Rejoicing in the Dark

Preached on 16 December 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The third Sunday of Advent, Year C

“Rejoice in the Lord, always!  Again, I say, rejoice!”

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart.”

“Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy!”

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy; Rejoicing.  In some churches, they use a pink or rose candle in the Advent wreath to represent the Joy of this week.

At the end of our gospel lesson today, we read, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the Good News to the people.”

You can hear that recurrent theme of rejoicing throughout the readings this morning.  But there is another common thread, in the background of each of these readings: Darkness.

When Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord, always,” to the church in Philippi, a community that is very dear to his heart, he is in prison.  He doesn’t know what awaits him.  But even in this darkness, he knows hope and can rejoice in the Lord and encourage others to do so as well.

Zephania is prophesying in Judah, not long before the people of Israel are taken into captivity in Babylon.  Most of the book is pronouncing judgement and ruin to a people who have turned their back on God.  Yet, at the end, the part we hear today, he offers the hope of restoration even as they are in the darkness of violence and corruption.

Then, there’s our canticle from Isaiah.  Again, the prophet is living in the time before the exile, warning the people of the coming judgement of the Lord, yet offering the hope and promise of salvation, one day.

The chapter begins, “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away and you comforted me.” And then he continues with what we sang in our canticle this morning, “Surely God is my salvation, I will trust and will not be afraid.”

When we hear John the Baptist call the people a Brood of Vipers, and go on to talk about the winnowing fork in the hand of the one who is coming, who will clear the threshing floor, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, we don’t exactly take comfort.  How do the people, how do we, hear Good News in all that judgement language?

It’s been said that those with power, those who live in comfort, hope that God is merciful and that those with little power or money or comfort hope that God is just.

Judgement is Good News to people who suffer from unjust systems and policies.  For victims, judgement is Good News.  For people stuck in patterns of behavior that harm themselves or others, judgement is Good News.  Because, you see, Judgement is not simply about punishing wrong-doing.  Judgement is bringing about right order and right relationships.  It’s refining and purifying.  Judgement is about liberation and redemption.

So, when John preaches to a people suffering in poverty or from the extortion and abuse of power and authority, and tells them the Lord is coming to judge the world, that the winnowing fork is in his hand, that is Good News.

When he tells them that it is not their lineage that matters but their behavior, the fruit that they bear, they ask, “then what should we do?”  And his responses are very reasonable and doable.  When we truly repent, turn back to God, it shows in our lives; we bear the fruit of repentance.

He tells them what we all learned at our parents’ knee:  Share, be fair, and don’t bully.  Care for the needs of others.  Don’t abuse your authority or power.  Don’t exploit other people.

John doesn’t tell them they have to quit their jobs or join him in the wilderness.  He points to the reality that they can bear the fruit of repentance right where they are in their own lives: in their homes and families, in their work, in their communities.

It’s not to earn salvation, mind you, but to do their part to create a more trustworthy society.  We are to do what we can to embody God’s love and justice and righteousness in whatever way we can, right where we are.  God is at work through us for the sake of the world.

It seems so incredibly simple, doesn’t it?  Except, apparently, it isn’t.  I know that I have a closet full of coats, and to be honest, I don’t plan to give them away.  Just as an example.  What about you?  The truth is, if we all shared what we have with those in need; if we made sure our systems were fair, there wouldn’t be people who don’t have housing or enough food or work or health care or education or… you get the picture: There wouldn’t be people in need.

How are you already living your faith right now?  What would it look like for you to bear the fruit of repentance; of aligning your life more closely with God?

Here’s the Good News, borrowing and paraphrasing from  David Lose,

Because Christ has already saved the world, we can devote ourselves to care for our little corner of it to bring about a more just, a more generous, a more compassionate world right where we are.

And because Christ is coming and will judge with righteousness, we don’t need to judge others, but rather we can proclaim the mercy we ourselves have experienced. And, perhaps in this way, and through our lives, we, like John, will proclaim the Good News. Even when the world seems dark, we can Rejoice in the Lord, always.

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Awaiting Christ’s Coming: in History, in Mystery, and in Majesty

Preached on 9 December 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Where do you go to hear the Word of God?  Where have you found it?

The Word of God came to John.  In the wilderness.  Do you think the author of Luke was trying to accentuate a point by naming all the power players of the day?  God didn’t speak to the emperor or the governor or the regional rulers or the high priests.  And God didn’t speak in the city or even in the Temple.  No, God chose John, son of Zechariah; chose him even before he was conceived, to be a prophet.

At the end of the first chapter, as soon as John is born and named, Luke tells us, “he grew and became strong in spirit and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”

So, John didn’t just happen to be in the wilderness; he didn’t wander out there.  The wilderness was familiar ground; it was home.  And he was ready; prepared to hear and proclaim the Word of the Lord.  It is time for him to fulfill the prophecy his father proclaimed when John was born, the prophecy we repeated in the canticle this morning, the song of Zechariah.

God has come to God’s people to set them free,” he says, “God promised he would save us from our enemies, from those who hate us.  To show mercy and remember his holy covenant.”  “You, my child, will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give the people knowledge of salvation.”

A song of such hope!  Assurance of God’s continuing love and mercy.

We hear a lot from the Holy Spirit, speaking through prophets about God’s salvation of the people.

In our Old Testament reading, we hear a prophecy attributed to Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary.  He offers words of comfort and mercy to a people living in exile in a strange, foreign land; a people longing for a home they may never have seen.  God promises to clothe them in righteousness and glory and to prepare a level road for the people to return safely to their homeland.  God will lead Israel with joy, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.

And in our gospel, Luke quotes Isaiah, another of the exilic prophets, to talk about John.  He is the voice in the wilderness, crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord!  Every hill shall be made low and every valley filled… and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Good News to the people of Israel living in exile in Babylon.  Good News to the people living in a sort of exile in their own land but under the oppressive rule of Rome – as our writer so carefully laid out at the beginning of the reading.

Notice that in each of these prophecies, it is God preparing the way, God extending mercy and righteousness.  The people are not sending out engineering crews to blow up mountains or build roads.

John is not selling a self-help movement for moral reform of individuals who will achieve righteousness through personal will.  No, he’s proclaiming God’s presence and activity among the people.  God preparing the way, shining light in the darkness, that all will know the salvation of God.

What a message of hope!

It’s a message we never grow tired of; a message we need to hear over and over.  A message we need right now.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ; the coming of Christ in history, in mystery, and in majesty.

When I think of Christ coming in mystery, I think of the mystery of Christ’s presence in our lives, in the world right now.  So, I’d like for us to ponder and wonder a bit this morning in Advent, preparing for the coming of Christ.

What is the wilderness where we can hear the voice of God speaking to us?  Are we willing to go there?  To silence the noise and distractions that draw our attention?  To wait and listen in a stillness of spirit so we can hear God’s word?

And what about darkness and exile?  We may have an inkling of the darkness and exile faced by the People in Babylon or under Roman occupation.
What about in our world, though?  In our own lives?  Do we experience an exile or sorts?  Have we sent others into exile?

It’s not hard to look around us and see darkness – especially in these long, dark, winter days.

But what if we looked for the light?  For signs of hope?  For places where God’s love and mercy and righteousness are breaking through?  Where do we see God preparing the way for Christ in our lives and in the world?  The world is yearning for that light; for someone to point to it and show them it’s there.

In this season of Advent, as we await and prepare for the coming of Christ, may we always remember that it is God who is preparing the way, preparing our hearts.

Or in the song of Zechariah,
In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us

To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and guide our feet into the way of peace.

Thanks be to God.

Dwelling in the Kingdom, Being the Light

Preached on 25 November 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The Reign of Christ, Year C

About 230 years ago, we fought a war to rid ourselves of our king.  And yet, we raptly follow all the coverage of the current royal family.  Just look at how many of us were glued to the TV watching the royal wedding in May; and all the coverage leading up to it?  And he’s what, 5th or 6th in line for the throne?  I can never keep track.  We ooo and ahh over William and Kate and their growing family.  We wonder if the Queen will one day step down in favor of Prince Charles who has waited so long to become king.

Maybe we just like our royalty mostly for show and ceremony; a monarch who is benevolent, but virtually powerless.

At the same time, I think it may be human nature to long for a monarch, or a ruler or leaders, who will make the world Good and eliminate all evil; who will make all the bad stuff in our lives stop.  We long for a leader who is on our side.  The trouble is, human leaders, no matter how good they are, all of them fall short.  The fact of the matter is that truly great or even good leaders, whether kings or presidents or popes, are rare, if we look through history.

What we hope for; what we ask of them is not possible.  So, we place that hope in God: all powerful, all Good, totally in charge and in control of everything; a god who is on our side.  That is risky theology because if God is in control, then God is causing the evil and all the bad stuff, too.

Where does that leave us, then?  What do we make of Christ as king?

As we approach the season of Advent; looking forward to the coming of Christ, who is this Jesus we are waiting for; looking for?

Not only are we looking back to the birth of the baby, born in a stable at Christmas.  Not only are we looking to some elusive future when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, as we recite in our Creed.  But in our lives today, who is this Jesus, this king, we’re waiting and looking for?

Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you king of the Jews?”  It’s a political question.  He’s wondering if Jesus is a rival.  Will Jesus challenge Pilate’s authority?

Pilate is caught in the middle.  He’s a mid-level ruler; the governor of the region with significant power locally – life-or-death power over Jesus at this moment.  Except he is also answerable to Rome.  If his decision causes an uprising, it may not go well for him.

Jesus’ response is strange.  They go back and forth a bit and then he explains, “my kingdom is not of this world.”  Huh?  “The reason I’m here is to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  And Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

Earlier in the gospel, Jesus already claimed that he is the Truth.  Truth is in his person.
Jesus’ kingdom is not a place.  It is not a hoped-for future or a place to go after you die.  No, the Kingdom of Christ is at hand.  It’s a way of being.  It’s hearing and following the Truth that is Jesus.

We’re used to thinking of kingdoms as defined by geographical borders and characterized by visible, tangible exhibits of wealth and splendor and power; of majesty and authority and the list descriptors goes on and on.

But that’s not what characterizes or defines Jesus’ kingdom.  As Karoline Lewis describes it,
“Jesus’ kingdom is anywhere and anytime.  We find it whenever “kingdom behavior” is exemplified. Whenever kingdom character is lived out; wherever the kingdom witness can be seen and heard.

“Jesus’ kingdom is a perspective, a way of living life; even a way of interpreting the world and expressing this perspective, this interpretation in everything we do.

“Jesus’ kingdom is seen in people’s lives; lives that embody a commitment to love and liberty; a commitment to striving for justice and freedom for all people.”

Jesus’ kingdom is not a geographical location, but in the hearts of people.  Those who dwell in the kingdom of Christ have a particular way of seeing and being in the world and toward the world that is different.  So, why don’t we all dwell in Jesus’ kingdom all the time?

Well, changing how we see the world is hard.  Often, we can only do it for a moment at a time. We get a glimpse of Christ’s kingdom. And then a little longer, and eventually, we may come to see so clearly, that we can never go back and see the world any other way.

Dwelling in the kingdom is also risky.  The kingdom of Christ challenges the powers of the world, the rulers, those in charge.  And power doesn’t give up without a fight.  Embodying the kingdom; a commitment to love and justice and freedom means speaking Truth; it means challenging the status quo.  Not as an individual savior, but as an inhabitant of the kingdom of Christ, a partner in Christ’s mission.

I think the key is a commitment to practice seeing with kingdom eyes; interpreting the world with the heart of Christ.

A couple of years ago, I read a commentary that quoted Leonard Cohen:

“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets through.”
Then she went on to write.

“Look for the crack and be the light of Christ that shines through it.

“Be the light that exposes attempts to justify hatred, intolerance, and violence.

“Be the light that allows us to truly see those who are ignored, overlooked, marginalized, disenfranchised, starving, used, abused, silenced.

“Be the light that we so desperately need; a light that shines as a glimmer of hope for all people, for all the world.”

As we enter into this season of Advent, may we practice being the light.

Bearing Witness in Terrifying Times

Preached on 18 November 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28, Year C, Thematic track

Mark wrote this gospel right around the time that Jerusalem was under attack and the Temple was destroyed.  The people he wrote it for were not just going through difficult times, they were terrifying!   The events Jesus describes to his disciples are happening now, all around them.

What does it all mean?  What do these events reveal to them about God?  People have always struggled with calamity and death and disaster and what it tells them about God and what God wants of us; from slavery in Egypt to the Exodus, to exile in Babylon, to the plagues of the middle ages, to the Holocaust, to AIDS and even hurricanes.

For Mark’s audience, is this a sign of God’s judgment against Judaism?  Was Jesus actually a false messiah?  And what about Rome?  Are their gods winning?  How do they survive when Rome rains violence and persecution and destruction on them?

In that context, Mark’s gospel and Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings may have offered comfort, even hope to the people.  Jesus addresses the question, How do we bear witness during hardship; in the face of opposition and even oppression?

Jesus warns the disciples not to be deceived by the appearance of power and safety, like in the large stones and grandeur of the Temple.  He warns them not to be led astray by fear; as he tells them of coming wars and earthquakes and famines and even persecution.

The Good News must first be proclaimed to all nations, Jesus tells them.

We bear witness to the enduring presence and love of God and the activity of the Holy Spirit by continuing to trust in that Truth and to live accordingly despite all the terrifying stuff that is happening in the world around us.

We proclaim Good News by being Good News.  Bearing witness is so much more than speaking; and in fact, words often get in the way.  Our lives, our actions, our way of being in the world must bear witness to our trust in God, to the presence of God.  We share what we have that all may be fed, all may be sheltered, all may find refuge and be safe.  This is how to bear witness to the Good News of God in Christ in terrifying times.

Today’s psalm also offers some insight.

“Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you,” the psalmist begins.  This is a song of Trust composed by a member of the tribe of Levite, the priests.

Now, the Levites, had no land of their own.  When the land of Canaan was divided among the Tribes, the Levites did not receive a portion.  That’s why the others give a share of their produce to the Levites.  When he says, “my boundaries enclose a pleasant land,” he means God.  “The Lord is my portion and my cup,” he sings.

His trust is in God.  In the totality of his life and his very being, he rests in God.  His Heart is glad, his Spirit rejoices, and his Body rests in hope.  This is about his whole being.

He takes refuge in God and trusts God to show him the path of life.  This is not simply subsistence, bare survival; no, he is singing about an abundance of life.  “In your presence there is fullness of joy!
And in your right hand are pleasures for evermore,” he sings in praise.

When we discover that what we put our trust in isn’t quite as dependable as we thought whether it is human institutions or the ground under our feet, we know we can take refuge in God.

It always feels awkward at this time of year when we have all these apocalyptic readings right when we’re celebrating Thanksgiving.  Talking about doom and suffering and judgment and end-times just as we celebrate the many blessings of life – family, friends, good food.

Still, maybe it is particularly appropriate because then we don’t have to pretend that everything is perfect; that there is no hunger or suffering, that nobody has to bite their tongue when a family member says something at the dinner table that we find outrageous, or they respond instead of biting their tongues.

Even through all that, we can bear witness; through hardship, through tumultuous, dangerous, frightening times.  We can give thanks and praise to God even then, for the abundance of grace and joy in our lives.

We can because, as the disciples learned and as Mark’s church knew, the Good News in Christ Jesus is that Resurrection is more powerful than Rome.

May we always hold fast to the knowledge that Resurrection is more powerful than any evil in the world and bear witness to that Good News through how we live our lives.

 

 

 

What about the Widows?

Preached on 11 November 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27 Year B, Thematic track

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the end of the war that the world hoped was the War to End All Wars.  Armistice Day.  That peace lasted barely a decade before we were plunged into another World War.  And then there was another war and another and another and…

I’m not going to preach about it, but I think that on this hundredth anniversary of the armistice, it is fitting to pause and reflect and to pray.  To reflect on just how terribly, terribly costly war is.

The cost is in lives lost, not only the military deaths, but also the civilian deaths.  The cost is in the damage to the souls of those who fought and survived, in the families forever wounded.  The cost is in the orphans and the widows.

As Americans, we have no living memory of battlefields on American soil.  Many of us are insulated from the reality of bombed cities: homes, factories, shops, schools, churches.  It really hit home for me a couple of summers ago when we visited London and Canterbury and particularly Dover.  We toured the tunnels in the cliffs where the evacuation of Dunkirk was planned and carried out; where hospitals were set up to treat the wounded.

These were cities where, in the second world war, civilian volunteers stood on the roofs of the cathedrals every night as their city was firebombed, in order to prevent the destruction of their beloved cathedrals.

Today, we remember the cost of war and we remember and rekindle the hope for peace.

The Tower of London has traditionally been one of the city’s more foreboding landmarks, serving in part as a prison from 1100 until 1952. As the UK marks the 100th anniversary of its entrance into World War I, however, a sea of red ceramic poppies has sprung up around the building, spilling over the bridge and out of the windows into the tower’s surrounding moat to gorgeous effect.

As reported by Colossal, the poppies are the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. Slowly but surely, over the past few weeks, volunteers have been carefully planting the bright red flowers. The moat will continue to bloom throughout the summer, until there are 888,246 flowers in total, or one for each soldier from the UK and its colonies who was killed during the First World War. At twilight each evening, a Roll of Honor ceremony will be held and include the reading of the names of 180 of those who died, accompanied by a solitary bugle call.

The poppy became known as a flower of remembrance because of those men who died fighting in the trenches in the poppy fields of Flanders. In the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, artificial poppies are commonly worn on November 11, known as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the end of the Great War. Appropriately, the final ceramic poppy in the installation, titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, will be planted on November 11 of this year.[1]

And so, let us remember the terrible cost of war.  Let us vow to work for and to hope for peace; that one day we won’t study war anymore; that we will pound our swords into pruning hooks; that we will melt down our guns to build bridges.

Let us pray.
Almighty God, from your throne you behold all who dwell upon the earth:  Look with pity upon those on whom have fallen the miseries of war.  Cleanse both us and our enemies of hatred; have compassion on the wounded and dying; comfort the broken-hearted; assuage the madness of the nations; guide our rulers; make wars to cease; and give us peace in our time, O Lord.  All this we ask in the name of him who is the Prince of Peace, your Son Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.  (Bishop Rob Hirschfield of Vermont)

And now, let’s turn our attention to the widows.

Our lessons today are hard.  They challenge our self-perceptions, don’t they? Most of us who have to preach on this struggle.  If we pay attention to what Jesus is saying and take it to heart, most of us can’t help but feel convicted.  How do we preach authentically and without hypocrisy?

There are three references to widows in today’s readings.  All of them are in desperate circumstances.

First, we have the widow of Zeraphath who is planning to eat the very last of her food and then die.  Then this strange man shows up – a stranger, an alien, someone who worships a different god, even.  And what does he do, this alien? First, he demands that she interrupt her own work to get him a drink of water.  And then he has the audacity to demand that she give him the last of her food, even after she tells him about her dire circumstances.

“Feed me first and you won’t run out,” he promises.  Why should she trust him?  Why would she extend this hospitality to him?  Would you?  I wonder, where is her family, her community?  Why aren’t they helping her?  Maybe they have already died in the drought.

Maybe she thinks, “What have I got to lose?  If I don’t give it to him, I know I’ll die; this is the last of the food.  If I do and he’s trying to trick me, I’ll still die.  But, if he’s for real; if he can keep that promise, we have a chance to survive.”  She trusts him, and God provides for her and her family.

Next, let’s consider the widows in today’s gospel.  First, here’s the context.  This conversation between Jesus and the disciples – this takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem just a day or two before Jesus is arrested.  His triumphal entry into Jerusalem happened three days earlier.  Two days before, he went to the Temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers.  The day before, he returned to the Temple and taught.

Today we find him back at the Temple teaching and observing.  The disciples are blown away by the grandeur and the pomp and the power and the apparent authority of the Temple scribes and priests and all the well-to-do citizens coming to the Temple; the ones who make a show of their piety and wealth and generosity.

Jesus points out that they have their wealth and power because of their business practices – taking advantage of the poor, turning widows out of their homes.  “They devour widows houses,” is how he puts it.

Jesus observes and points out to his disciples, that the wealthy are giving so that they will be seen and gain status and honor, even though the poor continue to suffer.  Their wealth isn’t a sign of righteousness.

Then Jesus draws their attention to a poor widow.
Is he praising her?  Is he saying that everyone should give to the Temple as sacrificially as she is?
OR is he pointing to her as one of the widows whose house the scribes have devoured?

Is he condemning the Temple authorities and the people for allowing this injustice to exist, to continue; for receiving large sums from wealthy donors but neglecting their responsibility to care for the widows and orphans, for the vulnerable among them.

What about the widow?  Does she give all she owns thinking some miracle will occur and her pantry will be stocked?  Does she do it simply trusting in God’s providence?  Or is she like the widow of Zeraphath, using the last of what she has before she goes home to die?

Is she resigned to her poverty?  Or is she defiant in the face of the rich and powerful, putting the last of what she owns in the box at the Temple as an indictment;
an accusation that they have violated God’s law.  They have taken everything else, they can take the rest.

I tend to think she’s defiant, challenging the powers.
I want to see her as accusing those responsible for the injustice of her situation.  I want to believe that she is claiming and asserting her humanity and her worth.

In these last weeks, in the gospel of Mark, we have been hearing Jesus teaching so much about caring for the poor, the sick, the vulnerable.  I don’t think he’s suddenly saying that poor widows should not only accept their lot but should give everything they own to the wealthy Temple and then die.

In fact, when Jesus and the disciples leave the Temple that day the disciples marvel at the Temple and the huge stones used to build it.  Jesus sets them straight, though, saying that the day is coming when the whole Temple will be torn down, destroyed.  They need to get their priorities in order; they need to focus on God.

So, what do the widows have to say to us;
to our lives, to our priorities?
Who are the “widows,” so-to-speak, in your life.
The ones who challenge you, indict you, even?
Who grabs you by the face and turns your gaze, helping you see what’s actually important?

What are they showing you?
Can you hear God’s voice in theirs?

[1]https://www.episcopalcafe.com/how_is_your_church_remembering_veterans_day/

Touching Souls

Preached on 4 November 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
All Saints Day, Year B

The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs.  Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them.  But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by tremendous yearning.

~Wrote St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century. (August 20th on our calendar) 1090-1153

And so, we take a day every year to remember and celebrate all the saints in every generation; names we know and those we don’t.  Most particularly we celebrate the saints who may not make it onto the calendar of the church or into our daily prayer, but who are saints, nonetheless.

Because of the busyness o four lives and because there are so many saints, today, we lump them all together for one big celebration.

We recognize that because of them, we are here.  Because of the saints, the knowledge of God has come down through the ages and around the world to reach us, here.  Because of saints, the Holy Stories were written down, and then translated into countless languages, often at risk to their lives, so we can read them now.  Because of the saints, we have our prayer book and our particular type of worship.  And the same can be said of every type of worship.

Because of saints, we have learned ways to strive for justice and freedom and peace in our world.  We care for our neighbor.  We learn to forgive, to ask for forgiveness, we learn to pray.

Because of saints, we learn how to walk with God.  Through their lives, the saints comfort us, care for us, teach us, inspire us.  They may even set our hearts on fire.

Who have been the saints in your life; whether or not they’re on the calendar or ever will be?  Who has made that difference in your life?  Who has brought you closer to God; and how?
Who sets your heart aflame for God?
Let’s take a moment to remember them and give thanks to God for their lives.

Our calendars are so full, that not only do we lump all the saints into one day, we typically lump two holy days into one, combining All Saints Day with All Souls Day.

All Souls Day is also known as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.  We remember and pray for all those whom we love but see no longer, as our prayer says.  While we may believe in the resurrection and the assurance that our loved ones are in the presence of God, we also experience the very real effects of the loss of their presence in our lives.  So, let’s take a moment to remember them and pray for them.

During our opening acclamation, we proclaimed together:

There is one Body and one Spirit
There is one hope in God’s call to us.
One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism,
One God and Father of all.

We are one Body, one in the Body of Christ.  We are all connected and death has no say in that.  We are one with all those who have gone before and all who are yet to come.  We are joined together with that Great cloud of witnesses, the Communion of Saints.  Their names will be our “music” during communion this morning; a reminder that they are with us, still.

And it is particularly appropriate that on this day, when we celebrate the Communion of Saints and our participation in that communion, that we renew our Baptismal Covenant and that we join with people all across this city and all around the world who are baptized this morning, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  And so, we will baptize Rupert Hudson Bartsch in just a little while.

Now, Rupert doesn’t realize this yet, but he’ll learn soon enough, that life will offer him amazing love and joy and laughter and wonderful experiences.  It also will present him with challenges and pain and heartache and failure.  Baptism isn’t a vaccination against the pain of life.

Baptism is, however, a joining with God in Christ and the promise of Christ to be with us through it all.  It is a joining with the Body of Christ, this community.

We need community to help us through.  And that means you.  In just a little bit, I will ask you to vow before God, to do everything in your power to support Rupert (and that includes his parents and his sister) in their walk with Christ.

This is serious stuff.  Don’t make empty promises to God.  It starts with getting to know Rupert (all the children, for that matter), learning the sound of his voice, growing to love him as God’s beloved child.  It’s continuing to know him as he grows and changes; as he becomes a toddler, a child, a teenager, a young adult; and always a child of God.

It’s being there with him and for him as he faces the inevitable challenges and pain of life as well as celebrating his joys and accomplishments.  It’s showing him through your own lives, not telling him, how to be in relationship with Christ: how to pray how you recognize God’s presence and activity in your life,  how to love kindness, to do justice, and to walk humbly with God.  And having the humility to allow him to show you those lessons.
It’s about caring for each other’s soul.

Listen to what Ann and Barry Ulanov write about the soul in The Healing Imagination:

Our soul is that objectively existing opening in our subjective life that knows about God and goodness and evil, about the transcendent and its reach into the ordinary, into our daily life, into everything.  The soul registers with special pleasure our experience of mystery and its source, and wants above all else to know better that source, that ultimate other in our lives.  Soul is willingness, even desire, to correspond to that other as it makes itself known to us.  The soul’s imaginings dwell on who this other is, who this God is that comes to us.
Soul asks, Who is there?  What do you want of me?  How can I be for you, be toward you?[1]

And now, it is time to ask God, to reach into the ordinary, to touch our souls, and most particularly to touch Rupert’s soul, to seal him by the Holy Spirit and mark him as Christ’s own, forever.

Just as you are marked as Christ’s own.  Forever.

 

 

 

[1] -Ann and Barry Ulanov.  The Healing Imagination: The Meeting of Psyche and Soul (1991)

 

Revealing the Heart of God

Preached on 14 October 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23 Year B (Thematic track)

“Let us have no fear in approaching the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace when we are in need of help.” Hebrews 4:16

Why?  Because Jesus knows us, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes.  Jesus knows what we’re going through; knows our weakness; knows our suffering; knows of what we are made.  Jesus has compassion for us; he suffers along with us.

That seems like a good place to start with this set of readings.  They’re hard, demanding, convicting.  Who can hear them without feeling, well, not up-to-the-task.  And if you’re hoping that I’m going to tell you how to interpret them so that you can feel good and still keep all your wealth and power and privilege, well, I’m not.

I will tell you the Good News, however.  In these readings, we see into the heart of God and there we find powerful, good news.  Because, you see, God passionately and fiercely loves the poor and the vulnerable.  God fights for justice.

We see it most clearly in Amos.  Now Amos is not a professional prophet, but God calls him to go up to the northern kingdom and prophesy to them, to speak God’s word to them.  He lists their crimes of injustice and the punishment that awaits them, city by city.  He goes on and on, page after page, for three chapters.

In today’s passage, we hear him accuse them of turning justice to wormwood and taking bribes, of trampling the poor and cheating them.  And because of their crimes, they will be driven from their homes.

But he also offers a remedy; what they might do to avoid the conquest and exile that await them.
“Seek the Lord and live … [if you] Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord … will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”  Amos 5:6, 15

This is the heart of our God; the God whose holy desire is for justice, the God who fights for the poor and needy and demands the same of us.  You see, the poor suffer when there is injustice.

God’s concern, through the words of Amos, is with the health of the whole people, the whole society.  When there is injustice, everyone is sick.  He speaks of justice at the gate; the place of commerce and the courts.  The injustice manifests in corruption through the whole of society.

I have always heard Amos as speaking directly to us today.  How do you hear his words and see it playing out in our world today?  In our community?  In our own homes?

We see the heart of God in our gospel reading today, as well.  For several weeks, now we’ve been hearing Jesus teach about the how crucial it is to care for the vulnerable, and that continues today.
The wealthy, young man kneels before him, asking how to inherit eternal life.  After discussing the demands of the law, Mark writes, Jesus looked at him and was filled with love for him.  “you must sell what you own and give it to the poor,” he says, “then come and follow me.”

Jesus is still teaching about caring for the poor and the vulnerable.  He is revealing the heart of God: this heart of God that fiercely and passionately loves us – especially in our frailty and poverty and vulnerability.

Jesus shows us the heart of God that invites us to partner with God in the fight for justice, to participate in the care of the poor and needy.  It is the heart of God who says, “Sell everything you own and give it to the poor,” and enter into eternal life.  How will we partner with God to care for the vulnerable?  How will we battle injustice?

Following Jesus is hard and Mark doesn’t sugar-coat it.  The demands of discipleship seem impossible.  We hear it in Peter’s frustrated cry, “we have left everything to follow you.” And we hear it in the desperate question, “Then who can be saved?”

“For mortals, it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible,” Jesus tells them.  It is God who saves us, not our perfection in following Jesus.  It is the God whose heart Jesus, and Amos reveal to us.

The heart of God that fiercely and passionately loves the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable; that fiercely and passionately loves you and me.

And so, “Let us have no fear in approaching the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace when we are in need of help.”

And that is Good News.