Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

YEAR A 2016 advent 1

Advent 1, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44
Psalm 122

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

So . . . Happy Advent, huh?  It always takes me by surprise—even though I know it’s coming—that the readings are so scary in Advent.  All around us, society is already decking halls and decorating houses and decking each other in Walmart the day after Thanksgiving.  We greened up the sanctuary yesterday to get ready for the Candlelight Walk next Sunday, but all around us people are in full-on Christmas mode, and it’s difficult to remember that Christmas starts on December 25th.  We get to soak up four weeks of blue before Jesus gets here.  But yeah, the contrast between what is happening around us and that Gospel reading is pretty stark.  Or, so it seems on first hearing.  But speaking of scary reading, let’s start here . . .

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Left Behind” series.  If you haven’t, good for you!  Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins teamed up to write a bunch of books based on their premillennial dispensationalist interpretation of the end times.  (I’m just gonna let that phrase sit there because we don’t have nearly enough time.)  The first book, called “Left Behind” was inspired by the Gospel reading we just heard, based on what is commonly called “the Rapture.”  In a nutshell, certain groups of Christians believe that God will snatch away the believers to a safe place and then let evil take over the world.  In this understanding of the passage, you do not want to be left behind, because that means you will have to go through the great tribulation.

But if you look at the passage we just heard from Matthew, that thinking has it all backwards.  In the story of Noah, which Jesus mentions, the other people are swept away, and Noah is left behind.  If there is a big flood that will sweep away life on the planet, you want to be left behind.  And, though I don’t want to get too deep into the Greek weeds here, a legitimate way to interpret the other two examples Jesus uses is that one woman will be “taken away,” and the other will be “forgiven.”  Not only that, since all the biblical references to heaven indicate a time in the future ON EARTH, rather then a time right now SOMEWHERE ELSE, the place you want to be is right here, in the future.  You want to be left behind.  So, please leave behind any “Left Behind” thoughts you might have, because those books are just plain fantasy writing.

Now.  The two things I want to talk about this morning are promises and hope.  Promises and hope are tied together, and especially in today’s readings.  When we go back the text we heard from Isaiah, we hear a promise being made that, “in days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.”  It is a promise for the future, though we are not told when it will come to pass.  And here’s a tricky thing about promises in the future:  God can already see that future.  It is not a thing that might happen, if everything goes according to plan.  It is not a promise that will occur, if we all behave or whatever.  No, from God’s vantage point, it is a done deal.  We just can’t see it because we are constrained by time.  But, in days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

Which leads us to hope. If God has promised something will happen, and we trust in that promise, then we hope for the future.  Our hope roots our focus in the future, you could say.  We’re not there yet, but when we hope, we have a stake in that future promise.  You could say, hope keeps us in two places at once, confident that a thing will happen in the future, and living in the present, before that event takes place.  You can maybe see how that is different from wishing a thing might happen.  Hope anchors us in the future, a lifeline to the time when the promises will be fulfilled.

And in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the section we heard a few minutes ago, he says “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”  Now, of course, if a thing will happen in the future, we are closer to it now then when Paul wrote those words.  And we’re even closer to it now after I said that.  We are moving toward the promised future all the time.  It is not here yet, but with every passing moment, we are closer to the time when it will be reality.

But, of course, we want to know when these promises will be fulfilled.  A few verses before today’s gospel reading from Matthew, the disciples come to Jesus asking him when the end will come.  And Jesus says that he “will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”  But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Salvation will come.  But we don’t know when.  And the angels don’t know when.  And Jesus doesn’t know when.  So we live in the sure hope that it will happen, because God’s promises are true.  Our salvation is already accomplished, but it is not yet here.

So . . . Advent.  As you and I move through the Church year together, we know what comes next before it gets here.  We know there’s a baby coming, but he is not yet born.  We know who his mother is, and we know he will grow up and gather his disciples, and be arrested, executed, and rise from the grave, telling his disciples to tell the world that we too shall rise from the grave and  . . . In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.  But he is not yet born.  We know what is coming, but it is not yet here.  I mean, seriously, no one is surprised to wake up on December 25th and find out Jesus has been born, right?  Already been born, and not yet here.

I want to briefly touch on the Psalm we read together a few minutes ago.  “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’. . . Pray for the peace of Jerusalem . . . For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you’.  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”

There is a theme throughout the scriptures that peace is always accompanied by justice.  I don’t mean 21st century legal punitive justice.  I mean a just society, where the naked are clothed and the hungry are fed.  And if you give it some thought, you’ll see this is not just a biblical concept.  There can be no peace where there is no justice.  Even if you take compassion and love out of the equation, if some people have nothing while others have everything, no one will ever really have peace.  There will always be anger and bloodshed and violence.  And look at what the psalmist says in that closing line:  “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.” 

If I truly seek what is best for you, truly love my neighbor as myself, there will be peace on earth.  From Isaiah today, we heard “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”  You see, it’s not just that war stops, or that the need for war stops.  There’s a second step, a constructive step.  A step where we stop turning the tools of violence toward our neighbor, and instead turn them into a means of helping our neighbors.  Peace and justice go hand in hand.

And so, back to waiting for Jesus . . .
The sudden and unexpected return of Jesus means what?  Well, clearly that will vary according to what you’re expecting, and what you feel is expected from you.  But the Spirit of God convicts each one of us to do something to get ready.  And the reason we want someone to tell us the exact date is because deep down we’re each afraid we’re not doing enough to get ready. 

Sure, the Spirit convinced Noah to build an ark.  But look at the other examples:  two people working in a field, two women grinding grain . . . they’re doing the same thing.  We are not all called to build arks.  (If we were, things would be awfully crowded.)  We’re not all called to work in the fields or grind grain.  But in our baptismal covenant, we all do promise to work for justice and peace.  We can’t all clothe the naked, or feed the hungry, or visit those in prison.  But you are uniquely called and equipped to do something in God’s Kingdom. 

There is some part of preparing for Jesus’ return that you alone can do, because of who you are, and where you are, and mainly because of what you are:  a claimed and redeemed child of God, a living witness in the world, proclaiming the hope of the one we are longing to welcome.  That same one who offers himself to us this day, at this altar.  We do not know the hour that Jesus will return, but we do know that in this hour he is present among us.  So come and welcome Jesus into your life once more, the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

YEAR C 2016 thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, 2016
Philippians 4:4-9
Preached at Massillon area Ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving

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

I find this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians to be so inspirational and worthy of reflection.  It’s such a pep talk to the church there, and to us, and can really refocus our attention on what truly matters in our common life together, during our own brief sojourn on this earth.  But I have to wonder . . .

Why are we told to rejoice?  Isn’t that a curious thing?  Doesn’t rejoicing seem like a reaction to something, as opposed to something we make a decision to do?  Maybe I’m just too locked in on the phrase from Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” movie, “And there was much rejoicing.”  But, to me, I can’t quite get past how surprising I find this command from Paul.  And maybe he expected his audience would be surprised as well, since he repeats it by saying, “Again I will say rejoice!”

But again, I think I’m not alone when I say that being told to rejoice just seems curious to me.  So maybe I’m getting this wrong, at first glance.  Because they are being told to rejoice in the Lord always, it’s possible the redirection is not into rejoicing, per se, but rather into where the rejoicing is directed.  For example, maybe there’s a lot of rejoicing in the Tigers beating the Bulldogs, and Paul is saying, “No no, rejoice in the Lord, instead.”  But when we look at the text, that’s kind of doubtful.  No, I think he is reminding them to rejoice, plain and simple.

And the reason I think that is because what follows is sort of a laundry list of reasons to rejoice.  “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Yes.  That sounds like a reason to rejoice.  God is near, and God will give us peace.  But notice how that peace is to come: Let your requests be known to God in prayers of pleading and thanksgiving.  That is what will bring us peace.

There is no claim here that our prayers will be answered by God.  There is no suggestion that our pleading will change God’s mind.  No, what Paul is saying is that, in coming to God with our supplications and thanksgiving, we will be changed.  In bringing our joys and concerns to God in prayer, we will experience the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.

I have concerns that our Thanksgiving holiday is one of those times that exposes our underlying view of God.  I think somewhere deep down in each of us, we imagine God standing with arms folded, waiting and keeping track of who showed up to give thanks each November.  That kind of god probably has a long beard and a quiver full of lightning bolts.  (And that god is also called Zeus, by the way.)  And in that scenario, God keeps track of who is giving thanks on Thanksgiving, and then hands that list over to his buddy Santa, and you know where it goes from there.  So, if we think like that, then our prayers and thanksgivings are aimed at changing God, not changing us.  “Let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Prayer changes us.

And then we get that lovely section in the last two verses, which begins with the word “finally.”  Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, anything excellent,  and anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Isn’t that remarkable?  He goes through that list that sounds like a combination of the Scouts oath and the virtues of the ancient world, and then says “think about these things.”  It really is good advice in this contentious election year.  (And speaking of Thanksgiving, I think we’re all thankful THAT is over.)  But we have a tendency to focus on the opposite of that list, I’m afraid.  We don’t naturally think about those things.

Whatever is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, displeasing, uncommendable, anything shoddy,  and anything unworthy of praise, we think about these things, if we’re really honest.  It is human nature.  Just notice how quickly we learn of a celebrity’s downfall, or a politician’s misdeeds.  Think of how stories of bad behavior land on the front page, above the fold.  Consider what sort of news is followed by the phrase, “Film at 11.”  It is our default mode to notice what is wrong in the world, what is broken, what doesn’t hold up to our own standards.

And maybe that is exactly the key to this.  If we look around at our neighbors and see that they are less than perfect, maybe we won’t feel so bad about our own brokenness.  If I can mentally point to someone else and say, “Well at least I’m not as bad as . . . “ fill in the blank.  It is a subtle (or not so subtle) way to justify ourselves at the expense of someone else.  And that is a race to the bottom.  That is throwing our neighbor under the bus, rather than binding up their wounds and taking them to the inn to recover.  To focus on what is wrong with the world does not bring us peace.

Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, anything excellent, and anything worthy of praise, think about these things, and the God of peace will be with you.  And when we focus on these things, we find ourselves giving thanks.  Think through that list of virtues and pleasures and you may find your head lifted just a little bit upward.  Consider a world where everyone looked for what was excellent and just and praiseworthy, where we focused on what is true and honorable and pleasing.  That is a world we want to live in.  That is a world worth defending and preserving.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  May God grant us this peace.

Friday, November 18, 2016

YEAR C 2016 christ the king

Christ the King, 2016
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Canticle 16
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

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

So, this is the last Sunday before Advent starts.  It’s the end of our year spent hearing from the Gospel of Luke.  We call this day Christ the King Sunday, and it signals the close of the church year.  And knowing that it’s Christ the King Sunday might lead you to ask the obvious question:  Why is Jesus the king on a cross?  Why don’t we hear instead about Jesus’ resurrection or something?  You know, some part of the story that looks a little more like reigning victorious rather than dying beside a couple two-bit thieves?

Well, since we’re right on the verge of Advent, it will probably help to start with how God arrives on the scene.  As you know, the Jewish people were waiting forever for the Messiah, the anointed one.  They wanted and expected God to send someone to knock the Romans off their perch and throw off the yoke of oppression.  You know, someone riding in on a white horse with a blazing sword who could set things right.  A restoration of a king, when it comes right down to it. 

But if we take our minds back to what we vaguely remember hearing from the Old Testament, we might recall the history of kings in Israel and Judah.  God told Moses, if the people would serve the one true King, they would have no need for a mortal kings. They needed a leader, yes, but not a king.  (And Moses, you’ll remember, was a shepherd, not a king.)  So God says, I the Lord shall be your king.  And Israel was led by prophets and judges for generations.  (I’m paraphrasing whole books here, so bear with me.)

After 400 years of being led by prophets and judges, the people approached the Prophet Samuel, clamoring for a king “like all the other nations.”  This desire to be like other nations is the root of the problem for them.  God did not want them to be like their faithless neighbors, and having a king (as they would soon find out) would lead them right down that same path.  Then we get Saul, and David, and a whole list of kings who do what is evil in God’s sight.  The kingdom splits into Judah and Israel.  The people are taken away to foreign lands in captivity.  The Jewish people start coming back a couple hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

(Almost done.)  Then Alexander the Great takes over Palestine in 331 BC; then the Jewish people revolt and take it back (which you’ll find in Maccabees); then the Romans take over, the Parthians invade, and Herod gets the Romans to support him in taking it all back.  Herod dies, and his three sons take over (two of whom also named Herod, because of his creative streak), and this leads us right up to what we could call year zero.  Or, maybe more accurately, 4 AD, but who’s counting. 

After all this violence and oppression, the Jewish people want nothing less than a mighty warrior king who will overthrow the Romans and restore them to their land and heritage a free people.  And what do they get?  A baby.  Born to an unwed mother.  In a feeding trough, behind a sold-out hotel.  This Jesus cannot possibly be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for.  He’s a defenseless baby.  He is no king.

Now fast forward about 2,000 years and here we are.  Gathered on a Sunday morning, and looking for a king.  It’s Christ the King Sunday, so we’re expecting to see our Savior in the most elevated position possible, right?  Jesus our King, lifted high in glory, having defeated all his enemies and ours.  A king who will overthrow the evil forces all around us and restore us to our heritage as free people.  And what do we get?  A man who is hung between two thieves, on the verge of death.  One who is beaten and mocked and disgraced.  God’s people wanted a king, and instead got a baby.  We want a king, and instead we get a man about to die.

You know what we have in common with God’s people across the years?  We don’t understand kingship the way God shows kingship.  We associate being kingly with being powerful and getting our way.  We expect a ruler to force their will on others, for better or worse.  In fact, we would expect a bad king to act like the people all around Jesus in this gospel reading.  Mocking, taunting, humiliating, displaying arrogance and might.  We expect the king to be the one who sentences someone to death.  You know, like your Pontius Pilate, or your Herod, son of Herod, brother of Herod.

But, turns out, the King is the one on the cross.  The King is the one who is willing to suffer, and willing to lay down his life for others.  Not what we would expect, we have to admit.  And that leads us to the disconnect in this gospel we just heard. 

Notice how everyone is setting up these if/then scenarios for him. 
The people say, If he is the Messiah of God, let him save himself.  The soldiers say, If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.  One of the criminals says, Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.  And we say, if you are a king, come and save us as well.  Come and make things better.  Come and save us from the violence and despair.  Come and save us from the pain and darkness in our world.  If you are the Messiah, come and save God’s people.

You see where that puts us, of course.  If we are expecting this Jesus, this Christ the King to squash our enemies and stamp out evil . . . well . . . we kind of end up sounding like the people mocking Jesus, don’t we?  If we are putting Jesus in the place of having to prove himself to us through his mighty deeds, then we end up speaking the words of the angry crowd, the mocking soldiers, the taunting thief on the cross.  And that’s the natural reaction to this scene, isn’t it?  Jesus never claimed to be a king.  But the people wanted a king, and so they made him a king, and when the king can’t defend himself . . . well, what kind of king is that, right?  Off with his head!

Jesus did not come to rule.  Jesus came to serve.  Those who rule, take lives.  Those who serve, give up their lives.    We worship one who lays down his life.  One who is willing to give everything he has and everything he is.  He is not a king, but he is worthy of worship.

And this is the point where, if you’re like me, you say, okay Father Preacher, that’s all well and good.  But it sure doesn’t sound like . . . you know . . . good news.  We get that Jesus came to serve, and we get that Jesus is willing to lay down his life, but . . . well . . .so what?  But maybe we ask those questions because we’re still thinking like the crowd, and the soldiers, and the mocking thief.  So let’s look at the other person in this story.

Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

When we set aside our natural drive to get Jesus to prove himself, when we lay down our quid pro quo of, If you are who I say you are, then you will do this or that, when we step back and focus on what we really need from a savior rather than a king, then we can say to Jesus what we really need to say.  And it is just this:  Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

That’s the one request that matters.  That is the true sign of faith in the midst of turmoil and despair.  If we ask one thing of Jesus, it should be this:  Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

And it is interesting, to me, that this other thief on the cross should word it this way.  The others are saying, if you are a king, then save yourself.  And if you are a king, then save us.  But the thief on the cross is saying, when you are a king.  When you come into your kingdom.  When you come into your kingdom, remember me.  When you are seated at the right hand of God, remember me.  When the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven forever sing this hymn . . . remember me.

Which brings us to this Altar.  That hymn is going on at this very moment.  You and I are remembered in that kingdom, a kingdom that is not of this world.  And very soon, you and I will once again join in the timeless stream of that eternal hymn.  It is not a song sung to a king on earth, as though we were simply paying homage to some temporary ruler.  No, it is a song that goes on forever, to a Savior who rules our hearts forever.  It is a song that unites us with people of every time and every place.  A song of praise to the King of heaven, and the Savior of the world.  Christ the King who rules this Sunday, and all the days to come.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

YEAR C 2016 pentecost 26

Pentecost 26, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25
Canticle 9
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

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

In some ways, this is the perfect Gospel text to be assigned for the first Sunday after this election.  As we just heard,  “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down’.”

Some voters see the election result as a beautiful thing.  And others sense that the Temple has already been torn down.  We are in one of those periods of time where two people can look at the same exact thing and yet somehow see exactly the opposite.  Some see a beautiful creation that will last forever, and others despair over something that has already been thrown down.  And the problem with both those views is that we are putting our trust in things human.  We are putting our hopes in things that will pass away, whether those things are ascending or descending.  We admire what is fleeting, temporary.

But, Jesus says, “do not be terrified.”    We are used to Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid.”  He says that a lot.  But here, he says “do not be terrified”—well, what he actually says is, “may you not be terrified.”  These things will happen, yes.  And when they do, may you not be terrified.  Personally, I prefer when Jesus says “may you” about something.  Because when he says “do not be afraid,” that sounds more like a command . . . like it’s up to us to do that thing.  But “may you not be terrified” sounds more like a blessing to my ear.  “May you live long and prosper,” as opposed to “live long and prosper . . . or else.”  But I digress.

So, as you probably noticed, this is a very strange gospel text.  Some people use it to claim all sorts of things about the end times.  And, of course, there are timing issues.  Like, Luke’s gospel was written after the Temple was already destroyed, though he’s quoting Jesus at a time before that happens.  But let’s not get bogged down in that.  What I want to concentrate on is the good news of this gospel text.  Because it sounds like bad news if we just look at the “sensational” aspects of it. 

When we hear or read this part of Luke, we get focused on the destruction and despair.  On the wars and insurrections, the nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  We fixate on the great earthquakes, and famines and plagues, and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.  You know, the kind of thing that is usually followed by the phrase, “film at eleven.”  And then some people (say, Hal Lindsay or Tim LaHaye) write books that make us think Jesus is giving us clues about when the world will end.  That is NOT what is going on here.  What is going on here is that Jesus is giving his disciples a pep talk, if you will.  He is giving them hope, in the face of what they will (or already have) gone through.

It is an unsettling text, yes.  But it is meant to be settling . . . or, I mean, reassuring.  Jesus is not telling us what the future holds.  He is telling us who holds the future.  He is not saying, “Though there will be suffering, you’ve got this.”  He is saying, “Though there will be suffering, God has got you.”  God holds the past; God holds the present; God holds the future.  Our story is God’s story; the two are interwoven from the beginning, and God will not let us go until the story is entirely written.  Jesus is saying: what is important is not what the future holds, but who holds the future.  Remember that.

When bad things happen (and they will), may you not be terrified.  You and I are not likely to be dragged before kings and rulers.  We probably will not be handed over to synagogues and prisons.  The things Jesus describes will probably not happen in our lifetimes.  But there will be suffering for each of us, in one way or another.  Marriages will fall apart; family members will disown one another; jobs will be lost, and loved ones will pass away.  These things will happen, and may you not be terrified.

We want to be saved from suffering.  We want God to prevent sorrow and pain.  But God does not save us from suffering.  God saves us in the midst of suffering.  Since our story is God’s story, God meets us in our pain.  I don’t need to tell you that suffering is part of life.  Being a Christian does not mean you will not suffer.  In fact, based on what Jesus says to us today, being a Christian just might be the cause of suffering.  Certainly for his disciples, who suffered under the Roman persecution.  Sure, our suffering is different from theirs, but it is still our suffering, and we still need God to meet us in our pain, just as much as the disciples did.

We should look for God in our suffering.  But we should not look for God as the cause of suffering.  There are people who will say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”  Which suggests that God is just handing out suffering to see how much you can bear.  Let me say this clearly:  God does not cause the suffering in your life.  God meets us in our suffering; but God does not cause it.  Sometimes it’s us, sometimes it’s other people, and sometimes it’s just the way things are.  But no matter the cause of our pain and grief and sadness, the important thing to remember is this:  God meets us there. 

In today’s gospel text, Jesus tells the disciples, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  He has just warned them about the persecution they will face, and says that persecution will give them a chance to testify.  But he tells them not to plan what they will say in advance, because he will give them the words they need.

How does that relate to us?  Well, it’s hard to say.  But let me suggest something like this:  Maybe we should avoid having bumper sticker slogans prepared, like “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” since that is sort of like planning in advance what we are going to say in the midst of our suffering.  Maybe we should resist the temptation to always have a pat answer to explain away evil, and pain, and heartbreak,

Maybe instead we should face whatever suffering comes our way with an eye toward finding the place where God is meeting us in that pain.  Perhaps it is more helpful and faithful to seek God in the moment, trusting that God is there, and that God will give us a word when we need it.  Rather than preparing in advance to explain God’s absence, maybe we’d be better off looking for God’s presence in our pain, and trusting Jesus when he says, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

That’s a hard thing, I know.  Because it is our nature to plan in advance what we are going to say when people ask us about God.  It is sort of our Christian duty to always be ready to explain our faith.  As we read in 1st Peter:  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  And we know that our hope rests in God’s promises, and in the hope of the resurrection.  But that is a far different thing than pre-planning a reason for why there is suffering.  We can explain our reason for hope in advance.  But it is a fool’s errand to explain why we got hit by a bus before it ever happens.

But enough of that.  Here’s what I really want to get to this morning.  This section of Luke’s Gospel finishes with Jesus telling the disciples, “You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Let me start with that last sentence.  Though the translation we get sounds like a thing we have to do—that is IF we endure, we will gain our souls in the future—the actual wording is more like “keep your souls in patience.”  Which is more akin to saying, “do not let your soul be anxious.”  It’s not an if/then, meaning “If you want to gain your soul you must endure.”  Rather it is more like, “Keep your soul at peace.”  Two very different things.

And secondly, the hair thing.  Jesus promises, “not a hair of your head shall perish.”  I point to my own head as Exhibit A here.  I seem to have lost a few hairs over the years, I think you will agree.  They are lost to me, but they are not lost to God.  Now, of course, I’m not saying God has some bag of my hair on the shelf in the closet—since that’s weird and kind of gross.  This is obviously a metaphor.  And the metaphor can be interpreted something like this . . .

Whether or not the election turned out the way you wanted, and whether or not you got the job, or kept the marriage, or survived the operation, you are not lost to God.  The Temple that Jesus talks about was the center of Jewish worship—the very place where God was thought to dwell.  People marveled at its beauty, but it was destroyed.  And even in the destruction, it was still known to God, just as you and I are known to God.  The hairs on your head, and the love in your heart, and the despair you may sometimes feel, all these are known to God, and held close at hand.  God knows you intimately, because your story is part of God’s story, and that story is still being written.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

YEAR C 2016 all saints

Year C
All Saints, 2016
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

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

You’re probably familiar with what people call, The Sermon on the Mount.  Sometimes we call its phrases, The Beatitudes.  They pop up all the time, in greeting cards, and on calendars, and times when people want to say, “It gets better.”  Blessed are the sad people, for they will one day be happy, and that kind of thing.  The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew.  Jesus climbs the mountain and delivers a lengthy encouraging poem to his listeners.

But Matthew’s Gospel comes next year.  This year, we’re using Luke, at least for a few more weeks.  And one of the characteristics of Luke’s Gospel is what we might call, The Great Leveling.  Luke is big on lifting the poor and pressing down the rich.  And today, we even see it in the landscape: Matthew’s Jesus delivers his words on a mountain.  In Luke, this scene is called the Sermon on the Plain.  Luke levels it out.  No mountains here.

But we also see in today’s reading—from Luke—a balance in Jesus’ words.  Whereas Matthew is all about encouraging the downtrodden, Luke gives us four encouragements, to the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the outcasts, but Luke also adds the Four Woes:  woe to the rich, woe to the well-fed, woe to the laughing, woe to the popular.  Blessed are the poor, but woe to the rich.  Blessed are the hungry, but woe to the well-fed.  Blessed are those who weep, but woe to those who laugh.  Blessed are the hated, but woe to the well-liked.

You know, it’s almost like our armchair Buddhist view of karma, right?  The first section could be summed up as, What goes around comes around. There’s a sort of circular thinking in this.

And the blessings fit with our view of life.  It’s un-American to suggest that the poor will always be poor.  No one running for office ever says things are going to get worse if they win, or that people will always be poor.  It’s good politics to give people hope.  It’s inspiring to hear that tomorrow will be better.  All the blessings in Luke seem like good politics.  And all the woes seem like . . . well . . . reality. 

And even when we bring this lesson into the spiritual realm, it still holds true.  The poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the outcast will all have their redemption after the grave.  And, they’ll end this life with a focus on the things that really matter, rather than worrying about whether they have the latest i-Phone gadgets.  And, the rich, well-fed, happy, popular ones will end up in the same state when they face the grave.  We leave this world with nothing, just as we entered it.  So, of course, we all leave on the same footing.  Simple, right?  Blessed are the poor, and since the rich will also one day be poor, they’re blessed too . . . just not quite yet.

But that isn’t what this gospel text really says.  Or, rather, this text says much more than that.  My simplified reading overlooks what comes after this section.  The blessings and woes are kind of the preamble to what follows.  They’re the set-up for this . . .

“But I say to you, “ says Jesus, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  The blessings made some sense to us.  You know, for the poor, hungry, sad, and unpopular.  But, if anyone strikes you, offer the other cheek also; if they take your coat, offer your shirt?  Give to everyone who begs, and when someone steals from you, don’t ask for your stuff back?  If we actually followed these rules, we’d end up . . . well, poor, hungry, sad, and unpopular. 

Society is based on doing the exact opposite of these things.  A good citizen goes to the police.  A good citizen defends her property.  A good citizen doesn’t give to beggars, since it might just be some kind of scam.  And being a bad citizen would make you unpopular.  If we follow the advice of Jesus, you and I will end up poor, hungry, sad, and unpopular.  That does not sound like a happy kingdom.

But let’s look at today’s other readings, with a mind toward God’s kingdom in the midst of our earthly kingdom, or—better yet—our earthly kingdom’s place within God’s eternal kingdom.
The reading from Daniel gives us a bunch of scary monsters, all seeming to put the story into the land of fairy tale, rather than some believable narrative.  And that’s sort of where this story belongs.  It’s not a newspaper account of the day scary monsters came to visit Daniel’s house.  But, at the same time, it’s more than a dream Daniel had.  There is an important truth at the end of that story: “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.” 

The four monsters in Daniel’s day were said to represent four oppressive kingdoms.  In our own time, they might be said to represent four things that oppress us on a daily basis.  You know, things like being poor, hungry, depressed, or lonely.  And the four beasts ruled the earth for a season, their kingdoms rose up for a while, but the saints of God shall receive the kingdom forever—forever and ever.

And, from the reading in Ephesians, the writer hopes his readers might come to recognize the riches of glorious inheritance among the saints.  And I want to draw our attention to that phrase “glorious inheritance among the saints.”  An inheritance comes as an unexpected gift.  Among the saints implies it is shared by all the saints.  We receive and we share this inheritance with all the saints, of every time and every place.  We belong together; we were meant to be together; we were meant to receive this inheritance together: In the Communion of Saints.

Communion of Saints.  You’ve heard that phrase before, yes?  It’s in one of our ancient Creeds of faith.  But it’s not in the one we say every Sunday.  The Nicene Creed does not include the “Communion of Saints.”  But the Apostles Creed does.  We don’t use the Apostles Creed very often in the Episcopal Church.  But we say it at two crucial moments. 

As a community, we recite the Apostles Creed at baptisms.  And we recite the Apostles Creed at funerals.  When the Church welcomes a new member, we proclaim our belief in the Communion of Saints.  When we gather to commend to God’s care one who has passed from our midst, we proclaim our belief in the Communion of Saints.  At these bookends of the life of faith, we are reminded of our common inheritance, we are reminded that the saints of God shall receive the kingdom forever—forever and ever. 

And who are these saints?  Well, the short answer is, they’re everywhere.  Rich and poor, hungry and fed, grieving and rejoicing, lonely and popular.  There are saints who spend every possible moment in church.  And there are saints who spend Sunday mornings driving tow trucks and coaching soccer.  God’s kingdom includes all sorts of people, including ones we might not expect to be included.
And the way you know it includes so many people is because of the times when we proclaim the Apostles Creed.  A baby is baptized, and we might not see that saint again until the day when we gather to bury him or her.  A saint nonetheless, and one who receives that glorious inheritance, right along side us. 

We pray for one who has died, “Acknowledge, we pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.”  It is the prayer that will be prayed for you, whether rich or poor, hungry or filled, sad or joyous, outcast or welcomed.  When you enter the Church by baptism, and when you leave the Church at death, the Church gathers and proclaims your membership in the Communion of Saints.  Your citizenship in a kingdom that is not of this world, distracting though your time in this world might be.

And, if I may quote from Ephesians, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”  How perfect for a day when we will baptize so many young people.

And in a little while, we will stand together before this Altar, with the saints of every time and every place.  Rich and poor, hungry and fed, grieving and rejoicing, lonely and popular, we all celebrate together our place in God’s kingdom, here among us now, and in the world to come.