Sermon: Nicholas of Myra

Icon of Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák

Today is actually the Feast day of Ambrose of Milan, but yesterday was the Feast Day of Nicholas of Myra, and I couldn’t pass up on ol’ St. Nick.  He was persecuted under Emperor Diocletian and was most likely one of the Bishops at the Council of Nicea in 325. While there, he is reported to have boxed the ears of a heretic. He is the patron saint of sailors and, of course, children.  

The legends are fun.  In one, he saves the three daughters of a poor man from becoming prostitutes by providing their dowry; in another, he restores to life three children who had been killed and placed in a vat of brine.  Neither or both may be true, but in either case, they likely point to certain truths about the character of this now jolly-red-suit-with-white-fur-trim-clad saint: he showed great compassion for those in need and was called to serve the dispossessed.  

These, the needy and the dispossessed, are often the ones we would like to look past.  Even as the Church, good Christian people, we often find it challenging to look at the sufferings of others because we spend so much of our time looking in.  Self-preservation and self-examination are instinctive and good practices, but they can lead to us becoming self-consumed.

Vince Lombardi was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967.  During that time, Bart Starr was the first-string quarterback. Starr, as well as everyone else, knew where they stood with regard to Lombardi. Starr said, as you entered Vince’s office, you noticed a large mahogany desk with an impressive organization chart behind it on the wall. The chart had a small block at the top in which was printed: “Vince Lombardi, Head Coach and General Manager.” A line came down from it to a very large block in which was printed: “Everybody Else!”

When we become self-consumed, we see ourselves in a similar position. We’re at the top, and everybody else is below us.

In his book, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” (p.84)

The world is the ground of God’s unfathomable love, and we, like St. Nicholas, can be the conduits of that love by seeing—not the needy and dispossessed / everybody else—but by seeing the objects of God’s love.

In the time of Jesus, the children were among the needy and dispossessed.  They could not work or provide for themselves, yet Jesus said to his disciples who tried to prevent those children from coming to him, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  We must be wise in our dealings with the world, but we must not become so calloused or self-consumed that we are preventing the children from approaching Jesus; or us. We are to allow them to come so we might point them to the one who is Love.

Sermon: Advent 2 RCL A – “Lighting Candles”

Photo by Sonika Agarwal on Unsplash

David graduated college and started working his first job. He was shocked by the expenses that came along with paying for his apartment, food, and everything else associated with the “real world.” He was even complaining to his mother about the high cost of auto insurance.

“You know,” said his mother, “If you got married already, your premiums would be lower.”

David smiled. “That would be like buying an airline ticket just to get free peanuts.”

Last week, we lit the first of the four Advent candles. The light began to shine in the darkness. In a dark world, a single candle may not appear to be that much, but you have heard the words of Francis of Assisi, and they are true: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” That first candle may provide only a little light, but it cannot be overcome by any amount of darkness. This fire is ours. It was kindled within us by the Holy Spirit, but even though it is in us, it is not for us to keep to ourselves but to give freely, just as it was given freely to us. Yet, to give freely is not the way of the world.

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, while discussing “The Russian Monk and his possible Significance,” Father Zossima writes, “The world says: ‘You have needs—satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.” Dostoyevsky wrote that in 1880 and it would seem that not much has changed. You’ve got to hold what you’ve got while attempting to gain more. In the context of our lonely candle, the flame is not shared. It withholds all that it has to offer, but Jesus has said to us, “You are the light of the world.” We have this gift of light that we are called to share with others, but what will it cost us if we do?

I came across this story but don’t know its source (I searched!) The boy’s name changes from the versions I read, so we’ll call him Joseph. 

Joseph lived in a village on the edge of a forest. The people who lived there were simple folks and somewhat embarrassed by their small church. When visitors would come, they would tell them that they hoped to one day build a grand cathedral like what was on the other side of the forest because it just seemed to them that when you were in the cathedral with all its grandness, you were much nearer to God. 

One Christmas Eve, Joseph’s mother—a widow—became very ill and was nearing death, so Joseph decided to make the journey through the woods to the cathedral where he might pray. Setting off in the evening, he took a single candle to light his way through the woods and, once at the cathedral, set the burning candle on the altar as a prayer for his mother. 

The woods were a scary place, and Joseph had heard that anyone making the trip to the cathedral through them must pass by an old well that was reported to be haunted. To protect yourself as you went by, you had to toss a coin into the well, but Joseph was poor and had no coin, so as he neared, he broke into a run, only to trip on an old root and fall beside the well. As he was scrambling to get up, he heard a small voice. “Help me! Give me your light so I can see my way out of this place.”

Joseph, terrified, replied, “This candle is for my mother. She is very ill. I’m taking it to the altar at the cathedral to say a prayer so that she can be healed.” The voice from the well spoke again, “How can you refuse to share your light on this night of Christ’s birth?” After another moment’s hesitation, Joseph tossed his candle into the well, yet feeling he had just brought on the death of his mother; he bent over in tears. Then, through his tears, he saw the light of his candle growing from inside the well, and shortly, a small child stepped out, holding his candle. The child smiled at Joseph and said, “Return home. You will find your mother healed.”  

Joseph ran and found his mother up and waiting for him. She had been restored to health. She and Joseph went to their small church to give thanks. When they opened the church doors, they were nearly blinded by the light pouring forth from the altar. At that moment, the cathedral could not compare to the glory of that small church.

When their eyes had adjusted, Joseph’s mother was even more astonished. “Joseph,” she said, “there is only one candle on the altar making all this light.” Joseph could not speak, for as he knelt at the altar to pray, he saw that the candle on the altar was the candle he had tossed down the well to the child. The light he had given away had returned to him in great glory.

As a Christian people, we are not to withhold the light that has been so freely given to us, but what will it cost us to give it to others? “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” (Father James Keller) 

[Light second Advent candle] Notice the first candle has lost nothing. Its flame is not smaller, its lifetime is not diminished, and the heat and light it produces are not less. We are to be this candle to others.

How do we go about it? We share with them the Gospel message that they may know God. We give of ourselves. We give of our treasures… I looked at all we’ve given just this year through our Community Tithe. It is amazing. We step up and do the fun and exciting things, and we step up and do the small and mundane chores. And all of this is based on the great commandment to love.

We are all aware of the work of the Sisters of Charity, the religious order in India founded by Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa wrote of that work, “What we are doing is but a drop in the ocean. This may be only a drop, but the ocean would be less if it weren’t there. What we do is something small, but we do it with big hearts. At death, we will not be judged by the amount of work we did, but by the amount of love we put into it. We do not strive for spectacular actions. What counts is the gift of yourself, the degree of love you put into each of your deeds. Do you want to be great? Pick up a broom and sweep the floor.”

We will not be judged by the amount of work we do—the greatness or smallness of the work. We will be judged by the amount of love we put into it. What is love? Bishop Robert Barron wrote, “Love actually is a great act of the will. It’s when I say, ‘I desire your good, not for my sake but for yours.’ To love is to break out of the black hole of the ego and say, ‘My life is about you.’” When we love in this way through words and deeds, we are lighting candles, and the glory of their light will bring glory to our Father. Share the flame that is within you.

Let us pray: Gracious Father, we are filled with new light by the coming of your Word among us. May this light, the light of faith, shine in our words and actions. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: Advent 1 RCL A – “Separating the Darkness”

Michelangelo is painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling when he sees a woman praying the rosary. He decides to take a break and lies back on the scaffolding so the woman can’t see him and says in a loud voice, “I am Jesus Christ. Listen to me, and I will perform miracles.”

The woman is intent on her beads and prayers and does not look up.

Michelangelo figures that she is hard of hearing, so he shouts, “I am Jesus Christ! Listen to me, and I will perform miracles!”

With head bent, the woman continues praying, so Michelangelo shouts, “I AM JESUS CHRIST! LISTEN TO ME!”

The woman yells back, “Would you shut up? I’m talking to your mother.”

As you know, last Sunday, a group of us went down to the city and saw the Sistine Chapel Exhibit. Being together and seeing the images close up was a treat. 

The construction of the Sistine Chapel was completed in 1483 and consecrated by Pope Sixtus IV, but Michelangelo’s work did not begin until 1508. When it started, it took him four years. That is remarkable in itself, but when you consider a few more details, it seems impossible. The chapel is 132 feet long, 44 feet wide, and 68 feet high. With the arch, the ceiling—Michelangelo’s canvas—is over 12,000 square feet. 

Ten years after it was complete, not everyone got it. For example, a visiting bishop wrote, “Among the most important figures is that of an old man, in the middle of the ceiling, who is represented in the act of flying through the air.” That old man flying through the air is supposed to be God.

Finally, due to a mistranslated word, it was long believed that Michelangelo painted the ceiling while lying on his back. As it turns out, he did it standing and even wrote a short poem about how uncomfortable it was.

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s pointing at heaven,
my brain’s crushed in a casket, my breast twists like a harpy’s.
My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts, my poor [back side] strains to work as a counterweight…
my spine’s all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

On our way home from the exhibit, Marianne asked us each which was our favorite image. For me, it is the one on the front of your bulletin, inspired by Genesis 1:1-4— “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.” In the picture, God is looking up and separating the light from the dark. It is as if he were pushing the darkness asides so that the light could be revealed. 

How is this relevant for us today? Because the bringing of light into the darkness is what the Season of Advent is all about. 

[Light first Advent candle]

As we light the first candle, it does not provide much light, but it is only the beginning.

You all know I’m a Stephen King fan and my favorite Stephen King book (I won’t scare you by telling you how many times I’ve read it) is The Stand. The setting is a world where 99.99% of all human beings have died—very uplifting. At one point, two individuals, Larry and Rita, must find their way out of New York City, and they choose to walk through one of the tunnels. There is no electricity, so the tunnel is dark and jammed up with cars, and… let’s just say it is a scary place. They’ve lost their lights (naturally) and are blindly stumbling through the pitch-black tunnel. Rita suddenly stops, and Larry asks her what is wrong.

Rita says, “‘I can see, Larry! It’s the end of the tunnel!’

“[Larry] blinked and realized that he could see, too. The glow was dim and it had come so gradually that he hadn’t been aware of it until Rita had spoken. He could make out a faint shine on the tiles, and the pale blur of Rita’s face closer by. Looking over to the left he could see the dead river of automobiles.”

St. Matthew tells us:

“The people dwelling in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
    on them a light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16)

Like Rita and Larry, the people had been in darkness so long that they may not have even noticed that light was coming into the world. Like the dawn that comes slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, but the light is there. The people only needed to recognize it. And recognizing the light is not always easy, especially when our souls are in a dark place.

For many individuals, the holiday season is not a happy season. They can put on a smile at the office party or be cheery while around others, but inside… they are not so good. Instead of being a time of joy, it is a time of regrets or loneliness. It is a time for missing those we’ve lost: spouses, other family members, and friends. It is also a time when we may experience the loss of ourselves and all the what-ifs. At such times, our souls can begin to feel like Michelangelo’s body as he painted the Sistine Chapel: tortured, hunched, crushed, unbalanced, bent out of shape, and worse. As a result, just as this time of year has greater darkness, a darkness of a spiritual nature can seep into our souls and spirits. Like walking through that tunnel, our souls stumble along, unable to see what is around us. For some in that place, even if the light does begin to shine, like Larry, who had spent so much time in that dark tunnel, they aren’t able to recognize that the light has started to shine. 

We know that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So, when we encounter someone in that spiritually dark place, we can quote that off to them, thinking that should be enough, but the last thing a person in a spiritually dark place needs from you is for you to start preaching to them. No. What they need from you, more than anything is for you to be that candle. Don’t tell them about the light, be the light. You can’t simply “fix” them so, it may be that you can only sit in that dark place with them, but you can be a sign of hope. Your presence will tell them what Rita said to Larry: “I can see, Larry! It’s the end of the tunnel!” 

If you are a person who is in that dark place, then I encourage you to look around you here because I see many candles burning brightly who would share their light with you. You are loved by God and by God’s people. Your soul may be in a dark place, but you do not have to be alone. I read, “Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” You do not have to be alone in the dark. Perform one small act of hope: reach out.

God is still separating the light from the darkness, and he invites us all to participate in this great work. When the work begins, it may be only a dim glow, one small candle’s worth, but it will be there—a sign of hope—and we can know that it is only the beginning of all that Our Father longs to give us.

Let us pray: Father in heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love, and our minds search 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 RCL C

Rebecca thought it was time for her family to expand their social circle. So she and her husband David invited a bunch of different people for dinner. But early on, things weren’t looking so good.

Ralph, an insurance salesman, monopolized the conversation with a lengthy account of recent litigation he was involved with. Since two other guests were lawyers, Rebecca was becoming increasingly uneasy.

“In the end, Ralph concluded, “you know who got all the money.”

Rebecca and David cringed.

“The lawyers!” Ralph shouted.

There was embarrassed silence at the table. Rebecca’s heart was pounding until the wife of one lawyer said, “Oh, I so love a story with a happy ending.”

Every year on Christmas Day, we read Isaiah 9:2-7. Verses six and seven are:

“For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.”

These are words that were written 700 years before the birth of Christ. For those 700 years, the people were waiting and watching for this king to come. Several individuals rose in prominence that some believed were this long-awaited king, but in the end, they were disappointed. There was no happy ending, but then a spark of hope. A message came to a young woman.

From Luke, chapter one: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” It is the opening of the scene of the Annunciation. Using the words that Isaiah had spoken 700 years prior, Gabriel said to Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The child grew, and many began to follow him and believe he was the long-awaited king. In John’s Gospel, we are told that there was one incident—although it likely happened more than once—where the people gathered around Jesus to take him by force and make him king (cf. John 6:15), but he avoided them. And then there was the day he arrived in Jerusalem. The people were waving palm branches and laying down their cloaks so that the donkey Jesus rode upon would have them to walk upon. The waving of palm branches was a sign of royalty, and the laying down of cloaks symbolized the peoples’ submission to a king, who they obviously believed was Jesus, because, in addition to those symbols, they shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” A happy ending in the making that turned sour quickly.

“When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”

I know. Too much reading this morning, but Cardinal Schönborn says it best: “It sounds like mockery when at the end of his Gospel Luke the Evangelist has to recount what became of all the great hopes from this Savior of his people. His throne has turned into the Cross, that place of torture; for company, he has two robbers, one to the right and one to the left of him. The homage he receives is the mockery of those who have set this ‘throne’ up for him, and as the ultimate in nastiness, a notice over the head of the man who is dying in such torment states the reason for his crucifixion: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’” (Jesus, the Divine Physician: Reflections on the Gospel During the Year of Luke, p.158)

After all those years of waiting and hoping for the promised king yet, when he arrived… they put him to death. We know the rest of the story, but if we put ourselves in the place of those who witnessed the crucifixion, then this was certainly not a happy ending to the story. Instead, it was the worse possible ending. And not only did they put him to death, but in the end, they all failed to understand who he was.

When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” he wasn’t simply asking the Father to pity them. In an unemotional way, Jesus was saying, “They truly don’t understand.” They failed to comprehend. And it wasn’t just the religious leaders or the Romans who failed to understand. It was also his followers, even the disciples. 

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus told the disciples about all that would happen, but the Scriptures say, “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” After his resurrection, Jesus meets the two dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus. They say, “Oh, we had so much hope in this Jesus. He was going to redeem Israel”—essentially, “He was going to be our king.” And what did Jesus say to them? “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” “Father, forgive them… they just don’t know.” But there was one. One person who finally understood.

“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 

No one, from the greatest to the least, understood who Jesus was except for a single condemned man who, knowing he was dying, saw in the face and person of Jesus, his Eternal King. In seeing him, he asked only to be remembered. He didn’t want to have lived his life—flawed though it was—and be forgotten. He just wanted Jesus, one person, to remember that he had lived, and by simply asking, he was not only remembered but given access to Paradise, the eternal kingdom of our God. Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the church year. Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, and we begin the story again. We’ve spent this year primarily hearing about Jesus from Luke’s perspective. Next year it will be Matthew’s. 

In our travel through Luke, with all that we’ve read and heard, there are a great many lessons. Enough theology to fill libraries. John said at the end of his Gospel, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” That is true. We can make the Gospel deep and even difficult to understand, but if we were to ask Luke, “What were the most important things you told us?” He might remind us of the prayer of the tax collector, who, standing in the Temple, would not look up to Heaven and, while beating his breast, prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And I think he would also remind us of the words of the thief that we heard today, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” For it is not the depth of our understanding or any works—small or great—that allow us entry into the Eternal Kingdom. No. Instead, it is our willingness to come before Jesus—before God—and acknowledge our need for His mercy and then to see in the face and person of the crucified king, the Eternal King. The moment we pray and submit ourselves to Christ Jesus’ reign over our lives is the moment the angels sing, and Jesus speaks: “Behold, I make all things new,” and the gates of the Kingdom of God are opened to us.

“Oh, I so love a story with a happy ending.”

Let us pray: O Lord God, King of heaven and earth, may it please You to order and to hallow, to rule and to govern our hearts and our bodies, our thoughts, our words, and our works, according to Your law and in the doing of Your commandments, that we, being helped by You, may here and hereafter worthily be saved and delivered by You, O Savior of the world, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

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Sermon: Margaret of Scotland

Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland by Nicolas de Largilliere

Margaret of Scotland was an English princess born in Hungary as her father, Edward, was in exile. As kingdoms rise and fall, it appeared that Edward could return from exile to be crowned king, but no sooner had he arrived… he died. The family was at the mercy of those who would continue to rule. Eventually, Margaret and her family were forced to run for their lives, so they decided to return to Hungary. However, a storm blew their ship north, where it wrecked on the shores of Scotland.

Margaret had hoped to become a religious, but once in Scotland, she was noticed by the King of Scotland, Malcolm. Malcolm was smitten. From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 

Then began Malcolm to yearn after the child’s [Edgar] sister, Margaret, to wife; but he and all his men long refused; and she also herself was averse, and said that she would neither have him nor anyone else, if the Supreme Power would grant, that she in her maidenhood might please the mighty Lord with a carnal heart, in this short life, in pure continence. The king, however, earnestly urged her brother, until he answered Yea. And indeed he durst not otherwise; for they were come into his kingdom … The prescient Creator wist long before what he of her would have done; for that she would increase the glory of God in this land, lead the king aright from the path of error, bend him and his people together by a better way, and suppress the bad customs which the nation formerly followed: all which she afterwards did. The king therefore received her, though it was against her will, and was pleased with her manners, and thanked God, who in his might had given him such a match. (Source)

Did she succeed in leading the king aright and bending the people away from their evil customs? The short answer: yes. With King Malcolm, she helped bring reform to the Scottish church, built schools and hospitals, and participated in rebuilding the monastery on Iona.  In addition, they established a Benedictine monastery in Dunfermline.  In her piety and desire to serve as Christ served, she would not sit down to eat her own meal until she had fed her nine orphan children and twenty-four other paupers.  During Advent and Lent, she and Malcolm would feed and serve 300 of the poor in their kingdom—not only did they serve the meal on the royal dishes, but they served them on their knees. 

She died in 1093, four days after her husband was killed in a battle with the English.  Her final words, “O Lord Jesus Christ who by thy death hast given life to the world, deliver me from all evil?”  She was forty-seven.

Our friend, John Reneau, gave us a different understanding of the parables that we read in our Gospel today: Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” John said he always understood himself as the man who found the treasure, but that he had read in a commentary that Jesus is that man and that we are the treasure Jesus seeks, and that Jesus gave up everything to have us with him.

Jesus also said, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” With the understanding John provided: Jesus is the merchant, we are the pearl, and Jesus gave up all to have us with him. When it comes to Margaret of Scotland… I like John’s understanding of the parable, for Margaret of Scotland is also known as The Pearl of Scotland.

Sermon: RCL C – “All Saints Sunday”

A picture I took while in Florence, Italy, of the ceiling in The Baptistery of St. John at the Duomo

Irish History: Stingy was a miserable, old drunk who liked to play tricks on everyone: family, friends, his mother, and even the Devil himself.  He once invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin he could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Stingy decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. He eventually freed the Devil under the condition that he would not bother him for one year.

As the story goes, Stingy, one day, tricked the Devil into climbing up an apple tree. Once the Devil climbed up the apple tree, Stingy hurriedly placed crosses around the trunk of the tree. The Devil was then unable to get down the tree. Stingy made the Devil promise not to take his soul when he died. Once the devil promised not to take his soul, Stingy removed the crosses and let the Devil down. 

When Stingy finally died many years later, he went to the pearly gates of Heaven and was told by Saint Peter that he was too mean and cruel and had led a miserable and worthless life on earth. He was not allowed to enter heaven. He then went down to Hell and the Devil. The Devil kept his promise and would not allow him to enter Hell. Stingy was scared and had nowhere to go but to wander about forever in the darkness between heaven and hell. He asked the Devil how he could leave as there was no light. The Devil tossed him an ember from the flames of Hell to help him light his way. Stingy placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip, one of his favorite foods he always carried around whenever he could steal one. From that day onward, Stingy (a.k.a. Stingy Jack) roamed the earth without a resting place, lighting his way as he went with his “Jack O’Lantern.” 

On all Hallow’s eve, which would have been this past Monday, the Irish hollowed out turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes, and beets. They placed a light in them to ward off evil spirits and to keep Stingy Jack away. These were the original Jack O’Lanterns. In the 1800s, Irish immigrants came to America and quickly discovered that Pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve out.

This past week we celebrated All Saints’/Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Soul’s Day. In other words, we celebrated all the saints—capital “S” and lowercase “s”—who carried the bright light of the faith. The idea of caring for the soul is—as you know—one that has been ruminating in my mind for several months now. I suppose it comes with the territory, but this past week I wondered if our souls were happy, content, sad, angry, peaceful, or something else. And, of course, the answer depends on the person, but for all of us, we must consider: is our soul in such a condition to allow us into Heaven or, like Stingy Jack, whether will we be denied admittance? 

The Lord has constantly been providing the information we need to remain on the path that leads to Him, yet no matter how hard he tries, we, as his ultimate creation, have a difficult time staying on that path.

The first attempt was the Garden of Eden: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” One rule: don’t eat the apple. That didn’t work out, so God gave Moses The Law: “Thou shall have none other Gods but me… no graven images… keep the Sabbath Holy… don’t steal or murder or commit adultery.” You know them all. Right?

God provided these laws not to keep us under his thumb but to keep us safe. To protect our souls and to save us from sin, and by golly, we break them at every opportunity. So the condition of our soul comes into question once again. Are we headed to heaven or hell? Yet, out of his great love for us, God makes another way available: Jesus. Romans 10:13—“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” We hear that and think, “That’s the ticket. Bought and paid for.” We respond, “Amen. I’ll take it!” 

No more of the “Thou shall not” business. Instead, we get “blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemaker, and so on.” We think, “It’s all good!” The beatitudes present the very heart of Jesus; however, the catch is that the beatitudes are not an abolishing of the “Thou shall not’s.” Jesus is not making things easier! He is intensifying the Ten Commandments and taking them to their most radical end. How?

“Thou shall not kill.” Fine. I haven’t killed anyone (yet).. but I haven’t! However, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” I thought I was golden with not killing, but as it turns out, I’m not even close.

“Thou shall not steal.” You don’t take from others but go back to what we talked about a few weeks back: things done and left undone. There are sins of commission and sins of omission. “Thou shall not steal.” You did not take when you were not supposed to, but “Thou shall not steal” also means, did you give when you were supposed to give? Not stealing is the bare minimum.

How far would we fall short if we began to analyze, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” in the same manner? I’ll let you do that alone because I’m not brave enough to do it for myself. Yet, even though I am not courageous enough and seem unable to fulfill the calling God places on my life… the calling is still the truth. It is the one path that Christ calls us to in order to be his disciples. Could we soften it? Make it less difficult?

Lee is the cook and housekeeper for the Trask family in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In one scene, Lee is talking to Adam Trask and says, my father said, “There’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.” The Beatitudes are the path that Christ Jesus has set for us. They are the truth we must come to grips with so that our hearts and souls may soar. So how do we fulfill them?

Speaking on The Beatitudes in a 2015 sermon, Pope Francis said, “This is the way of holiness, and it is the very way of happiness. It is the way that Jesus traveled. Indeed, He himself is the Way: those who walk with Him and proceed through Him enter into life, into eternal life. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to be simple and humble people, the grace to be able to weep, the grace to be meek, the grace to work for justice and peace, and above all the grace to let ourselves be forgiven by God so as to become instruments of his mercy.

“This is what the Saints did, those who have preceded us to our heavenly home. They accompany us on our earthly pilgrimage, they encourage us to go forward. May their intercession help us to walk on Jesus’ path, and to obtain eternal happiness.” (Source)

The Beatitudes are beauty, but they are Steinbeck’s “dreadful beauty” in that they are the truth and path of our life with God, but the truth and path that we fall so dreadfully short of. However, failure does not mean we quit. As Francis encouraged us, we pray for the grace to follow the path and the grace of forgiveness when we fail. As my friend, St. Josemaría Escrivá, said, “You — be convinced of it — cannot fail. You haven’t failed; you have gained experience. On you go!” Guided by the Saints, get back to the path lit—not by some ember in a gourd, but by the very light of Christ, so… On you go! We have work to do.

Let us pray: Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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Sermon: All Souls Day

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – The Day of the Dead (1859)

President Harry Truman popularized the statement, “If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em!” Another politician added, “If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em: if you can’t confuse ’em, scare ’em.”  It seems to work these days, but my goal is to do neither.  If I do, please forgive me.

October 31st, November 1st, and 2nd mark three holy days in a row, all with very similar names: All Saints’ Eve (a.k.a. All Hallows Eve and Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.  They are similar but distinct.  

At least 2,000 years ago, Celtic pagans settled on November 1st as the beginning of winter, and according to Celtic beliefs, the day before was when the spirits of those who had died may come back and seek revenge against those who had harmed them.  Folks would go to great lengths to protect themselves from the marauding spirits, including dressing up in costumes to scare off the evil that might come their way.

Later, the Christians would establish November 1st as the day to celebrate all the known capital “S” Saints, including the vast number of martyrs.  We celebrate Saints almost every week, but these days are reserved only for the biggies.  There aren’t enough days in the year to celebrate all the rest, so the Church combined the celebration of all these other Saints and designated November 2nd as the day for everybody else.  It works, but to incorporate the pagan holiday of October 31st, the Church extended the feast of All Saints’ Day to two days.

Now, as for today, November 2nd is All Souls’ Day, which is really about the souls in purgatory and everybody who is not a capital “S” Saint.  Purgatory came about partly because of the understanding of I Corinthians 3:11-15: “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now, if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

These verses indicate that a soul, not destined for Hell but still in need of additional purification, would go through a period of cleansing or purging before entering Heaven.  The place—Purgatory.  Whether we believe in Purgatory or not, All Souls’ Day—today—is the day that we remember not only the Saints who have died but all who have died, in hope and faith that they will be made acceptable to God and made worthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  It was the teaching of the Church that through the prayers of the living, we could assist these souls in Purgatory to more speedily attain the glory of Heaven, so each Mass, we pray for those who have died.

Is this teaching true or false?  I’ll let you decide, but should I die before you, please pray for my soul… just in case.

Sermon: Proper 26 RCL C – “Delays”

Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash

Little Johnny’s mom was working in the kitchen, listening to her young son play with his new electric train in the living room that his father had purchased for his birthday. Mom heard the train stop, and Little Johnny said, “All of you sons of guns who want off, get the heck off now, ’cause this is the last stop! And all of you sons of guns who are getting on, get your behinds in the train ’cause we’re going down the tracks.”

Mom was shocked. “Johnny! We don’t use that kind of language in this house. Now I want you to go to your room and stay there for two hours. You may play with your train when you come out, but I want you to use nice language.”

Two hours later, Little Johnny came out of the bedroom and resumed playing with his train. Soon the train stopped, and mom heard Johnny say, “All passengers who are disembarking from the train, please remember to take all your belongings with you. We thank you for riding with us today and hope your trip was a pleasant one. We hope you will ride with us again soon.” Johnny continues, “For those just boarding, we ask you to stow all your hand luggage under your seat. Remember, there is no smoking on the train. We hope you will have a pleasant and relaxing journey with us today.”

As mom smiled, Johnny added, “For those who are annoyed about the two-hour delay, please see the bossy lady in the kitchen.”

I traveled back and forth to seminary by train: The Empire Builder along the high line, but more recently, my travels have all been by plane, and perhaps, because I don’t travel all that much, I don’t mind the delays. I’ll find a quiet place to read or watch the people, but the delay greatly annoys others. Folks get angry at the airlines, short-tempered with the stewardess, and cranky with traveling companions. If airlines were the only place we encountered delays, I suppose most wouldn’t care, but as we all know, delays are everywhere. Traffic. Doctors office. Rain delays at sporting events. That’s just a few. We see the delay as an infuriating inconvenience and a personal attack on our happiness. But what if we saw this time—not as wasted or an annoyance—but as a blessing? An opportunity?

Zaccheus was a wee, little man, And a wee, little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, For the Lord he wanted to see.

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.” 

At the time of Jesus, Jericho was a significant city. As the Scripture says, Zacchaeus lived there, was a tax collector and was wealthy; therefore, Zacchaeus was a busy little man in a busy little city. And into his busy little life comes Jesus. There is a moment when he thinks he would like to stop and see this Jesus, yet Zacchaeus is on his way to pay a visit to a certain wealthy merchant who owes big, and he can’t afford to waste any time along the way. So instead of stopping, Zacchaeus pushes his way through the crowded street, grumbling over the rabble in his way and angry at this itinerant preacher for the inconvenience he is causing. Finally making his way through the crowd, he finds the wealthy merchant and begins haranguing him for an extra one percent because Zacchaeus just bought a winter home down in the Sinai that needs a new roof.

Meanwhile, Jesus passes on to Jerusalem, and salvation never comes to that wee little man, and he dies wealthy in his winter home in the Sinai, but alone and hated by all. There was a moment when life could have changed so dramatically for him, but he could not be delayed. He was so worried about everything else that he missed the moment altogether. 

A moment changes everything, but unless you are willing to take that moment and to allow it to change you and the course of your life, it is nothing more than a bit of smoke on a breeze. We most likely miss those moments, not by intentionally brushing them away, but by being so trapped in the past or worried by the future that we don’t even see them in the now. 

Blaise Pascal writes, “Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present, and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.” Why do we not live in the present? Pascal answers: “The present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away.”

We are nearing the end of the church year, which means we will begin the Season of Advent soon. That is the season when we consider Jesus’ first coming—the past—and when we look ahead to the future, anticipating his second coming. It seems that we, as a Christian people, are falling into Pascal’s mistake, being occupied with the past and the future and completely disregarding the present. However, that is not the message of Jesus. A few chapters before our Gospel reading today, we read of an encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees: “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you… the kingdom of God is within you.’” What does that mean? Jesus came once, and he will come again, but “the kingdom of God is among you” clearly says that the kingdom of God is now, in this very moment. Jesus ushered it in at his first coming, and he will bring it to its eternal and glorious fruition when he comes again, but it is also now. Jesus said, “I am with you always—I am with you now!—even to the end of the age.”

Yes, I do know that sometimes the present moment can be unpleasant, it can be painful, and full of trials, but I also know that God is present even then and that those times contain something good.

A university professor tells of being invited to speak at a military base in the month of December, and while there meets an unforgettable soldier named Ralph. Ralph had been sent to meet him at the airport, and after they had introduced themselves, they headed toward the baggage claim. As they walked down the concourse, Ralph kept disappearing—once to help an older woman whose suitcase had fallen open, once to lift two toddlers up to where they could see Santa Claus, and again to give directions to someone who was lost. Each time he came back with a big smile on his face. “Where did you learn to do that?” The professor asked. “Do what?” Ralph responded. “To be so helpful and considerate to others.” “Oh,” Ralph said, “during the war, I guess.” Then he told the professor about his tour of duty in Vietnam, how it was his job to clear minefields, and how he watched his friends blow up before his eyes, one after another. “I learned to live between steps,” he said. “I never knew whether the next one would be my last, so I learned to get everything I could out of the moment between when I picked up my foot and when I put it down again. Every step I took was a whole new world, and I guess I’ve just been that way ever since.”

Don’t fret over the delays. The Kingdom of God is now. Jesus is coming your way; he may even be sitting in the pew across from you or be your waiter at lunch. It is possible that you will see him in the face of an enemy or a stranger. In all of these instances, it is as though Jesus were saying to Zacchaeus, “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Live between the steps, recognize the gifts and blessings of God that are right here, and be happy to welcome Jesus into your life in all the many forms that he makes his presence known in every moment.

Let us pray:
Most Loving Father, we spend so much time reliving yesterday
or anticipating tomorrow
that we lose sight of the only time that is really ours,
the present moment.
You give today one moment at a time.
That is all we have,
all we ever will have.
Give us the faith which knows that each moment
contains exactly what is best for us.
Give us the hope which trusts You enough
to forget past failings and future trials.
Give us the love which makes each moment
an anticipation of eternity with You.
We ask this in the name of Jesus
Who is the same yesterday, today and forever.

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Sermon: Proper 25 RCL C – “Distorted Image”

Photo by João Ferrão on Unsplash

A rural middle school in Northwest Florida was recently faced with a unique problem. A new fad arose amongst the 8th-grade girls with the use of lipstick. They began bringing, sharing, and trading with their friends to try out all the latest styles and shades. The gathering point for this activity was one specific bathroom at the school. That was fine, but after they tried out all of these lipsticks, they would press their lips to the mirror, leaving dozens of lip prints every day.

Every night the custodian had to clean them off, but the next day the girls would put more lip prints on the mirror. Finally, the principal decided that something had to be done. So class by class, the principal paraded 8th-grade girls to the bathroom to meet with the custodian.

She explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem for the custodian who had to clean the mirrors every night. To drive the point home, she asked the custodian to demonstrate to the girls what a pain it was for him to clean the mirrors. He took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it in the toilet, and began cleaning off the lipstick. After repeating the process a few times, the mirror was clean. There was no more lipstick problem.

You have probably noticed that we’ve been remodeling the bathrooms. Many thanks to Sharon, Dora, Jackie, Gina, and Michael for all the work they’ve put in on this. There are a few more things to be done, but we’re close now. One of the last items will be the mirrors—one may be in the main women’s but not yet in the others. I told Gina the other day, “It may be a vanity thing, but it seems rather odd to walk into a bathroom and not have a mirror.” It’s not like I stand there preening, but it’s nice to make sure there’s nothing stuck in the teeth—I would say check the hair but not much of a problem there.

The odd thing—and perhaps you’ve experienced it also—is that I can look at myself in a mirror and think, “Not too bad,” but then I see a picture of myself, and it’s, “Who in the world…?” As it turns out, there is a bit of science behind it. 

The most familiar image we have of ourselves is the one we see in the mirror. The only problem is that the image in the mirror is reversed, so when we see a picture of our faces, something seems to be a bit “off.” There are differences—although often minor—between the left side of our faces and the right. So, perhaps not consciously, but subconsciously our minds say, “There’s something not right,” and so we end up disliking the pictures of us. You can all run home and try this: take several selfies—smiling, laughing, etc.—then take the same pictures of yourself in the mirror. See which ones you like best. Bottom line: the mirror is a distorted view of what you actually look like to others, but the photograph isn’t the real you either—through the mechanics of photography, distortions appear there also. It is true; the camera adds ten pounds (in my case, about forty!) What it all comes down to is that we really do have a distorted image of ourselves. The person we see is not the person others see.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’”

In a spiritual sense, the Pharisee looked at himself in the mirror and saw a distorted image of himself. On the other hand, “the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” In a spiritual sense, the tax collector did not rely on what he saw in the mirror. Instead, he looked within and saw his true self—a sinner. Ultimately, it wasn’t what either thought of themselves but what God thought of them. Jesus said, “I tell you, this man—the tax collector—went down to his home justified rather than the other.” The Pharisee was not likely a bad person, but he had fallen into a trap: God had bestowed upon him a great gift, yet instead of always viewing it as a gift, he came to view it as a possession. God had gifted him righteousness and holiness, and the Pharisee came to believe that this righteousness and holiness was his—of himself and not of God.

Luke Timothy Johnson, an outstanding theologian, writes, “What comes from another can so blithely be turned into self-accomplishment… The [Pharisee] is all convoluted comparison and contrast; he can receive no gift because he cannot stop counting his possessions. His prayer is one of peripheral vision. Worse, he assumes God’s role of judge: not only does he enumerate his own claims to being just, but he reminds God of the deficiency of the tax-agent, in case God hadn’t noticed.” (Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke, p.274) 

A gift does become a person’s possession, but regardless, it remains a gift. Take a child playing with their toys. Another child comes along and picks one of them up. What does the first child shout out? “Mine!” Yes. That is a true statement. It is theirs, but in the case of a child, it was a gift from a parent or someone else. The child had no means to gain the gift on their own. God gave the Pharisee the gift of righteousness and holiness, and the Pharisee cried out, “Mine!” In doing so, he created a distorted image of his spiritual self, but God would not be fooled. God saw the true person and was not pleased with what He saw.

We can look in the spiritual mirror and think we’re doing pretty good. In the words of Stuart Smalley, we declare, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me,” when we should instead be standing with our heads bowed in prayer, repeating the words of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I’m not saying you’re all a bunch of heathen destined for thousands of years in purgatory, but we must step away from the mirror and look within instead of looking out. How do we do this?

Most weeks, we use the Confession of Sin found on page 360 of the Book of Common Prayer. It begins, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” When we use Form VI of the Prayers of the People, we use the confession on page 393: “Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; in your compassion, forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things done and left undone.” These are considered general confessions. A general recognition that we have sinned, but there are times when we need to make a particular confession, that is, for example, not just saying we have sinned in things left undone, but spending time identifying those times when we chose not to act or speak when we should have. This is what is known as an examination of conscience. It is a very deliberate time when you look within, not to beat yourself up for what you see as shortcomings or failings, but to identify those areas of your life where you can improve so that you can make a particular confession, not just one in general; and then, through the amendment of life, seek to make the necessary changes of character. In doing so, we will again recognize the holiness and righteousness we have in our lives as a gift from God, and the image that is revealed is the image of the One who created us: the image of God. 

Let us pray:
Almighty God, Eternal Father,
from the fullness of our souls, we adore You.
We are deeply grateful that You have made us
in Your image and likeness
and that You ever hold us in Your loving embrace.
Direct our lives so that we may love You with all our hearts,
with all our souls, and with our whole minds,
so that we may love all Your children as we love ourselves.

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