Sermon: Laurence

St. Lawrence Distributing the Treasures of the Church by Bernardo Strozzi

Laurence, whom we celebrate today, is considered by some to be “the most famous of all early Christian martyrs,” and his story is indeed worth telling.

Valerian was the Roman Emperor from 253 to 260 AD, and in 257, he began his persecution of Christians in Rome. At first, the Christians were only to be banished, but later they were executed. At that time, Sixtus II was Pope and the Bishop of Rome. Rome itself was broken into seven districts, each cared for by a deacon, and the archdeacon was Laurence; therefore, he was very close to Sixtus in the care of the funds and welfare of the Church but also personally.

In 258, the Romans came for Sixtus to execute him because he would not forsake his faith. Laurence is reported to have said to him, “Father, where are you going without your son? Where are you hastening, O priest, without your deacon? Never before did you offer the holy Sacrifice without assistants. In what way have I displeased you? In what way have you found me unfaithful in my office? Oh, try me again and prove to yourself whether you have chosen an unworthy minister for the service of the Church. So far, you have been trusting me with distributing the Blood of the Lord.”

Sixtus answered, “I am not forsaking you, my son; a severer trial is awaiting you for your faith in Christ. The Lord is considerate toward me because I am a weak old man. But for you, a most glorious triumph is in store. Cease to weep, for already, after three days, you will follow me.”

Hearing this, Laurence went and sold all the sacred vessels of the church and then took the money and gave it all to the poor of Rome. When the Roman magistrate received word of this, he arrested Laurence and said to him, “You Christians say we are cruel to you, but that is not what I have in mind. I am told that your priests offer in gold, that the sacred blood is received in silver cups, that you have golden candlesticks at your evening services. Now, your doctrine says you must render to Caesar what is his. Bring these treasures—the emperor needs them to maintain his forces. God does not cause money to be counted: He brought none of it into the world with him—only words. Give me the money, therefore, and be rich in words.”

Laurence acknowledged that the Church was of great wealth and said, “I will show you a valuable part. But give me time to set everything in order and make an inventory.” The magistrate agreed. Laurence then went and gathered all the poor, the lepers, and the lame brought them to one location, and invited the magistrate to come. When he did, Laurence showed him all those he had gathered and said, “These are the treasure of the Church.”

This did not go over well with the magistrate, who had Laurence arrested and promised that Laurence’s death would be long and painful. Laurence’s reply, “I do not fear your torments; this night shall become as brightest day and as light without any darkness.”

The magistrate had a griddle formed, tied Laurence to it, and placed it over the fire. Laurence, by the grace of God, is reported to have been spared the pain and, in jest, at one point, said to his executioners, “Now you may turn me over; my body is roasted enough on this side.”

Jesus said, “Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Laurence served the Lord in marvelous and miraculous ways, but to be honored by the Father only requires that we serve Him faithfully.

How is it your life can honor the Father? Look to Laurence, and you will have a model for what it means to serve God and to be honored for your good works.

Sermon: Proper 14 RCL C – “Why’s He Mad?”

During a game, the coach called one of his 9-year-old baseball players aside and asked, “Do you understand what cooperation is? What a team is?”

“Yes, coach,” replied the little boy.”

“Do you understand that what matters is whether we win or lose together as a team?”

The little boy nodded in the affirmative.

“So,” the coach continued, “I’m sure you know, when an out is called, you shouldn’t argue, curse the umpire, or call him bad names. Do you understand all that?”

Again, the little boy nodded in the affirmative.

The coach continued, “And when I take you out of the game so that another teammate gets a chance to play, it’s not an ignoramus decision, and I’m not some blankety-blank excuse for a coach?”

“No, coach.”

“Good,” said the coach. “Now go over there and explain all that to your grandmother.”

It is always relatively easy to find something to get angry about. Turn on the news—get angry. Drive to work—get angry. Look in the mirror—get angry. We aren’t angry all the time, but sometimes it rears its head, and there it is. We get angry. At events, people, even things we can’t control like the weather.

We can even get angry with God. “Why did this happen?” “How come he won’t answer my prayers?” “Can’t he do something about the condition of the world? Stop the wars? End hunger? Create justice?” There is always someone who will say, “When I get to heaven (provided I make it), I’m going to ask him about __! He’s got some explaining to do!”

So we get angry at others, events, and even God, but did you ever stop to think that maybe God gets angry, too? We like to think of him as that great and loving grandfather in the sky who is patient with our every action, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. One of those funny cartoons came across the computer the other day. It said, “When someone asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’, remind them that freaking out and flipping tables is a viable option.” Yes, God gets angry and it is pretty easy to spot these instances in the Old Testament.

For example, in the Book of the Prophet Hosea, the Lord says, “In a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.” This week’s lesson from Isaiah isn’t any better. The Lord compares his people to those of Sodom and Gomorrah and states,

When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.

When God speaks such words, we need to listen. He is not happy. What is he angry about? He is unequivocal in Isaiah,

Remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

He is angry because the people have not been following his commandments. They are doing what they want to do and not what He wants them to do. They are sinning.

It’s like this, the Lord says a bit further in Isaiah,

Let the wicked forsake their ways
    and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

The Lord says, “my ways are not your ways.” When we sin, we add to that, “but they should be!” Or worse, “I don’t care what you say!” We sin when we snub God’s ways and sing with Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” Then when everything falls apart, we wonder, “What’s he so mad about?”

And there’s the question: Why does God become angry? Is he angry so that he has an excuse to smite us? So he can give us cancer or have us fired from our jobs? Is he angry so that he can take away all of our toys and gleefully send us to our rooms? Is he angry so that he can shoot lightning bolts at us? The answer to all those questions is “No.” Again, “my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Unlike ours’, God’s anger is not petty or arbitrary. God’s anger has a purpose: to turn us away from ourselves and the world and toward Him. He desires to turn us toward himself, and he will use whatever means, including his anger, so that he might do so. So that he may save us. Bless us. Love us. And guide us into holiness.

Is that true? Does God become angry so that we might look up from ourselves and our ways and turn to Him? Consider again his words through prophets Hosea and Isaiah: Through Hosea, he says that he will hide his eyes from us and that he will not listen to our prayers, but he also promised, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’”

Through Isaiah, he said, “I have had enough of you and your prayers.. You shall be devoured by the sword,” but he also said,

Come now, let us argue it out…
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land

And in our Gospel reading today, Jesus confirms it, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom… It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

As children, we probably all got sent to our rooms for misbehaving. As we trudged down the hall to endure our exile, there were likely those familiar words, “And while you’re in there, you think about what you did!” As children, we may not fully understand that punishment, but as adults, we should be able to grasp the intent fully. Our parents are loving. They sent us to our rooms not because they hated us but to get our attention. To make us stop and consider our actions. Their anger was an expression of their love. A love that says, “I want you to grow up knowing right from wrong. I want you to take a good path in life so that you can be happy.”

As a child, I don’t know that I ever “thought about it” when banished to my room, but I’ve now come to realize that if I did, I had two choices: I could respond in my heart, “I don’t care what you say or do to me, I’m just going to keep doing what I want!” And found myself continuously in trouble. Or I could stop, consider my ways and respond, “I will do my best to return to the proper path.”

The same is true with God. His anger is not because he hates us. His anger is because he loves us—God is love. His actions towards us do not exist outside of that one fact. He cannot act contrary to his nature. Therefore, when your spirit senses that he is angry with you, don’t blurt out, “What are you mad about this time?” Instead, sincerely ask yourself, “Why is he angry? What must I do to return to the path of righteousness that leads me into a deeper relationship with Him?”

What will the result be in returning? Jesus said in our Gospel, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” The result of our returning to the path of righteousness, to being prepared as sons and daughters of God Most High, is an invitation to the feast. A feast prepared by God for those who love him.

Let us pray: God, our Father, You have promised to remain forever with those who do what is just and right. Help us to live in Your presence. The loving plan of Your Wisdom was made known when Jesus, your Son, became a man like us. We want to obey His commandment of love and bring Your peace and joy to others. Keep before us the wisdom and love You have made known in Your Son. Help us to be like Him in word and deed. Amen.

Sermon: Proper 13 RCL C – “Eternal Inheritance”

Photo by Jacques LE HENAFF on Unsplash

A wise Israelite living some distance from Jerusalem sent his son to the Holy City to complete his education. During his son’s absence, the father became ill, and feeling that death was near, he made a will, leaving all his property to one of his slaves, on the condition that he should allow the son to select any one article which pleased him for an inheritance.

As soon as his master died, the slave, elated with his good fortune, hurried to Jerusalem, informed his late master’s son of what had taken place, and showed him the will.

The young man was surprised and grieved at the news, and after the allotted time of mourning had expired, he began to consider his situation seriously. He went to his teacher, explained the circumstances to him, read him his father’s will, and expressed his bitterness about the disappointment of his reasonable hopes and expectations. He could think of nothing he had done to offend his father and complained loudly of the in-justice.

“Stop,” said his teacher; “your father was a loving man with great wisdom. This will is a living monument to his good sense and far-sightedness. May you prove as wise in your day.”

“What!” exclaimed the young man. “I see no wisdom in the bestowal of his property upon a slave; no affection in this slight upon his only son.”

“Listen,” returned the teacher. “By his action, your father has secured your inheritance if you are only wise enough to understand it. When your father knew that his time was near, he thought to himself, ‘My son is away; when I am dead, he will not be here to take charge of my affairs; my slaves will plunder my estate and to gain time will even conceal my death from my son, and deprive me of the sweet savor of mourning.’ To prevent these things, he bequeathed his property to his slave, knowing full well that the slave, believing in his apparent right, would send you the news quickly and take good care of the inheritance, which he did and has done.”

“Well, how does this benefit me?” The son interrupted impatiently.

“Ah!” replied the teacher, “wisdom I see rests not with the young. Do you not know that what a slave possesses belongs to his master? Has not your father left you the right to select one article of all his property for your own? Choose the slave as your portion, and by possessing him, you will recover all that was your father’s. Such was his wise and loving intention.”

The young man did as he was advised and gave the slave his freedom afterward. But ever after, he was quick to say: “Wisdom resides with the aged, and understanding in length of days.”

(This illustration is from Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East: Ancient Hebrew, Vol. 3)

There are many morals to this story, but the one that struck me was that the young man was so consumed with the treasures that he thought he had not received that he was blind to the treasures that were his from the beginning. This may also be a problem for all of us, especially considering that our treasures are not limited to money and wealth. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Our treasures are whatever consumes our hearts and distracts us from God, so like the young man in the story, we can become so caught up in worldly treasures that we become blind to the true and eternal treasure that we already have. We come to believe that the present—the treasures that are here and now—is all there is and all that matters, and while consumed with it, we neglect the other.

The Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People tells the story of St. Paulinus, a Roman missionary to the Anglo-Saxons, and how he tried to convert the English to Christianity. Paulinus visited King Edwin in the year 627. Edwin and his followers worshipped pagan gods and had no concept of a better afterlife to look forward to. Edwin was impressed with the ideas of Paulinus but decided to hear the views of his advisors before deciding whether to convert to Christianity. One of the advisors spoke in favor of Christianity and put the case like this:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. Inside, there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while, but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

What Edwin’s advisor has come to understand is that this life, although it is all that we can truly know, is not all that there is; therefore, it should not be of the greatest importance to us, nor should we give all that we have to make this world more comfortable for ourselves be our greatest goal.

This is a part of what Jesus is talking to us about in our Gospel. The rich man wants Jesus to mediate between him and his brother over the family inheritance.  Jesus’ response, “this is not my concern.”  Then Jesus tells the parable of the man who had a bumper crop one year, so he built for himself storage to keep it all, and finally said to himself, “I’m set. I can take life easy from here on out.”  Jesus’ response, “Fool!”  Jesus calls him a fool not because he was successful and wealthy—that was not the issue—Jesus calls the man a fool because he planned as though the life he was living was all there was.  To use the analogy of the sparrow that flew through the banquet hall, the man did not plan for what would happen after he flew out the other door.  He had this life all worked out—his treasure and his heart were in the here and now—but he had made no plan for what would happen to him after he died.

Jesus’ concern is not a matter of treasures. Instead, it is a matter of the heart – “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  We are not being asked to go off and live the life of a desert monk, but we are being asked to live our lives with the understanding that there is more to come. Like the young man who thought he had inherited nothing but had inherited it all, you and I must also recognize that our inheritance—that which makes us rich beyond compare—is not what we can see, feel, or count. Our inheritance, as St. Peter tells us, gives “us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”  That is where our hearts should be, and no amount of earthly treasure should distract us from it. 

We are allowed, and it is God’s desire that we have other interests and concerns. Things and occupations that give us joys and challenges and peace and more. God has blessed us with these things so that we might have an abundant life, but we must look within and ask, “Have I placed my hope in them? Has my heart been so consumed by them that I have neglected God?” If you answer yes, consider where you will be when the sparrow flies out the other door and correct your heart, so God is first.

Let us pray: Loving God, you speak to us through all of life. Please help us to trust you and to trust that what you desire for us lies in the deepest part of our hearts. May we always center our lives on you and hear joyfully your call to be your companion. Help us to follow our desires to live our lives as best we can and to serve others with the unique treasures you have given us. Amen. 

Sermon: St. James the Apostle

Saint James the Greater by Guido Reni

In a conversation with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien said, “We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.” I like that, probably because it confirms what I already believe: the myths and legends of the Saints don’t have to be one hundred percent true in order to speak one hundred percent truth. That said, our legend today is about St. James the Great, the brother of John.

In the reading from The Acts of the Apostles, we read that King Herod “had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.” Anything else about James comes to us through legend and tradition.

Before his death, the tradition holds that James went to Spain on a missionary journey and returned to Israel. Upon hearing of his death, some of the disciples from Spain came to retrieve his body for a proper burial in Spain. However, they had no means to get him there. It was then that a barge—made of marble!—appeared on the shores of the Mediterranean, and they boarded it along with their horses and supplies, and then, on its own, the boat began a journey across the sea. At some point, one of the horses got spooked and jumped with its rider into the sea. When they could rescue the horse and rider, they found shells attached to the horse’s bridle. They would then travel further, eventually landing on the coast of Spain. Later, in the 9th century, a monk, through the guidance of a dream, discovered the location of the bones of St. James and placed them in a chapel that would later be built into a cathedral in Santiago, Spain, which became the destination of a great pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. The shell attached to the horse’s bridle (one like this) has become the sign of St. James and the symbol of a pilgrim along the Camino, also known as The Way. To that, I say, “2024”, because that is when I hope to walk it.

Tolkien said our myths “reflect a splintered fragment of the true light.” If that is true, what fragment of the true light would this myth point us to?

We could find many, but what can we learn if we limit it to our Gospel reading?

The mother of James and John had come asking (and it sounds like she was asking on behalf of the two boys) that her sons have places of honor at Jesus’ left and right. Jesus said that wasn’t for him to decide, and the other ten disciples got angry—probably because they didn’t think to ask first! Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

In the context of the Gospel, the legend tells us that James must have taken these words to heart because he did become great through his service to the Gospel and God’s people, as demonstrated by the fact that each year, some 350,000 pilgrims make their way to the cathedral in Santiago, Spain so that they can pray before the bones of the Apostle. As for pilgrimages, Santiago is third, with only Israel and Rome ahead.

I don’t believe that any of us will reach the status of having 350,000 pilgrims come to pray before our bones, but I do believe that if there are only a few that say we made a difference in their lives, then we have accomplished much, for as Jesus says, “Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

Sermon: Proper 12 RCL C – “Loneliness and Boredom?”

Photo by Carlos Magno on Unsplash

Boudreaux and Thibodeaux got into a rather heated conversation over religion, so at one point, Boudreaux says to Thibs, “If you are so religious, let’s hear you quote the Lord’s Prayer.  I’ll bet you ten bucks you can’t,” he added, fishing a ten dollar bill out of his wallet. Thibs said, “You’re on.” And after putting on his thinking cap and staring up to heaven for several seconds, he began, “Now I lay my down to sleep, I pray the Lord, my soul, to keep. And If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Boudreaux handed the ten dollars to Thibs and said, “Wow! I didn’t think you could do it!”

Last week, I shared a quote from Thomas Merton from No Man is an Island: “We cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but balance, order, rhythm, and harmony.  Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm.” (p.134) The idea was to provide our souls the opportunity to catch up in the midst of our busy lives. To find that silent space between the notes of our lives to discover God’s peace.  However, being alone and silent does not come easy to us. 

I remember being a kid and having a hard time sitting still.  Like most kids, I had a lot of energy that needed to be in motion, so time and time again, I heard the words, “Stop fidgeting!”  Ever heard or said it?  Most likely, yes. We all fidget, but when we get a bit older, we’re not allowed to sit in a meeting with a fidget wheel while the boss is speaking, so we learn to control those fidgets or at least make them less distracting to others. Take a newscaster, for example, I don’t know about FOX and CNN, but if you watch a more ‘normal’ newscaster, you will most often see them holding a pen or a stack of papers.  Either that, or they’ll have their hands clasped together in front of them. Remember Johnny Carson? What did he have? Yep.  His pencils with an eraser on both ends.  He might drum out the occasional beat with one, but mostly he just held it. It gave his hands something to do, just like holding a pen or paper gives the newscasters something to do with their own, so they don’t fidget about. Whether consciously or subconsciously, most learn to stop fidgeting, but that does not mean the impulse or desire is gone—only controlled. Our lives are the same way, there may be times of silence, but our minds are still fidgeting. The being alone and the silence does not come easy to us. We may have learned to control the external noise we make, but our minds are still ‘fidgeting’ away. 

There are probably many contributing factors to the mental fidgeting. Still, at the heart of them all, we can discover a central theme: fear, derived from equating solitude and silence with loneliness and boredom.

We are, by nature, social creatures.  Not many live as hermits, so we come together, for good or for worse, in larger and larger communities.  When we find ourselves outside of community, then we become anxious. There’s no one around, no one to talk to, nothing to do, and no one to do it with, so our minds begin to fidget, trying to fill the silence and solitude. When our minds fail, we try and distract ourselves with activities that may not always be good or healthy, but it is all because of that fear of being alone and bored. We become fearful, and in our fear, we forget the nearness of God. We say we are alone, but how can we be alone if we are friends with God? We say we are bored, but how can you be bored when we have access to the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth? Perhaps the solitude and silence, that space between the musical notes, doesn’t need to be filled with our fidgeting; maybe they are only wasted opportunities to be with God? If so, how do we take advantage of the silence and solitude instead of seeing them as a negative?

Maybe I’ve shared this with you before: the study of spirituality and prayer is known as Ascetical Theology, and when I was in seminary, Bishop Parsons was my Ascetical Theology professor. He told us that the number one thing our congregations would want from us, whether articulated or not, was precisely what the disciples asked of Jesus today: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Lord, we see you in such deep prayer, how important it is even for the Son of God to be in ‘community’ with the Father through prayer, and we want to know how to do that so that we can have it too. “Lord, teach us to pray.” In response, Jesus gave them the words to say, but before doing that, he modeled it for them.  What was the model? 

Mark 1:35—“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” 

Luke 5:16—“[Jesus] would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”

There are many other examples of Jesus retreating to a solitary place and praying. Jesus did not avoid the solitude and silence. He sought it out. What did Jesus do when he saw the busyness of life, the fidgeting of minds, begin to wear on the disciples? 

Mark 6:31-32—Jesus said to the disciples, “‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.” Jesus said, Come away with me to a place of solitude and silence so that we can have community—or maybe a better way to say it—so that we can have communion.

We can see times of solitude and silence as times of loneliness and boredom, but what if we began understanding them as opportunities to have communion with God. Not just a time of prayer where we lay out the “Honey Do” list for God, but a time of companionship and friendship with Jesus.

The Syrian monk, Isaac of Nineveh (he lived in the 7th century), wrote, “More than all things, love silence; it brings you a fruit that tongue[/speaking] cannot describe. In the beginning, we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence… If you only practice this, untold light will dawn on you in consequence. After a while, a certain sweetness is born in the heart of this exercise, and the body is drawn almost by force to remain in silence.”

What does the Psalmist say:

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.

(Psalm 42:1-2)

Our minds push us into thoughts of loneliness and boredom, but our souls are crying out for times of solitude and silence where we might stop all the mental fidgeting and enter into communion with our God. When, through practice, you enter into that place, you can begin to speak, not with your lips, but from your soul, “Our Father, who art in heaven….” And, when you speak, it won’t just be you simply reciting something you’ve memorized. It will be you having a conversation with the One you love, and there will be nothing lonely or boring about it.

Let us pray together:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
    hallowed be thy Name,
    thy kingdom come,
    thy will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
    as we forgive those
        who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
    and the power, and the glory,
    for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: Proper 11 RCL C – “Balance and Harmony”

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

An archaeologist once hired some tribesmen to lead him to an archaeological site deep in the mountains. After moving for some time, the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled, the tribesmen would not go any further. Then all of a sudden, the tribe members changed their attitude. They picked up the gear and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”

I guess today is story time with Fr. John because I have another one for you.  This one is true.  It is about a sixty-one-year-old farmer who decided to run a marathon.  Not a twenty-six-mile marathon.  A marathon in 1983 that was from Sydney, Australia, to Melbourne: 544 miles.  The field of runners was packed with the young and fit, sporting the latest running shoes and shirts listing all their sponsors.  Cliff Young showed up in a pair of overalls, work shirt, and work boots.  Everyone thought he was there to watch the race and were shocked when he signed up to run.

Who was this old guy? He’s a nutter.  There’s no way he can compete, but when the starting gun fired, Cliff started running—and everyone laughed.  All the other runners took off in long strides, but Cliff more or less shuffled along. He had learned this style of running on his family’s 2,000-acre sheep farm, where he herded sheep up and down the hills. He said, “See, I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or tractors, and the whole time I was growing up, whenever the storms would roll in, I’d have to go out and round up the sheep. We had 2,000 sheep on 2,000 acres. Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I’d always catch them. I believe I can run this race.” 

What happened?  On the first day, all the runners, including Cliff, ran all day, and at night all the runners, except Cliff, went to bed for a six-hour sleep.  Cliff just kept going without sleep, and sometime during that first night, Cliff passed all the other sleeping runners.  They never caught him.  Cliff ran 544 miles in five days, fifteen hours, and four minutes without sleeping to complete the race and, in doing so, knocked two days off the previous record. 

There was a prize of $10,000, but Cliff hadn’t known about it when he signed up, so he promptly gave $2,000 to each of the next five runners. He said they had worked just as hard as he had.

His running style that everyone laughed at is now known as the Cliff “Young Shuffle,” and no one laughs anymore. 

In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote, “We cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but balance, order, rhythm, and harmony.  Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm.” (p.134)

All the other runners in that Australian race ran with great intensity for eighteen hours.  They moved at such a pace that they had to stop and rest—they had to stop and allow their souls to catch up.  Cliff Young moved much slower but with a certain rhythm.  A more balanced pace—and his soul was able to keep pace.

Today our Gospel reading is from Luke.  The Lord Jesus is in the house of Mary and Martha. Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teachings, while Martha is running around like a chicken with her head cut off. Martha becomes so frustrated with her sister not helping that she gets a bit testy with Jesus, “Jesus, I’m working my tail off here!  Tell my sister to get up and help me.” Jesus responded, “Martha, Martha.  You are anxious and troubled about many things.  Stop for a while and let your soul catch up with you.  Stop for a while and allow me to minister to you.”

Now, if we were to leave Mary and Martha and not come back to them, you might think that Mary was the one who had it all worked out and poor old Martha had much to learn, but later on, in the ministry of Jesus, we reencounter these two at the death of Lazarus, their brother.

When Lazarus becomes ill, both sisters send word for Jesus to come and save him, but when Jesus does come. It is Martha that goes to him. It is Martha who declares her faith in him.  And it is she who calls him Lord, but where was Mary?  Scripture says that she was “sitting in the house.” It seems that Martha has it all worked out and that Mary likes sitting around the house. So which one, Mary or Martha, chose correctly? From our gospel today, without telling Martha she was wrong, Jesus says that Mary chose the better portion, but in the story of Lazarus, it would appear that Martha chose better. Which one is right? King Solomon gives us a famous answer in the book Ecclesiastes.  He writes:

To everything, there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, And a time to die;
A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill, And a time to heal;
A time to break down, And a time to build up;
A time to weep, And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, And a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain, And a time to lose;
A time to keep, And a time to throw away;
A time to tear, And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, And a time to speak;
A time to love, And a time to hate;
A time of war, And a time of peace.

God has made everything beautiful in its time. And so there is a time to sit at the feet of Jesus, and there is a time to put those teachings into practice.  It comes down to balance.

St. Gregory the Great, in his Pastoral Rule, speaks of those great saints who spend much time in prayer, then go out and proclaim the things they have learned.  Gregory wrote of these saints, men in this instance, “Holy men go forth as lightings when they come forth from the retirement of prayer to the public life of employment.  They are sent, and they go, when from secrecy of inward meditation they spread forth into the wide space of active life. But after the outward works which they perform they always return to the bosom of prayer, there to revive the flame of their zeal and to glow as it were from the touch of heavenly brightness. For they would freeze too speedily amid their outward works—good though they are—did they not constantly return with anxious earnestness to the fire of prayer.” (Source)

Put another way, even the great saints of God have to stop for a while and allow their souls to catch up.  You and I are no different.  We must find that balance—it is different for each of us. Some can run for five days straight; others must rest more often—but we must find the balance that allows us to carry on with the mission of Christ’s Church while at the same time allowing us the time and space to receive the grace and renewal which comes from God.

In all the comings and goings of your life, allow yourself the time necessary so that your soul can catch up, and when it does, then set off once more on the journey.  As Thomas Merton would encourage us, allow yourself to find the “balance and order and rhythm and harmony.” Allow yourself to enjoy the silence within the music and discover the peace of God.

Let us pray: 

God, who is more than we can ever comprehend,
help us to seek you,
and you alone.
Help us to stand before all that we could do
and seek what you would do,
and do that.
Lift from us our need to achieve all that we can be
and instead,
surrender to what you can be in us.
Give us ways to refrain from the busyness
that will put us on edge and off center,
give us today your peace.


Sermon: Proper 10 RCL C – “Neighbors”

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

This is probably something you’ve seen, but I don’t believe I’ve shared it with you.  It is the comedian Robin William’s list of the top 10 reasons to be an Episcopalian:

10. No snake handling.

9. You can believe in dinosaurs.

8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.

7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.

6. Pew aerobics.

5. Church year is color-coded.

4. Free wine on Sunday.

3. All of the pageantry – none of the guilt.

2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.

And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian:

1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

That is a list that most Episcopalians could agree on.  It is a humorous way of looking at how we see ourselves. Not only is it essential to have fun with such things, but it is also important to take a more serious look, and we, in the Episcopal Church, received the results of one of these more serious looks in Jesus in America, a study, commissioned by the church, that came out in March.  Its goal: to learn how people understood Jesus and the church. What did we learn?

When we as a Christian people look at ourselves, we believe we’re doing a pretty good job representing the faith: in the 50%+ percentiles, we see ourselves as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful.  Those are good qualities. However, those who are not religious have a different view of Christians.  In the 50%+ percentiles in this group, Christians are seen as hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous.  Not such good qualities.  We look just fine to ourselves, but not to others.

It would seem that many have a bad taste in their mouths regarding Christianity and Christians, and that bad taste is getting worse.  I read a bumper sticker that said, “I’ve got nothing against God.  It’s his fan club that I can’t stand.”  Not necessarily original.  You have all probably heard the Gandhi quote from several years ago, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  However, the Christian “image” seems to be deteriorating even more, but it’s no wonder when we spend so much time condemning what we dislike instead of proclaiming Who it is we love.

Please don’t misunderstand; I am in no way lumping you all in this category. You are not guilty of this type of behavior. Still, in the eyes of many today, you are guilty: guilt by association because we all live under the banner of Christianity regardless of denominational lines, ideologies, theologies, etc.

For some, to overcome, the appropriate response is to separate and attempt to isolate themselves and shout in their loudest voices, “We are different!  We are better!  We have the answer!”  But this does not resolve anything.  In all likelihood, it only compounds the original problem because Christians begin fighting with other Christians, and the rest of the world sits back and laughs at the hypocrisy.  At the other end of responses are those who simply walk away, disillusioned and frustrated with their experience with Christianity, because they had believed it was something different.  They thought it held meaning for their lives and answers to life’s questions, but they discovered it was no different—if not worse—than the secular world.  In between those two extremes is just a great deal of apathy.

Is there a way out?  Absolutely.  And we begin to see that way when we answer the question that was put to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?”

Our Gospel reading today is probably one of the more familiar: the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells the story after a rabbi asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus’ answer is simple, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.”  However, the rabbi was more interested in one-upping Jesus than actually seeking wisdom, so he added a follow-up question, “And who is my neighbor?”  In response, Jesus tells the parable.

A man, presumably Jewish, was attacked on the road and left for dead.  A priest comes by but does not stop to help.  Another of the religious leaders comes by, but he does not stop to help either.  It is the Samaritan that comes across the dying man, and it is he that helps.  To fully understand the parable, we must understand two critical details of the story, 1) the relationship between Jews and Samaritans and 2) the perspective that the parable is being told from.  

First, Jews and Samaritans: we’ve covered this before, but the best way to understand that relationship is to look at the state of Jewish / Arab relations today.  There may not have been open warfare between Jew and Samaritans, but the animosity between the two groups is similar to Jews and Arabs. They don’t get along.

Second, generally, we understand this parable from the perspective of the Samaritan.  Would we be like the one that helps the injured man, a person who is often regarded as an enemy? Would we see this enemy as our neighbor? However, Bishop N. T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, tells us that we’ve got it the wrong way around. (For the record, we are to look at parables from all perspectives.  That’s how we learn from them.) Wright says the proper perspective is viewing the parable from that of the injured Jewish man.  Will he decide who his neighbor is? Wright puts it this way, “Can you—that is, the injured Jewish man—Can you recognize the hated Samaritan as your neighbor?  If you can’t, you might be left for dead.”  See how the story turns? It is no longer about you being this big-hearted person saying, “Look at me. See me helping this poor slob.  Aren’t I a good neighbor?” No. It is about that “poor slob” deciding whether or not you’re a good neighbor.  

Imagine lying on the side of the road, beaten and bloody, half dead.  Several people, maybe even your priest, see you but can’t be bothered with stopping—too busy or whatever—and then, the one person you detest, despise, loathe more than anyone else comes by and instead of pointing at you and laughing and declaring, “I see you’ve finally gotten what you deserve!”  Instead, this person stops and begins to offer you help.  What do you do?  Because you detest, despise and loathe them, will you tell them to go away and leave you to die? Or, are you going to think to yourself, “Perhaps this isn’t such a bad fella after all?  Perhaps this person is my real neighbor?”

The world around us has a very poor view of Christianity.  We are not going to change the world’s opinion. Still, we, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, may be able to change our community’s view of Christianity by showing them that we are willing to set aside race, creed, politics, and financial status, all of it for one straightforward reason: we want to serve, which is to love. In the process, the community might decide that we are not such bad neighbors after all.

Will our community—the wounded and the injured—will they know we are their neighbor if we shout out what we like or don’t like?  Whom we agree with, or whom we disagree with?  By our staunch view on this topic or that?  No.  They’ll know what we think and maybe, rightly or wrongly, what we believe, but they will not know us as their neighbors.   

Thomas Merton writes, “Corrupt forms of love wait for the neighbor to ‘become a worthy object of love’ before actually loving him.  This is not the way of Christ.  Since Christ Himself loved us when we were by no means worthy to love and still loves us with all our unworthiness, our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.  That is not our business, and in fact, it is nobody’s business.  What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can.” (Disputed Questions, p.125)  If we shout out at the world who they must be and what they must believe before we will love them as neighbors, then we’ve honestly forgotten how it is that Jesus loves us.

We can change our community’s view of Christianity not by just seeing them as our neighbors but also by loving them in such a way that they see us—see us!—as their neighbor.  That is the church we are called to become.

Let us pray:
Heavenly Father,
look upon our community of faith
which is the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ.
Help us to witness to his love
by loving all our fellow creatures without exception.
Under the leadership of our Bishop
keep us faithful to Christ’s mission
of calling all men and women
to your service so that there may be
“one fold and one shepherd.”
We ask this through Christ, our Lord.

Sermon: Boniface

“Until well into the 20th century, prayer cards and other representations of Bonif­face typically portrayed him as an old bishop, with the accoutrements of his martyrdom: a book and a sword. These two symbols (sometimes combined into one, a book pierced with a dagger) came to emblematize him: the book reflected the Ragyndrudis Codex, regarded as a shield to ward off heathen axe blows, and the sword was a transformed version of that axe.” (source) The book is cleaved half in two as Boniface is reported to have been reading and Boniface held up the book to protect himself when his attacker charged him.

The Prophet Ezekiel was sent to the Israelites to warn them of the results should they not repent of the evil they were committing and return to the Lord.  By setting Ezekiel in this role of prophet, the Lord was making Ezekiel, a watchman over the people.  As a watchman, Ezekiel was responsible for communicating to the people God’s message.  Failure to share this message would make Ezekiel guilty of sin.

The Lord said to him, “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand.”  The opposite was also true, “But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life.”  Essentially, if Ezekiel failed to communicate God’s warning to the people, Ezekiel would be guilty of murder for failing to tell the people how they could live.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul said, at every opportunity presented since I’ve been with you, “I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus.  Therefore,” he says, “I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.”  Like Ezekiel, he did the job God had called him to.  They have been warned, and it is now up to them to follow the Lord.

This commitment to fulfill God’s calling by delivering the message of salvation continued with Boniface, whom we celebrate today.

During the fifth century, the barbarian tribes overran most of Europe.  Not only did this put the Roman Empire out of business in that area, but also the Church, as the conquering armies established their pagan religions.  However, over time, the Church would return.  How?  Some of you may recall that it was Augustine, a European missionary who in 597 firmly established Christianity in England.  In 716, Boniface, the fruit of Augustine’s mission work, a Benedictine monk and English priest, went on a mission to barbarian Europe in Frisia—now Holland and Belgium—to re-establish Christianity in Europe following the barbarian invasion.  Boniface was successful and would later be named the Archbishop.  He would be martyred in 754 while preparing for the Confirmation of a thousand converts.

Just before His ascension, Jesus told his apostles that “repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  This was the commission that Boniface heard and fulfilled in his work in Europe, so their blood was not on his hands.  However, this commission that Jesus gave did not end with Boniface.  It has been passed on to us.  Like Paul, like Boniface, and like so many others, we have a responsibility to be prophets in our own time by speaking the word of God to the world around us.

The Lord will provide you with many opportunities to share the Good News.  When he does, consider Boniface and boldly declare the faith that is in you.

Sermon: Proper 9 RCL C – “Forgive and…?”

The apple.  I’m not a real fan of the apple unless it has sufficient peanut butter or is baked in a pie, but regardless of my thoughts on that particular piece of fruit, it is both famous and infamous.  There’s the Big Apple, American as Apple Pie, Johnny Apple Seed, and more, but there is also that one little apple in a Garden that enticed Eve. Yet, in this case, the apple is falsely accused because nowhere in the Holy Scriptures are we told that the piece of fruit was an apple.  It is only ever referred to as fruit, so how did it become an apple?  For the answer, we have to go back to the fourth century when St. Jerome translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin: the Vulgate Bible.

The word for fruit in Hebrew is peri, and according to a professor of English literature, whose name just so happens to be Robert Appelbaum, “Jerome had several options, but he hit upon the idea of translating peri as malus, which in Latin has two very different meanings. As an adjective, malus means evil. As a noun, it seems to mean an apple, in our own sense of the word, coming from the very common tree now known officially as the Malus pumila. So Jerome came up with a very good pun.” (Source)  What was the name of the tree that Adam and Eve were not supposed to eat from?  Answer: “The tree of the knowledge of good and malus/evil” (Genesis 2:17) but could also, according to Jerome, be named, “The tree of the knowledge of good and malus/apples.”  Afterward, the fruit showed up in many paintings as an apple, and in the seventeenth century, when John Milton published Paradise Lost and referred to the fruit as an apple—game over.  It will forever be thought of as an apple.  So what is the point of this apple lesson?

Throughout our culture, we say/believe many things that we believe are passages of Holy Scripture when they are not.  For example: “God helps those who help themselves.”  That’s in the Bible.  Right?  Wrong.  That was Benjamin Franklin in the Farmer’s Almanac.  How about this one: “God will never put more on you than you can handle.”  Scriptural or not?  Not.  St. Paul says something similar in his letter to the Corinthians, but it is only about sin, not everything else that comes against us.  There are many more, but the one I want to look at today is a favorite of Christians: “Forgive and forget.”  Exactly where is that in the Bible?  Nowhere.  The source of this misguided piece of wisdom is actually Don Quixote.  The line: “Let us forget and forgive injuries.”

Forgiveness is hard enough as it is without adding other conditions.  Heck.  In many cases, it doesn’t even seem like the fair thing to do.  Someone hurts you somehow, but the onus is placed on you instead of them having to do anything.  You have to go to that person and say, “I forgive you,” when you would probably prefer to tell them something entirely different.  I’m the one that was hurt, so why should I have to do all the hard work to make it right?  Now someone is going to come along and say, “Not only must you forgive the other person, but you must also forget what it was they did to you.”  Where does such a notion come from?

In Jeremiah, the Lord says, “I will forgive their wrongdoings, and I will never again remember their sins.”  Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has [God] removed our sins from us.”  Forgiving and forgetting are part of the nature of God and St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  Forgiving each other, yes.  Forgetting? It’s not really there.

I’ve told you this one before: it is the story of a young peasant woman living back in the middle ages who began to have visions of Jesus.  The report of her visions spread far and wide, eventually reaching the ears of the Archbishop.  Not believing that a young peasant woman could possibly be having visions, he went to see her and asked her what she saw, and she told him.  Still, in disbelief, he told her, “The next time you have visions of Jesus, you ask him what I confessed at my last confession.  If you can answer that, then I will believe.”  Some months later, the report reached the archbishop that the woman was again having visions, so he went to her again and asked if she had spoken to Jesus and asked the Lord about the Archbishop’s last confession.  Her response was, “Yes.”  “Well then,” said the Archbishop, “What did Jesus say?” Her response, “Jesus said, ‘I don’t remember.’” God forgives, and God forgets.

Another story: a woman went to visit her priest in great distress.  Through many tears, she told him about how they had discovered that her father had for several years been sexually molesting her daughter.  When questioned even more, the woman told the priest that her father had also sexually molested her as a little girl.  She said that in her later years, “Not only did I forgive my father, but I also worked very hard at forgetting what he had done to me.  I didn’t want to remember; it was too painful.”  She had tried to do what we see as the “godly thing”; however, in forgetting, she did not remember that her father never confessed to a wrong, never repented, so in her forgetting, she placed her daughter in great danger.

When we forgive, it is not spiritually possible to forget. In many cases, to forget will only increase the potential harm done to us or others, so perhaps a better saying would be, “Forgive and be prudent” or “Forgive and use sound judgment.”  

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus made what some would consider an uncharitable statement, but it is speaking of prudence in all our actions, including forgiveness.  He said, “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”  Matthew’s Gospel expands on the same statement: Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”  In other words, Jesus says, “I know that the world is not a safe place; therefore, be peaceful in your actions, but stay alert.  Be prudent in your dealings with this dangerous world.”

The author of Proverbs writes, “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways” (Proverbs 14:8) and again, “Whoever strays from the path of prudence comes to rest in the company of the dead.” (Proverbs 21:16)

We must forgive the wrongs done against us—end of discussion—we must forgive.  We forgive even if the person who committed the wrong never repents or refuses to repent.  That’s between them and God.  However, when we forgive someone, we are not saying that what happened didn’t matter, that everything can go back to the way it was.  In addition, we have to keep in mind that forgiveness is very much a process.  It will probably not happen overnight unless you are a saint, so there will be days long after you believe that you have forgiven when the anger rises in you all over again, but it doesn’t mean you haven’t forgiven.  It simply means that you are human.

With all that said, there are parts of those hurtful and wrong instances that we should forget; specifically, we should forget—set aside—the deep hurt and anger that builds in us because if we persist in it, then we are allowing another person’s sin to lead us into sin—a vicious cycle.

By forgiving, we may allow the other person to feel better about themselves for bringing harm to us or someone else, but ultimately our forgiveness is not for their sake or their benefit.  Instead, it is for the sake of our souls so that it will not torment us and draw us into sin.

Bottom line: forgiveness is about healing.  If it can heal relationships—Good.  If it can heal other situations and bring comfort to others—that’s fine too.  However, in the end, forgiveness is about healing you.  It is about freeing your soul so that you may experience the joy of the Lord.

Forgive and be prudent, but whether those who hurt you ask for forgiveness or not, forgive them.  Unshackle your soul and be free of the bitterness.

Let us pray: Lord, we sinners who are in need of Your mercy.  Help us to have a heart of genuine sorrow for our sins and turn to You for that grace.  As we seek Your mercy, help us forgive the wrongs others have committed against us.  We do forgive.  Help that forgiveness enter deep into our souls as an expression of Your holy and Divine Mercy.  Jesus, we trust in You.  Amen.

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