Unity, Constancy, and Peace

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I’d imagine that any priest you asked could tell you their favorite parts of the Eucharistic Canon.  Some might have a favorite Eucharistic Prayer.  For others, it might be a paragraph, a sentence, or even a few words.  I have two favorites – one in Rite I and one in Rite II.  I think it is important to pay attention to these parts, the pieces of the liturgy that hit deep in your soul, because, quite frankly, when you are standing up in front of a crowd of people saying the same words over and over again, it can quickly become a rote recitation rather than a prayerful activity.  For me, I find it helpful to feel the prayers in my body, to experience where my heart flutters a bit, where my breath quickens, or where my soul aches.  Favorites change.  Sometimes, it’s about the hurt that Jesus came to assuage.  Sometimes, it’s about the joy that salvation brings.  Most often, for me, it is about the mission to which we are called.  Which is why, more often than not, if you asked me what my favorite part of the Eucharist is, I’d have to say this phrase from Rite II, Prayer A, “Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace…”

These words came to mind this morning as I read Paul’s admonition to the Church in Rome.  His thesis is clearly one of unity and peace for the sake of a consistent application of the Gospel.  It seems as though Jewish and Gentile Christians were at odds with one another. Why else would he feel the need to prooftext four different Old Testament passages?  That Jewish and Gentile Christians didn’t always get along isn’t an unknown concept.  The reason we have Deacons as an order in the Church is because Roman Christian widows weren’t being treated the same as Jewish Christian widows.  And so, the prayer of Paul for the Christians in Rome is that God might grant these two communities harmon with one another so that they can glorify God with a united voice.

Unity, Constancy, and Peace.

Given the deep divides in our common life as Christians in 21st Century America, it might behoove us to all be praying for the God of steadfastness and encouragement to grant us to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Jesus Christ.    We ought to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.  Not throwing the other away for their theology which we have determined to be anathema.  Not doubling down on our own rightness as if our beliefs could somehow save the faith, but rather, by listening with open ears and open hearts to the hopes and fears of the other so that we might move toward unity, constancy, and peace.

This is difficult work.  For progressive Christians, it means giving ear to a theology that seems to be dehumanizing to our LGBT+ siblings in Christ.  For conservative Christians, it means creating space for a theology that seems to discredit some of the foundational understandings of Scripture.  Without the ability to even listen to one another, however, we dehumanize the other and throw out the Gospel of grace.  Without an ability to hear the fear of the other, we cut short the work of welcoming the stranger and make impossible the hope of unity for the sake of the Gospel.  Without grace and a willingness to let God do the hard work of deepening faith and relationship, Christians do nothing more than mimic the poisonous culture of politics, echo chambers, and fear.

For 2,000 years, the Church has struggled, perhaps most of all, to make space for the other who also calls on the name of Christ Jesus.  May Paul’s prayer for the Romans be our prayer for this day so that we might come a bit closer to living in harmony with one another, with God, and with the whole world.

Time Out to Give Thanks

Advent 1 and the full rush of the Christmas season may already be upon us, but in a world where JC Penny’s is so desperate for cash that they’re opening at 2pm on Thanksgiving Day, it seems appropriate that this blog, only barely resuscitated from a long layoff, pauses to reflect on Thanksgiving, one of only two secular holidays that is given Major Feast status in our Book of Common Prayer.  Not to get too deep into it, but the tradition of recognizing some kind of harvest festival pre-dates the Christian Way by millennia.  According to Marion Hatchett, in our tradition, a means of giving thanks for God’s provision first appeared in the 1662 Book, and was upgraded to a votive, complete with propers in 1928.  The 1979 Book is the first time it is listed among the Major Feasts (the same pattern from 28 to 79 is true for the other secular feast, Independence Day).  As usual, I’ve digressed.

In my congregation, Thanksgiving Day will be the last celebration of the Eucharist in Year C.  The Gospel lesson appointed comes from John 6 and is well suited to our consumerist culture that requires retail employees to eat Thanksgiving breakfast with their families because they have to work a 12-hour shift beginning at noon so a store full of more crap that nobody needs can open at 2 (Ask me my unpopular hot take on election day as a national holiday sometime).  Jesus, having just fed the multitudes sent his disciples to the other side of the lake while he prayed.  In the middle of the night, Jesus met the boat by walking across the lake, much to the disciples amazement.

The lesson opens with the crowd, having run around the lakeshore to find where Jesus and his disciples had gone asking him, essentially, “how’d you get here?”  Jesus, always quick with a non-sequitur replies by wondering aloud about the crowds motivation.  Did they come seeking him out because he had fed them?  Was it because of the miracles?  No, Jesus suggests, those things, while powerful and indicative of the work God was doing in the world wouldn’t sustain them.  What the crowd really came to find was “food that endures for eternal life.”

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To use a crude metaphor that is from before my time, the Kool-Aid that Americans have guzzled down willingly is that we don’t have enough and more will make us happy.  This theology of scarcity, coupled with the political cult of the zero-sum game has created a scenario in which millions of Americans will rush out on a day that is set aside, by both secular and religious authorities, to give thanks for all that we have, to buy, buy, buy more, more, more.  We are addicted to food that perishes, and the system is quite happy to keep us buying more, paying sales tax, interest, and late fees, until the weight of debt crushes us all.

This Thanksgiving, reject the narrative of “not enough.”  Take the day, the whole day, to stop feeding the addiction to food that perishes, and give thanks to God for the abundance that you already have.  Feasting on food that endures to eternal life will do good for your soul.

A Romans 13 Advent

The one exception to my rant against the ant-Christmas Advent mafia comes by way of the Revised Common Lectionary.  Until my one man campaign to change the liturgical calendar, moving Advent to November and expanding Christmas from the Sunday after Thanksgiving through Epiphany, is successful (spoiler alert – it never will be thanks to the lies we tell ourselves about the way things have always been) we will be stuck with some pretty tough lessons on the Sundays leading up to Christmas.  Year A is no exception.

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One of the cliches of the secular Christmas season is the Christmas party at which somebody/everybody drinks too much.  A quick Google image search of “Christmas party” leads to lots and lots of pictures of champagne toasts and people having way more fun than is humanly possible.  Pre-2019, this was coupled with tales of random hook-ups at office parties and icky stories of harassment by drunk executives.  Yet, on Sunday morning in Advent 1, Year A, we will hear Paul encouraging the fledgling Church to be ready for Christ’s second coming by living “honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

Over the course of this past year, my own relationship with alcohol has changed quite a bit.  After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, my new medication had printed twice on the label something like “do not drink alcohol while taking this medication.”  After more than a decade and a half of being “a couple of beers after work” guy, I’ve become more of a “occasional good glass of bourbon” guy.  In the initial stages, I went something like 3 months without a drop of alcohol and realized just how consumed with booze our culture is.  TV, movies, advertising, social commentary, dining out, whatever it is, the norm in our culture seems to include alcohol, and too much of it.

Maybe it makes sense, then, that we are met on Advent 1 by Romans 13:11-14.  Perhaps in the lead up to the greatest joy earth has ever known, we might set aside the things that dull us to the pains of the world; that which tries to fill our never ending search for joy and happiness.  I’m not saying everyone needs to take a dry Advent, but certainly we ought to avoid the traditional office party cliches that Paul names directly: drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness.  A Romans 13 Advent invites us to look forward with clear minds and open hearts to the good news of great joy that will come to us again on Christmas.

Faithful Endurance – 175 Years of CECBG

As far as I can tell, there is nothing still in existence that tells us exactly when Christ Episcopal Church was organized.  What we do know, is that in the Diocesan Journal of 1843, there is no mention whatsoever of a church in Warren County.  In May of 1844, the Reverend George Beckett reported that he had served as a missionary at Bowling Green for six months.  This would set his arrival here around November of 1843, but no formal congregation had been organized.  In the Journal of 1845, the Reverend C. C. Townsend informed the convention that a building had been built, an organ was ordered, and Sunday School had 40 students and 6 teachers.  There was also an ongoing ministry to the enslaved population that was producing “encouraging results.”[1]  Still, there are no dates.  So, it was up to those of us planning the festivities for our 175th anniversary to pick a weekend to celebrate.

As we looked at the calendar, trying to decide what weekend worked best for us to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, the one thing we obviously didn’t pay attention to was the Lectionary.  There’s no way we would have purposefully picked a weekend where the Gospel begins, “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”  Leave it to Jesus to be a bit of a buzzkill on this weekend set aside for joy and thanksgiving.  Of course, it is ultimately my fault for not remembering that late Pentecost is where the Lectionary dives deep into Holy Week.  This lesson takes place on Monday or Tuesday of the last week of Jesus’ life.  He has flipped the tables of the money changers, had his authority questioned, and taught lessons that were purposefully at odds with the religious powers-that-be.  By this point, there was no chance that things were going to end well for Jesus.  This teachable moment was an opportunity for Jesus to remind his disciples that no matter what might be happening in the world around them, the work of building up the Kingdom of God should go on.

After almost a decade of struggle to get the fledgling mission church in Warren County off the ground, the Bishop of Kentucky didn’t assign Christ Church a clergyperson for nearly all of the 1850s.  Vacant beginning in 1852, it wasn’t until 1861 that a missionary was assigned to Bowling Green.  Ordained a Deacon on March 30, 1861, the Reverend Samuel Ringgold must have received the old English blessing, “May you live in interesting times,” as he was in residence here for less than six months when on September 18, 1861, Confederate General Simon Boliver Buckner arrived in Bowling Green with 1,300 soldiers.  As the Civil War began, Kentucky’s Governor officially declared the Commonwealth to be neutral in the conflict.  Bishop Benjamin Smith did his level best to keep the eyes of his clergy and congregants on the work of the Gospel rather than the conflict raging all around.  However, the Episcopal Church’s history as the Established Church in England and in several of the American Colonies meant that church and state were never fully separated.

In the Morning Prayer service of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer, there was a prayer that was to be said for those in authority.  It read,

O Lord our heavenly Father, the high and mighty Ruler of the universe, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth; Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favor to behold and bless thy servant, THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and all others in authority; and so replenish them with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that they may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue them plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant them in health and prosperity long to live; and finally, after this life, to attain everlasting joy and felicity, through Jesus Christ our Lord.[2]

The recently formed Episcopal Church of the Confederate States authorized the amendment of the Prayer Book to replace “United States” with “Confederate States” wherever it appeared, but given the way in which cities like Bowling Green were handed back and forth between the two sides, this prayer proved to be quite problematic for clergy like Samuel Ringgold.  The Union General stationed in New Orleans declared that, in his jurisdiction, not saying the Prayer for the President would be regarded as treason, and at least one priest was arrested in the chancel of his church for not saying the prayer at the request of a Union Officer.[3]

For Samuel Ringgold, the situation was dire.  Bowling Green was under martial law; at times a Confederate Capital, at times a Union stronghold, at times Kentucky neutral.  Totally cutoff from his bishop in Louisville, he wrote to the Bishop of Tennessee, James Otey, for advice.  “For more than two months after the Southern Army had taken possession of this place, I continued to use the prayer [for the President of the United States], never omitting it, until the provisional government was established.  Since then I have not used it.  The question is, whether I should now use the prayer substituting the word Confederate for United.”[4]  Bishop Otey replied a week later, on Epiphany Day, 1862.  He reminded the young deacon that he was not his bishop and what he was offering was not an official position, but his thoughts were, essentially, that you should pray for the president who had troops in town that Sunday.  Whichever side it was, to Bishop Otey, they represented “The powers that were ordained by God.”[5]

A month later, the Confederate Army retreated from Bowling Green, and on March 1, 1862, Ringgold wrote to Bishop Smith in Louisville that Bowling Green was devastated and Christ Church had been commandeered for a hospital.  Over the next several months the pews were burned, the windows broken, and the walls covered with graffiti.  Even as the world fell apart around them, however, Ringgold and the handful of members left at Christ Church chose not to be hopeless but rather, “to go to work…”[6] By the late summer of 1862, Ringgold shared good news of their progress with the Rector of Grace Church, Louisville, “We have now, not only a comfortable, but a pretty and clean churchlike room to worship in.  We have a most interesting Sunday School, fine choir, and much larger congregation than ever before… Notwithstanding the disorders of our times, the number of our communicants has doubled during the past year.”[7]  By January of 1863, Ringgold was, reportedly, the only clergyperson still holding services in Bowling Green, and even when the original church was torn town by soldiers to build chimneys for their tents and the Rector’s stove was stolen from his house with dinner still cooking on it, Ringgold and the people of Christ Church Bowling Green kept the faith, proclaimed the Gospel, and served the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Our Gospel lesson this morning ends with Jesus telling his disciples that “by your endurance, you will gain your souls.”  Whether the year is 33AD, 1862, or 2019, enduring the ongoing catastrophes that sin creates takes faith in a God who has a plan to bring all things into their perfection.  Endurance doesn’t mean sitting around, waiting for God to take a magic wand and fix it all.  Instead, by exhorting his disciples, and us, to endure the challenges of the present, Jesus calls us to get to work – relieving the suffering that sin creates in the world.  Salvation, it turns out, won’t come from the glorious edifices of religion, be they Herod’s Temple or a small brick church on Upper East Main Street.  The redemption of the world comes one day at a time, by way of the hard work of the people of God who seek to make this world more like the Kingdom of Heaven.  For 175 years, the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green have been faithful to the work of building up the Kingdom of God in Warren County.  Our prayer this day is that for the next 175 years, we might continue to be blessed with faithful disciples who endure whatever the changes and chance of the world might bring, giving generously of their resources of time, talent, and treasure to the honor and glory of Almighty God.  Amen.

 

[1] Journal of the 17th Convention of the Diocese of Kentucky, accessed on 11/14/19 at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89072985872&view=1up&seq=30

[2] Book of Common Prayer 1789, page 31.

[3] Paul G. Ashdown, “Samuel Ringgold: An Episcopal Clergyman in Kentucky and Tennessee During the Civil War.” published in The Filson Club History Quarterly Vol. 53, No. 3, July 1979., p. 234.

[4] Ibid., 234-5.

[5] Ibid., 235.

[6] Ibid., 236.

[7] Ibid., 236.

The Potential Energy of the Spirit

My high school physics teacher, Mr. Amidon, suffered from narcolepsy.  As a result, he would fall asleep at random times throughout the day.  Most often, he’d zonk out at his desk, but it wasn’t uncommon for him to fall asleep while writing notes on the board or even while showing us an experiment.  As high school students are wont to do, we took advantage of Mr. Amidon’s ailment and were very careful to not wake him up.  As a result, I don’t remember a whole lot of what I was supposed to learn in high school physics, which is probably why college physics was so difficult for me, which is probably part of why I’m a priest today and not an engineer like high school Steve had planned.  Anyway, one of the few memories I have of high school physics is the experiments we ran highlighting the differences and relationships between potential and kinetic energy.  The most obvious of these experiments were aided by gravity.  This higher we held a ball above the ground, the more potential energy is possessed.  As it dropped, that potential energy was converted to kinetic energy, and then it bounced upward, returning kinetic energy back into potential while losing some of its overall energy to friction and ball deformation.  This process repeats until all the potential energy gets transferred through friction and deformation and you are left with the ball at rest on the ground.

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While Mr. Amidon’s class sticks with me because of the narcolepsy, the power of potential energy has stuck with me over years.  It came back to me this week as I prayed for Mila Veletanlic and Thomas Stiles, whom we will baptize this morning.  As I thought about Mr. Amidon, I came to realize that, the baptismal service, especially on All Saints’ Sunday, and especially when we’re baptizing little ones, is where the potential energy of the Holy Spirit is the most obviously apparent.  This day is set aside to remember all the saints, not just those who are considered hall of famers, who carry a capital S Saint in front of their names like Saint Paul or Saint Mary Magdalene.  On All Saints’ Sunday, we remember everyone who has ever been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and give thanks to God for the work that the Holy Spirit has done through them – the way in which the potential energy of their baptism was lived out in the kinetic energy of the faith.

Toward the tail end of the baptismal liturgy, Mother Becca will say a prayer for Mila and Thomas that, while new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, restores to the baptismal liturgy a part of our ancient past, asking God to bestow upon these two children, both just infants, the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of
grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy
and wonder in all your works. Amen.
It will be quite a while before these two will be called upon to utilize their gifts, but today we celebrate their saintly potential to live lives of faithfulness to the honor and glory of God.

In Christ Church 101, we spend one of our class sessions talking about the Gift of the Spirit.  According to Saint Paul, the charisms given in baptism are particular gifts that each of us are given for the upbuilding of the Church.  Some are called to be apostles, some teachers, some evangelists, some intercessors, and on and on.  In baptism, the Holy Spirit bestows upon each of us unique and special gifts, but to all of us, these seven are given.

The restoration of the prayer for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit brings back to our awareness the potential energy that God imparts upon each us in baptism.  This potential energy is most apparent on All Saints’ Sunday, as the sevenfold gifts are easily tied directly to each of the Beatitudes that we hear in Matthew’.  It was Saint Augustine of Hippo, a fifth century theologian, who first found in the Beatitudes each of the seven gifts.[1]  To Augustine, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” brings to mind the gift of wonder.  It is our poverty in spirit that allows us to find amazement in the richness of God’s grace and mercy.  For Augustine, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” was a call to knowledge.  In this case, mourning wasn’t about the death of a loved one, but the result of our coming to know our own sinfulness.  We rightly grieve the role that we have played in our broken relationships with God and with our neighbors.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” corresponds to the gift of reverence as we can only show deep respect and honor toward Almighty God when we are not puffing ourselves up or putting ourselves in the place of God by judging our neighbors.  Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed with the gift of endurance as they work tirelessly to bring about that which they desire.  By enduring in good works, they will one day find satisfaction for their hunger and thirst.  Good judgment is the gift of those who are merciful as, in deep awareness of God’s forgiveness, they choose to forgive; in knowing fully God’s love for them, they show love for their neighbors.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” infers those who have been gifted with understanding.  Even though no human eye can see God, those who have experienced God in their hearts can truly understand what it means to follow the way of God’s love.  Finally, those called to be peacemakers are living into the gift of wisdom; setting aside passion and rebellion, they seek only the peace that passes all understanding.

None of us knows how these two young children will live out their giftedness.  Even as mature adults, many of us who have been baptized into the faith might not be quite sure how we live out this kind of giftedness, but we can all rest in the knowledge that it is only with God’s help that we are able to claim the blessing that is the exercising of our baptismal gifts of wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.  It is only with God’s help that any of us is able to turn the potential energy of the Holy Spirit into the kinetic energy of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  As you pray for Mila and Thomas today, pray also for your neighbor in the pew, for your clergy, and for yourselves, that none of us might fall asleep, but rather, that the potential energy of the Holy Spirit in each of us might be put to good work in order to bless the whole world.  Amen.

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/16011.htm (Chapter 4, Section 11).  Accessed 11/2/19

The Inspiration Problem

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ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! HAPAX and HOT TAKES ahead!

It is a well-worn verse in the modernist fascination with a literal Biblical interpretation.  Written by someone claiming the name of Paul to a young leader in the Jesus Movement named Timothy, the author encourages the young man to keep true to what he has been taught since he was a child.  In the midst of that exhortation, the author affirms the role of Holy Scripture, what was likely only the Hebrew Bible and maybe, MAYBE, an early version of the Synoptic Gospels, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

This idea that all scripture is “inspired by God” has been used for about a century and a half to prop up the Bible to carry a weight that it was never intended to to bear.  This verse has created Ark Encounters and Creation Museums in Kentucky as well as several generations of folks who would be willingly ignorant to God’s ongoing revelation through scientific discovery.  All because of one word, and a hapax legomonon at that.  The word translated as “inspired” occurs only once in the New Testament.  Theopneustost is a compound word that combines the Greek word for God, theos, with the verb to breathe, pneo.  Often translated as “inspired,” according to several sources I consulted, this phrase’s more basic rendering as “God-breathed” or inspired’s more spiritual reading of “in the Spirit (pneuma or breath)” was an idea common to Jews, Greeks, and Romans. What the author seems to be saying isn’t that every jot and tittle of what will become Holy Writ is handed over by God, but that the fullness of the text carries within it the very Spirit of God that continues to breathe in and through it.

Another “Paul” wrote in the letter to the Hebrews that “the word of God is living and active,” which is how I would read these words from “Paul” to Timothy.  My translation would be something like, “All Scripture is alive with the breath of God, making it useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness across many generations so that no matter how the world changes around us, those who belong to God’s Way will be equipped for every good work.”

See, Seek, Love

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” That’s the penultimate question in the Baptismal Covenant, and the one that I think tends to get short shrift.  We like the Acts 2 feel of the first question.  We’re grateful to have an ongoing chance for repentance in the second.  For the third, we’ll happily proclaim by example, if maybe not by word, the Good News of God in Christ.  And don’t get me started on how many platitude-filled sermons I’ve heard (and occasionally preached) on respecting the dignity of every human being.  Tucked in there, next to last, is this question that really gets to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus in everyday life.  “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  It is, most obviously, the second of Christ’s Great Commandments, but more than that, it requires us to actively seek out Christ in the other.  In order to seek Christ in my neighbor, I first have to see my neighbor, and if we’re honest with ourselves, there are probably lots of neighbors we wish we didn’t have to see.  Worse yet, there are lots of neighbors that we might actively choose to forget, but in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells the Pharisees the perfect story to illustrate that fully living into the Dream of God means choosing to see what we would prefer to ignore.

It all starts with a rich man.  A super rich man.  A one percent of the one percent rich man.  Jesus says that this rich man was dressed in purple linen every day.  That might not mean much to us today, since we can buy purple linen at Fabrics by the Pound, but in Jesus’ day, dressing in purple linen was an extravagant ordeal.  Prior to industrialization, linen was extremely difficult to produce.  To dye it purple, the right snail had to be found and harvested for its goop.  Purple dye cost about as much as pure silver to procure.  Just by his clothes, we know that this dude was rich beyond our wildest imaginations, but Jesus didn’t stop there.  Not only did he dress in the finest fabrics dyed the most expensive color, but Jesus tells us that he “feasted sumptuously” every day as well.  The Greek here suggests that he “made merry brilliantly.”  Every time that word is used in the New Testament, it is in reference to a massive celebration.  This guy made KISS’s “rock and roll all night and party every day” his actual lifestyle.

As he went back and forth from his palatial mansion, the rich man passed through a large gateway that protected his lavishness from the general unpleasantness of the outside world.  Plopped down at the mouth of that large gate was a man who was as exceedingly poor and the rich man was ridiculously rich.  While we don’t know the name of the rich man, Jesus tells us that this poor man’s name was Lazarus.  Lazarus is the only person to get a name in any of Jesus’ parables.  It means, ironically, “God has helped,” but it’s obvious that God hadn’t helped Lazarus much at all.  While the rich man wore purple linen, Lazarus was covered only in sores.  While the rich man feasted sumptuously, Lazarus coveted the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  While the rich man’s life was full of relationships with friends, business partners, servants, and dinner party guests, Lazarus’ only companions were the dogs who licked his sores.  It wasn’t that the rich man didn’t know Lazarus was there, but that he actively chose to ignore him.  Back and forth the rich man would go.  At the very least, he would have noticed the stench of Lazarus.  Occasionally, he’d have to shoo the dogs away.  On particularly frustrating days, the rich man might even have to lift up his topcoat to make sure it didn’t brush against Lazarus’ unclean wounds as he stepped right over the poor man.

The rich man spent his whole life building as large a chasm as possible between himself and the wretched Lazarus, until one day they both died, and the chasm was suddenly fixed.  The rich man was stuck in Hades while Lazarus was carried to heaven to rest at the bosom of Abraham.  Immediately, with flames licking his heels, the rich man calls out to Abraham and asks him to send Lazarus with a drop of cool water to soothe his suffering.  I wonder how Lazarus heard that request.  Could it have been the first time that the rich man ever uttered his name?  The first time that Lazarus ever felt seen.  The first time that the rich man had ever treated Lazarus as anything other than smelly, disgusting, nuisance?  Note that the only reason the man utters Lazarus’ name now is because Lazarus could do something for him.  Even in death, the rich man didn’t see Lazarus as neighbor worthy of love, but rather as a less than, at most, a servant who should do the bidding of upstanding men like himself and Abraham.

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  Jesus challenges the Pharisees, his disciples, and us to really see the world around us.  He invites us to see our neighbors, to know their names, to understand their needs, not in order that we might fix them, or to exploit them to help us feel better about ourselves, but to enter into relationship with them so that together we all might take part in the renewing of the world.  That’s what the law of Moses and the call of the Prophets has all been about, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s a theme we just can’t escape from these days.  Whether it is our Neighborhood Prayer Walks or Reimagine Charity or Racial Reconciliation or our Cloister Community, God seems to be calling Christ Episcopal Church to see the world around us in fresh ways; embracing what it means to be a downtown church in order to seek and serve Christ in all people, and love our neighbors – all of them – as ourselves.

Over the next six weeks, we will celebrate three baptisms.  Bennett Moore, Henry Gilbert, and Mila Velentanlic are three young children to whom we will promise to do all in our power to support in their lives in Christ.  In making that promise, we commit to living our lives following the example of Jesus who saw people, who knew them deeply, and who cared about their needs.  He didn’t do it to make himself feel good, he didn’t take their agency away, he didn’t swoop in and try to fix problems.  Jesus was a savior without a savior complex. Rather, Jesus invited others into relationship and through that relationship both he and they were made whole.  As we live our lives as examples for these three young people, for one another, and for the wider community, we too are called to see our neighbors, to hear their stories, to love them, and to work alongside them toward the restoration of the whole world.  It isn’t easy work.  It won’t bring swift results.  It’ll be probably be painful, refilling chasms built over generations always is, but that’s the gift and the power and the risk of building relationships.  It means admitting faults, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, and fostering cooperation toward a hope-filled future.  And, as I am often swift to remind us during sermons like these, it isn’t all up to us.  As with every one of the baptismal promises we make, this one, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” gets answered with five, very important and powerful words, “I will, with God’s help.”  With God’s help, alongside our neighbors, and serving as an example for Bennett, Henry, and Mila, we have the chance to build the Kingdom of God here in Bowling Green, Kentucky by seeing, loving, and seeking Christ in our neighbors, especially the ones we would rather ignore.  Amen.