Sermon: Advent 1 RCL B – “Another Way”

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

An English professor wrote the words, “A woman without her man is nothing” on the blackboard and directed the students to punctuate it correctly.

The men wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
The women wrote: “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

Perspective / perception: Anaïs Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

This Advent, I would like to look at the readings from a different perspective—not look at them as we are, but from the other side of Jesus’ incarnation. In other words, we’ll be studying the Old Testament. Today begins.. and for the next two Sundays.. with readings from Isaiah. The fourth Sunday comes from the second book of Samuel. Let’s begin where all good stories begin this time of year: “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

The anticipation of Santa leads to excellent use of a particular parental behavior modifier for at least a month leading up to that most glorious day: Santa knows whose naughty or nice, and if you’re naughty: switches and coal. When I was a kid, it resulted in me pulling down the Sears catalog and opening it to the toys section in an attempt to motivate myself to be good. Of course, I always was. But what if… what if I was good and yet, the man in red didn’t show? Not only did I not get any presents, I didn’t even get the coal and switches. That might begin to get me to question certain things. Perhaps the first year I would mark it up as an anomaly: maybe he thought I moved, Rudolph forgot the GPS, any number of things. But then, it happened again. Nothing. After several years of this, the threat of Santa bringing switches and coal would have no effect, because Santa doesn’t bring anything. However, after many years, what if I begin to really think about this situation and in being honest with myself, I realize that I had only been good in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but other than that, yeah… I was a brat. And in one of those moments of clarity, I realize that Santa knew all along that I was a brat and had, in a metaphysical sense, sent me to my room to “think about what I had done,” hence, no presents or switches. Instead… silence. Eventually, I might write to Santa and say, “I know. I was a brat. And now that you don’t visit, I’m even worse. Please don’t be angry with me. I am truly sorry. Please come and visit me again.”

The Israelites had disobeyed God on so many levels that he first sent the Asyrians to take at least half of Israel into captivity and when that wasn’t enough to get the attention of the other half, he sent the Babylonians to take them. Eventually, there was a little good Babylonian king, Cyrus, who said to the Israelites, “Any of you that would like to return home, may do so.” Many did, but after they did, God was still silent. They were not experiencing the blessings they had in the past, so the Prophet Isaiah calls out to God and begins reminding God of all the wonders he has performed:

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
    the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us.

Isaiah then takes responsibility for the actions of Israel, confessing to the Lord that they had in fact rebelled and gotten what they deserved, but because of his continued silence, Israel is falling further and further away. They are losing hope that he will relent from his anger. You are our Father, he says to the Lord. Don’t you remember.

Then it comes to our reading today: the Prophet cried out:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence.

And again, the Prophet takes responsibility for the actions of the people:

We have all become like one who is unclean…
There is no one who calls on your name

But then there is a dramatic shift of tone. A statement of profound faith and hope:
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

And then Isaiah asks the Lord to once again come and visit his people:

Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.

The people had been disobedient. They were punished, but even following the punishment of exile, God was still silent… he was making them sit in their room and think about what they had done, and now they’ve fully understood the consequences of their actions, and in doing so, they become aware of their place in God’s economy: like clay, God is the one who molds them, makes them into his people. Yet, they are also aware of the fact that they are deserving of God’s punishment, to its fullest extent: justice. They deserve all that has befallen them, so they ask God not to be exceedingly angry. In a very real sense, instead of punishing them for their sins as they deserve, they are asking God to find another way. In words that almost break your heart in desperation, the prophet says,

We are all your people.

Instead of punishing us as we deserve, please… please find another way that we might be able to experience your blessings, that you will return to us.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
     and they shall call his name Immanuel”
which means, God with us.

Let us pray: Father in heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love and our minds are searching for the light of your Word. Increase our longing for Christ our Savior and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in his presence and welcoming the light of his truth. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen.

Sermon: Christ the King

Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash

The original is a bit longer than this, but when I read this story, I didn’t know if it was funny or sad… both perhaps, but the ‘gotcha’ line is…

The king and his entourage were out riding horses, when not too far off the king saw his jester riding as on some errand.

The king wanted to catch the court jester’s attention, and so he called out, “Hey! Hey!” The court jester brought his horse to a halt and walked towards the king. The king said to him, “You are so short, you are so thin, you are so slight — you do not seem to be strong at all. But your horse is so strong, so stout, so beautiful and powerful. How do you keep him so beautiful, powerful, strong and stout? What is the secret to his excellent condition?”

The court jester said to the king, “I feed my horse, your Highness, but you feed me. This is the difference between my appearance and that of my horse.” (Source)

Throughout history, we have witnessed both the good and bad of monarchs and other leaders. Some are those who tend to their horses more than to the people, while others have given their all for the people. The bad ones are easy to spot, but even the good ones are not always so noble. There are plenty of books and movies about them all, and a movie I’ve recently watched (again) is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let’s just say that is very loosely tied to the actual history, but a fantastic story just the same. It revolves around the Battle of Jerusalem in the 12th century between the crusaders and Saladin. I won’t ruin the story, but it has some great lines, one of which speaks to what it is to be noble.

Godfrey of Ibelin is passing his titles and holdings onto his son, Balian. In doing so, he says, “Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright, that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath.” He then slaps his son, saying, “And that is so you remember it. Rise a knight and Baron of Ibelin.”

Later, Balian will have the opportunity to become close with King Baldwin IV, the King of Jerusalem. In one conversation, the King says to Balian, “A King may move a man, a father may claim a son. That man can also move himself. And only then does that man truly begin his own game. Remember that howsoever you are played, or by whom, your soul is in your keeping alone, even though those who presume to play you be kings or men of power. When you stand before God, you cannot say, ‘But I was told by others to do thus’ or that ‘Virtue was not convenient at the time.’ This will not suffice. Remember that.”

I know, too much reading of other people’s words this morning, but today is the celebration of Christ the King, and those two quotes spoke to me about who we are to be a noble in God’s court and His Kingdom, and it begins with a particular understanding of who Jesus is.

We know Jesus as Savior, friend—what a friend we have in Jesus—advocate, Redeemer, and so on. I doubt I’m the only one, but for me, I always see Jesus as my King. Yes, I understand him as those others, but at the end of the day, he is my King, which gives him absolute authority over my life. My disobedience knows no bounds, but his rule is without question and to the best of my abilities, I am here to serve and follow him. You may not see Jesus as King in such a way, but we must all learn to follow him rightly, and it begins by imitating how he lived. By loving God just as He loves His Father. By loving our neighbors, just as He loves us. As Balian took the oath from his father, we have also been given our directions. St. Paul stated it clearly in his epistle to the Church at Ephesus, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (If you need a good reminder of that, let me know and I’ll give you a good slap.)

This is how we live as nobles in God’s court and His Kingdom, but we cannot be compelled to such life. The King of Jerusalem said, “Your soul is in your keeping alone, even though those who presume to play you be kings or men of power.” Even God the Holy Trinity cannot compel you to live such a life and in truth, we cannot even compel ourselves to live such a life, because such a life is not about what we do. It is about who we are. C.S. Lewis: “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” We live in God’s court and His Kingdom, not by doing, but by becoming, being transformed into His image. Paul said to the Corinthians, “We all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” It is through this process of transformation that we are allowed to enter our King’s courts as sons and daughters:

Free to worship him without fear.
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

We are given the opportunity to live as royals in the Kingdom of Heaven and to serve a King whose love for us is endless. To live as courtiers in that Kingdom is not always easy. It comes with trials and blessings, but if we are faithful in following and serving our King in this life, then at the moment of our last breath, we will hear the words that we all desire to be spoken: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Let us pray—this is a portion of Psalm 47:
God has ascended amid shouts of joy,
    the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the King of all the earth;
    sing to him a psalm of praise.
God reigns over the nations;
    God is seated on his holy throne.
The nobles of the nations assemble
    as the people of the God of Abraham,
for the kings of the earth belong to God;
    he is greatly exalted.

Sermon: Proper 28 RCL A – “Attitude of Hope”

Photo by Andrey Metelev on Unsplash

A lawyer purchased a box of very rare and expensive cigars, then insured them against, among other things, fire.  Within a month, having smoked his entire stockpile of these great cigars and without yet having made even his first premium payment on the policy the lawyer filed a claim against the insurance company.  In his claim, the lawyer stated the cigars were lost ‘in a series of small fires.’ The insurance company refused to pay, citing the obvious reason, that the man had consumed the cigars in the normal fashion.  The lawyer sued and won!  Delivering the ruling, the judge agreed with the insurance company that the claim was frivolous.  The judge stated nevertheless, that the lawyer held a policy from the company, which it had warranted that the cigars were insurable and also guaranteed that it would insure them against fire, without defining what is considered to be unacceptable ‘fire’ and was obligated to pay the claim.  Rather than endure lengthy and costly appeal process, the insurance company accepted the ruling and paid $15,000 to the lawyer for his loss of the cigars lost in the ‘fires’.

Mark Twain said, “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”  I’m thinking this particular lawyer easily had both.  We live in a society that thrives on success.  From our sports to our jobs to who has the prettiest wife or shoots the biggest elk.  Success rules.  Walt Disney says, “If you can dream it, you can do it” and the rapper Eminem declared, “Success is the only option, failure’s not.”

When you succeed, folks will call you names like: Ace, big man on campus, big brain, winner, the bomb, numero uno, presidential, maniac, and my personal favorite, The Big Gahuna.  When words fail, there is always the fist pump, “Whoot, whoot, whoot!”  I’m sure our lawyer friend with the cigars received a few of those accolades when he arrived at the Scheister’s Lounge and Bordello, but perhaps not so much the next day.

You see, as it turned out, after the lawyer cashed the check, the insurance company had him arrested on 24 counts of arson!  With his own insurance claim and testimony from the previous case being used against him, the lawyer was convicted of intentionally burning his insured property and was sentenced to 24 months in jail and a $24,000 fine.  The Big Gahuna had turned into the big loser.

As with winners, we also have wonderful quotes for those who fail.  Baseball player Leo Deroucher, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you an idiot.”  And of course no sermon would be complete without the wisdom of Homer Simpson, “Trying is the first step towards failure.”  For anyone unfortunate enough to fail, we have all sorts of effigies: stupid, loser, dodo, jerk, zombie, goofball, nutter, a sandwich short of a picnic, twit, geek, out-to-lunch, and on and on the list goes.

When we read our parable today, the parable of the talents, we have a tendency to read it in terms of success and failure.  The two with the five and two talents both went out and doubled the kings money.  The King was pleased.  Success.  Two Big Gahunas!  Whoot, whoot, whoot.  The namby pamby little whiner who did nothing but bury his talents in the backyard displeased the king.  Failure.  Big “L” to the forehead loser.

But here is the question that came to my mind while thinking on this parable: What if Mr. Five Talents and Mr. Two Talents went out and invested in various options, a bit here and bit there, solid investments, but on Black Friday they lost it all?  The price of camels plummeted, there was a margin call on fish futures, and the shekel was seriously devalued.  When the dust settled these two were wiped out.  How do you think the king would have reacted when these two arrived and reported that all was lost?  Well, if Mr. One Talent was cast out into the darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, then these two would likely be flogged, filleted, quartered, and cast into a place where they would never be seen or heard from again.  These two would be the losers and Mr. One Talent would be the hero.  

From the world’s perspective, this is true.  Lose like that and you are punished and shunned, but a parable of Jesus should never be looked at from the world’s perspective.  It should be looked at from God’s.  Yes, the world would have thrown these two out on their ears, but not God.

From the Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning: “In the parable of the talents, the three servants are called to render an account of how they have used the gifts entrusted to them.  The first two used their talents boldly and resourcefully.  The third, who prudently wraps his money and buries it, typifies the Christian who deposits his faith in a hermetic container and seals the lid shut.  He or she limps through life on childhood memories of Sunday school and resolutely refuses the challenge of growth and spiritual maturity.  Unwilling to take risks, this person loses the talent entrusted to him or her.  ‘The master wanted his servants to take risks.  He wanted them to gamble with his money.’”

God does not want us to run off to the tracks and bet everything on the ponies, but God also does not want us to sit hunkered down with the talents, gifts and blessings he gives us.  He wants us to have a bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed will do – and try.  What happens if we fail?  Is he going to smite us out of existence?

Consider this: After Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples on several occasions.  We read in John’s Gospel, “Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee.  It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.  ‘I’m going out to fish,’ Simon Peter told them, and they said, ‘We’ll go with you.’  So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. – they failed – Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.  He called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’  ‘No, we’re a bunch of losers,’ they answered.  He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.” – Success!

When we fail God does not smite us.  When we fail God says, “Cast your net on the other side of the boat!  Try again.”  The sin of Mr. One Talent wasn’t that he didn’t go out and earn more money for the master.  In the words of my grandfather, Mr. One Talent sinned by sitting there like a bump on a log and doing nothing.

When we fail we have a tendency to think that all is lost.   That we have no recourse, but that simply is not the way with God. Speaking of the Lord, Thomas a Kempis writes, “Believe in Me, and trust in my mercy.  When you think I am far from you, I am often nearest to you.  When you judge that almost all is lost, then oftentimes it is that you are in the way of the greatest gain of merit.  All is not lost when anything falls out contrary to how you would have it.  You must not judge according to your present feeling, nor give up in any trouble, however it comes, nor think that all hope of deliverance is gone.”  No, when we fail, we are to cast on the other side of the boat, not just leave the net at the bottom of the boat to rot from lack of use.

In our Christian walk, there are many things that we fail at.  Sometimes, we gloriously fail at things like holiness, a consistent prayer life, study, blessing, moderation, church attendance (Don’t get me started with that one) forgiving, being forgiven – just to name a few – and we think because we have failed one time or even a hundred times, that all is lost.  Jesus doesn’t want us and plans to cast us into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Instead, all he asks is that we cast our nets on the other side of the boat and try again.  If you want to say, “Fr. John, I’ve fished this entire lake and there isn’t a dang thing in it but weeds and sticks!,” then try a different lure, but don’t just give up.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie The Lord of the Rings, but just before one of the epic battles when it appears that all the good guys are going to die and they are trying to decide on whether to stay and fight or retreat, Gimli the dwarf says to the group, “Certainty of death, small chance of success… what are we waiting for?”  Why just give up?  Even our smallest efforts can accomplish much.  It may not seem that a tiny pebble can accomplish anything, but cast it into a pond and it will transform the entire surface.

You have not lost simply because you have failed.  Instead, you have been given the opportunity to try again.  Cast your net on the other side of the boat, there is a catch of immeasurable blessing waiting there for you.

Sermon: Proper 27 RCL A – “The Light”

An older lady entered the bank, approached the teller, handed her bank card to the teller, saying, “I would like to withdraw $10.”  The teller told her, “For withdrawals less than $100, please use the ATM.” … The lady wanted to know why.  The teller returned her bank card and irritably told her, “These are the rules, please leave if there is no further matter. There is a line of customers behind you.” … The lady remained silent for a few seconds and handed her card back to the teller and said, “Please help me withdraw all the money I have.”  The teller was astonished when she checked the account balance. She nodded her head, leaned down and respectfully told her, “You have over $300,000 in your account but the bank doesn’t currently have that much cash. Could you make an appointment and come back again tomorrow?” … The lady then asked how much she could withdraw immediately. The teller told her any amount up to $3,000. “Well, please let me have $3,000 now.”  The teller kindly handed $3,000.  All friendly and with a pleasant smile…. The lady pulled a $10 bill from the stack, placed it in her purse, and then told the teller she would like to make a $2,990 deposit. 

In this day and age it may seem a bit odd, but… I confess to not owning a TV set.  If I want to watch a movie, I just pull one up on the computer.  And if I want to get the news, I read it; however, while on vacation, I stayed in a hotel for a few nights and had access to all the television networks have to offer.  It ain’t much and the news channels… not really news.  When it was news, it was angry.  There was no courtesy or respect.  Everyone and everything was treated like that lady who only wanted $10 from her account: unless you can do something for me or are worth something, you serve no purpose and I’ve got no use for you.  That’s a fairly sad state of affairs, but I believe we can do something about it, and our parable of the foolish bridesmaids help us to understand what that is.

To this day, a wedding celebration in the Middle-East can take quite some time.  Following the ceremony, the newlyweds go to different houses to receive well wishes and all, so you never really know exactly when they are going to arrive for the wedding feast.  Everyone is accustomed to the wait, it’s just a part of the celebration.

In the parable, we have ten bridesmaids who are waiting for the couple to arrive and, while they wait, they fall asleep.  Later, the cry comes out: the couple is on the way, but when the bridesmaids wake up, five have run out of oil for their lamps.  No proper woman is going out in the dark without a lamp, so the five ask the ones who prepared for oil.  There’s not enough to go around, so the five send off the “foolish” bridesmaids to find more oil for themselves (exactly where they will find oil in the middle of the night is not addressed, but it is an issue).  Finally, the foolish five arrive, knock on the door, only to be turned away by the groom: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  From this, we understand the need to be prepared for the return of the Church’s groom: Jesus.

That is perhaps the more traditional view of the parable and it is true.  N.T. Wright points out that many give meaning to the oil, but he believes that is an incorrect interpretation, so… well, he’s probably not going to like my take on the parable either, but it is not likely he’ll be clamoring for a copy.

As I was praying a rosary and meditating on this, I kept coming back to the oil, not for itself, but what it meant to run out.  If those bridesmaids had no oil, they had no light.  And everybody says, “Duh.”  But we know that light is one of the most important images in Holy Scripture.  “God is light.”  “I am the light of the world.”  Yet, the imagery of light does not only speak of God, it speaks of how God gives us this light, as the Psalmist tells us, “It is [God] who lights my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness.”  So, just as he illumined the wilderness as a pillar of fire when the Israelites wandered in the desert, God gives us light that we might see, and as the Apostle John teaches us, that we may be one: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

God is light, we are to walk in this light, but then we are to reflect this light.  Saint Paul: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”

Our lady at the bank demonstrates to us that many have grown callous and uncaring, rude and disrespectful.  I told you that what I saw on the news portrayed a sad state of affairs.  Why?  The darkness will never overcome the light, the evil will never overcome good: God wins, but right now, the lamp of this world is low on oil and the flame is flickering dimly.  God is doing His part and we must do ours.  We can do something about it.

Those of you who are friends with Jean McCollough on Facebook know that she is posting something all the time.  You don’t really see anyone else’s posts because Jean puts so much out there… actually it’s just the opposite, so when I came a cross something she felt needed to be shared, I stopped and read it.  It was the story of Irena Sendler who died on May 12, 2008 in Warsaw, Poland at the age of 98.

She was a Roman Catholic and a part of the the Polish underground during WWII.  Aware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, she knew she had to help, so she got a job as a plumbing / sewer specialist, which allowed her free access in and out.  In her comings and goings, she smuggled out babies in the bottom of her tool box and she had a burlap sack that she used for larger children.  She also had a dog in the back of the truck.  The dog was trained to bark at Nazi soldiers, which served two purposes: it masked the sounds of a crying baby or child and if a soldier got too close, the fierceness of the dog discouraged them. 

With such a plan, you would think that she might have been able to get out a few dozen children, but before she was caught, she managed to smuggle out some 2,500 infants and children.

When they caught her, they tortured her, breaking both her arms and legs.  She managed to escape the death sentence she was given.

Having kept a record of the children and following the war, she attempted to reunite the families, but most of the parents had been murdered by the Germans.  She worked tirelessly to find homes for the orphans.

The lamp of this world is low on oil and the flame is flickering dimly, but we can do something about it.  How?  One baby at a time in the bottom of a toolbox.  By assisting the little lady make a $10 withdrawal, regardless of how much she’s worth.  By defying a culture that is callous, uncaring, rude, and disrespectful.  By discovering those things we hold in common and not always looking for just one more thing to divide us.  By setting aside pettiness and our endless defensiveness.  By showing and giving one another grace, knowing that none is perfect except One, and by recognizing the fact that we are not that One.  By being who we were created to be: the light of the world.  You can do these things, because where the lamp of the world may be dim, the light of Christ that guides you and that is in you is the noonday sun.

You can change the world… you can brighten the world, because “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”

Let us pray: God of wisdom and love, you have sent your Son Jesus to be the light of the world, and continue to send your Holy Spirit among us to guide us into the way of truth. Open our hearts to your word and let us ponder your actions among us. Give us your Spirit of wisdom and knowledge, of understanding and counsel. With Mary, may we rejoice in your gifts, and walk in the way of truth and love. With all your people on earth and in eternity, we ask this prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of your loving Spirit, one holy God, for ever and ever.  Amen!

Sermon: Proper 21 RCL A – “That’s not fair!”

The complete service is available here

Photo by Ray Fragapane on Unsplash

R. C. Sproul, he died in 2017, was a Presbyterian theologian. I figure if they can quote C.S. Lewis, we can quote Sproul. He tells the story of when he was a college professor.

At the start of the semester, the class of about one hundred and fifty students had three papers due, equally spaced through the semester. The penalty for a late paper was a zero grade.

When the first paper was due, one hundred and forty students strolled in and put their papers on his desk. Sproul asked the ten students whose papers were late, “Where are your papers?”

“Oh, Professor Sproul,” they pleaded, “we have had so much work, and we are having such a hard time adjusting to college. Please give us an extension.”

“Okay,” said Dr. Sproul, “but the next time your papers are late, you will receive a zero grade. Agreed?”

“Yes,” they all replied.

When the second paper was due, one hundred and twenty five students arrived and put their papers on his desk. Sproul asked the twenty five students whose papers were late, “Where are your papers?”

“Oh, Professor Sproul, we had mid-terms, and we just did not get time to write the papers. Please give us an extension.”

“Okay,” said Dr. Sproul, “but this is your final warning. The next time your papers are late, you will receive a zero grade. Understand?”

“Yes,” they all replied.

During the last class, the final paper was due and only one hundred students put their papers on his desk. Sproul asked the fifty students whose papers were late, “Where are your papers?”

“Oh, Professor Sproul, it’s not a problem! Don’t worry about it! We’ll get the paper to you in a day or two!”

“Each of you will get a one letter grade reduction!” said Dr. Sproul.

Enraged, the students shouted, “That’s not fair!”

“Oh, you want me to be fair!” said Sproul, “I will be fair. I said that if your papers were not on my desk by noon today, you would receive a zero grade. Since they are not here, I will be fair and just, and you will receive a zero grade.”

I have shared with you in the past Portia’s monologue from William Shakespeare’s, Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” Portia speaks of how mercy blesses both the giver and the receiver, that it can be used by kings to show love, and that “It is an attribute of God Himself.” She concludes, “And earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice.”

With those students, the full enforcement of justice, would have been to give the zeros from the beginning, but mercy was something that Professor Sproul fully understood, even when the students failed to turn in their papers the third time, for where he could have given them the promised zero, he applied justice—lowering the grade—seasoned with mercy—only lowering it one letter. Justice was the full application of the rule: no work, zero grade, which Sproul was within his rights to give: his class, his rules. Yet he chose to show mercy. However, when he did not extend to them 100% mercy, when there were consequences for failure to abide by the rules, the students shouted, “That’s not fair!”

These days, we have come to understand fair in the same manner as those students: fair means we can bend the rules to our liking, so that even though I may have failed, I will be accepted and even rewarded. However, that’s not how fair is defined. Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “fair — marked by impartiality and honesty : free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism : conforming with the established rules.” Fair is not the bending or negating of rules to benefit every infraction. Fair… are you ready for this… fair is the application of justice. No deviation from the rules, so when the students cried out, “That’s not fair!”, Sproul responded, “Oh, you want me to be fair!” They didn’t know what the word really meant, but Sproul did and was 100% fair by applying justice minus the mercy he had been showing. No paper, zero grade. “And earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice.” But there does come a time when fairness… justice will be applied without mercy, and that is the point Jesus was making today in our Gospel and it made the people very angry. How did that work? It begins with our reading from Ezekiel.

The Lord said, “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.” That is God’s fairness. His justice. He says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,” but his justice is such that there is no deviation.

Is there mercy? Of course there is mercy. Basically the entirety of the Old Testament is the telling and retelling of the same story. The people walked with God. The people sinned against God. God may have punished the people, but he didn’t wipe them out, except the one time in the flood. God sent a judge or prophet to tell the people, “You’re sinning in the eyes of the Lord.” The people heard the words of the prophet, repented, returned to the Lord. For his part, the Lord showed mercy and gave them his love and protection once again. What happened next? Rinse and repeat. It was the same with John the Baptist.

When Jesus arrived, the religious leaders came to him and asked by whose authority he was saying and doing these things. Jesus asked them about the baptism of John, but this was just a way of saying to them, here’s another example of the Father calling on you to turn and you ignored Him once again.

But now Jesus comes on the scene and tells the people, the Father is about to apply his justice. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus reminds the people of what the Lord’s justice is all about and they even agree that it is correct: the first son said he would not go into the fields and work (he would be disobedient to the Father), but he repented and went to work. The second son said he would go (he would be obedient to the Father), but he did not. He knew the Father’s desire, but he ignored it. Jesus concludes, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

The Lord, through John, called you to repentance, and the first son—the one who disobeyed at first—the tax collectors and sinners, heard the call to repent. What did the Lord say through the prophet Ezekiel? “When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.” Yet, the second son—the one who said he would obey, but did not—the one who agreed to obey but failed to repent and continued in sin: “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it.”

Jesus is saying, “You know the rules. You’ve been warned. God has shown you mercy… time and time again, but now, He is going to apply fairness, a 100% application of justice.” How do the people respond? “That’s not fair!” Yet: God’s house. God’s rules.

He loves us. He wants us to repent. He does not want us to die. But he is going to apply the fullness of his justice to all. Is it any wonder that Paul says to us, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

We are called to be like the first son. Repent and return, but there is a problem with that, like the Israelites, we will fall away, and like the Israelites, we are no better off than we were when we were still tax collectors and prostitutes. God the Father will apply 100% of his justice to us and we will die. Something else is needed. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Where there is a 100% application of justice, we need a 100% application of mercy. Where do we find this mercy? “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

The Lord will apply 100% of his justice to us all and for those who believe in his Son, the Lord will apply 100% of his mercy. That’s not fair… no. That’s love.

Let us pray: O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.

Sermon: Proper 19 RCL A – “Beloved”

The complete service can be found here.

The only time I’ve really ever thought about suing someone was because they were being a complete and total jerk. I just think if you’re going to act like that, you should be treated like that. However, there are some who are very creative in their search for suing and the easy dollar.

You’ve probably heard of the energy drink “Red Bull.” Their original ad campaign was pretty clever, “Red Bull gives you wings.” Well, some smart fella discovered that Red Bull actually does not give you wings, literally or figuratively, so he sued. Red Bull settled out of court for $640,000.

Or take the judge who lived in the Washington D.C. area. He took his pants to the dry cleaners, but when he came to pick them up, they weren’t there. Turns out that the dry cleaners has multiple locations and the pants had been delivered to the wrong one. The pants were found and presented to the judge; however, he claims the pants were not his and stating that dry cleaners promoted “satisfaction guaranteed,” he sued them for damages. What did he decide that his pants and time were worth? $67 million. Given the fact that this man was a judge in D.C. should have told us something about his character, but he is also one that I would sue for “being a jerk.”

I don’t really know what it is about some folks who feel the need to sue every time someone sneezes in their direction, but it seems there is no end to it. I would say that there are some cases that are truly legitimate, but others not so much. These are surely for the easy money, but I also think these are oftentimes about being right or a “legal” vindictiveness.

In our Gospel reading last week, Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

When someone sins against us, there can be times in our need to be right or simply out of vindictiveness, that we want to or even will skip those first two steps and go directly to “telling the church” or just expelling them all together. In these cases, telling the church isn’t really about an attempt at reconciliation or to bring someone back into the fold. No. It’s about gossip and it’s about getting people on our side. A judging in the court of public opinion. Get enough people to side with you and regardless if you’re right or wrong, you win. Again, it never was about reconciliation, it was vindictive. Getting even with them for what you perceived they did to you. Jesus provides us a roadmap on how to seek and hopefully find reconciliation, but this passage from last week was not the end of Jesus’ teachings on reconciliation, because this week, he dials it up.

Immediately after saying these things, Peter asked, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter is wanting to do the math and Jesus response is a formula that goes beyond our understanding. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” That can also be translated, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” The number of times we are to forgive is inexhaustible. Seriously? Now, not only can’t we be vindictive, but we have to forgive them, time and time again. This is all that turn the other cheek business and it is so annoying. It is much more fun to get even. Isn’t it? We can plot, scheme, imagine…. “Oh, if they do this, then I’ll do that. If they say this, then I’ll say that. I’ll stick it to ‘em good.” Isn’t that far more entertaining than just forgiving them? Anger. Vindictiveness. These things are exhausting. In addition, you are allowing someone else’s sin, something they did against you, to cause you to sin through your own anger.

Yes, it is OK to go to someone and say, “You hurt me by doing such-and-such.” That’s being an adult. That’s building relationship. And, forgiving someone does not mean staying in an abusive situation. There are a few folks that I have forgiven and I want absolutely nothing to do with them. I’m not going to walk back into something where I know I’m just going to get smacked around again and neither should you. But in our lives, there are many minor hurts that we hang onto and that fester into severe wounds, when we should have simply forgiven. So, how do we go from vengefulness to forgiveness?

Henri Nouwen, one of those beautiful spiritual thinkers and writers, addresses this in an article he wrote for Weavings, a spiritual journal and he further developed in the book, Life of the Beloved. The title comes from the words of the Father to Jesus, when Jesus came up out of the water at his baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Beloved is also how John and Paul began to refer to the believers. Nouwen writes that the statement, “You are my Beloved,” “reveals the most intimate truth about all human beings.” What is that truth? That just as Jesus was the Beloved, so are we. If that is not true, if you do not believe that you are also the Beloved, then ask yourself why else Jesus would have died on the cross.

When it is revealed to us and we accept the fact that we are the Beloved of God, then we understand that there is no barrier that will separate us from the love of the one who calls us. It consumes and then it transforms, not into something alien or foreign, but the Father’s love begins the process of transforming us into his image. Yet, the gift of being the Beloved is not something that we hold solely for ourselves. It must be shared.

In speaking to another, Nouwen says, “The greatest gift my friendship can give to you is the gift of your Belovedness. I can give that gift only insofar as I have claimed it for myself. Isn’t that what friendship is all about: giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness.” What does that look like as it pertains to forgiveness? In the article from Weavings, Nouwen writes, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.” Forgiveness is the name of love, the great work practiced among the Beloved.

There was a king who had suffered much from his rebellious subjects. But one day they surrendered their arms, threw themselves at his feet, and begged for mercy. He pardoned them all. One of his friends said to him, “Did you not say that every rebel should die?”…. “Yes,” replied the king, “but I see no rebels here.”

How do we go from vengefulness to forgiveness? How do we go from wanting to seek the deaths of the rebels? By recognizing the Beloved in the other. By recognizing that we all rebelled against God, yet he does not desire our death. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die.”

Instead of beginning by taking someone to court, judging them before others, or calculating the number of times you’ve forgiven—whether it be seven times, seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven times—instead of doing these things, see them as the Beloved, just as you are seen by God as the Beloved, and forgive them, just as you have been forgiven.

Let us pray:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Sermon: Proper 17 RCL A – “Silk Thread”

The complete YouTube service is here.

Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Chief of police Thibodeaux gets a call from one of his deputies on the police band radio:

Deputy: “Chief, we have a case dat we need you to be aware of.”
Thibodeaux: “Mais, what you got deputy?”

Deputy: “Dere has been a shooting at you friend’s house. Boudreaux is in bad shape. Da ambulance just left wit him on da way to da emergency room.”

Chief Thibodeaux: “Oh no, mon ami!! What happened deputy? How did Boudreaux him he get shot?”

Deputy: “His wife chief. Marie shot Boudreaux.”

Chief: “What?!? What in da world is going on? Why for did she shoot him deputy?”

Deputy: “She say he came in from da crawfish pond and walked all over da floor she had just mopped. She say she told him if he ever done it again, she’d shoot him… so she did.”

Chief Thib: “I can’t believe dat me!!! Dat women done gone off da deep end of da bayou!!! I can’t wait to talk to dat crazy lady! Did you arrest her yet deputy?”

Deputy: “No sir, not yet, Chief”

Thibodeaux: “Well son, you got a job to do!! Get on wit it. Get in dere and arrest her right now!”

Deputy: “No chief. Can’t arrest her just yet.”

Thib: “And why not deputy?!?”

Deputy: “Da floor is still wet, Chief.”
Some folks are fast learners like that deputy, where as the rest of us are like ol’ Boudreaux: eventually we end up getting shot. One of my friends use to tell me that the devil is stupid, he’s only got so many tricks. Only problem: we keep falling for them time and time again.

I believe I shared a portion of this during a Wednesday night study, but I also said I was going to preach it sometime, so if you know the story, bear with me. Also, if spiders give you the willies, you may want to plug your ears up for a few minutes.

During my studies at Nashotah House seminary, I would go for some two week summer intensive programs. During those weeks I would stay in the rooms above the classrooms. At night, except for the weekends, there was a good bit of reading and studying that took place, so not much happened. One evening I was out walking along the cloister. It was very warm and the bats were having fun, then I noticed a very large moth caught in a spiders web. I looked a little closer and saw that it was actually caught by only one strand of the spider’s silky web, but it could not get free. The spider was tucked away in a corner just watching, but then, after the moth settled down a bit, the spider came creeping out. The moth was four to five times larger than the spider, but the spider was undaunted. She had played this game before.

I thought the spider would rush the moth and try and wrap it up, but instead, it came very close to the moth and reached out with one leg and—I mean this—gently touch the moth. The moth lost it’s mind and started flapping around again, but was still unable to get loose. Once it tired and settled again, the spider reached out and touched the moth again. Same reaction. This took place several times: touch, lose it, touch, lose it, but then there was a touch and the moth didn’t lose it. The moth remained still, so after a moment, the spider reached out with a second leg and touched the moth. That sent the moth off again, but the spider was patient.

I don’t know how long this went on, I was actually horrified and fascinated. Horrified that I was going to stand there and watch this spider kill the moth and fascinated by the entire process. A short time later it ended. The moth eventually became accustomed to being touched by the spider and so after much patient work, the spider was able to completely crawl up on the moth without the moth reacting at all. At that point, the spider did what spiders do and the moth that was caught by only a single strand of silk was dead.

Just a few minutes ago, Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” And now, Jesus rebukes the one on whom he will build his church: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

As I considered this passage, I kept coming back to the idea of the stumbling block. We know that Peter was acting as a stumbling block before Jesus. Trying to draw him away, tempt him into not fulfilling his purpose. That tells us that we too can be stumbling blocks to other people. Have a friend that’s an alcoholic and you invite them over for a drink, you’ve become a stumbling block. No someone that struggles with gossip and you drop them a tasty morsel: stumbling block.

Just as we can be stumbling blocks to others, they can do the same to us. Then there are the stumbling blocks we didn’t see coming. Someone says or does something to you. Under most circumstances you would just let it go, but on this occasion, anger, this rage bubbles out of you. I believe that most folks who follow the Way of Jesus, strive daily to avoid these types of stumbling blocks, but there is another stumbling block that is far more insidious. These are the ones that we are aware of. It is the one that we keep falling over time and time again. We don’t think much of them, because… well, they resemble a single strand of silk. And when we see it, something of a spiritual amnesia comes over us, or even worse, a desire on our parts to keep it, naively believing that we can control it. We’re slow learners. Like ol’ Boudreaux, we’ve walked over that wet kitchen floor many times, we’ve stumbled over that same obstacle time and time again. And even though we’ve been warned, time and time again, we just can’t remember that this single strand of silk is going to kill us, so we end up getting shot. We get trapped by a single silky thread, and instead of cutting it, removing it from our lives, we allow it to remain. As with the moth, the devil, seeing our predicament patiently waits for us to tire of the struggle, then at a more opportune time, he shows up and gently reaches out and touches us. At first, we resist, but he waits. He whispers, “Surely you will not die.” And he touches us again. We eventually become accustomed to being touched, touched by the devil, sin, and even death, and it is at that point, we are lost. We knew the stumbling block was there. We know it will cause us to fall. And yet, we are surprised when we find ourselves sprawled out on our faces, banged up and bleeding.

My friend, St. Josemaría Escrivá, writes, “How clear the way! How easily seen the obstacles! What good weapons to overcome them!…” We know where God would have us go and we are aware of the stumbling blocks along that way that will bring us down. God has also given us the necessary tools to overcome those obstacles, “Nevertheless,” Escrivá continues, “what side-tracking and what stumbling! Isn’t it true? That fine thread — that chain: that chain of wrought iron — of which you and I are conscious and which you don’t want to break, that is what draws you from your way and makes you stumble and even fall.”

We believe it is a single silky thread that binds us, but we have deceived ourselves. It is in fact a sturdy chain that binds us to death. Escrivá concludes, “Why do you hesitate? — Cut it… and advance!” How do you cut it? Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” You cut the silky thread that chains you to death, by taking up your cross and following Jesus, by allowing him to break the chains that bind you, just as he broke the chains of death that attempted to hold him. Easy? No. Painful? Possibly. Impossible? Jesus said, “All things are possible for one who believes.”

For the record: I put the moth out of its misery and after a bit of chasing around, I killed that dang spider. Yeah, I know. It was only doing what spiders do, but it made me mad. It was only a moth, but I should have cut that single thread of silk and set it free (there’s a sermon in that also on how we are to help one another). I should have set it free, just as, through Jesus, we can be set free from the chains that bind us. “Why do you hesitate?”

Let us pray:
The light of God surrounds us,
The love of God enfolds us,
The power of God protects us,
The presence of God watches over us,
Wherever we are, God is,
And where God is, all is well.

Sermon: Proper 15 RCL A – “Lord…”

The sermon podcast is available here.

The entire service is available on YouTube.

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash


The story is told of a monastery in Portugal, perched high on a 3,000 foot cliff and accessible only by a terrifying ride in a swaying basket. The basket is pulled with a single rope by several strong men, perspiring under the strain of the fully loaded basket. One American tourist who visited the site got nervous halfway up the cliff when he noticed that the rope was old and frayed. Hoping to relieve his fear he asked, “How often do you change the rope?” The monk in charge replied, “Whenever it breaks.”

Another story tells of two monks, Brother Matthew and Brother James, who encountered each other while out for a walk. They look at each other and without saying a word, go in separate directions. Later that day, Brother Matthew goes to the Abbot of the monastery and complains. Seems he didn’t appreciate all the gossip that Brother James had shared.

Monasteries are interesting places and I’m speaking from my brief experience of them. Most of you probably know that this past week I spent some time in a monastery in the eastern part of the state. I was scheduled for eight days, but only lasted six. For me, in an experience like that, you reach a point where you realize there is nothing more to be gained, so you can continue for the sake of continuing, or you can call it a day and sleep in your own bed. I chose the latter, because, as I noted in one of the blog posts I put up, I’m spoiled.

For the full days that I was there, I would get up at 4:00 a.m. and be in chapel before 5:00 a.m., and for the next three hours, we would pray. Most of the praying consisted of reading the Psalms, which I truly love, but this was also about the only part of the service I was able to follow, because it was all in Latin. (The English was there, right alongside the Latin, but there were no cues as to where you were if you got lost.) For me, if I was at the wrong place to start with or I got lost along the way, the rest of the service was a wash. And it would seem that not even the brothers were able to get it right all the time, because for every mistake they made, they had to do penance: step forward, kneel on both knees, and bow for every mistake. If I had been up there with them, I would have gotten on my knees at the beginning of the service and not bothered standing back up again. The entire process was amazing to watch and even more so to listen to. The upside was that if you got that time of prayer wrong, there were going to be six more services (two to three more hours) during the day where you could try and get it right. In six days, there was only one service that I made it all the way through without losing where we were. Perhaps, if you know what you are doing, it would be easier, but it was exhausting work, and all I really wanted to do was pray.

That’s not to say that prayer isn’t work, but when I’m so focused on how to pray, I don’t actually end up praying. So, between services, when it wasn’t a meal time, I would either take a nap, read, or go sit in the darkened chapel and pray as I knew how. It was then that I could draw near to God and my prayer was not work, but joy. I believe this is true for many.

I know a fella who began his deepest prayers by first seeking the Blessed Virgin Mary. He would look for her along an old country road and they would go for walks together. She would then lead him to Jesus. But one day, when he found her along the way, she was not wanting to walk… she wanted to dance. She took both his hands in hers and like children, they danced in great skipping circles. They smiled, then they began to laugh. Jesus joined them. Mary was on his right and the fella was on his left. All three holding hands in a circle. They danced, but after awhile, Mary left the two alone and the fella and Jesus sat in the long green grass. When he looked in Jesus’ eyes, the fella confessed his sins and spoke the things of his heart.

This past week, I also had the opportunity to sit with Jesus in the green pasture during the cool of the day, and the words of David came to my mind:

“Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

That encounter came about, not because of the hours of prayer that I spent praying with the monks, or because I spoke in Latin (which I didn’t), or because I’m all that holy (which I’m not.) That encounter came about because Mary led me to my Savior who seemed to have nothing else to do but sit and talk with me.

Do not think that I am criticizing the prayers of the monks or the way they go about it. I’m not. They are quite remarkable in the practice of their faith, but not all are called to that kind of life. But I’m also in agreement with St. Teresa of Avila: “Much more is accomplished by a single word of the Our Father said, now and then, from our heart, than by the whole prayer repeated many times in haste and without attention.” Our prayer is heard, not because of its length, language, or number of times repeated. Our prayer is heard—no matter how it expressed—when it is spoken from the heart.

There is a great deal taking place in our Gospel reading and much that needs ‘unpacking’ with the incident involving the Canaanite woman, but it is also demonstrates this this topic of prayer.

“A Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”

Regardless, of how it may have appeared to the people then or us today, this woman was praying. “Have mercy on me, Lord… Lord, help me.” For the sake of the crowd, mimicking their prejudices, Jesus at first refused her, knowing all along that he would answer her, but why did he answer? She was of the wrong creed, not even Jewish. She was a woman speaking to a man. She was not in a synagogue, but out on the street, making a scene out of it all. She did not use fancy words, but spoke her need simply and concisely. All this against her, yet the Lord heard her cry and answered her. Why? Because her prayer was from the heart. “Have mercy on me, Lord… Lord, help me.” She cried out to the Lord and he heard her.

Christogram with the Jesus Prayer in Romanian: Doamne Iisuse Hristoase, Fiul lui Dumnezeu, miluieşte-mă pe mine păcătosul (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”) Source

I would not change one thing about the way the brothers at the monastery pray and I would not change one thing about how we pray when we come here to worship. I love our traditions, rituals, prayers… all of it. As I’ve said to you before, I am never nearer to God than when I am able to stand up there behind the altar and pray the Mass. It is an incredible feeling. I was jealous of Fr. Jim last week, because he was in my church doing what I so love to do, but… in the prayers of our heart, we can set aside all the prayer books, vestments, liturgical prayers, and simply say, “Have mercy on me, Lord… Lord, help me.” And we can know that our prayers are heard, not necessarily answered according to our will, but during those times, Jesus sits with us in the green grass during the cool of the day and listens… he hears the cries of our hearts.

I knew it before I took my trip this past week, but it was a good reminder: you don’t have to be a monk or run off to a monastery in oder to pray, to be heard by God. You only need open your heart to him. Again, St. Teresa of Avila: “We need no wings to go in search of Him, but have only to look upon Him present within us.” Regardless of location, language, form, whatever, speak to God from your heart and you will be praying and he… he will hear.

Let us Pray (St. Teresa of Avila):
Let nothing disturb you, 
Let nothing frighten you, 
All things are passing away: 
God never changes. 
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing; 
God alone suffices.

Sermon: Proper 13 RCL A – “Hope”

The sermon podcast is available here.

The YouTube service is available here.

Photo by Sergio Arze on Unsplash

A passenger on an ocean liner was enduring a rough Atlantic crossing. As he leaned over the rail, his face a shade of green, a steward came along and tried to encourage him: “Don’t be discouraged, sir! No one’s ever died of seasickness yet!” The nauseous passenger looked up at the steward with horror and said, “Don’t say that! It’s only the hope of dying that’s kept me alive this long!”

Hope. In The Forresters, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote,
“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering ‘it will be happier’…”

Clearly, Tennyson never heard of 2020. But then, hope is complicated, because we hope for so many different things: death in the midst of being seasick, a new job, better world, sushi for lunch, relationships, peace, cure for cancer… the list is inexhaustible, and it is not a bad thing. Hope is what drives us for something better. It brings joy, stimulates the imagination, props us up even on the dark days. It is not a bad thing, but it can also be unreasonable. (For example, I’ve mostly gotten over the hope having a date with Scarlett Johansson, but… one never knows.) Do we always get what we hope for? According to Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones:

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need.”

Unfortunately, that’s not always true either. There are those times when we don’t get what we want, what we hope for and we don’t get what we need. But even then, we do not stop hoping and we never should. John Paul II said, “I plead with you–never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.” There can always be hope, for there is only one place where all hope dies. Dante tells us about it in Inferno: the inscription over the gates of hell:

“Through me you enter the city of woe,
Through me you pass into eternal pain,
Through me you join the godforsaken tribe.
Justice moved my exalted Creator:

By the divine power was I erected,
And by supreme wisdom and primal love.
Before I was made nothing had been made
But things eternal, and I too am such.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!”

Hell is the end of hope and I pray that it is something that none of us ever experiences (although some of you should consider confession), but until we enter the final destination—heaven—we will hope. So then, we hope, but where is our hope placed?

The people had discovered where Jesus had gone off to and followed him out into that deserted place. They stayed late. Listening. Being healed. Simply wanting to be near him. The day was coming to a close, so the disciples told Jesus to tell the crowd that it was supper time and they needed go find something to eat. Jesus said, You feed them. The responded, We don’t have enough and we can’t afford more. Jesus response, Just feed them. There’ll be enough. Turns out, there was more than enough. This took place in chapter fourteen of Matthew’s Gospel. It will take place again in chapter fifteen, yet, in John’s Gospel, Jesus is reported to have said to the crowds, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Where was the hope of the people placed? In Jesus or in supper? According to John, it was supper.

Early this week I read a blog post by Niel Knoblauch. His blog is called the Barefoot Ascent. Niel grew up and lived in South Africa, but he and his wife now live in the United Kingdom. Niel’s most recent blog entry is called “The Weight of Hope”, and after reading it, I knew I wanted to share it with you, so I wrote to him and asked for permission. He was kind enough to agree.

Like all of us, Niel has hopes, but there was one particular thing that he had been hoping and faithfully praying for. He knows that God is good, so he had faith that God would answer his prayer. Yet, even after praying for this one thing—for almost a decade—he had still not received it, which led him to be disappointed in God. Yes, disappointed in God, but then it hit him. He was convicted and writes, “I have placed the weight of my hope on what I wanted instead of placing it on Him… I’ve placed my trust in what I wanted and placed the question mark on God’s love and goodness, rather than placing my trust in God and the question mark (the discretion of whether this is what is good for me right now) on what I wanted.” His hope was on the thing and the sign of God’s goodness was whether or not God fulfilled that hope.

The multitudes who had been following Jesus around: perhaps, at first, they followed him for who he is, but that later changed to what he could do for them. In his blog post, Niel asked, “Has God’s goodness been on trial in your heart?” For the multitude, the answer was, Yes. I hope he will feed us supper again. I hope he will heal me. I hope that he will be the leader who gives us freedom… because, if he does these things, then he will really prove to us that he loves us. They placed the weight of their hope on what they wanted instead of placing the weight their hope on Him.

Hope is complicated, so we as a Christian people must remind ourselves of where our hope should be directed, because hope is not only an expression of our desires and our wants, Hope is also a person. St. Paul begins his first letter to Timothy by saying, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy, my true child in the faith.” (1 Timothy 1:1-2a) “…by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.” Jesus is hope incarnate, hope made man.

Yes. We have hopes and dreams, but our true hope, above all else, is Christ Jesus. My friend Thomas à Kempis writes, “The wise lover [of God] regards not so much the gift of Him Who loves as the love of Him Who gives. He regards the affection of the Giver rather than the value of the gift, and sets his Beloved above all gifts. The noble lover does not rest in the gift but [the Lord who is] above every gift.” (The Imitation of Christ, Book 3, Chapter 6) The Giver, our Hope, Jesus is the one that we seek. The fact that he feeds us, clothes us, gives us those good things we desire… I would say those things are secondary, but the truth is, they aren’t even on the list. The weight of our hope is what lies behind Jesus’ words, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Seek God and then consider the Lillies of the field.

Niel writes that seeking God’s kingdom first, “is part of what it means to surrender the control of our lives to God; to die to ourselves, so that we may live in Him and He may live in us; to really and truly follow Jesus. And it starts with putting the weight of our hope – of all our hopes and dreams – on Him. It starts with trusting Him with the most precious treasures hidden in the deepest places of our soul. It’s vulnerable and it’s messy. You see, only the One who made you, only the One who knows the depths of who you are better than you do yourself, are worthy and able to carry the weight of your most cherished hopes.”

So, consider Niel’s question: “Has God’s goodness been on trial in your heart?” Are you hoping in things that will pass away or are you hoping in the one who is Hope? Turn your love, affections and desires to God, offer them to him, then allow Him to give, to respond to your hopes and dreams according to His eternal purposes.

Let us pray:
You, O Lord our God, are above all things.
You alone are most high, most powerful, sufficient and satisfying.
You alone most sweet, consoling, beautiful and loving.
You alone are most noble, glorious and above all things.
In You is every perfection.
Therefore, whatever You give us besides Yourself is too small and insufficient when we do not see and fully enjoy You alone. For our hearts cannot rest or be fully content until, rising above all gifts and every created thing, we rest in You. Amen.
(adapted from The Imitation of Christ, Book 3, Chapter 21)