Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, March 20, 2022

YEAR C 2022 lent 3

Lent 3, 2022
Exodus 3:1-15
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8

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

Well, here we are in the third week of Lent.  And as you know, Lent is a time when we all ask ourselves, “What the heck kind of readings were those” Paul tells us that bad things happen to bad people.  And Jesus tells us that bad things happen to good people.  So, essentially, if you’re a person, bad things will happen to you.  Any questions?

Of course, intuitively we know all this.  Bad things happen to all people all the time, whether those people are being good or being bad.  What’s weird to you and me is, we don’t expect the point of the readings to be:  Bad things are going to happen to everybody.  It feels a little threatening, to be honest.  But as always, there is good news to be had.  We just have to look for it.

Alright.  Let’s start with the first reading, from Exodus.  This is an amazing and powerful story, which you’ve heard many times in your life.  It’s the call of Moses, or sometimes known as the burning bush, or sometimes the naming of God.  It is dramatic, and mysterious, and is a hinge moment in the life of Moses and for the Israelites.  

And we need to ask ourselves, “How did Moses get here?  What brought him to this life-changing encounter with God?”  And here, you’re just asking for the plot of the Dreamworks movie, “The Prince of Egypt.”  So, let’s do a quick review:  Moses’ mother, Miriam, put her baby in a basket in the river to avoid his being killed by Pharaoh along with the other Israelite children.  Pharaoh’s wife found the baby and raised him as her own son.  Moses grew to hold a prominent place in Egypt until he killed an Egyptian guard and then fled into the wilderness.  While he’s out there on the run, he defends three girls from ruffians, and then falls in love with Tzipporah, whose father is a hight priest of Midian.  He marries her and falls into a regular life as a shepherd of her father’s flocks.

So why is all that important?  Because for Moses, his overall life has been a spectacular fall from grace.  He went from being a prince of Egypt to being rejected by the Egyptians.  And having broken one of the commandments by killing a man, he is rejected by his own people, the Israelites, plus he is married to the daughter of a pagan priest!  To all his own people—of both cultures—he is a nobody, an outcast, and a sinner to boot.  

He is living in the desert, figuratively and literally.  He is not looking for God.  He is not trying to get right with God.  Moses doesn’t even try to come to God.  But God comes to Moses.  Turns out, after a long fall from grace, Moses falls into grace.  Nothing to deserve it, nothing to warrant it.  All God, no Moses, no matter whether he was good or bad.

And then we move to that second reading, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  There are all sorts of problems about this reading, and we don’t have time to go into them all here.  Or any of them here.  My advice is, don’t necessarily take everything Paul says as gospel . . . because it’s not the gospel.  So then, let’s move on to the gospel.

You notice, this reading starts with the phrase, “At that very time.”  At what very time?  Well, if you back up to Luke chapter 12, you’ll see that Jesus is in the middle of a big long string of teachings and parables here.  There’s a large crowd, and he is switching back and forth between talking to the crowds and talking to the disciples.  And then, apropos of nothing, there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  A very strange segue, I think you’ll agree. 

But Jesus uses this jarring report to talk about repentance and—perhaps more importantly—to remind everyone that suffering is not a consequence of bad character or bad behavior.  We like to think that way, because our entire justice system is built on that idea.  But it’s more like Jesus is flipping this around.  He is saying something more like this:  The fact that you are suffering does not mean that God is displeased with you.  And that is important for us to remember, because I think that’s sort of our go-to approach to things.  “If I am in pain, that means God must be mad at me.”  And then we ask, “Why are you mad at me God?”  That’s not how God works.  That’s not how grace works.  Just as God came to Moses in his fall from grace, God comes to us in our suffering.

And then, Jesus gets to the parable of the fig tree.  As we heard, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard.”  Stop right there.  What kind of person plants a fig tree in a vineyard?  Is this man just weird?  Does this man not know how grapes work?  Is this man just extravagant?  We don’t know.  But we also don’t know whether or not Jesus means for us to view this man as representing God the Father, so let’s not jump to that conclusion.

Anyway, as we heard, the vineyard owner finds the gardener and tells him to cut down the tree because it has not borne fruit for three years and is wasting the soil.  The gardener begs him to leave it be for another year, that he will put manure around, and then if there’s still no fruit, “YOU can cut it down.”  Notice that subtle little twist there?  He is told to cut it down, and rather than do as he is told, he makes the case that there is still hope, but he STILL doesn’t agree to cut it down.  He throws it back on the vineyard owner to cut it down himself.

Now, many preachers will use this text as a scare tactic.  I’ve heard them do it--especially at youth gatherings.  If God sees that you are not bearing any good fruit, Jesus might step in for a season and try to help you, but after that if you fail to produce, you will be cut down.  If you don’t produce things, you will die.  But that’s not the gospel . . . that's capitalism.  This is not a story about how you need to be better, or how you need to be good, or how you need to produce some results for the crazy vineyard owner who planted a fig tree in his vineyard, where the grapes grow.

What’s going on here is that Jesus is up to his old tricks again.  Subverting the system in order to save people.  Undermining the authorities in order to rescue those who don’t measure up, because they are planted in the wrong place.  Is it the fig tree’s fault that it is not producing fruit?  Well, look at the solution the gardener offers.  It’s manure; it’s a soil amendment.  The problem isn’t the tree; the problem is the soil.  And the gardener knows that by fixing the soil, by fixing the system, by fixing the location, that little fig tree might bear fruit after all!

Aha, you might be thinking.  But the gardener only guarantees one extra year.  And the first answer to that is, it’s not next year yet.  The gardener only has to save the imperiled tree right now.  Who knows what next year will bring?  Instead of wondering what will happen if the manure doesn’t work, try thinking of what will happen if the manure does work.  What then?  What then indeed.

It’s interesting to me to consider St. Timothy’s Church as the fig tree in this parable, after what we’ve all been through these past two COVID-drenched years.  Like, some high-priced church consultant might come in and try to evaluate how much fruit we have produced lately.  How many new members?  How many people attend on Sunday mornings?  How many concerts have we hosted, or how many meals have we shared together?  And then imagine that consultant saying, 'See here! For three COVID years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’

And now ask yourself, who produces the fruit at St. Timothy’s?  At first glance, it seems to be us, the people, right?  People’s elbow grease in the kitchen, people offering to read or pass plates, people caring for our altars and sacred vessels, people poring over spreadsheets and making budgets.  But you find the real answer when you ask why those people do those things.  People volunteer to do all that because they love God and they love their neighbors.  Love is from God.  All love.  The fruit that St. Timothy’s produces is the fruit of God.  It’s not us; it’s the soil.

And if we need manure poured around us, and to be given another year, then that is what God is going to do for us.  We can’t control a pandemic, and we can’t control how much fruit we produce; we can only rely on God, and trust that Jesus will always opt for mercy, always give us another year, and another year after that.

God came to Moses when Moses wasn’t even looking for God.  And God comes to us, whether or not we are looking.  This is the message of grace in these readings today.  God is always coming to meet us, wherever we may wander, and Jesus is always looking to amend our soil, wherever we may grow.  May God continue to bring forth fruit from this parish, as God has always done, one year at a time.


Sunday, March 13, 2022

YEAR C 2022 lent 2

 Lent 2, 2022
Genesis 15:1-12,17-18
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35
Psalm 27

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

I want to begin by drawing your attention to the opening phrase in today’s Collect:  “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy.”  In that prayer, we are reminded not only of God’s mercy, but that mercy is God’s glory.  Think about that.  When you imagine glory, you probably picture some victorious overwhelming vision of power and might.  When you think of glory, you probably do not also think of mercy.  But the message in that little phrase is this: in mercy, God’s glory is displayed.  It really is quite amazing to me.  And it ties in quite well with today’s lessons.

So, let's start that reading from Genesis.  A couple chapters before this, God tells Abram that his descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth.  Skip ahead to today’s readings and Abram is like, “Well, I guess I’m not going to have any children.”  God says, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”  But Abram asks, “how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  Like, you know, how can I be sure, God?  And God could say, “Because I said so, you idiot!”  Or, God could say, “How dare you doubt me?”  But instead, God chooses to give Abram something he can understand.  Something that will make sense to him . . . if not to us.  And so God is going to make a covenant with Abram.

At which point, we must stop and talk about covenants in the culture of that time.  The verb used when making a covenant there is “cut.”  You would “cut a covenant” with someone.  And the reason for that is because a covenant involved cutting an animal in half.  And the point of cutting an animal in half was this:  the two people making the covenant would  walk between the two halves of the severed animal, and pledge that if they break the covenant, then may the fate of the animal be theirs as well.  Serious stuff!

Usually, both parties would walk through and make the scary pledge, but always the weaker one would.  So, you offer to lend me $100; we cut a three year old heifer in half, I walk through the middle and say, “If I don’t pay you back, may my fate be like that of this animal.”  Though that’s a bad example, since a heifer is surely worth more than $100.  But you get the point.

And so, on that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram.  While Abram is asleep!  And in the making of that covenant, God passes through the severed animal, rather than Abram doing so.  We don’t know specifically what is up with the smoking fire pot and flaming torch, but we can tell in the context that they are representative of God passing through when the covenant is made.  This is absolutely ridiculous, because we would expect for Abram to pass through, or at least for Abram and God together.  But here we have only God making the pledge.  Only God being vulnerable and willing to take a chance.  Only God’s life being put on the line, with Abram asleep at the time!  He doesn’t even know it’s happening.  God is doing for Abram what he cannot do for himself.  Stepping in for the weaker party in the covenant.  And there it is: God, whose glory it is always to have mercy.

And then let’s look at today’s gospel reading, from Luke.  Some Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him to flee because Herod is looking to have him killed.  Jesus calls Herod a fox, which is perfect, because just a little later he imagines himself as a hen protecting baby chicks, the very ones that a fox would be looking to snatch away.  

I love that we get this feminine imagery for Jesus just a few days after International Women’s Day.  And, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always imagined this as a cozy little scene, with a hen nestling up against the baby chicks, all comfortable and smiling with their little baby chick beaks.

Turns out—as I recently learned—when a mother hen gathers her chicks to protect them, it’s actually super aggressive.  Like the bird version of grabbing them by the collar.  She’s protecting them from imminent danger, not snuggling up with them in the hen house.  And if you picture what that looks like, you’ll also see that when the mother hen is protecting her babies—with her wings wrapped around them—she is leaving herself completely vulnerable.  She cannot use her wings to protect herself when she’s holding onto her chicks for dear life.  The hen lays down her life for the chicks that she gathers under her wings.  And there it is again: God, whose glory it is always to have mercy.

So, the Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him to run away because Herod is planning to kill him.  But Jesus will not die in Herod’s Galilee; he must die in Jerusalem, the holy city.  We don’t know what to make of the statement that a prophet cannot die outside Jerusalem, since Moses and Jeremiah—two chief prophets—did not die there.  Some say Jesus is talking about himself in the third person, or there’s an issue with the indefinite article.  But no matter.  The important thing to know about this is that Jesus is not stating some incorrect historical “fact” about other prophets; he is referring to his own death, not someone else’s.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  Jesus knows what will happen to him if he continues on in toward Jerusalem.  He’s known it since chapter 9, back when he set his face toward Jerusalem.  The Pharisees come to him and tell him to run, to save his own life.  And knowing he will die, he refuses to run away, refuses to rally his followers to rise up and fight.  What do we even call this?  Suicide?  Fatalism?  Surrender?

No, we call this courage.  This is the courage of vulnerability.  The courage of sacrifice.  The courage of laying down one’s life for others.  Or passing through the split heifer.  Or gathering the chicks under his wings.  Not striking back, but surrendering.  And there it is again: God, whose glory it is always to have mercy.

God passes through the split heifer.  For us.  Jesus goes to Jerusalem.  For us.  We get a very different message from today’s scripture readings than we get from the world around us.  That story of Abram and God, the gospel reading we heard from Luke, they both show us a different way.  And it is certainly not the way that we see in our world.  Because God’s ways are not our ways.  The courage of vulnerability we see in these readings makes us uncomfortable, because we don’t want to be that way ourselves.  What would people think?  How would people treat us?  Could we even survive?

It’s hard to think about, isn’t it?  But that’s because we’re trying to put ourselves in God’s place—rather than in Abram’s place—imagining ourselves walking through the split heifer when it should be Abram doing that.  We’re trying to put ourselves in Jesus’ place, imagining walking on toward Jerusalem, knowing that he will be killed by the religious leaders of his time.

But you and I are not the God.  You and I are not Jesus.  You and I are Abram, sound asleep while God does what needs to be done.  You and I are the tiny chickens that Jesus gathers under his wings.  And that’s probably even harder to think about, right?  That definitely does not fit with our self image!

We are not called to be Jesus.  But we are called to follow him.  We are called to trust him.  We are called to be gathered under his wings.  

As we saw in these lessons today, when the stronger party takes the vulnerable role by choice, it makes no sense to us.  And yet God continually sacrifices for our benefit.  This is never more clear than when we consider the Eucharistic Feast of Communion.  Where Jesus offers us his own body and blood, so that we can be strengthened for our journey, forgiven of our sins, and reassured of God’s salvation.  

Though we do not understand God’s ways, may we always be grateful that God’s ways are not our ways, and that Jesus has the courage of vulnerability to lay down his life for the living and the dead.  For sinners who need redemption.  For tiny chickens in need of the shelter of his wings.
As we prayed, “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy,” glory to you forever and ever. 


Sunday, March 6, 2022

YEAR C 2022 lent 1

Lent 1, 2022
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

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

We say that today’s Gospel reading is about temptation, and I suppose it is: The Temptation of Jesus.  But, in the end, it is really more about the identity of Jesus. Jesus has been out in the desert for forty days and forty nights.  And then the tempter comes and offers Jesus some relief if he will just go against . . . well, go against what it means to be the Son of God.  But Jesus refuses at every turn.

So the point of this sermon could be, Jesus is very good at resisting temptation, even when he’s hungry and exhausted.  But that is not the point I want to make.  Or, the point of this sermon could be, Jesus is like us: tempted in every way.  But that will not be the point either.  No, my point is going to be about rocks and bread.  Yes.  Rocks and bread.  And now you’re on the edge of your seat, I know.

So, as we just heard, Jesus is out in the wilderness.  He has been fasting.  He is hungry.  The devil, or satan, or “temptation” comes to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  If you really are, then you will . . .  The oldest trick in the book, right?  If my parents really loved me, they’d buy me a new bicycle.  The implication is, if you don’t command this stone to become a loaf of bread, you are not the Son of God.  It is a challenge, sure, but a false challenge with no way out (if you believe the challenger).  Either you do this thing, or you are not who you say you are.  It is not a temptation; it is a trap.  The only way to deal with it is to sidestep it, right?  And that’s what Jesus does.  But he sidesteps it by way of pointing to something much bigger.

In response to the tempter, Jesus quotes Moses, when he was chastising the people for their lack of trust in God.  To review the quotation, in the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites how God has watched out for them, protected them, instructed them.  He reminds them that when they were hungry in the desert, God gave them manna in order to make them understand that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”  They want bread, the thing they are familiar with.  Instead, God gives them something they have never seen.  In their smallness, and their focus on mere survival, they crave what is familiar.  Instead, God gives them something that is so out of their mindset that they actually call it, “what is it?” which is what the word manna means.  Manna.  What is it?

God continues to give them this new food, all the way to the Promised Land.  And though Israel’s trust in God during their wandering was shaky at best, Jesus in his complete trust knows that God will provide, and by quoting Moses in the desert, Jesus uses the moment to remind the tempter that God has already provided food in the past—for 40 years . . . in a desert.

But, of course, there is more here.  Much more.  “The people do not live by bread alone.”  Animals live by bread alone; but people don’t.  For animals, life is all about food.  Getting food, storing food, beating up the other animal for food.  And once the food is gone, they start again.  Food food food.  If you’ve ever had a dog, you know what I’m talking about.  A dog cares about food, and getting outside to get rid of the food through . . . exercise. 

This is the way animals are: constantly in search of their next meal.  But people do not live by bread alone.  Oh sure, we might survive on bread alone.  But surviving is not living.  Merely surviving is not what God created you to do.  Surviving is thinking too small.  God created you to live, to interact with other people, to love and laugh, and weep and mourn.  Bread is something that must be replaced every day.  But living is something entirely different than just surviving.  You do not live by bread alone

So what about stones?  Luke uses stones 3 times, in an interesting and consistent way.  We have today’s example connected to changing a stone into bread.  And a few verses before today’s gospel, John the Baptist tells those who have come for baptism, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’.”  And a little less than 40 days from today, we will hear the Pharisees tell Jesus to order his disciples to stop praising him.  To which Jesus will answer, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." 

In Luke, we have stones not turning into bread, stones not turning into children of Abraham, stones not praising Jesus.  So what’s the connection?  Well, in all three cases, God could turn these stones into something else, but God does not.  Why not?  I think it’s because God intentionally does not deal in flashy miracles to accomplish things.  God does not reach down and move people and things around by forcing them to be something they are not.  The power of God is shown in drawing things into perfection, rather than in becoming something they were never meant to be.

Instead of an awesome overwhelming undeniable display of power of shock and awe . . . God sends a baby in a feeding trough.  Rather than some ruler who appears atop the mountain, commanding people to bow down and worship with his  arms raised in victory . . . Jesus appears atop a cross, nailed to the wood, arms open in defeat.  

Sure, God could use rocks to accomplish what needs to be done, but stones have their own part to play.  Stones should not be turned into bread, or into children of Abraham, or into choirs singing praises to Jesus.  The big moment for stones comes much later in the story, when a stone is rolled away to reveal the empty tomb.  Stones have their own place in creation and revelation: to reveal our salvation.  Let stones be stones, and let bread be bread.

And, of course, bread has its place in our ongoing story as well.  Jesus is not going to turn some stone into bread.  You might say, Jesus is going to turn himself into bread:  the bread of life, the bread that is blessed, broken, and shared.  When the tempter tries to get Jesus to turn a mere stone into mere bread for mere survival, he is showing the smallness of his thinking.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Oh please!  There is a much bigger future for a stone; and there is a much bigger future for bread; we should not confuse the two.  And because of stones and bread, there is a much bigger future for us, together.  You and I do not live by bread alone.  We do not find life alone.  We live in community.  We were built for community.  A community that gathers to share bread because the stone has been rolled away.  We find life in the bread shared in community, because Jesus meets us in the breaking of the bread.

The Tempter thinks too small, and assumes we do as well.  But we know from God’s Word the true power of stones and bread:

The stone is rolled away to reveal the glory at the resurrection of Jesus.  It is the curtain that rises to reveal the hope of eternal life, for those who mourn.  And the bread, through the power of the Spirit in our community, becomes the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

And after we gather at this altar, we will go out into the world taking Christ’s victory with us.  Not by some cheap parlor trick of having been turned into loaves of bread.  And not with some awesome conquering power to forcefully rule over the kingdoms of the world.  We go out into the world to share this good news: that a baby has been born into our messy world, that God has submitted to the worst that is in us on the cross, that the stone has been rolled away from the empty tomb, that Jesus has come to us in the bread of life, and—because of all of that—the tempter has no power over us.

Jesus has overcome the power of death and the devil, and you and I together proclaim that good news, with the saints who have gone before, and those who are yet to come.  The stone will be rolled away, and the bread of heaven awaits us this day.


Wednesday, March 2, 2022

YEAR C 2022 ash wednesday

Ash Wednesday, 2022
Joel 2:1-2,12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm 103:8-14

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

Knowing I will die, how then shall I live?  That’s the question for us tonight.  Knowing I will die, how then shall I live?

Most of you have probably seen the Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day.”  If you haven’t seen it, you probably know the basic plot.  A guy wakes up every day and it’s the same day.  He is stuck in an endless loop of days that begin with Sonny and Cher on the radio.  Eek!  No matter how hard he tries to die, he wakes up, and it’s the same thing again.  Every day.  It doesn’t take long for the awareness of his immortality to become pure cynicism.  Nothing matters, because he will live forever; no one matters, because tomorrow will be the same.  Knowing he will not die, how does he live?   Carelessly.  Recklessly.  Why do anything?  Why try to make a difference?  We could call this, the Tedium of Immortality. 

And the opposite of that is why we are gathered here tonight: to be told in scripture and ritual acts that we will not live forever.  To acknowledge together that we are mortal.  From dust we were created, and to dust we shall return.  Unlike Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” there will come a day when we will not wake up to Sonny and Cher on the radio, and we have come together to be reminded of that.  And so then, knowing I will die, how then shall I live?

Our mortality is motivation, is one way to look at life.  There are all sorts of slogans and Successories posters that tell us that.  You only live once, so go skydiving.  You don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so seize the day.  Acknowledging the fact that life doesn’t last forever is the existential crisis unique to human beings.  All people are aware, however vaguely, that they will one day die. 

Okay.  So, why do we Christians pick out a particular Wednesday every single year specifically to remind ourselves that we are going to die some day?  Why go out of our way to tell ourselves something we already know? 

Well . . . the date for Ash Wednesday is determined by the date of Easter.  This Wednesday to remember that we are dust is directly connected to the announcement that Jesus is risen.  The 40 days of Lent lead us to the 50 days of Easter.  Ash Wednesday and Easter are two sides of the same coin.  We focus on our mortality in the light of our immortality.  We gather to remind ourselves that—though we will die—we will live again, resurrected by the One who created us.  So there’s a second question for us to ponder:  Knowing I will live, how shall I die?  Knowing I will live, how shall I die?  Well . . .

Listen to one of the opening anthems that we read at funerals:
“For none of us has life in himself, and none becomes his own master when he dies.  For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord.  So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's possession.”

Knowing I will die, how shall I live?  Knowing I will live, how shall I die?

These are the two questions put to us this night.  And the answer to both of them is this:  Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's possession.  As the opening Collect for this day reminds us, God hates nothing God has made.  And that which Jesus has claimed as his own, he will never turn away.  You are a beloved child of God, and you are claimed by Jesus.