Month: November 2016

Salvation is nearer to us now

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

sawtooth

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

Today is the first Sunday of what?

… It can’t be Christmas shopping season, because that started at least two weeks ago. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and in Advent the church looks forward to the coming of the Lord… not to the coming of the Christmas tree and presents, and not really to Christmas at all, even the “real Christmas” that some people say is under attack. Advent points to the ultimate coming of the Lord, as the collect for today says:

“That in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal…”

We think of that day as Judgment Day, a scary and dark time for anybody who has anything to be afraid of. Of course, most of those who really deserve to be scared think we are talking about somebody else. But this season we look forward to the final reckoning, when God’s justice is established–of course we want some details on that: who, what, where, WHEN?

Of course, religious folk turn to their Bible, and what does Jesus say? Nobody knows. “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That’s such a disappointment—because you know, if we just knew exactly what was going to happen, then we would have so much power—we would know when to invest in the stock market, or when to take vacation so that the storms would hit somebody else …

There are plenty of people who think that that is what religious faith is supposed to do—give you magical powers or special knowledge that take you outside of the ordinary difficulties of human life. It is easy enough to see Christians who completely ignore what Jesus has to say today. They make pronouncements about the future of the world, or the future of the church, or their own personal future, somehow alluding to hints in scripture, or similarities of some political event with some surmise about an image in scripture, or perhaps to interpreting God’s promises in such a way that God has to give them specifically what they want right now.

Jesus says to be watchful, now and every day—the day of the Lord can be here at any moment. We often think that we know what will happen, or even what is happening. When I was a teenager, I was particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking: a good word from a teacher or a good result in a musical performance and I was going to be a tremendous success—maybe I would be a star at the Metropolitan Opera or President of the U.S. And if something went wrong, my life would be over, everything was a failure. As we grow up and mature, we get a bit of a handle on our expectations, but still the temptation is there to project that recent events will follow in straight lines… /  up  … or \ down . Or we look around us, and assume that possibilities are limited to what was, and things can never change.

But the real world is not like that. When something new and creative happens everyone’s expectations are turned upside down—no one predicted Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, neither could anyone envision that the most amazing music of the baroque period would be produced at its very end, by a conservative named Johann Sebastian Bach. The Day of the Lord overturns our expectations, our grandiose self-serving expectations, and our demoralized and discouraged expectations. The Kingdom of God comes, not when we want, or when we think the preparations are done—two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left… a baby is born of a teenage mother, and the universe is changed. When the pride of the powerful is at its height, their plans collapse. And in the midst of collapse and discouragement, love and sharing are set free to change the world.

I believe in the Day of the Lord, which we focus on in this season of Advent. The specifics, I do not know, any more than Jesus did… but that Day brings life and new things because God’s people are prepared in humility and joy to follow him into new possibilities.

In today’s lesson from his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says:

“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

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Today you will be with me in Paradise

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, The Feast of Christ the King, November 20, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”

Today is the last Sunday of the Church year. Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new year, our expectation of the coming of Christ into the world. This Sunday is often called the Feast of Christ the King and on it we celebrate the kingship of Christ.

Christ the King.

“When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals.”

crucifixionA somewhat different kind of coronation than one might get at Westminster Abbey. He was picked up and tied to the cross by soldiers, and was helpless as they lifted him up to die of torture and suffocation. The sign said, “This is the King of the Jews.” I’m sure the Romans got a laugh out of that. And they taunted him, because he did not have the power that went with what they meant when they talked about a king.

Jesus was indeed in control, but his kingship was never like that. He never looked to the power of the sword, or yet to some divine magic power to overcome the power of the world. The robber said, “Save yourself and us!” Like the rest, for him it was all about us and what we can seize, how we can use power and escape the consequences of how we have lived our lives.

But Jesus, as soon as he was crucified, prayed: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died as he lived, bringing the mercy of God to all people, including those who did not realize that in seeking comfort with the powerful and security in their violence, they were killing the King of Glory, the true king who can bring comfort and security. Jesus was praying for the soldiers, the politicians, the religious leaders, the mob, and for the two criminals who died with him, on either side of him.  Even for the one who wallowed in self-pity, the one who lashed out at Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah?” … “Father forgive them.” The king is the king of mercy, whose courage allowed him to not save himself, but to be there to bring God’s mercy. The other criminal had the courage to face the truth—“Do you not fear God?” “We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds…”  The pain of crucifixion did not make the first one repent, I doubt that it made the second one either more courageous or honest; yet right there he did recognize the blamelessness and truth of Jesus.

Our reading from Colossians says of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…” Reconciliation is often used as a cheap word. As if it simply means being nice and accepting whatever will avoid conflict. Reconciliation requires trust on both sides, and to achieve that requires both honesty and humility in all parties. For Jesus, reconciliation is anything but cheap—he faced the violence and the hatred, and he was killed, tortured to death—there is no reconciliation without facing that truth, there is nothing cheap in accepting the truth and courageously owning up to it.

St. Paul continues: “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death…”  The mercy of God and reconciliation in Christ are not cheap, both require repentance and courage to accept the truth. And the criminal who had the courage to accept the truth about himself also had the courage to say to the King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is in no way cheap to acknowledge deeply your own place in the violence and injustice in this world, as this man did. It takes courage to be humble enough to accept those hard realities about yourself. But reconciliation requires a further step—the man turned toward Jesus and his Kingdom—the Kingdom of life, of justice, of costly reconciliation—the Kingdom of the God who resurrected Jesus Christ from the dead.

And Jesus said to that man: “Amen, I tell you. Today you will be with me in Paradise.” In Paradise—the image is of a garden. God’s garden. The garden as it was before the humans seized a fruit before it was ready, thinking that they would have the power of gods, the power that is only God’s. The image of Paradise is an image of life as it should be, as it might be from the point of view of God, in Jesus who was a man from God’s own point of view. Jesus extends a welcome into that garden, to that man beside him on the cross, and to all of us who seek his Kingdom. The cost is high, but it is within the grasp of each of us. The cost is mercy, honesty, repentance, love and the courage to persist in following Christ when the temptation is high to join the scoffers.

Last Thursday night, one of our own passed from this life. Jacqueline Johnson was a gentle and quiet person. One who always sought the good of others. She was over one-hundred-and-two years old, but her mind was sharp until she went into unconsciousness about a week ago. She was one of those people who practiced graciousness as a way of life. The last time I had a good conversation with her, though she really didn’t feel like eating, she still assured me she had two cans of Ensure each day and ate whatever was given her. “I just eat very slowly,” she said. She was beginning to depart this life, but she was still more concerned about others’ feelings than her own needs. A faithful person, she has passed through her struggles, from death to life. Please join me in remembering her and turn to page 499 in the Book of Common Prayer. The congregation’s words are in italics.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,

Where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

Surely it is God who saves me

A sermon for the 27th Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

As one who always writes out his sermons in full, this gives me pause.  Is Jesus really saying don’t prepare in advance? And how does that fit together with our collect for today, “Grant us to so read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest [the Holy Scriptures] that we may ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life?”

First, we should really look at the scriptures, especially the one in which Jesus says this. Jesus is in Jerusalem, talking with his disciples about the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was there, actually pretty new and solid looking—it had been rebuilt by Herod the Great, just a few decades before. Jesus said not even one stone would be left in place—utter destruction.  This section of the Gospel of Luke is a picture of chaos, violence, and fear.

By the time the Gospel of Luke was written down, the scenes in this lesson were actually happening to Christians. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, and Christians were sometimes finding themselves dragged in front of magistrates and others, imprisoned, persecuted or beaten. Even St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, wrote some of his letters from prison.

So when Jesus says:

“But before this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to congregations and prisons and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

…the readers of the Gospel of Luke knew that it was not just a flight of rhetoric. There were real things to be afraid of.  Throughout this election campaign and continuing this week after the election, many have been afraid, and with real things to be afraid of. The emotional intensity of this Gospel reading isn’t more than how many people feel right now.

So Jesus said to the disciples, to the Christians of the late first century who were facing arrest and persecution: “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare a defense in advance.” Jesus had empathy for all these people, that is, he knew and felt how they felt. He took them seriously. But he wasn’t so sympathetic with their desire to be let off the hook, to escape the reality that was facing them. They were afraid, but Jesus addressed them as his disciples, not just students or followers, but as people formed by the discipline of Christ’s love, of the values of his compassionate courage, as people whose character is growing into the love of God—love not for self, but for all of God’s creation, especially those who are vulnerable.

When he says “don’t prepare your defense in advance,” what I believe Jesus is saying is that this is not about defending yourself at all, it is not about a plausible speech, it is about presenting yourself as Christ presented himself—an offering and sacrifice to God. The truth of God’s compassion does not make us any less vulnerable, it does not make the truth hurt any less. We are accountable for being Christians, for standing for the truth in compassion, for insisting on respect for the dignity of every person. This is in no way partisan. Every Christian is equally required at all times to stand up with compassion for peace and against indignities against anyone, particularly when the tide of group emotions is running toward scapegoats and victims.

In the earlier part of the lesson, Jesus warns the disciples, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘the time is near!’ Do not listen to them.”  It is so easy to grab hold of plausible rhetoric, and people who promise the world, or even eternity, if you only follow them.  We certainly have seen that. As Christians, we follow Jesus, and Jesus alone. So how do we distinguish following Jesus, from accepting the word of some bearded guy standing behind a lectern?

Please join with me in a simple exercise of discernment. Don’t tell me what you are thinking, but reflect on these questions in the privacy of your own heart.

In this time of fraught national transition, what is God calling you to do?

Now. What is fear calling you to do?

Finally. What is love calling you to do?

In the long run, as we grow into Christ, who is the love of God, our discernment of where God is calling us to go, and what love is calling us to be will converge into the same thing.  And perfect love casts out fear, as real as the fear may be—but that might take a while. That’s OK—the love of God is bigger than all of us.

So, it says, right here in the Bible: “Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. … You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

In conclusion, let’s join once more and read today’s canticle, the First Song of Isaiah, together in unison:

Surely it is God who saves me;

I will trust in him and not be afraid.

For the Lord Is my stronghold and my sure defense,

And he will be my Savior.

Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing

From the springs of salvation.

And on that day you shall say,

Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;

Make his deeds known among the peoples;

See that they remember that his name is exalted.

Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things,

And this is known in all the world.

Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy,

For the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

For the saints of God are just folk like me …

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

 

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 

st-james-saintsToday we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. So what do we mean by Saints? The word “saint” means “Holy” as in holy people. Popularly that’s sort of understood as meaning that saints are some kind of Christian super-heroes, totally divorced and apart from anything that ordinary people could be, or would want to be. I’ll talk more about that later. But in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, the saints are all of the holy people of God, and every one of them is made holy, not by being some sort of hero, but by the action of God who makes all of us holy through his Son Jesus Christ.

The Gospel lesson today is for and about those saints, ordinary people, living ordinary lives. It is the beginning of Jesus’ teaching: in the Gospel of Matthew it’s called the Sermon on the Mount, but here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has come down from the mountain to a flat plain—maybe it’s a sermon to California’s Central Valley? Anyway, this part of it is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.

So why does it start “Blessed are the poor?” Who are the poor? — They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or might lose.

Likewise, those who are hungry. They don’t have enough to eat—they have to seek out that food—and really, in this world, sometimes people do not find it. It is for them that Jesus is concerned—in the Kingdom of God they will be satisfied.

And in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus emphasizes these things by pronouncing woe on those who are the opposite: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”  For those of us who are well-fed and not poor, that can be difficult to hear.

Jesus does not allow us to take comfort in our complacency or to fail to respect those who are hungry or poor just as we respect ourselves.

This is not to say that we should not rejoice in the good things that God has given us, and when we lose important things or people who are dear to us that we should not mourn. “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.” There is no one who does not lose: friends, loved ones, and hopes that are deeply valued—we are blessed during our tears by the compassion of God.  We mourn and we hurt. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy. Our Christian spirituality takes seriously the losses of everyone; of every person. Laughter and derision because we are not the ones who are in pain or loss—that kind of laughter brings woe. It is not of the Kingdom of God.

And the last of the beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you or revile you…” This completes the Christian spirituality that Jesus is presenting—it is so easy to fall into presenting ourselves in ways that will get a positive response, regardless of whether it is compassionate, or truthful. Insisting on respect for all people; regarding the poor and hungry as the same as the rich, the powerful, and the popular; doing those things openly can be frightening, they can trigger all sorts of responses, even hatred.  Just ask Jesus. But believe me, Jesus is not the only example.

How do we live our lives as Christians? He says, “Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” In the New Testament, and especially in the Gospel of Luke, Love is not about how you feel. How do you love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you. Seek to improve the world around you, don’t be deterred by the scoffing of others. As we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.

Jesus invites us all, not to some sort of heroic sainthood, but to a holiness of life that values his kingdom above all else. Many of the saints we remember were martyrs—St. Sebastian is one and, more recently Archbishop Oscar Romero, are a couple who come to mind. Not all saints, however, died for their faith, the word martyrs is a translation of the word “witness” or “confessor.” We often think of them as somehow having religious superpowers. But in reality they were not superheroes—they were Christian people. There are many that you run into each day that are just as good, just as faithful. The real characteristic of saints is that they continue to seek the kingdom with Jesus—even when, to put it in down-to-earth terms—they had a really bad day. And, because of the circumstances of their holding fast to their faith in a time of great trouble, or because they were such eloquent witnesses to the faith—or both—they have been enshrined through the ages.

But what does all this mean to us in our church here in our present-day world?

I often think about the small Episcopal Church I attended when I was a kid in Idaho. This church had no important programs, no fine choir, not much to brag about. But we did sing out of the hymnal, and it was that music, as poorly performed as it might have been, that sustained my spirit through the years. One of my favorite hymns in my childhood was the one we just sang for the gospel hymn. Perhaps the text may seem limited to early twentieth century England, but for me the images emphasize how ordinary people participate in that great cloud of witnesses that is the communion of saints: “for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.”

Together, we are the community of Jesus’ saints. Not superheroes or champions. Every bit as scruffy and in need of support as the homeless, the hungry and the infirm who we might encounter. Together we worship God. Together we serve the saints, and even serve those who scoff at the saints. Each of us, may from time to time be hungry, impoverished, unable to love, or be devastated by loss. At St. James, we live the Gospel, in all the real-world messiness that entails. This small assembly in the communion of saints upholds one another, welcomes the stranger and is blessed by God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.

This Sunday, our stewardship committee has asked all of us saints to commit ourselves to the support of this community where Christ accomplishes his blessing far more than any of us would be able to do individually.

After the announcements we will begin our offertory by asking each person or family to bring forward your pledge card and put it on the altar. Each person’s financial circumstances are different. We are all blessed in our poverty and in our generosity. As we all offer what we have on the altar, we are blessed by God.