Surprise!

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2019

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Almighty God,
you have poured upon us the new light of
your incarnate Word:
Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts,
 may shine forth in our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and forever. Amen.

Advent Wreath

In the past few weeks, I have been giving a good deal of time to thinking and praying about Advent. In my reflections, I looked for a word that would help me to more fully understand what the season is about—and which might also give me some insight into how I might get as much out of the season as possible. The word which came to me this year is “Surprise.

When I googled the word, this is what I found: “to be taken unawares, a feeling caused by something unexpected or unusual.” But it is closely related to another interesting word: “amaze” which is defined as “something which causes a person to wonder and puzzle over it.”

Surprise is much more than that, though. Unlike shock, which is seldom pleasant, surprise is also related to joy, to delight, and to happiness. We do not often experience surprise. When it happens it makes an impression on us. We often remember them. We recall the moment of surprise vividly. And in some cases, it is life-changing. One example which comes to mind is that of the marriage proposal. When I have witnessed them in videos online, there is a series of emotions seen on the face of the person being surprised: confusion, embarrassment, dawning realization, joy, and often tears. We all wait, hoping that they will say “YES,” and then there is a feeling of happiness in our hearts when they hug or kiss—and the ring is placed on the finger.

I think that Surprise is a good word for Advent! I would like to share with you a few surprises which I find hidden in the season.

To “unpack” the surprise of Advent, I would like to turn to the well-known theologian, Forrest Gump: “My momma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”’ Let us slightly modify that, “Advent is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”

Yes, my sins have found me out. I am also inspired by the single best Advent Calendar I ever had. It came from somewhere in Europe and had a calendar imposed on a little box which was opened every day. It was a candy box. Behind each door was a luscious piece of candy. And each day was a surprise. I literally did not know what I was going to get. The candy, though, was delicious. I have never forgotten that calendar!

The first Surprise for Advent is that is the Liturgical New Year. It is the beginning of the “Year of Grace.” It takes us on a journey in which we recall the main events of the Life and Ministry of Christ and of the adventures of the first disciples and Apostles. It is one story which takes us through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and into the long “Ordinary Time” of Sundays after Pentecost.

The Second Surprise is that Advent has more than one focus. It is intentionally divided into two parts. The first 17 days focus on the Second Advent, the Second Coming. It reminds us of that statement of Faith which we make every Sunday, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This is a future Advent. One for which we wait and long and hope. Our Gospel today makes clear to us that this will indeed be a surprise. No one knows when it will happen. And, even if we make every effort to prepare and be ready, it will take us by surprise, it will astonish us.

And then on December 18th, the focus changes to a preparation for the annual celebration of the First Advent. Again, there is a long list of surprises: Mary is surprised, Joseph is surprised, all of Nazareth is surprised, cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah are surprised. There is the unexpected and surprising trip to Bethlehem. Surprise! There is no room in the inn. The Holy Family finds themselves in a manger surrounded by curious animals who keep them company—and perhaps keep them warm. The angels take the shepherds in the fields by surprise. Herod is surprised by the magi. Mary and Joseph are surprised by mysterious gifts of gold (a kingly gift), frankincense (a priestly gift), and myrrh (a prophetic gift). All of this is completely unexpected. It is astonishing. It is the best surprise ever. It is a surprise which changes everything. In the dark season of Advent in which the days seem so short and the nights so long, in which warmth begins to seem a faint memory and the cold seems so oppressive—there is glorious light. A light which is so powerful and overwhelming that we are literally blinded and stopped in our tracks. Everything which we had thought and believed is called into question. There is a new truth which causes us to reevaluate, reassess, and which calls us to recommence a journey of faith!

There is perhaps the greatest surprise of all: “God is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to find and experience when you encounter God.”

For today, though, let us focus for a moment on that First Surprise of Advent. We hear today the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he speaks to us from the Mount of Olives about the Second Advent in glory and power. I am fascinated that this kind of passage has been used “frighten,” to “intimidate,” and to “threaten” people in order to get us to “toe the line.” I have always thought that this is a very poor way of describing God. When interpreted in this very narrow and dark way, it sounds like God is setting us up for failure and is just waiting to catch us unprepared–and then to punish us. I am reminded of the humorous T-shirt which I saw years ago, “Jesus is coming soon, act busy!” It also reminds of someone else who is making a “nice list” and a “naughty list” and who is anxiously working to find out “Who has been naughty and who has been nice.” But is that God? Surprise! I do not think so.

What if the words of Jesus were intended to console and comfort people who live confusing lives in troubled times? What if these words were intended to give hope rather than to produce despair? What if these words were intended to encourage and to motivate—rather than to paralyze and to incapacitate? Perhaps that is what Advent is all about?

Advent is a season in which we admit that we are powerless. As a community of Faith, we have had more than two thousand years to be light, salt and yeast. Sadly, we even had power and exercised political control—even for centuries. And yet, looking at our track record, there is not always a great deal to celebrate.

We have not eliminated poverty, war, violence, prejudice, hatred or injustice. Our world often feels dark, wounded and broken. On our own, left to only our own efforts, there might not be room for hope. As we have been told, the problems created with a certain way of thinking can not be solved with the same thoughts.

What would happen if we as individuals gave up? What would happen if we said, God, “I can not solve these problems alone!” What would happen if we asked God to take control? What would happen if we said, “Your will be done, your kingdom come?” And what would happen if we asked God, “What do you want me to do?”

We can not solve the problem. We are told, though, that God can, and God will, if we ask. Then what is preventing us from asking? I think that it is fear. It means giving up control. It means admitting that we are overwhelmed by the world’s problems. It means that we really do not even know how to get started. It means that we desperately need God to take control. It means adopting God’s agenda and abandoning our own plan.

Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry has taken us by surprise. He has invited us to become a Beloved Community, to reconnect to the primitive roots of the undivided Jesus Movement, and to enter into the journey of a life lived in the Way of Love. Our Beloved Bishop Curry is a constant source of surprise and delight. His vision of a life lived in unity with God offers us a way forward. It is a model of how we can move from where we are to where God wants us to be. It is the discovery that God is active here and now in unexpected and astonishing ways. It reminds us that God is truly doing for us what we are not able to do alone!

What we need, though, is a model—an example, a paradigm. What does God want our world to look like? What would Jesus like to find when he returns in glory? There is no better place to turn than to the writings of the Prophets. The Prophet Isaiah shares with us the surprising vision he had of an encounter with God in the Temple. If you have not read the Sixth Chapter of Isaiah in some time, I encourage you to find time to read it again. Please note that at the very center, God overcame every excuse that Isaiah could come up with to get out of doing God’s will. Note what happened when Isaiah surrendered and finally said yes to God! No one was probably more surprised to hear himself volunteering to God, than was Isaiah: “Here am I, send me.”

The example that Isaiah gives us is of a new temple in a new Jerusalem. It is on a mountain so high that no one can miss it. It is so beautiful that everyone is drawn to it. And, here is the good news: No one is excluded! In this vision of the Prophet, God makes of one family all the nations of the earth. All join in peace, unity, and abundance to worship together in harmony. All binaries are eliminated: rich and poor, powerful and weak, every dichotomy is abolished and eliminated. This vision is accomplished by God—it is not something which we can make happen.

The promise of the Second Advent is not an escape plan in which we just wait around for God to “beam us up” to heaven. It is not a plan B—our plans will inevitably fail, but God’s plan will not fail! It is not a “you are not responsible” card which absolves us of the need to work tirelessly for the coming of the fullness of God’s reign–here and now.

Just the opposite! It means that we are responsible to use every gift, talent, ability and every bit of energy that we have, to be a People of Love and an inclusive Community of Love. IT does mean that we are not in charge. God is in charge. It means that we buy into God’s plan—because not only does God know better than we do, God loves us absolutely, completely, and totally—and truly wants what is best for us. God sees and creates options and opportunities which we would never see–and could not even imagine. Loving us so much to choose to become one with us—to become truly human and to share our life! Surprise! If we are willing to trust in God and give God control, the very best is yet to come.

In this time of darkness, and cold, and fear, I share with you a beautiful antiphon which was often chanted at the beginning of Vespers—or perhaps when the candles of the Advent wreath were lighted: “Jesus Christ is the light of the world. A light no darkness can extinguish.”

May this Advent be a time of delightful surprise and astonishment for you! May you find in your Advent box of Chocolates the transforming, life-giving and empowering love of God. As you savor and delight in God’s love for you may you rejoice with exceeding great joy. And may you, in turn,  share your surprise, astonishment and delight with every person God brings into your life.

MARGARET, Queen of Scotland, Helper of the Poor

A Sermon for the Observed Feast of

Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland

November 13, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

A note: On January 10, 1981, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church by a Profession of Faith and then received the Sacrament of Confirmation. I chose, as my Patron, King David of Scotland. Since that time, I have had a special devotion to Saint David, King of Scotland and to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland–his mother.

You might not be especially interested in genealogy. As a Southerner, it is something which I grew up with. I remember a very funny event. In High School, I was trying to tell my Mammaw Cook about one of my friends. She asked me, “Who is he?” I started to tell her about him—where he lived, what his parents did, etc. Mammaw, interrupted me, “No, tell me who he is!” I had to tell her that I did not know the names of his grandparents or great-grandparents. So, from Mammaw’s perspective, I did not know who he was!

Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, was an Anglo-Saxon Princess. She was the great-great-niece of Saint Edward the Confessor. Her father, had he lived, would have become the King of England, when the Confessor died. Had that happened, William the Conqueror might have never invaded England in 1066.

Margaret was also (supposedly) the grand-daughter of Saint Stephen of Hungary and of a Bavarian Princess. She was the mother of Saint David, King of Scotland—and of Matilda, the wife of Henry I of England. She was the great-grandmother of Henry II (who had St. Thomas a Becket killed).

Margaret lived at one of the most fascinating moments in the history of Britain. Her life took very unexpected turns. Born in exile, raised abroad, she returned to England briefly, and then had to flee again. She found herself shipwrecked in Scotland and then the wife of King Malcolm. Pious child of a devout family, she took faith seriously. Tireless worker to make Christianity more than a nominal faith in her adopted homeland, she cared for the poor, the sick, and ransomed Saxon slaves who found themselves on the wrong side of history. He own example so inspired her family that her son, in turn, also became a Saint.

King James VI and I is claimed to have later said of Margaret and David, that their lavish generosity to the poor and needy had been so great the Scottish monarchy “never financially recovered from it.” What an amazing thing to have said!

On this Feast of Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, may we too be known as “helpers of the poor.” May our faith be real, present, and effective through our concrete actions to love and to care for all those who are in need. May this be especially true in this cold season in which so many, like our Lord, “have no place to lay their head.” Through the generosity of God’s people, and through the intercession of Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, may their needs be met.

St. Margaret Queen of Scotland

“Choose the Road that Leads to Life, to Blessing, to Happiness, and to the Holy.”

A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

November 3, 2019

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
Easton, Pennsylvania

O God, you prepared your disciples
for the coming of the Spirit
through the teaching of your Son Jesus Christ:
Make our hearts and minds ready
to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit,
that we may be filled with the
strength of his presence;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

________________________________________________
 

“Road To Zion” by Petra 
[Based on Psalm 84:5-7]

 There is a way that leads to life
The few that find it never die
Past mountain peaks graced white with snow
The way grows brighter as it goes
 
There is a road inside of you
Inside of me there is one too
No stumbling pilgrim in the dark
The road to Zion’s in your heart
The road to Zion’s in your heart
 
The river runs beside the road
Its waters living as they flow
In liquid voice the water calls
On thirsty knees the pilgrim falls
 
Sometimes a shadow dark and cold
Lays like a mist across the road
But be encouraged by the sight
Where there’s a shadow, there’s a light
 
Sometimes it’s good to look back down
We’ve come so far – we’ve gained such ground
But joy is not in where we’ve been
Joy is who’s waiting at the end

To listen to the song on YouTube, please use this link.
 

One of the most powerful images which those in the primitive Jesus Movement used to speak of themselves was “The Way.” They self-identified as Pilgrims on a Journey. Like their ancestors who had left Egypt and wondered through the desert to the Land of Promise, they saw themselves as being part of a New Exodus, traveling to a new Promised Land. The very language which they used made this imagery clear: “There is a road that leads to life . . . there is a road that leads to death.”

This language was inspired, of course, by the words of Jesus. But, for them, it served to confirm the reality of the often difficult, confusing, tiring, and troubling journey which they undertook. Like their ancestors in the desert they faced dangers, snares, and obstacles; hunger, thirst, and serpents (literal and figurative). It was not an easy road to travel. At times, the journey seemed too much for them. They were tempted to give up, to admit defeat, and to abandon the trip.

At such moments, these earthly pilgrims turned to the words of Jesus for comfort, for strength, and for hope. At such moments of crisis and difficult decision, they recalled the honesty with which the Lord had prepared them for their journey–which they had begun with his blessing and undertaken in his name.

One source of encouragement which these Pilgrims relied on was Jesus’ teaching about “Blessedness,” they called this teaching the “Beatitudes.” These consoling words of the Lord reminded them of the importance of persevering “on the Way,” and of making sure that they were, in fact, traveling on the road that “leads to life” and not on the road that “leads to death.”

It is not uncommon for people to shake their heads when they hear the “Beatitudes” from the Gospel of Luke. We are far more accustomed to hearing the eight blessings from the Gospel of Matthew. They, of course are addressed, all except the last one, in the “third person:”

  • Blessed are the poor in Spirit
  • Blessed are those who mourn
  • Blessed are the meek
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • Blessed are the merciful
  • Blessed are the pure in heart
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake
  • Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you on my account

So, then, the obvious question is “Why does Luke present this same teaching in such a different way?” Why use “blessings” and “woes” rather than just blessings?

Luke also chooses to address his listeners in the second person, rather than the third: “you,” rather than “they.” Luke wants to make clear to us that we are faced with a choice. We will either choose the arduous “road that leads to life” and to happiness, or we will choose the easy “road that leads to death” and to sadness, woe, and regret.

In both recollections of this Sermon, Matthew and Luke reflect on the teaching of Moses on the Mountain–after he had handed on the Law to the People of Israel. In the Twenty-Eighth Chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses followed the presentation of the Law with words of advice. If you follow the law which God has given, you will find happiness, joy, and fulfillment. If you do not, you will find sorrow, sadness, and disappointment.

Jesus’ audience knew the Torah well—some even by heart. So, they would have been quite familiar with that teaching. Their own history would have taught them the truth of Moses’ instruction. Although there had been fleeting moments of glory under David and Solomon, much of their history had been one of factional in-fighting, violence, and subjugation by outside powers: Egypt to the South, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to the North and to the East. The prophets had been quick to suggest that their defeat had come about because of the poor choices which they had made. They had not chosen the road which led to happiness and life, but rather the road which led to sorrow and to death. In fact, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had literally disappeared—swallowed up by the Assyrians. Their choices literally brought them woes rather than blessings!

In an unexpected move, Luke turned Moses’ instruction on its head! He suggested that the things which might appear to bring woe and sorrow in this life are actually blessings when traveling with the New Exodus to the Land of Promise. Material blessings in this world could actually be distractions, stumbling blocks, or obstacles, to finding happiness in the life to come.

To put it simply, Luke suggests that followers of Jesus will have to make a difficult choice. Either we choose to make the priorities of God’s reign our own, or else, we will choose lives which are self-centered and primarily devoted to finding fulfillment in the here and now.

The question then is “How does one find happiness, value, meaning and purpose in life?” The Greek word for “blessed” is makarios—which literally means “happy.” Using that insight, let us listen again to what Jesus tell us. “You will find happiness if you are poor, if you are hungry, if you weep, or if you are mistreated. You may well find only sadness if you are rich, if you are full, if you laugh, or if you are praised.”

Why? Because those in the “happy” group have learned to totally and completely trust in God. And those in the “sad” group have no real need for God in their lives. It is the story, which we have heard so often, of those who appear to “have everything,” and yet are lonely, isolated, fearful–even miserable. It reminds us that the things which appear most important at a given moment often prove to be quite insignificant in the end. We come into this world with nothing and we will take no material possessions with us when we leave.

God does not want us to be homeless, starving, tearful and abused. In fact, God does not desire those things for any of his children. We are reminded that it is our duty to alleviate those sad conditions for anyone who suffers from them. And yet, we learn that the weak, the poor, the homeless, and the oppressed need greater faith than we do. They have only God to care for them and so they have learned to be completely dependent on God.

On many occasions Jesus singles out three particular groups—and reminds us that these groups are sacred to God. God treasures widows, orphans, and aliens or foreigners. They are the most vulnerable because they have no one else to help them. They have no safety net. They have only God.

There is another group which is especially dear to Jesus: children. Throughout the Gospels we see the tender interactions that Our Lord has with children. He welcomes them, embraces them, lovingly touches them, holds them, and blesses them. They are a source of great blessing and happiness for him. “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them.” He often uses children as models and as examples of faith to us.

Parents so often feel a tremendous sense of obligation when they first have children. They are responsible in a way that they have never been before. They must care for their children. They must feed and clothe them. They must provide health care and education. They must guide and help their children to grow to become good and responsible adults. At first, they can feel overwhelmed and inadequate as they contemplate the duty which lies before them.

Jesus, though, suggests that parents have the opportunity, if they choose to accept it, to become students rather than only teachers. Their children will teach them many important lessons as they grow and mature. The most important of these might well be the reality of faith—and the reality of happiness.

Children find it easy to believe. Faith comes to them easily—even automatically. They do not struggle to accept mystery. They do not want or need complicated answers to difficult questions. They have not yet become jaded, cynical and skeptical. They are not afraid to trust. They are innocent—never assuming the worst of others. And, unless they are taught to be, they are not racist, misogynistic, homophobic or xenophobic. They are friendly towards everyone.

Children are also happy with the smallest of things: playing with friends, spending time with loved family members, enjoying good food. They are not obsessed with possessions—parents are often surprised when children derive more joy from simple things than from expensive presents! The love which children demonstrate is unconditional. Even in sad cases in which they are not treated with the love, respect, and care which they deserve, they continue to love.

Rather than focusing on how much we need to teach children; we are invited to learn important lessons from them. There is such wisdom that they can impart to us—if only we are open to listening to them and learning what they are able to teach us.

There is another word which we could use to translate “blessed.” That word is holy. Today we celebrate the Feast of All the Saints—the Feast of “All the Holy Ones, the Feast of All Hallows.” This is the feast of all whom we now believe to be happy in God’s presence. This is the feast of Triumph and Joy for those who chose to follow the arduous road that leads to eternal life.

Today, we welcome Bryson Alphonso. In Holy Baptism he will be made a member of God’s family. He will be “marked as Christ’s own forever.” He will join us and will travel with us on our Exodus to God’s Land of Promise and Joy. May we assist Bryson with our love and prayer—and may we learn from him! Together, with Bryson, may we travel the road that leads to life—the road that leads to God’s loving embrace.

Together, regardless of the woes and sorrows which we may experience as we travel, may we come to know the love, peace, and joy of God, which passes all understanding. May we become truly happy, truly blessed, and truly holy in God’s sight.

 

THREE STEPS TOWARDS CONVERSION

In the past few weeks, two major Protestant Seminaries have taken the surprising step of setting aside money for a fund to explicitly be used for reparations. In one case, Princeton Seminary (which has set aside $27 million) acknowledged that it had benefited from the “slave economy.” Virginia Theological Seminary—of the Episcopal Church—has set aside money ($1.7 million) to benefit the actual descendants of the slaves who helped to build the campus. In both cases, these institutions have also acknowledged their complicity with segregation or with other ways in which black folk were not able to fully participate in the life of their community.

“Reparations” has been a surprisingly controversial word. For those who are still unwilling to even acknowledge the existence of white privilege, it has been difficult to even extract an admission that chattel slavery was a serious sin which had seriously damaged the moral fiber of our country. Even worse, they seem to believe that it is something which happened in the past—and which has nothing to do with them personally. So, they are not in any way responsible for either the past, or the present.

That is a challenging and difficult attitude to confront. Sadly, some of these folks are not willing to engage in dialog or to explore evidence which might contradict their world view. Their mind is made up, and as far as they are concerned, the subject is closed.

The Episcopal Church, for the past six years—at the two past General Conventions of the Church, has begun to address the issue. Small, but important steps have been taken in moving towards the beginning of racial healing and reconciliation. Even those have been met with some push-back. Our own experience in the past tells us, that—in the end—we do tend to come out on the side of justice. But, it does not happen overnight. In the case of other issues such as the role of women in the church and the ordination of LGBT persons, it took decades to work through the process to become a truly welcoming and inclusive community. Progress remains to be made! But we have made progress—and are moving in the right direction. There is much to be said for that.

In my own life, after a time of prayer and reflection, I have come to believe in the necessity of reparations. It seems to me that it is the only option which allows for the possibility of true healing and reconciliation. And, I think that the reparations need to be of such a scope that they will actually make a difference-not just a token. This will mean taking action which is painful for us—both monetarily and humanly. It will mean admitting that what we did collectively in the past was not only wrong-it was evil and sinful. It will mean admitting that we have continued to benefit from privilege while others have been excluded. It will mean sacrificing money, time and talent to work to rectify the injustice which has occurred and which occurs to this day! Perhaps it will need to begin with an apology, and act of contrition, and a litany of repentance. This prayer for forgiveness must happen on many levels-personally, ecclesially, and on every level of government-local, state, and national. Only then can the work of healing and reconciliation truly begin.

A helpful model which I have used in my own thinking and prayer is the “three steps” of conversion. They are contrition, repentance, and reparation.

Contrition is an interesting word. It is rarely used these days. And when it is used in ecclesial frameworks, it is often mis-used. Contrition should be contrasted with attrition (an inferior motive based on sorrow because of the “fear of hell”). Contrition is the realization and admission that I have chosen to act in ways which violate my connection to God, to other human beings, and to creation. Contrition is motivated by the love of God, of neighbor and creation. Through my actions—or inaction—I have either caused or allowed harm or injury to come into being. For that I am responsible. The first step means that I openly and honestly admit the nature of my wrong.

Repentance means that I am willing to move beyond a bare admission of sin. I am willing to move towards healing the wounds which I have caused. Repentance means admitting that I am capable of doing better. It also means that I commit myself to beginning that process. I make a decision to “avoid whatever leads me into sin” and to amend my life.

And yet, it is not only about me. I acknowledge that my sins have impacted God, other humans, or creation. Part of the process of healing will involve things like apologizing, asking for forgiveness, and seeking ways to heal the separation caused by my sin.

Repentance means inviting God into the process. Repentance means making an effort to not commit the same mistake, error, or sin again. Else, there is little reason for anyone to trust me or to be willing to give me a second chance. And, if I am not sincere and committed to healing and reconciliation, it would be truly hypocritical—and evil to pretend that I am serious about moving forward.

Conversion, finally becomes a possibility after the first two steps are taken. It may mean listening to words which are hard to hear. Words in which those I have wounded, hurt and “trespassed against” tell me how they have been impacted by my actions or by my inaction. That requires great humility on my part. But the truth is that I was wrong. I recognize that the wrong can never be undone—and that is essential! But it is possible to move beyond it. If those who have been wounded are able to offer forgiveness (and that is not always possible), then healing and reconciliation become possible.

An image which I learned years ago which has been very helpful to me is that of the “sin pole” in the yard. If I plant a pole in the yard and then take a handful of nails and drive them all the way in, they do not that visible. Over time, though, they may rust and bleed. Then it becomes easier to see the streaks and scars resulting from the nails.

After some time, I might take a hammer and pull out the nails. If I do that, the holes which they caused will become apparent. I have pulled out the nails which I drove in. But the holes which they caused still remain.

To fix the pole, I would have to do a lot of work. I would have to fill in each hole with wood putty. After it had cured, I might be able to sand away the imperfections and paint the pole. From the outside it might look as if though nothing had ever happened. But the pole would never really be the same as before. It would now be filled with repaired and camouflaged processes which would only superficially cover what is hidden beneath the surface.

Contrition is recognizing and acknowledging that I drove the nails into the pole. Repentance is removing them with the hammer. Conversion, is taking the steps to try to heal the wounds—in so far as that is even possible. Wounds and hurts may be forgiven, but will never—and should never be forgotten. Otherwise it becomes tremendously easy for them to be ignored or repeated!

What must I do to make amends for my actions? What must I do if I want to mend the breach which separates me from God, neighbor, or creation? At this stage, words are not sufficient. Action is required. The nature of the wound determines the response which is required.

Some historians have stated that the two great “besetting sins’ of this country are chattel slavery and the ethnic cleansing of our indigenous population. We either put them in chains in an attempt to exploit them, control them, and profit from their labor. Or else, we tried to kill them. I am very sorry to say that this is NOT taught as truth in our educational system.

Our politicians want to speak highly of our accomplishments and successes. They almost never admit our failures. Nor do they explain the degree to which those successes have been derived through the enslavement and subjugation of others—from the very beginning of our existence as colonies and as an independent nation. They are not willing to admit that we stole the land of native peoples and forced them into captivity on reservations. They are not willing to admit that we violated treaties, brought diseases which decimated Native Americans, and then attempted to eradicate the language and traditions of the first peoples. They are not even willing to admit that these evils, sins, and injustices ever took place!

It seems to me that what is needed is a national holiday of mourning for the sins of slavery, segregation, exploitation, unjust imprisonment, and cruelty to people of color—but most especially to African-Americans (past and present). Perhaps a second one for the abuses against Native Americans? There should be a national monument in the capital to which officials would go and lay wreaths each year. There would be a speech from the President—or others—acknowledging the truth of racial injustice in the history of our country. One expectation each year in the State of the Union address would be the issue of racial reconciliation and healing. What will the administration do in the coming year to make a difference? To promote justice, equality, healing and reconciliation?

The U.S. government should also issue a formal apology for allowing chattel slavery to occur-for centuries (1619-1865). Then we must acknowledge the sin of Jim Crow laws, of racial segregation and discrimination, and of racial profiling, targeting men of color for offenses leading to imprisonment, and acts of violence against people of color by police officers and others. There will also be a need to acknowledge, going forward, the ways in which elected officials—at every level of government—have sinned against the basic human rights of people of color and of immigrants to this country.

Then, we need to have an open and honest discussion about reparations. These days it seems fairly easy to prove using genealogical tools, who the descendants of slavery are. There should be some monetary grant given to every single living descendant of slaves (in the form of a pension?). There must also be additional funding for education, health-care, and housing for those impacted by the horrible legacy of chattel slavery and discrimination. Only then, will the victims believe that we really are serious about healing and reconciliation.

Finally, we need something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Victims should be able to tell their story. What was it like to be a descendant of slaves? What experiences of injustice, racism, oppression, and discrimination have people had? How did those impact them and their families? What is the reality of a racist society like for everyone?

When the insights gained from these hearings are made public, it will then be time for individuals and groups to be held accountable. What acts of reparation must I undertake, for instance, as a descendant of families who held others in chattel slavery? What reparations are required of counties, states, municipalities, and our national government? What about congregations, dioceses, and denominations? What about schools, and other organizations which benefited from slavery, segregation and discrimination?

The Story of the “Grateful Leper” as seen through “Queer Eyes.”

On this “National Coming Out Day,”
October 11, 2019,
I share a reflection based on the Gospel for this coming Sunday
Luke 17: 11-19.
The story of the healing of
“The Grateful Leper.”

 O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the
earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those
who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people
everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the
nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh;
and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.

Grateful Leper 1Any LGBTQIA person who lived through the unfolding AIDS Crisis of the late 20th Century will most likely have their ears “perk up” whenever they hear the word leprosy. I think that it would be impossible to forget those images of emaciated gay men—often accompanied by lesions from Kaposi sarcoma. While not actually images of leprosy—it looked much like a form of leprosy to many of us. The memory of those painful stories of the unimaginable way that so many of our Brothers were treated in those days will haunt us forever! Fear! Fear of the disease, fear of the unknown, caused hospitals to refuse treatment and then even funeral homes to refuse service. It might be a projection of my own fears, but I seem to recall photos of people dressed in hazmat outfits when around some of the earliest victims—something like I recall seeing more recently in the Ebola crisis. And I certainly recall words like “gay cancer,” or “gay disease.”

Associated with all this was not only fear but revulsion! It brings to mind the response of people like St. Francis of Assisi who were disgusted and revolted when they encountered lepers in medieval Tuscany. Of course, after his conversion, he kissed the Leper and the earliest Friars are remembered for their loving care of those afflicted with this fatal and contagious disease. I remember so well the same kind of revulsion being expressed when it became apparent that AIDS was somehow mysteriously connected to gay sex. For many gay men of that era, it meant a “forced expulsion from the closet.” Because of the nature of the disease there was no hiding that fact that they were, in fact, gay, and that they had been sexually active.

So, for gay men of my generation—who are also persons of faith—it is easy to identify with those afflicted with leprosy. The story of the “Grateful Leper,” though, is even more meaningful, powerful, and useful for us. Because this Leper is called, by Our Lord a “foreigner.” He is labeled and identified as an “other,” a “stranger,” an “outsider.” And then, unexpectedly and shockingly—he is presented as a person of tremendous faith. He is held up as an example of what it means to be a faithful disciple. What an unanticipated and delightful twist!

The great irony, is that, as so many of us have come to prayerfully discern, being LGBTQIA is not an illness at all—nor is it a choice. It is just who we are! We have come to believe that it is the very way that we were created by a loving and compassionate God.

Yet, we know, that–even had HIV not come along–for millennia, other “people of Faith,” viewed our “queerness” as a kind of moral disease. While they might not have singled us out as the only notorious sinners, we were to be “loved” at the same time that our “sin” was to be “hated.” We were warned that if we acted on our “disordered” and “unnatural” “inclinations” we were in danger of hellfire. Being LGBTQIA was viewed as a kind of “moral leprosy.” And yes, it was thought to be largely fatal and contagious (the words of Anita Bryant and others like her made this clear). Or else, it was dismissed as something which was “silly” (I was actually told that once by a medical doctor!) and which could be easily laid aside like any other “sin” if we repented and turned to Jesus!

This powerful story which is found only in the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke is worth looking at more closely. It has much to say to the LGBTQIA community—and to all who are “grafted into” the Jesus Movement.

It is a story of communities in tension and conflict.

There is the community of Jesus and his closest friends. They are on their way up to Jerusalem. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, we know that Jesus is heading to Jerusalem to suffer and die. This is a farewell journey—though Jesus’ friends either do not really know that—or understand it. They are in denial. Despite the warnings of the coming passion, they do not really believe it is true. They may well hope that Jesus is wrong–mistaken. They desperately long to believe that is true. So here they are on a journey with him to Jerusalem-to the Holy City, to the Temple, into God’s presence. That is their destination. Later, in looking back on that last Passover Pilgrimage, they will remember everything which Jesus did and said—and in those words and actions will find meaning which they were not able to see, hear, and understand at the time. They will realize that God was pulling back the curtains and allowing them to see what was “really happening,” though at the time they were quite clueless.

There is the community of Samaria and of Samaritans—the place where this story takes place. Jesus and his disciples, we are told, are travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem—and that journey takes them through Samaria. How ironic. They can not travel from one “home enclave” to another without stepping outside their “own” reality into another. In recent years scholars have suggested that Galilee may have been far more diverse and Hellenized than believed previously (after all two of Jesus disciples, Andrew and Philip, have Greek names). But both they—and the Samaritans—would have viewed “Galilee of the Nations” as basically Jewish.

Of all the “other” communities, first-century Jews had the most contentious relationship with the Samaritans. Perhaps it is because they had far more in common than separated them. As is often the case, those differences were highlighted and intensified (as an aside, I remember from my childhood how careful the Southern Baptists in rural Appalachia were to stress their distinctness from the “Holy Rollers.”). I am not entirely sure that the Samaritans would have chosen to focus on the few differences—had they not been excluded, abused, and mistreated by the Jews of that era. Which wrongs and hurts came first? Who knows? But it is clear that there was a  mutual distrust, fear, and a reciprocal hatred.

The Samaritans are the “lost tribes,” the “Northern Kingdom of Israel” which had been conquered by the Assyrians. As a result, they had ceased to be “racially pure,” as viewed through a literal reading of the Law of Moses. They were viewed by first century Jews as “mongrels and muts.” They could not claim to be authentically Jewish—and yet they did! They believed in the one “God of Israel.” They accepted the Torah as God’s word (though not the oral law—odd that they had that in common with the Sadducees!). They had a Temple on Mount Gerizim (until the Maccabees destroyed it) in which the Tamid (offerings of spotless lambs, wine and bread) were offered twice daily. The Samaritans claimed to be descendants of Abraham—in fact, they claimed that the binding of Isaac had happened on their holy mountain and not on the Temple mount in Jerusalem (it is interesting that in Islamic belief it was Ishmael and not Isaac who was bound and that it might have taken place in Mecca).

So, there is very little, if anything, from their perspective, which ought to differentiate Samaritans from Jews. This would presuppose, though, that being Jewish could be a faith of choice and not only something into which one was born. It would mean that, the Jewish authorities would have to welcome the Samaritans as coreligionists—even if they actually viewed them as Gentiles. It would have to mean that room was made for them at the table. To the Jewish leaders of that time this was unthinkable, unimaginable, and unwelcome.

And so, the people of Samaria had to endure the horrors of tourist season—at least three times a year. Huge traveling groups of Jews passed through Samaria—coming and going on the way to and from Jerusalem each Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. It was a reminder that the people of Samaria were excluded from those pilgrimage festivals. Were those Jews traveling through Samaria viewed as “Ugly Americans?” Perhaps! But clearly, over generations, the two groups had come to a level of open hostility and acrimony. Samaria was viewed as a dangerous place, a rough area, as an obstacle through which one had to pass before entering once again into the safety and “home” of the Southern Kingdom—of Judah and Benjamin.

The Gospels—especially Luke and John—present a much more nuanced view. Luke’s parable of the “Good Samaritan” suggests something which many in the audience would have thought impossible-even oxymoronic. A “Good Samaritan!” There aren’t any! Like the “Good Shepherd,” one could say, “I never met one!” Is there anything good that comes out of Samaria? And John’s story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well (a most effective early missionary and disciple—perhaps even the Apostles could have learned from her methodology) shows that the Jesus movement—from the very beginning was of importance, significance, and value to those “outside” of Judaism. This was not an accident or a mistake of history, but actually part of God’s plan.

In the Gospel of Luke-written for a Gentile audience-this makes perfect sense. The Acts of the Apostles (volume two) takes us from Jerusalem to Rome. It shows the astonishing inclusion not only of Samaritans but even of Gentiles who could claim no connection to Judaism at all! So, these early positive interactions between Jesus and Samaritans are intended to prepare us for what is coming! In Christ there is neither Jew nor Samaritan nor Gentile!

But there is a third community—the community of lepers. Almost nothing is said of them! The Book of Leviticus reminds us that this community existed even during the time of the Wandering in the Desert—part of the Exodus. Lepers apparently traveled from Egypt through the wilderness and into the Land of Promise. The Laws which laid out a detailed procedure for their detection, expulsion, and potential re-integration (Leviticus chapters 13 and 14) show that they had always been a part of the experience of the People of Israel. On the margins, sick and struggling, depending on the charity of others, these unfortunates were popularly believed to have been punished by God for some sin—either their own or that of their parents. Forced to cry out “unclean” when they came into contact with those unafflicted by their malady, they lived on the margin, on the fringe! They were viewed with fear, revulsion, and loathing.

The Gospel of Luke offers a surprising possibility. They were a community of love and support for each other. All of the things which had mattered before ceased to be of importance when one was declared to be impure and cast out. The rich, the poor, the educated, the illiterate, the powerful, and the weak were equalized by the disease. The only thing that mattered now was that they were a “leper,” that they were “unclean.” And so, in this new equality, the only thing that really counted was functionality—and mutual support. All recognized that as the disease progressed, they would become totally incapacitated and then would die a horrible and painful death. Digits, limbs, and features would be eaten by the disease and body parts would rot and fall off. If those who were relatively well did not care for those at the end of the disease, they had no reason to expect that anyone else would care for them when their time came to suffer and to die.

It is fascinating that this particular community of lepers was multi-ethnic. It was composed of Jews and at least one Samaritan. And yet, there is no indication that this was in any way a source of concern or division for them. They were united by the plague of leprosy. It made them into Siblings—into family! To those who did not suffer from leprosy—“all lepers are the same.”

A few details from the story stand out. United as one community, the lepers collectively called out—from a distance, as the law required–to Jesus–to beg for mercy, compassion, healing, love—and acknowledgement. Jesus could have ignored them and gone on his way (that is what we most often do when accosted by beggars and homeless people on the street). He did not. He heard them, acknowledged them and helped them (though I am not sure that they really appreciated that fact at first-had I been a leper, I would probably have thought that Jesus instruction to “go and show myself” to the priest was either naïf or else actually cruel—return to the very people who had cast me out for another dose of abuse and rejection?).

It is fascinating that in Luke, the lepers used a title for Jesus which is only found in Luke (and there apparently used seven times), “epistata.” Not one of the usual titles which one would expect, neither “Rabbi,” nor “Lord.” It is translated as “Master,” but a word search reveals that “master” is a weak translation.

The Epistata was the “number two person.” Literally, he was the person who stood immediately behind the person who held power. The word literally seems to suggest one who “stands in power over” another. I think that the English political term “Viceroy,” might be a good fit. This title recognized that Jesus was a representative of God. Jesus spoke with God’s voice and with God’s power. His orders were to be obeyed as if they came directly from God. What an affirmation of faith in Jesus! Wow! He did not seem to receive this kind of respect and obedience from his “own people”!

When Jesus told the lepers to show themselves to the priest (in Jerusalem and perhaps for the Samaritan on Mount Gerizim), they obeyed without hesitation or question—even if it made no sense to them! Jesus could have touched them and healed them (as he did with another leper in Luke 5: 12) or said a word and healed them. He did not! He asked them to follow the procedure laid out in the Law of Moses. He obeyed the Law and asked the lepers to do the same. He asked them to take the risk of being willing to give God another chance. We are later told that it was this faith which was the locus of their healing, “your faith has made you whole.” After all, they were not healed when they began the journey and only discovered that they had been healed along the way!

It was at this point that the story takes an unexpected turn. Nine of them continued on (to Jerusalem) to complete the order which Jesus gave them. At this point, the community which they had shared came to an end. After they were “re-integrated” into the People of Israel, the lepers returned to their “status quo ante bellum.” They, we imagine, returned to their families, and perhaps to their professions. They “resumed” their lives where they left off. All the differences and distinctions: cultural, social and economic, which divided them, were reinstated. They no longer had anything in common—except the experience of having at one point been lepers—and one can only imagine that they may have wished to quickly put that memory behind them.

For the “now-healed Samaritan,” this engendered a crisis of identity. To what community, if any, did he now belong? For whatever reason, he came to realize that the only community which mattered to him was fellowship and discipleship in following Jesus. And so, he turned away from Mount Gerizim—or to whatever destination he had been headed and went “home” to be with the Epistata, with the ‘Master.” His response when he saw Jesus is amazing. He first rejoiced and gave thanks to God (in a loud voice—this certainly sounds like a Post-Pentecost experience to me). He then gave thanks to Jesus (literally he “eucharisted” the ‘Master.”). And then he threw himself at Jesus feet in worship, love and praise. Talk about an example of love and devotion coming from “out of the blue.” A Samaritan, possibly even a gentile, at a time when not even those closest to Jesus expressed such love, devotion, and gratitude.

A final thought. Jesus called the Samaritan a “foreigner.” The word which he uses in Greek is allogenes—and this too is a word used only in Luke. It literally means to be “begotten other.” What a fascinating concept. The Samaritan may not be born of a Jewish mother—and so was not viewed by Jewish authorities as being Jewish—even though he may, in fact, have worshipped the one God of Israel. He was “other.” And yet, in Jesus, he found welcome, inclusion and community. Does he now follow Jesus? Does he return home and spread the good news there (like the woman at the well). We do not know. But we recognize that he was a tremendous person of faith—and was just the first among millions who chose to follow Jesus and to be “grafted into the Jesus movement.”

For those who are LGBTQIA, the word allogenes is a powerful one! We have not chosen a “lifestyle,” “sexual orientation,” or “gender identity.” We are “born this way.” Our birth has been labeled as “other.” But in Christ we are “reborn,” and made very members of the household of God. In Holy Baptism, we too are “sealed as Christ’s own forever.” Some may consider us to have been born or created as “different.” But, even if that were true, it would no longer matter “in Christ.”

Interestingly enough, Jesus did not ask the “Grateful Leper,” to change, to convert–to become Jewish—or even to become “Christian”. Neither does Jesus ask LGBTQIA persons to give up or surrender our being–to change and become something or someone else. He only asks that we become ever more fully who we have been created and are called to be. Now that is good news indeed!

Grateful Leper 2

“What is needed is trust.”

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
October 6, 2019

 
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and
light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all
our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you
would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save
us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see
light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

If you had faith
Small as a mustard seed within you,
So says the word of the Lord.
If you had faith
Small as a mustard seed within you,
So says the word of the Lord.

Then you could say to any mountain,
“Get up and fly, get up and fly.”
Then you could say to any mountain,
“Get up and fly, get up and fly.”

And then the mountain would fly away
Fly away, fly away.
And then the mountain would fly away
Fly away, fly away.

“Si tuvieras fe, If you had Faith.”
Translated by Rory Cooney

Just in case you are paying too close attention, please ignore the fact that the Gospel of Mark speaks of the “mountain” and the Gospel of Luke of “a tree.” Let us not allow a small detail like that to prevent me from using a great song to illustrate a point. After all, I hope that it grabbed your attention!

Sycamore roots

The disciples approached the Lord and made a request of him, “Lord increase our faith.” What a fascinating request! It tells us two very important things. First that they were aware of faith—and they had it, at least in some form, and appeared to understand how very important it was for them. They liked it and wanted more of it! Secondly, they had reason to think that Jesus had the power—and even the willingness to help them.

Jesus did not respond in the way that they expected. He did not perform an act of magic. He did not wave his hand or snap his fingers and say “There, I just increased your faith by 1,000 percent.” Instead, as he often did, he gave them a confusing and unexpected response. It is another of those sayings which caused them to ask, “What does this mean?” It forced them to do the hard work, to search for meaning and for direction. In responding to them in this way, Jesus showed himself, once again, to be the best of teachers. He gave his students the tools which they needed to find an answer for themselves.

As anyone who has served in the ministry of educator knows, students will always remember answers which they discover for themselves—even if they remember nothing of what the educator shared with them. Why? Because they do the work. Because they look deep inside themselves. Because they reflect on their own experience. Because they have an epiphany, a breakthrough, a moment of insight or revelation.

What were the building blocks which Jesus gave his students? He used a primary concept or tool, “Faith.” He then added a qualifier to that primary tool, the “mustard seed.” He then gave them a challenge or an insurmountable obstacle, “the tree.” He concluded by giving them a shocking outcome, “uprooted and planted in the sea.”

Jesus intentionally turned the tables on them by starting out with the very term they had used, “faith.” He appears to have used that term in a way that they were not expecting! In fact, he challenged them to explore what the word even meant for them in the first place.

A casual reading seems to suggest that they were looking for “answers.” Their poor heads were exhausted from too much thinking. They wanted an easy out. They wanted a kind of reference source, like a book, that would make things easy for them. “Tell us how to know what to do in every challenging situation that we find ourselves. This is a hard test and we want the answer book. We want the sheet that gives us the answers—not so that we do not have to do the work to solve the questions (as truly lazy students wish) but so that we will know that we have come up with the “right answer.”

But were they thinking of faith as a kind of intellectual check list? Were they thinking of a statement of faith or a creed? Yes to A, yes to B, yes to C. Check the items off the list one by one. The correct answer is “E:” Yes to all the above! Were they thinking that faith is a matter of intellectual consent? “Much of this does not make any sense to us, help us to agree to this list of things which we should believe!”

Jesus presented “faith” in a new way. Rather than viewing faith as an “intellectual assent” to a laundry list, Jesus described something which sounds much more like “trust.” Now that is a surprise! “Faith is trust.” Imagine for a moment the look of consternation on their faces as they reframed the question in this new way, “Lord, increase our trust!”

They no doubt remembered a comment which Jesus had made at another time, “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” They might have also remembered that question Jesus posed to someone who asked him to heal a family member, “Do you believe?” It would be hard to forget the reply which that question provoked, “Yes, I do believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus challenged his disciples to ask themselves hard questions. “Do I trust? How deeply do I trust? Am I willing to trust? What will it mean for me if I really trust?”

They examined the first tool, “the mustard seed.” In that time and place it was an ingredient which suggested the “tiniest visible thing” that one could imagine. Without a microscope, it is hard to imagine anything smaller. The mustard seed is so tiny that it has to be looked for carefully to even find it. If one has a handful of them, they seem visible. But an individual mustard seed, a single mustard seed! Without my glasses, I doubt that I would see one at all—and even with them, it might be a challenge!

The mustard seed could seem inconsequential. It could seem so small and insignificant that it would be useless. What value could a single mustard seed have? It would be easy to dismiss it! That is just the point. If one has even the tiniest amount of trust that one can muster (pun intended), it might just be enough.

Here is the rub! Rather than allowing his disciples to continue thinking that the trust that they had was worthless, Jesus invited them to think that it might amount to something after all. He presented them with a challenge. “What do you have to lose by giving trust a chance?” It is an infinitely pragmatic question. “Why not give it a try? If you try trust and it does not work, you will not have really wasted much time, energy or effort. But what if you try it and it does work?” Wow, that could be life-changing!

Trust–especially at the beginning, can be fragile. It can feel like a tiny mustard seed. It can easily be overwhelmed by the obstacle of fear! It can be so easy to think (even if we never say the words out loud), “My trust is too tiny and too small to ever amount to anything. When I find myself if difficult situations, it will not be adequate. It will not sustain me. I am afraid that if I trust I will be hurt and disappointed. It also means that I have to give up control! I have to admit defeat. I have to say that I am not able to solve problems on my own. I have to turn it over to God. How do I know that God will come through for me? It means that I have to make a ‘leap of faith.’ I do not know if I can trust—or if I want to trust! I may be too afraid to really trust! What will happen to me if I risk trusting?”

To drive home the point, Jesus gave them an obstacle! Some scripture scholars suggest that the best translation for the “tree” is sycamore rather than mulberry. So, a tiny insignificant seed is contrasted with the tallest and strongest tree that one can imagine! Even worse, sycamore trees have the strongest and most fully developed root systems. To grow so tall, they have roots that may be twice as long underneath the ground. In fact, the Rabbis commented on this in Mishnah 7: “A tree may not be grown within a distance of twenty five cubits from the town, or fifty cubits if it is a carob tree or a sycamore tree.” The explanation seems to be that if a sycamore tree gets too close to a well, the roots will cause the wall of the well to collapse!

Try to uproot a sycamore tree? It is almost impossible! Was that tree referred to in the first Psalm a sycamore? “Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.”

What an illogical comparison this must have seemed to those disciples! Jesus told them that something which they thought was useless, worthless, and inconsequential was actually so powerful that it had the capacity to move what they thought was an impossible obstacle—and to do something even more incomprehensible—to plant it in the sea!

I can imagine what they might have thought when this became clear to them. “Well, that is not me! I do not have that kind of faith. I do not have that kind of trust. I am not that kind of a person. That rules me out. If the sycamore trees in my life need to be planted in the sea, I am out of luck. Someone else will have to do that.” I think that this is the reason that so few people are able to view this saying as an affirmation  of hope rather than a put down–they think that it might possibly be true for a few exceptionally holy people–but not for them. So, it is no surprise that some people explain this passage as a way of Jesus “putting the disciples in their place” because they did not have enough faith.

What if there is another possibility? What if this passage was intended to be a powerful word of encouragement—and not a “put down?” What if this is Jesus way of telling us, “Your faith, your trust is stronger than you think. You think it is worthless and inadequate. What if you are wrong? What if your faith, your trust is more than sufficient for any situation, for any problem, for any crisis that you encounter?”

What if we removed that “if” at the beginning of the sentence—and changed the rest of the sentence into an unabashed affirmation “You already have faith, even if it appears to be small as a mustard seed. You can say to this sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

But there is an important caveat. Our faith, our trust is like a muscle. No one from the outside will be able to make it stronger or to increase it. Only we can do that! It is by trusting and by choosing to believe–over and over again–that our faith and trust increase. If we begin by turning small things over to God, we will quickly progress and will soon be able to turn ever bigger things over to God. In doing this, we will discover the power of God at work in our lives.

Rather than encountering happy “coincidences,” we will see God acting in our lives. Why? Because we will come to realize that God loves us, that God cares for us, and that God truly wants what is best for us. That is the message which Jesus addresses to us-and not only addressed to those clueless disciples some two thousand years ago.

It is not magic! If we ask God to uproot a sycamore tree, God will probably give us a saw to cut it down, and then a spade to dig up the roots. God may ask us to borrow our neighbor’s donkey to help yank up those thick roots out of the ground! God may challenge us to reach out to others for guidance, love and support—experience, strength, and hope. God may remind us that we are not alone—but rather are part of a community of faith. God may invite us to realize that we, in turn, are able to assist others with our time, talents and efforts. We may be called to be part of the solution for someone else—or for our community at large.

If we are willing to take the risk of trusting in God, though, as the Spirituality of the Twelve Steps tell us: we will come to realize that “God will help us if we ask.” We will discover that God is, in fact, “doing for us what we are not able to do for ourselves.”

There is another hymn which I remember from my childhood. I will not sing it to you but will conclude by sharing the lyrics of the first two verses:

‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His Word
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know, “Thus saith the Lord!”

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!

I’m so glad I learned to trust Him,
Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend
And I know that He is with me,
Will be with me to the end.

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!

“Religion, Politics, and Money.”

“Religion, Politics, and Money.”

A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
August 4, 2019

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania

Heavenly Father, we remember before you those who suffer
want and anxiety from lack of work. Guide the people of this
land so to use our public and private wealth that all may find
suitable and fulfilling employment, and receive just payment
for their labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I remember hearing as a young person in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina that “there are three things one ought to never discuss in polite company: religion, politics, and money.” Later, I came to realize that those were the very three things that people in the mountains enjoyed discussing most. Of course, the context there was one of extended family or close community. In such a case, I am not sure that it could be accurately described as “polite company.”

So, there, the cat is out of the bag. Today, I want to reflect with you about money. In particular, I want to ask for your patience as we explore, together, what it might be that God would like to communicate with us through Sacred Scripture and Tradition. We will then conclude by asking how we can apply whatever that message is–in a way that makes God’s love real, present, and effective in the various worlds in which we live, move, and have our being.

I am often surprised by strange notions we hear when the worlds of faith and finance collide. The first is that “true followers of Jesus” are not concerned with money at all. Whenever I hear the ways in which this is played out, I am tempted to wonder what planet these people are on. To give one example, I remember hearing someone say that “money is the root of all evil.” That person had not read the First Letter to Timothy clearly. The actual text is that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” It does not say anything at all about the morality of money–in itself. It points out that the “love” of money is a kind of addiction. And those who are addicted to money will never really be satisfied. They will never have enough money! As with any addiction, the acquisition of money satisfies only temporarily. Jesus warns us about this: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

There is also an unimaginable fear—the money could be lost of taken away. And that thought impels the money addict to protect their lucre by any and all means necessary. If ever they come to feel that their wealth is threatened, violence is not an unimaginable option. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They never overcame the fear that the banks could fail and that they would lose their money and would be forced to make do without it. We used to hear about people from that generation who were so fearful of bank collapse that they hid their money in odd places in their homes. This was often discovered by their families who, after their death, cleaned the house.

Our Lord spoke about this in subtle and not so subtle ways. He spoke about a kind of naiveté which Christians can have, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” But he also told us that “You can not serve God and money.”

It does not make sense to pretend that money does not matter or that we can live without it. Every person has basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter. Those needs are essential and non-negotiable. Somehow, we have to provide for those needs.

There was a crisis in the very early Church. Some people had become convinced that since Jesus was going to return almost immediately, there was no point in worrying about doing anything as mundane as working for a living. In fact, they thought that work might be a distraction!

Saint Paul dealt with them very directly. He told the Community at Thessaloniki not to enable this irrational behavior, “if they will not work, they shall not eat.” Now the important thing to note here is that they were capable of working, that they could have worked if they chose to do so. There is the suggestion that these people were taking advantage of the generosity of others. Like that beautiful song from Jesus Christ Superstar said, “they had too much heaven on their minds.” This passage must never be taken out of context, as some have, to suggest that we should not care for the needs of others. Saint Paul went on to suggest that, for whatever reason, the return of the Lord has been delayed. So, while hoping for the fullness of God’s reign at some point in the future, we must all work tirelessly to make it a reality in the here and now.

The second surprising idea is that everyone is called to Apostolic poverty! Nothing could be further from the truth. The advice which Jesus gave to the rich young man, was advice to the rich young man! Jesus recognized that for him, wealth was a distraction which kept him from answering his own calling. So, Jesus told him to sell what he had, to give to the poor, and to then come follow. Sadly, this passage has been used to make most others feel that they are second-class Christians. Those who are called to poverty, chastity, and obedience should say yes. But not everyone is called to these vows. If one is not called to the Religious Life, then one should have a different approach to money.

What attitudes should “regular” or “every day” Christians have? The first thing that occurs to me is the famous “attitude of gratitude.” We should be thankful and grateful that our needs are met. At the same time, we must acknowledge that oftentimes this is a result of “privilege.”

Most of us came from a background in which we were more likely than not to live a comfortable life. We are natives of this country. We came from families which were able to provide for our basic needs and for our health care.

Until the recent past, most of us received an education or professional training which prepared us for a successful career–without having to incur an insurmountable and enslaving debt. We fit into the culture in such a way that we were given opportunities for growth, advancement, and promotion. We are able to negotiate the various “systems” to obtain what we need.

In most cases, those basic opportunities were provided for us because of who we are, and not because of anything we have personally done. Very few of us received great inherited wealth. Most of us have had to work to make a living—and at various points in our lives, may have had to work in jobs which we did not enjoy and may even have found demeaning and exploitative. But we were able to earn a living and to have our basic needs be met. That is not true of everyone! And so, we truly should be thankful that we did not know abject poverty, were not homeless, and were in generally good health.

A more helpful attitude is to view money as a tool rather than as an end-in-itself. I remember encountering what I think is a very healthy attitude towards wealth and possessions not long after I entered the monastery. The monks used a fascinating expression about things which others might think “belonged to them.” They said that they held the item “ad usam.”

This literally meant that they claimed to have the “use” of the item but did not “own it.” I came to understand that what they were saying was that they had the use of the item–it did not have control or ownership of them. There was an understanding that they should only hold onto the item so long as it really was useful. If at some point they no longer needed it, they should pass it on to someone else who could make better use of it. They did not want to permit any “thing” to become useless clutter, a distraction, or a stumbling block. If they did discover someone else who needed it more than they did—or who could make better use of it than they could–they had an obligation to either share it—or else to see if there was not some way that they could use it to help provide for the obvious need of the other person.

The Christian understanding is that we are stewards rather than owners. We use things over which we have control to provide for our needs, the needs of those for whom we are responsible, and for anyone else who is in need. Thus, we are called to practice stewardship! We are called to be good stewards.

The third idea is that we must recognize the various levels in which we find ourselves. St Bart’s, in Manhattan, used to speak of three primary communities: the city, the nation, and the world. They recognized a need to be light, salt, and yeast in each of those three places. I think that this kind of view challenges us to recognize that we are invited to use money responsibly on all these levels. I suspect that most of us contribute to Church, and/or to various charities. We also pay taxes which are used for various things locally, on a state level, and nationally. Through our elected representatives we have a say in how those funds will be allocated.

What do we do to provide for the needs of the members of our own parish family? What about poverty and need in Easton and in the Delaware and Lehigh River Valleys? What about Pennsylvania? What about the United States of America? What about the Americas? What about the world? We play a role in allocating funds and in determining policy in each of these communities. How do our values and priorities as People of Faith impact those decisions?

Can we choose to ignore things which disrupt our world? Can we ignore prejudice, poverty, injustice, violence and oppression? Can we ignore earthquakes and floods and heat and cold? These things create confusion, chaos, and uncertainty. Can we hide our talents or bury them in the ground? Can we turn a blind eye to those in need? Not if we are followers of the Jesus who made it clear that whatever we do the “least of these,” we do to Him.

The final idea is that there is some magical formula, percentage, or proportion which applies to everyone. This is not true! Each of us has a unique context and situation-in-life. The ideal that we find in that model Christian community depicted in the Acts of the Apostles is that everyone was so generous with what they had that the needs of all were provided for. Some people have more–they are in a position to share more. Some people have less—they are able to share less. But each of us can give something. Each of us can make a difference. While we can all give of our time and talents. We can all also give of our money.

My Grandmother Storie was an amazing, and often quite unconventional person. She lived on a fixed income and other people would probably have considered her to have been poor. She was amazingly generous! Anyone who was hungry would have been received with joy at her table (and the food was delicious). Later in life, after a time of prayer, she made the decision to stop giving her tithe to her Church. She saw that so many people there were giving and that the Church was able to do all the things that they needed to do. She came to feel that she was called to share her tithe with several of her grandchildren who lacked essential things. For years, while I was in college and in seminary, she sent me her tithe each month. This made a huge difference in my life! I am not in any way suggesting that is what any of you should do. But that is what Mammaw felt that God had called her to do. I was powerfully helped, supported, and upheld by her loving and generous giving.

Jesus talks about families fighting over money and possessions in the passage from the Gospel According to Saint Luke which we heard today. This is so common that I can’t think of more than a few families of which this has not been true. How sad! As a result, families are torn apart. Relationships are destroyed. And, in the end, no one is happy! It only leads to anger, resentment, and alienation. Surely this is not what those who left the wealth ever wanted or intended!

What challenging words Our Lord speaks, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Dear Ones, may we learn ways to use our treasures wisely, and in doing so to become truly rich toward God and toward others. Whether or not we are in “polite company,” let us not be afraid to discuss ways to better use our personal and collective resources to make a positive difference—in our families, in our parish family, in our community, in our country, and in our world.