Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Saturday, December 25, 2021

YEAR C 2021 christmas day

Christmas Day 2021
Isaiah 52-7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

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

There’s a famous scene at the end of the movie Thelma and Louise.  Perhaps you’ve seen it, or at least the clip of the final scene.  In a tribute to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise sit in a car, poised to be captured.  They point the car at a cliff, and drive off into the air. . . The movie ends.  People are moved.

But the original ending of the movie showed the car actually falling, bouncing off the cliff, and exploding at the bottom.  You know why they changed it?  Because the test audiences said it was too sad.  Too final.  Too hopeless.  As ridiculous as it seems, just showing the car driving off into the air left some glimmer of hope, however tiny, that something miraculous might happen, once the characters left the certainty of the camera lens.  Always a chance . . .

There are many books that, when translated onto the screen, get a completely different ending.  I am Legend, and Bladerunner, and the Time Traveler’s Wife all got massive remakes of their ending, because . . . well, we do not want a hopeless ending in our movies.  Han Solo was supposed to die in the sixth Star Wars, and instead everyone goes to an Ewok party.  (Of course, that particular choice was based less on hope, and more on the sales of plastic figurines.  But the principle remains.)

We want hope.  We want there to be some glimmer of possibility that things might just turn out all right in the end.  We want to know that some day, some how, it really will be alright in the end.  As Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  That’s the kind of assurance we want before we close our eyes at night.  The confirmation from somewhere that this deep longing we have to trust in the future is not misplaced.  We want somebody outside ourselves to tell us that it really is going to be alright.

And I’m not just talking about times when we are suffering.  Because, oddly, that kind of reassurance doesn’t always help.  When we are truly suffering, hearing a friend say, “It’s going to be okay,” doesn’t necessarily make you feel better.  Because, come on, how do they know?  How do they know your medical bills will get paid?  Or that a new job will be there?  Or that you will be able to feed yourself, or do anything?  They don’t know that, and deep down, we know that they don’t know.  Sometimes, hearing “It’ll be okay” is not the least bit helpful.  In fact, sometimes--in the very worst times--it can make things worse.

Because the person saying, “It will be okay” isn’t there to look at the empty chair on Thanksgiving.  They aren’t there the first Christmas morning when our loved one isn’t sitting next to us by the tree.  Though our friends are trying to be helpful, hearing “it will be okay” doesn't help when there’s no glimmer of “okay” on the horizon for us.  And that’s because our friends don’t have a plan for making it “okay.”  Our friends do not have a solution that is going to make “all manner of thing” well.

In the reading we just heard, there is a promise.  It’s a subtle promise, to be sure, but there it is:  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This may be the most powerful statement in the whole of scripture.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  That is the message of Christmas.  And even if we’re not aware of it, that is why we put lights on our houses, and bring pine trees into our living rooms.  To remind ourselves that light shines in the darkness—that something stays green through the winter.  

And, in some way, that is why we so resonate with this Christmas story we observe each year . . . Because it’s a story about a baby.  Babies bring hope, and a new beginning, and a chance to start over.  It wouldn’t be the same if Jesus showed up as an old man, would it?  Old guy with a beard and a cane . . . Cute, but not necessarily going to inspire us to have hope for the future.

Jesus’ arrival as a baby is a reminder that things might be different this time.  Maybe you’ve heard that saying, attributed to Mother Theresa, “Every time a child is born, it is a sign that God hasn't given up on the world.”  And I would add to it this, from Martin Luther, “Even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow I would still plant an apple tree today."

Or, to put it another way, even the most cynical people I know still love babies.  People may think the world is all screwed up and hopeless and beyond redemption . . . And they set all that aside when you hand them a baby.  And the reason for that is hope.  Babies bring us hope.  And everyone accepts a baby.  Everyone.

Jesus comes to us as a baby not a warrior, because babies bring hope.  Jesus comes to us as an infant instead of an adult because babies offer hope.  Everyone accepts a baby.  And, in the end, it is hope that lures us to face a new day, and a new year.  Because deep down, we all have an unshakeable sense of the truth of the gospel:  
“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2021

YEAR C 2021 christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2021
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

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

There is always so much one could say each year about these Christmas readings.  But every year, on Christmas Eve, I get stuck on a word.  Just one word, whether from the readings or from somewhere else.  A few years ago it was angels, and a couple years back it was drains, and last year it was tradition.  This year, I can’t let go of the etymology of the word “manger.”  I know, you’re all pins and needles, right?

But let’s start with the shepherds.  After the terrifying appearance of angels, and the glory of the Lord showing about them, they are told, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  That’s the sign.  Aren’t you struck by how . . . ordinary that sounds?  I mean, other than the manger part, it’s just  . . . a baby.  After that stunning display in the nighttime sky where they are scared out of their minds, you’d expect the shepherds might get to hear something like, “This will be a sign for you: Giant squids shall climb out of the ocean and devour the Roman oppressors!”  But no.  Sorry shepherds.  Your sign will be a baby, wrapped in cloths.  And,  well, lying in a manger.

When I was a kid, I thought the manger was like the whole structure that Mary and Joseph were standing under.  Like I thought that whole scene was called “a manger.”  And then there would be a little cradle-looking thing that Jesus gets put into on Christmas Eve.  Of course, come to find out, the whole nativity scene is called a creche, and the thing Jesus is lying in is the manger.  And it’s always a cute little spotless porcelain or wooden thing, with some blankets flowing over the sides.  But that’s not how mangers work.  Not in the real world.

I was recently talking to a couple pastors who grew up on farms.  And they were both saying that the two things about mangers is, 1.  they’re usually really big, and 2.  they’re always really disgusting!  At best, you have a whole lot of cow slobber in there.  At worst . . . well, I won’t elaborate.  The point is, for most of us, the word “manger” conjures up something quite different from the reality of what a manger actually is.

And now these days, when I hear the word “manger,” I still usually picture a little feeding trough that looks like a window box on legs.  But this year, I’ve also been thinking about how we got the word manger, the etymology of the word, as I said.  (This is the pins and needles part.)  The starting root is from Latin, which is manducat.  When it gets into French, we get mangeure, and eventually in middle English it becomes manger.  There’s an interesting relation between “manger” and the word “mandible” from the Latin word for chewing.  And, of course, anyone who grew up like I did in a Italian city is familiar with a grandmother’s must-be-obeyed command mangia!  The point of all that is, as far as word origin, there’s a very strong connection between the manger and eating.  

But let’s go back to that other aspect of the manger . . . the messiness of it.  Humans can be sloppy when we eat, which is why we have napkins and placemats.  Still, once we graduate from our high chairs, we learn to be a little more refined in our eating.  Animals have absolutely no reason to get beyond the stage of a one year old with a birthday cake.  Animals are messy.  A manger is pretty gross.  2,000 years ago—without running water—a manger would be extra super gross.  And that’s what Jesus gets for a crib.  A disgusting smelly mess.  Goodnight little baby Jesus.

So, taken altogether, we have the shepherds being told to look for a sign, which will be a baby—nothing special—wrapped in cloths—nothing special—lying in a manger—nothing special.  That’s the sign?  Nothing special?  Look for the most important event in the history of the world, and you’ll know you’ve found it because it looks like nothing special

The sign they are too look for—a baby wrapped in cloths—is the most common thing imaginable, and you’ll find him in the most messy setting imaginable.  Which is just so incredibly perfect!  Because it reminds us that Jesus is at home in our world, at home in our lives, at home in our hearts.  Starting at the moment of his birth, Jesus shows up in the simplest ways in all the messy places where we think he is too good to be found.  Where we would never go looking for him.  Where it would take an act of God and angels to make you even think to look for him.

We want Jesus to remain pure and spotless and spiritually set apart.  But that’s not how babies work, and that’s not how God works.  In order to meet us where we are—to really know how things are—Jesus is born into our world, just as helpless as any other infant, wrapped in whatever cloths might have been laying around, and laid in a manger which was last cleaned who knows when.  That’s how God enters our world.  Vulnerable, risky, and messy.

And this is all a very good and fitting reminder for us right now, as we head toward the end of our second year living in this deadly, divisive, seemingly never-ending COVID pandemic.  Like Mary, we are exhausted, and frustrated, and scared.  And God shows up in the messy unease of our unpredictable lives; God joins us in the dark places that scare us; God shows up even when we don’t want God to show up!

And this leads me back to thinking about the etymology of that word “manger,” and the connection to eating.  If you’re looking for a sign that God is with us, still among us, well we have the same sort of sign the shepherds received.  Something as completely regular and unremarkable as a small piece of bread, placed in the manger of our ordinary hands.  Maybe the last place you’d expect to see God show up is in palm of your very own hand.  And maybe it takes us joining with the angels in singing “Holy, holy, holy,” to help us know where to look.

But God shows up—and God keeps showing up—in the sacrament we receive, in the love and friendship of our family, friends, and neighbors, in the unexpected kindness of people we don’t even know, and in the yearly celebration of the birth of the Christ child: the surest reminder that God has not given up on this world, and that God has not given up on you.  Jesus is still with us, right here with us, in the regular, ordinary, messy reality of our lives.  

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.  Thanks be to God.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Funeral of Dr. Edward Hill

Dr. Edward Hill, 12/19/21
Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 21:2-7
John 14:1-6

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

They say it isn’t what you know but rather who you know that counts.  And that’s true, though maybe not in the way you’re thinking.  We’ll come back to that in a minute.

You are probably well aware of Edward Hill’s remarkable life out in the world.  I mean, that’s why you’re here.  Because you knew Dr. Ed Hill.  Out in the world.  But a funeral is really about Ed’s life in the church, his relationship with God, and—more importantly—God’s relationship with him.

I find it interesting that Dr. Hill was born during a pandemic, and died during a pandemic, and in between he dedicated his entire life to healing the sick and attending births.  I find it quite moving that a man who served in World War II chose so many songs about peace for his funeral service.  People who have not seen the horrors of war might want “Onward Christian Soldiers” at this service.  Ed wanted “Let There Be Peace On Earth.”

Edward Hill accomplished a lot during his lifetime, and the world is a better place because he was in it.  Some people accomplish a lot, and some people don’t.  And in the eyes of God they are all the same.  George H. W. Bush was an Episcopalian, and at his funeral the priest read the same commendation that I will read for Ed today, which is the same commendation I read at the funeral of people I’ve never even met.  In the eyes of God and the Church, we are all the same.  And that is very good news . . . to most of us.

Yes, there are lots of people who make the world better, like Dr. Hill.  But there are not a lot of people as dedicated to God and the Church as he was.  Some people walk through those doors on Sunday morning and parishioners ask me, “Who is that person?”  No one ever asked that about Dr. Hill.  Everybody knew who Ed Hill was.  And you know why?  Because he was here, every single Sunday, no matter what.

He insisted that he was going to walk in that door rather than the parking lot door as long as he could still climb the steps.  He insisted he was going to come up to the Altar for communion as long as he could still walk.  That’s his pew right over there, which I’m thinking we’ll need to put a plaque on some day.  

Even during COVID, once we could open the doors, Ed kept coming.  Kept showing up.  Kept wanting it all to work.  Kept telling me we needed to have a sock hop for the kids, and reminiscing about adult forums where everybody would smoke cigarettes and drink coffee in the parish hall.

But here’s the thing I want to make sure you know and remember about Dr. Edward Hill.  At the spry young age of . . . 99, he invited his YMCA workout buddy Jackie to come to church with him.  And.  She.  Came.  And she keeps showing up.  All the research shows that the best way to grow a church is not for the priest to come up with clever new programs and things “for the kids.”  No, the best way to grow the church—to spread the love of God—is for the members to invite people to come to church.  And that’s what Ed Hill did.

On page 304 of the prayer book, in the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”  That is a veritable checklist of how Ed Hill lived his life.  Learning about God with his friends, receiving the Sacrament, and praying in this room.  Dr. Hill kept his promise to do those exact things right up until the end.

In the gospel reading we heard just a little while ago, Jesus has gathered the disciples and is telling them that he must leave them now.  But he tells them they need not worry nor be troubled, because they know the way.  And Thomas—the logical guy—says, “Uh Jesus?  No offense but, we don’t even know where you are going.  How can we possibly know ‘the way’?”

And Jesus says to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Edward Hill knew the way and the truth and the life.  And that’s why he kept showing up here every single Sunday.  He lived his life knowing Jesus, knowing God’s love, knowing that the good news is something you tell your friends about.  What made Ed Hill such a remarkable man wasn’t what he knew, but who he knew.  Not what Ed accomplished, but what Jesus accomplished for him and through him.  It was an honor to know Dr. Edward Hill, and it was always a pleasure to spend time with him, because Ed knew the Way.


YEAR C 2021 advent 4

Advent 4, 2021
Micah 5:2-5a
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

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

I have always loved this scene we call “The Visitation.”  And I am in good company here, as there are probably more paintings of this scene than most others from the Bible.  Many people seem to resonate with this story.  But the funny thing is, I don’t know exactly why people are drawn to it.  I don’t even know why I am drawn to it.   Maybe it’s the fact that at the very start of the story of Jesus’ life, two women get center stage, and the only man in the house, Zechariah, has been struck mute because of his lack of faith.  (I have to admit, I find that part hilarious.)

And there’s that marvelous moment in the narrative when Elizabeth asks, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”   Why, indeed?  Who is Elizabeth that Jesus would come to her?  We might rephrase the question, “Who am I that my Lord comes to me?”  And that is a question we can ask with Elizabeth.  Who am I that our Lord would come to me?  Who are you that our Lord would come to you?  The temptation of course is to say, well, we’re the ones who have been preparing.  We’ve been waiting for him.  Getting ready for a month now.

But what if we made all these preparations and Jesus doesn’t show up?  What if we have been decorating our houses, and buying those presents, and sending out Christmas cards, and on and on since the day after Thanksgiving . . . and what if it was all for nothing:  Jesus doesn’t show up?  And you’re thinking, well that’s just plain silly.  Of course Jesus is going to show up.  And you’re right.  Of course he will.

Whether we prepare or not, whether we are ready or not, Jesus is coming.  Whether we’re ready or not, this baby is coming.  That’s the nature of babies, isn’t it?  When it’s time to be born, the baby is coming:  ready or not.

So, sure, we all agree that Jesus will be here on the morning of December 25th.  But the thing is—and it seems to surprise me every year—the thing is that after December 25th, we’re still going to be waiting for Jesus to come.  When we wake up on December 26th, there will still be wars around the world; there will still be systemic racism and economic inequality; there will still be those who go to bed hungry, and homeless, and forgotten.  Jesus isn’t here yet, but even after he gets here, nothing is going to change . . .

Unless, of course, everything already has changed.  What if this baby is not the one who will change everything but is, instead, the one who already has changed everything?  Hold that thought for a minute.

The second part of today’s gospel is usually called the “magnificat,” because that’s the first word in the Latin version.  As many people have noted, it seems an intentional parallel of the Song of Hanna in the book of First Samuel.  It is interesting that in Hanna’s song, everything is in the present tense or future tense. She sings, the Lord will do this, and the Lord will do that.  The future is on Hanna’s mind as she rejoices in her child.  In Mary’s updated version, the verbs are all past tense:  God has already accomplished the deeds that she proclaims. 

Mary’s song points to the fact that God chooses “what is low and despised in this world,” as Paul says in first Corinthians.  Mary starts by saying her soul magnifies the Lord, for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.  Mary is not boasting in her humility here, and she is not gloating in being chosen to bring Christ into the world. 

Though some people get uncomfortable with too much praise for Mary, there is a very real sense in which she is the first disciple of Jesus.  She is the first person who actually believes the promises about Jesus, the Word of God, when she hears them from Gabriel.  She trusts God, and the Word comes to her.  (And we have Zechariah as the first one not to believe, and we see that the word is literally withheld from him, since he cannot speak until he sees John the Baptist; the one who prepares the way for the Word.)

As Martin Luther says, we do Mary an injustice when we say that she gloried in her humility or in being chosen by God.  Luther writes, “She gloried in neither one nor the other, but only in the gracious regard of God.  Hence the stress lies not in the ‘low estate’, but on the word ‘regarded’.  For not her humility but God’s regard is rather to be praised.”  In other words, God’s regard is what counts, whether she is lowly or not.  The emphasis is on God, not Mary.  And God consistently seems to choose the opposite of what you and I would choose.  We would pick Zechariah the priest and Herod the governor, rather than Mary and Elizabeth.  We would have Jesus born in a castle far away, not in a stable nearby.  After all, who am I that my Lord would come to me?

In spite of her “lowliness,” God has chosen Mary to bear this child.  And that is the nature of God, right?  Abraham, Moses, and Esther; David, Saul, and Mary; a baby born behind some hotel in Bethlehem--the least of towns as we heard from Micah—a whole host of absolute nobodies, chosen by God to save the people, to save the world.  As Luther also says, God rides the lame horse, and God carves the rotten wood.

Who am I that my Lord would come to me?  Absolutely nobody.  And that’s the beauty of it.  Here in Mary’s song, this magnificat, we get the promises, like lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, sure.  But we also get what sound like curses:  scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones, sent the rich away empty.  And what do the proud, powerful, and rich have in common?  Their false belief that they are going to stay that way forever.  The self-confidence of being rich, proud, and powerful does not lead to being lowly servants.  (We don’t usually think of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos as God’s handmaidens.)  Maybe the reason God doesn’t pick the powerful, rich, and proud is because they cannot hear God’s voice.  They are too busy being . . . well . . . powerful, rich, and proud. 

But as Mary’s song proclaims, it is already a given that the proud have been scattered in the imagination of their hearts; it is already a done deal that the powerful have been brought down from their thrones; it has already happened that the rich have been sent empty away.  These things have already happened to them; they just don’t know it yet.  But if that sounds like judgment to you, fear not.  Because you know what they’ll be then?  You know what we call the formerly rich, proud, and powerful? 

We call them lowly, hungry, servants.  Nobodies.  The kind of people who can ask, “Who am I that my Lord should come to me?”  The people who can’t expect God to take notice of them; and those are the people God seems to regard.  

And maybe now you’re thinking, uh, Mr. Priest, what if I am one of the rich and proud and so forth?  Will I be brought low, and sent hungry away?  Well . . . yes.  The judgment is already put into place; remember the “done deal?”  The rich and powerful are brought low.  One day we each will be lowly, penniless, and eventually forgotten.  But that is not bad news.

In fact, that’s actually the good news!  Because remember what God does for the lowly, oppressed and broken hearted?  Remember whom God has regarded?  You will never be in better hands than when you are brought low.  And you can never be brought lower than in death itself.  We worship a God who specializes in resurrection.  No matter our current state, when we give up and are given up, then we will be raised up and lifted up.  We all end our lives where power and riches mean nothing.  God will raise the lowly, and who can possibly be lower than dead?

In the grave, the thoughts of the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down from their thrones, and the rich sent empty away.  And then, THEN God can do what God does best, which is to lift us up and fill us with good things.

And that is why we can live our lives with confidence, whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, Jeff Bezos or some overworked/underpaid worker in his warehouse, God starts with us at the same place of new birth, because of the child whose birth we await.

It is no coincidence that the one who sings the magnificat is the one who is carrying the Christ child, the Word of God.  Mary knows the truth of God’s promises, because she is experiencing these promises firsthand.  God has regarded the lowliness of his servant; she has been filled with good things.  Mary is not just filled with good things, she is filled with the best thing of all: the one who brings all good things and makes all things new.

And today we come to this Altar, trusting in those same promises.  God will lift up the lowly, give us good things to eat, strengthen the weak, and sustain us, as we await the birth of the Christ child.  Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, and the one she carries within her comes to visit us in this place.  And you and I rightly ask, “Who am I that my Lord comes to visit me?”  And even though the correct answer is, “nobody,” here at this Altar, Jesus still comes us, that our souls might magnify the Lord, and our spirits might rejoice in God our savior.  For God has regarded us.


Sunday, December 12, 2021

YEAR C 2021 advent 3

Advent 3, 2021
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

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

Brood of vipers.  Seriously, John?  Brood of vipers?  I’m guessing John the Baptist was not a hit at parties.  And he obviously didn’t have an ear for how to start a sermon.  On the other hand, the people definitely listened to him, so maybe we preachers should take a hint from his dramatic opening today.  He certainly got the people’s attention with that “brood of vipers.”  And their response is to ask, “What shall I do?”

And then John has a prescription for each group.  To the general folks he says, share what you have with those less fortunate.  To the tax collectors he says, don’t cheat people.  To the occupying forces he says, don’t use your power to oppress people or take advantage of them.  Despite John’s crazy, radical opening, these are not crazy, radical demands.  And they sit nicely with you and me because they honestly sound a lot like saying, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.  Don’t take your sister’s toys without asking.  When visiting a friend in Columbus, do not cheer for the University of Michigan.  Common sense rules of decency.

It almost seems like the people ask John, what must we do to be saved?  And John says, everything you need to know about being saved, you learned in kindergarden.  There’s nothing all that radical here.  Be nice, play fair, don’t cheat people just because you can.  If you do this, the world will be a better place.  And I hate to sound flippant, but . . . Duh!  If everyone was nicer to others, the world would be a better place.  But, does it follow that if I am nicer to my neighbor, then I too will be saved?  It seems to me, there’s no need for Jesus in this proclamation.  Everyone just needs to be a little nicer, okay?

In fact, if that is John’s point, then he’s really getting us ready for Santa Claus, not Jesus.  Making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out which tax collectors have been overcharging and which soldiers have been taking advantage of the weapons in their hands.  If you want candy instead of coal in your stocking, then by all means start being nice to people.  And there’s the rub . . .

If it were simply a matter of our decision and effort to treat people better, we’d have no need for Jesus.  If it were within our power to make the world into the kingdom of God, then we would not need a Savior.  

I know it’s tempting to turn this Gospel reading into a be kind to others kind of message.  And I know many priests and pastors will be doing just that with this text.  Which is not to say that’s wrong, but--well, I’ll just remind you--I grew up Lutheran, and my catechism teacher would never forgive me if I told you that the point of Christianity is to be nice.  If I told you that being nice would save you, then I would forever be haunted by the Ghost of Catechism Past.  There simply has to be more to this text than, be nice, and play fair.

And, of course, there is.  But before we get there . . . You might have noticed that the readings this month are a little on the scary side.  One of the points of this time we call “Advent” is to remind us why we need a Savior.  To remind ourselves why we cannot do it alone.  Why it is that we welcome the birth of the long-awaited Messiah of God.

From the very start of our Scriptures, God lays out what people need to do to be reconciled to God and one another.  Way back with Cain and Abel it’s as simple as “don’t kill the only other child on the planet.”  And before that it was, “don’t eat the fruit off this one tree over here.”  Whether you view these stories as factual historical episodes, or as mythical plot points, the resulting message is the same: We can’t seem to follow simple instructions.  Oh, sure, we think we can.  The ten commandments seem pretty straight forward . . . until we dwell on the meaning of the word “covet” . . . or until we consider what gods we put ahead of our Creator.  

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

That’s how today’s gospel reading ended.  Remember that?  Did it strike you as almost funny in the context of what John tells this brood of vipers?  Like he lays out all this scary stuff about a winnowing fork and unquenchable fire and hell and damnation and then we get, and in many other ways,  “he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

That’s the good news, John?  Really?  Please don’t say you’ve got some bad news, right?  But let’s follow the arc of this overall story here . . .

The people come to John to be baptized.  A few verses before today’s gospel text, he has been walking up and down the Jordan River, on both sides, telling the people they need to repent and be baptized.  And when the people come to John, he calls them a brood of vipers and asks, “who told you that you could flee the wrath that is to come?”  It’s tempting to picture them saying, “Uh, you did John.  Remember how you just told us to repent and be baptized?”  And this is a sticky little point we have to look at:  John tells them to repent and be baptized, but he never says that it will save them from the wrath that is to come.  It seems as if John is saying they need to repent and be cleansed, but the wrath that is to come is a completely different animal.  And that’s because, well, He is.

As John says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Water cleanses; fire purifies.  John baptizes with water; Jesus baptizes with fire.  What does this mean?  

If your car is broken down and also dirty, John will come along with a bucket and a sponge and clean the outside.  But your car still will not run.  If your house needs painting and the foundation is crumbling, John can slap a new coat of paint on it.  If you’re lying on your deathbed and your hair is messy, John has a comb he can use to straighten things out.

But on your deathbed, you need more than a cosmetic makeover.  You need someone who will save you.  You need someone who will purify your soul.  You need someone with a “winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

You need Jesus.

In the here and now, you need to be baptized with water, yes.  And if you ask the preacher how you should live, the answer is to be nice to your neighbor, and share with those less fortunate, and not take advantage of people less powerful than you.  But those answers do not save us from the wrath that is to come, silly brood of vipers that we are.  What saves us from the wrath that is to come is one thing and one thing only: The baptism by fire of the little baby whose birth we are eagerly awaiting.  Only Jesus can purify our hearts.  

The winnowing and the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire are not the wrath.  They are the purification.  The sanctification.  The things that make us what we were meant to be.  What is burned away is not what we are.  What is burned away is the rust that has accumulated.  The barnacles on the boat.  The stuff that clouds our true nature as redeemed children of God.  The wrath comes in not trusting the one who can make us whole.  The only wrath we face is the self-imposed one of not opening our hands to let go of the chaff and receive the gift of life.  

And today, at this altar, we have yet another opportunity to unclench our fists, let go of that chaff, and receive the gift of life, in the body and blood of the One who is coming to save us.  We need not fear his coming, because he is coming to cleanse us with a purifying fire, to be what we were always meant to be.  To sanctify us, that we may faithfully receive this holy sacrament, and serve him in unity, constancy, and peace.  And at the last day, this brood of vipers--this thing we call the Church on Earth--will join with all the saints, of every time and every place, in the joy of God’s eternal kingdom.


Monday, December 6, 2021

YEAR C 2021 advent 2

Advent 2, 2021
Malachi 3:1-4
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

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

I figure it never hurts to remind us all that every Advent, the Church begins a new year.  And when we begin a new year, we make the move from one gospel book to another.  And this year, starting last week, we switched the spotlight to Luke, which is my favorite of the four gospels (but please don’t tell the other gospels).  And using the phrase “switch the spotlight” is perfectly appropriate for Luke’s gospel, because the first three chapters are really like a little musical.

Luke’s story just moves along and—when there’s a dramatic moment—the characters are beside themselves with excitement, and this calls for a song!  Early on, two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, get together, and they’re so thrilled that Mary breaks into what we now call the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  Then, Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist is born, and his father is so happy plus he can finally speak again, so he sings out the Song of Zechariah—which today’s bulletin insert calls “Canticle 16.”  “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel.”  Then, the Spirit of God tells Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, and when he sees the baby Jesus in the Temple, he breaks into Simeon’s Song, “Lord, let your servant depart in peace.”  Luke’s gospel has just got started, and we’ve already got three chat-topping hits—arguably the three most popular songs in the history of the Church.

So, that’s one reason I love Luke so much: because of all the songs.  But let me interrupt myself here to complain about what the church year does to Luke’s narrative flow.  In the section of Luke that we just heard, John the Baptist is, you know, somewhere around 30 years old, and he’s out in the desert.  And soon, Jesus is going to come to him to be baptized, because Jesus will also be around 30 years old.  (Six months younger than John, by tradition at least.)  But the Canticle we {heard from the choir} [read] today is the song of Zechariah, which happens right after John has been born.  And, since this is the Second Sunday of Advent, that means Jesus himself won’t even be born for another 20 days.  Because of these assigned texts, today is sort of a wibbly wobbly timey wimey kind of day.  You’ve just got to go with the flow, disjointed though it might be.

Okay, but here is what I most want to focus on: the opening sentence of today’s gospel reading.  And I’ll tip my hand from the start by asking, see if you hear an active voice in the following:  In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . .”  And now I’ll answer my own question: No, you did not hear an active voice.  ALL of that stuff is what we call a dependent clause.  (And by that I don’t mean Santa’s children.  Hey, Dads gotta Dad Joke.)

All of those names and places are dependent on the action part of the sentence, which is, “the word of God came to John.”  That’s the point of the sentence: the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  All those other names and stuff are like Luke adding the phrase, “One day,” before the action part.  The beginning of the sentence doesn’t really do anything.  Which raises the question, why is it there?  Why tell us which leaders were ruling which things, and who led the Priesthood, and all that?

Well, two things.  First, has it ever struck you as odd that the name Pontius Pilate comes up in the Nicene Creed?  Like we’re just going along with all this really ethereal language and these theological concepts and suddenly there’s this guy, whose name we only know because he put Jesus to death.  Why is he in there?  Well, one reason we say his name in the Creed is to anchor the life and death of Jesus to a specific point in human history.  Historians will always be able to tell us what years Pilate was in charge, which means we know when all this happened, like in actual human years.  When you look at Greek and Roman mythology (other than maybe the Fall of Troy) there are no anchor points tying them to real history.  And that’s why we call it mythology.  Could have happened last week, or a billion years ago.  But Jesus was put to death at a specific time and place.  And Pilate’s name tells us when.

So, one of the reasons Luke names all those people in today’s reading is to tell us where and when we are in human history.  John the Baptist was in the wilderness when Tiberius was Emperor, and etc etc.  Tiberius is in the history books, so we know John lived at a particular time and place, and later on, Jesus will come to be baptized by him.  (You know, 30 years after he’s born . . . later this month.)

But as I said earlier, all those names and titles are a dependent clause to “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness,” so linguistically speaking they’re not important.  And here’s why I love Luke so much:  Because at that time those guys are important . . . to the important people.  Luke turns everything upside down.  The beauty of that sentence focusing on John in the wilderness is that those other people are important in society’s eyes.  In fact, they’re the only people who are important!  That list is a who’s who of everyone you need to know in first century Palestine.  And yet . . . the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  Who is Zechariah?  Nobody.  Who is John?  Nobody.  Where is the wilderness?  Nowhere.  The word of God came to John . . . son of Zechariah . . . in the wilderness.

You would expect the word of God to come to the Emperor, the governor, the ruler of Galilee, the high priests.  But the word of God came to John.  In Luke’s Gospel, God comes to the lowly, the outcasts, the unimportant.  To Mary, to shepherds, to Bethlehem, to the wilderness.  God is at work where nobody expects to see God working.  Lifting up the lowly and casting down the proud.  Raising up the valleys and leveling the mountains.  God bypasses the rich and powerful, living in their important cities, doing their important things, and seeks out John, a nobody, in the wilderness.

And, quite frankly, that is the best news you and I are going to get.  Because in the 21st year of the 21st century, when Joe Biden was President of the United States, and Mike DeWine was Governor of Ohio, and Kathy Catazaro-Perry was Mayor of Massillon, and when Michael Curry was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Mark Hollingsworth was Bishop of the Diocese of Ohio, the word of God came to . . . the people of St. Timothy’s Church, in Massillon, Ohio.

God does not need for you to be strong and good and rich and powerful in order to come to you.  God does not need you to be popular and worthy and upstanding to seek you out.  In fact—at least the way Luke tells the story of Jesus—you’re almost better off not being any of those things!  Because the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  And the word of God comes to you.

And as I never tire of reminding you, we all receive the bread of heaven just as a beggar receives bread, or a child receives a gift:  with our hands stretched out in front of us, expecting nothing, but hoping for everything.  Deserving nothing, but hoping for a miracle.  And God bypasses the rich and powerful and important things of this world to come directly to you, because you are loved, more than you could ever imagine.

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness, and the word of God comes to you.  To you!  Thanks be to God.


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Thanksgiving Eve

 Preached at community ecumenical service, at Faith Lutheran Church, Massillon OH

Thanksgiving, 2021
Joel 2:21-27
Psalm 126
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Matthew 6:25-33

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

 So here’s a weird thing.  Thanksgiving is a day set aside for us to give thanks for the abundance in our lives.  But this gospel reading we just heard seems to focus our attention on scarcity.  Most people spend Thanksgiving cooking way too much food, rather than worrying about not having enough.  So why do we get this reading on this day?  What gives?

Well, I think the answer lies in the word “worry.”  Some of the people most focused on wealth are the people with the most wealth.  Billionaires who spend all their time worrying about how to become the world’s first Trillionaire.  This gospel reading sounds like Jesus is preaching to the poor folks, but I think he’s preaching even harder to the rich people.  Why are you worried about your fancy clothes and your banquet table and your fancy house and your stock options?  It’s not that you don’t have enough; it’s that you have too much.

What I really like about this reading is the part about the birds.  They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.  But if you’ve ever watched the activity around a bird feeder, you know that birds definitely put in the effort to find food.  It’s not like the food comes to them.  They look for food, and they find food, and they eat food.  But what they don’t do is store up food for tomorrow.  They don’t worry about tomorrow . . . because they don’t even know what a “tomorrow” is, right?

Birds don’t have pockets or purses or barns.  So they live day to day.  And then there’s us.  We’re supposed to not only plan for today tomorrow and next week, we’re supposed to plan for our retirement and—as any life insurance agent will tell you—even plan for our death!  Every message we get about responsible adulting is focused on the future.  What will tomorrow bring?  Think about the grandchildren you don’t even have yet.  You and I are a long way from this sort of “Hippie lessons of the Buddha” that Jesus is giving us today.  It’s hard to know how to apply it to our lives, to be honest.

We are told, in essence, “Don’t worry because God provides.”  Well, okay, how does God provide?  I’m afraid we all secretly think God provides in the way of manna in the desert.  You know, like when I’m hungry, a can of soup will just fall from the sky.  When I need a parking spot, God will magically provide one.  But hopefully we all agree, that’s not the case.  How does God provide?  I think the answer is, God provides through other people.  

Here’s a great example:  One thing I am very thankful for this year is a safe, effective vaccine available to anyone who wants it.  And you know who made that possible?  Other people.  God imbues us with wisdom and knowledge and creativity, and people used those to create a vaccine that will save millions of lives.  God provides through other people.  But it takes people being willing to use their God-given gifts to make a difference.

And, for an example on the other end of things, there is no reason anyone anywhere should starve to death when there are other people around.  There is plenty of food in the world to feed every person every day.  And yet . . . well, you’ve seen the news.  We have the food, and we have the people to distribute it, but something gets lost along the way.

Either way, it all comes down to people.  The reason you’re even here in this church tonight is because somebody told you about Jesus.  When you were a child, somebody might have taken you to church.  When you were a baby, somebody definitely fed you, since newborns are even more helpless than the birds of the air.  Other people have brought you to where you are today.  God has given us each other.

At Thanksgiving we express our gratefulness for the many blessings of this life.  Out of habit, we show that mostly by covering our tables with more food than we can possibly eat in one sitting.  But one of the greatest gifts, possibly the most tangible blessing in our lives, is that God has given us each other.  And when we have people in our lives who love us, who reflect love of Jesus back to us, then we don’t have to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear.  Because even though we don’t know what the future will bring, we know we are walking into that future together.

May God make us always grateful that we have each other.  And may God inspire each one of us to reach out to others, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world.  We are the ones through whom God provides.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

YEAR B 2021 christ the king

Christ the King, 2021
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

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

Today’s Gospel reading is all about power.  There’s the obvious power struggle between Pilate and Jesus, and there’s the background power struggle between Pilate and the Jewish leaders.  And there’s an overall power struggle between the Jewish people and Rome.  Lots of power being thrown around, and it’s hard to tell who’s actually going to win in the end.

I grew up in the city of Niagara Falls NY, and was surrounded by natural power.  We had this massive waterfall—perhaps you’ve heard of it—powerful in it’s own right.  Safe to look at from a distance, but if you get in the way of its flow, you will be swept away.  And thanks to Nikola Tesla, the power of that water was harnessed into the power of electricity.  And electricity, like the waterfall that generates it, is powerful in its own right.  Safe to use in daily life, but get in the way of its flow and you will be electrocuted.  

It is the nature of powerful things to sweep over us.  You think of a tsunami, or a hurricane, or Rome in Jesus’ day.  You can stand in the way of such things, but they will sweep you away without so much as a ripple.  Powerful things cannot be resisted, like electricity, earthquakes, and the IRS.  You might step out of the way, or leave town, or direct the energy elsewhere, but when power hits you head on with its relentless force, there really is nothing you can do.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is being held captive.  He’s kind of on trial, being interrogated by the one in power.  Pilate has the power to decide what happens to Jesus.  The power of life and death over Jesus.  He says, “Your own people handed you over to me.”  Your own people have put you in the path of my power, and you will now be swept away without a ripple.  Do you not understand the force of my awesome power?

And the two of them have the strangest conversation.  Pilate keeps asking questions that seem designed to help him justify putting Jesus to death, but the answers make it sound like the two of them are each talking to someone else.  Like they’re not using the same rules of conversation or something.  Pilate asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews.  Jesus asks if he’s asking on his own or if someone else told him about him.  Pilate says, I’m not a Jew; what have you done?  Jesus answers, My kingdom is not of this world.  Pilate asks, “So you are a king?”  Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king.”  But “I testify to the truth.”
This is not a normal conversation.

We would expect Jesus to be talking his way out of getting killed.  We would expect him to be trying to step out of the way of Pilate’s tidal wave of power.  We expect Jesus to seek higher ground, but he just stands there, talking like a crazy man!  Pilate is playing a game of sorts with Jesus, and Jesus is going to lose.  It’s a fight to the death, and Jesus won’t even pick up a sword.  Jesus is swept up in the wave of Rome’s power.

There are some confrontations in life where you could say just surviving is enough.  Maybe you didn’t win the fight, but you’re still alive, right?  The Hunger Games, Presidential Debates, pistols at twenty paces, in these cases, surviving is good enough.  You don’t necessarily have to win to win.  You just need to not be dead, right?  But Jesus cannot be said to have won even on this level. 

Following this exchange with Pontius Pilate, Jesus is overpowered in every sense of the word.  And yet we call him victorious.  We call him king.  Jesus loses the game in the most decisive way possible, and yet today you and I are celebrating Christ the King Sunday.  What makes the difference?

Well, there’s a temptation to say that Jesus loses the battle but wins the war.  We want to say that when you put his death in the context of the larger picture, Jesus wins.  In the broad scope of things, Jesus’ death is just a temporary setback on the way to the larger victory.  Gotta break some eggs to make omelets.  The end justifies the means, as some like to say.

The problem with that approach is that it justifies the smaller battle on the way to winning the overall war.  When you and I take this approach to things it is exceedingly dangerous, because we get caught up in moving the goal posts.  Before long, any act can be justified in service to the greater good.  You can end up approving anything by simply dialing out the lens and putting it in a larger context.  

We can see this in dictatorships all around the world.  The suffering of one person, or one race of people, means nothing if it achieves the overall goal.  Actual people are completely dispensable when we can trade them in for lofty things like world peace, or purity of doctrine, or an achievable political agenda.  And if we claim that we don’t do this ourselves on at least a small scale, then we’re not looking at our lives very carefully.  We do this kind of cost-benefit analysis all day long, when you think about it.  

And sacrificing one person for the overall good of many should sound familiar to us because it is ultimately what gets Jesus killed.  For the survival of Israel, one man must die . . . for today.  If this one man is sacrificed, there can be peace with Rome . . . for today.  All will be right in the world, the thinking goes, if we can just get rid of this one person we don’t like.

And you and I can safely watch this injustice in the assurance of the resurrection, right?  We can fold our arms and say, “You just wait until Sunday buster.”  And when we do that, we’ve walked ourselves right back into thinking it’s okay for Jesus to lose the battle because he wins the war.  But if his death is okay because we know he’s going to rise again, then we’ve missed the point.  Because “the end justifies the means” is exactly the thinking that gets Jesus killed.  Strange as it sounds, Jesus’ death is not made “okay” because of the resurrection.  The death of God’s own son is not just a minor setback on the way to the bigger goal of salvation for humanity.

Let’s return for a moment to where we started, talking about the power of nature.  When a massive wave is rushing toward you, if you do not move out of the way, you will be swept away, no matter what you do.  But what would happen if you could change the nature of the water?  What if you could separate the hydrogen and the oxygen, for example?  Or what if you changed the forces of friction, or gravity, or the nature of mass itself?  The point is, power sweeps us away because we are forced into playing the game on water’s terms.  The reason water can overwhelm us is because we’re stuck in this system with the laws of nature governing what happens.

Now, step back into the interrogation of Jesus before Pilate with all that in mind.  Pilate is fully expecting Jesus to beg for his life, plead for mercy, or at least stand up to him as a king.  What Pilate is not expecting is for Jesus to stand there like he doesn’t understand the game.  Pilate is working from the perspective of the massive wave of Rome’s power, and Jesus isn’t responding appropriately.  

And here’s the important thing: The reason Jesus is not playing the game as Pilate expects is because Jesus has declared the game itself to be over.  Jesus has seen the violations of the rules, the undeclared fouls and penalties, the absolute corruption of the referees and judges, and declared the entire game invalid.  

The resurrection is not just some last-second score that somehow wins the game in overtime, because that would still be playing by the rules of the game, you see?  Jesus does not overpower Pilate with an even bigger dose of power.  Instead, Jesus changes the very nature of power itself.  Changes the laws of nature, if you will, in what it means to wield power.

Because of Jesus, power is no longer shown in putting someone to death, but rather in rising from death.  Power is no longer shown in taking from the hungry, but in feeding them.  Power is no longer shown in conquering my enemies, but in loving them.  This is a hard teaching, because it goes against everything we are taught.  Which is the whole point!

We began this day with a Collect proclaiming that it is God’s will to restore all things in Jesus, asking that God would grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.  The most gracious rule of Jesus.  Power as Jesus defines power.

In Jesus, God has changed the very meaning of power and strength.  Power and strength come from the hand of God, and they are to be used for very different purposes than what the world has taught us, or would have us believe.  And for those of us who gather at this Altar, true strength comes in holding out our hands as beggars, to receive the most precious body and blood of God’s beloved son, Jesus Christ our Lord, our strength, our redeemer, and our king.


Sunday, November 14, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 25

Pentecost 25, 2021
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

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

As I’ve mentioned before, 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 The Breakfast Club: "Screws fall out all the time; the world is an imperfect place.”  This is why we have to get our cars serviced, and launch capital campaigns to fix our buildings.  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.  Screws fall out all the time; the world is an imperfect place.”

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 something, my friend would say, “It’s all gonna burn.”  Like you’d say to him, “I’m really hoping my wife and I can finally get our upstairs bathroom finished.”  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.  

Some people take that view, like my friend, because they think that everything is broken and twisted 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 that 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 my vegetables since I might get hit by a bus tomorrow?  Why start singing a song since 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 give up.  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 still plant an apple tree today.”

There’s a running theme in Mark’s gospel that has come up several times in the past few months.  And that is, the disciples’ obsession with greatness.  Remember that time they were arguing about which of them was the greatest?  And Jesus shows the disciples what greatness is by placing a child in the midst of them.  So when they talk about the greatness of this building with large stones, he reminds them that buildings do not last forever.  Because entropy rules.  Things fall apart.

We like to judge the disciples for their obsession with greatness, but that’s only because we don’t recognize it in ourselves.  We are obsessed with growth, and bigness, and strength.  In our country, in our churches, and in ourselves.  We want to be the biggest and the best at . . . well, at everything.  We are not so far off from the disciples in this way.

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.  And they say to each other, “Look, what large stones and what fine Tiffany windows!”  And then, naturally, I 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!”

This section of Mark’s gospel is sometimes called The Little Apocalypse, because Jesus says to the disciples: When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.  Scary stuff, right?  Apocalyptic.

But that response from Jesus is an answer to a question from the disciples.  They say to Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  And here we’re really back to entropy.  Because it’s all falling apart, all the time.  We are living in a slow-motion apocalypse from the day we are born.  Just look around.  Have you seen nations rising against nations?  Earthquakes?  Famines?  When will it happen?  It’s happening right now.  You’re soaking in it.

We have no control over these things.  We’re living in a slow-motion apocalypse all our lives, and entropy rules.  And any time we start arguing with one another over who is the greatest, or marvel at seemingly indestructible buildings, we would do well to remember this teaching.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

And that’s much different from, It’s All Gonna Burn, right?  It is the natural order of things to be born or built, have their existence, and then pass away.  See that young strapping football quarterback?  Well, not one muscle will be left upon another.  All will be thrown down.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  In the words of the band Kansas, “nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.”  It’s just the way things are.  When will things fall apart, Jesus?  Things are falling apart right now, comes the reply.

Hearing that something is going to happen 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.  Tell 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 put our faith in structures, and buildings, and nations.  This democracy we have created will last forever.  This building will always be here to shelter our worship.  And when we start putting our faith in buildings and nations, well, maybe it’s helpful to have someone say to us, remember: Entropy Rules.

Jesus says, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes; there will be famines.”  103 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.  If we put our trust in kingdoms, nations, and buildings, we will be sorely disappointed, because they're not going to be here forever.

But, as we’ve all been starkly reminded these past two years, 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 ever will live.  We don’t put our hope in the current things of this world, where Entropy Rules.  But you know where we do put our hope?  

In the birthpangs, that’s where.  Yes, everything comes to an end.  But for those who put their hope in Jesus, the end is the beginning.  The rebirth is always around the corner.  As we heard in the letter to the 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.

I still believe the best bumper sticker ever is that 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.  Remember the birthpangs.  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 7, 2021

YEAR B 2021 feast of all saints

All Saints, 2021
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.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the PBS series called “Grantchester.”  I’m really quite fond of it.  Probably because it’s about an Anglican priest.  It’s a really good series, but it definitely suggests that I am way behind in solving murders about town.  Anyway, the most-recent episode ends with the priest going to visit his former curate in prison.  When the two are face to face, the priest asks how he’s doing, and the first words from curate are, “Will you pray with me?”

And it crushed me!  I don’t often cry over television shows, but this really got to me.  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was the word “with” that did it.  He doesn’t say, “will you pray for me when you get back home?”  No, he asks him to pray with him.  Right here, in front of the two prison guards.  And this is the Anglican way.  Our prayer is public, corporate, and common.  Our book of prayer is called “common” because we use it in common, together.  We worship together.

And we see this in today’s gospel reading.  After Jesus tells Lazarus to come out, Jesus does not take the cloths off Lazarus.  He doesn’t tell Lazarus to unbind himself.  No, says to the community of friends, “Unbind him and let him go.”  He is raised back to life by Jesus, but he is set free by the community.  You and I follow this same pattern: In Holy Baptism—like when Levi is baptized at our 10 o’clock service today—in Baptism we are brought to new life, and in the community we are set free.  Set free to live out our faith, worshipping together, praying together.  Unbind him, and let him go.  Indeed.

But let’s look at what comes before that dramatic moment.  Jesus comes to be with Mary and Martha because their brother Lazarus has died.  Our reading today begins with Mary kneeling before Jesus and saying, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  Ouch!  That is some serious sass isn’t it?  I mean who talks to Jesus like that?  Well, the truthful answer is, all of us do.  We all have moments when we blame God for things, when we doubt whether God really cares about us.  

But it’s interesting that Mary is not questioning Jesus’ ability to help; she questions his timing.  Which is kind of worse, when you think about it.  She’s saying, Jesus, if you had been more punctual, none of this would have happened.  You could have done something, but you were late.  This feels really awkward and pushy to me.  If I were Jesus, I think this would have put me over the edge.  Fortunately for all of us, I’m not Jesus.

Then Jesus asks, "Where have you laid him?" They say to him, "Lord, come and see.”  Jesus is asking, “Where is your pain?  Where is your shame?  Where is the thing that makes you so hurt and angry with me?”  And they say, “Lord, come and see.”  They invite him into their literal pain and suffering, and Jesus begins to weep.  This moment is crucial to our understanding of how Jesus feels about us and about our suffering.  Jesus knows we are hurting, and when we show him our pain, Jesus weeps with us.  God weeps with us.  Like the curate in Grantchester, pray with me, be with me, weep with me.

But then they get cold feet.  When they get to the tomb where Lazarus has been laid to rest, Martha, his sister says, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  They go from inviting Jesus into their pain saying “Come and see,” to now saying, “No Jesus, it’s too smelly for you.”  Like, Jesus can take seeing my pain and weeping with me, but some things are just too stinky.  This would be too much for you Jesus; you’re too holy to withstand the really hard stuff in my life.

It’s a powerful metaphor isn’t it?  Don’t we all do this?  Push down the things and hide the stuff that isn’t holy enough for Jesus to see?  Like Jesus is just too precious for it?  Too perfect to put up with our imperfections and failures?  Too disappointed in us for not living up to the expectations of others?  That part of my life is just too sordid for you to get involved with Jesus.  Let’s go back to the house and turn some water into wine or something.

Then Jesus says, take away the stone.  And they do.  The community takes away the stone.  Together.  Jesus tells Lazarus to come out.  And then Jesus says to the people, "Unbind him, and set him free.”  And the community does, together.  And we see this exact same pattern in our own lives, over and over.

When tragedy strikes, we say to God, “If you had been here, this horrible thing would not have happened to me.”  And Jesus asks, “Where is your suffering, show me.”  And we say, “Come and see.”  And Jesus weeps with us.  He weeps in the community with us.  But then we decide that there are some things that are too big for Jesus to take.  Too painful for him to understand.  Too stinky for his holy nose to handle.

And that’s when Jesus says to the community around us, take away the stone, unbind them and set them free.  God invites us into communities for exactly this reason.  So that we do not have to suffer alone.  We do not have to pray alone.  We do not have to sing or worship or eat alone.  The hands and feet of Jesus are in this room.  We are the body of Christ in this world.  And we can say to one another, pray with me, unbind me, set me free.  And together, we are set free because of Jesus.

 Each one of us is Mary and Martha, with our anger at God for not doing what we expect.  And Jesus weeps with us.  Each one of us is a member of the community, that follows the command of Jesus to unbind one another and set them free.  And each one of us is Lazarus in the tomb, awaiting the voice of Jesus to call us out of death into life.

There is no pain or shame that is too much for God.  There is nothing beyond the reach of Jesus’ voice, calling us to new life.  There is nothing we cannot get through together, because God has given us each other, and has also put us in the midst of the saints of every time and every place, all gathered around the throne of God.  You are not alone, because you are surrounded by all the saints of God.  We pray together, we weep together, and we are set free together.  All the saints of God, set free together.


Wednesday, November 3, 2021

All Souls, All the Faithful Departed

All Souls, 2021
Wisdom 3:1–9
Psalm 130
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
John 5:24-27

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

Today we are celebrating the feast of All Souls, sometimes called All the Faithful Departed.  Before the Reformation, All Souls was a very big deal.  But then Martin Luther and the others decided it was too wrapped up with indulgences and Masses for the dead, and they stamped it out.  Threw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were.

From then on, the Feast of All Souls got kind of melded into All Saints.  In recent times, All Souls has been making a comeback though, and it is distinct from All Saints, which we will celebrate this coming Sunday.  Here’s perhaps a helpful way to distinguish All Saints from All Souls.

All Saints is about the names we know.  And All Souls is about the people we know.  So for All Saints we think of Peter and Paul, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Francis, Julian, Mary Magdalene, and the gospel writers.  For All Souls we focus on our relatives, our mentors, and our friends.  All Saints is for the rock stars; All Souls is for the people we love.  The Rock Stars of the Church are great and all, but these other souls carry us through our lives.

The Saints inspire us, but the faithful departed have fed us, all along the way.  Usually, quite literally fed us.  I love a big celebration as much as anybody, and that’s why All Saints Day is one of my favorite feast days.  But I also want to live and thrive and grow in my faith and love for others, and that’s why All Souls Day inspires me maybe even more.

All Saints Day is about those archaic people who make us think of heaven.  All Souls Day is about the people here on earth, who help us live, and grow in our faith, and become the people God knows we can be.  So, on this day, we honor those whom we love but see no longer.  May they continue to be a blessing in our lives, and in our memories, until the day we are reunited with them into the glorious company of saints in everlasting light.


Saturday, October 30, 2021

Bob Vetrano, Celebration of Life

For Bob Vetrano
October 30, 2021
Westbury, NY
John 6:37-40

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

For those who don’t know me, my name is George Baum, and I am an Episcopal priest, living in Ohio.  And I’m also sort of still on the staff here at THE LIFE, as Content Editor and Social Media editor.  (You can’t get rid of me, just because I live two states away.)  I’ve known Pastor Vetrano and his family for . . . longer than I haven’t known them.  Pastor Justin and I are Godfathers to one another’s eldest children.  (I mean, like literal godfathers.)  And Pastor Vetrano asked me to say a few words this morning.  Now, I know you’ve already heard a lot of words today, so I am going to keep the emphasis on a few . . . words this morning.

So the first words I want to say are from the mouth of Jesus.  In the 6th chapter of John’s gospel, we read:

Jesus said to the people, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And 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. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day."

“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.”  This is my absolute favorite verse in the whole Bible.

I have told my family—and anyone else who will listen—that this is the gospel reading I want at my own funeral.  And then I want the preacher to come up, and read those words again:  “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.” And then, I want the preacher to read the fist law of thermodynamics—about the conservation of energy—and then just sit back down.  That’s it.  I honestly think Bob Vetrano would get a kick out of that.  Because, just like Pop pop’s hideous shirt, it is subversive, and it is true.  But let me explain.

In a nutshell, the law of the conservation of energy states that energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed; they can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another.  You can turn matter into energy, and you can turn energy into matter, but you can never actually lose anything.  Anything in the entire universe.  Physical things can never be destroyed; they can only be changed, because they are part of this closed system of creation.  (And don’t even get me started on how every speck of zinc in your body was created in the aftermath of a supernova.)  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.”

Or, going back to the 3rd chapter of Genesis, you could think of it another way:  Out of dust we were formed, and to dust we shall return . . . until the last day when Jesus raises us back up, because Jesus loses nothing that belongs to him.

Yes, Bob Vetrano is lost to us—while we continue our earthly pilgrimage—but he never was, 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.  Bob was given to Jesus in Baptism.  Just as you were given to God in your Baptism.  Jesus is holding onto Bob, and Jesus is holding onto 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.  Because we are precious in God’s sight, we belong to Jesus, and Jesus does not lose what is his.  Not even Pop pop's hideous shirt.  Nothing and no one is lost to Jesus.  Thanks be to God.


Sunday, October 24, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 22

Pentecost 22, 2021
Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

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

So, as I’ve mentioned before, every Tuesday afternoon I get together online with a group of clergy to talk through the lessons for Sunday.  This week, one of them pointed out how weird it is in the first lesson that expectant mothers are included with the blind and the lame.  A strange grouping, for sure.  I suggested that it might be because it’s very hard to get life insurance when you’re pregnant, because pregnancy is considered a life-threatening illness.   But of course, Jeremiah knew nothing about actuary tables.

Anyway, as we heard, God is going to bring the people back who have been exiled, “and among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.”  And the more I thought about it, the more I could see what it is those people have in common.  The blind, the lame, those in labor, they would slow us down, right?  If we are racing back to our ancestral land, we’d probably prefer that those folks just kind of meet us there at some point when they can.  I mean, a great multitude can only move as fast as the slowest members.

But what’s more interesting here is that those particular people, the blind, the lame, and those in labor all rely on the community to get them through.  If you can’t see, you need someone to guide you.  If you can’t walk, you need someone to carry you.  If you are in labor, you need someone to hold your hand while you scream obscenities at them.  (Or so I’ve heard.)  All these folks rely on the community, and God is not going to let them be left behind.  Everyone comes home together.  Everyone.  God says, “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back.”  The vulnerable bring along what makes them vulnerable, because God will protect them, through the community around them.

And our gospel reading today is also about community.  But it’s about the transformation of the community.  As we heard, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, is sitting by the side of the road.  A large crowd is walking with Jesus, and the blind man cries out to him.  And what does the crowd do?  Do they pick him up and carry him with them?  Do they tell Jesus that someone needs his help?  No.  Instead they sternly order him to keep quiet.

And Jesus stood still, and told the crowd to bring the blind man to him.  Interesting that Jesus doesn’t go to the man.  Jesus doesn’t tell the man to come to him.  No, Jesus tells the community to bring the man to him.  The community turns to the man in need and tells him to take heart, because Jesus is calling him.  And throwing off his cloak (which we’ll come back to in a minute), he gets up and goes to Jesus.  And Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  And here we have to stop for a moment.

I don’t know if you've ever had any friends who were blind.  But more than once—because of bible stories like this—I have asked a blind person if they would want to have their sight back.  Those of us who can see assume that blind people really want to be like us.  But that’s not necessarily so.  Even people who could once see—they know what it’s like—those people do not necessarily want to have their sight back.  Point being, we want to be careful not to assume that everyone who is different wants to be like us, right?

And so look what Jesus does here.  He doesn’t assume the man wants to be able to see.  He asks the man himself: What do you want me to do for you?  I find that both interesting and important.  Jesus asks the man what he wants, without assuming he would want what we would want.  And Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”  Jesus tells him his faith has made him well, and then Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.  He becomes part of the community.  The same community that previously sternly told him to be quiet, tells him Jesus is calling him, and now walks together with this man.

Okay, great story.  But back to the man’s cloak.  As we heard, the crowd told the man that Jesus was calling, and “throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”  Consider for a moment Bartimaeus’ position in life.  He is blind and begging by the roadside.  He has a cloak, and maybe a bowl to collect the alms he might receive.  It is probably very likely that the one possession this man has, the one thing of any monetary value in his life is this cloak.  And hearing that Jesus is calling, he throws off his cloak, springs to his feet, and comes to Jesus.

If you think back to a couple weeks ago, we heard about a rich man who came to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life.  He was told he’d have to leave everything behind, but he couldn’t do it.  What we saw in that case was someone who was trying to save himself.  But the blind man Bartimaeus, and the people from the first reading, the blind, the lame, and those in labor, they all know that they cannot save themselves.  They must rely on God and on the community.  And God and the community are there for them in both cases.  Carrying them when they cannot carry themselves.

So . . . today is the kickoff date for our annual stewardship campaign.  I was asked to preach a sermon about stewardship, and I agreed.  And then I read these lessons and thought, “Uh oh.”  But the more I have thought about it, the more of a connection I see.  Because, in a way, the blind man’s cloak is his offering.  It represents what he is willing to give up in his desire to follow Jesus.  Unlike the rich man two weeks ago, Bartimaeus leaves behind literally everything in order to follow Jesus.  It’s like the most extreme example of sacrificial giving.

Of course, he could have brought his cloak with him to Jesus.  But he leaves the cloak behind and brings his blindness with him.  In his excitement to be healed, his possessions become secondary.  And then, he ends up as part of the community and follows Jesus.

Now I know the connection between Bartimaeus and stewardship is not a perfect through line for us.  But the idea of holding our possessions lightly is there.  There is a broad continuum between the rich man who kept all his possessions and went away sad, and the blind man who leaps up and leaves everything behind.  None of us is at either of those extremes, it’s safe to say.

But especially over these past two years, I think we all have learned to hold our possessions just a little more lightly.  We’ve found ourselves focusing on our health, and our families, and our friends.  Money and things became a little less important when we found ourselves staring death in the face for months and months on end.  Over these past two years, I’ve watched the people of St. Tim’s be so extra generous with your contributions of clothes and food and toys, in seeing how you volunteered countless hours working in the garden, tearing out the carpet, washing every touchable surface and dish.  Keeping up with your pledges as you were able.   In seeing your contributions of time, talent, and treasure, I could see that we all moved a little closer to Bartimaeus and a little farther away from the rich man who went away sad.

As we begin this year’s stewardship campaign, I would encourage all of us to consider what it is we are willing to part with in order to see the ministry of Jesus’ grow in this place.  Maybe it’s just a little.  Maybe it is significant.  And both of those are okay, because we are a community together.  But no matter what we might pledge, Jesus is calling and welcoming each one of us.  To heal us from whatever holds us back from following him on the way.  To join together in this community to share the good news with others.  The news that they too should take heart, because just like Bartimaeus, Jesus is calling for them too.


Saturday, October 23, 2021

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service

Tigers Prayer Service
October 23, 2021

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

So lately I’ve been reading a bunch of articles about the difference between transactional coaches and transformational coaches.  A transactional coach cares only about winning; a transformational coach cares about people, and inspires them to win.  A transactional coach might help you for a day; a transformational coach will help you for life.  This is important stuff, to be honest.  Especially because you are fortunate enough to have transformational coaches here in Massillon.  I want to read you something written by Coach Steve Weidl, because I think it applies to today’s game.

Transformational coaches not only look at the present, but they also make an emotional investment in young athletes’ long-term development. A transformational coach will aim to develop leaders who are not only good athletes, but also better people, and better ambassadors for the sport they participate in. They strive to inspire young athletes to achieve their goals and make them truly believe they can achieve anything they set their minds to. If a coach believes their only job is to make athletes strong and fast, they should think again. Coaches should also strive to build their athletes’ character, to help them improve as athletes and as human beings, because better people make better athletes. Teaching respect and discipline, and inspiring hope and self-confidence should be a priority for any coach.

I don’t want to take your focus off today’s game with all this talk about coaches.  But on the other hand, yes, I definitely do want to take your focus off today’s game.  Because your coaches at Washington High School care about who you are, and what kind of person you will become.  And because your coaches care so much about you as a person, that has an impact on everything you do, both on and off the field.

The UCLA Coach Red Sanders is quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  And, sure, that’s kind of funny.  But it’s not true.  Winning is not the only thing; it’s not even the most important thing.  No.  Being the best person you can be is the most important thing; that’s the only thing.  Learning to be yourself with the gifts you have been given.  To do the best you can to make this world a better place.  Your coaches spend their time and effort helping you become the best person you can be, because—as I have seen with my own eyes—you have transformational coaches.  Above everything else, they care about you as a person, they care about your future, and they care about teaching you to be true to yourself.

And so, as players on this Tigers football team, being your true selves on this day, in this game, in this year, that’s the thing that matters.  I know that your coaches support you today, and I know that you will support each other today, and I know for a fact that this entire city supports you all the way today.  And all of that is what truly matters.  It is my hope and prayer that each of you will see and know how important you are to this town, to this team, to your coaches, and to the world.

May God bless you this day and every day.  Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 20

Pentecost 20, 2021
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.

I want to start this morning by talking about something we don’t often talk about in the Episcopal Church.  That is, Prosperity Theology, or as it’s sometimes called, the Prosperity Gospel.  If you know what that is, feel free to zone out for a minute.  Basically, prosperity theology says that God financially blesses those who vigorously claim blessings and healings as part of a binding contract with God.  Most televangelists fall into this category.  Think Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Oral Roberts, and so on.

In my younger days, I remember being home sick from school and watching some of these TV preachers, and a common refrain was that if you give them money, God will give you even more money in return.  It’s like a pyramid scheme right out in the open, with no effort to hide it.  But the most dangerous problem with prosperity theology—other than taking money from people who can’t afford to give it—is the implied connection between financial success and God’s blessing.  That is, you can tell God loves you if you have a lot of money.  And if you’re poor, well, that’s a sign that God doesn’t really care very much about you.

Now I’ve described all this in such a way that it sounds foreign to us, right?  I mean we don’t believe this kind of wacky stuff, do we?  Well . . . maybe not in so many words, but you can see it from here.  We all carry parts of this way of thinking, because we live in a country that is so profoundly influenced by the Protestant Work Ethic.  You know, the Lord helps those who help themselves, and all that.  It is part of our culture to think that when we are successful it is because God approves of us.  And the reverse of that is the deep dark secret of our times.  That people are unsuccessful and poor because God does not approve of them.

But we can tell all this isn’t true just by looking around.  Rich people don’t get rich because they have God’s approval.  Just think of Martin Shkreli who jacked up the price of HIV medications, or Bernie Madoff who stole people’s retirement money.  Or, on the other end, think of Mother Teresa, or the faithful poor people around the world.  Being rich does not imply God’s blessing, as though God controlled all the world’s money and doles it out to worthy recipients.  And being poor does not mean that God has somehow withheld blessings in your life as a punishment for not living up to God’s expectations.

We all naturally assume a correlation between financial success and God’s approval.  But if we step back a minute, we can see that this is not how life works.  And then we also have the upstanding law-abiding citizen side of things, which might include how often I go to church, or help out the local charities.  How many of the Commandments I keep or break.  Here again, we are thinking that we can earn God’s approval by our own efforts and actions.  If we behave, God will reward us.

The man who comes to Jesus in this gospel reading is a self-made man.  He has his money, and he follows the law.  He is doing everything just right, all on his own, and expects that he will also be able to earn his way into eternal life.  He thinks that God clearly approves of him because he has followed all the commandments, and you can tell God approves of him because of the fact that he is so wealthy, right?  He exemplifies prosperity theology long before the invention of the television.

But look at how he asks the question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?  What must I DO to INHERIT eternal life?  He’s got everything all backwards here.  What must I do?  It assumes there is some action I can perform that will get me the one thing I lack.  Gaining God’s love and acceptance is just a matter of finding out the thing God wants me to do so that God can reward me for doing it.  By my own efforts, and by keeping my nose to the grindstone, I can earn my way into eternal life.

And also, how about that word “inherit?”  That kind of gives away the game, doesn’t it?  Imagine talking to your parents or grandparents this way.  What must I do to inherit your house, mom?  What must I do to inherit your farm grandpa?  Is this how normal relationships work in our world?  I sure hope not!  To think that there is some action I can do that will twist someone’s will so that I might inherit something?  At its most basic level, this question assumes that my relative doesn’t love me enough just as I am.  That I must somehow become, or do something extraordinary in order to prove myself worthy of their love.

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing.”  And what is that one thing?  Tell me Jesus, what is that ONE THING I lack?  Is it one thing in addition to all the riches I have collected?  Is it one thing in addition to all the rules I have followed in order to make myself acceptable?  No.  It’s instead of all the riches and the rules.  The one thing you lack, man who wants to inherit eternal life, is that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree the whole time.  In collecting and striving and relying on yourself you missed the whole point:  Salvation is a free gift from a loving God.
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.

Just stop with all the doing and collecting things.  Stop thinking you can somehow earn God’s love and approval.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a self-made person to understand that they cannot save themself.  If you spend your whole life hoarding money and doing for yourself, and following the commandments by your own effort, well . . . good luck trying to accept that you cannot also earn God’s approval.  If you cannot set all that deserving aside and see that you cannot save yourself . . .

And the disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  Who can possibly do enough to get God to love them?  Who can possibly collect enough possessions to make grandpa include them in his will?  If even the rich folks can’t count on buying their way into heaven, how can anyone possibly be saved?  Well, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

We naturally think that our relationship with God is dependent on us.  On what we do, what we say, how we act, what we do with our money.  But it’s not.  Thank God it’s not!  Jesus loves each one of us unconditionally with no extra conditions.  You cannot earn your way into inheriting eternal life, and you cannot disqualify yourself from inheriting it either.  

If you want to try to inherit eternal life on your own, through your own efforts, by doing something, well . . . okay.  The first thing to do is to sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.  You can’t do that, can you?  Where would you live?  What would you eat?  What would happen to your kids and grandkids?  You can’t do it, can you?

Exactly!  There is just one thing you need to do by your own efforts to inherit eternal life.  And you can’t do it.  Perfect.

And this is where Jesus looks at you, and loves you, and says, you cannot earn what you already have.  You are loved beyond measure, and you have already inherited eternal life.  Stop trying to earn what has been given to you out of love, because you are precious in God’s sight.

And now, come into the banquet hall and share this meal with the saints of every time and every place, the ones who also did not earn their way into inheriting eternal life.  A meal where Jesus comes to us, freely offered with no strings attached, in the body of Christ, and the bread of heaven.  Another free gift from God, and the assurance of our salvation.