Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Monday, December 18, 2017

Origin of Some Christmas Symbols

Several people have asked me to pass along my outline from a recent Christian Education class at church.  It occurs to me that posting online is probably more efficient, so here it is.
(Note: This is just sort of the outline.  You can fill in specifics on your own, I'm sure.)
The basic flow goes from pagan practices being "Christianized," to being repressed under the Puritans, to being revived by Charles Dickens, to seeming always to have been this way to us.

The Stuff of Christmastime

I.          Origin of the words “Christmas,” and “Xmas”  1050AD  and 1200AD

II.        How about a date?  Actual birthday?  Dec. 25th rationale  Spring, 6-4BC, 9 months after Annunciation

III.       Timeline of Celebrations. Nativity Feast 336AD.

IV.       How to Christianize pagan practices.  Winter Solstice.  12/21 Egypt Osiris, 12/17-23 Roman Saturnalia &  12/26 Janus, 12/25 Persians Mithras, 12/25 Phoenicians Baal

V.        Those Middle Agers knew how to party!  Communion 506AD, Civic Holiday 529AD, by 1100AD biggest holiday, Christmas to Epiphany brings back the pagan.  12 days of excess

VI.       Those Reformer party poopers.  1600’s pagan practices banned, stores open, Church canceled.  Shortened to 12 somber days.

VII.      Dickens to the rescue!  In the1800s, the goodwill from Saturnalia returns, and “decking” makes a comeback.  Isn't your idealized Christmas rooted in 1860 England? 

VIII.    The mixed bag of symbols
`Creche, St. Francis of Assisi 1200s,
`Christmas and Paradise plays 1100s
`Feasting: Romans fruit wine grains, Phoenicians bulls, Norse bear, harvest
`Gift giving Saturnalia, St. Nicholas Day, 1800s America
`Christmas lights Norse bonfires Yule season, Romans candles in tress, Hanukkah
`Christmas Trees Vikings (evergreens spring will return), Druids (decorated oak trees harvest), Romans (trinkets and candles), Medieval Paradise Plays (with apple) 12/24, 1605 Germany and Martin Luther lights
`Christmas Wreaths, probably German, possibly from Santa Lucia, Sweden 304AD
`Christmas Greens: Mistletoe--Celts (all heal) Greeks (charm) & Norse (kiss)  Holly--Roman (dispel demons), Norse (attract friendly spirits), Olde England (virgin protection), Druids (hair accessory for watching Mistletoe harvest), Germans (good weather luck)  Ivy—Romans (Bacchus) 
`Yule Log Norse-England-America, yuletide lasted weeks, Boar celebration at solstice, Thor is god of Yule and chases away frost, some Christians burn for 12 hours for good luck
`Wassail is cider, sugar, eggs, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and apples, 12th night.  Anglo-Saxon “be whole,” thrown on trees to invoke gods of trees. Go from party to party singing and wassailing.
`Boxing Day, 12/26, St. Stephen, empty alms boxes for the poor, leftover feast boxed for servants
`Secular Christmas Carols 1300s-1400s (before that, somber Latin hymns)
`Christmas Cards 1843 England

`Santa Claus . . . Stockings Nicholas of Myra 342AD, Norse bring north mix with Odin who could see all, rode horse across sky, giving gifts to the poor and candy to children (Sinterklaas is name travels with Black Peter).  Takes off among the Dutch, Germans, French.  PA Germans call him Kris Kringle.  Clement Clarke Moore “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and CocaCola cement it all together.

Friday, December 8, 2017

for Ruth Cleaver

Ruth Cleaver, 12/7/17
Ecclesiastes 1:1-8
Psalm 23
John 6:37-40

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

You are here today because you knew Ruth Cleaver.  Or, perhaps, because you know her family.  By the time she reached the age of 90, Ruth had touched many lives, and was deeply loved.  When I met Ruth for the first time, it was the day before she passed away.  She knew she was dying, and she was at peace with it. 

As I held Ruth’s hand that day, I asked her if I could anoint her with oil and pray for her, and she said yes.  But she wanted me to know where she stood on a visit from a priest.  She looked at me, and then over at Nancy, and then said to me, “I’m . . . a realist.”  I knew what she meant, and just kept holding her hand.  But she let me pray for her anyway.  Maybe it was because it meant something to her family.  Or maybe because it meant something to me.  Or maybe because she figured it couldn’t hurt.  But I am fully aware that she didn’t have to accept my feeble prayers or the smudge of oil on her forehead.  And yet, she did.  And I know it is an intimate honor that she allowed me into her space at such a transitional moment.

In the gospel reading we just heard, from John, Jesus says, “this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  In Baptism, Ruth was given to Jesus, and Jesus has promised not to lose what is his.  Ruth was a realist.  And Ruth was baptized.  A realist who was claimed as God’s own forever.

As we go through life, we all become disillusioned about some things.  I know from firsthand experience that it is easy to find ourselves giving up on God, either because of what we experience in life, or sometimes because of what we experience in the Church.  But, what matters is that God does not give up on us.  God’s love is relentless and will chase us down.  And when we think we have let go of God’s hand, we find that we are still safely nestled in the palm of God’s hand, the very place we have been all along.  We do not hold onto God:  God holds us.

Jesus says, “this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017

Thanksgiving, 2017
Deuteronomy 8:7-18
Psalm 65
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Luke 17:11-19
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Massillon, OH

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

So, this is a very nice Gospel text for Thanksgiving, right?  The one leper comes back to thank Jesus, now go and do likewise.  However, we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that giving thanks is what heals that one guy.  But we’ll get to that.  First, let’s turn the clock back . . .

When I was a child, I was unfamiliar with the word leper.  But I was quite familiar with the word leopard.  The Jesus I learned about in Sunday school was an awesomely brave man who stared down leopards.  10 of them in this one story alone!  Everyone else was afraid of the leopards, but not Jesus.  No, he would reach his hand out, touch the leopards, and they would heel!  My father spent months trying to get our Brittany Spaniel to heel, and she never would.  Jesus could just reach out with his hand, and get TEN leopards to heal.  Just like that.  Leopards!

Of course, at some point, I learned that a leper is a person, and Jesus didn’t seem so tough anymore.  But then, eventually, I learned what leprosy was, and suddenly Jesus seemed even braver than he had, back when I thought he worked at the circus.

As you may know, leprosy is an awful disease, and was much scarier in Jesus’ time because there was no cure.  (Though, even then, leprosy didn’t make your limbs fall off.)  It was considered among the worst diseases, and also made you ritually unclean.  Anyone who touched a leper was considered unclean, and no God-fearing Jew would go anywhere near them, let alone touch them.  So, actually, for Jesus to be touching lepers and healing them was even braver than getting a leopard to heel.

And, as you heard, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus encounters 10 lepers at one time.  Although in this case, he doesn’t lay hands on them.  They call to him from a distance (since lepers were forbidden to approach others, for fear of contaminating them with their unclean disease).  So, these lepers stand at a distance and call out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Ten unclean people, standing at a distance, pleading with Jesus for mercy.  Notice, that Jesus does not heal them in that moment.  Instead, Jesus says “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went they were made clean.

Several things are significant here.  First, to a pious Jew (like Jesus), there were things to be done after being cured of leprosy.  At some point when you’re up to finding out, you can turn to the 14th chapter of Leviticus and read all about what a former leper has to go through.  32 verses involving birds and yarn and hyssop and fresh water and shaved eyebrows and a lamb and grain and fire and blood and an earlobe, a thumb, a big toe, and a log.  Unless the person is poor; then there’s a whole different set of things.  But the first step of all this is to present yourself before the priest . . . AFTER being cured of leprosy.  And given what the priest has to do to make you ritually clean, all that stuff with animals and big toes and fire and stuff, I would imagine that a priest would not be too excited to see a former leper show up on his doorstep.  They didn’t get paid overtime.

But, you’ll notice that Jesus sends them to the priests before they are cured.  Before there is any evidence that they need to turn to Leviticus 14, the lepers do as he says, still covered with horrible sores, and they head off toward the priests.  Jesus has not promised to heal them.  He has not done anything except to see them, and send them to the priests.  AND THEY GO!  Is this faith?  Is this stupidity?  I don’t know.  But they go.

And on the way, one of the lepers realizes he has been healed.  He praises God with a loud voice, and turns back to go to Jesus.  He falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him.  It was his natural response of gratefulness for what God had done in his life.  When Martin Luther was asked to describe true worship, it is said that he pointed to this leper for his definition: Praising God, bowing down, and giving thanks to Jesus.  Our natural response to what God has done in our lives.  Praise, worship, and thanksgiving.

The one healed leper comes back to Jesus, and offers praise, worship, and thanksgiving.  The other nine we might say are being ungrateful.  Or rude.  They are showing what my grandmother might call, “bad breeding.”  The temptation is strong to turn this story into an object lesson on the importance of writing thank you notes.  And maybe you’ve heard that kind of lesson yourself.  You could read this gospel to your kids and say, “and the moral of the story is, remember to always say thank you when someone heals you of leprosy.”  Don’t be ungrateful.  Saying thank you is a sign of good breeding.  But the ONE person who returns to thank Jesus is a half-breed.  A Samaritan.  A mud-blood.  Samaritans do not have good breeding; in fact, they have wrong breeding.  Again I remind you that he returns because he can’t help it.  His worship of Jesus is a natural response to the joy he feels in being cleansed and redeemed.

This is not a lesson about good manners, writing thank you notes, or being kind to others.  If this kind of story were just a morality tale designed to remind us to say thank you . . . well, first of all, the 9 ingrates would not be healed, right?  I mean, you can’t make the point of the importance of being grateful if the people who aren’t grateful get the same reward, right?

So what do we make of this story then?  Jesus finishes by saying to the leper, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  And the word used for “well” here could also mean  “whole,” or “healed”  Aha!  Maybe the point is that Jesus offers salvation to the people who are grateful.  Could that be the point?  Maybe Jesus only saves the people who are thankful that he saves them?  But not only is that kind of backward, it also doesn’t fit what the text says.  All ten lepers were healed on their way to see the priests.  One turned around because he could not help it.  The other 9 were doing as they were told.  But all ten were healed.  It is not the gratefulness that heals this one leper.  It is not the good deed of showing thankfulness that heals him either.  Jesus does not heal him because he is grateful.  Jesus heals him because of his faith.

And of course we WANT it to be his gratefulness that saves him, since we want our children to be grateful.  But it seems to me that his faith is shown in doing as Jesus says, despite all evidence to the contrary.  And faith is a gift from God.  Jesus says go, and faith makes us go.  Jesus says to ten lepers, who still have leprosy, go and show yourselves to the priests.  All ten lepers head off to see the priests, apparently sure enough, or desperate enough, or filled-with-faith enough that they start toward the temple.  Still lepers.  Still unclean.  Still outcasts, whom the priest will not even speak to, let alone perform sacrifices for.  They go off, given the gift of faith, trusting that Jesus will heal them, make them well, make them whole.  And Jesus does.

All are healed.  All are made whole.  One in ten comes back to worship.  One in ten responds with gratefulness to God’s unmerited healing.  And today, you could say, a small percentage gathers because of what God has done, and they sing songs of praise, they proclaim God’s love, they profess their faith, they pray together, and they share God’s peace with one another.  And then in gratefulness they come to the altar, where God feeds them with a life-giving meal.  And then they hear the reassuring words, Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

Jesus loves the lepers and he makes them whole because of their faith.  Jesus loves you, and does the same in your life.  Whatever it is that makes you feel unworthy, or unloved, or unclean, leave it behind as you go on your way, and come back to worship Jesus.  Together, we cry out “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us!” Together, we bow down in praise, worship, and thanksgiving.  Together, we come to the Altar of Jesus to be made whole.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Jan Hus, 2017

Jan Hus, Prophetic Witness and Martyr, 1415
Job 22:21–30
Revelation 3:1–6
Matthew 23:34–39
Psalm 119:113–120

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

From Holy Women, Holy Men:  John Hus (1372-1415) was a Czech priest who became leader of the Czech reform movement, which called for a return to scripture and living out of the word of God in one’s life. As preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, he talked to the people in their native language. Hundreds gathered every day to hear his call for personal and institutional reform. Clerics he had offended had him exiled from Prague, but he continued his ministry through the written word. Hus took the radical step of appealing directly to Christ rather than to the hierarchy for the justification of his stance. 

When the Council of Constance opened in 1414, Hus traveled there
hoping to clear his name of charges of heresy. Hus had been given a pledge of safe conduct from the emperor, but his enemies persuaded council officials to imprison him on the grounds that “promises made to heretics need not be kept.” Although several leaders of the Council of Constance were in favor of moderate church reform, the council’s prime objective was the resolution of the Great Western Schism, which had produced three rival popes at the same time. The council therefore tried to secure a speedy recantation and submission from Hus. He maintained that the charges against him were false or twisted versions of his teachings, and he could not recant opinions he had never held. 

Faced with an ultimatum to recant or die, Hus chose the latter. As he approached the stake on July 6, 1415, he refused a last attempt to get him to recant and said: “The principal intention of my preaching and of all my other acts or writings was solely that I might turn men from sin. And in that truth of the Gospel that I wrote, taught, and preached in accordance with the sayings and expositions of the holy doctors, I am willing gladly to die today.”
His death did not end the movement, and the Czech reformation continued. Hus’ rousing assertion “Truth will conquer,” is the motto of the Czech Republic today.

Growing up Lutheran, I learned a lot about Martin Luther and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  It was 500 years ago this October that Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg Germany.  Lutherans will often mention Jan Hus as the direct predecessor of Martin Luther’s ideas, and both men’s rebellion against the abuses of the Church led them to the same sort of place: testifying before councils and having Papal Bulls written to condemn them.  However, Luther had a wealthy benefactor who rescued him from certain death, while Jan Hus’ benefactor abandoned him to torture and execution.

But while Luther is usually credited with creating all these radical ideas, they were not wholly original.  Jan Hus had said many of these same things 100 years before Luther.  And John Wycliffe was burned at the stake for saying many of the same things 30 years before that.  There are threads that connect Wycliffe to Hus to Luther to Thomas Cranmer to every Protestant Church member across the globe today.

But here is the astonishing thing about Jan Hus in my opinion:  Though John Wycliffe and Martin Luther were both willing to stand up for the things they wrote and said, claiming them as their own ideas, Jan Hus was actually put on trial for someone else’s ideas.  In the case they built against him, the writings and ideas presented were mostly those of John Wycliffe, not Jan Hus.  And yet, Jan Hus did not deny that they were true.  His challenge to the authorities of the council was this: Though I did not write and say these things, I will not deny that they are true, unless I can be shown through scripture that they are not true.

That is, he was willing to die for the truth that he himself did not proclaim.  He was willing to go to the stake to defend the writings of another reformer, who died 30 years before him.  In fact, he did not agree with much of the writings presented at his trial, but he refused to condemn them unless they could be proven false.

It is a remarkable thing to be willing to die for the truth as expressed by someone else.  In some ways, it is not too far from the phrase Evelyn Hall put in the mouth of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  When we clear away all the apocryphal stories about the Reformers and get down to what they were really after, they sought the truth, wherever that took them.  And in the life and death of Jan Hus, that meant seeking the truth, even when he did not agree with the truth.  Hear, once again, today’s Collect:

Faithful God, you gave Jan Hus the courage to confess your truth and recall your Church to the image of Christ: Enable us, inspired by his example, to bear witness against corruption and never cease to pray for our enemies, that we may prove faithful followers of our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

for Barry Busse

For Barry Busse
May 30, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-3
Psalm 121
Revelation 21:2-7
John 14:1-6

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

“God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  That is the promise for today.  And, one day, in the future, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

But today we cling to the promise for today:  “God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  There is no promise that we will not have reason for tears in this life.  Our hearts have been broken in the past, and they will break again.  Grief and mourning come to all of us.  There is no promise that we will not cry.

The promise is this: God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  Not some of the tears.  Not the tears that make sense.  Every tear.  All the tears.  From the scraped knees of childhood, to the loss of those we love.  And the promise for the future tells us that one day, Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  But not today.  For now we still weep, but these tears will be wiped away.

I did not know Barry Busse.  But I know those who are weeping for him.  I never heard Barry sing.  But I know those who heard echoes of heaven in his voice.  God gives us the gifts of music, and theater, and teaching, and God gave all these to Barry in extra measure.  And the wonderful thing about those particular gifts is that they are always shared.  Always passed on.  Always cherished in the hearts and lives of others.  And though Barry is no longer with us, he is still present with us in the voices of his students, in the memories of those who saw him perform, and in the tears of those weep for his passing.

And Barry is also with us as we share in this Communion Celebration today.  In baptism, God claimed Barry forever, and Barry is among the saints of every time and every place who gather with us to share in this Eucharistic meal.

“God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  That is the promise for today.  And one day, in the future, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  You and I still live in the mysterious and wonder-filled space between those two promises.  May God give us the grace to trust both in the promise for today, and especially in the promise to come.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Burial of Esther Chaney

The Burial of Esther Chaney
May 25, 2017

    Jesus said, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

My name is Fr. George Baum, and I am Rector of St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon.  Esther Chaney was a member of St. Paul’s in Canton, but the priest is away for the week, and I was asked to lead the service this afternoon, commending her to God’s care.  And for that reason, I didn’t know Esther.  I was not her priest, and I never met her.  I have no sense of her history, or her life, her accomplishments, or her struggles.  But I do know the most important thing about Esther, and it is this.

Esther Chaney was a baptized child of God.  Claimed as God’s own, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Water was poured over her head, and probably shockingly cold water at that.  She might have screamed out at that moment, or she might have been cooing quietly in her blanket.  I don’t know the details of her baptism, or her confirmation, or her daily life in the church throughout her years.  But I do know the most important thing about Esther’s life in the church, and it is this.

Esther Chaney was claimed as God’s own beloved in her baptism.  And in being claimed as God’s own, the Father, through the Holy Spirit, gave her to Jesus—body and soul.  Completely.  In Baptism, Esther was given over to Jesus, and in Jesus she lived out her days.  And here is the reason that is important . . .

Jesus said, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  Though Esther is lost to us, as we continue our earthly pilgrimage, she was never, and is not now lost to God.  Jesus does not lose what is his.  We are precious in his sight, and he holds us tightly throughout our lives, even when we don’t notice that we are being held.  Esther was given to Jesus in Baptism.  Just as you were given to God in your Baptism.  Jesus is holding on to Esther, and Jesus is holding on to you.

Jesus said, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  May we all trust in the promises of Jesus, and live our lives knowing that we too will be raised up on the last day.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Washington High School Baccalaureate

Washington High School Baccalaureate
Massillon, OH
May 22, 2017

Good evening, and welcome to St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.  I’m Fr. George Baum, and I’m the Rector here.  The 20th Rector, as a matter of fact.  You will walk past photos of my 19 predecessors in that little hallway on your way to refreshments after the service tonight.  And, you know, every time I enter this sanctuary for worship, I have to walk past all of them as well.  All those eyes staring down at me, reminding me that I am part of a very long tradition in the city of Massillon.  (And in my weaker moments, I sometimes imagine them saying, “Don’t screw it up, Baum!”) 

This congregation and this city grew up together.  The actress, Lillian Gish was a member of this church, but it’s probably more important to tell all of you that Coach Paul Brown was a member here as well.

And tomorrow, you all will graduate from an institution that has roots just as deep as this congregation.  Washington High School, and St. Timothy’s Church, and the city of Massillon have always been intertwined here in Stark County—from the very beginning—and those connections continue, as evidenced by the fact that you are here in this place tonight.

Some of you know what you will do in the fall, and some of you have no idea what you will do in the fall.  But I can pretty much guarantee that all of you will be surprised by what you experience this fall.  The unpredictability in life is what keeps it interesting, I think.  And in the midst of the chances and changes of our lives, it is the stability of institutions that keeps us grounded.  Places like our hometowns and childhood churches are places that welcome us back when we feel unstable, or just need a safe harbor.  I want you to know that St. Timothy’s will always welcome you with open arms, and that we are honored to be hosting you tonight.

I wish you God's richest blessings, and every happiness.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Massillon Ecumenical Lenten Service

MACA 1st Lenten Service, 2017
Matthew 5:1-3
Preached at First Baptist, Massillon, OH

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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

My name is George Baum, and I am the new priest at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church here in Massillon.  I’ve only been in town since August, but am already deeply impressed by how active and involved the Massillon Area Clergy Association has been for so long in this area, and I am honored to be with you tonight.  Fair warning: Episcopalians have notoriously brief sermons.  And I do not intend to disappoint.

When a group of us clergy types sat down to plan out these Wednesday night Lenten services leading up to Easter, they told me that the new pastor in town always preaches first, which is probably just to set the bar comfortably low for the sermons that will follow.  When we discussed what we should all preach about, we decided to focus on the Beatitudes, as recorded in the 5th chapter of Matthew.  So this first week, we get the first verse, one I just read:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

At the same time, since this is the first of many nights we will be gathering together, I want to take a few moments to discuss the Beatitudes as a whole, to sort of set the stage for our Lenten journey together.  And if my taking that liberty is way off, well, Pastor Steven Gower can fix things next Wednesday night.

So, The Beatitudes, right.  You’ve heard them before: in pieces and in whole.  They’re part of our culture.  If I say, “Blessed are the meek,” you’re automatically thinking something about inheriting the earth.  Since the Beatitudes are so familiar, we sort of tune out when someone starts reading them.  And tuning out is fitting in a way, because Beatitude is where the Beat Generation gets its name.  Beatnik comes from Beatitude, Beatific, that kind of thing.  It suggests a bit of disengaging the mind, and living in harmony and understanding.  The Beatitudes have lost much of their power for us, because of their familiarity, and also because we don’t often think about what they mean, or what they imply, or how they apply to us.

Or, worse, we think of them as a list of things to try to achieve in order to get the promised result.  We switch them around, focusing on the promise as a reward for the suffering.  We put the cart before the horse, and then realize the horse is not worth pushing the cart.  For instance, we think, if we want to inherit the earth, then we have to be meek.  Or, if we want to receive mercy, then we have to be merciful.  Or, if we want to have the kingdom of heaven, then we’ve got to be poor in spirit.  I blame this thinking on math class, personally.  You know, if 2 plus 2 equals four, then 4 minus two equals two.  We’re trained to reverse a process since, all things being equal, that should also work.  But, of course, all things are never equal, no matter what your math teacher may have told you.

And this way of approaching the beatitudes is like saying, aspirin cures headaches, so I’d better get a headache.  If Jesus had said, “Blessed are the homeless because they get blankets,” it shouldn’t make us want to be homeless, in order to get a blanket.  The promise of the resurrection doesn’t make us want to die . . . hopefully.  These sayings of Jesus, these Beatitudes are messages of hope.  They are not threats, and they are not ethical guideposts.  They are reassurances for those who are suffering.  Reminders that the present state of things is not going to last forever.  Appeals to keep our minds on a heavenly system of judgment, rather than allowing ourselves to be co-opted by society’s evaluation of what matters.  (You see why the Beatniks loved these?)

And let me just point out what the text does NOT say.  Nothing in these Beatitudes suggests that the merciless will NOT obtain mercy, or that the rich in spirit will NOT obtain the kingdom of heaven.  These are not backhanded judgments about how we are to behave.  They are statements of hope, for those who need to hear a bit of good news, and the good news is that God’s kingdom is a totally different way of being, with a totally different set of values.

Blessed are you when you’re down and out, with your back against the wall, when you’ve got nothing but hope to cling to . . . because nothing is stronger than hope.  If you have hope, you can get through anything.  And without hope, you can’t get through anything for very long.  That’s why some of the richest people in the world still commit suicide, and some of the poorest people in the world are smiling every day.  Hope is what makes the difference.  Hope is what comforts those who mourn.  Hope is what helps us endure suffering and persecution.  And hope comes from the promises of Jesus.  What appear to be insurmountable odds are nothing in the face of hope, because we put our hope in the promises of Jesus.  And when we trust God’s promises, anything is possible.

These Beatitudes are hope for those who suffer.  If everything is absolutely great in your life, this text is not for you.  If your world is perfect, and your heart is not broken by the suffering of others, and you’ve never been persecuted for standing up for what’s right, I guess you don’t need to hear these beatitudes.  For the rest of us, this is a gospel of hope, not judgment.  A gospel that says in the presence of Jesus, what looks insurmountable is surmountable.  What seems like a deficit, or “handicap,” is made perfect.  And in the present, what we are is made useful to God, no matter what the world tells us.

My friend Bart’s father is a public speaker who travels around, speaking.  Which is what makes him a public speaker, I suppose.  One of my favorite stories he tells goes like this . . .

A friend of mine out in Hawaii told me about a young man who was in a horrible automobile accident and lost his left arm.  He was so depressed, so his father, trying to cheer him up, said, "Can I do anything? Is there anything I can do for you?"

The boy said, "Yes. I would like to take judo lessons. I understand you can do judo with one arm."
The father got him a sensei, a teacher, to teach him judo. After learning the basics of the art of judo, the sensei concentrated on one move, just one move alone. That one move over and over and over again, day after day, week after week. After two and a half months, the sensei said, "We're entering a tournament."

The young kid says, "You've got to be kidding. I've only been taking judo for two and a half months. I only have one arm. My left arm is gone and I'm going to be in a tournament?"

They go to the tournament and the boy wins the first round, the second round, the third round. He can't believe it. He keeps on winning right up until the final. He wins the final. On the way home, he says to his sensei, "I don't understand. How is this possible? I've only been taking judo for two and a half months. I really only know one move. How could I have just beaten the champion of the state?"

The Sensei says, "You won for two reasons. First, the one move you do know is the most effective move in all of judo. The second reason why you won is because the only defense against that move is to grab your opponent’s left arm."

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  It is easy to look around our little town of Massillon and find ourselves poor in spirit.  There is a lot of suffering.  A lot of pain.  Poor in spirit is an easy place to end up when we think that it’s all up to us.  It’s easy to lose hope when we forget that God is also here in Massillon.

But I just want to remind you that when we face what may seem like insurmountable challenges—because you’re a small church, or because you rent another church’s building, or because you’ve only got a part-time pastor—these challenges may just turn out to be the things that make us unbeatable, when it comes down to it.

Just as the sensei had faith in the one-armed judo student, God has faith in us, because God is with us.  Our imperfections become perfect in the presence of Jesus.  God has called each one of us into our little communities of faith . . . at least for today, at least for right now.  And God will guide us each into carrying out our unique role in the kingdom: as part of congregations here in Massillon, and as part of the larger body of Christ in the world.  God strengthens us for that journey when we continue meeting together, and praying together, and eating together.  God calls us together to strengthen us for the days ahead.

God is calling the poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and the meek, and those who hunger, and the merciful, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.  God is calling you.  For yours is the kingdom of heaven.


Friday, January 27, 2017

for Stephen G. Smith

Steve Smith
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Revelation 21:2-7
John 14:1-6

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

In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.

We often use that quote from Jesus to console people who are grieving someone whose faith journey we’re not sure about.  To offer the reassurance that there is room in heaven for one whose faith is known to God alone.

But Steve Smith’s faith was not known only to God alone.  Far from it.  As a priest, I often find myself visiting people in the hospital.  These visits mostly involve listening, hearing what someone wants to say to a person wearing a collar.  Whenever I visited Steve . . . well, yes, I heard stories, believe me!  But he also always asked me to pray with him.  He always wanted to take communion when I visited.  I could tell that his faith was interwoven into who he was, and the stories he told me.

Steve was a solid churchman, serving on committees, fixing things, passing on his knowledge, singing in the choir.  And he told me stories about all that.  But he also told me stories about his years in the army, negotiating the bureaucracy to ensure that the families in his care got what they needed, when they needed it.  And he told me stories of his years as a union leader, standing up for workers’ rights, while also talking people out of making hotheaded decisions.  Steve Smith was what most of us would call, “a good man.”  One who does what he can, wherever he can, to make the world a little better than he found it.  But I have a hunch that Steve’s goodness flowed out of his faith in God, and Steve’s life lived in the church.  He naturally wanted to help people when he could.

When I went to visit Steve at home one morning after Christmas, he asked Carol to go get a couple bottles for us.  She came back with the last beer and a bottle of hard cider.  He let me choose, and since I hate hard cider, I drank the last beer.  (As I told my wife later that day, when a parishioner in hospice asks you to have a beer with him before noon on a workday, you drink that beer.)  It was small celebration that I will never forget, sitting with him that day.  And of course, he asked, and I prayed with him before I left.

In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.  Today I find myself more focused on that promise for you and me, than for Steve.  Because his faith was so obvious to so many of us, and his faith in God compelled him to do all sorts of things for other people.  Steve’s faith led him to work for those in his care, to stand up for those he represented, to be an exemplary husband and father, and to give his last beer to a priest on a snowy winter morning.

We can be confident that Steve has been welcomed into the arms of Jesus, where there is no suffering, where there are no tears, where there is no pain.  May God grant us the grace to know and trust that we too will one day join him in that place.