November 25, 2012
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The Feast of Christ the King
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It was introduced into the liturgical calendar by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and soon adopted by Anglicans, Lutherans, and others. The reason this feast was established was to counter the rising tide of nationalism and secularism of that era. It was a time between world wars, when nationalistic fervor was high; when communists were purging churches and killing clergy; and during the greed and other excesses of the Roaring ’20’s, taking us into the great crash of 1929.
Christ, this feast day proclaimed, is King. Not nations, ideologies, war, pleasure, or money. Christ is King.
And so even though those times are past, today we still sing hymns and heard readings that speak of thrones and dominions, judgment and subjugation, glory and power. To many of us, these images are archaic, even repellant. We’re democratic Americans. It’s a flat world. I want to be personally empowered, not subjugated. Who needs it?
Then, in the gospel reading, Jesus himself comes along - a subversive, paradoxical king. He stands before Pilate, the one who had all the power, glory, and authority of the great Roman Empire. Jesus stands before Pilate. By contrast, he was naked, poor, accused of being a rebel and a heretic - a criminal to both Rome and the Temple.
But he was powerful, with a significant following. So Pilate wants to know if Jesus is going to try to usurp his authority, as the rumors indicate. He asks “Are you, as they say, the King of the Jews?” And Jesus does a remarkable thing. He remains ambiguous. “Maybe you think I am. Maybe the people think I am. But my kingdom, such as it is, is not of this world. My power is not like yours. My power is in testifying to the truth. And the citizens of this unworldly kingdom are those who listen to the truth.” Puzzled, Pilate can only reply “And what is truth?” He thought he knew. He thought it had to do with empire and money and dominance: might is right. But now he’s not so sure.
Jesus did what he did throughout his life. He turned the tables on conventional thinking and values. The last are first, and the first are last. He made us wonder “What is truth? What is true power and authority? On what basis is judgment made?”
Jesus does not answer when Pilate asks “What is truth?” How could he possibly explain it? All he could do was stand there silently before him, testifying to the truth by his very being. All he could do was point to everything he had said and done for the past 3 years of public ministry. His life was truth.
A number of years ago on a study day I decided to skim quickly through the four gospels and jot down phrases that seemed to be characteristic of what Jesus was all about, especially what he taught about being human. It helped to use the Bible I received on my confirmation, one of those old red-letter editions, where Jesus’ words are printed in red.
Afterwards, the phrases on the page formed a kind of mosaic. Standing back from them, a very clear picture emerged: the truth. There it was - the universal truth about life, human experience, happiness, suffering, faith, and God. Later, the phrases became the chapter headings of a book that I eventually published, called Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus.
Some of the phrases were:
Be humble, be real; Purify your heart; Be religious; Don’t be too religious; Help the poor; Don’t worry; Enjoy the feast; Evolve beyond violence; Associate with the wrong sort of people; You can’t earn God’s love; Forgive yourself for being human; Love everybody; Wake up; You can’t do any of this; You will be made new.
Now if you went through this exercise, and I hope you will some day, you’d probably come up with a slightly different list of phrases, but I would hope that viewed from a distance, a similar mosaic of Jesus would reveal itself. Jesus isn’t just whatever. He had a particular character, and he taught some very specific things.
This Christly character and teachings, the church has always proclaimed, is truth. It is what we are made for. And it is what we, as followers of Jesus are to look to as our authority; it is what we are to model our lives after, and it is what we are to try to bring about in the world around us.
Which brings me back to kingship. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Which is why those who want to make this or any other nation a Christian nation are wrong. He didn’t come to take over the local school board or the Congress. He came to testify to the truth, and to spread this truth like a virus throughout humanity.
Jesus also said that everyone who belongs to the truth is a part of this hidden kingdom. Which is why those who want to turn everyone into a church-going Christian are wrong. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice, he said.
Jesus, and by extension, the Christian message, isn’t whatever. But anyone who is Christ-like - who is humble, who helps the poor, who tries to love everybody, who exercises forgiveness and generosity, anyone who wakes up and relies upon the free gift of God’s presence - they belong to the truth and they hear Jesus’ voice. He himself said so.
As followers of Jesus, as the Church, our mission is to testify to the truth. Our mission is to live as Jesus lived, to do what he taught. Our mission is to join with others who may not be of this fold but who nevertheless belong to the truth, and to trust that by the hidden working of the Spirit among all of us, the truth will spread like a virus.
God knows we need this truth. This is a world where different groups are trying to bomb each other into terrified submission. This is a a world where corporations and the obscenely rich use simplistic, manipulative advertising to sway the gullible, so that their selfish interests will prevail. In some ways, things haven’t changed much since the 1920’s, when this feast day was inaugurated. God knows we still need the kingdom of truth to spread like a virus throughout the world.
But you and I need the truth as much as the world does. It’s easy to live by a falsehood, serving values that will, in the end, do us no good. This, again, brings me back to kingship. As Dylan sang many years ago, You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be self-interest; it may be fear or ambition, superficial diversion, or trying to get along without conflict; but You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Why not serve Jesus?
If you’re like me, parts of you do, and parts of you don’t. We’re humble at times, prideful at others; compassionate at times, indifferent at others. But the walk of faith takes us further and further into the kingdom that Jesus testified to, into the territory that contains ever more faith and generosity and purity of heart. The walk of faith also takes us into areas we’d rather not examine, habits we’d rather not change, until we surrender them one by one. More and more of our whole self comes under Christ’s gracious rule. We are less divided internally, more unified, as one. And we find that we are not held down by his authority; we are set free.
And so we pray, paraphrasing the Collect of the Day which is appointed for this feast day:
Eternal God of truth, mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, grant that I, that we, who are divided and enslaved in so many ways, may be freed and brought together within that hidden kingdom that our Lord Jesus lived in and taught about. Grant that this kingdom may spread among us and within us like a virus, so that we may be unified in your truth, and that your will may be done on earth, in us, as it is in heaven. Amen.
Sermon – St. Michael and All Angels
November 18, 2012
I moved to Oregon in 1993 and went to see an insurance agent who asked if I wanted earthquake insurance. Coming from Georgia, I could not conceive of that and said, “no thank you.” At least I hope that is what I said rather than what I really thought, which was, “Are you kidding? That’s ridiculous!” I didn’t think about it again for a whole week until I was sitting on the second floor of my home when I felt the house shake. And then it shook again. Earthquake.
It is hard for us to imagine the destruction of places we love. In August of 2011, an earthquake in Virginia lasting 5-10 seconds did significant damage to the National Cathedral. We hear Jesus say, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” He was referring to the temple in Jerusalem that took about 80 years to build. Roman armies later destroyed the temple in 70 a.d. I hear those words and I see the image of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Eleven years later, we are painfully reminded of the shock and horror of that devastating day. It reinforced the belief that we should be afraid. Life is uncertain. People are not to be trusted.
We heard those messages throughout the election. If the other candidate is elected, it will be the end of all that is good and secure. Be very afraid and vote.
Why is it that we try and motivate people by playing on their fears? If you don’t buy the extended warranty, your car will collapse in a heap of steel. If you don’t eat this brand of cereal, you will have a terrible day. If you don’t do it my way, you will find yourself all alone. Sidewalk preachers scream that the world will end if we don’t repent.
That is NOT what Jesus said. Jesus DID warn his followers to be wise, but he did not tell them that life is to be feared. Instead, he left them with the words, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” He wasn’t focused on the destruction as much as he was what would come after it. The prophet Isaiah put it this way, “[God] is doing a new thing, now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (43:19) This new thing God is doing is already in our midst.
I hear an invitation to be present to what is…to notice God here and now…rather than to fear the horror that lurks in the shadows. A life based on fear seems to say that we cannot trust in God’s goodness, but must do all we can to save ourselves. If we can just know when Christ will come again, we can be ready. It reminds me of Y2K. We’ve got a date, now we can stock up on supplies. Or as the comic said, “Jesus is coming… look busy.” But that kind of fear isn’t faith. Faith is living as if Jesus is among us now, all the time. It is tuning into the presence of God in the most ordinary of moments. It is paying attention. It is being present right now, rather fearing what hasn’t yet happened.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve got this one figured out and I’m ready for the next lesson. I just came back from the final week of my yearlong Soulcraft program in Utah. It was a powerful experience to connect with creation in such intentional ways. The lessons I learned were many, but one of the most significant was being present. It’s much easier when we are camping in nature and we don’t have weeds to be pulled, bills to be paid, laundry to be done, and all the other things that fill our minds. It was such a relief for me to be away from my lists. I love my lists. I feel so mighty when I can throw a list away because I have done everything on it. I have lists in my work portfolio, lists on my phone, and lists in my head. They all ask me to put them first. They instill fear of what will happen if I don’t pick up the clothes from the cleaners or send that email.
I came home from this powerful final week and started on my list. At first, I felt great as I checked everything off and then I began to feel empty. Where was the wilderness? Where were the lessons of the massive rainbow that filled the sky on that rainy, blustery day? Where was the sound of the owl in the early morning? Where was the rhythm of the river that ran through the campground? God was so clearly in each of those. But it was a bit harder to find God in my lists.
My lists function like a security blanket for me. Somehow they lure me into believing that I am really living because I’m being productive. They show me that I can rely on myself. But that security isn’t real. Each day, as I lean back into my deepest longings and offer my prayers, I am turning to God to hold all that I am. The invitation today is to trust in God who is greater than all the things that give us security: our bank accounts, our stuff, our relationships, our heath, the list goes on and on. Security is found in God alone and only in God can we make room for the birth of something beautiful and new among us.
The gospel lesson holds the tension of endings and beginnings together. We see this paradox wherever we go: in the larger world, in the church, and in our own lives. Life is ending and beginning. Just this week, we welcomed a new baby into the St. Michael’s community and said goodbye to a wonderful saint. We are experiencing birth pangs as this vibrant congregation grows and reaches out to the community. Birth is beautiful and painful.
Who is My Neighbor? continues as volunteers have weekly conversations with food pantry recipients to share their life struggles. They are developing relationships with those we are serving and learning more about the particular issues that they face each day. We have a team doing research to discover what resources are available. We don’t know where all of this will lead, but we believe the answer is found in deepening relationships with the people we serve. We are listening for the voice of God in the people we feed each week.
Hebrews calls us to “provoke one another to love and good deeds, to meet together, and encourage one another all the more as we see the Day approaching.” (10:25 paraphrase) In the most difficult moments of our lives, when all has come crashing down, in the loss of those we love, we are called to deepen our investment in our community. It may seem counterintuitive. It is so tempting to hibernate until the storm passes. But, we are all in this together. I have been touched by the stories of those from the food pantry who are showing up and opening their hearts so we can glimpse their pain and struggle. The volunteers are sharing their hearts and stories as well. Those relationships of compassion go both ways. God is there. Something is being born from that pain.
Apocalyptic texts are often misunderstood and plunge us into that place of fear that the sky is falling. But “an Apocalypse is an unveiling, a revealing, a vision that grants its recipients a glimpse beyond what is going on to what is really going on.” (Preaching Through the Christian Year, p. 472) Can we look beneath the surface to see that God is indeed doing something new? Can we listen beyond the pain we see around us to hear the hope of God giving birth? Can we trust that God is beyond our vision weaving a tapestry of healing from the broken threads we witness daily?
God is in the most painful moments of our lives. God is in our suffering. God is doing something new. Our task is to be present and we will witness God’s creation of life in all things. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "All around us, to the right and left, in front and behind, above and below, we have only to go a little beyond the frontier of sensible appearances in order to see the divine welling up and showing through." (The Divine Milieu)
The texts today sound threatening and it is tempting to lock ourselves in our houses in response to such ominous words. I believe that we are being called out into the world to witness to God’s presence, to notice signs of God everywhere, and to be part of what God is doing. It means stepping toward fear rather than away from it. God meets us there and shows us the new thing being born.
November 11, 2012
Motivations for Giving
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
It’s funny, but every year about this time when parishes are wrapping up their pledging season, readings like the ones we just heard appear in our lectionary. What a coincidence!
The story is known as The Widow’s Mite. Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, and watching as people made their contributions to the treasury. Wealthy people made a show of giving large sums of money, which, Jesus noted, was actually a pittance, in comparison to their resources. A poor widow, by contrast, gave everything she had. Jesus pointed to her and said that of the two, she was the generous one, for generosity is defined by the proportion of our income that we give away, not the amount.
But the story does more than underscore the biblical teaching of proportional giving. It goes deeper, as Jesus always does. He moves us from the external action - giving money - to the internal condition of the heart. Jesus looks within and asks the penetrating question Why do people give? And we end up asking ourselves the same question: What is my real motivation for giving - for giving money, time, effort; for giving of myself?
To get at this question, Jesus speaks of the scribes, who wear fancy robes and strut around proudly in Jerusalem’s marketplace, who get the best seats at banquet halls and synagogues, and who make sure everyone knows how much money they give. They are motivated to give for the sake of appearances.
But meanwhile, Jesus says, things are rotten inside. For the scribes were part of the Temple system that taxed the poor into indebtedness, and then when they couldn’t pay, took away their ancestral land and home. Jesus said “They devour widows’ houses.”
The closest modern parallel to these guys would be the insurance company executives and investment bankers who handed out junk mortgages leading up to the 2008 recession. When families were put out on the streets, they continued to wear expensive suits and strut around proudly in Manhattan’s marketplace, and to sit in the best seats at charity balls.
Some of them are pious pillars of their community, philanthropists, and Jesus says they are the worst kind. For they make a show of giving away a proportionally small amount of their fortune that they get from exploiting others, and then swell with pride as their name is placed on the wing of a hospital. “Beware of them,” Jesus says, for “they devour widows’ houses..They will have the greater condemnation.”
So in this story, Jesus addresses the motivation of giving for the sake of appearances. But there is another self-serving motivation for giving that may hit a little closer to home for all of us: transactional giving.
Transactional giving takes many forms, but they’re all rooted in the belief that If I give this, then I will get that. Some put their faith in the prosperity gospel, where the transaction goes like this: If make an investment of sacrificial giving, then I will get a 10-fold return on my investment. Others think that their charity will purchase absolution for the guilt they feel for being privileged in a poor world. Or maybe it’s just duty: if I do what God requires, if I do the right thing, then I will gain God’s favor, and I will see myself as a good person. And for some in parish life, the transaction is payment for services consumed: If I pay my pledge, I will get Sunday worship, programs for children, a group to belong to.
So if we don’t give for the sake of appearances, and we don’t give transactionally, why give?
I’d like to suggest that we give as a way of strengthening the human community. We give money, time, and effort - we give of ourselves - because it creates better connections between people, because it makes the human family healthier, happier. And that benefits everyone, including us.
Recently I spent a week at a meditation center north of San Francisco doing a contemplative prayer retreat. In meditation or contemplative prayer, we abandon words, sit in the presence of God, and allow ourselves to just be. What emerges from this prayerful being - and every religious tradition tells us this - is the experience of oneness not only with God, but with all people, with all creation. It’s a natural outcome.
As some 50 of us sat in silence together, as we settled down and stopped all our feverish doing and talking, we shared the same space, even the same breath. It was intimate, and very real. There we were: many people, but one sacred life. Many spirits, but one Spirit uniting us all. Many members, but one body.
In this environment, kindness is natural, because we know that we’re all in this together. There’s a heightened sensitivity to one another; we’re like family or friends, even though we might never speak. We’re attuned, even as we stand silently in line for a meal, as we pass one another on a walkway.
And this sense of unity goes beyond people, into the environment. Walking outside smelling the eucalyptus and the redwoods, feeling the damp fog, taking in the salt air of the nearby ocean, I was slowed down enough to know, in that moment, that there is no separation between “me” and “the world.” I wasn’t taking a walk “out in nature.” I am a part of nature; it is a part of me.
This isn’t just a fuzzy emotional or spiritual intuition. It is a scientific and social fact. People and objects seem like separate things, but we’re all made up of the same whirling subatomic particles. We’re all made of energy, just arranged in different forms. And where “I” end and “you” or a “tree” begin, physically, emotionally, is an overlapping area. We blur, and we affect one another.
Environmentally, interdependence has become painfully obvious. Introduce enough carbons into the atmosphere and you change the weather; Hurricane Sandy arises and harms millions of people. But positively speaking, we also know that an ecosystem is actually a boundless, interdependent organism, each part of it maintaining the life of other parts. Earth, water, insects, animals, plants, atmosphere - all one breathing and self-sustaining system.
This is also true of social and economic systems. A father dies and suddenly the whole family, like an out-of-balance hanging mobile, needs to find a new equilibrium. A new group of immigrants, with all their cultural habits and traditions, changes the city into which they enter. The greed of unregulated capitalists renders millions of people unemployed worldwide.
So seeing our unity with one another and our environment is not just wishful thinking, or the spiritual imagination at work. Creation is a vast, fragile, and beautiful web of being, one life form. Some call this life form Gaia, after the ancient Greek goddess who is a kind of Mother Earth. I think of creation as God’s body, all of it animated by the Creator’s Spirit.
You may be wondering right about now why I’ve gone off on this cosmic tangent of contemplative unity. But it’s not a tangent. It is an understanding of reality that makes it possible to give of our time, our money, our best efforts in a healthy way - not for appearances or as a transaction - but because by giving, we strengthen the web of being, of which we are a part.
So today, as we offer our pledges that will sustain this community through the coming year, we affirm our place in the web of being, here in this corner of creation. Your money provides worship for seekers and pays the salaries of those who counsel the troubled. Your time puts food on the tables of elderly widows who live on meager fixed incomes. Your generosity provides a safe sacred place for those who have been condemned in other churches.
Everything we do, for better or worse, has an impact on the whole. So it isn’t too grand to say that by giving, we participate in God’s own work of redeeming creation. Who wouldn’t be motivated by that?
Today we celebrate the feast of “All Saints,” and how wonderful that we can look up here and see the many saints that are represented from our families and friends who have gone before us. It reminds me of the scripture in Hebrews which begins: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…..”
Who among us has not loved to sing, “When All the Saints Go Marching In …..O Lord, I Want to Be in that Number. WOW! That’s quite a parade to join. Some of the ways that we have recognized saints are these:
They have extended to others the mercy that they have received from God.
And when God’s reign was under attack, they found the courage to stand steadfast -- regardless of the cost that this might exact.
Many of you know how much I have admired Etty Hillesum, A Dutch Jew, who wrote about the need to unbind those who were headed for the death chambers, at the hands of the Nazis! Here is what Etty wrote in her journal as she was preparing for her own deportation:
…One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that we must help You, God, in order to help ourselves - all of us…..what really matters these days is that we safeguard that little piece of You God, in ourselves, and to defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last……
It may have seemed that God was not intervening directly, but Etty and so many others will tell story after story of how they were able to partner with God in both prayer and simply encouraging and supporting one another. As a result they were able to see the many God-moments that required only a human response to complete the miracles that God was already doing within those camps and beyond. Hitler’s thousand-year Reich was brought down in only twelve years!
We are a part of the communion of saints, not because of some inherent quality or because of what we have done, but because we have chosen to become a part of God’s community. Our baptism becomes a mark of sainthood.
St. Paul uses the term “saint” over and over in his letters to refer to the Church on earth. We are called saints because of God’s continuing incarnate presence among us. What gives God’s people the label of saint, is not what we do, or what we have earned -- but because of God’s presence within and among us.
This Sunday’s readings for All Saints Sunday focuses less on the “saints” and more on what all saints are promised and encouraged to be in our partnership with God’s work here on earth.
Our gospel lesson this morning, the story of the raising of Lazarus, is one of the most heartrending stories in the Bible. It describes with passion the loss that one feels in the face of death, and it shows the depths of compassion that people do feel for loved ones who are coping with loss.
As Lazarus comes forth from the tomb, can’t you just hear all the people and friends who were gathered there to mourn? Lazarus, Lazarus, tell us, what was it like?
Lazarus passed through death and was returned to life-- but I think we’d agree that Jesus was pointing to a far more important reality than what Lazarus may or may not have experienced “on the other side.” Lazarus’ experience points to the main theme in the Gospel of John: ETERNAL LIFE DOESN’T BEGIN ON THE FAR SIDE OF THE GRAVE…..IT BEGINS……..ON THIS SIDE!
This is what our gospel message says to us today: the kingdom of God is here and now and most certainly “eternal life does begin on this side of the grave.”
What grabbed me most this week, as I read and reread again this story of Lazarus - were the words: “UNBIND HIM AND LET HIM GO”!
First, Jesus commands Lazarus “TO COME OUT.” Next he commands the community “TO UNBIND HIM AND LET HIM GO.”
Jesus performs what is perhaps his most significant miracle—so much so that not only are many in the crowd moved to faith but his opponents are moved to conspire toward his death.
What I see as equally important is that Jesus instructs and expects the crowds to participate in and actually “TO COMPLETE THE MIRACLE.”
BOTH MATTER! It is Jesus who has the power to heal, to feed, to restore, to bring to life, to redeem. But Jesus seeks to involve US in these actions and, indeed, perhaps expects us to complete them.
Think about what other miraculous things God intends to do in our communities.--
We have to think seriously about not only the things that bind us as a community and the work to which we are called to partner with Christ,--- but also about those things that bind us individually from moving ahead in our own journey….
So what do we need unbound? -- either as individuals or as a community?
Is it to unbind ourselves by forgiving ourselves for not being who we want to be? This is a big one for many!
Is it to unbind our prejudices and let go -- perhaps accepting a new view of others?
Is it to unbind our hearts where love stops short? This is one that I have to wrestle with often because there are some for which I’m only willing to love – just so much
Is it to unbind our resources and share with those who have far less? What about the victims of the recent storms?
Brian Taylor in his book “BECOMING HUMAN” says this: “We must learn somehow to forgive ourselves for being human” ….he goes on to say that we have to get over basing our self worth on any accomplishments we have achieved or not achieved but instead on God’s delight in us AS WE ARE TODAY!!!! Wow! God’s delight in us AS WE ARE TODAY!
Henri Nouwen reminds us that “the greatest enemy and trap that keeps us bound is self-rejection, doubting who we really are!
Remember the time in David’s life as is told in I Samuel when he had made some bad decisions, ended up fighting on the side of King Saul’s enemy. Then all of a sudden David found himself in the situation where even those he had trusted were now against him and there were those who were about to stone him….. David was pretty much at the bottom and……..
What did David do? The story goes that David went out and “encouraged” himself in the Lord, or as the modern translation states: “He went out and strengthened himself in the Lord.” What a fantastic way to deal with situations and ourselves when everything around us feels hopeless…. even when we feel we are to blame. We just turn around and do what David did…… “ENCOURAGE OR STRENGTHEN OURSELVES IN GOD.”
Then we are able to reach out and unbind another:
The story is told of a Dutch soldier who was captured and made prisoner of war. Isolated, lonely, afraid, and feeling that he had nothing to live for, he received an unexpected letter, crumpled and dirty because it had traveled so long and far to reach him. It was just a piece of paper, but on it were these simple words: “We all are waiting for you at home. Do not worry. We will see you back at home.” This simple letter, these simple words changed his life. He now had a reason to live. The external circumstances of his life, his imprisonment and his isolation, did not change….but SOMEBODY WAS WAITING FOR HIM. HE STILL HAD A HOME….. AND HOPE WAS REBORN IN HIM.
When we accept who we are at God’s Table. We are to remember that we don’t have to earn God’s approval or love. It is freely given – we just have to RECEIVE IT.”
Today, as we celebrate the Eucharist, in the presence of all the saints who have gone before us, and the saints with whom we share this communion table, let’s be mindful it is a day to accept ourselves -- as we receive God’s Grace, God’s Mercy, God’s Unconditional Love, AT THE TABLE…… IN THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS.”
The story of Job is a challenging one.
It presents a disturbing image of a God who makes bets over the trials and tribulations of a faithful servant –
who will allow a good man to be tested by terrible trials.
When I was in seminary, this is what I learned about the book of Job:
There is a story – a sort of fable –
found in the prose sections of the book in chapters 1 and 42.
In this story, God is bragging to an Adversary,
“have you seen my faithful servant Job?”
And the Adversary answers, “of course he is faithful –
he is prosperous, he has a beautiful family – he has every reason to be faithful.
What would happen if that was taken away? Would he remain faithful then?”
So God allows the Adversary to test Job – to take his wealth, his health, and his family.
And Job remains faithful, so in the end – chapter 42 – all his fortune is restored.
But this is a deeply dissatisfying story.
Would God allow God’s faithful to be tested?
Can you replace one lost child with another?
Is the question of suffering really that simple?
And so someone took that fable, and added to it the chapters of poetry
which make up most of the book of Job.
With a tone of irony and satire, this writer turns against the fable and delves deeply into questions of theodicy.
Why do the good suffer and the evil prosper?
Where is God when we suffer?
Why are some healed but not all?
If God is good and sovereign, why do we suffer?
In this poetic section, Job’s friends give voice to a commonly held theological position in biblical times –
that goodness and faithfulness is rewarded,
and if someone suffers, it must reflect wrongdoing.
We see this idea reflected in many psalms, which extol the rewards of faithfulness and wisdom; even in the gospel stories this thread remains.
Job’s friends urge him to identify the evil he has done so that he can make things right.
But Job knows that his suffering is nothing he deserves.
And so he calls on God to answer – Why am I suffering?
Why are you doing this to me? What do you want from me?
God’s response is both overwhelming and ultimately unsatisfying,
if what you are looking for is an answer.
God comes to Job in a whirlwind, and says,
4“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
8“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— 9when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 11and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
God goes on like this for three chapters,
and this brings us to the brief dialog we read today from Job:
Then Job answered the Lord: 2“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
God says, “‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5
And Job responds, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
As my mentor used to say, “God is God, and I am not.”
Sometimes that is the only answer.
But God is God.
And God is hears us.
And that can be enough.
Early in the week, I was in a panic about preaching today.
Members of our community have been through so much this fall –
we are carrying a lot of grief and uncertainty in these days.
For some of us, life has turned upside down and will never be the same.
I lay awake in the night, thinking,
“What can I say about suffering that will be adequate and helpful at this time? “
Then I started to study Job, and I had to laugh at myself.
Great scholars have been seeking adequate, conclusive theologies of suffering for centuries,
and I think I should wrap it up this week?
The whole point of Job is that is doesn’t offer an answer –
this is simply not something we understand.
But Job invites us deeply into the questions,
to wrestle faithfully with what we know of God and our own experience of life.
What transforms Job’s life is his encounter with a God who hears him and knows him.
Job affirms, along with so many of the psalms, the value of staying engaged with God.
Commentator Kathleen O’Connor wrote,
“By lamenting, complaining, and shouting his discontent to the God he believes to be attacking him, Job keeps his relationship with God alive. . . . [In the end], he utters a profound statement of faith: ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.’ Now Job meets God in his own life, in the thick of the storm that is his life. Job speaks of firsthand experience, a personal meeting, a kind of seeing that surpasses known speech about God. From Job’s viewpoint, this encounter overwhelms and honors him and transforms his life.”
O’Connor went on to suggest that a better translation of verse 6,
when Job despises himself and repents, would be “I repent of dust and ashes.”
In other words, when Job comes face to face with God, he is changed.
He leaves his absorption with self behind and gets up from his ash heap
to go on with his life,
to continue his life in the midst of his suffering.
God has revealed Godself to Job, and it is enough –
even before the fairy tale ending which attempts to erase all of Job’s suffering.
You may have noticed that the assigned reading from Job skips over three verses.
In those verses, God instructs Job’s friends to make an offering –
presumably in repentance – and to ask Job to pray for them.
Part of Job’s restoration is a return to community –
reconciliation with the friends whose misguided attempts to help had tormented him.
Before the conclusion of the original fable, in which Job’s fortune is restored,
Job has already begun his healing –
in his re-defined relationship with a God who hears him and responds to his pain;
and in a move toward fellowship with others in his community.
The gospel story this morning offers another perspective on suffering and community.
The blind beggar, Bartimaeus, has heard that Jesus is coming through his town.
He stands by the side of the road crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The crowds try to hush him.
Jesus is an important man, and the “insiders” try to protect him – and themselves –
from the discomfort of this beggar’s disability and dishevelment.
But Jesus instructs them to bring the man forward.
Jesus welcomes the blind beggar into the very center of the crowd, and asks,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Bartimaeus knows his need, and right away he answers, “Rabbi, let me see again.”
And Jesus heals him with a few words – restoring not only his sight,
but his place in the community as well.
The crowds surrounding Jesus may not even know what they want Jesus to do for them.
They want to be close to him, to absorb his charisma and bask in his compassion,
to reflect a bit of his fame.
But, as in so many healing stories in the gospels, it is the one who knows his brokenness
who gains the attention and favor of Jesus.
The arrival of Bartimaeus – clear in his need, and not shy to cry out for rescue –
gives everyone in the crowd something they need, even if they don’t know it.
Cynthia Jones described it this way, “the cry of need that caused Bartimaeus to be shunned by many becomes the occasion for their glimpse of God’s final intention for creation.
The glimpse is called a miracle. Miracles are those events that bring people from darkness into light,”
So it is not only Bartimaeus, but everyone in the crowd, whose sight is restored by the miracle of healing.
How many of us are willing to come into community and share our brokenness?
It is hard.
It is so tempting to want to be seen here at our best.
How many of us grew up with the understanding that we honor God
by dressing up in our best clothes to come to church?
How many of us yearn for our kids to be on their best behavior here, of all places?
How many of us struggle to keep in place the mask which says, “Everything is fine”?
But this is a community that can hold our brokenness.
Jesus urges us to be the kind of community that invites brokenness, not perfection.
Indeed, this community needs our brokenness –
needs us to be honest, to share our needs and fears and struggles,
so that we all may glimpse God at work in one another
and share our journey together.
No one understands why we suffer.
We can’t explain it.
What we can do is keep on wrestling.
We can cry out in anger, with Job and so many psalms,
against God’s seeming injustice or abandonment.
We can keep on walking in faith –
even if some days we are just going through the motions –
trusting in a new relationship to God and one another at the end of our journey.
None of us gets through this life untouched by suffering.
But we are in this together,
and we know a God who hears us and walks the journey with us.
Thanks be to God
Sermon – St. Michael and All Angels
Mark 10: 35-45
October 21, 2012
Some say that preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the gospel lesson has not brought much comfort to any of us in recent weeks. Do we really need to be afflicted that much? Sunday after Sunday we are confronted with the cost of discipleship. In the verses leading up to our reading this morning, Jesus tells the disciples for the third time that he is going to die. The first time he tells them Peter rebukes him. The second time, the disciples begin to argue about who is the greatest and now James and John ask for the place of honor on his right and left. Or as Mark Davis put it, “James and John call ‘Shotgun!’” (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com) Were they even listening to Jesus? How could they respond to Jesus’ prediction of death by asking him to honor them?
Hearing is a funny thing. It is so easy to hear what we want to hear. It is clear to Jesus that James and John haven’t really heard him and so he asks them if they are able to drink the cup he drinks or be baptized in him. “Of course we can! We are ready, willing and able. Now if we can just have those thrones…”
We read this text knowing that Jesus died with someone on his right and left side. Those weren’t places of honor and it wasn’t his distinguished disciples occupying those places.
Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon on this text called “The Drum Major Instinct”. He said that all of us have a desire to be recognized, to be first. It is simply our nature as humans to crave distinction. I’d like to argue with him, but I know the truth of that in me. Recognition feels good. Affirmation feels good. How many times have we hoped that we would be chosen for a place of honor? We know that we shouldn’t admit out loud that we want those seats of honor, but secretly we hope we will get them. I don’t know what those seats of honor look like for you, but they exist in many forms – being chosen captain of the team, being asked to chair an important committee, or some kind of public recognition for our hard work. But there is another side to recognition and honor.
I had a conversation this week with someone about how many people don’t see a need to be in church. We hear a variety of reasons for that – church is irrelevant, church is a waste of time, church is full of hypocrites. But I am wondering if there is another reason people choose not to come to church. What if they read this scripture? What if they really listened to the words and found the cost to be too great?
Will Willimon, former dean of the Duke University Chapel tells this story:
“Back when I was at Duke Chapel, I once lamented to a group of students that we attracted so few students in our services on Sunday at Duke Chapel. "Go easy on yourself," said one of the students. "Duke is a very selective school with very bright students," she said. (I'm thinking, "Yeah, bright but not all that humble.")
"I think most of them are smart enough to figure out," she continued, "that if they gave their lives to Christ, he would only make their lives more difficult. I think it's amazing you get as many students to come to Jesus as you do." (http://day1.org/1474-good_news)
There are many stories of people who have lived this truth. They followed Jesus and their lives became much more difficult. Today is an historic day in Rome. Kateri Tekakwitha (KATeri TekakWITHa), is the first Native American woman to be canonized as a saint. A few years ago, our J2A pilgrimage went to Montreal to the sacred sites of Kateri’s birth and death. When she was 4, Kateri lost her family to smallpox and was badly scarred. Her extended family raised her and planned for her to marry. Kateri was baptized at age 20 and her tribe shunned her for her commitment to Christ so she fled to Canada where she could live a life of religious devotion. She was 24 when she died. She is one of many who experienced the cost of discipleship. We cannot fool ourselves into believing that following Christ asks little of us. He asks everything of us. Yet, rather than giving up all to follow Christ, we try and fit our faith into life as we know it.
Being true to my call has cost me, but I live a very comfortable life. I read Jesus’ words and I wonder if I have what it takes to be a servant of all. I’m not sure I understand what he means by those words, but it sounds pretty impossible when I consider where Jesus’ journey takes him.
Albert Schweitzer said, “Life becomes harder when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier.” I know Christ calls us to shift our focus to those around us and live with our hands open ready to respond. It’s that simple and that difficult.
One of the great gifts of a faith community is the opportunity to be part of something larger than ourselves. Here we can make a difference in the lives of those who are hungry through the food pantry. We can come together and walk the streets of our neighborhood encouraging them to vote. We can touch the lives of children by teaching or sharing the goodness of God’s love in Children’s Chapel. We can offer our voice and sing in the choir. We can extend the love of Christ beyond our walls by taking communion to those who are unable to get to church. There are so many ways for us to experience greatness here. The funny thing is that it has nothing to do with spotlights or rave reviews. Greatness happens while holding the hand of one who is afraid, or listening to the wisdom of a child, or cleaning up after coffee hour where people have shared their lives that morning.
Here is the amazing thing about greatness – there are no educational requirements or resumes needed. We simply come as we are and offer ourselves to God. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well:
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that [the one] who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's your new definition of greatness…by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Drum Major Instinct” a sermon preached February 4, 1968)
So here we are in the middle of the fall pledge campaign hoping for words of comfort and we are given words of affliction. Pledge campaigns are tricky. We tend to get touchy when the subject of money comes up because we don’t want to experience discomfort. We like the idea that we might ride shotgun. When we are reminded that there is a cost to following Christ, we start to squirm. Through the years in many settings, I have heard comments that the church just “wants our money.” The church is not them – it is us – all of us. We come together to be the church - to follow Jesus and there is nothing that says it will be painless. I think the church gives us an opportunity to be great week after week. Here we can offer ourselves to Christ’s service. Here we can share our resources so that all may experience the power of God’s love. Here we take our places at Jesus’ right and left and discover what it is to be great.
Oct. 14, 2012
The Eye of a Needle
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Well, Jesus has been in a cranky mood recently. Last week he denounced divorce, and today he reviles the rich. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. One wonders whether this gospel was appointed for this time of year to influence our voting, or our pledging.
Every one in this room is a part of the richest 10% of the world’s population. But before we start writhing in guilt and wondering how we might ever squeeze through that eye of the needle, let’s consider the story more closely.
A wealthy man ran up to Jesus and knelt on the ground before him. This suggests desperation, or at least motivation. He really needs to talk to Jesus, and wants to know how to inherit eternal life. At first, Jesus gives him a stock answer. He says, You know the commandments. Spiritual leaders often respond this way at first, just to find out if the seeker is serious.
But this seeker stays, and seems to be serious. Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth. What more must I do? He knows there is more than external religious obedience. There is more to this business of the kingdom of God that Jesus keeps talking about. Perhaps earlier, the rich man had heard Jesus teaching to a crowd. He went away, but Jesus’ words just wouldn’t leave him. So he came back.
Well then, Jesus thought. Maybe this guy means it. So Jesus tells him what he must do. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. The crowd suddenly got very quiet. After a very awkward pause, the man hung his head and shuffled off.
Now why on earth did Jesus make it so hard? That’s what the disciples wanted to know. They rightly wondered Who then can be saved?
I’m afraid that we have misunderstood this story, and other passages like it, for centuries. We hear phrases like “eternal life” and “kingdom of God” and we translate that to “heaven.” We have been brainwashed by centuries of obsession with salvation in the afterlife, and so we see these passages through that lens. The man wanted to go to heaven, we think, and Jesus offered him a very high-priced ticket. No ticket? Sorry, no entry. To hell with you!
But Jesus was always more concerned with this life than the next. The “eternal life” that this man wanted to enter is called, in the original Greek, zoe. Zoe is not heaven in the afterlife, but the vibrant experience of God in this life. It is everything that Jesus came to offer - waking up to God’s nearness, being pure in heart, trusting in God’s goodness, and opening joyfully and generously to others as fellow children of God - whether or not they deserve it, and no matter what their station in life.
This is eternal life, which starts in this life and extends into the next. This is the kingdom of God, which Jesus spoke about more than anything. So we pray Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. But the fact is, there are few who seek it, and fewer still who are willing to do what it takes to find it. That was true in Jesus’ day, is true today, and always will be. Why is that?
Well, for whatever reason, many are satisfied with the material world. And by material, I do not just mean materialism. I mean the concrete, the mundane. What do I want to wear, to eat, to do? Are things going the way I want? Am I comfortable and untroubled, and if not, how can I fix my circumstances so that I will be? Many are satisfied with life at this level. That’s all there is for them.
Others know that religion has more something to offer, although according to a new Pew survey that just came out, fewer and fewer in our increasingly secular society. And most of those who are religious are satisfied with a simple faith: go to church, try to be good, pray now and then.
That’s okay, as far as it goes. Let’s be clear: Jesus did not condemn the wealthy man for walking away. When given the opportunity to go deeper, he chose not to. That’s fine. Continue to keep the commandments as you always have. Nothing wrong with that.
The rich man thought he wanted to go deeper, and that’s what a lot of religious or spiritual people say they want. What more must I do to live into eternal life, zoe, that vibrant, transformative experience of God that you talk about all the time?
He was told that if that’s really what he wanted, he would have to let go of the very thing that he was attached to, the very thing that was keeping him at a distance from God. Apparently, that was money.
Instead of learning to trust in God, he had come to believe that money would guarantee him security. Instead of looking for the free presence of God in the ordinary world around him, he purchased pleasure. Instead of being open to other children of God, no matter what their station in life, he surrounded himself with like-minded privileged people and cut himself off from all others.
And here’s the important thing: he was not willing to change. He was not willing to give up that security, that pleasure, that privileged company, even though all of it kept him at a distance from the living God. So he chose to keep things the way they were. His choice wasn’t between heaven and hell. It was between a vaguely religious life and zoe, the kingdom of God. As some like to put it, “Jesus came, offering us the kingdom of God, and we settled for the Church.”
Perhaps you’re religious, and have no burning desire to go deeper. That’s fine. Continue to keep the commandments, pray, and do good. But maybe you want to enter the kingdom of God, here in this lifetime. If so, there will be times when you are asked to change. You will be put in front of a very specific gate. It will look as impossible to go through as the eye of a needle.
At this gate, you may be asked to let go of your angry demand that your past or present life be different than it is. You may be asked to let your defenses crumble. You may be asked to stop drinking, to give up control, or to turn from self-absorption to generosity. You may be asked to learn to pray more full-heartedly, and to carry this consciousness throughout your day.
I don’t know what the eye of the needle is for you. But it always involves change. It always involves surrendering the baggage that keeps you from getting through. The rich young man was asked to surrender his precious but limiting identity as a wealthy person. If you want to go deeper, you will be asked now and then, at different times of your life, to surrender those things that stand between you and God, and live differently.
Along the way, we let go of this, then that, peeling back the layers of the onion. Ultimately, at the heart of it, we must let go of our very sense of self. After all, more than once, Jesus said something that was even more radical than Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. He said Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me to Calvary.
There, our limiting self-definition will die. As we peel back the onion of our attachments and keep going, we find, at the very center, there is no solid, unchanging “thing” that we can hold on to. There is only God, manifesting through our life, through everyone and everything, all the time.
Deny your “self,” Jesus said. Deny what you think that self must have or do to be satisfied. Deny that self’s hopes and disappointments, its likes and dislikes. Deny even who you think that self is, or should be. Instead, give yourself fully to whatever God brings you, moment by moment. Be pure of heart, and leave no trace of self as you pass through your day. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote, It is no longer “I” who live, but Christ in me.
The key to this story may be in the eye of the needle. How does a camel get through it? By becoming very small. The smaller our self, the more easily we slip through, into the kingdom of God.
In today’s gospel, Jesus isn’t condemning wealth. And he isn’t threatening anyone with exclusion from heaven. He merely names, for this man, the gate to a deeper walk with God.
What might be that gate for you, at this time in your life?
Sermon – St. Michael and All Angels
Mark 10: 2-16
October 7, 2012
Most days I am grateful for the lectionary. It keeps us honest and takes us through most of the Bible in a three-year cycle. We don’t get to talk about our favorite scriptures over and over…we have to deal with the scripture in front of us. Today I am not feeling so grateful for the lectionary. Yet, even today the lectionary leaves me an easy escape. I can jump to “Let the little children come to me.” Now that feels good. But I can’t step over the landmine of divorce as if it isn’t there. I would be willing to bet that every person in this room has been touched by divorce in some way – either you have experienced it yourself or someone close to you has been through it. It is rare to come through this life without experiencing the pain of divorce or a difficult breakup. So what do we do with the gospel lesson this morning?
The question “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” is a test. I’m not sure what the Pharisees were hoping for, but they knew there was no good answer to that question. Someone will be offended no matter what Jesus says. There are many questions like that. That seems to happen a lot in an election year. It feels like we are testing the candidates and asking them questions that will offend people in order to feel better about ourselves. Are we really deeply concerned about the greater good or do we just want to make the other candidate look bad so our candidate will win? I’ve seen this dynamic in many churches as well. Somewhere our personal agenda takes over and we lose sight of what is best for all. Jesus calls us back and asks us to think about the whole human family.
Divorce in those days could happen for any reason. A wife burns the toast one morning and the husband issues her a divorce decree that afternoon. The wife is then left with no resources and struggles to survive. Some say that Jesus was trying to equalize things a bit in his response so that the woman wouldn’t be so vulnerable.
I have performed a number of weddings and this is what I have seen…no one gets married thinking they will one day get divorced. Couples come in love and believing that marriage will be beautiful and good. If anything, they are not prepared when things get difficult, and they usually do. We spend a lot of time in premarital sessions talking about issues in a marriage – sex, money, extended family, work, children, conflict, spirituality, and communication. I’m sure it is helpful on some level, but I also see how difficult it is to imagine that things might be hard someday. Ted Loder says that he has reduced his premarital counseling to six words, “When you need help, get it.” (The Haunt of Grace, p. 70)
Here is the truth. Relationships are hard work. All of them. There are no exceptions. Even relationships that have relatively little conflict and both people seem to feel loved and equal are not effortless. They depend on both people working to create a loving space that will hold the strength and vulnerability of each one.
The Genesis text is often used to prove the male is superior, but Jewish tradition says it is important that the woman is made from the man’s rib. The intention is that they would be intimate and equal because she comes from a bone near the center close to the man’s heart. Note that she wasn’t made from his head so that she could be superior or from his feet so that she would be inferior. (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2012/09/14/19-pentecost-proper-22-b-october-7-2012/)
The Psalm and Hebrews text remind us that humans are made in God’s image. Mark tells us to become like children to receive the kingdom of God. I’ve thought a lot this week about the words in this text on the subject of marriage and divorce. I’ve been thinking that perhaps Jesus is asking us to remember who we are. I wonder if Jesus’ call is to love. Period. Instead of asking how we can get out of love and compassion, Jesus wants us to be loving and compassionate without exception.
I went through a divorce several years ago. It was the most painful time in my life. I love my former husband and I am so grateful for him. We had a very loving marriage. I learned so much about love from him both during our marriage and during our divorce. I learned about a love that can let someone go even when it is something you don’t want. I have no desire to stand here and justify divorce. It is tragic.
Here is what I wonder as I read the passage again: is Jesus telling us how to be in relationship with each other? Is he telling us that we cannot divorce God? Is he telling us to love in all things?
I’ve been reflecting on a recent Christian Century (September 5, 2012) cover story (pp. 20-25). It is called “The Gospel in Seven Words.” In the article, some authors were invited to summarize the Christian message using a maximum of seven words. Here are some of their attempts:
“The wall of hostility has come down.” – Ellen T. Charry
“God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.” – Martin E. Marty
“In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation.” – Brian McLaren
I’ve been thinking about that this week and wondering how I might summarize the gospel in seven words. I think I would say, “You are God’s beloved. Act like it.”
It is easy to love when things are good. It is not so easy to love when they are rough. Can we love in the rough places? Can we continue to show up and show mercy to one another even when we’d rather not?
I am aware that the texts today refer to marriage between a man and a woman. I really don’t know what to make of the fact that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. But, I am guessing we can all find ourselves in this text if we try. It might be helpful to hear how the Episcopal Church describes same sex blessings in the material from General Convention this summer:
“Our understanding of covenant thus derives first and foremost from the gracious covenant God makes with us in Christ…
Scripture and Christian tradition encourage us to see in these intimate relationships a reflection of God’s own desire for us…
Intimate couples who live in a sacred covenant find themselves swept up into a grand and risky endeavor: to see if they can find their life in God by giving it to another…
In the eucharist, we recall Christ’s willingness to give his life for the world: “This is my body, given for you.” When two people give their lives, their bodies, to one another in a lifelong covenant, they can discover and show how in giving ourselves we find ourselves (Matthew 16:25). When the Church pronounces God’s blessing on the vows of lifelong fidelity—for different‐gender and same‐gender couples alike—the Church makes a bold claim: the paschal mystery is the very root and source of life in the couple’s relationship.” (Faith, Hope, and Love: Theological Resources for Blessing Same-Gender Relationships pp. 194-195)
I love that phrase “in giving ourselves we find ourselves”. What more do we need to know? Jesus answers the Pharisees by saying, “You are asking the wrong question.” Have you considered giving yourself in order to find yourself? Perhaps the question for us today is simply this, “How shall we love one another?”
Sermon – St. Michael and All Angels
September 30, 2012
Happy birthday, St. Michael and All Angels! Today you are 62. I have been thinking about what 62 looks like. It is an age of beauty and wisdom. At 62, we know something of who we are and what our growing edges are. We also know something about who we are not. It is the perfect age to acknowledge the ways God is at work in our midst. A birthday is a good time to pause and see God all around us. Where do you see God at St. Michael’s? I started a list, but it’s just a start because I could never name all the ways God is moving among us.
• The stories from J2A and Navajoland mission teams in recent weeks.
• The Eucharistic visitors who take communion to those who can’t be here on Sundays.
• Emma and Sasha who are baptized into our community this morning.
• In the stories we hear as we share our lives over coffee, in adult formation, or other gatherings.
• In the music and liturgical art that stir us each week.
• In a new building for youth to grow as a community.
• In a lively seniors ministry.
• In each of you.
So on this birthday, I invite you to join with me in reflecting on where God is in this place. In the first reading today, Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16) It is good for us to see where God is moving among us and give thanks. Do this, not in secret, but tell someone else over coffee after worship today where you experience God at St. Michael’s. It is our birthday, after all. Do not waste an opportunity to name your gratitude out loud.
It is especially powerful that Jacob has the encounter with the angel. He is not the model of good behavior. Jacob has stolen his brother Esau’s blessing and conned him out of his birthright. He is fleeing for his life when he meets God in the wilderness. He discovers that there is nowhere he can go to escape God.
Our feast day scriptures today give us battles and angels. While it is tempting to avoid this great battle in heaven, it has given me pause to reflect on the battles going on in and around us. We are battling life-threatening illnesses, relationships that are hurtful, old wounds that continue to suck the life out of us, financial stress, uncertainty about our future, destruction to our planet, systems that oppress the most vulnerable in our society…the list is never ending.
We make our way through this battleground of life and witness the road rage from someone who has no patience for those who drive too slowly, the bored cashier in the store who has no interest in customers, the ones who spout off a long litany of complaints to anyone who will listen…it seems easy to find people who are unhappy and negative. Who wants to be surrounded by such negative energy? I find myself worked up by a negative encounter and holding tightly to my own negative reactions when I remember the words of Philo of Alexandria “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
These words call us to see people differently. We can look more honestly at our own battles and remember to show compassion to others. Last weekend, we had a gathering for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered friends of St. Michael’s. Twenty-eight of us sat in a circle and introduced ourselves by naming what brought us to this gathering. In that circle were many stories of the pain of trying to reconcile our sexuality with our faith. It is never a given that all the parts of our lives will flow easily together. It is hard work to reconcile all of who we are and it is tempting to separate parts of ourselves into boxes rather than acknowledge the fullness of who we are. Many of my days include conversations with people who are seeking to be whole, but we have too long discarded parts of ourselves or ignored them. It takes courage and compassion to embrace all of who we are and to heal the broken parts.
Jacob is a scoundrel. He is no hero. He has done terrible things and betrayed his family. He is selfish and greedy and now he is running because he is terrified to face the consequences of his actions. He flees into the wilderness, but you and I know that the wilderness isn’t where we go for refuge. It is where the wild things live. It is where we lose our way. We may find ourselves face to face with the reality that we could die here.
It is curious to me that Jacob’s encounter in the wilderness wasn’t with a wild beast, but with an angel. My friend Jan Richardson asks, “How will we see the angels if we don’t go into the wilderness? How will we recognize the help that God sends if we don’t seek out the places beyond what is comfortable to us, if we don’t press into terrain that challenges our habitual perspective? How will we find the delights that God provides even—and especially—in the desert places?”
When I am talking with people, I am stunned at the courage they summon to face the angels in the wilderness. I am humbled by their commitment to wholeness and the vulnerability that is required for us to fully enter the struggle. This struggle will lead to embracing the parts of us that we’d rather ignore. No one said it would be easy, but does it have to be this hard?
Yet in spite of the difficulty there is grace and hope. Here is what God said to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring…all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” (Genesis 28: 13-15)
Jacob who has betrayed and cheated is given a promise that he and his offspring will be a blessing to all people! It takes my breath away to encounter a God so full of grace who will not leave us and who always keeps promises. Jacob wakes from sleep and recognizes that God is right there in the wilderness. It is astonishing that God shows up in our struggles and vulnerability and promises to be with us.
On our birthday as a congregation, the angels show up to speak the truth, to show us our task in the world and to remind us that God will not leave us. Like Jacob, may we wake from sleep and recognize the presence of God here. May we understand that we are to bless all of God’s people. May we see the beautiful buildings we inhabit at St. Michael’s as places where God dwells. May we understand that we who have received so much from God, are to be carriers of God’s grace and compassion to all.