waiting for Jesus – an Advent-season-prayer-a-day, Day 5, Thursday, December 7, 2017

Note: Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming”, is the Christian season of preparation for Jesus’ birth, the heart of the Christmas celebration, and, according to scripture and the Christian creeds, his second appearance on some future, unknown day and also according to scripture and Christian tradition, his daily coming through the Holy Spirit. Hence, the theme of waiting for Jesus is Advent’s clarion call.

O Lord Jesus, I wait this day for the wonder of Your Work.(1) By Your Spirit, send me out into Your world preaching and practicing Your justice and love of unconditional fairness and benevolence to, for, with all. Amen.

 

Footnote:
(1) Here, I have in mind that wondrous spiritual, He is King of kings. He is Lord of lords, especially the lyrics that bespeak Jesus’ justice and love (emphases, mine):
He pitched his tents on Canaan ground…and broke oppressive kingdoms down
I know that my Redeemer lives…and by His love sweet blessing gives…
Refrain:
He is King of kings; he is Lord of lords,
Jesus Christ, the first and last, no one works like Him.
O, He is King of kings; He is Lord of lords,
Jesus Christ, the first and last, no one works like Him.

Advertisements

it’s remarkable

 

a sermon, based on Matthew 25.31-46, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 26, 2017

For all who believe in judgment – whose sense of right and wrong is crystal clear, whose moral compass is balanced, whose ethical sensibilities are sharp, whose response to life’s injustices is the hope for an afterlife when all wrongs are made right – here is the definitive Bible passage!

Jesus speaks of a celestial court. “All nations” – the whole earth, everybody – are gathered before him to be judged and divided; the righteous to eternal life, the accursed to everlasting punishment. Everyone gets what everyone deserves! Justice is done, finally, forever, never to be undone!

Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant_ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

But let’s be glad this cosmic judgment hasn’t happened yet and that we are not on trial. For none of us can be assured of acquittal. For we, even with our best intentions, are imperfect, thus fall short of the standard of judgment, which, according to Jesus, is service with our sisters and brothers in greatest, gravest need.

And it’s remarkable, worthy of recognition, that the standard of judgment has nothing to do with doctrine. Surprising given how much we Christians o’er two millennia have fought and died about whose right and whose wrong about what we believe and don’t believe! Yet Jesus doesn’t demand a recitation of a creed or a profession of faith, even in him.

Rather, and it’s remarkable, Jesus identifies service to the needy of this world as service to him, the Messiah of the eternal, living God. Thus, service is not only a cornerstone of human society, it is the code of the universe, the heart of life as God hath made it. We’re not living…being unless we’re serving.

And it’s remarkable how unremarkable this service is. With the exception of welcoming a stranger who becomes a friend or caring for the sick who may be made well, these acts of service hold no promise for lasting transformation. The systemic conditions of which human need is the symptom continue to create need. The hungry, once fed, hunger again. The thirsty thirst again. The naked need clothing again. When the visit is over, the visitor returns to a life of liberty while the prisoner remains imprisoned.

And it’s remarkable that these simple, straightforward acts of service are not intended to be deliberate deeds by which we seek to gain “extra credit” or “bonus points” to balance the liabilities, our sins of commission and omission, on the ethical ledger of our lives. As the sheep didn’t know they were serving Jesus and as the goats, had they known Jesus was in need, would have served him, service is to be spontaneous and unconscious.

And it’s remarkable that the image of sheep and goats is not only an earthly symbol with heavenly meaning, but also reflects an ordinary practice of first century Palestinian shepherds; in the evening separating their mixed flocks that had grazed together during the day, the sheep preferring the chilly night air, the goats needing warm shelter.

In this light, this story isn’t only about eternity, but also now. A story about life in this world. A life in which not only the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned, but all of us are needy, in some way, all the time. Thus, a life in which love and justice call us to reach out in compassion with those in need, for we never can know when we will be the ones in need, praying that a helping hand reaches out to us.

In that light, this story is less about God’s judgment of us and more about our judgments of others and ourselves. Are we, more often than not (for none of us always is any one thing!), sheep who serve spontaneously and unconsciously? Or are we goats who would serve if the task was great enough or the one to be served, in our judgment, worthy enough? Or are we an animal yet to be named who does see those in need, yet refuses to serve?

Which are you? Which am I?

 

 

Illustration: Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy 

 

 

freed from fear…imagine

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 25.14-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Jesus tells a parable about talents. In his day, monetary units of precious metal equal to fifteen years’ wages of a day laborer. For our day, the root of our notion of our capabilities, our talents that enable us to do something.

Viewed through the worldly lens of economics, this story is about our stewardship of our abilities and our money; using them fully, investing them wisely for which we, at life’s end, will give a reckoning through our legacies and bequests.

Hmmm, maybe.

From a heavenly perspective, this story is about our faithful use of divine gifts, as Paul delineates in First Corinthians,(1) among them, faith and discernment, knowledge and wisdom, bestowed by the Spirit, which we are to use for the sake of others and for which we must give an account at the end of time, the Day of the Lord, the second coming of Jesus of which Paul speaks.(2)

Hmmm, maybe.

Today, focusing on two of the four characters, I suggest that this parable is about an elemental aspect of our relationships, all of our relationships, with God and with all others. Not the first two servants, who invest and double their money, make the same speech to their master, who, with the same words, praises and rewards them. They function as literary foils like Romeo and Juliet’s Friar whose patience magnifies Romeo’s impatience or Mr. Hyde whose evil illumines the goodness of Dr. Jekyll or the malevolent Draco Malfoy to the benevolent Harry Potter. The first two servants, in their exacting similarity, highlight the utterly different relationship of the master and the third servant; who, suffering from a case of fiscal paralysis, buries and returns the money.

Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

There is the point of the parable, which, though it may seem, is not a judgment against laziness, but rather is about fear.

FEAR - Scrabble tiles

The third servant imagined that his master was unkind. “I knew you were harsh, so I was afraid.” And acting on his fear, “I hid your talent and here it is.” The master replies, “You knew, did you, that I am as you imagine? If so, then you should have done otherwise.”

The point. Whatever we imagine about God and anyone else will influence our behavior. Speaking for myself, if I imagine God or you to be judgmental, I will be afraid and, in my fear, remain guarded, reveal little, risk even less lest I fail and fall under your judgment. If I imagine God or you to be benevolent and fair, then I am free to take the risk of being open and vulnerable, indeed, to be as loving and just as I perceive God and you to be.

What we imagine, we reflect. What we reflect, we will be and do, think and feel, intend and act.

If this is true – and I believe it is! – then the moral of this parable is this: Resist and reject fear. Risk faith and trust in our interactions with God and others, for there is truest freedom.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

Footnotes:

(1) 1 Corinthians 12

(2) 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 is the day’s appointed epistle reading.

what if?

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 23.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 5, 2017

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the final showdown with his enemies, truly, the final countdown to his death. With no time or temperament for polite speech, Jesus stands up to the religious leaders, speaking up in the face of their hypocrisy; his message, personal and polemical: “Your leaders have the power that comes with their knowledge and the authority to exercise their power to teach. Therefore, listen to what they say, but don’t do what they do. For they don’t practice what they preach. Rather than proclaiming God’s law of love and liberty, they make rules and regulations impossible to follow. They make public display of their goodness. They expect front row seats. They wear distinctive clothes and answer only to exalted titles.”[1]

This kind of talk could get Jesus killed, and we who know his story know that it did! Nevertheless, Jesus boldly confronted the religious leaders, then addressed the entire crowd: “Don’t go by honorific titles, for you all have honor. Don’t treat anyone as God, for there is only One worthy of worship and that One is not any of you. If you want to stand out, then step down, for greatness is measured in service to others.”[2]

Jesus, speaking to everyone, condemning the status quo of the hierarchy of favor for the few and subordination of the many, pointed to a radical reality; paradoxically though otherworldly intended for this sphere of time and space: the nearness of the kingdom of heaven.[3] A realm of life, a state of existence in which being created by God, therefore already approved, dignified by God removes every need for self-justification, every desire to increase self-esteem by the trappings of title, privilege, and public honor. Yes, in this world, there are titles, privileges, and publicly-bestowed honor, yet these are human inventions. In the kingdom of heaven Jesus proclaims God’s intention that all that is essential, life and dignity, is granted by God in creation and at birth.

In this revelation and my recognition of this revelation, I confess that I feel personally challenged by Jesus’ message. For, despite claiming love and justice as my values, I, sometimes, choosing to follow my preferences and prejudices, chafe under the burden of doing, being love and justice for all. And I have a vocation, by its nature, given to the public display of goodness; regardless of how I may feel. And I wear distinctive clothing. And I sit, perhaps arguably, in the best seat in this house. And I have a title in front of my name. And fearing the risk of the loss of what I have, sometimes I don’t stand up and speak up in the face of wrong.

I’m not alone. All of us, as communal creatures hardwired to be in relationship, want to be acknowledged, greeted and treated with respect. Perhaps most, if not all of us like places of honor and the best seats. And surely all of us have had moments in our lives when we thought, believed, knew something wasn’t right, yet said, did nothing; and, as we live, moments such as these again will arise and confront us.

I think of our current times; our airwaves filled with news of sexual harassment, thus bringing to light words and deeds of a long and wrong past that the purposeful silence and ignorance of many has allowed to continue unto this day.

But what if we, in this world still wedded to hierarchy and favor for few and subordination of many, with hearts, souls, and minds, embraced and embodied, preached and practiced Jesus’ message? What if we clearly beheld ourselves to be as God has created and redeemed us: earthly vessels overflowing with heavenly love? What if faithfully, truly believing that, we lived to give without reserve, served without desire for recognition, spoke and acted in the name of Jesus in the face of injustice?

If so, then the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaims would not only be near, it would be here.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 23.2-7, my paraphrase

[2] Matthew 23.8-11, my paraphrase

[3] Jesus inaugurated his public ministry with the following proclamation that formed and framed all he did and said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4.17).

party hardy!

a sermon, based on Matthew 22.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

What a bizarre story! Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet given by a king.

Who wouldn’t want to be invited? Clearly, none of these folks, who, summoned once, then twice, the second time with the added enticement of a description of the menu of succulent oxen and fatted calves (Yum!), refuse to come, and some of whom kill the messengers! The furious king retaliates, murdering the murderers, who are his subjects, and destroys their city, which is in his kingdom! Nevertheless, the party’s still on, the king inviting people off the street!

Sometimes when I’m preaching, as my personal reality-check, to assure myself that I’ve neither confused you nor left you along the way, I’ll ask you, “Are you with me so far?” As I read on this parable, I hear Jesus asking, “Paul, are you with me so far?” No!

Ah, then I remember that back in that late-first century day, Matthew was referring to the kingdom-banquet of God’s son, the Messiah, Jesus, the invitation to which some had rejected. The violence of the immediate outcome notwithstanding, our focus, as Christians, those who have accepted the invitation, is, must be on what happens at the party; where the king chastises and casts out a guest who, either disregarding or disrespecting the occasion, has failed to dress appropriately and, therefore, is out of place and might as well not have come at all.

Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

My sisters and brothers, God’s salvation in Jesus is a banquet. You and I have been invited to wear the robes of God’s love and justice, to feast on the food of God’s love and justice, to dance to the tune of God’s love and justice, and to share God’s love and justice with all. This, I submit to you, is what it means for a Christian to party hardy! So, let’s wear, feast, dance, and share God’s love and justice, thus, demonstrating our delight in being invited and having accepted the invitation to God’s banquet!

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712). Note: Luyken’s depiction of the great banquet portrays the moment when the king (on the right with his arm outstretched) directs his attendants to “Bind (the guest who chose not to don a banquet robe) hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness…”

the separable individuality of suffering

A friend, Daniel Gutiérrez, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania – though we’ve never met in the flesh, via Facebook we have connected and, even before, I, having known of him, Episcopal Church circles trending toward small, have admired his life and ministry from afar – today, in a FB post, wrote: Monday will be two weeks since the horrific violence in Las Vegas. Have we forgotten? Have we moved to the next news cycle? Let us embrace His Kingdom.

Bishop Gutiérrez, for me, an incarnation of passion for God’s love and justice, reminds me ever to remember, to “embrace” the sorrows of my sisters and brothers, in the instant case of his post, the October 1 mass shooting. His clarion call of loving and just remembrance gives me pause to reflect on how, if not easily, inevitably I do “(move) to the next news cycle.”

Thinking about this, I turned to Pontheolla and asked, not to induce her guilt, but rather as my reality-check, “Honey, when was Hurricane Harvey?”[1] She answered, “I don’t remember exactly.” I replied, “Neither do I.”

I repeated my question concerning Hurricanes Irma[2] and Maria,[3] the Mexican earthquake,[4] and the current California wildfires.[5] Her answers, the same. My replies, the same.

I wonder. Is this not true for any (all?) of us?

Do we not move on unless and until “it” (whate’er the tragedy) is our immediate experience or that we are vitally, viscerally connected because our loved ones, those near and dear to us, have suffered?

Do we not move on given the press, the pressure of our daily inundation through the 24-hour news cycle that continues to operate under an ages-old mandate, “if it bleeds, it leads” (which is to say, suffering, more than good news, sells, therefore, dominates the headlines)?

Do we not move on, for suffering hurts and there is only so much that we, psychically, even physically, given our own trials and tribulations, worries and woes, can tolerate?

I suspect that for these reasons, perhaps primarily the separable distance of tragedy not personally experienced, the painstakingly honest answer is “yes”, we do move on.

Yet, Bishop Daniel, I want to do as you implore…

I want not to move on…

I want to stay, as damnably discomfiting as it is, in the pain of the tragedies of others.

Why?

At most, for I want my mind and heart, soul and spirit never to be inured, desensitized to the hurts of others, so to be able and willing to act where I can, when I can, how I can for their good, and

At least, for I believe that the sufferings of my sisters and brothers, whate’er the tragedy, as easily, perhaps as inevitably could well have been mine and could well one day be mine.

 

Footnotes:

[1] mid-late August

[2] August 30-mid September

[3] mid-September-early October

[4] September 19

[5] early October-ongoing

my?

a sermon, based on Matthew 21.33-46, which I had planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church. Laurens, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017. Note: As happens on occasion, in the midst of the liturgy and prior to the sermon I was overwhelmed with emotion during which another word was given to me, I pray by the Holy Spirit, to share with my people of Epiphany Church. I will try to reproduce what I said and post it later.

+

Jesus tells a parable, truly, a prediction of his death. Jesus is the son of the landowner, a symbol of God, sent to the vineyard of Israel, following other servants, the prophets, to collect from the tenants, the chief priests and the elders, the due portion of the harvest of the obedience of love and justice for all people.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

“When the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asks, “what will he do to those tenants?” The chief priests and the elders reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him the produce at harvest time.” With this answer, they, ironically, unknowingly, reveal their blindness to the reality that they are the object of Jesus’ scathing indictment. They are the wretched tenants who refuse to give God the harvest of righteousness. They are those who have confused sacred leadership for the people with sovereign ownership of the people. For the Owner of the vineyard is God and God alone.

And that point, from the first century unto today unto eternity, is, for us, as God-believing, God-revering folk, a universal truth.

It is difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, for anyone to write or to speak without using the word “my”. My wife. My daughter. My family and friends. My people of Epiphany Church, Laurens, South Carolina. My mind and heart. My soul and spirit. My home and property. My day and time. My life and labor and leisure. My money…

The risk of employing this necessary word referencing our realization of our connection to people, places, and things is that we unconsciously can come to believe, and act accordingly, that we possess people, places, and things (an equal danger being that people, places, and things can possess us to the point that we cannot live freely, fully without them).

Yes, in some sense, in this mercantile world, we do own things (our creditors and the IRS surely think so!). And, yes, as we know that in death we can take nothing of this life with us, it is prudent that we make legal provision for the disposition of our things.

Nevertheless, these worldly practicalities cannot, must not, must never obscure our constant realization of the eternal revelation that God is Owner and Provider of all life and all that is in this life and the next…

Therefore, you and I, as God-believing, God-revering folk, alway, every day, every moment of the day, are to discern, come to know, and to decide, choose, to offer to God the produce, the harvest of our living in our love and justice toward all…

For it is in this act of faith, hope, and love, that we, with sincerity and truth, can say, “my God!”

 

Illustration: Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Note: Millais depicts the son of the landowner lying dead outside the vineyard fence under the eyes of two of the murderous tenants; upper right, the vineyard watchtower stands in the distance.