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Sermon, October 17, 2021 – Pentecost 21

We Don’t Know What We’re Asking

There’s an old bit of wisdom that states that if one really doesn’t want to know the answer to a particular question, then don’t ask the question.  In today’s reading from the book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures and from the Gospel we hear examples of question being asked that in hindsight probably were better off unspoken.

Job up to this point has been asking questions and getting unsatisfactory answers about the calamities and misfortunes that have befallen him.  His friends have attempted to answer those questions using the theological and psychological perspectives of their day.  The friends’ intentions are good in that they are doing their best to bring Job some comfort in the midst of his grief.  In spite of their well meaning attempts to bring comfort, Job’s questions and laments grow in magnitude.  Suddenly, God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind.  Instead of answering Job’s questions, because there really are no answers, God begins to question Job – asking him about the presence and role in creation. 

In the Gospel, James and John ask Jesus for the honor of sitting on either side of him in the heavenly realm.  I can see Jesus putting his face in his hands because, once again, the disciples don’t get the picture.  Ever since Jesus began to talk about the reason for going to Jerusalem, he has been speaking in terms of sacrifice and servanthood not power and prestige.  James and John make a request, and it triggers the hostility of the other disciples (who probably been thinking the same thing as James and John). 

Like the story from Job, Jesus turns the tables on them and asks two simple questions: 1) can you drink from the cup that I will drink, and 2) can you accept the baptism that awaits me?

To “drink the cup” was a metaphor for suffering. Baptism is used here in a similar sense to signify self-emptying love. Later Paul would write, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Their sharing in the Messiah’s triumph includes participation in his sacrificial death.

James and John once again show their misunderstanding when they confidently reply that they are able to drink this cup; however, at the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, they will desert him (Mk. 14:50). Jesus responds that they may share the cup that he himself will drink, but “to sit at my right hand or at my left” (v. 40) is not his to grant. Only God the Father can decide who occupies these preeminent positions. In an ironic twist, it is two thieves who would share the places of honor in Jesus’ glory — not on a heavenly throne but at the crucifixion. To sit at the right or left hand of Jesus is to be included in his final suffering.

The other disciples are enraged by the presumptuous actions of James and John. Thus, beginning in verse 42, Jesus addresses all of them with teachings about true leadership. In a society that prized power, status, and honor, the followers of Jesus were to take a different path — that of servant leadership. The heart of discipleship is service and not privilege. And those who perform such service do it with no thought for recognition. Those who merely reflect the values of this world ultimately can do nothing to transform it.

The person who is truly great is the one who seeks always to provide for the needs and welfare of others — the one who is ready to be the slave of all. In God’s Kingdom the quest for individual power and status is replaced by humility and service to others. Jesus models this service, as the one who “came not to be served but to serve” (v. 45a). Discipleship is not about effectiveness or success as the world sees it, with immediate and predictable results, but whether or not we have faithfully followed Jesus’ example.

What this means for us is that we are called to be servants of one another, as well as to the entire human family.  The late Gayle Sayers entitled his autobiography, I am Third, which explicitly outlined his priorities in order of importance.  For Sayers, God was first, others (including family) were second, and he placed himself last. 

Are we going to get this right all the time?  Of course not, that’s why we come back to this place Sunday after Sunday to confess our shortcomings, receive forgiveness and the assurance of the grace to keep going, and finally the spiritual food and drink to continue the journey.  Thus encouraged we go out into the world to serve the world in our Lord’s name.  Knowing that all of our questions will be answered, even those that we know better than to ask; or, as the old Gospel hymn reminds us:

Farther along we’ll know all about it,

Farther along we’ll understand why;

Cheer up, don’t worry, live in the sunshine.

We’ll understand it all by and by.

W.B. Stevens

Amen.

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Sermon, October 10, 2021 – Pentecost 20

It’s All About Grace

A man died and found himself standing before St. Peter and the Pearly Gates, the Book of Life was open on Peter’s desk.  He looked up the new arrival’s name and assured him that his name was indeed written in the Book.  Peter tells him there’s one more test, the man has to name all of his good works and score 100 points.  The man begins to list his good deeds and Peter assigns them one or two points depending on the act – some even gave a negative score.  When he was finished listing all of the good works he could remember his score stood at four points.  He placed his head in his hands and on the point of despair said, “The only way I’m going to get in here is by the grace of God.”  Without looking up Peter said, “100 points” and the gate swung open to welcome the newcomer.

This morning our attention shifts back to the call to the life of discipleship, which is the life in grace, and the requirements that such a life necessitates.  We are reminded, once again, that our discipleship, in fact the whole of our relationship with the Holy One is dependent upon God’s grace.  We hear it in the Collect for today:

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 234 – 235)

The whole of our life in Christ is built upon the notion that we are entirely and utterly dependent upon God’s gracious, unconditional love.  It is God’s love that created us, sustains us, heals and forgives us, and ultimately receives us back into his loving and welcoming embrace when our time here on earth is done.  The challenge for us is that we all too often allow other things, which is the definition of idolatry, to come between us and God’s love.  Anything that we place between ourselves and God is an idol – anything can become an idol if we allow it.

This is the main point in the first part of today’s Gospel.  This story is found in all three Synoptic Gospels with minor variations.  A wealthy man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus gives the classic rabbinical response by telling him to keep the commandments – especially those commandments which impact the social order.  When the wealthy man replies that he has kept these commandments since the days of his youth.  Jesus looks at him, loves him (this is the only instance where Jesus’ love for a potential disciple is articulated), and tells him he lacks one thing – Jesus instructs him to go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and come follow me.  Jesus adds that the man will have “treasure in heaven.”  Mark tells us that he went away grieving because he had great possessions.

Jesus then launches into a lesson about the difficulty to enter the Kingdom, especially if we allow our possessions to get in the way.  There is nothing inherently wrong with having possessions or being wealthy.  The problem comes when we allow our wealth to become our governing principle and neglect the reason for our wealth – which is using it to care for the poor, the disadvantaged, and those who have no voice in our society.  This is also a polemic against those who choose to believe that one’s wealth is an outward and visible sign of their faithfulness and God’s blessing – like many of the “evangelists” who proclaim a “prosperity gospel” that teaches that if we were to give (usually to the “evangelist” in question), then God will bless us with material wealth and comfort.  No where is that promised in Scripture.

Jesus reminds us that everything we have is from God, and there is awaiting us even more that we can ask or imagine.  Our task is to place our trust in Jesus’ love and mercy.

This is where this morning’s Epistle fits in.  The author of Hebrews tells us that our relationship with God is centered on our relationship with Jesus.  The author goes on to explain that the reason we can place our trust in Jesus is because he has experienced human life.  We need to remember that while Jesus is God in flesh, he is fully and completely human.  Therefore, he knows and understands the way the complexity of human life.

So, on this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we are brought back to the center of our life in Christ which is our complete dependence upon God’s love and grace to keep us and sustain us.  This gives us the ability to follow faithfully.

          Amen.

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Sermon, October 3, 2021 – Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (transferred)

St. Francis’ Gift

Tomorrow [October 4] is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi a thirteenth century friar about whom little is known, and much is speculated and legendary.  At various times of his life he was a soldier and prisoner of war, a party animal, and ultimately the founder of one of the largest religious orders in the Christian community.  He gave us the Christmas Creche – replicas adorn our homes and churches to this day.  He, also, gave us the first Christmas pageant complete with live animals.  He is probably best known as the patron saints of animals and the environment – especially pets.  Statues of him adorn many gardens.

Yet, this is not what sets St. Francis, who has been called the most Christ-like saint in the calendar, apart.  What sets him apart can be found in this morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew.  St. Francis is best remembered as one who sought to make the Good News available and receivable to everyone.  Tradition has it that he once said to his brother friars – “Preach the Gospel always and everywhere, use words if necessary.”  

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus is telling his listeners that the Good News is available to all and there are no barriers.  Jesus is offering us relief from the soul-numbing ways of the world and our contemporary society.  He does this by inviting all of us, individually and as a community, to embrace a transformative faith-filled pattern of discipleship that calls us to let go of everything that would keep us bound up in the world’s lies.

We are reminded of our absolute dependence upon grace – grace that empowers us to surrender to the Gospel’s message, yoke, and burden.  While Jesus’ yoke and burden are light, they do carry substance and weight of responsibility.

St. Francis, like Jesus, was an advocate for the poor and the outcast.  St. Francis was known to care for lepers and others who were disadvantaged because of society’s injustice.  Through his ministry we are reminded that we are to be about working to alleviate the ravages of poverty and advocate for those who have no voice. St. Francis reminds us that each and every one of us is created in the image and likeness of God, and we should treat each other accordingly.

Finally, St. Francis is known as the patron and protector of animals – especially our pets.  Our pets teach us that most important lesson of giving and receiving unconditional love as a reflection of the unconditional love we receive from God and are expected to offer our brothers and sisters.

So, on this Feast of St. Francis let us give thanks for the whole of God’s creation, and especially for the unconditional love offered us by our pets.  Let us become the people our dogs and cats believe us to be.

          Amen.