Healing

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.

Once you were darkness

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 26, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Another long story this week. In the progression of our instruction for baptism, we have a story of a person being enlightened: literally regaining his sight, and spiritually coming to see the truth in Jesus. It’s a long, complex story with a lot of details and controversy between Jesus and the religious establishment of the Pharisees.

But we start with Jesus own disciples. These guys are following Jesus, as we follow him—and so we like to assume they would get it right. They aren’t so different from us, right? Well, actually, yes. They look at people and they make wrong assumptions just like we do. They see a man who is a blind beggar and they make assumptions that his condition is the result of something.  People experience things, they look around and they decide that events are connected with one another. And generally speaking, that’s correct. People’s actions have consequences; they are connected with one another and affect other people, they affect children and neighbors and parents. And, anyone who reflects honestly on their own life and behavior has ample empirical evidence that people sin. That is to say, people act selfishly without regard to the good of others or their needs and eventually someone gets hurt because of that.  What we see in the first verse of today’s gospel lesson is the next step that people often make—the disciples make conclusions about other people’s sin from results that they see.  “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” It had to be one or the other, right?

Not exactly. We like to use our analysis to find the badness in something, anything other than ourselves, and to assume that the connections that we see explain everything—one or the other, the man or his parents—somebody’s a sinner. How did Jesus respond? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” There is more to the connections between people and events than the disciples saw, or that we see.

One interpretation of Jesus’ words could be that he is referring to the healing of the man’s blindness that he is about to do. Fair enough, that certainly shows the works of God. But I think there is a more general application of Jesus’ response. In the infinite number of connections between events and people and God, there is always far more than we perceive.  And certainly, if we are living in a world governed by anger or self-pity or despising some subset of our neighbors, our view and our understanding will be severely limited, indeed it can be like blindness.

This man was a disabled beggar until Jesus took the mud of the earth, like that from which God had formed the man in the garden. He spread it on the man’s eyes and sent him to be washed in the pool—not so much different from the pool of baptism. When the man emerged from the pool and was able to see, everyone was confused. He was the same man, but he was not what anyone expected. Was it that they could not believe in a healing miracle? Perhaps, though skepticism about miracles was much less common in those days than now. But if you look at the story, it wasn’t the miracle that they couldn’t recognize, it was the man who was formerly blind. They knew him when they could see him lying by the road, “Oh yeah, there he is the sinful progeny of sin” or maybe just, “poor, pitiful, blind beggar.” But standing up, walking around as a responsible and articulate adult?  That’s not visible to them. It is so easy to dismiss those who are different—not powerful, not wealthy, not comfortable. But it is the Glory of God that loves and blesses every person, not just those that Jesus’ disciples might be comfortable with.

This man witnessed and explained what he had experienced: “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  The scene that ensues is actually pretty funny, because there were these very devout religious types who did not like Jesus, and they had caught him out doing something on the Sabbath Day that they thought was a violation of the rules. They interrogated this man repeatedly, and tried to get him to agree that Jesus was a sinner and not from God. But when they put it to him, this man said, “He is a prophet.” It goes on and he says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” As they persisted in harassing him and looking for evidence against Jesus, he answered them, “I have told you already and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to be his disciples?”

This story is the story of the man’s spiritual formation and his conversion. As he spoke the truth, he was driven out by those who would not hear the truth. It is only near the end of the story that the man who was healed by Jesus actually has the opportunity to see Jesus and the conversion is made complete:

“And who is he sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.”  And he worshiped him.

The man who was blind could see, he could see and witness to the truth; but those who thought that they could see and that they knew how things should be done and how they would work out, turned out to be blind. In focusing on their own limited set of connections and presumptions, they missed the glory of God—the mercy and compassion of healing. From Jesus we have joy, not fear. Though the man had been blind from birth, his life was filled with the witness to God’s goodness and the glory of God.

As our Epistle today says:

Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is god and right and true… Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Love your enemies

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 19, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

This is the fourth week that the Gospel in our lectionary is from the fifth chapter of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount. Next week is the last Sunday before Lent, so this is the end of this series, even though the Sermon on the Mount continues for two more chapters. Jesus has been teaching us, just as he taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him. They followed him not only to learn about what he might teach, but because in encountering Jesus, people were healed. That’s sort of an odd thing. There is no doubt that Jesus was a healer and he cast out demons. If you approach the documents that we have with an historical eye, it is more sure that he was known for his exorcisms and healings than anything about his teaching. Yet when we get an accurate picture of him, he wasn’t a magician and did nothing particularly showy.  Despite the crowds, what we know of Jesus was how plain and ordinary he was. His healing and his teaching were the same thing: moving people from the self-absorption of fear and pain to the honesty of healthy life in God.

What Jesus presents is simple, anyone can do it—you don’t have to be smart, well-educated, or a religious superhero. However, it is a challenge to be honest in your life, and honesty requires courage, because there are real-world consequences for being honest in a world dominated by fear, selfishness, and self-serving dishonesty.

The Parable of the Good Shepherd Separating the Sheep from the GoatsSome people think that the things that Jesus says in today’s Gospel are unrealistic or even soft-headed.  But let’s look. This eye-for-an-eye thing was about holding to proportionality in pursuing justice: if a person caused you loss or injury, you weren’t entitled to have your posse go out and kill them and their whole family and take everything that they had. It was an eye for an eye, not nuclear war for an insult. But Jesus knows his customers. People rationalize and lie to themselves and others about how badly they have been treated and how terrible the others are. So, if you think you are wronged, accept it, live generously. Accept even a real wrong to your own interest, for the sake of truthfulness and justice in society. This is not about coddling wrong; it’s about stepping away from self-justification of entitlement to personal comfort. Even when we must stand up for justice, it is not for our own advantage or comfort that we stand, but for the sake of those who are harmed by the contemptuous and violent. The fierceness of compassion is far different from the rage of self-defense and selfish rancor.

So when Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” isn’t that impossible?  I mean aren’t we going to be upset if people do bad things to us and our loved ones? If love were about feeling good, it would be impossible. But what Jesus has to say is not about making you, or anyone else in our country, feel good. We tend to think of love as some sort of positive feeling—nice disposition toward someone else, or some group of people—or kittens. But love, as Jesus teaches, is a disposition of the will—­a choice—for the good of someone else. Christian love is not desire, or even friendship, but concern and action for the good of others. ­

Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” He does not say, do everything they want, or pander to their cruel whims. Rather, we should look for their ultimate good, for their healing and health. If you are taking care of a cranky and spoiled child, it is not loving to let them run into a busy street or hurt their little sister or brother. Loving another means looking out for that other person’s well-being, not their whims or what they seem to think they want. Pray for your enemies, for their well-being, for them to be guided to just actions—even it is in spite of themselves. It sometimes means that you have to stand up to a person who is destroying their life or the lives of others. Sometimes it costs popularity for not being as “nice” as some expect or for failing to join in the ridicule and nastiness toward a person who is clearly troubled and a problem.

Does it require courage to follow Jesus teachings in the Sermon on the Mount? Yes. Is it too hard for ordinary Christians? No. Healthy Christians know to seek the good of others before self. They also are honest about their own fears and their own selfishness, and they seek to repent and believe the Gospel daily. It is the pretense of acting like we are better than others, or the justification of selfishness and self-interested manipulation of the world around us that is unacceptable.

Jesus doesn’t say that life in the real world is easy. He just doesn’t pity us, rather he loves us and looks for our good.

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.

We are blessed and we are healed by Jesus’ love for us and the courage of his honesty. We are called to be Christians in this world, in this country, at this time.

Let us pray once again our collect for today:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

Tell it out among the nations: The Lord is King!

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Tell it out among the nations: ‘The Lord is King!’ he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” Ps 96:10

When I was a kid, I wondered if I would ever see a shepherd.  I understood that they were these guys with sort of a hood over their head, and they carried around a big stick with a hook on the end of it. Shepherds were some sort of dreamy, Bible kind of character, who had a life far away from anything that I knew. The thing is, I grew up in Idaho, my father’s business was selling insurance to farmers, both sets of grandparents lived on farms, and at one of those farms, I saw sheep all the time. But there weren’t any shepherds. At my grandfather’s farm, the sheep were kept in pens or enclosed pastures, or sometimes over on a little island in the middle of the Snake River, where nothing could get to the sheep. Bigger sheep operations had people out taking care of the sheep, but those were sheepherders—I never associated shepherds with sheepherders.

Sheepherders were sort of rough, hired hands that spent summers camping out with their sheep in the mountain meadows. You mostly didn’t see them, even if you were up in the mountains

A Sheepherder's camp

A Sheepherder’s camp

where they were, and saw the sheepherder’s wagon, and I think that parents mostly wanted to keep the kids away from them. As a category, they were regarded as disreputable characters.

It took me by surprise that sheepherders and shepherds are the same thing. Even more so when it turned out that the shepherds of the first century would have been described the same way as sheepherders were by my parents’ generation. It was rough work, the guys were pretty much at the bottom of the social heap, and they received little money and less respect for doing their job.

So they are hanging out, out in the hills and it’s cold—not a blizzard, but it’s night and it’s not the tropics, maybe like around here in the foothills in early spring. And. The Angel of the Lord shows up—right there, in front of them. And the Glory of the Lord –not seeing God, but a byproduct of God’s presence. Perhaps it shines, perhaps it feels like electricity, perhaps…perhaps the universe is falling apart, or coming together—who can say? But the Glory of the Lord is showing around these sheepherders.

Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … and they were terrified.

And, let me tell you, they were afraid. And they were right to be afraid, because they weren’t crazy, and if anything was ever dangerous, coming this close to the living God, with His Angel standing right there, that was dangerous. These ordinary guys are there, looking at the angel, and he begins to speak: Does he say, ‘don’t worry nothing is happening?’ No. When the angel says “fear not” he’s saying “fear not because…” One insightful commentator translates the Greek to say, “Fear no longer! I am announcing to you good news that will be a great joy for all the people.”

The representatives of all the human race, are this little band of underpaid and overworked hired hands, trying to keep warm while making sure the sheep don’t get lost. And when that angel said, “Do not be afraid,” it was about far more than how those guys felt about this unusual experience. “I am bringing you good news of great joy” : “to you is born this day, a savior, the Messiah, the Christ, your Lord.” The savior is the one who heals us, who delivers us from our sinfulness of fear and anger and alienation from one another. The savior is not someone who takes us out of the world ruled by spiritual forces that rebel against God and the evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures; our Savior has come among us, and lives among us to confront, heal and transform those powers.

We live in a country and a world that has been going through a lot this year. Anger and fear have characterized the whole year. Disrespect and jockeying for power among people have been the order of the day.  Who will get more power, or lose power?  When will we get the next piece of news of more people being killed, intimidated, or hurt? How many families are there, whose holidays are disrupted by illness or personal loss? It was not that much different when that young couple set off from the hills of Galilee along roads infested with robbers, all the way down to that little town south of Jerusalem. There was plenty of fear and sadness in those days, and there were plenty of people who thought that the answer would be to get more power or wealth, or the security of great armies.

But it was God’s judgment to send our Savior as a powerless little child, of a poor, young and humble mother, to deliver this world from that kind of fear and that kind of anger. And to whom was it announced? To philosophers? To bishops and archbishops? To kings and political operators? No. The angel appeared to this group of shepherds, out in the hills, who were just trying to keep warm and not lose any sheep. Ordinary guys with no power or influence. God revealed his salvation in the real world of ordinary people, who don’t get recognition, or power or wealth from their lives.

And our Savior is among us, a human being like the rest of us. Born in humble circumstances, and he is a Shepherd. He is the shepherd of our flock, and he loses not a one of us, no matter how fearful we might be.

And our psalm continues:

“Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad; let the see thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.

 

Be not afraid, and have a happy and holy Christmas.

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

This morning, it was dark when I woke up, and it was dark when I started driving from Sacramento to get here in time for the eight o’clock service. The days are short and it’s a dark time of year.

The Gospel of Matthew starts at a dark time for Joseph. Unlike the Gospel of Luke, which tells the story from Mary’s perspective, the Gospel of Matthew begins by reciting forty-two generations of Joseph’s genealogy and then we find Joseph in a very dark and difficult situation. The woman to whom he was betrothed was going to have a child and he was not the father. Remember, the first churches where the Gospel of Matthew was read did not know anything of the Gospel of Luke—of the Annunciation of the Angel to Mary, her journey to meet Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem, the shepherds or the manger.

The story opens with this man in a crisis. It’s a life turned upside down. You can feel his despair and his resignation when it says, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” In that cultural context, he could see no way out. Life was over, hope was gone.

ALI142914“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The reality of Joseph’s world was that this sort of baby, this sort of wife, were just not possible, his expectations of life going forward just couldn’t happen—he couldn’t imagine a way forward. But then—he had a dream.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph’s story moves forward by dreams just like the Joseph in the book of Genesis, who was forced to go down into Egypt and then saved the children of Israel in the transformation of Egypt and making a place for them to thrive.

So just as Joseph had decided to put Mary away, an angel appeared in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary for your wife.” Do not be afraid. That’s a statement that’s much more radical than our 21st century American culture might be inclined to think. In Joseph’s time, being told not to be afraid wasn’t akin to our everyday nostrums, like “Live in the present.” No, in Joseph’s time, having a child who came from wherever violated the structure of the villages, and of the nation, and of religious and cultural propriety.  Everybody was going to be ostracized and everybody was going to suffer. His wife would be regarded like a prostitute—would it even offend God to take such a woman as your wife?  But the angel persists: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

In this dream a new world, a new picture, a new hope takes shape. None of the facts, indeed none of the difficulties, really changed, but God entered in, and brought hope. And this hope was not so much to address Joseph’s personal issues, but God’s blessing for all people.

In our lesson from Isaiah, King Ahaz, a much earlier descendent of King David, refused to look for God’s sign—he wanted to look to himself and his own solutions to the wars he faced with the neighboring nations. “I will not put God to the test,” in other words—“let’s not let God have anything to do with our business.” Then the prophet says to him: “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” The sign from God brings a new perspective, a new picture, a new world. Ahaz was refusing to see and God sent the sign anyway; Joseph could not see and the angel appeared in that dream. With Jesus, God had a different idea for the world. “God’s son, descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship,” as St. Paul put it.

The good news for the church is the same as it was for Joseph. “Do not be afraid … the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. he will save his people from their sins.” The years ahead were not easy, safe or secure for this young family, and Christians should not expect those things for themselves, either. The soundness of this beautiful church building is due to our family moving forward in hope to build it, work on it, and keep it up.  Yesterday we opened our doors and welcomed children with special needs and their families, because the hospitality of Jesus is why we gather at all. “They shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.”

So Joseph awoke from sleep, and he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife and had no marital relations with her until she had borne that son; and he named him Jesus.  His hope is our hope—to welcome Jesus and to live simply as servants of Christ.  It is in that that the glory of God is in the life of this world and its people.

The one who is to come

A sermon for the third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Are you the one who is to come?”

Last week the sermon was about the preaching of John the Baptist. This week, John got himself thrown into prison—imagine that. He preached repentance and justice. He told tax collectors to collect only what they owe and soldiers not to extort and abuse people. So, Herod Antipas, a ruler who lived for power and self-indulgence, heard the call for repentance as a challenge and he had John put in jail. Imagine that.

But John heard of Jesus, of what was happening out in Galilee and he sent the question, “Are you the one?” Jesus’ reply was very simple and specific: “the blind receive their sight, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus was not about random miracles and showy acts of power—he is here healing those things that are wrong in this world, that disrupt and destroy the fabric of human life.

Of course, one could speak at length of each of these: blindness, leprosy, deafness, the dead and the poor.  All of these can refer to physical or literal conditions or be spiritual or metaphorical at once. But it’s also important to understand Jesus is grounding them in real, physical conditions. Blindness, deafness, and leprosy are all conditions that isolate people—while the person is suffering, others withdraw, out of fear, or indifference, or impatience to get on to the easy comfort in their own lives.

Likewise, Jesus says, “the poor have good news brought to them.” You may remember that Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth of Galilee was on the text, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” This morning, rather than a psalm, the lectionary has appointed the song his mother Mary sang, when she knew Jesus was in her womb: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior: for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Her description of how God loves his people is this:

“He has shown the strength of his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

The Kingdom of God is good news to the poor. Specifically, it is God’s promise to those who are suffering or oppressed that God remembers them and will comfort them. There is no comfort to those who are proud, who regard themselves as entitled to comfort and privilege because they have wealth or power. The gate into the Kingdom is narrow—it requires humility—acknowledgement that we are each on the same level as the leper, the blind, the deaf, the poor.  Indeed, the isolation of the blind is nothing in comparison to the isolation of those who trust in their wealth. Or in games to get and hold power.  That isolation is death. Jesus brings life, which is generosity and humble acknowledgement of the infinite value of all God’s people.

In case you didn’t notice, when Mary’s son and nephew said these simple things, people were not pleased. Both of them were arrested and killed. The reality is, people do not like their wealth or power to be challenged—even by an offer of life.

This Christmas season, we celebrate that God is here in this world, blessing the things of this world.  But it is not our wealth that God blesses, it is our generosity and compassion for others. It is in our willingness to learn and to be blessed by the deaf, the lepers, the blind and those we might think of as poor that we receive the gift of life. Jesus tells the disciples of John, “the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.” We receive the blessing of resurrection from the dead, not in our comfort, or even in our focus on being spiritual and good, but in our own brokenness and humility. God brings the blessing of life in our ability to hear with the deaf, and see with the blind.  Indeed, I have realized over the past few months that I receive life and blessing in visiting and remembering with and for those who have lost their memory.

From our lesson from the prophet Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom: like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” The blessing of God, the majesty of God is in opening life for all people. “Then they shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and makeleap-like-a-deer firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

We rejoice in the coming of Jesus. He is the one to come, the one who brings us life.

Lost Sheep

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

The Gospel today is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Not many of us have herded sheep, though I remember a couple of days of sheep shearing on my grandfather’s farm. Jesus could count on more of the people who listened to him understanding what was involved in being a shepherd. A hundred sheep was a pretty good-sized band for one person, and it would account for the bulk of that person’s assets and income.

sheep-on-hillsideA shepherd would take the sheep out into open country to graze—generally that land didn’t belong to the shepherd, it was just open country and he made his living by finding grass and water so that the sheep could grow and reproduce so that there would be wool, and meat, and new lambs to replenish the flock or sell. The sentimental side—of how sweet or cuddly the lambs might be and how much he loves them—didn’t make that much difference to most shepherds, but tending these living creatures so that they thrived and were kept safe was the whole job—if the flock dwindled or did not grow, the shepherd failed to have enough to maintain himself or his family and there would not even be any food.

The shepherd had to protect the sheep from predators and thieves, so you didn’t just leave the sheep alone. But when one turns out to be missing, the shepherd has to take the risk to leave the bulk of the flock there grazing and go find that sheep.

I was the director of a theological library. I was a librarian for over 25 years. We had about 175,000 volumes in our library, but when it came to my attention that someone wanted a book and it was missing, I became a bit of a terror until it was found. I would set aside other projects and look—where the book should be on the shelf, where it might be in transit, where it would be likely to be mis-shelved, where it could be mis-processed, where it was last seen alive… until I was sadly satisfied that the book couldn’t be found and apologize to the person who needed the book. I usually found the book. Some might question the management efficiency of having the most highly-paid administrator using all of this time to search after a single book. However, we want students and researchers to expect that the books and other resources that we say we have will be there when they need them. It is not acceptable to not care about that. The integrity of the system hangs on caring about the important details. So it is with the shepherd and this one sheep.

I’ve read commentaries, probably written by people who haven’t actually herded sheep, that say that it was irresponsible or not a good risk for the shepherd to leave the flock alone while looking for the one. Yet the integrity of the herd was broken by missing that one, and the shepherd’s job was to restore that. The image is that the shepherd searches: diligently, intelligently and quickly and he sees that sheep. He walks up to it and picks it up and puts it on his shoulders—‘you aren’t wandering off any more today’—and then hurries back to the rest of the flock, hoping that nothing has gone wrong.

The shepherd has to care, that’s his job. That’s what Jesus is getting at in telling this story: God cares, and Jesus cares, and as Christ’s body, we have to care—that’s our job. The religious leaders and the lawyers were criticizing Jesus because he was hanging around with the wrong kind of people—he shouldn’t be caring about THOSE people. But for Jesus, it was precisely the people that nobody cared about who he was there for: the children, the disabled, the homeless, the ones that we would rather just let somebody else welcome.

Today is September 11.  Fifteen years ago, Paula and I vacated our apartment on Canal Street in New York a couple of months before that date to move to Washington, D.C.. I remember frequently looking out the back windows that framed the two towers of the World Trade Center. I have a friend whose view was of a fire station in midtown Manhattan. On September 11, he watched fire companies leave for the World Trade Center. That evening he saw the fire engines return without their crews. A member of our new church in Washington commanded a unit that had moved out of the affected part of the Pentagon only six weeks before.  It was a tearing event, a time of great loss. With an injury like that, you can’t just recover a lost item, or rebuild a building. The body must be healed, the integrity of the whole must be restored. That takes time. But it also takes the building of trust between people, knitting together the different sorts of people who make up a country like ours, and the body of Christ. Turning inward into groups in fearfulness and anger disrupts the healing process—it is the opposite of going to find that lost sheep and restoring the integrity of the flock.

The church doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to Christ. And it is important to Christ that everyone can expect welcome in his name whenever they enter one of his churches. No person and no congregation is insignificant, the Good Shepherd seeks us out, every one of us. And every one of us is called to care for all of Christ’s flock.