The Rich

In an era of growing income inequality, with many, for the first time, coming to recognize the plutocratic power of a few corporate conglomerates, it is easy to hear Sunday’s gospel lesson and think, “Oh, that’s not about me.”  When Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” the reaction of most 21st century American Christians is to look at least one step up on the economic ladder, shake our heads, and think, as the Pharisee once did, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not them.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, this temptation is one we should be wary of.  Even the average minimum wage worker in the United States earns more than 93% of the rest of the world’s population.  The monetarily rich, it would seem, aren’t that far away.

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As preachers are wont to do, however, I can’t help but think if this passage from Mark is both about money and not about money.  What if Jesus is using the example of the rich would-be-disciple to prove a larger point about faithfulness?  In Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic bible translation, The Message, Peterson translates Matthew’s version of the beatitude about poverty thusly, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

What if being rich isn’t just about money?  What if being rich is about being comfortable.  What if being rich is about self-reliance?  Even if we are unwilling to characterize ourselves as fiscally rich, by virtue of our upbringing in self-reliant post World War 2 America, many of us are subject to this idea that we don’t need anyone else.  Me and (maybe) my Jesus are all we need to get through life.  When we look at the world this way, then yes, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich in self-reliance to enter the kingdom of God.

See, kingdom living is about trusting in God’s grace.  Kingdom living is about turning outward, looking at the world through God’s eyes, and about seeing that existence isn’t just about me, myself, and I, but about the communities in which we live and move and have our being.  Kingdom living is about taking all we have, giving it up for the good of the world God created, and following Jesus.

I’m not saying that Jesus’ encounter with the rich man isn’t about money – it is stewardship season, after all – but what I am suggesting is that if we think it is only about money, it becomes too easy to dismiss.

You might join with the disciples in throwing up your hands and wondering, “Who then can be saved?”  I know I think that from time to time.  Just remember the words of Jesus, “For mortals it is impossible,” that is, you can’t rely on your self to get it done, “bur not for God; for God all things are possible.”

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Faith In Action

Audio of this sermon will be available on the Christ Church website.


One of the things that drew my family to Bowling Green was the romantic ideal of four honest-to-goodness seasons, with real springs, falls, and winters.  In lower Alabama, it was said that there were really six seasons, each lasting two months.  Three of them were summer.[1]  Currently, they are suffering through “Hurricane Summer,” which I remember as the season in which you began to forget what outside looks like as you move from building to car and back again as quickly as possible.  In Bowling Green, the summer of 2018 has felt a bit like a lower Alabama summer, but even if it is raining, today shows us the promise of more fall-like temperatures on the horizon.

The church has its own equivalent of a six-month Gulf Coast Summer, which is commonly called Ordinary Time.  The Season after Pentecost usually runs from May or June all the way to December, and can feel like an interminable stretch of green.

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During the dog days of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary does us a favor by occasionally taking long walks in a particular portion of the Scriptures.  You might remember our five-week visit in the Bread of Life Discourse last month.  For the month of September, we’ll spend five weeks bouncing around the Letter of James, which holds a special place in my heart.  James is an often-misunderstood letter, that has become the scorn of Protestants ever since Martin Luther called it an epistle of straw.  Luther’s main objection was with the final three verses of today’s passage, which seem to undermine the Protestant overemphasis on St. Paul’s thesis of justification by grace through faith by suggesting that works are required to get into heaven.  I don’t think that’s a fair reading of James, but we’ll have to come back to that in a minute.

What I so appreciate about James is how straight-forward it is.  Unlike Paul’s sometimes serpentine-like run-on sentences about lofty ethics and big theological constructs, James was written, as Mother Becca told us last week, to be a letter of universal appeal.  James wrote about real things that congregations were struggling with in the first century.  These same things happen to be real things that congregations are still struggling with in the twenty-first century.  The not-really-hypothetical example that opens our text this morning shows that not much has really changed in the church in the last two-thousand years.  Human beings are still human beings, whether they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, or not.  We are pre-disposed to play favorites, to defer to the rich and the powerful, and to look down on those who are living on the margins.

It is in this not-really-hypothetical example, that I think we really come to understand why James makes so many people uncomfortable.  He isn’t afraid to go from preaching to meddling – naming the evil he sees in the church, namely the rich getting preferential treatment over the poor – as sinful.  Here, James is in total agreement with Saint Paul in suggesting that the chief sin of most Christians is idolatry.  By judging our neighbors, we put ourselves in the place of God, and directly violate both the first and second Commandments.  “So, you didn’t murder anyone or commit adultery this week,” James says somewhat sarcastically in my imagination, “Congratulations!  But. If you judged your neighbor because of his disheveled appearance, you have still fallen short of the glory of God.”

“So, what are we to do then?” we might rightfully ask.  Christianity according to James is downright difficult.  If the standard for faithfulness to the Gospel is not killing anyone, we are all in pretty good shape, but when the bar gets raised up to “don’t make distinctions among yourselves,” we are all in a heap to trouble.  Here’s where we circle back around to that stuff that made Martin Luther so uncomfortable.  What if, when James writes that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” he is not being prescriptive, but descriptive.  Instead of reading James 2:17 as saying, “if you don’t do good works, God isn’t going to give you entrance into heaven when you die,” perhaps we should read this as saying that the only way we know that God is at work in our lives is through our good deeds.  This isn’t James undercutting salvation by grace through faith, but rather James’ honest assessment, based on his experience in the church that only when it walks like a Christian, talks like a Christian, and acts like a Christian, is it really a follower of Jesus Christ.  Or, as Saint Paul might have described it, if you can see the fruit of the Spirit at work in someone’s life, even when they occasionally fall short, you can be sure that God is there.

Over the last month, Christ Church has received an additional gift in the midst of the dog days of Ordinary time thanks to three baptism Sundays in four weeks.  Today, [at 10 o’clock] we welcome into the Household of God two people who are, in many ways, strangers to most of us.  Lindsay and Evelyn are here from Central America, where Lindsay’s husband, Ryan, serves in the Marine Corps.  Lindsay is a life-long friend of the Mitchell family, and so, we join with them in celebrating this momentous event for the Swoboda family.  Even more, our Prayer Book teaches that Holy Baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” which means that today we act on behalf of the Church Universal to welcome Lindsay and Evelyn into the community of those who are on a daily basis striving to follow Jesus.  As we do at every baptismal service, [at 10 o’clock] we will reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant, a series of eight questions that summarize for us what it means to be a Christian.

Like it was for James, for the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, it was important that the life of a Christian be summarized not just in a series of theological concepts which must be believed in order to be saved, but that being a disciple of Jesus requires us to act as well.  We will affirm our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the words of our most ancient statement of faith, the Apostle’s Creed, but if we stop there, James would warn us, then our faith, by itself, is dead.  We must go on to seek God’s help in living that faith daily by way of engaging in the Apostle’s teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers, by working hard to resist the temptation to judge our neighbors, among other things, and when we fall short, returning to God’s grace, by proclaiming the Good News in word and deed, by loving our neighbor, and by respecting the dignity of every human being.

Being a Christian is hard.  If it were just an exercise of the mind, merely a system of belief that required no action on our part, it would be so easy, but the rubber meets the road, as we learn from James and from our Baptismal Covenant, when our faith comes alive and we put our belief in God to work.  As the dog days of Ordinary Time roll on, may the Lord who has given Lindsay, Evelyn, and all of us the will to do the good, hard work of Kingdom living, continually give us the grace and power to perform them.  Amen.

[1] https://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2013/10/finding_our_own_seasons.html

A Jesus Precept – take up your cross

Due to technical difficulties with our website, today’s sermon can’t be heard on the Christ Church website yet, so you’ll have to read on.


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Earlier this week, my family had the opportunity to do something that we hadn’t done in a long time: We piled onto the couch and enjoyed a movie together.  Thanks to the magic of Red Box, we were able to swing by Walgreens and rent a copy of the movie Wonder, which is an adaptation of a novel by the same name, written by R. J. Palacio.  It tells the story of Augie Pullman, a fifth-grade boy who was born with a rare, genetic defect, known as Treacher Collins syndrome, that left his face disfigured.  After twenty-seven surgeries and years of homeschooling, Auggie’s parents enrolled him in a mainstream prep school to begin junior high.  The movie, and the novel, tell the story of that year.  The movie organizes itself in a few different ways.  It switches perspective among several of the major characters.  It jumps across the high points of the calendar from summer vacation, through Halloween, Christmas, spring play season, and graduation.  It also uses Auggie’s homeroom teacher, Mr. Browne, to carry time forward.  Each month, Mr. Browne unveils a new precept for the class to consider.  Precepts he explains, are rules about really important things.  They are words to live by.  For Mr. Browne’s students, each precept is a core value that defines their common life.  The school year begins with a quote from Wayne Dyer, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”  It ends with a quote from a song by the Polyphonic Spree, “Just follow the day and reach for the sun.”

I’ve preached a lot recently about our core values as they are expressed in our mission statement, but as I watched Wonder and thought about Mr. Browne’s precepts, I’ve began to think more and more about my personal core values.  What are the rules by which I want to live my life?  For those of us who claim to be disciples, fundamental to answering these questions is trying to come to understand the precepts of Jesus.  The Bible is full of rules about really important things.  The Old Testament has the forbidden fruit, the 10 Commandments, and the 613 Laws of the Torah. The New Testament includes laundry lists of moral teaching in Paul’s letters.  Even in the teachings of Jesus, we can find all sorts of rules that seem as important as they are impossible to live by.  How do we distill it down?  Where do we look for the core teachings?  It seems reasonable to set our sights on a few highlights by looking for some moments where Jesus’ teaching seems to stand out.  Last Sunday, for example, we heard Mark’s interpretation of Jesus’ first sermon.  It seems to reason that this inaugural address would serve as a precept for the ministry of Jesus.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”  To be a disciple means to repent, to change direction away from following the ways of the kingdom of this world and toward the ways of the kingdom of God.

Our Gospel lesson for today is another one of those highpoint moments in the life and ministry of Jesus from which we can learn some of the core values of kingdom living.  Jesus and his disciples are on a corporate retreat in the mountain town of Caesarea Philippi.  After a flurry of activity, they’ve gone on retreat to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday ministry and to take stock of where things are.  Here, Jesus invites his disciples to reflect on what they have seen and heard.  “Who do people say that I am?” he asks.  “John the Baptist,” they reply, “and others say Elijah or another one of the prophets.”  Like any good retreat leader, Jesus presses them further, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter is quick to answer, “You are the Messiah.”

In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first and only time that Jesus is called the Messiah in a positive way.  During his trial, the High Priest will ask Jesus accusingly, “Are you the Messiah?”  Later, while Jesus is being crucified, the crowds mock him, shouting, “Let the Messiah come down from the cross.”  It is only here, while on retreat in the resort town of Caesarea Philippi that Jesus’ disciples call him the Messiah, and so it is here that Jesus takes the opportunity to help them better understand what that means.  While they might have images of riding into Jerusalem with an army, ready to overthrow the Romans and reform the Temple system, Jesus is quick to let them know that being the Messiah of God means something very different.  He will be rejected by the religious powers that be, undergo great suffering, and ultimately, be killed.  But, on the third day, he will rise again.  Following Peter’s rebuke, Jesus offers a core values sermon, as a reminder of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, for not only his closest disciples, but the crowd that had followed them even on retreat.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  This is certainly not the vision of discipleship that people like Peter were hoping for, but it is what Jesus has had in mind from the very beginning.  It is, I believe, the most important precept of the Christian faith.  Following Jesus means setting aside our own desires, no matter how noble they may seem, in order to bring about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Following Jesus means taking up our cross and following in his way.  Contrary to common usage, the crosses we bear aren’t the minor inconveniences of life, but the cross is the very means by which we lose our lives.  Our faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the one who has come to restore all of humanity to right relationship, is the cross we are invited to carry.  It means giving up everything for the will of God. It means laying down our lives for the betterment of the other. The cross we bear is not a difficult part of life that God gives us, but our whole life given back to God. Just as Jesus will carry his own cross to his execution, so too do we carry ours, laying down our lives for the sake of the kingdom, so that today and every day, we too might know the resurrected life.

Denying ourselves and taking up our cross means standing up for what we believe in.  It means living into the fullness of our baptismal vows.  It means loving our neighbor, even when it is unpopular.  It means opening our doors to strangers who might make us feel uncomfortable.  It means sharing our resources of time, talent, and treasure to share the love of God with a world that desperately needs it.  And, it means, coming to grips with the reality that the adversary is standing at every turn, inviting us to doubt God’s never-failing love, to fear the unknown, and to question God’s goodness.  Nobody, certainly not even Jesus himself, said following Jesus would be easy.  We who claim to be his disciples should be well aware of that, but Jesus does go on to promise that those who lose their lives for his sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.

The penultimate precept in Mr. Browne’s class is attributed to Anglican Priest and co-founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley.  It reads, “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”  That’s taking up your cross and following Jesus.  We don’t get to pick to whom we will share God’s love.  We don’t get to pick when or where or even necessarily how.  Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is simply to use the gifts entrusted to our care to build up the Kingdom and spread the love of God today and every day of our lives.  Amen.

In service of the King

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If you spend much time in liturgical churches, you will no doubt see the three letters at the center of the cross in the above picture.  IHS is a Latin-scripted contracted version of the all-capitalized Greek rendering of Jesus IHΣΟΥΣ, which is to say, all IHS really means, historically is the first three letters of the name Jesus.  Over time, and especially after the Protestant Reformation cut off most Church history prior to 1617, the meaning of many symbols morphed into something else or disappeared all together, such that for many American Christians IHS means “In His Service.”

This is, of course, not inherently a bad thing.  To have Christians living by a motto like “In His Service” could prove fruitful in a world hell-bent on the service of self, and what better time to consider our service of Jesus than on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, which in many Episcopal Churches is called “Christ the King.”  The Gospel lesson appointed for Year A is comprised of Jesus’ final image of the eschaton.  I would title it “the sheep and the goats,” but after twenty minutes for frantic searching during my General Ordination Exams, I now know that the HarperCollins Study Bible calls it “The Judgement of the Gentiles,” even though Gentiles aren’t mentioned in it once. (The digressions are coming fast and furious this Monday, please accept my apologies.)

In this vision of the final judgment, Jesus offers as clear a statement on what is expected of his followers.  I’m thankful to my friend, Evan Garner, for reminding me of the context of all of Jesus’ teaching on the End Times.  “These three judgment parables are not spoken to the crowds or to Jesus’ opponents but to Jesus’ closest friends. They already know what it means to belong to God as God’s beloved children. He’s not telling them what it takes to get into the kingdom of God. He’s inviting them to see what is required to live within that kingdom.”  We, who follow in the Apostolic Tradition, should read these words similarly.  This isn’t a judgment upon those who do not know Jesus, but a clear testimony of what life should look like for those who claim Jesus as Lord.

Our lives are best lived in the service of the King.  IHS might not have always meant “In His Service,” but it is a helpful reminder that our proper response tot he love of God is to reach out in loving service to those he came to save.  We who are bold enough to claim a place in the Kingdom of God bring honor to the King when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, and visit the incarcerated.  When, at the end, it comes time to determine whose lives were lived in allegiance to the King of kings, our service of the King will be the opportunity for judgment.

God sends servant after servant after servant – Tuesday in Holy Week

Each post this week will focus on the biblical account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  Today’s reading is from Mark 11:27-12:12 (NRSV).

Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?” -they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.


 

Today is the penultimate face-off for Lent Madness 2014.  If you’ve never heard of Lent Madness, well, shame on me for not having highlighted it earlier, but it is a bracket style tournament between 32 saints of the Church to win the coveted Golden Halo on Spy Wednesday.  The brain child of The Rev. Mess’rs Tim Schenk and Scott Gunn, Lent Madness is a great way to learn about the varied ways in which the Gospel message has been proclaimed over the course of the last 2,000+ years.  Enough back-story, today’s match-up is between two powerful voices for reform within the Anglican/Episcopal Church: Charles Wesley (1707-1788_, the more reluctant of the brothers who are credited with starting Methodism, and Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), Bishop of Massachusetts and general ne’er-do-well clergyman.

Phillips Brooks claim to fame is his preaching, said to be able to preach 200 words a minute (I preach about 115), Brooks complained bitterly about his time at Virginia Theological Seminary and then spent his career calling Episcopalians to be active in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.  For example, he was a staunch supporter of the North during the Civil War: one of his chief complaints about VTS dealt with its history of slavery.  The Wesley brothers gained the name “Methodists” as a pejorative: it seems folks weren’t too keen on their strict adherence to religion and practical piety, but their call to take seriously the Gospel message of Jesus, to preach it to the ends of the earth, and to allow it to change one’s life was nothing new.  The saints of the Church have been calling us to this higher calling of life in the Kingdom from the very beginning.

Brooks and Wesley were two in a long line of servants that the Lord has sent to “collect his produce,” that is to say, to bring forth his Kingdom.  In today’s lesson from Mark, we hear Jesus tell the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  It is perhaps his most difficult parable to unpack as it is filled with allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures and dripping with the socio-religio-political tensions of the early 1st century in Jerusalem, but as we remember Wesley and Brooks today, I’m aware that the parable lives on in the life of the Church.  We continue to struggle to be faithful to the will of God.  Institutions, by their very nature, are neither good nor evil, but they do have a tendency toward self-preservation, and the Gospel of Jesus can be downright dangerous.  I’m thankful for servant after servant after servant who has come to call to Kingdom living, and I pray that when we are so called, our response will be one of faithfulness and trust in the goodness of God’s will for creation.

Oh, and while we’re at it, go over to Lent Madness and vote for Phillips Brooks!