God’s Steadfast Faith

Most of you are probably not aware of it, but during the interminable Season After Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary, from which our Sunday readings are prescribed, actually gives us some options.  There are two distinct tracks for the lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures during the long, green season.  Track One offers a semi-continuous reading that follows major stories in the Old Testament week to week.  In Year A, it begins in Genesis, in Year B we would hear the stories of the Kings, and in Year C, our current Year, the lessons come from the Prophets.  Track Two follows the old Roman Catholic tradition of tying the Old Testament to the Gospel lesson thematically.[1]  The RCL’s intention is that a congregation will pick a Track and stick with it throughout the season.  Here at Christ Church, we’ve used Track Two for as long as I’ve been here because, quite honestly, sometimes the Track One stories are so challenging and so disconnected that I fear having them read out loud and then not preached about could do more harm than good.

Now, when Track Two says that the Old Testament lessons are related to the Gospel thematically, that tends to be more or less true.  However, I’m not sure it has even been quite so obvious or heavy handed as all four lessons are for today: from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalm, Epistle, and straight through to the Gospel.  Even the Collect of the Day gets in on the action, making sure that we are well aware that faithful perseverance in the face of humanity’s ongoing ability to fall into sin is our theme for today.

In the lesson from Genesis, we find ourselves dropped down into the story of Jacob who had been on the run for quite some time.  After stealing his older brother’s birthright, Jacob was forced to flee from his homeland and his brother, Esau, who planned to kill him.  Having settled with his uncle Laban for several years, it was Jacob who got tricked into taking both Leah and Rachel as his wives.  When it became clear that God’s favor was upon the outsider, Jacob, Laban and his sons turned on him, and he once again had to run away, this time with his wives, children, and an abundance of livestock in tow.  After years of deceitfulness and running away from trouble, one night, Jacob found himself alone by the River Jabbok where he spent all night wrestling with God and with himself.  Jacob fought with human nature, with his own sinfulness, and with his greed until, when morning came, God blessed him and changed his name from Jacob, which meant “trickster” to Israel, which means “struggles with God.”  Immediately, the newly renamed Israel was reunited with is older brother Esau, and the restoration of their relationship began to take place.  By God’s grace, Jacob persevered in faith, and healing followed.

Psalm 121 is a traveler’s psalm.[2]  Known as “The Song of the Ascents,” it is the prayer of someone on a long and dangerous journey and in need of God’s care.  Anyone who has ever travelled toward the Gulf Coast on I-65 over Fall Break knows what it means to need God’s help to persevere on a long journey.  In this ancient song, the Psalmist is sure that help and protection will come from God whose faithfulness is perfect.  “The Lord neither slumbers nor sleeps.”  “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil.”  “The Lord shall watch over you… from this time forth for evermore.”

Next, our lesson from the Second Letter to Timothy includes some of the final words of encouragement sent from an older, wiser, mentor to Timothy, a young, still somewhat green, up and coming disciple.  These words are meant to help the next generation of Christian leaders navigate the challenging complexities of this world.  Persecution by the Romans and the Jews was still quite common.  Even among those who were following the Way of Jesus, there was still very little consensus about what that looked like, or about who was in, and who was out.  Timothy was inheriting a faith that was very much in turmoil and his mentor knew that God’s grace and a healthy dose of faithful perseverance would be needed for the faith to endure.

Finally, we have a really strange parable in our lesson from Luke’s Gospel that the author tells us is meant to encourage us to pray and not lose heart.  This makes sense, of course, given that the audience to whom Luke’s Gospel was written would have expected Jesus to have returned already.  Nearly a generation removed from the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, followers of the Way were getting pretty antsy, wondering if they had hitched their wagon to the wrong savior.  They had seen people for whom they had been praying that they would live to see the return of Jesus die for their faith.  They had been faithful in prayer, in worship, in addressing the needs of the poor in their community, and were no doubt beginning to wonder why they were still waiting.  Luke uses this parable from Jesus to encourage them to keep the faith, to persevere, and to trust that God who is just and compassionate and full of mercy, wasn’t just being a capricious, unjust judge, but that God’s faithfulness would endure and so should theirs.

I find this somewhat heavy-handed presentation of God’s faithful perseverance in spite of humanity’s ongoing ability to fall into sin to be helpful this week. As we baptize young Henry into the life of faith this morning, many out the world would likely wonder “why?”  Why, when the church is so full of hypocrites, would anyone want to join, let alone baptize their child into that?  The lessons this week remind us that God has been at work in the lives of hypocrites and sinners all along.  That is true whether your name is Jacob, or Timothy, or Steve.  No one is perfect, but with God’s steadfast faithfulness and through the encouragement of community of folks who are trying their best to live into the Way of Love, a church full of hypocrites can still make a difference in the world for the Kingdom of God.

And so, we pray to God for the forgiveness of our sins and for the strength to do what is right.  We pray that God’s works of mercy might endure so that even when we fail, the goodness of God might always persevere.  Sometimes we wrestle, sometimes we look to the hills and wonder from whence God’s help might come, sometimes we are called upon to encourage one another to keep the faith, and sometimes we are the ones being encouraged.  Always, we can be certain that the God we follow is just, compassionate, and full of mercy.  Always, we can be sure that God’s steadfast faithfulness will endure, even when we might fall short.  That’s good news for everyone.  No matter how often or how spectacularly we might fall into sin, God’s mercy endures forever, and with God’s help, we too can keep the faith. Amen.

[1] http://lectionarypage.net/#Track

[2] https://www.luthersem.edu/godpause/default.aspx?devo_date=10/15/2019

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Unrighteous Mammon

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly [prudently, wisely]…”  I mean, what other choice did the rich man really have?  The manager, who is about to be fired because of accusations that he was wasting his boss’ money, quickly runs through the options before him.  “I could dig,” he thinks to himself, “except after years of very comfortable living, I’m in no shape to dig, I’ll never get hired over guys who do this every day with strength and endurance.”  “I suppose I could beg,” he imagines next, “except I’m too well known in the community.  People will laugh at me.  Surely, they won’t help me, God knows I haven’t helped them any over the years.  I’ll be dead of malnutrition or disease in six months.  No, I have to do something else.”  And then, like a brilliant strike of lightening, a plan comes into his mind.  “I haven’t helped anyone in this job, yet, but there is still time.  Maybe, just maybe, if I help these poor slobs out now, they’ll help me tomorrow in return.”

Quickly, he calls in all of his master’s debtors, people who owe upwards of ten years’ worth of oil and grain, and he begins slashing their debt by twenty, thirty, even fifty percent!  Some of them might question what’s going on, but the manager brushes it off with a wink and a nod. “My master is feeling generous these days.”  As the land owner comes to town for the day of reckoning, word has spread throughout the village and countryside of what has happened, and people begin to shout to him from the fields and out of windows, “Thank you, O gracious master, for your generosity and care!”  Theologian Shane Claiborne imagines the scene at the center of town as the crowd breaks into song, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” at the top of their lungs.[1]

“And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…”  I mean, what other choice did he really have?  I suppose he could’ve gotten angry, destroyed the manager and forced everyone to pay their original debts.  Of course that would have ended up in a riot where it is most likely he would have been killed in a fit of mob rage.  So, the rich man takes the only other option available to him, he puts his arm around the shoulder of his manager and says to him, “You got me good, way to use your brain and act shrewdly, but you are really, really fired.”  This story has played itself out a million times throughout the course of history.  A shrewd upper-level employee, knowing things are about to go down in flames, does everything they can to make sure that when the fire goes out, there is something left to hold on to.  I remember a similar story from a few years ago down in Alabama.  A family grocery store chain was bought by a big conglomerate that almost immediately filed for bankruptcy.  Just a few days before the judge would rule on what creditors got paid and how much, the company held an auction of the company’s cars and office electronics that was open only to executive employees.  The CEO walked away with two grand worth of electronics for three hundred dollars.[2]  He got what he could before it all went away.  We hear stories like it all the time.

What we don’t expect, is to hear about it from Jesus.  It seems even Luke wasn’t real sure how to handle this story, giving us no less than three and probably four possible interpretations.  The most challenging interpretation is the admonition to “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

To be honest, I spent most of this week scratching my head on this one.  It just seems so foreign, so outside of what I expect Jesus to say.  I want Jesus to tell this story and then look at his disciples and say, “In my Kingdom, people who cheat in business deals to line their own pockets will be cast out into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  I don’t want him trying to convince me that there is some lesson to be learned in this story of deception and fraud.  What are we supposed to learn from this dishonest manager who in the end gets commended by his former boss for his wisdom and shrewdness?

The key, it seems, lies deep within that most difficult lesson from Jesus, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  In Luke’s Gospel, more so than the other three, wealth is always a bad thing; a power and principality, not unlike Rome, that clamors for people’s attention over and against their devotion to Almighty God.  Money, whether we have a lot of it, or very little, has the ability to turn our attention away from God’s Kingdom faster than probably anything else.  This is true, in part, because money is a faith based system.  A dollar is worth a dollar, only because we believe it to be so.  Our faith in the economy allows a piece of linen and cotton that has been dyed green to be traded for a delicious Snickers Bar.  Because wealth is a faith-based system, it is in direct competition to God, which, for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, makes it dishonest wealth, or perhaps better translated, the mammon of unrighteousness, stuff that takes our attention away from the Kingdom.

giphy

When faced with a bleak future, the dishonest manager used the material resources at his disposal to create a better outcome.  Jesus has a vision for the future as well.  The Kingdom of God is that place where lion and lamb lay down together, where the banquet of rich foods and well-aged wines is available for everyone and it never ends, where the lame walk, the blind see, the poor are rich, the sorrowful find joy, and the oppressed go free.  Jesus wants that future to be our motivation for everything we do; most especially, it should be the motivation behind how we spend our money.  “Take your money and use it to build the Kingdom of God by building relationships.  Throw a dinner party, but don’t just invite your friends.  Also invite that one co-worker or neighbor or classmate who is always left out.  When you buy gifts, make sure you include those who have never received a hug, let alone a nice sweater for Christmas.  When you go shopping, look the sales clerk in the eye and affirm them as a human being, not merely a means to an end or a cog in the machine.  If you hear that your neighbor has been ill, drop by with a thermos of soup or get in the car and visit them in the hospital.  Be extravagant in caring for the people around you.  And because nothing can happen in this world without money, use it to the mission and glory of God.”  That’s really what Jesus is saying here.

“You can’t serve both God and the Almighty Dollar, but you most certainly can serve God by using your dollars to reach out in care and love.”[3]  The Church rarely, if ever, talks about money without asking for some.  So, I’m not going to do that today.  I mean, we’ll pass the plate, of course, but don’t let this sermon guilt you in to giving.  Instead, take your wallets out of this place and use them, in one way or another, big or small, to build up the Kingdom this week.  Take your mammon of unrighteousness, and use it to build relationships, so that when it’s all said and done, the cheering section at your arrival to the great heavenly banquet will be filled with friends and strangers, family members and tax collectors, and even Jesus himself.  Act shrewdly by using the Almighty Dollar to bring about the Kingdom of Almighty God.  Amen.

[1] Red Letter Revolution: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said? (71-72) Kindle Edition.

[2] http://www.al.com/business/index.ssf/2013/09/belle_foods_leaders_buy_compan.html

[3] Paraphrase of a line from http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php

Cost/Benefit Analysis

Last weekend, the Episcopal Church published its annual compilation of Parochial Report statistics. I used to pour over these numbers with great interest, but time doesn’t allow for that any more.  Thankfully God still makes seminarians like Ben Crosby from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale who has both time and energy to dig into such things.[1]  As expected, the decline continues.  The median Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) in an Episcopal congregation is 53 people, which is lower than the median ASA of our 8 am service.  There are now more congregations with an ASA under 10 than there are parishes with an ASA over 300.  My friend Tom Ferguson also noted that given that the Episcopal Church is 87% Anglo in a nation that is only 62% white and that our average age is 57, compared to an average age of about 37 in the US, the Episcopal Church is becoming less and less able to make the necessary changes to turn the tide around.[2]  As you might imagine, there is not a little bit of hand-wringing and anxiety among leaders in the Episcopal Church over numbers like this.  We might find some solace in the reality that almost every Christian denomination from the Southern Baptists to the Roman Catholics is experiencing statistically significant decline, but if our mission is, as our Prayer Book says, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” then we are clearly failing.[3]

Our Gospel lesson this morning begins by telling us that large crowds of people were travelling with Jesus.  Given the current rate of decline in the Episcopal Church, it would make sense to look to Jesus to see what he can teach us about church growth.  “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  OK, well, let’s look some more.  “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  Surely, there’s something we can use. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Huh.  Well.  I’m not quite sure Jesus is the church growth guru for us.  It’s no wonder that by the time he arrives at the cross no one but his mom, his closest friend, and a few faithful women were left hanging around.

How do we reconcile these two conflicting forces?  If we learn from Jesus that it is about depth of commitment and not necessarily bigger numbers, but are also pretty certain that our mission calls us to reach out to all people, what are we supposed to do?  Where is the sweet spot between the church with a rock band and fog machine that is designed to appeal to everyone and the old Celtic tradition of wading neck deep into the freezing cold waters of the North Sea and reciting all 150 Psalms from memory?  I think the key to unlocking this puzzle comes in the example Jesus gives about building a tower.  “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether there is enough to complete it? Otherwise, when the foundation has been laid and there isn’t enough to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule the builder.”

Following Jesus comes at a cost.  The Church is not called to be everything for everyone.  We are not here to make following Jesus easy, comfortable, or entertaining, but rather to offer an honest assessment of what life is like in the Kingdom of God.  As a Church, we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to make sacrifices of our time to attend worship; to offer our gifts and talents to the ongoing mission and ministry of God in the world; and to give of our financial resources for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  As a congregation of disciples, the Episcopal arm of the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, we are called to love our neighbors and our enemies; to visit the sick and the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to welcome the stranger.  None of this is easy.  All of it is risky.  Being the Church in the example of Jesus Christ comes at a real cost to us both personally and corporately.

Jesus wants us to know the costs before we start the journey so that we might not lose heart when the going gets tough.  All those who are willing to walk this path, the way of the cross, are invited to come along.  Thankfully, we know that this is not a journey we walk alone.  With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we walk with a community of disciples, arm-in-arm with the communion of saints who have gone before, eking ever closer to the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  The cost may be high, the model may not be a popular one, but the rewards for us and for the world God created are well worth it.  May God bless us with the resources and the stamina to walk with Jesus on the path to eternal life.  Amen.

[1] https://twitter.com/benjamindcrosby/status/1168317805894279173 accessed 9/5/2019.

[2] http://crustyoldean.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-collapse-is-here.html accessed 9/5/2019.

[3] BCP, p. 855.

Seen and Set Free

project1619

Image from project1619.com

On August 20th, 1619, “twenty and odd” men and women of the kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo, kidnapped by Portuguese traders in Angola, loaded onto a slave ship headed for New Spain and later stolen on the high seas by English Privateers, pirates operating by permission and under license of the British Monarchy, landed in Jamestown, Virginia aboard the ship the White Lion.  The pirates aboard the White Lion, who saw those human beings as nothing more than cargo, were hungry, and so they traded the futures of more than twenty people for some food and other provisions.  Of those women and men, Angela was the first enslaved person to be listed, by name, in the census. Angela and the “twenty and odd” other people were the first of more than half a million enslaved Africans who would be sold in the American colonies and the United States.  By 1860, the number of enslaved people in the United States was counted at 3,953,760 – thirteen percent of the US population.[1]  To borrow language from our Gospel lesson this morning, on August 20th, 1619, America became bound by a spirit of evil that has kept us crippled, quite unable to stand up straight, to the fullness of our potential, for more than 400 years.

For the last month and a half, more than two dozen members of Christ Church have been a part of a 40-day prayer journey developed by Simmons College of Kentucky.  The Angela Project, named after that first enslaved woman counted in the census, seeks to raise awareness, call for repentance, and pray for the liberation of the descendants of slavery.  In our reading and prayers, we heard the stories of more than 40 men, women, and children who risked everything, often having to leave family behind, to escape bondage through the help of the Underground Railroad.  We learned about the ways in which the enslavement of black people has evolved, through convict leasing, Jim Crow, the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration, long after the ratification in 1865 of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the United States, “except as punishment for a crime.”  In our prayers, we were invited to consider the lives of the enslaved.  We held in prayer the trauma of being stolen from your home, held in jail, and crammed into the cargo hold of ships for no other reason than being a dark-skinned African.  We lamented what it must have been like to watch your neighbors die in those harsh conditions; their bodies simply tossed overboard to restrict the threat of communicable disease.  We mourned the practice of slave auctions, the use of physical violence, and the inhumanity of entire systems created to keep black people subjugated even today.  We prayed for healing.

In our lesson from Luke’s Gospel, two things had to happen in order for the woman bound by a spirit to stand up straight again.  First, she had to be seen, and then, she needed to be set free.  The deck was stacked against her.  Eighteen years is a long time to suffer.  If we are honest, it is a long time to maintain compassion as well.  In the early days, I’m sure many people looked upon her with pity.  I’m certain she received all kinds of offers to help.  Maybe her family was able to support her financially at the start.  As the months and years went by, however, fewer and fewer people even saw her.  Eventually, even her closest friends began to forget about her.  Her family, likely convinced that her condition was the result of something she had done to herself, grew weary of carrying the burden, and eventually, she was all alone, seemingly invisible to the world around her.  Luke says that she “appeared” in the synagogue.  Not that she hadn’t been there every day for years, but rather that one who had for so long been invisible, suddenly became visible again, and in appearing, she was once again seen, known, loved, and cared for.

Jesus saw her.  It’s a thing that Jesus seems to have done better than everyone else in history.  He saw people.  He knew people.  He perceived what people needed.  And he cared for people.  Jesus was unafraid to see the things and the people that the world would much rather avoid seeing.  The bent over woman didn’t seek Jesus out.  She didn’t ask to be healed.  But she who had been made invisible was seen, known, loved, and healed.

The first step toward healing our national sin is being willing to see it and name it.  For 400 years, white Christian America has done everything it can to make slavery invisible. We must do the hard work of seeing our collective complicity in the sin of slavery.  On Tuesday, 400 years to the day that Angela and more than twenty other human beings were traded like commodities off a ship, Christ Church, Bowling Green said prayers and rang our bell 24 times in commemoration of the “twenty and odd” people sold 400 years ago.  Honoring the request of the National Park Service and our Presiding Bishop, at 3pm today, the bell will ring in remembrance again.  In a letter explaining the tolling of the bell, your clergy noted that “ringing bells won’t bring about racial healing. It won’t undo the 400 years of systematic oppression, but it can be another step along the long journey of healing and reconciliation. By simply making noise, we overcome the tendency to remain silent, fearful to say the wrong thing, to admit complicity, or to lose one’s position of power or prestige.”  We cannot heal what we cannot name, and we cannot name what we cannot see.  The first step toward being healed is being seen.

Once we are able to see what is holding us back, be it an evil spirit or a system of oppression, the next step toward healing is to be set free.  In my first year of seminary, I took three quarters of New Testament Greek.  I don’t remember much of those studies, just enough to be dangerous, but I do remember how confused we all were when the first verb we learned was luo, to be loosed.  Nobody uses the verb “loosed” anymore.  Why would that be worth learning?  Well, it is because that’s precisely what Jesus came to do.  Jesus looses the bonds of oppression and sets people free from the bondage of evil spirits and their enslavement to sin.  Having seen the woman who had been bent over for 18 years, Jesus called her over, laid his hands on her and said, “Woman, you are set free (luo) from your ailment.”  In his debate with a leader of the Synagogue, Jesus argued that if it is lawful to “untie” (luo) and ox or donkey on the Sabbath in order to keep it hydrated, then certainly it was permissible to set the woman free (luo) from her own kind of bondage.

It is God’s desire to set us free from bondage, be it imposed upon us by others and self-inflicted.  I am certain that on December 6, 1865, all of heaven rejoiced at the notion that slavery had finally been outlawed in the United States, even as I’m certain there is still mourning in heaven that the 13th amendment came with any kind of caveat.  I am also quite sure that 400 years after Angela and the others were sold into slavery, God desires to loose our nation from the ongoing bondage of that particular sin, among many others.  The dream of God is that all of humanity might be set free from bondage.  The Way of the Jesus is the way of freedom, justice, and peace for all people.

At the end of each day of the 40 days of prayer and at the end of our service of commemoration, we made a declaration called “We are the Voice of One.”  In it, we declared our hope that with God’s help, the world might be restored, renewed, set free.  It was our prayer for each of those 40 days, and as a likely descendent of slave owners, it continues to be my prayer now and into the future: that with God’s help, we might see our sin, name it, repent, and be set free to the honor and glory of God.

We are the voice of one that cries out in Bowling Green:

“Prepare the way of the Lord!

Make straight in Bowling Green, a highway for our God

Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill shall be brought low.

The crooked places of this nation shall be made straight

And the rough places shall be made smooth

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed in all the world

And all of Bowling Green and all nations shall see it

together

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it!”[2]

Amen.

[1] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-african-slave-ship-arrives-jamestown-colony

[2] Adapted from The Angela Project Liberation Ceremony

The Kingdom is Now

One of the problems with being a lectionary-based preacher who doesn’t preach every week is that the appointed passages can begin to take on a life of their own, independent of the larger story.  They become bite-sized morsels, almost as if they are proverbs that you can just dust off for a week, only to eventually place them back into their slot in a compendium of vaguely spiritual ideas.  One week, it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Another week, we read about Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary.  Next, we get the Lord’s Prayer or the Rich Fool.  Taken separately, each of these short passages offers us a lesson.  Love your neighbor.  Focus on the Kingdom.  Prayer deepens our relationships.  Be rich toward God.  None of these are bad things, but taken in isolation, we learn only in part what it means to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I really struggled this week with what seemed like the most isolated of all the lessons we’ve had lately.  On Wednesday, I was in the car, driving to make a hospital visit, when I heard a quote from one of my favorite modern philosophers, Nicholas Lou Saban that put it all together.  Nick Saban is, for those who don’t know, the head football coach at the University of Alabama.  Coach Saban is one of the most fluent coach-speakers in the history of coach speak.  He can spend 20 minutes talking and say nothing at all.  Yet somehow, in this case, as I listened, I began to realize that, put back together, the last five weeks of Gospel lessons have had a consistent theme running through.  With the ubiquitous bottle of Coca-Cola Classic placed in the sight of the camera, Coach Saban spoke to reporters about the importance of his players focusing only on today.

UA Coaches Press Conference

“It’s really important that they focus on what they control today.  We have so many players here who get frustrated about what happened yesterday, or they get a little complacent because they had success yesterday.  And then we get some players who get worried about what is going to happen in the future.  Really, what you do today, correctly, making the right choices and decisions… that’s what really prepares you for the future… You know, all of us are a little bit addicted to tomorrow. I’ll quit smoking tomorrow. I’ll go on a diet tomorrow… I’ll start studying tomorrow, but really making it happen today is the way you improve. That’s the way we’ll get better. That’s the way you’ll create more value for yourself and that’ll really help our team get a lot better as well.”

Dan and Stu, the sports-talk guys I was listening to, unpacked what Coach Saban was saying, noting that he was actually tapping into something that is taught in many of the world’s religions.  “It’s not just great coaching.  You will find… there is great wisdom in that that you will find in a spiritual quest.  Eckhart Tolle [who, by the way, changed his name due to the influence of the 13th century Christian Mystic, Meister Eckhart] has written about the power of now.  The two things that happen in life that contaminate a human… are regret, which is yesterday, and fear, which is tomorrow.”[1]  As I listened, I realized that over the last five weeks, as we’ve walked with Jesus all around the Galilean countryside, the larger lesson that Luke is trying to convey to his readers is to focus on the now in order to be present to what God has given you and to what God is calling you in this moment.

It began two chapters ago with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  A lawyer, who was fearful about the future, asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  The response, that the law is summed up simply in “love God and love your neighbor,” is totally dependent on the now.  True love, the sort of love of which Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection serves as an example, can only exist in the now.  As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “true love keeps no record of wrongs” – it is not worried about the past, and “true love does not envy” – it is not focused on what I can get next.  Real love exists in this moment as you choose, minute by minute, to seek what is best for the person God has placed right in front of you.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite live in fear and worry, focused only on the future, and so, they pass by the injured traveler.  The Good Samaritan, however, was present to the need that God had placed right in front of him and thereby loved his neighbor.

Again, in the story of Jesus being welcomed into Martha’s home, we learn about the power of now.  In the hustle and bustle of the day, Martha was distracted by so many things that her worries were actively pulling her away from the gift that was sitting right in front of her.  When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he stressed the importance of hoping for the Kingdom to come, and that they should seek forgiveness for the sins of the past, but that their prayer should be focused on what God has set before each of us today, “give us this day our daily bread.”  Even last week, in the parable of the rich fool, we hear about the importance of being thankful in the present moment.  There is no wisdom in storing up treasures for tomorrow, but instead, we are called to share what we have right now with those whom God has set before us.

That theme continues into this week’s Gospel lesson with Jesus encouraging his disciples using the words that the spokespeople of God have used since the very beginning, “Do not be afraid.”  The Lectionary skipped us over similar teachings about worry, and Jesus’ famous line about the lilies of the field, “how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  During the long journey toward the cross, I have no doubt that the disciples were wracked with fear and filled with worry.  Where would they sleep?  How would they find food?  Had they hitched their wagon to the wrong leader as it seemed clear that Jesus wasn’t interested in political leadership or military power.

In the midst of it all, Jesus looked at them and said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  There is nothing that can be done about the sins of the past, but to seek forgiveness.  You have no power of the future, other than what you can do right now to make it better.  So, be present to the possibility of today.  Sell your possessions in order to meet the needs of your neighbor.  Put your trust in the Lord who will supply all your needs.  The Kingdom of God is available to you right now, if you will only be present to it.

As Coach Saban so wisely observed, the world is addicted to tomorrow.  The 24-hour news cycle, which blares at us in every waiting room, dining room, and gas pump, is dependent upon our fear of what tomorrow might bring.  Advertisers and lobbyists make their obscenely comfortable livelihoods by getting us addicted to the regrets of the past and the fear of the future, and then selling us on their particular solution to it.  Fear is the foundation of all the -isms which plague our nation: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and xenophobia, to name a few.  Fear is the root cause and the goal of the proliferation of violent acts that terrorize us on an almost daily basis.  The Kingdom of God, into which Jesus invites each of us, offers something completely different.  In the Kingdom of God, peace surpasses fear, love outweighs anger, and forgiveness overcomes regret.  It truly is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom, but you have to be present to win.  Your eyes must be open to the needs of your neighbor and to the gifts God has given you.  It is what each of us chooses to do with the now that will help bring the Kingdom just a little bit closer to earth as it is in heaven.  Do not be afraid, my friends, for it is God’s desire to bring forth the Kingdom through you: right here, right now.  Amen.

[1] The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, August 6, 2019, Podcast “Hour 3: Ron Magill”

“Jesus Christ, Would you do something about her!”

The first time I told you this story[1], I promised that you’d one day get tired of hearing it, but it’s been two years, so you’ve probably forgotten it by now anyway.  It comes from a book called Dakota, the spiritual memoir of American poet, Kathleen Norris.  At one point, Norris begins to reflect on the tradition of hospitality that Christian monasticism has inherited from our ancient Jewish siblings.  It is seemingly written into the DNA of the monastic tradition that a wayward traveler can always find safe lodging and a meal with monks who are trained to welcome every stranger as if it were Jesus himself knocking on the gate.  Even in the monastery, however, true hospitality is challenging to maintain.  Norris tells the story of an older monk sharing with a younger monk how difficult it is to always be ready to welcome a stranger as if they were Jesus.  “I have finally learned to accept people as they are,” the older monk said.  “Whatever they are in the world – a prostitute or a prime minister – it is all the same to me. But sometimes, I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, “Oh Jesus Christ, is that you again?”

Offering hospitality is difficult, no matter who it is we are welcoming.  Whether it is a new faculty member from up the hill, a new employee at one of our may industrial plants here in town, or a neighbor experiencing homelessness, at Christ Episcopal Church we believe that we too are called to welcome each new person who enters our midst as if they were Jesus, but in our Gospel lesson this morning, we learn that actually welcoming Jesus can be challenging.  As I mentioned several weeks ago, offering hospitality to travelers was a given for people in the ancient world.  Life was still very nomadic in those days and the Hyatt hotel chain had yet to be created.  Whether you were travelling for religious, economic, or political reasons, travelers were often dependent upon the kindness of strangers for a place to rest and find nourishment.  It was just a few verses ago when Jesus sent seventy disciples ahead of him to prepare the way with instruction to take nothing extra with them, and to rely on the hospitality of others everywhere they went.  As his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem unfolded, Jesus practiced what he preached; spending a couple of days in many small villages along the way, eating what was served to him, and sleeping where he could find a place to lie down for the night.

On this particular day, Jesus arrived at the home of Martha who welcomed him and his disciples with open arms and a flurry of activity.  Luke doesn’t tell us what all her many tasks were, but we can take some educated guesses.  First, she likely prepared a bowl of clean water, in which the travelers could wash their feet from the dusty road.  Next, she stoked the fire in order to bake fresh bread and prepare the evening meal.  She likely got to work grinding up the chickpeas for hummus, while maybe a servant went to the market to get fresh olives.  Following the Law, the rituals for hand and vessel washing while preparing dinner kept Martha busy enough as she also refreshed the wine and made sure her guests were comfortable.  As the rare single woman who owned her own home in first century Palestine, Martha was most likely used to doing things all on her own, but given the celebrity of her guest this day, surely, she was working harder than usual to make everything extra special.  As she worked, occasionally she glanced at the crowd gathered around Jesus, which was probably a bad idea.  Could nobody see how hard she was working?  Did nobody care?  Who did Mary thinks she was, just sitting there, listening to Jesus as he taught?  As Martha’s resentment grew, she became increasingly distracted, literally in the Greek, dragged about, by her many tasks.

Eventually, Martha became so frustrated with being pulled around by her chores that she lashed out at both Jesus and her sister, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work?  Tell her then to help me.”  Her spirit of hospitality had long-since faded, but it is in this moment that any remaining façade of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home disappeared.  It’s not very hospitable to blame your guest for your sibling’s bad behavior.  It might be even worse to try to drag your guest into the middle of a family dispute.  “Jesus Christ, would you do something about her,” is not the sort of hospitality the Son of God would expect.

It is worth noting that what happens next is not Jesus rebuking Martha for her work.  As I’ve already mentioned, hospitality was an ethical cornerstone in the ancient world.  Unfortunately, this story has long been used to pit women in the church against each other.  If we read Jesus’ words to Martha as an admonition against her busyness, we tend to hear it as Jesus lifting up “the Marys,” those who quietly listen and obey.  While Jesus does say that Mary has chosen the better part, what the issue really seems to be about isn’t pitting those who work against those who pray, as both are required in the Kingdom of God.  Rather, the issue is about where our hearts are focused.

Do you remember back when this journey to Jerusalem first started?  Three different disciples tried to follow Jesus and were sent away.  “There was no time to rest; no time to bury the dead, even a parent; no time to say goodbye to family; no looking back.”[2]  This journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death and resurrection, isn’t a trip that can be taken half-heartedly.  It isn’t a journey that can be put on hold.  Jesus requires full commitment from his disciples, and where Martha falls short isn’t in her wanting to serve, but in how her servanthood ultimately distracted her from the bigger mission.  She had originally welcomed Jesus into her home in the hopes that the Good News would be proclaimed in her community, but she lost focus, got dragged about by her many chores, and ended up breaking relationship with her sister and with Jesus.  Mary’s better choice wasn’t that she lived into the role of the silent woman or that she chose to listen to Jesus, but rather, that she decided to focus on the relationship that God had put right in front of her face.  The one thing that Mary found was love, and she lived it out at the feet of Jesus.  Martha may have started out her service in love, but resentment and frustration took over somewhere down line.  I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Martha.  I know that I’ve begun many a project based in the love of God or the love of my neighbor, but at some point, lost focus and ended up frustrated by a lack of help, a lack of affirmation and accolades, or a lack of other people doing what I hadn’t told them I wanted them to do.

Martha is not simply worried or troubled by the many tasks she has to do.  She’s literally out of control, being dragged here and there by social constructs, internal pressure, and maybe, her Enneagram number.  Like Martha, we live in a world that is constantly trying to draw our attention away from Christ.  It isn’t for our own lack of trying that we are drawn away from sitting at the feet of Jesus, but that our minds are attuned to so many things that we end up being pulled away from him, sometimes literally dragged here and there, by our many tasks.  As the hecticness of the fall looms large, as we fill our calendars to overflowing, I pray that God might gift us with the space to slow down, to let our minds rest at the feet of Jesus, so that we might focus solely on the Kingdom of God and its mission of hospitality, reconciliation, grace, and love.  Amen.

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/true-hospitality-a-sermon/

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=625

Just Do It, With God’s Help

I didn’t grow up going to summer camp, but in the years since I’ve been ordained, I’ve grown to love it.  Summer camp offers kids from various walks of life the opportunity to get away, to set down their electronic devices, and to just be kids.  Summer camp is hot, it is loud, it is messy, and it is a whole lot of fun.  Most importantly, it provides an opportunity for young adults to share the love of Christ with a new crop of kids, just as their counselors did before.  In the Diocese of Kentucky, All Saints’ runs four, week-long sessions for children and youth from rising second graders all the way on up to high school seniors.  You’ll note from the dark circles under my eyes that I’ve spent this last week serving as Chaplain to the New Horizons Camp for fifth and sixth graders.  Our theme this summer was “The Circus is Coming,” and our key verse came from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”

Glory isn’t a word that we use much anymore, so the first thing we had to do was try to work out a definition.  In the world’s eyes, glory is given to those who accomplish notable achievements.  This week, a ticker-tape parade was held in New York City to celebrate the glory of victory for the World Cup Champion, United States Women’s National Team.  Glory can be used as a synonym for magnificence or great beauty, as in, the sun setting behind the trees at camp was glorious, or to describe anything that is distinctive or due extra pride or honor.  It’s not that any of these things are bad, in and of themselves, but the world’s understanding of glory can lead to misunderstandings about to whom glory is rightfully given.  When glory is something that can only earned only by the most elite, the most beautiful, the most athletic, or the rich and the famous, we marginalize all of us who tend to be pretty good at our crafts, and often forget the One from whom all good gifts are given and from whom all blessings flow.

We shared with the campers that as Christians, we give glory first and foremost to God.  God is the single most glorious thing in all the world, and so we offer God all the glory through praise, worship, and by giving thanks in all things.  Each of us who has been created in the image of God share in that glory.  As disciples of Jesus Christ, we all share in the responsibility of reflecting, albeit imperfectly, the glory of God into the world, by letting our light so shine before others that they might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.

Which brings us to the final definition of the word glory.  If you’re doing a Google search of the word, you’ll have to expand the box and scroll a bit, but way down there, the fourth definition of the noun form of glory is “a luminous ring or halo, especially as depicted around the head of Jesus Christ or a saint.”  The way in which Jesus and the saints were able to shine their light into the world was so obvious, that over time, when people made artwork about them, they showed that glory shining brightly round about them.  What we discovered, however, was that, like glory, sainthood isn’t just for those deemed most special.  All Saints’ Camp is named All Saints’ in honor of every disciple of Jesus who has ever set foot on that property, each of whom are saints of God.  All of us are called to reflect the light of Christ into the world.  All of us are called to reflect the glory of God in our spheres of influence.  All of us carry our own halos around with us as we make the love of God known.

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”  Luke tells us that the lawyer who brought this question to Jesus had come to test him.  He had heard of the glorious works done by this new Rabbi on the scene and wanted to see if he passed the right tests.  Jesus can be frustratingly enigmatic in these cases.  He rarely answers a question like this directly, and Luke 10:25-37 is no exception.  Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with one of his own, turning the work of revelation back on the one who was seeking.  “You’re the expert in the Law, how do you read its requirements?” Jesus asks the man.  In Luke’s account, the abundantly clear and truly challenging requirements of the Kingdom of God don’t come from the lips of Jesus, but rather, from this lawyer who came to challenge him.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus, in perhaps his most transparent moment in all the Gospels, simply replies, “Do this, and you will live,” or as a famous shoe company has put it for years, “Just do it.”

Would that it was so easy just to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  The Law of Christ is so very straightforward and yet, it seems to be almost impossibly simple.  Loving God is the easier of the two requirements, so we’ll start there.  The expert in the Law notes that loving God is not just something we that we feel, but it requires our whole humanity to do properly.  We are called to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our strength, and with all of our mind.  Loving God in this way means putting God first on the priority list in our lives.  It means giving God thanks in all things.  It means offering God praise in all circumstances.  It means showing God our admiration and respect no matter what is happening around us.  In short, as we learned at summer camp this week, loving God with our whole lives means giving God all the glory.

Loving our neighbors is by far the tougher bit.  As halo carrying members of the glory of God club, we are called, through stories like the Good Samaritan, to reflect the light of Christ to everyone we meet.  Unlike the priest and the Levite who are so worried about protecting their own glory; trying to keep their halos from becoming tarnished by the man who had been robbed, it is the Samaritan, who had no illusion of an unblemished halo, who took the risk to reach out and be a true neighbor to one who was in need along the side of the road.

“Just do it” has been a pretty good slogan for Nike over the years, and it would behoove us as Christians to follow it in our daily attempts at loving God and loving our neighbor, however, the ability to “just do it” requires one other component.  For Episcopalians, that piece is found in the Baptismal Covenant, a series of eight questions that define the basics of the Christian faith.  Five of the questions deal directly with how we will live as followers of Jesus, and they are answered in the same way, “I will with God’s help.”  Shining with the light of Christ, bringing the glory of God into the world, living into the Great Commandments; these are not things any of us can do on our own.  So, if I might be so bold as to add something to the words of Jesus, we might be better off hearing him tell the lawyer not simply, “just do it,” but “just do it, love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, love your neighbor as yourself, and let the glory of God shine through you; do it all, with God’s help.”  Amen.