Sunday, October 13, 2019

18 Pentecost


October 13, 2019


+ As a poet, I find myself obsessing over words on occasion. There are certain words I find myself examining. Often there are words I find myself examining like a little jewel, turning it around and weighing it and considering it like it’s a brand new word.

One of those words I’ve recently enjoyed re-examining is the word “Mercy.” It’s a beautiful word! And I love the fact that, in French, the word for “Thank you” is “merci.”

Mercy is something we tend to overlook. Certainly in regard to others.

But let me tell you, it is not something we overlook when it comes to us. To be on the receiving end of mercy is a wonderful thing!  Mercy is like a fresh wonderful breeze on our face, especially if it is something we are being granted after a hardship in our lives.  Mercy is not something we think of too often in our lives, certainly not on a daily basis.

But for Jesus and those Jewish people of his time, mercy was an important part of their understanding of the world and their relationship with God.

Tonight, at sundown, the Jewish feast of Sukkot begins Sukkot is an important feast in Judaism. It is also called “The feast of Booths,” which refers to the tents the Israelites lived in during their 40 years in the desert. In fact, in some Jewish homes, a tent is often set up during this high holy day as a commemoration of the feast.

On the Feast of Sukkot, the “Great Hallel” is prayed. Hallel means “praise,” and refers to the group of psalms recited at the time of the new moon, as well on feasts like Sukkot, which commemorates the period of time the Tribe of Israel spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.  “Hallel” is the refrain from Psalm 136 that celebrates the fact that God’s mercy endures forever.  It is believed that Jesus himself would have sang the Great Hallael with his disciples when they went to the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper on the night before his death.

Now, mercy in this context means more than just forgiveness or some kind of reprieve Mercy also means, in a Jewish understanding of the word, such things as God’s enduring love for Israel and the mercy that goes with that love. Mercy also means, in this context, behaving in a particular way. It means being ethical and being faithful to God’s will.

Mercy.

It really is an incredible word.  And it is so packed with meaning and substance!  And it’s one that I think sums up so many of the prayers we pray. Certainly, the prayers I pray. In those moments in which I am overwhelmed or exhausted or simply don’t know what to pray, I often find myself just praying, Please God, have mercy on me, or on the person for whom I’m praying.

Today, in our Gospel reading, we find that word, Mercy, in a very prevalent place. In fact the petition the leper makes to Jesus is a powerful one.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on me!”

And what does Jesus do? He does just that. He has mercy on him.   And, by doing so, Jesus sets the tone for us as well.

Just as Jesus showed mercy, so should we show mercy again and again in our own lives.  We see, in our Gospel reading today, mercy in action.  And it is a truly wonderful thing!   These lepers are healed.

But, before we lose track of this story, let’s take a little deeper look at what is exactly happening.  Now, first of all, we need to be clear about who lepers were in that day. Lepers, as we all know, were unclean. But they were worse than that. They were contagiously unclean. And their disease was considered a very severe punishment for something. Sin of course. But whose sin? Their own sin? Or the sins of their parents? Or grandparents?

So, to even engage these lepers was a huge deal.  It meant that to engage them meant to engage their sin in some way.

But, the real interesting aspect of this story is what you might not have noticed. The lepers themselves are interesting. There are, of course, ten of them. Nine lepers who were, it seems, children of Israel. And one Samaritan leper.

Now a Samaritan, for good Jews like Jesus, would have been a double curse. It was bad enough being a leper. But to be a Samaritan leper was much worse.  Samaritans, as also know, were also unclean and enemies. They didn’t worship God in the same way that good, orthodox Jews worshipped God. They had turned away from the Temple in Jerusalem.  And they didn’t follow the Judaic Law that Jews of Jesus’ time strived to follow.

But the lepers, knowing who they are and what they are, do the “right” thing (according to Judaic law). Again and again, throughout the story they do the right thing.

They first of all stand far off from Jesus and the others. That’s what contagious (unclean) people do.

And when they are healed, the nine again do the right thing. They heed Jesus’ words and, like good Jews, they head off to the priest to be declared clean. According to the Law, it was the priest who would examine them and declare them “clean” by Judaic Law.

But they do one “wrong” thing before they do so. Did you notice what thing they didn’t do?  Before heading off to the priest, they don’t first thank Jesus.

Only the Samaritan stays.  And the reason he stays is because, as a Samaritan, he wouldn’t need to approach the Jewish priest. So, he turns back.  And he engages this Jesus who healed him.  He comes back, praising God and bowing down in gratitude before Jesus. After all, it is through Jesus that God has worked this amazing miracle!  But Jesus does not care about this homage.   He is irritated by the fact the others did not come back.

Still, despite his irritation, if you notice, his mercy remained. Those ungrateful lepers—along with the Samaritan—remain healed. Despite their ingratitude, they are still healed.

That is how mercy works.

The interesting thing for us is, we are not always so good at mercy. We are good as being vindictive, especially to those who have wronged us. We are very good as seeking to make others’ lives as miserable as our lives are at times.

If someone wrongs us, what do we want to do? We want to get revenge. We want to “show them.” After all, THAT is what they deserve, we rationalize.

But, that is not the way of Jesus. If we follow Jesus, revenge and vindictive behavior is not the way to act.  If we are followers of Jesus, the only option we have toward those who have wronged us is…mercy.

Still, even then, we are not so good at mercy, especially mercy to those who have turned away from us and walked away after we have done something good for them. It hurts when someone is an ingrate to us. It hurts when people snub us or ignore us or return our goodness with indifference.  In those cases, the last thing in the world we are thinking of is mercy for them.

Sadly, none of us are Jesus. Because Jesus was—and is—a master at mercy. And because he is, we, as followers of Jesus, are challenged.

If the one we follow shows mercy, we know it is our job to do so as well. No matter what. No matter if those to whom we show mercy ignore us and walk away from us. No matter if they show no gratitude to us. No matter if they snub us or turn their backs to us or ignore us.

Our job is not to concern ourselves with such things. Our job, as followers of Jesus, is simply to show mercy again and again and again. And to seek mercy again and again and again.

Have mercy on me, we should pray to God on a regular basis.

God, have mercy on me.

Please, God,  have mercy on me.

Please, God, have mercy on my loved ones.

Please, God, have mercy on St. Stephen’s.

Please, God, have mercy on our country.  

This is our deepest prayer. This is the prayer of our heart. This is prayer we pray when  our voices and minds no longer function perfectly. This is the prayer that keeps on praying with every heartbeat within us.

And by praying this prayer, by living this prayer, by reflecting this prayer to others, we will know. We will know—beyond a shadow of doubt—that we too can get up and go our way. We too can know that, yes, our faith has made us well.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

17 Pentecost


17 Pentecost

October 6, 2019

Luke 17.5-10

+ This past week I was working on updating some of the wording on our website. (Make sure to take a perusal through our website www.ststephensfargo.org 
 ).

And as I sought to find different ways to describe who we are here and what we are, I have to say, we are truly are a spiritual powerhouse. An eclectic spiritual powerhouse.  And, as I was thinking about it, I realized that when we say we are truly welcoming and inclusive, we really are a welcoming and inclusive congregation.

We welcome everyone and we include everyone, even people who might not believe the same things about certain issues.  

People who have different political views.

People who have different spiritual views.

As is posted on the Welcome page of our website we are:

An Inclusive Congregation of the  Episcopal Church
in the progressive Anglo-Catholic Tradition


Yet, despite that description, there truly is a wide spectrum of belief here at St. Stephen’s. We encompass many people and beliefs here. And I love that!  And, as I’ve said, even people who don’t believe, or don’t know what they believe, are always welcome here.  And included.

That includes even atheists.  

I love atheists, as many of you know.  And I don’t mean, by saying that, that I love them because of some intent to convert them.

No.

My love for atheists has simply to do with the fact that I “get” them.  I understand them.  I appreciate them.  And I have lots of atheists in my life!

Agnostics and atheists have always intrigued me.  In fact, as many of you know, I was an agnostic, verging on atheism, once a long time ago in my life.

Now to be clear, agnosticism and atheism are two similar though different aspects of belief or disbelief.

An agnostic—gnostic meaning knowledge, an “a” in front of it negates that word, so no knowledge of God—is simply someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not.

An atheist—a theist is a person who believes in a god, an “a” in front of it negates it, so a person who does not believe a god—in someone who simply does not or cannot believe.

You have heard me say often that we are all agnostics, to some extent.  There are things about our faith we simply—and honestly—don’t know.  That’s not a bad thing.  

It’s actually a very good thing.  Our agnosticism keeps us on our toes.   I think agnosticism is an honest response.

But atheism is interesting and certainly honest too, in this sense.  Whenever I ask
an atheist what kind of God they don’t believe in, and they tell me, I, quite honestly, have to agree.  When atheists tell me they don’t believe in some white-bearded man seated on a throne in some far-off, cloud filled kingdom like some cut-out, some magic man living in the sky from Monte Python’s Search for the Holy Grail, then, I have to say, “I don’t believe in that God either.”

I am an atheist in regard to that God—that idolatrous god made in our own image.  If that’s what an atheist is, then count me in.

But the God I do believe in—the God of mystery, the God of wonder and faith and love—now, that God is a God I can serve and worship.  And this God of mystery and love that I serve has, I believe, reaches out to us, here in the muck of our lives.  Certainly that is not some distant, strange, human-made God.  Rather that is a close, loving, God, a God who knows us and is with us.

But there are issues with such a belief.  Believing in a God of mystery means we now have work cut out for us in cultivating our faith in that God of mystery.

“Increase our faith!” the apostles petition Jesus in today’s Gospel.

And two thousand years later, we—Jesus’ disciples now—are still asking him to essentially do that for us as well.  

It’s an honest prayer.  We want our faith increased.  We want to believe more fully than we do.  We want to believe in a way that will eliminate doubt, because doubt is so…uncertain.  Doubt is a sometimes frightening place to explore.  

And we are afraid that with little faith and a lot of doubt, doubt will win out.

We are crying out—like those first apostles—for more than we have.

But Jesus—in that way that Jesus does—turns it all back on us.   He tells us that we shouldn’t be worrying about increasing our faith.  

We should rather be concerned about the mustard seed of faith that we have right now.

Think of that for a moment.   Think of what a mustard seed really is.   It’s one of the smallest things we can see.  It’s a minuscule thing.  It’s the side of a period at the end of a sentence or a dot on a lower-case I (12 point font).  

. = (the actual size of a mustard seed)

It’s just that small.

Jesus tells us that with that little bit of faith—that small amount of real faith—we can tell a mulberry tree, “be uprooted and planted in the sea.”   In other words, those of us who are afraid that a whole lot of doubt can overwhelm that little bit of faith have nothing to worry about.   Because even a little bit of faith—even a mustard seed of faith—is more powerful than an ocean of doubt.   A little seed of faith is the most powerful thing in the world, because that tiny amount of faith will drive us and push us and motivate us to do incredible things.   And doing those things, spurred on and nourished by that little bit of faith, does make a difference in the world.  

Even if we have 99% doubt and 1% faith, that 1% wins out over the rest, again and again.

We are going to doubt.  We are going to sometimes gaze into that void and have a hard time seeing, for certain—without any doubt—that God truly is there.  

We all doubt.  And that’s all right to do.

But if we still go on loving, if we still go on serving, if we still go on trying to bring the sacred and holy into our midst and into this world even in the face of that 99% of doubt, that is our mustard seed of faith at work.

That is what it means to be a Christian.   That is what loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves does.  

It furthers the Kingdom of God in our midst, even when we might be doubting that there is even a Kingdom of God.

Now, yes, I understand that it’s weird to hear a priest get up here and say that atheists and agnostics and other doubters can teach us lessons about faith.  But they can.  I think God does work in that way sometimes.

I have no doubt that God can increase our faith by any means necessary, even despite our doubts.  I have no doubt that God can work even in the mustard-sized faith found deep within someone who is an atheist or agnostic. And if God can do that in the life and example of an atheist, imagine what God can do in our lives—in us, who are committed Christians who stand up every Sunday in church and profess our faiths in the Creed we are about to recite together.

So, let us cultivate that mustard-sized faith inside us.  Let’s not fret over how small it is.  Let’s not worry about weighing it on the scale against the doubt in our lives.  Let’s not despair over how miniscule it is.   Let’s not fear doubt. Let us not be scared of our natural agnosticism.

Rather, let us realize that even that mustard seed of faith within us can do incredible things in our lives and in the lives of those around us.   And in doing those small things, we all are bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst.