Sunday, December 15, 2013

the desert shall rejoice

Advent 3, Year A, Dec. 15, 2013
All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen. 

What comes to mind when you think about deserts? Probably the first thing you picture is sand and dirt--lots and lots and lots of it, everywhere you look. Maybe you see a few shrubs and cacti here and there. The hot sun beats down as a vulture circles lazily in the sky, waiting for its next meal. Lizards watch you warily from the rocks and somewhere nearby you hear a faint rattling sound, warning you to keep away. In the distance you can hear the mournful howl of a jackal.

Deserts are dangerous places. But in today’s reading from Isaiah, the deserts are getting a makeover. Instead of dry, thirsty ground, the deserts will be a place of blooming flowers. There will be so much water that it will form pools and streams, and grass will grow along the banks. In the middle of this newly-formed oasis, a path will spring up, out of harm’s way. On this path, called the “Holy Way,” God’s people will travel in safety, knowing that not one of them will be lost, “not even fools” (v. 8). 

This makeover transforms the deserts into rich havens, places of sanctuary in a formerly dangerous environment. The vision of sanctuary, of safety from threatening forces, is written just before the people of Israel are exiled. Things are getting tense, and their enemies are approaching them on several sides. As things escalate and the Israelites are conquered, Isaiah’s vision is a source of hope that the exile will not last forever. “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God...He will come and save you” (v. 4). 

In Isaiah’s vision, deserts are not the only things being restored. God’s people are being restored as well. Weak hands are made strong. Feeble knees (like mine) are made firm [pause]. Sight is restored to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, and speech to the mute. The lame not only walk, they “leap like a deer!” (v. 6) The speechless not only talk, they “sing for joy!” (v. 6). And finally, when the “ransomed of the Lord...return...with singing... sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (v. 10). 

Some 700 or so years later, during the time of the Roman occupation, Isaiah’s vision of restoration is continued by Mary. In her vision, rulers are overthrown; the system is overturned so that those on top are “cast down” and the humbled are “lifted up” (Luke 1: 52). The rich will no longer take advantage of the poor, and the poor will no longer go hungry. Mary proclaims that God “has come to the help of his servant Israel...and remembers his promise of mercy” (v. 54). She waits expectantly for the birth of this hope in the form of her son.

Thirty or so years after Mary’s proclamation, Isaiah’s vision is echoed by Jesus himself. When John the Baptist, sitting in a jail cell awaiting his death, asks Jesus if he is “the one who is to come,” Jesus replies, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:3, 5). In Jesus Christ, the vision of Isaiah, is being realized through the restoration of God’s people. In Jesus Christ, the vision of Mary, his mother, is being realized through his teaching the reordering of societal structure and the miracles like the ones of the fishes and loaves. 

At times it may feel as if we are still living in a desert. Most of us can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a war going on somewhere around the world. The gap between the rich and the poor in this country is rapidly increasing. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then, over 32,000 people* have died in gun-related deaths in this country. Jesus has come and gone, but where is the relief? Where are the refreshing springs in the flowery desert? Where is the path that will lead us away from all of this?  

Jesus has already shown us this path. In his life on earth he advocated for peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Jesus taught us how we should treat those on the margins of society: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me...just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-36). He showed us how to act toward people with whom we do not agree: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Jesus has shown us the path; we are called to take his message to heart and follow Him. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).

These past 3 weeks we’ve heard John’s voice calling to us from the wilderness, piercing the darkness and urging us to repent, to makeover our hearts. We know we all have fallen short in many ways; it’s part of being human. We acknowledge our shortcomings every Sunday when we confess our sins together. When we say it together today, pay attention to what we’re confessing. Take it slowly and say it like we really mean it. Listen to the words of God’s forgiveness that follow. Then be strengthened for the journey in the sharing of Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood shed for us “for the forgiveness of sins” (BCP 363). 

Today, the third Sunday in Advent, is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice” and comes from verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). “But Mother Lara,” you might say, “you were just talking about deserts and our sins...that’s not exactly joyful stuff.” 

In Advent we are not just preparing to celebrate the historical event of the birth of Christ. We are also preparing our hearts for Christ’s presence today and looking to the future, when Christ will come again. We find joy in the fact that God loved us so dearly that God came to us in human form, to walk the earth in our shoes and help us to reconnect with the God with whom we had lost touch. We find joy in the many ways we see God at work in the world and in us today. And we find joy in the hope of what God will do in the future. We, like “[t]he desert[,] shall rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35:1). Thanks be to God!

Sound bite: "The Desert Shall Rejoice" by the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter's in the Loop, Chicago

Artwork found here


*gun deaths since the shootings in Newtown:

Gaudete Sunday:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

voices in the wilderness

Advent 2, Year A, 2013
St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen. 

Of all the jobs in the world, probably the most hated one (even more than lawyers and tax collectors) is that of a prophet. Prophets are never satisfied; they seem to always be complaining about the status quo. They make us uncomfortable because they urge us to change. All that doom and gloom is just plain annoying, plus, some of them can be quite...what’s a nice word for it? Eccentric. 

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” in today’s Gospel reading is coming from a man in camel-hair clothing who subsists on a meal of insects and honey. He lives outside of town, in the “wilderness” (Matt 3:1), but the distance and his whacky appearance don’t keep people from traveling to get a glimpse of him. In fact, people are coming from all over, and what’s more, they’re actually listening to him! John is telling people that they need to repent because “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” (Matt 3:2). 

Now when you think of the word repent, what comes to mind? I think of feeling bad or guilty for things I’ve done wrong. But repentance involves something more. To repent also means “to think differently afterwards,” to change directions, to reorient. When we repent, we don’t just say we’re sorry and continue to go along our merry way as if nothing has happened. When we repent, we are admitting that we are no longer able to live the way we once did. When we repent, we are committing to changing directions, to reorienting our patterns of thought and action. 

John was able to bring people from different backgrounds together. From near and far, people heard his call to repent, to reorient their lives. The people confessed their sins and then marked their commitment to change with the waters of baptism. 

In the Bible, prophets are not just wild, crazy people who can predict the future. A prophet’s main job is to tell us when we have gone astray and to help us to get back on track. They point the way to God. There are many prophets in the Bible: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah and Elisha, to name a few. Since their time, there have been a few prophets out in the secular world, as well. Modern-day prophets include Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The world lost another great prophet this past week: Nelson Mandela. 

Mandela was a voice in the wilderness of apartheid. When people on both sides were killing each other, Mandela’s words and his actions inspired change. Rather than let bitterness and resentment eat away at him while he was imprisoned for 27 years, upon his release he demonstrated compassion. His message was one of reconciliation. Reconciliation to him was not simply, “Ok, we have to work together, so let’s just make it easy and agree to do it my way.” No, reconciliation was more difficult than that. It required both sides to take the time to listen to one other. It required both sides to admit their faults and to change the way they were going to move past the pain in order to journey forward together. Was reconciliation easy? Of course not! The road to peace is a long and heavy one. But, as Mandela once said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” This is what reconciliation is all about. Restoring broken relationships. 

There was yet another prophet who spoke of both reconciliation and repentance. He called out leaders for their hypocrisy and defended people on the margins (the poor, especially widows and orphans). He taught and lived a way of peace. This man was not only a prophet, he was also the Son of God. 

Somewhere along the way in our journey with God, we had grown out of touch. Christ came into the world as a person to repair the broken relationship between God and God’s people. He experienced the joy and pain, the limitations and the wonders of humanity. Through his death and resurrection, he promised forgiveness of sins and opened up for us the gates of salvation, the promise of eternal life. 

In the season of Advent, we not only prepare to remember and honor the miraculous birth of Christ, we open up our hearts to receive him in the present while we look for “his coming again with power and great glory” (BCP 342). In the next few weeks, take some time to ponder where God is calling you to repent. How is God calling you to change your outlook, to reorient your life? Which relationships in your lives could use some strengthening, some reconciliation? 

Finally, this Advent, as you await Christ, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

In memory of Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013
Image found here.

Sources for information on Nelson Mandela: 

Sources for definitions:

Monday, December 2, 2013

giving thanks

St. George’s Chapel
Thanksgiving, Year C
Nov. 28, 2013

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

The past week and a half, my Facebook feed has been littered with thanksgiving-related posts. The range from blogs of the latest trendy recipes, to articles on the real story behind the holiday, to debates over the ethics of shopping on Thanksgiving Day. The ones that really took me surprise, however, were articles telling conservatives how to deal with their liberal in-laws and liberals how to deal with their conservative in-laws during the Thanksgiving meal. Wait a minute! This isn’t a game of survivor! Isn’t this supposed to be a time of joy and peace, when we reflect on the good in our lives and thank God for it?

The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Right in the heart of the Civil War, the atmosphere was anything but conducive to giving thanks. Yet this is precisely why he felt it was so important to have this celebration. That first last Thursday in November, only the northern states participated. In his Thanksgiving address, President Lincoln acknowledged the sin and brokenness that had divided the nation. He bid prayers for the widows and orphans, the wounded, and all those who had suffered in any way because of the war. Finally, he bid prayers for unity and peace, so that the nation would one day be restored. 

In the midst of the Civil War, I imagine Christians took comfort in the words of Paul, who encouraged the Philippians, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7). If we think that Paul’s call to rejoice was too far removed from the hardships that the North and the South were facing, remember that Paul was writing to Christians in the first century, who were being persecuted and even killed for their faith. And yet, rather than lament the situations he and his fellow Christians were in, he urged them to “keep on doing the things that [they] have learned and received and heard and seen in [him]” (v. 9). Paul preached perseverance in the face of persecution. He was no stranger to persecution himself; he wrote these words from a prison cell while awaiting his execution. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Rejoice...the Lord is near” (vv. 4,5). 

Jesus promised that “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:20, KJV). This is why we gather together every week and on special occasions like today. We come together to pray, rejoice, ask forgiveness, and to celebrate the Eucharist. The word Eucharist means to show gratitude, to give thanks ( Every time we break bread together we are showing gratitude for God’s Son, whose body was broken for us: “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven” (BCP 365). Every time we break bread together we are getting a sampling of the heavenly meal: “the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven” (ibid.). Every time we break bread together we are thanking God for our abundant blessings: “The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving” (BCP 364-365). 

God is with us, my friends. In response to the unconditional love and peace of God which passes all understanding, we give thanks to God every day for “the bounty that the Lord [our] God has given to [us] and to [our] house” (Deut 26:11). Not just when everything is going well. Not just when we are in church. And not just one day a year. 

Nourish yourselves for the journey with the bread of heaven broken for us. In good times and hard times, give thanks for the gift of this wild, beautiful, and unpredictable life this day and all the days to come.

(image found here)

Information about President Lincoln and the first national Thanksgiving found here.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

a King unlike any other

St. George’s, Harbeson
November 24, 2013

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.

Today is known in the Church as Christ the King Sunday. When we think of Christ, perhaps most of us have an image of him as a brown-haired, sandaled preacher or as the Good Shepherd. Other images of Jesus come from his titles: the Lamb of God, the Alpha & the Omega, the Messiah, and the Son of God, to name a few. All of these are appropriate ways to view Christ, but today we’re going to meditate on Christ’s identity as King. 

When you hear the word “king,” what comes to your mind? Power? Palaces and crowns? King Henry VIII? For me, what comes to mind is the royal family of Great Britain. Many Anglophiles (myself included) have an obsession with the British Royal Family. Not everyone might have gotten up early like me to watch the royal wedding with their friends, complete with a breakfast of tea and crumpets, but most people at least saw pictures of the ceremony and maybe even a video of the wedding highlights. And nowadays there’s hardly a magazine cover that doesn’t have a picture of William and Kate with baby Prince George plastered on the front.

In our romanticization of the lives of the royal family, we may feel an affinity for them, perhaps even admiration or affection, but their positions probably don’t evoke feelings of loyalty or obedience in us, the way they do for their subjects. We Americans don’t really understand what it means to be subject to a king or queen. Here in the U.S. we pledge allegiance to the flag, not the crown. There is no prayer for the Queen in our Book of Common Prayer. We are proud of our heritage as an independent, go-getter, pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps country. We delight in the fact that we are self-reliant, and that our Protestant work ethic has led us to where we are today, from a nation of rag-tag settlers to this melting pot of a country that is currently the world’s largest superpower. 

So when we hear of Christ as King, it may be difficult for us to truly comprehend what sort of relationship with God this is describing. And Christ is not a typical king. Born in a stable to a carpenter and his teenage fiancée, Jesus’ humble birth could not appear further from royal. There is hardly any record of his childhood and young adult years, and then all of a sudden we find him hanging out with outcasts and sinners and making enemies of the religious leaders. After three years of healing the sick, teaching, and preaching, he is put to death like a common criminal on a cross, the Roman equivalent of the electric chair. All of these things can make us wonder how we would consider Jesus a king. 

But if we dig deeper, we will find several examples of typical kingship. As the Song of Zechariah affirms for us, Jesus was “born of the house of [God’s] servant David”; he was from a noble lineage (Luke 1:69). In one story of his birth, shepherds and the angelic host come to worship him, and in a different Gospel, three wise men come to pay him homage with expensive gifts that would be reserved for kings (Luke 2:8-20; Matthew 2:1-12). At Jesus’ baptism, in a scene reminiscent of Arthurian legends, the heavens part to reveal the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven booms, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased, ” confirming Jesus’ divine right as king (Matthew 3:13-17). Crowds follow him wherever he goes, hanging on his every word. When Jesus has his triumphant procession into Jerusalem, he rides in on a donkey, an animal typically used by kings in the Old Testament, and crowds line the road with cloaks and wave palm trees (In Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19). Finally, in a twist of irony, Jesus is robed in scarlet and given a crown made of thorns before being taken to “the place that is called The Skull,” where they place a plaque above the cross that says, “This is the King of the Jews” above it (Matthew 27:28-29, 37Luke 23:38). 

We have before us a King unlike any other. His power was not used to control; he used it to heal the sick, to perform miracles, and to forgive sins. During his lifetime Jesus lived simply and relied on the generosity of others to feed and house him and his followers. He practiced servant leadership, helping people whom society ignored and personally washing the feet of his own disciples. He put on himself the sins of the world and was put to death. But death did not stop him! Christ rose again, and his resurrection destroyed Death’s firm grip on us. 

Christ was the example of how we should live our lives on earth, the embodiment of the kingdom of God. As God incarnate, Christ showed us how to be in relationship with God, and “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (Col 1:20). At our baptism, we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are, therefore, subjects of the heavenly kingdom, and our loyalty and obedience is to Christ, the "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Revelation 19:16 and today's Collect). In celebration of “the tender compassion of our God” demonstrated throughout the course of history but especially in the person of Jesus Christ, we pledge our lives to the work of the kingdom (Luke 1:78).

Our King taught us that we are to feed the hungry, tend the sick and lame, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:34-40). We are to build the kingdom of God here on earth. This is no small task, but we are not alone! We are promised that God will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). For now, we “endure everything with patience” (Col 1:11). But as we work, we await the advent of our King, confident that “‘The days are surely coming’” (Jeremiah 23:5). 

Christ the King statue in ŚwiebodzinPoland
world's tallest statue of Jesus

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

and i know he watches me

St. George’s Chapel
November 20, 2013

Today we are celebrating the life of B. As you heard from his family and friends just now, B was a kind, hard-working man and a blessing to all who knew him. In recognition of the gift he was to us, we have come before this altar today to offer his life as a gift to God. And what an amazing life it was! Not many people have the honor of having their name on the moon, but I’m betting if you asked B what his greatest accomplishment was, he wouldn’t talk about the moon or even golf. I’m betting he would probably say it was his family. 

J told me that B never doubted he was going to heaven when he died. He told her that he didn’t really fear death; he just wasn’t ready yet to leave his family and friends behind. B left us suddenly, but our relationship with him is not over; it has merely changed. His spirit lives on in the memories we have of him, in the stories of him that bring both laughter and tears. We weep now, but “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). 

As we surround the family with our humble offerings of love and support, we remember that B is also “surrounded by [a] of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We are also reminded that we will all eventually be reunited with him when we take our part among those witnesses. In the meantime, when we take part in the Eucharist, we join with angels and archangels and B and all the company of heaven in singing God’s praises. 

It may be difficult right now to sing God’s praises or even absorb words of comfort. In our loss we may identify more with the psalmist, who in times of grief thought, “Surely the darkness will cover me” (Psalm 139:10). In our pain we may feel disconnected or distant from God. But Isaiah tells us that this veil, this feeling of separation from God, will one day be destroyed. Indeed, it already has in the person of Jesus, God become human. Jesus came to restore our broken relationship with God, and for our sins he was put to death. But we know that his death is not the end of the story. The path to the cross was followed by the miracle of resurrection, which forever destroyed death. Death no longer has the last word! 

Before he died, Jesus told his followers that he was going before them to “prepare a place for [them]” (John 14:2). He spoke of a house with “many dwelling-places” (v. 2). B is there now in the place that Christ has prepared for him. He is in the presence of his Creator, who “knit [him] together in [his] mother’s womb” and has welcomed him into his loving arms once again (Psalm 139:12).

In our sorrow we lean on the Lord who knew intimately the pain of suffering. In the last verse of the song that A so beautifully sang, 
“Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. 
(His Eye is on the Sparrow*).

The psalmist assures us that rather than waiting for us to stumble our way to God, God meets us where we are: “you have searched me out and known me” (v. 1). Like a shepherd looking for lost sheep, God comes to us and guides us home, leading us “in the way that is everlasting” (v. 23). We are never lost to God; there is no place where God can’t find us: “If I climb up to heaven [God is] there; if I make the grave my bed, [God is] there also” (v. 7). God’s love for us does not end, even when we die. 

We know that at our physical death life continues. As John Newton so eloquently put it in the original version of Amazing Grace:
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.


(image found here)

* Watch this video if you wanna hear an amazing performance of His Eye Is on the Sparrow by the Mississippi Children's Chorus! [warning: you may need a tissue]

Monday, November 18, 2013

striving toward the kingdom

November 17, 2013
All Saints’ Church, Rehoboth Beach

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ” (today's Collect). 

As today’s collect assures us, all Scriptures are “written for our learning.” It appears in today’s readings that we have a good range of Scripture, from words of comfort to words of woe, words of hope to words of admonition and instruction. 

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus speaking to his disciples about troubling times. Wars, earthquakes, plagues, famine...all of these things are uncomfortably familiar. We live in a time of war; Hurricane Katrina is branded into our memory, as is the earthquake in Haiti, and more recently the typhoon in the Philippines; we know that thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people go without food. Are these signs of the end times?

This Gospel passage and passages like it have been fodder for many misguided people, false prophets, to attempt to convince us that the end of the world is near. But Jesus is not speaking about the end of the world; he is speaking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the persecutions his disciples will have to face once he’s gone. He is speaking about things that will happen in the time of his disciples, not in our time. While the message is for his disciples, it speaks to us in the present, as well. When facing persecution, Jesus says that we are given the opportunity to “testify” (Luke 21:13). 

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that it is easy to testify, to bear witness to the glory of God, when things are going well. It is easy to see God’s hand at work when the sun is shining and we are healthy and surrounded by people who love us. It is much harder to praise God when we are struggling with a serious illness, or the end of a relationship, or the loss of a loved one. But this is precisely what Jesus is calling us to do. Jesus is calling us to see God’s hand not in the typhoon’s destruction but in the helping hands of volunteer aid workers. To see God’s hand not in the diagnosis but in the tender care of physicians and nurses. To see God’s hand not in death but in the promise of everlasting life. 

The text from Isaiah describes a vision of restored life: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). Isaiah portrays a place where there is no pain, no lives cut off short, no cause for weeping; where life is full and full of joy and everyone takes part in the restoration of creation. People will spend their time building and planting and rejoicing, and they will see the fruits of their labors. It will be a place of peace, where enemies share their meals together and all destruction is eradicated (v. 25). In this vision, God will not be distant, but will answer us even before the questions have left our lips (v. 24). Clearly this image has not been realized yet, but is something we are striving toward.

And strive we must! In the second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul warns the folks in the community against the dangers of idleness. If you’re going to be part of a Christian community, Paul says, you’re going to have to do your part in building the kingdom. All of us have particular gifts that are vital to kingdom building. For some it may be serving at the altar or preparing breakfast, for some it’s volunteering at the thrift shop or bringing a casserole to a recovering surgery patient, and for others it may be teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, or providing a listening ear and a great big hug to someone in need. Whatever your gift, there is much to be done and the kingdom is not going to build itself; we need everyone to pitch in and do what they can to make it happen, to make Isaiah’s vision a reality.

The Good News in all of this can be found in the canticle from Isaiah. In this work of building the kingdom, of transforming the world and our lives through service, we are not alone: “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:6). Thanks be to God!

image found here

Sunday, November 10, 2013

resurrection and the heavenly banquet

St. George’s Chapel
November 9, 2013

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question…”

There are two main groups of Jewish leaders during Jesus’ time. If you’re like me, you get them confused. Just to clarify, the Sadducees are the rich and political group. They are conservative and only believe in the Torah. If the first five books don’t mention it, it doesn’t exist. So, since the word “resurrection” doesn’t appear in the Torah, the Sadducees don’t believe in the concept.

The Pharisees are even more religious. They honor the Torah, prophets, and the oral tradition handed down by Moses. They support the concept of resurrection.

Now, the Sadducees and the Pharisees are competing for attention from the people. Compare their arguments to current Congressional debates: each one wants their side to look the best. They take every chance they can get to make a stab at the other side. However, things are changing; the debate between them is not front page news material anymore. A certain carpenter’s son from Nazareth is a thorn in their side. They are trying to figure out a way to get Jesus out of the picture. So they start asking questions to trap Jesus into saying something that will be considered heresy. Getting a one-up on their opponents is an added bonus.  

“…those who say there is no resurrection…”

As I was reading this I wondered why they are talking about resurrection before Jesus has died. I mean, isn’t that a Christian concept? I think that here the term ‘resurrection’ applies to some sense of life after death, a different state of being. Jews of that day were not concerned so much with life after death, but focused on life in the present, emphasizing a relationship with God in the here and now. Reaping the benefits of faith today, not tomorrow. 

Back to the Gospel: the Sadducees describe a scenario where a woman marries her husband’s brothers. This law about marrying the brothers-in-law comes from Deuteronomy. The practice ensures not only that the widow is taken care of, but also that her husband’s lineage is maintained--including the land that goes with it. 

“So, Jesus, tell us, we’re curious. In the resurrection, whose wife is she gonna be? Because all of them married her.”

Cue Jesus: 
He has just come to Jerusalem on a donkey surrounded by a cheering crowd. He has cleansed the temple of sales people, which I imagine didn’t go over so well with the Sadducees. Despite this, he is still very popular, and the people are excited to see and hear him. But things are getting steamy with the leaders. Jesus has only got a week or two left. He knows they are trying to trap him. I can imagine there is a sense of urgency to his teaching. I bet he would have liked to shake a few people and knock some sense into them. But he doesn’t. 

I imagine Jesus shaking his head and responding with a sigh, “Look guys, you’re missing the point. Things that are important now are not going be in the resurrection. You won’t need to have a husband or wife to continue your lineage, because death won’t be a factor. Relationships are going to change. You won’t need to be married in order to experience intimacy, because the connection you’ll have with God will be more than enough. We can’t compare life on earth to life after death; we can’t make God conform to human standards. God’s love surpasses all understanding.”

“Oh, and p.s. in the Torah Moses proved that resurrection exists in the story of the burning bush. God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ not I was the God. Just because they don’t have a physical presence on earth doesn’t mean that they are no longer part of God’s plan.”

Well that stumps the Sadducees and the questioning is over. Jesus has just flipped their understanding of how the world works on its head. 

But where does this leave us today? How can we relate to this passage? 

The concept of resurrection, of life after death, is a huge mystery, and we tend to fear what we do not understand. That’s why stories about people who have had life-after-death experiences are so intriguing. We want to know what it’s going to be like so we don’t have to venture into the dark in fear. But while these stories of heaven may be at least partially true, I don’t think they can capture the whole picture. Jesus himself didn’t describe heaven in exact detail; he only compared heaven to things on earth, saying “heaven is like a woman who found her lost coin” or “heaven is like a shepherd who, having lost a sheep, leaves the rest of his flock to find it” or “in my Father’s house are many rooms...I am going there to prepare a place for you” (Luke 15: 8-10; Luke 15:3-7; John 14:2-4). 

These images, while conveying a sense of homecoming, leave out the details. I think in trying to understand heaven we can get caught up in trying to figure out these details and lose sight of the big picture that is the promise of eternal life in God (I know this all too well, being a detail-oriented person, myself). 

As much as I’d like to, I can’t give you the exact dimensions of heaven or describe specific activities of celestial beings. But I can tell you that out of God’s abundant love, God took on human form in the person of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins, not his, and that after he died, he was resurrected. 

The amazing thing about resurrection is not just that life continues—we’ve already covered that things will be different in the next life. When Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected, death no longer had ahold of us. To God, “all of [us] are alive,” whether or not we are living and breathing in this life (Luke 20:38). But even more importantly, this miracle repaired the connection between God and humankind that had been severed by human sin. Throughout time humans have repeatedly pushed God away, but despite this, God has never completely given up on us.

We’re always going to make mistakes—it’s human nature. But the grace of God is so radical that God looks past all of this, saying, “I love you just as you are right now, at this very moment. I forgive you for all that you have or haven’t done. I want to have a relationship with you, to be close to you, because I made you. You are my own, and my love for you will never fade.” 

And so each week we are invited to come to the table—Christ’s table. Communion is not only a time of remembrance of God’s incredible love for us, it gives us the chance to re-member, to join together with our brothers and sisters in becoming the body of Christ. To become reconnected with God and with each other so that we can go out into the world, praising God for the gift of this life and the life to come. 

In the Eucharist, we start getting a taste (literally) of the heavenly banquet, of what it’s going to be like when the resurrection comes. What is coming is far more glorious than we can even attempt to explain. But we live with the promise made at our baptism, that we are Christ’s own forever, and nothing can break that promise. As St. Paul assures us, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). 

image found here

Sunday, September 29, 2013

removing our blinders

St. George’s Chapel
Proper 21, Year C, September 29, 2013
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
On the surface of today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke, it appears that Jesus is delivering one of his most scathing criticisms of wealth. Lazarus, a poor man whose oozing sores are licked by dogs, sits at the gate of a rich man. The rich man, dressed in robes the color of royalty, enjoys bountiful meals every day. Lazarus looks longingly through the bars of the gate, dreaming of feasting on the crumbs that “f[a]ll from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:21). Time passes and the two men die. Lazarus ends up in heaven with Abraham, while the rich man is “tormented” in Hades (v. 23). The rich man cries out to Abraham but it is of no use; there is a chasm between them so deep and wide that none can cross it (v. 26). 
Having grown up in a privileged household, this passage makes me squirm. I have never had to worry where my next meal was coming from. Is Jesus really saying that just because my family has money, we are not going to heaven? The rich man isn’t an evil person, so he doesn’t deserve to go to hell, right? Where is the “wideness of God’s mercy” that we sing about (Hymn 499)? Is there no hope for those with means?
If we dig below the surface, what seems like a knock against wealth is actually more of a knock against blindness. The rich man is blind. I don’t mean that he needs glasses; the rich man’s self-centeredness has made him blind to his surroundings. Lazarus lives at the foot of a gate that the rich man has built to keep people out. We have no idea how long he’s been lying there, but I imagine it has been quite some time because the rich man knows Lazarus by name. He knows his name, but he never--not once!--offers the beggar some food. Lazarus dies, perhaps from hunger, and the angels carry him away because there is no one to bury him (v. 22). The rich man dies too, but is properly and probably lavishly buried. 
In the afterlife, the contradictions continue, but the tables are turned. Lazarus is enjoying the benefits of heavenly life in the presence of Abraham, while the rich man suffers in Hades. Now it is the rich man’s turn to gaze longingly toward something out of his grasp. Even though he realizes where he is, he still carries on as if he were back on earth. He commands Abraham (commands Abraham, the first patriarch of the faith!!) to make Lazarus come down to him to quench his thirst. Even in death the rich man does not see Lazarus as a human being, but as less than, as a person existing merely to serve him. The rich man has learned nothing; the chasm that separates him from heaven is this blindness to others. 
I imagine the second half of the story of the rich man and Lazarus is where Charles Dickens got his inspiration for A Christmas Carol. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers, who are presumably following in his footsteps. But there will be no Marley for the rich man’s Scrooge-like brothers. Abraham replies that there have been enough signs throughout scripture and in the witness of prophets. If they aren’t convinced by that, then there’s no reason to expect that they would change their minds if they saw some dead beggar’s ghost. 
Now, it is important for us to remember who makes up Jesus’ audience. Just a few verses before today’s story, the Pharisees, described as “lovers of money,” have given Jesus a hard time because they are not too fond of his teachings, which largely point out their failings and misreadings of scripture (v. 14). The last part of the story of Lazarus is actually a jab at the Pharisees: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (v. 31).  Because they will not believe in Jesus and his teachings when he is alive, they will not believe in him even after he rises from the dead. 
Also in the audience are Jesus’ disciples and most likely a crowd of followers. Jesus speaks with Pharisees and other religious leaders, but he mostly hangs out with sinners and people on the margins of society. Imagine how they must feel to hear this message of hope for the hopeless and a warning against those who put up gates to shut people out! Even if they are persecuted in this life, something better awaits them, because God is on the side of the poor. 
The practice of seeing the Bible through the eyes of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized is called liberation theology. One of the leading theologians is Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit priest and university professor in El Salvador. In the 1970s to 90s there was a brutal civil war in El Salvador. People suspected of aiding the rebels were “disappeared” regardless of profession or gender. In this country, the smallest in Central America, 75,000 people were killed. Most of them were civilians, and many of them were killed and then mutilated by death squads. At the university where Jon Sobrino taught, 6 of his fellow priests were murdered by a death squad. They also killed their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. Jon Sobrino survived, but only because he happened to be out of the country when it happened. Sometime after the 6 priests were killed, some artists drew pictures from photos of people who had been killed in the war. These gruesome images were hung for all to see--in the back of the university chapel. Their mangled and exposed bodies are disturbing, and several people over the years have asked for them to be removed. They want to forget, they want to put the events behind them and not dwell on them any longer. Sobrino refuses; he says that every time he celebrates the Eucharist he sees the drawings and is reminded of his friends and of his purpose. 
What the story of the rich man and Lazarus is telling us, what the experience of Sobrino and the people of El Salvador is compelling us to do, is to take off our blinders, to tear down the gates we have put up. I know that I walk around with blinders on. I am ashamed to say that I have ignored homeless people on the street many times. I have locked my car door and pretended not to see the person begging on the street corner. Maybe you have done it, too. “It’s too sad,” we say. “It’s overwhelming; there’s too much that needs to be done, and I can’t solve the problems on my own.” You’re right. We can’t solve them alone. But each and every one of us can change the way we act toward others.   
Jesus actually teaches us, in Matthew’s version of the gospel, just how we are supposed to act toward others:
“…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).
In the gospel for today Jesus is offering us a chance at redemption. Through the story of Lazarus he is urging us to remove the blinders, to truly look at everyone we meet as if they matter. To acknowledge people’s existence; their humanity. Rich or poor, we are all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). Instead of ignoring people that make us sad, when we look at them we should be reminded of our purpose: “…what does the Lord require of you”? “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). 

Photos* I took of the paintings in the back of the chapel 
at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador (Spring 2010)

*warning: these images are disturbing!!

Sources for Jon Sobrino and the Civil War in El Salvador:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

mountains o' things

All Saints’ Rehoboth Beach
Proper 20, Year C, September 22, 2013
Here is the complete lectionary (here's the Gospel, for those short on time).

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

In reading today’s Gospel passage from Luke I find myself scratching my head. This isn’t the first time I’ve read some of Jesus’ words and thought to myself, “What in the world is he trying to say here?” For me, the passage has simply led to a lot of questions.

Today’s parable isn’t a typical one. Instead of a story with a recognizable hero and definitive lines between good and bad, the lines are more blurred. Rather than a story of a lost coin or a lost sheep, we seem to have found yet another person with a lost moral compass. But the thing that is really surprising in this tale is that Jesus seems to be praising a manager for acting shrewdly in the face of being fired for his dishonesty. Wait, what? Where’s the remorse? Where’s the passionate change of heart? Or at the very least where’s the punishment if he does not amend his ways? Could this be an ancient form of sarcasm? Perhaps a dig at the doltish tendencies of his disciples? Probably not, but maybe Jesus is saying that we can learn from people even when we don’t like them very much. 

Maybe he is telling his disciples that in addition to all of the other qualities they need in order to follow him, they must also be perceptive, aware of what’s going on, and able to think quickly on their feet. The world is not always a friendly place, and the disciples have a long, hard road to tread. They are going to need to acquire some survival skills for the journey ahead. 

The second part of today’s Gospel reading takes the story a little further. Here is the epic come-back we’ve been waiting for: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Luke 16:10). “If you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (v. 12). Jesus is saying that our lives will be defined by our actions and by our inaction. If we act in a selfish and greedy manner, like the dishonest manager, then we will lead empty lives, no matter how clever or shrewd we are. Because he is dishonest, the manager presumably has no friends, or at least no one close enough to him that he feels comfortable asking them to house him when he loses his job. What a lonely existence, thinking only of ourselves. 

However, if we conduct our lives with even a little bit of faith, no matter how imperfect, we will be entrusted with “true riches” (v. 11): friendship, community, fulfillment. If the manager had been honest and a good steward of the master’s possessions, then if he had been fired from his job he probably wouldn’t have had to worry about where to stay or what to do next.

In this country we live our lives under the banner of individualism. This has led to many important things: unprecedented freedoms, innovation, and creativity. But in the same vein this individualism has masked some pretty ugly qualities as well: entitlement, self-absorption, and the thought of wanting our fair share, no matter how it affects others. Naturally, we all desire what is best for us and our families, but at what cost? At what point do we draw the line between survival and selfishness? 

This is why it is so important for us to come together to worship on a regular basis, instead of just doing it on our own. When we worship together we learn from one another’s experiences. Old and young, we have things to teach each other. Hearing someone else’s perspective can affect the way we view the world. Listening to someone else’s passions can ignite a passion in ourselves. Having a conversation with someone in the pew next to us can alert us to the needs of the community. 

In the Gospel accounts, Jesus surrounds himself with people. He takes time off to pray and relax, but he also makes time to eat and drink with friends and foes alike. They might not always get along, but they learn from each other and bring balance to the conversation. Occasionally, a conversation with someone even changes Jesus’ mind (Matthew 15:21-28). 

It is important to note in today’s passage that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, but there are also Pharisees listening in, and in the next few verses we find that they don’t take too kindly to Jesus’ teachings. They are used to being the ones in charge, of leading others in matters of faith. But this rabbi from Nazareth points out that their desire to follow the Law so strictly has made them blind to the suffering of their people. The biggest problem the Pharisees have is that they place rules above people. They see only how far their people have strayed from the Law, and don’t take into account how hard they are trying. In their quest for religious purity the Pharisees have alienated themselves from the very people they are trying to teach. 

Another problem the Pharisees have is that they are “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). In the answer to today’s strange parable, Jesus says that we “cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13). Wealth, in this instance, can also mean money or possessions ( Possessions are inanimate objects. If you love them, they cannot love you back. But if you devote your time to pursuing them, your possessions will begin to slowly possess you. Retail therapy may feel good in the short run, but over time we will look around at all that stuff and realize that it has never filled the void, only put blinders on for awhile.  

“You cannot serve God and [possessions]” (v. 13). In this day and age, with all the new gadgets and technology, when information--and therefore advertising--is instantaneous, we are constantly being reminded of all of the things we lack, all we need to accomplish,  all that we “can’t live without.” We want the car, the gadgets, the career. And the more we focus on what we want, the less we think about others (I’m saying we because I am not immune from this either). We end up putting God in a box on a shelf that we can only reach with a step ladder. It’s safer that way, because then God is out of sight, not constantly reminding us of where our priorities should lie. 

But God will not be contained in a box. When we come together to worship, we help hold each other accountable. We collectively remember our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. We pray for those we love and for those we find it difficult to love. We share a message of peace with those around us. We come to realize how fortunate we really are as we thank God for our many blessings. We come to the table and eat together, sharing in the broken body in all of our own brokenness. Finally we leave, restored, refreshed, and renewed for service out in the world. 

So today we are called to put aside our selfish desires and focus on loving others, within this community and without. Have a conversation with someone you don’t know as well during breakfast/coffee hour, really listen to that person who you don’t agree with at work or school, reach out to someone who looks like they’re going through a rough time at the grocery store. It will cost us some time and effort, yes, but we will find our experience to be that much richer.

Here's a song about possessions I think fits the theme for today's Gospel reading:

Mountains of Things performed by The Duhks 
and Jonathan Scales on steel drums
(I went to college with Jonathan!!)

The life I've always wanted 
I guess I'll never have
I'll be working for somebody else 
Until I'm in my grave 
I'll be dreaming of a live of ease 
And mountains Oh mountains o' things 

To have a big expensive car
Drag my furs on the ground 
And have a maid that I can tell
To bring me anything 
Everyone will look at me with envy and with greed 
I'll revel in their attention 
And mountains Oh mountains o' things 

Sweet lazy life 
Champagne and caviar 
I hope you'll come and find me 
Cause you know who we are 
Those who deserve the best in life 
And know what money's worth 
And those whose sole misfortune 
Was having mountains o' nothing at birth 

Oh they tell me 
There's still time to save my soul 
They tell me 
Renounce all 
Renounce all those material things you gained by 
Exploiting other human beings 

Consume more than you need 
This is the dream
Make you pauper 
Or make you queen 
I won't die lonely 
I'll have it all prearranged 
A grave that's deep and wide enough 
For me and all my mountains o' things

Mostly I feel lonely 
Good good people are
Good people are only 
My stepping stones 
It's gonna take all my mountains o' things 
To surround me 
Keep all my enemies away
Keep my sadness and loneliness at bay 

I'll be dreaming, dreaming... Dreaming...