Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 26

Pentecost 26, 2018
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, one of my favorite bumper stickers is the one that reads, “Entropy Rules!”  Entropy is the science-y word that means, everything naturally falls apart.  Like, you cut down a tree, come back in 20 years, and it will have slowly decayed into the ground.  Or, to quote from a popular movie from the 80s: "Screws fall out all the time; the world is an imperfect place.”  This is why we have to get our cars serviced, and contribute to capital campaigns.  Because the natural order of things is to fall apart.  Entropy Rules!

And that’s kind of how Jesus responds to the disciples as they leave the Temple in this morning’s gospel reading, and it’s kind of depressing.  As we heard, one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And Jesus asks him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  What Jesus could have said was, “Yes, it’s all very impressive.  But remember: Entropy Rules.”

I have a friend who used to be a pretty hardcore Evangelical, and he was really hooked on the idea that when Jesus returns he’s going to wipe everything out and start over.  When anyone got too attached to the world, my friend loved to use the phrase, “It’s all gonna burn.”  Like you’d say to him, “Hey, I’m really happy because we were finally able to get into a house in Massillon, and things are going really great at our church, and I’m excited about the future.”  And my friend would say, “Don’t get too excited, because it’s all gonna burn!”  Like when Jesus comes back he’s going to be carrying the Mother of All Flamethrowers.

And some people take that view, like my friend, because they think that everything is broken and tainted and must be replaced.  Irredeemably flawed.  I personally disagree with that view, because from what I see in the scriptures, it seems more the way of Jesus to perfect things rather than replace them.  When Jesus sees a blind man, he doesn’t replace him with someone who can see; Jesus gives the man his sight.  Jesus restores things, rather than upgrading to a newer version.  At the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus brings him back to life, instead of rolling out Lazarus 2.0.  In Jesus, things become what they were meant to be, rather than what they are, and as opposed to what people say they should be.

But there’s a tricky balance at work here.  If my friend is correct and everything is gonna burn, then why take care of anything?  Why eat vegetables since I might get hit by a bus tomorrow?  Why start singing a song if I know it’s going to end after the last chorus?  Is there any point in pursuing beauty through preservation and care if it’s all going to be destroyed?  And that’s where there is a difference between entropy and It’s All Gonna Burn.  Entropy makes us engage to make things better; thinking It’s All Gonna Burn makes us despair.  Entropy rules, but not if we can help it, right?  There’s a great quote that applies here, sometimes attributed to Martin Luther:  “If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today.”

So, one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And Jesus asks him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  And I think there’s something more than entropy at work here.  Remember last week’s gospel lesson?  The one about the widow and the two pennies that Mo preached about?  That story comes immediately before this one.  Jesus commends the poor widow, who gave all she had to a system that was set up to intentionally and unabashedly oppress her.  And when you take the long view, all the little two pennies from generations of widows had come together to build those great buildings of oppression, which so impress the disciple.

Sometimes, the buildings that oppress are built by the oppressed.  And there’s something about that in Jesus’ response, I think.  Imagine walking through the Egyptian desert and saying, “Look at these huge pyramids the Pharaohs built!”  Well, yeah, if you mean built on the backs of slaves!  The Pharaohs did nothing to build those giant structures except to enslave other people to build them for them.  Glorious monuments of horrific oppression.

Or, closer to home, drive on over to Washington DC and visit the White House.  “Look at this giant grand home with the columns and the beautiful gardens.”  And Jesus might respond, “Do you see this great building? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Entropy Rules!  Maybe it’s the literal physical structures, sure.  Or maybe it’s really the oppressive systematic structures that find a way to claim greatness by sacrificing the lives and hopes of those around us.  Two pennies at a time from widows might build impressive structures, and those structures might or might not be oppressive, but eventually, “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

So let’s bring the lens in closer, to the corner of 3rd Street and Tremont Avenue.  With the Massillon Candlelight Walk less than two weeks away, I’m excited for the chance once again to show off our sanctuary to scads of visitors!  One of the thrills of being the Rector at St. Timothy’s is that throughout the year I get to bring groups of people into this space and hear them ooh and aww at the beauty that has been handed down to us.  Look, Teacher, what large stones and what fine Tiffany windows!  And then, naturally, I always turn to them and say, “Do you see these great windows in this amazing building? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.  Hope you can join us for worship on Sunday!”

Of course I don’t actually say all that.  Because we’re sure that Entropy doesn’t rule here!  This building will stand forever!  Just ask anyone in the room whose grandparents were baptized here.  St. Timothy’s Church will be here forever because it has always been here forever.

Now, I know we don’t like to think about it, but it’s obviously true:  Some day, somehow, this building might no longer be here.  Although we are called to care for this structure as best we can, at some point, this could just be an empty lot.  And, hearing me say that, if you thought I knew the future, you would now turn to me, just like the disciples, and say, “Father George, tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  We want to know when, so we can prepare, right?  If you knew the date when all this would occur, you would be sure to stop by the day before and rescue the photo of the choir that you’ve always liked.  Or at least rescue the cushion from YOUR PEW.

Hearing that something is going to change naturally makes us want to know when it’s going to happen.  And when the disciples hear Jesus suggest that all these buildings will be rubble at some point, they want to know when.  Tells us the day, Jesus.  Give us the signs that we are to look for.  Is it today?  Tomorrow?  Next week?  They almost seem to panic, don’t they?  What do you mean St. Timothy’s won’t be here forever?  What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?  Whatever will we do?

And you know why they panic?  Why we panic?  Because we often put our faith in structures, and in buildings.  This system we have created will last forever.  This building will always be here to shelter us.  And when we start putting our faith in buildings and structures, well, maybe it’s helpful to have someone say to us, remember: Entropy Rules.  Or when we put our hope and our trust in kingdoms and nations, well, as Jesus says, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes; there will be famines.”  One hundred years ago this month the War to End All Wars came to an end, and simply paved the road to an even more devastating war.  We will be disappointed if we put our trust in kingdoms, nations, or buildings.

But, as you’ve probably heard said, the Church is not a building; the Church is us.  Sure, we happen to have inherited the most beautiful structure in the state of Ohio, but this building is not the Church.  We are the Church, along with all the others who have ever lived and will ever live.  We do not put our hope in the current things of this world, where Entropy Rules.  But you know where we do put our hope?  We heard the answer in the reading from Hebrews this morning:

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”  We put our hope in the promises of Jesus Christ.  And we can trust that hope, believe that hope, live that hope, because Jesus who has promised is faithful.  And among the promises of Jesus, we know he has promised to be among us, when two or three are gathered in his name.  And here we are, more than two or three, doing exactly that, in this astonishingly beautiful place.  Which means Jesus is among us this morning.

I still believe the best bumper sticker ever is the one that says, Entropy Rules, though I’m tempted to add, “So Far.”  And that’s because, though things do fall apart, God restores them to fulness.  And though we all do go down to the grave, God promises to raise us up to new life.  May God give us the grace to trust in the hope of these promises, and to live together in unity and peace, until the day that Jesus returns, and makes all things new.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

YEAR B 2018 feast of all saints

Feast of All Saints, 2018
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  We heard a fantastic collection of readings today.  And, to be honest, All Saints Day is one of my favorite celebrations of the Church year, which is why I was willing to risk imposing incense on you this morning.  On All Saints Day we remember the saints who have gone before, and also the saints of today, and also the saints of tomorrow.  All the Saints.  But we’ll get to all that in a moment.  First I want to tell you a story . . .

When I was in high school, I remember a friend telling me I should sign up to take physics.  (Taking physics was optional in those days, which explains how I was able to graduate from high school.)  So my friend Dan told me I should take physics because they were doing all sorts of cool things.  I said, “Yeah, sure, right.  Like what?” 

He told me the class had proven that the molecules of the dying breath of Julius Caesar have spread out everywhere on the earth.  “Which means,” Dan said, “every time you take a breath, you are breathing in a molecule from when Caesar said et tu brute.  Dude.  Isn’t that the coolest thing?”

I had to admit, that was pretty cool.  But then Dan showed me the complicated calculations the class had labored over to reach this conclusion and I decided, sure it was cool, but it wasn’t that cool.  Dude.  So, needless to say, I never took physics.  But I still think about that first concept.  Every single breath contains a molecule from Caesar’s dying breath.  Wow. 

That seems intuitively significant, though I can’t say why, exactly.  I think the science of it works with anybody who lived a long enough time ago, but the name Julius Caesar gets our attention.  He’s famous, after all.  We tend to celebrate celebrities.  That's what makes them celebrities.  Julius Caesar is important because . . . well, because we know his name.  But, really, other than the calendar, has Julius Caesar really impacted your life?  Probably not.  Even though, here we are, breath after breath, sharing some little chunk of his dying breath.  And we don’t even really care about this guy!  The world remembers him, but he means nothing to you and me.

So what about all the people who mean nothing to the world, but who mean the world to you and me?  What about the ones who have made a real difference in our lives? The people who brought you to church?  Or taught you the faith?  What about all the Saints who from their labors rest?  Chances are, you could name one of those people right now.  These are the saints we know.  The ones whose actual living breath we felt on our cheeks.

And each person we name would have had their own names to thank, and the people they name could add someone else who was dear to them, and so on and so on, in a long line that leads us all the way back to the disciples themselves.  You and I are sitting here today because the story of faith has been passed along to us, by the saints who have gone before.  We know some of their names, and others we will never know in this lifetime.

And, of course, it works the other way too.  For the past 180 some years, the kids in this church haven’t driven themselves over here.  Children come to church because someone brings them here.  And during Sunday school, the children learn the stories of our faith because someone takes the time to teach them.  And those children receive communion or a blessing at this Altar because the adults in this parish have made sure some priest was here to do that.  As the Church, we have received the message of Good News, and we pass it along to others.

And what has kept that message going is that people have been willing to do whatever it takes to share the gospel.  We give of ourselves in order to proclaim what God has done for us.  We offer up our time, our talents, and our possessions.  We offer ourselves back to God because we are grateful for what God has done in our lives.  Which is the whole point of the United Thank Offering that we will contribute to this morning.  We respond out of gratitude by giving back to God.  But the really important thing is that God transforms our gifts into something even more amazing.

We offer our time and skills, and God uses them to build up a community of faith.  We offer our money and possessions, and God uses them to further God’s kingdom and keep this message going. We offer mere bread and wine, and God transforms them into the body and blood of Jesus.  We offer our meager selves, and God unites us into the living body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.

This past month,  we have talked about stewardship a lot.  Now I know that the word stewardship strikes fear into the hearts of us all.  But that’s because we tend to think of stewardship as being about money.  But stewardship is actually about offering up to God whatever it is you did to make that money.  And it’s also about a lot of other things.  Like offering our time and talents.  Offering the gifts of service to the church and those around us.  And that means, stewardship is really about keeping the story going, inviting more people into the story of salvation, and giving ourselves back to the One who creates and redeems us.  In other words, stewardship is all about All Saints.  The ones who came before, and the ones yet to be, and us—the ones who are right now busy breathing in those molecules of Julius Caesar’s dying breath.

And, although year after year, physics students talk about Caesar’s dying breath, there is nothing special about that breath or those molecules.  Just another despotic tyrant, killed in a moment of betrayal, dying a dramatic death, according to Shakespeare.  Big deal.  We know his name because we learned it somewhere along the way.  But so what?  You know Caesar’s name, and you’re breathing in scraps of his dying breath.  Great.

The thing nobody bothers to mention when they talk about this physics exercise, and those molecules of Caesar’s breath is this:  Every breath you take also contains a molecule from the dying breath of the cook who made Caesar’s breakfast, and the guy who sold Brutus the knife, and the gravedigger who buried Caesar’s body.  When it all comes down, there’s only so much recycled breath to go around.  A molecule by any other name would still be a molecule . . . as Shakespeare might have said.

But you know what is more interesting?  Every breath you take also contains a molecule of the dying breath of someone with the same initials . . . Jesus Christ.  As Christians, that seems more significant to you and me, sure.  But, still, does that even really matter?  Does it change anything?  I don’t know.  But it naturally leads us to something else:  It must also be true that each breath you take also contains a piece of the first resurrection breath of Jesus Christ.  The first breath of the risen Lord.

Which means every time you take a breath, you are breathing in the resurrection.  The first new breath of the one who has defeated death.  If there’s anything to all these molecules and that significant breath stuff, I’d put my money on the first breath of the resurrection.  Caesar’s dying breath changed nothing, really.  But the rising breath of Jesus?  Oh, that changes everything.  Nothing is the same when God’s breath of redemption fills the world.

We breathe in and we breathe out, just as people have always done.  And we gather around this Altar, just as Christians have always done.  And we celebrate here with the saints of every time and every place, the wonder and majesty of what God has done and continues to do in this world.  And, perhaps, someone somewhere will speak our name, because we gave of ourselves to make sure this story continues, forever and ever.

The rising breath of Jesus changes everything, whether or not anyone ever talks about it in a high-school physics lab.  Yes, we breathe in the dying breath of Jesus.  And we also breathe in the rising breath of Jesus.  In baptism we are united with him in his death.  And we are also united with him in a resurrection like his.  And around this Altar, we are united with the saints of every time and every place:  the ones whose names we know, as well as the ones whose names we do not know.  All of us celebrating the story of God’s Good News, which will never leave us nor forsake us, for as long as we draw breath, and even after we have drawn our last breath. 

The breath of God’s resurrection continues well beyond the grave, and this is what gives us the strength and hope to carry on, until each one of us joins the Saints who from their labors rest.  And until that day, we all continue to breathe in that resurrection breath of Jesus Christ, to whom we give honor and glory, forever and ever.


Monday, October 22, 2018

Elizabeth McLain Humes

Elizabeth McLain Humes
October 22, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Revelation 21:2-7
John 14:1-6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Unlike nearly everyone in this room, I did not know Betsy Humes.  I’m sure you all have lots of stories and memories to share, and I hope you have already been doing that, and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead.  And thank you to Billy for the stories he shared with us this morning.

It’s never easy to lose someone we love.  A mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother.  Someone who has been there our entire lives is no longer with us.  No longer seen or heard from.  And the emptiness can be overwhelming.  Someone who was in our lives forever is no longer here, which makes everything seem fleeting.  But that is not true.  Not for God, and not for those who live their lives as part of the Church of God on earth.  Because there is continuity in the changelessness of God.

I know that Elizabeth and William were married at this very Altar by the Rector who was here four priests before I arrived.  I’ve seen the pictures!  That’s a long time ago, and much has happened in our lives and in the world since that time.   So long ago, in fact, that no one batted an eye as Bill lit up a cigarette on the front steps out there.  From our perspective, that wedding was ages ago.  But from God’s perspective, it just happened, and the reception is still going full swing.  And the difference between our sense of time and God’s perspective can really help sometimes.

And here is what I mean by that:  There are things that we are waiting for which are already accomplished for God.  As we heard from the prophet Isaiah, “God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”  And as we heard from the Revelation to St. John, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”  And because Jesus is the beginning and the end, everything that happens to us happens within the arms of Jesus.

You and I are still waiting for the day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and will swallow up death forever.  But for Betsy, that day has already come.  She is safely within the arms of God, which is where she has always been.  Because in Betsy’s baptism, she was claimed as God’s own forever.  And nothing can ever take that away from her.  Betsy is with God, and God is with you.  And one day, you will be together again.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 22

Pentecost 22, 2018
Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There’s a difference between echoes and facts.  Hints and truths.  Theories and reality.  We humans love a good conspiracy theory.  And that’s because we want to force connections and order onto the world around us . . . whether or not they’re really there.  When we see things that suggest a connection, we impose a few extra connections in order to make it work.  Then, when someone questions us, we can say, “Prove I’m wrong.”  Which of course, they can’t.

There’s just enough evidence for the grassy knoll, or the fake moon landing, or pizza gate, or Vince Foster, or Seth Rich . . . just enough of a tenuous connection that, for some people, the urge to make that connection solid is just too tempting.  We hear things like, “It all makes sense; just look at the facts.”  And without any facts strong enough to disprove the conspiracy, well, it must be true.  It is our nature to make connections between things, no matter what.

There’s a little bit of that going on in the collection of readings we heard today.  When we take them all together, sitting here in this Christian worship service, it sounds like they’re all about Jesus, because we want them all to be about Jesus.  Take the reading from Isaiah, for instance.  This is from the section of Isaiah that is often called the “Suffering Servant” section of the book.  The lamb led to the slaughter, the righteous servant who will make many righteous, poured himself out into death, made the intercession for our transgression.  It all sounds a lot like Jesus.  But as Christians, we must be mindful to see when we’re appropriating the Hebrew scriptures as prophecy for our own Messiah.

It is important to remember that the first two thirds of our Bible belong to our Jewish brothers and sisters first, and we are in a sense “borrowing” them.  Yes, the Suffering Servant sounds a lot like Jesus, but that might be because we want it to sound a lot like Jesus.  Or maybe not.  But there is a Jewish understanding that this text refers to the Nation of Israel, and tells of all they would endure over the centuries.  Again, as Christians, we want this to be only about Jesus, and so that’s what we do with it.

And then there’s the Psalm we read together.  The angels will bear you up, lest you dash your foot.  You will trample the lion and the adder.  You are bound to me in love and I will deliver you.  A Christian reading of this text wants it to be about Jesus, but is it?  There are certainly echoes of Jesus Christ in both these readings, but if we’re honest, we kind of impose our beliefs onto the text because . . . well, the connections to Jesus are known to us.  And yet, the connections to Jesus are completely mysterious to us.

And then there’s Melchizedek.  Did you wonder to yourself when you heard the name, “Who the heck is Melchizedek?”  Of course you did.  And you probably thought, “Let’s see . . . I learned about Noah and Abraham and Daniel and Esther and Solomon and Rachel and Goliath . . . but am I supposed to know who Melchizedek is?  Maybe I missed Sunday school that week?”  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews certainly sets it up like we’re supposed to just know who that guy is and go, “Oh yeah.  Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek.”

I’m gonna let you off the hook here by telling you that Melchizedek comes up just once, in the book of Genesis.  And it’s not something you’d remember.  Abram takes a few hundred guys out to rescue Lot who has been captured by the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, and when he returns,  “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.”  That’s it.  Then there’s also a mention of him in Psalm 110, a Psalm of David, that says, “Thou art a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek.”  Which is where the mention in today’s Epistle comes from.  The connections to Jesus are known to us.  And the connections to Jesus are completely mysterious to us.

So, you’re wondering, “What’s the connection here?”  Lots of people have wondered the same thing.  And, to be honest, I’m not sure there really is a connection.  We can get lots of echoes and hints, with bringing out the bread and wine, and being a priest, and so on.  But it’s not like Melchizedek is a priest like the Levites who came after him were.  I mean, he’s a priest for a totally different god.  There’s a thin thread that connects all these things, but, really . . . you kind of have to want it all to be connected in order for the connection to hold.

So, that was all just clearing my throat, really.  So, ahem.  Shall we turn to today’s Gospel?  As we just heard, James and John come to Jesus on the sly in order to move on up when Jesus comes into his glory.  But let me back up.

Right before today’s Gospel reading, there’s a little scene that gets skipped between last week and this week.  Jesus gathers the disciples around him and says to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  This is the third time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus tries to tell the disciples what is going to happen, and it is the third time that the disciples have an utterly inappropriate reaction.

The first time he tells them, Peter says “God forbid this should happen!”  And the second time he tells them, they start arguing about who is the greatest.  And now the third time he tells them, James and John ask if they can sit at his right and at his left.  In these three cases, instead of trying to make this into something about Jesus—like the other readings we heard today—the disciples are trying to make Jesus into something he is not.  Rather than transform the text, they want to transform Jesus.  To make him into a ruling king rather than a servant who is about to be crucified.

So, James and John have pulled Jesus aside to tell him that they would like to do what Jesus will do, which is reign in glory over all creation for eternity.  Jesus is known to them.  And Jesus is completely mysterious to them. And Jesus looks at them and says, "You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" And they reply, “We are able."  (Their response always makes me think of Pippin and Merry, the Hobbits from Lord of the Rings.)  So, right, they stand up smiling and tall and say, “We are able.”  And we kind of expect Jesus to say, “No you’re not, you goofballs!”  But he doesn’t say that.

Instead, Jesus says, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

We expect Jesus to say “Who do you two think you are?”  But that is not what Jesus is saying.  That is what the other disciples are saying.  You’ll note the other disciples become angry with James and John because they were the first ones to yell “Shotgun!” before they thought of saying it.  James and John stepped to the front of the line when nobody was looking, and the other disciples are mad at them for it.  And so then Jesus has to call the whole team together to try to set things straight.

James and John come to Jesus wanting to change Jesus.  And they approach him in secret to try to elevate themselves to where they want Jesus to be heading.  But in doing so, they miss the whole point of Jesus’ mission.  They don’t understand where his path leads.  They don’t get that you have to go through Good Friday in order to get to Easter morning.  James and John want to reign alongside Jesus, but they are completely in the dark about what Jesus is going to do, even though he has told them three times.  They do not know what they are asking, and Jesus tells them so.

And then Jesus says, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”  And if we didn’t know better, we’d swear this means James and John are going to be crucified in place of the two criminals next to Jesus when the day comes.  But let’s take off our human intuition goggles for a moment and replace them with our sacramental ones this morning.

If you look on page 292 of the Book of Common Prayer, you’ll see the place in the Easter Vigil where we come to The Renewal of Baptismal Vows.  And if you look at the paragraph that precedes the Renewal, you will read these words:
Through the Pascal mystery, dear friends, we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life.

Jesus tells James and John, “with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”  They are baptized into his death, just as you and I have been baptized into his death.  And together we have been raised to newness of life.  All of us.  But what about the cup?  Jesus says, “The cup that I drink you will drink.”  Have we done that?  Have you and I drunk that cup yet?

Well, the truth is, we’re still drinking it.  Sip by sip, week by week, at this Altar you receive the Blood of Christ and the cup of salvation.  And over the course of your years—however long they may be—the bread from this Altar  and the sips from that cup will sustain you, and carry the promise of forgiveness, and the hope of everlasting life.

The connections to Jesus are known to us.  And the connections to Jesus are completely mysterious to us.  He is the one who offers himself as a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.   And you and I follow where he leads us, from baptism to the grave, to the resurrection.  And we are assured along the way of forgiveness and reconciliation through the power of his body and blood.  There are great mysteries and echoes and truths and connections in all these readings today.

The connections to Jesus are known to us.  And the connections to Jesus are completely mysterious to us. But the thing for us to remember is that we are called to follow the one who has already led the way, being baptized into his death, and being raised to newness of life, and being sustained through the paschal mystery of this holy meal.  That is what we know for certain.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 21

Pentecost 21, 2018
Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Soooo . . .  You probably thought last week’s gospel was a challenge, huh?  You know all the stuff about divorce?  Well, that was just a little practice round to get us ready to jump into this gospel text.  Sometimes Jesus says difficult things in the gospels.  And sometimes we can make sense of them.  And sometimes there are cultural differences we need to understand.  And sometimes we just have to scratch our heads and do the best we can.

Just reading what the text says, Jesus said, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”  So . . . good luck with that everybody.  This is a challenging verse for people who take everything in the Bible literally.  In the Episcopal Church, we say that the Bible contains all things necessary unto salvation, and that the scriptures are the inspired Word of God, but we make no claims to take everything literally.  Phew!

Still, hearing Jesus say to go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor makes us a little uneasy.  Because we don’t do that.  None of us does that.  Yes, there were some saints of old who took this command to heart, like St. Francis, and others.  But for the most part, we’d prefer to kind of skip over this verse.  And I am here to tell you that is probably for the best, unless we look at it carefully.  And the reason we have to look carefully is because Jesus is talking to a specific person in a particular situation, and you are not that person.  Just like when Jesus calls a group of people a brood of vipers, he’s not talking to you.

The three crucial things to notice in that little exchange are these:  The man who comes to Jesus earnestly wants to do what is best.  He is not trying to trick Jesus, like so many others try to do in these conversations.  And, second, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  Which is important for us so that we see this is not an exchange of condemnation.  And, third, the man “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  Which is the most important part for us this morning because, STEWARDSHIP!

I know, I know.  This is the moment when you start shifting uncomfortably in your seats, and reaching for the announcement insert.  Or, maybe you’re wondering to yourself, “Should I sell everything and give the money to the poor?”  Or, maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “The church is always asking for my hard-earned money.”  Well, whatever reaction you’re having when you hear the word stewardship, I’d like you to ignore it for a moment because I want to clear something up today.

We get uncomfortable talking about money in the church because we have created an artificial disconnect between ourselves and our money.  We tend to think of our possessions as something we own, including our money.  And when we think that way, we risk having a reaction like the man in this reading, and being shocked, and going away grieving, for we have many possessions.

So let’s start here:  Does God want your money?  No.  Does God want your possessions?  No again.  Well, if God doesn’t want my money or my possessions, what does God want?  And the answer is . . . you.  God wants you.  But the problem is, we have this built-in disconnect between our money and how we got it.  We tend to think, “I have this job I do, which generates money, and God wants some of it.”  As I say, there’s a disconnect between us and our money.  So allow me to connect it for us.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical 19-year-old guy working in the dairy department of Tops Friendly Market in Niagara Falls NY.  Let’s call him, oh, I don’t know, “George.”  So one Sunday, George hears his pastor preach a sermon about the Biblical concept of tithing.  That is, giving 10% of what he earns over to God.  For ease of math, let’s say George makes $100 a week—though I don’t know that he made much more than that, because this was a hypothetically long time ago . . . probably.  So, on Sunday, George puts $10 from his $100 check into the offering plate, and he has successfully tithed.  Congratulations George!  But that little math puts the emphasis on the money, not in how he earned it.  He’s not putting $10 in the plate; he’s putting 10% of himself into the plate.

The money is just a symbol.  As you know, money only means something because everyone else agrees it means something.  (Economists would direct you to the water-diamond paradox.  Which I won’t go into here, though I do understand it.)   So, Tops Friendly Market gives our hypothetical dairy worker $100 in exchange for his effort.  What George is really doing is giving 10% of his effort to God.  10% of his work day is dedicated to God.  If he puts 10 gallons of milk in the display case, he’s putting one of them there for God.  If he unloads 10 pallets of dairy products from the delivery truck, one of those pallets he is unloading for God.  If he uses that old-fashioned price sticker gun thing to mark prices on 100 containers of yogurt, ten of those yogurt containers are being marked for God.

And it is the same for you.  If you pledge to give 10% of your income to God, what you are really doing is dedicating ten percent of your work week to God.  If you work 40 hours a week, you are working four of them for God.  If moving money around in the stock market nets you $1,000 and you give $100 to the church, 10% of your clever effort is given to God.  And if you’re retired and earning a pension, it just works retroactively I suppose.

But the point is, when you pledge money to support the work of the church, you are really pledging that portion of your labor, or brain power, or investing smarts to God.  Money is just a symbol that you get in order to move those rewards around.  If you’re turning a wrench, or sweeping a floor, or teaching children, or whatever it is you do to put food on the table, you’re doing some portion of that for God.  Or, and this is important and more direct, when you put your effort directly into the church, in the Altar Guild, or singing in the choir, or cleaning up our worship space, or washing dishes after a meal, or ushering, or planting flowers, or cleaning the gutters, or serving on Vestry, or ANYthing that directly supports the ministry of the church, ALL of that effort is given directly from you to God.  Directly.

But, okay, what’s really weird to consider is this:  If you’re not giving something back to God, through a pledge to the church or through volunteering, then none of your work week is dedicated to God.  You’ll be keeping all your hard-earned money for yourself, because you’re the one who earned it, right?  But the downside is, it means that none of the work you did all week was done for the glory of God.

Let’s put it all in more practical terms, where it’s easier to see.  If the water heater in your basement is kind of leaning backwards and you’re afraid it might one day fall over, you might think, “I should get a new water heater, lest the house blow up when the gas line snaps.”  And so, you start saving up for a water heater.  You might work overtime.  Or you might come in on a Saturday.  And those extra hours are specifically dedicated to buying a new water heater, so that your house doesn’t blow up.  You can look at your work week and say, “Those extra hours are the particular hours I dedicated to the water heater.”

I think it’s helpful to think of our jobs and careers in this same light.  When you contribute a percentage of your earnings or time to the work of God, some portion of what you do, you are doing directly for God.  Dedicated to spreading the gospel, feeding the poor, healing the sick, making this world a better place.

So, yeah, okay.  This month we are in our annual Stewardship Drive.  And this week, we have this particular gospel text, where we keep hearing about giving up everything for God.  In some ways, there’s no better text to scare you out of pledging to support the church.  Because if we focus on all our possessions—like the man who came to Jesus—we will be shocked and go away grieving.  But I would encourage you not to think of stewardship as giving away possessions.  Instead, if we can see stewardship as devoting ourselves to God, devoting our efforts to God, setting aside some small part of what we do as being done for God . . . well, I think that might be helpful.

Does God want you to give the Biblically mandated 10%?  Could be.  Does God want you to pledge the I-can-barely-pay-my-bills 1%?  Maybe.  Does God expect you to offer the sell-everything-I-have-and-give-it-to-the-poor blowout extravaganza?  Possibly?  But those decisions are between you and God.  I don’t know the answer, and I don’t want to know the answer.  In the meantime, whatever (or whether) you decide to pledge to St. Timothy’s Church, I hope you will see that everything you are, and everything you have, are gifts from God.  BUT . . . We do not earn God’s favor based on what we give back to God.  Just as we do not earn God’s wrath based on what we spend elsewhere.  All givers and all takers are welcome to the meal offered today.  No strings attached.

And knowing that—as we heard today in the powerful words from the letter to the Hebrews—Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 20

Pentecost 20, 2018
Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16
Also preached at Trinity Cathedral, Solemn Sung Eucharist

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It will surprise no one to hear me say, this is a difficult text.  And it is a particularly troubling gospel reading for anyone who has been through the soul-crushing meat grinder we call “divorce.”  And, sadly, this gospel text is easy for people to hijack for the purpose of making things worse for those who have been divorced, or who are about to be divorced.  Because, well, some people like to quote little pieces of scripture out of context for the purpose of shaming their neighbor.  You know, like Jesus always tells us to do.

And speaking of demeaning your neighbor, if you live in America, you’ve heard a lot from politicians and lawyers and stuff these past two weeks.  Testimonies, and people’s character being defiled, and all sorts of people looking to discredit and demean their fellow citizens in order to increase their own power.  It’s a stressful time to be alive, and there’s only so much zoloft to go around.

And part of the ongoing “conversation” for months now is what they call The Perjury Trap.  The idea that if we ask just the right question, we can catch someone saying the wrong thing, and thus get the people or the law to turn against them.  Ask a question that you already know the answer to, but when the person responds, it will create division and confusion.  And, believe it or not, that is exactly what is happening in today’s gospel reading.

As we heard, some Pharisees come to Jesus and, to test him, they ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  They’re Pharisees.  They know the answer to this question already.  But they also know that to answer the question either way will cause division, which is exactly what they are hoping for.  But it’s even trickier.  Because their quote back to Jesus, from Deuteronomy, is not about divorce; it’s about remarrying someone whom you’ve previously divorced, but who has been married to someone else in between.  Don’t even bother trying to follow that.  Let’s rephrase it all a different way.

Let’s pretend that in Deuteronomy it says, “If you drop a crowbar on somebody’s head, stop what you are doing and make sure they’re okay before you do anything else.”  And the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask, “Is it okay to drop a crowbar on somebody’s head?”  And Jesus asks, “What does Moses tell you?”  And they say “Moses says, drop a crowbar on somebody's head!”  Which is why Jesus then says, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”  The Pharisees are looking to find an excuse for dropping crowbars on people’s heads, and are misusing the Law of Moses as the basis for it.  And in this case, the dropping of crowbars is, in actuality, divorcing one’s wife.  “Hey Jesus, is it okay to divorce a woman and leave her to fend for herself with nothing, in this first-century culture of ours that devalues women and children?”  Jesus answers, “What does Moses say?”  They respond, “Moses says yes!”

So then Jesus does them one better, and says “. . . from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  He turns the conversation from being about the legality of divorce into being about the gift of marriage.  They ask, “Is it okay to demean women and throw them into the street?”  And Jesus responds with, “As God intended from the beginning, men and women are equal.”  This response is no small deal, in that culture, or in ours.  Jesus turns their cynical selfishness into a justification for elevating the downtrodden.  “Hey Jesus, we’ve already got all the power.  Is it lawful for a man to get even more?”

But we don’t hear this passage from Mark’s gospel that way.  What we hear is, “Don’t get divorced!  Jesus says so!”  But that is not what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees.  He is saying forget your legal trickery for oppressing women and look at the point of marriage: two actual people come together on equal terms, as God intended from the beginning.  So, in response, you might then point to the conversation with his disciples in the house afterward, where Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

And my response to that is, first of all, this is a statement about remarriage, not divorce.  And, more importantly, women did not divorce men in that culture!  This is a radical thing to suggest!  In the conversation with the Pharisees and in the conversation with the disciples, Jesus is elevating women to their rightful place as equal to men.  Which might sound good and right so to do . . . but was definitely absurd to the people around Jesus.  It’s like here he goes again, elevating the lowly, declaring that everyone is loved by God, threatening my value by making someone else my equal, like he did with that Syrophoenician woman a few weeks ago with that crumbs under the table stuff.  What’s next, Jesus, turning our children into our teachers?

Well . . . Jesus was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  Jesus always turns everything upside down.  Thanks be to God!

The Pharisees and the disciples were both trying to get legal arguments out of Jesus for the purpose of clarifying what they were allowed to get away with.  This is what adults do, you see.  Tell me the bare minimum I must do against my will in order to get what I am entitled to.  Or, let me tell you why I am so deserving of your love, Jesus.  Or, get a load of how worthy I am because of the things I have collected and hold so tightly in my hands.

But a child?  How does a child approach Jesus?  With open, empty hands, that’s how.  A child can offer nothing.  And in that culture, a child is worth nothing.  That’s why the disciples are trying to keep the children away from Jesus.  These worthless little brats have no business being around Jesus, say the disciples, because Jesus is only interested in the people who matter.  You know, the men . . . who can divorce their wives . . . like Moses says.

This gospel text is not a lesson on the evils of divorce.  And if you want proof, just look at what upsets Jesus here.  It’s not divorce, is it?  No, he is angry with the Pharisees for their hardness of heart, and for trying to twist the gift of the Law of Moses into a justification for mistreating women.  And did you see what makes Jesus indignant in this text?  The disciples’ keeping the children away from him.  Jesus doesn’t love the children because they’re cute; he focuses on them because they are insignificant and rejected, which is what makes them first . . . rather than last.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  So we must ask ourselves, how does a child receive the kingdom of God?  How does a child receive anything?  The key to answering that question is to focus on the word, “receive.”  The word is not “earn,” or “conquer,” or “demand.”  No, the word is receive.  Children receive things because children cannot go out and get them on their own.  Children rely on the kindness and love of the adults around them.  For better or for worse.  Which is why when the disciples try to stop them, Jesus becomes indignant.  Which is a very strong response when you think of it.  He is indignant that they would keep the children from him.

“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  How do we receive something?  We stretch out our hands.  Our empty hands.  Nothing to offer, everything to gain.  This is how a child receives the gifts of God.  And it is also how the people of God receive the gifts of God.  We come to this Altar and stretch out our hands.  And if someone tries to stop us, we know that Jesus will be indignant.  Because you are welcome to this meal.  You are called to this heavenly banquet.  All of us equal.  All of us welcome.  All of us, little children of God.

And Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.


Sunday, September 30, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 19

Pentecost 19, 2018
Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In case you haven’t heard me bring it up in the last five minutes, I grew up in the Lutheran Church.  As a result, I have a strong commitment to what is called the “law/gospel dialectic.”  In simple terms, it’s what you and I would call a bad news/good news thing.  First, you lay out the bad news; then you announce the good news.  Here’s the problem; here’s the solution.  You crashed the car and are being sued; but Jesus has fixed the damage and made possible the reconciliation with your neighbor outside of court.  Bad news, good news.  Law . . . then gospel.

In many cases, the readings lend themselves to this kind of law/gospel thinking, with the gospel reading providing the answer to the question, “Who then can be saved?”

In today’s reading, there is gospel and there is law.  And therein lies the problem.  Apparently, the writer of Mark did not grow up Lutheran.  Because today, with all due respect, Jesus has it backwards.  Right off the bat, we get the good news, which is then followed by a big long list of big bad news.  Millstones, and gouged eyes and severed limbs burning in the trash heap of hell . . . where’s the gospel?  It’s almost as if Jesus asked, “Do you want the good news first or the bad news first?”  And some idiot said “Good news first, please.”  Asking for the good news first is a rookie mistake, like starting a game of “Rock Paper Scissors” with Rock.  Everybody starts with rock, which is why you start with paper!  But I digress . . .

Now, although I don’t feel I have the authority to re-write the gospel where necessary, I do feel empowered just enough to approach it in the order that works best for my own personal purposes, which is what I’m now going to do, by switching it around, so that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

So, in what I will call the “first part” of today’s gospel, Jesus is giving a series of warnings to various people.  For those who put a stumbling block in front of one of these “little ones,” it would be better to have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea.  Now, at the risk of making your eyes glaze over, let me stomp around in the muddy waters of the Greek language for a moment.

The phrase that gets translated here as “little ones who believe in me” is mikron pisteuonvton.  If you’re like me, you probably imagine little children when you hear the phrase “little ones.”  But it doesn’t mean, “children;” it means “little faith ones.”  It’s like a term of endearment:  My little faith ones.  Better to have a millstone tied around your neck than to mess with one of my little faith ones.

A millstone!  Have you ever seen a millstone?  Huge chunk of rock with a hole in the middle.  Like a giant stone bagel.  Tied around the neck.  This is Jesus saying this.  I find it compelling (and perhaps a glimmer of hope) that this is not a punishment for causing a little faith one to stumble.  No, Jesus is just saying, “Given the choice between causing a little faith one to lose faith, and swimming with the cement necklace, you should choose the river.”  Now, I am not clear on how much hyperbole to read into this statement.  So I have nothing more to say.

We then move into the next section, which is where we get to the severed limbs and stuff.  This is violent, bloody, gruesome, horrific language.  And yet, the words seem to be delivered like advice from the Farmer’s Almanac. “If your hands get cold, put on your gloves.  If your eye causes you pain, see a doctor.  If your foot causes you to stumble, have that heel checked.”  The lack of passion in the phrases makes me think it is a teaching moment, not a damning moment.  After all, Jesus is talking to his friends here.  I would guess he’s using dramatic language to make a dramatic point.  And I think the dramatic point is this: 

Before you go throwing someone out because he or she challenges the faith, consider whether you would just as likely cut off your hand.  Before you reject someone from the community on the grounds that they are different, consider whether you would cut off your foot for this.  Before you bring someone up on charges of heresy, consider whether you would cut your eye out over this issue. 

By all means, there are times when drastic action is called for.  It’s better to lose one part of the body than for the whole thing to be destroyed.  It’s better to reject a crazy but charismatic guy from your midst than to have the entire body end up drinking kool-aid out of paper cups or trying to hitch a ride on a comet’s tail.  But, Jesus is saying, think carefully.  Remember the example with the severed limbs.  (And how could we not?)  That’s the kind of damage you’ll do to the body of believers.  Dramatic language to make a dramatic point.

And this “first part” of Mark’s Gospel in George’s Order ends with Jesus saying, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”  Now, I have no idea what this means.  I understand the words, mind you.  I just don’t get the connection between salt and peace.  (I have read a complicated explanation about salt and Temple sacrifice, but we don’t really know.)  Salt and peace.  Maybe Jesus is just saying, with a pinch of salt you can get along with anybody?  But that’s okay, because now we move the “the end” of today’s reading, by which I mean the beginning, where we find the gospel in today’s gospel.

The set up is, the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Hey, some guys are casting out demons in your name and they forgot to make a pledge with the church treasurer!”  Jesus responds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Whoever is not against us is for us . . . where have we heard that phrase before?  From the rubble at Ground Zero?  From the deck of an aircraft carrier?  In a campaign stop in 2016?  Not quite.  What we heard in all those instances (and many more) was this: Whoever is not for us is against us.  Which is dramatically different from “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  To say that the ones not “with you” are your enemies is in fact the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying.

The politician rules out all who do not tow the line.  The savior of the world rules in all who do not exclude themselves.  The politician says agree or get out.  The savior says agree or disagree; all are welcome.  The politician draws a line in the sand.  The savior draws all people to himself.  Jesus' disciples want to be partisan politicians, but Jesus wants to save the world.  As I say, a dramatic difference.

Jesus does not count people out.  Jesus does not throw people out or cut them off or hunt them down and kill them.  Jesus welcomes all people.  Jesus welcomes all sinners.  And this is truly good news.  Because that means you and I are welcome, no matter what—even when we don’t fill out the pledge card at the church office.  If we are not against Jesus, we are for Jesus.  Simple as that.

And the best news of all is this:  even when we are against Jesus--when we doubt, or criticize, or give up--even then, Jesus is for us.  Literally.  When we come to this table, Jesus is for us.  In the body broken and the blood poured, Jesus is for us.  Freely offered to all, even when we are against him.  And that’s the whole point.  Jesus offers himself for our sinful fallen world, laying down his life for all.  He is not against us.  He is for us.  He is for me.  He is for you.  He is given for you.