Sermon: Proper 23 RCL C – Made Clean

The podcast is available here.

Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash

In a small town there was a family in one of the congregational churches with the reputation of being the poorest family in the county. One Sunday, the family just stopped coming to church. After a couple of weeks, the preacher had a theory that the family was so ashamed of the way they dressed that they didn’t want to come out into public.

So the preacher put out the word to his congregation that he needed clothing for the family and got some real nice children’s clothes and some for the mother and the father, too. He took the clothes down to the family and they seemed grateful. They said they would come to church the next Sunday.

But Sunday rolled around and they weren’t there. Sunday afternoon, the preacher went to see them and asked: “Where were you this morning?”

And the man of the house said: “Well, preacher, we got all cleaned up and got on those nice clothes you brought, and we looked so good we decided to go to the Episcopal church.”

The numbers are fun: worldwide, the soap bar industry earned $19.2 billion dollars last year. In the US alone, it is estimated that we go through 11.7 billion bars of soap a year. That’s a lot of lathering up to get clean. The most expensive bar of soap is made in Lebanon and cost $2,800 a bar. It is infused with gold and diamond powder dust. The people who make that bar of soap are very smart, because they know that there are plenty of idiots in the world who will buy it.

Anyhow, when we think of soap, most are only concerned with removing the dirt and unpleasant aromas—to get clean—but when it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures, clean and unclean are something very different.

For example, there are foods that are unclean: most know that bacon is unclean, but did you know that grasshoppers are clean? The lowly shrimp is off limits, but the chicken is fine. There are also things that you can do to become unclean. Touching anything dead will make you unclean. And then there are some things, completely out of your control that can make you unclean, one of which is contracting leprosy (which in this context is a very broad term that defines a variety of skin disorders.) And it was these unclean that Jesus encountered in our Gospel reading today.

As Jesus “entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’”

The Mosaic Law was very clear about what was to take place when a person contracted a certain variety of leprosy, “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45-46) By today’s standards, that sounds harsh, but they didn’t have modern medicine, so a true case of leprosy or other communicable disease (perhaps like the measles) could easily spread to many others, so these persons had to be cut off and removed.

What did it mean for the individual to be cut off? No job, no family or friends (except maybe other lepers), no resources, out in the wilderness outside the city gates, and unprotected, but this wasn’t the worst part. You see, clean and unclean are more accurately translated as pure and impure, and those terms are referring to a person’s relationship to God. And to be impure, with no access to the means of atonement—being made right with God, becoming clean before God—meant that not only are you cut off from the world, but you are also cut off from God. Separated from Him. So, you stand alone, out in the wilderness and cry out, ‘Unclean. Unclean.’ But, you see, I hear those words and they seem more than just a declaration of a person’s current state. Those words also sound like a prayer. A plea to God for washing.

When King David had sinned, when he was impure and cut off from God, he wrote Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
(Psalm 51:1-3)

To me, David is crying out, ‘Unclean. Unclean.’ Yet, even in that state of impurity, David has hope. Hope in God’s love and mercy, for he goes on to say:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
(Psalm 51:1-3, 7)

Lord, I am unclean, but you can wash me. You can make me whiter than snow.

What is the Lord’s response? I refer back to the story of the healing of the leper that I shared with you last week. The leper came up to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me well.” And the Lord responds, “I do choose, be well.”

The Lord’s response: God chose to make us well, chose to make us clean, and he makes it possible through our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. How do we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus?

“All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

We participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus through our baptism. When we enter the waters we are unclean and when we rise we are clean. The old self dies and we are “set free from sin” and raised to an eternal and resurrected life in Christ Jesus. What did our Gospel say: The leper that returned “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him…. Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Those words, “get up,” have a very specific meaning… resurrected. Jesus said to the man, “Be resurrected! You have been made clean.”

Prior to our baptism, we are like the leper at the feet of Jesus. We are lying in the dust, we are dead in sin, we cry out, ‘Unclean,’ but through our baptism, Jesus says to us, “Get up! I choose to make you whiter than snow. Be resurrected into eternal life with me.”

And what is our response to this gift? Consider the words of the Psalm from today:

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation….
He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever;
holy and awesome is his Name.

Our response to the Lord is thankfulness, because “he sent redemption to his people.” He sent Jesus… “For God so loved the world…” that we might be with Him.

This morning, I pray, that as we baptize Angelica Rose, you will recall the great work that was begun in you through your own baptism—how you passed over from unclean to clean, impure to pure, death to life—and that in your heart and with your words, you will also return to the Lord and give him thanks.

Let us pray… a few more verses from Psalm 51:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Sermon: Proper 22 RCL C – The Mustard Seed

The podcast is available here.

Q: Why was Goliath so surprised when David hit him with a slingshot?
A: The thought had never entered his head before.

Q: If Goliath is resurrected, would you like to tell him that joke?
A: No, he already fell for it once.

The story of David and Goliath is one most of us can tell without having to refer to the text, because it is one of the first we learn in Sunday school, even so, it doesn’t hurt to go back and hear parts of it.

You’ll recall that the Philistines came up against the Israelites to do battle, but instead of all out war, they were both to choose a champion to represent them on the battlefield. The Philistines chose Goliath, a monster of a man. It is believed that he was one of the Nephilim: those we read about in Genesis 6 who were the offspring of the fallen angels and humans (Oh, yes… it’s in Bible!) Yet, among the Israelites, there was not a single soul who could be found to do battle with Goliath, until a skinny little kid showed up: David.

Upon hearing the taunts of Goliath, David declared he could take the giant, but “Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.’” David said, “Just give me a shot.”

There’s a bit more back and forth until Saul finally agrees to allow David to go off and get himself killed. “Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.’ So David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.”

There was a bit of back and forth taunting between David and Goliath, and I’m certain a good bit of laughing from those watching, then Goliath “arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out…” … David reached into his bag and took out a mustard seed and hurled it at the giant and killed him.

Another time: “God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark…”… Make yourself an ark made out of a mustard seed.

Moses, when he went down to Egypt land to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” went with a staff in one hand and a mustard seed in the other.

Friends wanted to bring a man who was lame to Jesus, but the house where Jesus was staying was so crowded, they could not reach him, so “they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus.” And the bed the man was lying on was made from a mustard seed………. Starting to see a trend here?

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’” That actually sounds like something Stephen King might write about: telekinesis—moving objects with your mind. Strike up the soundtrack from the Twilight Zone. But Jesus was not talking about some supposed psychic ability. And he was not talking about your ability to do certain things. The mulberry tree being uprooted and planted in the sea, is not about you or your will. It is about God and His will. It is about God desiring these things to be accomplished. The leper came to Jesus and said, “‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’” Other translations, instead of saying, “If you will,” say, “If you choose.” So, Jesus’ response is, “I do choose.” Faith is believing that if God wills it, chooses it, the mulberry tree will be moved, the giant will fall, the ark will survive the storm, the people will be set free. Faith is believing that if God chooses, He can accomplish the impossible.

When I was living in Montana, before I went off to seminary, there was a fella in our church, Steve, who was about my age. Beautiful wife and two children. Earlier in his life, he had overcome brain cancer, but during the time that I knew him it returned, so we as a church gathered around him and we prayed.

I remember when he sat down and told me how he had to quit driving, because the tumor would cause scenes, like from a movie, in his vision, so he would be seeing the real world and he would be seeing these visions, unable to tell the difference, so he had to stop driving, but we as a church had faith and kept praying.

I remember when he was no longer able to walk, so he progressed to a wheelchair. I remember when he was sitting in that chair and his arms were resting on the armrests and when one of them would slip off, his wife would go to him and put it back up on the armrest, because he was too weak to do it himself. But even then, we had faith. We prayed… oh, how we prayed. And we anointed him time and time again, believing that the Lord will slay the giant. We had the faith of the mustard seed and we knew the Lord would ‘choose’ to heal Steve. And you know what… Steve died.

What went wrong? David, Moses, Noah… they all went to battle with a mustard seed and won. With Steve, did we have less faith than a mustard seed? “Hello, Church. This is God. Sorry, but you were six micrograms of faith short of a mustard seed.” Or, what did we say a minute ago: faith is believing that if God wills it, chooses it, the mulberry tree will be moved. Was it that God just simply chose not to heal Steve? “You, you and you get the golden ticket, and you, ah… sorry. There are only three tickets. Better luck next time.” We really can put such evil thoughts in the mind of God, but perhaps, just perhaps, there’s more going on than we can see.

St. Paul tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But you know, that really isn’t all that comforting, especially when you’re staring into the casket at the one you believed God would heal, but it was J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” Faithless is he who believes that there is a limit to God’s faithfulness. Faithless is he that thinks they don’t have enough faith, but you see, it is not about how great your faith is—it is about how great your God is. Faithless is he that stares into the casket and thinks it is the end, that God has not accomplished the impossible, when he actually has; for “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Faith and the workings of God are a mystery, and that is not a satisfying thought, which leaves room for all sorts of doubts and questions, especially when you are looking for answers, results. But to have the faith of a mustard seed tells me that there is all sorts of room for doubts and questions the size of all creation, but… if you have that one speck of faith in the midst of all those doubts and questions, one sliver of faith in the face of the mystery, then your God who is great and your God who is faithful will move the mulberry tree, slay the giants, part the seas, heal the lepers, and—on the last day—raise the dead to eternal life.

Do not place your faith in your ability to move the mulberry tree. Place your faith in the one who created both you and the tree, and know that the Creator will accomplish His perfect will in you both.

Let us pray: Eternal God, in whom faithfulness is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase our faith in you, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with greater faith submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself. Amen.

Sermon: Thecla

The podcast is available here.

The Apostle Paul was planning to visit Iconium in central Turkey. When he arrived, the people wrote a description of him: “At length they saw a man coming (namely Paul), of a small stature with meeting eyebrows, bald [or shaved] head, bow-legged, strongly built, hollow-eyed, with a large crooked nose; he was full of grace, for sometimes he appeared as a man, sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.” (Source) That description appears in a second century text: The Acts of Paul and Thecla. It is described by an early commentator as “religious romance,” but not a romance between a man and a woman as we understand it, but a shared romance of sharing the Gospel.

Thecla, while Paul was visiting Iconium, sat for three days in her windowsill, without eating or drinking, and listened to Paul teach on chastity and purity. Following that teaching, she swore off marriage, ended her engagement, and pledged to follow Paul as helper. Her fiancé, not at all pleased with this decision, brought charges against her. She had made an agreement to marry, and getting married and having children is what women were for. Not only was her choice to remain unmarried against the will of her fiancé and family, it was also against the will of the state: can’t have women going off with this funny ideas of not producing children. Her sentence: to be burned at the stake. She was tied up, the fire was set, and… there was a great flood of rain. She escaped her death sentence and went to Antioch with Paul.

I’m guessing she was better looking than him, because once there, she caught the attention of a city official who desired her, but she rebuffed him as well, which sent him into fits and he also called for her death. This time, she was set in the arena with wild beasts—twice. The first time, the lioness that was sent in to kill her only licked her feet. The second time, the lioness protected Thecla by killing another lion and a bear and then laid down at Thecla’s feet. In the end, the text reports that the Apostle Paul sent Thecla back to Iconium to do two things: preach and baptize, which is perhaps the reason why the Acts of Paul and Thecla do not appear in the canon of scripture or even the apocrypha, and why it was condemned by Tertullian, who writing on baptism and Paul stated, “For how credible would it seem, that he who has not permitted a woman even to learn with over-boldness, should give a female [Thecla] the power of teaching and of baptizing!” (Source)

Thecla’s feast day was Monday, and the canticle that was appointed was The First Song of Isaiah:

Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.

And then there was our Psalm today:

Because you have made the Lord your refuge, *
and the Most High your habitation,
There shall no evil happen to you, *
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you in their hands, *
lest you dash your foot against a stone.

As I read Thecla’s story, I considered that canticle and the Psalm and remembered the words Joshua said to the people, “It is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you.”

So many times, when we come up against an adversary, whether it be someone or something in the world, our own inner ‘demons,’ or events such as sickness or hardships, we can believe that we are in it alone, but if we remember Thecla, then we remember that our God is one who douses the flames and turns back the wild beast. The Lord our God is one who gives his angels charge over us, that our souls and eternal lives will always be saved.

The next time you face trouble, remember Thecla, who even in the face of death, stood and did battle, and through the Lord, overcame her adversary.

Sermon: Proper 20 RCL 20 – “Generosity of Spirit”

The podcast is available here

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

A pastor in Dallas tells of a man in the church who once made a covenant with a former pastor to tithe ten percent of their income every year. At the time, both the man and the pastor were young and neither of them had much money, but things changed. The man tithed one thousand dollars the year he earned ten thousand, ten thousand dollars the year he earned one-hundred thousand, and one-hundred thousand dollars the year he earned one million. But the year he earned six million dollars he just could not bring himself to write out that check for six-hundred thousand dollars to the Church. He telephoned the minister he had made the covenant, long since having moved to another church, and asked to see him. Walking into the pastor’s office the man begged to be let out of the covenant, saying, “This tithing business has to stop. It was fine when my tithe was one thousand dollars, but I just cannot afford six-hundred thousand dollars. You’ve got to do something, Reverend!” The pastor knelt on the floor and prayed silently for a long time. Eventually the man said, “What are you doing? Are you praying that God will let me out of the covenant to tithe?” “No,” said the minister. “I am praying for God to reduce your income back to the level where one thousand dollars will be your tithe!”

You can all rest easy, the pledge drive is not starting today (but I won’t apologize if that story tweaked you a little). What the story did get me to thinking about was generosity and how far we are willing to take the idea.

For starters, when we talk of giving, we most often think of money or some other tangible item: food, clothing, etc. And knowing you all, I know that you do just that. You have very charitable and generous hearts in your support of various needs throughout the community. I’ve even had the opportunity to brag on you and your giving through our Community Tithe program (where we give back to the community 10% of all income). You probably saw where news made a big deal over the $500 we gave to Emerson School in paying off their student lunch debt. That’s a good thing and just so you know, we’re also paying off a $750 debt at Adams School and a $2,100 debt at Hayes (that one is in honor of Jean McCollough, who taught there for so many years). But it is not stopping there, we’re looking into helping Taft where Janet Wright worked and Coolidge where Marianne Gray worked. Mary (McDonald), I’m almost afraid to ask what the debt is at the high school, but… Back to Emerson School: you gave $500 and it is a beautiful thing, however, if that was ALL that we’ve done, I would have actually been a bit uneasy by the big todo that was made, but… that’s not all you’ve done. Since we started that program, you’ve given more than $100,000 back into the community. But it doesn’t stop there, because, as we said, we often think of giving in terms of dollars and tangible items, but you also give of your time. You serve on boards and volunteers: from Loaves and Fishes, to Our Daily Bread, to Leonardos, to Vance AFB support, to the CDSA, to so many more; not to mention what you do in the church: Stephen Ministry, Prison Ministry, Nursing Home Ministry, Eucharistic Visitors, Altar Guild, Choir, Acolytes, Lectors, Ushers… I could do this for awhile.

So the question is: how far are you willing to take this spirit of generosity? The fella making six million a year had enough—even an abundance—but then he reached a limit. It became too much, even though it was the same percentage. So when do you say, “Enough. I can’t give anymore. I can’t do anymore.”

Now, understand, I’m not criticizing you… at all. You folks are amazing, yet this spirit of generosity does not end with giving money and time. As you know, it also applies to much greater ideas: mercy, grace, love. So, do you have a limit when it comes to these? How much is too much mercy, too much grace, too much love? “You know what, Padre—I’ll give you $600 worth of mercy, but $6,000… no. I’ll give you $6,000 worth of grace, but $60,000… you’re asking too much. I’ll give you $60,000 worth of love, but $600,000… heck, I don’t even give myself THAT much love.” But you see, when it comes to these, you have to consider the standard that has been set. Want to know what the standard for love is? Most folks don’t, but I’m going to tell you anyways: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) The limit of our mercy, our grace, our love should be as lavish, abundant, and—by the world’s standards—as ridiculous as Jesus’. The limit of our mercy, grace, and love, is the cross.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus appears to be giving and approving of some very shrewd and dishonest business practices, but what you have to keep in mind is that this is a parable. Jesus is not teaching morals. He’s teaching about how we are to show mercy, grace, and love.

Throughout the Old Testament, God tells the Israelites that they are to be his chosen people, a light to the nations. They are to convey his teachings and his Law so that all can walk in holiness, but instead of conveying the message and living it out, most of the people ended up falling into evil practices. The religious, the priests, upon witnessing this falling away, attempted to legislate morality and holiness by enforcing and passing more and more rules designed to bring about the desired holiness, but instead of drawing people closer, it pushed them further away.

In the parable, the shrewd steward is commended, because he saw the way to win friends was by reducing the cost. So, Jesus is saying to the priests, who are the stewards of the faith of Israel, if you want the current residents of the Kingdom of God to follow you and if you want to bring more into the Kingdom, stop raising the price of admission. Instead, slash the cost. Stop crushing the people under the burden and win them over with lavish mercy and abundant, amazing grace. Set no limits. Have such a ridiculous love for them that instead of cursing you, they run to you; and in running to you, they run to Our Father in Heaven, who for his part, will commend you and praise you.

Think of the words from our Psalm (113), starting at verse five:

Who is like the Lord our God, who sits enthroned on high *
but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth?
He takes up the weak out of the dust *
and lifts up the poor from the ashes.
He sets them with the princes, *
with the princes of his people.
He makes the woman of a childless house *
to be a joyful mother of children.

God does not crush his people into the dust. He lifts them up out of the dust and sets them in places of honor. We are to do the same. We are to do the same with our time, talents, and treasures; and we are to do the same with our mercy, grace, and love.

There is a story of a beggar by the roadside who once asked for alms from Alexander the Great as he passed by. The man was poor and wretched and had no claim upon the ruler, no right to even ask. Yet the Emperor gave the poor man several gold coins. A courtier was astonished at Alexander’s generosity and commented, “Sir, copper coins would adequately meet a beggar’s need. Why give him gold?” Alexander responded in royal fashion, “Copper coins would suit the beggar’s need, but gold coins suit Alexander’s giving.”

When you give, when you show mercy, grace, and love, even if a copper coin is all that is needed or required, give gold. Pour it on so lavishly, so abundantly, that it looks ridiculous to the world, but rises like sweet perfume to the Lord.

Let us pray: Lord, grant us simplicity of faith and a generosity of service that gives without counting cost. A life overflowing with Grace, poured out from the One who gave everything, that we might show the power of love to a broken world, and share the truth from a living Word. Lord, grant us simplicity of faith, and a yearning to share it. Amen.

Sermon: Hildegard of Bingen

The podcast is available here.

Today we celebrate Hildegard of Bingen who was born in the year 1098. She was eagerly sought out for counsel, was a correspondent to kings and queens, abbots and abbesses, and archbishops and popes. She went on four preaching tours across northern Europe, practiced medicine, published treatises on science and philosophy, and composed great music and liturgical dramas. What makes this even more remarkable is that in the year 1098, these were rolls reserved only for men.

In addition to her many accomplishments, she was also one who had visions, which began to appear to her when she was only three years old. She would later describe them as “The Shade of the Living Light.” She wrote, “These visions which I saw—I beheld them neither in sleep nor dreaming nor in madness nor with my bodily eyes or ears, nor in hidden places; but I saw them in full view and according to God’s will, when I was wakeful and alert, with the eyes of the spirit and the inward ears.”

Here is an example of her writing:
It is easier to gaze into the Sun than into the face of
the mystery of God.
Such is its beauty and its radiance.
God says:
I am the supreme fire; not deadly, but rather,
enkindling every spark of life.
I am the reflection of providence for all.
I am the resounding WORD; the It-Shall-Be
that I intone with mighty power
from which all the world proceeds.
Through animate eyes I divide the seasons of time.
I am aware of what they are.
I am aware of their potential.
With my mouth I kiss my own chosen creation.
I uniquely, lovingly embrace every image I have
made out of the earth’s clay.
With a fiery spirit I transform it into a body to serve
all the world.

For me, she expresses a true understanding of the love of God. Not as we might understand God from a theologians perspective, but instead from a human perspective (not that theologians aren’t human).

As in our Gospel reading today, a passage that many would write off as a cliché, John wrote those beautiful words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In Hildegard’s poem, it seems to me that she was expressing that same idea: God is saying, I am aware of who they are, their potential. I lovingly embrace them, transform them, give them my Son to show them this great love that I have for them, so that they may be where We are.

Hildegard was one who intimately knew of this transforming love of God and was so able to express it through music, preaching, poetry, and art so that she transcended the boundaries of her age. Perhaps such intimacy with God is not something that we can all attain, but it is something that we should all strive for. By doing so, we too can become living testimonies, transcending our boundaries.

There is an exceptional German movie about her life, Vision and I recommend it if you don’t mind subtitles (or speak German). In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women like Saint Hildegard of Bingen who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.” In 2012, Benedict named her a Doctor of the Church of which, at the time, there were thirty-three and only three were women.

Sermon: Heritage Sunday

The podcast is available here.

Boudreaux stumbles across a baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river.

He proceeds to walk into the water and stand next to the preacher. The minister notices him and says, “Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?”

Boudreaux looks back and says, “Yes, preacher, I sure am.”

The minister dunks him under the water and pulls him right back up.
“Have you found Jesus?” the preacher asks. “Nooo, I didn’t!” said Boudreaux.

The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up, and says, “Now, brother, have you found Jesus?”

“Noooo, I have not, Reverend.”

The preacher, in disgust, holds Boudreaux under for at least 30 seconds this time, brings him out of the water, and says in a harsh tone, “My God, man, have you found Jesus yet?”

Boudreaux wipes his eyes and says to the preacher, “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”

A long time ago, I lost track of the number of funerals that I have performed, but I would be very surprised, if over the course of my career, I have performed more than six weddings. In the time leading up to the wedding, I always have a little talk with the happy couple about their selection of best man and maid of honor. I don’t know that any of them have taken my advice, but it goes like this: don’t ask your drinking buddy or best girlfriend who agrees with everything you say or do to fill this position. That’s not who you want. Instead, you want someone who is not afraid to call you out and tell you when you are messing up. Why? Say you choose your drinking buddy. Imagine the scene:

“Dude, the ol’ ball and chain is really harassing me.”

“Dude, what for.”

“She thinks I should come home after work instead of coming out for a few beers. I’m normally home pretty early.”

“Dude, I told ya not to marry her. You really gonna take that? You need to put her in her place.”

Now say you chose someone who would call you out:

“Dude, the ol’ ball and chain is really harassing me.”

“Dude, what for.”

“She thinks I should come home after work instead of going out for a few beers. I’m normally home pretty early.”

“You know what you should do?”

“No… do tell.”

“You should get your happy behind off that bar stool and go home. Your wife is right. When you married her, you took on the responsibility of being a faithful husband to your wife and father to your children.”

By signing your wedding certificate, the maid of honor and best man are standing as witnesses to the vows you are making. By standing next to you in the church, they are agreeing to assist you in keeping those vows. The Godparents at a baptism are essentially signing on for the same duty, but it goes a bit further for them. Listen to these words that are spoken to the Godparents during this 1892 liturgy:

“DEARLY beloved, ye have brought this Child here to be baptized; ye have prayed that our Lord Jesus Christ would vouchsafe to receive him, to release him from sin, to sanctify him with the Holy Ghost, to give him the kingdom of heaven, and everlasting life. Ye have heard also that our Lord Jesus Christ hath promised in his Gospel to grant all those things that ye have prayed for: which promise he, for his part, will most surely keep and perform.

“Wherefore after this promise made by Christ, this Infant must also faithfully, for his part, promise by you that are his sureties (until he come of age to take it upon himself) that he will renounce the devil and all his works, and constantly believe God’s holy Word, and obediently keep his commandments.”

The Godparents are becoming surety for the one to be baptized. In this context, Merriam-Webster defines surety as, “One who has become legally liable for the debt, default, or failure in duty of another.” By standing up for Sully, the Godparents are taking upon themselves the debt of Sully’s life before God until he is of an age to take that burden upon himself. That is quite a remarkable spiritual responsibility. It says, “If you, Sully, fail in your life with Christ, then I will be the one who takes on that debt and the one responsible for that failure.”

Ol’ Boudreaux may have just stumbled into his baptism and is probably still looking for Jesus at the bottom of a river, but what we do here today is very intentional, with full knowledge of our actions. And if I were a Godparent, I might be looking for an exit before I took this one on, but here’s the good news, the God news: a person baptized is not baptized into the faith alone. A person baptized is baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and also into the Body of Christ.

By standing next to Sully at his baptism, the Godparents act as surety for his life before God, but all of you gathered here this day and all those that are baptized into the faith of Christ are also surety for Sully before God. We are all Godparents to him and to one another. Why? Because we are the Body of Christ. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

There is a question during the baptism in our current Book of Common Prayer that is not included in the 1892 service: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ.” The answer: “We will.” When you were baptized, a congregation stood and took that vow upon themselves. They each vowed to be surety for you. So today, as we baptize Sully, remember the vows that you are all taking for him, but also the vows that were taken for you, and the responsibility that you have as members of the Body of Christ, as “Godparents” to one another.

Let us pray: O Lord Jesus Christ, You said to Your Apostles: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you.” Look not upon our sins, but upon the faith of Your Church, and grant to her that peace and unity which are agreeable to Your will, who live and are King and God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: Proper 18 RCL C – “The Cost”

The podcast is available here.

Photo by Sabine Peters on Unsplash

In the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin is at school, and his teacher is attempting to teach the class. She begins, “If there are no questions, we will move on to the next chapter.”

“I have a question,” Calvin says.

“Certainly Calvin, what is it?”

He asks, “What’s the point of human existence?”

The teacher responds, “I meant any questions about the subject at hand.”

“Oh,” said Calvin.  “Frankly, I’d like to have the issue resolved before I expend any more energy on this.” (From Calvin and Hobbes, March 3, 1992.)

Cousin Janie and I were discussing the Gospel reading this week in preparation for writing the sermon and we both agreed that at first, it seems like Luke, in writing this passage, had several random quotes of Jesus that he needed to do something with, so he just ran them all together here and moved on.  We start with hate everybody, then carry your cross, building a house, going to war, and then getting rid of all of your possessions.  Are these random thoughts or are they related?  Answer: related, but it is easier to find the thread running through them by first breaking down each of the components.

First, you’ve got to hate everybody.  By this time in Jesus’ ministry, we know that he does not want us to truly hate anybody.  It would be the complete opposite of his other teachings, particularly that bit about “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)  It would also be the complete opposite of his every action; from healing the sick to feeding the 5,000 to raising the dead.  None of this speaks of hate.  So what is Jesus saying?  St. Benedict put it best, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God.” (The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. XLI)  We are to hate no one, but we are not to love or prefer anyone, including ourselves and our very lives, over God.

The next two statements, building a tower and going to war, are closely related, but Jesus had some very specific examples that he was alluding to.  With regards to building of the tower, at that time, Herod had undertaken the rebuilding of the Temple.  Looking at that project or one similar, anyone could ask, “What does something like that cost?  Can you afford it?  You’re going to look pretty stupid if you run out of money before the work is done.”  As for the going to battle statement, many at that time were looking for a military solution to kick the Romans out.  Jesus statement asked them and others the question,  “Have you seen the size of the Roman army?  Can you finish what you’ve started if you go to war with them?”  As an aside, forty years later, the Temple was destroyed.  By who?  The Romans.  Sermon for another day.  Anyhow, both of these illustrations, outside of their historical references, ask the question, “Have you counted the cost of this particular venture?”

The final statement is no easier than the first: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  For some, this is a very literal command.  Give it all up and follow me, but for most, to follow this literally, would be… well, for starters, it would be to make their families and themselves homeless.  I do not believe this is what Jesus intended; however, each of us should be prepared to literally give up all our possessions for the sake of the Gospel.  Benedict’s statement applies here as well, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God.”  Let nothing, including all your possessions, be more important to you than the work of God.

Put it all together and what is the message?  Calvin said to his teacher, “Frankly, I’d like to have the issue resolved before I expend any more energy on this.”  Jesus is saying to us, “Before you expend anymore energy on following me, you need to sit down and count the cost, because there may come a time when you will have to decide what is most important and discard whatever prevents you from following me.”

Many world religions have the practice of taking a pilgrimage—a long journey—to a place of religious significance.  Within Christianity, Jerusalem and Rome top out the list, and for many the number three pilgrimage is the Camino de Santiago, The Way of St. James.  I shared with you in last month’s newsletter that I would be taking a sabbatical next year and walking that pilgrimage.  

Legend has it that the Apostle James was martyred by Herod Agrippa and that the disciples of James took his body and placed it in a rudderless boat and set it out on the Mediterranean Sea.  Guided by God, the boat eventually landed on the coast of Spain and King Alfonso II had the Apostle buried near there and a chapel built, which would later become Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

Since that time, for over a thousand years, people have been making pilgrimage to the Cathedral to kneel and pray before the burial place of the Apostle.  There are many different routes, but the most traditional is the Camino Frances.  You can begin anywhere you like along the route (anything over 63 miles is considered having walked the Camino), but the full route begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Great Pyrenees, which then crosses into Spain.  Total, it is a four hundred ninety mile walk across northern Spain.  Last year, there were about 33,000 people that walked the full Camino Frances.  

The shell became the sign of the pilgrim, for after reaching the Cathedral, pilgrims would continue on to the coast (about 47 miles) to the place where the Apostle’s boat beached and collect a shell as a sign that they had completed the pilgrimage.

I share this with you this morning for two reasons.  One, this probably isn’t the last time you’ll hear me talk about it and so I figure you may want some vague idea as to what I’ll be up to.  Two, I’ve got at least forty pounds to drop, because not only do you walk the entire trip, but you also carry everything you need in a backpack.  When it comes to packing that backpack, people are weighing things, not in pounds, but in ounces.  Yeah, it would be fun to have your laptop with you, but schlep those three pounds around for a couple hundred miles and you’ll be looking for a pawn shop or a dumpster.  So many stories of people way overpacking and pitching things they didn’t need.  So many people not counting the cost of the pilgrimage, expending too much energy on things that are nothing but dead weight, and once they’re on the road, they figure out what is truly important and what is not.  What they need to live on, to survive and what’s just an extraneous burden.

From our Gospel: “Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them….”  He stopped and he turned to that crowd and said to them, “If you want to be my disciple, then know that you and I are going on a difficult pilgrimage together.  Right now, the road is not so bad and you are able to hang onto everything you want, but, there will come a time when the road gets much more difficult and you will be faced with a choice: discard the extraneous things in your life and continue following me, or hang on to all you want and fall away.  So, instead of getting half way to the goal and quitting, stop, today, and count the cost, ‘Choose you this day whom you will serve.’”  

There are many things that you can and do expend your energies on, but “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God.”

Let us pray: O Blessed Virgin Mary, help us to keep to our purpose of living as faithful disciples of Jesus, for the building up of the Christian society and the joy of His Holy Church.  We greet you, Mother, morning and evening; We pray to you as we go on our way; from you we hope for the inspiration and encouragement that will enable us to fulfill the sacred promises of our earthly vocations, give glory to God, and win eternal salvation.  Like you, help us to always remain near to Jesus.  Amen.

Sermon: David Pendleton Oakerhater

The podcast is available here.

In September of 1864, a treaty was established with the Cheyenne Nation; however, in November of that same year, a Methodist minister who was also a Colonel in the Union Army broke that treaty by attacking a Cheyenne village in Sand Creek, Colorado. One hundred and fifty Cheyenne were killed, one hundred of which were women and children. A general in the Union Army declared the event “a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy and the face of every American with shame and indignation.”

As a result of the attack, a seventeen-year-old Cheyenne warrior from Oklahoma, by the name of “Making Medicine,” declared he would revenge his people. In 1874, he and many others attempted that revenge, but their attack eventually ended in failure. Later, in 1875, Making Medicine was captured, along with many others, and put on railroad cars to St. Augustine, Florida. The time between these events and his death in 1931, demonstrate exactly how dramatically the Lord, working through one person, can effect so many. For Making Medicine went from declaring his revenge, to becoming a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Most of you know him by his Anglicized name, David Pendleton Oakerhater. You all know his history better than I do, but he went from the battlefields, to seminary, and returned to Oklahoma where he ministered among his people for thirty-six years as a deacon. For ten of those years, he was the only Episcopal clergy person in Oklahoma. He started schools for his people and baptized every member of his tribe, including his mother.

Today we heard in the Psalm:

Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.

From the very first days he arrived back in Oklahoma, Deacon Oakerhater sang that new song. He declared to a gathering of Cheyenne leaders: “You all know me. You remember when I led you out to war I went first, and what I told you was true. Now I have been away to the East and I have learned about another captain, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he is my leader. He goes first, and all He tells me is true. I come back to my people to tell you to go with me now in this new road, a war that makes all for peace, and where we have only victory.”

Today is actually the feast day of Paul Jones (Oakerhater’s was officially this past Saturday, but you can’t be an Oklahoma Episcopalian and not celebrate him). Paul Jones was a great advocate for peace during World War One and the years following, up until his death in 1941. I believe that he and Oakerhater would have gotten along quite well, as they were both ones who sang this new song of peace.

When so many cry for war, it can be difficult to stand for peace, but these two—Oakerhater and Jones—are witnesses to us and to the world of peace and reconciliation, and today we give thanks for their witness.

Sermon: Proper 17 RCL C – The Lowest Chair

The podcast is available here.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash.  

Following morning prayers at the monastery, an older monk prostrates himself before the altar, and cries out, “O God. Before You, I am nothing!”

A second monk is so moved by this demonstration of piety that he immediately follows suit, throwing himself to the floor beside his brother and crying, “O God! Before you, I am nothing!”

In the ensuing silence, a shuffling is heard in the back of the chapel. A third monk jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the isle and cries, “O God! Before You, I am nothing!”

Seeing this, the the first monk turned to the second and whispers, “So, look who thinks he’s nothing?”

Just when you thought you were being humble… you humiliate yourself.

Like all of Jesus’ teachings, today’s Gospel is like pitching a stone into a pond: the ever expanding ripples speak to more and more people, until we find ourselves caught up in the message.

At first glance, the parable of those jostling for the best seat appears to be about table etiquette and humility, but this is not a new teaching, especially to the religious leaders who were gathered around the table.  Knowing the scriptures, they would have immediately recalled Proverbs 25:6-7:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence

    or stand in the place of the great,

for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”

    than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. 

Good advice and etiquette.  Got it.  And wouldn’t you hate to have been the guy that pushed his way to the front so that he could have the best seat at this particular dinner party.  Jesus’ words might have stung that person a bit, but given the context and the audience, everyone would have felt a sting, because they all knew that just a short time before this gathering Jesus has said, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:43)  Not only were the religious leaders pushing themselves forward in the eyes of others, but they also pushed themselves forward in the eyes of God.  As we learn in the Gospel lesson we hear on Ash Wednesday: the religious leaders like to sound the trumpets to make a show of their giving, they pray loudly in the synagogue and on the street corners, when they fast, they make a big show of their ‘misery.’  All of this to say, ‘Look at me world, look at me God, and see how special I am.  I deserve a seat of honor at the table.’  But the sting of this teaching does not stop there.  It takes in even more.

We know that following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Christianity began to spread, however, it was primarily a sect within Judaism, but in the Acts of the Apostles we see how it began to spread among the Gentiles.  As more and more Gentiles became believers, the Jewish Christians began to ask themselves, ‘What are we going to do with them?’  There were many arguments over whether or not these Gentile converts needed to practice the Mosaic Law, be circumcised and so on.  We know how it worked out in the end—Paul became the great Apostle to the Gentiles and even Peter came to understand that the faith was open to all, but initially, the Jewish Christians thought they were ‘better’ than the rest.  After all, they were first.  They were the Chosen People, therefore, they should have the seat of honor.  So Paul would have to teach: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:23)  There is no seat of honor, you are all honored because of Christ Jesus.

It is a good thing that we are not like this.  We never see ourselves deserving of the seat of honor above others.  How does it go?  “The Church of England: Loving Jesus with a Slight Air of Superiority Since 597 a.d.”  I’m pretty sure the same can be said of Episcopalians, just change the year to 1789.

We push to have ourselves ahead of others and to have the seat of honor, but, in all this, there was one question that kept coming up in my mind: what’s so bad about the lowest seat?  That one that’s in the back of the banquet hall next to the bathroom door that squeaks every time someone goes in or out.  No, perhaps it is not the best seat in the house, but why can’t we be happy with it?

Some of you will likely roll your eyes at the fact that I’ve never read or heard of this guy before: David Brooks.  He is a commentator that writes for the New York Times.  In 2014, he participated in a Christian forum, The Gathering, and gave a talk titled, “How to be Religious in the Public Square.”  He says, “In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high school seniors, ‘Are you a very important person?’ And at that point 12 percent said yes. They asked the same question in 2005 and 80 percent said, ‘Yes, I am a very important person.’”  He goes on to say that there is this “great desire for fame. Fame used to be low on a value. Now fame is the second-most desired thing in young people.  They did a study, ‘Would you rather be president of Harvard or Justin Bieber’s personal assistant, a celebrity’s personal assistant?’ And of course by 3 to 1 people would rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.”  He adds, “Though to be fair I asked the president of Harvard, and she would rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.”  His conclusion, “This is an achievement culture. A culture of people striving and trying to win success.”  A culture of people striving and trying to win the seat of honor.

Brooks then goes on to discuss the book Lonely Man of Faith, by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who talks about two opposing natures, referring to them as Adam One and Adam Two (not to be confused with Adam 12).  The Rabbi states, “Adam One wants to conquer the world. Adam Two wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam One asks How things work. Adam Two asks why things exist and what we’re here for.  Adam One wants to venture forth. Adam Two wants to return to roots.  Adam One’s motto is ‘Success.’  Adam Two’s motto is ‘Charity. Love. Redemption.’” (Source)  In the context of our Gospel reading, Adam One wants to sit at the head of the table, next to the guest of honor… No.  That’s wrong.  Adam One wants to be the guest of honor, to be famous and only if that fails, will Adam One be satisfied with being in near proximity of fame and perceived honor, i.e. Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.  Adam Two doesn’t care much for Justin Bieber and will happily take a seat anywhere. 

What is the difference between the two?  The obvious answer (and a correct one) is humility.  From the book of Proverbs: 

The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom,

    and humility comes before honor. (Proverbs 15:33) 

Where does humility begin?  With God.  Humility is a grace from God that allows us to submit our lives to the Lord.  Most pray for such a grace everyday, although we may not recognize it as such: “Thy will be done.”  Humility begins by submitting your will to the will of God and saying with Jesus, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)  It comes, as humbling as it may sound, by recognizing that perhaps God’s will, at this stage in your life, is for you to be at the table next to the bathroom door.  

Adam Two seeks only the will of God.  Adam Two recognizes their place in the world—and understand this isn’t about societal status, money (or the lack there of), things of that nature, but is about being comfortable in your own skin—Adam Two finds happiness in who they are and where they are, whether being served in the seat of honor or in the kitchen, standing over the sink and eating leftovers.  My friend Thomas à Kempis writes about this.  Speaking to God the Father, he says, “Anyone who loves You … would be as peaceful and satisfied in the last place as in the first, and as willing to be despised, unknown and forgotten, as to be honored by others and to have more fame than they. He should prefer Your will and the love of Your honor to all else.” (Imitation of Christ, Bk. 3, Ch. 22)  Put another way: Adam Two, doesn’t care where he sits, he’s just happy to have been invited and he’s delighted to see you, whether you’re sitting next to him or at the head table.  The joy and happiness comes in recognizing that no matter what table you are sitting at, the Guest of Honor, Jesus, is sitting next to you.

Don’t worry about the seats of honor, instead, humble yourself so that you may seek, know, and follow the will of God.  In God’s will is wisdom, peace, and the true happiness you are searching for.

Let us pray: Lord, if what we seek be according to your will, then let it come to pass and let success attend the outcome. But if not, let it not come to pass. Do not leave us to our own devices, for you know how unwise we can be. Keep us safe under your protection Lord, and in your own gentle way, guide us and rule us as you know best.  Amen.