Sunday, November 18, 2012
25th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 28B November 18, 2012 As Christians, we live in an in between time and space, that difficult no-man’s land of both “already” and “not yet.” Already Jesus has come—God is with us, offering himself, once and for all, as the single offering which has restored all creation which is groaning with longing. Already, Jesus has forgiven us, “placing his perfect life on the altar of heaven, offering ‘for all time a single sacrifice for sins’ thereby breaking the back of evil, sin, and suffering. In the resurrection, God proves that evil and death and suffering cannot withstand the force of God’s love and God’s longing to be reconciled with all creation. And yet—we look at the world around us and see the “not yet” of it all. All around us evil and sin and suffering and sadness seem to rock along unchanged, and the people of God groan along with all of creation, “How long, O Lord, must we bear it all?” God’s Kingdom has not yet come into its fullest fulfillment. We see this tension at work in the gospel of Mark today, as we remember that the writer of Mark was writing these words around the time when the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem as a result of the Jewish uprising. Already Jesus has come and restored and redeemed, the writer of Mark reminds his broken-hearted community, but all is not yet as it should be. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. We see it at work in the sermon that is known as the Letter of the Hebrews. The preacher is addressing a congregation that is suffering from decline; he is addressing a flock who is “tired and discouraged about the way evil seems to persist in the world. As a result the congregation has begun to question the value of being followers of Christ. Attendance at worship has begun to falter, zeal for mission has waned, and the kind of congregational life that is rich with love and compassion has begun to dissipate.” He is addressing a people who are weary and longing for the not yet to be realized and fulfilled. “How long, O Lord, must we bear it all,” they cry. We see it all around us—this tension between the already and the not yet. We come to church week after week, and we say the words together: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Week after week, we offer thanks to God and “we celebrate the memorial of our redemption” through Jesus’s death and resurrection. We ask God to “send us out into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve [God] with gladness and singleness of heart…” We celebrate and try to live into the already, and yet…. We learn of another person whom we love who is diagnosed with cancer. We watch as those we love age and are not able to do those things they once were able to do. We suffer financial hardship and distress, people losing their homes and scarcely able to survive. We participate in, witness, and sometimes fall victim to the ruthlessness that is rampant in our society that becomes the vehicle for our culture’s most prized asset—accomplishment—and the enforcing of our own agendas. We live lives that are forever changed in the wake of natural disasters that throw life into chaos and turmoil. We ourselves may even grow tired and discouraged about the way evil seems to persist in the world, and we cry out to God, “How long, O Lord, must we bear it?” Yes, it is true that all is not yet fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. And yet, the writer of Hebrews reminds his flock and us that “we are not just spectators; we are active participants in the saving work of God.” But how do we do that? “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” Yes, it may seem that nothing is changed, that evil is still running rampant in the world, but God has been with us in the person of Jesus, and God continues with us even still. God calls us to be active participants in the saving work of God by “provoking one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together but encouraging one another…”i First, it is important to show up for worship. I realize I’m “preaching to the choir” here, but it is in and through worship, in and through the prayers of our tradition that the hope of Christ is nurtured and strengthened in this community and within each of our hearts. And one of the beautiful things about the Episcopal liturgy, where we pray what we believe and we believe what we pray, is that during those times when we may not be able to give our hearts fully to God in belief, then the belief and the prayers of the community carry us through. Second, we need to actively work to provoke one another to love and good deeds and to encourage one another. What does that look like? The late Peter Gomes wrote an essay on this portion of the letter to Hebrews, and he wrote, “Perhaps in our public prayers we ought to make room for yet another category: ‘prayers of encouragement.’ We would think of ways in which we can encourage our fellow believers to love and good works. We would think of ways in which we can be of assistance to the people we know and with whom we share the faith and the pew. This means making an assessment of people’s strengths and opportunities rather than of their weaknesses and needs. We would also be praying that they may be encouraged to do something for themselves, something which God enables them to perform to the mutual benefit of the faith and the community. The second benefit of a word of encouragement [he writes] is that it strengthens both the believer and the fellowship by supplying that positive, affirming force that is so often missing in the routine of life. To live for rewards is always to live for success, and when success eludes us, as it often does, so too does the reward. We may live "for" reward, but we live "by" encouragement, which is what we need when things go well, and especially when things don’t go well. The trick is that we cannot encourage ourselves: even in this self-help culture of ours, we cannot yet do that. We must be encouraged by someone else, and it is our spiritual obligation to encourage one another. This definition of an effective New Testament church [he concludes] is short on doctrine and rules and long on fellowship and encouragement. It may be just what we need to hear as we see ‘the Day drawing near’."ii “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” i.All the quotes up to this point, I know that I quoted from someone, but I didn’t note it at the time, and now I can’t find it…I think it was from one (or multiple) of the essays on Feasting on the Word for the Hebrews reading. ii.Peter J. Gomes [was] a professor at Harvard Divinity School and minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church. This article appeared in the Christian Century, Nov. 5, 1997, p. 1001, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
November 11, 2012 At first glance, this reading from the gospel appears to be a slam-dunk for a preacher who is called to preach on the morning of the fall stewardship in-gathering. Mark gives us the story of Jesus teaching in the temple, where he takes some time to “people watch.” He observes a poor widow who drops into the temple offering two small copper coins which are worth a penny. Then he calls his disciples over to teach them saying, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Sounds like a pretty good text for a stewardship sermon, right? But there’s a problem here. It’s not clear if Jesus is holding up the poor widow as a positive example, or if he is using her as a critique for an unjust and broken system. He may very well be using her to teach his disciples about how the religious system of the day was so corrupt that it was taking food out of the mouths of those whom God called it to protect and care for. And my brothers and sisters, if that is the case, then we at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea are certainly not immune from Jesus’ critique. We give our money to support our programs, pay our staff, and maintain our beautiful building, and we have people sitting in our very own pews who are struggling as the poor widow was struggling, not to mention all those outside our doors. We can always do better to take care of those most vulnerable whom God calls us all to protect and care for. It is a hard line to walk, and so you can see my dilemma this morning. I have two stories I want to share with you this morning, that have to do with this gospel and giving. The first happened right here at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea a few weeks ago. I preached a couple of weeks ago about the homeless man who joined us for worship and gave us two blankets to give away to people who needed it more than him. That same Sunday, I watched that man dig in his pocket as the collection bowl came by him at the offertory. I was momentarily curious but soon forgot about it as we moved into Eucharist. After church, one of the ushers came up to me, and he had in his palm this small, perfect pink shell that had been placed in the collection by our homeless man. He had already given to God probably most of what he had in the form of those two extra blankets, and still he dropped this one perfect, precious thing of beauty into the collection. His generosity still takes my breath away! The second story is one I read about in an article. The person writing the article went to Mass at a struggling Roman Catholic parish in the heart of Mexico City. She was struck by what took place during the offering in the middle of the Mass. She writes, “People got in line, many carrying what appeared to be small, plastic bags filled with a whitish substance. As the guitar band played, each person stepped forward and poured the contents of their bag into coffee cans placed on the altar. It was rice. Each person was pouring a small quantity of raw rice into cans that were soon filled to the brim. We prayed an offertory prayer and continued on with the mass. Afterward the priest explained that every day, every family takes at least one spoonful of rice and puts it aside. This does not add to anyone’s hunger, he noted, but it makes a difference to those who receive one of the cans, usually someone in a home where a person has become ill or died. The practice of setting aside spoonfuls of rice wove giving into everyone’s daily routine. Your neighbors’ daily bread was part of your own, something you remembered each time you cooked or even picked up a spoon. It made a difference because it was a pattern embraced by the whole community, connecting their communion around the altar to the tables in their neighbors’ homes.”i So here is what I think is at the heart of the gospel this morning. “Some of the greatest acts of faith occur simply, selflessly, and unobtrusively. Jesus helps his followers distinguish the reality of faithfulness from all counterfeits.”ii And he teaches us about these quiet acts of giving and authentic acts of faithfulness, not so that we can judge others in their giving or in their faithfulness, but so that we can judge ourselves. God asks for our whole hearts, our whole lives, to be freely offered to God in service of God’s priorities. Does our giving live into that or are we only offering to God a tiny portion of our time, our energy, our money, our attention? Are we offering God our leftovers? Or are we offering God our all? Throughout these last few weeks, I have invited you to consider three questions: What are the gifts God has given you? What is God’s hope for their use? How are you blessed to be a blessing to others? You have heard other members of this church courageously share with you how they have been blessed by being a part of this parish, and how they have grown in their relationship with God and in their connection to this church and her people by stepping out a little more in faith in their annual pledge to God in support of the ministry of this place and her people. They shared with us how they have grown in their relationships with God when they deliberately choose to offer God more of their lives, more of themselves, more of their money. In just a few moments, as you come forward for the Eucharist, you will be invited to make your pledge, and I invite you to remember the stories of Derrick, Tabitha, Neely, and Marvin, and how each made a deliberate choice to depend more on God, to offer God more of themselves. I invite you to remember the perfect, pink seashell given by our homeless visitor, an offering of a thing of beauty from a life where there are probably very few beautiful things. I invite you to remember the individual bags of rice in Mexico City that started as only one spoonful a day but, when added together, became overflowing coffee cans of rice to feed hungry people. We are given those opportunities to make that kind of difference in our own life with God and in this world this day and beyond. May God grant us the courage and the will to do so! i.From Living by the Word by Heidi Neumark. The Christian Century. P 21. 10/31/12. ii.Exegetical Perspective by Robert A. Bryant. Feasting on the Word. ed.Bartlett and Brown Taylor. WJK: Lousiville, 2009. p285
Sunday, November 4, 2012
Sunday after All Saints’ Year B November 4, 2012 A letter to Lindsey Victoria Ann Strickland upon the occasion of her baptism. Dear Lindsey, This is an interesting time in the life of the church year. It is the half-way point between Easter of one year and Easter of the next, and it is one of those Christian holidays that has become something entirely different in the culture around us. We see it most prominently in the contrast between Halloween and All Saints’. We trick-or-treated together this past Wednesday, and I was astonished (and somewhat dismayed) at the bacchanalia that took place around us, as people worked themselves up into a frenzy over costumes and candy. At the root of this, I recognized what Christian theologians wiser than I have named as being our culture’s fear and denial of death. But today, here in this church, we are going to do the exact opposite. Today, Lindsey, we celebrate your death, and we will take with you this first step into a long journey of not only not being afraid of death, but seeing it as a peaceful companion throughout your life. Today we all will relearn and remember with you, that even though the world around us will scramble to deny death, we, as Christians, recognize that death is an important part of faithful living. “…We as Christians know at a deeper level that our society has it all backwards. It is not that life ends and death goes on forever. Death is but a single event that is not itself the last word. At the heart of the Christian faith is the Easter story of the Resurrection revealing that God does not abandon us at death, but raises us to new life.”i So, Lindsey, when we baptize you today, we are baptizing you into Jesus’s death, and we are baptizing you into Jesus’s resurrection. From this day forward, you are claiming your place as the beloved of God, who created you good, and you are becoming a part of God’s resurrection people-the body of Christ. As Christians, we also recognize that the awareness of death and mortality is a gift to us, because it then spurs faithful living, and not for the reasons you might think. Awareness of our death does not spur faithful living because we are afraid God is going to send us to hell if we’re not good enough, if we don’t “do right” or if we don’t earn our salvation. The truth is, none of us could ever be good enough to earn our salvation. That is a gift that has been already freely given to us by the God who loves us. Rather, we long to live faithfully because we are grateful to God; we recognize this mortal life as a beautiful, finite gift, and we long to cherish it and live it to the fullest. We are all here today because in some deep part of our souls, we have realized that our struggle is not to remain alive forever at any cost, but to live and to die faithfully; and we are here today because we have discovered that this living and dying faithfully is work that is more easily and better done when we have companions along the way. We are here today because we have discovered that following the way of Jesus, the way that is articulated in our baptismal covenant, the way of peace, forgiveness, healing, sacrifice, and reconciliation, following the way of Jesus gives our lives meaning; it makes life and our relationships infinitely richer than it would be otherwise, and we are all so much better for having companions to walk with us on this way. That is what we will promise to do for you this day and forward, Lindsey, and you will promise to do it for us as well. And that is where the Saints come into the picture, why we remember them today on this Sunday after All Saints’ Day, and why it makes today especially appropriate for baptism. The New Testament talks about “saints” 20 times, and it’s not talking about stained-glass people living perfect lives of faithfulness that we could only dream about. Saints, in the New Testament, refer to “God-lovers.” One of our old, beloved hymns puts it, “they loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and his love made them strong.” Brother James Koester of the Society of St. John the Evangelist writes about Saints: “The promise of triumph which we celebrate today in the Feast of All Saints’ is for all of us, not some collection of stained glass perfect people but rather those who have lived lives of hope, or even just attempted to do so. It is for all of us who have lived lives of faith, or even just attempted to.” ii It is the attempting to live lives of faith and attempting to live lives of hope that we do together that makes us, and all those God-lovers who have gone before us-into Resurrection people through the weaving and working, inspiring and initiating of God’s Holy Spirit. We give thanks to God for your presence among us, and we look forward to walking this way with you. Your sister in Christ, Melanie+ i.From the book Faithful Living Faithful Dying. ii. From the daily email meditation for November 1, 2012 from ssje.org