Staying Awake is Prayer and Action

I’ve written so many of these posts over the years that I’m tired.  So tired, in fact, that I contemplated not doing it.  You no doubt noticed that I skipped it yesterday.  I just couldn’t bring myself to write another post about another mass shooting.  I was on vacation the week that Las Vegas happened.  I posted on Facebook, but didn’t have a chance to write anything here.

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But honestly, after Sandy Hook and the Pulse Nightclub, I really thought I had written my last post about people being slaughtered in a place where they should have been safe from the evils of anger, mental illness, domestic violence, and semi-automatic machine guns.  And then Sunday happened, and while the people of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs were saying their prayers, at least 27 of them were killed by an angry white man hellbent on destroying the world as he had come to understand it.

The doors of FBC Sutherland Springs are red, just like the doors of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green and thousands of others around the world.  The red doors can symbolize many things, from a mortgage free church to a welcoming congregation, but if you ask around, you are most likely to hear that it means a place of sanctuary.  Soldiers and law enforcement, it is said, are unable to pursue someone inside the red doors of a church.  It is supposed to be a place of safety.  While harm has come to worshipers inside the safety of the red doors before, this time, we have a 24 hour news cycle and social media to ensure that every person on the planet knows that it happened.  And, as if like clockwork, the various sides began to circle their wagons.

As has been a growing trend of late, the zero sum game between those who would offer prayer and those who would work for change has come to the forefront in the aftermath of Sunday’s tragedy.  It has become as if praying for the victims of such events is now offensive while only those who are actively working for reasonable gun control are real disciples of Jesus.  This is, of course, absurd.  The zero sum game between prayer and work is a falsehood, most likely handed to us by the devil himself, to make sure Christians continue to present in the wider culture as angry, ill mannered, and hypocritical.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson invites us to consider that famous seminary phrase, “both/and.”  In the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In it, Jesus seemingly admonishes his disciples to not be like either set of bridesmaids, since they all fell asleep, but rather, we are called to keep awake for the return of the bridegroom.  For those who know the larger story, this will immediately bring to mind the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night Jesus was arrested.  Despite Jesus imploring them to keep awake and pray with him, they fell asleep.  Three times, they failed to stay awake.

In times like these, disciples of Jesus are certainly called to stay awake and pray, but I think we are also called to the obvious meaning of the parable as well.  In order to be like the wise bridesmaids, we are called to do the work required to be ready when Jesus comes.  That work of preparation means working toward just solutions on topics like common sense gun control, funding for mental health, social safety nets, and quality public education.  Can we just pray?  Probably not.  Can we just call our Senators?  No, that won’t work either.  It is only through both prayer and work that we will be able to join with God in building the Kingdom Jesus describes in his parables.

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[Don’t] Get Caught Up

Last week, I noted that the Revelation of John is very rarely preached on in Episcopal congregations.  As it is with evangelism, the call to repentance, and discipleship, the lack of attention we Episcopalians give to the eschaton is to our detriment.  Rather that offering a positive glimpse into what God might have to say about sin, salvation, and the end times, we instead focus on not being “like them.”  We castigate the bad theology of rapture preachers, while offering little, if any, in the way of a coherent theology of the final judgment. This Sunday, as our congregations hear Paul’s description of the final hours from 1 Thessalonians, their minds will immediately gravitate toward that bumper sticker they might have seen on their way to work last week, and we will have nothing to offer them.

 

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What if preachers did take some time to carefully consider the final days?  What if, instead of laughing at those who read the Left Behind series and take is seriously, we presented an alternative vision of the triumphant return of Christ?  What if, instead of simply lamenting the clothesline theology of apocalyptic preachers, we offered a glimpse into the hope we confess at least once, and often twice, each Sunday, that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead?

Remember that Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament writings that we have.  In this first generation after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the prevailing wisdom was that Jesus would be coming back, like, tomorrow.  When he didn’t, and when people of the Way began dying, their fellow Christians weren’t quite sure what to do.  These words from Paul are a pastoral response.  Unlike Daniel or John, Paul is not writing from visions, but is offering, as best he can understand it, an idea of how God might handle the problem of “the quick and the dead.”  As William Barclay notes in his commentary, “It is not the details which are important.  What is important is that in life and in death Christians are in Christ – and that is a union which nothing can break.” (p. 235)

Two thousand years later, our people still wonder about these things.  As I noted above, we say we believe that Christ will come again every Sunday (and at least twice a day if we follow the Daily Office), but what does that mean in a world where some say we might we swept up into heaven with no warning?  It means that God’s grace covers us.  It means that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.  It means that when Jesus does return, whether today or a million years from now, we who call on his name have nothing to worry about.  So don’t get caught up in the rapture hype, but certainly, get caught up in the salvation that belongs to our God.

We are All Saints – a sermon

This sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


The first time I think I really understood what was happening on All Saints’ Day was actually a few years after I had been ordained, and it came to me while standing in a Christ Episcopal Church, of all places.  It was the evening of all All Saints’ Sunday at Christ Church, Pensacola, Florida.  I had been invited by their Youth Minister to preach and celebrate at their evening service.  Before the service began, we were socializing in the Parish Hall where the walls were lined with pictures of dead, old, white guys.  I read the names, noticing that they appeared not only on the plaques below those pictures, but on buildings, parks, and hospitals around the city.  I took a moment to give thanks for their lives, their witnesses, and their generosity before we moved into the sanctuary for the service.  As I sat in one of the choir stalls, listening to the lessons being read, I was deeply moved by the lesson from Ecclesiasticus, a wisdom book from the Apocryphal, a set of texts written between the Old and New Testaments that are included in some Bibles.

I was initially taken aback by the lack of gender inclusive language, which is odd in the New Revised Standard Version.  “Let us now sing the praises of famous men” caught my ears, even as I had missed it in reading the passage all week, and I heard the whole text in a new way.  I listened as the author spoke of their majesty, valor, and intelligence, and I thought about those pictures in the Parish Hall.  I heard tell of musical talents, skilled writers, and great resources, and I pondered the names etched on plaques installed on pews, organs, windows, classrooms, and sacred vessels in the several congregations I had served.  I pondered the reality that we very often, if not constantly, are singing the praises of famous men, and I wondered, for a very brief moment, why we needed All Saints’ Day to add to that ongoing and generational honoring.  And then, as if for the first time, I heard these words, “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 men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”

And suddenly, All Saints’ Day made sense to me.  Yes, today we take the time to honor and remember all those saints whose names live on forever, but even more so, we take the time to recall all the myriad saints who may not be remembered by name, but whose example lives on in the hearts and minds of faithful disciples from generation to generation.

Common usage of the word saint makes us automatically think of the beatification and canonization process in the Roman Catholic tradition.  Our minds tend to immediately go to the need for a couple of miracles as we contemplate why hardware stores need Saint Sabastian to be their patron or how Saint Isadore of Seville became the patron saint of the internet.[1] What we lose in all that is the reality that sainthood, both biblically and etymologically means nothing more than being a follower of Jesus.  At the beginning of several of his letters, Saint Paul addresses his audience as saints.  The Greek word he used is hagios, which means “to be set apart” or “holy,” and in every instance, Paul uses it to describe all the followers of Jesus in a place.  “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…”[2]  “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”[3]  “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus…”[4]  The examples go on.  What we learn from Paul’s use of the word hagios, is that in the early church, the concept of sainthood was not reserved for the especially religious, nor even for the dead, but in fact, all of us who claim Jesus Christ as Lord are included among the saints.  Etymologically, our English word “saint” follows this pattern.  It comes, as most churchy words do, from a Latin word, sanctus, which is the translation of hagios.  We are the saints of God because we are set apart, and made holy, not of our own doing, but by the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ.

This all comes together beautifully today as we 1) celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, 2) Baptize Merritt and Brody, and 3) give thanks for another successful stewardship campaign.  Both this morning and at Evensong tonight, we will name before God saints whom we have loved but see no longer.  Some of these saints truly are famous men and women, legends in their own time.  Others were the quiet sort, busy doing the work of building the Kingdom in ways that many of us will never know.  All of them had their flaws.  None would have accomplished sainthood on their own, and yet each of them held fast to their faith in Jesus.

As we look back on the saints who have built Christ Church in Bowling Green to be what it is today, we also look forward with hope for what we are to become, with God’s help.  [At 10 o’clock] this morning, we welcome two brand new saints into the body of Christ.  We will join with Brody and Merrit in taking the vows of sainthood as the Episcopal Church as interpreted them.  We will promise to remain a part of this community in worship, fellowship, and prayer.  We will commit to working toward the restoration of all relationships by resisting evil, sharing the Good News, loving our neighbors, and striving for justice and peace.  In our prayers, we will seal them with the Holy Spirit and mark them as forever set apart in Christ Jesus.  Today we make Brody and Merritt saints, not because of anything they have done or by anything we can do, but by the grace of God and in keeping with the commandment of Jesus to teach and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Finally, then, we celebrate the commitment of saints, both now and in ages past, who have made a financial contribution to the ongoing work of building the Kingdom as the Christ Episcopal Church Bowling Green branch of the Jesus Movement.  With the help of saints whose names we remember like Porter Sims and the Gaines, Cole, and Covington families, we are able to enjoy some flexibility when it comes to our finances here, but the vast majority of the work we do is because of saints whose names we may never know who give faithfully and sacrificially, some twenty dollars a week and others tens of thousands of dollars a year, to the building up of the kingdom of God right here in Bowling Green.  For the faithful stewardship of saints past, saints present, and saints to come, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we give thanks.

All Saints’ Day is a powerful reminder that we are not in this discipleship thing alone.  The path we walk has been walked by countless others who through faith and doubt, joy and sorrow, excitement and apathy, have called on Jesus Christ as Lord and thereby have been set apart as holy and blessed.  Today, as we welcome Merritt and Brody into the communion of saints, as we commit financially to another year of walking together, and as we remember both the “famous men [and women]” and “those who perished as though they had never existed,” I am grateful to be walking this journey with each of you, my fellow saints, in the path of God’s beloved children.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.aggiecatholicblog.org/2012/09/top-20-odd-patronages-of-saints/

[2] Romans 1:7

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:2

[4] Ephesians 1:1

The Great Multitude

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“After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

The Revelation of John gets short shrift in many Episcopal circles.  It shows up on nine different Sundays in the three year lectionary cycle, an average of three times a year, but I can probably count on none fingers the number of times I’ve heard Revelation preached on a Sunday.  If I’ve heard it, it was probably in the context of the Burial Office wherein the latter half of Sunday’s lesson (in the BCP lectionary) is one of the six recommended New Testament lessons.  I say all this not to condemn my fellow preachers, but to convict myself as well, since over the last decade, I’ve been preaching roughly 50% of the Sundays every year.

I wonder why we are so Revelation averse?  It probably has something to do with the wider Christian culture’s seeming obsession with it.  Episcopalians tend to shy away from stuff that makes us seem “like them,” to our detriment.  Even more likely is the reality that we just don’t have much training in the topic.  Seminary electives on apocalyptic literature, while available, are probably taught every three years, and are certainly scarcely registered for.  With such vivid imagery, most of which must be taken metaphorically, it seems downright dangerous to tackle Revelation not having done your homework.  So, rather than take the time to dig in, we opt for safer texts like Ecclesiasticus, 1 John, or Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes.

If ever there was a safe Sunday on which a preacher might tackle some of the broader themes in Revelation, All Saints’ Sunday might be it.  We are already dabbling in that place where we can’t speak from any real knowledge.  Though we say, every Sunday (I hope), that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, it is hard to really grasp what that means.  So, when faced with a lesson in which John is given a glimpse of the heavenly city, with the great multitude that no one could count gathered around the throne, maybe we take shot at it, confessing that no one really knows what it means to be a part of the Church Triumphant, and yet giving thanks for the millions of Christians who have paved the way for us to one day take our place in that heavenly chorus that shouts “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

For me, the image of the Great Multitude is a comforting one, as I ponder not only those great heroes of the faith who are included, but the countless number of faithful disciples whose faith has impacted my own, without either of us knowing it.  I think of the arthritic hands I’ve seen knitting prayer shawls, the careful reverence of a pall being placed upon a casket, the hours priests have spent in their studies crafting sermons, and the hundreds of breakfast casseroles I’ve consumed over the years.  I think of faithful volunteers in elementary schools, food pantries, Sunday liturgies, and backpack blessings.  I think of all those folks who work tirelessly behind the scenes to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, I give thanks for their dedication, and I look forward to that day when I don my white rob and take my place before the throne to join the chorus, making a joyful noise for the Lord of our salvation.

For all the saints who from their labors rest

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via CatholicLane.com (I really hope Popes wear the triple tiara in heaven)

One of the peculiarities of the life and ministry of an ordained minister is the role that place plays in one’s ministry.  Having taken a new call at the first of this year, I am no longer a priest in Foley, AL, but a priest in Bowling Green, KY.  This means a lot of things.  Personally, it means that the beach is no longer ten minutes away, fresh seafood is not readily available, and October mornings in the 30s.  Professionally, what has struck me most profoundly is the immediate switching on and off of pastoral relationships.

While I still pray for and love the people of Saint Paul’s, I am not longer their pastor.  In a social media world, it means being very careful about how I reach out to posts of illness and loss.  It means that I won’t officiate the funerals of people with whom I had long and fruitful relationships.  On the other hand, here in Bowling Green, the move means an immediate beginning to relationships.  I step in to long-term health issues, family dynamics, and restorations.  Reasonably, it takes a while to build these relationships, and sometimes, life short-circuits them.  Officiating funerals in the early stages of one’s tenure is an interesting experience.  I may not know the deceased at all, perhaps we only met a few times, maybe health problems meant that even if we did meet, we were never really able to know each other.

While I may not be able to offer the same sort of personal reflection that I used to in Foley, my role these days isn’t all that different than it once was, to share the good news of the hope of the resurrection in Christ Jesus.  My job at a funeral is to offer thanks to God “for all the saints, who from their labors rest,” while at the same time ensuring that even in our grief the name of “Jesus be for ever blessed” and highlight “their rock, their fortress, and their might.”  Because in the end, the Feast of All Saints’ is less about the millions who have followed the way of Jesus, even Popes in triple tiaras, but the Savior whom they followed in life and in whose rest they now live eternally.

Happy All Saints’ Day, dear reader!

Holy and Blessed

You might recall that last week, we heard the LORD instruct Moses to inform the Hebrews that they “should be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”   You might also remember that I read that commandment from God in a pretty hard-line sort of way. We ought take these words from God seriously, and strive for holiness, while understanding that it is simply impossible to do it on our own.  I doubt that the guys-drinking-scotch-in-a-smoke-filled-room who settled on the Revised Common Lectionary had it in mind, but this Track Two Old Testament lesson for Proper 25, Year A prepares us nicely for the Gospel lesson on the transferred Feast of All Saints’.

This Sunday, we return to the Sermon on the Mount and lesson we heard way back in Epiphany.  Jesus, seeing that a crowd is beginning to gather around him and his message, hits the pause button and invites his closest companions to come up the mountainside for a crash course in the basics of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The lesson appointed for All Saints’ (BCP and RCL) is the opening salvo in that message of hope, grace, and love, and it is, quite simply, as mind-blowingly impossible as last week’s mountaintop conversation between God and Moses.

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This week, instead of focusing on holiness, the message of God is pointed toward blessedness.  Sometimes translated as “happy,” this ideal that Jesus sets forth in the Beatitudes is a helpful one as we consider what it means to be included in the list of the saints of God.  We who are called to be holy, with God’s help, are, also by the grace of God, able to find happiness and contentment, to receive blessedness, when we find ourselves poor in spirit, mourning, meek, and hungering for righteousness.  That is, when we are most aware that the world is not as God intended it to be, we are also the most blessed, able to see the world through the eyes of God.  Equally so, when we are merciful, pure in heart, working for peace, and even suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake, we find ourselves blessed.  In our work to fulfill the baptismal covenant (All Saints’ is a proper Baptismal feast, after all), we find the purpose for which we were created.

As with holiness, blessedness is not something we can accomplish on our own, which might be the first and only real lesson we need to learn about sainthood.  It is all grace, which, come to think of it, would work quite well for those who are remembering the 500th anniversary of the Wittenberg Door as well.

Not when, but what

My non-Episcopal readers will notice that this is one of only a handful of weeks in the Lectionary cycle when the Common in Revised Common Lectionary proves false.  My Episcopal readers will notice that the same is true from the Common in our Common Prayer, which gets a pass this week as some congregations will choose to transfer the propers for All Saints’ Day to Sunday, while others will continue the never-ending march of ordinary time with Proper 26A.  My friend, Evan Garner, has handled the question of when quite well in his blog today.  I’ll wait while you read it.

Since I will be involved in services on November 1st and the transferred Sunday, my concern this week is less about when we celebrate All Saints’, and more about what lessons we might use to do so.  I have long been an advocate for petitioning one’s bishop to ask permission to use the old Book of Common Prayer lectionary for the Feast of All Saints’.  In both sets of lessons, you’ll get a snippet from Revelation 7.  In both, you’ll hear the Beatitudes from Matthew.  The difference comes in the BCP lectionary’s use of the Apocryphal text of Ecclesiasticus, which is also known as Sirach or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach.  It was, in its day, a popular handbook of wisdom for study in educational settings (HarperCollins Study Bible, 1530), and it appears in the RCL only a few times during the three year cycle.

I like to hold on to this old tradition because of the balance the Ecclesiasticus lesson strikes between the Feast of All Saints’ and the less often celebrated, non-Major Feast of the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed on November 2nd.  The lesson opens by “singing the praises of famous men [and women],” but eventually turns its attention to those who “have perished as though they had never existed.”  To my mind, this lesson navigates the various themes one must juggle on a singular All Saints’ Day celebration better than the 1 John lesson of the RCL.  This came alive to me one All Saints’ Day as I preached a Sunday evening service in a congregation that was not my own, in their parish hall, the walls of which were lined with old, dead, white guys for whom various things had been named.  It has returned with vigor this year as I now serve a congregation with a penchant for naming things after clergy (not that that’s a bad thing, in and of itself).

Taking time to sing the praises of famous men [and women] is important, but so too is the commemoration of Aunt Sally, Gerald, or Joe, who were faithful disciples in their day, but of whom there is no written record.  On All Saints’ Day, it seems to me, it is important for us to take the time to honor both, for without them, the Church is not what it is today.

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