Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 YEAR B christmas 1

Christmas 1, 2023
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
Psalm 147:13-21
John 1:1-18

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

So, first of all, let me just say Merry Christmas.  (And I hope you’re enjoying those 7 Swans a Swimming.)  This gospel reading we just heard is the reading for the first Sunday of Christmas every year, and it is also the gospel reading for Christmas Day each year.  So we get this same reading back to back every year.  It’s almost as if the people who put together the lectionary wanted to be sure that we had plenty of chances to hear how everything began.  And it’s a good reminder, because it tells us how we got here.  But—more importantly—it reminds us that Jesus was here all along, even before coming to us in the form of a baby lying in a manger.

And talking about how everything began naturally leads me to talk about Original Sin, right?   It’s interesting that the Jewish people have no construct of what we call Original Sin.  They don’t view the story of Adam and Eve in the same way that most Christians do.  There is no Fall there.  The first time the word for “sin” shows up is not at the Tree of Knowledge, but rather when Cain kills Abel.  Many Christians will tell you that death came from Adam’s sin, and of course, Paul certainly helps that idea along.  But Rabbis rightly point out: If eating from the tree of life would have made Adam and Eve immortal, then they were created mortal by God’s own intention.  That is, death was built into the system from the start, and is not the result of people disobeying God.  

Where we really get the concept of Original Sin is from St. Augustine.  He serves it up in theory, and Calvin hits it out of the park by introducing heady theological terms like prelapsarian, whatever that means.  In the Roman Catholic understanding, Original Sin is handed down through the generations, and is then washed away through Baptism.  The Eastern Church does not hold this belief, and pretty much says we’re all capable of sinning on our own, without Adam and Eve’s help, thank you very much.  But for Calvin, we are thoroughly tainted with the Original Sin, and so he gives us the phrase, Total Depravity—which would be a great name for a punk band.

So, there’s your one-minute discourse on Original Sin, as filtered through the limited understanding of Father George.  I wanted to start with that because I want to talk about creation and incarnation, and I promise it will make sense.  (To me, anyway.)

In the book of Genesis, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Then God creates light, looks at the light, and declares it to be good.  Then God does some other architectural stuff, and separates the land from the sea, and declares it good.  Then the plants produce seeds of their own kind, and God declares this good.  God does all the stuff with planets and stars and suns and declares them good.  Then God creates animals and birds and fish and declares them to be good as well.  And then, God creates humans, in God’s own image, and God sees that everything is good.  Everything.  Is.  Good.

But there’s another way of looking at everything, which is not good.  And it comes to us from Plato, by way of the Zoastrians, Gnostics, and—more recently—in something called “dispensational premillennialism.”  (Which would be a very bad name for a punk band.)  This way of looking at things is that it’s all gonna burn.  Don’t get too attached to the things of the world, because this world is not your home.  They would say, this world is bad, but your soul is good, and will rise from the grave, apart from your sin-filled corpse, when you one day leave this cursed world behind.  But remember:  the resurrection of the body is something we believe in, and we proclaim it together every single Sunday.  Your soul and your body are one, and they will both be raised up on the last day.

So, to sum up, God created everything and called it good.  But between then and now, we’ve developed a worldview where—at least for some people—humans have declared it all bad.  And by imposing this concept of Original Sin, or separating the mind and body, or viewing it all as background scenery for the Rapture and Armageddon, a good many people say all creation is now somehow tainted and corrupt.  That everything and everyone is going to be better after leaving this planet.  Redemption means being taken away from this world.  Denying the flesh strengthens the soul.  Those who have died have gone on to a better place.  Earthy and earthly are somehow a bad thing.  But remember . . . God created, and saw that it was good.  God said it was good, and God has not said it is not good.

So today we come to part two:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Jesus, the Word, the creator of life and light, became flesh and lived among us.  Jesus went through all the stages of life you and I go through.  Experienced the full range of human emotion from birth to death.  Put the stamp of sanctification on every single thing.  By walking among us, Jesus is a living breathing reminder that what God created is still good, and worthy of hosting God in person, in Jesus our Lord.

And, as we heard in this gospel text, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

Salvation is the fulfillment of creation, not the overcoming of it.  Jesus is the pinnacle of creation, not the solution to it.  Jesus does not rescue us from the world; rather, in Jesus, God enters into the world to be with us.  The word Emmanuel means, “God with us.”

In the beginning, creation was declared good by God.  And, in the birth of Jesus, creation was declared good again by God.  You are part of that good creation.  You are declared forgiven and redeemed by God.  Worthy of saving, worthy of dignity, worthy of feeding and sustaining.

As we heard, “All who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”  And so now, children of God, do not be afraid.  Look for the light in the midst of the darkness.  Because the light is always there.  Always shining.  Trust that the darkness will not overcome the light of the world.  God is indeed with us, and has been from the very beginning.  God created, and it was good.  Jesus has come into creation, and it is still good.


Sunday, December 24, 2023

2023 YEAR B christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2023
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20
Psalm 96

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

Well, now that the sun has gone down I can finally say it:  Merry Christmas!  Now, to be honest, I am guessing you did not come here tonight to hear me preach a sermon.  And if you did come here tonight to hear me preach a sermon, I think you need to  reevaluate the priorities in your life.

I’m going to be brief, because we all know already why we are here.  Even the most skeptical among us believe that on some level—in the birth of Jesus—God walked among us in the flesh.  And what does that mean for us?  What difference does that make?  Well, all the difference in the world!  But tonight I want to focus on one word.  And that word is peace.

In addition to smaller skirmishes all over the planet, we’re all quite aware of the two horrific wars being fought in distant lands tonight.  Some of us have friends and relatives who are stationed very close to those wars.  And, here, on our own shores, we watch the increasingly bitter politicization of everything from textbooks to beer.  The most extreme among us are openly talking of a new civil war if things don’t go their way.

I’m reminded of that line from the Wadsworth poem that got turned into a Christmas song: And in despair I bowed my head.  “There is no peace on earth I said.  For hate is strong and mocks the song of ‘Peace on earth goodwill to men’.”

And yet, what did the angels announce to the shepherds tonight?  "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Peace among those whom God favors.  Which makes us immediately ask, well, whom does God favor?  Our tendency is to say, US, right?  God favors me, my side, my team, my country.  But we know that can’t be true.  God’s peace is not so stingy a thing.  

Because the angel also said, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.  For ALL the people.  So whom does God favor?  All the people.  On Christmas Eve, no one ever mentions the reading from Titus that we heard tonight.  But it’s right there at the opening: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  Bringing salvation to ALL.  Not just me, or my side, or my team, or my country.  ALL the people.  Whom does God favor?  People.  All people.  Every single person.

Is there anyone God does not favor?  Is there anyone that is beyond the reach of God’s grace and peace?  No there is not.  And Jesus coming to us as a helpless infant is a reminder of exactly that.  The God who created everything that is comes to us a tiny vulnerable baby to show that God is for everyone.  To quote the Genie from Aladdin, “Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty bitty living space.”  

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!  Every.  Single.  Person.  Merry Christmas.


2023 YEAR B advent 4

Advent 4, 2023
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38
Canticle 15

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

An interesting feature of Luke’s gospel is that it is always seeking balance.  For example, while Matthew gives us the sermon on the mount, in Luke it is the sermon on the plain.  In Matthew, the beatitudes are all blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are peacemakers.  But in Luke we get the other side as well.  So it’s blessed are the poor, but woe to the rich.  Blessed are the hungry, but woe to those who have plenty.  Always with the balance, see?  It’s fitting that Luke’s feast day falls during the season of Libra, whose astrological symbol is a scale.  Balance.

And we heard another great example of this balance today in Mary’s song, which we often call the Magnificat.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  Always the balance, the equality, the leveling.  We think of that as righteous.  We think of that as just.  Or, we like to think that we think of it as righteous and just.  Because, when it comes down to it, talk like that is dangerous.

During the British occupation of India, public singing or recitation of the Magnificat was banned, for fear it might incite a revolution. And it stayed that way until the British oppressors left in 1947.  When the British went home, Mahatma Gandhi asked that Mary’s song be read in all the places where the British flag was being lowered.  More recently, in the 1970s and 80s, the Magnificat was banned in Guatemala, Chile, and Argentina. 

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  It is righteous; it is just; and it is dangerous.  Who doesn’t want the lowly lifted up?  Who doesn’t want the hungry filled with good things?  The answer is, the mighty on their thrones, and the rich who will be sent away empty, that’s who.  Equality and balance are a threat to the oppressors, and the last thing they want is for people to be singing this song from the poor little meek and mild gentle silent night Mary.

And that’s exactly where so many of our Christmas songs go wrong.  Mary is often portrayed as meek and mild and silent, just going along with the flow of whatever everyone else wants.  And that is ridiculous.  And you know how we can tell?  We can see it in today’s gospel reading, which is also from Luke.

But first, there’s another feature of Luke’s gospel in that we get inside people’s minds.  We know what the prodigal son is thinking.  When the shepherds tell Mary and Joseph about the angels’ announcement, which we’ll hear tonight, Mary ponders it in her heart.  And this morning we heard that Mary pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  People don’t ponder in Matthew, Mark, or John.  But even more than that, Luke has Mary pondering.  A woman, pondering and thinking for herself.  That doesn’t sound revolutionary to us, but in Luke’s day it most certainly was!  A woman thinking for herself?  What’s next?  Giving birth to God in the flesh?

So the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  And Mary ponders what sort of greeting this might be.  An angel just appears to her out of nowhere, and rather than fearfully cowering in the corner like I would, Mary ponders what sort of greeting this might be.

And then Mary speaks.  These are the first recorded words from Mary in any of the four gospels.  We would expect her to say, “yeah, okay shiny angel person, whatever it is you want I will do because I am the meek and mild silent gentle Mary.”  But no.  The first words out of Mary’s mouth are a question.  A challenge.  A scientific, logical query against make-believe fairy tales.  She asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  Whoa!  And does the sky split open?  Is she immediately struck by lightning for her audacity in questioning the representative of the all-powerful ruler of the universe?  No.  She asks a question, and she gets an answer to her question.

And can you see what that means for me and you?  We have it on good authority here that it is okay to question God.  In fact, I would say we are encouraged to question God.  To argue with God.  To push back when things don’t make sense.  You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that reads “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  Well . . . no.  Not according to Mary.  Mary’s bumper sticker would read, “God said it, and . . . I have questions.”

I don’t remember where I first read this quote, but it was sometime during seminary.  Whoever it was said, “The role of the clergy is not to provide the answers.  The role of the clergy is to protect the questions.”  We don’t give you the answers; we encourage you to ask the questions.  God is big enough to handle all the questions we want to ask. 

And then look at how this reading ends.  Mary says to Gabriel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Let it be with me according to your word.  Does Mary still have questions?  Of course she does!  Do you and I still have questions?  You bet we do.  And as we ask those questions, we trust that God will answer us, and God wants what is best for us.  And that God still comes to us, whether we are ready or not. 

As we finish preparing for the birth of this baby who will change the world, we have questions, and we should ask them.  And, as we journey into the birth of the Christ child together, we can trust God enough to say, “let it be with us according to your word.”


Sunday, December 17, 2023

2023 YEAR B advent 3

Advent 3, 2023
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

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

Who am I?  Why am I here?  Political junkies remember the man who famously asked those questions.  It was Admiral Stockdale, Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate in the Vice Presidential debate.  The press had a field day with this opening statement, because it seemed like a ridiculous way to begin a debate of this magnitude.  Stockdale’s opening statement was actually a question . . . or, in fact, two questions.  Who am I?  Why am I here?  They’re actually good questions to ask yourself.  Because if you can answer them for yourself, then you can answer them when someone else asks, Who are you?  Why are you here?

This is what happens to John the Baptizer in today’s Gospel reading.  He is out there in the wilderness, baptizing people, and these religious leaders come and ask him, Who are you?  And why are you here?  They’re really asking about the baptism that John is doing.  For the Jews of Jesus’ day, baptism was a ritual washing that a person did for only one of two reasons.  The first would be if you’ve become ritually unclean, like by touching a dead body or something.  And the second would be for Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) who wanted to convert to the Jewish faith.  The last step of the conversion to Judaism was to be baptized.  So, only two reasons to be baptized, defilement and conversion, and you’ll notice that “repentance” is not on that short list of reasons to be baptized.

So, the religious leaders are paying John the Baptizer a little visit to find out where he gets off adding a third religious rite without checking in with the main office.  But that’s their second question, the Why are you here question.  Before they get to that, they have to ask the first question:  Who are you?  And before he can answer, they offer John three options:  1) Are you the Messiah?  No.  2) Are you Elijah, the one who was supposed to come back before the Messiah?  No.  3) Okay, are you a prophet?  No.  

And now they’ve exhausted the list of people who could legitimately invent a new reason for baptism.  And they’re like, so then . . . who are you?  And he still doesn’t say.  He starts talking about someone else.  He starts talking about his identity as the one who prepares the way, who makes the paths straight.  They ask, Who are you?  And he starts talking about someone else.  This interrogation is not going well from the religious leaders’ perspective.  They want to know about John, and he is talking about someone else. Plus, he’s talking about someone who is right there with them, but someone they don’t recognize.  Just the kind of crazy talk you’d expect from a guy who eats grasshoppers.  John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”  

Translation:  You think I’m a radical?  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  John’s baptism with water is threatening to topple the apple cart of the religious system, and John is saying this is just the beginning.  He’s the opening act!  And not even that, he’s saying he’s more like the guy who unlocks the stage door for the main act.  Not in the same league.  Not one of the same kind.  Just another guy named John, doing what God has called him to do.  He’s pointing to Jesus; they're looking at his finger.

Back in the day, we had a huge black lab named Lula . . .  she was the world’s best dog.  Sorry to all of you who thought the world’s best dog was living at your house.  You actually have the world’s second best dog.  Anyway, Lula always wanted me to throw things so she could go get them for me.  The technical term is “fetch.”  But Lula, being a black lab, wasn’t necessarily the world’s smartest dog . . . just the world’s best dog.  So, sometimes I would throw something for her, and she would stand there looking at me, with her head crouched down, waiting for me to throw it.  And, of course, I would tell her I already threw it, and she always seemed to take that to mean I’m about to throw it.  

In frustration, I would point at the thing I threw, saying “Go get it.”  And then, of course, Lula would look at my finger.  So I’d point harder toward the ball, and she would stare harder at my finger.  Eventually, I’d have to pretend to throw the ball again, and then she would run off toward the ball that had been sitting there the whole time.  Not the world’s smartest dog; just the best.

These accusers who come to visit John today are kind of acting like my dog.  They’re looking at John, and John is saying, “It’s not about me, silly!  Look where I’m pointing!”  And they all stare at his finger.  They want to know about John, and John is telling them to look for Jesus.  They want to know about John’s authority, and John says my authority is just to open the door for that guy,  the one who is coming later on.  They’re staring at the hand that is pointing, rather than the point of the pointing.  It’s not about John the Baptizer; it’s about Jesus.

Back in 1547, a friend of Martin Luther named Lucas Cranach painted Luther preaching a sermon.  (I’m a big fan of Lucas Cranach, as you can see on the back of my left forearm.)  I’ve seen this painting of Luther many times above the Altar in the Town Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  On a cross in the middle of the painting is Jesus.  Luther is on the side, way up in the pulpit, preaching to the people who are sitting directly across from him.  He is looking at them, but with his right arm he is pointing at Jesus, on the cross.  The people sitting directly across from him are looking to where he is pointing, not at Luther.  The preacher is proclaiming the gospel by pointing at Jesus.  And it is a perfect sermon because the people are seeing Jesus, not the preacher.

Today’s Gospel reading started off being about John: This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"  Sounds like it’s going to be a story about John, doesn’t it?  But the story is not about John, even though that’s why the interrogators are coming to talk to John.  They say, “So, John, tell me a little bit about yourself.  You’re doing quite a radical thing here, and we want to know about you.”  And what does John do?  He points to Jesus.  God among us.  The one “standing in your midst.”  He’s talking to them, but he’s pointing to Jesus . . . and, like the Cranach painting, it’s the perfect sermon!

They ask John, Who are you?  Why are you here?  And he says, I baptize people and tell them that Jesus is coming.  John is doing what Jesus tells his disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s Gospel:  Baptize people, and tell them that Jesus is coming.  And that answer should sound familiar to us, because that has been the mission of the Church ever since.  We gather together, baptizing people, in anticipation of Jesus’ coming into the world.  Baptize, and point to Jesus.  That’s what we do.

Of course, we also do other important and valuable things together, like gather for worship, offer hospitality to others, and minister through community outreach—Worship, Hospitality, and Outreach.  But the reason we do those things is because we are pointing to Jesus.  We are the ones who baptize people and point to Jesus.  That is who we are, even if we don’t realize that’s who we are.

So now if I were to ask you, are you Elijah?  You would say no.  Are you a prophet?  You would say no.  Are you the Messiah?  You would say no.  And then in frustration I would finally ask, Who are you?  Why are you here?  

And you could point to the one who is coming into the world.  You could point to Jesus.  Because that’s who you are:  the ones who point to Jesus.  And this morning you can point to this Altar, because that is where Jesus comes to meet us.  In the bread and the wine, right where he promised to be.  You can ask yourself those two questions: “Who am I, and why am I here?"  And you will find the answer in your outstretched hands.


Sunday, December 3, 2023

2023 YEAR B advent 1

Advent 1, 2023
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

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

Welcome to the apocalypse!  I mean, welcome to Advent.  It happens every year.  The first Sunday in Advent, we get what is called the “Little apocalypse” as the gospel reading.  Right when we got started decorating, and baking cookies, and thinking about the sweet little baby Jesus, we get hit with the sun and moon going dark, and the stars falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens being shaken.  And always, “Keep awake!”

I have some clergy friends who say they love these apocalyptic readings, because they make them feel hopeful.  I know, right?  You’d hate to see what makes them feel despair!  But this year, I actually kind of get what my friends are saying.  Because when we set the scary language inside a scary world, you can see the hope in there as well.  And you see it in the fig tree in this reading.  Everything is going crazy around us, but the fig tree will still bloom.  The daffodils will still come up in the spring.  Babies will be born.  All of which mean, God has not given up on the world.

This gospel was written almost 2,000 years ago, and God still has not given up on the world.  This reading speaks to us, just as it has been speaking to people for 2,000 years.  And, it speaks to two other specific groups, besides us this morning.  We could think of it as being addressed to three different audiences:  The group who heard it, the group who read it, and the group that hears it being read.  The first group are the ones Jesus is talking to, in person in 30AD, and the second are the ones it is being written down for in 70AD, and the third are the ones sitting here in Massillon in 2023AD, on this first Sunday of Advent.

So, first, Jesus is speaking these words to people who will soon see him being handed over to his enemies.  They will watch him go to the cross, after being brutally beaten and tormented.  For them, the sun will go dark.  The moon will lose its light.  The stars will fall from the skies, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  The people hearing Jesus say these words will see the Messiah suffer and be killed.  The one in whom they have put their trust will be taken away.  

So, that’s the first level for this story, the people he is actually speaking to—the disciples.  The second group to consider are those who are alive when Mark’s gospel is being written down.  Even though Mark gives us the earliest version of Jesus’ life in the Bible, it’s written 30 or 40 years after the Resurrection, around 70AD, as most scholars have it.  This was a time of insane turmoil in the Roman world, with a massive Jewish revolt starting in the mid 60’s.  The response to this revolt from Rome was to completely destroy Jerusalem, including the Temple . . . the center of Jewish religious life.  For people living in Jerusalem at the time this gospel is being written, the sun and moon have stopped shining, and the powers of heaven have been shaken.  

So, that’s the second group hearing this story.  The ones it was written for.  And then we come to us, the third group of hearers . . . the people who have just had Thanksgiving dinner, and started some Christmas shopping, and begun digging out the decorations, and maybe already have a pine tree standing in our living room.  We’re zipping right along with plans for what food to get, and what presents to buy, and whether or not we’re going to talk to that one relative who drives us crazy every year, and just kind of day-dreaming our way into Advent, when suddenly the Reason for the Season says to us:  Wake Up!  Keep awake, because you do not know the hour or the day when the Son of Man will return.  It is jarring, I know.  But, at the same time, we’ve been talking about his return each and every week.  Right here, in this place.

Because every Sunday, we proclaim our faith together in one of the ancient creeds of the Church; we say, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”  And then, in the Eucharistic Prayer, we say some version of this: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again. That little triplet is called the Mystery of Faith.  Past, present, and future.  And it’s the last part—the future—we tend to forget.  Until Advent starts.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  And . . . Keep awake!  Christ will come again.

And then what?  Well, Jesus tells us, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  And who are these elect?  Let’s go back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that section we heard this morning:  He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

“These elect” are the ones called into fellowship with God’s Son.  The ones who have been baptized with Christ into the mystery of his death, and into the promise of the resurrection.  Christ has died; Christ is risen.  In baptism you also have died and been raised again to new life in Christ.  You have died.  You have risen.  You are among those whom the angels will go and gather when Jesus comes again.  So keep awake!

Christ has died, and Christ is risen, but what now?  What about this long stretch of waiting for the Christ-will-come-again part?  Are we just killing time, waiting for Jesus to return?  Some Christians take that view.  For some people, Jesus can’t come soon enough, and they couldn’t care less about the suffering of this world because it isn’t “real.”  You know, it’s all gonna burn, and this present suffering is nothing compared to the glories of heaven.

Well, I don’t know about you, but that approach doesn’t work for me.  A far-away, pie-in-the-sky answer doesn’t work for me because I do not want a replacement for this world.  I want redemption of this world.  God does not promise to replace the world, but rather to redeem it.  In the Apostles Creed we say that we believe in the resurrection of the body, just as Jesus was raised in a physical body.  And a physical resurrection means that something more than a mystical spirit version of us will be raised on the last day.  It means there will be some continuity . . . something of this world will exist in the next.

I am convinced that there will be backyard football games, and great meals with lots of people, and healthy pets, and people whom we have loved and lost who are raised again.  That is not complete destruction and replacement; that is redemption.  And there’s a big difference between the two.  Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to redeem it.  And part of “it” is us.

So back to the question:  What’s with all the scary language this first Sunday of Advent?  Why all the doom and gloom just to tell us to stay awake?  We are quite aware that things are not right.  We’ve seen the horrible wars overseas.  We’ve seen the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table.  We know that someone in our family won’t be calling us on Christmas Day.  We see the state of our political discourse, we know people who are out of work, and we have felt the sting of death in losing the ones we love.

For us, here in the year 2023, the sun has been darkened, the moon has lost its light, the stars have fallen from the sky, and the powers in the heavens have been shaken.  Things are scary, right now.  It’s hard to keep awake when we think about constant warfare and global warming, and the economic inequality and systemic racism that are baked into our country.  Sometimes it just feels better to go to sleep, to zone out, to give up.

Christ has died; Christ is risen . . . and . . .?  What difference does that really make in the here and now of our lives?  Things still hurt.  A lot, sometimes.  It’s enough to make you rush out and buy presents, to cling to the joy of Christmas, to throw yourself headlong into the preparation of Advent.  Maybe that’s why we want to start the Christmas season even earlier each year.  Because we’re hoping that some of the joy and peace of Christmas will seep backwards into autumn, and then further back into summer, and maybe even all the way back into spring.  

But the real joy of Christmas, the true hope of Christmas, is the thing we tend to forget: and it’s that third part of the Mystery of Faith.  It is the promise we can cling to, in order to make some sense of our lives.  Christ will come again.  The first two parts of the Mystery are just a set-up for the third one . . . the part when everything really will be different.  When Jesus returns to redeem everything and everyone.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  And . . . Christ will come again.  We stay awake because the story is not over.  God is not done redeeming this messy beautiful world.  Jesus is coming back to get us.  May God give us the strength to keep awake, and to trust in the fullness of the Mystery of Faith.  Christ will come again, and that is the good news!


Sunday, November 26, 2023

2023 YEAR A christ the king

Christ the King, 2023
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

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

So many animals in today’s readings!  Sheep and rams and goats everywhere you look.  Taken at face value, it seems that your best bet is to be a fragile little lamb who doesn’t know what they’re doing.  So, big shout out to the innocent weaklings!  However, I really think the simplest reading is not the best reading of these texts today.  Sometimes Occam’s razor cuts the wrong way, as philosophy nerds might say.

The simplest reading of the gospel text we just heard is that if you feed the hungry and clothe the naked then you can earn your way into heaven.  But that can’t be true.  Because the good news of God is never a quid pro quo.  The good news of God is always Jesus.  If we are earning our way into heaven, then we don’t need Jesus.  And any reading of scripture that leads us to the conclusion that we don’t need Jesus is . . . well, it’s not Christianity.  Again, if our eternal salvation depends upon our doing the right thing, let me just remind us of the phrase “in thought word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”  We need Jesus, because we can’t do it ourselves.

The common—and quite frankly, dangerous—way to hear this gospel text goes like this: if we are nice to poor people, then Jesus will welcome us into the kingdom.  And if we’re mean to poor people, then Jesus will send us off to burn in hell.  So, we should start a feeding program, so that poor people will get fed, and then we spend eternity with God. Which, first of all, makes other people a means to an end.  But also, thinking that good people go to heaven, and bad people go to hell contradicts everything Jesus says elsewhere.  

In fact, when we look at how Jesus lived his life, it also contradicts everything Jesus did.  Jesus hung out with the bad people.  Jesus sought out the goats.  He looked for the rule-breakers, the outcasts, the rejects, the outlaws.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, and Gentiles.  Good people did not hang around with “those kind of people.”  

But Jesus did.  Not only did he hang out with them, he intentionally sought them out.  They were just living their lives as outcasts, and here comes Jesus—to Zacchaeus, to the woman caught in adultery, to the thief on the cross.  Over and over Jesus sends the message that bad behavior does not keep you out of the Kingdom.

AND, as Martin Luther and others realized, Jesus also sends the message from the other side of the coin: being good does not get you into the Kingdom.  Nothing you do can make you worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  And nothing you do can ever make God stop loving you.  We confess that we have sinned against God, in thought word and deed. God forgives you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Though our sins be as scarlet, God has made them white as snow.

So, now let’s talk to the animals . . . the sheep and the goats.  The first thing to notice about this story is that the sheep and the goats are both there.  This is not a case where only the sheep are standing before the King, and the goats are off in . . . wherever goats go.  Everybody is there, whether sheep or goat.  (You may remember other stories from Matthew, when the vineyard owner says let the wheat and weeds grow together.  Or the time the fisher’s net brought in every kind of fish.)  Sheep and goats stand together before the King.  All are welcome, no exceptions, as we might say.  So far so good.

So, Jesus is sitting on the throne, and he says to the sheep, come and inherit the Kingdom.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat . . . 

Hold on Jesus . . . are you about to say that BECAUSE we gave you food when you were hungry, we can now enter the Kingdom?  That sounds like the sheep are about to be rewarded for feeding the poor.  It sounds like they have earned salvation.  It sounds like the good people will be saved, and that makes us very concerned for the tax collectors and prostitutes and those of us who have sinned in thought word and deed.  What about the people who have not been giving you food and drink and clothing, Jesus?  
You know what’s interesting here?  The sheep have no idea what they’re doing.  “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?”  These sheep have been in a long-lasting relationship with Jesus, and they don’t even know it!  They have been feeding him and clothing him, giving him water and a place to sleep, and they have no idea.

The sheep have a relationship with Jesus, but they don’t know they have a relationship with Jesus.  Strange, right?  They don’t go out looking for Jesus so they can serve him.  They’re just going through their lives, feeding the poor, buying Christmas presents for kids they’re never met, collecting blankets for the needy, and so on, never even suspecting that they are feeding and comforting Jesus.  

It is important to note that what saves them is something—or someone—they are completely unaware of.  What saves them happens despite not knowing what they are doing.  What saves them, it turns out, is being in the presence of Jesus!  And, the sheep could have been doing something totally different . . . driving a bus, turning a wrench, teaching a class . . . it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that Jesus was there with them the whole time.

They are just doing what they do, when suddenly Jesus shows up and saves them.  They are not saved because of WHAT they are doing.  They are saved because WHO is with them: Jesus, the King of all Creation.  This is not a lesson about feeding the poor so that Jesus will love you.  Because you cannot make Jesus love you anymore than he already does.  The sheep do not know the importance of what they have been doing.  But the presence of Jesus in their actions makes everything different, everything new, everything forgiven.

So, now you’re thinking, “But what about the goats?”  Well, what about them?  It sounds like something really scary is in store for them, doesn’t it?  It sounds like being a goat leads to everlasting suffering and torment with Satan and his angels.  It’s enough to scare you into getting out and feeding the poor.

Let me point out a telling thing about this reading:  When you heard this story from Matthew, how many sheep do you picture?  And how many goats do you picture?  Do you imagine them as being equal in number?  More goats?  More sheep?  

Just play along with me for a moment and picture an endless procession of sheep on the right, and just a handful of goats on the left.  What if when the king talks to the goats he’s talking to just a pair of them?  What if there’s nobody there?  It’s possible, isn’t it?  We can’t tell from the text.  And why is it our natural urge to make that left side of the room so crowded, anyway?  Why do we so need for there to be any goats at all?  The answer may say more about us than it does about God, if you ask me.  For some reason, we naturally resist accepting that Jesus came to save everyone.  We can’t believe that Jesus draws all people to himself, or that the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.  

But what if we start from a good news perspective here?  What if we are all sheep, and the goats aren’t people at all.  What if the goats are the forces of this world that are always head butting us, like in the reading from Ezekiel?  What if the goats are things like death and despair?  Suffering and loneliness?    Or what if the goats are the things within ourselves that lead us into temptation?  Things like selfishness, and anger.  Pettiness and lust for power.  Racism and oppression.  What if those are the things that are cast off into the darkness?  What if Jesus is casting off into the darkness the forces of darkness?

And then . . .all that is left are the sheep.  The beloved of God.  Being led to fresh pastures and quiet streams.  The ones who are learning to love their neighbors as themselves.  The ones who hear the voice of the shepherd and do good deeds because Jesus is with them.  You are God’s sheep, God’s lambs, God’s beloved flock.

Listen again to Psalm 100:
Know this: The Lord himself is God; *
he himself has made us, and we are his;
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise; *
give thanks to him and call upon his Name.
For the Lord is good;
his mercy is everlasting; *
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

2023 YEAR A st. cecilia

 While I don't normally post midweek homilies, St. Cecilia is dear to me and to this musical parish.

Cecilia, Martyr, ca. 230

Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians, because at her wedding she heard heavenly music in her heart, and sang songs to God.  While much of what we hear about the earliest saints could charitably be called “legendary,” we do know that Cecilia was in fact a real person, living in Rome in the third century, and that she married a pagan nobleman named Valerius.

However, beyond that, things get a little misty, especially when it comes to her execution and the length of time it took her to die.  And—as with many early Christian female saints—there’s an uncomfortable emphasis on her virginity, and the preservation of it.

So let’s go back to music.  Cecilia, it is said, was forced to marry a pagan man.  At her wedding banquet, as the musicians played, she sang songs in her heart to God.  Marrying into a pagan family implies that the musicians were playing pagan music, whatever that means.  But it makes sense.  Most wedding DJs are more apt to spin songs like YMCA than Gregorian chants at the reception.

So, it is against a backdrop of secular music that Cecilia was singing songs to God in her heart.  Amidst the dancing and drinking and whatever else happened at a pagan wedding around the year 200, Cecilia sat at the high table singing songs to God in her heart.  There’s a lesson for us in that.  No matter what is going on around us, we can still sing songs to God in our hearts.  Songs that God hears; songs that change our hearts.

 Cecilia eventually converted her husband and his brother to the Christian faith, and those men dedicated their lives to burying Christian martyrs, which was illegal, and which got them executed by the Roman authorities.  Cecilia took up this same task of burying the faithful until she was eventually arrested and killed.  It is a gruesome yet invaluable way to spend your days, burying the martyrs of the faith.  But it points to an emphasis on dignity, and caring for those who have gone before.

And one can easily imagine Cecilia singing songs to God in her heart in the midst of all this.  Songs of praise and supplication, songs of lament and thanksgiving, songs that connected her to God in a way that mere words cannot do.

Music plays a central role in our liturgical worship in most churches.  Augustine is usually credited with having said, “He who sings prays twice.”  Whoever said that was on to something.  Because even those who say they can’t sing can still hear music with their ears, and sing songs to God in their hearts.  Music moves us in ways that take us beyond mere thoughts and concepts; music stirs the soul itself. 

In today’s first reading we heard, “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”  (Song of Songs, 2:11)

As we remember Cecilia on this day, we can thank God for the gift of music in our lives.  Because music is often the thing that makes the unbearable bearable, and doubles our joy and our prayer.  May we never stop singing songs to God in our hearts and with our lips.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

2023 YEAR A pentecost 25

Pentecost 25, 2023
Judges 4:1-7
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

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

Soooo . . .  I’ve been dreading this Gospel text for over a month now.  It just seems like such an outlier.  It goes against everything we hear from Jesus when it comes to money.  In this parable, the rich become richer, and the poor are cast off into darkness.  I’m leery of any story that sounds like a pyramid scheme, where greed is good, and responsible care-taking of someone else’s things is punished.  This parable has been used over the centuries to explain why poor people become poor in the first place:  They’re bad at banking, you see?  Or, you could say, they are too honest to gamble on the stock market using money that doesn’t belong to them.

Now, before we jump in here, I want to remind us that we should never assume that God or Jesus is necessarily the king or master in the parables.  Sometimes that seems to be the case, and sometimes it doesn’t.  So we always want to be looking for the point of the story, without assuming God is the one in charge.  That said, let’s talk about talents.

In Jesus’ time, a talent was a measurement of gold.  It wasn’t a bag of cash; rather it was an actual chunk of gold, formed into a thing with a handle, so you could carry it.  One talent weighed 75 pounds, and was worth about 16 years of work, or 19 years if you rested on the Sabbath.  Using the current median income in the United States, this means a talent is worth something like $1.1 million dollars.  And again, weighs 75 pounds!

So, in today’s parable, one servant gets $5.5 million, one gets $2.2 million, and the last gets $1.1 million.  Intuitively, which servant would you expect to be the most cautious with the gold he’s been entrusted with?  The one with 5 and half million right?  Like, if I showed someone else a piece of clear glass, and I showed you our Tiffany Annunciation window here, and said “You two take care of these while I’m gone,” you’d be very careful with that Tiffany window, right?  I don’t expect you’d bury it in the ground, but I can’t imagine you’d take it to the flea market and try to get two more Tiffany windows in exchange, right?  Point being, we would expect the one who was entrusted with more to be more careful with it.

But this parable also brings up our natural response to our fear of scarcity.  So much of our behavior is driven by that very thing.  When we’re afraid we won’t have enough, we hold on tighter to what we do have.  If they give you a raise, you’re more apt to feel secure in donating to charity.  Economists call this a zero-sum game.  That is, the pie is only so big, and if you get a slice, then that means there’s one less slice for me.  And I won’t even get started on what this means when it comes to governmental policies.  Suffice it to say, a scarcity mentality makes us fearful for the future, more careful with what we have, and less apt to share with others.

Now . . . let’s leave the land of money for a minute, and talk about love.  When parents have their first child, one kid gets all the attention.  Plenty of love to go around, and everybody’s good.  When the time comes to adopt a second child or give birth to one, the doubts can start to set in.  Parents wonder, will there be enough love to go around?  “I can’t imagine I could ever love a baby as much as I love this first child.”  And the first child often has similar thoughts, though not quite as refined.  Usually more like, “I want you to send that baby back where it came from!”  And along comes the second child and, voila, somehow there is indeed enough love to go around.  And why?  Because love is not a zero-sum game.

But let’s look at what I think is the crucial piece of this parable.  The third servant comes to the master with his talent, having dug it up and washed it off, and says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”  Wait.  What?  When did anyone say that about this master?  There is no indication whatsoever that the master is harsh, or that the servant had any reason to be afraid.  He’s totally making this up!

And here’s why that is important.  The other two servants, the ones who went out and doubled what was entrusted to them, they don’t seem to be afraid of the master, do they?  They don’t say, “because you are a harsh man, I will go invest what you have given me.”  No it seems that having a negative, frightening view of the master is what leads the so-called “wicked and lazy” servant to do the wrong thing in this parable.  His fear is what leads him to bury his talent.  He is so paralyzed by fear that he is afraid to do anything with what he is given.

Now, again, I want to remind us not to assume that the master in the story is God.  However, the parable hints at a distorted view of God, which can lead us into being so afraid of doing the wrong thing that we do nothing at all.  Back in the 1500s, Martin Luther struggled with this very thing.  He lived in such fear of displeasing God that he was afraid to do anything.  Eventually, he came to the point where he could offer this advice:  let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.  Sin boldly, as it often gets translated.  His point was, you will sin against God and your neighbor, and you should not pretend that you won’t.  However, you should trust that God’s forgiveness is more powerful than anything you can do.  You cannot make God love you, and you cannot make God stop loving you.

So back to our parable.  The third servant, the “wicked and lazy” one, I still think he did the responsible thing when entrusted with someone else’s money.  (Remember, the master is not necessarily God.)  But for purposes of the story, it is his failure to trust that leads him to disappoint.  He is so paralyzed by fear that he does nothing.  He has essentially created the master he was afraid of.  The other two servants went out and increased what they were given and they were able to do that because they lived without fear.  And, as a result, they were given more work and invited to “enter into the joy of your master.”

And the other servant?  Well, here is the hardest part about that.  He gets thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Again, if this were a true story, we’d all agree that he did the right thing, right?  I mean, people go to jail for gambling with other people’s money!  But this is not a newspaper story.  This is a parable.  And in parables we look for the point, not the facts.  And I think the point is this . . .

When we live in fear, whether out of perceived scarcity, or out of imaginary fear of punishment, we turn inward.  We circle the wagons and close the drapes and hide, as though some traveling salesman were heading for our door.  And a hyperbolic way to describe that fear is that we end up in darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Rather than coming into the master’s presence, we live in isolated fear.

“Fear not,” and “Do not be afraid.”  Those phrases appear over 100 times in the New Testament.  We could think of today’s parable as being an extended version of that phrase.  Let’s go back for a moment and think of the parable using our English understanding of the word “talent” instead of the Biblical one.  Three people are given certain talents and abilities; two of them go out and develop more skills and use their talents to bring more joy to life.  The third one is afraid, and so he buries his talent and does nothing with it.  

Or, perhaps more appropriately, think of  the three people as ones who have seen what God has done in their lives.  Two go out and share this good news, and the gospel spreads.  One lives in fear of sharing and buries this good news.

We don’t need for some traveling master to return and tell us what this means.  We have all been entrusted with gifts, mental, physical, financial—time, talents, treasure—and what we do with them is our gift back to God.  I don’t expect God to swoop in and punish those of us who live in fear, because living in fear is punishment enough.  But in sharing what we have been given, we can find true joy in life.  We need not be afraid, because we worship a generous God, who offers us more than we could ask or imagine.  

This is a very hard parable, and it is crucial that we not think of it as anything more than an object lesson.  But even as an object lesson it is confusing and unclear.  One way to approach it might be, don’t take today’s gospel as gospel.  And no matter what, always hold onto the knowledge that God loves you and wants what is best for you, no matter what confusing stories we might hear on a Sunday morning in November.  God loves you and wants what is best for you, and God is always with you.


Sunday, November 12, 2023

2023 YEAR A pentecost 24

Pentecost 24, 2023
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

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

I know it’s bad form to complain about your job, but that Gospel text we just heard.  And the next two Sundays are just as . . . challenging.  When these readings come up again in three years, I’m taking a November vacation!  But, okay, enough complaining out of me.  On the upside, today is one of those Sundays where all the lessons fit nicely together, frightening though they may seem.  And the theme that holds them together is Community.  Let’s start with the First Reading we heard today, from the book of Joshua.

It begins with Joshua gathering together all the people with a message from God.  There’s a section that gets skipped though, from verses 4 to 14, where we would’ve heard the long history of God’s faithfulness to the people, bringing them out of Egypt and giving them a homeland.  Then it picks up with Joshua asking the people to choose which god they will serve, and he delivers that famous declaration, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  You’ve probably seen that on bumper stickers, or cross-stitched onto throw pillows.  

Then there is some back and forth, with the people saying “us too,” and Joshua saying, “I don’t believe you,” until at last the people say, no really, “The Lord our God we will serve.” And then Joshua makes a covenant with the community that day.  A covenant.  An agreement to live in a relationship with God and one another.  It’s the renewed promise of community rooted in following the God of Abraham.

And there’s the Psalm we read together.  “That which we have heard and known, and what our forefathers have told us, we will not hide from their children. . . . that the generations to come might know,
and the children yet unborn; that they in their turn might tell it to their children; So that they might put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God.”  Beautifully put.  Here we see the community promising to continue the story by telling their children what God has done.  They promise to pass down the stories of God’s mighty deeds, so that the “horizontal” community will also be a “vertical” community, and will continue throughout the ages, continuing in the same covenant made with Joshua on that mountain.

And then we have that section of Paul’s letter to the church in Thessaloniki.  Now it’s important to know the background in order to get this right.  Scholars pretty much agree this letter (probably Paul’s first) was written in about 52 AD, which is only like 20 years after the Resurrection.  Most Christians at that time believed Jesus would return in their lifetime.  But some members of the church in Thessaloniki had already died, which caused church members to doubt . . . well, everything.  If Paul was wrong about this, maybe he was wrong about all of it.  So Paul writes this letter, to assure them that their hope is not in vain.

But you can see why they were distraught.  They’re living together in this Greek city, converts to Christianity, evangelized by Paul.  They had the impression Jesus would be back any minute, before any of them died.  It makes sense for them to be worried: what happens to those who have died?  Do they miss out on the promises to the faithful?  So Paul writes to them, “We do not want you to be uninformed . . . about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  
As others do.  When Paul says, “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope,” he is not saying that Christians aren’t supposed to grieve.  He is not saying that grief only belongs to people who have no hope.  No, Paul is talking about how they should grieve.  Don’t grieve the way others do.  It is entirely expected and appropriate that you and I should grieve for loved ones we have lost, but we are to grieve amid the hope of the Resurrection.  Our grief is different, because we know that death is not the end of the story.

And then we get the part where it’s about community:  “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  Paul makes the case that those who have died are safely in God’s hands, and then he tells us to comfort one another with that good news.  The ones we love who precede us in death are not lost to God.  Jesus will call them out of death into life, just as we will each be called into new life.  Encourage one another with these words, because we are a community, called into covenant with God.

And then . . . the Gospel.  Where to even begin?  We used to call this parable “The Foolish Virgins,” which from the start focuses on the negative.  Fortunately, our translation uses the word Bridesmaids instead of virgins because, well, we just don’t talk that way.  And it is so different from most of the other parables we hear in the scriptures.  Usually, we have some connection to these stories.  Like we know what a farmer is, and we know what a fishing net is.  But this parable is completely disconnected from our culture and customs.

We do not have 10 bridesmaids accompany the groom to his own wedding; we don’t use oil lamps; we teach our children to share with those who don’t have enough.  Plus, the groom shows up late to his own wedding.  Half the wedding party is told he never knew them after being sent on a wild goose chase to the stores everyone knew were closed.  And the “Keep awake therefore” at the end of the parable doesn’t fit with what happened, since all 10 bridesmaids fell asleep.  There is no fairness here; there is no love; there is no Gospel in today’s Gospel.  This parable is confusing, archaic, and scary.  There.  I said it.

But what really got me off track this week was this:  Over my lifetime, I’ve unconsciously bought into the notion that this parable has to be about that One Big Day when Jesus returns.  And maybe you have too.  You know, the One Big Day that the people in Thessaloniki were waiting for when their loved ones died unexpectedly.  And Jesus’ finishing the parable with, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” plays right into that idea.  And there are plenty of televangelists and preachers who will tell you all about how that One Big Day is coming, and even give you predictions about when it is going to take place, and give you a list of the people who will be “left behind.”

There are complicated theological names for these beliefs, such as Pretribulation Dispensational Premillennialism.  (It’s so much easier to say “Episcopalian,” I think you’ll agree.)  We see this thinking in our popular culture too, like with Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” in the 70’s, and Tim Lahaye’s “Left Behind” series more recently.   Basically, this approach to Christianity focuses on that One Big Day when Jesus will return, and then pulls in all sorts of random verses from the Bible to explain how and when this One Big Day will occur.

For people who obsess over this stuff, today’s parable about the 10 Bridesmaids is one of their go-to stories from Jesus.  On the One Big Day, some people will be ready and welcomed into the kingdom of God, and some people—like bad Scouts who were not prepared—will be told that Jesus never knew them.  “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him,” except those of you who weren’t ready.  And the only way to get any joy out of that interpretation is to assume that you are one of the oil-toting wise selfish bridesmaids.  You know, one of the people who was always ready for Jesus to return.

But here’s what we lose by focusing on the One Big Day.  We miss out on today.  We miss out on right now.  To overemphasize the day when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, is to forget that Jesus is already here among us.  Everywhere.  All the time.  So focused on being prepared for some day that we miss this day.  So getting ready for the return that we miss the right now.

Yes, we are waiting for Jesus to return.  And we are waiting in community.  You are not waiting alone; you are waiting in community.  And, you are not out running through the streets looking for oil at midnight because your selfish neighbors wouldn’t share with you.  And—most importantly—you are not waiting for someone who is not yet here; because the bridegroom is already here.  Right here, right now.  Jesus is living in us and among us.

I seriously want to rename this parable from “the foolish bridesmaids” into the something like “the selfish ladies who lied about scarcity.”  Some people had plenty to share, but wouldn’t.  And they were keen to tell the others to go scurry around looking for scraps, while they feasted and welcomed the bridegroom.  They convinced others to leave the party in a panic, by telling them they weren’t good enough, or rich enough, or popular enough.

The kingdom of heaven is like this:  Some people will tell you that you are not loved and welcomed and accepted exactly as you are.  Don’t fall for their made-up distraction.  Because God loves you just as you are, because God made you just as you are.  You have plenty of oil in your lamp.  Don’t believe the liars who tell you you need to go find something more to make yourself worthy.

Here’s something else: When the priest holds up the bread and wine and says, “The gifts of God for the people of God,” you could hear that as “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”  We don’t know the One Big Day when Jesus will return, but we do know that he is here today in our community, right where he has always promised to meet us.  Jesus is already here.  And you do not need any extra oil for your lamp.  Because Jesus loves you.  And you are enough.


Sunday, November 5, 2023

YEAR A 2023 feast of all saints

All Saints, 2023
Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

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

Other than Christmas and Easter, the Feast of All Saints is my favorite festival of the entire year.  Because, on this day in particular, we are reminded that heaven and earth are joined together.  That those who have gone before are still with us.  That the liminal space between the saints and angels and our mortal coil is so much thinner than we like to think—in the busy-ness of our daily life.  This is a day to stop for a moment, and to think of The Church with a capital C.  To join with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven around this Altar, in this room. 

And that connection between heaven and earth, to the saints of every time and every place, it focuses our attention on Community—also with a capital C.  As the church on earth we are not alone.  Connected across time and space with the Church of all time and space.  We are a community physically gathered here this morning, but we are also gathered with current members of this parish who are not here today.  And we gather with those who drifted away, and with those who left in protest.  And we gather with the founders of this parish, and with those whose kids are playing soccer this morning, as well as every medieval peasant who worked in the fields, and with the very first disciples of Jesus.  All of us joined together in community, every time a group of people shows up at this Altar. 

But the basis of our community, what makes us members of the church of Christ, is being baptized into Christ.  We talked about this a lot in our Wednesday evening classes last month.  It is our individual Baptismal authority invested in others that gives us Bishops, and Diocesan Conventions, and General Conventions, and Presiding Bishops.  Together, we hand over some of our Baptismal authority and invest it in other people to lead us.

And that is why it is fitting that All Saints Day is one of the four specific feasts in the church year where we can substitute the Baptismal Covenant for the Nicene Creed.  Today, we will profess our faith together, as always, but we will intentionally root it in the Baptismal Covenant—the “contract,” if you will—that binds us all together on equal footing.  

In trying to wrap our minds around the meaning and the mystery of the Feast of All Saints, it’s worth taking a moment to notice one little phrase from the collect for this day, as I mentioned in the sermon this past Wednesday.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.

That idea and image of being knit together is quite powerful.  When knitting, one starts with skeins of yarn, of all different colors.  Wound up and turned in on themselves.  Though they are beautiful in and of themselves, they are all wrapped up--or at least bound up--in themselves. From those skeins, separate strands are then knitted together to make up a blanket or sweater or some other thing.  They are still individual strands, but it is in their being joined together that they become something much more than individual strands. 

The knitter gathers these threads, fashions them together, and makes a new thing.  The strands retain their essence.  They don’t cease to be what they were.  But together, they become something entirely new, entirely lovely, an entirely different thing in the world.

The Church of Christ on earth has a unique feature to it, in that we believe we are connected to those who have gone before.  (A mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won, as the hymn puts it.)  You could think of us as being knit together with them, though we do not see them, or know most of them, or even know their names.  All those who have died, all of us who are living, and all those who will come after us, knit together into one glorious garment of many colors.  But there’s more!  Listen to that sentence from the collect again:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.

Not only are we knit together with one another, and those who have gone before, and those who will come after us, but we are also knit together in the mystical body of Christ!  We are together, and we are in Christ.   And, we are knit together in the body of Christ.

We can take this a step further when we consider that Jesus has no hands and feet except for us—his disciples.  We are the literal hands and feet of Jesus in this world.  When we do what we do in the name of Christ (feed the hungry, preach the good news, comfort the afflicted), we are doing this along with all the others with whom we are knit together.  We are never alone, because we are one body, one glorious garment, joined together with those past, present, and future, serving the world in the name of Christ.

And there’s even more!  Every time we gather at this Altar for the Eucharistic prayer, we are entering into an ongoing stream.  There is a never-ending hymn being sung, by the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, and we join in singing it—even when we are speaking it.  
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.
That song goes on forever, because the whole company of heaven is singing it for all eternity.

We enter into that endless ongoing stream, every time we gather for Communion.  A glorious hymn of praise to the Lamb seated on the throne, who was, and is, and is to come.  We are part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, a communion of saints, singing praise to God for all eternity. 

Hear it again:
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.

We are all strands of one glorious, beautiful, heavenly fabric.  Joined together for all eternity, by the grace of God.


Friday, November 3, 2023

The Burial of Ruth Lash

The Burial of Ruth Lash
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Revelation 21:2-7
John 6:37-40

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

We have gathered here today to say our final goodbyes to a remarkable woman.   Ruth Lash lived a long, full life, as a caregiver, teacher, and trailblazer.  As the priest of this church, I know she influenced generations of members, and she holds a special place in my heart, knowing she was among first women to serve on our Vestry.  That cannot have been easy; but it definitely was necessary.

I have heard from her daughter Susan, that Ruth loved the 23rd Psalm.  And Ruth had the experience I’ve seen many people have toward the end of their lives, of sort of “waking up” when they hear the familiar words being read to them.

And many of us share her love of that little piece of poetry.  Maybe it’s the pastoral imagery.  Or maybe it’s the assurance of God’s presence in our lives.  Or may it’s just that final line, about dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

But what I really love about Psalm 23 is the actual language of the part that gets translated as goodness and mercy following me.  The Hebrew word that becomes “following” is actually more like chasing, or hunting down.  Goodness and mercy don’t follow us home, like a stray kitten.  No, God’s goodness and mercy hunt us down like a tiger.  We cannot escape God’s goodness and mercy, even if we wanted to.

Ruth lived her life hunted down by God’s mercy and goodness, and she did not mind getting caught.  And receiving that goodness and mercy from God, she turned right around and passed it on to others, her family, her friends, her community, and her church.  Ruth responded to God’s love by passing it on to others, and I hope you will take inspiration from that and continue to do the same in your own lives.

In the Gospel reading we just heard, Jesus says, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  This is my absolute favorite verse in the whole Bible.  Jesus will lose nothing and no one.  Ever.

Although Ruth is lost to us—while we continue our earthly pilgrimage—she 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.  Ruth was given to Jesus in Baptism.  Just as you were given to God in your Baptism.  Jesus is holding onto Ruth, 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.


Thursday, November 2, 2023

YEAR A 2023 all souls

All Souls, 2023
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.

There is a saying, usually attributed to Bansky, the British street artist, “They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing, and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”  It’s a pretty bleak thought; but for most of us, it’s true.  Usually, within a couple generations, no one will be saying our names anymore, because no one will be thinking of us anymore.

Of course, some people—particularly rich people—go to great lengths to avoid this fate.  When my German friend was on tour with us once in Minnesota, he was shocked at how many buildings on a college campus had people’s names on them.  We asked, “don’t people pay for buildings in Germany?”  He said, “yes, but they would never have their name put on them.”  Interesting.  

Our friends in the Orthodox tradition end their funeral rite by saying, “Memory eternal.”  Which is not to suggest that people would always remember the person who has died.  Rather, that God would remember them forever.  You can see the connection to the thief on the cross, who asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.  And how does Jesus respond to that request?  Today, you will be with me in paradise.

On this night, we gather together to remember those we love but see no longer.  Or, as the bidding prayer from Lessons and Carols puts it, “Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number.”

Tonight, we will say the names of those we love, who are counted among that multitude.  And we trust that even when we have long stopped saying their names, or having our own names spoken, God will continue to speak our names, in the place where our memories will be eternal.  Because of the redeeming love of Jesus, who welcomes us all, and remembers us in his kingdom.


Monday, October 30, 2023

YEAR A 2013 pentecost 22

Pentecost 22, 2023
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

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

We use the word “love” a lot in our culture.  We say we love all sorts of things.  As C.S. Lewis points out, we use the same word for a huge list of different loves:  I love my new shoes; I love my cat; I love my family; I love my wife; I love my country; I love God.  One word covering everything from my shoes to God.

Now, of course, these are not all the same kind of love.  But we don’t have multiple names for love in English.  We have to add modifiers about size or amount or something in order to make the distinction.  I love my new shoes, sure.  But I love my wife a whole lot more than my shoes.  (Because I am a hopeless romantic!)  And I love God more than I love my country.  And, if I had to choose, I would definitely pick my family over my cat, because I don’t think our cat really loves us anyway.

And we also don’t have ways of distinguishing between different kinds of love.  I definitely love my wife in a completely different way than I love my country.  In fact, those two kinds of love have very little to do with each other.  But we’re stuck with just one word having to fill in for all these different kinds of love.

And what’s interesting is that you can see the difference between these loves based on how much they are rooted in emotion or effort.  On the one end, my love for my shoes is purely an emotional reaction; and on the other end, my love for God has very little to do with emotion.  And then if you follow through on that, the more my love is emotional (like my shoes), the less lasting it is.  I don’t make any kind of effort to love my shoes, and when it comes down to it, I could do without them.  And, if I’m honest, it takes some effort to love my country sometimes.  My love for my country isn’t based on emotions; it’s something deeper.  And, if I’m really honest, my love for God takes the most effort of all.

Because lots of times, I spend entire days being angry with God.  If I got angry with my shoes, I’d just get rid of them.  When I’m angry with my children, or with God, getting rid of them is not an option.  I have to “work” at those relationships.  My love for my family isn’t based on how I feel.  Same thing with my love for God.  Because my family and God are too important to me to be based on simple emotions.  Too important to love based on how I’m feeling on a given day.  Emotions are real, of course, but they come and go.  And they change over time.

So why all this talk about the different types of love?  I mean, you already know that I don’t love my shoes the same way I love my family, right?  Well, the limits of our English language are exposed when we have a gospel text like this one today.  Jesus is talking about love, and we need to know what kind of love he’s talking about.  Does he want us to love God and our neighbor the way we love our new car?  Or that most-fleeting of loves, the way I love watching the Buffalo Bills win?  Or some other kind of love?

The Gospels were written in Greek, as I've told you 1,000 times.  And the Greek language has many different words for “love.”  Four of them, in fact.  And the four kinds of love are very different.  There is philia, eros, agape, and then a fourth one that wasn’t defined in Jesus’ day, so we’ll ignore it.  Philia is the kind of love you have for your friends and family.  Philadelphia is called the city of brotherly love, because that’s what the name means.  Eros is passionate love, the kind of love you have for someone you’re dating, or hoping to.  And, most important to us, agape’ is unconditional love.  

Agape love is the kind of love God has for the world.  Remember that familiar John 3:16 verse?  You know, like the guy with the sign at the football games?  For God so loved the world?  That’s the agape love.  God’s love for the world is unconditional agape love.  A love that does not rely on emotion, or good behavior, or anything else.  Unconditional means unconditional.  

So . . . the point of all that explanation is so that we can look again at how Jesus answers the lawyer who is assigned to trap him.  The lawyer asks Jesus to name the most important of all the commandments.  The question is not about the 10 commandments; it’s about the Law of Moses, which is really plural, because there are 613 of those laws.  613 rules to guide one’s life at every single moment, and he asks Jesus to pick the most important one.  It’s yet another test designed to trap him, because he can’t possibly pick the right one out of 613, right?  I mean what are the odds of that?  Well, I guess 1 in 613.  But nevermind.

Jesus, however, knows the most important command.  It even has a name for faithful Jews.  It’s called, “the shema,” which is the first word of the sentence in Hebrew, meaning “Hear,” as in listen.  The shema is used at morning and evening prayer for the Jewish faithful, and the second verse is, “you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.”  Jesus picks that as most important, which also subtly connects his answer to the act of worship, since this verse is used at least twice a day in worship.  But then Jesus makes an astonishing further move . . .

He says, “And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.”  A second one is like it.  Loving God with all your heart and soul and strength has nothing to do with people whatsoever.  God is one thing, and people are another thing.  So where does he get off saying “And a second is like it?”  

Let’s just let that question sit for a second and go back to love.  The word Jesus uses here, as I mentioned is agape: unconditional love.  And, as I said, unconditional love is an act, not an emotion.  Unconditional love does not change because circumstances change, or because people do things we do not like.  As a matter of fact, you can have agape love for people you don’t even like.  People who drive you nuts—your enemies if you will—those are people you can still love.  Those are people that you can still wish the best for.  Your enemies can still be loved with agape love, even if you would sooner move out of state than talk to them.

This agape love is the love that is commanded in the shema.  You are to love God unconditionally, with all your heart and soul and strength.  Some days you may be very angry with God, or disappointed with God, or disconnected from God; and that may make you feel like you don’t love God . . . if you make the mistake of thinking love is an emotion.  But agape love is not an emotion.  It is an action; it requires effort, or at least intentionality.  Loving God is a decision you make, not an emotion you feel.  And that is why it is a command:  You SHALL love the Lord your God. We are commanded to love God, which is very different from a feeling of love for God.

And now you’re saying, but uh . . . how do I possibly do that?  How will I know when I am doing that?  How can I decide to love God with all my heart and soul and strength?  I don’t even know where to begin, let alone know that I am doing it . . . What if I don’t feel anything for God?  What if I’m angry at God?  What if I feel like I am just going through the motions?  How do I love God in this way?

Jesus said, “And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.”
I don’t want to overemphasize the word “like” there, but for a moment . . . let’s give it a shot.  What if loving your neighbor is like loving God?  What if loving your neighbor as yourself is like loving God with all your heart and soul and strength?  Remember that John 3:16 verse I mentioned?  For God so loved the world?  As we heard last week, the people around you are the eikons of God.  Made in God’s image.  God loves the world.  God loves the people in this world.

Maybe this is all just a perfect circle . . . If God so loves the world that God is willing to die to redeem the world, and if God commands us to love God, then maybe loving people like God loves people is how we know we are loving God.  If God loves people that much, maybe trying to love people at least gets us on the path to loving God.  

Have you ever noticed that when you pray for other people you feel better than when you pray for yourself?  Like praying for someone else sometimes puts my own problems in perspective.  Or, sometimes, praying for someone else reminds me that God loves them, even when I may not necessarily even like that person?  The power of prayer isn’t that it accomplishes something elsewhere; the power of prayer is that it changes us, and molds us into the kind of people who are the hands and feet of God in this world.

Loving your neighbor IS loving God.  And loving God IS loving your neighbor.  A second command is like it . . .

But before you get concerned that you will be heading home with an insurmountable task of loving God and your neighbor, let me remind you of this . . .

Every time we make a promise to do what God says we should do, we always promise “with God’s help.”  This past Wednesday night, as we discussed ethics, we looked at the Baptismal Covenant. which you can find on page 305 of the prayer book.  Here’s the second question:  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And we answer . . . I will with God’s help.  I will with God’s help.  God guides and directs us . . . we only need to be willing to be guided and directed.  And in making the promise (and adding, “with God’s help”), we have put things in the right order.  God says, love your neighbor, and we say with confidence, I will, with God’s help.  With God’s help, we will love God and our neighbor with an unconditional love.  WITH GOD’S HELP.


Sunday, October 22, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 21

Pentecost 21, 2023
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

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

“Render unto Caesar.”  We use that phrase a lot, right?  “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”  And what we usually mean is, “Vote for the bond measure so our kids can have good schools.”  Or, actually, what we usually mean is, “You better pay your taxes, my friend.”  And like most cases when we borrow phrases from the Bible, we completely mess up the point of the story, and we render unto Jesus a disservice that does not belong to Jesus.

So first, let’s look at the people in the room in today’s gospel lesson.  There are the people called “the crowds.”  These are just people.  All walks of life and so on, but for the most part they would be Jews, living under the brutal occupation of the Romans.  If this crowd turns against Jesus, he’s a gonner.  But if the crowds are with him—on his side—then it is too risky to have him taken away.  At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has attracted big crowds wherever he goes.

And then there are the people who come to trick him in this scenario.  The Pharisees have cooked up the plan, and they send their disciples to do their dirty work for them.  But what’s really shocking is that they also send the Herodians with them.  We only hear about the Herodians a few times in scripture, and we don’t know much about them.  What we do know is that they were big supporters of Herod (which is why they’re called, Herodians, of course), and since Herod was the puppet governor for the Romans, sending them is like sending spies for Rome.

The Pharisees hated the Romans, and also hated Herod, even though he was their ruler.  But on top of all that, the Herodians were followers of the Sadducees, and the Pharisees and the Sadducees hated each other.  (Hatred is complicated stuff!)  So the Pharisees are sending their disciples to meet with their own enemies in order to trap Jesus.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes.

Okay, so that’s who’s there when all this takes place.  And then they begin.  They start off by complimenting Jesus, saying what a fine teacher he is.  A man of God.  And then they ask him The Question:  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  If Jesus says, “Yes, pay taxes,” the crowd will turn against him, since no one wants to support the occupying Roman forces.  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay taxes,” then the Herodians will have him arrested for treason against the Emperor.  It’s a good little trap they’ve set, and either answer will have consequences.

Now it’s tempting to think that this is a lesson in the separation of Church and State.  In fact, for many people, that’s the whole point of this text: That Jesus wants us to maintain the separation of Church and State.  The first problem with that interpretation is that it’s off by about 1800 years.  There is no such thing as separation of Church and State until the U.S. Constitution forbids the establishment of religion.  And even after that, it took a couple hundred years more for us to start using the phrase, separation of Church and State.  To the group of people standing around Jesus—first century pious Jews—the separation of Church and State is unthinkable.  Their ultimate goal is the union of Church and State, into a theocracy ruled over by The Messiah . . . which they are certain is not Jesus.

Point being, this is not the place in the Bible where Jesus teaches the crowd the importance of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  So if Jesus isn’t giving an American civics lesson, what is Jesus saying?  Well, as they say, follow the money . . .

The coins used to pay the tax to Rome were called denarii.  A single coin was called a denarius.  So, Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  And they bring him a denarius. Then he says to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"  And they say, “the Emperor’s.”  Now, two things about this:  First, the word we get translated as “head” or “image” is the Greek word, eikon.  (You’ve heard that word around.)  Second, the Emperor was always called, “son of God,” and the coin Jesus held in his hand would bear the eikon of the Emperor, with the inscription “Son of God.”  For this reason, observant Jews did not carry coins of the Roman Empire, because to carry them was blasphemy.  

And you’ll notice that when Jesus wants to show them one of these coins, he does not reach into his own robe and pull out some change.  And why not?  Because Jesus is an observant Jew.  He is not carrying around idolatrous images of the occupying Roman force.  But when he asks for a coin, they bring him one.  I’m not going to judge anybody here, but it sure seems like somebody is carrying around blasphemous images of the Emperor.  Just saying.

So Jesus holds up the eikon of the Emperor, son of God, and says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.”

And here’s where we really need to put on our thinking caps.  If Jesus is saying, “Give the government all your material goods, and give God all your spiritual offerings,” well . . . first of all, that would make for a very difficult Stewardship Campaign, wouldn’t it?  Jesus is not suggesting that God and money should be separated, any more than he was saying Church and State should be separated.  He doesn’t say give to the government your entire paycheck and give God your prayers, right?

It’s not about the value of the coin.  It’s about the eikon.  Whose image is on the money?  The coin is identified by the eikon that is stamped on it.  The one in whose image it is made dictates where and what happens to it.  You cannot spend a coin that bears the image of the Emperor outside of his realm.  The coin bearing his image belongs in his realm.  Hold that thought.

I want to read you something from the Prayer Book, on page 845.  This is way back in the section called, “Parts of the Prayer Book I’ve never seen before.”  Actually, this is a subsection of that part called, “An Outline of the Faith.”  It’s laid out in question-and-answer format, which is why it’s also called “the Catechism.”  When we look at the very first question:  What are we by nature?  And the response is, “We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.”  Made in what?  In the image of God.  An eikon of God.

You are an eikon of God.  Let’s imagine the challengers ask Jesus a different question.  What if they were to ask, is it lawful for me to use and abuse another human being?  Is it lawful for me to mistreat my neighbor, or belittle them, or call them an animal or a monster?  Is it lawful for me to hate someone because they have a political sign in their lawn?  And Jesus asks, "Whose image do they bear?"  A denarius is made in the image of Caesar.  And you are made in the image of God.  And your neighbor is made in the image of God.  Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God’s.  It’s hard sometimes, isn’t it?

This is not a story about paying taxes, or the separation of Church and State.  Those are paltry, insignificant arguments.  No, this is a story about you and me, being made in the image of God.  Your worth is not based on what people think, or how you are treated, or how much money you make, or who you vote for.  Your worth is based on bearing the eikon of God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen.  Whose image and whose title?  The image of God, and the title of redeemed child of God, claimed for all time, living in the hope of the resurrection.

All of which fits nicely with St. Timothy’s Church and our Stewardship Campaign, which kicks off today.  We usually think of a Stewardship Campaign as being about money, and it mostly is.  Gotta keep the lights on.  However, true stewardship, truly giving back to God, means giving yourself to God.  Your time, your talent, and your possessions.  That is why on this year’s pledge card, we included space on the back for you to list ways you want to share your time and talents.  Even if you don’t want to fill out the front and make a financial pledge, we ask you to prayerfully consider that section on the back, where you can offer back to God the other gifts you have been given.

Sure, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, the taxes that are required.  But, give to God the things that belong to God: your self, your time, and your possessions.  Since you are made in the image of God, all that you are belongs to God.  You live in the kingdom of God, you belong in the kingdom of God, and no one can take that away from you.  

Is it lawful to pay taxes?  Yes,  (And it is required, in case you haven’t noticed.)  But you are not made in the image of the IRS.  You are made in the image of God.  And what is made in the image of God belongs to God.  

Remember, you are God’s eikon, whether or not you believe it—and whether not others believe it—it is true.  You are God’s eikon, and no one can take that away from you.  You will always be welcomed by God because you are made in the very image of God.  You belong to God.