Sermon of the Month
Passion Gospel John 18:1-19:37
Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (John 19:15b-16a).
It may be tempting to numb ourselves to suffering, to live in a sort of gated community of the spirit, walled off from anything that might disturb. Jesus does give us peace, but genuine peace comes when Jesus stand by us in the midst of suffering. If we listen deeply to the story of the Passion, we will grieve at Jesus’s suffering. If we listen deeply to the Easter Gospel to come, we will emerge from that grief with hope and joy. Good Friday invites us to look at Jesus’s suffering so that we can experience the fullness of Easter. The powers that be encourage us to numb ourselves to suffering. The empire — the powers that be for the sake of being the powers — would like us to look away from suffering and numb ourselves with food, drink, drugs, and lots of consumer goods. They do not want us to notice our own distress or the distress of other people or the distress of other living things, the plants and animals on whom our existence depends. But keeping our eyes on King Jesus even when he is wearing a crown of thorns rather than taking seriously the pronouncements of the powers that be is part of our Christian witness to the world. When the powers cheer on the “beauty” of missiles or the explosion of the “mother of all bombs”, when the powers tell us the suffering of people who were killed in the Holocaust wasn’t all that bad, when the powers ignore the rapidly warming Arctic and dying coral reefs — and the new crack in one of Greenland’s biggest glaciers, when the powers discount the suffering of people worried they might lose their healthcare, when the powers speak in ways that encourage us to hate people different from ourselves, Jesus calls us instead to look and listen and acknowledge and feel the suffering: the suffering now, the suffering in the past, the suffering that awaits us if we don’t change course. We can be compassionate witnesses to suffering even when it is hard to look at it because Jesus calls us to live in hope. Oddly, while the powers that be want us to ignore suffering as if everything were fine, they want us at the same time to think there is little hope for a better world. They tell us we must continue to burn fossil fuels, that we cannot afford to welcome refugees, that we are wise to fear people whose skin is a different color than ours or whose faith is different from ours or whose primary language is not English. They tell us we can’t possibly provide basic health care for everyone in our nation, that public schools cannot adequately educate our children, that gun violence is inevitable. The powers that be don’t want us to grieve with those who suffer, but they also don’t want us to engage in any form of hope other than selfish hopes for our personal security and prosperity. But we can grieve and we can experience genuine hope for ourselves and our neighbors because we know well the story of Jesus on the cross and the story of Easter resurrection. We can look at death in all its forms because we are resurrection people who know death isn’t the final word. And not only can we grieve and hope, but if we are not to betray Jesus and deny that we know him, we must grieve and we must hope genuine hope. We have a king other than the emperor. His name is Jesus, and today on Good Friday we grieve his death on the cross and all the ways we continue to crucify him. Today we grieve, but tomorrow night we rejoice because love wins and Jesus is King. Amen.
There are people who shy away from AA because they think it seems too religious. Welcome to the Episcopal Church where we seldom make the mistake of seeming too religious.
You can tell by my outfit that I’m not a cowboy, so let me introduce myself: I’m Fr. Chuck Peek and I’ve been sober since April 30, 1986. For those for whom that form of introduction doesn’t mean anything, I’m a failed drunk. Once I belonged to the Poor Me club…poor me, poor me, pour me another! I don’t have to live like that anymore thanks to a program of recovery, such as AA; AA in turn owes its thanks to Fr. Sam Shoemaker, whom we celebrate tonight. Fr. Shoemaker, in turn, owed his life and ministry to his dedicated grasp of the essence of the spiritual tradition of Christ’s Church.
When we celebrate Fr. Shoemaker, we are celebrating a priest who was not at times shy about being critical of priests—something we can all relate to. (If you’ve been standing outside, finding fault with the Church, come on in and meet some of us who not only know its faults but sometimes are its faults!)
Among the legacy Fr. Sam left us was a kind of wish list for priests. Fr. Shoemaker’s “wish list” for the priest of the church is, it seems to me, no different than the wish list for all Christians, and, taken possibly in reverse order, no different than what the 12thstep asks of those recovering:
“…I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear [God] and know [God] is there,
But not so far from men [and women] as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too” (“I stand at the door,” silkworth.net 2016)
The spiritual steps offered as the steps to recovery in AA (or any other twelve-step recovery group) include steps that should be familiar to every practicing Christian. They include taking a moral inventory, making amends for harm done (in Christian repentance, it is not enough just to tell someone you are sorry for hurting them, you need to make amends for the harm), making a daily practice of meditation and prayer, turning our wills and lives over to God, which folks in Recovery and a great many Christians call “surrender”: laying down the arms of self-destruction and hoisting the flag of surrender to a loving God who can make us whole and useful.
In a letter to Fr. Shoemaker, Bill Wilson (sometimes called the founder of AA) said that the steps summed up what had been taught “primarily by” Fr. Shoemaker. Without Shoemaker’s teaching, Bill said, “there could have been nothing—nothing at all,” and he usually listed Sam’s name among the “co-founders” of AA (along with Dr. Bob Smith).
If you have been in meeting rooms of AA you have seen pictures of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob. You never see Sam’s picture, nor do you see the picture of Ebie who helped Bill get sober but couldn’t stay sober himself, and you certainly don’t see pictures of the long-suffering spouses, such as Lois. If I had my way, every one of their pictures would hang in the meeting halls. But, then, the program of recovery constantly reminds me that it is not all about Chuck Peek getting his way. Being a member of AA is not conditional on the member getting his or her way. (Wouldn’t it be nice if that were true of the Church as well.)
Not only the conception of the program of Recovery but also its very language echoes language and concepts found in the sermons and books of Fr. Sam Shoemaker. These same words and thoughts also echo the scripture once read in recovery meetings before there was a Big Book (the manual Bill Wilson wrote for AA), especially The Book of Acts, the Sermon on the Mount, the book of James, and Paul’s hymn to love at the close of Corinthians. And they all in turn mirror the standards used in the Oxford Groups that were forerunners of AA and for which Fr. Shoemaker was the American leader. Let me give one example of the close resemblance: in his preaching, Sam Shoemaker charged each listener to come to a “decision to cast my will and my life on God.” That is almost word for word the 3rd step of recovery (found in your program): “We made a decision to turn our wills and lives over to God.”
Now having mentioned the Big Book, let me say that tonight’s celebration is not necessarily a recommendation to go out and immediately read a copy of “the big book,” Alcoholics Anonymous. (Unless of course you are in Alcoholics Anonymous, and then it might be a great idea to read the manual!) But as to what good the book will do for those not addicted or committed to helping addicts: all the spiritual steps of any sound spiritual discipline are there to be sure, but they are definitely framed in the language of addiction, and possibly you are not an addict and do not operate from a personality that leans to any obsessions.
Perhaps…although for most everyone the possibility bears more thought than it is usually given. But even with the specific language to people who are addicted to substances, or behaviors, or experiences, the spiritual principles in the book come through loudly and clearly, so maybe a Christian or a church study group could benefit from a reading of the Big Book.
There you would find that the principles are simple and basic. Love and Tolerance (and the honesty, openness, and willingness necessary to become loving and tolerant) are the keys, and when it comes to being loving or tolerant, honest or open, it is my experience that we all stumble, all fall short. “All fall short of the glory of God.”
These principles we try to practice one day at a time. Scripture tells us that sufficient to the day is the evil thereof…meaning: we only get one day at a time and waste it if we try to live yesterday or tomorrow, if we take it for granted, or if we devote it to a fixation on all that is wrong with the world. We live only when we live the day we have, thankful for its blessings, and devoted to the solutions to our life’s problems. In short, your day is either run by the evil of people, places, and things, or it is run by the goodness of the grace of God! You cannot have it both ways, you cannot serve both God and what is not of God!
[During the Sunday Eucharist at St. Luke’s, Kearney, our celebrant tonight, Fr. Ness, gathers people for thanksgivings and blessings, and he always begins by asking them all to take a deep breath of the Spirit. Spirit and Breath come from the same root word, and a little thought will tell you that breathing is important to spiritual practice. Nothing better arrests a moment of panic than getting control of our breathing. Nothing eases stress better than regular, deep breathing. So I want you to take a moment right now and, with me, breathe deeply in and out: slowly breathe in God and breathe out what is not God, breathe in the spirit of God, breathe out what is not of the spirit of God, breathe in peace, breathe out discord . . . already you may feel the benefit of this, and you will find that adding this to your prayer and meditation times helps you to peace and quietness of mind.]
Now there are basically three things programs of recovery say about God:
First, Recovery tells us that there is a God and I’m not it. No matter from what religion or denomination, it is fundamental to every spiritual life to get rid of grandiosity and embrace humility. And by grandiosity I mean from both ends, the grandiosity of feeling that you are better than everyone else and the grandiosity of feeling you are worse than everyone else.
Now my good friend, retired Roman Catholic priest Fr. Jim Schmitt tells the story of parishioner who was just a horrible man—mean and abusive to his family, dishonest in his life, awful. But one day that changed and the change lasted another day and into weeks and weeks and Fr. Jim finally asked him what had happened that made the change in him. The man, now in recovery, said it was simple: he had turned in his resignation as head of the universe . . . and God had accepted his resignation!
So, first “there is a God and I’m not it”; then secondly recovery tells us that God is and has been all along in our corner. We don’t discover that God is with us now that we’ve gotten sober or clean. Drunk-a-logs (the stories we tell of our former drinking lives) prove that God was with us over and over again. And that tells us that the God who has been with us all along is not the hateful, angry God we had been taught or we had come to believe to be God. God was not missing in action, though we often missed the signs of God’s presence.
There is a God and I’m not it. God is and has been with us all along. And finally God expects something of you. I know we do not not seek controversy and I am sure this will be controversial, but here it is: contrary to a lot of sentimental Christianity preached today, God requires more than pious words. We are called not just to say God is in our hearts or Jesus is our savior, but to strive to actions that make those words real. The 3rd and 7th step prayers in The Big Book are essentially the prayer that God might do with me today whatever it takes to make me useful to God and other human beings. And one follow-up thought about being useful . . . we can’t be useful off by ourselves. Every addiction I know of—again to a substance, a behavior, and experience doesn’t matter—ends up isolating us from others. We may have started out going to the bar to be social; we end up alone in our rooms hoping no one will bother us. You cannot remain in isolation and recover and you cannot remain in isolation and be useful.
Making our new understanding real by putting words into action is exactly what we heard urged by St. Paul in tonight’s second reading: “Clean out the old leaven of malice and evil and eat of the bread of sincerity and truth.” (I Cor. 3)
We do not get into action once for all. We get into it daily. Sometimes we get over-confident or lazy. So the fact is that all of us some time, some of us all the time need to be reprogrammed, need to reboot the system. We celebrate Sam Shoemaker because that’s what Sam Shoemaker teaches us how to do. Let us celebrate Sam’s day by listening to what Sam teaches. My few examples all come from his book Realizing Religion—even in the title you can hear the idea of making something real. Anyone can be religious, but the challenge is to make that religion real in your life. So here is just a sample of what Sam taught.
Sam wrote, “There are laws for the production of the Christ-type of life. Without heeding them it is . . . foolish to hope for success.” 7
And with that he noted, “It is extremely hard, and in most cases frankly impossible, for anyone to secure results which are fundamentally spiritual without using any spiritual means, or fulfilling any spiritual conditions.” 6-7
Again, Sam taught, “Surrender to the Divine Life . . . takes on reality as we have in mind definite cooperation with God in definite work for one definite person.” 79
(When we first get into recovery, the definite person is ourselves; as we grow in recovery, then the definite person becomes another person in need.)
Then Fr. Shoemaker knew what all sound psychology teaches us, that one of the three things most needed in our lives is a sense that our lives have meaning and purpose. He told us that in recovery, we are:
“Armed with that fortifying [strengthening] sense that we are cooperating with God and doing the work which of all work [God] most wants done.” 78
I could hear that thought echo scripture tonight when Dottie read the reading from Isaiah, “Awake, awake, put on your strength”! (Isa 51)
And since you have all gathered here in a church tonight, here is what Fr. Shoemaker tells us about Church:
Sam taught: “We need the Church—need its irksome discipline as well as its inspiring teaching—and not less the Church needs us.” 69
How many ever stopped to think the Church might need us!
And he added: “There is no greater testing place of character, especially of the disposition which is able to work with others, than the fellowship of the Church.” 69
As I come to a close tonight, I want to say a word to those of you already in Recovery; remember this: the fellowship of the program is meant to lead us to the fellowship of the spirit. In the Fellowship of the Spirit, then, let me close with Fr. Shoemaker’s invitation to all of us…to you tonight…and invitation I repeat with fervent hope that you will take it to heart:
God will always give the regeneration we want . . . God has a great spiritual experience and destiny to which [God] calls you, if only you will rise up to receive it.
Sermon from 1-22-2017, Epiphany 3A
Preached by the Rev Benedict Varnum at St Augustine of Canterbury in Elkhorn, NE
Have you had any conversations about unity and division this past week?
There’s a great hymn, In Christ There is No East nor West — Hymn 529 in the Hymnal in front of you. Its second lyric — “In Christ no south or north” might sound like a direct reminder of the US Civil War, and for years I assumed that was why the hymn was written.
But I looked it up this week and I was wrong. Turns out, the text of this hymn was a poem by a British poet writing under the pen name “John Oxenham,” originally for a gathering on the theme of The Orient in London. That is, it was written to reflect on the unity between Eastern and Western influences in British public life, in the earliest days of the 1900s, as cultures clashed and reconciled. The music was added in 1925.
There’s a story, perhaps true, that during WWII, two ships containing, respectively, Japanese and American alienated persons about to be re-patriated, were anchored alongside one another, their occupants glaring across the waters … until someone took up this hymn, and suddenly both sides began singing it back and forth (Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories).
The words from the full hymn are drawn from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in the Bible — 3:28, in which Paul writes There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. That, of course, was one of the most powerful messages of the early days of the Gospel, and one we still need to hear.
But where we hear the echoes of the North and South in the US Civil War, the earliest followers of Jesus might have heard echoes of the “North” and “South” they knew as well.
What you may know (or may have forgotten) about the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, is that way back in the First Book of Kings, there’s the story of how the Twelve Tribes that God brought out of Egypt became divided, later, into two kingdoms. This is in 1 Kings 12, and it is one of the pivotal scriptures of the Old Testament. It describes how ten of the twelve tribes became the Northern Kingdom of Israel, while two in the South remained the Kingdom of Judah — from which the words “Jew” and “Jewish” come.
The Northern Kingdom included the kingdoms of Zebulun and Napthali. There they were, up north of Jerusalem, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, later generations would call this the region of Galilee … which is why the prophecy in Isaiah speaks of “Zebulun and Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles.” And when Isaiah was writing, he was writing with an awareness that Zebulun and Naphtali were among the first to fall to the Assyrian Empire that came. Isaiah was providing both the ancient and the contemporary names. Which means that in 740 BC, when Isaiah was writing, those were already old names.
So why does Matthew use them?
Because Jesus didn’t come for Judah in the South.
And Jesus didn’t come for Israel in the North.
Jesus came for all of the People of God. And Matthew — the Gospeller most in touch with his Jewish history and tradition — wants us to realize that this means God has come for the Lost Tribes, too, and not only the people of his nation.
This is the Jesus that John the Baptist proclaimed before his ministry began. John warned the Pharisees — the leaders of religion in his nation — that “God can raise up children to Abraham,” even from the stones of the River Jordan where he worked and taught. That is, being part of the tribe of Judah isn’t what saves you: God’s love, told by the Gospel of Jesus, is. That story is right before today’s readings, there in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3.
This is the Jesus who came to gather all of us. He taught (in Luke 15) that the shepherd of 100 sheep will come and find even one that goes astray, or that a woman with a fortune of 10 coins will sweep out everything in her house to shine light on the floor and find even one that is lost.
This is the Jesus who traveled through the land of Samaria, unclean to Jews living under the ancient law, and he spoke to Samaritans. He spoke to women in public, also a forbidden action. He used Samaritans as an example of how to be faithful to God, to remind people that it is our actions, and not our ancestry, that unite us as a witness to God’s love and the Gospel that Jesus brought.
This is the Jesus who came and dwelled in Capernaum, in Galilee, in Zebulun and Naphtali — which are all names for places in that region north of Jerusalem by the Sea of Galilee — so that those who heard him would realize that the ten lost tribes were not to be lost any longer. All of God’s people are to be gathered back under the Good Shepherd.
So. Have you had any conversations about unity and division this past week?
Paul wrote to the earliest Church in Corinth in dismay at their divisions. He asked them, “Has Christ been divided?” He asks why they say “I belong to Paul,” or “Apollos” (a Greek name), or “Cephas” (which is the Aramaic name for “Peter,” with both words meaning “rock.”).
We might as readily ask of our divisions today: do some of us say, “I belong to Hillary?” and others “I belong to Sanders,” and others “I belong to Trump?”
But Paul might ask us, “Has Christ been divided?”
For none of these is the Messiah. None of these is the Christ. None of these is the shepherd who seeks to gather all together. And surely the Christ who spoke the Gospel to all, who forgave all from the Cross, is as much the Christ of those who are dismayed by Trump’s behavior as the Christ of those who feel that they were left behind these past eight years. Christ is the Shepherd of ALL sheep.
The name above all other names, as Paul reminded the Corinthians and the Phillippians and others, is Jesus Christ.
And today we hear the story from Matthew’s Gospel of how Jesus Christ calls us. How he began to call people to himself. The first moments in which he began the great work of gathering all people together again:
Jesus saw Simon-Peter, and Andrew, and called them to come with him. He told them “I will make you fishers of people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And he called to James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, and they left their father in the boat and followed him.
We are invited to take that journey too. We are invited to follow along with the Christ who went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
You, and I, are invited to let go of the fishing nets we think we need to sustain our way of life, and risk everything to follow the one who can teach us to make one another our life’s work instead. To become fishers of people.
We can let go of the nets that we use to ensnare and tangle one another in order to feed ourselves, and instead find true relationship with one another. We’ve known how to use those nets for all our lives, and they are familiar, and trusted, and have fed us this far. But they’re not the tools Jesus will teach us to use.
Because we are divided right now … just like Simon-Peter and Andrew and James and John once were. These and the other disciples were divided then! They argued about who Jesus was. They argued about which of them was the greatest disciple (Jesus once famously stopped them on the road to call them out about that!). They argued after Jesus rose into heaven about whether the Gospel was only for Jews or whether it was for Gentiles also. They had to come to terms with the question of whether they could trust their own unity in Christ.
But the great question for us now is whether we can hold to a greater unity than our divisions: the unity of understanding that we are all following Jesus?
In his sermon on the occasion of Tony Anderson’s ordination this past week, Bishop Barker preached about the division we find our country in: in which some find the character of the president-elect so reproachable that they cannot imagine that he will govern on behalf of all Americans … while others find the systems of power in our government to be so corrupt that they believe the act of voting for someone who promises to change them — however imperfect he may be himself — is an act of true patriotism.
I know that we reflect that exact diversity. And this is a serious spiritual challenge to our community: whether we can remain a loving family, committed to one another and to the Gospel of Jesus, in the face of our disagreements here.
Friends, brothers and sisters: I believe we can make it. I believe we have been building up the strength we will need for this journey day by day and year by year over the decades that this church has stood. Where we have learned how to work together in small ways, we will know how to work together in greater ones. And where we have weathered small disagreements, we will learn how to heal from larger ones.
God has taught us, over time, the way to succeed. That way involves placing Jesus and his Gospel first. That is always a step that guides us, and disrupts our allegiance to any earthly power or movement that falls short of God’s love, which includes all.
And it involves us really listening to each other. We need to be able to speak what is in our hearts, and hear what is in one another’s. We may not all be able to do that right away: this is a discipline, and it will take practice. It means listening without hoping to argue or change — only to understand. That’s a risk … but risks are the only thing that can deepen relationships, and deeper relationships are the only thing that can heal real division.
We may not always be sure whether someone wants to hear what we have to say, but we can take the risk of trusting them to hear it and still care about us, even if they disagree.
We may step on one another’s toes now and then … but wouldn’t we rather do that in honest daylight through trying to talk to each other?
And if we listen to God, maybe we can have conversations about unity and division that help us heal, instead of lament. That help us connect, instead of build barriers. That help us love, instead of shout down.
So maybe today is the day that you can drop the net that you think you need. Maybe today is the day to get out of the boat that represents one way of life, and once again take up the journey that follows Jesus. Maybe today is the day that you become a fisher of people — waiting to see what you can gather from the stories of the people around you … not so you can gobble them up and feed yourself, but so that you can be amazed by how many beautiful people and stories God has placed in the world.
Maybe as we travel ahead towards Lent and then Easter in these coming months, you can follow Jesus through Galilee, and Samaria, and Judah, and on into Jerusalem, carrying a Gospel too powerful to be destroyed by any Cross … even the cross of our own divided moment today.
So let us give thanks today, for a Christ who cares for the Northern Kingdom, as well as the Southern. For peoples from the East, as well as the West. And may you be heartened to follow him, today and always.
Cold December flies away
at the rose-red splendor.
April’s crowning glory breaks
while the whole world wonders
at the holy unseen pow’r
of the tree which bears the flow’r.
On the blessed tree
blooms the reddest flow’r.
On the tree blooms the rose
here in love’s own garden,
full and strong in glory.*
Christmas comes at the darkest time of year—just days after the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. For a number of months, the dark of night has been encroaching on the daylight, building to the solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. But thereafter, the daylight begins to chase the darkness of the night away. Light makes its grand re-entry. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined,” says the prophet. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them,” says the Gospel writer. Into the midst of the darkness comes the Light, chasing cold December and its shadows away; into the midst of the darkness, “April’s crowning glory breaks”—the Light of Easter shines—“while the whole world wonders.” Oh God,” we pray, “you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true light.” Jesus, the Light of the world, is born!
In the hopeless time of sin
shadows deep had fallen.
All the world lay under death.
Eyes were closed in sleeping.
But when all seemed lost in night,
came the sun whose golden light
brings unending joy,
brings the endless joy
of our hope, highest hope,
of our hope’s bright dawning,
Son belov’d of heaven.*
A recent study of the effects of terror attacks on people found there are two primary emotional responses to the attacks: anger, which can have the effect of short-circuiting one’s nuanced thinking processes, causing people to lash out with brash and irrational words and actions against the perpetrators of the terror; and fear, which can be debilitating, leaving people immobilized and victimized. Neither of these responses is surprising; in fact, in our present world—in this “hopeless time of sin”—such emotions seem to be the norm. Wars and rumors of wars, economic inequality, terror attacks, and natural disasters caused by a changing climate leave us angry and fearful. But it’s not just brokenness on a global scale that elicits these emotions in us. Brokenness in ourselves and our families and friends also call up anger and fear: broken and hurting relationships; grief that will not heal; disease that threatens our very lives; captivity to addictions that have stolen loved ones from us. Yet, into the brokenness of the world a ray of hope has shined—shined so brightly, in fact, that the angel’s words of comfort are as timely and relevant to us as to the shepherds that night, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”; unending joy, endless joy “of our hope, highest hope, of our hope’s bright dawning, Son belov’d from heaven.” “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” On this night we discover that anger is not the final word; fear is not the final word; hope is. Oh God,” we pray, “you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true light.” Jesus, the Light of the world, is born!
Now the bud has come to bloom,
and the world awakens.
In the lily’s purest flow’r
dwells a wondrous fragrance.
And it spreads to all the earth
from the moment of its birth;
and its beauty lives.
In the flow’r it lives,
in the flow’r, and it spreads
in its heav’nly brightness
sweet perfume delightful.*
Oh God,” we pray, “you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true light”—you have caused this holy night to be fragrant with the sweet perfume of the purest flow’r. Jesus, the Light of the world, the lily’s purest flow’r, is born! Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+
Church of Our Savior, North Platte
*Catalonian Carol; tr. Howard Hawhee, b. 1953.
December 4th, 2016
St. Martin of Tours, Omaha
One of our family holiday traditions is watching the movie Muppet Christmas Carol together. I have to confess that there’s a moment in it when Michael Caine, who plays Scrooge, makes me cry every year—and makes my kids roll their eyes at me, of course. The Ghost of Christmas past has been showing Scrooge events from his youth, most of them happy, but then Scrooge is taken to the scene in which he turns away from the love of his fiancée, one final time, and gives his life over completely to his greed. As the young woman walks away, the young Scrooge sets his jaw in determination to excel in his life of commerce—but the old Scrooge, watching, sobs, tears running down his face. This is the first time in the story that Scrooge, I believe, experiences a recognition of what he has lost, and experiences repentance for his life of sin—the first time in the movie when he not only feels remorse and sorrow, but begins to open his heart and turn away from the path he’s on. It is this—acknowledgement, sorrow, and turning away—that John the Baptist calls to us about from the wilderness.
What was John doing out in the wilderness in the first place? We might be tempted to picture a pastoral scene when we hear this—you know, maybe John was out inviting people to come center themselves and practice “mindfulness” and that sort of thing—to escape the hustle and bustle of their daily grind and find some peace. Well, that’s not what this wilderness was like, literally or figuratively. First of all, you should picture not a nature trail but the desert; the wilderness of Judea is a harsh, hostile, unfriendly and dangerous place. Second, the wilderness for an ancient Jew was a place that reminded them of their wanderings after leaving Egypt. God had freed them from bondage under the rule of Pharaoh, but almost as soon as they left, the Israelites were full of fear, and they disobeyed God’s instructions. Even though they had been led by the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day, even though the sea had parted before them and crashed back upon the chariots of Pharaoh’s army, they lost faith.
What did the Israelites do while Moses was on Mount Sinai getting the tables of law that sealed their covenant with God? They gave up and went back to their old ways and created a golden calf to worship. God’s people had to learn to trust and obey God, and to learn this, they were sent to wander in the wilderness for forty years. John called the people of his day to see that they, too, had given up and given in, replacing God’s ways with their own ways; he called them to see that it was time to return back to the desert, to come into the wilderness, to confess their sins, and to find their faith in God renewed. John called the people to repent.
“Repent” is not a word we hear in our culture these days, but this “turning back” or “turning around” in order to turn away from sin is what repentance is all about. Repentance includes being sorry, but the act of repentance is not only about sorrow and remorse. It is not simply an acknowledgment of guilt and wrong-doing, but also an active turning away from sin and a turning towards God. Repentance is not just a change of mind (that is, admitting our sin)—it’s a change of heart, too. Repentance captures part of the essence of the faith/works mystery we hear about in chapter two of James’ Epistle: Faith without works is dead; remorse without repentance is dead as well. In turning to God we accept God’s grace and forgiveness, and start better to walk in God’s ways rather than in our old sinful ways. To be clear: repentance is not about our ability to be good and worthy—it’s about God’s transforming power, and God’s desire to align our lives with the life of Jesus.
This transforming power is why we remember John not as “John the prophet”—but as “John the Baptist.” The people who came out to hear John, being Jews, were inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham. It had become easy for them to believe that their connection with this past guaranteed their connection with God—but John, in an in-your-face kind of way, scoffs at this: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In today’s Gospel John isn’t just calling people to come out into the wilderness and confess their sins, he’s baptizing them, having them act out the washing away of their sins and their return to a more active connection with God. And John says he points the way to One who brings an even more powerful baptism—a baptism that is more than symbolic—a baptism that brings the Holy Spirit and Fire.
Advent is a time to remember our own baptism—when Christ claimed us, joined us to God through himself, saved us through his atoning sacrifice, and imparted the fire of Pentecost Spirit upon us. Advent preparation is a time to remember, refocus and reclaim the baptism vows we all made—to prepare the way for Christ’s return by fulfilling our promises “to resist evil and to repent from it,…to share the Good News,… to serve Christ in all people,… and to strive for justice and peace.”
Christmas will come in a few weeks, bringing our remembrance and celebration of the birth of Jesus, the manger, the shepherds, the sheep, the star, the “Silent night.” However, Christmas is not the ending of the story but the beginning, and Advent preparation is, in part, our reminder of another night, not so silent, that led to arrest, the cross, and the grave. It is a mistake to come to the Christmas manger without at the same time coming to the Cross. God led Israel out of bondage, but Israel strayed from the path and wandered until it found trust and obedience. The first century Jews had forgotten God’s command to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly; they stopped “bearing good fruit” and relied just on their past, relying just on Abraham’s obedience and not their own. John called them into the wilderness to not just to remember, but to repent.
It’s so easy in our culture for us, today, to forget our promise to be God’s light in the darkness, to be God’s counter-cultural people who seek justice for the alien and the outcast, to be those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked. It’s so very easy for us to escape into the self-centered comfort of shopping and sentimentality. I was baptized, I was “adopted into the household of God” – Christmas reminds me of that and makes me feel all safe and loved and child-like, right at home there with that sweet little baby Jesus in the manger. (Well, except maybe I’d need the new Sealy Posturepedic comfort-dial mattress that’s on sale with free delivery at the Furniture Mart instead of all that itchy straw…) Christmas is full of nostalgia. But nostalgia is not preparation—nostalgia is feeling good about what used to be (or feeling good about our dream of what used to be). Advent, on the other hand, is a season for repentance of what used to be, and a demand to change what is now, in the present, and a call to prepare for the future. Advent is an opportunity to consider how much in my own life I really am working (or not) to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before God. Not enough…some days barely at all…I’m too busy—and perhaps, like Scrooge, too blinded by my own materialism. This self-centered blindness is all wrapped up in a pretty Christmas bow, so it doesn’t seem as corrupt as Scrooge’s—but I fear it has taken over my heart just the same as it did his.
So I invite us all, this Advent season, to journey into John’s wilderness, away from the easy, wandering path that winds past the antique, animatronic scenes in the shopping mall windows, past the free shipping promotions on Amazon.com, past the same, inescapable, endlessly repeating thirty-five songs. I invite us to journey into the wilderness and then to seek out the more difficult and dangerous, the straighter, path. It’s a path that might bring tears of repentance to my eyes for the realities that actually were. It’s a path that might bring tears of repentance for the sins that actually are—my own. The Ghost brought Scrooge to scenes of his past and his repentance didn’t just change his mind—it changed his heart—it changed his life. John the Baptist stands in the desert, calling to the people of Israel to see themselves not with nostalgia, but with the critical eye of repentance. John the Baptist calls to us today: “See where you came from; see how you lost your way; see where it got you; look where you’re headed now. Repent. Make your path straight, for the Kingdom of Heaven is nearby and the Lord is coming soon.” I pray that you and I can know that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that our hearts will be opened, and our lives will be transformed, by John’s call this Advent season. Amen
– Keith Winton
Two TV moments to start this morning. Sixteen years ago at this time, after George W. Bush and Al Gore had fought through a bitter and mean campaign (it seems pretty mild now), the country waited weeks and weeks to sort out what was essentially a dead tie between the candidates. Cynicism about politicians and Washington had been growing for a while, and seemed universal. NBC’s “The West Wing” was just hitting its stride. Against the backdrop of an election scene that looked a little like a circus, and then as the country started to become more and more fractured, “The West Wing” provided us with a sort of alternate political reality, where President Josiah Bartlett and his team united a country with integrity and a commitment to service that seemed both pleasantly old-fashioned and hopefully forward thinking.
Fast forward to today, and in the aftermath of this year’s bitter and mean campaign, I’ve been watching the Netflix original series “The Crown,” which traces the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth II from her ascension as a young woman in the late 1940s. In one of the early episodes, Elizabeth is seeking advice at the bedside of her sick grandmother. The older woman leans in and says forcefully, “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to bring grace and dignity to the earth. It gives ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives.” Her point is that the monarchy serves as a grounding point for English identity, an anchor of stability and history in the midst of a rapidly changing world, and a British empire coming apart at the seams.
Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, which since the early twentieth century has been celebrated as the feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King to remind a divided Europe in the aftermath of World War I of their common allegiance to Christ rather than to any earthly ruler.
It’s a feast that seems as relevant and important today as it did in the 1920s, and I think the alternate reality of “The West Wing” and the Crown’s ideal to strive towards can help us make sense of what it might mean for us today.
Our gospel lesson today gives us a sense of what the ideal Christ our king sets for us might be. Here is Jesus in the most unlikely position for a monarch: being executed alongside common criminals as an enemy of the state. Three times Jesus is mocked and challenged to save himself, and three times he forgives and embraces his tormentors. While the nations and kingdoms of the world are ruled by force and intimidation, our kingdom is ruled by a king who suffers alongside us, a king who uses his power to dispense boundless mercy, who promises paradise to criminals and outcasts. When Jesus was handed all the power in the universe, he didn’t choose to simply be the biggest king with the biggest empire, he chose to give his power away in love, he chose to use his power to upend all the ways we normally organize kingdoms.
Our king provides an ideal to strive toward, a grounding point for our identity, but it is an ideal of service, and mercy, and love, and peace. It’s an ideal of loving rather than winning. It’s an ideal of being merciful. It’s an ideal of standing with those who are cast out. Our king rescues us from the power of darkness by turning the order of a dark world on its head.
“The West Wing” provided a different way of imagining one season of our nation’s history. But, of course, it was fantasy and escape. The alternative kingdom we belong to—the Kingdom of God—is actually more real and more true than the darkness we currently see. Our job is to make what seems like a different and fantastical reality shine through that darkness, until it turns the whole world to Christ’s light.
In the coming months and years, there will be no easy or cheap healing of the deep and complex divisions among us in this country. I’ve heard from so many people who I love, who I work with, that the immigrants, refugees, gays, lesbian, and transgender persons, and so many others who were targeted by hateful rhetoric in this campaign are scared about what happens next. That the election came out the way it did suggests there’s a whole lot of people in our country who are angry they’ve been overlooked and ignored and dismissed. Others are simply tired of hearing about it, and simply want to move on.
I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out, but wherever a person falls on that spectrum on this day, the call to us is the same. On the feast of Christ the King, we are invited simply to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, not as a doctrine or a belief or a religion, but as a way of life. We are invited to renew our commitment to living the way Jesus lived and taught, and to renew our allegiance to the kingdom his life announced. We are called to make Jesus’ way of standing with the suffering, solidarity with the marginalized and threatened, offering peace at every turn, the ideal we strive towards, the thing that lifts us out of our ordinary lives.
But then we are challenged to help make this other kingdom a reality here and now. We are challenged to ask ourselves: what is one thing we can do today, or this week, to wave the flag of Christ’s kingdom? How can I stand with the suffering? Where can I offer forgiveness?
The good news today, and every day, is that no matter what happens in our lives, in our nation, or in our world, God has already overcome the powers of darkness and sin and death. “He has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The resurrection assures us that’s a done deal. Our job is to use whatever life we have to offer that promise to those who are still trapped in darkness, until the kingdom of life and light and love appears in its glorious fullness. Amen.
– The Very Rev. Craig Loya
The End of Ordinary Time
November 13, 2016
Jesus said, “You will be brought before kings and governors on account of my name. Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist.”
– Luke 21:12-15
For months and months we have been journeying through the longest season of the Church year – the period between the Feast of Pentecost and the beginning of the season of Advent which Church calendars call simply, “Ordinary Time.” During this long season we have read through almost the entire Gospel of Luke. And our Gospel readings each Sunday morning have told us of both the actions Jesus took during his life on earth and the words of the teachings that he shared during his ministry:
If you have faith just the size of a mustard seed – you could throw a tree into the ocean.
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; but those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Love God with all your heart and soul and mind; love your neighbor as yourself.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
These are just some of the wonderful- and still surprising and challenging teachings – which we have encountered during this long season.
Like Christians the world over, it’s a sure bet each one of us has gone out from our church these past months – and in our own little way – attempted the difficult task of following Christ by living into the things he teaches us. This is exciting and exhilarating work. I heard from Father Jerry about the refugee family recently adopted and settled by the people of Saint Mark’s. What an amazing service of Christ in “the least of these” for those who participated in that ministry. Others of your number have cared for friends and neighbors in trouble: you’ve visited someone at the hospital, written a check to a local charity, you’ve made a casserole for a family who needed a helping hand. I imagine some of you have stepped up your commitment to prayer this year, read the Bible more diligently perhaps, maybe helped out here at church setting up for worship or reading during the service.
Though I am not here nearly often enough, I know how you roll. I am sure there have been many wonderful acts of faithfulness and love around here these past few months, all flowing from your sincere efforts to follow the teachings of Jesus we have explored together during this “ordinary time.” My brothers and sisters, we have come to the end of ordinary time.
I followed the election returns on Tuesday night from a remote retreat center in Northern California. I was in the company of my clergy colleague group, with whom I meet twice every year for mutual support, encouragement and accountability. As it happens there was no TV where we were gathered, so we watched on our phones and laptops as the evening unfolded. It was, as you know, a long night. Not quite as long in California where the time change is two hours to the good for late night TV viewing, but still, long. By the time the election’s result finally became apparent, at the turn from Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, we were pooped.
My friends were utterly surprised by the election results. They were confident of a Clinton victory from the outset, and even as the evening wore on, they continued to track the ways that Hillary might still pull it off, even as the paths to her victory became more and more byzantine, and less and less probable.
But If my pals were surprised by what happened on Tuesday, I was not. Nebraska is emphatically not the Bay Area (or New York City or Boston) the kinds of places where most of those colleagues live and work. I have been listening to Nebraska Episcopalians talk with interest about candidate Trump for the better part of a year, and to pass the time driving, I have been inventorying the surplus of Trump signs and the scarcity of Clinton signs out in greater Nebraska for months. I knew what my clergy colleagues did not: that there were a lot people just like you and me who were intending to vote for The Donald.
That we might have seen this election result coming does not make it any easier for those who did not vote for the winner, and in the days since the election, we’re seeing – and hearing from – an electorate that continues on angry, strident, and more deeply divided than ever. It is a situation that fairly begs this question: what do we do now? And specifically, for all of us here at Saint Mark’s this morning – both supporters and detractors of the president elect – what are we as followers of Jesus supposed to do now?
I submit to you that what we “do now” is not different in any way at all from what we’re always called to do as Christians engaging the realm of worldly politics.
First – we will pray. We will pray for our new commander-in-chief – as we would any president of these United States. In our Prayers of the People, starting now, we will pray for our “President-Elect Donald,” and we’ll switch that language up to praying for our “President Donald” beginning on January 20th. It matters not a whit whether you are delighted or dismayed that he will be our President. Our prayers are the same in either case: we will pray that he exercises wisdom, self control – and that he has a heart for – and compassion upon – all the people of this land. We will ask God to guide and protect him just as we would any new President.
First, we will pray for Donald Trump. And if you are unhappy that he is your president, then out of devotion to the one who teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, you should pray for him all the more often … and all the more sincerely.
Second, we will hold him to account. We will hold him to account as we would any President of these United States. President elect Trump said some outlandish and offensive things during the campaign. He demonized immigrants, belittled those with disabilities … he lied about his past. He so slandered women that if I were to quote him verbatim from this pulpit this morning, I am quite certain you would be within your rights to bring me up on charges under the disciplinary canons of the Church. Clearly Mr. Trump was not his best self when he said such things. And he did real harm with that rhetoric. If he should continue to make these kind of statements – words blatantly antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus (or God forbid should he attempt to pass laws to actually bring some of these offensive impulses into being) then you and I must hold him to account.
Understand brothers and sisters that this is not about political party or preference. Jesus has nothing to say about whether our government should be big or small, about whether highly regulated or lightly regulated business would be best for the commonweal, about what trade policies his followers should embrace or whether Supreme Court justices should strictly interpret the Constitution. You just feel free to choose. Go for it.
But as disciples of Jesus Christ you have made certain commitments that are simply not negotiable if you would have integrity about your walk of faith. You have promised – every one of you that you will seek and serve Christ in all persons. You have promised, every one of you, that you will love your neighbor as yourself. You have promised, every one, that you will respect the dignity of every human being, without exception.
It is to our shame that we too often and for too long have neglected these responsibilities and failed to keep these promises. It is to our shame that we have been sitting on the sidelines while any number of our political leaders and government policies have done harm to those who need our best care, protection and support. It is time for some repentance and amendment of life.
I wonder if it might not be a blessing in disguise that many of us have been toppled this week from the comfortable place of privilege where we’ve been perched for so long. I wonder if the fear some of us are coping with this week isn’t akin to the fear a Muslim woman feels when she wears her hijab in certain parts of the country … or the fear an African American mom feels when she sends her boy out to do an errand in the car at night … or the fear a trans man feels when he has to go to a public bathroom … or the fear a working class family feels when a parent loses a job and a family loses health insurance. How fortunate that so many of us have not been gripped by such fear … and so have not had to worry about fighting the people and the structures that perpetuate such injustices.
It is time for that to change. We will hold our new President – and all our political leaders – to account. Because we are disciples. Because we are followers of Jesus.
You wish to know where to begin. “What can I do this day,” you wonder. Well let’s start right here. First, join me in a few moments in repeating the promises of your Baptismal covenant. Reaffirm those promises with your biggest voices and your best intentions. When I ask if you “will persevere in resisting evil” and will “seek and serve Christ in all person,” answer like you mean it.
Then, start keeping those promises, right here and right now. This election season – and its aftermath thus far – have revealed that our country is deeply, deeply divided in the way we diagnose our challenges, and in the way we’d hope to prescribe solutions to our problems.
You can begin to heal those divisions today by letting go of the subtly prejudiced presumption that your world view and politics are the best, and that the person beside you surely shares all of your experiences and your beliefs. We are not all the same. We share different histories and aspirations, different passions and weaknesses, different challenges and dreams. How in the world is it that we were surprised that half the country voted differently than we did this past week?
All we have in common for certain in this place, are the complimentary truths we affirm every time we gather as the people of God and the body of Christ:
We are all sinners who fall short of being the glorious creation God made us to be.
And we put our trust in Jesus for guidance, forgiveness … and salvation.
Let’s start our work by healing the breach between us, which we have the power to do because of our common shared faith in the Son of God.
You do good work. You’ve practiced long and hard – in and from this place – to be loving brothers and sisters to one another, and kind caretakers of your friends and neighbors in need. But a new day has come. We have new and more challenging work before us. Work that in all fairness to our president-elect, has been building for some long time now. It will be hard. This morning’s Gospel reminds us that there are times when being a disciple of Jesus will mean risking persecution, even and explicitly taking on “kings and governors” in his name. But he bids us to be firm, confident, and fearless. He promises to show us the way, to give us the right words to say and to accompany us as we journey ahead.
When during World War II in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer took on the escalating culture of violence, fascism and bigotry out of his Christian conviction he wrote:
“We are not [called] to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
That’s where we are this morning my dear brothers and sisters. Ordinary time is over. The time has come to speak up. The time has come to go to work.
+ Bishop J.S. Barker
Take “Me” Out …
I’m not the world’s biggest sports fan, and I have plenty of grumpy, fussy things to say about the salaries professional athletes are paid for our entertainment in an age where we still have trouble finding the social will to fund schools and medical clinics.
But tabling all of that for a moment, I’ll admit that I’m also a guy who lived in Chicago for ten years. And even the hardest-hearted grump can’t help but get swept up into an awareness of the Cubs curse (the owner of the Billy Goat tavern brought a live goat to a 1945 World Series Game, was kicked out because the goat smelled awful, and swore the Cubs wouldn’t win any longer).
I watched Game 7 of the World Series this past week, with all its Disney-finale movements back and forth. And this morning, talking with Mary Jane Smith here at church, we got to reflecting on Aroldis Chapman.
Now, again, I’m not a huge sports fan. I hadn’t been following the highly-technical pitching theories about who you use when, how much rest pitchers need, how many pitches someone ought to throw, etc. But I picked up enough from the announcers to understand that Aroldis is a heavyweight, brought in for big moments, and that he’d carried a huge load in games 5 and 6. Last night, for game 7, the Cubs brought him in to seal the deal in the bottom of the eighth inning, standing on a two-run lead.
Except Aroldis didn’t close the game. He actually opened it up wide open again, as almost immediately batters hit on him and made up the runs, tying the game in the bottom of the eighth. As the game was put on rain delay after a still-tied ninth inning, announcers reported that Aroldis was crying as he walked into the dugout.
I can’t imagine the pressure that’s put on one man in his late twenties, when millions of people are watching, millions of dollars of endorsements and salaries for himself, his club, and his teammates are on the line, and the results of a few dozen pitches may have endangered a victory that seemed well in reach.
But what was really heartening was watching the rest of the team step up. Instead of a game being finished by a superstar titan, looming heroically above the deeds of merely mortal men, we watched a wearied pitcher make fatigued mistakes, putting the outcome back into play for either team.
And then the Cubs had to work for it.
And so it was that the team’s batting line-up had to work the bats and the bases to find go-ahead runs again. It took Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero hitting strong to bring in two runs in the tenth. And then the unlikely Mike Montgomery was brought out to work the final pitches to the final out and close the game.
A friend noted that even the last toss that snagged the final out of the game was thrown with a slipping foot. A conclusion full of imperfect grace and much-needed teamwork on a field half-protected from rain after a 17-minute delay. Not with a bang, but a whimper, as the poet says.
I can’t help but think that many of the great works of churches are like this. We have stories of great miracles; we have the astonishing sign of the Resurrection; we have the world-shaking power of God the Almighty to confess. We have seen the witness of heroic saints in every age, who proclaimed by mighty acts and deeds a fearless faith, seeming perfect and glorious in their surety and confidence and commitment.
And yet so much of our faith is worked out in quiet moments with other people, imperfectly and unheroically. So much of our faith has a slipping foot, after a comeback that depends on other people, to arrive late in the night after a wearying journey that called for unknown gifts brought forth by leaps of faith. So much of our faith arrives, breathless, after a journey we’d never have predicted.
We’re a team. Well, rather, we’re a body – no less than the Body of Christ. And Christ has made it perfectly clear that however scarred that body is, it will still be Risen, too. However tormented we make it, and however mocked, that Body is the message of love God sends into the world as a witness to its many parts. However different the eye is from the hand, they need each other, whether or not they can understand each other.
There are curses WE still need to break. We need to break the curse of racism, and sexism, and xenophobia. We need to break the curse that lifts up any particular human wisdom over the love and grace and forgiveness that God calls us to. We need to break all sorts of curses that call on us to create divisions from one another, rather than recognizing all the world as beloved children that God has demanded we call “Neighbor.” And some of these curses have a history stretching much farther back than a mere 108 years.
But when we arrive at our victory, it won’t be because a single human being has stood on the mound, throwing thunderous pitch after thunderous pitch past batters who had no chance of hitting them. Rather, it will be because the grace of God in all of us has let us each offer some small gift that we’ve been blessed with, some piece of the holy story of reconciliation and repentance, back into a hurting world that is healed and made whole piece by piece when we offer it our gifts and love.
I love our lineup here at Saint Augustine’s. I’ve seen all sorts of star plays by our people here as we celebrate the worship of God, reach out our hands in help and support of our neighbors and our communities, and teach ourselves and our children more about Jesus. I’ve seen relief pitchers step up to spell tired arms. I’ve seen people swing for the fences and place strategic bunts to help others. I’ve seen people tag up at base after a fly ball to make sure we move forward safely. And I’ve seen us win together. I can’t wait to see what we’ve got ready for next season.
So take me out to the ballgame. And then take “me” out, that God might work through me instead.
– Fr. Benedict Varnum
Holy Trinity – Lincoln
October 7, 2016
Jesus said, “Again, truly I tell you … where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I will be in the midst of them.”
– Matthew 18:20
Episcopalians may not always as biblically literate as we ought, but the words Jesus offers this evening are surely some of those that we know best and by heart. Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst them.
This idea informs our sacramental theology. We believe that Jesus is present in the rites of the Church – and especially in the sacrament of Holy Communion – in part because we believe these words to be true.
- This idea informs our ecclesiology – our understanding of what it means to be “church.” We believe that when we gather in the name of Jesus we actually become the body of Christ and that in no small part because of what Jesus says tonight.
- And maybe most of all – at the level of what we do and how we live day-in-and day-out as his disciples, we cherish the words of Jesus tonight because they offer hope when our efforts seem too modest or too small or too humble to really matter.
We take heart in this promise that he will be with us!
- Don’t worry if only three people come to the Bible study!
- Don’t despair when Morning Prayer is read for two!
- Don’t give up if the new church supper only turns out the usual suspects!
Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst them.
I love teaching about holy meetings. I actually got onto this because of a speaker I heard at an Annual Council of the Diocese of Nebraska probably 20 years ago. That person gave a superb presentation on how to help insure that church meetings were of an entirely different character than the rest of the meetings in our lives. I’ve never forgotten it.
Building on what I learned way back then, part of what I teach about how to run a holy meeting is to notice the affirmation we heard from Jesus tonight, and to take him at his word! IF we invite him, intentionally and by his name, Jesus will come. One key ingredient to making a meeting “holy” is to gather in the name of Jesus. I urge folks to do that by way of a prayer at the start of every church meeting of any sort. “We gather in the name of Jesus – and affirm that he is here with us.” That’s a huge start at making a meeting holy.
But the name of Jesus is not a magic talisman. And we’d be off base to think that Jesus is obligated to appear in our midst whenever we wish for him to come around.
Jesus is not Aladdin’s Genie, calling on his name is not like rubbing the lamp. If we would experience the presence of Christ when we call on him, our obligation runs deeper than merely saying his name. Jesus will show up – wonderfully, reliably and consistently to be sure – but only when in addition to calling out his name, we act like people gathered in that name!
Our new Presiding Bishop talks about the way of Jesus – and so the life of the Church – as being “loving, liberating and life-giving.” That seems like a terrific recipe for how we’re called to be if we would truly “gather” as disciples, and so be able to count on the person of Christ becoming present to us when we assemble in his name. This seems like a good roadmap for how to act as people who want to meet Jesus. Let us be loving, liberating and life-giving.
“Loving” is about how we treat one another. Loving in the fashion that will make Jesus present means looking for his image in those we’d normally cast out … it means forgiving those who have wronged us and acknowledging that every member of the human creation is made in God’s image … it means sharing generously with every neighbor from the gifts God has given to our care.
“Liberating” is about how we will be in the world. Being liberators means feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the environment – and tending to those in pain. Being liberators means fearlessly critiquing societal structures that privilege some at the expense of others, and doing our part to fight for all God’s children regardless of race, class, ethnicity or even religious preference.
And “Life-Giving,” it seems to me, is about embracing the sobering fact that as beings created in the image of God, it is possible – even demanded of us – that we act as co-creators with God. We are called to work together with the Creator to build a society that looks like the kingdom God intends. We are called to help give life to the world.
Marianne Williamson is famous for putting that truth and our attendant responsibility in this way:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate [but] that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine … we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
Being “life giving” means shining with the glory of being created in God’s image.
What a terrific recipe for how-to “gather” as followers of Jesus and so be able to count on the person of Christ becoming present to us when we assemble in his name. Can we be loving, liberating and life-giving disciples?
Now let me tell you why I think we absolutely need to do this work. Let me tell you why all this matters. It matters because when things go right in the Church – when we see joyful and even miraculous results for our efforts at following Jesus, it is always because we are acting in this way. And when things go wrong in the church – when we fail as disciples – it is usually because we’re not acting in this way!
A whole lot of what lands on the desk of the bishop are “problems.” Those problems run the gamut from clergy-persons being naughty, to some important ministry not getting done as well as it might, to sudden and disruptive changes in parish leadership, to churches running out of money. And what I have noticed after doing this ministry for five years now, is that most of time, big trouble results not from those kinds of real challenges that we face as the Church, but from our failure to respond to those challenges in the fashion commended to us today.
– When we love and forgive those who have slighted us.
- When we’re generous stewards of our money and that of the
- When we take responsibility for doing the ministry that needs to be done in a given moment, and are prayerful and confident in the Spirit’s presence and
When we actually act like the loving, living and life-giving followers of Jesus that we are called to be – welcoming his very presence by calling on his name and practicing what he preaches – well suddenly the “problems” seem to have a way of working out!
Jesus shows up! And that changes everything!
A friend from another denomination got all exasperated with me a few months ago. “Agh,” she fumed, “You Episcopalians are so preoccupied with orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy. You’re more worried about how you behave that what you believe!”
Well – maybe! When Episcopalians are at our best we have the integrity and the courage to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. We KNOW our journey of faith does not end with a decision to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We know the right belief is only the beginning of discipleship!
If for no other reason, you and I must take this work seriously because exactly one month from tomorrow, we’re all going to go and vote for a new President. While with all of you I’ve got my opinion and some good clarity about how I’ll cast my vote, my great concern is increasingly NOT the prospect that my candidate will lose, but rather how in the world our deeply divided country is going to get on, when half of us wake up on November 9, angry, scared and feeling more disenfranchised than ever.
Beloved – you don’t have to look any farther than the person sitting next to you in the Church pew to know what a supporter of that other candidate looks like. And it seems to me that the Church can either lead the way for our whole country in this moment, by being a community where we insist that our common bounds in Christ are bigger than any political candidate, party and divide. Or we can become the object lesson that Dr. Martin Luther King warned about when he said half a century ago that, “Together we must learn to live as brothers … or together, we will be forced to perish as fools.”
There is no more powerful name than that of our Lord Jesus. And if call on that name by gathering in the fashion he teaches, if we act in ways that are loving, liberating and life-giving to friend and foe alike …
Then we can be assured of his constant presence with us. And in his company, there is no challenge that we cannot overcome.
+ Bishop J.S. Barker
The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Easton
Proper 6C – St. Mary’s, Bassett
June 17, 2016
This week, our Diocesan staff has been traveling along the Cowboy Trail—that now abandoned Chicago and Northwestern Railway Corridor stretching from around Chadron all the way to Norfolk.
We started out in Chadron, at beautiful little Grace Church, then visited Gordon, and Valentine, and took a swing up to the Rosebud Reservation to “supervise” our Diocesan youth hard at work on their yearly mission trip.
This annual journey, which we sometimes call the “Western Residency,” is a highlight of the year for us. Here, we get to spend a little more time in and around our churches in this part of the world than we usually do. We get to move at a slightly slower pace, explore a bit more, follow our curiosity down new roads. We eat very, very well. And we get a lot of work done—if you have a liberal definition of “work.”
This is a week for imagining and dreaming, praying and wrestling, with what God might be calling the Episcopal churches of Nebraska to be and do in this moment, and how we can serve our people best in the midst of that holy transformation. It’s incredibly rich and connecting, and we are just so grateful that our congregations along the way humor us and host us with such ridiculous abundance. Thank you.
Having spent the last few days in the Sandhills, there is no better way to mark this journey—for me, at least—than a rogation procession in the midst of such a beautiful place. As the four us have traveled in the truck these last several days, the Sandhills have become a powerful fifth person in our midst. This incredible landscape is unlike anywhere else on earth, and for those of us who don’t get to live within its splendor daily—those of us in the boring east—the vastness and beauty of this place is almost overwhelming.
The other night, we were driving from Gordon to Valentine, just as the sun was setting. It was only the second day of our journey, and already we were feeling the emotional whiplash of this kind of trip—the highs of beautiful liturgies and wholehearted laughter around a parish hall table; the more challenging lows of hard odds and hard truths spoken about towns that are shrinking and churches that are fighting to keep their doors open.
It’s hard work, and it’s humbling, and sometimes it will even break your heart.
So, we were driving to Valentine along Highway 20, and the sun had just set. The outlines of the hills were still glowing red on the horizon, but the sky was getting darker and filling up with stars. The moon was bright, and pretty full, and followed us along the passenger side the whole way. Near it, just to its left, a planet—which I later found out was Saturn—glowed brightly.
I found myself wondering, in the midst of all that vastness—the huge sky, the far away planets, the rolling, expansive hills, and all that water beneath them—what we might look like from God’s perspective. Set within the immensity of creation, where does God place us? What does God see?
The readings for tonight were actually appointed for last Sunday, so you’ve likely encountered them very recently. Most of us heard them in church before we understood exactly what had happened in Orlando that day, maybe before we’d even knew about it at all.
Here, we find a story about Jesus at a dinner party. Invited by a curious and maybe critical Pharisee, Jesus meets a woman there—we don’t know her name—who makes him welcome in a way that no one else would. She weeps at his feet, washing away the dust and grime from the day’s journey with her own tears, the source of which we don’t know exactly, but the abundance of which speaks to a deep well of emotion—of grief, or shame, or maybe gratitude, even joy.
She has with her an expensive jar of perfume, which she anoints him with. She uses her own hair to dry his feet, to soak up her tears and that anointment. She’s a mess, and she’s beautiful, and she’s doing something that no one else would dare do, in a way that is shocking, and strange, and deeply disturbing somehow.
What do we make of this woman? The others around the table are quick to dismiss her—to call her a sinner, and use that to discredit Jesus, who should know better than to let a woman like her touch him at all. Of course, Jesus isn’t buying it. He knows exactly who she is, and he welcomes her gift, as strange and gritty and imperfect as it is.
Sometimes I feel like I’m seated around that Pharisee’s dining table. Jesus is right there, I know it, but I’m not sure exactly how to serve him, welcome him, honor him.
Things around us feel tight these days, I think, like what we’ve come to rely on is scarce or even disappearing. Like there’s not enough to go around. Tension surrounding this political season is especially high, and we’re not sure how to talk about all of it with our neighbors or even our friends. The whole world is changing—who has power and who doesn’t, who has less power than they used to, who has more. The traditions that helped us feel safe, maybe, or at least comfortable, are being challenged, and so our grip gets tighter and tighter.
The story that we heard tonight reminds us that God loves our offerings. That when there is a choice to make, we are called to err on the side of generously loving—even when we are awkward, and imperfect, and aren’t really sure what we’re doing. Even when we’re afraid.
There’s something that Nebraska can tell the world about this particular way of serving Jesus, I think—this erring on the side of abundance that we read about today. Your diocesan staff talks about this all the time—wonders and marvels about it—and we’ve seen a ton of it on this trip. We are a diocese of small churches, for the most part. Small churches in small communities that are changing and shifting at a pace just a step ahead of the rest of the Church. And what we see, over and over again when we visit you, is a profuse, sometimes astounding, outpouring of generosity that I know God takes great delight in:
The feasts where we bring our very best to the potluck table—our cherished family dishes, our first fruits.
The altar that is painstakingly cared for; the worship carefully planned to the last detail so that the seven or ten or fifteen people we see every week will get to worship without distraction and with special reverence, and so that the stranger can join us and be astonished by beauty; just beauty.
The people that we love even though nobody says we have to—the people whose sharp edges can cut us, who can be very hard to love indeed, but are ours, and are cherished, and are known.
The times when we take big risks without counting the cost—trying something new, trying something that seems impossible, meeting and serving the broken and marginalized people all around us because they are Jesus, too.
God loves our offerings.
SO. The glowing hills, and the nearly full moon, and Saturn blazing in the night sky: In the midst of all of that, set so small within it, where does God place us? What does God see?
I think that part of the spirituality of Nebraska has to do with scale. We know how small we are. And we know how important small things are God’s creation. Seeds pushing their way through the earth. Drops of rain. The way that sunlight makes magic out of tiny green leaves. Our small churches, our small selves. Like the woman at Jesus’ feet in tonight’s reading, we bring all of ourselves to God—our tears and our jars of perfume—and we offer them with whole hearts, even when the rest of the world says that’s not worth it, that kind of generosity isn’t worth it. Especially then. We know that we either love abundantly or we do not. So, please know this: God loves your offering.