Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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.