Sunday, June 26, 2016

6 Pentecost

June 26, 2016

1 Kings 19.15-16,19-21; Galatians 5.1,13-25; .Luke 9:51-62

+ This past Wednesday, we did something here at St. Stephen’s that we just do, as a congregation. We gathered for our regular Wednesday night Eucharist. We shared scripture. We prayed for those who need our prayers.  We blessed Holly and Michael Eklund on the anniversary of their marriage.  We offered incense.  We shared the Body and Blood of Jesus.  And then, at the end of our liturgy, we buried in our memorial garden another abandoned urn.

This one was a bit different than Adolf Scott in November.  We actually knew who this person was.  We knew a name, and dates. We knew where this person lived and of which she died. We know she had a family. And yet, we did what we are called to do here. We buried her with dignity. And just as importantly, we welcomed her into our midst. She became one of us.

Although others might abandon such things, we will always remember her.  She will be included in our prayers on the anniversary of her death and on in our All Saints octave. This is what we do.

We did something—and will no doubt continue to do this—even despite what we heard in our Gospel reading for today.  We hear Jesus say, Let the dead bury their own dead. If we did that, we would not be doing what we did on Wednesday night.  In fact, we probably wouldn’t be doing any funerals. And the funeral industry would be having a bit of trouble.  

It’s  an unusual statement.   It almost boggles the mind when you think about it. And yet….there is beautiful poetry in that phrase. We hear this saying of Jesus referenced occasionally in our secular society.  It conveys a sense of resignation and putting behind oneself insignificant aspects of our lives.

Still, it is a strange image to wrap our minds around. Let the dead bury their own dead. What could Jesus possibly mean by this reference?

Well, actually, Jesus would actually not have any issues with what we did on Wednesday, or with any of our funeral customs. Because, this statement from him, as always, has a deeper meaning—and really only starts to make sense when we put it in the context of his time and who his followers were.  When we find this man talking about having to go and bury his father, and Jesus’ response of “let the dead bury their own dead,” we might instantly think that Jesus is being callous.   It would seem, at least from our modern perspective, that this man is mourning, having just lost his father.

The fact is, his father actually probably died a year or more before.   What happened in that culture is that when a person died, they were anointed, wrapped in a cloth shroud and placed in a tomb. There would have been an actually formal burial rite at that times.  And of course, Jesus himself would later be buried exactly like this.

This initial tomb bury was actually a temporary interment.  They were probably placed on a shelf near the entrance of the tomb.  About a year or so after their death, the family gathered again at which time the tomb was re-opened.  By that time, the body would, of course,  have been reduced to bones.  The bones would then be collected, placed in a small stone box and buried with the other relatives, probably further back in the tomb.  

A remnant of this tradition still exists in Judaism, when, on the first anniversary of the death of a loved one, the family often gathers to unveil the gravestone in the cemetery.  Which I think a very cool tradition personally. 

We actually oftentimes do have a similar tradition. More and more, we find that often, there is a cremation and a memorial service within the week of death, but the burial or disposition of the remains takes place much later. Sort of like the burial we did on Wednesday night.

So, when we encounter this man in today’s Gospel, we are not necessarily finding a man mourning his recently deceased father.  What we are actually finding is a man who is waiting to go to the tomb where his father’s bones now lie so he can bury the bones.  When we see it from this perspective, we can understand why Jesus makes such a seemingly strange comment—and we realize it isn’t quite the callous comment we thought it was.  

As far as Jesus is concerned, the father has been buried.  Whatever this man does is merely an excuse to not go out and proclaim the kingdom of God, as Jesus commands him to do.

Now to be fair to the man, he could just be making an excuse, which really under any other circumstances, would have been a perfectly valid excuse.  Or he could really have felt that his duty as his father’s son took precedence over this calling from Jesus.  It doesn’t seem as though he doesn’t want to follow Jesus or proclaim the Kingdom.  He doesn’t flat-out say no.  He simply says, not now.  In a sense, he is given the choice between the dead and dried bones of his father or the living Jesus who stands before him.

Jesus’ response, which may sound strange to our modern, Western ears, is actually a very clear statement to this man.  He is saying, in a sense: “You are attached to these bones.  Don’t worry about bones.  Break your attachment, follow me, proclaim the goodness and love of God and you will have life.  Follow me TODAY.  NOW”

How many times have we been in the same place in our lives?  How many times have we looked for excuses to get out of following Jesus, at least right now?  We all have our own “bones” that we feel we must bury before we can go and proclaim the Kingdom of God in our midst by following Jesus.  We all have our own attachments that we simply cannot break so we can go forward unhindered to follow and to serve.

And they’re easy to find.  It’s easy to be led astray by attachments—to let these attachments fill our lives and give us a false sense of fulfillment.  It is easy for us to despair when the bad things of life happen to us.

But the fact is, even when awful things happen, even then, we need to realize, it is not the end.   Despite these bad things, the kingdom of God still needs to be proclaimed. Now.  And not later. Not after everything has been restored. Not when everything is good and right in the world.  Not when the elections are over, or the weather is cooler. Not after we have calmed down.

The Kingdom needs to be proclaimed NOW.  Now.  Even in the midst of chaos.  Even when those crappy things happen, we still need to follow Jesus.  Right now.  Right here.

Our faith in God, our following of Jesus and our striving to love and serve others doesn’t change just because we have setbacks.  Rather, when the setbacks arise, we need to deal with them and move on.   But if those setbacks become an excuse not to follow Jesus, then they too become a case for  letting these dead bury their own dead.

So, in a sense, we find ourselves confronted with that very important question: what are we, in our own lives, attached to?  What are the “bones” of our life?  What are the attachments in our life that cause us to look for excuses for not following Jesus and serving others?  For not loving, fully and completely.  What things in our lives prevent us  from proclaiming the Kingdom of God?

Whatever they might be, just let them be.  Let the dead bury their own dead.  Let’s not become attached to the dead objects of our lives that keep us from serving our living God.  Let’s  not allow those dead things to lead us astray and prevent us from living and loving fully.  Let us not become bogged down with all the attachments we have in this life as we are called to follow Jesus.  Let us not let them become the yoke of slavery we hear Paul discussing in his letter to the Galatians. Rather, let us take this yoke, break it and burn it as Elisha did, as an offering to our living God. 

But let us remember that this is not some sweet, nice, gentle suggestion from Jesus.   It is a command from him.

“Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you, go, and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

We proclaim the kingdom, as we all know, by loving God and loving each other. You can’t proclaim the kingdom—you can’t love—when you are busy obsessing about the dead, loveless things of your life.  

We who are following Jesus have all put our hands to the plow.  We put our hands to that plow when were baptized, when we set out on that path of following Jesus. Now, with our hands on that plow, let us not look back.  Let us not be led astray by the attachments we have in this life that lead us wandering about aimlessly. But, let us focus. Let us look forward.  Let us push on. Let us proclaim by word and example the love we have for God and one another.   And when we do, we are doing exactly what Jesus commands us to do.

Now is the time.   Let us proclaim that Kingdom and making it a reality in our midst. Now. Amen.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Requiem Mass

June 22, 2016

+ Back in November, we gathered here to do exactly what we are doing tonight. We gathered to pray for, to commend to God and to bury someone who we probably will never know, at least on this side of the veil, so to speak.

In November, we prayed for Adolf Scott.  Tonight, we are praying for and commending to God this person, Linda. And much of what I am going to say tonight, I said then.  It rings as true tonight as it did in November. And it will no doubt ring true in the future should we bury others in such a way.

We know very little about Linda. We know when we she was born, we know when she died, we know she had a husband and child. We know how she died and where she died. We know those basic facts about her. But that’s all. We do not know he if she was a good person, or a terrible person. And as I said in November about Adolf Scott, so I say tonight about Linda, none of that matters. What matters tonight  is that we are welcoming her here in our midst and we are providing her with some dignity in her death.

In November, I shared the so called corporal acts of mercy. It’s no surprise to anyone here tonight that I hold those acts of mercy highly in my estimation. The corporal acts of mercy are...

- To feed the hungry;

- To give drink to the thirsty;

-   To clothe the naked;

- To harbor the harborless;

- To visit the sick;
 To ransom the captive;

- To bury the dead.

We, as a congregation of St. Stephen’s, as followers of Jesus, have strived to do every single one of these corporate acts of mercy in our collective ministry here. Throughout our 60 years, we have worked hard to do these seemingly basic acts. Because, like visiting the sick, and giving drink to the thirsty, and feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, burying the dead is a very basic act. It is something that is needed.

Every person deserves a proper burial.  We do these acts not because we want or need a pat on the back. We do them not because we think they’ll get us in the good graces of God, or provide us with an easy ticket to heaven.  We do them, because doing them brings about good in this world. And when good comes into this world, we believe God is present.

God is present with us this evening. We are seeing God present in this act of mercy, and even in this person of Linda.  We don’t know if she actually even believed in God, or was a Christian, or anything.

But you know what? None of that matters right now. What matters is that God is, even now, able to work in this situation. God is here, in the act of mercy we are doing, in the fact that Linda’s ashes came to us, in the witness of her presence with us this evening and in the years to come.

Some of the greatest and loudest statements of God’s mercy come not in sermons
or evangelizing on the streets. Sometimes the loudest statements of God’s mercy and our own mercy to others comes in the starkness and  quietness of an abandoned urn of ashes.  

Whoever Linda was, I am grateful for her presence with us.  I am grateful that in years to come, she will be remembered by us. I am grateful that she will have a place here with us.  And I am grateful that she will not be forgotten by any of us.

We commend you tonight, Linda,
to God’s mercy,
to God’s forgiveness and love.

Blessed be God the Creator,
who has caused the light of Christ
to shine upon you.

Go forth from this world:
in the love of God the Father
who created you,

in the mercy of Jesus Christ
who redeemed you,

in the power of the Holy Spirit
who strengthens you.

In communion with all the faithful,
may you dwell this day in peace and light.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

5 Pentecost

June 19, 2016

Galatians 3.23-29;Luke 8.26-39

+ I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine this past week, specifically about the shootings one week ago this morning at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  This friend of mine is an agnostic. Not an atheist, mind you. An agnostic.

Now, most of you know, I am especially fond of agnostics because, let’s face it, we too are all agnostics, if we are honest with ourselves, if we but scratch our spiritual surfaces. An agnostic is one who says, I simply do not know. Which is one of the most honest ways of looking at spirituality.  None of us, of course, knows. We hope. We long. We step into the unknown and hope and believe we will be held up.

What prompted this conversation was when my friend shared a comment on Facebook that said, essentially: “the devil’s followers don’t shoot people.” His thinking here is that, in the wake of the shootings in Orlando, it was people like Omar Mateen, a believer in God, who do things like this.

I don’t usually enter into these conversations. They go nowhere. No one’s minds are changed. But it was an interesting take on the situation. And I did have to say this to my friend:

evil is evil—and that where evil dwells, that is not the will of God, as I understand it.

I am no agnostic when it comes to such a belief.  This is what I know. A person like Omar Mateen can claim God’s righteousness all he wanted, the Westboro Baptist Church can claim God’s righteousness all they want, but anyone-ANYONE—who murders, who belittles, who limits the inherent rights of others, who are violent in word or action, who HATES in the name of God is deceived. By saying they are doing it in the name of the God, they are committing sacrilege. The highest form of sacrilege.  They are in fact doing the exact opposite of the will of God.  They are doing the will of the so-called “Devil,” the deceiver, the unholy one—that personification of all evil.  

Now, we often deceive ourselves. We convince ourselves that evil does not really exist. But let me tell you. In that nightclub last Sunday morning, evil existed. Evil ran rampant. Evil is what executed those cold-blooded murders.  Not God. Not a follower of God.

I believe God was most definitely there. I have no doubt about that. But God was with those who were fleeing and dying and suffering.

In that moment, Omar Mateen was not God’s agent, was not representing God or anything that came close to God.  He was the devil’s agent.  And he was doing the Devil’s work.  It was evil—plain and simple.
 And evil DOES exist.

Now I’m not saying I believe in actual supernatural devils or demons.  But, the fact remains, whether we believe in actual demons or nor not, whether we believe in Satan as a spiritual reality or not, what we all must believe in is the presence of actual evil in this world. Whether that evil is natural or supernatural, or both, the fact is, there is evil.   Even good rational people know that!

And those of us who are followers of Jesus have promised that we must turn away from evil again and again, in whatever way we encounter it.   Whenever we are confronted with evil, we must resist it. In our Baptismal service, these questions are asked of the person being baptized (or their sponsors):

“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”


“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

And, as our Baptismal Covenant asks us asks us:

“Do you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

Evil is something we must stand up against however we encounter it.  Whether we encounter it as a spiritual force, or whether we encounter it in other forms, such as racism, sexism or homophobia, or as a rogue, fanatical gunman systematically shooting innocent people in a nightclub, as followers of Jesus, must stand up against evil and say no to it.

In a sense, what we are being asked to do is what Jesus did in this morning’s Gospel.   We are being compelled, again and again, to cast out the evil in our midst, to send it away from us.  This is not easy thing to do.   It is not easy to look long and hard at the evil that exists in the world, and in our very midst. It is not easy to hear the stories of young gay and lesbian and transgender people huddling in bathroom stalls, pleading for their lives, or texting their mothers with messages of final goodbyes as they await the gunman.  

We must, even as we face these stories, resist the evil that exists in this world.  It too can be cast away. It too can be sent reeling from us.

The story of Jesus is clear: good always defeats evil ultimately.  Again and again. It might not seem like it in the mass shootings and murder.  But it is there.

Christ, as we heard in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians today, breaks down the boundaries evil in its various forms sets up.  In Christ, we hear, there are no distinctions.  In Christ, all those things that divide us and allow the seeds of evil to flower are done away with—those issue of sex, and social status and nationality and race are essentially erased, those things that cause people like Omar Mateen to lash out against.

And we, as followers of Jesus, so prone at times to get nitpicky and self-righteous and hypocritical and divide ourselves into camps of us versus them, are told in no uncertain terms that those boundaries, in Jesus, cannot exist among us.  Those boundaries, those distinctions, only lead to more evil.  To less love.

But even then, even when evil does seem to win out, even when there are moments of despair and fear at the future, there’s no real need to despair.  Even in those moments when evil seems to triumph, we know that those moments of triumph are always, always short-lived.   Good will always defeat evil ultimately.

Yes, we find the premise of good versus evil  in every popular movie and book we encounter. This is the essence of conflict that we find in all popular culture.  We learn that on the first day of Fiction Writing 101.  Good versus evil—and good always wins. But, for us, as followers of Jesus, this is not fiction.  That is not a fairy tale or wishful thinking. It is the basis on which our faith lies.  

When confronted with those spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, we must renounce them and move on. And what are those spiritual forces of wickedness in our lives?  What are those forces that divide us and cause conflict among us?  What are the legion of demons we find in our midst?  Those spiritual forces of wickedness are those forces that destroy that basic tenant of love of God and love of each other.  Those spiritual forces of wickedness drive us apart from each other and divide us. They harden our hearts and kill love within us.  

When that happens in us, when we allow that to happen, we cannot be followers of Jesus anymore.  We cannot call ourselves children of a loving God.  When that happens our faith in God and our love for each other dies and we are left barren and empty.

We become like the demoniac in today’s Gospel.  We become tormented by God and all the forces of goodness.  We wander about in the tombs and the wastelands of our lives.   And we find ourselves living in fear—fear of the unknown, fear of that dark abyss of hopelessness that lies before us. It would be easy to feel like that in the wake of Orlando and all the violence we experience in this world.  

But when we turn from evil, we are able to carry out what Jesus commands of the demoniac.   We are able to return from those moments to our homes and to proclaim the goodness that God does for us.  That’s what good does.  That’s what God’s goodness does to us and for us.  That is what turning away from evil—in whatever form we experience evil—does for us.

So, let us do just that.  Let us proclaim all that God has done for us.   Let us choose good and resist evil.  Let us love—and love fully and completely, without barriers.  Let us love each other. Let us love peace and nonviolence.  Let us cast off whatever dark forces there are that kills love within us.  And let us sit at the feet of Jesus, “clothed in and in our right mind,” freed of fear and hatred and violence and filled instead with joy and hope and love.

Monday, June 13, 2016

In the Wake of the Pulse murders in Orlando.

As I write this, the news has just come out of 50 people filled at Pulse, a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando, Florida.  It is devastating news to hear. Not only are we reeling with news of violence of more gun violence, we are also reeling because of more violence against GLBTQ people.

We, as Christians, find ourselves struggling with news like this. For me, personally, I find myself simply closing up and retreating into a kind of shocked silence. I know it is neither healthy behavior, nor is it helpful. But it is an honest reaction. When I heard the news of the shooting, I was preparing for our Sunday morning celebration of Holy  Eucharist, at which we dedicated our new window of the Good Samaritan. In that service, I preached about Jesus’ commandment to love—love God, love our neighbor, love ourselves. It is hard to find love in our hearts when we are reeling with shock and pain over concentrated violence. But love, we must do, even in the face of such agony.

For me, prayer is the one consolation I have in moments like this. And the prayer I find myself drawn to in moments like this is the Great Litany, found in the Book of Common Prayer. If you have never read (or prayed) this incredible prayer, please do consider turning to page 148 in the BCP and looking at it. One special section of the Litany is called “The Supplication” (BCP p. 152), which can be prayed “especially in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster.”

It was the Supplication I found myself praying in the wake of the Pulse mass murder. Sometimes, in the midst of tragedies like this, my own words in prayer simply do not suffice. That is why I continue to be so grateful for the Book of Common Prayer.

As we continue to process the horrible violence that surrounds, as we struggle to make sense of the murder of innocent people, as we struggle with continued violence against GLBTQ people, I ask you to pray, of course, for the souls of those who have died, pray for the turning of  the hearts of our enemies and pray for peace. I also do invite you to pray the Supplication:
V.     From our enemies defend us, O Christ;
R.     Graciously behold our afflictions.
V.     With pity behold the sorrows of our hearts;
R.     Mercifully forgive the sins of thy people. 

V.     Favorably with mercy hear our prayers;
R.     O Son of David, have mercy upon us.
V.     Both now and ever vouchsafe to hear us, O Christ;
R.     Graciously hear us, O Christ; graciously hear us, O Lord

Sunday, June 12, 2016

4 Pentecost

Dedication of the Good Samaritan Window

 June 12, 2016

 Luke 10.25-37

+ Today begins with a confession. According to our Lectionary—those prescribed readings that we hear each Sunday morning, the scriptures we heard this  Sunday aren’t  scheduled to be read until July 10.  But it seems unusual to me that we celebrate this Sunday—the Sunday on which we dedicate our Good Samaritan window—without those scriptures, but then do it again in a few weeks. So, I made an executive decision—hoping that God will forgive—and switched that Sunday’s with today’s.

Even if we weren’t dedicating this window, our Gospel reading this morning is an important reading.  No, I’m not being emphatic enough. It’s not just an important reading. It is, in my opinion, the single most important reading for us as Christians. Am I being clear on this? It’s THE most important reading we have as Christians.  I’m not going to sugarcoat it.

And, for those of you who have known for me for any period, you know how I feel about what is being said in today’s Gospel. For me, this is IT. This is the heart of our Christian faith. This is where the “rubber meets the road.”

When anyone has asked me, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” it is this reading I direct them to. When anyone asks me, must I do this or that to be “saved,” I direct them to this reading. This is what it is all about.

So, why do I feel this way? Well, let’s take a look this all-important reading.  We have two things going on. First, we have this young lawyer. He comes, in all earnestness, to seek from Jesus THE answer.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

What must I do to be saved? And, guess what? He gets an answer. But, as always, Jesus flips it all around and gives it all a spin.  Jesus answers a question with a question. He asks the lawyer,

“what does the law say?”

This law—the answer—is called The Shema. The Shema is heart of Jewish faith. It is so important that it is prayed twice a day, once in the morning, once at night.  It is important, because it is the heart of all faith in God.

So, what is the answer? The answer is,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, , and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And then, Jesus says this:

“Do this, and you will live.”

I will repeat it.

Do this—Love God, love your neighbor—and you will live.

This is what we must do to be saved.  Now that sounds easy. But Jesus complicates it all with a parable. Which is the second part of our reading.

And it’s a great story.  Everyone likes this story of the Good Samaritan.  After all, what isn’t there to like in this story?

Well…actually…in Jesus’ day, there were people who would not have liked this story.   In Jesus’s day, this story would have been RADICAL. The part of this story that most of us miss is the fact that when Jesus told this parable to his audience, he did so with a particular scheme in mind.  

The term “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron for those Jews listening to Jesus that day. Samaritans were, in fact,  quite hated.  They were viewed as heretics, as defilers, as unclean.  They were seen as betrayers of the Jewish faith. So, when Jesus tells this tale of a Good Samaritan, it no doubt rankled a few nerves in the midst of that company.

With this in mind, we do need to ask ourselves some very hard questions. Hard questions we did not think we would be asked on this Good Samaritan Sunday, as we dedicate this beautiful window.   You, of course, know where I am going with this. So, here goes:
Who are the Samaritans in our understanding of this story?

For us, the story only really hits home when we replace that term “Samaritan” with the name of someone we don’t like at all. Maybe it is “Fundamentalist,” or “Tea Party Republican” Maybe it is “progressive” or “Social Democrat” or “bleeding heart liberal.” Maybe it is “Muslim” or “Foreigner” or “Panhandler.”  Maybe it is “Redneck” or “Racist” or “Misogynist” or “Homophobe.” Or maybe it is Donald Trump.
It’s not hard to find the names. But it is maybe hard for some of us to put that word “good” in front of some of those names. It’s hard for a good many of us to find anything “good” in any of these people. For us, to face the fact that the Good Fundamentalist, or the Good Tea Party Republican or  the Good Socialist Democrat or the Good Redneck could stop and help us out might not sit so comfortably with us.

We—good socially-conscious Christians that we are—are also guilty sometimes of being complacent.  We too find ourselves sometimes feeling quite smug about our “advanced” or “educated” ways of thinking about society and God and the Church.  And we too demonize those we don’t agree with sometimes.
It is easy for me to imagine Christ living in me personally, despite all the shortcomings and negative things I know about myself.  I know that, sometimes, I am a despicable person and yet, I know that Christ is alive in me.  So, why is it so hard for me to see that Christ is present even in those whom I dislike, despite those things that make them so dislikeable to me?

For me, this is the hard part.  Not only recognizing that Christ may live in and work through others, but actually seeing Christ alive in those people I have personally demonized is really one of the hardest things for me to do as a Christian.

The Gospel story today—and this window—shows us that we must love and serve and see Christ alive in even those whom we demonize—even if those same people demonize us as well.  Being a follower of Jesus means loving even those we, under any other circumstance, simply can’t stand.  And this story is all about being jarred out of our complacent way of seeing things.

It’s also easy for some of us to immediately identify ourselves with the Good Samaritan.  We, of course, would help someone stranded on the road, even when it means making ourselves vulnerable to the robbers who might be lurking nearby.  

But I can tell you that as I hear and read this parable, I—quite uncomfortably—find myself sometimes identifying with the priest and the Levite.  I am the one, as much as I hate to admit it, who could very easily, out of fear or because of the social structure in which I live, find myself crossing over to the other side of the road.  And I hate the fact that my thoughts even go there.

But… Something changes this whole story. Something disrupts this story completely.

Love changes this whole story.

When we truly live out that commandment of Jesus to us that we must love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, we know full-well that those social and political and personal boundaries fall to the ground. Love always defeats our dislike of someone.  Love always defeats the political boundaries that divide us.  Love always softens our hearts and our stubborn wills and allows us see the goodness and love that exists in others, even when doing so is uncomfortable and painful for us.

Now I say that hoping I don’t come across as na├»ve.  I know that my love of the racist will not necessarily change the racist. I know that loving the homophobe will not necessarily change the homophobe.  Trust me, I know that loving Donald Trump (and even saying those words aloud is difficult for me)  is not going to change Donald Trump!

But you know what?  It does change me.   It does cause me to look—as much as I hate to do so—into the eyes of that person and see something more.   It does cause me to look at the person and realize that God does love this person despite their failings and their faults—just as God loves me despite my failings and my faults.

These are the boundaries Jesus came to break down in us.   And these are the boundaries Jesus commands us to break down within ourselves.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks Jesus.  And what’s the answer?

Love is the answer.  We must love—fully and completely.

“Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.”

It not just about our personal relationship with Jesus.  It not about accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. Yes, you should have a personal relationship with Christ. But, that’s not ultimately what saves us.  He nowhere says that is what will save us. What will save us?  Love will save us.  Love of God. Love of one another.  Loving ourselves. Loving what God loves.  Love will save us.  Love will liberate us.  Love will free us.  Jesus doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Because let’s face it. We are the Samaritan in this story. We are—each of us—probably despised by someone in our lives. We, to someone, represent everything they hate.

The fact is, God is not expecting us to be perfect. God worked through the Samaritan—the person who represented so much of what everyone who was hearing that story represents as wrong. If God can work through him, let me tell God can work through you and me.

I think it’s very appropriate on this Sunday in which we dedicate this beautiful window for me to close with an analogy I deeply love and have used on multiple occasions, but probably never more appropriately than on this Sunday. Probably my favorite poet, as most of you know, is the Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert. Herbert only wrote one book of poetry, called The Temple. In it, he wrote poems about different aspects of the church building. Of course, we also wrote about the Windows.  I’ve preached many times on this poem before.

This “The Windows” by George Herbert

Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

But when thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy Preachers; then the light and glorie
More rev’rend grows, & more doth win:
Which else shows watrish, bleak, & thin.

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and aw: but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the eare, not conscience ring.

We, “brittle crazie glass,” can still be a window through which God’s grace shines. We do not have to be perfect. We can be a cracked window. We can be a dirty window. But even despite this, despite whatever in us might be “waterish, bleak and thin,” “colors and light” combining and mingling, can show through us. 

Let us be what this window is. As it takes and reflects the light upon us, let us take and reflect God’s light and goodness and love on others.  Let us love, as this windows tells us. Let us love fully and radically and completely. Let us love God.   Let us love each other. Let us love ourselves.  Let us love all that God loves.  Let us love our neighbor.

Who is our neighbor?   Our neighbor is not just the one who is easy to love.  Our neighbor is also the one who hardest to love. Love them—God, our neighbor—and yes, even ourselves.  And you and I--we too will live, as Jesus says.  And we will live a life full of the light we, like this window, have reflected in our own lives.   And that light that will never be taken from us. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

3 Pentecost

June 5, 2016

Psalm 30; Luke 7. 11-17

+ This coming week, I will be observing the twelfth anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. It’s always an exciting time for me, as you all know. I like to look back over my years as priest, and also to look forward. It’s certainly been an interesting experience for me.  And it is nowhere near what I initially thought it would be like twelve years ago.

But one of the areas I have deeply loved and appreciated in my ministry as a priest has been funerals. I know. That might sound morbid. But I truly do appreciate being the person there for people at this very important time in their lives.

Now, when I say I appreciate being a priest for funerals, I don’t simply mean being there to do the funeral. Rather, I also realize that much of what I do with funerals is in the days and weeks and months afterward. Because, let me tell, having been through my own dark season of mourning in my own life, I know that the really difficult time after the death of a loved one isn’t in the immediate aftermath of the death. It is in the days and weeks and months following the funeral. It is in those lonely days when the mourners have dispersed, and the condolence cards have been read, and the long-haul of mourning begins. That is when the priest and pastor needs to step up and reach out.

Often, the offer to help is politely declined. Mourning is a very private affair, after all.  But it is then that our ministry begins of prayer and support—even if it is from a distance.  There is a unique kind of ministry we have all been called to do when we minister to mourners—to widows and widowers, to the newly orphaned (and orphans, let me remind you are not just children—orphans come in all ages), to all those experiencing that dark season of mourning, which is, at times, a truly bleak season.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find someone who is going through that dark season of mourning.  We find a widow who also has had a few things happen to her that were definitely hard.  The story of the widow and her son makes very little sense unless we have some basic understanding of the culture in which it occurred.

From our perspective, it is a sad story in and of itself.  A widow has lost her son.   She is weeping. Jesus tells her not to sorrow and raises him from the dead. Very nice.

But there is more going on here than what we might fully appreciate at first. The fact that the woman is a widow is an important factor in the story.  

Women, as we probably have figured out by this point, in that time and that place—in that culture—were not seen as equal to men.   A woman’s identity was not her own.  The only real importance a woman had was in relation to the males in her life—whether it be her father, her husband, her brother, or her son.  A woman could not make money for herself, certainly not enough on which to live.   Whatever money she had she received from the men in her life.  A woman legally had no status in that culture.  So, if a husband died, a widow was in trouble.  Unless there was another man to take care of her—her son, her brother, her husband’s brother, her father, a new husband—she became destitute.

That is why this story is so important.  That is why Jesus makes the issues he does here.  With the death of this widow’s son, if there was no one else, she would be lost in a sense.   She would have nothing.   She would probably be out on the street, begging for money.

Elsewhere in scripture, in Psalm 68, we hear God described as

“the defender of widows.”  

It’s a phrase we don’t hear much anymore.   It doesn’t have the same meaning for us as it did in other times and places.  And because it doesn’t have much meaning for us, for the most part, we don’t give a statement like that much thought.

God is “the defender of widows.”

But knowing what we know now, we realize how powerful a statement it really is.

God is “a defender of widows”

The God of Jesus truly was—and continues to be—the widow’s refuge, as our Gospel for today shows.  Of course, in our day and age, widows for the most part are not by any means in the same predicaments as the woman in today’s Gospel is.  Widows—women for the most part—are not seen as marginalized by our culture anymore.

So, since widows in our day are not seen as marginalized as they were in Jesus’ day, does that mean this story and God’s title as “defender of windows” have no meaning for us now?  Not necessarily.  I think a better question needs to be asked:

who are the widows in our midst today?

Now, I’m not talking here about those who have lost husbands and wives, because that is not the real meaning behind the story of the widow in our Gospel this morning. The “widows” in our lives are those living on the fringes.  
The “widows” in our lives are the ones who are wandering about, discarded by our culture, looked down on by most of us, the ones who are shunned and ostracized.   The one who, by themselves, have little or no meaning in our society.

So, who are the “widows”?  Who are marginalized?  Who are the forgotten ones, the ignored ones, the invisible ones? Who are the ones on the fringes of our culture?  Who are the ones on the fringes of our own community here at St. Stephen’s?

Because it is those people that Jesus is telling us, by his actions and by his words, to care for.  It is those people our Baptismal Covenant demands we reach out and care for.  It is those people that Jesus commands us—and he does command it of us—to love, as we want to be loved.

If we look around us, we might not readily see them.  In Jesus’ day it was easier to see them. There was the widow, the leper, the Samaritan, the tax collector.

Today, they go by other names.  You know what names they go by for you.  If you take a moment to think of who the marginalized person is in your midst, you’ll be able to name them.  The best way to find this person is to ask this question of yourself:

who is the person I want least as my neighbor?

Who is the person I don’t want living next to me or sitting next to me or sharing my table? Who is the person we don’t see in our midst?  That person then becomes the marginalized person in our midst. And that is the person Jesus is telling us, throughout the Gospels again and again, to love as we would want to be loved.  And this is the point we can take with us as well.

Today’s Gospel is really a beautiful one.  Jesus has raised this widow’s son and, in doing so, he helps not only the son by giving him back life, he helps the widow as well by giving her life—or a better life—as well.  This is what happens when we follow Jesus and believe in the God of Jesus.    He pushes us outside our comfort zones and as he does, as frightening as it might seem to us, he gives us life as well. We might stand there, bewildered, in that place. But we stand there renewed.

Like the young man in today’s Gospel, hopefully we emerge from our spiritual deaths able to make a positive difference in people’s lives around us.   Hopefully we, in those moments in which Jesus heals us and sends us on our way, are able to be a “widow’s refuge” to the “widows” in our own midst.

The message of today’s Gospel is not clear at first, but it becomes clear when we place it alongside our lives. The message of today’s Gospel is this:

Listen to the voice of God.

It saying to us, “be the widow’s refuge in your life.”   Let us look long and hard for the “widows” in our lives this day and this coming week.
Let us recognize those people who are lost, afraid, invisible,  struggling because their support is gone.  Let us look for those who are drifting, out there on the fringes.   Let us search out that person we never in a million years would want as a neighbor.  Let us reach out with love and compassion for those who are snubbed and mistreated by the society in which we all live.  Let us avoid the snubbing and the mistreatment of others in our own lives.

Like the God of Jesus, let us be the refuge and defender for that marginalized person.   Jesus raised us up, like the young man in today’s Gospel, from the shrouds and the decay of spiritual death.   Let us go forth from our own graves, singing the words of the psalm we shared today:

“You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.”

And in living, in dancing, in that all-encompassing joy, let us be the refuge and defender for someone who needs us.

3 Pentecost

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