Compassion

God’s love has been poured into our hearts

A sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

 

This year, the lectionary takes the gospel lessons from the Gospel of Matthew. You might remember that in January and February, there were several Sundays from the Sermon on the Mount, which is Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teachings. The first section begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and its last section begins, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” That is chapters five through seven.

Today’s gospel reading begins in the last part of the ninth chapter. What happened in the two chapters that lead up to it? When Jesus came down from the mount, he began healing people. In these two chapters, I count nine separate stories of Jesus healing one or more people, as well as another when he calmed a storm while his anxious disciples were out at sea in a small boat. There is nothing accidental about this. Hard-headed historical scholars agree that what we know about Jesus is that he was crucified during the time that Pontius Pilate governed in Jerusalem and that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. Jesus was not a generic miracle worker, and he was not an innovative philosopher—his teachings were clarification and holding people accountable to the scriptures: Jewish law and the teachings of the prophets.

So he looks up and sees the crowds—I think we can safely take that to signify all of humanity, every person, particularly at some time—and Jesus has compassion, because there they are harassed and helpless—the Greek could as easily be read, “troubled and cast-down, or oppressed.” They are like sheep without a shepherd: anxious, aimless, in danger of being scattered and harmed. Jesus had been healing, bringing health to a number of people, but unhealth and evil still affected the community.

At this point in the Gospel the section introducing Jesus’ teaching and healing comes to an end. The call of the disciples, which began just before the Sermon on the Mount is completed, and we get the list of the twelve. Now they have seen, and learned, and Jesus sends them out: “Proclaim the Gospel, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Notice that Jesus sends them out without equipment, supplies or the wherewithal to purchase them. The disciples are not donors or patrons or the people in charge. All they have to give is peace. In other words, they bring the compassion of Jesus, nothing more, nothing less. The compassion of the one, who they would learn later, would be crucified for that very compassion.  What they bring is the Spirit of God, which is the love of God, caring for the well-being of God’s creatures before all else—before even self.

Jesus can send out these twelve because they themselves have been healed. They have received not just the outward blessing of a commission, but also the inner healing from God as they have gone about with Jesus. They have not only seen him giving peace and healing, but he has given his peace to them—in that little boat, he woke up, and rebuked the winds, and there was total calm. It is out of that calm, that peace, that they can now go to the towns and villages and tell about the Kingdom of Heaven.

At this point, Trinity Church is at a somewhat similar time. Mother Margo has begun her sabbatical, and so also Trinity as a congregation begins its sabbatical. A sabbatical is a time of refreshment more than anything else. We are Christ’s disciples because of what we receive, not because of what we do. In living lives of thankfulness and embodying Christ’s compassion many things may be done. Yet all that we can really share or give is the peace of God and the compassion of God, as did the twelve that Jesus sent out.

A sabbatical is a time for reflection on the gifts of God’s compassion that we have received and continue to receive. This is an opportunity to pause—and listen. The peace of God comes to the fore—at the right time, in God’s time, all of Jesus’ disciples become part of the network of Christ’s compassion in this world. In other words, things do happen, but in this summer of sabbatical, let us take time to listen—to realize the true source of our peace, which is God—to put aside the anxieties of our world, our country and our personal challenges, and believe in the truth—the compassion of Jesus. We have one shepherd, it is Jesus. Our faith is in him.

St. Paul put it this way, in his letter to the church at Rome:

Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Called to our side

A sermon for the sixth Sunday in Easter, May 21, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

Jesus is talking here about the sending of the Holy Spirit. The word that Jesus uses that is translated as Advocate, is parakletos—Paraclete. Greek likes to make verb constructions into nouns and in this case, what it means is “one called to the side of someone.”  So, as a priest, I might be called to the side of a person in the hospital or to someone who is grieving. A lawyer might be called to stand alongside of someone with legal problems or a friend to stand along with a friend in need. So, Jesus is talking with his disciples about his own departure, his crucifixion, and he says, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another one to stand with you.” Jesus stands with us and God calls the Holy Spirit to stand with us in our life.

But what does that mean? The Holy Spirit is understood and misunderstood in many ways by many people, Christian and otherwise. And even those who claim direct experience of the Holy Spirit—surely most of them have some experience—but how do we know it is the Holy Spirit? What does Jesus have to say in our Gospel today? It starts, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And the passage ends, “and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” The description of the Holy Spirit is about the love of God.

And it has to do with following Jesus commandments—but what are they?  If we have been reading directly through the Gospel of John, we know. In the chapter that has just ended, where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he gave them a commandment. In fact, it is his only commandment in the Gospel of John: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Period. That’s it. Easy enough. Of course, the way that Jesus loved his disciples and this world was costly indeed—that evening he was led away to be tried and executed. We are invited, commanded really, to become part of God’s love by loving God’s children, in the most costly way, by giving of ourselves.

Love is not grandstanding, it is seeking the good of someone. You don’t have to die to do that, and no one has to know what caring for another person might cost you. Love is not how we feel, it is helping another, it is being called to stand along with them. Perhaps we do feel good when we do that, but the feeling is not the love, not this kind of love.

The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is God’s love. Simple as that: God standing with us, upholding us when we don’t know how to stand, for ourselves or for someone else. The Holy Spirit supports us and holds us together.

Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” The Love of God is the Truth—as I talked about last week.  In the face of all the un-love, hatred and violence in this world, the Truth is the Love of God. Why can’t the world know this? First we should know that in the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John, that term “World” has a specific and special meaning.  It refers to that realm that looks to itself and its own benefit—to succeed in that world makes one powerful and wealthy, and in the world’s eyes those things are all that count.  It was pretty much the values of the Roman Empire, at least of the ruling elites of that empire, but sharply distinct from the values of Christ and Christians.  The values of the world, of course, reassert themselves from time to time, and it is pretty easy to see that now is one of those times. The World has no room in its values for the love of God—it encourages love of self and protection of self, not being called to support those who are poor, or sorrowful, or passionate for justice. The World cannot receive the Holy Spirit because it cannot open itself to love—if it did, it would cease to be the World.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, it is much larger and more inclusive than the Spirit of the World, which rules by fear, and even those most successful in it are fearful, perhaps even more than those who are less successful. We can all be distracted and drawn in by the Spirit of the World from time to time. It’s possible to even try to steer the church by guides of worldly success and measurement. I’m not talking about good management here—the worldly success measures by power, money, and security—Christ measures by the commandment of love: are we living in love.

That’s the reason that the Holy Spirit can be so surprising—it’s not that the Holy Spirit is whimsical, or arbitrary. It’s not that the Holy Spirit is some sort of whoosh of feeling. The thing is, distractible as we are, pre-occupied with our own concerns as we are, we sometimes miss the love that God has for us, and for all God’s children. There are opportunities to be generous or compassionate that are suddenly pointed out—movements of the Holy Spirit—God’s love moving into the world. When we see it, and are incorporated in it, and able to act in the generosity of God’s compassion, it can be a wonderful feeling—but that feeling is not the Holy Spirit. The Love of God moving in this world is the Holy Spirit.

Take a moment to reflect over the past year. In your mind, picture how you have seen or experienced the love of God here at St. James. …  I know that I have. I have received healing and growth. I have seen good people reach out to care for others at times when it was important for someone to stand by them. I have seen the prayerful dedication of those working in the discernment process, seeking how God’s love can be manifested in the years to come in this church. It is fair to say that the movement of the Holy Spirit has been in many ways surprising to many of us. Not arbitrary, not unreasonable when you look at it, but yielding unexpected things that build God’s love in this place, as we follow Jesus’ commandment to love one another.

He says, “I will not leave you orphaned… because I live, you also will live.” All of us are called at one time or another to stand with someone, to be their comforter or their guide.  It’s been a privilege to be called to be with you this past year. All that we have shared together we carry within ourselves.  We share in Christ. So for a time we sojourn together, but the Holy Spirit remains here, and in that Holy Spirit we live in Christ’s love, each of us, wherever we are called by God.

May grace and peace be yours in abundance

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

May grace and peace be yours in abundance. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This is the second Sunday of Easter, and every year the Gospel lesson is the story of Thomas, the Apostle. I love Thomas, and I love to preach about how he is a model of faith for us. But the Good News also comes from our lesson from the First Letter of Peter, and that’s what I’ll talk about today.

The resurrection of Christ defines who we are—it is not just another miraculous event or fun story. Christianity is inconceivable without the life that Jesus lived, and his life is not real or believable apart from his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. It is a great and incomprehensible mystery that God, the creator of all life and of everything that is, lives among us as one of us. But there would be nothing real about his human life if he skipped over the things that all human beings go through: ultimately death, of course; but also the human interactions of love and indifference, of fear and faithfulness, of insincerity, cowardice, betrayal.

It is only in the context of that real, authentic life that God does a new thing: not magic, or coming up with a happy ending at the end of a sad play or movie. The resurrection is founded in the reality of the world. Jesus’ life incorporates all of the human struggle and experience—the good, the evil, the joy, the very human screw-ups that might come from good intentions of overwhelmed people or bad intentions that are covered up by insincerity and self-delusion. When all of that culminates in the crucifixion, and death seems to be the final reality, God does something new. The resurrection denies none of that. The resurrection is in real life. The resurrection is new and abundant life, spilling out all over—it is the life we see in Jesus all along, his courage, his love, his joy, his compassion. It is God’s love incorporated in every corner of this world.

And so in our reading from the first Epistle of Peter it says “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” We are born into a living hope. A living hope is not a dead hope or wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is something like, “If I just win the jackpot on the Powerball, then my problems will be solved.” That kind of wish is not hope; it’s just a desire to escape present reality. Every once in a while, most of us wish that way, but a dollar and a dream is not hope, and probably winning the lottery wouldn’t actually solve the problems that we think it will. A dead hope, you might call nostalgia, looks for restoration of something from the past, maybe a time remembered as hopeful. But hope is not the restoration of some feelings or circumstances that are gone—looking to the past for hope, that’s what I would call dead hope as compared to living hope.

Living hope is the life of Christ going forward. Our present and our future reality are in the living, resurrected Christ. And hope is of the real world—this passage continues: “In this you rejoice, even if now you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” There has never been a time when Christians have not participated in the difficulties of the real world. And at all those same times we rejoice because we are incorporated in that real life of Christ—the resurrection that incorporates all reality.

At St. James, we live in that real hope, founded in the compassion we learn from Christ: older people doing ministry; younger and special needs people receiving encouragement and being treated with dignity. The hope is neither that things will stay the same or that something will happen to make things easy, but that the compassion of Christ will continue and grow in this people and this place.

Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

May grace and peace be yours in abundance.

To fulfill the Law and the Prophets

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 5, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

sermon-on-the-mountLast week I said that Jesus’ entire life and teaching was commentary on the Old Testament. It was not just in our own day that people thought that Jesus was teaching something different from the scriptures of Israel. Some people liked Jesus for bringing what they thought of as novelty and new fashions, while other people hated him for upsetting the ways in which their understanding of the rules supported their habitual ways of life—and even made it easy for them to lord it over others and prosper at their expense.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not an innovative set of rules to put a new group into power. Jesus calls us to account for how we live in the world in which we find ourselves.

“You are the salt of the earth.”  I have always had difficulty in understanding what this means. I won’t say that I’ve figured it out and it’s now crystal clear, but here is something I’ve discovered. Both times that Jesus says this in the Gospels it is followed by the phrase which our translation renders, “but if salt has lost its taste.”  The translators do their best, but they’re struggling with an idiom that doesn’t fit in our language.  But the word that’s translated, “lost its taste” actually means “becomes foolish.”

So what would it mean if Jesus stood up and said, “You are salt, but if the salt has become foolish, it’s no longer good for anything?” It’s a jarring figure of speech, you have to pay attention to it and try to figure it out.  One commentator on this observed that “salt is to food, as wisdom is to life.” A foolish chef, who didn’t season, would have tasteless food. While it is difficult to avoid salt nowadays, a diet with no salt leads to severe problems with muscle contraction, water balance in the body and neurological problems. Without salt, you die. Likewise, without wisdom, the life of people or a society becomes selfish, inconsiderate, unstable—even when the rules and structures are fundamentally sound. Approaching rules without wisdom yields a society with defective human bonds and imbalance that causes it to fall apart.

Jesus says, “if the salt has become foolish, how can its wisdom be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”  What Jesus is doing is not dismantling rules or traditions, he is bringing the blessing of the life of God to this world.

Living that life is not automatic. Someone mentioned the other day that one of the blessings of this parish is the wisdom of many people, who have gained that wisdom by living many years. She was right. As time goes by and we get experience, it becomes clearer what things will work and how they will work; what the consequences of anyone’s actions or non-actions might be—sometimes in subtle ways that aren’t so easily explained.  Of course, some people become skilled in stealing people’s money or abusing others—there’s a certain kind of wisdom in old criminals. That’s not the only sort of foolish wisdom that some pursue. But if we spend a life, seeking to be compassionate, or honest, merciful or courageous as we learn in following Jesus, then our wisdom will grow. We see the fruits of decisions and learn better how to shape what we do for best results. When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he is honoring the wisdom that is in each of us.

At the same time, we need to be humble about our wisdom: it’s just a little seasoning. No one is wise enough to control the whole planet. No one’s power does more than influence the flavor of life a bit. But if we abandon the way of God’s compassion, and our salt becomes foolish, all of our purported wisdom is nothing—just trodden underfoot.

“You are the light of the world,” is a parallel illustration. Jesus is encouraging us—that is, urging us to courage. Our life in his love is nothing to be ashamed of or hidden, our wisdom is to be shared. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” It’s not that we gain heaven by our good works—what Jesus is saying is that the fruits of our wisdom glorify God.  Scripture is the repository of wisdom over countless generations. And when our traditions and practices are faithful to the love of God in Christ they convey the distilled wisdom of the saints of the church throughout the ages. Yet the “law and the prophets” and the “teaching of the church” are not legal formulas to bludgeon your opponents and reward your cronies—they are wisdom to be seasoned by the salt of yourselves—not the foolish salt, but the flavorful salt of your knowledge of God’s compassion.

As St. Paul says in our epistle today:

“We do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak of God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heard conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”

The teaching of Jesus which we are exploring in the Sermon on the Mount fulfills the law and the prophets, revealing the Spirit by guiding us to understand God’s will in the wisdom, mercy and compassion of God.

Walk humbly with your God

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see god.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In the Sundays leading up to Lent, our lectionary is taking us through the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. Last week he called the first disciples and the lesson ends: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

The next thing Matthew says is a description of the great crowds who travelled from all over that started following Jesus. Jesus’ response to those crowds was to teach them. Over the next four Sundays we will be going through this detailed account of the teaching of Jesus which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching is the fundamental foundation of Christian spirituality.

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The introductory part, which I just read, 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.

The Beatitudes start with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Who are the poor? They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have things 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 still could lose.

And yet, many of those things that we might lose are good, are created by God and give us joy. It hurts to lose them. The second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes the things we give up or lose are things, or status or parts of relationships that we like. And adjusting to that is a type of mourning. Sometimes we mourn for people who have meant much to us. In our own community, we have lost people, long-time members—and we grieve. Losing a spouse or a child or another close loved one hurts immensely, and it continues to hurt for a long time. 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.

When Jesus says “Blessed are the meek,” we need to understand something about that word. Meek has taken on a meaning in the past century that is misleading. We are inclined to think of meek as meaning primarily passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that—it means gentle, courteous and humble. One doesn’t inherit the earth by being timid or weak; rather it is by the strength of being humble, listening and giving credit to the dignity of others. The humble person neither trumpets their advanced status in the Kingdom, nor resents what they have given up for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Being meek does not mean that you don’t speak out when you see wrong or injustice. It’s only the meek and humble who can authentically hunger and thirst for justice (which is the same word as righteousness). Those who, in the core of their being, hunger and thirst for righteousness are fed, not by seeing it completed in this world, but by humbly receiving sustenance and life in God’s Kingdom so that they may continue to look for, and find the possibility of a little more justice in this world.

And 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.

Notice here, that we have gone through all of this before we get to peacemaking. Making peace is not something you achieve by splitting the difference, or agreeing to not talk about disagreeable things. Making peace where there has been real contention takes the most profound of risks, courage, humility and strength. The children of God who are the peacemakers must be living day by day in God’s kingdom for anything like peace to make sense.

Jesus is totally in the real world. Notice that the next step in the beatitudes, indeed the consequence of making peace, is being persecuted for righteousness sake. Don’t expect living as a Christian and as a peacemaker to make your life peaceful and easy. For instance, it never occurred to me that the President of the United States would ever make an order that caused long-time residents of this country and whose permanent visas were in order to be detained and refused re-entry into the country as happened this weekend. That order embodies fear and anger and uses power to gain satisfaction for that anger by scapegoating people like the U.S. Army translator who was detained and threatened with return to Iraq. At times like this, when Christians speak out for the dignity of people there is a real risk of suffering for it.  The peace and love of Jesus Christ can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for those who think they have this religion thing under control.

So that summarizes Jesus’ outline of the Christian spiritual life.

Jesus teaches us and the crowds the way of life. But what he teaches is not important because it is new or different. It is important because he lived it and shared God’s mercy and compassion.  It is a mistake to talk about the Sermon on the Mount as representing “New Testament teaching” as if it were different from the “Old Testament.”  His life and teaching are consistently a commentary on the scriptures of Israel.  Hear again our Old Testament lesson for today: “He 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?”

Over the next three weeks, the Sermon on the Mount will illustrate how Jesus’ humble walk with God interprets the scriptures of Israel. God blesses those who accompany him on that walk, rejoicing in God’s Kingdom, finding God’s peace, purifying their hearts, receiving and giving God’s mercy and comfort.  May all of our spirits become poor enough and empty enough to inherit the reign of God.

 

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.

 

A rich man

A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

There is a deep irony to this last sentence of today’s Gospel. The Gospels are not written as mystery stories with a surprise ending. They are the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. This story that Jesus told is not about the dead, it is about the living. The story starts, “There was a rich man…”

monopoly-manA lot of the stories in the Gospel of Luke have those words:  The rich young man who asked Jesus how he might attain everlasting life, the rich man who tore down his granaries to build bigger ones, the rich man who had a steward, the rich tax collector Zacchaeus who followed Jesus. If you look at all of these stories, there is no particular animosity towards wealth or the wealthy—rich people certainly existed in the ancient world. But there weren’t that many, so why do they show up so often in the gospels?

In the Gospels, the stories are there to be readily understood, to make their point clear. And one thing that was clear in the ancient world was that if you were rich, you were free to act. As opposed to almost everyone else, whose lives were pretty much circumscribed, especially the slaves. There was, after all, very little of what we consider middle class in Jesus’ time. So it was only the rich who had almost total control over their lives and the choices they made, which is why the rich show up so often in Jesus’ stories – as examples of people who could choose to live responsible – or irresponsible lives.  And Jesus’ listeners could realize that they too, could take responsibility for their own choices.

Which means that these stories apply equally to us.

So Jesus is telling a story. A folk tale or a parable, really. It’s about a rich man and a beggar whose name is Lazarus. That is to say, a person responsible for his own actions and someone who was suffering and unable to take care of his own needs. The rich man is described as feasting sumptuously every day—that appeared to be the sum total of his occupation. In fact, the rich man isn’t even given a name because there isn’t anything to say about him beyond that he was only taking care of himself, and ignoring the needs of others, or, in this case, Lazarus. Even after the rich man dies and is begging Abraham for relief, he wants Lazarus to be used as a slave, to bring him water.

This story isn’t moralistic in the way we understand fables. It’s not saying that the rich man learned anything after he died and was in the same miserable condition as Lazarus. Look what he does: He asks for the servant to return from the dead to warn the members of his family about his heritage or legacy. He still gives not one whit for Lazarus the beggar, nor the people of Israel – he cares only for himself and his own. And there’s no reason to believe that the brothers he wants warned were any different. They weren’t going to change and respect the warning of Lazarus—even if a man were raised from the dead.

This story is about the respect of the living for the living. The prophets spoke to Israel about justice, about respect for the poor and the weak. The books of Moses spoke about respect for the strangers living in the land. The rich man in this story had no excuse – because of his wealth he was fully responsible for his actions. His lack of compassion was his own, it was not forced by God or by circumstances. Yet somehow he behaved as if it was. “Let Lazarus bring me water.” “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers.” As if some special personal warning would guide them to take care of their interests, as if God owed them those things that they denied to other human beings, as if their only problem was a lack of information. This man’s life was impoverished because he lacked compassion and mercy, the basic building blocks of an abundant spiritual life. He was free and able to avail himself of all the generosity of God, the wisdom of the Torah and the passion of the prophets, but instead he looked to himself, to his own self-centered benefit—and ultimately, self-pity. There was no magic solution, some astonishing miracle was not going to change that.

This story is deeply ironic. Jesus WAS raised from the dead. But it is not the impressiveness of the miracle that makes that significant, it is the depth of his compassion. Jesus faced death—suffered death as a free person with compassion to all, even his executioners. His resurrection is the compassion of God for all of us. His mercy and compassion do away with indignity, and indifference. We are one in Christ, let us do away with indignity and indifference, and respect all those, even those most different from us, with the mercy and compassion of Jesus.