Sunday, February 4, 2018

Immersed in Scripture - A Sermon on Mark 1:29-39


                        

Year B Epiphany 5 Mark 1:29-39


Today, Super Bowl Sunday, is a big day for American culture, but I want to look ahead to some upcoming dates on our calendar. We are only 10 days away from the start of Lent, with Ash Wednesday being on February 14.  Valentine’s Day.  Unlike Valentine’s Day,  Ash Wednesday isn’t exactly a big seller for Hallmark cards.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” just doesn’t go over as well as red hearts and flowers.  

And if having Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day isn’t enough, guess what day Easter Sunday falls on this year?  April 1st.  April Fools!  Around the world, pastors will be saying that the resurrection was no April Fools joke, then proceed to tell silly April Fools jokes anyway.  Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy.

Anyway, between Valentine’s Day and April Fools day this year is the season of Lent, a time of preparation for Holy Week, when we enter into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.  One way to observe Lent - one personal spiritual discipline you can adopt - is to go deeper into the Bible

As some of you may remember, I am an advocate for immersing ourselves into the Bible through a method of praying the Scriptures known as lectio divina – Latin for “divine reading” – where we read a short passage from the Bible several times and let those words sink into us to see how the Holy Spirit speaks to us in our life through those words.

There is another method of going deeper into the Bible that comes from the Ignatian Christian tradition, meaning from St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was the founder of the Jesuit order (the ones who founded places of higher learning like Creighton University).  

A Jesuit named Kevin O’Brien wrote about how  Ignatius was convinced that God can speak to us as surely through our imagination as through our thoughts and memories. (That kind of contemplation of the Bible) is a very active way of praying that engages the mind and heart and stirs up thoughts and emotions.” 

“Ignatian contemplation is suited especially for the Gospels…. we accompany Jesus through his life by imagining scenes from the Gospel stories. Let the events of Jesus’ life be present to you right now. Visualize the event as if you were making a movie. Pay attention to the details: sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings of the event. Lose yourself in the story…. place yourself in the scene…

Contemplating a Gospel scene is not simply remembering it or going back in time. Through the act of contemplation, the Holy Spirit (that dwells in you) makes present a mystery of Jesus’ life in a way that is meaningful for you now. Use your imagination to dig deeper into the story so that God may communicate with you in a personal.. way.”

Today’s Gospel reading is only 11 verses long, but there are a lot of people involved in this story, and so there a lot of different perspectives from which we can enter into this story.

Let’s start with Simon and his companions – his brother Andrew, plus James, and John.  Later on of course, Simon would become Peter, a leader of the disciples, and the rest would become known as one of the 12 disciples.

But for now, they were just ordinary fishermen who had just been called by Jesus to get out of the boat to follow him. (that story was only about 10 verses before the one we heard today).

Today’s Gospel began with Jesus being led to the house of Simon’s mother-in-law, who was very ill.  After Simon’s mother-in-law was healed, Jesus proceeded to heal many more throughout the night, but then he mysteriously disappeared.  Many people were apparently still looking for Jesus, trying to get Simon and the others to take them to him.  So, they hunted for him, and when they finally found him, they said “Everyone is searching for you”.  But instead of taking them back to where they had come from, Jesus led them to other towns, proclaiming the Gospel to other people.

So, one way you can enter into this story is by empathizing with Simon at the beginning of this Gospel, someone with a family member who is very ill and needs healing. Or perhaps you can see yourself in the position of Simon, Andrew, James, and John, as they were hunting for Jesus after he had healed many of the sick but then disappeared. Where are you Jesus?

Or perhaps you can put yourself in their position when they found Jesus. They thought they would be going back home, so Jesus could help the rest of the people there.  But instead, Jesus said he was going to take them on to other towns, and they did just that – traveling all around the region of Galilee, proclaiming the message in synagogues and casting out demons.  What ventures does Jesus have waiting for you that call you to go outside of your comfort zone, and move on to other things that might be exciting, but also risky.

Next, let’s think about the story from the perspective of Simon’s mother-in-law, who had a fever.  We’re taking fevers a little more seriously these days because of the flu epidemic, but most of the time, when we think of someone with a fever, we tell ourselves, its no big deal, just take some Advil or Tylenol and lie in bed for a day or two and everything will probably be fine. 

2,000 years ago, of course, nothing even close to modern medicine existed, so a fever could become deadly in a short period of time.  So, her situation as she was lying down in the house was a pretty serious one.   

Jesus took her by the hand, lifted her up, and the fever left her.  Notice that Jesus didn’t say anything to perform the healing. His touch, his presence, was enough. So one way to enter into this story through her perspective is to remember that about Jesus’ presence when you are going through a tough time, and you ask God for a sign, but you don’t seem to be getting a response.  You just can’t figure out what Jesus is trying to say to you.  But that does not mean that Jesus is not there, lifting you up in ways that you may not realize.   

After the healing, did she take it easy and rest for awhile? No. After Jesus lifted her up, she began to serve them.  Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us why she did that.  Was there a sense of obligation that she had to do it because of cultural norms and expectations?  There’s no doubt those kinds of roles and expectations were placed on women at that time. 

There is a word in Mark’s Gospel that gives us a clue that what she did transcended any cultural obligations imposed on her though.  I’m no Greek expert, but it is my understanding that what she did was an act of diakoneo – the Greek word used later in Mark’s Gospel to describe what the angels did to help Jesus when he was out in the desert for 40 days, and later on in the New Testament to describe what deacons do – serving God through acts of loving service to others. 

So, another way to enter into the world of this story is to remember that when you are do an act of service for another out of love, no matter how great or small, you are continuing that ministry of Jesus that goes back all the way to this woman who, although she is not named in Mark’s Gospel, gives us a powerful witness.

And finally, you can immerse yourself into this story from the perspective of Jesus. The historic belief of the Church is that Jesus was at once both fully divine (as the incarnation of the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and fully human.  Jesus of Nazareth was a real human being who experienced what we experience.  And so, while we cannot even fathom the divine perspective, we can enter into the story through his human perspective.

 In particular, we can sympathize with how even Jesus needed to have some time alone in silence.  After those healings, he slipped away under the cover of the early morning darkness to be by himself for awhile. Away from all the demands on his time and his energy in order to spend some time in prayer. Even Jesus needed time for refreshment and renewal.

If Jesus needed that, we obviously need that as well.   After work, taking care of kids or other family members, running errands, paying the bills, all the stuff that we do, spend some time alone.  In silence.  Away from the noise.  Pray.  Reflect on what has been going on in your life and how God might be speaking to you through others.

So, regardless how you enter into the story, God will come to meet you where you are - Wherever you are in your thoughts, your fears, your doubts. 

And once you’ve met Jesus in a Gospel story through your imagination, you’ll find an encounter with the Christ who is alive - who isn’t just someone who lived 2000 years ago.  You will encounter the Christ who is active working within us and around us through the Holy Spirit. And finally, you will encounter the Christ who is risen - risen from the dead to give you new life.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mending Nets and Getting Out of Boats


Year B Epiphany 3 Mark 1:14-20 (Sermon during the Holy Eucharist celebrated prior to the Annual Meeting at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Sioux City, Iowa)
Today following the service, as you know, is our annual meeting, when we will think about, talk about, and pray about what God is doing here at St. Thomas, and how we are called to respond to what God is doing.

To put our discernment in terms of today’s Gospel, we can think about it this way.  Are we mending the nets? Or are we getting out of the boat? 
James and John were mending the nets with their father Zebedee.  But then Jesus came by, and it was time to get out of the boat.

What does it mean to get out of the boat?  To stop mending the nets and follow Jesus?  
Like a lot of other people these days, I probably spend too much time on social media – meaning Facebook, Twitter, and the like. But once in awhile, God seems to break through all of the noise on social media and hit me on the side of the head, and I was reminded of what following Jesus really means.

On Friday, I got a notice from Twitter that it was my 6 year anniversary of joining that social media site. I started with a personal account,  @RevJayDenne, where I make random observations, usually on spiritual or church matters, and @Virtual_Abbey, which was an already existing account I took over a few years later where I tweet prayers.      
You might have heard of Twitter but don’t know how it works - it is a social networking site kind of like Facebook, except you are much more limited with what you can say - you can only post short messages for others to see, and those short messages are called tweets.  

When you’re on twitter, you have to be brief.  Up until a few months ago, each tweet can be no longer than 140 characters – not words, mind you, but characters, meaning letters, spaces, or symbols.  That limit was recently increased to 280 characters, which still isn’t a whole lot.
So I’m always on the lookout for short, pithy sayings or prayers which can effectively be said in a tweet or two.  That notification of my 6 year anniversary on Twitter led me to look back to my very first tweets were back then, and I found one that I think is a pretty good summary of what it means to stop mending the nets and get out of the boat to follow Jesus.

It was quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor and theologian from Germany I’ve talked about before, who was executed at the end of World War 2 because of his resistance to the Nazis. The quote goes like this:  “When Christ calls us to come and follow, he bids us to come and die.” 
Those words became true for him in a literal sense, but when he wrote those words in his book “The Cost of Discipleship”, he was speaking about our baptismal calling to pick up our cross, and follow Christ.  Our old life dies, metaphorically speaking, and in its place, there is new life with Christ.

The events of today’s Gospel lesson occurred about 1,900 years before the time of Bonhoeffer, and just as he was a Christian during a dark time in Germany, it was a dark time for the people of Israel due to oppression from the Roman Empire and its local puppet regime – the regime of King Herod.  
The Jesus movement, to use the phrase from our Presiding Bishop, was just starting. John the Baptist had just been thrown into prison by King Herod.   

Did that oppression cause Jesus to keep quiet?  No.  Today’s Gospel lets us know that he went around region of Galilee with a message that could be summed up in a single tweet: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” 
In typically brief, Twitter-like fashion, Mark’s Gospel tells us how Jesus called Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, as well as James and his brother John.  Jesus’ call to both sets of brothers was the same- they were fishermen who were casting a net into the sea.  Along came Jesus, who said “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 

 And does the Gospel of Mark tell us that they took awhile to think about this invitation from Jesus, talk it over with their friends and family, and then pack up their belongings? 

No.  Mark uses the same word twice to describe how they reacted – they reacted immediately.  Simon and Andrew had cast their nets but they immediately dropped them.  James and John were mending the nets, but they immediately dropped them.  

The Bible doesn’t tell us what ultimately happened to these for fishermen who became disciples - Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.  But the tradition of the Church tells us that three of the four of them paid the same price that Bonhoeffer did 1,900 years later. 
Simon Peter was executed in Rome during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero about 30 years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  He was crucified upside down because he did not think he was worthy to be executed in the exact same way as Jesus.

Andrew and James met a similar fate.  Andrew was executed in Greece.  James was beheaded during a later persecution by King Herod.  All of the rest of the disciples were also killed for their faith, except the final one were heard about today – John survived the persecutions, although the traditional belief is that he was banished to the remote island of Patmos.
Our circumstances are vastly different than those of Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  For one, although in some parts of the world, people are martyred for their faith – think about those Coptic Christians from Egypt on Palm Sunday last year when their church was bombed – we didn’t face any imminent danger just for coming to church this morning.

And, as I alluded to at the beginning of this sermon when I talked about Twitter, the way of proclaiming the good news, and the way of living out our faith, is much, much different these days.  When Jesus said “follow me, and I will make you fish for people” there was no way to spread the Gospel except through word of mouth, or sending letters as Paul did a few years later.  Now, I can hit “enter” on a prayer Tweet, and it can be read instantaneously around the globe, which actually is confusing for some folks when I tweet Morning Prayer, and it is 2 o’clock in the afternoon where they live.
 But the call to us from Jesus is the same.  Follow me.  And, the task given to us by Jesus is the same.  I will make you fish for people.

 To do that, mending the nets won’t do.  We have to get out of the boat.  Come and die with me, Jesus says.  Die to that part of your selves which fights against Christ – that gives in to the motivations of the world around us that promote arrogance, greed, and self-interest. 
We have been given new lives in Christ – lives that are marked by humility and not arrogance; charity instead of greed, and service to others instead of self-interest.  We won’t be perfect, of course.  But as we heard from Psalm 62, God’s love is steadfast.  God alone is our rock, our fortress, our refuge, our salvation.  Our daily deliverance when we fall back into arrogance, greed, and self-interest comes from God – the God who our souls wait for in silence.  In hope.   

Toward the end of my report which you’ll find in your annual meeting packet, you’ll find a list of questions that I wrote for us to think about and pray about.  When you ask those questions in the context of today’s Gospel, that might sound like this:

-         How is God calling us to stop mending our nets and get out the boat so we can build upon our relationship with the other congregations of the Episcopal Presence of Siouxland?
-         How is God leading us to stop mending our nets and get out of the boat with regard to our relationship with other Christians – not just the ELCA, but all other Christians?
-         How is God urging us to stop mending our nets and get out of the boat so we develop deeper relationships with our brothers and sisters of other faiths?   
-         How is God nudging us to stop mending our nets and get out of the boat so we can feed the spiritual hunger of people who are not connected with a faith tradition at this time?
-         How is God asking us to stop mending our nets and get out of the boat so we can we be good stewards of our gifts from God in order to love and serve our neighbors?
-         How is God imploring us to stop mending our nets and get out of the boat so we can we be witnesses to God’s love in this world which seems to be so full of division, hate, and prejudice?

Fortunately for us, its not up to us to come up with the inner strength and fortitude to stop mending our nets and get out of the boat. Christ has already called us out of the boat and God has already made a covenant with you to help you live that new life in Christ - the covenant made at your baptism. The covenant where we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection – we die, as Bonhoeffer said, but we also live.  And that covenant life in our Prayer Book at page 304, so let’s pray the baptismal covenant together:    

Celebrant
Do you believe in God the Father?
People
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
    creator of heaven and earth.

Celebrant
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
        and born of the Virgin Mary.
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
        was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again.
    He ascended into heaven,
        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Celebrant
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting.

Celebrant
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
prayers?
People
I will, with God's help.

Celebrant
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and , whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People
I will, with God's help.

Celebrant
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
People
I will, with God's help.

Celebrant
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
People
I will, with God's help.

Celebrant
Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?
People
I will, with God's help.

Thanks be to God – Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent - The Doorkeeper


First Sunday of Advent Year B Mark 13:24-37
Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come.

Those words from Jesus in today’s Gospel help give some focus to this season in the life of the Church we call Advent.  Advent is not just a name for the 4 weeks before Christmas in the church where we get a head start on our Christmas celebration.  We look back, yes, at how Christ came into the world, but it is also a time to look at how Christ comes to us now, and how Christ will come again at that time when God’s promises are fulfilled, and the Kingdom of heaven is made complete.  In these times – in between the manger of Bethlehem and the time when Christ will come again, Jesus tells us to keep awake.

Keep awake? How?

Jesus tells us that the task of keeping awake falls on the doorkeeper.  Because we do now know when the time will come, someone has to be on the lookout.  In verse 34 of today’s Gospel, Jesus says that this situation is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  

We often think of door keepers as being like guards, keeping people out.  The only way to get in is to talk your way in, let them know the secret password, sneak past them, or fight your through them.  But some door keepers have another role, not related to guarding something in order to keep unwanted people out.  The role of this other kind of door keeper is to let others know when something, or someone, is coming.

For example, there are those kinds of door keepers when a court is in session. Sometimes, that kind of door keeper may make a simple announcement, such as “All rise, court is now in session”.  Sometimes, it could be a more detailed and solemn ritual.  The second highest courts in our nation, just below the U.S. Supreme Court, are the several federal circuit courts of appeal, spread throughout the country.  On several occasions, I argued cases before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, with court houses in St. Louis and St. Paul, where the door keeper would begin each session with this little ritual:

The lawyers and onlookers would all be gathered in the courtroom, waiting, when there would be three loud knocks at the door between the judge’s chambers and the court room. The door keeper would then announce: "Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is now in session.  All persons having business before this Honorable Court may now draw near and they will be heard. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

Regardless of how it was done, the door keeper’s job was not to guard the courtroom, but to announce to us that the judges were on their way in.
And that is essentially the role of the doorkeeper that Jesus talks about.   The kingdom of heaven doesn’t need a door keeper who is like a guard.  But the kingdom of heaven does need a door keeper to keep awake, be alert, and to let others know when that hour has come when all things will be fulfilled. Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye – the kingdom of heaven is now in session.

When will that master of the house return? When will that door keeper need to be alert and awake in order to announce that return? We don’t know. As Jesus said,  it may be in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, meaning that predawn time of the early morning, or at dawn.

Those times aren’t just random times that Jesus picked out.  They would prove to be crucial times of day in the days to come from him, particularly as the story of Jesus last few days are laid out in the Gospel of Mark.   Those times when Jesus says that the master may return are all connected with critical events leading up to the crucifixion. Evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn. (Thanks to Pastor David Lose for writing about these connections)

The verses from today’s Gospel come from at the end of chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel.  What happens in the very next chapter - chapter 14? Well, we have the Last Supper, and Mark 14:17 begins to tell the story of that event by saying: “When it was evening he came with the twelve…”.  Evening.

 A few verses later, we have Jesus’ prayer in anguish – “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible, remove this cup from me, but not what I want, but what you want” .  When he had finished his prayer Mark’s Gospel tells us that  “Once more he came and found the disciples sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” because it was the middle of the night.  Midnight.

 Jesus was then captured and tried before the religious leaders at night.  At the close of his trial, Peter’s abandoned Jesus, just as Jesus predicted he would.  When did that happen? Peter denied Jesus just as the cock crowed for the second time”.  Cockcrow.

And finally, we have the time when Jesus is delivered to Pilate, the Roman governor. When did that happen? According to the first verse of Mark chapter 15: “As soon as it was morning”.  Dawn.

Evening. Midnight.  Cockcrow. Dawn.  Each time was a critical time during Jesus’ road to the cross.  Each time is a time when Jesus said that we would need to keep awake, and keep alert, for the time when he would return.

But how can we stay awake all the time? It just isn’t possible for us to be awake all the time! We need our rest, our sleep! And that is where the door keeper comes in.  

Because the door keeper isn’t just one person.  The door keeper – the one given the task of keeping awake – keeping alert – for the coming of Christ - is us. 

We look for Christ, together, because any single one of us can’t stay awake all of the time.  There are times when we are weary.  When we are sick.  Times when we have doubts.  Times when we have fear.  And that is why we need each other, because it is the role of the door keeper community to watch when others cannot.    

Our modern world is full of what I’ll call “do it yourself religion”, meaning the idea that our relationship with God is better as a strictly vertical relationship (just me and God), without a horizontal relationship (with each other).  I understand the reason behind that kind of thinking. Church communities are full of people, and people fight.  People are self-centered. People can disappoint us – even betray us.

People certainly did all those things to Jesus during the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, at dawn. 

His followers disappointed him by not staying awake while he was in anguish in the garden, and when Peter denied him.  One of his followers outright betrayed him. After the disappointment, after the betrayal, his own people crucified him. 

But Jesus did not abandon them. After the resurrection, after his ascension into heaven, Jesus remained a living presence with them, in their community – helping them keep awake, keep alert, together.  Think of the words Paul used in today’s reading from 1st Corinthians – his letter talks about the spiritual gifts God gives to us that we need in order to wait for the revealing of Christ. 

Was his letter to an individual? No.  It was to the church in Corinth.  From the rest of the letter, we know it was a church full of problems and divisions.  But they needed to stick together.  Together, they were called into the fellowship of God through Jesus Christ. Despite their problems – they still needed one another. 

And that is the truth for us as well.  Despite our imperfections, together we are being molded by God, to use that phrase from today’s reading from Isaiah about how God is the potter and we are the clay – together we are being shaped into the body of Christ during these times in between the manger and the second coming. 

We need one other, to hold one each other accountable when needed, to do together what Christ calls us to do – love and serve our neighbor – and, to be the door keeper to the kingdom of heaven.  Again, not the kind of door keeper who is a guard.

Together, our call is to be the kind of door keeper who proclaims the good news. The good news that Christ was born for us in Bethlehem. The good news that Christ died for us on the cross.  The good news that Christ’s presence is among us today, and that Christ will come again, to make all things new.

Thanks be to God – Amen. 
 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Sacramental Perspective on Matthew 25:31-46

So as not to go 0 for 2017 in blog posts, I thought I would interrupt the silence and post this morning's sermon, since it is a good barometer of where I am theologically and spiritually these days.

Christ the King Sunday Year A Matthew 25:31-46

You’re going to figure this out soon enough, but the word of the day for this sermon is "perspective", meaning the where and the how we view things, our point of view, or our vantage point.  We just heard Jesus talk about sheep and goats, but let me use cats and dogs to illustrate a point about the importance of recognizing the perspective from which we view the world around us.

Dogs, like the ones on our family farm I visited over the Thanksgiving holiday, look up at you with those big brown eyes, wagging their tail, as if they are thinking to themself: “You love me, you feed me, you care for me, you take me for walks... you must be God”. Cats, on the other hand, like our dear Mellow whom we adopted from the shelter last year, look at you with those piercing eyes, thinking to themself:  “You love me, you feed me, you care for me, you pet me ... I must be God”. (Joke adapted from a sermon by Steven Sizer: www.stevensizer.com) Recognizing our perspective – the vantage point from which we look at the things around us - matters.

Today is Christ the King Sunday – the last day of the church year, before we begin a new church year with the season of Advent next week. A day that we can take a step back and look at the world from a new perspective.  A perspective which reveals to us how Christ the King is a very, very different kind of king. A perspective which shows us how Christ is a king whose crown is thorns, not jewels, A perspective which shows us that his king’s throne is a cross, not made of gold. 

A perspective revealed to us through today’s Gospel from Matthew.  A perspective which reveals how Christ is with us today.  A perspective that shows us how Christ the King comes to us today - not through all kinds of royal pageantry, but through those whom Jesus calls the least of these who are members of my family. The hungry.  The thirsty. The stranger. The naked.  The sick.  The imprisoned.

This parable, sometimes called the judgment of the nations, or perhaps more simply, the parable of the sheep at the goats, is found at the end of the 25th chapter of Matthew, the chapter we’ve been going through these past few weeks where Jesus has told a series of parables about being prepared for the day when he would return.  In the very next chapter, chapter 26, Jesus had the last supper with the disciples.  He was betrayed and arrested. He was put on trial before the high priest, then in the 27th chapter, brought before Pilate, and taken to the cross.

Today’s parable of the judgment of the nations, using the sheep and the goats as metaphors for the righteous and unrighteous, was the last parable he told before those events we remember during Holy Week.

There are probably several different perspectives from which we can look at this parable of the sheep and the goats, but I’m going to talk about three. 

One possible perspective would be to look at this parable from what I’ll call the “legal perspective” the perspective that Jesus is offering us a contract for our salvation, with a list of conditions. What kind of list?  Well, because the Christmas shopping season has begun, pardon me for bringing up Santa, but a list of things we can do to be put on the nice list, the sheep list - and not the naughty list, the goat list. Let’s see – feed a hungry person? Check.  Give a drink to a thirsty person? Check. Give clothing to a naked person? Check.  Welcome the stranger? Check. Took care of someone who is sick? Check.  Visit someone in prison? Check.  Okay Jesus, I’ve done all of those things – now fulfill your end of the deal and tell me I’m a sheep.   

Another possible perspective is what I’ll call the “save the world” perspective. What I mean by that is that from this perspective, we think that Jesus is telling us how to go out there and make his kingdom a reality here on earth in our time, and we do that by doing all kinds of great and noble and just things for other people. 

Things like feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, etc. – I won’t mention the whole list again.  Jesus told us about the kingdom of heaven, so let’s get going on bringing it to earth by doing all these things - time’s a wasting.

The problem with those perspectives is that they are from the vantage point of what we are doing.  We need to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and take care of the sick to fulfill our end of the legal bargain, or we need to do these things to save the world and make the kingdom of heaven a reality here on earth by doing them.

I’m going to propose to you a different perspective – what I am going to call a sacramental perspective.  As Episcopalians/Lutherans, along with other Christian traditions which believe that God’s grace comes to us through the sacraments like baptism or communion, believe that ordinary things or objects can bring the holy to us.  They can bring Christ himself to us.  The water of baptism bring Christ to us and unite us with him in his death and resurrection.  The bread and wine bring Christ to us as they carry his body and blood for forgiveness of sin and nourishment of our souls.

In other words, the sacramental perspective reveals to us that the material world – what we can see, taste, touch, is not all there is that is material to us for our salvation – our unity with God.  Through this parable, Jesus is reminding us that each encounter with the people that we meet has the potential to be an encounter with himself.  What may seem like an ordinary event, can be a Christ event.

The week before last, I stayed several days at New Melleray Abbey, the monastery over Dubuque that I go to periodically. The monks there follow the ancient Rule of St. Benedict as the guide for their lives, and the Rule of St. Benedict recognizes how Christ comes to us through others.  One part of the Rule specifically quotes Matthew 25, when it states that “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me”. 

In other words, an act of hospitality, welcoming a stranger, is a sacramental event – an encounter with Jesus. A means by which Jesus Christ - the King of this very different kind of kingdom - comes to us.

A sacramental perspective reminds us that Christ’s presence in the world is not merely a past event, or a future event on the day when Christ returns.  Christ’s presence is a current event.  The face of Christ is reflected to us through the face of the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the stranger, the imprisoned.  We are all pilgrims on the journey, and Christ visits us through the journey of others. (Adapted from a writing by Fr. Prior Joel Macul on the 20th anniversary of Christ the King Priory. www.christthekingpriory.com).
A sacramental perspective affects our mindset when we go about doing the things that Jesus spoke of, like feeding the hungry.  These aren’t just acts of charity from someone who has something, to someone who does not have something. We aren’t the kings of our little kingdoms being benevolent and merciful to those whom we provide assistance.

We are receiving far more than what we are giving because the presence of Christ the King himself is with them, whether we recognize it or not.   One of the beautiful things about this parable is how the people who were sheep and not goats did all of these things without even realizing it was the Son of Man who was with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, stranger, and imprisoned.

So, a sacramental perspective is not required to be a sheep and not a goat, but it does open our eyes to a new way of looking at why we do the acts of love that we do as Christians. It is a perspective that comes when, as Ephesians so beautifully puts it, the eyes of your heart are enlightened. 

The eyes of your heart.  Not the eyes in your head.  The eyes in the core of your being – the core where the Holy Spirit dwells in you because of the sacrament of baptism, the core which is nourished and fed because of the sacrament of communion.

A sacramental perspective opens the eyes of our heart to see God’s grace incarnate in water, in bread and wine.  It allows us to see the presence of Christ in the least of these. It allows us to see that the presence of the resurrected and living Christ is not merely a thing of the past or future, but a living presence right here, right now, with us.  Immanuel.

Thanks be to God. Amen.




Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Sermon for Reformation Day, 2016

The following sermon is based on Luke 19:1-10, which is the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel for the day. (I've used the Reformation Day texts before, but because I also serve an Episcopal congregation now, I used the RCL text so I didn't have to prepare two sermons).  

Grace to you and peace in the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Since I have spent the past couple of days at the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, I didn't have a lot of time to create my own sermon for today.  So, I want you to imagine that we have a special guest preacher here today, but I’m not going to tell you who the preacher is until after you’ve heard it.

"You have come here meet Jesus. Today’s Gospel speaks to us of just such a meeting between Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus, in Jericho. There Jesus does not simply preach or greet people; but he passed through the city.  In other words, Jesus wants to draw near to us personally, to accompany our journey to its end, so that his life and our life can truly meet.


An amazing encounter then takes place, with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. Zacchaeus was a wealthy collaborator of the hated Roman occupiers, someone who exploited his own people, someone who, because of his ill repute, could not even approach the Master. His encounter with Jesus changed his life, just as it has changed each of our lives.  But Zacchaeus had to face a number of obstacles in order to meet Jesus, which also have something to say to us.

The first obstacle is smallness of stature. Zacchaeus couldn’t see the Master because he was little. Even today we can risk not getting close to Jesus because we don’t feel big enough, because we don’t think ourselves worthy. This is a great temptation; it has to do not only with self-esteem, but with faith itself.   We have been created in God’s own image; Jesus has taken upon himself our humanity and his heart will never be separated from us; the Holy Spirit wants to dwell within us. We have been called to be happy for ever with God! 

That is our real “stature”, our spiritual identity: we are God’s beloved children, always. So you can see that not to accept ourselves, to be negative, means not to recognize our deepest identity.  God loves us the way we are, and no sin, fault or mistake of ours changes that.  

As far as Jesus is concerned – as this Gospel shows – no one is unworthy of, or far from, his thoughts. No one is insignificant. He loves all of us with a special love; for him all of us are important: you are important! God counts on you for what you are, not for what you possess. In God’s eyes the clothes you wear or the things you own are of absolutely no concern. In God’s eyes, you are precious, and your value is inestimable.

At times in our lives, we aim lower rather than higher. At those times, it is good to realize that God remains faithful, even obstinate, in his love for us. The fact is, God loves us even more than we love ourselves. God believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. God is there for us, waiting with patience and hope, even when we turn in on ourselves and brood over our troubles and past injuries.

But that brooding is a kind of virus infecting and blocking everything; it closes doors and prevents us from getting up and starting over.  God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful, because we are always his beloved sons and daughters. Let us be mindful of this at the dawn of each new day.  It will do us good to pray every morning: “Lord, I thank you for loving me; help me to be in love with my own life!” Not with my faults, that need to be corrected, but with life itself, which is a great gift, for it is a time to love and to be loved.


Zacchaeus faced a second obstacle in meeting Jesus: the paralysis of shame. We can imagine what was going on in his heart before he climbed that sycamore. It must have been quite a struggle – on one hand, a healthy curiosity and desire to know Jesus; on the other, the risk of appearing completely ridiculous.


Zacchaeus was public figure, a man of power. He knew that, in trying to climb that tree, he would have become a laughingstock to all.  Yet he mastered his shame, because the attraction of Jesus was more powerful. You know what happens when someone is so attractive that we fall in love with them: we end up ready to do things we would never have even thought of doing.


Something similar took place in the heart of Zacchaeus, when he realized that Jesus was so important that he would do anything for him, since Jesus alone could pull him out of the mire of sin and discontent. The paralysis of shame did not have the upper hand. The Gospel tells us that Zacchaeus “ran ahead”, “climbed” the tree, and then, when Jesus called him, he “hurried down”. He took a risk, he put his life on the line. For us too, this is the secret of joy: not to stifle curiosity, but to take a risk, because life is not meant to be tucked away. When it comes to Jesus, we cannot sit around waiting with arms folded; he offers us life!

After his small stature and the paralysis of shame, there was a third obstacle that Zacchaeus had to face.  This obstacle was all around him. It was the grumbling of the crowd, who first blocked him and then criticized him: How could Jesus have entered his house, the house of a sinner!  People will try to block you, to make you think that God is distant, rigid and insensitive, good to the good and bad to the bad. Instead,  God calls us to a kind of courage, the courage to be more powerful than evil by loving everyone, even our enemies. People may laugh at you because you believe in mercy. But do not be afraid.


That day the crowd judged Zacchaeus; they looked him over, up and down. But Jesus did otherwise: he gazed up at him. Jesus looks beyond the faults and sees the person. His gaze remains constant, even when it is not met; it seeks the way of unity and communion. Don’t stop at the surface of things; distrust the worldly cult of appearances, cosmetic attempts to improve our looks. Instead, God has given you a heart which can see and transmit goodness without growing weary. The joy that you have freely received from God, freely give away: so many people are waiting for it!

Finally let us listen to the words that Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus, which to be seem meant for us today: “Come down, for I must stay at your house today”.  Jesus extends the same invitation to you: “I must stay at your house today”.

We meet Jesus here, today, but that meeting continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on. The Lord  wants to enter your homes, to dwell in your daily lives: in your studies or in your work, your friendships and affections, your hopes and dreams. God desires that you bring all this in prayer and God hopes that, in all the “contacts” and “chats” of each day, that prayer comes first. God wants to be able to speak to you day after day through the word, so that you can make the Gospel your own, so that it can serve as a compass for you on the highways of life!

In asking to come to your house, Jesus calls you, as he did Zacchaeus, by name because your name is precious to him."

So, whose sermon was that? 
Martin Luther? No.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer? No. 
Some other great Lutheran, Episcopalian, or Protestant? No.
I edited it somewhat for context, but that was, in essence, the sermon given by Pope Francis to a million young people at World Youth Day in Krakow Poland, on July 31st of this year.  One of the slogans of the Reformation was “grace alone”, and there was a whole lot of grace in that sermon.

Tomorrow is the 499th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Germany, a Reformation which spread to England and other parts of Europe a few years later.  But October 2016 is proving to be a special month, too.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby met and said together that our differences “cannot prevent us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ by reason of our common baptism. Nor should they ever hold us back from discovering and rejoicing in the deep Christian faith and holiness we find within each other’s traditions.

 Our differences should not stop us from praying together: not only can we pray together, we must pray together, giving voice to our shared faith and joy in the Gospel of Christ.”
That call to common prayer is being lived out tomorrow in Lund Sweden – Pope Francis will be visiting the predominantly Lutheran country for a joint prayer service marking the beginning of this 500th anniversary year, and this is one of the prayers that they will pray together:

“Jesus Christ, Lord of the church, send your Holy Spirit! Illumine our hearts and heal our memories. O Holy Spirit: help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the Church through the Reformation, prepare us to repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears, have built, and equip us for common witness and service in the world.  Amen.”
The Reformation helped remind the Church of what Jesus said to Zaccheus - that salvation comes to your house today, for the Son of Man, has come out to seek, and to save.  As Pope Francis’ sermon indicated, that promise is a gift which can overcome obstacles and divisions.  It is a gift that gives us new life in Christ.

Thanks be to God – Amen.        

Monday, May 9, 2016

Why I'm Sticking with the Revised Common Lectionary, Part 2

Unbeknownst to me at the time, on the same day that I posted my first article about the Revised Common Lectionary (http://benedictinelutheran.blogspot.com/2016/05/why-im-sticking-with-revised-common.html), a group called "Clergy Stuff" posted a video on Facebook about the Narrative Lectionary.  The video features Professor Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary, who has been one of the primary developers and proponents of the Narrative Lectionary. The video can be seen here (http://clergystuff.com/news/2016/5/2/what-is-the-narrative-lectionary-anyway), and it features two comments on why the Narrative Lectionary is allegedly superior to the Revised Common Lectionary which I want to address.  I've really enjoyed some of Professor Jacobson's work in the past, particularly "Crazy Book: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Biblical Terms", as well as his other books published by Augsburg Fortress.  However, I have a profound disagreement with his assessment of the RCL, and his belief that his Narrative Lectionary rectifies the alleged problems with it.

The first comment made by Professor Jacobson is as follows:

"We actually think that we do a better job of aligning the Biblical story with the major festivals of the Church year. In the Revised Common Lectionary, you get the adult John the Baptist in Advent saying 'Jesus is coming', but that's not the Christmas story - its not the adult John the Baptist saying the adult Jesus is coming. So, what we have is the prophetic texts - the prophets longing with hope for the fulfillment of God's kingdom and the coming of the Holy One, and then the Holy One is born at Christmas, and we tell, then, the Biblical story in order...."

Is Advent merely a season where we prepare for the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas?  If so, his claim might have merit.  However, Advent is not just about recalling the story of the baby Jesus coming into the world.  If it were, I'm not sure why we would even have a separate Advent season - we would just have one six week Christmas season. Instead, Advent is also a season where we prepare for the return of Christ at the eschaton (a word which essentially means, to borrow a phrase from the rock group REM: 'the end of the world as we know it').  Therefore, contrary to Professor Jacobson's opinion, the readings where "the adult John Baptist is saying the adult Jesus is coming" make sense given the historical purpose and meaning behind the season of Advent:

"The eschataological orientation that is found in some of these early sources continues to be a significant element in the proclamation of the season of Advent. Indeed, the very name Adventus, 'coming,' 'approach,' suggests not only the coming of God into the world in Jesus but the approaching return of the risen Lord in all his heavenly splendor.  Indeed, the Advent season and its hope should not be regarded purely or even primarily in terms of Christmas.  It should not even be seen as an introduction to the Incarnation but rather as the completion of the work of redemption.

****

The season gives voice to the impatience God's people feel at least from time to time but which they may be hesitant to express to God.  The purpose of Advent is to rouse once again in the people of the Church the anticipation of the End and of the great Day of the Lord, and to bid them to be prepared for it.

****

[T]he Church gives voice not only to the expectant joy of a bride or of a mother at the impending birth of her child. Mother Church expresses her deep longing for the coming of Christ in glory at the end of the ages. It is not a fearful dread that the Church wishes to instill in her members when through the psalms and hymns and readings and prayers she calls on us to think about the Parousia, the final coming, but rather she points us to the goal of our efforts to keep awake and to watch: unending union with Jesus Christ. All our work and study and prayer and living has one purpose and meaning: to bring us and all humanity into the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  So the central prayer of Advent is the one word, the concluding prayer of the Bible, Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus."

(From pp. 27-29 of "Journey Into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year" by Philip Pfatteicher, a noted Lutheran liturgical theologian - these are just brief snippets of a extensive discussion about the Advent season found in the book, including a discussion about the RCL readings).

Therefore, instead of enhancing the Church's understanding of the liturgical year, the Narrative Lectionary diminishes it.

The second comment from the video that I want to address is this remark from Professor Jacobson: "The problem with the Revised Common Lectionary is that somebody in 1973 or 1972 decided what Scriptures you need in your church in 2016, 2018, 2020..."

"Somebody in 1973 or 1972"?  The Revised Common Lectionary is not based on the fruits of one person's work in the early 1970s.  As noted in my earlier article, the roots of the RCL are based on the three year lectionary developed in the Roman Catholic Church during the years following Vatican II.  Following the conclusion of Vatican II, Biblical scholars came together to work on the three year lectionary, which resulted in the publication of Ordo Lectionum Missae in 1969. After over a decade of work by scholars from numerous Christian traditions, the Common Lectionary was published in 1983.  Finally, after a trial period of the Common Lectionary, and revisions made by even more scholars, the Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992.  (For more information, go to this website: http://www.commontexts.org/).

So, the RCL is the fruit of the labor of multiple scholars from multiple Christian traditions over the course of several decades.  It is not a perfect lectionary.  But, it is a truly "catholic" (universal, not just Roman) lectionary.  This was a sentiment expressed by ELCA Bishop Guy Erwin, who shared my earlier post on his Facebook page, and offered these words:

"This is lovely. Reading and reflecting on the RCL texts each week is for me a powerful witness to our unity as Christians. Not only the mainline churches but also the global Roman Catholic Church uses essentially the same Sunday texts, which means most of the world's Christians are focusing their hearts on the same scriptural truths each week.

No lectionary can ever be a substitute for the broader study of scripture--there simply aren't enough Sundays for that. What we hear ...on Sunday is an invitation to go deeper--to use more scripture to learn more--not an end point.

And though I believe every part of scripture is useful, I think the lectionary helps draw us away from the sense that the Bible was somehow put together and delivered to us in canonical order (and in English) by God, in order to tell us a smooth, consistent and complete story of everything God wants us to know. It is instead a wild and varied witness, and each part deserves to be considered on its own without being forced into a frame. Even the dissonances in the RCL help us be modest in the face of this sometimes mystifying collection of holy writings, and point us always back to Christ as the only unifier."