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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

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All in All

       I grew up in a pretty different kind of Episcopal congregation.  There was no Hymnal 1982 in our pews.  Instead, we sang modern praise and worship music accompanied by a Julliard trained musician on pipe organ.  The theology expressed from the pulpit and in Sunday school was in line with evangelicalism of the 1990s.  When our youth leaders embezzled all the money in the youth ministry budget and the whole thing fell apart, I found myself active in Young Life.  There, in the basements of various friends’ houses, we sang the same kinds of songs as in church on Sunday, but to the accompaniment of a college student named Joe Garfinkel on the acoustic guitar.  While I am glad to have expanded my understanding of the abundant love of God since those days, I do sometimes miss the music of my youth.  One song that still makes its way into my head from time to time is entitled “All in All”.  I would now quibble with the individualistic language of the lyrics, but that issue aside, those words speak a truth that is worth remembering.  “You are my strength when I am weak/ You are the treasure that I seek/ You are my all in all/  Seeking you as a precious jewel/ Lord, to give up I’d be a fool/ You are my all in all/ Taking my sin, my cross, my shame/ Rising again I bless your name/ You are my all in all/ When I fall down you pick me up/ When I am dry you fill my cup/ You are my all in all.”

       “All in all” came to mind this week as I read through the Colossians lesson for this Last Sunday after Pentecost, commonly referred to as Christ the King Sunday.  In nine verses, Paul uses the Greek word for “all” ten times.[1]

  • All the strength
  • Endure everything with patience
  • The first born of all creation
  • In him all things were created
  • All things have been created through him and for him
  • He is before all things
  • In him all things hold together
  • So that, he might have the first place in everything
  • In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
  • Through him God reconciled all things

The vast majority of this lofty vision of the King of kings comes to us from an ancient creedal statement that was probably set to music and sung by the early followers of Jesus.  In it, we hear that they saw Jesus as both the creator of all things and redeemer of all things.  Yet even in this very spiritual image of Jesus, they are also clear that in Christ, all the fullness of God dwelt on earth.  Jesus was, for the earliest Christians, all in all.

       This vision of Jesus as all God and all human is also seen in our Gospel lesson this morning.  If you haven’t been paying close attention to the liturgical calendar, hearing the crucifixion on a random Sunday in November might have been quite jarring.  If we recall that this Sunday is kind of like New Year’s Eve, however, it makes a little more sense.  Next Sunday begins a new liturgical year.  Advent brings Year A, as we begin to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus, and so this Sunday’s lessons both highlight the kingship of Jesus and help us put a bow on the story of his life that we’ve been walking since back in June.  Everything we’ve heard since Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem has led to this.  On the cross, Jesus proclaims both his humanity as he dies and his kingly divinity as he offers forgiveness to those who crucified him and welcomes the repentant thief into paradise with him.

       As we make the transition into Advent and making preparation for the very human birth of the Christ child on Christmas, it behooves us to remember this both/and, all in all, nature of Jesus.  As we look ahead to the anniversary of the December 11th tornadoes, perhaps there is some solace in the reality that Jesus is both the creator of all things and the redeemer of all things.  As the busyness of life ramps up with cooking and cleaning and travel and parties and shopping and cooking and cleaning and end of the year work requirements and cooking and cleaning and everything else, we are blessed this Sunday with a reminder that Jesus is all in all, and, thanks to Paul’s words to the Colossians, we are gifted with a blessing to carry us down the road.  “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

       The same King who welcomed the repentant thief into paradise, welcomes us into right relationship.  The same King who was born in a manger as angels cried out “Glory to God in the highest” leads the choir of angels in songs of thanksgiving every time one who has fallen into sin repents and returns to the Lord.  The same King whom God sent to restore all things will continue to help each of us recover from the pains and heartbreaks that life can bring.  And the same King who forgave those who put him to death, forgives us all our sins – known, unknown, and those done by the systems in which we find ourselves.  Jesus took our sin, our cross, our shame, and on this Christ the King Sunday, we bless Christ’s name as the King of kings, the Lord of lords, our creator, our redeemer, and our all in all.  Amen.


[1] Thanks to Jennifer Wyant for pointing this out.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king-3/commentary-on-colossians-111-20-5

All (Saints) Means All

In 1845, the first year that Christ Episcopal Church could send a report to the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Kentucky, the Reverend C.C. Townsend, missionary to Bowling Green, reflected upon the significant work that the parish had undertaken in its first year of existence. Townsend wrote to the Bishop and Deputies gathered in Louisville that “Regular services have been performed in Bowling Green, and at two important points in the country, and the Holy Communion administered the 4th Sunday of each month. A Sunday School commenced one year ago has increased to 40 scholars and 6 teachers, and an interesting Bible class is instructed in the country. The good friends of the church have furnished us with an adequate supply of books.” He finished his description of the fledgling ministry in Warren County with these words, “An effort on behalf of the servants has been regularly sustained for a year with encouraging results. The Prayer Book enables them also to worship God, and
they are taught the way of salvation from His Holy Word.”
In his recently updated history of Christ Church, David Lee follows these words with an editorial comment that they are “likely a delicate reference to the approximately 4,000 members of the enslaved community in Bowling Green and Warren County.” Like many communities in the agriculturally rich southeast, slavery was a significant part of the economy in antebellum Warren County. By 1860, the Federal Census counted 5,318 enslaved Black people in Warren County, meaning a full 30% of the total population was enslaved. Of those more than five thousand men, women, and children, approximately 183 were enslaved by families belonging to Christ Episcopal Church. Despite strong pro-Union leanings among the membership of Christ Church, with nearly 75% of the congregation leaving town when the Southern army entered, the reality is that like the rest of Bowling Green, Christ Church was made up of a significant number of pro-slavery or anti-Black members. It is not a stretch, more than 160 years later, to say unequivocally that Christ Episcopal Church is the direct beneficiary of the system of chattel slavery and the subjugation of Black people who were made in the image of God yet were not granted their full humanity. They weren’t even given names when listed in the 1860 census.
“Some of them have left behind a name,” writes Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, “so that others might declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly [people], whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten…” I’ve heard these words on All Saints’ Sundays for most of my life, but since learning of these 183 souls it has taken on new meaning for me.
Prior to now, when I thought of those who died as though they never existed, I imagined all the people who don’t have names on plaques or nameplates. Those dedicated but quiet members who made sure the coffee was made, or the pre-k Sunday school class had a teacher. The kind of disciple who makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every Wednesday for our community lunch or puts together fidget blankets for those living with dementia. Healthy congregations, like Christ Church, are full of members who go about the work of loving their neighbors, never seeking a reward other than the good feeling that comes with knowing you’ve shared the love of God with someone you may never even meet.
What I had never considered are all the people who aren’t or can’t be members of a congregation who also contribute to its mission and ministry. I have started to think about the Recyclops driver who helps keep our bulletins from going into the landfill or the team from NewCon that descends upon this building every
Thursday to make sure it is clean and welcoming for all who enter. More and more, I find myself thinking about the employees at the Bistro or Just Love Coffee who serve so many of us brunch on Sunday mornings and the myriad maintenance people who make sure the elevators run properly, the HVAC system functions most of the time, and the hot water is hot, and the cold water is cold. Then I go even deeper, as I think about the Black man who came to the Christmas Eve service in 1954 and, at least according to Vestry minutes, was treated in a way that brought pride to the heart of one Vestry member. And now, almost daily, I think about the 183, most of whom remain nameless to us, whose labor helped secure the future of Christ Episcopal Church even though they could never even consider becoming members.
In all of this, All Saints’ Day has taken on new meaning for me. I have always been clear that the only Biblical benchmark for sainthood is being a disciple of Jesus, but I’m beginning to wonder
if even that is too narrow a definition. What if on this All Saints’ Day we include all those who might want to follow Jesus but have been told they can’t? Or those who live so close to the margins that three jobs leave no time for a community of faith? Or those who died as though they never existed because the dominant culture told them they shouldn’t exist? What if on this All Saints’ Day, All really meant All?
In his Revelation, John of Patmos was given a glimpse of the heavenly banquet. There he saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every tribe and people and language who in their great diversity had in common that their robes were washed clean in the blood of the lamb. On this All Saints’ Day, I invite you to begin to look at the world with the eyes of John of Patmos and the heart of Ben Sira. See in all your neighbors the image of God. Pay attention not just to those famous men who get glory and power, but to those who live on the margins of society, as
though they never existed. Remember all the saints, and maybe especially those 183 whose names are known to God alone, whose lives and labor have brought this congregation to where we are today, a community of saints who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all. Amen.

Grace, free of charge

After last week’s parable, isn’t it nice when one of these is so easy to hear and understand? Finally, Jesus affirms the right person, and condemns those other people. Finally, God is on our side. It feels so nice, doesn’t it? Maybe we should give God thanks for this great Gospel story. “Lord God Almighty, we thank you that we are not like other people, those hypocritical Roman Catholics, overly righteous Baptists, and pesky Mormons. We thank you especially that we are not like that ridiculous Pharisee singing his own praises to you. We attend church regularly, we listen attentively to the lessons as they are read and the sermon as it is preached, we give a portion, maybe not a full 10%, but some portion of our income to your Church, and we have learned that we should always be humble and thank you God that we are so very good at it. Amen.”

That felt good. Bask in it for just a moment. God is on our side. Except. Except, well, I can’t help but feel like I’ve fallen into a trap. That thank you sounded a lot like the Pharisee’s prayer that I found so icky. This is precisely why I hate the parables so much. As soon as I think I’ve got them figured out, I’m sitting in the bottom of a hole wondering how I got there. Maybe we need to take another look at this parable in order to find our way around this parabolic trap.

Two guys went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. This story takes place at the Temple for a reason. Ancient Jewish society was pretty stratified, but there was no place where the lines between those who were “in” and those who were “out” were more visible than at the Temple. The various walls, porticoes, and curtains were meant to show who was allowed where. The holy of holies, where the presence of God resided, was only to be entered into once a year by the High Priest. Outside of the curtain that veiled the holy of holies was the Court of the Priests, a location set apart for the work and sacrifices of the Priests and Levites. Outside of that walled area was the Court of Israel where righteous men could stand and see the Priests as they offered the sacrifice. Then came the Court of Women where all Israelites would be allowed to enter. In this area there was even an area set aside for Lepers. Outside of that was the Court of the Gentiles, where outsiders would be allowed, and merchants usually set up shop to sell the animals needed to make various atonements. Everybody had a place, and everyone knew where they were supposed to be. You were never more aware of your place in society than standing in your assigned location within the Temple Court.

The Pharisee took his normal place in Court of Israel and began his usual prayers. In the same way that many of you enter the nave on Sunday morning and kneel to say your prayers, the Pharisee stood, looked up to heaven, and quietly prayed to himself a prayer that was actually pretty standard in his day, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers” and seeing the Tax Collector off in the distance, he added, “or like that Tax Collector over there. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income.” There is no dishonesty in the prayer of this Pharisee. He is a righteous man, one who strives to live up to the letter of the law. He fasted regularly as a sign of his penitence. He gave generously so that those who were in need could have food and shelter. He did all the right things. As he came to the Temple, he was righteous. As he prayed this prayer, he was righteous. As he went home at the end of the day, he was righteous. To the hearers of Jesus’ parable, the Pharisee had done nothing wrong. He gave thanks to God for the things for which he should be thankful.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, took his usual place “far off.” Tax Collectors were some of the lowest life forms in Israel. Ethnically Jewish, they shook down their own people for the pagan-worshipping Romans and always managed to take enough extra to keep their families fashionably clothed and well fed. He stood at the edge of the Temple, but Tax Collectors were outsiders religiously, politically, and economically. Though a leper could take his rightful place in the Court of Women, the Tax Collector was considered so unclean that he would have to stand outside with the Gentiles. Without even lifting his eyes to heaven, he beats his chest repeatedly and says, presumably out loud, maybe even with a shout, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” To the hearers of Jesus’ parable, a Tax Collector has never spoken truer words. If he was anything, he was a sinner. He was a sinner when he arrived at the Temple. He was a sinner as he prayed this prayer. And he’d go home a sinner.

The way this story is supposed to end is the Pharisee goes home righteous and the Tax Collector goes home unrighteous. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a parable if it ended that way. Jesus once again pulls the rug out from under his audience and says, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went to his home justified rather than the other.” There is no way for me to give this story the shock-value it deserves. There is no way you can hear this the way Jesus’ audience would have but suffice it to say this is probably another one of those “let’s throw him off the cliff” moments in Jesus’ ministry. He had a lot of those. Here he tells the crowd that while the Pharisee went home righteous, the Tax Collector went home justified. He was accounted as righteous by God. He was restored by God to right relationship with God.

It’s just not right. It’s unfair. How can this hated Tax Collector go home justified? He hasn’t done anything. He didn’t offer a sacrifice. He didn’t pay his atonement. He just stated the truth, he is nothing but an unclean sinner, and that’s all he’ll ever be. Except, of course, by the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. And that’s where this story spins on its ear. If this were just a story about the need for humility it would be impossible to live up to because humility is impossible to hold on to. As soon as you have it, and realize you have it, it’s gone. “Hey, I’m being so much humbler than that guy. Oh wait, nope. Never mind.” If humility is just another virtue, another law God is calling us to live up to, it too will lead only to death. But this is a story about grace. The Tax Collector wasn’t being humble, he was being real. He, like you and like me, was a sinner in need of God’s great mercy. And so, he asked for it. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, mercy is freely available to everyone, even Tax Collectors.  The Pharisee didn’t think he needed any mercy, he was doing just fine on his own. The Tax Collector knew he needed the grace that only God could give and so he received it. He went home justified, redeemed, restored. And he woke up the next day and went back to the despicable work of collecting taxes from his own people and collecting his own salary from their threadbare pockets and would return to the temple again and again saying “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

This morning we gather in one of God’s many Temples. We sing praises, offer prayers, and confess our sins. At the table, we remember the sacrifice Jesus made so that God’s grace might be freely offered to all. If you know you need God’s mercy, take it, for it is given to each who has need. If you don’t think you need it, you best take it anyway.  You need it more than you know.  From the Tax Collector we should all learn that the truest prayer any of us can pray is the prayer that God is most eager to answer, “O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen.

A Tough Parable Explained

       Soon after I arrived at seminary, my classmates and professors began using a word that I had never heard before.  Exegesis.  To downplay my confusion, I joked that I always thought that Mary Magdalene was the ex-o-Jesus, but nobody laughed then either.  Eventually, I learned that exegesis is the critical study and interpretation of a text.  I came to appreciate that exegesis is the key to good preaching.  Good exegesis has four parts: study around the passage, within the passage, behind the passage, and before and after the passage.  I don’t do a full-blown seminary caliber study before every sermon, but I do always try to take time to dig into the scriptures and to see where God is at work.

One important component of exegetical study before and after the text is understanding the history of interpretation.  As you might imagine, over the course of two thousand years, these parables, poems, and letters have been read in various ways.  Constantine, the Emperor of Rome hears Jesus telling the rich man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor very differently than a medieval widow who lost her husband and children to the plague who hears it very differently than a middle-class white American working 55 hours a week to keep up with a mortgage, car note, and student loan debt.  There is much to be gleaned from each of these interpretations, especially for a preacher, like me, whose audience is diverse in background, education, and socio-economic status.

Which brings us to today’s parable that my Bible calls, “The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge.”  What a weird story.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells some off-putting parables, but this one has to be in the top 5.  It is such a challenging story that Luke does his best to help us understand it.  In this case, the history of interpretation starts even before the story was written down as the author attempts to help us understand how we should read the story.  The preamble to this parable comes at verse one.  The author writes, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”  Ok, so this is going to be a story about persistent prayer.  We go into the text ready to associate ourselves with a character who is persistent in prayer only to find that the widow isn’t praying to God, but to a judge who seems to be the exact opposite of God.  This judge has no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  He says so himself.  What are we to do with that?

Jesus tries his hand at interpretating the story as well.  After the parable, he says “Will not God grant justice to his chose ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?”  Well, if God is just, then why do we have to cry to God day and night for justice?  And two thousand years later, there is still injustice, cruelty, and hatred on earth.  Waiting two thousand years seems like maybe God has delayed quite a long time in helping the oppressed.  Not to suggest Luke or Jesus are wrong here, but these two interpretations just don’t sit right with me.  It feels like we’re missing something.  Let’s fast forward and see what else we can find.

The original Biblical texts weren’t divided up into chapter and verse, but by at least the eighth century, scribes were dividing the text into chapters, each with their own titles.  Like Luke’s heavy-handed attempt at an explanation, these titles often set the stage for how we are to think about the story that is to follow.  This has advantages and disadvantages, of course, but it does help us understand how interpretations have changed as the titles change.  As I mentioned earlier, in my Bible, this story is called the “Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge,” but before that, it was often called “The Parable of the Importunate Widow.”  Importunate is not a word I knew before this week, but it means to be persistent in a bad way, persistent to the point of annoyance.  Think of the four-year-old who never stops asking “why” or the totally hypothetical chihuahua named Ruby who wishes for attention and lays on top of your keyboard while you are trying to write a sermon.

As the Parable of the Importunate Widow, like with Luke’s preamble, our attention is meant to be focused on the woman.  Her story is a sad one, based on the context clues.  She is at least a four-time outcast.  First, she’s a woman.  Second, she is a widow.  Third, because she must go to court herself, we can assume that she has no male relatives at all.  Fourth, she pesters, and pesters, and pesters, and pesters.  It is this importunate, quadruple outsider that Jesus holds up as the example of faithful persistence.  Most importantly, her request of the judge isn’t frivolous, but it is simply for justice.  Day after day, she returns to the judge and asks, “grant me justice.”  “Grant me justice.”  “Grant me justice.”  Unlike our prayers, this widow’s petition can’t be done in the comfort of her own home over a cup of coffee.  She must work for it.  Each morning, she has to get up and go, knowing full well that the judge will likely be deaf to her cries.  And yet, she persists.  That’s why she’s the model of faith for Jesus.  She’s importunate, annoyingly persistent, in her pursuit of justice.  At the very end of the passage, Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  In this line of interpretation, I think Jesus is asking, when he returns, will he find disciples whose faith compels them to passionately pursue justice?

As I said, importunate isn’t a word we hear much these days.  Most modern Bibles title this “The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge,” which tends to focus our attention on the judge rather than the widow.  This judge admits that he doesn’t have respect for people, and he doesn’t care for God.  The interpretive lens the title gives us suggests that this means the judge is unjust, but at least two scholars I consulted this week argue that it means he is the totally nonbiased.  Either way, his judgements come not from any partiality to his fellow human beings or to the will of God, but instead wholly from within himself.

We don’t know why the judge repeatedly refused to hear the cries of the widow, but out of his own mouth we learn why he finally relents, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  Here’s another place where the history of interpretation matters.  Translators make interpretive decisions all the time.  The NRSV and most modern translations say something like “wear me out,” but the Greek word actually means “to bruise, to beat up, or to give a black eye.”  Whether the judge was afraid of a black eye literally or figuratively is an open question, but the reality is that he ultimately granted her justice to shut her up, such was the veracity of her persistence.  Jumping back to that final verse, when Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” we might hear him saying, “when I return, will I find folks have been fighting day after day to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven?”

No matter who we focus on or how we interpret this story, the question that Jesus poses at very end seems to be an important one.  This is a parable about the fullness of time, and how we, as disciples, are called to live in the meantime.  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  Will Jesus find importunate people pursuing justice?  Will Jesus find disciples fighting for what’s right?  When Jesus returns, will he find us persistent in work and prayer for the building up of the Kingdom of Heaven?  Amen.

Giving away that which is passing away

       Since 1999, the late Hugo Chavez and his disciples in the Fifth Republic Movement have been in power in Venezuela.  Their policies of cultural and political hegemony have exacerbated an already delicate situation in the South American country such that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than six million Venezuelans have left their home country because of a lack of reliable food, water, and electricity and the constant threat of violence.  The Venezuelan refugee crisis is the third-largest external displacement crisis in the world, behind the worn-torn countries of Syria and Ukraine.  Refugees from Venezuela are often left with only the clothes on their backs as they escape violence, oppression, and degradation.  The vast majority of them have settled in Latin and North America.  More than 50% have landed in Peru, and close to a quarter are here in the United States trying to navigate the convoluted and expensive asylum process.[1]

       Adding insult to injury, earlier this week, 48 Venezuelan asylum seekers – men, women, and a dozen elementary aged children – were put on airplanes with no indication as to where they were going.  Vulnerable, confused, and afraid, they were transported from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a mostly rural, island community about three hours south of Boston.  Stuck in the middle of an ongoing fight between Republicans and Democrats, these 48 human beings were nothing more than pawns for politicians as they argue the merits of their own version of immigration reform.  Faced with 48 new residents who arrived unannounced and without much more than a backpack’s worth of belongings, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard had a choice to make on Wednesday afternoon.  They could throw up their hands and say, “not our problem.”  They could call on immigration officers to come handle it.  Or, as they did, they could welcome the stranger in their midst, loving their Venezuelan neighbors as themselves.

       According to the Martha’s Vineyard Times[2], at about 5 pm, less than two hours after the flights had landed, the Dukes County Sherriff addressed the asylum seekers.  “We’re going to take care of you,” he said through a translator, “Get all your personal belongings together and then we’ll move… The most important thing is we get you food and shelter and water.”  Their first stop was the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School where they were given food, water, and temporary shelter.  Ninety minutes later, school buses rolled out from the high school to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown where they spent two nights.[3]  Edgartown Pizza provided dinner.  Mocha Motts brought coffee.  Local lawyers supplied legal aid, while dentists and doctors offered medical care.  When faced with a people being used as “unrighteous mammon” for political gain, the people of Edgartown and Martha’s Vineyard showed compassion, grace, and love, and they proved themselves faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The 150 members of St. Andrew’s were, one might argue, faithful with the little they have while ministering to human beings that others considered to be unrighteous.

       Our Gospel lesson for this morning is probably the most difficult parable Jesus ever told.  In most parables, we can easily figure out the allegorical relationships.  In the parable of the lost sheep, we realize pretty quickly that God is the shepherd and human beings are the sheep, but here, it’s not quite so simple.  God being a greedy master who violated the Torah and charged exorbitant interest on his loans doesn’t quite work.  Jesus as the unrighteous servant who cheated his boss to save his own tail isn’t quite right either.  It’s not real obvious what exactly Jesus wants us to glean from this parable as it is read in isolation this morning.  When we find its place in the larger story, however, things begin to come into focus.  The parable of the shrewd manager comes on the heels of three parables about lost things.  We heard two of them last Sunday.  The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  The lectionary skipped over the parable of the prodigal or lost son, and now here we are with this strange story about debt relief.

       I can’t help but wonder if Jesus ended up telling this story because of the bad pun about the Pharisees that Mother Becca told us she grew up learning – “that’s not fair, you see.”  I wonder if the reaction to the three lost stories was the same as the reaction of the elder son to his prodigal brother’s return and his dad throwing a party in response, “it’s just not fair!”  “All this rejoicing at those who were lost, who because of their own bad choices failed and became lost, it just isn’t fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about Narcan saving the lives of those who have overdosed on fentanyl, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who are having a portion of their student loan interest forgiven, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who left everything they knew to escape poverty and violence in Venezuela and ended up in Texas searching for a better life, “it’s not fair.”  Jesus is clear in this crazy parable, life in the Kingdom of God isn’t fair.  Life in the Kingdom of God is a life in which God has written off the debt of sin that all of us carry.  None of us deserve the grace that has been given to us in Christ Jesus, and that is precisely the point.

       Our response to the illogical and unfair grace of God is what Jesus seems to be getting at in this parable.  We can choose to think that none of this is fair, to hoard grace for ourselves, and to ignore the needs of those around us, but that won’t take us very far in the ridiculous economy of God.  It might make us feel better in this highly individualized, 21st century America, but it won’t carry much weight in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Our other choice, the one I think Jesus would have us choose considering this parable, is to realize that none of this is fair and to give away as much grace and mercy as we possibly can – to take every last thing entrusted to our care and to share it with our neighbors, strangers and friends alike.

       It isn’t hard for me to imagine how Christ Church might respond to a situation like the one St. Andrew’s Edgartown found itself in on Wednesday night.  Whether it is Room in the Inn, Churches United HELP Ministry, Wednesday Community Lunch, or hosting Narcotics Anonymous meetings, there’s a lot of stuff we do around here about which some would say “it’s not fair,” but using the resources we have for the betterment of our neighbors is exactly what this congregation has shown itself to be about.  We are, and will continue to be, faithful with what we have been given so that we might be entrusted by God to be faithful with even more.  That we have so much isn’t fair. It is only right that how we use this massive physical plant and our abundant and historical finances should be wildly unfair to the glory of God.  Giving away those things that will pass away is the only way to cling tightly to that which shall endure, eternal life in the Kingdom of God.  Amen.


[1] https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/vensit

[2] https://www.mvtimes.com/2022/09/14/migrant-workers-land-vineyard-via-texas/

[3] https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2022/09/16/episcopal-church-on-marthas-vineyard-takes-in-migrants-flown-in-by-surprise/

True Religion

Every year, at about this time, I feel compelled to preach the same sermon I’ve been preaching for fifteen years.  This prayer we pray on Proper 17 always manages to get stuck in my craw.  It is unlike anything else in our Book of Common Prayer.  Specifically, it is the petition that God of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things might increase in us “true religion.”  Every year, I wonder to myself, what exactly does that mean?  What are we praying for?

The word, religion, appears only eight times in the Prayer Book.  Two of those times are in the Rite I and Rite II versions of our Collect for today.  How is it that a word that gets so little airtime in our one-thousand-page statement of faith, can be a central request in a prayer we pray on an annual basis?  What does it mean to ask God for an increase of “true religion”?

       These questions are increasingly important, I believe, in a world that is becoming more and more secular.  According to Pew Research Center’s 2021 National Public Opinion Reference Survey on Religion, for the first time since their survey work began, more Americans said that religion had somewhat, little, or no importance in their lives than those who said religion was very important.[1]  Increasingly, religion, specifically Christian religion, carries all kinds of negative connotations.  In March, The Episcopal Church published a study that showed while most Christians see themselves as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful, a majority of non-religious Americans see us as hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous.  A plurality of those in other religious traditions felt the same.[2]

       It isn’t a stretch to suggest that Christians, no matter their denomination, are failing to shine a positive light on our religion.  In 1549, when Thomas Cranmer was editing this Collect for inclusion in the first Book of Common Prayer, he had similar feelings about the religion of Roman Catholicism.  Rather than translating the original prayer, “increase in us religion,” he added in the word “true” to differentiate what he thought he and the other Reformers were creating from all that had come before.  True religion, as opposed to the impure religion of Rome, was what Cranmer hoped for the Church he would leave behind, but nearly 500 years later, it would seem we still have a long way to go.

       As we seek after true religion, the first question we have to ask is what exactly is religion?  In the year 750, when this Collect was first written, religion connoted “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; …”[3]  The lived experience of love.  Devotion.  Trust.  A way of life.  These are terms that defined religion, or what Thomas Cranmer might call “true religion” in its earliest form.  Nearly thirteen hundred years after this prayer was first written, religion has come to mean something entirely and, I believe, quite unhelpfully different.

       The first definition when you Google religion is “the belief in a worship of a superhuman controlling power,” which bears little resemblance to “lived experience of love, devotion, and trust.”  The late Wilfred Cantwell Smith, comparative religion scholar at McGill and Harvard universities, argued that religion underwent a significant change of meaning following the Reformation.  Christian writers began using the word “religion” more frequently during the seventeenth century to signify a system of ideas or beliefs about God.  Throughout the following centuries, Smith says, “in pamphlet after pamphlet, treatise after treatise, decade after decade, the notion was driven home that religion is something that one believes or does not believe, something whose propositions are true or are not true… In modern times, religion became indistinguishable from ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorizes, organizes, objectifies, and divides people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, ‘us’ versus ‘them.’” [4]

Unfortunately, the modern understanding of religion is nowhere close to the meaning of religion that the original authors of this prayer had in mind.  If we are going to take our Collect for this week seriously, then how do we begin to reclaim some of that olde time true religion?  Conveniently, our lectionary helps us with the passage from Hebrews.  As the author of Hebrews brought this sermon series to an end, their goal was to leave the congregation with some practical and pastoral advice for living out this life of faith – that is how to be religious – and it all depends on love.  “Let mutual love continue,” the preacher writes, exhorting the congregation to care for one another as if they were members of the same family: showing philadelphia, love like a sibling, to each other by sharing resources, cooperating with each other, and showing compassion and ongoing commitment to our siblings in Christ Jesus.  True religion doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, however, nor does our call to love only include those with whom we share a community of faith. The preacher goes on to admonish the congregation, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”  That word, translated as hospitality is philonexia or “love of stranger,” and it was a foundational tenant in the religion that developed following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The preacher goes on to describe true religion as that which cares for those in prison and those who are being tortured for their faith.  True religion means maintaining a faithful commitment to one’s spouse if they have one.  True religion means not letting the love of money replace the love of God, love of neighbor, love of sibling, or love of stranger that is our true calling in Christ.  The sermon wraps with these words, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

This morning, our annual ministry fair is happening out in Surface Hall.  Through those doors, you’ll have the chance to hear about much of the good that is being done in the name of Jesus inside and outside of these walls.  Christ Church does a pretty good job of living into the true religion of Hebrews 13, but the hard truth is that none of the programs we do will matter to God if we do not have love underneath it all.  What is most important, at least as far as the preacher of Hebrews and the preacher of this sermon are concerned, is that the motivation for everything we do is love.  The Diocese of Ohio has taken on a slogan that I think sums this true religion thing up quite well.  “Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Change the world.”  Increase in us true religion, O God, and teach us to love you, love our neighbors, love the stranger, and change the world.  Amen.


[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/pf_12-14-21_npors_0_4/

[2] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/jesus-in-america/

[3] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

[4] Ibid.

Jesus came to bring fire

       Just after midnight on Sunday, September 2, 1666, a fire broke out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane, near the Thames in London’s Old City.  As was the model in early Modern Europe, neighbors worked to put out the fire while they waited for parish constables to coordinate the firefighting effort.  After about an hour, constables arrived and determined that neighboring houses needed to be demolished to provide a fire break as the Old City was infamous for overcrowded, timber-built tenement houses that crept closer and closer to one another, making a rapidly spreading fire a constant and realistic fear.  As you might imagine, the people who lived in the houses ordered to be demolished weren’t too keen on the idea.  As they protested, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor of London was summoned to settle the dispute.  An inept and inexperienced politician, Bloodworth couldn’t make the necessary decisions, and fueled by wind, wood, and the occasional gunpowder stockpile, the fire spread, and spread, and spread.  By the time it was finally controlled on the morning of Wednesday, September 5th, the fire had destroyed some thirteen thousand homes, 86 parish churches, dozens of civic buildings, and the great St. Paul’s Cathedral.

       Fire is an interesting thing.  One could argue that humanity’s ability to control fire is the greatest achievement of all time.  By controlling fire, we developed the ability to cook food.  This led to great advancements in life expectancy as food borne illnesses no longer threatened human beings in the same way it had for all of human history.  By controlling fire, we were able to make light at night, forever changing how the world worked.  By controlling fire, we were able to smelt ore and create stronger tools.  By controlling fire, the internal combustion engine was created, making travel around the world possible.  Of course, uncontrolled fire is still one of the most dangerous things on the planet.  In 2019, there were approximately 1.3 million fires in the US, killing more than thirty-seven hundred people, injuring another sixteen thousand, and causing nearly fifteen billion dollars in damage.  Even controlled fire has its dangers.  Controlled fire used to light tobacco kills roughly seven million people around the globe every year.  The controlled use of uncontrolled fire by way of guns, bombs, and other weapons accounts for an unimaginably staggering level of loss as well.

When we think of fire, we tend to think of its destructive power first and foremost, which sets this morning’s Gospel lesson off on the wrong foot.  Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  What are we supposed to do with that, Jesus?  Don’t get me wrong, the rest of this passage isn’t particularly easy to deal with, but with all the negative attributes of fire, thinking of Jesus as one who came to bring destruction is a real challenge.  With Mother Becca’s sermon image of the Leon Cathedral in mind, I couldn’t help but read this Gospel passage and immediately think of the destruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Great London Fire of 1666, even as it also brought to mind the apartment fire a friend of ours had nearly 20 years ago that caused her great anxiety and grief for years after.

Despite our fixation on fire’s destructive qualities, the reality is that, just like in life, fire in the Bible carries with it both good and bad connotations.  The prophet Micah compares God’s grace to a refiner’s fire, used to burn off impurities and bring forth a more perfect finished product.  In Genesis, God gets Moses’ attention by appearing to him as a bush that is burning but not consumed.  All throughout the Old Testament, fire is used to offer sacrifices to God.  There are a lot of good uses of fire in Scripture.  It is also true that fire and brimstone rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah for their abominable lack of hospitality to the stranger.  In his letter, James compares the evil power of the tongue to a fire set by hell itself.  It would seem that in the bible, fire isn’t seen as inherently good or bad, but rather it depends on how it is used.  So, when Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth” it could mean that he has come to bring judgment and destruction, or perhaps it means that he has come to bring purification and renewal.

How we see the fire Jesus came to bring is all a matter of perspective.  When we hold on too tightly to our own self-interests, our own wealth, and our own security, the fire that Jesus brings will seem destructive as it separates us from the idols that have replaced God in our lives.  These things are hard to give up, and the loss of them, while in the long run good for us, is a very painful process.  On the other hand, when we are seeking after the Kingdom of Heaven, actively searching for ways to develop a close relationship with God, the fire that Jesus brings can be seen as a gift, as it clears away that which holds us back, and helps us grow more fully into who God created us to be.  This is the good news in an otherwise difficult passage.  Jesus came to bring fire that will renew, refine, and restore us to right relationship with God and with each other, if we are able to let go of all that needs to be burned away in the process.

In the aftermath of the Great London Fire, Sir Christopher Wren showed himself to be one of the greatest architects in English history.  Wren, who had been working to renovate St. Paul’s Cathedral at the time of the Great Fire, was responsible for rebuilding 52 of the 86 churches destroyed in the fire, as well as the redesign St. Paul’s.  The old, 11th century Gothic building now destroyed, Wren designed a brand-new, Baroque style cathedral that to this day, holds one of the tallest and most magnificent dome structures in the world.  The great edifice, built of Portland Limestone, was consecrated only 31 years and 3 months after the Great Fire, an enormous undertaking for the time.  Legend has it that early in the construction process, Wren was wandering around the site on Ludgate Hill talking to the craftsman on site.  He found three stone masons working on a scaffold, and called up to the first and asked, “What are you doing?”  The first mason responded, “I’m a stone mason. I’m working hard laying stone to feed my family.”  To the second, Wren asked, “And you, what are you doing?”  “I’m a builder, I’m building a wall,” he replied.  Finally, Wren asked the third mason, “What about you, what are you doing?”  “Me?” the man answered, “I’m blessed to be doing the great work of building a magnificent cathedral to Almighty God.”

       What are you building?  Is your life’s work a series of blocks, stacked upon each other, in the name of your own self-interests?  The fire that Jesus came to bring will burn all that self-centered stuff away.  There will be no joy in it.  There will be nothing left to look upon with pride.  If, however, you are working to build a magnificent cathedral to Almighty God, then the fire will be used in productive ways, helping to build the Kingdom in and through you.  Jesus came to bring fire.  Whether it is controlled and beneficial or uncontrolled and destructive, well, that all depends on us.  Amen.

Martha/Mary Both/And

       Every occupation has its own set of terminology.  For some, like the military, it is a whole host of acronyms.  ACC isn’t a college athletics conference with a bad tv contract, but Air Combat Command.  For others, it is a series of abbreviations.  In the printing industry, a sig isn’t short for something you smoke on a 15 minute break, but rather a signature, the basic unit of binding.  Still others have to understand measurements that the average person doesn’t.  I may have spent two years working for a heavy construction company, but I still have no idea how much a yard of dirt is.  Even in ministry, we have lots of terms that are rarely used elsewhere.  Two of my favorites are Greek words that we have incorporated into English.  One is a hapax legomenon, which is a word that appears only once in the original language of the Bible.  The other, adiaphora, means “things indifferent” and is used to describe the parts of theology that we can disagree on without impacting the core of Christianity.  That Jesus is the Son of God is vital.  Whether or not we have candles on the altar is adiaphora.

Part of going to seminary was learning a wide variety of these words and phrases.  Most of ministry thereafter is breaking the habit of using them.  For those of us who went to Episcopal seminaries, there are several words and phrases that, while very popular in the classroom, we thankfully rarely use in real life ministry.  “Let me push back on that,” was a popular retort that if used in a clergy meeting today, would likely get you an audible eyeroll from the group.  The worst offender must be “It’s not really an either/or, it’s more of a both/and.”  I could feel my blood pressure rise when I heard someone say that in class.  To this day, it makes my shoulders hurt just to think about it.

And yet, here this morning, I’m going to suggest that the key to understanding the story of Martha and Mary is to embrace the both/and.  So often, this well-known story gets boiled down to a competition between two sisters with Mary as the winner.  I mean, Jesus said “Mary has chosen the better part,” clearly, she wins, but what if it wasn’t a competition.  What if we stopped pitting women against each other to keep them from standing up against the injustices of sexism in the church and admitted that neither Mary nor Martha actually did anything wrong in this story.  Or, maybe, they were both actually wrong, and that is precisely the point.  Jesus didn’t come to condemn either Mary or Martha, but to save both Martha and Mary, and you and me.

Our Gospel lesson this morning begins with Jesus and his disciples arriving in a village where they were welcomed by a woman named Martha.  Context clues tell us that this Martha and her sister, Mary, are the siblings of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead in John’s Gospel.  In this story, however, there is no mention of Lazarus.  Curiously enough, there is no mention of any man by name.  The home Jesus and his disciples enter doesn’t belong to Lazarus or to Martha’s husband, but to Martha.  This would have been highly uncommon in the first century.  It assumes that Martha is a widow and a woman of means.  As was her cultural obligation, Martha sets to work offering hospitality to her guests.  She would have drawn water so that they could wash their feet.  Next, she’d bring wine to drink while the bread began to bake.  In the kitchen, maybe she was whipping up some hummus or pitting olives as she tried to hear the lesson Jesus was sharing in the living room where her sister, Mary, was just sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Martha’s frustration grew and grew, until Luke tells us she became completely distracted by her anger at her sister.  What started out with good intentions of welcoming guests had become a burden that hampered relationship.

Mary, for her part, was violating all kinds of social norms.  Women, not just the woman of the house, would have been expected to help prepare the food and serve the men.  Only once all the work of hospitality was complete would they join the men.  Mary didn’t do any of that.  Instead, Luke tells us she sat at the feet of Jesus.  To use a phrase my mother taught me, Mary had her head so far up in the clouds, she was no earthly good.  It’s no wonder that Martha got frustrated.  Things were supposed to work a certain way, and Mary wasn’t living up to her part of the deal.  So, Martha went to Jesus and protested both her sister and her teacher.  “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”  Jesus could see beyond the surface and knew that what Martha was feeling wasn’t simply distraction, but in fact, a storm was raging inside her soul.  “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said in what I imagine to be a soothing and compassionate tone, “you are worried and stirred up by many things.”  Jesus could see that Martha’s work of hospitality had become an obligation and a burden.  He knew what she really needed was for task not to simply be work, but a ministry in response to the love of God.  She needed to rest and recharge at the feet of Jesus.  In saying that Mary had chosen “the better part,” Jesus isn’t prioritizing study over work.  Instead, Jesus is inviting Martha into a both/and way of thinking.

We are all called to welcome guests and serve the coffee, just as we are all called to rest in God’s love and learn from Word of God.  Nearly five years ago, the Vestry of Christ Church spent a weekend at All Saint’s Camp discerning our mission.  The culmination of that weekend was the mission statement that you hear at least every Sunday, and probably see more often than that.  It’s time for another round of discernment, but I still think there is a lot for us to glean from these carefully chosen words.  Christ Episcopal Church is a community of Christ’s servants who seek to: worship God with joy and wonder; learn and grow together; and radiate God’s love to all.  Our mission is, at the very least, a both/and statement.  We take seriously the work of Mary as we find ways to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn how we are to live out this life of faith, and then, as a natural outlet of that learning, we follow the example of Martha and radiate God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.  Learn and serve.  These are not competitors in some zero-sum game of faith.  They are dance partners in this journey that help nurture and sustain us for the work to which we are called.  Learn and serve.  Mary and Martha.  Both/And.  Amen.

It’s not the Kingdom of God, It’s the How

       I inherited the job of Chair of the Diocese of Kentucky’s General Convention deputation when Dean Matt had to step away due to the birth of his second child.  Until this role, I’d never met a gathering I didn’t want to be the chair of, but I’m here to tell you, I’d gladly give this one away.  Tracking down flight details, managing hotel reservations and per diem checks, and coordinating Zoom meetings across time zones is like herding cats.  By far, the most challenging part has been planning our deputation dinner.  As a natural introvert, I’m way better at planning dinner for one, than dinner for ten.  I’m making it happen though.

I grew up with a sister who has been a vegetarian since she was ten, and gluten allergies are all over my family, so one question I know to always ask is whether anyone has any dietary needs.  In our deputation, we’ve got a vegan, a vegetarian, a non-dairy non-egg non-fried food person, and one individual who prefers “non-mammalian meat.”  I was recounting this juggling act with a friend of mine who is a nationally renowned speaker on the intersection of food and faith.  We talked about how, in addition to the unique set of intestinal cards each of us is dealt in life, we all have to make our own ethical decisions on what kinds of foods we will eat.  Some avoid red meat because of concerns of water usage.  Some won’t eat eggs because of the conditions in which the chickens live.  Some will only eat locally sourced meats because they know the farmers and how the animals are treated.  “It’s not the cow,” she said to me, “it’s the how.”  Which is one of the most amazing sentences I’ve ever heard.

“It’s not the cow, it’s the how” works so well because of its meter and rhyme, but there are other iterations of it that, while they aren’t nearly as catchy, certainly could have merit.  I’d like to suggest one that is pertinent to our Gospel lesson this morning, “It’s not the Kingdom of God, It’s the how.” If I insert some Greek that I mispronounce, I can even make it rhyme.  “It’s not the basselia tou theou, it’s the how.”  While not nearly as fluid, it works as Jesus commissions the 70 to proclaim, “The Kingdom of God has come near.”  Last Sunday, we began a summer-long walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem.  As Luke nine came to an end, the author tells us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  For the next 18 Sundays, we will hear stories from portions of that journey.  This morning, we hear of the prep work that went into the trip.  Jesus sent 70 of his closest disciples ahead of him to determine which cities and towns might be receptive to his message.

To test a community’s receptivity, Jesus gives the disciples a simple trick, “First say, ‘Peace to this house!’  If anyone shares in peace, it will rest on them, but if not, it will return to you.”  In the places where peace is shared, Jesus tells them to stay, eat, drink heal the sick, and proclaim “The Kingdom of God has come near.”  If peace is not shared, and the disciples are not welcomed in a place, Jesus tells them to go out into the street and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you.”  It is worth pausing here for a moment because most of us probably don’t think of this as the “wipe the dust off your feet” passage, but rather the “shake the dust off your feet” one.

I dug into the Greek a bit this week, and the word translated here as “wipe off in protest” is long and I can’t pronounce it, but its meaning is somehow even more in your face: to smear, scrape away, or wipe off.  Think of it less like dust and more like wet red clay or fresh cow manure that clings to the bottom of your shoe.  To wipe this away requires something more than a simple swipe of the foot on the ground.  To get this all off your feet you’ll need to use considerable effort as scrub it in the grass, along a boot scraper, and maybe even get some help from a nearby hose.  It is an aggressive act.  One meant to make sure everybody knows that the disciples are rejecting every part of their community’s lack of welcome.  And yet, once they have scraped the ick off the bottom of their sandals, Jesus says, “tell them too, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near.’”  It is interesting to me that the same message is given to those who wish to receive it and those who don’t.  The arrival of the Kingdom of God is not dependent on whether it is received into the community, but it’s impact most certainly is.  It’s not the Kingdom of God, it’s the how.

It seems to me that it is human nature to be reticent to welcome in the Kingdom of God.  The presence of God’s kingdom is like one of those old school makeup mirrors some folks have in their bathrooms.  It both shines a bright light upon and magnifies all our imperfections, such that we would much prefer to cover them up than face their reality.  The Kingdom of God shines its light on our sinfulness, and sin doesn’t go down without a fight.  It is no wonder, then, that so many communities along the way from Galilee to Jerusalem were hesitant to share in the peace of God.  It is no wonder that so many communities of faith in our world today feel the same way.  We like benefits that come with following Jesus, but not the costs.  We like the grace, not the conviction.

It is going to be a long summer as we journey with Jesus to the Jerusalem.  We’ll hear all sorts of stories of him being welcomed and him being rejected.  We’ll be invited to consider for ourselves where we are willing to invite Christ to change us, and where we’d rather he not step into the muck of our lives, lest he have to scrape it off his sandal.  Sure, we all like to think we’d welcome the Kingdom of God in theory, but it’s not the Kingdom of God, it’s the how, and how requires a willingness for us to be challenged and changed.  Challenged to be open to God’s call to leave our sins behind.  Changed into people who are more compassionate, more loving, and more grace filled.  These changes don’t happen overnight.  They are minute by minute, incremental changes that we prayed for in our collect for today, that by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we might be more and more devoted to God’s will with our whole heart, so that we might be more and more united to one another in pure affection.  If it’s not the Kingdom of God, it’s the how, then, dear friends, how is the Kingdom of God at work in your life today?  Amen.

Baptized and Set Free

       This week, on the calendar of saints in The Episcopal Church, we remembered St. Alban.  Alban is the first British Christian that we know by name.  While we do not know when Alban was born or even when we died, we know the story of how he died quite well.  It is believed that Alban was a Roman soldier stationed about 20 miles northeast of London.  A persecution of Christians broke out across the Roman Empire sometime during the early to mid-third century, making its way from the Continent to the British Islands.  One day, a Christian priest found himself at the door of a Roman Solider named Alban, desperate for safe lodging.  No one knows why Alban welcomed the priest into his house, but this priest made an impact on Alban.  After several days of watching the priest pray and give thanks, Alban was moved by his faith and became a Christian.

       Eventually, word that the priest was holed up at Alban’s home made its way to the prince in the area and a detachment of soldiers was sent to arrest him.  Quickly, Alban hid the priest, took the priest’s clothing, and presented himself instead.  Alban was taken before a judge who was standing at an altar making sacrifices to pagan gods.  The judge turned around and asked Alban, “What is your family and race?”  Alban replied, “How does my family concern you?  If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.”  “I demand to know your name,” insisted the judge, “Tell me at once.”  “My parents named me Alban,” he answered, “and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”

       The judge was enraged by Alban’s confident faith and, having figured out that he wasn’t the priest they had been looking for, sentenced him to the full torture and execution that the priest would have received.  He was scourged and, when he still wouldn’t renounce his faith, sent to be beheaded.  According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Alban was led to his death by several executioners.  They came to the river Ver, which was too fast flowing to cross on foot, and the bridge was clogged up and made impassable by a mob of townspeople.  Alban, wishing to “do his Christian duty” and be martyred, raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up, so that they could cross over on dry land.  The first executioner was so astonished by this miracle, that he threw down his sword and asked to be executed instead of or alongside Alban.  While the other executioners figured out what to do next, Alban went 500 paces up a gentle hill, covered in thousands of beautiful wildflowers, and awaited his fate.  He became thirsty and asked God to provide him a drink, which caused a spring to erupt from beneath his feet, and after he drank, he was beheaded alongside his first executioner.  In less than a week, Alban went from a pledged persecutor of the Christian faith to the first Christian martyr in Britain.  It is clear from Bede’s recounting of Alban’s story that he had fully been set free in Christ, and feared nothing, not even death, for the cause of Jesus Christ.

       I tell you this story, not because I think any one of us are going to be called to martyrdom anytime soon, but because I think it is the epitome of what Saint Paul was writing about in our lesson from Galatians this morning.  We who follow Jesus have been set free, not so that we could fall back into bondage to fear and sin and death, but so that we might use that freedom in Christ as an empowering force to work for the betterment of our world in the pursuit of loving our neighbor as ourselves.  This morning, we will welcome into that freedom little Zara Veletanlic through her baptism into Christ’s Body, the Church.  In so doing, on behalf of this congregation and the Church universal, I will pray that she experiences the fullness of her freedom in Jesus with an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage of Saint Alban to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

       It is important for us not just to pray this prayer on behalf of Zara, but to remember that this is a prayer for all baptized Christians.  While in sermons on baptismal Sundays, I often focus on the Baptismal Covenant as our calling to ministry, with this lesson from Galatians in our lectionary for today, with Alban on my mind, and with the growing sense of fear in our nation around gun violence, inequitable access to healthcare, and the threat of the loss of basic civil rights for some of our most vulnerable citizens, I’m convinced that this prayer for the courage of Alban is more important than ever.  In baptism, we have been set free in Christ Jesus to love our neighbors unconditionally, just as Christ loves us.  This means following the example of Blessed Alban in caring for the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, no matter the cost.  It means speaking out on behalf of those who are forced back into the yoke of slavery to fear because of who they have been made to be in the image of God.  It means, as Mother Becca reminds us in the blessing she so often uses, that we make no peace with oppression – in our community, our state, our nation, or in the wider world.

       How do you do that in a world so defined by fear and self-preservation?  Jump with me, if you will, to the end of the Galatians lesson for this morning.  After Zara is baptized with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I will anoint her with oil, and declare, on behalf of God, that she is sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  In so doing, we believe that Zara receives the Holy Spirit who will lead her as an advocate and guide for the rest of her days.  That same Holy Spirit, Paul tells us, is exemplified in the life every disciple by producing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Simply put, when we are living into the post-baptismal prayer, living into the freedom that comes from Christ, the fruit of the Spirit are present in our lives.  When those fruit are not, it is most likely that we have fallen back into the yoke of slavery to sin, fear, or corruption.  What fear has you in bondage, holding you back from loving your neighbor as yourself?  What is keeping you from embracing the courage of Saint Alban to follow Jesus no matter the cost?  In baptism, we have all been set free in Christ.  Be careful, dear friends, not to fall back into slavery to fear, but be led by the Spirit into hope, joy, and love.  Amen.