Everything You Know is Wrong…

Preached on 13 November 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28 C

Everything you know is wrong – or everything you thought you knew is wrong.
Or maybe you find out you’re wrong about something foundational that you thought you knew and could count on about your spouse or your kids or your best friend or your fellow Americans or even about the way the world works.

That kind of realization can create a crisis in our lives.  It may feel like the world has turned upside down or that it’s crumbling around our ears.

Every adult has probably had that experience at least once.  It’s nearly impossible to get through childhood without it happening – like the first time you realize your parent is human, fallible.

It is for those times and often during those times – especially when it is happening to a whole community – that apocalyptic literature is written.  These stories were offered to help the people enduring hardship to put their struggles into the broader context of the universal struggle between God and forces of evil.  They provide a message of comfort and hope to a people in crisis. God does not abandon them and will ultimately prevail. These stories tell of the Day of the Lord, Judgment, the End of the world that moves toward justice, love, and hope.

That’s what we have today, as we do on this Sunday every year.

There are three audiences to think about for today’s story, as is often the case in the gospels.

There are the current readers – us.
There is the community Luke is writing for, the intended audience.
And there is the audience within the story – the disciples Jesus is speaking to.

Luke is writing in the latter part of the first century; after the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  He’s writing to a people who are sporadically persecuted by the Romans and spurned by the Jewish religious authorities.  They have already been through the events Jesus talks about.  They are not hearing them as predictions of their future.

They are experiencing an “everything you thought you knew is wrong” – type of crisis.  Starting with the resurrection of Jesus, continuing through the destruction of the Temple – a fixture of their city and their religion that they assumed would always be there – and on to the turmoil within their religious community.  Their very lives are in danger and they’ve lost the community they’ve had all their lives.

Luke writes to them that Jesus told his disciples that these things would happen, that the Temple would be leveled.  He predicted disasters – both natural and human-caused –  persecution and even death in some cases.  But that’s not a sign that God has abandoned them.  Evil won’t have the last word.

In fact, this calamity gives them an opportunity to testify, to witness to the message of Jesus.  And Jesus promises to give them the words and wisdom they need.  In the end, the Day of the Lord will come.  Justice will prevail.  Even death is not the final word – not a hair of their head will perish.  You are precious to God.  Luke is giving them a message of hope in their time of crisis.

Now imagine the disciples – the audience within the story.  Here they are in the big city, awe-struck by this most holy of places, its beauty and grandeur.  It is magnificent.  And Jesus tells them it is temporary; anything visible will pass away.  It will all be leveled.

This is not the outcome they were expecting from the Messiah.  Wasn’t he supposed to come in power?  Instead of a message of conquest, he gives them a message of destruction.  Wasn’t the heir to the throne of David going to return Israel to its former glory?

They’re having an “everything you thought you knew is wrong” experience.  Not only will there be no conquest, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.  Next week is Christ the King Sunday and we will hear Jesus finish the story with words of hope and for his second coming.

The thing about apocalyptic literature is that although it is written to a particular community going through a particular crisis, it speaks of universal truths; they are stories outside of time and so they speak to all times.

The truth of human history is that we do from time to time, more often than we would like, descend into turmoil and despair.  We keep having “everything we thought we knew is wrong” experiences when it seems the world has gone terribly wrong.

These stories serve to remind us that God has not abandoned us.  We will come through it into a new day, maybe a new understanding of the world.  And God is already there.
In the end, God’s justice and love prevail.

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What’s a Saint? Who’s a Saint?

Preached at the Family Service on 6 November 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
All Saints Sunday, Year C

Today is a very special day.  Do you know what we’re celebrating today?
All Saints!

What’s a saint?

There are saints whose names we know – like St. John, and St. Matthew, and St. Mary and St. Elizabeth.  They are people who lived a long time ago, usually.  We remember them though because of how they lived their lives as followers of Jesus.  Some of them were Jesus’ disciples or friends or even his family.  Most of them did something that helped people or spread the message of Jesus to other people.

They did things like translating the Bible into English or going to other parts of the world to tell people about Jesus; people who had never had a chance to learn about him.

Some of the saints we remember did heroic things like risking their lives to care for sick people during an epidemic.  There are lots and lots of people that we remember and celebrate on their special days all year long.  We have a whole book full of them!

I think the one thing that is true of all of them is that they in some way helped other people know and follow Jesus.

You know what, though?  People have been following Jesus for more than two thousand years!  That’s a long time and a lot of people.  We could never list them all.  In fact we don’t even know their names.
And so, we have All Saints Day – to celebrate all the people who have been saints, even (and especially) the ones whom nobody remembers their names.  Now, what do you think?

Does someone have to die to be a saint?  No!
So, can you think of people you know who help you know and follow Jesus?  Who are they?

Here’s another question – What makes someone a saint?  In the Bible, when Paul writes letters to the churches, he calls the people saints.
Do you remember the words of the song we sang at the beginning of the service today?  “I sing a song of the saints of God… They loved the Lord (that’s Jesus) and his love made them strong. … They followed the right for Jesus’ sake, they love to do Jesus’ will.”

 

It sounds like it’s more about following Jesus.  Do you think that you have to be perfect?  Or extra “good” to be a saint?  Nope.  In fact, when Paul was writing to the churches, a lot of times it was because they were messing up and he was trying to help them straighten up, to get back on track.  And still he called them saints.

 

So how do you think you become a saint?

Well, the short answer is baptism.

Now, it’s not that baptism is the only way.  Some people faithfully follow Jesus but haven’t been baptized, and they’re still saints.

 

Do you know if you were baptized?

Do you remember it?

I remember mine because I was all grown up already.  But a lot of people are baptized when they’re babies or little kids and they don’t remember it.

 

Did you know that when you’re baptized you make promises to God about how you plan to live?  And if you don’t make them yourself (like if you’re too little), your parents and godparents make them for you.  They promise that you will keep those promises.

 

So, whether you can remember it or not, every so often, in the church, we think about those promises and we make them again.

 

And you know what?  That’s what we’re going to do.  Right now.

And if you haven’t been baptized, this is a chance to think about whether you want to be.  To think about whether these are promises you want to make to God.

 

The first thing we’ll do is bless some water.  Do you want to help me?

The Communion of Saints on the Camino

Preached at the 8 am service on 6 November 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
All Saints Sunday, Year C

All Saints Day always brings to my mind the Communion of Saints, the Great cloud of Witnesses.

I saw a wonderful image of this a few days ago.  In Chicago, people are writing names on the wall of Wrigley Field.  It’s filled with names – all different sizes and colors.  They’re the names of faithful Cubs fans who died, never having seen them win the World Series.  It seems particularly fitting that the they won it in the final game on November 2nd – the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.  What a great image!

On All Saints, I think about all those who have come before and worshiped within these walls or others like them and all those who will come after us – to worship, to serve the world, to be God’s blessing to the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, the hated and scorned.

I am reminded of a lay reader who served every week at the 8 am service.  And sometimes 8 o’clock would come and there would be no one in the pews and she would say, “I guess it’s just you and me and the saints today.”

While I was on the Camino the sense of the communion of saints and the great cloud of witnesses was almost palpable.
I went into a lot of churches; churches with hundreds and in some cases over a thousand years of history.  It seemed like every little town had a big, stone church – built to last.  They were from different eras and represented different styles of art and architecture.  Some were fortified – reminders that the history of the church and of Spain is not entirely peaceful.  Those walls have witnessed a lot of war.

I marveled at the beautiful, intricate, floor-to-ceiling altarpieces, often encased in gold leaf.  I thought about all the people – the master craftsmen and common laborers – who devoted their whole lives to building a church or a cathedral and creating the art within, all for the glory of God.  That beauty is and always was available to all – believers or not, rich or poor.  Think of the millions of people who have seen and marveled at their work.  Here we were, pilgrims from every corner of the globe from South Africa to Northern Europe, Brazil to Toronto, the US, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines – drawn together along with the local people, to these holy places to behold the beauty of the ages and offer our own prayers and praises and thanksgivings to the Glory of God.

At the same time, we recognized and talked about the other side of what such extravagant beauty represented.  The gold was likely the fruit of colonization and came from the labor of conquered and enslaved people – many of whom lost their lives.  Those people are part of the great cloud of witnesses, too. It came at the expense of the land – the gold and silver mines and stone quarries.

We struggled with the idea of the church pouring its wealth into erecting structures while people starved.  On the other hand, the church employed an awful lot of people – jobs for life – working on those buildings.

Within those walls, we could feel the holiness – not because of the beautiful objects, but because of all the people who have come there in faith over the centuries – to worship, to praise, to plead, to repent – expecting to find God and receive God’s grace.  The communion of saints; the great cloud of witnesses.

And it wasn’t just in the churches, but all along the way.  People drawn together to walk to Santiago, to visit the tomb of St. James the Apostle.  And although many are from other faith traditions or no tradition or walk for a whole host of other reasons, I can’t help but believe that it is God who draws them there.

This year, they expect 300,000 people to walk the Camino.  While more and more people go every year, think of the millions of people who have made that journey over the centuries.  That great cloud of witnesses again.

At various places along the way, there are make-shift shrines with prayers or crosses, little mementos or pictures, and lots of boots.
There are memorials to people who have died, sometimes while walking the Camino; pilgrims, loved ones, or who knows.  And then there are the memorials to those who died in war, or defending their city, or taking a stand against injustice.  It is all these people who have journeyed in faith who make the whole way holy.

Finally, we arrive at the Cathedral of St. James who is known in Spain as the Moor slayer even though he died centuries before there even were “moors.”  Legends abound.  For some people, it is important to them that the legends are true – or at least the one they hold dear.  But whatever the “truth” is and whether or not the silver sarcophagus actually holds the remains of Jesus’ disciple, it is a holy place.

The communion of saints is real and we are part of it.  They carry us along the way whether it’s on the path to Santiago or down the streets of Snohomish.  They are with us always.

And so, on this All Saints Sunday, we also remember our own baptism the day when we became numbered among the saints, as we renew our baptismal vows.

What if God quit coming to church?

Preached on 30 October 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26 Year C

What if God quit coming to church?  If you came, but God didn’t show up; if God quit listening to our prayers?  If God said,
“Enough already!  I don’t care about your rituals and sacraments; I care about how you treat each other.  Your worship is meaningless when you continue to do evil; to ignore people’s suffering; suffering you could actually do something about.”

Pretty harsh, isn’t it?  That’s what we hear the prophet tell the people of Judah in our reading from Isaiah today.  The book of Isaiah is a book of prophesies about the Babylonian exile.  It begins, as we heard today with warnings to the people of Judah to change their ways or God will hand them over to their enemies.  They have already seen the fall of the northern kingdom, Israel, so they know this is real.

Well, Babylon invades and takes the leaders and many of the people to Babylon where they live in slavery.  The book of Isaiah continues with prophesies made to the people while they’re in exile.  And finally, there are the prophesies of consolation, comfort, and hope.  God forgives the people and promises to bring them back to their home, to Jerusalem, to the land of promise.  All of this is over the course of decades, generations.

It’s important to look at the whole arc of the story before focusing on any one part of it.  We see God so fed up with the people that God is ready to be done with them, followed by a time of judgement and note that God is still with them even while they are in exile, and finally forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.

Today, I want to draw your attention to two aspects of the story and how they relate to our gospel story about Zacchaeus as well as to our own lives.

First
Let’s talk about the purpose of worship.  In Isaiah, God has had enough with their worship.  The people are missing the point.  God doesn’t care about their offerings and incense and prayers while they are not also seeking justice in the world and doing everything they can to alleviate suffering.

They seem to think that the point of worship is the worship itself.  Does that sound familiar? Sometimes we think that the point of worship is to offer God constant praise and adoration; that that’s what God desires and even demands.  But you know, God is not that needy.

The purpose of worship (and I believe this is God’s purpose) is transformation of lives.  We gather together in hope to reconnect with God.  We open our minds and our hearts as we listen to the Word; we hear the stories reminding us who we are and why we are.  We allow our hearts to be broken as we pray for the needs of the world and we listen to God’s call to us.  We are nourished at the Lord’s table with the very being of Christ.  And then we go out into the world, a people renewed, transformed, and ready to do the work God gives us to do.

That’s why we worship – not for God’s benefit but for our own.  We worship in order to be transformed.

Second,
I want to talk about God relentlessly seeking us out.   In Isaiah, we see God essentially washing God’s hands of the whole people of Judah.  God turns away from their worship, ignores their prayers and sacrifices.  And yet, as the book continues, God is with them even in Babylon.  By the end God and the people of Judah are reconciled.  God forgives them and restores them to their homeland.  God is relentless in seeking relationship.

We see it again in the gospel.  Of course, we see this in Jesus himself.  That God would come to us as one of us to seek us out, to reconcile the world to God’s self.  But more particularly we see it in the story of Zacchaeus.

Now we don’t know whether Zacchaeus wants to see what all the fuss is about as the crowds are gathering around or if he has heard about Jesus and wants to see him.  But here he is, a chief tax collector, someone with power and position and status climbing a tree! To get a look at what’s going on, to get a glimpse of Jesus.  Not very dignified, is it?

And then Jesus seeks him out and stands under the tree and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner.  Then we hear the people grumbling – because that’s what people do – that Jesus has chosen poorly, shall we say.  In his own defense, Zacchaeus tells Jesus that he gives to the poor – and not just a token, but half his possessions – that if he defrauds someone, he pays them back fourfold.  The NRSV translates it as future tense, as a statement of what he will do in the future, but it’s actually present tense.  This is what he does or is doing.

Either way, though, Zacchaeus gets it.  He understands what God wants of him – to seek justice and to care for those in need.

“Today, salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says, “because he is a Son of Abraham.” Jesus names him as one of God’s people.  You can be sure that Zacchaeus’ life is transformed that day and forever.  Salvation has come to him.  But not only that, he is also the source of salvation for others.  Salvation has many forms and we are called to in turn, extend salvation to others.

And so, we have come full circle.  We seek God in worship and are transformed. God relentlessly seeks us out to transform us and so to transform the world.

Thanks be to God.

Humbler than thou

Preached on 23 October 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25

It seems to be inherently human that we compare ourselves to others.  We rank.  We judge.  We tell ourselves, “I’ll never be as good as her.” or “I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not like that.”  But when we compare and rank and judge, we separate ourselves from others; we create walls.

I wonder how many of us hear today’s parable and think, “I hope I’m not like that Pharisee,” but then we almost cringe to think of being like the tax collector.  We hear Jesus praise his humility and think we should be more humble.

The Pharisee seems to be the epitome of “holier-than-thou.”  But is it better to get into a “humbler-than-thou” contest?  They’re two sides of the same coin.  They’re both about comparing, judging and more important they’re about us, about what we do to try to justify ourselves.  There’s the rub.

We think we can justify ourselves.

So, let’s go a little deeper into this parable and then see if it’s helpful in our own relationship with God.

Let’s start with where they are.  They’re in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple is the central place for worship.  Unlike the synagogue, this is where people come to bring their offerings; it is where they come to be as close to face-to-face with God as is possible.  It’s a massive, public space teeming with people.  Yet each of the two men stands alone to pray.

The Pharisee stands alone, thanking God for not making him like “other people.”  He recognizes that it is by the grace of God that he even has the opportunity to live a righteous life.  He is righteous; he conforms his life to God’s teaching and law and strives to be in right relationship with God.  What sounds like boasting may merely be description.  There is nothing wrong with being righteous.  In fact, God calls us to righteousness and teaches us how to live.  It’s a good thing.

However, it can also be a stumbling block.  It’s a stumbling block when we think our own righteousness is enough and that we don’t need God.

It’s a stumbling block when the righteousness that we strive for is used instead as a standard by which we judge others.  This we separates us and creates walls.  The Pharisee prays alone.  Is he afraid of being polluted by others?  Or does his self-righteousness keep others away?  The sad thing is that we can’t be in right relationship with God while we are at odds with our neighbors.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is trapped.  He will still be a tax collector when he leaves; he’s trapped in a system of sin.  And so, he stands apart, alone in the back of the Temple to pray, where he won’t bother anyone.  He is humble, maybe even desperate as he pleads with God to have mercy on him.  He can’t be righteous of his own accord.  And Jesus says that he is justified.

What does that even mean?  We kind of bandy those words about in the church, righteousness and justification.  It means that God counts him as righteous in spite of his failings, his sin.  God restores him to relationship with God’s-self.

The Pharisee is righteous when he arrives and he is still righteous when he leaves.  He prays to God with confidence.

Righteousness is about our own action.  It’s how we live our lives in accordance with God’s teaching.  It’s about conforming our own will to God’s will.

Justification is God’s action by which we are restored to right relationship because of God’s deep love for us.  You are justified by God.  And so is our neighbor.

Think about that.  You are already justified, loved by God; you don’t have to strive to deserve God’s love, you already have it. You don’t have to justify yourself.  You don’t have to compete to be more holy or more righteous or more humble than your neighbor.

You are free

Justification draws us together, rather than separates us, as we recognize our common humanity, our common failings, our common need for God’s grace and mercy.

Justification frees us to do our best in all areas of our lives not in an effort to earn God’s love but because we already have it.

Justification frees us to love our neighbors, not compete with them, or judge them, because they, too, are God’s beloved.

The parable isn’t about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector.  It’s not about being holier-than-thou or humbler-than-thou.  The parable is about God.  God justifies the righteous and the unrighteous.  God justifies us – you and me.

It may be inherently human to compare and rank and judge.  But we’re not stuck there.  The good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to compete for God’s love.  We already have it and so we are then free to love others.