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?


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.