ the King.  In his pronouncement of calamity, Zephaniah tells of the day of judgement, “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.”  Ezekiel, in his promise of redemption, uses this word of grace, “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

For all those who felt just a wee-bit uncomfortable saying “thanks be to God” last Sunday, your gift this week is the fulfillment of the judgement and grace cycle.  Yes, there are consequences to our actions.  AND. Yes, God forgives.

Thanks be to God!

Who is “the least of these”?

Maybe I’m still stuck on All Saints’ Day.  Maybe I’m thinking too much about our last real-life Draughting Theology of the fall.  Maybe I’m still a little groggy from the Nyquil I took last night.  Whatever the reason, I can’t seem to get the question, “What makes a Saint?” out of my head.  As I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Christ the King, the question morphed into “Who is ‘the least of these’?”  As I read Jesus’ words, my tendency is to see me as either a sheep or a goat, and ask myself, have I been faithful in serving the least?  The more I think about it, however, the more I wonder if I’m coming at this from the wrong angle.

The least of these includes:

  • The hungry
  • The thirsty
  • Strangers
  • The naked
  • The sick
  • Prisoners

As a middle class American, I don’t really know what it means to be hungry, thirsty, or naked.  I’ve never been imprisoned, but I most certainly have been a stranger and I’ve known some form of sickness.  I am “the least of these,” and, I suspect, so are you.  Perhaps this story is less about how I judge myself as a sheep or a goat or how I judge my neighbor on the same grounds, but how we, as a community of the “least of these”, takes care of one another amid the trials and tribulations of this life.  The first part of taking care of one another comes when I finally admit that I am, in fact, one of the least of these and in need of help.  This can be difficult because it requires vulnerability and nobody likes to be vulnerable, but it is only in our willingness to be helped that others have the opportunity to serve.  It is by practicing service in the midst of the congregation that we learn to reach out beyond ourselves and serve the wider community of “the least of these.”

Well Done – Saint Paul’s 2015 Plan for Mission – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

Mark Twain once said, “I can live two months on a good compliment.”  Isn’t that the truth?  It feels good to get a well-deserved pat on the back, but what if I told you that there was one compliment that could guarantee you eternal life?  I’m not saying that if you don’t hear these words, you’re doomed to be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but Jesus seems to.  In this morning’s Gospel lesson the Master tells two of his slaves the words that I long to hear one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Just think about it.  You’ve just died peacefully in your bed, with your family by your side, when you find yourself standing in front of the Pearly Gates.  As you look up at the grandeur of Heaven that is infinitely more than you could ever even imagine, you see Jesus standing before you, arms outstretched with a wide, toothy smile, saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  Oh man, that would be the best.  The good news is that those words are so simple to hear.  All we have to do is be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us.

If we take the parable of the talents at face value, then this is a story about how we use our material wealth.  The landowner had money upon money.  He was Scrooge McDuck rich and he wanted to get richer, so rather than put his money in a safe while he went on his journey, he gave it to three of his servants so that they could continue the work in his absence.  To the first he gave 5 talents, 75 years’ worth of wages.  To the second, he gave two talents, 30 years’ worth.  Finally, the third he have one talent, 15 years’ worth of money.  Upon his return, the first servant gave him back 10 talents, the second had four to give, but the third returned only the one talent.  The third servant’s sin, it seems, was that he was too paralyzed by the fear of scarcity to realize the abundance of the gift of his master.  He had roughly $375,000 at his disposal and was afraid to lose even a penny of it.  Through this parable, Jesus calls us to not hold onto the material things of this world, but to take the risk of sharing them for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.

I can’t tell you how many times in the last seven-plus years, I’ve talked with someone about financial stewardship and heard them say, “I’m just afraid there won’t be enough.”  I get it.  I said that for many years.  Prior to going to seminary, and even through seminary, I subscribed to a left-over model of scarcity giving.  Whatever cash was left over in my pocket on Sunday morning, less what I needed for brunch after the service, was what went into the plate.  My average monthly gift was probably $15.00, and there was never enough money.  When I got ordained, Cassie and I made the decision that if I was going to ask people to give God 10% of their income then as a family, we also needed to tithe.  These days, our donations include 7% to Saint Paul’s, 2% to EduKenya, and 1% to Beckwith.  Roughly $625 a month goes out the door, off the top, to support the work of the Kingdom, and you know what, there is rarely enough money.  Just a few months ago, we had one of those months where the car broke down. Twice.  The kids needed school clothes.  Someone got sick, of course, and the month simply ran longer than the money.  In the midst of feeling sorry for myself, I went through our financials and realized just how much we had given away and do you know what I felt?  I felt the joy of the master.  There may not have been enough money that month, but there was most certainly enough.

I tell you this not to make the Pankeys look good or to make you feel bad, but to tell you that the joy that God promises for those who are faithful stewards of his bounty is real, it is available, and it surpasses anything that money can buy.  The other reason I’m telling you this is that I don’t think this parable is just about an individual or even a family.  I think this story is about Saint Paul’s in Foley.  On Monday evening, your vestry approved a preliminary 2015 Plan for Mission that is all about taking the gifts God has given us and using them for his honor and glory.  For 2014, our budget is $340,000 dollars which includes little, if any outreach.  Outreach happens, of course, but through a $25,000 shadow budget of Valentine’s Dinners, chili sales, and special requests.  For 2015, we plan to take seriously the Master’s call to be about the work of the kingdom by being good stewards of our money, our staff, our buildings, and our people.  Based on the feedback we received during last fall’s Community Conversation meals, we’re planning to continue to grow in education, fellowship, children’s ministry and outreach.  We’re beginning to stock-pile for the new roof that’s five years out.  We’re budgeting for our youth to take a summer mission trip without having to dress up like waters to beg for money.  We’re planning for several fellowship events that will bring the whole family together to simply enjoy one another’s company.  We hope to raise our Diocesan pledge from 4.5% to 6%, with a goal of tithing to the Diocese within 5 years. And because our baptismal covenant calls us to reach out beyond 506 North Pine Street in a big way, we plan to make $40,000 available for mission and outreach within our local community, including half the down payment for a Habitat for Humanity house.  We’ve set aside some money to upgrade the furnishings in the Mission House, formerly known as the Education Building, to better accommodate the 1,000 or so heads in beds each year, funds to repair the ceiling in the AA Building, and the ability to make several significant gifts to other worthy causes.  The lesson that I learned from the Parable of the Talents this week is that we aren’t called simply to exist where we are; we are called to take risks in order to make a difference as the hands and feet of Christ in Foley, Alabama.

In the coming days, you will be invited to make a commitment to the Plan for Mission at Saint Paul’s.  The key to this plan’s success is having pledges toward our goal of raising $438,463.67 in 2015, a 15% increase over this year.  Without the commitment of the whole congregation to make this Mission happen, we simply can’t do it.  We know 100% participation is impossible, but it’s our goal anyway.  By my count, we have approximately 160 families at Saint Paul’s.  In 2014, 30% of those families made a pledge making up 60% of our budget.  This year, it is our hope to reach 100% pledge participation, funding 100% of our Plan for Mission.  Whether you have been pledging for years or have never made a pledge before, I know that it is unreasonable for me to expect you to jump from wherever you might be to giving away 10%.  It took getting ordained for me to finally do it, but I hope that you’ll consider looking at where you are now and investing 15% more in the Plan for Mission.  If you’re giving $10 a month, try $11.15.  If you’re giving $100, shoot for $115.  If you’re giving $1,000 a month, how about $1150?  Together, we can live into the dream that God has for us.

Of course, this parable isn’t just about money; it is also about your skills as a carpenter, computer programmer, photographer, master gardener, grandparent, teacher, butcher, baker, or candlestick maker and how you use them to build up the kingdom of God.  For Saint Paul’s in Foley to live into our Plan for Mission, it’ll take everybody’s talents: financial and otherwise, with a dash of risk and a whole lot of faith in a Master who loves us beyond measure.  In the end, it is the my hope, Keith’s hope, and the hope of your vestry that we’ll look back on 2015 as a year in which God blessed us with a warm embrace and the soothing words, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”  Amen.

C.R.E.A.M.

In the words of the Wu Tang Clan, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, C.R.E.A.M, get the money, dolla, dolla bill y’all.”  In its original context, this is, of course, what the Parable of the Talents is all about.  A man is going on a trip and rather than letting his significant wealth sit idle while he’s gone, he gives it to three of his slaves, each according to their ability, in order that they might put it to good use.

These are not insignificant sums of money.  Depending on whether you subscribe to weights of measure or daily wage theories for what a talent was in Jesus’ day, we’re talking the modern day equivalent of $1.7M or $375K per Talent.  I’m a daily wage guy, since that’s what I’ve read most in the scholarship, so a talent equals 15 years worth of the average daily wage for a laborer.  In Foley, Alabama, that is roughly $375,000.  So to the first slave goes $1.875M, the second gets $750k, and the third, $375k.  Upon his return, the first gives his master back $3.75M, the second, $1.5M, and the third still has $375k.  That’s an overall ROI of over 87%!  The lesson, obviously, is to be wise stewards of the gifts that God has given for the upbuilding of the kingdom.

What I’ve found interesting this week is that clergy throughout the ages have been uncomfortable with the Wu Tang Clan’s CREAM philosophy.  Over and over again this parable has been used metaphorically to talk not about money, but rather about the natural skills and aptitudes with which God has blessed us.  It has happened so often and for so long that etymologically, the meaning of the English word “talent” comes from this exegetical slant on Matthew 25 (HT Kathryn Matthews).  Don’t believe me, here’s what Google says when you ask it for information on the etymology of talent.

talent

Of course this parable is about money, CREAM isn’t just for rap stars.  It is also about much more than, but if preachers are so afraid to talk about the money piece with their congregations as to create a new word usage in English, then we’ve got a problem that can’t be fixed by fancy word choice and dancing around the issues.  So as you prepare to preach this Sunday, in the midst of what is probably stewardship season, remember, dear reader, the wisdom of the Wu Tang Clan, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, CREAM, get the money, dolla, dolla bill, y’all”

Well Done Good and Faithful Servant

As the Virginia Theological Seminary Class of 2007 departed campus to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, the Very Reverend Martha J. Horne, Dean and President of VTS also transitioned into a new phase of life called retirement.  She was the obvious choice for our commencement speaker, and in the back of the Lettie Pate Whitehead Auditorium (now Interim Chapel) there hung a sign that read “Well done good and faithful servant” in thanksgiving for her many years of devotion to VTS, the Church, and most importantly, the saving love of Jesus Christ.

Blessed Martha

                     Blessed Martha

Having served as Student Body President that final year, I got to know Dean Horne a little bit, and quickly came to realize that she is probably not the type of person one would expect to serve as Dean and President of the largest seminary in the Anglican Communion.  Unlike her successor, Dean Markham, Dean Horne is a highly introverted person, soft spoken, and unostentatiously genteel.  She didn’t command a room, but she was most certainly in charge because she utilized the gifts and talents with which God has blessed her to lead VTS with wisdom and love through the tumultuous days of the early 21st century.  The sign which hung at our graduation spoke to her service and to the Gospel witness that God desires that we use the gifts he has entrusted to our care.

Each of us has been given gifts and talents.  Some are our birthright, others come through the Holy Spirit in baptism, and still others are bestowed in our hour of need.  To squander those gifts out of fear and/or laziness is as egregious a sin as any other.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called upon to use our many and diverse gifts to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  This means that we don’t make excuses for our gaps in other areas, but instead we trust in God to surround us with the right people to complete the mission.  Virginia Seminary had outgoing and gregarious leaders during the Martha Horne administration, it had prophetic voices, it had the occasional clanging cymbal, and it had Dean Horne as the non-anxious presence, steady at the helm.  The sign the hung at our graduation ceremony was for Dean Horne, but it really was for all of us.  It is only in community that our talents are used to their fullest potential, that the Kingdom can come near, and that we can all hear the words of the Master.

“Well done, good and faithful servants.”

A Sure and Certain Hope

Life in the Church during the first generation after Jesus must have been a mixture of excitement, joy, sorrow pain, and confusion. Come to think of it, that’s a lot like life in the Church today. Still, in those first few years, as everyone was trying to work out what it meant to follow a man who had taught, healed, died, rose, and ascended to the right hand of God, it must have been like living on pins and needles every moment of every day. When would he return? How would it happen? Would we live to see that day? What should be do in the meantime.

Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, knows exactly what they are feeling. They want Jesus to come back today to set it all right, but he just isn’t following their time table. People are wondering if they should get married, bother having children, or even go to work. Most especially, they are watching as some of the fellow believers die and are concerned about what might happen to them when they die. So Paul sets out to ease their troubled minds. “We do not want you to be uninformed… about those who have died,” he writes, “so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.”

It isn’t that, as Christians, we don’t grieve, but rather we grieve through the lens of hope. Or as our Prayer Book calls it, a “sure and certain hope in the resurrection” This morning at Saint James’ Church in Fairhope, Alabama, the faithful gathered to mourn the loss of a faithful servant, the Rev. Jack Miller. We sang words of joy and hope, we prayed prayers of thanksgiving and commendation, we heard the Scriptures read, and the word of God preached. We gathered, as the Rev. Keith Talbert so eloquently said, “because we belive.” We believe that through Jesus Christ who died and rose again, we have been redeemed, set free to enjoy the fruits of eternal life right here and right now, and that “God will bring with him those who have died.” We believe that life on earth has meaning, deep and beautiful meaning, and that life beyond this earth is the free gift of the God who’s love is so strong that nothing can separate us from it.

We believe. We have hope. We are the Lord’s possesion, the children of God.

Destroy the Works of the Devil

Like almost every possible theological topic, The Episcopal Church has sort of a hazy relationship with evil in its personified form.  We are very clear on the power that evil wields in our everyday lives: from corrupt governments to greedy corporations to individuals who lie, cheat, steal, and respond with violence.  Evil is all around us, from the evil we have done to the evil done on our behalf, but when you start to talk about demons and the devil, many Episcopalians start to squirm in their seats.  There are several reasons for this.  First and foremost is that, by and large, Episcopalians are comfortable with medical and social sciences and so most of what was once described as demon possession can now be easily explained as epilepsy, postpartum depression, or some other completely reasonable diagnosis.  Episcopalians also tend to be wary of those who somewhat uncritically accept supernatural explanations for things that are most likely the result of one’s own choices.

Thirdly, and beyond the scope this post, is the fact that as a whole, modern, western Christians have an angelolgy that is more Hollywood than it is Biblical (hint – Aunt Mae didn’t become an angel when she died, and that’s a good thing).

Yet for all our skepticism about angels and demons and most especially the devil, on Sunday, we’ll pray a prayer that includes these words, “O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life…”  Marion Hatchett, OBM, tells us that this collect was written for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, probably by the Rt. Rev. John Cosin, Bishop of Durham, for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.  In the 79 BCP, it was moved to Proper 27, or the third Sunday before Advent, to begin to turn our minds toward the return of Christ. (Commentary, 195)

This prayer, expressing hope for the power of God at the second coming, recalls for us the Revelation of John which, whether you take it literally or metaphorically, is a story of the great battle between good and evil.  As Christians, whether we believe in a personified devil or not, we confess that Jesus Christ by his death and resurrection, has already won the battle.  Good will prevail, evil and the devil will be defeated, and sin will be no more.  That, I hope, is something we can all agree upon.

The Rapture is Upon Us!

That’s right folks, we’ve arrived at 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17.  What you probably didn’t know about rapture theology is that it also includes a battle of the Bible versions.

More evangelical versions of the Bible, like the NIV and the NLT, are careful to limit the work of Jesus at his second coming.  “For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus comes, God will bring back with Jesus all the Christians who have died.  15 I can tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not rise to meet him ahead of those who are in their graves.  16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the call of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, all the Christians who have died will rise from their graves.  17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and remain with him forever.”

While more mainline versions, like the NRSV, allow for a more expansive final judgment.  “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.  15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.  16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

I can tell you that the word “Christian” which appears twice in the NLT is not in the Greek text.  What was inferred in the NIV “14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” is expressly stated in the NLT.  What I find most interesting, however, is that neither version actually states anything about Jesus snatching believers from their chariots, leaving them to careen off cliffs or to run unabated into the first century equivalent of a couture cupcake shop.  Simply put, there is no Biblical case for a pre-tribulation rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4.

So then, what is Paul talking about?  Well, I’d rather let someone like NT Wright do that heavy lifting, but he can be a bit long winded.  Here’s what I think.  I think Paul is talking about the new heaven and the new earth.  I think he’s helping the struggling believers in Thessalonica see that when Jesus does come back, it will be to restore all of Creation, not just parts of it.  The second coming isn’t about who’s in and who’s out, but rather about the power of God to restore hearts, minds, souls, and even created matter into his perfect vision.

Our Sainthood Problem – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon for All Saints’ Sunday is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

The Episcopal Church has a sainthood problem.  The problem started somewhere in the late 1970s, when for the first time since 1549 and Thomas Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer, the Church decided to add names to its calendar.  With the exception of a few years during the reigns of Edward and Mary, for the better part of 430 years, the calendar of the Church included only a handful of Saints, each of whom, at the very least, were mentioned in the New Testament.  Because of the overall lack of saints in Anglicanism, the void was filled by the overwhelming number of Saints in the Roman Catholic Church.  Most us, whether we were ever Roman Catholic or not, default to the sainthood model that requires two verifiable miracles that occur after the person’s death.  Many of us are also familiar with the patronage of saints, like Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes; Saint Valentine, the patron saint of lovers; and Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things.  What is often overlooked is the fact that of the three, only Saint Jude actually appears on The Episcopal Church’s calendar.  We talk with affection about Saint Francis and Saint Patrick, but neither is actually titled a saint in The Episcopal Church.  If you read the most recent stuff coming out of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, it is clear that our problem with sainthood is that we are still struggling to figure out what sainthood means.

With that in mind, and in preparation for today’s All Saints’ celebration, I’ve spent a lot of time this week trying to answer the question, “What makes a saint?”  I’ve come up with this definition, “A saint is a disciple of Jesus who strives to live into the Kingdom of God.”  The first thing you’ll notice is that this definition is in the present tense.  You don’t have to be dead to be a saint.  In fact, if you are waiting until you die to become a saint, you’re doing it wrong and you’ll probably never get there.  The Apostle Paul uses the word saint forty-one times in his letters.  Every single time, it is used to refer to the living, not the dead.  In fact, he uses it not in reference to special people doing extraordinary things for the Gospel, but as a way of describing everyone who follows Jesus as Lord and Savior.

So, what does it mean to follow Jesus?  We could look to last week’s gospel lesson and say quite simply that following Jesus means loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, but as comforting as those words are, I feel like we need to hear more about what that look likes in real life.  Certainly we could point to the Baptismal Covenant and say that following Jesus means believing in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; being a member of a worshipping, praying, and learning community; striving to resist evil, but falling back on the grace of God when we fall short; sharing the Good News of the Kingdom; serving our neighbors; and striving for justice, peace, and dignity for all of Creation.  But if we wanted even more, there is no better place to turn than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

This morning’s Gospel lesson comes from the very beginning of that most famous sermon.  As news of Jesus spread far and wide, the crowds that followed grew larger and larger, until one day, Jesus climbed up a mountainside, sat down, and began to teach the saints what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  From Matthew 5:1 through to chapter 7, verse 29, Jesus teaches his followers about being salt and light, about judging others and loving our enemies, about prayer, fasting, and stewardship, and he sums up his teaching with the Golden Rule saying, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”[1]  His teaching begins, not like Moses’ mountainside sermon with a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, but with a description of what Kingdom people look like, and it is a very surprising and rag-tag bunch indeed: the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those who seek after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted and reviled for following Jesus.  Being a saint means following Jesus into all sorts of unexpected situations in thanksgiving for the love of God showered upon us.

During his sermon on Wednesday, Keith shared a short poem by Nobel Prize winning author and poet, Rabi[ndranath] Tagore that in three short lines sums up sainthood for me:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy

I awoke and saw that life was service

I acted, and behold, service was joy

Sainthood is a life lived in the joy of service.  It doesn’t mean we’re perfect.  It doesn’t mean we have it all together. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel burnt out or tired or frustrated from time to time. It means, as I said before, that saints find joy in striving for the kingdom.  Saints do their best and let God do the rest.  The history of Christianity is full of saints who weren’t perfect but found joy in serving a God who is.

Take the much beloved Francis for example. He was the son of a rich and powerful family who had rich and powerful friends and, for a while at least, lived a rich and powerful lifestyle. As his spiritual devotion grew, so did his discomfort with his worldly lifestyle until his own Father took him to court to try to force him to remain in the family business. It was only then that Francis finally threw off all the trappings of his old life, literally stripping naked in front of the court proceedings, and vowed a life of poverty. The sainthood of Francis came in fits and starts, but it was his faithfulness and joy in service that eventually led him into ever deeper commitment to the kingdom.

The same can be said for all of us, I think. Our slow progress toward sainthood has its ups and downs, two steps forward and three back sometimes, but in the end it is in the striving that we become blessed, that we become holy, that we become saints.  As I thought about our sainthood problem, the names of saints who continue to strive after the kingdom came flooding into my mind.  There’s Bernice and Esther, who give up their Sunday mornings to make sure our youngest members know that God loves them; Franklin who, among other things, ensures that our fellowship is joyful with plenty of donuts; and Carol who was here at the crack of dawn this morning to make sure the altar was properly set for the Feast of All Saints’. There’s Lyle’ who in between teaching her young sons to read, write, and ‘rithamtic, shares the never ending stream of activities going on here through the E-Pistle; Stan who drives all over God’s creation picking up day old bread to feed the hungry; and Cassie who not only coordinates Follow the Word but puts up with me as well.  There’s Doris and Pem who drive 30 miles each way to come worship with their church family no matter how ugly the weather might be; John and Ruth who redefine what it means to find joy in the service if others; and Jim who with the faithfulness of a grandfather clock shows up at Foley Elementary to help children learn their abc’s. The list could go on and on, and it includes each one of you who gives of your time, your talent, and your treasure to build the Kingdom of God right here, right now.

The Episcopal Church has a sainthood problem, but it most certainly doesn’t lack for saints, I can guarantee that. “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”[2]  Amen.

[1] Mt 7.12

[2] Lesbia Scott, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God