Sermons

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter May 7, 2017 Mass by The Reverend Peter R. Powell

John 10:1-10

I Am the Gate

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

It’s nice to be back to Gospels of reasonable length!  A couple of caveats as I begin wrestling with this text.  As I was preparing for this morning’s sermon an article I read[1] cautioned me to look at the text before me and not the text for 4th Easter next year, John 10:11-18 the story of the Good Shepherd.  Today’s text talks about Jesus being the gate and gatekeeper, not the shepherd.  The image is a little muddled since he is both gate and gatekeeper and shepherd is mentioned; nevertheless, today I will focus on Jesus as the Gate.  Easter 4’s Gospel is always from John 10 and it is known as Good Shepherd Sunday but really only next year is totally about the Good Shepherd.

The 2nd caveat is that when I look at the Gospel my bias is to look at the Gospel as I find it and not read the teachings of theology back into it.  This might be startling this morning since we’re accustomed to think of the Trinity as the ordinary way that Christians understand the Godhead.  I accept the Trinity but I know three years ago when I preached from this pulpit on Trinity Sunday I confounded and disappointed some, and they told me I’d let them down, when I said that I accepted the Trinity and that was all I was going to say about it.  Nothing has changed.  I accept the Trinity as the Christian way of understanding how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are related, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.

To understand what Jesus is saying in much if not all of John, and especially this morning, we need a different understanding of Jesus’s relationship with the Father.  While what I’m about to say can be tempered and usually is my reading of John supports an understanding of hierarchy that challenges our common understanding of the Trinity.  Jesus is clear throughout John that everything he has comes from the Father and he is subordinate to the Father.  He is dependent upon the Father.  Yes, he is the coeternal force used to create the World, he is the Word[2] and he will identify himself by the name God uses when God reveals Godself to Moses, I Am, but this morning Jesus is giving himself into another reality.  He is the gate.  He is subordinate, crucial, but he is God’s as one scholar writes, honest broker with us.

So Jesus is clear this morning that he is the Gate.  He is the access to abundant life.  Elsewhere Jesus has a lot to say about the amendment of life necessary to be saved but not this morning.  This morning Jesus wants us to know that following him assures us that we will have life abundantly.  He doesn’t otherwise qualify it.  We hear his voice, we follow him and we enter into the abundant life by going through the Gate.

Not only is he the Gate but nowhere in this Gospel does he say that the Gate is difficult to find or to get through.  Jesus is amazingly open to inviting anyone who recognizes his voice through the gate.  Jesus practices a radical theology of abundance.  There is enough salvation, enough life, for all of us to enjoy it abundantly.  In this image Jesus is challenging the fear that characterizes the rest of our lives.  Is this an eschatological challenge, that is, does it only treat eternal life or is it a here and now challenge and therefore does it affect how I live my life today?  If you’ve heard me before you know I believe it is an existential challenge to be met today.

Salvation, abundant life, is not a scarce resource.  If we are Christian and believe this then we are asked to model what it means for Jesus to be the Gate by being the Gate ourselves.  Do we do that?  Or do we live as if we’re in a time of scarce resources in which your having something means that there is less for me to have?  Do we as Christians live as if there is so much joy in our lives because we know the Gate and we know we’ll go through it that we treat everyone we meet regardless of their racial, geographical, economic or social background as welcome to go through the Gate too?  Or do we rationalize and say that this is an eschatological gate and we need to be ready for everyone to get through when they die but right now resources are pinched and it is necessary for France to be First, or Britain to be First, or America to be First, because frankly being second is for losers?

As I read the Gospels they are primarily about how we live this life.  They are about how we demonstrate today that we know that all that is of most importance, our salvation, is assured so we can risk a theology of abundance now and let everyone through the Gate.  We don’t need walls whether of steel, concrete, wire or fear.  We need ways for people to come to us.  I was amazed in the NewsHour reports this week on South Sudan to hear the Ugandans saying that all refugees are welcome in their country.  Uganda is hardly a wealthy country but it remembers being war-torn and it is open to refugees.  We need to learn from them.  They are the gate by practicing radical hospitality.  They aren’t deporting people; they’re welcoming them.  They are caring.  We are called to actively care for everyone for whom Christ died and help them through the Gate, in this life not simply the next.  We are called not to fear them, exclude them or limit them but to behave believing in abundance that there is enough for all of us to have.  That is what Jesus means when he says he’s the Gate.  He doesn’t mean simply that living however we live we can rest assured that there is cheap grace and we’ll squeak through the Gate at the end.  As I read the Gospels they’re concerned with today not tomorrow.

I have no idea what life after death will look like.  When asked I invariably refer people to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.  Most depictions of eternal life bore me.  I don’t want to lead existence listening to or being part of a heavenly choir.  I trust that God has something else in mind. I do have a good idea of what difference following the Gospel would make in this life and I am convinced, faithful and devoted to saying that it means that my life conforms to Christ’s, the Gate, when I model my life on his.  I fall short of this but life’s a journey and I pray that my ability to conform will improve with time.  I know that I chose my parents well.  I selected a prosperous country and time to be born in.  In other words I won the genetic and prosperity lottery.  That of course is absurd.  I didn’t earn my parents, my citizenship or anything else.  I was born white, Christian, straight and privileged.  If I can’t give that away then I have achieved nothing in my life.  I gain no meaning and I compromise the Gospel when I fail to be as welcoming as the Gate in today’s Gospel is.  I pray that we will all walk through it and model how we live on conforming our lives today to opening gates in this world to model the destination and our confidence in abundance now.

 

[1] Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J., “”I Am the Door” (John 10:7, 9): Jesus the Broker in the Fourth Gospel.” CBQ, 69/2 (2007) 271-291. Also James P Martin, “John 10:1-10”, Interpretation, 32/2 (1978) 171-174.

[2] My understanding of the relationship of the Prologue to the rest of John would take longer to explain than this sermon can accommodate.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany January 31, 2016 Mass by The Reverend Peter R. Powell

Luke 4:21-32

Jesus as Elijah

We continue in the Gospel this morning the reading from last week. Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town, and last week he read from Isaiah 61, then this morning he tells them what the reading means. 

Today’s Gospel begins with the response to Jesus’s teaching.  It seems to me that in the response to Jesus’s preaching the congregation reacts that he sounds nice and isn’t it wonderful that Joseph’s little boy can sound so good.  Then they immediately turn on him and say we’ve heard you can do healing acts, let’s see some!  Jesus responds by talking about Elijah’s healing of gentiles and however or whatever he says, he so offends the Nazarenes that they threaten him to toss him off a cliff.

For at least the last 50 years most scholars have concluded that Luke is setting us up to see that God’s chosen people, the Jews, have rejected his Son as Messiah[1].  For scholars throughout this time the only sense to be made of the rejection of Jesus, even in Nazareth, is pointing to the replacement of Judaism by Christianity.  There are some serious problems with this understanding and therefore various scholars have reached the same conclusion from different and in some cases contradictory ways.  I won’t further belabor this point.

So, it should be no surprise that I am not following the scholarly consensus on what today’s Gospel and last week’s as its introduction, mean.  There are things we are convinced we know about the bible that just aren’t true.  For instance if you’ve thought at all about who in the Gospels represents Elijah, and I understand this is not a live or burning question for most of us, you would say that John the Baptist functions in this role.  However there is very little support in the Gospels for seeing John the Baptist as the Elijah figure.  I am persuaded, following at least one scholar[2] that the figure spoken about in the Isaiah 61 passage we read last week, is Elijah and Jesus is comparing himself to Elijah and the good citizens of Nazareth as the people who confronted Elijah.  The argument proving this would delay us this morning so I’ll save it for coffee hour.  I invite you instead to accept that this reading has many advantages not least that it doesn’t portray Christianity as the replacement of Judaism.

Just to catch you up quickly, being compared with the Israelites in the time of Elijah is not a flattering thing.  No one would be flattered to be one of those who rejected Elijah and his message of justice, since by the time of Jesus, Elijah was a revered prophet of ancient and blessed memory.  Jesus is saying that the way you’re treating me is the same as the way Elijah was treated and this won’t work out well for you.

The advantage to me in viewing the text this way is that it speaks to our condition today.  We treat any thought that Jesus might be creative and acting in our world today as a fairy tale and spend our efforts trying to box the gospel in by observing scrupulously the ordinances we often read into it.  We as an American society, believe firmly that believing ought to give us a tangible benefit.  Witness the success of the Prosperity Gospel.  Many believe that by worshiping in a certain way, mouthing certain words, and tithing to churches that spend lavishly on their clergy, parishioners will be blessed with wealth.  In other words saying pious things are more important than doing acts of kindness to, for instance, the poor and homeless.

Others of course believe that this is absurd.  They believe on the other hand that not only is there no prosperity Gospel there is no gospel hope at all.  If there were a God how would he permit so many really nice and ethical people to suffer?  As you’ve doubtless noticed this is a major theme of mine, the whole question of theodicy or why is there evil in the world.  I wrestle with this constantly.

So imagine we are transposed to Nazareth and we’re sitting in the congregation in the synagogue, or realize that this reading is for you and me today at St. Mary’s, or for those who will caucus on Monday night: Jesus reads to us that:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

I’ve listened carefully to the positions of all of the candidates, and I recognize that I’m treading on dangerous ground, and with the exception of one, no one is taking the verses Jesus’s quoted in Nazareth, seriously.  Most believe that since that one candidate is in his secular fashion listening to Isaiah 61, and by extension is Elijah, the implied “me” in the passage, he has no chance of being elected.

I hasten to add that I realize that this is a Presidential primary and election.  We are not electing a bishop or rector and it is unfair and unrealistic to expect the candidates to meet a Christian definition of ethics.  However, it also seems to me, as Christians, we should think about the gospel when we decide who to vote for.

We as the electorate have preferred to define Christianity by faith statements without content or change in behavior.  Or we have defined Christianity by our ability and commitment to be practical and realistic.  Unfortunately the Gospel is not realistic today, it was not realistic when Jesus preached from Isaiah 61, it was not realistic when Isaiah 61 was written, perhaps 500 or 600 years before Christ, and it was not realistic when Elijah prophesied 800 years before Christ.   We are called to live an unrealistic vision.  We are called to live as if it were realistic.  We are to make it real.  Our first concern is following the proclamation of Christ Jesus.  Whether the U.S. is called to do this is a different question and a political question.  The challenge for those who work to be faithful is to lead a gospel life in a challenging time when most see it as unrealistic.

This text is meant to show that Jesus, and Luke, was realistic about how costly the gospel is.  Jesus almost didn’t make it to the crucifixion.  He was almost eliminated in the 4th chapter.  He kept on preaching.  I can, and perhaps you can, see why we would rather read this chapter as showing the superiority of Christianity to Judaism because it removes the challenge.  However, if we see ourselves as sitting in Nazareth as those who were there, then the Gospel is not meant to feed our notions of success but instead to challenge our faithfulness to what is important to God.

 

[1] Recently this is the position of Jeffery S. Siker, “”First to the Gentiles”: A Literary Analysis of Luke 4:16-30.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 111/1 (1992) pp. 73-90.  See also Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible commentary.

[2] John C. Poirier, “Jesus as Elijianic Figure in Luke 4:16-30.”  The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71/2 (2009) pp. 349-363.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2017 Mass By the Reverend Stephen Gerth

Today’s gospel lesson is familiar, well-known for a lot of reasons. It’s the beginning of Jesus’ longest and most famous sermon, the one we call the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a passage countless Christians have memorized since Matthew’s gospel first circulated. The opening words of this sermon captured the experience of Matthew’s community of faith in a time of great persecution and great suffering.

Read More

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany January 29, 2017 Mass by The Reverend Peter R. Powell

Matthew 5:1-12

The Beatitudes

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."

How to begin a sermon using the Beatitudes as the Text given all that’s happened in the world around us recently?  While I could say several pointed things about the transition and especially last night and the equivalence of sojourners and refugees, they would all be predictable so while satisfying not really helpful.  So instead let me turn to a Netflix documentary 13th, Barbara and I watched recently.  It’s a documentary about the American prison system and its impact on African-Americans up through the Obama Administration.  The title, 13th, refers to the 13th amendment making slavery unconstitutional and points out how we have continued to enslave African-Americans in the prison system.  It provided a helpful reminder that while I have many huge problems with the new administration we, this country, didn’t begin behaving unethically, or in an unchristian manner in the last few weeks.  We have been living contrary to the Beatitudes for our entire existence.  It’s just harder to ignore now.

When I was still working and heading an agency that provided supportive housing and other services to the mentally ill homeless I enjoyed working with conservative politicians so we might be entering into a more productive time to be on the radical incarnational side of politics.  The reason I enjoyed it was because neither I nor the conservative had to pretend that we were on the same side of anything.  Be it a governor, congressman (and they were men), first selectperson (wealthy Connecticut town term for mayor and they were men and women), or local zoning committee member if they were conservative they didn’t have to pretend to like me or support my cause and I didn’t have to pretend to like them or appreciate where they were coming from.  On the other hand, were they members of the Democratic Party then they would constantly ask me to temper my requests because they couldn’t be seen pandering to the far left and threatening property values.  At the same time nor could they afford to alienate my supporters so they wanted me to make it easier for them.  I didn’t.  Liberals all had compassion for the homeless, they assured me, but if they alienated the less liberal by threatening property values then they would lose their office and I would be left with even less for the people I was advocating for.  They were wrong but could not be persuaded they were wrong.  So I preferred to work with people who opposed me openly.

One of the things we need to realize is that we are in the moment of a great opportunity to be the church.  When the powers that be are advocating for positions that stand in such opposite and obvious contradiction to the Gospel then the church can stand clearly for what Jesus cared about and the Beatitudes tell us what that is pretty clearly.  So we have been given, on a platter, a marvelous opportunity to be the church.  We don’t have to pretend that politics is going to do anything for us.  I’m sorry to be cynical but politics won’t do enough regardless of the political standing of the politician.  Now we can clearly stake out positions which put those in power in awkward positions so no one can confuse being Christian with being Nice.  We can also stake out positions in contrast to those of Evangelical Religious figures like Franklin Graham who recently stated that refugees are “Not a bible issue.”[1]

A Pew Research Center Newsletter that came out on Thursday afternoon[2] noted that nearly all Presidents have identified themselves as Christians, and nearly half have been either Episcopalian or Presbyterian.  Trump is Presbyterian.  And yet we watched the Oscar Nominated Documentary, 13th.  It’s hard to reconcile a Christian government with the cruelty detailed from the earliest days of our nation to today to largely black men, enslaved or incarcerated.  When I read the bible, and I say the office daily so I read it frequently, I find no way to reconcile the faith that guides my life with the government I’ve permitted to function in my name.  So things have been strange since January 20 but hardly discontinuous with how they were before.

What would happen if we took the Beatitudes seriously?  What if we believed that Jesus meant for us to live by them?  No one ever has.  At various times in Western History we’ve assumed that monastic communities should live by them but we’ve assumed they’re too hard and impractical for you and me to actually observe them.  So we haven’t tried.

I come here week after week looking for you to help me figure out how my life would look were I to take Christianity seriously.  In particular I come to an Anglo-Catholic parish with a diverse congregation because I want you to help me figure out how my life would look were I to take Christianity seriously.  I began coming here more than 15 years ago because I need help figuring out what the Beatitudes mean when there is no denying that life is loud, sometimes cruel, always challenging and hugely diverse.  How do I live in a way that doesn’t apologize for the many cruelties we inflict of course on each other but more especially on those of us who were not born with the advantages I was born with?  What does it mean if I believe that you are crucial to my understanding who and whose I am?

The Beatitudes tell us that Blessed are those in a position of vulnerability, weakness or lack and that the Kingdom of God will be theirs.  The word blessed is difficult to translate in this context.  The Greek word behind it, makarios, doesn’t mean blessed as in fortunate or gifted but instead it describes the feeling the High Priest felt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple.  It is occasionally translated happy but I am persuaded from recent reading that it is best translated, honored.  Honored are you when you’re poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, merciful, peacemakers, pure in heart, persecuted for righteousness sake and finally honored are you when men revile you and utter all kinds of evil against falsely on my account.  Honored.  You and I are being told that to be authentically Christian, not American, not Successful, not Nice, but Christian, we must Honor that which God honors and today’s Gospel spells it out clearly.  I urge you to read an article by Stanley Hauerwas[3], a retired professor from Duke, on the difference between being a Christian and a Patriot.

It would be nice if the Federal or State Government would adopt what we think is central.  They never have and they never will.  That is unavoidably clear now and it has been before.  Sometimes the Powers that Be think it in their interest to placate us.  Sometimes we permit ourselves to be placated and rejoice in having people in authority we respect, pander to us and even worship in an Episcopal Church.  However, movies like the 13th remind us that all the while evil is being done to someone vulnerable and the church is only the church when it Honors first and above all the vulnerable.  We have been given a moment of clarity on this and I hope we will seize the next four years to work, not against the Administration but for the Gospel.  There is more than enough to engage in to make this time one that shows it was touched by Faith.

 

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/frankling-graham-refugees_us_5889049ce4b061cf898c6c42

[2] https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/159dc58c514d4b85

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/01/27/christians-dont-be-fooled-trump-has-deep-religious-convictions/?utm_term=.6056302eabd7

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 22, 2017 Mass By the Reverend Stephen Gerth

Year A: Amos 3:1–8; Psalm 139:1–9*; 1 Corinthians 1:10–17; Matthew 4:12–27*

Two Sundays ago we heard the story of Jesus being baptized. Last Sunday we did not hear the very next story in Matthew, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. That lesson has long been reserved for the First Sunday in Lent—Matthew this year, Mark next year, and in the third year, Luke.[1] In the fourth gospel, the Baptist is known simply as John. Although he figures prominently at the beginning, he does not baptize the Word made flesh.

Read More

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2017 Solemn Evensong By the Reverend Stephen Gerth

The Genesis reading tonight is all of the seventh chapter of Genesis. But I want to begin by reading four verses from the sixth chapter that tell us why God did what he did. The translation is by Professor Robert Alter, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley:

Read More

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2017 Mass By the Reverend Stephen Gerth

I think it was in a ninth or tenth grade English class that I learned about the power of an opening line. The example my teacher used was the famous first sentence in Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick—“Call me Ishmael.”[1] Though I knew who Ishmael was; he was Abraham’s first son, but not the son of his wife, I didn’t know how the author was using his name. My teacher showed us how knowing the story of Ishmael of the Bible told us something about the Ishmael of the novel. Fortunately, we weren’t being asked to read Moby Dick—and I confess that I have never finished reading it. Our teacher was teaching us something about how to read—how to think.

Read More

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 8, 2017 Solemn Evensong By the Reverend Stephen Gerth

Year 1: Genesis 1:1–2:3; John 1:1–7, 19–20, 29-34; Romans 6:3–1

Today we began reading Genesis. The way the church calendar falls this year, we will be hearing Genesis at Evening Prayer until the last two Sundays before Ash Wednesday. On first Sunday in Lent we pick it up again. In the Fourth week of Lent we will be in Exodus. But today I want to mention only one thing about this first creation story.

Read More

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 8, 2017, by the Reverend Stephen Gerth

Augustine of Hippo thought Mark’s gospel was an abstract from Matthew,[1] though I’m sure many thoughtful readers over the centuries must have realized this made no sense. As Raymond Brown pointed out: why would Mark leave out things like Jesus’ birth and the Lord’s Prayer or decide to include Jesus saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”[2]

Read More

Sermon for the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost October 30, 2016 by The Reverend Peter R. Powell

Luke 19:1-10

Saving the Lost

We have before us an unusual story.  Zacchaeus is both a Chief Tax Collector and Rich and Jesus doesn’t condemn him for either.  Zacchaeus is curious about Jesus and wants to see him.  We learn that he is short so to see Jesus he climbs a sycamore tree.  This too is unusual.  We believe that adult male dignity was important in the Gospel era and Zacchaeus does an undignified act, he climbs a tree.

We know much about tax collectors and the wealthy from the Gospels.  While Jesus compares a tax collector favorably to a Pharisee when the Pharisee is prideful that he is not a sinner like the tax collector[1], it is nevertheless true that a tax collector, for reasons that won’t delay us today, are universally sinners and outside the community.  Likewise just before this passage Jesus has told the Rich Young Man[2] that he must sell all that he has if we hopes to be part of the kingdom.  Luke’s audience would expect Zacchaeus to be condemned by Jesus.

We know that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, for the last time, to experience first Palm Sunday and then the Passion.  However, he sees Zacchaeus and stops his journey to have a meal with him.  Why?  The last verse of the Gospel reading discloses his reason.  He has come to seek out and save the lost.  This is the central purpose of the Gospel.  Christianity does not, according to scripture, exist to give us a good set of morals.  It does not exist to give us fire insurance; that is protection from damnation.  It does not exist to make us individually pious.  It does not exist to make this a Christian nation and has no interest in whether we say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.  These are at best penultimate aspects of leading a faithful life.  The true purpose of our Christian life, and especially our faith as Anglo-Catholic Christians who historically have focused on the incarnational aspect of our faith, is on saving the lost.

I am preaching this morning in part to urge you to join me in a study of Vol 2 of Luke otherwise known as the Acts of the Apostles, beginning next Sunday and running for all 4 Sundays in November and then resuming in Lent.  It is unfortunate that we didn’t use the cognates of the Greek name for the name of this book in English.  In Greek, Acts is the praxeis apostolon or The Practice of the Apostles.  In Acts we learn how the early church formed itself and discovered its mission.  As Luke tells us in today’s Gospel the mission is not to build churches, hire clergy or worship in the right way.  The mission is to Save the Lost.  Zacchaeus personifies one of the lost who wants to be found.  Jesus knows this, how we don’t know, and interrupts his journey to the Crucifixion to have a meal with someone everyone knew was lost, a wealthy tax collector.  The practice of Christianity is to Save the Lost.

Our mission is rarely directed at wealthy powerful people and I will not be suggesting this morning that we redirect our mission.  In visiting Zacchaeus Jesus is reminding us that none of us, regardless of our sinfulness, is automatically beyond salvation.  In our culture we associate wealth, mostly, with success and we court the wealthy so they will share some of it with us.  So the point I want to make is that no one is beyond salvation, not that we need to begin an outreach to the wealthy.

I talk about St. Mary’s frequently since I live less than ½ mile from the Episcopal Church in Westport and people wonder why we come into Times’ Square.  Most assume I come here because I enjoy the Mass, and I do, and the opportunity to swing a really big thurible, and I enjoy it, and the chance to chant the liturgy, and however inadequately I do it, I enjoy it.  However, we attend regularly for none of those reasons.  We are faithful in our worship here because of the diversity we find here.  We live out the life of Saving the Lost here.  My faith is strengthened by the diversity here. 

This fall I am doing a lot of teaching.  In September and October I spent Wednesdays at St. Mark’s, New Canaan.  St. Mark’s is a huge wealthy congregation in one of the suburbs with a higher per capita income than Westport.  I spoke to the bible study there about St. Mary’s.  One of the women in attendance was curious enough to come here on a weeknight for Evening Prayer.  She shared with me how wonderful it was to be at Evening Prayer with a nun across the chancel from her and a shoe shine man in the pew behind her.  She knew that’s what he did because he had his box with him.  He knew the entire liturgy and was obviously there intentionally and fully participating.  Then to top it off she noticed the homeless people in the pews and was impressed that no one was trying to remove them from the church while the liturgy went on.  She clearly recognized that St. Mary’s was taking its mission seriously to Save the Lost by welcoming those with very real and practical needs.  We aren’t simply preaching about it, we’re living it.

I have been so moved by this part of our life together, and by the stewardship mailing, that Barbara and I have increased our pledge by more than 10% this year.  There is joy in Saving the Lost.

Zacchaeus was simply curious.  He wanted to see Jesus.  When Jesus diverted himself to his house, Zacchaeus truly saw who Jesus was.  The worthy didn’t appreciate this since Jesus was going to the house of a sinner.  Zacchaeus makes no promises to stop being a tax collector.  He does state what he does to accomplish his job ethically, but he doesn’t give it up.  In the eyes of the crowd he continues as a public sinner and Jesus is diminished because he isn’t recognizing that he has spent his good reputation on someone unworthy of it.  We are called to do the same.  We are called to see people as they really are and not as our culture tells us they are.  Jesus knows no hopeless human being.  We are all called on the one hand to be Zacchaeus and be willing to lose our dignity and on the other hand to be Jesus and recognize the desire in the other no matter how the other looks or is regarded.

We are about to end a difficult time in our national life together.  This Gospel reminds us that as Christians we are called to care for those whom Jesus cared for.  In other words the purpose of Incarnational Anglo-Catholicism is not to regard anyone with fear but to see everyone, regardless of their status in our society as someone else for whom Christ died

 

[1] Luke 18:9-14

[2] Luke 18

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 25, 2016 Mass by the Reverend Peter R. Powell

The Rich Man & Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

One of the most difficult tasks in reading a familiar parable is to read what’s really there and not read into it what we have heard about it in the past.  In this task I have been greatly aided by the work of Amy-Jill Levine[1], a Jewish Feminist New Testament scholar who teaches at Vanderbilt.  I highly recommend her scholarship.  It is readable and makes sense.  She challenges us to understand the Jewish context in which Jesus, a Jew, told his stories.  She is particularly helpful in removing our unconscious antisemitism from our reading of the Gospels.  Everything I say today is influenced by her scholarship.

We have typically seen this as a parable castigating the unfeeling Jewish contemporaries of Jesus and assumed that were we the man of wealth then we would’ve behaved differently.  The reality is that the Rich Man is not meant to be indicative of what first century Jews were like but instead is indicative of wealth is no indicator of blessing.  It illustrates that Yahweh has an absolute preference for the poor.

The reference to Moses and the Prophets drives home the point that Jesus was citing Jewish practice and pointing out how the Rich Man wasn’t following it.  On this level the parable tells us that our future is dependent today on how we treat the least among us, to speak of a contemporary issue for instance, how we accept and treat refugees from the Middle East.  It seems to me that we are being told that we are to worry first about saving them and only secondarily at best, about our safety in our relative wealth and security.  Helping the helpless always trumps[2] worry about there being enough or about whether or not we have eliminated all chance of a threat to our way of life.  Of course a secular president will worry about security and faithful Christians have to pressure him or her to extend more compassion.  We cannot simply say that we are electing a commander in chief and not a pastor in chief.  Our pressure on the government to be more compassionate must be unrelenting even in the face of security scares.  That I believe this way is doubtless not a surprise to anyone who has ever heard me preach.

On the other hand this parable makes me extremely uncomfortable.  This parable challenges everything I think about Salvation.  I conducted a funeral on Thursday for a man who died drunk after living many years as a drunk.  I didn’t tell his family that he was damned because his behavior had destroyed the family.  I don’t believe he was damned.  I talked about hope even for someone who died in anything but a state of grace.  I did not refer to this parable or even hint that there are conflicting ways of understanding who gets to heaven.  This parable clearly, as frequently, talks about the reality of judgment.  We see something similar in the Matthean apocalypse[3] where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats.  In the Gospels judgment is real and choices we make count.  I believe, but can’t find it in today’s text, that there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God.  As you may have tired of hearing me say I turn to Lewis’s The Great Divorce for my understanding.  So a primary challenge today is how do I be faithful to the text and preach on what’s there rather than what I certainly wish were there?

The Rich Man, otherwise unidentified, is described as being one of the 1%.  As happens to many of us who are wealthy we believe we are entitled to our position in life.  We may have pity on those who don’t have as much and we may envy those who have more, but we feel that we are at least entitled to what we have.  The Rich Man is described as having more than most rich men and he enjoys unusually fine clothing and rich food.  He accepts this as his condition in life.  He is, if he thinks about and probably doesn’t, entitled.

The poor man has been placed in his doorstep with the hope that the Rich Man will be generous to him.  The text says nothing about the poor man except his name Lazarus.

We have no idea whether or not either man was devout, prayed, and went to Temple or Synagogue.  We just know that one is wealthy beyond all imagining while the other is so poor he would find the scraps left for the dogs to be sufficient.  A 1st century Jew would’ve recognized that the behavior of the Rich Man is immoral and that Lazarus, regardless of who he is and what he did or didn’t do to get in the doorway, is deserving.  This is not a parable about the evil of wealth and the worthiness of the worthy poor.  It is a parable about our need to give of who we are and what we have regardless of the reason those who need it are in need.  In the parable there are only worthy poor, or to use an earlier reference, only worthy refugees.  Their condition makes them worthy.

They both die.  Lazarus ends up in the Bosom of Abraham, at the heavenly banquet while the Rich Man ends up in Hades in perpetual torment.  Whether or not this is an exhaustive statement on how our behavior in this life determines our eternal life it clearly says, you see I’m hedging because I’m uncomfortable, that our actions have consequences.  The Rich Man asks for an emissary from the dead, Lazarus, to go to his brothers because they will respect the uniqueness of a risen dead man, and Abraham refuses.  While as Christians we certainly see in this a reference to the denial of Jesus as the Christ it is unlikely in the extreme that Jesus meant it that way. In other words I don’t see it as a prediction of the Passion but instead as the simple fact of life.  Given what the Torah says and how the Rich Man has ignored its commandments to treat the poor with sharing the wealth, it is unlikely that a risen Lazarus would’ve made an impact.  Of course as Christians living in a cultural Christian world we know that the Resurrected Lord has had a vanishingly small impact on the way we as a people treat the poor and refugees.  We as a people are willing to give to the worthy poor and perhaps Syrian Christians who become refugees, but not to the unworthy poor who really, our culture tells us, can only blame themselves for their condition.  Lazarus has not led, as far as we know, an exemplary life of holy poverty.  He’s simply poor and dependent and therefore ends up in the Bosom of Abraham. The only hope the Rich Man had was to recognize his obligation to the poor, in this case Lazarus, and failing that he suffers the consequences.  I don’t and won’t water down the starkness of this conclusion and it troubles me greatly.  If we are to be faithful then we must as the Gospels say repeatedly, express that faith by our tangible, not just spiritual, love for the poor.  Not the poor in spirit, not the poor seeking to better themselves, but the poor.  This is a hard gospel but at least this Sunday the Gospel clearly tells us that our salvation depends upon following it and treating the poor as Abraham did.  Not an easy Gospel.  No wiggle room.  A challenging Gospel but the Gospel nevertheless.  We can do this.  Other weeks other discussions but this is always in the background.  Our treatment of the poor today is crucial to our being Christian.  I would like to say that it enhances our Christianity but this text says that it defines it.  This is not the only word on the subject but it is a constant theme.

 

[1] Short Stories by Jesus.

[2] Pun intended.

[3] Matthew 25:31-46

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost July 3, 2016 Mass by the Reverend Peter R. Powell

They saw Satan Fall…

Luke 10:1-20

In reading the text for the Gospel I’m arrested by the translation of the line in the last paragraph that runs “I watched Satan fall from heaven…” Every English version says, “I watched Satan…” with the object of the pronoun being Jesus.

The disciples are returning from a mission trip and they are elated that the demons have been made subject to them.  Jesus responds in the Greek saying “they watched Satan fall from heaven…[1]” with the object of the pronoun being the demons.  In other words he is saying that the demons were subject to the disciples because the demons had already seen their lord, Satan, vanquished.

As many of you have heard me say, all translations are lies and only trust a translator who knows he’s lying.  There is a slim grammatical possibility that this text can be translated “I (Jesus) saw Satan fall…” but the easiest interpretation is “they (demons) saw Satan fall…” yet no version of the 21 bibles in English I looked at takes this route.

The text means something different if the demons are the subject than if Jesus is.  My prejudice is to go for the most controversial and as it happens the easiest reading, and that means the demons are making an observation.  They are surrendering or at least being subject to authority, because they know that Satan has been defeated.

What are the signs today that Jesus has defeated the demons?  It’s very easy to find signs that the demons still rule our world.  Recent events would indicate that we are powerless in the face of evil.  We frequently act as if the only rational response to evil is to meet it head on and in kind.

Is there another way?  Can we live as if we actually believe that Jesus is winning and not be destroyed by the critique that we are naïve?  Can we see ourselves as on a Spiritual Journey the end of which is determined? Evil is defeated!

Luke maintains that the demons even if defeated, are making it difficult for us to lead a holy life.  Here we are in the 10th chapter and the 70 have exercised power over the demons.

Now if I like the disciples, had been able to exorcise demons (I only seem to exercise mine) I imagine that my faith would’ve been unshakable.  I would’ve experienced an undeniable proof that Jesus was Lord and had defeated Satan so that Satan should have no power over me.  From my translation of today’s Gospel, even the demons know that they have been defeated.  But they’re waging a valiant if ultimately losing battle against the side of good.

We know, because we’ve read the rest of Luke, that Jesus dies alone.  His disciples all leave him.  Despite the demons having seen that Satan is defeated, they are successful in getting the disciples to doubt and having gotten them to doubt, Jesus is crucified alone.

However, after the resurrection the apostles and others become willing even to be martyred for the Risen Christ.  After the resurrection the disciples and apostles realize that they have seen the triumph of God over death/Satan.  They can now do anything.

Except of course the Second Coming, the Parousia, doesn’t happen.  Christians begin to wonder about the immediate importance of faith and the demons are once again successful.  This passage was probably introduced so that the church would be encouraged.  The reference is unique to Luke.  Its impact is taken up in Luke 11:18 where we read about Satan’s house being divided against itself, and if divided against itself it cannot stand.  Luke is reassuring his congregation that they can withstand the temptations of the demons because the end is assured; Christ is victorious.

Imagine a world in which we actually lived as if we believed that!  There are many reasons why I am not an elected official.  Chief among them being that I frequently display an inability to compromise.  But it seems to me that in many aspects of our lives being a faithful Christian and being an elected official puts us in an untenable position.  Unless we display, as most politicians do, an understanding and appreciation for realpolitik we will be dismissed as having our heads in the clouds.  We reward politicians who have their feet on the ground and are practical.  The problem is that we are given a gospel which is not practical and calls us to not compromise with the practical.  We are given a vision to which we must, if we wish to be true to the Gospel, adhere.

For much of the 20th Century it was enough for the church to succeed, by which I mean to build new and grand buildings, to employ clergy, to provide social services, to be a moderating influence on power by simply standing for the American Way and seeing it as congruent with Christianity.  Many in the Episcopal Church today long for those days.  We were relevant, successful and respected.  We didn’t change but the world around us changed and despite our continuing to act, in many congregations, as this were still the 1950s, society has rejected our message.

The work of the demons in our world today seems to me to be focused on chipping away at any sense of security we have.  Imagine if we lived in a world that was not ruled by Fear?  That is really what the gospel today is telling us.  Our Fears are not based in reality because evil has been defeated.  Of course it matters what we’re afraid of.  If we’re afraid of a loss of meaning, our fears are defeated.  If we’re afraid that we will be called naïve, then they are very real.  You and I actually believe that the bread and wine will be transformed by you and me into the body and blood of Christ.  If we really believe that then how can we worry about being called naïve?

 

[1] Julian V. Hills, “Luke 10:18—Who Saw Satan Fall?”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 46, June 1992, 25-40.

 

 

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost June 19, 2016 Mass by the Reverend Peter R. Powell

Taking Up Our Cross

Luke 9:18-24

It happened that as Jesus was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, “Who do the people say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist; but others say, Elijah; and others, that one of the old prophets has risen.” And he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” But he charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.”

As I launch into this sermon I urge you to get comfortable.  It will take me longer than the normal 10 minutes of sermons preached from this pulpit.  The task ahead of me today is one I’ve tried to simplify but I can’t. 

There is some debate about the purpose of Sermons.  Do we preach because we want to paraphrase the bible for the people?  Do we preach because you expect a sermon?  Do we preach to help individuals realize that there is a caring God who accepts each of us as we are?  Do we preach to make an ancient text relevant today?  Or do we preach to throw light on how God is working in our world?  For members of this congregation who have heard me from this pulpit over the years it is obvious, at least to me, that I preach to throw light on how God is working in our world.  This is a change in focus for me.  Before preparing a sermon I look to see if I have anything in the file which I can use.  This week I found a sermon from the summer of 1986.  In that sermon I preached that the point of this morning’s Gospel was that Christ is with us in our individual suffering.

That no longer seems adequate to me in light of the hate crime committed last week in Orlando.  I have heard many inadequate responses to the horror of that event.  For instance the relatively new pastor of Mother Emanuel[1] Church in Charleston[2] stated that in reflecting on what happened in her church, and in Orlando, that God must have permitted it for reasons that at the moment are obscure.  I reject this as an unhelpful and hurtful response.  I do not worship a God who permits for whatever obscure reason such evil to happen in Orlando, or Charleston, or San Bernardino and on and on in a horrible list of peculiarly American tragedies.

I have heard and know people who reasonably assert that there is no God because a righteous God would not permit a tragedy like this.  I do not worship a God who is omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent.  I find no support in the bible for a God who is Omni anything.  God did not permit this.  He didn’t stand idly by and let it happen to satisfy some cosmic divine plan.  God, as I worship God, was in the midst of those who were shot.  God is always with those who suffer.

I have also heard some so-called religious people say that they refused to lower their flags to half-staff because the victims were LGBT[3].  Obviously the woman quoted, for instance, on Morning Edition this week and her pastor have never read this morning’s Epistle to the Galatians in which Paul says: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Were he writing today Paul would say, there is neither black, nor Asian, nor Hispanic nor white and there is neither LGBT nor straight, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Whatever the motivation for this hate crime it is clearly not sanctioned by God as punishment for being LGBT.  God loves us all.  The bible as a whole and the Gospels especially show us that God particularly identifies with those who are the most vulnerable.  In this case the largely Hispanic LGBT men and women killed and wounded in Orlando.

I have also heard many say that this is a tragedy and the last thing we need to do in response to it is Gun Control.  As my congressman, Jim Himes, said this week, does anyone really believe that Jesus says in the gospels that the only response to a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun[4]?  As you may have heard he also boycotted the moment of silence in the House because it was insufficient and led to no action.  As a member of Congress from Connecticut he is particularly aware that the silence after Newtown/Sandy Hook led to absolutely no action.

So, I am going from preaching to meddling.

To turn to this morning’s Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples, who do people say that I am?  Peter, who as you’ll recall I never tire of saying, has rocks between his ears and got his nickname, my Christian name, because of the rocks between his ears and not because he was the rock on whom the church was established, always gets it wrong.  It should not be a surprise that when he exclaims that Jesus is the Christ of God Jesus rebukes him for this response.  Why?  We call Jesus the Christ so much that some believe that his father’s name was Joseph Christ.  Jesus continues in today’s gospel to talk about suffering.  Peter was looking for glorification.  He hoped that the messianic expectation of Israel was being realized in Jesus.  If so then he and the disciples looked forward to a future in which they would be exalted, triumphant, and successful.  Instead Jesus points to the reality of evil in this world.  He will not be a military figure and he will not seek power.  He, Jesus, sees Christianity as a constant struggle against evil and there can be no compromise.  Jesus points ahead to the crucifixion and resurrection.  Evil continues to exist, we saw it early last Sunday morning and we have seen it many times before.  It is insufficient for the church to focus on our little individual sins when we live in a society so compromised by evil.  Jesus is saying to Peter that there can be no compromising with evil yet we experience that there is rampant compromising in our world in which evil sets the terms of success.  We believe or act as if the sign of success in every arena in our society is wealth.  It is not true that he who dies with the most toys wins but I have heard Christians say it.  There is no exaltation in American society for those who witness to a different reality.  The aphorism that St. Francis is the most admired and least emulated saint is very true.  Jesus said that the sign of success is to serve the vulnerable and sacrifice oneself extravagantly.

We believe or act as if a sign of success in the kingdom is our possession of things we did not achieve.  I didn’t achieve being a white, male, heterosexual.  I can’t be proud of that.  It describes who I am but it does not make me inherently better than women, people of color and LGBT people.  I don’t struggle to be white, male and heterosexual.  Sometimes I struggle with the assumptions imputed to me because of my birth but I don’t awaken every morning and decide to be white, or male, or straight.  There can be no pride or shame in that which I was born into.

Christ clearly says this because he talks not only about his suffering but that of his followers, as we heard a few minutes ago: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”[5]

The tragedy in Orlando points out for the umpteenth time that we compromise with evil to our peril.  Jesus refused to compromise and he was crucified. His only promise to you and me is that we will be treated no worse than he was.  In being one with him we are called to a difficult and challenging life in this world.  We will share in a resurrection like his but that is only because in this life we complete his suffering in the world.

We are called as a church to say enough is enough and actively support those who realize that prayers without action, silence without prophetic speech and action, is powerless and a delusion.  We are not to be resigned to evil.  Taking up our cross means we have to take action, not simply prayer but actually doing something, to fight evil, in this case a deadly armed society.

It has always seemed to me that the benefit in this life of being Christian is the possibility of community.  Our community has been grievously wounded by the violence of this world.  The actions of one man, whose motivations are being scrutinized and debated but will never be known with certainty, once again makes this clear.  He bought his weapons legally.  He made claims that he was performing on an international stage although I think he was committing an atrocity of hate but he clearly found a community to embrace him in death and make him a martyr.

Evil exists.  It will continue to exist regardless of what we do this morning.  But we do not need to make it so easy for evil to destroy, especially at such a dramatic and horrific level.  We can take action but will we?  After Newtown/Sandy Hook it appeared that something would happen and instead the conversation was diverted and focused on mental illness.  Will the conversation now change to Islam when it should be on taking the tools away from those who employ them?  Will the conversation turn to talking about someone who was confused about his own sexuality rather than talking about the harm done by weapons intended only for war?  True, there are many ways to kill people.  As we saw some years ago fertilizer can kill.  But can we as a Christian community continue to compromise with evil?

So, if we want to find Christ in this event look to the LGBT men and women who died.  You will find him there.  The Gospel calls us to be certain that their deaths and injuries lead to a world in which LGBT people are no longer the most persecuted among us and a world in which no civilian owns an assault weapon.  That would be a start to picking up our cross and following Christ.

 

[1] They spell it with one “m”

[2] REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: Well, my first response was just as they were in Bible study on that Wednesday night, so was I. And so I guess my first line of questioning was, why them? And then it was to say, it could have been me.

But to say where was God, I never asked that question, simply because I truly believe that God is omniscient. In other words, he’s everywhere at the same time. And I believe, that if God allowed it, he had a reason for doing so.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/reflecting-on-the-charleston-church-massacre-one-year-later/  June 14, 2016

[3] http://www.npr.org/2016/06/14/482055743/latino-community-in-orlando-bands-together-in-wake-of-massacreFor all the unity, the issue of many of the victim's sexuality is causing a little tension. This woman called in to one of Orlando's most popular Spanish-language radio stations to say her friend refused to mourn gay victims.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Spanish). She's not going to put her flag halfway because that's not what her flag is all about.

[4] The Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr. apparently agrees that a good man with a gun is the answer.  He told the student body at Liberty University earlier this year that he was armed and therefore would’ve stopped the San Bernardino shooting.  Of course how a handgun would stop an AR-15 is left unsaid.  http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/6971/fearing-our-fears?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork

[5] NRSV Translation.

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter May 8, 2016 Mass by The Reverend Peter R. Powell

John 17:20-26

Why Pray

Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

"Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."

It is nice to be back at St. Mary’s this morning.  Since Easter I’ve been plowing in other fields.  For much of April I reprised a small portion of my course on John at the church in Westport and then last week I was the supply priest at a struggling parish in Fairfield, CT.  This is a parish still suffering from the ramifications of ordaining Gene Robinson as bishop.  After that event they split with the largest pledgers and most regular parishioners leaving to form a breakaway church.  The surviving church has struggled since then to find a reason to exist.  They have progressed on many issues, their interim rector for instance is a married gay priest.  But they have not figured out what their mission is now that they are no longer the Evangelical Conservative Episcopal Church in Fairfield.

For instance last Sunday, despite it being the 1st of May, after the 10:00 Mass they had a Cinco de Mayo luncheon.  Someone had told them that to attract new members they needed to be more hospitable so they’ve been trying.  There were no Hispanics present on Sunday.  Indeed the only visitor in the church was me.  It seemed to me, and I may be overstating this to make a contrast, that they were hoping gimmicks would attract people to join.  Or maybe to keep the ones who were thinking of leaving? Whatever it isn’t working.  Since their last rector left pledging is down by more than a ¼.  Attendance is down even more.  They are surviving because a wealthy woman died and left them enough to live off of for many years.

While I think it is important for churches to be hospitable and I think we need to take the reality of sociability seriously if we are to form community, I do not think that is why any of us are here.  If I wanted to celebrate Cinco de Mayo there’s a wonderful Mexican restaurant close to me and they celebrated it with gusto on the appropriate day.  When I go to church and attend Mass it is not because of a gimmick.  It is because I’m looking to learn more about what it means to be a faithful person.  How can I better live into my Christianity?

That was the issue in this morning’s Gospel from John 17.  The end of Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer.  I come here to learn how to pray and why to pray and to explore what difference prayer makes anyway?

We are caught in a bind on prayers.  It’s not a bind that Christianity put us in but one that secular thinkers have put us in.  It is demonstrably true that prayer does not reliably bring us wealth, health, sports victories, success, good marriages, etc.  Some who preach the Prosperity Gospel, most notably in recent years Joel Osteen, have convinced many that if we only pray the right way, and tithe to his church, and buy his books, then we will be financially blessed as he has been financially blessed.  Obviously if a member of Osteen’s church isn’t financially blessed, and isn’t beautiful, and isn’t healed then that member hasn’t been praying correctly or giving to Osteen sacrificially, there is a flaw in that member’s faith.  You and I would join the secularist in saying that whatever he’s preaching, the prosperity gospel is not prayer.  God is not manipulated in that way to grant us health, wealth and the toys that demonstrate success in this world.

So then secularism puts us in another bind on prayer by citing studies showing what happens to the brains of Buddhist monks when they pray Secular Society concludes that prayer is simply a pep talk that we give ourselves.  There is no God but it nevertheless does wonderful things for centering us.  Of course I’m combining prayer with meditation here but the point is nevertheless true.  In a binary world prayer is either our way of petitioning God to get a blessing or it is an internal pep talk useful for calming us down.

Is there a tertium quid?  A 3rd Way?  For those who’ve heard me talk about the bible you’ve heard me say frequently that God created you and me to be in relationship with God.  In other words God created us to surprise God.  So God is genuinely interested in what you have to say and engages you and your thoughts in deciding our future, including God’s future.  This involves a radical change in the way many of us look at God.  When we say, as our reading from Revelation said today, that God is the Α and Ω, we are not saying that God is unchanging and that the future is determined.

When I read the bible I see biblical figures having dialogs with God and God changing God’s mind on what to do[1].  Intercession works.  We can bring new information to God and frankly God enjoys and is amused by the new information we bring.  Together with God we are creating our future.

It seems to me that many people have rejected faith and belief in God because they have been presented a faith centered on a God which is too small.  What I call the “rabbit’s foot god” or the “god of lost causes” is too small.  I do not seek belief in a divine Santa Claus.  I find meaning in realizing that together God and I are creating my future and that in some small way I am part of creating God’s future.  I can keep God’s life interesting.

This winter in our seminar on the Succession Narratives I mentioned that God can redeem any problem.  By this I mean that no matter what fix we find ourselves in, if we are faithful, God will work out a future for us.  It will not be the future we would’ve had before we got into a situation but it will be a God filled future.  I have seen it in my own life.  Suffice it to say that the 80s were a turbulent time for me and by 1987 I found myself in a situation I could not have predicted in 1979 and certainly life seemed hopeless.  Everything I counted on was lost and I had been complicit in losing it.  I prayed, I argued and I told God just who was on my list to be called home early.  I believed I had been unjustly treated and harshly judged.  I lost all hope.

I did not lose faith although it was very weak.  A new life awaited me with blessings beyond anything I could’ve imagined.  It was not a life I had sought and it was not a life with much in common with anything I had ever done before, but it was a life that gave me meaning.   Nearly 30 years later I would join with the late Maya Angelou and say, wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.  It is only by being absolutely dependent upon God that I was able to fully embrace prayer and the gifts of God to add meaning to my life.

I was given the gift of faith and I have sought to hold onto it.  It seems to me that our only hope for attracting new people to our faith is by telling the stories of how we have walked with God and he has given us a future.  I know that people are hungering for that.  They don’t want to eat Mexican food after a 10 am Mass in suburbia.  They want to know that God is listening, caring and working with them not to give them wealth or health but to place them in community and provide them with meaning.  God redeemed my life and my ministry.  He is doing the same with you.  Prayer helps us participate in that redeeming so that we can, whatever we’ve done, enjoy a God-filled future.

 

[1]  Deut 32 and 33

 

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent - By the Reverend James Ross Smith

I like a happy ending. I always have. When reading books as a child, I didn’t like it when a favorite character died. I remember distinctly the first time that happened to me. I didn’t like it at all. I was surprised, outraged even. I wanted to change things around. I argued in my head with the long-dead author. I resisted tragedy.

Read More

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent - By the Reverend James Ross Smith

Jesus’ first words in the gospel of mark, the oldest of the four gospels, are these: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of god has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” [1:14]. These are prominent words, and, therefore, seem important. They sound like an announcement. And, in a way, they are. 

Read More