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You lack one thing

A sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing…”

The Gospel today presents a fascinating story—a man runs up and kneels before Jesus. Jesus invites him to follow him. The man goes away crestfallen. The parts in between present a challenge to me as a preacher.

First off, there is quite a bit about money in here, and we know it’s always a losing proposition to talk about money, especially in church. But my real problem is that there are two usual approaches that are taken with Jesus’ challenge to this young man, and neither is satisfactory: one approach is to explain away the hardness of Jesus’ words “sell everything you own and give it to the poor” and make it into something more palatable and less like the Gospel and the other is to push a dramatic vision of discipleship that just is not relevant to how people live their lives. But the Gospel, particularly this Gospel is relevant to how we live our lives, as individuals and as a Christian congregation.

In this conversation, Jesus looked at this man and he loved him. The lesson we read makes a point of this. Frequently the Gospel does not attribute motives or feelings to Jesus or others. Here, it is quite clear, Jesus is not trying to catch this guy out, or reveal his hypocrisy or anything else—he loved him. What follows is an invitation: give up what you have and follow me. It is not that far off from what Jesus said to Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee when he saw them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee: “follow me.” Of course, what they left behind was their fishing nets and long hard days of physical labor, while this young man was told to leave behind a substantial fortune. But the invitation was the same. The man was shocked and crestfallen because he had asked a straightforward question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and he had in mind that he would get a straightforward answer. And he expected that that answer would be within parameters that he could expect and which he could adjust his life to fit.

Jesus’ answer was straightforward enough, but it was way outside the man’s expectations. The young man hadn’t asked how to be a hero, or an apostle or a martyr; he just wanted to know what to do to inherit eternal life. Until you think about it, that seems like a fairly small thing, like having good teeth and staying out of jail; just part of a properly run life.

But eternal life begins now, and with Jesus it requires things we don’t expect, and perhaps haven’t budgeted for. We certainly see it among Jesus’ disciples, like when Peter realizes that Jesus is expecting to suffer and be crucified as the result of his ministry. Peter is shocked and tries to talk Jesus out of it—“Get behind me Satan!” is Jesus’ response. Following Jesus has turns in the path that we don’t necessarily expect, and being faithful requires us to stay with him when those turns become difficult.

As an illustration let’s look into these questions of money and goods which come up in today’s Gospel. I’m not even going to try to explain about camels and needles. In our own lives we expect to get along and to prosper as long as we do our share. And in this way we have a lot in common with the man who approached Jesus. And Jesus, of course, may have something in store for us, that we are not expecting, just as happened with that man. Our expectations get wrapped up in what we expect money to do for us, or likewise how a particular shape of our material well-being is a necessity for life. That is the tragedy of this man, this prospective disciple. Jesus presents an opportunity to look at this differently.

Eternal life is on the one hand more secure than the prosperity of this world, but on the other hand it requires us to let loose of our expectations of security and prosperity.

The future of Christianity in the next hundred years will expand and open before us, and it is not likely to be the same as the last two hundred years. There is no longer a presumption in this country that people ought to attend church or that they ought to be Christians. As Christians, we can no longer rely on institutional inertia to keep church services going to have the faith passed down to the next generation. It is only in following Jesus on his road into the unknown future that we can inherit eternal life.

So what does he require? That we sell everything? Well, perhaps more…perhaps our expectations of what church means, and what we get from that may be turned upside down. We gather as a community of Thanksgiving—thanksgiving for this Jesus whose generosity in giving himself models for us how our life can be filled with generosity and thanksgiving. The question of money and possessions is not a question of anxiety or fear with Jesus, rather what we have is an opportunity to live lives of generosity and thanksgiving, both individually and corporately.

Finding what Jesus is calling us to is not a matter of reading a few verses of scripture or a 10-minute sermon. It is not a matter of literally copying what Peter, Andrew, James, or John or this rich young man was told to do. It is a matter of courageously accepting the call to eternal life and the real difficulties of discerning what of our expectations to sacrifice, so that we can confidently live that life of thanksgiving that Jesus has for all those who he loves.

“Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

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You restored my life

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

St. Luke’s Church, Haworth, New Jersey

You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.

Today we have the stories of two resurrection appearances. The resurrected Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus. He also appears to Peter and six others on the beach of the lake of Tiberius, also known as the Sea of Galilee. One thing these stories share in common is that, at first, no one recognized Jesus.

The story that was read first is usually called the Conversion of St. Paul. Which is interesting because it’s not actually a conversion story. Paul was a devout Jew before this event and he remained a devout Jew for the rest of his life. Paul himself describes what happened, not as a conversion, but as an appearance of the resurrected Lord. In his First Letter to the Corinthians he says this:

[Jesus] was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

In our lesson from Acts this morning, the form of the story is not so much that of a conversion. It’s more akin to the way prophets are called. Think of Moses and the Burning Bush. Or Isaiah in the Temple when the prophet responded: “Here am I Lord. Send me.”

So here are we are, on the road to Damascus. There’s a flash, overwhelming light, Saul falls from his donkey. And a voice says: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Saul’s response? “Who ARE you Lord?” Now, commentators have singled this passage out as a very strange thing. Saul knows he is being called—but he doesn’t know that Jesus is doing the calling. Put another way: he knows he is being called, but he does not see.

Why doesn’t he see Jesus? Well, there is that blinding flash from heaven, but I think the key is the very beginning of the lesson: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” Saul’s anger, his hatred, so overcame him—he was already not seeing—he was not seeing at whom he was angry, just the self-righteousness of his anger. And Jesus says to him, “Why do you persecute ME.” The ones that Saul persecuted were members of the church. He had nothing to do with Jesus’ persecution before his death, but what Jesus said to him was it didn’t matter. In persecuting the church, Saul was persecuting Jesus. Saul was blinded, and helpless and he was guided into the community that he had been persecuting for support and healing. And he was healed, and when he was able to see, he could see that in his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, he was called to proclaim him, even beyond his own Jewish nation and to bring the news of what God has done in Jesus to all the nations.

The other resurrection appearance is the last chapter of the Gospel of John.  Some time after the first resurrection appearances of Jesus, seven of Jesus’ long time disciples are back in Galilee, at that lake where Jesus had first called them away from their jobs as fishermen. And Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” We don’t know why they were there or what they were doing, but I think they were discouraged and lost. They didn’t know what to do—so they just defaulted back to their old ways. What happened next was that these professional fishermen were out in the dark and couldn’t find any fish, despite their skill and years of experience.

Jesus appears on the beach, but in their discouragement and confusion they don’t recognize him. Jesus asks them about their catch, and gives them a little advice. All of a sudden, their net is filled and Peter recognizes Jesus—and then Peter puts on his clothes and goes in for a swim—go figure. On the beach, there’s a charcoal fire, not unlike the charcoal fire that was in the High Priest’s courtyard, where the slaves and soldiers were warming themselves when Peter denied Jesus. And Jesus is barbecuing fish.

fishFor me, this scene always brings back a wonderful memory from my childhood. I was fishing with my family off the Oregon coast early one summer morning. As dawn broke, we all caught our limit and we drove back to my uncle’s house in Portland, where we barbecued our catch. There is nothing quite like Pacific salmon caught just a few hours ago cooked over coals. That’s how I imagine the disciples responded to this wonderful breakfast after their long night at sea. But as to Jesus? They sort of recognized him and they sort of didn’t. The Gospel says: “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”

Why aren’t the disciples seeing Jesus? Because they had yet to give up their despair and confusion, just like Saul needed to surrender his anger and hate. They needed to change.

After they have eaten, Jesus talks to Peter. Three times, Jesus asks Peter: Do you love me? Each time, when Peter answers in the affirmative, Jesus replies: Take care of my sheep. Let’s not forget, it was only a few days ago that Peter had denied Jesus three times. Interesting—in the Greek, three different words are used for sheep and for tend. It’s not exactly a rhetorical repetition, rather it’s a variation. Maybe there are different kinds of sheep, that need different kinds of tending. Perhaps that’s true of people, too.

When Peter and Paul finally see the risen Lord, they are changed. But they aren’t changed in who they are in their essential beings. The change is that they are called to serve; to reach out; to proclaim the life of the risen Christ in a world where there is too much death, hate, anger and fear. Christ comes to us as we are, however that may be. He calls Christians out of their fear, or anger, or confusion, or complacency. Jesus gives his life, so that we may give. He appears to us to call us forward to be transformed to tend and to heal one another.

From our psalm today:
You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.

Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

 

Not one stone

A sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 15, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Not one stone will be left here upon another.

When you read a text in a different tone of voice, its meaning changes. For instance, in our Gospel today, most of the time you hear it in an angry voice, a prophecy of violence and destruction. Christians have interpreted it as the prediction of the destruction of the temple by the Romans, and the judgment of God on the Jews.

What if we read this in a different tone of voice?

So Jesus and his disciples finish watching the people, including the widow with the two tiny coins, putting money Stones ruined templein the treasury, and they walk out of the temple. And one of the guys says, “Wow, look! Those are big buildings and look how big the stones that they are built with are!”

Then Jesus thinks for a while.

And he says, “ You know, the time will come when not one of those stones will be left on top of the other.”

We build edifices. Huge buildings. Churches, skyscrapers, systems of roads. They appear to us to be permanent. We invest a lot of ourselves in thinking of these works as permanent—that somehow they will last forever.  The other day, I was reading a book that dealt with the history of New York City in the early 1800s, about 200 years ago. It described some of the physical aspects of New York City at that time. Most of the land above 14th Street was open country, with farms and estates. There was a beautiful church, called St. John’s Chapel of Trinity Parish, with a beautiful expansive lawn out front. Actually it was a park, and it was called St. John’s Park. The park gave way to the freight rail yards of the New York Central Railroad and the church was torn down to accommodate the widening of Varick Street. Now that area is the approach to the Holland Tunnel on Canal Street.  There is no trace of that church building now, even though it was significant in the history of our city.

That disciple was so impressed by the buildings, but Jesus … not so much.  Jesus is not so worried about the buildings of the temple or the city.  There’s all that rhetoric about the timeless and eternal city, but it is God and God’s love that are forever, not the placement of stones, or roofs or gardens.

Most people are worried about these things. When will we lose things, when will bad things happen to us? The disciples were worried—they took Jesus aside. They try to pin him down, when? What will happen? How will this be accomplished?

Jesus responds—“Don’t be led astray.” “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed, this will take place.”   “But people will come in my name and say, ‘Look!’ – I know what’s happening! Look, here is the way of God!”

Just as I was writing this I heard about the shootings in Paris. One story said 18 people killed, another said at least 40 in 3 attacks. Killings and rumors of killings. Very real, right now. We have had far too many this year, far too much senseless violence. And all sorts of people will be telling us what this means, what God is saying. And most of them will be speaking about their own fear, about their own solutions and about whom they are angry with. Most of what most of us think, when something like this happens, is like the disciples: “What about the stones? What about the bricks? What about the things we have constructed?” And nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom—earthquakes and famines. And many will be afraid, and many will be angry.  And many will decide to be false teachers, and tell you exactly what to do and when God will do this, and how they really represent Jesus.

And none of that helps. Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed.” He is here among us, and though it was less than a week before his own crucifixion, he said, “Don’t be led astray.” Don’t panic—all these things that pass away, and these things that frighten us, and cause us to mourn are but the first fruits of the kingdom of God.

The Gospel of Mark continues with exhortations to courage, to witness to Christ, wherever we may be called upon to witness. But what is it to which we should witness? It is the hospitality of God, his gift and welcome in Jesus Christ.  Remember, this lesson started as he was walking out from the temple. And what had he been doing there? Jesus was watching that humble widow, doing a very ordinary thing, yet something that took great courage. She was giving of her substance for the sake of others. It was only two cents, but it was the full down payment on the Kingdom of God. That is what Jesus was teaching his disciples. There is no better time to witness to being Christ’s ambassadors of welcome to others, than in the midst of frightening events, and uncertain change. The Kingdom of God is being born among us, and indeed it is led by those who fear they have nothing. For the one thing that is worth giving in times such as these, is the love of God.

Let us pray for those who died in Paris. From our Psalm today:

I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night. I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.

My heart, therefore is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

 

The Samaritan Apostle

A sermon at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014

 

Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

The Gospel today is long. That’s because it’s a great story and there’s no way to break it up.

The woman in this story was a Samaritan. The Samaritans show up a number of places in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of John and we often skip over, or misunderstand who the Samaritans are, or especially how they were regarded among Jesus’ hearers. Under kings David and Solomon there was a united kingdom of Israel which broke into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah after Solomon’s death. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, represent the religion and perspective of the southern kingdom of Judah. The capital of the northern kingdom was Samaria until it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 200 years later. It was another century and a half later that the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.

There is still a very small community of Samaritans who live on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and live according to the laws in the Torah and offer sacrifices there. There is a complex and interesting history of the Samaritans which I won’t go into, but they were a substantial population during Jesus’ time, not quite as large as the Jewish population, but many villages in the part of Judea between Jerusalem and Galilee were populated by Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans had different understandings about the origins of the Samaritans though their shared scriptures varied only in whether God should be worshiped at the temple on Mt. Gerizim or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

The account that was accepted by the Jews (and supported by the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah) was that the Assyrians had destroyed and deported most of the residents of the kingdom of Israel (thus the 10 lost tribes of Israel) and settled non-Israelites who were also idolaters in the land. Any Israelites who were left had intermarried with these idolaters—thus any of their worship was polluted, idolatrous and heretical. The Samaritans believed on the other hand, that they carried on the true traditions of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and that the Judeans had profaned the worship by moving it from Mt. Gerizim to Jerusalem. This was very serious business; each group regarded the other as worse than other sorts of foreigners because of their betrayal of what was most holy. Of course, other characteristics were attributed to these people, as people do with groups that are despised—they were dirty, dishonest, ignorant… From either group’s perspective, not only would you not want your daughter to marry one, you wouldn’t want to come into contact with one of them at all.

So that’s the background of this conversation—Jesus asks THAT sort of woman for a drink of water. And she responds as you would expect—“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And the entire long discussion involves all the main points of Samaritan theology and their differences with the Jews. She was so intent on arguing her points, that she couldn’t hear that Jesus was saying something completely different—as he told her about living water, and true worship, she responds with the Samaritan theological talking points: Jacob gave this land and well to his son Joseph, the ancestor of the Samaritans, and true worship is on Mount Gerizim, not Mount Zion.

But Jesus is not trying to win a theological debate—he’s talking about being alive in the presence of God. The turning point is when, in a very tight place, she asserts the Samaritan understanding of the returning Messiah and Jesus says to her: “I am the one, the one who is speaking to you.” This personal connection breaks through her defenses, and convinces her that this life he offers her is something different than the old debates between one group and another. The whole point of her being at that place was to fill up her water jar and take it back to townNiagara Springs—but she leaves the water jar there and she goes and tells everybody in town—“Come and see…Could this possibly be the Messiah?”—in fact this makes her the first apostle, that is, one sent to bring others to Christ. One might say that she leaves her jug and brings Living Water to the town.

This story is so rich and full that it really would warrant a whole Lenten study series to fully appreciate it. Being transformed through receiving the living water of Christ directs us toward baptism and Easter which are the real point of Lent. Among the many insights that can be drawn from these lessons today, the one that I would like to point out is that this woman had some real legitimate religious traditions and theological understanding, but she was stuck—one can surmise that a lot of it had to do with personal issues, that she was trying to hide and defend at the same time. When she really met Jesus she had to give up, not the religious truth, but how she formulated them, and how she defended herself and her group. As we move forward in faith, and face new situations in a changing world, sometimes we also have to be ready to give things up and change when Jesus asks us to follow him…maybe even leaving the water jug behind.

And God said to Moses: “Strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

And Jesus said, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

The Way of Wisdom

A sermon for Theological Education Sunday

St. Paul’s, Ossining, NY 4th Sunday after Epiphany, February 2, 2014

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Who knows what today is? Of course, we all know what it is—Super Bowl Sunday. And this year, the most important event in the American secular calendar falls on February second, the same day as Groundhog Day. Even in the calendar of the Church it is at least three other things: In the Book of Common Prayer, February 2 is a major feast, the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, in older days and in some contexts the same feast was called the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The lectionary also has today as the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, and that’s where today’s lessons come from. But in the Episcopal Church, the first Sunday in February is designated as Theological Education Sunday, and I’m here today, as a faculty member of the General Theological Seminary, to talk with you about Theological Education.

So what IS Theological Education? Over the years there have been a lot of confused, obscure and frankly, quite deadly, sermons and other presentations on that topic. There’s actually a reason for that. Theological Education has been regarded as being about the training of professional clergy in specialized skills which are seldom of interest or relevance to ordinary Christians or about the support of theologians whose job is to think thoughts and write books in obscure terminology that are usually inaccessible to most ordinary church members and often to ordinary clergy.
Thus presentation of Theological Education is usually an anemic attempt to communicate across a vast divide to a foreign audience. This is a problem, not just with seminaries, but with the whole church, including congregational life. The faculty of General spent a very intense week on retreat in January working on this very problem, and I would like to report out some of my perception of what we arrived at.

Theology does not have to mean a distant and abstract thing. It is clear that in the early centuries of the church, theology meant the participation in the ever-deepening practice of the Christian life which we all share. The whole church needs to be called to a more intentional and deeper commitment to this. We’re calling this the Way of Wisdom. There’s a reason for this because if we call it theology, people will get confused because they have a different idea of what theology should be about. But make no mistake: this is theology that is meant to be practiced on the ground at St. Paul’s.

TutumandelaBut what does this mean? From the Old Testament, we have a statement of the Way of Wisdom at the end of our lesson from Micah: “God has told you, O Mortal, what is good;” –and what is that?—“and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” We could spend a long time unpacking that statement, and we should—we should spend our whole lifetime understanding and living what it is to walk humbly with God, love kindness, and to do justice. You could think of it as the art of living the Christian life and that’s the theology we call the Way of Wisdom.

The Way of Wisdom is exactly the same in a parish or a seminary, or indeed in all the contexts of ministry that we have, whether a soup kitchen, community organizing, outreach to returning veterans or an EFM group gathered from a number of churches. We all share our wisdom and we encourage one another in the Gospel. But among us, some are leaders who particularly focus on encouraging and helping others to grow in the depth of the Christian life. Some become clergy and others have ministries that don’t fit that mold. So at seminary we have a group that is seeking that, to grow into more depth, usually to become leaders in the church. Some are young, some are not; some have a lot of experience in life or in the church, some have less. But to one degree or another they have already embarked on the Way of Wisdom, some more than they know and others less than they think. The conversation and the community broadens and deepens.

The faculty introduces them to voices they have never known existed—from the church of the second, third and fourth centuries, from the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and from more recent times. The community critically reflects on scripture—for instance, how it impacts women in the present and in the past, or how we might sort through the controversies of the present day and how the church has done so in many critical times in the past. Even those philosophical, theological, and theoretical thinkers such as I mentioned earlier are engaged, so those voices are heard and understood, and their insights incorporated into the way of wisdom that is our life together. But none of this is just an academic or scholarly exercise, no matter how exciting that might be for some.

What does it mean to those students when they return to a parish community or another ministry and work to help people in their community deepen their walk with Christ? What does it mean in teaching, or visiting the sick, or organizing ministries, or standing in the pulpit and trying to say something true? This takes reflection, and listening, and acquiring a habit of learning and prayer.

These students, remember, don’t come to the seminary as tabula rasa. Their own wisdom is always an important part of the experience of everyone, faculty, students, staff, and others as learning and growing community. Together we learn to become those words of Micah: what is it to do justice? That takes more than a couple of minutes to answer. What is it to love kindness? What is it to be a community that always seeks to be kinder and more compassionate, especially to those who are troubled or marginalized? And how indeed can we walk humbly with our God, except for one small step at a time, and falling back and retracing those steps. The seminary provides community, so that when one stumbles along the way, there are fellow seekers there to lift one up.

So our goal at seminary is not to produce priests who have pre-made solutions to problems and who are solely focused on fixing things. What we are here to do is to provide wise, resourceful people who know how it feels to struggle to live on the Way of Wisdom and who know how to be companions to others following alongside.

That doesn’t mean we want our students to be impractical or too abstruse to bother with finding solutions to problems. On the Way of Wisdom, sometimes you have to know some skills and whether your skills address the problem at hand, or if you need to find someone with the right set of skills. Sometimes you have to fight back against injustice, while at other times, the solution is to reframe one’s perspective and let go of the issue. And sometimes, we must just be companions to one another in the difficulty of the moment. It takes resilience and wisdom to choose and shape those solutions to the hard questions, and that is where theological education is an invaluable guide.

We need to look only as far as our Gospel lesson today, the Beatitudes, for an example of what I have been talking about. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ blessing on his people on the Way of Wisdom. These blessings in many ways are simple—conveying the love of God for everyone—for example: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Yet when we reflect on these well-known passages tough questions emerge. Let’s just examine the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does that mean, “the poor in spirit?” People have a lot to say about that, to the point where it can end up meaning not very much at all. The Gospel of Luke says: “Blessed are you who are poor”—so maybe the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is just softening up Jesus’ original revolutionary message. Perhaps, but what does that have to do with how we live our lives? Maybe “poor in spirit” means that I’m blessed if I just feel poor—sort of like the guy who wrote an article for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, describing how he was furious one year because he got a $3.6 million dollar bonus and he was convinced that he deserved and needed far more than that. Lots of us feel poor like that, though probably not quite in such a dramatic fashion. Do we just use the Gospel to make ourselves feel justified and content?

It is certainly possible to interpret “poor in spirit” as humble. In fact I think that humility is essential to our understanding. But it is also easy to fall into a negative and complacent humility, regarding ourselves as not much good, with little to offer. That’s safe. And passive. And lazy.

Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This does not mean that if you are passive you will go to heaven. In all of Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom is dynamic, God among his people, transforming and healing. If we try to understand the lesson through its literary form: in the first beatitude the blessing on the poor in spirit is the kingdom of heaven, and in the last beatitude the blessing is also the kingdom of heaven, even though none of the others have the same blessing. There is a parallel between the first and last passage. But the first is “poor in spirit” and the last is “persecuted for righteousness sake,” which is the only one that is repeated and elaborated. Humility is in fact being at the service of God. Recognizing our weakness and sinfulness, nevertheless, when we are poor in spirit we are in God’s service. And that service is courageous witness to the truth in our lives, which is the witness that historically resulted in martyrs in the early church and at other times.

And that is an abbreviated example of the kind of reflection that goes on in theological education. It’s for the students yes, but it’s also so that we can continue to form courageous people to walk humbly, both followed and led by their sisters and brothers in the church, and by the whole world.

The Kingdom of God and the Way of Wisdom describe essentially the same thing: our growing along with one another in the life of God. It is for us all, the art of living our lives in Christ. We all are active participants, but disciplined reflection and knowledge is needed to challenge us to live our life together in the Way to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

Just like the clay…

Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand…”

Pottery wheel--baby

Most of the time, when we think of the image of God being the potter and we being the clay, we are inclined to think of gentle molding and subtle corrections, making us gradually better but entirely still ourselves.  But if we look carefully at today’s lesson from Jeremiah, it’s not quite that way.  God summons the prophet Jeremiah to go watch a potter working at his wheel.  And what does Jeremiah see?  For some reason, the vessel that the potter is working on is messed up—and the potter takes it, he’s decided it’s beyond tweaking, and he smashes the vessel completely into a new lump. Then using that clay he commences to start a completely different vessel.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but that’s what you get for opening the book of Jeremiah—he was in the business of saying hard truths during hard times.  The judgment of God in those days was not letting the people of Jerusalem and Judah off the hook—and yet in all times we are accountable to God to live lives of justice and to follow where God leads, even when that may change who we are.  Being changed by God is like this pot that was pushed back in to a lump of clay.  All change involves destruction of something.  The vessel the potter was making had to give up its entire form so that the clay could be used again and a different pot would be made.  People usually try to avoid that.  Most people will agree that changing is okay—in theory—as long as they don’t have to give up A, B, or C.

But to be Christians, that is, to be disciples of Jesus, we have to change and that means that, like it or not, we have to give up A. B. and C.  This is what Jesus says at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  –the notes in the commentary I was reading sum this up well: “the language here is strong…the term “hate” is the opposite of “love”—the terms denote attitudes and modes of action, not emotions.  The point is not how one feels about parents and family, but one’s effective attitude when it comes to a choice for the kingdom.”

In other words, Jesus chose the toughest A, B, and C to challenge people to change and enter the kingdom of God.  In order to have abundant life we have to accept the death of some old shapes, and things that we hold on to.  The parable today about the guy building the tower is an example—how many times do we see someone start on a project and think that they can be successful just because of their brains and good looks, without seeing the obstacles or making sure they have the resources it takes?  The person who fails to build the tower, fails because they are too proud and attached to their idea.  The person who lives abundant life is alive through the ability to accept reality, and be willing to give up things that might be valuable and change according to the love of God.

Today’s epistle is virtually the entire letter to Philemon, the shortest of the letters of St. Paul and the only one addressed to a single individual.  I hesitate to talk about it, because there is so much in it, so much subtlety in the persuasive interchange between the elderly apostle and his old friend Philemon, and because the subject matter raises so many deep questions, particularly on the issues surrounding slavery.  I cannot do justice to this in a brief sermon.  I do want to point out that Paul’s reason for writing the letter is to challenge his friend Philemon to change.  Philemon as a wealthy citizen had all the legal rights in this situation, and we know that wealthy citizens are generally unwilling to hear anything that would imperil their economic rights and prerogatives.  Yet Paul says, “…you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”  This personal letter survives.  Perhaps Philemon did heed Paul and give up his property right.

It is frightening to give up things, to see what we know converted back to a lump of clay without knowing what God will form out of it.  But we do know that the love of God in Jesus forms us into a living body that brings that love into this world.