Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, August 21, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 11

Pentecost 11, 2022
Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

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

This is one of my favorite Jesus stories of all time.  It’s so simple and to the point, but there is so much subtle stuff going on at the same time.  Your spoiler alert is: Jesus cares about people.  Surprise!  Let’s jump in . . .

In this reading from Luke, we have a pretty straightforward healing story.  There’s this woman who has been sick for 18 years.  Jesus heals her on the Sabbath.  The local religious leaders accuse him of breaking God’s law by working on the Sabbath.  Jesus notes their hypocrisy; they are chagrined; everyone praises God.  The end.  Like I said, pretty straight forward.

But to begin with, we need to wrap our minds around a different cultural context.  In Jesus’ time, everyone believed there was a connection between the physical, and the moral and spiritual.  We get this from Plato if not even earlier: The beautiful and the good are the same.  This kind of thinking says, things are twisted and broken in appearance because they are twisted and broken inside.  No one is just born blind in that culture, which is why the disciples in John’s Gospel ask Jesus, “Whose sin caused this man to be born blind--his own or his parents’ sin?”  A person’s physical appearance was considered the manifestation of their inward state.  We like to pretend we are beyond that, but . . . are we?

Anyway, the people in Jesus’ day were much more convinced of this connection between the outside and the inside, and it was simply part of the society, the way things work.    Beautiful meant good; ugly meant bad.  

But on top of that outward appearance thing, there’s a huge difference between men and women in that culture.  To cut to the chase: Men were considered valuable and in charge; women were not.

A diseased woman, a broken and twisted female.  She has no status, since she’s a woman.  And they would say she must be spiritually and morally deformed inside, given her outward appearance.  This woman doesn’t even deserve to be noticed, let alone healed.  And on the Sabbath?!?  That is just absurd!

But let’s review what we know about the Sabbath for a moment.  Well, we probably don’t know much at all, other than its Biblical origins and that it was—and is—very important to the Jewish people.  You and I have the general sense that it is a day of rest, and that the definition of not resting (or of working) grew over the years into a tangle of restrictions on activities.  People in Jesus’ day could be stoned to death for violating the Sabbath.  It was no small charge to be accused of working on the Sabbath.

And listen again to the objection of the leader of the synagogue:  “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day."  You notice his spoken complaint is only about violating the Sabbath; he does not take issue with Jesus’ healing a woman, at least outwardly, which is . . . interesting.  So you might think he’s taking kind of a middle stance, having elevated her to the level of at least worthy of healing, but not worthy of being healed on the Sabbath.  You know, take a step back here, Jesus.  What’s the rush?  18 years plus one day?  You’ve got all next week to heal her.  The rules of God should not be broken lightly, right?

But do you remember what her actual ailment was?  The symptom was that she was bent over, yes.  But as Jesus declares, Satan has bound her for 18 years.  Satan is what prevents her from standing upright.   And that means—if we follow it through—according to the leader of the synagogue, following the Law of God is more important than being freed from Satan.  Or, more frighteningly, God cares more about rules than people.  The leader of the synagogue seems to hold that view, right?  The Law is what matters here.  Let her remain in bondage, since the rules are more important than people.

Well thank God for Jesus!  Thank God that Jesus shows up to say it over and over again:  The Sabbath was made for people, not the other way around.  Given her (let me emphasize it) bent-over stature, this woman would be a complete outcast for many reasons.  And Jesus heals, frees, and restores her to community ON THE SABBATH.  What could possibly be more fitting?  What better day than the Sabbath to declare God’s forgiveness and restoration?  It would seem wrong to wait, just for the poetic justice of the timing.  Woman, you are set free from your ailment on the Sabbath.  Yes!  Let’s go to brunch!

But then here’s the really interesting part of the whole story.  Jesus raises the obvious point of asking if they wouldn’t do a little work to give their ox or donkey water on the Sabbath.  And Jesus could have left it at that.  But, being Jesus, he has to go all the way: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"

Okay, first of all, women were not called “Daughters of Abraham.”  Ever.  Not until Jesus calls her that in this reading.  You’ve heard the phrase “Sons of Abraham” many times.  But the only other reference to a woman being a Daughter of Abraham is hidden in a book of Maccabees—which is exactly why you and I have never seen this before.  However, Jesus’ listeners would have got the reference.  I won’t go into the whole story here, but in Maccabees, a woman of extreme courage brings honor to Abraham through steadfast endurance and suffering.  And so, connecting the woman in today’s Gospel with the Jewish mother in Maccabees is what brings shame on Jesus’ audience.

NOW they get the idea.  Or are getting the idea.  Because here’s the deeper reference being made in this statement.  Jesus doesn’t say, ought not this woman be freed from Satan to BECOME a daughter of Abraham.  Jesus is not saying, “Once I do my magic hands thing and tell her to stand up, THEN she will be a daughter of Abraham.”  He says “being a daughter of Abraham.”  Present tense.  She does not become a daughter of Abraham because Jesus heals her.  She IS a daughter of Abraham.  And that’s why both literally and metaphorically she should not be bent over: she should be standing up, straight and tall.  Her true status is hidden by the binding, by the judgement of society, by the circumstances of her life, and Jesus sets her free to stand up straight, praising God.

And then, as we heard, the opponents of Jesus are put to shame when he says this.  Why?  Well, it’s hard to know, exactly.  But my guess is it’s best just to take this at face value:  They are put to shame because they would not see what seems obvious to an outside observer . . . particularly those of us with 20 hundred hindsight . . . Neither the binding of Satan, nor the opinion of religious society takes away the fact that this woman is a child of God, a daughter of Abraham.  The circumstances of life and birth, the opinions of the religious people judging her do not diminish her value in the eyes of God.  And anyone who says otherwise will be put to shame.

And that is exactly true for you and me as well.  God does not heal you to become a child of God.  You are a child of God, whether you are bent over by society’s lies and traditions, or are already standing up straight.  Coming to this altar this morning does not make you a child of God . . . But because you are, you are welcome here.  Whatever binds you, whatever holds you down, whatever our society says makes you unworthy, Jesus sees past all of that.  Jesus tells you to stand up straight, and welcomes you into the community.  And so on this, our sabbath day, it is especially appropriate to say:  Rise up!  You are set free from everything that binds you, because you are a daughter of Abraham; you are a beloved child of God, and anyone who says otherwise will be put to shame.


Sunday, August 14, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 10

Pentecost 10, 2022
Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

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

So, as you may have noticed, all of today’s lessons sound absolutely terrifying!  But, they are actually all good news if we look at what is there, as opposed to what we think might be there.  Let’s take them in order, starting with Jeremiah.

God jumps right in with asking, “Am I a God near by . . . and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?”  And also says, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”  Here we see that God is bigger than the biggest thing, and yet as close as the closest thing.  Theologians call these characteristics the transcendence and the immanence of God.  God is both huge and also tiny, is one way to put it.

And we acknowledge this every single Sunday right out of the gate:  Almighty God, [un]to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.  We remind ourselves every week that God is with us.  Right here with us every moment of our lives.  Sounds scary, if we’re honest with ourselves.  I mean, do we really want God to know us that well?  To know all our secrets?  To really know our hearts?  I think we do . . . eventually.  But we’ll get to that in the gospel reading.

And then in Psalm 82, we get what sounds like condemnation.  God asks, “How long will you judge unjustly, and show favor to the wicked?”  And then adds, “Save the weak and the orphan; defend the humble and needy; Rescue the weak and the poor; deliver them from the power of the wicked.”  It sounds a little threatening, doesn’t it?  Like I better get out and start doing these things.  And, indeed, I should.  And you should too.  But, God is not talking to you and me here.  Notice how the psalm starts:  “God takes his stand in the council of heaven; he gives judgment in the midst of the gods.”  This is our God speaking to the “other gods,” whatever that might mean.  And, as we heard, those “other gods” “shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”  Nothing scary in there to you and me, since we know full well that we too shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.

And then let’s jump to today’s gospel reading, from Luke.  There’s a lot of frightening language coming at us in this reading, right?  In our current divided times, where we can’t seem to agree on much of anything, is Jesus promising to bring even more division?  I mean, that kind of feels like the last thing we need around here.  Not to mention all the talk of fire and calling people hypocrites and all that.  Like I said at the start, these readings sound pretty terrifying.  But let’s take a closer look.

Fire.  We generally think of fire as being destructive, and of course, it usually is.  We never want the words “house” and “fire” to be close together in our daily lives.  Not to mention forest fire, or—where I grew up—chemical fire.  We prefer fire prevention and fire fighters.  Usually, fire we can’t control is bad.  And here Jesus is in this reading saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth.”  Bad enough, but then he adds, “And how I wish it were already kindled!”  Yikes!  That all sounds like the kind of fire we don’t want, right?

But here’s the thing about fire.  We also use it to purify things.  That’s how we get iron from slag, and how we purify gold, and how we clean rusted metals and remove old paint.  We purge things with fire, which is where we get the word purgatory.  Paul writes about purifying fire in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 3).  And when God calls Isaiah (Is. 6), the angel presses a hot coal against his mouth to purify his lips.  So, when Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth, I think this is the kind of thing he is talking about.  A cleansing, purifying fire.  A fire that will burn away what is unclean and tainted and needs to be removed.  Still sounds scary, but it’s actually a good thing.  Restoring things to what they were always meant to be.

And then there’s that business about bringing division instead of peace, and dividing family members from one another.  I think this is a related thing actually.  But it’s only related because of our distorted view of peace, thinking that peace means the same thing as being nice, or not making any waves.  If “peace” means not rocking the boat when we see something wrong, or if peace means we ignore injustice and allow things to remain the same, then it’s not peace.  It’s a distortion and a coverup.

A great example of this is slavery in the United States.  We could imagine the abolitionists of the 1800s saying the same thing Jesus does.  In a world where some children of God can be enslaved because of the color of their skin, we have come not to bring peace but a sword.  Or, as our collect for social justice says, we ask God to “Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression.”

And then, what are the results of this sword Jesus brings?  “From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”  Sure sounds similar to what Abraham Lincoln once said about a house divided (though that came from something else Jesus said).  When Jesus brings a sword instead of peace, when Jesus brings purifying fire rather than a fresh coat of paint . . . well, some feathers are going to be ruffled, right?  

It is in some people’s interest to let injustice roll down and oppression reign free.  It is some people’s interest to make a profit off other people’s suffering.  But that is not what Jesus came to do.  He did not come to endorse a broken system and say it’s all okay.  He came to purify this world, and remove all that would prevent things from being what they were meant to be.

And that same work goes on through his Church.  At its best, the Church continues the work that Jesus began, as we heard in our Psalm today to “Save the weak and the orphan; defend the humble and needy; Rescue the weak and the poor; deliver them from the power of the wicked.”  Deliver them from the power of the wicked—the ones who will be upset by this sword of justice.

But how?  How do we do this work?  Where do we even begin?  The answer is that we don’t do this work.  Not on our own.  It is the Spirit of God working through us that accomplishes any good in this world.  And you know what prevents us from letting the power of God work through us?  All that stuff that needs to be burned away.  Our selfishness, our greed, our panic over scarcity, our choosing to ignore the cries of those around us.  All those things are what needs to be cleansed out of us, so that we might get a clearer glimpse of the world as God sees the world.  

Yes, there is injustice and oppression all around us.  And we are the ones God will use to make things right.  But in order to make any progress, we need to have those selfish distractions burned out of us with the cleansing fire of God.  And there’s the good news in all of this.  Because it is God who does the refining.  It is Jesus who brings a sword to cut the weeds of blindness from our eyes.  And little by little, day by day and week by week, one sip of wine and one piece of bread at a time, we are being shaped into the people who can turn this world upside down.  Because God is slowly making us into what we were always meant to be, so that we might help make the world what it was meant to be.


Sunday, August 7, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 9

Pentecost 9, 2022
Genesis 15:1-6
Psalm 33:12-22
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

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

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  That’s how today’s Gospel reading started.  Remember that?  You might not remember that because of the confusing parade of sayings that followed it.  After that straightforward opening statement, the reading becomes a bit of a train wreck of metaphors, which no editor would allow into print.  But the opening sentence is this:  Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

After that happy beginning—spoken to a flock—we hear about purses and treasure, lamps lit by slaves awaiting a wedding guest, a meal served to slaves by their master, a thief breaking in at an unknown hour, and the return of the Son of Man—all within seven verses.  Like I said, a a lot of metaphors.  

We have this collection of sayings grouped together as though they’re a sermon.  But for all we know, these were thoughts from Jesus spread out over a week, or month, or year.  Just because they appear back to back doesn’t mean that’s how Jesus presented them.  Of course, maybe he did.  We don’t know for certain either way.  Though many a PhD has been earned on arguing over just such a thing, I’m sure.

What you and I need to know is this:  Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  That’s the key.  That’s how today’s reading begins, and it is surely the most important part of the entire reading.  It sets the tone, but it also reveals something about the nature of God.  In fact, it reveals a whole lot about the nature of God, and I daresay what it reveals is contrary to how we generally think about God.

I think we’re mostly convinced that when Jesus returns there will be some celestial taking of names and kicking of . . . things.  Or, as the familiar bumper sticker has it:  Jesus is coming, look busy.  Like when Jesus returns he will only be happy with the ones who are doing whatever it is he said we should be doing.

And there are hints of that in today’s reading, right?  Or wait.  Do we just assume they’re in there?  It’s interesting how there’s really no bad news in this reading, UNLESS we make the mistake of seeing it as a checklist of things we need to be doing.  If we don’t fight against the tendency when hearing Jesus speak, we risk viewing everything Jesus says as though he’s sitting in the middle Leviticus when he’s saying it.  As a friend of mine likes to say, the Law is our constant companion, but the Gospel is a stranger in our midst.  Our default God mode is the Zeus god of mythology, hurling thunder bolts, sporting a big beard.

But there’s nothing in this reading that suggests anyone is threatened, or in danger, or facing damnation.  Remember how the whole thing began?  Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  And from there, Jesus goes on to say, do this, and be like this, and have this attitude . . . But nowhere does he say, “Or else!

It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.  Not, reluctant whim to give us the kingdom.  Not, grudging concession to give us the kingdom.  And certainly not, God’s good pleasure to see you burn in hell if it weren’t for that pesky Jesus fellow.  Jesus doesn’t walk among us in order to tie the hands of the bloodthirsty Father who wants nothing more than to dip you in vats of boiling oil from Dante’s Inferno.  Jesus IS God, remember?  Jesus doesn’t save us from the Father; God does not save us from God.

And so how do we hear all these words today?  What do we think when we hear Jesus say, Sell your possessions?  Be dressed with your lamps lit?  Be alert and ready for the unexpected return of the Son of Man?  To an outsider, these sound like requirements.  They sound like barriers or blockades to acceptance.  You know, after you have sold your possessions, and kept your lamp lit, and stayed up all night every night waiting by the door, then, if you’re lucky, you just might have an opportunity to be accepted into the kingdom.

Again: Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Jesus tells us to be ready.  We don’t know when Jesus is coming back, but it is a good day when he returns.  It is a day to celebrate, even though we don’t know when it will be.  And that sort of implies a celebration every day, doesn’t it?  Since we don’t know the date?

In the 1840’s, an American Baptist preacher named William Miller began studying the book of Daniel from the Old Testament.  Over time, using complicated formulas, he decided that Jesus would return to earth in the year 1844.  Samuel Snow, a fellow preacher narrowed it down to a specific date: October 22nd, 1844.  Thousands of their followers prepared for the day.  Some gave away all their possessions.  They went into fields and on hilltops all over upstate New York.  As I’m sure you know, Jesus did not return on October 22nd, 1844.  And for the so-called Millerites, this day became known as The Great Disappointment.  Indeed.

When Jesus says in today’s gospel to sell your possessions and prepare for his return, he does not mean go stand in a field on a specific date and wait for him to return.  In fact, he specifically says, over and over, nobody knows the date of his returning.  So whatever he means when he says to be alert and waiting at the door, he does not mean pick a date and stand on top of a mountain in upstate New York.

So, if Jesus’ return is a cause for celebration, and if we do not know the day or the hour, then we wait with great expectation, not great disappointment.  We live with hope, not despair.  If we welcome Jesus’ return, then not knowing the day makes every day a celebration, see?  And if you find yourself edgy and nervous at the thought of the return of the Son of Man, it might be that you’ve forgotten how this reading began:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom . . . The never-ending feast of healing and celebration.
And there’s a reason we call the Eucharistic meal the “foretaste of the feast to come.”  Because it is the place where everyone is welcomed, everyone is encouraged, and everyone is strengthened for the journey ahead.

May God give us the confidence to trust that God wants what is best for us, and the strength carry out God’s will for our lives as we wait with hope, and the faith to trust that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.


Saturday, August 6, 2022

Bishop Search Retreat

Bishop Search Committee Retreat
Feast of the Transfiguration
August 6, 2022
Luke 9:28-36

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

For the past eight months, our Bishop Search Committee has been striving to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. To be guided in our candid conversations, and our careful reading, and our painstaking decisions.   And you all have been led by that same Spirit to submit yourselves to this extensive and intrusive process.   (I imagine you’ll be grateful if you don’t have to write another essay any time soon.)

It has been a true blessing to gather together in person these past few days, to continue our discernment with one another, finally in person.  God willing, and the people consenting, someone in this room will be the 12th Bishop of Ohio. And, no matter what happens, I am just thankful that it won’t be me.

Because the job of Bishop is hard, and lonely, and grueling. And nobody can possibly do it on their own.  And that’s why our next bishop will have staff, and have resources, and have the support and prayers of the people . . . and have Jesus.  And the greatest of these is Jesus. 

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, at least in the Episcopal Church.  As we heard, Jesus and a few disciples go up the mountain.  Jesus is praying, and he turns this dazzling white.  And suddenly, Moses and Elijah are talking to him.  After this breathtaking scene, they’re about to leave and Peter makes that curious offer to build some lodging for them (possibly for reasons connected to the festival of booths).  But also to—you know—stay up there on the mountain together.  They’ve seen Jesus and Moses and Elijah, together, in a literal mountaintop experience.  Why would you ever want to leave that behind?  Let’s all just stay right here, basking in this dazzling transfiguring moment!  But instead . . .  they come down.  Jesus comes down.

Jesus doesn’t stand up there on the mountain, shining in glory, calling out, “Come to me all who are strong, and accomplished, and self reliant!”  He does not remain on the mountaintop, glowing with magnificence saying, “You that are worthy, ascend to where I stand in all my radiance.”  He doesn’t stay there . . . because we cannot climb up.  We cannot climb up to the glory of Jesus.  We cannot get ourselves to where Jesus is.  And since we cannot climb up, Jesus comes down . . . to get us.

The point is not that we go higher. The point is that Jesus comes down. And whether you are a layperson, a Deacon, a Priest, a Bishop, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jesus comes down for you.

We don’t know where our paths will take us when we leave this place.  But we can all leave reassured that the same Spirit is still moving among us, and that the glorified Jesus has come down to get us.  To get all of us.  No exceptions.  Come down to us Lord Jesus, for we cannot climb up.