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31Christmas2

the-bishops-wifeI first heard about “The Bishop’s Wife” during a sermon a friend gave one Advent. Paul said how it was his favorite Christmas film and how he and his wife watched it each year.  He also said something like, “And if you’re going to have an angel show up to answer your prayers, wouldn’t you want him to look just like Cary Grant?”

I was instantly hooked, and Melissa and I watched it that year. We hoped it would be one of those films we watch every year, like “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That thought got away from me, and my Advent/Christmas season always got busy. I haven’t watched it since that first time, nearly 8 years ago.

This 1947 Christmas Classic centers on Henry Broughman—played by David Niven—the new Episcopal bishop who wants to build a glorious cathedral. Loretta Young is Julia Broughman, the Bishop’s wife, who has seen the life she enjoyed while her husband had been a parish priest slowly fade away. Cary Grant is the angel Dudley who appears as the answer to both the Bishop’s and Julia’s prayers.

Dudley’s arrival is marked by a host of sudden miraculous events including Christmas shopping being done in a matter of a few hours, wine not running out nor causing inebriation, and, my favorite, people being able to ice skate like pros. It’s just heavenly.

But the bishop is not having much of it. While Dudley is explained away as the bishop’s new assistant, the bishop himself feels more and more confined as he tries to raise funds.  His interactions with a wealthy widow named Mrs. Hamilton make the hairs on this priest’s neck rise, especially when she reminds Bishop Henry that she got him elected in order to get her way when they built the new cathedral.  And how hard could it be to make the statue of St. George look like her late husband also named George?  Surely people have no idea what the saint actually looked like.

In the midst of a day out with Julia, Dudley, in response to a comment about how hard things had become,  remarked: “Everything will be alright if only people would act like human beings.”  Wherever Dudley goes he brings joy and happiness.  Grant lights up the screen and he carries this wonderful film. But I can’t help but wonder if there is too much attention paid to the good Bishop’s wife by Dudley.  This is the one thing that bothered me in watching this film again.  Were Dudley’s affections and attention over the line? Was he too much of a player?  I’ll let you decide.

I won’t spoil how the film ends because I bet many of you haven’t seen it (although I might steal some of the imagery from the sermon the bishop gives). In terms of Bethlehem stars, if the film shows an understanding of the true meaning of Christmas about peace and joy and not material goods, I have to give it …

4stars

If Dudley hadn’t been too friendly this would have garnered 5 Bethlehem Stars.  I bet some of my Episcopal friends might take issue with me; the number of films showing Episcopal clergy are few and far between.  In any event, this should be a classic Christmas film that brings joy to many, and if you haven’t seen it, you really should this Christmas season.

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St. Paul's, London from WR-Fife of Stock.xchng.

St. Paul’s, London from WR-Fife of Stock.xchng.

The major road near our home, if you take a it five miles or so due east, leads to the largest mall in New England. Additionally, right next to that mall sits a shopping area which was one of the first suburban outdoor malls in America.  The architecture of the anchor store there built in 1951 included a large dome, which was supposedly the third largest dome (in terms of diameter) in the world, behind only St. Peter’s in Vatican City and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  (I’ll let that sink in for a moment.)

Our love affair with shopping was on full display this weekend because we think it will lead us to fulfillment. What’s a preacher to say as we begin the season of Advent?

Based on Isaiah 2:1-5

            It’s catalog season.  Every time I head down to the mailbox I come back with an armful, many from places I’ve never heard of.  Often I toss them into the recycling pile, but occasionally I get sucked in.  It’s the glossy pictures of an idyllic setting.  It might be a man weighing a little less than me, certainly with more hair than me, drinking a cup of coffee out of a thermos lid standing outside in a snow-covered field.  He looks toasty warm in his high-priced clothing.  And I admit I begin to imagine that maybe if I had those great clothes I could stand out in a snowy scene all warm and cozy and maybe just maybe grow some hair.  That’s why Black Friday and the hyper-consumerism of the Christmas season flourish in our culture.  Because we yearn for that scene.  That one extra kitchen gadget or article of clothing or book or iPad or Lexus will make our world complete.  Those companies don’t want me to buy a new thermal lined coat, they want me to think I’m realizing a dream.  As a pastor put it, “We are invited to lean… toward the coming Big Event, when fantasies will be fulfilled, and dreams may yet come true.”[1]

While I could stand before you and denounce all of this outright and say to you, “Wake up!” — a good Advent message to be sure —I realize my own deep longings.  There is something inherently human in that yearning for wholeness, and Madison Ave. has become really, really good at homing in on those desires in order to exploit them for other’s gain.  That same pastor wrote, “Yes, our culture is celebrating a giddy overhyped pseudo-Christmas while we are attempting the more serious task of observing a holy Advent, but the reason that the cultural messages are so powerful is that our human yearning is so real, and so profound.”[2]  Or, slightly changing the perspective on it, those profound longings are God-given.

I’m striking out onto thin ice here rhetorically speaking.  If those desires are God-given then what’s holding us back from buying that new wardrobe?  This isn’t unlike the theology of some Christians today who claim that God wants disciples to be healthy and wealthy and possibly even wise. One such believer writes, “It’s God’s will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty. It’s God’s will for you to pay your bills and not be in debt. It’s God’s will for you to live in health and not in sickness all the days of your life.”[3]  Which is an awful lot like a glossy picture in a magazine, never mind turning Christianity into a religion of the rich or those who are aspiring to be and is a long way from “Blessed are the poor.”

So what does God want for us?  What is that deep-seeded yearning inside each of us?

Hear the word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.3Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

We long for a place of peace.  We long for a return to Eden—that place in the deep recesses of our collective mind where everything remained in harmony with everything else.  God provided plentiful food; death did not yet exist.  All living creatures experienced true connection with one another.  Until, of course, sin entered the picture and off it went toward destruction.  Rather than being connected to others and with all of God’s creation, discord crept in and has been with us ever since.

In his allegory of heaven and hell called The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis begins his tale in hell with the protagonist joining a line forming in order to get on a bus.  All around the town is grey and the homes and streets seem unbelievably empty.  In spite of the emptiness around him, the queue extends quite a bit.  Once the bus finally arrives, the people get angry with one another trying to force themselves to the front in order to get the best seats.  When our hero is the last one to board the bus, he sees that it is barely half full.  Each person had plenty of room.  However, they’re still at each other.

After the bus begins moving, the bickering worsens, until finally an all out fight breaks out and weapons are brandished.  No one gets hurt, it seems, although people have changed places.  Shortly afterward, the protagonist realizes that the bus has begun flying.  He hopes to catch a view of mountains or lakes, something he hasn’t seen in a vary long time, but he only sees the dull grey town which appears to go on as far as his eye can see.  He’s surprised, and asks a neighbor if there had once been a much larger population given that the town seemed empty.

“’Not at all,’ said my neighbor. ‘The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome.  As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street.  Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbors. Before the week is over, he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move.  Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbors—and moved. If so he settles in… Even if he stays, it makes no odds.  He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move again.  Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house… That’s how the town keeps growing.’”[4]  And when he looks again, all our hero sees is more and more houses in that grey town with no end in sight.

Here are some of the details about Black Friday shopping that have emerged this weekend:

  • A Las Vegas shopper was shot late on Thanksgiving Day as he was attempting to take his newly bought television home.  Two other men attempted to steal his TV from him, but fled as police arrived.
  • In the Chicago area, a police officer shot the driver of a car that was dragging another officer who was responding to a call of alleged shoplifting at a Kohls. Three people were arrested.
  • At least three people got into a brawl in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Rialto, Calif., because shoppers allegedly were cutting the line. Two were taken into custody.
  • At another Wal-Mart in West Virginia, a man was slashed to the bone with a knife after threatening another man with a gun. The altercation was over a parking spot, police said.
  • A woman apparently used a stun gun on another after an all-out brawl inside of the Franklin Mills Mall in Northeast Philadelphia.[5]

Lewis’ image of hell isn’t too far-fetched, is it?  This all happening after a national holiday of giving thanks for our blessings and as we enter the season of goodwill and peace for all.

The imagery from Isaiah includes a diversity of people, all nations, streaming to the mountain that is home to God.  When they gather, they take all their weapons and turn them into tools for growing food.  Rather than violence, they find connections amidst that which provides sustenance and life.  In this time to come wars become obsolete, as the particulars of how to destroy your enemies are not taught.  The light of the Lord floods them with brilliance, and they know everlasting peace.

That’s what we want so very much.  That’s what all those glossy catalogues want to sell us.  Peace and a sense of wholeness and shalom—a feeling of being complete, our truest selves.  But, as the stories of mayhem around Black Friday show us yet again, buying more and more stuff will not help us reach that place.  The coming of the Christ child, however, can lead us there.  When he comes, angels will give voice to the reconciliation he brings to the whole world.  And when he comes again, in that day and hour that none of us knows about, he will usher in the complete coming of his peaceable kingdom.

Our job is to get ready.  To be prepared.  To share Christ’s good news.  We need to love one another, and reach out to the sick.  We are invited to feed the hungry and help the poor.  If we do these things in the weeks ahead, we will be ready not only for Christmas, but for Christ’s second Advent as well.  Amen.



[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1, pg 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://beginningandend.com/prosperity-gospel-wild-joel-osteen-myles-munroe-charging-100-services/ Accessed Nov. 27, 2013.

[4] CS Lewis. The Great Divorce. Harper Collins, 2001. Pg. 10.

[5] “Black Friday kicks off with a little chaos, lots of bargain-hunting” NBCNews.com http://www.nbcnews.com/business/black-friday-begins-crowds-some-shopping-some-mayhem-2D11673314 Accessed on Nov. 30, 2013.

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31Christmas2

Here’s the full list of the Christmas films I’ll be watching this Advent and Christmas–including the 10 chosen by my readers–but in no particular order.  Once I’ve watched a film, I’ll move it up the list and link to its review (so the first film I watch will become 1, the second 2 and so on).

  1. The Bishop’s Wife*the-bishops-wife
  2. The Polar Express
  3. Joyeux Noël
  4. Scrooge (1951)
  5. Christmas Vacation*
  6. Arthur Christmas
  7. Nativity!
  8. Christmas with the Kranks
  9. Meet Me in St. Louis
  10. Prancer 
  11. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  12. 8 Women (French Film)
  13. Elf*
  14. The Shop Around the Corner
  15. We’re No Angels
  16. Frozen
  17. It’s a Wonderful Life*
  18. Love Actually
  19. A Christmas Story*
  20. A Muppet Christmas Carol
  21. The Nativity Storykranks_01
  22. The Family Man*
  23. Four Christmases
  24. Christmas in Connecticut 
  25. Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale)
  26. Home Alone
  27. White Christmas
  28. The Santa Clause
  29. A Christmas Carol (2009)
  30. Holiday Inn
  31. nativity!The Holiday

Movies with an * are ones that I have previously seen.

If you’d like more information on my 31 Christmas FIlms project, check out my initial post here.

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The voting is in and these are the 10 films chosen by all of you! These are in order of votes received.  Thanks so much for voting!

  1. Love Actuallyloveactually
  2. Meet Me in St. Louis
  3. The Family Man*
  4.  Four Christmases
  5. Christmas in Connecticut 
  6.  8 Women (French Film)
  7.  Christmas with the Kranks
  8.  Nativity! 
  9.  Prancer 
  10.  National Lampoons Christmas Vacation*

I begin in earnest tomorrow, and I’ll start with the “Bishop’s Wife”! I hope you’ll enjoy these films with me too!

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31Christmas2

This Advent and Christmas I’m watching 31 Christmas Films.  You can catch up on why I’m doing this here.

Here are my rules:

  1. Only feature length films. No animated TV classics that run 30 or 50 minutes.
  2. No horror flicks.  I’m looking at you “Silent Night, Deadly Night.”
  3. I won’t watch more than 6 films that I have already seen before in their entirety. (Marked with *)
  4. My wife, Melissa, gets to pick the January 5th movie since it’s her birthday.
  5. I’ve chosen 20 films, and the rest will come from you! Vote online now!
  6. They have to be about Christmas and not just happen on Christmas Eve or Day. No “Gremlins” for me!

Here are my 20!

  1. A Christmas Story*
  2. It’s a Wonderful Life*
  3. The Polar Express
  4. The Nativity Story
  5. The Bishop’s Wife*
  6. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  7. White Reindeer (2013 New Release)
  8. The Christmas Candle (2013 New Release)
  9. Black Nativity (2013 New Release)
  10. White Christmas
  11. The Santa Clause
  12. A Christmas Carol (2009)
  13. Scrooge (1951)
  14. Elf*
  15. Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale)
  16. Holiday Inn
  17. We’re No Angels
  18. Joyeux Noël
  19. Arthur Christmas
  20. The Shop Around the Corner

(Those with a * I’ve already seen.)

Please vote for the other films!

 

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From stock.xchng by l4red0.

From stock.xchng by l4red0.

I’ve known people who often try to make you or others look like a fool. They ask questions meant to trap others. Or they come back with a retort meant only to wound a perceived opponent. It’s easy to become flustered around them, or to fight fire with fire, but that often just scorches the landscape.

Jesus is approached by some Sadducees who want to trap him with a far-fetched story about some brothers, a woman and the resurrection. He responds by pushing their beliefs and calling them — and us — to something more.

A Sermon Based on Luke 20:27-38

An expert witness has just been called to the stand, but the DA is trying to prove the witness is not at all knowledgeable.  He says, “Now, Ms. Vito, being an expert on general automotive knowledge, can you tell me… what would the correct ignition timing be on a 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet, with a 327 cubic-inch engine and a four-barrel carburetor?” She looks at the DA with a cocked head and replies, “It’s a [trick] question.”  The DA retorts, “Does that mean that you can’t answer it?”  “It’s impossible to answer, “she exclaims. “Impossible because you don’t know the answer!”  “Nobody could answer that question!”

The DA turns to the judge and says, “Your Honor, I move to disqualify Ms. Vito as a ‘expert witness’!”  The judge looks down at Ms. Vito and asks “Can you answer the question?” “No,” she says, “It’s a trick question!”  The judge pauses momentarily and then asks, “Why is it a trick question?”  To which Mona Lisa Vito replies, “’Cause Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55; the 327 didn’t come out till ’62. And it wasn’t offered in the Bel Air with a four-barrel carb till ’64. However, in 1964, the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top-dead-center.”  And that scene, in my mind, sealed the Oscar for Marisa Tomei in the film “My Cousin Vinny.”

Trick questions sit dead center today as the Sadducees create some cockamamie story in order to make Jesus look like a fool.  You have to wonder how long they spent dreaming up this scenario.  The begin by  reminding Jesus of the command in the Torah for a man to marry his widowed sister-in-law if his brother has not fathered any children. Then they start turning the screws.  “Jesus,” they slyly begin, “There are 7 brothers. And the oldest is married, but dies childless. So the second marries the widow, but he also does childless, and so on, all the way to last brother. And then the woman dies too.  So, at the resurrection of the dead, whose wife is she since they all married her?”  The shoot each other smug glances all around figuring they have just trapped Jesus.

But Jesus, seeing the snare, answers in a way that deflates the question immediately.  “While people marry in this life,” he tells them, “in the resurrection they will be like the angels because they cannot die anymore and will not need to be married.”  You may have missed it, but Jesus just zinged the Sadducees, who as Luke reminded us, don’t believe in the resurrection, nor do they believe in angels.  (Which is how I learned to tell them apart from the Pharisees.  The didn’t believe in angels or the resurrection, that’s why they were sad, you see?)  But then he goes on, turning back to Moses because these religious types only took the Torah—the 5 books of Moses—as authoritative.  “And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the burning bush.  God tells Moses that the Lord is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.”  God did not say to Moses, as one commentator put it, “‘Once upon a time long ago, I used to be the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, but now they are dead and gone, though I remember them with fondness.’  No, God speaks in present tense to announce that God was, is and continues to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and, Jesus concludes, ‘For to [God] all of them are alive. ”[1] God is the God of the living.

Two things bubble up for me in this text.  First, Jesus calls us to life, not only in the age to come, but in the here and now.  If you were given just a few months to live, I suspect you wouldn’t focus on trying to trap your neighbor in a philosophical question about politics or religion or even, dare I say it, church politics.  I bet you wouldn’t focus on the trivial in life, but in ordering your affairs and seeking to connect and restore relationships.  You’d make time for ones you love and go take see the ocean or that place you love.  You’d cherish meals with family.  Listen to that Bach Concerto again, or read that book, or write a few letters.  You’d think about the legacy you’d like to leave—a legacy of love and generosity of spirit, and, if you had them, finances.  It comes down to relationships, with God and others.  Truly living with gusto and delight.

But we like trick questions and philosophical debates because they make us “right” or the center of attention or as a way to focus on ourselves and make others look foolish.  So we have a penchant for grumbling and looking for the fault lines in another person’s way of thinking or life and try to use that to our own advantage.  And living in that way only leads to destruction.  It makes us petty and dour and among those who walk this life half-dazed never really seeing God’s hope or love nor delighting in God’s goodness.  When we live like that we are more among the walking dead than the living, something I think Jesus subtly pointed out to the Sadducees as well.

Second, I am painfully aware that for those who have lost a beloved spouse this text sounds nothing like good news.  If you have experienced a deep love in this life and have lost your partner, for Jesus to proclaim there is no marriage in the next life sounds more like hell than heaven.  In Jesus’ day, it is good to remember, that wives were seen more as property than as equals—shown, of course, in the set up story of this woman being passed from one brother to the next showing she had no say in the matter.  (What if she thought brother number five was a real dud? No recourse could come her way; she had to marry him.) In the age of the resurrection, such relationships will cease in part because we will experience true equality and not need to depend on one another for financial security nor for the security which children provide as we enter old age.

Additionally, and more important, Jesus does not say that we will not see those we love, or even be in relationship with them, but that we will not be married.  Our understanding is limited to this time and place, and God, who desires all good things for us, will give us something far greater in the age to come, something completely beyond our imaginations.  Heaven will fully embody our truest and most noble longings, and love will reign supreme.

As we gather to baptize a number of children this morning, the invitation we give, and the vows we make, point us to live fully.  To connect with others—and especially with those whom we have a tendency to avoid.  To love deeply and honor each other in all our relationships.  To follow Jesus as Lord. To look for God’s goodness and joy in all the areas of our lives.  For we serve the God of the living, and we are called to be among the living ourselves, experiencing the profound beauty of the resurrection all the days of this life.  Amen.



[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 4, pg. 287.

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Photo Credit: Genkaku from Stock.Exchange

Photo Credit: Genkaku from Stock.Exchange

I’ve entered middle age. I wake up around 5:30 most days regardless of what time I went to bed. I’m usually refreshed—unless the Red Sox had a late game that I half watched since I often doze off when they run past 9.  The kids begin waking up with the sun most days, so I use the time in the morning as intentionally as I can.

I am finding these days that after reading Morning Prayer I want to explore the day to come and map out what has the potential to bring me life on this day.  I regularly do the Examen (an Ignation spiritual practice where you reflect on the day asking what fed your soul today and what took life away from you. Want to learn more? Get the book Sleeping with Bread). But it has been only recently that I’ve wondered if I could mold my day to tilt to the life-giving side of the equation.

In my work I know administrative things drain me while time one-on-one with parishioners feeds me. I love taking time to craft words into sentences that have the potential to change someone’s life.  Reading a blog that makes me think invites me to try on new ideas.  In my personal life I enjoy time with my kids and my wife, and especially having meals together.  Reading together at night often revives my soul.  Tucking my children into bed always brings me joy as it does them. Laundry is always a drain, although I like it when it’s done (who doesn’t?).

I’m laying it out in its most basic form because many events happen in a day that we cannot plan—an interaction with a coworker or something I read that moves me or an unexpected pastoral situation like an illness or a death in a family.  Frankly, I love that about my job too, the enormous variety of things that come up in the work of a priest, otherwise I’d be bored out of my skull.

Or you may be in a different phase of life. Maybe you’re retired or your vocation is to stay at home. Maybe you’re a student. Whatever your situation, there is that which feeds you and that which doesn’t.

It comes down to this: What if I knew I had many things in store for today that brought me life?  Wouldn’t that make me more eager to engage the day with gusto? What if I could tackle anything I thought might drain me as early as possible so it didn’t drag me down all day? What if I lived more intentionally?

Here’s my plan:

  1. Take 5 minutes to think about the day ahead, about the tasks that need to be done.  It helps me to be more intentional if I write it down.
  2.  Determine which of those things would bring you joy or life or energy.  Imagine which will drain you. But don’t be so certain! Sometimes I think something will be hard when it’s really great. 
  3. Map out the day as best you can. Obviously meetings are usually fixed but other things can maybe be more flexible.
  4. Start with something you love, then do most of the things that might drain you. The weight of dread is horrible to bear an entire day and will color everything else.
  5. Make sure to do at least one thing that feeds you each day. It seems obvious, but there have been times when I’ve reached the end of the day and realized I missed opportunities to take delight in my day.  Too many days in a row of slogging through can make you miserable.

As I journey further into my life, I’m recognizing more and more that intentionality is key. It’s easy to drift, to get sucked up into social media or some drama in my life, and then wonder where the day went. But if I take a few minutes and reflect on all the good things that can come from this day and plan to to them, then I give myself the possibility of ending my day with the Examen and with gratitude.

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Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

I often pray those words each night before I turn in. It’s my favorite petition from The Book of Common Prayer; you pray them as part of compline, or night-time prayers.  When I first found this prayer, I wondered about that last request: “Shield the joyous.” It seemed out of place amongst the others which bid the Divine’s action on much weightier concerns.

Photo credit: catalin82 from stock.xchng

Photo credit: catalin82 from stock.xchng

Tend and give rest, bless and soothe, and yes, Holy One, be moved with pity on those crushed by the chances of this life. All of that, yes, most certainly. But shielding the joyous sounded so extravagant. Keep the blessed ones happy, Lord. Sure, I thought as I prayed it, but not quite certain why they needed to be shielded if their lives overflowed with joy anyway.

I learned this morning that a young man in his early twenties I’ve been holding up in prayer received a devastating diagnosis. My first thoughts contained an expletive or two.  And then deep sympathy for both him and his parents and all those who love him. I thought of that prayer and the requests to the Almighty to tend and give rest and soothe and pity. Be present with them and fill them with hope and trust and a deep peace as they work through their grief and anger and fear and unanswerable questions of why this happened now to one much too young.

And I also thought about the people I know experiencing deep joy right now and how I hope God shields them from life-draining news on this day. That somehow they are protected from flaming arrows launched by the forces of evil in this world bringing harm and destruction. I know full well that none of us makes it through life without some of those arrows sticking, but please, Lord, shield them a bit longer. Let them relish in the new job or the birth of a child, that new romance or period of healing after such a rough go. Keep our children safe from that which steals their innocence and their elation in life.

I know now that more often than not the days of utter joy are not long enough.  Job loss and illness and broken relationships and addictions happen with more frequency than I can comprehend. So yes, Lord, shield the joyous. Keep them on Cloud 9 or in the tender moments of family life or that place of peace a bit longer. Stretch it out as long as possible, so that when circumstance force them to the other parts of that prayer, when they need to be soothed or pitied or tended to, they might have the strength to make it through.

Join me in praying for or sending good wishes or taking a moment of quiet reflection — however you do that when you are faced with horrible news — for a young man facing a hard road today. That the darkness be overcome and that he once again experiences unfettered joy. And may you find comfort as well whether you need to be tended or given rest or soothed or pitied or shielded today.
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mywishI’m the kid who knew what he wanted to be when he grew up at a young age and still have the paper I wrote for Mrs. Sears on January 31, 1978 to prove it. If you look at the trajectory, you could draw a straight line from 2nd Grade until now and think I’ve been riding the high life.

Well, I’ve been riding life, alright.  But I’ve experienced the crazy, confidence-shattering, disquieting realities of life not some made-for-TV movie idea of life. Yet I’m a priest, and I’m supposed to have it all together so I can encourage other people during their difficult times.

My struggles in life almost drowned me at times, as they do to so many others, clergy and folk-not-crazy-enough-to-be-clergy alike. I’ve lived days dogged by depression wondering if God had left me completely alone in the dark. Not too long ago I experienced the death of a parent, an untenable and soul-crushing experience in the church I served and a traumatic leg injury.

I nearly lost my faith.

Sometimes I look back at that kid I was and wonder how he knew so certainly about things. I read his earnest writing and frankly I want to protect him from the realities of life. Which makes me sound melancholy or Charlie Brownish.

Or just real.

When I think about my wish to grow up and be a priest these days, I recognize that experiencing a not so smooth path, following a line with peaks and valleys, has given me a bit more empathy than if I moved directly to Go and collected my $200. Today I got to sit with a family as they buried their grandmother and mother, chat with a woman excited to be flying out to visit family, speak with a parishioner whose father has entered the last stages of life, email 11 families who have each welcomed a new baby recently, and learned of a couple separating. Birth and death and sharing love and holding out hope for reconciliation. Today alone.

And I wouldn’t change it for anything. Because life isn’t simple — no matter what a plasticky preacher says on TV — but it is full of grace. That’s what I’ve learned since 2nd Grade.  If we just hold on long enough to get through the pain, grace abounds.  When you feel like giving up — when I feel like giving up — I hope we all remember to just hold on.  Life does go on.  And, as I wrote to Mrs. Sears, God ultimately helps us.

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Photo Credit: Phil LaBelle

A Sermon Based on Luke 16:19-31.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol holds the record for the most adaptations of a piece of literature into film, with at least 21 films being created since its publication in 1843, and another 15 or so TV versions (including Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones, and Barbie) never mind the numerous theatre adaptations as well.  It seems that we never grow tired of watching the drama unfold around Ebenezer Scrooge on that Christmas Eve, seven years after the death of his business partner Jacob Marley.  We know the tale cold, of course, Scrooge and his miserly ways confronted by Jacob’s ghost.  Scrooge is stunned to see what has happened to Marley, who is there shaking the chains that bind him as he interacts with Scrooge.  Finally, he can bear the sight of those shackles no longer and finally asks trembling, “You are fettered, tell me why?”

“‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.’”[1]

Jesus continues his teaching with his disciples and the religious leaders about how to live life in relation to finances in the portion of Luke 16 we read this morning.  If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve been noticing a pattern in Jesus’ message about money and its impact on our lives, and how we are to deal with our money.  Jesus has proclaimed that where our treasure is there our hearts would be also.  He told the story of the rich man who tore down his old barns because they weren’t big enough.  And then Jesus warned us that we should store up treasure in heaven.  A few weeks ago we heard Jesus say, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions.”  Full-stop.  No further explanations.  (By the way, I’ve never heard it argued that we should take that tidbit from scripture literally).  Last week, Jesus looked his disciples and the religious leaders square in the eyes and stated, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Clergy often get a hard time about always preaching about money.  Given these words of Jesus, it’s pretty amazing that we’re not doing it more often.  It’s obvious this was important to Jesus, and Luke doesn’t let up in the chapters following with stories like the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus the tax collector, the widow’s mite, questions about paying taxes and still more.  This morning we get this vivid parable about a nameless rich man and a beggar called Lazarus.  Even though they are merely feet apart from one another, the rich man is content to ignore Lazarus as he lies outside the other’s gate.  Dogs are the only friends poor Lazarus has, it seems, and we get the horrifying image of them licking his seeping wounds.  He’s so desperately hungry that even a few crumbs from the rich man’s dinner might satiate him.  And then both die, and there’s a reversal of fortune.

Lazarus is carried off to Abraham and attended to, while the rich guy—“Dives” is the name traditionally given to him from the Latin for “rich”—finds his way to Hades.  Dives is tormented, and he can see across a great chasm to where Lazarus and Abraham are.  “Father Abraham,” he shouts, “have mercy and me and send Lazarus” — ah, it seems he does in fact know the beggar’s name — “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.”  Abraham explains that the chasm can’t be crossed, that their respective fates were sealed while they were on earth.  Fearing for his family, the rich man then begs that good ole Lazarus be sent back up to warn his five brothers.  Again Abraham declines, reminding Dives that his brothers have Moses and the Prophets to warn them.  Besides, they wouldn’t be convinced even if Lazarus rose from the dead.

I am struck by the difference small things make in this parable.  All Lazarus wants as he’s out on the curb nursing his wounds is the few things that fell from Dives’ table.  And all Dives wants is for a drop or two of water to come and cool his tongue.  If I were in either position I might ask for more—a meal if I were Lazarus, a bucket if I were the rich guy.  But those small things can make a huge difference.

Dives doesn’t give Lazarus the time of day, and, in fact, goes further and doesn’t even acknowledge him.  Lazarus is invisible to him as he comes in and out of his house, running errands, and whatnot.  What would it have cost him to notice?  Maybe some time, a bit of food, some Neosporin and gauze.  But look what it cost him not to notice, to plead ignorance and scoot out the gate quickly with his sights on his next destination.

But rather than imagining yourself in Dives’ position, I’d like you to do something else.  I’d invite you to be his brother or sister.  While in Jesus’ parable fates are settled for Lazarus and Dives—as they were for Jacob Marley—that’s not true for us.  How will we respond to Jesus’ teaching?  Will we see that our wealth—while able to help us achieve much (our story from last Sunday)—can also isolate us from the needs around us?

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that all of our money is stamped with that little phrase “In God we trust”? As one minister put it, “If we do actually trust God, then we will take to heart God’s injunction to have compassion on those around us, to be vulnerable to each other, to actually see God in the face of our neighbor’s need.”[2]

Today, rather than asking for money for the church, I’m giving each of you a single dollar bill and inviting you to ask “whether how [you] spend that dollar — and all [your] dollars — this week reflects [your] trust in God…or not.”[3]  You are free to do whatever you’d like—you can share it, save it or spend it.  And I think any of those options might faithfully reflect trust in God.

Maybe this dollar—while a drop in the bucket—can be shared.  Remember that Dives only longed for a drop of water and Lazarus wanted a mere few crumbs.  Many organizations like Living Water will tell you that $1 can provide a person in the third world with water for an entire year when it helps fund a well for an entire community.  Or that little dollar would raise the daily allowance for someone on Food Stamps by 25%, raising the total they can spend to $5 from the allotted $4.  There are many, many other ways you can share this as well.

Or perhaps you want to save it.  If you’re a kid saving up for bike or a game $1 is something you’d be grateful for and a real gift from God.  Or maybe this $1 can be the seed for you to save for a future dream.  God gives us those dreams too.

Maybe you’ve been having a rough go of it lately and this crumpled dollar bill might help you see that you are cared for by God and this community.  And so you can take it and grab a cup of coffee or some other small treat that you wouldn’t give yourself.  Or you can take it as one more dollar to pay off a debt that has a stranglehold on you.

Whatever you do, and be it individually or with others, I just ask that you reflect on that deep truth that you can trust in God for your needs and that you’d be open to seeing the needs of others as well.  And I also ask that you either email or tweet (#$1toTrust) or post on our Facebook page  or call about what you do.  Imagine throughout the week hearing of wonderful things that happen with this small collection of dollars.  You’ll get an email today (if you are on our list) with how to respond, and you’ll also be given a chance next week to share this as well.

May we be among those siblings of Dives who recognize that someone has indeed come back from the dead and given us more than we could ever imagine if we only realize it.  Our fates are not cast in chain links; each day we are given the chance to see the hand of God in this world and see the face of Jesus in the people we encounter every day.  And we can truly place our trust in God. Amen.



[1] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.  From http://www.charles-dickens.org/a-christmas-carol/ebook-page-08.asp.  Accessed September 26, 2013.

[2]David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher.”  http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1516 Accessed September 26, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

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