Sermon for Advent 4

December 20, 2020 (Year B)

Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat) and Luke 1:26-38

She “never wore fine clothes…never entered a palace…and never travelled farther from Palestine than Egypt.” She lived in a backwater so small no contemporary historian bothered to mention it. She was “an obscure peasant girl [who] reared her son in obscurity.” (1) And yet — incredibly — she is inarguably the most famous and revered woman in all of history.

While Scripture doesn’t tell us much about Mary, I imagine what she was like: kind-hearted, hard-working, loving and tough. She’s the kind of person I would want as a friend. I wonder what went through her head as she saw Gabriel standing in radiance before her, as she tried to process his words.

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Our translation tells us Mary was perplexed by the archangel’s arrival and subsequent words. However, earlier in Luke the same Greek term is used to describe Zechariah’s terror when Gabriel appears before him in the Temple sanctuary. It’s no wonder Mary’s response was, in a nutshell: “Whaaat?!” Imagine what her parents must have thought at the impossibly preposterous tale their daughter — likely still a teenager — brought home! Imagine as well their fear! What will their conservative religious community think? They lived in such a small town. How would they escape the judgment and the gossip? More importantly, what will Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, think? If he breaks the engagement, will they ever find another willing husband?

By the time Mary arrived home, she surely thought of these same questions. She shared her parents’ fears of rejection. Yet she knew in her heart the faith she had been taught and that faith overcame fear. God was powerful and God was real. She truly believed the angel’s words: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” She knew from the stories she heard in the synagogue and from her own parents it was true.

The God of Israel was — and is — the God of the weak, the God of the impoverished and the God of the underdog. Mary’s God — and our God — was and is a God of the unlikely and the impossible.

She remembered the unlikely promise God made to her foremother Sarah in her old age, embodied by the life of Isaac. She remembered how God brought Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand, guided and protected them through their lengthy wilderness sojourn and made their unlikely entry into the Promised Land possible. She remembered the story of David, youngest of his brothers, and how his anointing was so unlikely his family didn’t bother to call him in from the pasture. And she remembered Hannah, blessed with not one but six children after years of anguish and bareness. One of these unlikely sons became a renowned prophet of God.

The God of Israel was — and is — the God of the weak, the God of the impoverished and the God of the underdog. Mary’s God — and our God — was and is a God of the unlikely and the impossible.

 

Grotto inside the Basilica of the Annuciation, the traditional location of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary. Source: L. Barber

In addition to being hard-working and loving, Mary was also wise beyond her years. She knew she would need help to fortify her faith during the unknown ahead. So she turned to a trusted, beloved elder, her cousin Elizabeth. It was three days’ walk to reach her. Though we don’t know for sure, it’s entirely possible this young, vulnerable peasant girl walked the dangerous roads in the desolate desert alone. When she arrives at Elizabeth’s home, Mary is so overfilled with joy she cannot help but sing:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him…He has shown the strength of his arm,

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones…He has filled the hungry with good things for he has remembered his promise of mercy…

And then, when the intensity of the joy subsided, Elizabeth and Mary waited. They waited filled with hope and confidence in their faith. They waited, not knowing the heights of joy or the depths of anxiety and grief which were to come.

And so Mary was left, like us, to wait. She waited as we wait, with no choice but to live with and into the unknowing, certain only in the knowledge that God is with us every step of the journey.

(1) Deen, Edith. All the Women of the Bible, Women in Christ’s Time: Mary, Mother of Jesus. Harper and Row: New York, NY. 1955.

el sermón de Pentecostés 27

año A – 8 de noviembre de 2020

sermón escrito por la reverenda Erin Rath

traducción por Mónica Robayo

Por la Sagrada Escritura por el día (Josué 24: 1-25 y Mateo 25: 1-13) haga clic aquí. Estamos usando complementarias 1 esta semana.

En el pasaje de hoy de las Escrituras Hebreas, escuchamos el pacto que Josué presenta al pueblo en la antigua Siquem. Josué les pregunta, repetidamente, a qué Dios quieren servir. No es raro en los contratos de esa época, Joshua recuerda la historia de la relación. Esos versículos, que se saltan en nuestro leccionario, recuerdan la protección poderosa y la gracia y el amor omnipotentes que la Mano Divina ha mostrado y proporcionado al pueblo. Joshua pregunta repetidamente: “¿Estás seguro de que quieres hacer esto? … ¿Pero estás seguro? … ¿Estás realmente seguro?” Comprendió que la gente no entendía completamente a qué se estaban inscribiendo.

Las jóvenes de la parábola de Jesús sabían lo que se necesitaba. Sin embargo, no todos vinieron preparados. En mi primera lectura del texto, me imaginé una “lámpara” como las lámparas de queroseno con las que mis abuelos crecieron en la granja. Los eruditos creen que las lámparas de esta parábola eran mucho más sencillas. Un trapo empapado en aceite estaba atado a un palo. Periódicamente, se cortaban las porciones carbonizadas de la tela (como se describe en la parábola) y se remojaba el trapo para que hubiera combustible para mantener viva la llama. A diferencia de una lámpara de queroseno, no había ningún lugar encendido o en la lámpara para almacenar aceite adicional. Cada mujer sabía que tendría que traer la suya propia si quería que su lámpara durará toda la noche.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1280px-Lewes_Bonfire%2C_discarded_torch.jpg
Source: Wikipedia

Entonces … ¿y nosotros? Nos hemos apuntado a esta “cosa” del cristianismo. ¿Sabemos realmente en qué nos hemos metido? ¿Estamos preparados para lo que vendrá y para lo que seremos llamados a hacer? Aunque a menudo respondemos afirmativamente con confianza, no estoy seguro de que lo hagamos …

La semana pasada, nuestro país vivió unas elecciones. Mientras escribo este sermón el viernes, no se conocen todos los resultados. Independientemente del resultado, creo que la elección deja una cosa clara: independientemente de la persuasión política o del partido, estamos alienados unos de otros. El racismo, la xenofobia, la transfobia, la homofobia y la discriminación por edad están tan entretejidos en el tejido de nuestra sociedad que ya casi no los reconocemos, ni quienes tienen el privilegio del poder reconocen adecuadamente el dolor y los problemas que causan. La brecha es tan profunda y tan amplia que es difícil imaginar cómo se puede salvar la distancia y curar las heridas, o si tal curación es posible.

La respuesta más fácil sería rendirse. Pero eso no es para lo que nos inscribimos. El Pacto Bautismal en nuestro libro de oración pregunta: “¿Buscarás y servirás a Cristo en todas las personas, amando a tu prójimo como a ti mismo?” y “¿Lucharás por la justicia y la paz entre todas las personas y respetarás la dignidad de cada ser humano?” (BCP 305) Nuestro llamado cristiano es esforzarnos por amar, incluso cuando las diferencias son marcadas y el dolor profundo y el camino a seguir es abrumador. Nuestro llamado cristiano es avanzar, aunque sea imperfectamente, y amar lo mejor que podamos.

No tengo una respuesta única para arreglar nuestras divisiones. Sin embargo, me gustaría sugerir un punto de partida: hablar. Hable sobre nuestra historia y el dolor que ha causado y sigue causando. (Puede hacerlo uniéndose al grupo de discusión del padre Mike, Diálogos sobre la raza, los jueves al mediodía o volviendo a ver la grabación). Hable y reflexione sobre los privilegios que tiene que los miembros de otras comunidades no tienen. Sobre todo, hablen unos con otros. Esta semana, te desafío a hablar con alguien de una perspectiva diferente (política o de otro tipo) a la tuya. Habla con ellos sobre sus esperanzas, sueños y amores.

Incluso más que hablar, escuchar de verdad. Escuche lo que está en su corazón. Al escuchar así, amarás al otro como Cristo te ama a ti. Al amar así, la luz de Cristo brillará a través de ti, plenamente, como una lámpara recién llena. A través de Cristo, hay esperanza de que nuestra oscuridad y separación se puedan transformar en una verdadera comunidad, no unida por la uniformidad sino por la aceptación y el amor.

Sermon for Pentecost 23

Year A – November 8, 2020

Joshua 24:1-25*; Matthew 25:1-13

(*Note: Our official lectionary skips verses 4-13 of the Joshua reading. I think they are an important part of the covenant story, so I  included them in this link.)

In today’s passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear the covenant Joshua presents to the people at ancient Shechem. Joshua asks them, repeatedly, which God they want to serve. Not uncommon to contracts of that time, Joshua recalls the history of the relationship. Those verses, which are skipped in our lectionary, recall the powerful protection and almighty grace and love shown and provided to the people by the Divine Hand. Joshua asks, repeatedly, “Are you sure you want to do this?….But are you sure?…Are you really sure?” He understood the people did not fully understand what they were signing up for.

The young women in Jesus’ parable knew what was needed. Yet not all of them came prepared. In my first reading of the text, I pictured a “lamp” as being like the kerosene lamps my grandparents grew up with on the farm. Scholars think the lamps of this parable were much simpler. An oil-soaked rag was tied to a stick. Periodically, the charred portions of cloth were cut away (as described in the parable) and the rag re-soaked so there was fuel to keep the flame alive. Unlike a kerosene lamp, there was nowhere on or in the lamp to store extra oil. Each woman knew she would need to bring her own if she wanted her lamp to last the night.

So…what about us? We’ve signed up for this Christianity “thing.” Do we really know what we’ve gotten ourselves into? Are we prepared for what is to come, and what we will be called to do? Though we often respond in the affirmative with confidence, I’m not certain we do…

Source: Wikipedia

This past week, our country experienced an election. As I write this sermon on Friday, not all results are known. Regardless of the outcome, I think the election makes one thing clear: regardless of political persuasion or party, we are alienated from each other. Racism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia and ageism are so woven into our society’s fabric that we hardly recognize them any more — nor do those with the privilege of power adequately recognize the pain and problems they cause. The gap is so deep and so wide it’s hard to imagine how the distance can be bridged and the wounds healed, or if such healing is even possible.

The easiest answer would be to give up. But that’s not what we signed up for. The Baptismal Covenant in our prayer book asks, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” (BCP 305) Our Christian calling is to strive to love, even when the differences are stark and the pain deep and the way forward is daunting. Our Christian calling is to move forward, however imperfectly, and love to the best of our ability.

I don’t have a single answer to fix our divisions. I would however, like to suggest a starting point: talk. Talk about our history and the pain it’s caused and continues to cause. (You can do this by joining Father Mike’s discussion group, Dialogues on Race, at noon on Thursdays, or by re-watching the recording.) Talk about and reflect on the privileges you have that members of other communities do not. Above all, talk to one another. This week, I challenge you to talk with someone of a different perspective (political or otherwise) than you. Talk with them about their hopes and dreams and loves.

Even more than talk, truly listen. Listen for what’s on their heart. In so listening, you will love the other as Christ Loves you. In so loving, the light of Christ will shine through you, fully, as a lamp freshly filled. Through Christ, there is hope our darkness and separation can be transformed into true community, bound not by uniformity but by acceptance and love.

Sermon for Pentecost 20

Year A – October 18, 2020

Matthew 22:15-22

On the surface, today’s Gospel appears to be a political challenge. A deeper look reveals something quite different — and far more important.

In asking Jesus about taxes, His rivals challenge him on both a religious and a political level. (In this context, “the law” to which they refer is religious rather than secular.) The Roman Empire’s rule of Israel was not only unwelcome but actively (and at times violently) resented by the people of Israel. Taxes and their collection were viewed as unclean — supporting an Empire which oppressed the people’s rights to live and worship in accordance with the Torah. Those who supported Roman rule — particularly tax collectors and politicians — were shunned. And yet, as much as the community wanted to deny the power of Roman through all possible means, their presence and their laws were everyday realities. Though the people did not want to respect their overlords, they were forced to do so through payment of taxes. If they refused, the weight of that brutal empire fell on them and everyone they loved. Even the suggestion others shouldn’t pay their taxes led to terrible consequences. Jesus, as a publicly known and respected teacher, would have faced serious reprisals for suggesting as much.

While the syntax Jesus’ challengers use attempts to limit Him to a simple “yes” or “no” answer, He chooses to ignore those limits. Those parameters were a transparently designed political trap, intended to force Jesus to take sides. A “yes” would show him a  supporter of the oppressive, evil empire but an apostate to the faith. A “no” would have set him at dangerous odds with that empire.

 

Instead, Jesus uses their challenge to send their thinking — and ours — in a different direction. He points out the obvious — cesar’s head imprinted on the coin, as was common political and nationalistic propaganda in that era as it is in ours. Jesus tells them to “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In other words: Cesar can have his coin back. In the bigger picture, it’s not that important. The coin doesn’t matter to God. What matters to God — and what should matter to you — is loving God, and in turn giving that Divine Love to others.

Instead, Jesus uses their challenge to send their thinking — and ours — in a different direction.

Jesus called his challengers to reflect on their own priorities. This lifelong challenge to our journey of faith is relevant to us, too — and perhaps even more so, considering the many demands of modern life. Technology can easily draw our energy and attention away from God and away from the people around us. Even when we do pay attention, we sometimes fail to treat the people around us as the beloved children of God they are. Recently, our civic and political discourse has become particularly contentious. A trend I find deeply troubling is calling our opponents “stupid” — either through implication or outright name calling. Both sides do it. Many, both ordinary people and their leaders, engage their opponents with disrespect at best and threats of violence at worst. Rather than applaud those among us who responsibly give their best effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus to the most vulnerable among us through faithful mask usage, they are criticized as being fearful and therefore weak.

Are our priorities in order?

What is God calling us to do?

Is love our priority?

If not, How are we being called to reprioritize?

And will we pay attention long enough to discern that call?

Sermon for Pentecost 17

Year A – September 27, 2020

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Today, we heard from one of my favorite prophets: Ezekiel! Like Jonah, whom we heard from last week, Ezekiel is a quirky book — albeit for different reasons. His work is strange enough that many tried to dismiss it over the centuries. Some Jewish traditions believe those under the age of thirty-five should not be allowed to read his prophecies. He almost didn’t make it into the Jewish canon of scripture. Some commentators even argue, based on Ezekiel’s colorful visions and bizarre behavior, that Ezekiel was mentally ill. Though it is possible, there is no evidence from either inside or outside of scripture to support this hypothesis. Prophets of that time and across diverse cultures of the ancient Near East wrote about and even did crazy things. This was not an expression of illness but to make their point clear to their audiences. It is easy to be distracted by the colorful things Ezekiel said and did. While these were and are important (and interesting to learn about and from!), I would like to focus instead on the arc of Ezekiel’s life — what we can learn from it and how it may speak to us in our times.

Ezekiel led an interesting and hard life. Like Mike and I, Ezekiel was a priest of the Most High God. Unlike any priest or other religious “professional” living today, Ezekiel served in the great Temple of Solomon. As a part of my seminary education, I took a three-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of our many stops was the remnants of the Temple in which Ezekiel served. We walked on a massive and ancient staircase originally just outside the Temple. It was so worn in places it was more like a ramp. How amazing it was to stand near — perhaps even on! — the very step where Jesus taught! We also saw one of its bricks, laying on the ground in ruins. At slightly larger than a pickup truck, it was massive, and a small hint at the grandeur of the original building. What a privilege it must have been to serve our God in such a magnificent building!

Now, imagine what Ezekiel saw, felt and experienced at the arrival of the Babylonians. He was a part of the first group of exiles forced to leave Jerusalem. In ancient Israel, houses of worship were not like they are today. They couldn’t be built just anywhere. There was but one rightful place of worship: the Jerusalem Temple. When Ezekiel was hauled off with the others, he was forced to leave behind not only his home but also his vocation and the religious practices and Temple he loved dearly. Only later would he hear, secondhand, of  the Temple’s violent and spectacular destruction. (The bricks which I described were made of porous limestone. Those pores trapped moisture. When the Babylonians set the Temple aflame and the heat met the trapped moisture, the bricks exploded. The noise of the blasts could be heard for miles into the countryside, for weeks on end — a regular and painful reminder of the terrible war upon Israel’s doorstep.)

The heart of Jerusalem worship, the place which Ezekiel and his fellow believers were convinced was their only connection to God — was gone. Only ashes remained. The world as they knew it was simultaneously rent asunder and turned upside down. How were Ezekiel and his fellow exiles to reconcile their new reality with their faith?

While the circumstances in which we find ourselves are quite different from those of Ezekiel and his fellow exiles, the questions they asked echo our own. We aren’t facing the fallout of war — at least not in our corner of the world. But we do face fear — and particularly so since the pandemic began. Yes, we fear for our health and that of our loved ones. But that is not the only thing: we also fear change. We no longer know what to expect in so many aspects of our lives. We know even less about what the future will hold. Even a question as simple as, “When will the children start school?” has become a moving target. We know things will not go back to the way they were in January, not for some time and perhaps not ever.

How were Ezekiel and his fellow exiles to reconcile their new reality with their faith?

So…How will we react to this fear and change? And how will we move through it?

Ezekiel and the exiles faced similar questions. Through discernment, it was revealed to Ezekiel that God was not limited by the bounds of the Temple as they had once thought. God never was and never will be. God was not only as big as the world they knew but bigger, bigger than the seemingly omnipotent empire who conquered them, bigger than all their fears, bigger than the universe itself. The same God walks with us, bigger than all our fears, bigger than even the most virulent pandemic.

The God of Love, the God of No Limits, was with the Exiles, and is with us, too, walking with us through the fear and into the unknown.

Photo Info: Stairs of Ascent before the Double Gate, circa 1st century CE Photo Source: Wikipedia

Sermon for Pentecost 16

September 20, 2020 – Year A

Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Matthew 20:1-16

There are lots of questions connected to the times in which we find ourselves. I find myself asking a lot of why questions. Why this pandemic? Why now? Why is it taking so long to fix? Why is this happening to us? Why is this happening to me?

Today’s scripture passages elicit similarly unanswerable why questions.

In today’s passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear from the “prophet” Jonah. Jonah is a quirky story, and quirky among the prophetic books. Rather than recall the prophet’s oracles, we are told the story of his great and tumultuous journey. Through this journey, we are invited to reflect on our own. God calls Jonah to travel to a town which he does not want to visit to perform a mission in which he wants no part. God wants Jonah to travel to a far-off city full of people he doesn’t even like in order to save them. Jonah objects at every turn. God refuses — repeatedly — to capitulate to Jonah’s demands. Brimming with frustration, Jonah finally has an epic temper tantrum! He plops down in the desert outside the city and demands God take his life.

Jonah got stuck on the “why” questions — why him? Why did God care so much about Nineveh? They weren’t even a part of God’s chosen people! Why not send someone else — anybody else!? Why not send someone actually dedicated to the mission?

In spite of Jonah’s vociferous objections, the Divine power gave not as humans expected but as God willed.

grape, tendril, vineyard, szársomlyó, villány, black mountain, landscape, villany hills, capital, green, sky, kisharsány, sunshine, landscapes, mood, hungary, plant, beauty in nature, cloud - sky, tranquil scene, scenics - nature, mountain, tranquility, environment, agriculture, nature, growth, field, land, rural scene, tree, green color, farm, no people, outdoors, winemaking, plantation, 4K, CC0, public domain, royalty free

Today’s gospel contains a story troubling to ancient and contemporary audiences alike. On the surface it appears to be about fairness — or, more accurately, a lack of it.

When hiring day laborers, both Scriptural mandate and cultural tradition expected the landowner would pay the workers at the end of the day. This required the workers have some degree of trust in the landowner. Like contemporary day laborers, they barely made a subsistence wage. The modius was a Roman measure for dry goods. One modius of wheat cost two denarii — about two days’ work for such laborers — yet was only enough to feed one adult for a single week. If work could not be found or if the landowner failed to sustain his side of the bargain, the worker and his family would go hungry — or worse. Jesus’ audience knew first-hand the consequences if this trust were broken. By the time the end of the story — and the day — arrives and payment is delved out, both we and Jesus’ original hearers expect those who worked longer would be paid more. It is, after all, only fair. That those who worked the longest are paid last and equally to those who began at the end of the day only adds to our consternation! Jesus sets up the story with Himself as the landowner. Why aren’t those who worked harder paid more? Why is His decision so unjust — and so unfair?

Though it appears the story of Jonah is about repentance and the parable of the generous landowner is about unfairness, both are really about something far more important: grace. The divine economy was and is and will always be drastically different from the human one. Like the workers in the vineyard and the people of Nineveh, grace is given to all in equal measure, insiders and outsiders alike. Why is not for us to decide or even justify. Like God’s love, God’s grace abounds for all, regardless of the world’s measure of their deserving.

It is okay if the why questions are present in our lives. Like those we face related to this pandemic, and like those faced by Jonah and the day laborers, many of them will prove unanswerable. It’s okay to ask these why questions — but let us not become trapped by them. Let us instead give thanks for God’s grace, undeserved, given in love to each of us.

Photo source: piqsels.com. No author; public domain.

Sermon for Pentecost 14

September 6, 2020 – Year A

Exodus 12:1-14 & Matthew 18:15-20

Today’s reading from Exodus remembers the first-ever Passover. It is both a beginning and an end for the Hebrew people. It marks the very end of their time enslaved and the very beginning of their freedom. It marks the end of the security of being provided for and the beginning of the responsibilities of independence. It is the end of the security provided by the waters of the mighty Nile River — the only reliable water source for hundreds of miles in any direction — and the beginning of relying on God in the barren, life-threatening desert.

The Hebrew people are on the verge of entering a new era on their journey of life and of faith. Though when frightened, they wanted to return to the security of slavery — some of them, desparately so! — in reality, there was no turning back. The questions facing them now were drastically different than the ones they faced enslaved in Egypt. How were they to respond to the many choices now before them? With their new-found freedom came joy. Of course it did! But with it also came tremendous responsibility. This change was incredible and formidable. Now that all choices were set before them, how were they to live?

With their new-found freedom came joy…With it also came tremendous responsibility. Now that all choices were set before them, how were they to live?

How, then, shall we live? It is a question which shapes our faith journey even still, thousands of years later.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus answers this question as it applies to a common situation in life: conflict resolution. Just ask any teacher at the Academy (Holy Cross’ child development center). Conflict is a struggle of life we first encounter at a very young age! Jesus’ approach can be better understood by examining the passages which come before and after today’s section. Immediately before Jesus’ instructions, the disciples ask Him what they can do to be promoted to “greatest.” In other words: what can you do for me, Lord?! He responds by placing a child before them. After His instructions, Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness. Jesus commands we are to forgive not just seven times but seventy-seven times. In “Biblespeak,” seventy-seven is equivalent to infinity. We are to forgive as much and as long as it takes! In summary, we are to approach others with humility and gentleness, even if and especially when it is challenging to do so. Jesus called his disciples — and calls us — to live with humility, and in a spirit of gentleness and love.

So…how are we to live now? Though we haven’t experienced the degree of change the Hebrews were on the verge of beginning that first passover night, we still know change. Lately, there’s been a lot of it — much of it emotionally troubling and physically uncomfortable. But the challenge and call to love remains. We are free to choose our response — and are responsible for the choices we make.

So…how will you choose to live in and through the troubling and challenging changes of our world?

How will you respond to Jesus’ call?

Sermon for Pentecost 10

August 9, 2020 – Year A

Matthew 14:22-33

In today’s gospel, Jesus sends his disciples on a boat ahead of him. For the very first time in His ministry, they are without Him. They become trapped in a powerful, vicious storm. They are — understandably! — terrified! Does their fear show a lack of faith? Can we, too, choose not to fear and thus have a stronger faith?

Though some translations describe the body of water the disciples cross as a sea, we would probably think of it as a lake. The Sea of Galilee has an area just over sixty square miles — making it about three-quarters the size of Lake Hartwell, and less than one percent the size of the smallest Great Lake. Despite its relatively small size, the storm which came was serious and real, as was the danger and fear the disciples experienced. It would have been frightening enough to be on a simple, rickety boat in the dark on calm waters. Instead, the disciples were forced to brave the churning waters in the pitch black of a night storm.

Peter, the disciple known for acting before thinking, is the first to stand. He wanted tangible and immediate reassurance of Jesus’ power over the chaos which surrounded him.

Then, Jesus appears. It’s deeply reassuring — and yet, so strange they don’t at first realize what it is they’re seeing. Peter, the disciple known for acting before thinking, is the first to stand. He wanted tangible and immediate reassurance of Jesus’ power over the chaos which surrounded him.

I think this incident of Jesus walking on the water — and, more importantly, Peter’s response to Jesus in this context — gives us deeper insight into the meaning of faith in our age. To reach that deeper meaning, it helps to understand the layers of meaning happening in the story itself. Woven throughout the Bible are deep connections between water and chaos — chaos over which God always — always — has complete power. This belief is so foundational to our Judeo-Christian faith that it’s contained in the opening verses of the very first book of our Sacred Scripture:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness — endless, chaotic darkness — covered the face of the deep…

God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome, the first steps to bring the overwhelming chaos under control…

God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. And in so doing God, in His Mighty power, contained the chaos, making human life possible.

This is the first time the Almighty hand gives security to His beloved people. It certainly isn’t the last. At the edge of the Red Sea, the Egyptian Army in pursuit

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night — the original Hebrew conveys that this wind was like God’s very breath — and this wind turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. God’s act made a secure path for his people to take the first steps into their future.

Jesus confirmed his divinity for his disciples when he calmed a similar storm in the eighth chapter of Matthew. Imagine how relieved the disciples feel when they see Jesus on this night, in the flesh — surely, he will bring an end to their distress. Before he can do so, Peter challenges Him. Peter wants to be closer to the security Jesus embodies. If Jesus were before you, wouldn’t you want the same?

So, does the fact that Peter sinks mean he has weak faith, faith which he should shore up by the power of his own will? Can we shore up our own faith by simple will power? I think the fact that Peter sinks into the churning waters doesn’t reflect the weakness of his faith but the nature of faith generally. We want concrete, tangible proof of Jesus’ presence in our lives. Unlike the disciples, the nature of our relationship is less concrete and more spiritual. At times we will stumble — just as the disciples did when they had Jesus physically with them. The mix of faith and doubt, fear and desire which Peter experiences on the turbulent waters is an experience all of us have had.

The mix of faith and doubt, fear and desire which Peter experiences on the turbulent waters is an experience all of us have had.

So…can we choose to hold back our fears and doubts, and in so doing make our faith stronger? That Peter’s experience of the chaos is so similar to our own offers reassurance when we, too, falter. God is still God, whose Mighty Hand separated and stilled the endless chaos at the beginning of time, whose Mighty Hand masters the chaos of our lives still. God is God amidst the doubts and fears of every age, present with us and loving us through every doubt, every fear, and every moment. The God of love calms the waters no matter where we find ourselves or how we’re feeling. The God of all time, the God who controls all chaos, is with us regardless of how strong our faith is or isn’t.

God will be with us through the storm. Regardless of everything, God is with us.

Sermon for Pentecost 9

Year A (2020)

Matthew 14:13-21

Today’s Gospel tells us one version of the story known as “the feeding of the multitude.” It’s a story with which many, both inside and outside our tradition, are familiar. It appears in all four of the Gospels once; a second variant of it appears in two of  them. We’ve heard it so often, I wonder if we even hear it at all. Or does it go in one ear and out the other, sent swiftly on it’s way by the assumptions we hold about it? Do we absorb only the surface-level lessons presented? Share what you have, God will provide, Jesus as miracle-worker are all perfectly good lessons. But they miss a deeper reflection on the healing power of God’s Kingdom just below the surface…

Because our lectionary clips the first phrase off the first sentence of the passage, we miss an important transition and its context. The crowds follow Jesus after he withdraws. But why does he withdraw? Immediately before this story, Jesus learns of the execution of his cousin John the Baptist. There is always grief in losing a loved one. Many of you know this first-hand. Losing a loved one to this kind of violence is its own, unique kind of grief. Jesus surely wanted to be alone — I know I would have! And yet — the crowds come, again — looking not for strengthened faith but the flashy show of another miracle.

There are a number of ways Jesus could have responded to these clashing circumstances. Anger would have been an easy response. He could have lashed out at the crowds for being so superficial — and so nosy. He could have used his power to lash out against Herod. He was — and is — a third of the Trinity, for heaven’s sake! Instead, he chose neither. That was not a part of His mission. The Kingdom of God he sought — and seeks — is not one of violence, as so many expect it to be. Instead of reacting to Herod, He retreats to a place beyond the king’s reach. And rather than send the crowds away when His disciples give Him an easy excuse, He embraces them.

I wonder how our lives would look different if we reacted the way Jesus did — with nonviolence instead of harsh, quick and angry judgement? Anger is the easy response; love is much harder. What if we chose to stop, take a deep breath, think about the other person’s perspective (even if we disagree) and then — and only then — respond?

Taking such a sacred pause is a challenging thing. Yet, it is Kingdom work.

So, too, it is hard to choose to count our blessings instead of complaining. And it is so much harder when we are in the midst of trying times as we all are now! I still remember an adulthood visit with one of my grandmothers. Virginia was in the twilight of her earthly years, a fact of which she was very aware despite her failing memory. She would complain — and rightly so — about her aches and pains, and the inability to do even simple things she loved, like take a walk or sew. Despite these difficulties, multiple times a day, she would interrupt herself to say, “but I should count my blessings.” And then she would.

While Jesus took the hard route in today’s Gospel, the disciples took the easy one. They did what they thought was the simple and right thing. They suggest Jesus send the people away to fend for themselves. His response is one which echoes across the centuries to our own ears: You feed them. The disciples’ response is natural. But there isn’t enough! So, too, in the Exodus story, at the beginning of the wilderness wanderings, the people of Israel complain. They fear for the future, and they fear hunger. Like the disciples standing before Jesus nearly empty-handed, they forgot to whom they spoke. Before them was the God of life, the God of time, the God of all creation, the God who had the power to heal every wound and fill every need. God sent manna into the wilderness to sustain Israel on her sojourn. And God — as Jesus Christ — blessed the few handfuls of food the disciples presented, making it enough to feed a multitude. Day after day in the barren desert, every family of Israel gathered in manna, some more and some less, yet “those who gathered more had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” And the crowds on the mountain with Jesus “ate and were filled.” The people asked, in their imperfect way, and the God of Love provided.

Trusting in God’s power and giving thanks for what we have, however small, is a challenging thing. Yet, it, too, is Kingdom work.

So, how will we respond to the call?  You feed them. You feed them. You — yes, you! — feed them! We do not have the power to fulfill every need — certainly not individually, and not even as a community. But we do have a God who can, a God who loves us. And God loves our humble offering, even if a handful is all we have. A handful our God will take and transform into a world renewed in ways we can’t even imagine.

That is the hard work of participating in God’s Kingdom. It’s easy to quicken to anger. It’s easy to fall back on complaining. It’s easy to think we have the power to fix everything and force everyone to behave as they ought. It’s hard to let go of the anger, the fear and the uncertainty. It’s hard to make sacred space to empty ourselves of those things. But, with faith, it is possible to play a small part in God’s mighty kingdom. You feed them. You feed them, love them as best you can. Let Me worry about the rest. And together, we’ll bring My Kingdom to earth.

Sermon for Pentecost 6, Year A (2020)

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Today’s Gospel reading contains an extended metaphor known as The Parable of the Sower. It’s one of the few parables in Matthew’s gospel which Jesus explicitly explains — and yet, as with so much of the Gospel, there is more to understanding it than meets the eye.

The English term parable comes from the Greek word paraboles. It’s literal meaning is to place besides. This definition describes well the function of a parable. By taking something known and putting it next to something unknown, the thing which is better known illuminates understanding of the unknown. In this case, then-common knowledge about how to get a better agricultural yield led to a better understanding of the nature of faith.

Had I preached on this parable even seven months ago, my focus would have been quite different from the sermon I found myself writing this week. Seven months ago, my focus would have been two-pronged. First, I would discuss how we all, at one time or another, find ourselves in all the soil types described. Second, I would discuss how our response to the soil in which we find ourselves shapes the next stage of our journey. In the midst of a pandemic, however, I read this parable differently. The first thing which caught my attention was the action of the sower in contrast to the inaction of the seeds. The sower tosses the seeds without regard to where they land. The seeds have no say in the process. They land where they land. What is done to them is done, without regard for the seed’s potential or dreams of growth. Life is done to the seeds, rather than the seeds doing life.

I don’t know about you, but in the midst of this pandemic, I feel like life is being done to me. Before March, my choices were largely uninfluenced by the actions of others. Things are quite different now. While I still come into the church office during the week, things are much quieter. Our beloved retirees no longer stop by with the sole purpose of saying “hello.” It is good that you stay home, for this is the best way to protect yourself from a disease even doctors do not fully understand. Even so — I miss you! This pandemic has taken away the option of safely dropping in for the sake of social connection, in this and other contexts. In my personal life, after watching the daily numbers of new infections climb from less than a hundred to nearly two thousand, and seeing how few people at the grocery store wore a mask, I made the decision to stop going to the store. Even though it has been only a few weeks, I miss it. I love wandering around, seeing what is offered, comparing sales and prices, and perhaps picking out something new and different to try. In the store with a mask or with delivery, even the simple connection of a friendly smile for other customers is taken by the pandemic. As you might imagine, Sundays are particularly strange. Though I have gotten used to standing before an empty sanctuary on Sunday mornings — and leaving it to walk into a hollow nave — it is still demoralizing. Though I do support the Bishop’s decision to keep Episcopal Churches across the Upstate closed, it is so hard not to see you face-to-face. I miss you — and I know Mike does, too — very much! The pandemic has taken away our ability to gather as a community.

The pandemic has taken so much!

For me, the most difficult part of all these changes is not knowing how long they will continue. This difficulty is compounded by the frustration brought on by the indifference of others. The pandemic has laid bare American society’s attitudes towards the aged and the disabled. We have been here before, but not since the generation of my great-grandparents. America’s memory is very short, particularly when we are asked to do things which inconvenience us. People who dedicate their lives to the study of infectious diseases like COVID-19 have warned, repeatedly, of the danger. The CDC reports that eight out of ten deaths caused by COVID-19 takes the precious life of someone sixty-five or older. Yet America returned to its routines uninhibited and maskless, insistent that it is more important than protecting our vulnerable neighbors.

The pandemic has laid bare American society’s attitudes towards the aged and the disabled…The CDC reports that eight out of ten deaths caused by COVID-19 takes the precious life of someone sixty-five or older. Yet America returned to its routines uninhibited and maskless, insistent that it is more important than protecting our vulnerable neighbors.

So what are we to make of this parable, this story of seeds being tossed about, when we place it besides our own lives in this time and place? Can we expect the rest of our lives to be like this — to be tossed about by circumstance, helpless and without hope?

This question brings me back to how I would have preached this parable before the pandemic started. I still believe it is true that we will all, at one time or another, find ourselves in all the soil types described. Sometimes our choices will place us there and sometimes life will place us there. And though we are not always able to choose the type of soil in which we find ourselves, there is always hope. There is always hope for rebirth and renewal, even in the darkest point in our lives. Like the scrawny pine clinging to the side of the mountain, we hang on. We produce seed which becomes something greater than what we are, something greater than we ever imagined. We may not see it reach full fruition in our lifetime. Even so, God works in and through us regardless of the type of soil in which we find ourselves.

This promise is remembered in the words of God as spoken to the prophet Isaiah:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God is with us in all types of soil, in all types of weather and in all circumstances. God is with us when we choose well, when we choose poorly, and when life happens in ways beyond our control. God is with us everywhere and always, working in and through us, with purposes greater than we could ever ask or imagine.