I studied English in college, specifically composition and rhetoric, but I had a good dose of literature thrown in there too. I love imagery in writing, and the way it helps explain and broaden what’s being said. Jesus throws out a doozy this week when he calls Herod a fox then refers to himself as a hen. It’s quite an image and that really led me this past week when I wrote this sermon.
A family of foxes used to live in our subdivision in Colorado. They took up residence in the backyard of a foreclosed house, a mom—technically a vixen, although that word has been taken over to mean something else entirely these days—and her 3 or 4 kits. Sometimes they would play in the street together as I drove in to work in the morning. Other times I’d see her coming back from a nearby field with breakfast for her family. One cold day, after the kits had moved out on their own, she spent the entire day in our backyard enjoying the warmth of the sun. Not too long after this, she came up to our deck, looking into our house through the patio door, no further than 4 feet from where I stood in the family room. She remained transfixed there for a long time looking at me while I gazed at her. “Foxy” we called her. Late the next spring, almost a year since I had first seen her, animal control officers were at that house. Seems someone had called her in.
Foxes are sly and clever, or so we’ve been told. And we were reminded in the film “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” about the nature of foxes. In one telling seen, Mrs. Fox (named Felicity) has just learned her husband has been sneaking off at night to raid the local farms for food. She’s visibly upset. “Twelve fox years ago, you made a promise to me, while we we’re caged inside that fox trap. That if we survived, you would never steal another chicken, turkey, goose, duck, or a squab whatever they are, and I believed you. [starts to cry] Why? Why did you lie to me?! Mr. Fox: Because I’m a wild animal.” 
We know what foxes are like. While I had been transfixed by having a fox in the neighborhood, someone else had the sense to call animal control. Foxes are wild animals.
“At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work.”’” Jesus knows exactly what Herod — this is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great (he of our Christmas Story)—is capable of. He beheaded John the Baptist to save face. He is not to be trifled with. And the Pharisees appear to be in cahoots with him. Jesus says to them not so subtly, “You tell that fox for me,” recognizing the path they are beating to Herod’s palace.
The message Jesus wants sent to that fox named Herod surprises me. He wants Herod to know that he’s going to keep doing the work God has given him to do. Casting out demons and curing people. Jesus will continue to bring wholeness to all who want it as long as he is alive. Today and tomorrow and the third day, they are all connected with Jesus’ ministry, to who he is. And Jesus, it seems, is no wild animal.
After he finishes the message for foxy, he details with more clarity just who he is. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” A hen? Jesus is talking about a fox, and he responds by referring to himself as a hen? You think an eagle would have been better. In Deuteronomy God is described like that, “As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, [so] the Lord alone guided him.” (Deut 32:11-12) Or maybe a lion, “They shall follow after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.” (Hosea 11:10). But a chicken? That’s all Jesus has got?
Priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “[A] hen is what Jesus chooses, which — if you think about it—is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.
“Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.
“Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”
Whenever I read “the third day” in the New Testament, I immediately think about the resurrection. Most times, the writer intends to make that connection. But this time, Luke is talking all about Jesus’ death. “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” The day Jesus completes the task given to him is the day he forms the words, “It is finished,” with his last breath. The cross is not to be seen as inconsistent with the work Jesus does in this world, but the culmination of it. Even though he’ll be splayed on that cross, it’s not a win for the foxes of this world, but proof of the love Jesus has for us like a mother hen.
The problem is, of course, that we like foxes. We like their sly ways, and the things they say that make us think they are on our side. We think they can be reformed, that they’ll stay out of our chicken coop, but we’re wrong. They’re wild animals. So while we’re listening to the crafty talk, they’re working on a plan to get a meal.
I wish it weren’t so. I wish that we weren’t so enthralled with the foxes of this world, the promises they make of how easy life could be if we just trust them. But I’ve seen how destructive it can be, like when a person falls for someone else who is not their spouse thinking that this person will bring them joy that they can’t find at home. Or the ones who turn to the bottle to find easy answers to complicated problems or to drown out the sorrow. The promises of a life full of ease and joy without any personal cost. Those are crafty lies given to us by the foxes out there—our culture, the evil one, those that would pull us far from the love of God.
But Luke wants to remind us that foxes are only looking after their own desires, and that deep and abiding love comes at a cost. Which makes Jesus’ lament all the more powerful. He wants to keep us safe from the world of foxes, from the pain they bring. Because they’re just licking their chops looking for their next meal.
Which is what happened with Jesus. But unbeknownst to that fox and the others around him, that was all part of Jesus’ work to bring healing to us all. Yes, he was devoured, but that was still part of his work, an act of love. For us. He gave himself to the foxes of this world so we could be given the chance for life. Because, whether they know it or not, as one commentator put it, “the foxes are not in control as much as they think they are,” because “there is a true and living God.” And that other third day is coming. Amen.
The holy season of Lent began yesterday with an invitation from the church to acts of spiritual disciplines. But why we do those acts — what is our motivation behind them — is really important. Our reading yesterday from the prophet Isaiah really homes in on what God expects. I must admit, it was a good reminder for me of what Lent can offer us if we focus not on our own spiritual journey for our own sake, but for the sake of others.
Isaiah receives these words from the Lord about God’s chosen people: “Day after day, they seek me, and delight to know my ways…they delight to draw near to God.” And yet, these people ask the Lord, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” “Look,” the Lord says, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and you oppress your workers.” In other words, you make this all about you. But the Lord continues on to describe the fast he requires, to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to see the naked and cover them, to share a meal with the hungry, to “be available to your own family.” That’s what God desires more than anything else.
Biblical scholar Thomas Currie puts it this way, “[W]hat makes God’s ‘fast’ remarkable is not its social or political or economic sensibilities but its reckless self-forgetfulness. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?” is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshipping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today in both liberal and conservative garb. All desire the power to save themselves. All.”
At the beginning of this holy season of Lent we must ask ourselves whose interests we are serving by our intended religious piety over the next 40 days. We may have already decided that we will give up meat, or chocolate, or perhaps read a Lenten devotion once a day or be more faithful in church attendance, which are all fine endeavors, but are we merely hoping to save ourselves through these actions? Do we expect to get into God’s good graces through some trivial self-denial? If God’s desired fast is about “reckless self-forgetfulness,” then how do we transfer our focus from ourselves to others? How do we see what God intends for us through fasting? God declares that such a fast is about others, the hungry, the homeless, the poor and naked, and even our own families. Our self-denial isn’t about the significance of our own spiritual journeys; it should be concerned with the other, with those who are not us.
This is a question, ultimately, about community. God desires for us to experience the freedom in life to see others not as stepping-stones, or things to be used for our own good, but as children of God. When we reduce others to labels, to names based on their economic situation or nationality or political ideologies or the color of their skin, we dishonor them, and we also dishonor ourselves. By concentrating on ourselves, even our own longing for God, we miss the opportunity to draw closer to others who bear God’s image.
Philosopher Martin Buber expresses this quite well by comparing what he calls an I-It relationship with an I-You relationship. When I interact with someone, if I see only their house, or the way they can help me achieve my goals, or as an obstruction to the rest of my day, I see that person as an It. I’m not present with them. I get angry, or jealous, or dismissive towards them. My heart is hard. The opposite way, of course, is to enter into a relationship at that moment, to see them as an equal, to be concerned about them as human beings, as someone God loves. The person is no longer an It to me but a You. When I do this, I am set free from my own self-focused desires to a place where life can be fully experienced.
That is what God describes at the end of our lesson from Isaiah. If we fast as God desires, “then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.” “Then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” If we enter into deep, life-giving relationships, our yearnings will be filled—not in selfish or self-serving ways—but through the very thing God “delights” in, “the life shared together.”
I invite you during this sacred season of Lent to fast in ways that draw you closer to “the other” in your life. Deepen your connections with your spouse or children by sharing meals together, or making time for conversations, or taking walks together. Maybe you could, as was recommended by a children’s book, sort through your old games and puzzles, take them to an assisted care facility and spend an hour playing a game with an elderly person who is craving connectedness with another person. Perhaps you could sign up for a turn at the Food Pantry, or Project Just Because in Hopkinton. Or you could possibly make a coffee date with someone here at St. Mark’s whom you’ve never gotten a chance to know. Is there a co-worker that could use a friend? Schools and libraries are often are looking for tutors. The possibilities are truly endless.
If we fast these next 40 days from looking inward and begin looking outward, then we will truly be prepared for Holy Week. Ash Wednesday is leading us to Christ’s Passion, as Thomas Currie puts it. The cross is “the place where God’s fast pours itself out for the sake of the whole world. There God’s fast becomes our food, and we are set free to sit at table with others whom we have not chosen and would never choose, to eat and even delight in this fearful mercy.” May it be so. Amen.
Sports teams like playing for the hometown crowd because they are the people who are your loyalist fans. They stick with you through thick and thin (unless your a Red Sox pitcher and doing that whole chicken and beer thing). They know all about you, which is both good and bad. They may expect you to be better than you are or to show them some favors if you have them available.
Jesus is back in Nazareth for the first time since his ministry began. You would think that going into the synagogue on the Sabbath to pray wouldn’t be such a difficult thing, but alas it was. Here’s my thoughts on Jesus and that hometown reception and what it might mean for us too.
The lectionary committee—the people who picked the lessons that we read each week—didn’t do us any favors today with our gospel. Last week we read the first part of a gospel passage from Luke, where Jesus had just returned to his hometown of Nazareth and gone to the synagogue to worship. You may remember that he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” I say all of that to remind you of where we are, because the lectionary plops us right in the middle of the story, where Jesus says, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
But did you catch what happened next? We think that the people got mad at him, and called him names, but they didn’t. If you look closely at the text, Luke tells us that they are amazed at his gracious words. The home town crowd is in awe of him. But Jesus pushes on them a bit. “Surely you’ll say, ‘Doctor, heal yourself,’ and ‘Do here in your home town what you did in Capernaum.’” Jesus predicts what they will say, how they will respond to him. They might like his gracious words, but Jesus suspects that they’re really in it for what they can get from him in terms of miracles or favors. “We love our home town hero, so let’s see some of those healings!”
Are they just overly proud of Jesus’ success, and hope to see some of the benefits since they knew him first? “This is Joseph’s son! We know him! Maybe we have the inside track to God! Yippee!”
But Jesus tells them quite specifically that he doesn’t play favorites. He does this by reminding them of these two stories from Israel’s past about Elijah and Elisha. While the people in Nazareth probably knew the stories cold, let me refresh your memory a bit.
First Elijah. There was a drought in the land of Israel because King Ahab followed Baal, the idol worshipped by his wife Jezebel, and they encouraged the people of Israel to worship Baal too. Baal was the god of rain, fertility and agriculture, so the way for the living God to prove that Baal was not as powerful as God was to cause there to be a drought in the land, so that’s what happened.
During this time Elijah fled for his life because Jezebel wanted to kill him. While hiding, he ran out of food. The word of the Lord came to him, telling him to go to to Zaraphath in Sidon, that is, to Gentile territory. Elijah learned that God had commanded a widow to help feed him. So he headed out. And when we arrived, he found a widow gathering sticks. He asks her for water, which she agrees to bring to him, and then bread. She replies, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering these few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Elijah tells her that if she brings him some bread that she and her son will not die. Instead, God will work a miracle and the flour and oil will not run out until the Lord sends rain on the land. So she brings him the bread, and then she and her son and Elijah eat from that jar of flour and that jug of oil for many days, just as the Lord had told her. And she was a Gentile woman cared for by the God of Israel.
The other story, the one about Naaman the leper, begins with this general in the Syrian Army looking for a cure for his leprosy. He learns from his wife’s servant girl that there is a prophet of the God of Israel might be able to heal him. Naaman requests permission from his king to go to the king of Israel and ask for this healing. After getting the okay, Naaman travels with a large entourage and wagon full of gifts for payment. He finds his way to the prophet Elisha’s house, but Elisha doesn’t even bother to come out of his home to meet Naaman, sending out his servant instead.
Naaman is told by that servant to go wash 7 times in the Jordan River, and then he would be healed. And while this is an easy task, he gets annoyed because Elisha himself didn’t come out and because the Jordan is a muddy river and it’s in Israel. One of his hired hands tells him that he’s being foolish, so he comes to his senses, goes and washes and is cleansed. Because of the miracle, Naaman chooses from that day forward to worship the Living God, even asking Elisha for pardon ahead of time because he will have to go to the temple of the Syrian god Rimmon and bow before the altar there. Elisha pardons him, and he heads back home.
That’s a long way around for Jesus to make a point, but he feels that he needs to say this because he’s not going to play favorites. In fact, he lays out clearly that his mission is to the ones forgotten by society, the ones imprisoned, and the blind and the poor and the oppressed. And while he could have found some supporting evidence in Israel’s history of a prophet helping the least among the people of Israel, he goes for these two interactions with foreigners. And not only that, but Jesus uses Naaman as an example, a man who will continue to go to another god’s temple because of his position in the Syrian empire. Jesus is sent to proclaim good news to ones like that and not just to the home town crowd.
So when they hear this, Jesus’ friends and neighbors there in Nazareth, they lose their heads and go into a blind rage. They get up and drive him out of the synagogue and force him to the brow of a hill so they could hurl him off the cliff. They lost their heads simply because he wasn’t going to play favorites and because he wanted to bring the good news to all people.
For those of us who are regulars at church, Jesus is our hometown hero. We’re the ones who’ve known him the longest, and expect him to act on our behalf. We are faithful, aren’t we? Doesn’t that count for something? Surely that must mean an extra blessing or two coming our way, right?
In Disney’s retelling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the gypsy woman Esmeralda while eluding capture under false pretenses, finds herself in the cathedral and declares sanctuary. Being in that holy place, she sings this heartfelt song to God.
I don’t know if You can hear me
Or if You’re even there
I don’t know if You would listen
To a gypsie’s prayer
Yes, I know I’m just an outcast
I shouldn’t speak to you
Still I see Your face and wonder…
Were You once an outcast too?
God help the outcasts
Hungry from birth
Show them the mercy
They don’t find on earth
God help my people
We look to You still
God help the outcasts
Or nobody will
I ask for wealth
I ask for fame
I ask for glory to shine on my name
I ask for love I can possess
I ask for God and His angels to bless me
I ask for nothing
I can get by
But I know so many
Less lucky than I
Please help my people
The poor and downtrod
I thought we all were
The children of God
God help the outcasts
Children of God
It’s so much easier to believe that God will play favorites, that there will be some sort of special attention we’ll receive if we stay at this Christianity thing long enough. And so when God seems to bless someone else, especially someone who doesn’t look like they have a relationship with God, we have tendency to get envious. Esmeralda is right, we all are the children of God, and Jesus came for all of us to experience life, and especially those who are not experiencing much of life at all. The poor and the captives and the blind and the oppressed. The ones so often forgotten in our world, Jesus comes to proclaim to them too that it is the year of the Lord’s favor.
Not that we shouldn’t hear that message as well. But I think most of us should begin at a place of recognizing how Jesus has already come and worked in our lives. We have an opportunity to begin at a place of gratitude, at acknowledging the ways in which we are no longer captive or blind or oppressed. And then we can take part in the joy that can come when we share that good news on behalf of Christ with others, with the ones who are destitute and on the fringes of society because they have been forgotten by the world. We must remind them—and we must remember ourselves—that none of us has been forgotten by God, and the only reason that none of us is God’s favorite is simply because all of us are. Amen.
This past Sunday was a glorious day at St. Mark’s as we shared together at our Annual Meeting the call God is placing on us to make disciples. And it’s a call that I think is certainly not just for those of us who wear a collar. Paul’s words to the Corinthian Church show that no one gets a free pass from being an active part of the Body of Christ.
So that’s what I spoke about in my sermon on 1 Corinthians 12.
What does it mean to be the Church? What does it mean to be the Body of Christ in this time and in this place? That is the essential question before us today as we gather on Annual Meeting Sunday. How are we to live into this notion of St. Paul’s that we are all members of the Body of Christ?
But I must begin at the thought that often precedes that question, the one where many ask if they are indeed members of the body. It’s a question because we often do not hear that we are vital to Christ’s body, or we assume that only the professionals who’ve gone off to divinity school, or have prayed for most of their lives, are worthy of living for Jesus. That the rest of us do not matter, that we have little to offer, and even if we did have something to give, well, it wouldn’t make much difference.
The Corinthian Church must have been saying the same thing because Paul goes off on a tear. This is so important theologically about what it means to be the Church that I want you to hear it again from the Message Bible.
“You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.
I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.
But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?
The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.
You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Message Bible)
We are all vital to the work of God in our world. That’s what the Church is about, of course, the missio dei, the work of God, in redeeming all of creation. It’s not about our beautiful building, or the programs we run, or even our budget. Don’t mishear me, because all of those things can be used to help equip us to play our vital roles in God’s work. But if they only bring us here on Sundays so we can be consumers of spirituality, if we take part at St. Mark’s only to see our friends, or because we always have, and we don’t go out into the world and take part in God’s mission work, then we are really just wasting our time. St. Mark’s is here in order to form us as disciples as we experience, learn about and worship the living God. We can then in turn go out to make disciples who proclaim the Good News of Christ.
Jesus tells us what his Good News is when he reads that ancient scroll from the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That’s the work Jesus did as he moved among the Jews who lived under the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. We now as Christ’s body, all of us, must continue that work as we move among our fellow Americans who live under the oppressive culture of materialism. We are all vital to that work. From our children to our seniors, we all can share in spreading the love of Jesus Christ in this world and proclaim by word and deed the good news of God in Christ.
Let me address a couple of things. First, our budget. Most of you have seen the letter sent out by our talented finance team that laid out the details of our projected $50,000 deficit for 2013. They worked diligently at making cuts that would not significantly weaken our mission while also seeking to be good stewards with the gifts given to us.
When asked about this, my response is simple: As we move into the future we must work harder to make St. Mark’s a worthy recipient of our charitable giving. We should, each of us, engage in the mission of God and help St. Mark’s to further become a place that makes disciples and engages our world and is vital to our community. We need to focus on our desire to Connect by deepening our relationships, Grow in our understanding and love of the faith, and Serve God in mission to the world and to one another. Those are the marks of a disciple-forming congregation, and if we continue to do those things, I believe our finances will follow and allow us to live into that mission. If we continue with steadfast purpose , we will become a worthy recipient of people’s generosity. We’ve begun working in that direction this past year, of course: we’ve increased our hands-on outreach and giving to worthy organization through our open plate offerings (we gave over $13,500 to charities doing the work of God this past year, a truly wonderful gift!), we’ve had bbq’s and gatherings for our men and women. We had a successful VBS and an utterly fantastic 150th celebration. We are moving forward in our work while recognizing there is more to do.
Some of you may be hearing this and thinking that you don’t feel qualified to take part in God’s work. You may feel under-equipped, or uncertain about the Bible, or that you have doubts about the faith, or that only those of us who wear a collar are qualified, so you stay on the sideline. We make excuses about not having enough time (and for some this is accurate when they are dealing with young children and they are subsisting on caffeine, or for those whose lives have been turned upside down), but there is more than enough time if God’s work becomes important to us. If I’m honest, I think we here at St. Mark’s are living below our potential. We could be doing so much more for God.
We are called to a team-based approach to our ministry. We can and should do a better job of equipping our members to actively participate in God’s mission. We can and should do a better job at providing opportunities to deepen our understanding of Jesus and our faith. We can and should do a better job of reaching out in service to those in our own community who long for connection with others. Certainly, we can and should do a better job for our young people, our teenagers–who are personally feeling the impact of our deficit since we are unable to hire a youth leader for them. We need to make it a priority to build relationships with them, doing things they enjoy and allowing them an equal place in our community. To our teens I personally want to apologize, and for you to know that I will do all I can to work with gifted volunteers to rebuild our youth ministries, beginning with a youth outreach trip this summer. You are valued and we want you to grow in faith.
But to do any of this, all of us must take part. You see, God equips us for ministry; God has already gifted us with the skills we need to take our place in that work. Some will do it in quiet ways that we never know, the way they reach out to a co-worker or neighbor who is hurting. Some will take on new leadership roles here at St. Mark’s. Others will focus our attention on the plight of those who are homeless and are stuck due to the forces of this world. Others will find their way to the kitchen for our community meals and sharing in our feeding programs. Some will help an elderly parishioner with her yard work, or simply go over for a friendly visit. The work is great, the opportunities never-ending, and all of us, all of us, are needed to do that work.
None of us is insignificant to God’s mission in the world. We are, as St. Paul said, members of Christ’s body, every part dependent on every other part. We must never forget that. And we must join together to bring Christ’s good news to our broken and healing world in this year ahead. May we do so with God’s grace and favor. Amen.
Eight years ago today on a blizzardy Sunday, I was ordained as a priest and my son was baptized. I had the good fortune to ask a great friend to preach on that occasion, and he smashed it out of the park. So here’s to Rich Simpson, a fantastic friend and priest, whose sermon I dust off every year on this date to remind me of my call to serve God’s people and to share the good news of Christ.
Rich and I at a clergy gathering recently.
The Ordination of Philip Noah LaBelle to the Sacred Order of Priests and the Baptism of Noah James LaBelle
Sermon Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; Philippians 4:4-9
What does it mean for us today that Noah James LaBelle will be baptized in the context of this afternoon’s Eucharist—before Philip Noah LaBelle is ordained to the priesthood? I realize that there are of course practical considerations—family and friends are all in town and so forth. But sometimes profound theology grows out of practical considerations—and maybe it’s even a truism that it’s the primary way Anglicans are prone to do theology.
I propose that we are put in mind today of the fact that before anyone utters the words “Father LaBelle” Noah has made you a “daddy.” And that prior to your priestly ministry you, too, have been “sealed and marked and claimed as Christ’s own beloved”—forever. You, too, have been called to live your life as a response to that love through the Baptismal Covenant. With Melissa you have shared a life together in both marriage and ministry among God’s people long before today. Nothing we are gathered here to do today undoes—or “trumps” that call that came to you and to each of us in Holy Baptism.
We talk a lot about lay ministry in the Church today. And yet it’s thirteen years since Verna Dozier published “The Dream of God”—about a Church where all the baptized understand themselves as called to share in the work of ministry. We aren’t there yet. But the ordination liturgy for a priest in our Church does (as I read it) call upon us to remember that dream and to live into it—and the fact that Noah is baptized today only heightens our awareness of that reality. Priestly ministry is meaningless until we have some understanding of what baptism really means.
But if all the people are ministers, then what exactly is priestly ministry about? I want to insist that it is far more than a black shirt and a collar! The catechism suggests that all of God’s people are called to “represent Christ and his Church”—and that what distinguishes priestly ministry from the other three orders is that we do this by proclaiming the gospel; administering the sacraments; and blessing and declaring pardon in the name of God. The Examination that the Bishop will give expands on these three but it is at its heart exactly the same—so if you listen closely you are sure to “ace” that exam!
First: you are called to preach the gospel. There are many in the Church today—on all sides of the theological debates we are engaged in—who are so desperate and so scared that we are in danger of suffering from a kind of spiritual amnesia about what that true calling is all about. As preachers we are not called to defend an ideology (either on the right or on the left) but to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.
Do so with courage and conviction, trusting that it really is the path toward abundant life. Too many preachers are afraid to trust the gospel because it will upset the status quo. Fear is the greatest enemy of the gospel: fear of lost pledges, fear of empty pews, fear of disappointing the bishop. Don’t be afraid to trust the good news, and know that the true measure of your “success” will not be found by how full or empty the pews are or how well the annual pledge drive goes or what your colleagues say about you.
Consider Isaiah of Jerusalem and today’s Old Testament reading. Remember that for all of his enthusiasm and skill, his preaching and ministry fell on deaf ears. “Here I am, Lord,” we heard him say. “Send me!” But Isaiah’s skill and his commitment to God could not compensate for the hardness of heart and the deafness of the people of his day, as we discover if only we read just a few verses beyond where we stopped this afternoon. We didn’t hear that part because the lectionary committee (in their infinite wisdom) only gave us the nice part (as they are wont to do.) But I would urge you as a preacher not to get caught in the trap of reading lectionary pericopes. Keep reading the Bible…and pay extra attention to the verses that tend to get omitted as well as the books of the Bible that tend to get shortchanged. (I think of Lamentations, and all the post-exilic stuff—Ezra, Nehemiah, Ruth, Jonah; texts that could be essential resources to a post-Constantinian church and yet we largely ignore them.) There are no easy answers—but they could help us to ask better questions. So keep reading the Bible—and encourage those among whom you serve to do the same.
Judged by the standards of this world—and even dare I say sometimes the standards of the institutional Church—Isaiah of Jerusalem was a failure. People did not have eyes to see or ears to hear what he had to say, and the exile did come, and Jerusalem ended up as a city in waste and without inhabitant. The temple was destroyed and the people were in danger of forgetting to sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land. Isaiah of Jerusalem reminds the Church in every generation that we are called to be faithful, not successful, and that is especially true for those of us who are called to be preachers. It is so tempting to be cute or funny or relevant or passive-aggressive. But our work as preachers—as priests—is to preach the gospel, and leave the rest to God.
Remember that even though the Exile came in spite of Isaiah’s preaching, God was still God—all the way through the Exile. Remember that God had a plan even if it wasn’t yet clear to God’s people—a vision of a highway in the desert that would be left to another “Isaiah” to preach—a “deutero-Isaiah” as they like to say at Yale and Berkeley. In ministry there is always someone who has gone before us and someone to follow us—we don’t have to do it all, we just have to try to be as faithful as we can in doing the work God has given us to do. Remember that the greatest learning of the Exile was that God couldn’t be confined to the Jerusalem temple in the first place—that “God with us” meant (and means) just that—God with us even in the midst of Exile, God with us even in uncharted territory, God with us in the midst of struggle and uncertainty. Remember too that the Holy Scriptures got formed and shaped by the waters of Babylon—not when all was well in Jerusalem, but in Iraq when the future was uncertain. God’s greatest gifts seem to come to God’s people in the midst of what we see initially as finality and great loss. Why? Because God is in the business of doing new things. But after centuries we suffer from amnesia; so it is your job to keep bringing God’s people to remembrance.
Walter Brueggemann says our job as preachers is to “re-script” God’s people away from the script of our consumeristic militaristic unimaginative world (that sees us all as merely “customers”) and toward a new script where we are learning to be disciples of Jesus Christ and witnesses to the Resurrection. He says that is more akin to the work of scribe than anything else—that we are called to be people who are inscribing the text on our own hearts, and then upon the hearts of the people whom we serve. That doesn’t happen overnight. And you and I are called to be preachers in a time of profound Biblical illiteracy. But we begin again at the beginning…and our shared calling as preachers is simply to keep the texts alive in and through God’s people, and when necessary to re-introduce the forgotten ones—because most of us in the Church have a pretty small canon. That should be work enough to keep us busy for some time.
As a preacher, the bishop will soon remind you that you are called also to fashion your life according to the gospel’s precepts. Or as Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco likes to remind preachers: “you are a word about the Word before you ever open your mouth.” Or as the original “San Francisco” (Francis of Assisi) put it: “preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words.” That is to say, your life—who you are as a person—is meant to be “good news.” If the words you proclaim from the pulpit bear no connection to the way you are living your life then it will be that much harder for the Gospel to be heard through your lips.
But I want to offer this word of caution: there is a fair amount of false piety in the Church masquerading as “good news.” There will be some who have very definite ideas of what a priest is supposed to look like, about how a priest is supposed to behave and so forth. Very often it will have little to do with the Gospel, and less to do with who God has created you to be. It may well be about their own unfinished business with a parent or some other authority figure—or with some former beloved (or despised) priest in their past—or who knows what else.
Fashion your life not in accordance with other people’s projections, but according to the precepts of the Gospel. But to do that—I repeat what I said earlier: keep reading and meditating on God’s holy Word—not just combing it for material that can preach but seeing in it a mirror that nurtures your own soul, and forms you into the priest God intends for you to become.
Priestly ministry is of course about more than the call to preach but it is never about less than that. But we are Episcopalians for a reason. The genius of our liturgy is that connects us with the most ancient practices of the earliest Christian communities—with a global and apostolic faith—that is always inviting us to come to the Table of our Lord. As preachers this is very good news for us and for our congregations because it means that we never get the last word. Always our job is to point people toward the Table—and to invite them to taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
As priests we have the great responsibility and privilege of taking ordinary gifts of bread and wine and using them to offer God’s people the bread of life and the cup of salvation—inviting them as St. Augustine said to “be what they see” and to “receive who they already are.” That isn’t about having “magic hands”—it’s about the hard work of calling God’s people to discover the holiness of the ordinary—about continuing to find ways to call attention to the ways that the holy is hidden in the midst of the ordinary. Outward and visible signs are just that—signs of an inward and spiritual grace. You are entrusted with administering the sacraments in order to cultivate a sacramental vision of the world—so that people can find God at work in places where they had previously not thought to look.
In a world where everything is tolerated nothing is forgiven. But the gospel offers us a different vision—an alternative “script” to use Brueggemann’s language. The Biblical narrative suggests that we have not lived up to our calling as people created in God’s own image—that we have fallen short and “missed the mark.” And yet we are forgiven and restored and reconciled through the Cross of Jesus Christ anyway—not by our own merit—but because God’s grace is simply that amazing.
The biggest hindrance to full and abundant life in Christ as I perceive it is that people get stuck. And so it is your job—a part of your priestly ministry—not only to administer the sacraments but to pronounce God’s forgiveness and God’s blessing to the people among whom you serve. That is not the same as the work of a therapist. Rather, it is the bold claim that the keys of the kingdom are found in the Church—so that what is “loosed on earth” is “loosed in heaven.”
As we share with all the baptized in a ministry of reconciliation, our peculiar task as priests is this calling to keep uncovering God’s abundant blessings—as a counter-testimony to the culture’s insistence that there isn’t enough to go around, and therefore we have to get what we can and hold onto it. It is our job when things get stuck for individuals and for congregations to proclaim God’s forgiveness as the path through which new life becomes possible.
Even in the midst of our sometimes chaotic confusion, we Episcopalians are deeply rooted in one holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. But always that is an Easter faith. We see the tradition as roots for a living church, not as a relic of some distant past. We trust the living Christ as we strain always toward an ever-unfolding Pentecost and the gifts of the Spirit that help us to be unafraid of change and growth and the new life to which we are called, the new life that the risen Christ brings to our tired lives and to our broken world.
How we sort through all that is never an easy or simple matter. But if we are to stay true to Richard Hooker’s sensibilities—if we keep looking to Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience—then all will be well. It will be messy, but all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. The Spirit will be with us, guiding us into all Truth. As a priest it is your job to keep that vision alive—even when it comes under attack by well-meaning people who want simple answers to difficult questions.
Most of all, “Rejoice!” St. Paul tells the Church in Philippi—and Christians from generation to generation: “rejoice, again, I say, rejoice! He writes those words as you know, from prison. And what I want to say is that if Paul can rejoice in prison, certainly God’s people in Darien can find joy in each day—no matter how bad things may sometimes be.
C.S. Lewis reminded us that joy is neither happiness or pleasure—and that in fact at times it is even experienced as unhappiness or as suffering. That is the great paradox of our faith. But joy goes deeper—to the heart of life and to the mystery of faith. Joy, as Lewis puts it, is not an emotion—but a person—the person of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be one who is able to “rejoice” even from a prison cell. It is to be able to stand with a parishioner at the graveside of their loved one but even there—even at the grave to make a song.
When a parishioner walks through the valley of the shadow of death and they do fear evil, it is our awesome task as pastors to walk with them—powerless almost always to change the circumstances, but to walk nevertheless (with God’s help) as icons of joy. Even where there is unhappiness or suffering, it is to be an instrument of God’s peace and a light in the darkness—bearing witness to the power and love of God in Jesus Christ. That is never easy work but it is incredibly rewarding work that I know you will do with gentleness and faithfulness.
I think of our old friend, Frederick Buechner, who as you know defines “vocation” as that place where one’s “deep gladness” meets “the needs of this world.” Surely that is what we—the Church—have affirmed in you since you first began to hear God’s calling to this ministry. I pray that always for you there will be “deep gladness” in this work, for we are all too aware that the needs of both the Church and the world are very great indeed.
I remember when I was ordained that the saddest moments for me were when these older priests would say, “if I had it to do over again I’d find something else.” I know far too many clergy—and you probably do too—who are depressed and unfulfilled in their work. They are not bad people, but they are sad people with long lists of grievances.
So let me say in closing—as an “old veteran” priest—that there is nothing I would rather be doing with my life than to be a priest in Christ’s Church—and in particular to be an Episcopal priest at this time in our still unfolding history. There is no doubt that the work is at times difficult and challenging, but it comes with its own rewards.
And the joy we share with all God’s people goes deeper still than anything else—leading us beyond the Cross and to the empty tomb and to a person—the One whom we keep meeting on the Road to Emmaus, or the Road to Darien. The One whose voice we hear when our hearts burn, and we encounter the Word of the Lord in Holy Scripture. The One whom we beg to stay with us and eat, for evening is at hand. The One whom we see revealed in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.
So keep your eyes and your ears and your heart wide open! And keep pointing to Jesus—in your work as preacher, pastor, and priest. Keep pointing to Jesus—and all will be well.
My very feeble sermon from a day full of emotion. The prayer I used following the sermon is here as well (taken from someplace on the internet late yesterday, thanks to whoever wrote it!).
Advent 3C, 2012.
There are no words to be found. No words about the tragic loss of life that will have it make any sense to us. Nothing I say will dispel the questions that are on all of our minds. Especially, why? Why were first graders who had gone off to school in the morning for their spelling tests and gym classes—the ones who were eagerly anticipating Christmas and the rest of Hanukkah—why were their lives cut short?
Today’s Advent theme is “Rejoice!” and we light the pink candle to remind us of the joy that is to be found in coming of the Christ child. “Rejoice always,” we heard Paul say, and “Do not worry about anything, but through prayer making your requests known to God.” Worry and fear and dread hang over us all right now, especially those of us with elementary school aged children. It is hard, if not nearly impossible to rejoice.
As some of you know, Melissa used to teach at the high school in Newtown, Connecticut. She still has friends in the district, including the son of a close colleague who taught at Sandy Hook elementary we learned yesterday that he had been transferred this year to the other elementary school in town. I found out late on Friday that a classmate from college that I didn’t know very well named Joel and his wife JoAnn lost their daughter, a six year old girl named Charlotte in this tragedy. I watched my own six year old daughter head off to the bus stop Friday morning with her mom wondering if she would get all her words right on her spelling test. I was not wondering if she would come home or not. I cannot tell you how wonderful that hug was when both our kids got off the bus.
Coming in to pray in the church this weekend, I looked long at the two crucifixes in our nave, especially the one over the high altar. I was reminded that we serve a God who has suffered as well. And not only that, but Jesus came to live among us—he is Emmanuel, God with us— and his light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it. It continued on, even on that dark Good Friday when all hope seemed lost.
But all hope is not lost. The light continues on, even though it feels much dimmer now than it was a few days ago. When things become overwhelming, and it feels that evil will be victorious, we must remember that the light shines on in the darkness.
Yesterday I went with Noah, Olivia and four of their friends to see “Rise of the Guardians” for Noah’s birthday. The tale is centered on how the Bogey Man, named Pitch Black, came to fill the dreams of sleeping children with nightmares. The Guardians of the children—Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sand Man—gather to dispel the nightmares. They are joined by new-comer Jack Frost, who has been picked as a new Guardian to work with the big four. The Guardians had to fight for their very lives at times, because if the children stopped believing in them then the Guardians would lose their powers and ultimately reach their demise.
So they worked together in order to combat Pitch Black and the fear he brought into the world. A globe with lights represented the children who believed, more lights meant more children who believed. As children stopped believing in them, lights would flicker and then go out. At one point it came down to just a handful of lights, and all hope seemed lost. But in that dire time, Santa gave the best line of the movie when he said, “It is our job to protect the children of the world. For as long as they believe in us, we will guard them with our lives.”
As members of Christ’s body, as the church, we are called to be the guardians of the children of the world. We must not let our children be overcome by fear, and we must not be overcome by it ourselves. Christ came into the world to dispel fear and to bring us love and joy and peace and hope. As the night grows ever longer, we must remember that light came into this dark world, and the light shone on and was not overcome. Jesus brought love for each of us and will heal the brokenhearted, and in the end love wins.
Some have said that more people carrying guns is the answer, but that will only lead to more violence. Some religious types have claimed that this is a result of God being taken out of our schools. We already know more about the perpetrator than we should. I am not sure how we can work for change, but we must. Statistics show that 8 more nameless kids will die today from gun violence. And 8 more tomorrow. We are called to protect the children of the world and bring the message of Jesus Christ to them. Jesus comes to bring us joy in the midst of the darkness—not happiness, mind you, but joy deep inside even as we face the darkest times.
Let me share a story about Charlotte that I saw online last night. She had gotten a new outfit for the holidays, a pink dress and some new boots. She asked and badgered and begged her mom to let her wear them before Christmas. Friday morning JoAnn finally relented and let Charlotte wear that beautiful new outfit to school.
The message of Advent is one of expectation and hope, and I know I need the coming of Christ more this year than ever before. He comes, this Prince of Peace, to heal our broken world. I long for that this year, for true healing and shalom—wholeness and not despair. We cannot let fear’s icy grip rule our hearts, but we must turn to Jesus who suffered for us and suffers with us every time tragedy strikes. He will come in 9 days as that babe in a barn located in some backwater district in the Roman Empire. When he comes, that crying babe will announce all the more powerfully that God enters into our world to bring light and joy and peace. And no matter how much the world does not want that message—no matter how much the forces of wickedness seek to extinguish that light—that message lives on as Christ lives in us. We bring the message of hope to the world on behalf of Christ; we are Christ’s hand and feet, his body, and with him we shower the world with his love. The light of Christ will not be extinguished. It will shine bright in this dark, dark world.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.
Prayer following sermon:
There are no words. There is nothing that we can say but instead we cry out. We cry out in shared grief and pain for the loss of so many children. We do not understand, and we cannot imagine why someone would murder, why someone would justify this act of violence. We cannot comprehend.
We come to You in prayer, but our prayer is jumbled. We pray for the families who are grieving. We pray for those who are wounded and recovering. We pray for those adults who put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. We pray for those children that have witnessed this horrific tragedy and will live with this for the rest of their lives.
Our grief is raw. The wound gapes open and we do not know how to stop it. But we call upon You, O Lord, to comfort those who mourn, to bind-up the brokenhearted.
It is Hanukkah, it is Advent, many are now preparing for these holy days without their loved one. God, we surround them with our prayers, for we do not know what else we can do. We surround them with our love, knowing that You are with them, that You hold them close.
Call us together as a community, and as a nation, loving God, to work to end violence, to build a safer community and safer schools for our children. In this time, help us to come together, for we are stronger together than we are alone, and we know Your comfort and love is shared when we are together.
Keep us close, O Christ. Help us to turn to each other, to seek the help we need, to build up instead of tearing down. Guide us with wisdom in how we teach our children, and work to end this violence. Loving God, help us to know You are always with us, and You are grieving with us now.
Charlotte Bacon, 6;
Daniel Barden, 7;
Rachel Davino, 29;
Olivia Engel, 6;
Josephine Gay, 7;
Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6;
Dylan Hockley, 6;
Dawn Hocksprung, 47;
Madeline F. Hsu, 6;
Catherine V Hubbard, 6;
Chase Kowalski, 7;
Nancy Lanza; 52
Jesse Lewis, 6;
James Mattioli, 6;
Grace McDonnell, 7;
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emile Parker, 6;
Jack Pinto, 6;
Noah Pozner, 6;
Caroline Previdi, 6;
Jessica Rekos, 6;
Avielle Richman, 6;
Lauren Russeau, 30;
Mary Sherlach, 56;
Victoria Soto, 27;
Benjamin Wheeler, 6;
Allison N. Wyatt, 6
May light perpetual shine upon them and all the saints.
My niece and my dad share a moment during his last week. (c) A. Scheff, 2012
My thoughts on the Second Sunday of Advent, with the theme of love. As the frenzy now kicks up for Christmas Shopping (quick, only two weeks!), I offer some thoughts on what we all really want. Surprisingly, it’s not a gadget from Apple.
I’m a lover of the English language. I like the way words can convey meaning, and how when they are cleverly put together you can actually see the beauty of a scene the writer is describing. A friend this week wrote, “I almost didn’t go for a walk. It was positively GRAY out, and likely damp. Still, I gathered the dogs, and set out… My reward: being met by a mingling of salt and balsam, listening to the surf crashing against the rocks. The bell buoy called ‘Come!’ while the limbs of craggy old trees, perfectly crooked, framed my path. The mossy stones greeted me, with the lichen, and the gulls. The gray, I thought, is a good walk after all.” It’s not often that you can be enchanted by a Facebook status update.
Words have the possibility to carry great meaning, yet one of our words often gets diluted in our culture: “love.” I know I love Indian food, but I know I love my family a heck of a lot more. I could swear off curry (albeit reluctantly) if I had too; my family can never be out of the reach of my love. Don’t worry; this isn’t one of those yawner sermons on the three kinds of love as shown in the Greek. I’ve heard plenty of those myself (and if you’ve not heard that sermon ever, you can find a bunch online by searching “Three kinds of love sermons,” albeit at your own risk).
Having said that, I am struck by Paul’s language in his letter to the Philippians when it comes to love (and for you Greek fans out there, this is indeed agape). We may say that love is blind, that it can overlook things. But notice Paul prays for quite the opposite, petitioning that their love may grow in knowledge and even insight. Paul asks God to allow the Philippians to see fully and understand about love so that they could discern what is the best way forward, and see to it that they are both pure and blameless on the day of Christ.
And that line scares the living bejeezus out of me. Pure and blameless? Is that even possible in our world? We know when we are to blame, when we let down the ones dearest in our lives, or, if we can be honest enough, when we let ourselves down. At times we get upset with those we live with and love, do something really thoughtless, or even sabotage our own goals and desires. Pure and blameless often don’t seem achievable when we look realistically and critically at our own lives. We like the blindness that love can afford us in the times when we are at fault.
But maybe sometimes we aren’t so blind when it comes to those that we love, especially when we are hurt by them. When we are the recipients of someone’s ire, we are quick to point a finger. The blame game is no good. We know that, well for all you 80s music fans out there, it spins us right round, baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round, right round. Blaming can engulf our lives like a spinning vortex of water, but we’ll hold on in the middle of that raging flood if we believe we’re the one who is right. In those cases, there’s often no love to be found whatsoever. And the problem with the blame game is that it becomes a death spiral sucking us down to our demise, with the power to hurt us permanently.
St. Augustine said, “Love and do as you like.” On the surface that statement seems so trite and naïve, but, dear God, if we love as we are called to love, then the actions we do will grow out of that love. We’ll hold open our hands and our hearts to those most dear to us. We’ll notice with a holy insight when someone is struggling and then respond with love and compassion. That powerful prayer of Paul’s invites us into the heart of Christ, into the very love of God, where there is more compassion for each one of us than we could ever imagine.
But what does that look like? What does that word mean since love no longer carries the depth that it once did? We toss it around so much, it’s become worn down from overuse. I want you to hear that passage again from the Message Bible to see if that adds a bit of color to this monochrome understanding of love.
“So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.”
How does one love, not only much, but well?
My dad’s cousin, Bob, is a Capuchin Friar and Catholic Priest. One time when I was five or six, Fr. Bob came over to visit with our family. The grown-ups were talking at the kitchen table, and I wanted someone to play a game with me; I was that kid with the constant refrain of wanting to play a game (every family has one). My parents informed me that the adults were all talking and didn’t have time to play. With my feelings hurt I ran to another room and began to cry. Fr. Bob came over to me, and asked me if I could get a deck of cards. I grabbed some and then he showed me how to build a house out of those cards with me. I’m not sure how long we played, but it was enough to make me feel special, to feel loved.
Many years later, as Melissa and I traveled around visiting seminaries to find the one for me, we got to spend a weekend with Fr. Bob. He worked as a chaplain at a mental hospital in D.C., and invited us to join him for their Sunday services. I saw in him a deep love for the residents there, even while they may have spoken out of turn or been disruptive. After the service, his face lit up with joy in talking with them.
This past spring, Bob joined with me in officiating at my father’s funeral. Later that weekend, I watched him shower love on Noah and Olivia, taking us out to a restaurant special to my dad, and engaging them in conversation attentively and whole-heartedly. Bob is a person who loves both much and well, and I know he would downplay these attributes in himself. But as one watching for nearly 40 years, I can say with certainty that he loves like Christ; he is both circumspect and exemplary.
And I want to be cautious in using a priest as a primary example, because you might very well say, “Of course he loves well! He wears a collar!” and think somehow that you are never going to match up. But that is not the point at all. We can also love like that. We, too, can show abounding compassion that Paul prays the Philippian believers will have.
A year ago I encouraged you to give relational gifts for Christmas. I think we’d all rather have memories and time with loved ones. What we really want for Christmas is the relational aspect of the season, not a new toy or clothing article. We want connectedness. And I think this is true for our kids as well. They want the time playing with someone else more than just a game they can play on their own (and I can speak with authority on this account).
I cannot tell you about many of the gifts I received during my childhood, but I remember that house I built with Fr. Bob. In this first Advent and Christmas without both of my parents, what I remember most of them is the time we spent together not the pair of jeans or sweater they put under the tree. What I’d ask for more of now is that time, the days spent together, loving both much and well.
You don’t need to be ordained to do that. You just need to be someone willing risk living a life Jesus would be proud of. Doing your best at loving and compassion, seeking forgiveness when you messed up, offer forgiveness rather than blame. Putting meaning and flesh behind the phrase “I love you,” so that it conjures up a whole range of deep emotions and isn’t said flippantly. Words like that become more important when they encompass the ways in which we love, the many actions that back up the compassion we fell.
May this time of preparation bring you ever closer to that pure and blameless life as you become enlivened to live as Christ did and love both much and well. Amen.
If the word of God is active and living, like a quick sword, as we heard this morning from the letter to the Hebrews, then Mark’s narrative cuts deep today. We have heard this story before about the young man— he’s become known as “the rich young ruler”—who approaches Jesus so he can earn salvation. It’s been going well in his life so far, he invested in Apple when they were $7 a share and now he’s got it all. And he’s faithful to boot, keeping all the commandments that Jesus lists off to him.
“Ah,” Jesus says with his uncanny ability to see through right to the heart and to have so much compassion. “One thing you lack. Go, sell what you own and give it to the poor, and then come, follow me.” And the man turns around shocked, and goes on his way grieving, because, as Mark puts it, he had many possessions.
You might have been more focused on the money, but did you catch that phrase? Jesus loved him. He loved him and wanted the best for this young man who came yearning for something deeper. Jesus knows the path to salvation always means facing the things that hold us captive, otherwise there’d be nothing for us to be saved from. This man longed for eternal life, but he didn’t expect it to cost so much.
Jesus completely understood the sway money has over us. He gives the lure of cash the name mammon, a god that has its icy grips deep within us. That makes us as Americans cringe, because cash is king and we somehow think we’ve got it under control rather than the other way around.
Philip Yancey, in his fantastic book Rumors of Another World, illuminates this. He recounts reading that we must learn how to profane money, in order to “demagnetize it’s spiritual force even if that [meant] handing wads of bills to strangers or throwing them into the air on a busy street.” He found the idea absurd, which clued him on to the spiritual forces at play on his life. He recounts how he lived generously at that time, giving money away to his church and charities, but always with the expectation of a receipt and a thank you note so he’d be ready come tax time. He gave calculating how much it would help him in the long run.
Yancey experienced a shift. He lived in Chicago at the time, and his wife worked with the low-income elderly. She brought home stories about the ones who faced evictions or shut off notices. So they began taking 50s and 100s and sliding them under the doors of the needy with a note “‘From someone who cares.’” He writes, “It seemed like sacrilege the first few times, to give with no assurance the money would be well used and with no tax receipt making it worth our while. Those feelings betrayed the real sacrilege, I soon realized. I had adopted a rational economic viewpoint that exalted money as the supreme value, and I needed to profane it and break its hold over me…. I needed to see money for what it is, a loan that God entrusted to me for the purpose of investing in the kingdom of heaven.”
When I meet with the parents who want to have their children baptized, I ask them questions about the vows they are making. They renounce “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” And I ask them what they make of that. How do you view Satan and spiritual forces, and often the conversation meanders down the road of evil in our world. Sometimes we talk about bullying and pride. Many times I am answered with uncertainty and furrowed brows because talking about spiritual forces of wickedness isn’t conversation fodder.
But when I read economic reports that household debt in America has recently climbed nearly $40 billion to a total $13 trillion, I know there’s a spiritual force out there. We are being crippled by all of this personal debt in education costs and cars and vacations and gadgets—never mind the current Federal deficit—and that bondage is hindering us from eternal life. “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” That’s pretty disparaging; even the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God.”
Many cannot be more generous because they live paycheck to paycheck overcome by the monthly bills. Jesus looks at us in love and wants something better for us. We catch glimpses of another world, where money doesn’t have control over us. Being generous is one of life’s great joys, but we must recognize the power Mammon has and change our lifestyles and desecrate money. We may be keeping the commandments, but we lack one thing. We’ve allowed our stuff to control us. Lasting change can happen with God’s help. But it means sitting down and having frank conversations and digging ourselves out from under the mountain of excess and recognizing the beauty of that loan from God to bring about the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. It may seem impossible, that it’s not worth the effort. But a fuller life is on the horizon.
As we welcome three little ones today into the church through the waters of baptism, as we share together in Christ’s amazing love, may we see a little more clearly today that Christ cares for us deeply and wants all the best for us. May we know that we can live without being overcome by either greed or envy. And may we know that in Jesus’ outlandish kingdom camels, from time to time, do go through the eye of the needle. Amen.
 Philip Yancey. Rumors of Another World. Zondervan, 2003. Pg 210.
Let’s be blunt, divorce happens. I’ve got parishioners, friends and family members who have experienced it. And Jesus is pretty direct about divorce. And that stings, because Jesus sounds very harsh. I’ve heard plenty of bad sermons on divorce, how it is always wrong or never wrong. I think it’s in between.
So my thoughts on divorce. I hope you’ll share yours too.
You may not know this, but I bet you can imagine the level of activity on preaching websites this week given the reading we just heard from Mark. One blog I visit had a number of responses that said, virtually, “I wouldn’t touch Mark this week with a 10-foot pole, or any sized pole for that matter.” One online commentator—a professor at a Lutheran seminary—put it this way, “The passage is often listed among the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus. But perhaps ‘painful,’ ‘distressing,’ or ‘agonizing’ would be more like it, as each time this passage is read and heard in a congregation many of us cringe, either feeling assaulted by it directly or worrying that others are.” He claimed it probably wouldn’t be prudent to preach on this passage, and many a preacher might opt for Hebrews instead. But then he said “preaching the gospel is rarely about being prudent.”
I would venture a guess that all of us have been impacted by divorce, either in our own relationships, in our families or through our close friends. Most of us have experienced the pain that divorce leaves in its wake. And, as one commentator put it, nobody is looking for a sermon about the ethical question of divorce, if it is right or wrong; what people really want to know why it hurts so dang much. The grief is seismic, identities are changed — have you ever noticed that there’s that check box for “divorced” on all of those forms rather than just reverting back to the “single” box—and relationships are forever altered—ask any divorcee about couple friends, never mind the impact on children or extended family.
But before we get there, let’s first look at the text. There is a verse missing; if you look at that reference you’ll notice that the lectionary lopped off the first verse of chapter 10. And while it may seem to be unimportant at a quick glance, I am convinced it frames this whole text. It says, “Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.” And then continuing with our reading, “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”
Let me tell why this is important: the last time we heard about anything in connection with the Jordan was concerning John the Baptizer. Remember that Herod used to go down and listen to John. Mark tells us in Chapter 6, that John would rail against Herod because he had married his brother’s wife. Herod ended up divorcing his wife, and Herodias divorced her husband. Mark is pretty graphic in describing the events leading to the Baptizer’s beheading. And now, for the first time in Mark’s narrative since John’s death, Jesus is back in the region around the Jordan, and the Pharisees come to test him, and they ask about divorce. In other words, this is a set up. They’re hoping that maybe they could trap Jesus and have Herod take care of him for them.
However, Jesus doesn’t take the bait, instead asking them that question about Moses and the law. “Moses says it’s okay,” they respond. Jesus then tells them that it was because of their hard hearts that Moses permitted divorce. But, Jesus says, God intended something else. At the beginning, in the Garden of Eden when humankind was created, what God intended was for male and female to come together in marriage, for a man and a woman to leave their families and be joined together, no longer two, but one. And what God has joined together, let no one separate. Let no one put it asunder. Don’t let anyone tear it apart.
This seems to have silenced the Pharisees who head off back to Jerusalem, because in the next verse Mark has the disciples asking the follow-up question back in the house they were staying at. Jesus response is direct. “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Keep in mind Herod’s story. He divorced his wife because he lusted after his sister-in-law. And she did the same. They tried to make it look legal by divorcing their respective spouses and getting married, but Jesus agrees with John. Herod and Herodias both commit adultery, according to Jesus, and his mention of a woman divorcing her husband tips his hand to show what he is talking about. Women couldn’t get divorce papers according to Jewish law. Jesus’ statement about a woman seeking divorce was specifically geared toward the Gentile or Roman understanding, because Roman women could in fact seek divorces.
Yet, even given this contextual analysis, these words from Jesus seem harsh. I would hazard a guess that those of you who are divorced or are in the midst of separation and divorce feel or have felt a sting in Jesus’ words. Any attempt to dismiss them casually stating that it was a different time and culture is unfair to the text. Divorce, as far as we can tell, happened enough during Jesus’ day to merit the question from the Pharisees, and some suggest it was fairly common. I think what Jesus is getting at is a divorce of convenience. A divorce, like Herod’s, where one spouse leaves another because they find someone they like better, someone who becomes an infatuation, and they burn with lust. That is wrong.
A good friend of Melissa’s and mine went through this a few years ago. During a time when her parents should be enjoying their new grandchildren—three little ones under the age of three—and planning their retirement, this friend’s dad had been leading a double life, dating someone younger than his own children. Our friend’s parents met their first year of college, and they were active in their church leading Bible studies and youth groups for much of their adult life. Then this bombshell, a hasty divorce and a quick marriage to this much younger woman. Our friend and her entire family were devastated. That, Jesus says, is sinful. It is not what God intended.
What God intended at the beginning was this: a man and a woman to be together for their entire lives, to be a loving support to one another, mutually sharing in life and giving care to one another. These two became one, and united they were to live together. And what God has joined together, let no one separate. But the Fall changed all of that. With the entrance of sin into the equation, relationships were strained due to our own selfishness and sinfulness. And I can say with certainty after 16 years that a marriage relationship takes an enormous amount of work and attention in order for it to become what God intended. It takes the power of Jesus Christ, and forgiveness and putting aside our own desires and admitting our failings and seeking connections, and loving with all our hearts and having patience and then some.
And sometimes, even in spite of our best efforts and trust in God, marriages break down. You see, while God didn’t intend for couples to be separated from one another, God also didn’t intend for there to be infidelity. God didn’t desire for there to be physical or emotional abuse in families. God didn’t expect couples to face the ravages of alcoholism or substance abuse. Unfortunately, these things do happen in our world. And they often lead to divorce. I don’t think this was the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he spoke out against divorce.
But why, as that biblical scholar put it, why does divorce, even in those circumstances, why does it hurt so darn much? Why is there such pain?
I believe it’s revealed in those lines that are mentioned in every marriage that follows the Prayer Book rite. The celebrant says this: “Now that Tom and Susie have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” That’s the same line Jesus mentions to his disciples.
You see, even though we live in fallen world, even though we are no longer in Eden, we are still wired up the way God intended. When a couple comes together before God and their family and friends, deep inside they hope that their marriage will succeed. Through those vows and promises, they are joined together; the two become one. And try as we might to think otherwise, something deep within us longs for the type of relationship God has intended since the beginning of time. We want the lifelong, life-giving relationship. We yearn for it. And when a marriage fails, when that relationship for whatever reason ends, that couple is ripped apart from one another. There is no clean break. The tearing hurts deep within.
Especially for children. I don’t think it’s merely coincidence that Mark’s narrative moves from Jesus’ teaching on divorce to his instructing the reluctant and dismissive disciples to let the children come to him. Children, even adult children, feel the pain of divorce acutely. Children should not be the reason a person stays in a destructive relationship, but it should also not be underestimated the impact any divorce has on their lives. Children are vulnerable in such situations. Let them come to me, Jesus says. Let the most vulnerable ones in life come into my presence.
Finally, I’d like to return once more to that first verse. There’s one final thing to note: in coming to the region of Judea, Jesus is nearing Jerusalem. In fact, the very next chapter of Mark’s gospel begins the narrative of Holy Week. By coming to this region, Jesus’ death is in view. Soon Jesus will be accused and strung up on that cross. He will be broken for us. And in this loving gesture, he will intensely experience the hurt that comes through the brokenness of life. Through his woundedness, he offers us life. Christ’s broken body offers us restoration and wholeness.
That is why we come to this table each week. Jesus gave himself fully and completely for us to offer his compassion and healing. No, divorce is not what God intended, but that brokenness, that intense hurt and pain can be healed through the work of Christ. In the giving of himself on the cross, Jesus offers us his body and blood and his mercy and love. “By his wounds,” Peter writes, “we are healed.”
In light of this amazing love, I am reminded of that wonderful hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” I close with the second verse.
On my regular walks with our dog Buster I have to cross a stone fence. There’s a gap, and I know I’m not the only one who uses it; the path is well worn. Stone walls are just about every where around here since we border the rural and suburban areas west of Boston. Some of them are newer and kept up, especially since many of the stone walls here are “dry,” meaning they’re just stacked stones with nothing but gravity holding them together.
Stone walls figure into my sermon from Sunday. I suspect walking with Buster had them on my mind. You never know what will be fodder for a sermon.
We’re at the end of James’ epistle—those eight verses we heard this morning closed out his letter to the faithful followers of Christ scattered around the region there in the Middle East. As a writer I know that conclusions can be a time to emphasize the point of the writing. Or the letters I used to get from my mom in college would end with sage advice like “Enjoy yourself!” and “Do your homework!” which supposedly were not the same thing. Sometimes letters end with heartfelt convictions, a desire to tell someone how you really feel. James does all of this and more. He wants to leave a parting shot, words to live by, the main thrust of his whole argument.
And it’s about two things really. Prayer and community. That’s interesting to me since we in Western Christianity often think it comes down to two other things: belief and individual faith. If you believe the right things or the right way and have a personal faith then you are a model Christian these days. Yet James highlights prayer and connections to others.
We live in New England. Prayer and community are things we know we shouldn’t talk about. One’s prayer life is more sacred a conversation than one’s political affiliation—see any “Pray Daily” lawn signs recently? Or how would it be if at coffee hour or upon seeing a fellow St. Mark’s parishioner at Kennedy’s you were asked, “How can I pray for you today?” We’d prefer they’d ask us about the Patriots or the weather.
And we know all to well Robert Frost’s line that “Good fences make good neighbors” — how many miles of stone fences can you find here in the Northeast? (And let me remind you, in case you forgot from high school English, that Frost’s poem called “Mending Wall” centers on two neighbors meeting on civil terms to restore a barrier between them, a barrier one of them is not certain they need.) We like putting up and mending our walls in order to keep others out. We build decks on the back of our houses when our grandparents would rock on the large front porch. We find solace in the anonymity of the Internet where we can keep others at arm’s length.
But not James. “Are you having a rough time of it?” he asks. Then pray. Got joy? Sing hymns and songs of praise! Are you sick? Call the church community and invite them into your house—don’t worry that it’s not picked up—and have them pray for you and anoint you with oil.
Now some of you may call me up as a priest to have me come if things are bad, but would you consider inviting others from the church to swing by and pray for you when you’re running a fever or dealing with the flu as you lounge around in sweats? If it were me, I’d grab a shower, try to tidy up the house, get a few things together for a snack if I could. Or just politely decline.
And then James talks about sin. Not just about sin in general, but confessing sins. And not confessing to thin air as you walk outside by yourself, but confessing to one another. Our sins. Out loud. Imagine the vulnerability that would take. Talk about wanting to keep the walls up that separate us.
During my senior year of college I ran across a passage from Mark Twain in his autobiography about how he always preached in his humor, and that his humor, because he preached in it, would live forever, that is to say, about thirty years. He was comparing himself to other humorists who had gone before whom the world had forgotten; they were “mere humorists” who refused to preach. And then he concluded by writing this: “I am saying these vain things in this frank way because I am dead person speaking from the grave. Even I would be too modest to say them in life. I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead— and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier.” It was that last paragraph that stunned me. About people ought-ing to start dead. About how we aren’t our entire and honest selves in this life, in the present time.
So let me speak as one from the dead, if you will. Let me get down to brass tacks and speak honestly to you.
We love our fences too much. We like keeping people at a distance and our vulnerabilities to ourselves because we are Americans and we prize individuality and self-reliance above all else. Is it any wonder then that one of the thrusts of this campaign season is about government assistance and how to dole it out if at all? We hardly voice our sins to ourselves—we don’t even want to call our own failings “sin” anyway—because then it would mean admitting we screwed up. We wouldn’t dream of telling another person because we don’t trust them. We don’t trust that they could keep the confidentiality about what we said. We think it may come back to haunt us. Or that it would lower that person’s perception of us.
And when we’re sick and the house gets cluttered and we haven’t bathed in a couple of days, we wouldn’t dream of asking someone to come in to spend time with us. What would they think if they saw that the kids had torn up the house, or that there were dishes stacked on the counter or that we were in our pajamas?
In other words, we’re afraid. Afraid because we need to live up to some imagined expectation that we are all in competition with each other. So we keep people out unless things are perfect.
And when things go wrong, we get isolated.
It may trouble you that James equates sin and sickness in our text. We sort of know sin and sickness don’t go together, although I still get asked why bad things happen to good people. And I also know having two parents who had lung cancer that many people’s first question was “Did they smoke?” While not technically a “sin” it is something we can easily explain away and shake our heads over. We do the same if someone is overweight and has a heart attack—somehow thinking that they “deserved it,” which is a troubling thought all together.
But I think the more important and relevant correlation between sin and sickness is that they isolate us. I see it at church. When someone stops attending, it’s because something difficult is going on. When things are good, and the kids are making straight As or we got the big promotion, we’re sitting in the pews. When someone’s hitting the bottle too much, or there’s a rough patch in our marriage or we’re dealing with a chronic health issue, we tend to stay away.
And those of us left behind don’t know how to respond. We might ask a friend about someone or a family now missing, but then do nothing to follow up. “That’s too bad,” we might say on learning the news, and thank our lucky stars that it’s not us that is sick or experiencing difficulty with our teen.
But we’re encouraged to reconnect. To reach out. Did you hear that invitation from James to go after those who’ve drifted away and bring them back? Because community is important.
I’ve spent most of my time speaking about community and fences and trying to keep appearances up. I’ve not been avoiding prayer. I’ve left it as my parting shot, my sage advice to you.
I think we live lives isolated from others because we are isolated from God. We don’t know how to pray or don’t make the time or don’t think it’s important. We feel safe doing it here with one another, but inviting God into our homes and our lives might seem more daunting than anything else. So our relationship with God is contained to a neat one-hour package on Sunday mornings. We have God all nice and fenced in.
In Frost’s poem, the walls start crumbling on their own, because of the shifting ground, and the weather. We have to be intentional about mending the fences. When stones fall down, when there are cracks in our lives from the experiences and challenges we face, what might it look like to leave the gaps open, and to invite God in? What if we started each day with a simple invitation, “God, be with me today and guide me?” Or even, “Lord, have mercy on me?” How different would our lives be if we stopped three or even four times a day to give thanks, and pour out our hearts, and share our lives with the Holy One?
If we began inviting God in through the holes in the stone walls of our lives, we might be more apt to inviting others in too. We might allow ourselves to be more vulnerable with those around us, and to begin praying for one another. Good fences do not make good neighbors. They only build distrust, and a false belief that we can handle it all on our own. A much fuller life can be given to us if we only realize that we cannot do it alone, that we need each another, and above all else we need God. Amen.
 Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain. New York: First HarperPerrenial, 1990. Pgs. 358-359.