Sermon for Pentecost 4, Year A (2020)

June 28, 2020

Read: Genesis 22:1-14 and Matthew 10:40-42

Today’s passage from Genesis is a difficult one — perhaps the most difficult in all of the Hebrew Scriptures. Children are precious gifts from God. Why would God ask such a horrible thing of any parent? Centuries of rabbis, theologians and scholars have offered a variety of answers. The story is important to all three of the world’s monotheistic faiths. In Judaism, it is known as the akedah, or “binding.” In Islam, the story is present but changed so that Ishmael, rather than Isaac, is the one almost lost. Scholars from these various faiths offer both interpretation and explanation. Some midrashic (Jewish) texts expand the story to go as far as Abraham boldly arguing with God, trying to talk Him out of this unthinkable request. Some suggest the story is a polemic against human sacrifice, not only for Israel but for the surrounding cultures as well, some of which did occasionally practice it. Others argue it suggests child sacrifice is acceptable in extraordinary circumstances.

I find all of these scholarly musings and attempts at explanation unsatisfactory. What God asks of Abraham is unfair and totally unreasonable. Why would a just, loving God ask such a thing? In reality, there is no good answer. I find the story of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, which we heard only last week, equally problematic. In that story, Abraham appeals to God to intervene. God refuses, but promises the Divine presence will remain with Ishmael and Abraham despite their painful separation. This is not something the God I know would ask. And yet, here we are.

Like Abraham and his sons and wives, we too live in a world of unsatisfactory answers. I don’t know about you, but I find myself asking why more frequently than I did only a few short months ago. Why is this pandemic happening now? Why must we be separated from our communities and even our own families for so long? Why can’t the medical community create an effective coronavirus vaccine faster? Why does time slow so much when we need it to move faster? Why is God allowing this to happen?

I don’t know about you, but I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to any of these questions.

In the arc of Virtual Sunday School, I’m presently in the middle of a series on the Life of Moses. A theme which I highlight is the many obstacles and adversities Moses faced in his life. I point out that it is a not-fair fact of life that sometimes life just isn’t fair. And yet, with each obstacle, Moses responded with determination — that inner, Divinely-inspired spark in each of us which helped Moses — and helps us — to overcome the obstacles we face.

While the why questions of this pandemic are troubling and certainly worth asking, the reality is that we will probably be left with nothing but unsatisfactory answers. We are, with all of humanity, thrust into a moment in time when much about life just isn’t fair. Instead of dwelling on what we can’t control, I invite you to join with me in reflecting on the how questions. How are we to live during this time? And how do our lives show forth the light of Christ to our neighbors, particularly those who are hurting?

I think today’s Gospel offers a satisfactory answer. It is the end of a series of teachings Jesus gave to his disciples immediately following their commissioning. At the beginning of the tenth chapter of Matthew, which we heard during Sunday service a few weeks ago, Jesus calls his disciples together and “gave them authority.” In today’s verses, we hear some of what He calls them to do with that authority. They are to provide welcome and hospitality to all whom they meet. I believe Jesus gives that same authority — and responsibility — to us.

How are we to use that authority wisely during this time of pandemic and chaos? We can use that precious, sacred authority by following scientific recommendations to protect our neighbor. We can put sacred space — more commonly called “social distancing” — between ourselves and those outside our families. When there’s even a small chance sacred spacing will prove impossible, those safely able to do so should wear a facial covering. We should avoid crowds of any size as much as possible — in stores, in restaurants, at in-person parties. In so doing, we reduce the potential of unknowingly giving this horrible virus to our neighbors. In so doing, we love our neighbors. We follow Jesus’ call which He first made to His disciples so many centuries ago, a call which is no less urgent today.

Many difficult questions remain unanswered. But the love of Jesus, and our call to share that love with others, remains.

Sermon for Pentecost 7, Year C (the Lukan "Our Father")

We recite the Our Father every week at Sunday worship, but how often do we think about its deeper meaning? 

Sermon for Pentecost 7, Year C

Luke 11:1-13

July 28, 2019

If I say only two words, “Our Father,” most of you can tell me every word that follows, all the way to the end of the prayer. From a fairly young age, I attended wakes and funerals of (mostly) elderly relatives. Since my mother’s family was Roman Catholic, every wake included a recitation of the rosary. It was usually led by a trusted elder, typically one of my grandmother’s sisters, occasionally a sister-in-law. Even though I didn’t fully understand the meaning behind the words and their repeating patterns, I found the rhythm and repetition a soothing part of the ritual. I can still hear Margaret’s deep voice, steadily praying, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” and “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be…” Though the quick pace at which the prayers were recited was a part of the ritual, I always wondered if such a fast pace were the best way to honor the prayers’ meaning. 

We recite the Our Father every week at Sunday worship, but how often do we think about its deeper meaning? 

Did you notice the very opening of today’s Gospel passage? A disciple asks Jesus about prayer. Though he doesn’t use the word how in his query, it’s one way to interpret the question. In other words, his focus is on the mechanics of prayer. Instead of answering the question directly (He rarely does!), Jesus uses it as a platform to lead the disciples to a deeper meaning and a richer understanding of their faith. Though the verbiage in Luke is simpler than the Our Father found in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 6) — each probably reflecting a unique ancient liturgical tradition — the meaning found in Luke is no less profound. The same gift Jesus offered to his disciples in this short yet powerful prayer is available to us.

Rather than instruct his disciples on a method, He invites them to worship God for who God Is, and to call upon God to fulfill our most essential needs. The “thy” or “your” statements are the worship portion of the prayer. God is Hallowed, Holy above all else, beyond all understanding, greater than our most vivid imaginings. We need not comprehend; simple acknowledgement will do. We long for the coming of God’s reign, when every need will be met, when pain and sorrow will cease, where all will be healed, where understanding and love will reign. 

Jesus then invites His disciples — and us — to call upon God for all our needs. This section, of “give, forgive, save,” serves to remind us not only of our need for God, but also of God’s faithful reliability. Jesus calls us to ask only what we need for today. There is no need to acquire material wealth for tomorrow, for God will provide what is essential to maintain life. Notice here Jesus does not instruct us to pray for my daily need, or for that of my family, or my tribe or clan. Jesus tells us instead to pray for our daily bread. It’s not that God doesn’t care about our individual needs. God does, and deeply. But it is easy, particularly in our culture, to focus only on our own needs, and forget those of others. Jesus calls us to remember that we are a community, bonded by our humanity. Because of this bond, our prayer ought to always be that the essential needs of all are met, and that God gives us the will to fill the gaps wherever we find them. 

Jesus then instructs us to pray for forgiveness, not only for ourselves, but also that we might have the strength and will to forgive others — and isn’t that the hardest part! God’s mercy flows from God’s loving Being always. In our lives, we, too, have the power to give mercy, and the power to withhold it. This doesn’t mean we should submit to those who mistreat us! But…there are ways to forgive those who have hurt us, while still removing ourself from harm’s way. If we forgive, our lives will be richer and better, because we share the mercy we’ve been given, just as Jesus calls us to do, here and throughout the Gospels.

May we, with a deeper understanding, pray into the richness Jesus offers…

Loving God in Heaven

Holy is Your Mighty, Eternal Name

May Your Reign Come — with Haste!

May All Beings, Heavenly and Earthly, 

Strive towards Your Divine Plan

Give to All what they need for today

Inspire and strengthen Us to show the Mercy and Love

First Shown to us by You, God of Love

Stay our Hand, Hold Our Tongue

When we are on the verge of acting or speaking

Outside the Way of Love You Desire for All

For All Greatness, Glory, Power, Majesty and Mystery

Are Yours Alone

God of All

Amen. 

Sermon for Advent Evensong

Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle

December 19, 2018

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

These words were written in Latin over a thousand years ago. Despite the great distance between us and the original poet, something about them still rings true. We aren’t in exile in the same way Israel experienced exile. But we still know loneliness and separation, feelings which can be particularly acute and painful this time of year. For some of us, the grief is amplified by the joy, however superficial, which surrounds us.

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.

We live in a world of instant communication and instant counter-response. Words of anger and vitreal fly about the internet without thought to consequence, without thought to the damage those words can do to precious relationships, relationships with others made in the image of God just as we are. Without wisdom, our words have the power to cause grief in another beloved heart of God. How would we respond if paused even a moment before speaking, to reflect on the wisdom of the Christ Child, love incarnate? What would our path look like, our words sound like?

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.

We have heard the stories of God’s great works. God loved the people of Israel enough to give them the Torah, to show them a better way to live and love one another. We know of the Great love God has for His people, how mightily His hand saves. And yet…we live in a world filled with loss and pain, where love is sometimes hard to find and the hand of God is rarely apparent. We listen for a mighty word from the mountain yet hear nothing. As hard as it sometimes is, that is the nature of being people of faith. We wait with “assurance of things hoped for…conviction of things not seen.” We wait not knowing what the outcome will be, knowing only that God, Immanuel, will be with us. We wait, just as Mary and Joseph awaited the birth of their son all those centuries ago.

O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.

O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode.

And come, he did. But not as a big, strong general with armies to spare, to sit upon a mighty throne in the halls of power. Jesus, God incarnate, God of all creation and maker of the Universe came as a tiny, helpless infant. Not only was he army-less, he was like all infants: entirely reliant on others, unable to care for even himself. He was adored by his parents and grew to become a puzzle to his village neighbors. He boldly stood up to systems of power which added to human suffering. His call to live a better, more loving life echoes across the generations to our own. The authorities, fearing his call, put him to death. But there is no end to the love of God, no depth God’s love cannot reach. On the third day, he rose to new life, a life more glorious than you or I can ever imagine.

O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.

Jesus comes to bring light to our lives and knowledge of the pathways of love. Jesus incarnate, living and breathing just as you and I, was as vulnerable as each of us, yet still chose to live the Way of Love, shedding light into the darkest corners of our hearts.

O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace.

As we await his coming, may we ever follow in His paths, united by the power of his love. Oh Come, Immanuel. Come, Immanuel. Come.

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.