Pentecost 10 (13B) Episcopal Church of the Advent
August 6, 2012
Cape May, New Jersey
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
“… and for what do we hunger?”
X Have you ever been hungry? Here is something that we all understand. This is one reason that calls for famine relief resonate with us. This of course does not mean that we necessarily respond. Still we understand the need. There is nothing more compelling that a picture of a child hungry and showing the signs of starvation. Just now, one of those iconic images from Biafra or the Sudan may have glanced across your mind’s eye. We understand the need of our local food banks. We understand hunger. It is a feeling that we share and one that we act on.
There is more than one kind of hunger, of course. Hunger can be used as a powerful metaphor because it is a shared feeling. There is a hunger for knowledge that drives a scholar or researcher looking for an answer to a new or old question. There is a hunger for the recognition that comes with worldly success. There is a hunger for financial wealth. There are risks here. Because the feeling involves a shared human feeling it is a strong device. It can describe our yearning for what is laudable. On the other hand it is easy to abuse the metaphor when the underlying reality is simple pride, idolatry of ourselves or the object of our desire.
The Olympics this week have reminded me of how flexible our hunger can be, the extent to which we can stretch the metaphor to cover what is both laudable and what is not. I heard references to how well a particular athlete performed technically, and praise, even if they did not win. I heard sportsmanship praised; and in those who did not strive and try to the utmost, the opposite condemned. There was or ought to have been some hunger to do one’s best. Then I heard a young man interviewed, a star athlete, who said that his mother had told him at an early age that trying or even doing his best was meaningless unless he also won. For some in our culture the object of our hunger, whether it is for food or success or athletic prowess or financial wealth, the object of our desire, is little more than self-idolatry. It is all about us. So perhaps the first question we might have is: for what are we hungry?
We are not the first to be tripped up by the complexity and shared quality of the this feeling or the metaphor. There were the five thousand who were fed with only a few loaves of cheap bread and few fish.
The crowd followed and their first question was how Jesus even got there. The reading leaves out the bit about walking on water. He ignores their obvious question and names the object of their immediate desire- more food. “You are here he says because you ate you fill of the loaves and now you want more.” It is understandable enough. They were a people on the edge. There was rarely more than enough and here by this miracle, this act of wonder, by God’s or their own hand they had all been miraculously fed. What Jesus then asks them to do is to consider a different sort of hunger, a different sort of need.
Jesus urges them to seek the bread that endures for eternal life. Many of us hear these words and think: “Aha, a better bread, one with more fiber, more vitamins, perhaps one with no gluten?” We want the better bread and its great reward. If this is our response then it is still about achieving more, just being more.
It is not the point I think. We need to name our hunger. When I was about 12 I tasted asparagus one evening at supper and was delighted. Before, I just said no without trying. I looked at my father and asked why he never told me what I was missing. He said: “Why”. There was more for the rest. What he meant was that I needed to know my hunger.
In effect Jesus urges us to a new awareness of what we hunger for. Is it possible for us to hunger and thirst for something more, for reconciliation with God and each other, for the kingdom of God, for life everlasting, to know the presence and love of God, of God’s mercy and grace. He has promised that we shall be filled.
In this letter to the church at Ephesus, the one we have been reading for the past few weeks, we hear the good news that we have a purpose. If you want reassurance from one small portion of scripture, take this letter and read and it whole. Make these words a meal. Give thanks. There is a plan for us. We are destined to be called, all of us, as the children of God. The barriers between us and between us and God have been torn down, not by our work but by the work of Christ. By grace and love we are lifted up. We are not children but are to be strong, not tossed and turned by every wind. We are made the body of Christ. But if this is our call where do we find strength, how are we to be fed? Have we examined the quality of our need? Do we know the depth and height of our hunger?
Responding to the crowd that followed him, Jesus leaves us to ask the question, to examine our own hearts and needs. For what do we hunger and thirst? And if we listen and acknowledge our need, our hunger for something greater, a need that responds to being called as the children of God, then we seek after this food which endures. We are the ones who are able to say: “Lord, give us this food always.” Jesus says: “It is the bread of God which comes from heaven and gives life to the world. He says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
We have prayed for a clean heart, for the presence of God who creates and sustains us, to be sustained by the Spirit. Here is our hunger, not for what we can achieve, but standing in wonder and awe for what we might be. We hunger for the bread of God which gives life to the world. And Jesus says to us “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Let us make our thanksgiving and be fed. AMEN.
Easter 4 B April 29, 2012
Episcopal Church of the Advent
Cape May, New Jersey
1 John 3:16-24
“…the Good Shepherd….”
It is hard to miss the day: Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year at this time, four Sunday’s on into Eastertide, we come to images of the shepherd. They are in the lessons, the collect, the hymns. Sunday schools tend to love the day. In places that have bulletin covers or summer fans from the funeral homes there may be a figure of Christ as the “Good Shepherd” and perhaps a small child in tow. It is a day that is hard to miss.
The day is almost too sweet; but still we take comfort in this Sunday’s assurance of love. We are the ones who need to be cared for. So we are led beside still waters and made to lie down in green pastures. Our cups run over and we will live in the courts of the Lord forever. This current of assurance runs deep within us.
I remember distinctly the first piece that I memorized. It was not the Lord’s Prayer. It was this psalm of David, the 23rd. My mother came into my bedroom when I was very young and helped me memorize the words. The stream runs deep for many of us. Is it any wonder that we turn to these words in our burial office and other times of trial? I could not take away the assurance if I wanted to. Still I wonder if by tasting the sweetness we miss the other ways these images are meant to feed us.
My grandfather was a farmer after he retired as a pastor. He never really retired; but he did support himself and my grandmother with a farm. They grew corn and wheat and rye and a few animals. There were chickens and pigs and sometimes a calf. One time I asked why he did not raise sheep. I think I had either developed a taste for lamb chops or had an image of self-supporting wool production. In no uncertain terms I was informed by my grandfather, a man of firm opinions, that there was nothing dumber and dirtier than a bunch of sheep. So where does that put us?
I don’t know any shepherds and certainly do not know any ancient shepherds of the Judean hills. The one I do have some familiarity with is David. But notice that it was the least favored of all the sons Jesse who were asked to audition for kingship in front of Samuel. The youngest and least favored was sent out with the sheep. Our image of a shepherd comes, at least in part, from David himself and not those who were around him.
In fact I am told that the office of shepherd was held in fairly low esteem in the ancient world. They were rough. They had to be to care for a bunch of stupid sheep. They lived by themselves in the hills fighting off predators. Their job was to keep rounding up the single lamb or ewe that did nothing more that follow one tuft of grass to the next until they were in the next county. And this was not a place where the lion and the lamb sleep next to each other. It was a place where the lion and wolf had the lamb for lunch. Shepherds had to be tough because they had to take care of their own.
Some have suggested that the phrase “good Shepherd” is an oxymoron, one of the internally inconsistent phrases that just cannot be. We all have our favorites: military intelligence perhaps. But if this is the character of a shepherd and this is the nature of sheep, where does that leave us?
I would say even more comforted. The shepherd knows his own and claims and defends them in spite of their wanderings. This is a good thing for those of us who wander. The shepherd puts himself in to the messy real and sometimes violent world to find each member of the flock, even those single lambs that unthinkingly wander off into danger. They are his without exception.
Those who first heard Jesus, or for that matter David, may have listened only on the surface. Particularly the well off, those many generations removed from herding flocks. I wonder however if the rough and tumble of the disciples did not get the point, fishermen and sinners all. I know the stream by which these images comfort us run deep; but there is another stream of images from which we might draw water and be refreshed. Here like sheep, by the events of the Passion and the Resurrection, we are all claimed as the children of God. We are claimed and defended in spite of ourselves. We are claimed, all of us and without exception, where he finds us. Even though we hide ourselves in darkness, he will search out his flock and led them.
And what does this sort of comfort imply for us, for our responsibility to each other. If we begin to care for one another with this same sort of unbounded love, with this same insistence what would our world be like? This shepherd like devotion is all a subversive and troubling sort of love and care that admits of no bounds. This is a stream from which we might be truly refreshed and by which we might refresh our world. We are comforted but called out of our comfort as well. We hear the Shepherd but we are to be shepherds as well.
Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads. AMEN.
Epiphany 3 B Episcopal Church of the Advent
Cape May, New Jersey
January 22, 2012
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62: 6-14
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
“…of great fish and the Lord’s purpose….”
+When you heard that this morning’s lesson was from the Book of Jonah, my guess is that your first reaction was to imagine this wildly improbable vision of him in the middle of a whale or “great fish.” But then, we hear a short passage about Nineveh and repentance. Expectations from our memories of Jonah and the stinginess of the lectionary experts put us at risk of missing the richness and, I think, the point of this little story. It is not so much about Jonah or Nineveh. It is more about us and God.
Calls and stories of calls are not as simple as what we hear in the Gospel. Jesus walks down the sea shore. He sees Simon Peter and Andrew, two brothers, casting their nets into the sea. He says follow me and become fishers of men. It’s just that simple. They follow and both will find their own cross. He comes across two other brothers, James and John. He says follow. Its just that simple. They follow, and, I might note, leave their father in the lurch with the fishing boat. Even though we know that these same followers of Jesus will have their doubts and struggles and failings, I want to imagine myself with them. Jesus calls and I follow.
Of course, it is not that simple. For all sorts of reasons we are reluctant or resistant. We are more likely to be the ones who are never given a name. They watch the procession and stay with the boats to fish for what fishermen actually fish for, fish. Say that three times fast.
In the real world calls are inconvenient. Calls are impractical. Calls are scary. We won’t be able to do it. Who will take care of the boat? Sometimes and from time to time we are able to answer the call, overcoming these arguments that we have with ourselves and each other. The story of Jonah, however, reminds me of another argument that keeps me at home. This one is with God.
This morning’s reading is about a second call. You already know about the first one. The Lord calls Jonah. The Lord tells him to go to the great and wicked city of Nineveh, to cry out against it. His first reaction is to run. He heads for the sea. The Lord pursues and the crew of his ship with a mighty wind. In the end he confesses that he is fleeing from the Lord. They throw him overboard. The great fish or leviathan swallows him whole. Only then does he pray mightily, using the language of the psalms. The Lord answers. He is delivered up upon dry land.
You might think that Jonah had learned his lesson. The heartfelt words of his song of distress notwithstanding, we are not yet at the core of the matter. After the second call he goes to Nineveh. This is the capital of the oppressor of Israel. This is the source of all bad things. Imagine what city you would put in its place in this election year. Jonah does what he is told. It turns out that he seems to be the best preacher ever. The people of Nineveh repent. They all began to fast. They all believed and put on sack cloth. Even the king believed. He put on sack cloth and sat in ashes and decreed that no person, no beast might eat or drink. And the Lord repented of his decision to destroy Nineveh. They were saved.
And Jonah was really ticked off. He says: “I knew it; I just knew it.” You said you would destroy this place of wickedness. Now you have changed your mind. Why did I have to go through this?” Here is the core of the problem with Jonah’s call. It is not so much that it is all inconvenient, thought of course it was, but that the Lord ultimately had something else in mind. So Jonah sits down in a grump in the sun. The Lord gives him a shade tree to protect him. Then he sends a worm to destroy the tree and Jonah bakes and complains even more. The Lord asks him: “You pity the tree. Should I not pity the city and all of its inhabitants? ”
We are all Jonah. We are afraid first that we will be called out of comfort. It is a struggle to respond, even to Jesus. We are called anyway and we are called to the worst of places, to Nineveh. So we resist. Coming to the task of reform we say why should we? The problem at the core of the story is that even if we do say yes we are fairly certain that God will forgive. The repentance of Nineveh is less the point than God's willingness to forgive and, of course our role in that forgiveness.
Forgiveness and mercy can be hard things. It is hard to forgive ourselves and we are comforted in the knowledge that the Lord does forgive. It is hard to forgive those who have wronged us, even if that is our daily prayer, to forgive those who have sinned against us. It is even more difficult for those among us who are particularly righteous. There are different reasons for our reluctance. It is all unfair. Or, we are suspicious. We know that their repentance is momentary. They may not be serious and contrite. In fact we may well be right. We take care to protect ourselves and those around us.
On the other hand there are the Lord’s purposes. These are to love and to extend mercy in abundance. It is fortunate for us given the certainty that we will, in some measure, fail and fail again. It is for this purpose that we are called again and again to do the work of the Lord. It is God’s work, the labor of love, reconciliation and forgiveness.
So Jonah says I knew you would forgive but you insisted that I preach anyway. And God says, in my care for these people, who was my agent of repentance and mercy? Who was is my servant?
So we are called. Our task is not only to listen. It is not only to struggle and overcome impracticality and inconvenience so that we might walk with James and John and Peter and Andrew. It is to overcome not just the argument we have with ourselves but also the argument we have with God. It is to understand that our purpose is God’s purpose, to sit in the sun with Jonah and understand that we cannot resist being called to the great works of love and mercy.
It is our gift that the call comes to us and Jonah a second time and again and again.. AMEN
Pentecost Last A
Christ the King November 20, 2011
Episcopal Church of the Advent
Cape May, New Jersey
1 Corinthians 15:20-28
“…to be a sheep or a goat….”
+ In the Gospel, as Matthew tells it, this parable, this little teaching story comes right before the awe filled events of the Passion and Crucifixion and Resurrection. This is not one of those bits of scripture that we can just slide over. There is a separation between two camps. On the one side are the sheep. On the other are the goats. The sheep are the good ones. You want to be a sheep, not a goat. The sheep are the ones who are congratulated and welcomed into a kingdom prepared for them since foundation of the world. On the other side, at the left, are the goats. These are the ones who are excluded. They are set aside and outside the favor of the king. They are condemned. In the logic of this story it is better to be a sheep than a goat.
The context of the story is one of judgment and the consequences of judgment, of being separated and parted from the one who loves us. So it is worth paying attention to how the Son knows his own. How does the judge know the difference? How are they separated? It their deeds, the stories of their lives that bear witness to who they are.
At the beginning it is all a surprise. We thought that we were just visiting a friend or a neighbor. We thought that we were just caring for someone who was homeless or stricken by tragedy. We stretched ourselves to care for someone else. But, Jesus says that as we care for the least of his family, for the children of God, so we care for Him. It is in when we care for the poor, visit the sick or the prisoner, feed the hungry. Then we have cared for Him. This is our Baptismal covenant, to seek and serve the face of our Lord in all persons.
For these disciples that first heard him preach and for us this may come as a surprise. It may be more comfortable and less demanding if we leave it as a surprise. But perhaps if we realize that this caring is not a matter of choice or convenience but in fact being confronted by our Savior, then we may understand why this is a matter of covenant. It is a response that grows directly out of our faith and our salvation.
Then, listen to the story carefully. This caring is something we can do. It is within the capacity of each of us. We admire and give thanks for those instances of heroic virtue, where one of our sisters or brothers really gets their hands dirty with the sick or the poor. We celebrate the miracles of healing, when by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are by prayer and community to heal, to bring peace. I will celebrate and give thanks for all of this; but the parable is much simpler. Jesus does not say that we eliminated hunger and thirst. Instead we gave water to the thirsty and gave food to the hungry. We did not suddenly cure all those who were ill. Instead we visited and talked with them. We saw a person who was impoverished. We did not eliminate all poverty in a single stroke; but we did give them clothing so that they would not be cold in the winter.
I will admire acts of heroic virtue and remember them in the saints. But what Jesus calls me to is simpler and it is within my own capacity. It is to seek and serve his face in all of his family, in the children of God.
And, this may well require giving something of ourselves. The story does not dwell on the point, but the separation is between sheep and goats, not between two kinds of sheep or two kinds of goats. Why does this matter? We may not be called to be martyrs, but remember that it is the sheep that are the sacrifice. For us there is only one, the Lamb of God. But I hear in the background at least a hint, a small voice, that reminds me that to be one of the sheep, one of those chosen to receive the Kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world, is to be ready to give up something of myself. All of this is what grows out of faith. The parable reminds me that there is a cost. To seek and serve Christi in all of God’s children requires some part of me.
But, finally, in this lesson, I hear the resonance of hope. I listen but remember that He has already taught us that the shepherd will seek out the one who is lost out the hundred. Even the one lost sheep will be found. Ezekiel the prophet gives us the word and promise of the Lord: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. There is judgment; but in spite of our unwillingness or inability to see or serve the face of our Savior, there is also the insistence of God’s grace, of God’s profligate love for us all.
Judgment reminds me that there is a demand made of me. It is to give up my surprise and pay attention to the face of Christ in my midst. It is to undertake the work I am given, not miracles and heroism but the simple work of caring. It is to be ready to give up something of myself as a sacrifice in thanksgiving. And all the while it is to abide in hope, the hope which is the love of God for all of us who have been lost but will be found. Amen.
Pentecost 20 (26A) Episcopal Church of the Advent
October 30, 2011
Cape May, New Jersey
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
"....the burden of the law"
The Evangelist, Matthew, draws us into the tension that surrounds Jesus and his band of followers. We have already heard challenges by the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Both saw Jesus and his proclamation of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God as a challenge, even an affront. So they questioned and tested Jesus. Is it lawful to pay taxes? What will happen to the woman who is widowed and marries her first husband’s brother?
The tension swirls around Jesus. He responds by degrees. He plays their game asking whose face is on the coin; but he also turns and names the injury they cause to the people. They preach on thing and they do another. They are hypocrites who claim to honor the Lord; but they keep doors to God’s presence closed and locked against all comers. This morning we hear only a part of this condemnation. As a whole it marks off Jesus, and to those who first heard Matthew’s account, it marked us off from these “parties of God.”
The difficulty with this extended passage is that, by itself, it leaves us in a place of conflict. The words of Jesus, however, do provide a remedy, a guide for us, if we remember what we have been taught. Our Lord says: “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” There is a place and time where the burden is not so heavy.
Jesus warns the Pharisees against placing heavy burdens on the shoulders of other, burdens which they themselves do not undertake. Pass the question of the Pharisees’ desire for recognition and their hypocrisy in practice. Consider just the burden of the law. They have become the experts. We even translate their name as lawyers. Like most experts they want to teach the rest of us. They insist that the people observe of the law in every detail. Even the harvest of a single stalk of grain on the Sabbath is a violation. This is the burden they lay on the backs of the people. How do we find our way from this heavy burden to the one offered by Jesus? When is it that the law becomes a burden? Or, when is it not a burden?
Each of us will be able to draw on some personal experience. I can think of times as a student when rules were created simply for the purpose of having a rule. How about standing at attention in seventh grade gym class? Come on. What was the point? A law needs a reason. There needs to be an object and the object should be achievable. In your own experience think about when and how the law becomes a burden.
We need an objective or desired goal so that the law is something more than no, don’t do this. The law that does not work toward something, a better community for example, or law that has nothing more to commend itself other than simple obedience is one which becomes a burden.
What we chose to work toward is also going to change the weight of our labor. We warn ourselves and our children not to become caught up in working toward something that is not worthwhile. We know from experience that the danger is a slow realization that the labor involves a burden far heavier than we ever planned on. The law is no different.
Instead of asking when the law becomes a burden, the better question might be to ask when any labor becomes light. Again we know the answer based on our own experience. There are the labors we take on for an important goal. It is training for an athletic contest or learning some new skill. The object makes the burden of labor light. Or, it is a labor of love. We care for one another, for a child or for a friend. These are the labors of love.
Jesus leads us in a different direction, away from the burden imposed by the keepers of the law. In the whole of the Gospel he asks us to consider the object of our affection, the object of our obedience. Understanding the warnings in this morning’s Gospel passage, I think, is a matter of remembering the goal. He does not reject the law. He tells his followers to do as the Pharisees say and not as they do. He doesn't call us to obedience but to what obedience brings. It is to build and welcome and enter into the Kingdom. Our choice is to be a part of this community that revolves around the love of God and of each other. This is the community to which God, having given us freedom, issues an invitation to which we can respond no or yes. It is certainly not an invitation that is conditional on good behavior. We are invited in spite of ourselves. Our teacher is not one more righteous than we are, but the one who invites us.
With the invitation and our response we find our purpose. So, affirming this purpose, Jesus gives us the summary of the whole law. He invites us to say yes and love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Repurposed and redirected, not just in obedience but in welcoming the Kingdom, this new community of God’s and our love, the burden become light. So Jesus leads us out of the conflict of the law, of our anxiety for being unable to be perfect in obedience; he makes the burden light.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, *and his mercy endures for ever. Jesus says: “Come unto me all you that are weary and heavy laden; I will give you rest. My burden is light. My yoke is easy.”
Pentecost 19 (25A) Episcopal Church of the Advent
October 23, 2011
Cape May, New Jersey
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
(“…the patience of saints”)
+ We value patience. We value the ability to endure or bear with extended frustration, pain, tedium or the repeated challenges of life. Saint Augustine said that patience and wisdom are companions. In truth, however, we value patience more in others. We are rather less demanding of ourselves than we are of others. We praise patience as a virtue; but it is a virtue that is often in short supply.
I was five years old. We were driving back to our home in Indiana from Colorado. It was a long ride in a 1949 Chevrolet. There were no DVD movies on little screens or games to keep my brother and me occupied. On the last leg of the trip my parents decided they wanted to push through to the end. As a result we were still driving long after my bed time. You know the question I kept asking. Every few miles, every few minutes, it was: “are we there yet? How much longer will be?”
My mother, as I remember it, kept answering that it would be soon and that I should to try to get some sleep. There is an old expression about having the patience of a saint. It could have been crafted to describe the parents of small children on long distance rides.
We can all be impatient. It is not just five year olds in the back seat. We are eager for instant solutions. There was time when we made jokes about this. Everything was newly instant. It was instant coffee and instant tea, instant breakfast and the dawn of fast food. The comedians would joke about instant cars and instant houses. I remember when we made fun of ourselves for demanding an answer, a product, in our hands with no waiting at all. Now of course I doubt that many would even get the point of the jokes.
We have come to expect instant gratification. Communication must be instantaneous. Last week there was a Blackberry outage which spread around the world. We were unable to get our e-mail instantly. In some cases updates could not be retrieved for a whole 12 hours. “Oh the horror, the scandal of it all; someone in authority must be made to pay.” Some portion of the deadlock in our political process I think involves the idea of instant solutions. Do it now. Make the world safe, now. Solve the problems of the world now, no matter what the cost.
We have raised our insistence on instant gratification to a new level; but we are not the first to be impatient. Only a few weeks ago we heard about the Israelites who could not wait for Moses to come down the mountain. They needed a golden calf to worship. (In fact, is there some connection between our inability to delay gratification and idolatry?) The disciples, before Jesus’ Ascension in the Book of Acts, just have to ask the question. Is it now Lord:? Is now the time for the kingdom to be established? Jesus replies that it is for the Father to know.
Scripture this morning deals patience in different ways. First there is Moses. All that he set out to accomplish will be done. The people will be brought into the Promised Land. They have been delivered out of slavery and oppression and they will come to the land of milk and honey; but Moses, even after the patience of 40 years in the wilderness, he will not. It is the patience imposed by the Lord. He is brought to see from the mountain; but he will not enter in. He lives out his relationship with the Lord in patience.
His vision and patience are those of our ancestors who sought to build a family, to make something new and better for their children and grandchildren. It is the patience of those who are freed from the literal bonds of slavery but then have to continue the work of redemption and release for their children and grandchildren. It does not happen in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. Sometimes God asks us to walk with Moses. We see the promised land but do not come into our inheritance.
I hear a hint of this patience in the words of Paul. He describes his struggle as he writes to his friends at Thessalonica. He celebrates the time, work and effort it took to discharge the burden of sharing the gospel. It is not done in a day.
I am lifting up the quality of endurance; but there are boundaries and exceptions. The first is that patience is not passivity. We are not called to simply endure or ignore injustice or harm. The second is a corollary of the first. Sometimes injustice, inequity demands impatience, or at least an insistent response that is untempered by time. Moses had little patience for the pharaoh who held his people in bondage and even less for those some people when they made a golden calf. Jesus expressed little patience for the money changers in the Temple.
I was prompted to all of this when reflecting on the question and answer in this morning’s reading from Matthew. This building of a kingdom, this proclamation of the Gospel is not done in an instant in the twinkling of an eye, at least not the part that involves us.
The ordinary, daily part of our task is slower since it involves all of us one at a time. The work we are given to do is contained Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. They ask him to tell what is the greatest law. He responds that it is to love God with all your heart and mind and soul and the second is like the first; it is to love one another. The very nature of the command involves patience, a life time of practice. Here is the fruit of faith, coming piece by piece until the tree is weighted down for the picking. Here is a kingdom which is built over a lifetime. It is a lifetime of small acts of mercy and love and praise, all born out of faith. It is lifting up you voices in praise for the work of the Father, in thanksgiving for the work of the Son, in joy for the presence of the Sprit. It is in loving one another, all the others we encounter one by one. This is a work of patience and one which is always incomplete.
On occasion injustice demands our immediate response, but the daily portion of our lives is also to come to the mountain and look down. We see what is promised. But we also see that the work is not done. There is more to do, one by one, each an act of love and faith. Patience may be the companion of wisdom, but patience is also the companion of the acts of faith, of the love to which we are called.
Lord, you have been our refuge *from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, * from age to age you are God. For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past * and like a watch in the night. O LORD, satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning. Grant us patience that we may do your work. Prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork. AMEN.
Pentecost 12 (18A) Episcopal Church of the Advent
September 4, 2011
Cape May, New Jersey
“…our labor and living in urgency….”
+ Tomorrow we celebrate the dignity of labor. In practice it is a day that marks the end of a season; but it is, by tradition, a day on which we remember value and self worth we take from the work of our hands and minds. We might remember that there was time when there was no such remembrance. There was time when it was necessary to set this day apart to remember and recognize the respect and honor which we owe to ourselves as we build and toil. It would be a mistake to think that this days’ time has passed. If because our labor is different that than of our grandfathers, because our work has changed, this day is only the end of a season, there will come a time when another generation will need to be reminded of the dignity of labor, that is of our own self-worth.
So, today and tomorrow are about what we do, our work, and it is in this context that I hear the lessons from Holy Scripture.
When you have moment, read the passage from Exodus over again. There is a breathless quality to the language. The instructions which the Lord gives to Moses and to Aaron his brother are filed with urgency. The Passover of the Lord is coming. On that night the first born of Egypt will be struck down. The people of Israel are to eat hurriedly. They are to eat dressed and with their sandals already on their feet, without taking time for bread to rise. They are to be ready to flee. This is what they are to remember as a festival throughout the generations and to observe as a perpetual ordinance. All of this is filed with urgency looking forward to a great change, to the work that will come with freedom from Pharaoh’s yoke.
In our Eucharist we remember the time when our Lord and his disciples gathered for the same purpose. It was then that he commanded us to remember Him, to know his presence in the bread and the wine. What we do is not the Passover. It is a new ordinance. Still I think it would profit us to hold onto the sense of urgency that was part of that meal in bondage shared by the people so long ago in Egypt.
There is this tendency to think of the Old Testament, of Hebrew scripture, as covenant and law. To be sure the laws and commandments are there, but this breathless story is also at the core of God’s engagement with his people. They are to be ready, ready to be sent out into the desert to begin a great work. This is not a God of rest but one who calls them to work, to be part of a great task.
We have come to understand this celebration of the Eucharist, our thanksgiving in so many different ways, in the different gifts which it offers us. It is the means by which we are nourished by the by presence of Christ. It is here that we find the majesty of God. It is here that we remember our own worth as the children of God. But I wonder if it might profit us to take on the sense of urgency that was so much a part of that first Passover, the one Jesus and the disciples remembered in that upper room? I ask about urgency, about coming here briefly, for a moment in the ordinary progression of days, because we have work to do, a Gospel to proclaim, a kingdom to welcome. The deacon’s dismissal is not and end point to the liturgy, it is rather a sending out to do our work, to love and serve the Lord our God. We are fed and sent out in the urgency of the great task to which God calls us. There is work to be done.
The Gospel this morning does not ask us to ignore our faults but rather to engage with one another and so to build up the body of Christ. It is not a call to silence. It is a call to work.
Paul, in his letter to the new Roman Christians has this same quality of urgency I think. It is time to wake. It is a time to put away the darkness and to put on the armor of light. We are to live honorably, observing and doing the work of the law, loving one another and so fulfilling the law. I hear the same urgency in Paul as I hear when Moses speaks to a people about to be sent out into the work of freedom.
We ought to remember the dignity of labor and our self-worth. We are all the children of God. But at the same time I am prompted remember that we are also called to respond to the work of the Gospel, to celebrate God’s work and presence among us, to fulfill the law by the labor of love. This is all a work of urgency and it is our own. Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord. And for this respond: “Thanks be to God.” AMEN.
Pentecost 4 (10A) Episcopal Church of the Advent
July 10, 2011
Cape May, New Jersey
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
+ My grandfather would never have done it that way. He was a preacher but first he was a farmer. He understood the importance of preparation. If he was getting ready to plant corn or wheat or soybeans the fields needed to be plowed and disked. There was the fertilizer. Only then came the seed. And seed is expensive. You want the biggest bang for your buck. His goal was always a yield that matched the investment of money and of labor. He took the same amount of care with his vegetable garden. Move the chicken house the year before---free fertilizer. Break up the ground after the winter, then plant. He wanted a yield that would last for the summer and in some cases for the year. I don’t do all of this with my garden; but I know the principle involved. So if you asked him to just scatter the seed on the ground, among the rocks and thorns and maybe a bit of good dirt, I know what grandpa would have said: “No way!”
So here we are on the Cape May beach. A crowd gathers around Jesus and gets to be so big that He has to get into a boat. It is from just into the water that he begins to preach and teach. He describes a sower who scatters the seed. He throws it on the road where the birds of Cape May find a feast-not so bad, but not what was intended. Some lands in the rocky area where it can only put down a shallow root and then withers. Some falls in the thorns and is choked. And some falls on fertile ground and the yield is a hundred fold.
What is Jesus describing here? On one level it is the reality of his ministry. He has already been faced with the challenges of those who do want to listen or to understand. There were the ones who condemned him for not fasting like John the Baptist. There were the ones who looked away when he associated with sinners. It was clear enough that the good news of the Gospel was not going to be accepted by all. The cities Judah and Galilee had already been chided for failing to hear his voice and word. The disciples whom he sent out were warned that not all would accept them and if they were not heard they were to shake the dust off their feet and move on. He knew the one who would betray him.
This is one reality, but there is another. It is the abundance of God’s love and mercy. God’s love is as profligate and indiscriminate as the sower who broadcasts his seed without regard to where it will fall. The offer of love and forgiveness is made not just to a chosen few but to all of us (and not just once by the way). God has chosen without favor.
Where are we? Well to begin I suppose that we are suspicious. The one who is frugal with mercy looks askance at the waste of seed. It is the narrow view of grace and mercy. What is God doing making this offer of love to so many, so indiscriminately? Isn’t it clear that there are some who are more deserving than others? This might be the class of Pharisees who turned away when Jesus called Matthew the tax collector. Ultimately it is discomfort for God loving the undeserving. Of course we exclude ourselves from that category. Closely related to this response is the one of self-congratulation. In my case it is a good thing that the seed fell on fertile ground. Good thing for that seed that it fell on someone who could make use of it. Both are the responses of the self-satisfied, the ones who by their own works are righteous, or righteous enough.
Jesus does not explicitly identify the self-righteous as the problem but perhaps the explanation he does give is more than a hint that we should not be quite so self-confident. There are those who do not or chose not to understand. I would expand this class to those who are unwilling or preoccupied and do not take the time to listen, to understand. The message is actually simple. We are in need. God loves all of us. Love God. Love one another. But our ears are stopped and we do not listen. If we do not listen, if we are blind to our own need, then we do not understand.
Some of us receive the message joyfully. We listen well enough to understand what is offered; but we do not take the effort to make this gift a part of our lives. Our very being could be changed by practice, by acquiring the habits of love, of study and reflection, of taking the time to prayer. Yet whatever the form our inattentiveness, the result is the same. Our faith has this tendency to wither when it is not watered.
There are those of us who are preoccupied with the world. The message is choked out by the cares of the world, of success and wealth. Look at what we value.
Often enough we are inattentive, preoccupied, unwilling to do the work of faith, distracted by the world. Holding ourselves up to our own examination, how many times has He named us in this parable? His explanation stops us in our tracks and makes us go back to consider who we are in the story. To what extent is there work to be done before we are the fertile ground, the heart and home that welcome the disciples as they proclaim the good news? To what extent is the work that of cultivating and tilling our own hearts and minds so that we may be fruitful?
Here is our labor: to listen, to study, to practice love and thanksgiving, not to be distracted by the world. Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: For 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. Here is God’s indiscriminate love, poured down even on us. Here is our labor. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
Lent 1 A March 13, 2011
Episcopal Church of the Advent
Cape May, New Jersey
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
“...a reasonable suggestion from Satan”
Jesus went into the desert. After forty days of prayer and fasting he was one hungry fellow. I am going to make the assumption that he took along some little bit to eat and some water that would have sustained him; but he did not have too much; and he was very much alone. This is the nature of a fast. At the end he was hungry and quite ready for some conversation. So Satan paid him a visit. I am not surprised. This was the pattern of some of the really old monks, like St. Anthony, who went into the desert. They went for days on end sustaining themselves on little but prayer and with no company; and after awhile, Satan could be counted on to pay them a visit in what may have been either their weakest or their strongest moment. It is no surprise. So, as you go through Lent in ascetic self denial I want to warn you to pay attention particularly when you sense unexpected company.
So here is Jesus, hungry and thirsty and Satan comes up and taps him on the shoulder. “You know,” says Satan “it would not take much to have something to eat. Now don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting anything bad, no over indulgence, no mocha-chinos or lobster, just some nice crusty bread. All you have to do is to turn those useless rocks over there into some bread. No big deal and you really are hungry.” Jesus turns and casts a withering eye on Satan and says: “We do not live by bread alone but rather by the word of God who created us.”
Satan says: “I don’t get it. I was only talking about bread, not religion. But I tell you what I will take you up to the highest place around. There’s a great view. Now I want you to throw yourself off. Don’t worry someone will catch you. You can do any thing. After all you are a really big deal. I was there for your baptism by John in Jordan. I heard what the Father. It may be angels or even a bungee cord; but you need to just trust in how important you are to the rest of us. You can do any thing.” And Jesus says: “Do not set up tests for God. God has enough to do with out setting ourselves up for a fall and waiting to see what happens.”
Satan says: “What good is it to be a perfect sort of fellow, beloved by God, such an important fellow and, if I may be so bold, a good righteous Christian if you can’t take advantage of this?” Never mind....I still don’t get it; but here is another chance. If you turn around and look at me, really try to work with me, and maybe give me a little time and devotion as well, I will give you absolutely everything. You can have that place at the shore and one in the mountains as well. I will give you perfect health, a gorgeous body, a straight A average and a 15% percent return on your investment guaranteed.” Jesus said: “My worship is for God, not for you and your things.”
I am too familiar with the words, I think. I listen when the Deacon reads the Gospel and I think of this titanic struggle between the Christ, the anointed one of God and Satan. It is about the impossible satisfaction of need, testing God with angels and archangels and it is about the kingdoms of the world offered for the price of betrayal and devotion. My familiarity with the words of Matthew, however, risks leading me into a trap. It is one in which I hear this passage as being all and only about Jesus. The passage seems to lift Jesus up to a plane that is un-attainable, beyond our reach. Even his temptations, each of which comes with a personal visit from a perfectly reasonable Satan, even these are beyond us. This is the trap, the temptation; because I think that his passage and the Gospel should speak to me, to all of us.
My guess is that my telling of the Gospel already made the point. These are our temptations as well as those of Jesus. It is easy to forget or turn aside from what truly sustains us. It is the word of God in all of its forms which nourishes and sustains us. It may be by trusting in God who clothes us and the lilies of the field in greater glory than Solomon. It may be in our need for the love God, to fill the hole in our spirits which only the divine can complete. It is in our love and care for each other with out exception, commanded and offered by our Savior. The temptation is to forget and turn aside. Then we would truly hunger. This is about us as well.
There is the temptation to test God. It is to bargain. If you really loved me then you would not test me, we pray; so then I will test you. Save me from my own failure, with no expense. Send the angels just because I demand this. We can get into the nature of prayer another time; but here at least we are reminded that it is not about tempting and testing God. We are not at the high place, the top of the Temple tempted to throw ourselves off, but this one is about us as well.
There is the temptation of the world, all that we covet and desire. When the story is retold it is easy enough to imagine ourselves there with Satan. The one who tempts is there with us every day and every hour. How often do we face the choice of who or what we are to worship. Not so long ago, speaking from the mount, Jesus made the point. We have a choice. It is to serve one of two masters, that is to orient ourselves in one of two directions: either toward the world or toward God.
These temptations are about us and who we serve. Is it only ourselves or the one who creates us and calls us to a greater purpose. These temptations sound in pride. It is in pride that I place my immediate needs first, that I find fulfillment in their satisfaction rather than the renewal of my mind and heart by the word of God. It is the pride of my own position that I would test and tempt God. It is the pride that would turn aside from God, oh just for moment, for my own ambition and gain.
All of this sounds in pride and it finds its resolution in choice. In each case Jesus makes a choice for a different priority. It is one set my the great story of salvation. This is a story of which we are a part and the same is true of our own choice. Hearing this passage as we begin the journey of Lent, as we prepare for the great Paschal feast, reminds us of our choice. The love of God is there. It is for us to set aside our pride, to resist its most reasonable temptations, and make a choice to claim the love of God in Christ.
Lord, show your mercy upon us and grant us your salvation. Guide us in the way of justice and truth and let your way be known upon the earth. Let us lift up our eyes to the hills from where our help comes, that the Lord shall preserve us from evil, watching out over our going out and coming in, from this time forth and for evermore. Lord, who your mercy upon us and grant us your salvation. AMEN.
Epiphany 4A January 30, 2011
Church of the Advent
Cape May, New Jersey
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
"Blessings, just for free....?"
Jesus has been in the desert. He has resisted the temptations of Satan and begins to walk among us. John is in prison. So Jesus begins to proclaim a message of repentance, to tell the world that the kingdom of God is a hand. He heals and restores those who are lost, the demon possessed, the paralytic, all sorts of people whose afflictions were a sign of their sin. Our Savior, the anointed one, attracts a crowd. They come from all over, from both sides of the Galilean Sea.
It is at this point that Jesus goes up to a high place. In the Old Testament, it is often from a high place that we hear the word of God. Remember Moses and Mt. Sinai. Remember Abraham and Isaac on the mountain. Remember Jerusalem, the holy hill itself. And from a high place to all of he people, those he has chosen and those who follow, he begins to speak.
It is not simply the words of the Beatitudes, the blessings that we heard in the Gospel passage this morning. He speaks in words that make up the next three chapters of the gospel according to Matthew. He speaks of the law and what it is that the Lord God requires of us. It is about not judging. It is about prayer. It is about piety. It is about loving those who hurt us. This sermon from a high place is about how we might live if, as Jesus asks, we respond to the presence of God’s love in the world. Jesus describes a strange sort of community. It is one built on love and care and forgiveness. This is the Kingdom that breaks upon us and to which he calls us.
My custom does not usually involve homework. On the other hand it would do us no harm to open up the scriptures. If you have a moment turn to Matthew at the beginning of the New Testament. Read chapters 5, 6 and 7. Chew on these words. For those of us who are not able I will give a Cliff Notes version. This is about much that is ordinary in our lives. How is it that we are called to live? How are we called to live individually in the presence of God and collectively as a community, as the people of God? He calls them to forgiveness and prayer. Jesus speaks, and as the scripture says, they were amazed for he spoke with authority. This is a prelude or context for the text this morning. This is the setting for these blessings.
I remember hearing these words over the years. As a boy we had a minister, Dr. Gishler, who recited the Beatitudes. When he offered communion the words were not the “Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” but an extended and repeated quotation of the Blessings. Having heard them in that context, I suppose I had to think about them. At least for a boy of twelve or so they did not impress me. How could they have much relevance.
The problem is listening to these words of blessing and making them your own. The danger is in hearing these words and making the blessings of God conditional. It is a trap. This may be the boy speaking but I feel pretty good about my self. I am not poor in spirit; but maybe I need to be so that I will inherit the kingdom of heaven. I am not particularly meek; but perhaps I should be so that I will inherit the earth (cool inherit the earth....not a bad deal for being meek). I do not mourn so I will not be comforted. Well perhaps there will be a time to mourn sometime in the future. If I am righteous enough maybe I will be persecuted (that’s actually a fairly sure bet) and then I can get a two for one.
In each case the trap is in making these blessings conditional on something that I do or do not do. The risk is in making them into another contract. This sort of understanding I think turns the promise of these blessings into the old law. If you obey then you will be loved. If you follow the commandments with absolute precision then you will be blessed for having heard the injunctions of the Lord God.
The lectionary chooses this passage from First Corinthians that points out the difference between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world. What the world counts as foolishness is wisdom and in the Cross is our salvation. This is certainly a lens through which we can see the work of Christ, the words of Jesus. It is good to remember how subversive the Gospel can be. But I think I would also like to hear words from Paul that remind us to put aside our achievements, the work of the law, the law which counts some as clean and some as unclean, which requires our labor for the love of God.
Jesus speaks form a high place and paints love and blessing with out compensation. His words are about love and forgiveness and compassion. It is God’s offer to us, as broken as we may be, and about our call to respond. God takes us as we are without condition, meek, timorous, poor in spirit, thirsting for righteousness, makers of peace. Even if broken, God takes what is possible in us and blesses us. This is a call to respond in love to God and to each other. Here is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, not as we have achieved but as God has loved. It is for us to respond.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We pray, asking LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle? * who may abide upon your holy hill? He has told us what is good; and what does the LORD require of us but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God? AMEN.
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)