Mother’s Day: That they may have my Joy made Complete in themselves

A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves

Our Psalm today is Psalm number one, the very first psalm and it is really the summary of them all: “Blessed are they… their delight is in the law of the Lord … They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” Real happiness comes from being a just person, following the will of God, trusting the love of God, even when things are not easy or restful, even when our prosperity does not look like what the rest of the world calls prosperity.

A few years ago, I was talking with the wisest woman who I know, the person who has taught me everything I know about hospitality. We were taking stock of what we had experienced and done together over the past several years. She said, “You know, hospitality comes from living a good life. A life that’s so good that you just want to share it.” We talked about that for a while. As far as finances and the goods of the world, we do pretty well, but there are those who have a lot more money, fancier houses or apartments and so forth, who are not as hospitable. And it appears that they are not as happy, they don’t have as good of lives, even on their yachts.

By the same token, there are others who have less than us who are even more hospitable. I have certainly experienced great hospitality in neighborhoods, which by most measures are quite poor. It is important to have enough in this world to get by: having enough to eat and a place to live are essential needs and rights of every person. Going without those things makes it very difficult, perhaps impossible, for people to focus, to be confident or hopeful, or to find ways forward. Yet enough doesn’t mean having everything, certainly not everything that we might want.  It is only when people insist on justice, love, and hospitality that anyone can live a good life. “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.”

Knowing the love of God is the source of happiness and it is the source of generosity and hospitality. Our Gospel lesson today is the first part of Jesus prayer for his disciples at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. If we think about this for a minute, the setting is both at the time of Jesus’ greatest model of hospitality where he washed the feet of his disciples and at the moment when he knew that he was about to be crucified and lose everything, even his life. Jesus says this to the Father, “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Jesus joy is his love for his people.

He says, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the Evil One. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jesus sent his disciples into the world and he sends us into the world to have a good life. But not a good life as parts of the world would have it, not what the commercials and most of the shows on TV portray as the good life, not what the neighbors or friends at school or people living in the fanciest neighborhoods or biggest houses might put forward as the requirements of “the Good Life.”

My mother, Bernice Kadel

Today is Mother’s Day. The day in which we remember and honor women who nurture children. We have all had mothers. Even I have a mother. She’s been my mother for three-quarters of her life. Mothers and our relationships with them are as varied as all the people in the world. It’s hard to generalize—mothers are mothers in the real world and they are real people. And some take on the duties of being a mom for children they did not bear, sometimes as stepmother, or adoptive, or the person who is just there for kids.

Mother’s Day is difficult for a number of people because it calls to mind the grief of losing a child or not being able to have a child. Being a mother is definitely a real-world thing and that is the thing. In the real world it’s a risk and an investment of self to be a mother; we don’t know how it will come out, either in terms of who the child will become or what the mother will ultimately be able to do and give for the child. Each mother is different, but being a mother is a very specific choice for life. That is an awesome and scary journey to embark upon. Ultimately motherhood is the model and example of hospitality, the good life to which God has called us. Mary was Jesus’ mother—a humble woman in difficult circumstances, yet filled with the joy of God, providing a good life for the savior of the world. She made room for him within her and in that gave us all hope. That’s what mothers are for, to bring their children into good life and in that bring hope into this world.

The good life is the life of joy and delight, our joy and God’s joy. And the surest sign of that joy is that we have the confidence to be hospitable and generous, just as Jesus is to us. Thus we may be like the blessed ones in our psalm:

They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.

Sisters and brothers, continue to live the Good Life in God.



The Model Shepherd

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.

This Sunday in the church calendar, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We always read from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd.” Now, those of us who know only a little simple Greek might translate it as “I am the beautiful shepherd.” The Greek adjective means good in the sense of proper or ideal. One commentator translates it, “I am the model shepherd.”

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s not describing what someone might encounter if he or she met a real-life shepherd.  He is describing what could be, what we might hope for, how it might be in the kingdom of God. The ideal shepherd; the shepherd in the imagination of those immersed in the Psalms and the writings in the Old Testament about David the shepherd king; the model shepherd lived a life entwined with the flock that he owned. His livelihood depended on them, and they depended on his protection and guidance, for they were defenseless against predators and couldn’t survive in the wilderness if separated from the flock and the shepherd. The model shepherd would know each of those sheep and keep track of every one.

Think about it—the sheep were the shepherd’s life. Without them there was no livelihood, no present, no future, no independence, no dignity. When you have something that important, it is worth sacrificing to keep. You contrast that with someone who is paid a few dollars a day to show up for a job, who has no promise of a future, no ownership and no real commitment to the sheep beyond the daily wage. The tradeoff for that person is very different. If there are big risks or serious sacrifices to be made, why would the hired person make them? Why not go out and find another job? Wolves are dangerous, and your own life is more important than somebody else’s sheep.

We needn’t be disapproving of the wage worker. Jesus is the model shepherd, and he goes further than any pretty good shepherd would do: he lays down his life for his sheep. Not just some sacrifice, or some risk—he actually lays down his life. When he says this, we know we are moving beyond actual sheep herding and remembering his crucifixion and resurrection.

The epistle lesson from First John starts like this: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The life of Christ leads us into our life IN Christ. The Model Shepherd tends his flock, but we are more than sheep, we are responsible to one another, we are responsible to love and live ethically FOR one another. John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” Of course, one answer to that is to not see the need, to look away or explain that it is someone else’s responsibility. Then, there is the kind of love where people are only talking about doing good, so that they can feel nice about it. That’s why it is important to remember that we are forgiven people, not necessarily people who are always perfectly loving or truly caring. There is one Model Shepherd, and it’s not me.

First John continues, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” No representation of ourselves as the Good Shepherds, no talk about how many sweet feelings we have about others, just reaching out to meet the real needs of others, seeking the healing and well-being of one another.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues: “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” It is easy to think that we have our little parish and it’s like a little sheepfold, where Jesus protects us and we feel welcome and at home and we have Jesus as our very own Good Shepherd and we can just settle down with Jesus and go to sleep. But our Model Shepherd doesn’t run things that way—“I have other sheep” maybe those sheep are a bit different or strange to us and our Shepherd calls us to extend ourselves, our sheepfold, our welcome to them.

If any of us loved being welcomed by this church community, the next, even more important step, is to extend that welcome to someone else, to care for someone else’s joys or triumphs, someone else’s challenges or tragedies. A caring community isn’t just that we have our cares met, but about living that care going forward. And that means caring for someone new, at least new to your personal circle of concern. The sheep from another fold are from the future and the present, not from what used to be or what we’ve been comfortable with.

This is a welcoming parish, we have each been welcomed by the Model Shepherd, and he welcomes new sheep every day, we see them all around us, not just here, but wherever we go. Jesus directs us beyond where we are comfortable. He lays down his life for us, that we can take some small risks for him. Jesus is shepherd of those who are beyond our doors, those who don’t agree with us, and those who don’t fit in with whatever group we may be part of. The Good Shepherd invites us to his hospitality, that we can extend that hospitality to others, to those flocks in another fold. We abide in him, and he makes us one flock, with one shepherd.

From today’s Psalm:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;

you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.


Have you not known?

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

In our Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. On the second Sunday of Advent, I preached about this same chapter of Isaiah, but the earlier part, based on Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.” This beautiful chapter tells of God’s caring and protecting of people, despite the difficulties and dangers we face, and contrary to fearful and idolatrous human solutions.

Today’s lesson talks about the real nature of God. “He who sits above the circle of the earth”—that is to say outside of human experience, transcending the cosmos as we can understand or envision it.  It is naïve of some modern people to think that the prophet thought of God as a man sitting in outer space or physically above the sky.  The disc of the earth was the entire cosmos of people’s experience and imagination for the people of ancient Israel—the stars were on a huge inverted bowl that defined that disc—God is beyond all that they, or we understand, beyond the horizon of our experience or imagination.

That’s in contrast to the idols of our construction and imagination: things that can be manipulated and used for self-serving purposes. Today’s passage follow’s one that discusses idols that are simply made of wood with gold overlay. People are inclined to regard power and wealth as things that will protect them, make their lives better.
But Isaiah observes:

[God] brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Security via power and wealth is an illusion, or perhaps, more properly, a delusion. It is tempting to think that, if having enough is good, or being confident and strong makes us feel secure, then having more than we need will keep us from ever being in need and having huge power that makes us stronger and more dangerous than others will protect us from ever feeling unsafe. This is something that is abroad in our country today: very popular and very dangerous. It is what Isaiah saw, and what he was called to speak the word of God against: “he brings princes to naught, and the rulers of the earth as nothing.” Though fear tempts us sometimes to follow these delusions, we know that they don’t work.

Last Sunday we gathered together and worked very hard for several hours. Basically, we were listening to one another’s experiences about what had made us feel most alive, most spiritually engaged, most deeply satisfied. What you came up with can be summarized as our experience in this community of being welcomed, accepted, included, and having the opportunity to extend that to others, and to worship God together in that community of welcome, acceptance and inclusion. None of the lasting and permanent values that we shared had to do with holding power, or achieving or keeping great wealth. Whenever there are fears, they are fears of not having enough to continue to welcome and be welcomed, to open ourselves to accept others, to have regular, deep and nourishing common worship of God. The source of our bounty is the God of all creation—none is hidden or exempt from God’s love or God’s justice. The manipulations of the powerful or the privileged will not prevail, indeed they are illusions which will end quickly in embarrassment.

Our Gospel lesson today continues directly after last week’s lesson where Jesus taught in the synagogue and healed the man with the unclean spirit, the one who was fearful that Jesus would destroy them by bringing the truth of God among them. They went from that synagogue to Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law was sick with a fever. He reached out his hand to her, he supported her and the fever left her. She was returned to health, and she did what she was always about, hospitality and welcome, serving the guests in her home. The point of the story is not about magical healing powers that do away with germs, the story continues with Jesus healing the whole town—bringing health and return to healthy, welcoming, accepting and including ways of living. It says that Jesus cast out demons and silenced them—they wanted to say how they knew him, put their own spin on the situation through fear, anger, selfishness, hunger for power, manipulation—but Jesus brought health, welcome, God’s compassion into that town. Then he continued and brought the same: the message of the Kingdom of God, throughout his country of Galilee.

It is the Kingdom of God to which we are called together. Health and fearlessness, not the fear and manipulations of this world. We live in what is permanent and not what is illusion.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

You shall invite each other to come under your Vine and Fig Tree

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael was a follower of John the Baptist. So was Andrew and Philip. So Philip came to his friend Nathanael all excited. “We’ve found him! We’ve found him! The One!”

And Nathanael’s response was “… and that would be who?” And when he heard that it was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael says to Philip, “Now think about this. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a no-place, a bit like Murphy, Idaho, the county seat of a desert county with about as much land area as New Jersey, near where I grew up. The main notable feature about Murphy was that it had one single parking meter.

Nothing in scripture or tradition spoke of Nazareth, there were no prophecies about the town, no prominent families or powerful associations. Nobody expected the Messiah or anything else good to come from Nazareth. Nathanael wasn’t so much swayed by the enthusiasm of friends, and he didn’t go along with what Philip said just to be polite. As a follower of John the Baptist, he took this Messiah stuff pretty seriously, and there is no reason to just take the word of someone who has gotten all emotional, even if he is a friend.

Philip says, “Come and see.”

One of the most puzzling exchanges in scripture is what happens next. I think there are pieces left out that would have made more sense to people who knew more about the followers of John the Baptist than we know today. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and he says—“There’s an Israelite in truth, but without deceit.” The first person who had the name Israel was the Patriarch Jacob, who was well-known for deceiving everybody—he tricked his brother, his father, his father-in-law… Yet Jacob also wrestled with the angel of God and received the vision of the ladder to heaven, access to the way and presence of God. So Nathan is Israel without the tricks.

When Jesus says this, Nathanael perceives that he somehow knows him—“Teacher, where did you get to know me?” The answer to Nathanael’s question is cryptic: “I saw you under the fig tree.”

Fine. He saw him under the fig tree. To our modern ears it sounds like Jesus saw Nathanael standing in the shade. But it meant something different to those in the time of John the Baptist.

Commentators have a lot of theories, and most of them admit they are all speculation. Here’s something that people back then who knew a bit about John the Baptist and his followers and who knew their scripture would know: The prophet Zechariah (who just happened to have the same name as John the Baptist’s father) had prophesied about six centuries before, as the people of Judah returned from the exile in Babylon. He was encouraging the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. He spoke of a messianic figure, called the Branch. And at one point he writes this: “I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of Hosts,

and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.” So Jesus’ reply to Nathanael is “I saw you under the fig tree.” I think that Nathanael heard in that statement the fulfillment of that prophecy, “I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day.” The image of being under your own vine and fig tree is one of restoration of a tranquil and prosperous life, a life of peace and hope. The vision of hope for Nathanael and God’s people.

Our psalm for today says, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”

Jesus knew. He knew that Nathanael longed for the Kingdom of God, he longed for that time when everyone would share hospitality under his own vine and fig tree. Nathanael, the Israelite with no deceit turns to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

We live in God’s kingdom, and that is not a kingdom of wishful thinking or pretending that things are how somebody thought they should be.  We are known by God, our lives and our hopes are knit together by God. But, in Jesus, those hopes aren’t just any fantasy we might have, nor do difficulties and distractions just fade away.  Nathan says to Jesus that he is “the King of Israel.” And that would be how he envisioned the Messiah’s coming. Jesus knew Nathanael, and loved him, and invited him to follow. But that following was not to indulge what Nathanael imagined he wanted or was going to get, but the reality of the Kingdom of God, of Jesus’ road, not just to Galilee to preach and teach, but to Jerusalem, to face and defeat the powers of death. “You will see greater things than these, Nathanael, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This weekend we remember a man who Jesus knew and invited to follow him. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke directly, without guile or deceit about his experience and that of his people. It was never easy, and the outcomes of standing up for justice and fairness were never unambiguous.  Much of what Dr. King hoped for has not been realized in the way that he wished, and certainly not as soon as he wished. Racism is still common in our country and comes to the surface in disturbing ways, even for those of us who might be more likely to be beneficiaries of the effects of racism, rather than to suffer. Dr. King’s witness, of standing for a society of respect and dignity for every person, shows us a way to move forward, practically in our society, even though the road is hard, and with many delays and surprising challenges.

At Calvary Church, we live in the Gospel of Jesus. He knows us as he knows Nathanael. He invites us to follow him, to follow him on the way. And like Nathanael, we will be surprised. We might have envisioned one outcome, but the Vine and Fig Tree that comprise God’s mercy for us, will be different. Much more abundant, with deeper joy, and much more challenging.

As it says in our psalm: “You press upon me behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. … You yourself created my inmost part; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful and I know it well.”

And then Jesus said:

“Amen. Amen, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Lord, when was it that we saw you?

A sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, November 26, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…

Today is the last Sunday before Advent begins. It is often called the Feast of Christ the King and it is indeed the day when we celebrate Jesus Christ as our Lord and King. Funny thing about that though—the King we celebrate is powerless. He has no wealth, no army, he doesn’t even have much influence with the powerful or the wealthy. How does this king rule? “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger…”

Jesus is a stranger…in this world of ours he doesn’t fit in. Certainly not with those who make it clear that people are to be judged as good people based on their success in making money and fitting in with the “right kind of people.” Jesus was all about hospitality, about welcoming people and attending to their needs. And plenty of the people he welcomed and feasted with, were one way or another the wrong kinds of people: tax collectors, sinners, women accused of being prostitutes—even those Samaritans, that ethnic group that was just a little bit on the wrong side of the religious and ethnic divide from Jesus’ Jewish heritage.

So this stranger Jesus is the King we celebrate. But not a foreign king like Alexander the Great, the Greek who conquered the world, or Augustus, the Roman emperor who ruled the world up to Jesus’ time. Jesus is strange because power, prestige and control are not what he’s about.

The image he presents in the Gospel reading today is this:

The judgment day is presented, and the Son of Man is standing on the plain with all the angels, sorting out people just the way

that everybody knew a shepherd would separate the sheep and the goats into separate groups, treating each species according to its own needs and nature.

I read it this way: After it’s all over, after the course of life is run, we’ll just see. The Son of Man comes in glory to invite his people in. It is really the invitation that he has been giving us all along, and the kingdom is not so much different as we have right now, truth be told. It’s just hard to see it sometimes amidst our anxiety and worry—perhaps it’s difficult to see the kingdom while we ourselves are busy producing the problems that the Kingdom of God heals. But Jesus is here.

Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of Calvary’s Good Shepherds who work with Mother Ann to visit and care for the sick and shut-ins of our community. Our youth group gathers together to support one another and to reach out for the good of others—today they are putting up the Angel Tree, which gives us an opportunity in cooperation with Readington Township Social Services to give gifts and convey caring and hope to people who are having a difficult time and perhaps not seeing so much brightness in the coming season. Our parishioners share the joy of Christ’s love with our community in hosting Halloween Trick or Treaters and having a float in the Christmas Parade. This Friday some of us will take warm hats and scarves as well as needed toiletries and supplies to the Seaman’s Church Institute to give to merchant sailors who are far from home and often quite isolated. And our Way of St. Paul Group is working hard on listening to one another and all of you in the congregation—in helping us work on ways to foster deeper connection among us and to discern more clearly where God is leading us together.

This story about the sheep and the goats might tempt some to try to keep score: how many times did I help the needy? How many times did I fail to see Jesus? But Jesus’ teaching is not about keeping score. It’s about character. What sort of people are we becoming? You notice that both groups—both the blessed and the accursed—are surprised by their status. The reason for this is not because it is some sort of secret magical trick meant to keep us on edge. The blessed don’t know because it has become so much of their character to respond with generosity and respect to everyone—particularly those who are hungry or thirsty or alone—that it doesn’t even occur to them to do it any other way. And the accursed, their character becomes so defensive and self-centered, that they are surprised that everybody else doesn’t do it like them. “Oh, I’m sure I fed the hungry somehow—didn’t I have that on my schedule in between my spa treatment and foreclosing on those mortgages?”

When the habits of Jesus’ love for us become the habits of our hearts, we are indeed blessed. When we actually look and see what others need, and offer them in generosity that cup of cool water, or that helping hand, it builds us up inside. Our reverence for God’s people builds reverence for God, and it is in God that we live in joy.

As St. Paul said in the Epistle to the Ephesians today:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he called you…

May we all rejoice as we live in the power of the humility of Christ our King.

He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner

A sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

There are two things we know about Zacchaeus: he was rich and he was short.

He wasn’t just rich; he was a chief tax collector. There are quite a few references in the Gospels to tax collectors, but this is the only reference to a CHIEF tax collector. It’s like Zacchaeus was the regional manager of tax collectors. In those days, being a tax collector was a good way to make a lot of money, because it was a franchised operation, working for the occupying Roman government, but it was not a great way to make friends among the population, who had no fondness for taxes and really did not like people who made their money by collaborating with the Roman occupation. So with his money, Zacchaeus had a lot of privilege and with his position, he had protection, since the Romans would allow no one to mess with the way they governed. But Zacchaeus was also short. That is to say, very noticeably not tall. This is important, because even though it may not be a good thing, it often affects how people see a person, and the kind of respect they give him. Of course, it’s unfair, just as the extra privilege accorded to the rich and powerful is unfair in the other direction.

The image is that here comes this well-known healer and prophet, Jesus, walking down the main street of the town— “who knows, maybe he’s the messiah or something, maybe he’ll restore righteousness to Israel, maybe he’ll take the place of John the Baptist and start baptizing people in the Jordan (which wasn’t far away from that town of Jericho), maybe he’ll pick up where John left off when he was arrested, and show Herod and those Romans a thing or two…” The crowds were out, expecting something … and this short guy, this sinner Zacchaeus was there wanting to see him as well. But he was … not popular; a sinner; regional manager of the Tax Collecting Corporation … and besides he was short. So they turned their backs on him and closed ranks, and kept him from seeing the street. But, somehow, Zacchaeus really

Sycamore Tree in Palestine

Sycamore Tree in Palestine

wanted to see this Jesus guy. Being resourceful and determined, Zacchaeus saw a sycamore tree down the road—the

variety that grows in Palestine has big branches that spread out, starting pretty close to the ground—so he ran ahead and climbed up in the branches.

The crowd was expecting something special from Jesus, but they weren’t expecting what happened: “Zacchaeus come on down here! I have to stay at your house today!” Those were the words of the prophet Jesus, and Zacchaeus accepted them with joy; he scrambled down out of the tree and welcomed him. So they’re walking off toward Zacchaeus’ house and everybody has an opinion—it’s not just the Pharisees and other religious leaders this time. Everybody is saying that this Zacchaeus is obviously a sinner—look at all the money he makes, and besides, he’s short. Jesus, of course is a great disappointment, not living up to our expectations, hanging out with short people … I mean … obvious sinners. While people are grumbling, Zacchaeus stops and explains to Jesus how he lives: “Look, Lord, I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I may have defrauded someone, I make fourfold restitution.”

One of the problems with the lectionary is that sometimes parts of the Gospel story are skipped over. In my Greek New Testament, there is another story that runs parallel to this, the story of the rich ruler. The same basic story occurs in the Gospel of Mark, so it was read last year, so it’s left out of this year’s cycle of readings. In that story a clearly devout and prominent man asks Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus lists off the essentials of the commandments, the man affirms that he has always followed those, and Jesus says, “just one more thing—sell what you have, give to the poor, and come follow me” … the man goes away sorrowful, for he was very rich. In the Gospel of Luke, these two stories are only separated by Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and the healing of the blind beggar—one page in the Greek. Zacchaeus, who is also rich and powerful does not go away sorrowful, but welcomes Jesus with joy. Though no one notices or believes him, he dedicates himself and his property to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God takes priority over everything.

Jesus said: (to put it in very literal translation) “Today, therefore, it is necessary that I remain in your house” –it uses the same formula that he uses when he responds to Peter’s confessing that he is the messiah by saying “it is necessary that the Son of man undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Dwelling in the house of this notorious sinner brings in the Kingdom of God. (flip one more page and you are at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem). Zacchaeus is an ambiguous character with a complex life—not unlike many of us, I would wager—he has plenty of privilege, and yet he’s also marginalized and despised. He is in no more likely situation to respond to Jesus than the rich ruler, and he’s in no less difficult situation to take this man into his house than we are. Jesus sought out Zacchaeus and brought salvation to his house, just as he seeks us out, to bring his healing and his Gospel in this town.

This month we are talking about stewardship, and next Sunday we will bring our pledge cards to the altar. Stewardship is about everything we do with our lives and the gifts we have received, not just about what we give to church. We live our whole lives in the Kingdom of God. But as we consider our pledge, please envision how it is that we welcome Jesus into the home we share together, and how with along with other sinners, like Zacchaeus, we are welcomed into Christ’s kingdom.

Let us pray once more, the collect for today:

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service; Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Yesterday and today and forever

A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

That sentence is the culmination of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hebrews is an anonymous discourse, written in the first century.  Of all the writings of the New Testament, its writing is the most literary and polished.  The more polished a piece of writing is, the more difficult it is to convey in translation. I realized this when I looked at the Greek to see what word was translated as “mutual love” in the first sentence: “Let mutual love continue.” There is nothing wrong with the translation that we have—it translates the words and sentences accurately.  But on first reading, it can appear that it’s just a list of good things to remember, not particularly connected with one another. But in Greek, these exhortations are tied together by related words that show us the progressive logic of the Christian life of love.

Let me render this in awkward English to illustrate: “Let brotherly/sisterly love continue, but don’t neglect love of strangers, for hidden in that, some have entertained angels. And remember the prisoners, as though suffering the mistreatment they receive along with them in your own bodies. (And speaking of being in one shared body) keep the marriage bed undefiled. Be not-silver-lovers but be content with what you have.”

This passage weaves together the different kinds of love and not-love that make up the everyday Christian life and experience. It starts with the familiar: the everyday experience of love of the sisters and brothers who we know well and care for. This kind of love isn’t less than other kinds—it’s pretty much the foundation.

But what’s being emphasized, is that Christian love doesn’t stop there. Christian love isn’t just for insiders. Even more important is the love of strangers, which is what that word “hospitality” really means—the stranger. Not the ones we know and have social obligations and relations with, but the wanderer on the road, the one we will never see again. By illustration the text alludes to Abraham, who received his greatest blessing—that is to say, the promise of his son and a legacy of a great nation—he received that blessing by stopping and welcoming three strangers on the road on a hot summer’s day.

But it is not just the strangers who we may encounter, but also those who are locked away and out of sight. This could refer to Christians, who like St. Paul found themselves imprisoned because their witness to the Gospel challenged those in power to seize people and lock them up. Or it might recognize that people were seized for arbitrary reasons and held in terrible conditions unless they had the wealth or influence to gain release. These distant people who we can’t see; we are one with them as well, as if we are one body with them as we are with Christ.

Next, there’s the reference to a shared experience in the body, the text circles back from the most distant and invisible of relationships, to the most intimate and familial— “Let the marriage bed be held in honor by all.” All this love of brothers and sisters and strangers and far-away prisoners does not reduce one’s obligation to those closest or change those obligations. No other kind of love exempts us from the basics of cherishing those in our own household and maintaining the integrity of those relationships. After this exhortation is another word that contains “love,” but in this case it has the prefix that means “not”—literally, a “not-lover of silver,” is what the readers are exhorted to be. The opposite of being one in flesh with another is to focus your love, your life and your future on dead metal, on cash.  Chasing money will not take care of insecurity or of anxiety about it.

This is a simple summary of the Christian life, but Hebrews continues: “God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ “  So, when this text says, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever,” it is this simple Christian life of love that it is referring to, living in generosity, with care for others, near and far, and with responsibility to one another, not looking for shortcuts through greed or self-indulgence.

Weekday lunch at the Church of the Holy Apostles, NYC

Weekday lunch at the Church of the Holy Apostles, NYC

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus has occasion to observe some people in a situation which they probably thought was hospitality. But rather than love of stranger, or even brotherly love, the gathering was quite the opposite: everyone was jockeying for power and prestige, looking for the best seats, which indicate proximity to power and would command high regard. And the host was a big part of this—the guest list was compiled with an eye to enhancing his prestige in the community and perhaps even enhance his wealth. Lives more akin to silver-lovers than stranger-brother-sister-lovers. And Jesus—who is the same, yesterday, today and forever—he gives them advice: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.”

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen