Easter 3 – April 10, 2016
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. John’s, Bangor
Today’s Gospel, from the epilogue of the Gospel of John, is one of my favorite stories about the resurrection: breakfast with Jesus on the beach. What a lovely metaphor for what we Christians have done ever since… gathering in the morning for fellowship as beloved children (that’s the word Jesus uses) of God and sharing in a meal prepared and served by Jesus. Moreover, it’s a story of the restoration of Peter to the fellowship of the disciples and of being given a purpose – the purpose we all now share: Feed my sheep.
Recent scholarship has raised questions about the 21st chapter of John. Why was it written? The story of Thomas, last week’s Gospel, is clearly the end of the book. A growing consensus among scholars is that, as the Johannine community became more connected to the larger Christian movement, it needed to rehabilitate Peter, who comes off rather badly in John, denying Jesus three times and then going back home after visiting the tomb. There was also perhaps a need to give the new church a sense of purpose beyond simply confessing Jesus as “Lord and God.”
And that’s what happens in this chapter. Following Jesus, doing as he commands, is the way to abundant life. Following Jesus leads to a catch so great that they cannot bring up the net. Then Jesus charges Peter to feed his sheep.
Jesus’ examination of Peter is downright painful. We know already that Peter is ashamed of his denial of Jesus. And yet Jesus, asks him – three times – if Peter loves him. “Peter, do you love me?” “Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.”
From our standpoint, this is a shame-inducing test. But, I think from the standpoint of the culture of Jesus’ day, it is really an act of restoration. The number three was a perfect number. It represented the three dimensions of wholeness – length, width, height; the three dimensions of eternity – past, present and future; the three dimensions of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A man divorcing his wife took her to the public square and declared the divorce publicly three times. Peter’s denial was in threes. Now his expression of love in in threes. Each of his affirmations counters one of his denials, and so Peter is restored to the community of disciples. You notice that Jesus does not overtly forgive Peter. The denials are left in place. Yet, Peter is restored to the community, with his imperfections in place. He belongs, once again, just as he is.
I think Peter, here, is, as he often is, a foil for us. He represents us in the ways we belong to community with all our doubts and denials, with all our failings and betrayals. He is accepted and loved by Jesus, just as we are, with both our intentions to love and our bad behavior. Love, as we know, covers a multitude of sin.
But we’re not simply restored to community – an act we live out symbolically each Sunday in the confession, absolution and the peace – and then left there. We are given something to do with our love. We are given a purpose for our love to carry out, however imperfectly.
The heavenly banquet, the marriage banquet, is an ancient symbol for the kingdom of God. In the Hebrew tradition the marriage banquet was the closest approximation to heaven on earth. Jesus took this symbolic banquet and transformed it several times in his ministry – in his eating with tax collectors and sinners, in the foot-washing at the Passover meal, and here, on the beach. These are homelier metaphors, but still rich in meaning and power. The difference in the way Jesus constructs these meals is that he does not simply preside. He does not simply invite the guests. Rather, he provides. He serves the guests, and he offers himself as the meal. It is a banquet in which the king and server are the same. On the beach, he cooks the meal over a charcoal fire and serves the disciples.
And just as in the foot-washing, where Jesus models the behavior he wants, he again models our work as Christians. As he feeds the disciples, he commands them, “Feed my sheep.”
Feeding ministries have always been important in the church, perhaps in part, because of this reading. But I think Jesus means something deeper than food here. I think Jesus means the whole person: body, mind and spirit. And those to be fed are greater than simply the disciples, the few who believe. They are, in fact, the lost sheep of Israel; the “all people” Jesus says will be drawn to him when he is raised on the cross.
Jesus says to Peter, if you love me, come as you are, and feed my people; share my love with the world, bring my good news to everyone. This is not about making converts, although some may be converted. It’s about lighting fires, and making a meal, and sharing breakfast on the beach. It is about reaching out to people in their ordinary lives – as fisherman or lobstermen or bankers or lawyers or shopkeepers – and helping them find abundant life.
The Good News of Easter is not reserved to those of us who believe. It is offered to the whole world. And it is conveyed in simple acts of love and service to others by people who are both saints and sinners, people who love God and deny God all at once. Today’s Gospel is the perfect message for us, in our own bewilderment, and for a world that is no longer certain about God.
May we, on this third Sunday of Easter, reach to our neighbors and say, “Children, come and have breakfast.” Amen.
Easter Day – March 27, 2016
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Francis by the Sea, Blue Hill
When Mary went to the tomb in the garden, she was filled with grief. Her hopes for Israel, her hopes for the rabbi she followed, the one she hoped was her Messiah, were shattered. Moreover, her relationship with the one she called “my teacher” was lost. Her friend, her confidant, her teacher, the one who had lifted her from the troubles of her life and put her on a new path, was dead. Her heart was sore, her eyes burned, her lungs ached from crying. And she went to the tomb to grieve, perhaps to see again that he was dead.
But he was gone. The tomb was open, and the body was missing. She could only think that someone had taken him away. She went for her fellow disciples; Peter and the one whom Jesus loved. They came and looked, but they weren’t much help. They went back home.
So deeply embedded was Mary in her grief that a vision of angels could not lift her. She did not respond with awe and wonder. She did not respond with joy. She did not wait to hear their response to her grieving words, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
She turned away, blinded by tears, and nearly ran into Jesus. But she did not recognize him. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Then Jesus said, “Mary.”
Mary – nothing more. Just her name. And with her name, Jesus broke through her grief, caught her attention, called her to herself. And Mary remembered who she was, that she was loved, that she was known in an unbreakable relationship with Jesus.
Jesus did not let her rest in the moment for long. Rather, Jesus sent her back to the disciples to tell them the Good News. “… go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” So she went and she told them, and in so doing became the first preacher of the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection.
And so it is for us. The Resurrection is a story for each of us, calling us to ourselves, and sending us out.
Identity, you know, is not an individual project. Much as we Americans might like to think otherwise, we don’t decide for ourselves who we are. Rather, identity is formed in the context of our relationships, in the relationships we have first with the ones who named us, and in the relationships we develop as we move out into the world. “Ubuntu,” the Africans call it. “I am because we are.” We are as we are known.
And the deepest truth about ourselves is the relationship we have with God: the truth that we were created in the image of our loving God, who called us out the depths by name and loves us with a love greater than death, and who gives into our hands the work of sharing the Good News of God’s love. The great good news of Easter is that God’s love cannot be broken – ever – and that, from beyond death, God calls us to share what we know with the world around us.
This Easter morn is breaking over a shaken and grieving world. We pray today for the people of Brussels, for all those who have died in so many places, and for the souls of those who visited such evil on innocent people. But there is more to do.
All around us are voices calling us to violence, calling us to hate those who are different, inviting us to consider military action as the solution to the problems that confront us. And, truth be told, many of us are afraid. Many of us wish there were a quick fix, an easy solution, a resolution that didn’t require us to offer ourselves as part of the work that needs to be done. But as we know from our own history, frightened people can do terrible things. The world will be healed only if we are all part of the healing and bring our gifts to the table.
Jesus, we must remember, was crucified for religious and political offenses. And from the cross he begged forgiveness for his executioners. In the resurrection, Jesus speaks our names and calls us to ourselves. Jesus reminds us that we are loved beyond all counting with a love stronger than death. And then he sends us with a message – I have seen the Lord, and I know his love.
May this Easter be a time of coming to yourself. May you know you are loved and may you find your voice. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.
Lent 4 – March 6, 2016
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Ann’s, Windham
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus tells three parables in response to that charge by the Pharisees and scribes, that he welcomes sinners and breaks bread with them. The first parable is the story of the lost sheep, about the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the one who is lost. The second is the story of the woman who loses one of ten coins and turns the house upside down until she finds it. And the third is the story of the two lost sons. Each of the stories includes a description of the great joy of the finder in recovering what was lost. This joy, says Jesus, is the very joy of the angels in heaven that the lost have been found. Jesus, in other words, eats with sinners because God rejoices over the recovery of the lost.
Yet the stories are not simple or straightforward. They’re not just little dramas with happy endings. Because in his telling, Jesus depicts behaviors of characters who seem a little off, who behave in ways that seem unlikely, unreasonable, even dangerous. There is the shepherd, who unwisely leaves the whole herd unattended so he can find the one sheep. There is the careless woman, who nonetheless still has nine silver coins, still has the bulk of what was probably her dowry, and yet tears the house apart. And there is the undignified father who allows himself to be repeatedly insulted by his ungrateful sons and does not require discipline or punishment. What kind of folks are these who are so crazily joyous at the recovery of the lost?
In asking the question, I’m actually asking the same question the Pharisees were asking: Why is God concerned with sinners? Why does God sit at table, an act of respect and equality, with sinners? Is not God concerned with righteousness? Is not God concerned with justice? The shepherd who foolishly leaves the flock unattended is a bad steward, asking for disaster. The woman who tears her house apart must not trust her husband to care for her. The father who has two sons does not respect his own dignity enough to demand love and respect from his sons. Is this who God is?
Let me suggest to you that today’s Gospel is not about lostness — we’re all lost more or less. It’s rather about grace, and our responses to receiving grace. And the fact is, we have trouble with grace. Because grace isn’t fair. Grace isn’t just. Grace doesn’t give people what they deserve but, rather, what God wants to give them.
Grace, as all these parables make clear, is about the outpouring of God’s love. And God’s love for us is simply beyond all reason. There is no limit to the lengths God will go to care for us. There is no limit…
Consider again, the parable of the two sons. The younger son asks for his – the lesser – share of the inheritance he will one day receive. He might as well ask for his father to be dead. Yet his father gives it to him. Far from being grateful, the younger son runs off with it and spends it and ends up practically starving to death. And so – still not grateful, but now envious of his father’s servants – he comes home to eat. His repentance speech, well rehearsed as it is, seems a bit short on sincerity. Yet the father welcomes him. Runs to embrace him. And restores him to the household with all the symbols of his status as an heir – a robe, a ring, sandals. The younger son, repentant or not, is restored to the bosom of his father with great rejoicing. We don’t know if the younger son, even now, feels grateful.
The older son, diligent and dutiful, seems equally ungrateful. He has not lost his share of the inheritance. Yet he seems embarrassed by his father’s behavior and envious of his father’s joy that his brother is alive. So he refuses to come in. Refuses to take his place at the head of table as the elder son and heir. The parable ends without telling us if the elder son relented and went into the party. Perhaps he refused the grace that was offered.
Which brings us full circle, and back to the original charge… this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. The Pharisees and scribes sound like the elder brother.
But grace, you see, is not dependent on our response. All the stories are about God’s action reaching out in love for the one that was lost. The unmerited offering of love is what God does. God rejoices to do it. And all heaven lights up when the lost one is found.
The key here, my friends, is joy – God’s joy. God loves you so much that he will reach out to you no matter the cost. And if you are found, when you are found, God’s joy knows no bounds. It’s crazy. There is no scale, no measure, that makes sense of it. It’s unbalanced. It takes no regard for what one deserves. God is a giddy lover who falls all over himself to love you, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done.
All this should put us in mind of Good Friday and the cross: the supreme act of God’s crazy love. God hung on the cross to show us that the worst we could do was not enough to turn God away from us. The whole idea has made us so uncomfortable that we’ve spent centuries trying to turn the cross into a rebalancing of the scales, an act whereby God imposed his justice on the sacrificial offering of Jesus’ body. Substitutionary atonement is what scholars call it. But such an understanding can’t account for God’s joy; God’s joy that foolish, careless, selfish, wasteful, ungrateful, self-righteous, hard-hearted sinners like you and me might return to the table and sit down for a meal.
During these weeks of Lent, we’ve been considering how we can recover something of our true identity, how we can remember who we are as God’s beloved, how we can be more responsible and accountable for the lives we lead. And all that is well and good. But it’s important to remember that none of this is about earning God’s love. It’s not about merit. It’s not about how good we are or how hard we work. It’s about remembering how deeply we are loved and accepting that love. As Paul puts it, “In Christ, God has made us his new creation. Everything old has passed away, and see, everything has been made new!”
Lent 3 – February 28, 2016
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Church@209, Augusta: Prince of Peace Lutheran/St. Mark’s Episcopal
Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
I bring you greetings from [ELCA New England Synod] Bishop Hazelwood, who sends his love and encouragement to you. Bishop Jim and I believe that what you are doing is important and right, and we support you in continuing your life together. We have no doubt God is with us on this journey.
The context for our Gospel this morning is the continuing conversation about the relationship between sin and grace. And the particular aspect we’re addressing this morning has to do with suffering. Is suffering a test? Or is it, perhaps, punishment for sin?
The two examples cited in the Gospel are the slaughter of some Galilean pilgrims by Pilate – their blood was mixed with the blood of their sacrifices – and the collapse of tower in Jerusalem’s wall, which crushed some 18 people. And Jesus asks outright, “Do you think their deaths were the result of their sin? Were they somehow worse than average sinners, whose sins deserved these awful deaths?”
Jesus answers his own question. “No. They were not.” Their deaths were not the result of their sin… “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
A subtle answer. Their deaths were not the result of their sin… but sin leads to death.
Clearly, I think, there was sin involved in these death. Pilate, the governor, ordered the deaths of the pilgrims while they were making their sacrifices at the Temple. Pilate was a murderer, a notoriously brutal dictator. The deaths of the pilgrims were the result of Pilate’s sin.
And the collapsing tower may well have had to do with shoddy workmanship or poor materials. Maybe the builder got by on the cheap. That would be sin. Or perhaps, this was just a matter of chance, of people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The deaths were simply a matter of the freedom built into the nature of things: gravity caused poorly secured rocks to fall.
You’ll notice here that Jesus does not engage in a defense of the way God has made the universe. Suffering and death are part of the reality of human life. Death may be caused by sin. Death may be caused by happenstance. But death exists.
But neither sin nor chance are reasons for us to avoid our own responsibility for the lives we lead. The sin we do can also lead to death. It is a warning to look to ourselves, not to seek excuses elsewhere.
Jesus then tells a lovely little story about a barren fruit tree. A fruit tree is meant to produce fruit. If it fails to produce fruit, the just thing to do is to pull it up, so that it does not waste resources. A fruit tree that does not produce fruit is wastrel, a sinner.
But the gardener begs for mercy. (BTW, I don’t think this story is an allegory. Jesus is not the gardener, and God is not the landowner. Such a reading would not fit with the rest of Luke.) The gardener says, let’s give it some care. Let’s loosen the hard earth and fertilize the tree and give it a year, and perhaps it will produce fruit. Let’s give it some time to turn around.
A black and white world of cause and effect, of sin and justice, is softened by the mercy of God, who gives more time than justice requires for the sinner to produce fruit.
Turning around is a metaphor for repentance. To experience a change of mind. To go from being barren to fruitful. Repentance is the work of Lent.
I think for a lot of Christians, one of the genuine impediments to a life of faith is that life is hard. Somehow it all seems so unfair. A good God should not allow a hard life. People should not get sick and die. People should not have trouble getting along. People should not be poor or oppressed or at war… and they are. Death happens.
But the fact of suffering and death isn’t the issue. The issue is how we live our lives, how we manage our own struggles with sin. And… God is merciful. God desires not the death of sinners, but that we might turn and live. God gives us more time than justice requires.
All of which says to me that the life of faith is a work in progress. We are not perfect – and not likely to be in the short term. But we are responsible and accountable for the lives we lead. God is inviting us to bear fruit and is giving us time to respond.
We are in the midst of a work in progress here at the Church@209, and I think we’ve experienced a bump in the road. The hoped for coming together of four congregations has been delayed for a bit as people reconsider what it is they want. Why can’t this be simple? Why can’t this just work out? Why does it need to be so painful? Well, because relationships among free human beings are often difficult. We may have forgotten that there have been other bumps along the way, and that the good relationships that do exist have been earned by a lot of love and forgiveness.
What gives us hope – in Lent, on this journey, in our lives – is not that we might somehow escape suffering, but that God loves us. God loves us enough to give us some more time, to loosen our soil, to fertilize our roots, to let us grow. The realities of today are not the final realities. The possibilities for turning around, of bearing fruit, still lie before us.
And we’re not finished here either. The path hasn’t been all that smooth, but a tower hasn’t fallen us yet. We haven’t been perfect, but God loves us any way. Today, as on every day, God calls us to turn toward him and to listen to his Son. God invites us to claim our place as his Beloved Children and to join him in the work of reconciliation. It’s in that spirit that we continue on our journey of faith. God is faithful, and we will not be tested beyond our strength.
In the burial office of The Book of Common Prayer there’s a prayer that goes like this:
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that, when we have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our ancestors, having the testimony of a good conscience, in the communion of the Church, in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of reasonable, religious and holy hope; in favor with thee our God; and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let all the people say, Amen.
Ash Wednesday – February 10, 2016
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Luke’s Cathedral, Portland
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The apostle Paul wrote: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Be reconciled to God. It was Paul’s understanding that the whole purpose of God’s work with the created order is reconciliation – the restoration of right relationships among all beings and with God. It is a restoration of original harmony, of God’s intentions for creation. It is a restoration of proper relationship between creatures and with the earth. It is a restoration of the original blessedness that God declared when God saw all that he had created and called it good.
The means God chose for this reconciliation was to send his son among us, to share our lives, to know what it means to be human, to suffer in the ways that human beings suffer – hurting and betraying one another – and then to overcome our death-dealing with resurrection. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are made whole, made new, and restored to God and one another. The orthodox call this divinization: Christ was made human that we might become divine. As Athanasius of Alexandria, the 4th c theologian, put it: “For He was made man that we might be made God.”
Divinization, my dear friends, is the purpose of Lent. The goal of all the self-examination and study, of the giving up or taking on, is that we might become more nearly like Christ in our behavior toward God and one another. That’s why we spend so much energy on Lenten disciplines. It’s not a trivial matter. It’s not simply about bettering oneself, or increasing one’s charitable giving. It’s about taking our part in the ministry of reconciliation.
The way we do that, Paul says, is to recognize first that today is the day. There is no need to wait for another. Today is the right time to begin. Right now. And we begin the process of divinization by throwing ourselves into the paradoxical hurly-burly of life – by being servants of one another and of the world. As servants of the Crucified One we will experience what he experienced: great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger. And we will live as he lived: by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.
The word we, in English, translate as ministry is, in Greek, service, servanthood and, even, slavery. Ministry has overtones of administration, bureaucracy and management. It’s something we do, that we direct. But servanthood means being owned by another, belonging to another; in Paul’s understanding, the Lord God. We are called into Christ’s service, invited to serve God and God’s world.
So the disciplines of Lent are not, as Matthew makes so clear, for show. They are meant to draw us closer to the heart of the matter: dependence on God alone and service offered to God’s world – the whole world: you and me, our neighbors and friends, and the homeless men and women right outside our doors. Reconciliation is for everyone.
All across the United States today, clergy in several traditions are offering Ashes to Go. Here in Portland, Episcopalians, Lutherans and UCCs are sharing that ministry. It’s a way of taking the church out from behind closed doors, to show the world that we care, that we have something to offer. But the more important reason to offer Ashes to Go may be to show us that the world is the place where our ministry is to take place. Street people don’t really need ashes. They already know they are dust. But we need to know that the reconciliation of the world does not take place in church, but on the frontlines; the frontlines of street ministry, public policy, climate justice and all the rest – in the hurly-burly world for which Christ died.
What we do in this Lent is not about drawing inward, about drawing apart to perfect our spiritual life. It is rather a movement to engage, to engage with God and God’s world so that we become instruments of God’s reconciling love. May we in this Lent see that Christ has joined us in our sinfulness that we might join Christ in his righteous love. May it be so. Amen.
Last Epiphany – February 7, 2016
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Patrick’s, Brewer
We come today to the end of the Season of Epiphany and to the last of the great signs revealing who this Jesus, this child born in a manger, truly is. We have seen the visit of the shepherds, the gifts of the Magi, the wine turned to water, Jesus’ baptism… and now we have this: Jesus transfigured on the holy mountain and revealed to be the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Here is Jesus, son of God and Messiah, heir of Moses and Elijah, transfigured before his disciples. After this revelation, Jesus strides down the mountain to Jerusalem and the cross. Lent begins this coming Wednesday.
We could spend a lot of time trying to explain what happened on the holy mountain, but I think to do so would miss the point. What we need to look at is what the story says about Jesus and about faith in Jesus.
Luke is clearly telling us that in Jesus we see the glory of God fully revealed. From Jesus emanates the glory of God, the light which also illuminated the face of Moses when he had been talking with God. Moreover, Jesus is the fulfillment of the traditions and the expectations of Israel. He is the fulfillment of the Law. He is the one long prophesied. He is the Messiah of God. He is worthy to be worshiped, as Peter wants to do.
But worship is not sufficient. What’s required is that we listen to Jesus and, by implication, that we do what he teaches. In the oral tradition that predates literacy, the verb, “to hear,” actually meant to act on what one heard. The proof of the listening was the action that followed. If one did not respond, then, clearly, one had not heard. Listening wasn’t a passive activity, but rather an action going forward. God says listen to Jesus: follow him, act like him.
And then there is silence. Nothing is said about the glory. First of all, it’s beyond description. And secondly, the glory is not the point, but what comes next.
Jesus heads down the mountain and goes from the mountaintop experience of glory to the gritty, chaotic realities of life in this world. He encounters a man whose son is possessed by a demon, a demon that has been throwing him about and wounding him, a demon that Jesus’ disciples have been unable to heal, unable to control. Jesus is frustrated by their lack of faith, by their lack of conviction. He casts out the demon and the crowd is astounded by the power of God, the very power about which they said nothing as they came down the mountain.
The glory of God is revealed not simply in the light emanating from the figure of Christ, but in the healing done in God’s name, in the work and the faith of Jesus’ disciples.
It’s been said that we must rescue Jesus from the church, the fatal flaw of the church has been that we have worshiped Jesus instead of following him. We have been content to build booths in which to stay a little while with Jesus, but have not been willing to follow him down the mountain to share in the work of healing and reconciliation. We have been content to bask in the reflected light of Jesus while all around us God’s sons and daughters die of poverty, disease and war. We have been happy that Jesus was transfigured, but we have not looked for our own transfiguration.
Now we are not Jesus, to be sure. We are not even Moses or Elijah. But we surely are disciples, and, surely, we are meant to be transfigured: to grow up into Christ, to reflect Christ’s glory, to live new lives. Surely we are called to follow Jesus as much as to worship him.
Today’s Gospel reading is also used on the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6, a date which is also the date of the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. On that day the glory of God is talked about in different ways, as the light of God and the light of the atom, a light that can be used for peace or for the destruction of all we know. On that day we talk about exchanging the nuclear light for the light of Christ and beating our swords into plowshares. On that day we talk about taking action for the sake of the world, on being transfigured for the sake of peace. I think we might bring some of that same sensibility to our worship this morning.
The glory of the Lord God is revealed in the work we do in healing and reconciling God’s world. We cannot overcome the demons of poverty, famine, war and climate change, we cannot help those possessed by drug addiction or alcohol abuse, we cannot free the world from its addiction to wealth and power, unless we move out from our tents, from the walls of our churches, and “rebuke the unclean spirits of the powers that be.” (Claudio Carvalhaes) In worshiping Jesus, we must be ourselves be transformed.
When I was a seminary student, one of my professors shared an image of the church that has stayed with me. It’s an image of the church as breathing: breathing in, gathering God’s people to be inspired, to be nourished; and breathing out, sending God’s people into the world, carrying God’s breath, God’s spirit, to inspire others. I like that image a lot. It seems to me that that’s what the life of faith is like. But it also seems to me that we, as the church, have actually been holding our breath for a long time. We’ve been breathing in as though that were sufficient, as though the goal were to inhale as many people as possible and to inspire them and, then, to keep them right there inside the tent. When, in fact, the goal is for all of us to follow Christ into the neighborhoods, the schools and bars, the businesses and shops, to breathe life into those places.
On the mountain God said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” We too have been chosen by God. We too are beloved of God. May we in our worship seek to be transformed into Christ’s likeness, and may we follow him down the mountain and into the world. Amen.
29 January 2016
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
at the Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark
Acts 26:9-21; Galatians 1:11-24; Matthew 10:16-22 (The Conversion of St Paul)
Delighted to be with you and to see many old friends from my years in Province II…
The Judaism that Saul was striving fiercely to defend was a complex thing. It was a monotheistic religion that had survived captivity, exile and return. It was centered on Temple worship and sacrifice, but experienced mostly in the home and through close attention to daily living. Devout Jews, under the tutelage of the Pharisees, attempted to live holy lives, Temple lives, every day.
Judaism was also a people, a nation, made up of twelve tribes joined by a long history, tracing their ancestry back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Judaism was a race and a family. One was Jewish because one’s mother was Jewish. One remained Jewish by keeping oneself separate from the world of strangers all around.
The Roman Empire and its corrupt Herodian clients made a hash of all that. The Romans exercised strict control, forced the use of a blasphemous monetary system, laid a heavy burden of civil taxes which made religious taxation onerous, turned neighbors into traitors and informers, made it difficult for people to trust one another. And so the guardians of the faith doubled down, tried harder, worked overtime to make the nation pure before God.
No wonder then that the new Jewish sect that followed the rabbi, Jesus, was so hated by the religious authorities. These Christians, like the Samaritans before them, preached apostasy and blasphemy. They were members of the family turned foul, betraying the faith, and putting the whole community at risk. Saul hunted them down with a vengeance reserved for violators of the family’s honor. They were insiders turned outsiders, brothers and neighbors turned strangers, defilers of the long-treasured hope for a messiah. The Christians violated the continuity of faith, family and nation. They insinuated a divide, that faith could be separated from family and nation, and they needed to be wiped out.
Saul was not alone in his righteousness. A similar understanding of faith and family is found in Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer, who is faithful in keeping the Law, wants to be affirmed in his understanding of the Law, and so he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” And he expects to hear that the neighbor is one who is close to him, in his neighborhood or village, or a member of his clan or his tribe. But he learns to his great discomfort that a neighbor is simply one who acts as a neighbor, who responds to someone in need. “Go,” says Jesus, “and do likewise.” Be like that Samaritan.
Like the lawyer, Saul discovers on the Damascus Road that his understanding of what God wants is faulty and that, indeed, he has been set apart for the purpose of spreading the reign of God from before his birth. Paul learns that this good news belongs not only to the Jews, but to the wider world, the Gentiles, the nations, the not-Jews, as well.
It is not much of a stretch to think of our Episcopal Church as a tribe. We’re very clear that The Episcopal Church has the best stuff. We can teach Rome how to worship and the Baptists how to interpret scripture. People only need to come into the church to discover what they’re missing. All they need, they can find in our family, our clan.
But as Paul discovered, the vocation we’ve been given is not to get people join us. The call we have is to witness to Jesus in the world around us, to share what we’ve been given among the nations, to be people who act as neighbors to the world.
This is not easy. Like the Jews or the early Christians before us, we today are often viewed as narrow, judgmental, and inhospitable. Our purpose is unclear, our rituals are strange, our music out of date. We seem interested more in our own survival than in care for our neighbors. The churches, it is thought, each sell their own version of the good stuff, competing with one another over which is the best. A genuine sense of care for the world, of what happens to our neighbors or the poor or the weak is often not seen as part of our identity. Our efforts at advertising and marketing do not seem effective in changing this view.
Paul, as we know, left Damascus and traveled throughout the Mideast and Asia Minor, meeting folks in small groups, in home and synagogues, in marketplaces and public squares, sharing, preaching, the love of God he knew in his heart, that he had experienced on the Damascus Road. It was difficult and dangerous work, making Paul vulnerable to the derision and hostility of Jews and Gentiles alike. But Paul had this gift, the love of God that had been poured into his heart – not because he deserved it, but because God had chosen him – and he could not but share what he had been given.
And that’s the really good stuff we all have to share: the love of God poured into our hearts.
When I was a seminary student, one of my professors shared an image of the church that has stayed with me. It’s an image of the church as breathing: breathing in, gathering God’s people to be inspired, to be nourished; and breathing out, sending God’s people into the world, carrying God’s breath, God’s spirit, to inspire others. I like that image a lot. It seems to me that that’s what the life of faith is like. But it also seems to me that we, as the church, have actually been holding our breath for a long time. We’ve been breathing in as though that were sufficient, as though the goal were to inhale as many people as possible and to inspire them and, then, to keep them right where they are. When, in fact, the goal is to send them into the neighborhoods, the schools and bars, the businesses and shops, to breathe life into those places. That’s what it means to be sent to the Gentiles. And it’s best done face to face, in small groups, over coffee or a beer, as neighbors.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins with Peter’s Confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the son of God. And it ends with Paul’s proclamation that there can be no limits placed on this good news. It is intended by God to be shared with absolutely everyone.
As we struggle with what it means to be the church in this age, as we wrestle with the required duties of our common life as parishes and diocese, may we remember our high calling. God has chosen us to carry the good news of God’s love to the world. We have been chosen to bring God’s spirit to a weary world, not because we deserve this high calling, but because God loves us. Our hope is not rooted in our own abilities or the survival of our institutions, but the love of God which fills us, which pulls the scales from our eyes, and sends us out.
May it be so. Amen.
Christmas Eve 2015
St. Luke’s Cathedral, Portland
Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
For the first time in a long time, we mark the birth of Jesus when many Americans are afraid, when the night around us seems dark and deep. Some of us are frightened by world events, by the reach of foreign terrorists, by mass shootings. Some of us are baffled by rapid cultural changes, by the presence groups speaking Spanish or Bari or Arabic. Some of us are frightened by our increasingly divided culture – left and right, haves and have-nots – by our seeming inability to get along with people who are different. Some of us are worried about a sputtering economy, about declining real income, about the scarcity of jobs for young adults. Some of us fear to contemplate the future as the planet warms and the sea levels rise. We worry about the world our grandchildren will inherit. And some of us bring deeply personal fears, about life and health, about severed relationships, about addiction. There’s a lot going on in each of us. Whatever it is that gnaws at you tonight, the story of Jesus’ birth is for you.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. So great was the reach and power of the Roman Empire that the emperor could, in fact, decree that every Palestinian man should return to his ancestral community to be registered – to be identified for a tax that would, cruelly, pay for the occupation. Bad enough to be conquered. Worse to pay for it. Worse still to trek on foot back to your ancestral city to be counted like so many sheep.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. There were so many people in Bethlehem for the registration that there was no room for them in the family quarters of any relative’s home. So someone kindly gave them shelter in that part of their home where the animals were kept. At least they were warm and out of the weather.
Little people. In a fearful time. An unwed mother and her betrothed pushed to and fro by a great and distant power. Yet, as Luke tells the story, it wasn’t the great ones who made the difference. It wasn’t Caesar or Quirinius. Not the ones with the money or the weapons. Instead Luke tells of the quiet power of God working through little people to change the world; people who had nothing to give, but their faithfulness. People who said “yes” to God.
Mary said “yes” to God when the angel told her God had chosen her, when all her experience and everything in her culture would have told her to run away as fast as she could. Joseph said “yes” to God when the moral standards of the day would have had him put Mary out and expose her to shame and abuse. Together these two prepared to bring God into the world.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. A great light burst in the heavens to the sound of singing. And the poor shepherds, vagabonds, some little better than thieves, were overwhelmed. But they said, “yes” and went to see.
And what did they see? …to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. A baby. Wrapped in swaddling cloths. Lying in a feeding trough. This child is the Lord, the savior of the world?
Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The angel, the pregnancy, the baby, the shepherds? What does it all mean? The story of Jesus’ birth is many things, but it may be most of all the story of ordinary people who found the courage to say “yes” to God. Ordinary folk who felt the love of God in their hearts, who grabbed at hope when it was offered to them, and never looked back. People living under the boot of the greatest power the world had ever known, people who had no freedom, no rights, no prospects, yet who still could imagine a better world.
The Christmas story tells us that all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, it is love that powers the universe. God loves each us – you and me – so much that God has come to be with us. And all appearances to the contrary, the changes that matter are not made in the halls of government or the seats of power, but in the hearts of people who turn their eyes to the light and their hearts to a better world, who refuse to let the terrors of the world draw them from the love of God.
Were Mary and Joseph afraid? I have no doubt. The shepherds were terrified. But God had put it in their hearts to believe God’s promises, and that seemed to them better than the world around them.
And God has done the same for us. God has put in us an unquenchable thirst for a better world: a world in which strangers become neighbors and neighbors live in peace; a world in which justice and truth prevail in the halls of power; a world in which ordinary folk change the world.
That’s you and me. Tonight’s our night. God is with us. God has chosen you and kindled the flame of his love in your heart. May each of you, in your own way, say, “Yes.” Amen.
Advent 3 – December 13, 2015
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Trinity Church, Portland
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
This is the second week that Luke has described in some depth the ministry of the John the Baptist. Last week we heard how the Word of God came, not to the famous leaders whom Luke named to locate the time and place of his Gospel, but to a nobody named John. And this week Luke tells us something about John’s preaching. John’s preaching was both arresting and straightforward.
“You brood of vipers,” John thundered at the people who’d come to hear him. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Wow, pretty hair raising stuff. This is a prophet of the apocalypse, the end of time.
But when the crowd asked him what that they should do, he replied simply, “Be kind. (Share your coats.) Be honest. (Collect only what is your due.) Eschew violence. (Do not extort money with threats.)” Really… that’s what we need to do? Act with kindness and integrity? Refrain from violence?
What’s the connection between the apocalypse, the end of the old era, and simple acts of Christian love?
It might help us to recall that the people who listened to John were not all Jews, and they did not all like each other. In fact among them were tax collectors, considered by most Jews to be traitors, and the soldiers who enforced those collections at the point of a sword. These were folks who had already treated each other badly. They were folks for whom simple acts of kindness toward one another might well have been out of the question. And John tells them to behave toward one another as they would toward members of their own families or their own clans.
The parallels to our own time could not be clearer. We in this country are living in a time of division and distrust the likes of which we have not seen for many decades. We live in a time when political differences lead people to call one another traitors. We live in a time when we don’t know, let alone like, our neighbors. We live in a time when difference, of color, ethnicity or religion, is sufficient to hate someone. We live in a time of unprecedented gun violence, when more than 30,000 Americans are killed with a gun every year. Many of those deaths are suicides. Many of those deaths are murders at the hands of friends and family. And we talk about those deaths as if they were simply a normal part of American life, as if 30,000 deaths were simply the expected price of the right to own a gun. And we seem to think that there is nothing to do.
But there is much that we can and must do. Today is the Gun Violence Sabbath, a day when we pause in prayer to remember all those who have died, a day when we consider what we might do to help bring the epidemic of gun violence to an end. And the place to begin, I think, is with John the Baptist.
You see, for John, the context that mattered was not the occupation of Palestine by the Roman Empire. It was not the rule of the corrupt Herodian pretenders to the throne of Israel. It was not the hypocrisy of the leaders of the Jewish religious establishment. All these things were true. They needed to be addressed. Those realities were what made John’s hearers a brood of vipers. But they were not what mattered.
What mattered for John was that Jesus was coming. There was a new world order just beyond the horizon, a world in which, as Mary proclaimed, the powerful are pulled from their thrones, and the lowly are raised up. And this world, the coming world, required a new standard of behavior. The normative behavior of the old world was not sufficient. What was required now was to live by the standard of the new world: to live kindly, honestly and peaceably. As John said, “…one more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Or as Zephaniah put it, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love…”
John puts before us a question and a choice. The question is: What world will we live in? Whom will we follow? Will we live in the old world that is passing away? Or will we live in the world that is coming? Will we follow Caesar or Herod? Or we follow Jesus? Our choice.
And if we choose to follow Jesus, then we live each day loving our neighbor, welcoming the stranger, getting to know those who are different, putting our rights and needs in the context of the whole community. The first step in controlling the epidemic of gun violence is simply to assert that everyone has a right to live safely in their own home.
What seems so simple, perhaps even simplistic, was, for John, the whole package. To prepare for the coming of the Messiah meant to turn away from the familiar life of selfishness, dishonesty and violence. It was turn to away from a life where might meant right. It was to turn toward a life where people saw themselves as children of one father, brothers and sisters despite their differences. And it was to live according to the loving kindness of God.
No doubt many who heard John thought he was crazy. Perhaps you do, too. But on this third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday when we rejoice that God is coming among us, I invite you to consider that John was right, both then and now. Amen.
Advent 2 – December 6, 2015
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Paul’s, Brunswick
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6
Luke, the historian, begins the third chapter of his Gospel, by carefully locating the events he describes in terms of the well known leaders of his day: Caesar, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas. It’s a bit like saying, “In the sixth year of Obama’s presidency, when LePage was governor of Maine, during the episcopate of Stephen…” Luke wants us to know precisely when and where these things happened.
But then Luke says, “…the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah.” The word of God came not to a single one of the famous people listed, but rather to a nobody, the son of one Zechariah, a minor priest at the Temple in Jerusalem. It is not through the major actors, the people of power and wealth, that God works. In Luke, God always works through nobodies: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and John… People about whom nothing is extraordinary, nothing save their faithfulness. What lifts each of them to another plane is their willingness to say, “Yes.” And it is through them that God announces and promises a new world order in which, as Mary puts it,
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Magnificat Luke 1:51-53
Moreover, Luke explicitly links John with Isaiah, with the tradition of Jewish expectations. John is the prophet announcing the coming of the Messiah in the wilderness; one who will smooth the rough places, fill the valleys, level the mountains, creating a highway for God to come among the people. Luke, I think, intends for us to remember the sojourn of the people of Israel in the wilderness, the time when Moses led them from bondage in Egypt and prepared them for the promised land.
The wilderness time was not easy for the Israelites, as you may recall. They had to let go of all they knew, and they often wished to return to the comfortable shackles of slavery, to the certainties of hard labor, but with plentiful food and water. More importantly, they had to trust God and God’s servant, Moses, that God had something better in mind for them, that the wilderness was a place that would prepare them for the promised land.
Nobodies, the wilderness and the promises of God: the way God makes things new.
We often lament the times we live in, the ways in which the verities of another era seem to have passed away. We lament changes in church and society, the loss of establishment status for our church, the fact that fewer and fewer people seem interested in the church we love so much. And we long for days of peace, when the fierce partisanship and the frightening violence of our time might pass away. We wish there were something we could do about it, but it all seems so great, so much beyond our control.
Let me suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, these are our wilderness days and that we are the nobodies God has chosen to do God’s will.
I don’t think that what’s happening to us is simply the result of secularization and consumerism, although there is no doubt a crisis in American values. And I don’t think that God has abandoned us. Rather, I think that, as always, God is doing a new thing. God is leading us from the comforts of Egypt into a wilderness where can get clear again about who God is and who we are and where we can be prepared to share the good news with our neighbors.
And why would God choose us? Who are we? If it were up to me, I’d pick Barack… But, you know, it’s not up to me. God has always chosen to work through ordinary folks. And the changes never take place in Jerusalem or Rome or Washington, but in Nazareth and Galilee (and Brunswick), places where ordinary people live.
How will the Gospel be preached? When we follow God into our neighborhoods to share it with new found friends. How will gun violence end? When we find our voices and work with people very different from ourselves to end it. When we join Mary in singing her Magnificat, rejoicing over a world turned upside down.
John the Baptist presents the other face of the coming of God in Jesus. The coming is not only sweet and innocent, but, as Malachi proclaims, strong, even harsh. The messenger is like a refiner’s fire or soap made of lye. Impurities will be burned or stripped away so that we can be made ready for God to come among us.
Like Elizabeth and Mary, Zechariah and Joseph, before us, we are presented with a question. Will we be the ordinary ones who say, “yes,” to God? Will we, like the Israelites, follow God into the wilderness to be prepared and transformed? Will we trust God’s promises enough to hang on even in dark and difficult times?
The good news of Jesus is that it will certainly be through people like us, ordinary folk, that God changes the world. It will be our voices who welcome the stranger and silence the guns. And it will be we ourselves who learn to be a new church for a new day. On this second Sunday of Advent may we, trusting in our God, begin to prepare the way of the Lord, to fill the valleys, level the hills, smooth the rough spots, so that God can come among us.
The 175th Anniversary of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Augusta
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
November 22, 2015
Our Gospel lesson for St. Mark is the so-called “Longer Ending” of the Gospel. Scholars suggest that later editors added it because they could not stand Mark’s original ending – the one that left the disciples stunned and fearful on the morning of the Resurrection. Mark knew, no doubt, that there is no neat ending to a story that concludes with the resurrection from the dead. But later generations understood that something more did take place. The disciples did recover. They faced their fears and the all too real threats to their lives, and they preached the Good News everywhere.
I think, however, that there is no genuine contradiction between the two endings because both speak to the power of life beyond death in the face of a world that believes no such thing.
The events of the last two weeks make it entirely clear what the world believes. The world believes in violence. The world believes that the proper response to violence is more violence. The world believes that people are expendable; people in Syria or Beirut or Paris. And the world believes that the proper response to people in desperate need is to keep them as far away as possible. Let’s keep them out. Let’s put them in databases. Let’s shut down their houses of worship.
But members of kingdom of God believe something different. Members of the kingdom believe that in the face of hardship and loss, in the face of danger, personal or corporate, in the face of demons, snakes or poison, the Good News of God’s love should be preached everywhere – to ISIS, to Russia, to the American Congress. Because the power of love is greater than the power of death. Because new life rises from the death of the old. Because there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God.
We’re here to celebrate the 175th anniversary of St. Mark’s – a remarkable achievement by any measure. We’re here to remember and honor the faithful witnesses to Christ who have served God through St. Mark’s. We’re here to hold up the examples of the faith, our saints, who have inspired us in this place. We do so in a time of great change. It’s unlikely that the next 175 years will be like the first. We find ourselves confronted by the loss of much we have cherished over many generations and faced with uncertainty about how we will continue. Although we dare not compare our situation to much that is happening in our world today, we should acknowledge the fear we feel as we face the future. This is a scary time for us, and we wish there were some sort of guarantee that the future would match our hopes. Our doubts and our fears can poison our efforts.
Mark, our patron, is, therefore, just right for our time. Mark’s Gospel begins with the announcement that the kingdom of God has come near and ends with the description of the disciples going everywhere and facing every danger to preach the Good News.
That’s our call. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s what, as Isaiah puts us, makes us beautiful.
It’s probably helpful to recall that most of the disciples did not survive the days of their proclamation. Many of them were martyred. And many in the early generations of the church suffered great hardship and persecution. That’s not something anyone should desire. But it should put our situation in context. What makes us beautiful is not big buildings or successful programs, but saying to the world, God reigns. Love reigns. Love conquers death.
I am very hopeful about what God is doing here among you. I think God has great plans for you, is calling you to be beautiful proclaimers of God’s love. I think God is inviting all of us to carry the Good News of God’s love into all the world no matter the risks or the dangers. And I believe that God is walking right with us as we go.
God has equipped us with everything we need for this vocation. God has given us ample gifts to do the work we need to do. God is also calling us to be mature, to grow up into Christ, not to be blown back and forth by our doubts and fears. Seeing the main thing as the main thing is the key to our future.
Perhaps the events in our world make it clearer than it would otherwise be what the main thing is. The main thing is the Gospel of life, the good news that life is stronger than death, that love powers the universe. The main thing is preaching that good news, carrying it to all those who need to hear it. The main thing is to recognize that we follow God, we participate in a kingdom, that is not like the kingdoms of this world. Here among friends, at the Church at 209, we see all kinds of life: our shared worship, Mustard Seeds, the ministries out of St. Mark’s parish hall, and so much more. There is life all around us in this place. We need only claim it, and proclaim it.
My prayer for you is that this 175th may be not only a time of remembrance and celebration, but also of renewal and rededication. May the poisonous snakes of our time not deter us from sharing the love of God that is in us.
Pentecost 20 – October 11, 2015
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Church of the Good Shepherd, Houlton
Our Gospel this morning is both one of the most well-known and most troubling of the stories about Jesus: a good man is sent away sorrowing because, despite his goodness, he is not able to do what is necessary to achieve eternal life. And because this story is so clearly a story about wealth – about money and possessions – commentators have tried in various way over the centuries to spiritualize Jesus’ words. It’s not about money, really, it’s about things that get in the way of following Jesus. It’s not about wealth, salvation is a free gift. You can’t buy it. It’s not about wealth, really, but humility, about needing to kneel before God the way a camel kneels to get through the needle gate in the wall of Jerusalem. And on and on. But the passage, I think, is really about wealth.
It may help us here to think about about the world Jesus lived in. First century Palestine was a world of rigid social status. There was no such thing as mobility. People lived and died as peasants or slaves or as members of elite groups. First century Palestine was also an honor/shame culture. Those at the top of the social ladder had the greatest honor. Those at the bottom had the least. Jesus’ disciples were clearly nearer the bottom of the social scale than the top. What everyone tried to do, in one way or another, was to associate with someone of higher social status so that a little honor might rub off.
In this world, wealth and power were understood by definition to be outward signs of divine favor. How else could someone be rich and powerful? Likewise, poverty and illness were understood as outward indications of divine disfavor – that one was not right with God. Indeed some things, like physical imperfection or menstruation, made a person ritually unclean and unfit for association with others or worship at the temple.
So the man who came to see Jesus no doubt understood himself to be favored by God. He had followed the commandments since his youth – at least those having to do with his relationships with others – and he had the signs of divine favor. He had many possessions. And Jesus said to him, if you really want to be right with God – eternally – let go of your possession, give to the poor, and follow me. In other words, let go of your honor. Move down the social scale with me.
Of course, the man grieved. How could he do what Jesus asked? How could he give up the signs of divine favor? Jesus’ disciples were equally confused. They are poor. They hope for a little wealth. If they are good, they deserve it. If the rich can’t be right with God, then who can be? And Jesus acknowledged that it may, indeed, be impossible for human beings, but not for God.
Peter pressed the case. Hey, look, we’ve given up everything for you. Are we to get nothing in return? Is there no reward? And Jesus said, you have the wealth of the kingdom of God, the richness of a new family, new brothers and sisters, and many houses – though they come with persecution. We can imagine that disciples weren’t entirely convinced by this response. In fact, in the very next story, James and John ask for special places at Jesus’ left and right in the kingdom.
We don’t live in 1st century Palestine. And, here in America, we aren’t among the very wealthy. But we are surely, among the people who’ve ever lived, among the most privileged. We do have brothers and sisters, houses and fields – and not much in the way of persecution. We are still upwardly mobile and understand such mobility as a blessing. We live in a society built on the pursuit of wealth – as a noble good. So, I think this reading pokes at us, too.
The real issue here may be that we are dealing with very different definitions of wealth. For the rich man and for the disciples, material wealth and security is what it’s all about. And treating your neighbor fairly. For Jesus, wealth is being surrounded by one’s brothers and sisters secure in God’s love and willing to give fully of oneself for the sake of another. That’s what the kingdom of God is all about. That is the vision of true wealth Jesus is offering.
And it’s almost impossible for us to see it. We are so engaged by the other vision, so enamored of comfort and security, that we have trouble even imagining another world where all people are full members and differences of race, sex, money, and power make no difference, except as they are used for the benefit of all. Perhaps we are tempted to go away sorrowing, as well.
Jesus was on a journey. He was on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified and to die a shameful death. He was on his way to be judged a traitor and a heretic and to hang naked on the top of hill. He was on his way to the bottom of the social ladder, to be an untouchable and an outcast. And he invited people to follow him – because the very bottom of the social ladder, that low and level place where all human beings meet in our weakness and shame is the entry place for the kingdom of God. It’s the humble place that God blesses and transforms and resurrects. But who wants to follow?
This is quite literally something we cannot do on our own. We are not ourselves capable of such self-offering. We know our weakness, but we want to escape it. And we surely don’t want to take on the weakness of others. But reaching out to others in weakness, claiming them as our brothers and sisters, loving them is the way the kingdom of God is built. It is in the faces of fallible folk like us that we see the face of God.
The good news in this reading is that with God we can enter a kingdom we couldn’t enter on our own. Is wealth an impediment to entry into the kingdom of God? Absolutely. Power? Certainly. Consumerism? Surely. And many other things. But God in Christ is able to meet us where we are and transform us.
Do we have to give up our wealth? Perhaps. Surely we must recognize the quite different and greater wealth offered by the kingdom of God, wealth that is not measured by being accumulated and held, but by being distributed and shared, wealth where the greatest and least measure about the same.
As we renew our baptismal vows, may we contemplate the very different world Jesus imagines: a world of loving God and neighbor, of seeing the face of Jesus in everyone we meet, of respecting everyone’s dignity and seeking justice for all. May we trust God to love us, and may we seek to enter God’s kingdom. Amen.
Pentecost 3 – June 14, 2015
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Nicholas’ Church, Scarborough
Our Gospel today consists of two brief parables, and the assertion that Jesus spoke only in parables – which he then explained to his disciples in private.
Parables are a troublesome genre. They’re disruptive and non-sensical, defying easy explanation – a bit like a Zen koan, you know – “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The mind draws back from the disruption, wishes to dismiss it. And so from the very days when Jesus told them, Christians have been tempted to change the parables into fables or allegories, to assign each character in the parable an identity and a motive, and to make the thing didactic – a simple lesson for living. Indeed, early in the fourth chapter of Mark, Jesus is presented as explaining the parable of the sower and the seeds as having to do with the kinds of people who hear the Word of God. Depending on who the hearers are, the seed of the Word never geminates, or never takes root in their hearts, or is choked out by the weeds of anxiety or greed, or finds rich soil in which it can grow and multiply many times over.
But such readings are always too neat, too tidy. The word parable means, literally, “to throw alongside” – the meaning of the parable operating in a parallel track to the words. Like parallel lines that never meet, the tension between the words and the meaning is never fully resolved. The parable always pushes us to go deeper, to ask how is it that God is like a thief in the night or a dishonest servant. The parable seeks not simply a lesson, a meaning, but an “aha” moment, a leap to a deeper truth that is suddenly illuminated.
So… let’s talk about today’s parables. The first seems a fairly conventional tale about being ready for the harvest. The sower plants the seeds, waits as God mysteriously gives the growth, and then, when the crop is ready, harvests the crop. We can read the parable as a story about being prepared, about standing ready to take advantage of the harvest.
But that may not be the meaning of the parable. The parable may actually be about the total inability of the sower to control the growth of the kingdom of God. The seeds which the sower scatters grow completely beyond the ability of the sower to shape or influence. The growth is wild, mysterious, unpredictable, so that all the sower can do, is to be ready for the harvest – whenever it comes, if it comes.
The second parable, about the mustard seeds, is often read as a story about how the kingdom of God grows from little seeds we plant, an exhortation to be faithful in little things from which may grow great success. That’s a reassuring story… except that mustard, in the ancient Near East, was not always a desirable crop. The mustard plant described here is probably black mustard, which can grow nine feet tall. But it was not something you really wanted in your garden. It’s a kind of invasive weed that takes over, pushes other things out, and is hard to get rid of. And it’s not a tree. It’s a dense bush in which the birds, who eat the seeds you do want to grow, can hide.
So the parable of the mustard seed may not be about the great crop produced from the sowing of small seeds, but about the invasive and uncontrollable growth of the kingdom of God, which takes over the garden on its own, is persistent and hard to get rid of, which shelters even undesirable creatures in its branches. The parable may be a word of encouragement to Jesus’ low-life and undesirable disciples – a tax collector, a Zealot, several fishermen – saying the work you do, the thing we’ve started, will never be rooted out, will eventually take over Israel and Palestine and Rome… The kingdom of God is like a weed…
The theme of both parables, the reason they are together, I think, is that they both speak of our inability to control God. God does what God wants to do, works in the ways God chooses to work, cannot be controlled or directed, and can never be driven out. The harvest will come when God chooses and it will include all those God wishes to include – even folks we might consider undesirable – like the disciples or Jesse’s youngest son, David, the last one anyone would think a king.
You see, the key thing, the reason we’re all here, is that we’ve been called to follow God, to share in God’s mission. God is in charge. God will see to the harvest. And God doesn’t need us, at least, not in the conventional sense. God is not dependent on our planting straight rows, watering and weeding, standing ready for the harvest. God’s more like an invasive weed, finding a way in, growing in good soil and bad, seeking everyone out, even the least desirable, and inviting us to share his good news – the good news of the unstoppable reality of the kingdom of God, the good news that God loves everyone.
I don’t think God is much interested in neatly tended gardens or in tidy little churches. I don’t think God is devoted to The Episcopal Church or the Lutheran Church or any church. I think instead that God is interested in the whole world, the whole weed-filled mess, and all the creatures who live there. God cares not that we become master gardeners tending demonstration plots, but that we are out there sowing seeds and trusting God to give the growth – believing that it will come, that it cannot be stopped.
What we promise in the Baptismal Covenant is to be faithful in following God and planting seeds: to worship God, to learn God’s stories, to keep returning over and over to God, to share the good news of God’s love and act that way, to treat every creature as a child of God and a brother or sister, to seek justice for all. That’s what we need to do. God will do the rest – and nothing can or will stop God from doing God’s work.
May it be so. Amen.
Easter Day – April 5, 2015
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Church of the Good Shepherd, Rangeley
It is what it is! How many of you have heard that phrase or used it? It’s a phrase that’s been around a long time. Rumi, the Sufi poet and philosopher, used it as the title for a philosophical work in the 13th c. Yet it’s become increasingly popular in the last ten years, often used in the sports press. The phrase is used to describe an “immutable reality, the truth or the nature of a thing, which can’t be changed, only accepted.” It carries with it overtones of resignation, even hopelessness. What can you do? It is what it is!
That’s clearly the attitude that Mary brings to the tomb. She’s come, faithfully, to pay her respects, to see, perhaps, that everything was done properly in Jesus’ hasty burial on Friday. She’s come without hope expecting to find his body in the tomb. Jesus is dead. It is what it is.
What she finds is that the stone has been rolled away and the body is missing. She’s stunned and upset and runs to the disciples. But her message is not that Jesus has risen. Her message is that the body has been taken away and hidden. He’s dead. It is what it is.
So the disciples come running. They enter the tomb and discover that Mary has told the truth. John has this to say about it: 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
Very enigmatic. Very ambiguous. What did they believe? That he was gone? John says, “they did not yet understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” And then, they went home and, apparently, didn’t say a word to anyone. After all, Jesus was dead. It is what it is.
So the story returns to Mary and her journey of discovery. She encounters the angels first, then Jesus. And does not recognize him. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She clings to her sad belief, Jesus is dead. It is what it is.
Only when Jesus calls her by name are her eyes opened and she sees who stands before her. Only then does she see that her understandings of truth, of nature, of reality are in error. Only then does the truth of what C. S. Lewis called “the deep magic” begin to break through. Things are not as they seem. There’s something more.
We who know this story so well are inclined to pity Mary, to feel badly for her, that her grief blinded her to the truth. But I doubt we would behave any differently. Because what confronted Mary was not simply a miracle, a violation of the laws of physics and nature, but a whole new reality. The deeper nature of reality has been revealed. What is is not death. What is is life!
Such good, good news. For Mary, for the disciples, for all of us.
First century Palestine was a difficult place to live. The vast majority of people were poor. Starvation and disease were constant companions. Childbirth was dangerous to both mother and child. Everyone lived under the Roman boot. Life expectancy was less 30 years.
We are living in times that often feel increasingly chaotic. The virtues and verities by which we’ve lived since WWII seem to be fading. Pollsters tell us that, despite increasing longevity, despite the rising economy, despite the technological achievements of our day, most Americans are pessimistic about the world they are handing to their children. Stagnant wages, rising personal debt, global warming, intransigent conflict between left and right, religious warfare all combine to create a sense of foreboding, of doom and gloom. It is what it is.
Except it’s not.
We Christians have seen the Lord, and we have a message: “…go to my brothers (and sisters) and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The truth is that the world is in God’s hands and so are we. And nothing can take us out of God’s hands. All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, love wins, life wins. Our cry this morning is not, “It is what it is,” but “The Lord is risen!” Like Mary, our eyes are covered by the scales of our expectations, of the relentless press of life as it is. But the good news of Easter is that there’s more. The God who accepts no limits on his love for us, who loves us so much that she was willing to let us do the worst we could do and love us still, that God remains as the truth beneath all truths, the power that drives the universe, and the hope for our lives. Like Mary we need to see that what’s before us is God’s world and Jesus, the Lord of life. If that’s what it is, then the course of our lives and of this world are held in God’s loving hands.
Allelulia! Christ is risen!
Good Friday – April 3, 2015
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Barnabas’, Rumford
The Passion According to John
In The Episcopal Church – and in many other traditions – the Gospel that is read on Good Friday is always the Gospel of John. Why is that? Why do we always turn to John?
The answer, I think, is that, in John, Jesus is the master of his fate. He is not a victim. He chooses to go to the cross – and not because he has no other choice – but because Jesus – representing God – chooses to show how far God will go in his love for us.
What Jesus reveals on the cross is not that he, Jesus, is superhuman, but that, as God, there are no limits to what God will endure with us and for us.
The Passion Story as John tells it is an ugly, ugly story – ugly as only a true and very human story can be. And, it seems to me, that John, in his telling, emphasizes every ugly little bit. Each person in the story is, in his own mind, acting out of the best motives. Judas is, perhaps, trying to get Jesus to show his hand and foment a revolution, or perhaps expressing his bitter disappointment that Jesus has not started a revolution. Peter is trying to stand by his friend without risking his own life. The Temple authorities are doing what they can to preserve and protect the practice of their religion in the face of Roman oppression. Pontius Pilate is trying to keep public order and sustain the flow of taxes to Rome. And so they all scheme and lie and manipulate and betray, and end up violating the very values and principles for which they stand. They betray Jesus, and they betray themselves.
Because they betray themselves, Judas hands his revolutionary teacher over to death. Peter abandons his messiah. The Jews blaspheme that Caesar, not God, is their king. And Pontius Pilate executes a man he knows is innocent, handing him over to a cruel, public and shameful death.
This is the way it is with human beings: our frightened, anxious efforts to make things right, to control events, to hang on to what we’ve got. Yet, as John also makes clear, none of these antagonists is in charge. Not Judas, not Caiaphas, and not Pilate. Jesus is in charge. Jesus chooses. Jesus reigns over the scene from the cross.
We who read this story every year, read it as people who already know the ending. Every church across the world has already finished its preparations for Easter. We read the Passion against the backdrop of Easter. We know the Christ will rise from the tomb. We know that death will be overcome. We know that new life will be offered to all in Christ’s name. There is no surprise ending in store for us.
Is that OK? Should we pretend that we don’t know the ending so we can really feel the death? Should we hang our heads in shame for the ways we stumble about hurting one another?
I think not. I think we should not read the Passion as those with no hope. In Christ, God has already overcome death. We approach Good Friday not as those without hope, not as those simply overcome with guilt, not as those for whom death seems to have won. We should not feel bereft that Jesus has died. We should feel awestruck – humbled, struck dumb – that God would do this for us.
That, I think, is what John knows, what John is trying to get at. God has already done everything that needs to be done. God has taken the very worst human beings can do and turned it to our good. The victory is won. And because is it won, we have hope that God can do the same for us – now, in our lives.
All this is captured for me in a single sentence early in the Passion (18:12). John writes… “So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. (Here’s the sentence.) Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.” Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people…
What Caiaphas meant was the death of this one man, this instigator, this rabble rouser, was preferable to the loss of the Jews right to practice their faith. This one death would satisfy the Roman demands for order. This one death would satisfy the mob’s demand for vengeance. This one man would pay the price they all should pay.
Caiaphas spoke without irony and, in a way he would never have guessed, he was absolutely right. Jesus died on the cross for all people – and gave them back their lives. Jesus died, and everyone was given new life – because God’s love knows no limits. God loves us even when we do our worst, in the face of our worst, and turns it to our good. Whether it’s the hurt we do to one another in our relationships, the damage we do in conflicts between nations, the destruction we have poured out on the earth, nothing separates us from the love of God.
That, above all, is what we should understand today. There is nothing we can do that can put us beyond the reach of God’s love. There is nothing we have done or might do that can’t be rehabilitated and transformed. We kneel before the cross guilty as charged and free to try again. Bitterly as we might weep over our sins, we are invited as well to weep in thanksgiving for the love that sets us free. It is finished. God has done it, and we are called to live lives that reflect God’s love.
May it be so. Amen.
Lent 1 – February 22, 2015
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Peter’s, Portland
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
On the first Sunday of Lent we always read a story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. Scholars tell us the word “test” is more appropriate than the earlier translation “tempted.” Though Satan may be a tempter, Jesus is not tempted. Rather his vocation as God’s son is tested.
This year we read the Markan version of Jesus’ testing, which is the shortest version. In fact, there is very little information about what Jesus endured. We don’t know what happened to him. We don’t even know if he was simply with the wild beasts or if the angels protected him from the wild beasts.
And yet, even in this brief telling, we know some essential things. First, the same Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism, the same Spirit who proclaimed that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, that Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested.
Why, we might wonder. Did Jesus need to be tested? Did God want to test his resilience, the staying power of his new vocation? Mark doesn’t say. But we do know the impact of his time in the wilderness. Jesus emerged from the wilderness proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” Jesus moved aggressively to take on Satan and his evil work – to heal the sick, to cast out unclean spirits, to advocate on behalf of the poor. Jesus emerged from the desert to do battle with Satan and to cast him out.
So, whatever happened in the wilderness, whatever the nature of the testing, Jesus came out fighting, ready to fulfil his mission.
I suspect none of us ever really volunteers for a time of testing. Few of us volunteer for wilderness duty, so perhaps Mark is simply saying that God was behind Jesus’ movement into the wilderness. Not that God causes suffering or wants us to suffer, but that God is present even in the wilderness.
Which is the other thing we know about Jesus’ testing. God was with him. The Spirit went with him into the wilderness and was with him in the wilderness. In the midst of wild beasts – whether literal or figurative – the angels of God were with Jesus and waited on him.
That, ultimately, is I think Mark’s point about Jesus’ testing. There was no place that God was not with Jesus; no place where God is not present with us. Even in the wilderness, even in the midst of testing, God is present with us and cares for us.
The greatest test, perhaps, for Jesus and for us, is to think that we’re on our own, to think that it’s up to us. At the very time when we most need to depend on God, we are tempted is to think that God has abandoned us and that we need to lift ourselves by our own effort, by our bootstraps, and do God’s work for God.
I believe the church, The Episcopal Church, the church in the western world is in a time of testing. And it may be that God has brought us to this place. The Christian movement, the Way, as it was once called, no longer moves. Instead we hole up in little enclaves called churches. We no longer move among the people serving the needs of the poor, challenging the injustices of our leaders, and calling for a new world. Rather we serve the needs of our members and try to build the bottom line. We’re concerned less with doing battle with Satan than with doing the liturgy properly. It may be that the new world of our day is testing our vocation, and that God is in the midst encouraging us to reconsider what it means to be the Beloved of God.
This is very hard for us! We thought that taking care of one another, taking care of our church was enough. The streets outside seem a wilderness to us. We don’t know those people. We don’t know that we like those people. We aren’t sure how we might serve them, what would even be the first step. So we struggle, trying new things, creating experiments, hoping that something will work to preserve what we love so much.
The Good News of the story of testing is that God is with us. The time we’re in is difficult for us, but that does not mean we are alone. Far from it. God is with us ministering to us. God, you see, has promised never again to destroy his people. That’s the meaning of the Noah story, and why we read it on this day. God has made a covenant with us, a covenant renewed in every baptism. And that covenant is secure. Our relationship with God is fixed, like the rainbow. God loves us with a love greater than life itself and will not let us go, even in the midst of severe testing. We belong to God, and we can trust God come what may.
Which is perhaps what we need to recover in this Lent. The fundamental message of scripture is that God has called us to be God’s people and has made us his own and, as his people, God has invited us to take part in the renewal and restoration of the world. God’s mission began in creation, survived the fall and the flood, reached its pinnacle in Jesus and continues in us. And it requires that we trust God.
Jesus went into the wilderness trusting in his identity as God’s Beloved – and so must we. May we, in this Lent, in the midst of challenging and confusing times, by the reading of scripture, by self-examination and prayer, renew our trust in God, knowing that God is with us and will love us and care for us no matter what we face. With the psalmist may we say, “4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”
Epiphany 3 – January 25, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Trinity Church, Saco
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 14:1-20
It is said that Archimedes, the Greek mathematician of the third century BC, one day noticed, while getting into his bath, that the level of the water rose as he lowered himself into the tub. It struck him in that moment that the rise in the level of the water must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he submerged in the tub. And it struck him, all at once, that here was a way to solve a problem that had eluded ancient scholars for a very long time, i.e., how to measure the volume of an irregularly shaped object. Archimedes is said to have been so excited that he yelled “Eureka!” – Greek for “I’ve found it” – leapt from his bath, and run naked through the streets of ancient Syracuse.
Archimedes had an epiphany. An “aha” moment. An immediate, transformative understanding. As the dictionary puts it, “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.” Einstein famously and suddenly grasped the theory of relativity while riding a train and watching the telephone poles fly by.
We’re in the Season of Epiphany, and I think it’s important for us to think a bit about what an epiphany is. Yes, it’s a manifestation. Yes, it’s a revelation. Yes, it’s a showing forth of a deeper truth. Yes, it is the burning bush of Moses. But it’s more than that. A true epiphany is transformative. The one who has it, the one who experiences it, is changed. The one who has an epiphany cannot go back to life as it was before.
We get a sense of that in our the Gospel from Mark this morning. ‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’
Immediately… Immediately… Immediately they left their nets… and their boats… and their business… and their father… and their families… Immediately.
We don’t know much about those guys, the first disciples. They were ordinary folk. Several were fishermen. One was a tax collector. Of the rest we know nothing. And we know little of their experience of Jesus. Did they know him before they were called? Was his arrival on the shore the first time they’d laid eyes on him? Was it his voice? Was it his appearance? Did he say something that isn’t recorded? We don’t know. But their experience of Jesus was an epiphany. A man walking along the shore called to them and, immediately, they followed.
An encounter with God produces a direct and immediate response. An encounter with God transforms. An encounter with God means that life is changed in ways that can’t be reversed.
The disciples, we know, are foils for all of us. They take our place in the story. They’re not perfect. They’re not super heroes. They frequently misunderstand Jesus. They fail to do as he asks. At the end they betray and abandon him. And yet, they are transformed. They can’t go back. And they do respond to Jesus’ call.
To follow a call is to have a vocation, a calling. And we all have one or more. Some of us are called to certain kinds of work. As a young person, I thought I had a call to be a doctor, like my uncles. Some of us are called to be parents. But – here’s the thing – all of us are called to follow Jesus. We receive that call in baptism, when we are touched by the Holy Spirit. And, in baptism, we are given gifts to pursue that call. You know those gifts: “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.” Those gifts are given immediately.
Probably most of us are not ready to leave our nets… or our businesses… or our families. But I’m not sure that’s what God wants. I’m not sure that’s what the author of Mark wanted. Those fishermen who followed Jesus didn’t actually know what Jesus wanted. Not then. They had to learn and re-learn. But we know something of what following Jesus means: To love God and our neighbor. To love our enemy. To heal the sick. To proclaim good news to the poor. To announce the year of God’s favor. To say, God has come near you. Immediately.
The time is fulfilled. Now is the time. There can be no hesitation. We are called to love, now. To say a kind word to the checkout person, now. To be generous to someone in need, now. To strive for justice and peace, now. There is no waiting.
And the One we follow, the One who has given us our vocation is God. The work we are to do, the word we are to carry, is God’s. That’s why the little story about Jonah is so instructive. Jonah knew that God was merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. Jonah knew that God would forgive those great sinners, the Ninevites. And Jonah wanted those sinners punished. So he ran away from God, until God sent a great fish to fetch him. Then Jonah preached God’s word, and the Ninevites repented, and God forgave them. Because that’s what God does, and our call is from God.
If I were asked to leave my home and family, I don’t think I could do it. But I’m not asked to leave. I’m asked to love. And not just the members of my family or my community, but all God’s children. I’m asked to love not only all of you, but all those folks whizzing by in their cars… and all those on the ski slopes… and all those in the Middle East… and everywhere else… immediately.
That’s hard enough. But we have been touched by God. We’ve had the epiphany that God loves us – you and me, who are so undeserving. We know God shouldn’t love us, but God does. And we can do nothing else but to love others. Immediately.
May it be so. Amen.
Christmas Eve 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
Tonight we celebrate the birth of a child. Childbirth is a profound human experience, something most of us know and all of us have lived through – even if we don’t remember it. Birth is one experience that binds the whole human race together. It is the basic human experience. We all got here the same way. Childbirth is also a liminal experience, marking the edge of human experience, at once both commonplace and holy, mundane and transfiguring. It is the ordinary miracle of human life.
As we hear the Christmas story, we identify with the holy family. We have a sense of what it means to be poor and struggling, unable to enjoy the privacy of a guest room, making due with the cramped quarters of a common space, nonetheless radiating love and hope. There’s something about that scene that resonates with our own experience. This is life as it’s supposed to be, life as God intended it – love for one another and for God illuminating the night.
For Christians, there’s another story within the first. We believe that when Mary gave birth, God came among us. In Jesus, God was born into the human family, sharing our lives, our joys and our sorrows, living our life so that it might be transformed. Jesus is God with us, God made flesh. The birth of Jesus invests every other birth with a bit of heaven. In the birth of Jesus, God shared our lives so that we might share God’s.
It is for these reasons that we love Christmas so much. It is so beautiful, so human, so much about joy and peace. Yet the beauty of the scene is not the point. There’s something more…
The world into which Jesus was born was a world very much out of whack. It was a harsh and cruel world, dominated by the Roman legions. The people of Palestine, with the exception of the ruling classes, were poor and landless, sick and hungry. They hungered for food, and they hungered for rescue, hungered for a savior. Jesus was born as one of these people, in a backwater town, in the crowded common room of a relative. He was born in Bethlehem because Joseph was forced to go there to register for the taxes that paid for the Roman armies. And what did God do in response to a world so out of whack? God sent a baby.
What good, we might ask, we should ask, was the birth of a baby in such a world? What difference could such a small thing make? For that matter, what good is the birth of that baby in the world we inhabit? What can that baby do about the poverty, the violence, the fear and the hatred which characterize so much of life in this world? What can a baby do for the crazy competitive life we lead, the struggle to get ahead, to stay on top, to be in control, to die with the most toys. What good is a baby?
Only this… only this… when Mary kissed her baby, she kissed the face of God. And that changed everything. In that moment, the form in which we experienced God changed. In that moment God became one with us, accessible to us, living among us, sharing our joys and sorrows, redeeming us from our sins and shortcomings.
In that moment, Mary changed as well. No longer simply an unwed Palestinian teenager. Now the mother of God and the first disciple. The first to point to Jesus as redeemer of the world. The first to follow him to the cross. The first of many disciples.
And we were changed as well. No longer only weak and fallible, not simply victims, not simply sinners. Now vessels for carrying Christ to the world. Now capable of receiving the spirit of God, capable now of greater depths of love and service. Now carrying within us the transforming life of Christ.
The sweet scene in the manger is actually the outward sign of the greater birth that takes place in the human heart when we can find room for him. Christ is born in us so that we may join him in transforming the world, making the world a place in which every child can sleep safely and without fear.
That’s the true power of this night, the power to transform the world by sharing the love of Christ. A new world will not arrive because of greater armies or higher walls, new weapons systems or more prisons. It will not arrive on the backs of ipads and social media. A new world will come because a holy child has been born in us. It will come as we are changed to love one another, as we meet one another as the human faces of God. It will come as we meet one another in mutual vulnerability and mutual love, as children of one father.
So, my Beloved, how will you be changed this night? Will you find a place for the child to be born in you? Whom will you love as the human face of God? Whom will you love with a love that death cannot end?
When Mary kissed her baby, she kissed the face of God. And so do we all. Every mother knows that’s true. In our relationships with one another we all touch the face of God. Our relationships are signs of our life with God and the hope we share. Tonight, as you meet one another, for your own sake and for the world’s, may you kiss the face of God. Merry Christmas. Amen.
Advent 2 – December 7, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. George’s, York Harbor
When John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism for the forgiveness of sin, his proclamation was an act of rebellion against the religious establishment. He was saying, in effect, the Temple is not necessary. Sacrifice is not necessary. What’s necessary is holy living, loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s the preparation required for the coming of the Messiah.
Mark presents John as an Old Testament prophet, in fact, as THE Old Testament prophet, Elijah the Tishbite. He is dressed as Elijah is described in 2 Kings (1:8), and he is returning as Malachi (4:5) said he would. And, like Elijah, John announces what God is doing. God is coming to his people and nothing will stop him. Every obstacle, every hill and every valley, will be swept away, and all of creation will witness God’s return. God is coming, and even the Temple will not stand. Get ready!
The urgency of John’s proclamation is self-evident. Yet John is more than a witness. He is also a participant. He is a forerunner. He exhorts the people to be ready, and he cleanses them from the sin that holds them back. Live, says John, as if the Messiah were already here. John occupies the place of now, but not yet, trusting fully that God IS coming among us and working to make it so.
That’s the message we still proclaim. Advent for us is not simply preparation for the annual remembrance of Christ’s birth, a celebration too often swamped by consumerism and sentimentality, but also preparation for the new heaven and the new earth that the birth represents. We are preparing for Christ to be born among us and in us.
Waiting for the Messiah seems especially difficult this year. We know that things are not as they should be. We know that human progress, such as it is, is two steps forward and one, two or three steps back. We want to be rescued from this darkness. We want justice to be established and peace to reign. But the hills and valleys loom large, the obstacles seem overwhelming. Can we truly prepare for God to come? Can we make his pathways straight?
This week the news has been full of stories about Ferguson, MO, and – since I started this sermon – Staten Island, NY, and the decisions of grand juries not to indict the police officers who killed unarmed black men. The stories of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are iconic American stories, full of the tensions and fears that every American fully understands. Racism is America’s presenting sin, and whatever we think about the particulars of these stories, we all understand the fears and distrust which bind black and white Americans. We are afraid of one another. We know that we are not treated equally before the law, and that color has something to do with that. We know that our ideals of justice falter when confronted with the realities of life on our streets.
So the stories of this week makes us groan. We’ve heard it all before. We feel helpless, even paralyzed. We want to turn away. We wish somehow that it could all simply get better without our having to do anything about it…
In 1981 former PB John Hines did a television interview with Hugh Downs in which Hines discussed the civil rights movement and the cost to the church. Bishop Hines made the point that change comes at a cost, that we cannot stand on the side of justice without paying the price. The kingdom comes through a cross. A new birth comes after a crucifixion. Justice will come when when ordinary folks decide to accept the risks of getting involved, of speaking out, of using their privilege for the sake of the greater good.
Which I think is what John the Baptizer is saying about the coming of the Messiah. It is not enough for us simply to hope that God will come among us, to sit back and wait to be set free. Our anticipation must be undergirded by our participation. We must make room, clear a space – in our hearts, in our homes… and in our institutions and country. We’re invited to bulldoze that straight path.
The Good News, the hope we embrace, is that God is, in fact, coming; is, in fact, among us. God is coming without our invitation. And people are responding. In Ferguson, MO, a new generation of young, articulate black leaders, many of them women, committed to non-violent change is emerging. They are supported by the clergy of many churches and synagogues, including our own, who are present on the streets and in the protests to be for police and demonstrators alike the human face of God.
And God is among us here at St. George’s, York Harbor, where definitions of belonging and family are stretched to make room for children who need a place to live and grow.
But neither our work nor God’s is done. The completion of God’s work lies before us. God still invites us into his work. The two little boys we baptize this morning will have to spend much of their lives looking over their shoulders unless we change things in America. Our love for them and our promise to support them in the life of faith must include our commitment to create a just society in which they may live and flourish.
Our longing and our participation go hand in hand. As we live in God’s presence now, we ache for the fulfillment God has promised. Hoping for Christ, we live in Christ, knowing that Christ walks with us to comfort and strengthen us, and to remind us that God IS coming among us.
May it be so. Amen.
Last Pentecost – November 23, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Giles’, Jefferson
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
The Gospel for Christ the King is Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats, what one scholar has called the most outworn parable of the Bible (Greg Carey). Outworn because we take a story that is meant to be paradoxical and turn it into a morality tale about social justice: those who are faithful will feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, etc. Matthew 25 has long been used by social gospellers to balance the Reformation teaching of “justification by faith alone” countering that those who are faithful will be known by their work for justice. Faith can never be understood as simply interior belief.
That’s appealingly simple, but it misses a key fact in the parable: that both the sheep and the goats are surprised; surprised, not by the account of their actions, but by the fact that in doing what they did they missed the Christ. The sheep gave drink to the thirsty and cared for the sick, but they did not see Jesus. The goats did not do those things, but they also did not see Jesus. They’re all surprised. When did we see you? Where were you? Presumably both the sheep and the goats would have cared for Jesus if they had seen him… but they did not. They did not see him.
Yet Jesus was there. Jesus was there wearing the face of the poor and needy. The surprise of the parable is that the King of Glory, the one who sits on the throne with all the nations, all the peoples, gathered before him, comes among us as an ordinary person in need. As we know from the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is need that defines the neighbor. The sheep are the sheep because they acted as a neighbor towards those in need – and the goats did not. Jesus is born among us, not in a royal palace in Jerusalem, but in a manger in Bethlehem. He becomes a king not by a coronation, but by crucifixion. And he dwells among us as one in need.
That’s the point of the parable – and it is very surprising. Because it means that Jesus is still among us wearing the guise of an ordinary person in need, inviting us to be neighbors towards one another.
There was a time, not so long ago, when we believed that the good people were all found in the Church offering charity to those in need. We were all sheep. Except that we were often quite unneighborly in many ways. We didn’t actually know the folks we helped, we weren’t in relationship with them. We weren’t very kind to other Christians – Baptists or Roman Catholics – with whom we differed over doctrines or spiritual practices. We weren’t even always nice to each other. Our churches were hard to break into. One had to learn the unwritten rules and conform to the expectations of the established members. One wonders how often Christ tried to join our churches only to be turned away.
Christ, you see, has come to gather all the nations. The word translated “nations,” ethné, can also be translated as “people,” and, in a Jewish context, often meant the Gentiles, the non-Jews, the “other” nations. Matthew is writing in a time when the Christians and the Jews are painfully separating. Christians are being barred from synagogues and, in places, they’re being persecuted. Gentiles are beginning to join Christian communities. Christians are trying to figure out how to be faithful outside of Judaism, how to be faithful amongst the “ethné.” Matthew warns them that both faithful and unfaithful, perhaps we might read, both believing Christians and unbelieving Jews, will fail to see Jesus among the ethné, the ordinary folk of the world
Which means that we need to look for Jesus in the faces of everyone we we meet – including one another. For surely Christ is here among us, inviting us to be neighbors to one another. Are we old time members or newcomers? Are we big givers or small givers? Are we in a confident, secure place in life or, perhaps, in an insecure, uncertain place? Are we hungry and thirsty or are we in a place to bring food and water? Or truth be told, are we in both places at once, a little of this and a bit of that, needing both to give and to receive, to act as neighbors and to welcome neighbors?
God gives us to each other without asking our permission. Certainly the Jewish Christians of Matthew’s day did not expect to be rejected by their fellow Jews. They did not expect their future to be held in the hands of “others,” of Gentiles. Certainly we in our time did not expect the decline of the church, our struggle to survive financially, or the need for the church to collaborate across denominational lines and with community groups. Like Matthew’s community, we are surprised.
In the last line of Chapter 25, Jesus promises judgment: eternal life for the righteous and eternal punishment for the unrighteous. A chilling end to the parable. But the very next line is this: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples,‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’”
The judgment of the world is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. That’s how the kingdom of God is established. That’s how Jesus gets to his throne. That’s the last word on our faithlessness. The goats win – and then we all win. And that’s the biggest surprise of all. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
With the eyes of our hearts enlightened by this great good news, may we seek Christ where he may be found: among us and all people, and may we find grace to act as neighbors toward one another. Amen.
November 20, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Celebration for New Ministry of the Rev. Nancy Moore as pastor of Trinity Lutheran, South Paris, and Christ Church, Norway
Isaiah 43; I Corinthians 12; John 15:5-17
Our service this evening is a beloved tradition in The Episcopal Church. It was once called the Institution of the Rector – a service focused on the priest celebrating his or her installation into a parish, a bit like an interchangeable part – but it is now called the Celebration of a New Ministry – an occasion marking the new thing that God is doing with a pastor and her people.
And this service tonight is a new thing in a couple of ways. It is a service celebrating a new phase in the lives of Trinity Lutheran and Christ Episcopal, and it is a service marking a deepening relationship between our two branches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Episcopal Church. We Lutherans and Episcopalians have been getting to know one another better in Maine for a number of years now and our growing friendship is issuing in several new relationships across the state: Bob Smith, an Episcopal priest is serving as interim pastor for two small Lutheran congregations in Aroostook County. Pastor Erik Karas is serving as pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran and, now, priest-in-charge of St. Mark’s Episcopal in Augusta. The Synod and the Diocese are jointly sponsoring a young adult ministry in based at St. Ansgar’s in Portland. And here tonight we are lifting up this relationship between Trinity Church and Christ Church. We have cause for great rejoicing.
We live in a time when our accustomed ways of being the church no longer serve us very well. Our earlier friendly – or not so friendly – competition over doctrine and tradition have prompted many to doubt the cause of Christ. The church has too often been known not for her love, but for the contentiousness with which her members fight over all kinds of issues. As people have decided not to join the fight, many of our congregations have declined, both in numbers and in dollars, requiring us to reconsider who we are and what we believe. We have been forced to return to basics – love of God and love of neighbor – and I think that’s a good thing. I believe the Spirit of God is in our movement towards one another, asking us how we together may better serve not only the needs of our members, but the people of God among whom we live and worship. Like rivers flowing in the desert, we are invited to be new, to do new things, in the name of Christ.
There are, I think, three things that are essential to this new thing we are about:
The first is to recognize that although, as you already know, Nancy is a gifted priest and pastor, this work is not primarily about her. This work is primarily about us and our claiming the ministry of Christ. Christianity has always been a lay movement, and it remains so today. While Nancy is called to preach and teach, to celebrate the sacraments, to support us with pastoral care, the work of Christ belongs to all of us. And rightly so – the kingdom of God requires all the gifts we bring. None of us is sufficient alone to do the work of Christ. All of us, bringing all our gifts, make up the Body of Christ and make the Body effective. Every person and every gift is needed. This service tonight is as much a commissioning of all of you, as it is of Nancy.
Second, we are most effective as we remain connected. Neither The Episcopal Church nor the Lutheran Church is all that big in these parts. In order for the Body to be fully present in our communities, we must all be branches together of the one vine. Division simply impedes the work of God. While we remain separate and independent as congregations and corporate structures, continuing our beloved traditions and our required forms of governance, we serve God’s world as one body, one vine, and now visibly so. This sharing of ministry is a sign of the unity which God intends for the whole church in all its varieties and denominations. While God seems to favor a profusion of forms, a great variety of creation in all parts of nature, nonetheless underlying that diversity is the singularity of God’s creative power and the unity of all life in God. There is but one Body, and we are all part of it. Only as we are part of the vine will our branches flourish.
Third, and most important, it all comes down to love. It is the love of God and love of neighbor that fulfills every command of God. It is the love of God that has created us. It is the love of God that has called us to serve. It is the love of God that we are given to share. It is the love of God that makes us now not just of servants, but friends: friends of God and friends of one another.
Many years ago I was involved in an innovative youth program which created a community of young people – most Episcopalian, some not – inviting them to decide what ministries God was calling them to and then empowering them to do them. In the early 70’s the issues were war and peace, civil rights and women’s rights, justice for farmworkers, the ordination of women, among others. It was a contentious time, and many were the long hours of discussion and disagreement about what to do and how to do it. Among us, an aphorism grew up – “I don’t have to like you to love you.” I’ve thought about that phrase many times over the years. We’re not talking about simple affection in the church. It’s not about whether or not we agree or like each other. We are bound together by a love much greater than ourselves. It is God’s love for us that makes us one. It is because Jesus has made us his friends that we are friends with one another. God gives us to each other without asking our permission and invites us to love one another and the world.
I know the journey to this evening has been marked by a number of bumps along the way, and that there remain concerns about how everything will work. Not everyone would have chosen this path if finances and participation were different. But, here we are… I believe we are here because God loves us and is inviting us into this new thing. And I believe God will bless us. As we inevitably encounter rough edges and raw spots, disagreements about service times, what ministries we might do together, who Nancy loves best, and any number of other matters, I invite us to remember the love of God. God has chosen us in love and with the love of God we will be able to bear much good fruit – fruit that will last.
May this celebration of new ministry be a sign of our unity and an encouragement to our ministry, with Nancy, and on behalf of God’s kingdom. Amen.
Pentecost 23 – November 16, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. John’s, Bangor
As our lectionary turns toward Advent, we begin to hear in our Gospel lessons the themes of waiting and preparation – the focal themes of the Advent season. And we find ourselves in the midst of a series of troubling parables in Matthew – troubling because they seem both direct and straight-forward on the one hand, and yet callous, even cruel, on the other.
Today we have the parable of the talents, which I must be quick to point out, has nothing at all to do with individual gifts and graces. This has nothing to do with a talent for handcrafts or auto repair or singing. A talent was a commercial measure of weight: the weight of water in a typical amphora. A Roman talent was 71 pounds. Translated in terms of money, a talent of silver was used by the Roman Empire for government transfers of funds, like a Treasury note. In today’s dollars, a talent would be worth about $1.7 million. In its day, a talent was worth about 6000 drachma – a drachma being the amount paid for one day’s labor. The Roman Empire used talents to pay its legions of soldiers.
So the parable we are told is hyperbolic in the extreme. No man, however wealthy, would have 8 talents to give to his servants.
Secondly, we are told that the man gave his servants the talents to servants to keep for him while he went on a journey. He proportioned talents according to the ability of each servant. Apart from the questionable security of such an arrangement, are we surprised to learn that the most able servants did well, while the least able did not? Isn’t that what we would expect?
Thirdly, while no instructions were given, the first two servants took what they were given and put it to work. The third servant took care to secure the talent, but did not invest it and so simply returned it to the man – along with a short speech in which he characterized the man as harsh and taking profits that he himself had not earned. On the one hand we wonder why, if the third servant knew this, he had not put the money to work, and, on the other, we wonder what sort of person the man is, taking what he has not earned.
The traditional interpretation of this parable is that the man is God and the talents represent the kingdom of God – something valuable beyond all measure. We are the servants who are given our share of the kingdom and are invited to expand the kingdom among us. We do so each according to our abilities. To do nothing is to fail to use the gifts God has given us and to bring upon ourselves God’s judgment.
That’s the traditional reading, and it may be the most sensible one. And certainly Matthew was concerned about God’s judgment. In Matthew’s day, the newborn church was wrestling with the delay in Christ’s return and struggling with what it meant to be faithful. The church was beginning to recognize that the Master might be gone a very long time and that it needed to keep faith with the riches of the kingdom of God in spite of the delay. Failure to do so might well bring the judgment of God on the church.
But, as we’ve already discovered, this reading has problems. First, it makes God a pretty mean-spirited guy. Second, it punishes those who have the least ability, making the kingdom of God a meritocracy, rather than a community of brothers and sisters. Third, it describes success in quantitative, monetary terms, making the kingdom of God a bit like a commercial enterprise – which, not to put too fine a point on it, is often how we’ve understood the church: number of attendees, number of converts, cash in the plate, etc.
Some scholars have noted that two of the servants took what they had been given and simply went to work, while the third, describing the man as harsh, exploitative and greedy, decided to minimize his risk and protect himself against failure. If the man is God, then perhaps the issue in the parable is the servants’ perceptions of God. Two of them trusted in God, took God’s immense gifts and went to work. And one, fearing God, took steps to protect himself from the exigencies of working in the world.
So the question for us this morning may be, what do we think of God? Who is God? Is God loving and merciful, one who will take our best efforts and use them? Or is God fierce, demanding and punishing, waiting to judge our failures and our mistakes? How we perceive God may very well determine our willingness to invest ourselves in the work of the kingdom.
We live in a time when we are being asked to take risks for the sake of the kingdom of God. Our habitual and comfortable ways of being church are serving us less and less well. All across the church, attendance and giving are down. In the recent Episcopal Congregations Overview 2014, only 38% of congregations report their finances are good or excellent. The average attendance in TEC is 61. The days of waiting for people to come to the church are over. Our future now rests on moving into our communities, taking the riches of the kingdom out our doors and into the midst of the people; tasks that move us well beyond our comfort zone.
We can only do this if we believe that God is merciful, that God loves us and walks with us. If we think God is waiting for us to fail, that, in fact, the weakness of the church in our day is the judgment of God upon us, then we will never step out.
The truth is that our call is always to go out. We are a people called and sent. As members of the Body we are invited to share the riches of the kingdom with others. The kingdom is not something we hoard, but something we share, and we do that by bringing what we’ve been given in the midst of the people with whom we live and work. And Matthew knew that. He ended his Gospel with the Great Commission, with the charge to go into the world and makes disciples.
The world can be a harsh and difficult place. But I believe that God is merciful and that God’ mercy IS his judgment. God can be trusted to use what we offer for the sake of the renewal and restoration of creation. The question before us, as we renew our baptismal covenant, is will we trust God? Will we step out in faith so that the untold riches of the kingdom may be shared?
I pray that we will. Amen.
November 9, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Regional Confirmation Service at Saint Mary the Virgin, Falmouth
Isaiah 61:1-9; Luke 4:16-21
I want to begin by reading a bit of text from the Prologue to the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
No one has ever seen God. That’s our tradition as Christians. God is known not by direct knowledge, but in and through creation. We know God by his deeds. So, we look to the created world. We look to our history as believers. And above all, we look to Jesus. It is Jesus, God’s only Son, Jesus, in his life and ministry, in his crucifixion and resurrection, who reveals to us who God is.
That’s what makes the readings chosen for today’s confirmation so very important. The reading from Isaiah 61, a reading deeply rooted in the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, was chosen by Jesus as his signature scripture as he began his ministry. He claimed for himself the ministry of restoration and renewal rooted in Israel’s ancient understanding of God. I have come to proclaim Good News to the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.
The year of the Lord’s favor was the tradition of the Jubilee Year. Although it’s not clear that the Jubilee was ever actually practiced, the tradition was that once every 50 years, the economic clock was reset: debts were cancelled, loans were forgiven, properties that had been lost or sold were returned to their rightful heirs. Like hitting the reset button on a computer, everything went back to its original state. Now whether the rich ever actually gave up their wealth or their property is far from certain, but the notion here is that Israel held before itself a vision of original harmony and justice, a return to Eden, if you will, which was to be the standard for Israel’s dealings with the people and the land. And that, said Jesus, is my standard. That’s my mission: the restoration of all things to harmony with God and one another.
And because Jesus chose that has his standard, we know that that’s what God is about. The mission of God is to restore and renew all things in Christ. That is the goal toward which God is pulling creation. That is the goal to which we commit ourselves in the Baptismal Covenant.
It’s about justice to be sure, that everyone should receive a full share of the of gifts of the earth. But it’s about more than that. It’s about the existence of everyone and everything in a relationship of balance and harmony – both living creatures and the earth on which all life depends. It’s about getting my fair share AND walking softly on the earth, making sure that everyone and everything else also gets their fair share.
That’s not how the world operates. In the world’s terms, I never have enough. Many of us spend our lives getting as much as we can. But in God’s economy, in the kingdom of God, giving and receiving exist in a mutual dynamic where we live, not separated by class or race or status, but as children of one father.
For us who are today renewing our Baptismal Covenant, all this should give us pause. We live with a foot in two worlds. We live in this world where we plan and dream and go to school and to college and find a job and earn our keep and pay our bills. And we can’t pretend we don’t need to do that. Feeding ourselves and our children is a responsibility that drives most of us all of our lives. And yet, that world is not the land of our ultimate hopes or our deepest loyalty. Our hearts belong to another world where justice and peace rule and the lion and the lamb lie down together, and where we, with God, rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the ruined cities.
So we live in two worlds, as citizens of both, with our heads and our hands in this world and our hearts in a restored and renewed one. God invites us to live Jubilee values now in this world.
I would confess to you that I can only do that some of the time. I confess to you that too often I’m more concerned about my own well being than that of the poor. I confess to you that sometimes I’m more involved in making captives than in setting them free. But I believe that with God’s help I can make progress in living as God would have me live.
That’s what we promise – I will with God’s help. So invite you, as we now renew our baptismal covenant, to make those promises as fully and as sincerely as you can, fully intending to do everything you can to restore and renew the world, asking for God’s help and mercy when you fail. And I invite you to try again and again, not only this afternoon, but every day of your life going forward.
May God bless you and all of us in our efforts to be faithful. Amen.
Pentecost 22, November 9, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Michael’s, Auburn
We begin to turn in our readings today toward the Season of Advent. We see today the beginning of a series of parables emphasizing waiting and preparedness, getting ready for Jesus to return.
We do indeed look forward to Jesus’ return, but these parables in the Gospel of Matthew are particularly difficult because they seem to emphasize the consequences of not being prepared, of a judgment that will fall on those who are not ready. When we consider the foolish virgins of the parable, their foolishness seems to be that they were not prepared for a LONG wait. Otherwise, their behavior is indistinguishable from the that of the wise.
A long time of waiting was one of THE issues for the church of Matthew’s day. The Jews and the Christians had begun to pull apart. Christians were no longer welcome in many synagogues and, in some places, the persecution of Christians had begun. In addition, the Christian claim that Jesus is the Messiah had begun to buckle under the weight of the reality that he had not returned. Jesus had not returned, not in the first generation of believers and not in the second. It now seemed his return might be delayed for a long time – a time beyond the ability of the church to calculate. So Matthew’s community was struggling with the question of how to wait, how to remain faithful for a long period of time. Matthew warned through his parable that failing to be prepared had eternal consequences.
Of course, the real question in the parable is what or, better, whom, the virgins are waiting for. In the Israel of Jesus’ day, weddings were communal festivals, involving the whole community. The key players were the bride and the bridegroom, but the elaborate rituals involved groomsmen and bridesmaids and others who had many responsibilities in preparing the bride and the groom for the wedding feast. When all was ready for the wedding, the groom and his attendants would arrive to process with the bride and her attendants to the wedding ceremony and the wedding chamber. In Hebrew scripture, the wedding feast was a common metaphor for God’s heavenly kingdom, the bride was Israel, and the groom was God. The Book of Hosea is built around the metaphor of Israel as an unfaithful bride. So metaphorically speaking, the bridesmaids, who have prepared Israel for the heavenly wedding, are waiting for the Messiah.
And it’s turning out to be a very long wait.
We now wait many hundreds of years after Matthew, and the question might be asked of us, “Are we still waiting?” Do we actually expect the Messiah to return? Who are we waiting for?
This past week marked the end of our bi-annual election season. Elections always depress me a little bit. (And I always vote…) I’m not so much depressed by the outcomes of the election, although I do have my own preferences. What depresses me is the reminder about how far we are from the kingdom of God. I know that whomever has been elected has over-promised and will under-deliver. I know that whomever has been elected will need to compromise important values in order to be effective. I know that whomever has been elected will be more responsive to those who have money than to those who do not. And I know that the effectiveness of the whole body will be undercut by the sins of the members. The next thing after the elections will be the scandalous behavior of those elected. And I want something better.
You see, I think I’m waiting for Jesus. I’m waiting for the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. And politicians just won’t do.
Yet whereas I never fail to prepare for the elections and never fail to vote, I think I sometimes do fail to do what I need to do to prepare for Jesus’ coming. I’m not always faithful in prayer and worship. I’m not always faithful in care for the least and the lost and the lonely. I sometimes actually believe that a politician or a party can bring in the kingdom when, of course, they cannot.
And actually, I don’t want to tweak the current system. I don’t want a technical fix. I really want the world turned upside. I really want a new heaven and a new earth. I’m really waiting for justice to flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And waiting for that, I need more than oil in my lamp.
The truth is that you and I are both the wise and the foolish virgins. Sometimes we’re getting ready, doing our share to represent Christ, and sometimes we’re not. Unlike Matthew, I trust God to be merciful. But I do share his concern – that the bridegroom is coming, and I need to do my part.
May we who name ourselves members of Christ’s body take with great serious the promises and vows we make in our baptism and may we do what our share in preparing for the coming of his kingdom among us. Amen.
Pentecost 19, October 19, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. George’s, Sanford
In a conversation with some wardens this past week, I heard of a sticky debate in one of our parishes about the placement of the American flag in the church. For some folks, the flag is part of their Christian identity, a reminder that the freedom to worship we enjoy here is preserved and protected by our country. For others the flag is intrusive, a symbol of a lesser loyalty than the cross of Christ. In either cases, the question is: to whom or what do we belong? What is our primary identity? To answer “both” – though certainly true – doesn’t really answer the question.
The discussion of Caesar and taxes has about it the same sort of stickiness, the same sort of ambivalence. The tax in question here is the one denarius tax paid by each resident of Palestine to the Roman Empire to sustain the occupation of Palestine. The residents of Israel were being taxed to pay for their own occupation. The Herodians supported the tax because they were kept in power by the Romans. The Herods ruled over Palestine. The Pharisees and the common people hated the tax because it was a symbol of their domination. Additionally, the tax was to be paid in denarii, which were imprinted with Caesar’s head and words about Caesar’s divinity. For the Pharisees this was odious because of their belief that no images could be made of God or even one who pretended to be God. The Pharisees cooperated with the Romans, but only out of necessity.
The question to Jesus about paying the tax is a clever trap sown by competing groups who united for a moment to catch Jesus. If he supported the tax, then he would certainly be unpopular with the common folk and labeled a heretic by the Pharisees. And if he spoke against the tax, the Herodians would certainly get back to the Romans who might, therefore, charge him with sedition.
Jesus, of course, eluded the trap, yet did so in a way that enlarged the issue. First, he asked for a coin. Apparently, as an observant Jew, he did not have one. Yet one of his inquisitors did have a coin, thus illuminating their own complicity with Rome. Second he asked whose head was on the coin and what the coin said. The image was, of course, Caesar’s and the title read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus, Emperor.” The coin belonged to one who claimed to be a god – but not the God of Israel.
Jesus then instructed them, richly and subtly, to give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God.
Everyone in the crowd would have understood that the whole earth and everything in it belongs to God. They would have further understood that the only divine image that mattered was the one every one of them wore – the human face: the image of God. To give to God the things that are God’s is to give God everything.
To give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s are to give Caesar temporary and provisional things, things Caesar had created, loyalty required by coercion or circumstance. Such things are not necessarily unimportant or unnecessary. Jesus did not advocate that his hearers put their lives at risk by refusing to the pay the tax, but he did place things in a clear order in which God, and not Caesar, was on top.
Bill Burrill, one time Bishop of Rochester, was known for saying that he was first of all a child of God, a member of the body of Christ, a husband, a father, a bishop and a citizen – in that order. He also used to hold up his checkbook and say that if you wanted to know Bill Burrill and what he cared about, you had to read his checkbook, for it was there you would see what it cost him – financially at least – to be a child of God, a Christian, a husband, a father, a bishop and a citizen.
So what about us? Whose imprint to do we wear? How do we negotiate the competing demands for our loyalty and our worship? What does our checkbook or our flag placement say about us?
If, as Jesus tells us, everything belongs to God, and therefore we belong to God, if we are stamped with God’s image, how do we bear that image? Is our fidelity lived out in every context of our lives: in our homes, at our workplace, at school, in the military, at the ballot box, in traffic? Is the image we wear one we put on or take off as it’s convenient or is it with us 24/7? Do we wear the divine image when we come to church and worship, while we pay our Temple tax, and then do we leave it at the door as we head out to be parents and employees and consumers? How is the claim that God created us, redeemed us and walks with us lived out in our days?
David Lose, President of Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia, suggests an experiment. He suggests we take the credit or debit card we use most often and mark it with a cross, so that every time we buy or pay for something, we see that symbol of our greater allegiance. He said he tried it himself for a year and found it very humbling to discover how often he had no thought of God at all, let alone any sense of making the purchase as a child of God.
The richness of Jesus’ response to the trick question should suggest to us that we are not in the land of black and white – there is no simple answer. Yet as Christians we know, that the answer we give is of ultimate importance – both for our own lives of faith and for the healing of the world.
May we who claim Jesus as Lord and Savior, who renew today our commitment to live our lives as members of Christ’s Body, commit ourselves daily to the question of who we are and whose we are and to lift God daily to the top of our list. Amen.
Pentecost 17 – October 5, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Matthew’s, Hallowell
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80: Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Our Gospel this morning is at once both one of the most familiar and one of the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. Jesus tells this parable in response to challenges to his authority by the Pharisees and Temple authorities. Where, they want to know, did Jesus get the authority to throw the money changers out of the Temple? We know that Jesus did what he did because he is the Messiah: he was cleansing his Father’s house. And clearly we are to make the connection between the Pharisees and the bad tenants. It’s as if Matthew is saying to Pharisees… you’re going to get yours. Since Matthew is writing near the end of the 1st century, some have seen this passage as Matthew’s explanation for why the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. The Pharisees had turned the Temple into a den of thieves, and God allowed the Romans to destroy it.
In contrast, Jesus is the stone which the builders rejected, a reference to Psalm 118. Jesus is the true foundation of the Temple, the true foundation of Jewish devotion and worship. He is the Messiah. Jesus can cleanse the Temple because it is his Temple. Indeed, he is the Temple.
The problem with reading the parable this way is that it turns a story, which is intended to be paradoxical, into a simple allegory. The Pharisees are the bad tenants. The householder is God. Jesus is the son of householder. The Pharisees kill Jesus, and God punishes the Pharisees. All neat and clean.
The difficulty which such a reading is that it makes God into a bit an idiot, a man who sends his son into a very dangerous situation with plenty of forewarning that it’s dangerous. And it makes God vengeful: an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth sort of guy.
I think a truer reading of this parable requires a subtler approach. Jesus, in opening the narrative, clearly references Isaiah 5 – today’s Old Testament lesson. And Isaiah 5 makes clear that there is a love story going on between God and God’s people. The vine, the vineyard, is a metaphor for Israel. God hopes above all things that Israel will flourish. And God is angry when Israel fails to flourish, when Israel produces injustice rather than justice. God threatens to destroy Israel.
But we all know that God did not destroy Israel. In fact the irony of the parable, which Matthew surely knew, is that the Pharisees and the Temple authorities did collaborate in killing Jesus. Jesus was crucified! Yet God did not destroy them. Instead God raised Jesus from the dead and, by this act, offered eternal salvation to Israel and the whole world. So the parable, if read as an allegory, is simply untrue. God did not destroy the evil tenants. God offered them eternal life.
So let’s make a shift and recognize that the evil tenants are not simply the Jewish authorities. They are all of us. And all of us want what those evil tenants wanted – to secure the produce of the vineyard for ourselves. Whether were talking in terms of eternal salvation or our retirement incomes or the nest egg we’re trying to build – we’re all trying to secure the produce for ourselves.
But the vineyard does not belong to us. This is the first point. We are tenants – read stewards – for a time. God holds the vineyard, and – here’s the second point – the produce is always for someone else. That was the reality for most tenant farmers in ancient Israel. They did not own the land they tended. If they were lucky, they got enough to feed their families. But the land and the produce belonged to the landowner, who received the lion’s share. Jesus’ audience would have understood that. So, too, the products of our work belong to God. And God gives them away. God gives them to others.
The economy of the kingdom of God is not about producing and keeping, but about producing and sharing. And God’s giving knows no limits. God gives everything – the produce, the work of our hands, and even God’s own son, God’s own self. Nothing is held back in God’s care for his vineyard.
Now we may think we need it all. We may think we own it all. We may even kill to protect what we’ve got. Yet God takes all that and turns it to good – for ourselves and for the whole world.
The whole earth belongs to God. It’s all gift, given for us and for everyone else. There is nothing we can do to stop God from caring for the whole earth and giving to all.
Let’s take a moment to extend our thinking about this to the church – our church. This is a time when many of us are trying desperately to hold on to what we’ve got, when it feels like we’re in a pitched battle with the culture and our neighbors to keep what our ancestors and we have produced. It’s a difficult battle and, in many places, it’s beginning to feel like a lost cause. We’re losing the battle.
Yet let’s ask ourselves: Is it our church? Does God mean for us to keep it? Or is it something else? Might it be a gift we have received and that we’re tending for the time being? And what would it mean if we lost the church? If we had to move to another vineyard? Has God abandoned us? Or has God invited us into a new thing with and for others?
It may well be that many of our churches will not continue in the way they have, that we will have to learn new ways of being together, new ways of serving one another and God’s world. It will be very painful if what we’ve tended is lost or given to another. Yet God continues to abide, even without the Temple.
I wish I had a crystal ball so that I could tell you the end of the story. But I don’t, and I can’t. What I do know is that God is faithful. God didn’t kill those tenants, and God won’t kill us. God is inviting us into a relationship of trust and inviting us to be fruitful, for ourselves and for others. We can be sure that God will take what we do and give it away. And we can also be sure that God will love us and care for us no matter what.
So let us take hope from this morning’s Gospel. God is with us and will use what we do for good. God invites us to share with others and to see in their health and happiness our own. May it be so. Amen.
Pentecost 13 – September 7, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Dunstan’s, Ellsworth
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
In many places this Sunday – or perhaps next – is Homecoming Sunday; the Sunday when the patterns of the summer begin to shift to the patterns of fall and winter. In some churches, Sunday School begins, we say “farewell” to summer members and visitors and turn to our attention to the core members who carry the work of the church for most of the year.
Ah, the church community: all those folks we love dearly, and the few who drive us crazy. It wouldn’t be church if there weren’t a few folks who behaved badly, who tried to run things their way, who demanded extra attention for their particular needs. Wouldn’t we be better off if those folks weren’t here, if, somehow, the church community could be all of one heart and soul, as the Acts of the Apostles puts it?
That is the goal, isn’t it? Unity and unanimity in the spirit. That is the purpose of the Gospel reading from Matthew, isn’t it? A method for achieving agreement – or casting the disagreeable out. Isn’t that how we should function?
Apart from the plain fact that no Christian community has ever achieved perfect unity, not even the early church, Matthew seems to suggest that the heart of the church is not, in truth, agreement, not unanimity, but forgiveness.
A little context helps. The parable of the lost sheep, the ninety-nine and the one, immediately precedes this morning’s Gospel. In it Jesus speaks of God as a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to search for the one who has gone astray. He searches UNTIL he has found it, and when he finds it, there is more rejoicing over the one who is found than the ninety-nine who never went astray.
And the dialogue which follows today’s Gospel is a conversation with Peter in which Peter tries to figure out how much forgiveness is enough – seven times? Jesus suggests at least ten times that and illustrates the matter with a parable of a master who forgives a debt of 10,000 talents. A talent was a coin of government, like a banker’s check. The Roman Empire used talents for the payroll system of its legions. 10,000 talents is an astronomical sum – unpayable in a lifetime of work.
In between these two parables is this morning’s Gospel, and the framing of these parables transforms it from a little manual for achieving agreement to an illustration of the costly effort to forgive. And we should take from it that forgiveness is something that involves the not only the individuals involved, but the whole church. If I need to forgive, if someone has hurt me, then I am to go to that person to initiate a dialogue. And if I am unsuccessful, I am to take two or three others who are to confirm not my grievance, but everything that has been said. And if that does not produce repentance and forgiveness, then I am to involve the whole church. And if, even then, reconciliation is not achieved, I am not able to forgive, then I am to treat the one who has offended me as a Gentile and a tax collector – one in who is not in community with me.
Note that Jesus doesn’t say that the one should be cast out of the community, but that the relationship is broken, forgiveness isn’t possible. It’s no small irony here that our Gospel was written by a tax collector.
The heart of the matter is that forgiveness is the heart of the church. We are a community, not because on our own we can achieve unity. We are a community because when two or three are gathered, Christ is in the midst of us. Christ gives us our unity, and our responsibility is simply to keep coming together. Our responsibility is to create an environment in which we can seek and offer forgiveness and keep coming together even when we can’t agree.
How incredibly counter-cultural this is! In a world that wants us to choose sides on every matter, that wants us to put everything to a vote, that wants us to decide who is and who is out, the church exists as a place where love for the other is the first principle. That requirement calls us then to seek forgiveness when we need it, and to offer it when others do.
Does this mean we should put up with any kind of behavior? That we should forgive whatever is done? No, I don’t think so. Remember forgiveness is sought and offered – it’s mutual. Repentance and amendment of life are involved. But it does say that the church is a place where the expectation of reconciliation, the willingness to forgive and be forgiven, is fundamental. We are a community of forgiven sinners. We are a place that welcomes sinners and their victims into loving community and seeks to rebuild their lives.
In a world where social media can tear down a reputation in seconds, where personal attacks are the order of the day, where dog-eat-dog competition is celebrated as a virtue, the Body of Christ is meant to be a different place. And the reconciliation we bear, the reconciling of the world to God and one another in Christ, is meant to be offered not only internally, but to the world around us. I’ve watched with fascination and pride as the churches of Ferguson, MO, have worked not only to name racism and injustice in the Michael Brown case, but also to provide support for the law enforcement community and to bring the opposing sides together for dialogue. The church has named itself as among the sinners needing forgiveness and has invited all the players to the same self-examination. That, I think, is what Matthew is talking about.
So the question for this morning – who has offended you? That is to say, whom do you need to forgive? And who have you offended? Who needs to forgive you? Can you find a way to sit down together and to begin?
May it be so. Amen.
Pentecost 11 – August 24, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
All Saints Chapel, Bailey Island
Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8
Matthew begins his narrative this morning with a reference to the city of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a city built by the Herodians on the site of an ancient shrine to the god Pan and named after Herod the Great’s patron, Caesar Augustus. During Jesus’ time it was the capital of Herod the Great’s son, Philip, one of four brothers who ruled Palestine. We are to be mindful that hovering over this story is the claim by the Roman Emperor to be the ruler of the whole world and, more than that, a god to be worshiped.
So in a place named after the Emperor and ruled by the Herodian pretenders to the Jewish throne, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” There could not be a more pointed question. Indeed, for many Christians this is the most important question in the entire Bible, the answer to which is meant to shape and direct our whole lives.
And this is not primarily a question about doctrine. It is not a question designed to lead to denominational or theological affiliation, although it has certainly led to that. No, against the backdrop of Caesar’s pretensions, Caesar who demanded unquestioning loyalty, taxes, military service and worship, the question is about identity and commitment. Who is it that will shape your life? Whom will you worship? Whom will you obey?
The answers the disciples give to the question, the answers they have heard from others, are responses that many have given through the centuries. They say that Jesus is a prophet, a holy man, and leader and example to follow. So Jesus presses again… but who do you say that I am? And Peter blurts out what has become the orthodox confession of the church ever since: you are the Messiah of Israel and the holy child of God. You are God.
We say that every week in our worship. It’s explicit in everything we do. And yet, I suspect, there is a gap between what we say and how we act. Here’s how David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary puts it: “But if actions speak louder than words – and you and I both know they do – then I have to admit that most of my actions don’t confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Rather, they testify that he is a good man, a great man, even, an example to follow, someone to be inspired by, kind of like the prophets of old.”
“And here’s the thing: I suspect that I am not alone in sensing the disconnect between my public confession and my everyday actions. I think most of our people also know that there is a gap between the words they say on Sunday and the lives they lead the rest of the week. Not intentionally, and certainly with no malice aforethought. In fact, I suspect that most of us would like the words we say on Sunday not just to align with the rest of our lives but actually to matter day in and day out.” (Blog post)
The difficulty for us is not in saying the words; it’s not in making our confession of faith. It’s in living out that confession in our daily lives.
So… who do I think Jesus is? I think Jesus is the presence of God among us. Jesus shows us not only that God loves us, but that God came to be with us and to be like us. There is nothing in human life that is unknown to God and nothing that God can not or will not face and transform. Jesus is the sign of God’s embrace of human life and the human condition. And more than that Jesus is the model and the goal of human life. Living the life of faith means to become more and more like Jesus, living our lives following his example, knowing that failure is forgiven and that, with God, all things are possible.
That’s my confession. Not perfect… there’s probably more to say. And I struggle with it. As Christians in every generation have struggled to live out their faith, so I struggle as well. I take some comfort that it has never been easy.
St. Paul exhorted his congregation in Rome: “1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Worship, said Paul, is not simply a matter of what we do when we gather in the church, but has to do with the ways we think and act. We worship God when we are kind and compassionate, when we serve others in need, when we offer ourselves in support of our neighbors. God is worshiped as the clergy of Ferguson, Missouri, walk the streets and keep the peace. God is worshiped as doctors and nurses answer the call to fight the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and Sierra Leone. God is worshiped as people and nations accept refugees from the fighting in the Middle East or the poverty and crime of South America.
There may seem to you a certain grimness to these lessons on a summer Sunday. The backdrop of the Roman Empire or of the struggles of contemporary empires may seem to make the question Jesus asks one we want to turn away from. But I think, in a way, that’s the point. If our loyalty is primarily to Caesar, if Caesar – or money or power or drugs or fame – is our king, then life will be pretty grim. For these rulers demand everything and give little in return. The promises are great, but the realities are hollow and life draining.
If Jesus is our king – or better yet – our God, then life has possibilities far beyond our imaginings – not about living alone in splendid and luxurious isolation – but living in community, in harmony with God and our neighbors.
And there’s the final point, I think. The real division between Jesus and Caesar isn’t only about who has the better theology, who demonstrates the greatest power. The ultimate question has to do with what life is about, what constitutes a life worth living.
So the question for us to contemplate on this fine summer day is: Who do you say Jesus is? What do you think life is about? What would make for you a life truly worth living? What are the hopes and the possibilities that following Jesus brings to you?
The Christian church, The Episcopal Church, is built on those who commit themselves to Jesus – not perfectly, of course. Remember our founder is the impulsive and only sometimes faithful Peter. But the choice makes a difference. And the effort, the genuine effort, to be like Jesus is essential. God grant you grace in your own wrestling to move each day in Jesus’ direction.
Pentecost 8 – August 3, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach
This morning our Gospel tells the all-too-familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000, the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. I say “too-familiar” because when we hear it our minds move immediately to the matter of whether or not Jesus has violated the rules of physics by creating something from nothing. In focusing on the how of the story, we miss the important words about discipleship that are the heart of the story.
Hunger – what we now call food insecurity – was a chronic reality in first century Palestine. Only the elites were well-fed. Most people lived hand to mouth with little assurance about the quantity or quality of their next meal. Malnutrition was ubiquitous and accounts for the endemic nature of many of the diseases and conditions which Jesus healed as he moved about. The crowd of people following Jesus included large numbers of the gaunt and hollow-eyed, sallow complexions, protruding bellies and weak limbs. And so, when Jesus saw them, he had compassion on them because they were hungry and sick.
This reality is underlined for us by the fact that the story in Matthew just prior to this one – the one alluded to by the words, “Now when Jesus heard this” – is the story of the sumptuous and incestuous feast at which Herod sat with this brother’s wife, watched his daughter dance, and gave her the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The leaders of this culture, those with the power of life and death, feast carelessly and thoughtlessly while their people struggle and starve. The contrast between the lifestyles of the “rich and shameless” (to borrow a phrase from David Lose) and the people following Jesus could not be clearer. And Jesus has compassion.
It’s shocking really. But it’s also normal. That’s the way it was. There wasn’t enough to go around. It was every man for himself, and most didn’t do all that well. The disciples reflect that reality by saying to Jesus, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” It’s time for us to look after ourselves. Send these folks to look after themselves. Conventional wisdom, and also hopeless – because these folks have no money and there is no place to buy food.
Jesus’ response must have stunned the disciples. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” You feed them. You do it. But, they said, ”We have nothing here”… nothing “but five loaves and two fish.” The reality, the logic, and the hopelessness of scarcity underlie their words.
All we have is five loaves and two fish… Pathetic really. Nothing at all. Situation normal. Nothing…
Yet Jesus takes the loaves and fish as says, “Thank you, God, for five loaves and two fish.” Thank you, God, for this gift of food. And he broke the bread and shared it with the crowd.
So the miracle here isn’t the feeding of the crowd per se. The miracle is the transformation in thinking and behaving that Jesus represents: The kingdom of God isn’t governed by “every man for himself.” It’s governed by compassion and God’s will to feed God’s people. The only possible response to people in need is compassion.
The kingdom of God isn’t governed by calculations of scarcity, but by thanksgiving for what’s been given. The five loaves and two fish are a gift for which we can only give thanks. For the God who created everything that is out of primordial chaos, the feeding of 5,000 is a small matter, but our response must be the same – thanksgiving.
The kingdom of God is not ruled by helplessness and passivity. We should not quietly wait for someone else to do it, for the rich to have mercy. Those of us who are members of the kingdom, those of us who have accepted God’s invitation to live as disciples, are invited to share in the work of feeding. You do it.
What the disciples are encountering – in the face of Herod’s murderous brutality, in the face of hunger and disease – is God’s unwillingness to accept such things as the natural order. God has something quite different in mind, and the disciples are invited to take part. The disciples are undone – not by Herod, not by hardship – but by the new world order God is proposing. The life of discipleship is a life of personal responsibility, a life that is risky and costly, and yet rooted in the promises of God. The disciples are asked to stake their lives on those promises and, in thanksgiving, to feed God’s people.
The feeding of the 5,000 appears as a miracle only because it does not follow the conventional logic of this world. Indeed, Christian discipleship rarely follows conventional logic. St. Ann’s, Windham, is about to send a young adult for a year’s service in Uruguay as part of the Young Adult Service Corps of The Episcopal Church. She needn’t do that. She’s a college grad – she could start building a career, earning some money. Instead she’s making herself dependent on others for a year and serving the church in Uruguay. Hundreds of health workers – many of them Christian – are heading to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa to try to bring an end to the ebola outbreak. It’s dangerous, life-threatening, and overwhelming work with little hope for a short term resolution. The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Mideast, with the support of many in this country, continues to sustain the work of the diocese’s Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza, a hospital that serves all who come there, Muslim or Christian, in the midst of fighting which has damaged the hospital itself. What sense is there in any of it, except that Christians always respond out of compassion, thanksgiving, and a sense of personal responsibility.
The true miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, the daily miracle for all of us who call ourselves Christian, is that God is with us. Those are the very first words Matthew says about Jesus. He is Emmanuel. God was with the disciples on that day when all those people needed to be fed. And God is with us in a world that still needs desperately to be fed. For us, hardening our hearts is not an option. We are called to compassion. Despair is not an option. We are called to thanksgiving. And helplessness is not an option. We are called to action. Because God is with us, and despite all that the powers and principalities are doing, God will prevail.
As we feast on the beauty of the Maine coast, may our hearts be filled with thanksgiving for all God has done and may we be strengthened for service in Christ’s name. Amen.
Pentecost 3 – June 29, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Paul’s, Fort Fairfield, and St. Luke’s, Caribou
Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
Our several lessons this week are difficult and troubling. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac, though foundational to both Judaism and Christianity is deeply disturbing even if, etiologically, it is the story of the substitution of animal sacrifice for human sacrifice in ancient Israel. As we read the story, we need to remember that child sacrifice was forbidden in Israel and that God does not demand the sacrifice of children. The metaphor used in the Romans reading – slavery – is not a metaphor we find helpful today even if we are to be slaves to God in faith. We do not share the Greco-Roman worldview in which slavery was commonplace. And our Gospel reading is the enigmatic ending to the tenth chapter of Matthew in which Jesus has talked about the tasks and dangers of ministry. “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…” After all that Jesus has said, it comes down to this? To a cup of cold water?
We could spend the whole sermon on each of the lessons, particularly the story of Abraham and Isaac, but I think I will try instead to talk about the lessons together and what they mean for faith. That’s what all the lessons are about – faith in God, faith in God through Jesus Christ. And each of the lessons say something quite startling about faith.
The Genesis story tells us that faith requires everything of us – our whole selves, our bodies, minds and spirits. We can hold nothing back, not even members of our families. God wants all of us, and our promise to follow in faith is meant to shape our whole life. Faith is not an intellectual exercise. Faith is not a feeling. Faith is not a spiritual life somehow separate and detached from the rest of life. Faith is about the totality of our lives – all that we are and all that we have. Faith is meant to transform us and to help us see the world the way God sees it – with love and compassion. Faith offers wonderful gifts, but it can be costly. It has cost many people their lives.
Therefore faith can be hard. There is an edge to faith, a standard that is demanding. And yet faith is first and foremost an attitude of trust. Amidst the brutality of the story of Abraham and Isaac is a simple story of a boy who trusts his father and a man who trusts his God. So we venture out in faith, into that costly life, trusting God to go with us and to care for us.
About a year after I was called to a new parish, one of the leading couples made an appointment to see me. These folks were active in many ways, serving on the vestry and leading the youth group. They told me they needed to leave the parish. When I asked why, they said that it was clear that I wanted their faith to change their lives, and they didn’t want to change. If that’s what faith meant, then the couldn’t be faithful. And they left. I wonder how many of us might have felt the same. God is simply asking too much, and we aren’t sure we trust God.
The lesson from Romans makes the point that we can’t be faithful to more than one god or one way of life. If we choose to follow Jesus Christ, then we will be as slaves to righteousness, living our whole lives in service to God. We can’t serve God and live as though we had faith in something else. Paul, in his straightforward way, acknowledges what psychologists now more clearly understand – that we all worship something, all commit our lives to something: money, power, pleasure – you name it. We are all motivated by something in order to make our way in the world. But for Paul, only one choice brings life – faith in Jesus Christ. And therefore, we must live our lives as servants of Christ. We can’t split the difference. We can’t live part of life one way and part another. We can’t relegate faith to the private sphere, to family and home life, but live another way in the work place.
Finally, the Gospel tells us that faith governs every act, even the smallest. In fact there is no act, no kindness, so small that it doesn’t make a difference. Even the smallest act is seen and appreciated by God. Saving the world is God’s work – not ours. God does the heavy lifting. We are invited to join God in God’s work, but our tasks may be smaller. Our work may, on some days, be the little things – a smile, a simple kindness, a cup of cold water to a child or a homeless person. And therefore the life of faith is within everyone’s reach. There is no one who cannot be faithful, and no circumstance in which one cannot be faithful. Great or small, our actions must reflect the love and compassion of God who sent his son to overcome the power of death for all of us.
In our time, with all the rapid shifts we’ve experienced, with declining cultural support for religion, with aging members and tight resources, we may be tempted to think that God can’t be truly trusted, that what God demands is more than we can give, or we may be tempted to think in primarily financial terms or institutional terms, to think in terms of what we can do to save our church. Our lessons today tell us that people have thought that way before. But then or now, what God asks of us is the same: to trust God, to give our whole lives to God, to serve God in all that we do, to make every act, even the smallest, a sign of our love for God and God’s world. God’s promise to us that such faithful lives will not be lost, that even the smallest act will be noticed and will count for good.
The Episcopalians of the Aroostook Cluster – all of you – have been faithful and brave in making the difficult decisions you’ve had to make over the past year. You have stepped out in faith. You have taken big risks, and you have pulled together for the sake of Christian witness here in the County. You have trusted in God even when it was hard, and you have made painful sacrifices. You have given up things you love for the sake of common good.
I want you to know that God cares. That God knows what you have done and that the work you have done will count for good. And I want you to know that I know what you have done and that I care, too. You have been leaders in helping all of us discover again how to be the church in a new time. You have helped us place our devotion to secondary concerns in second place in order to strengthen our witness to Jesus Christ. For all of that I thank you. And I think God thanks you to.
From Abraham, to the time of Jesus, to this very day, faith in God has sometimes made difficult demands. So we are not alone in our struggles. My prayer is that we, like Abraham, like Jesus, like Paul, will find that God can be trusted and that our faith will not go unrewarded.
May it be so. Amen.
Pentecost 2 – June 22, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. James’, Old Town
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Matthew 10:24-39
The Gospel we preach is explosive. It is a word about overthrowing the world as it is – in favor of a world that does not yet exist. It is threatening not only to the powers that be: those who benefit from the status quo, but also threatening to all of us who put ourselves at risk for the sake of God’s unknown future.
That’s the substance of Jeremiah’s lament: God, I have preached the word that you gave me. I have delivered the message you sent. And now they’re trying to kill me. What have you done to me?
I think it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that we might be thinking the same way.
We all grew up in a comfortable, established church: a church that enjoyed the support and respect of the culture; a church that was able, out of the annual giving of the members, to support a full-time priest and an abundance of programs; a church that enjoyed a position of moral authority in the community. It was a good and comfortable thing to belong to a church. You went, paid your pledge, and the church flourished. All of that is now gone. Now there is competition for Sundays. Now there is not enough money. Now many see the church as a source of division and conflict rather than a voice for unity and good. Yet the bishop – not to mention the Gospel – continues to call us to speak a word of judgment and renewal to the culture.
What the heck? Who signed up for this? We didn’t ask for this. What can we do?
Our dilemma is as old as Abraham, who left his comfortable settled life in Haran for a life of wandering and emigration because God asked him to. It’s as old as Jeremiah, who found himself the target of an ungrateful people and king. It’s as old as Jesus, who was hung on a cross for his Good News. The risk we take is of alienation, rejection and even death.
It’s for this reason, I believe, that the first word Jesus offers his disciples in almost every circumstance is, “Do not be afraid.” Peace! Be still! I am with you. Do not be afraid.
The enemy we battle first and foremost is fear. Fear of loss. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. Fear of death. Fear that we are alone.
What Jesus asks is that we trust that God is with us, that we believe that God’s spirit walks with us. Our hope is that, in the midst of all the change of the world, all the violence and disintegration of our time, in the midst of war and global warming, in the face of distrust and rejection, God holds us.
And God still calls us to carry the good news to the world.
I think what’s truly different about the time we’re living in is that folks are no longer looking to the church for solace and support in their lives. Either they don’t know about the church – that’s apparently true for nearly 70% of young adults – or they don’t trust large institutions, including the church – that’s true for almost everybody else. And so they aren’t coming to us. They aren’t looking for our red doors. They don’t see us as having answers for their lives.
Our response cannot be to give up. We need to meet folks where they are. We haven’t been relieved of our responsibility to bear good news. We’re still charged to bear the message. So we have to move out of our doors and meet folks in their lives, learn their language, create relationships with them in their spaces, and – from within those relationships – share what we know and love.
That’s incredibly hard for us. It represents so much change. It means the church of the future will not look like the church we know. And we’re afraid.
Jesus knew that the word he bore would not always be seen as peaceful. He knew it’s potential for division. The Gospel was a sword as well as a balm. But the promise remains. The good news is good news not only for the poor and suffering of this world, not only for those who are victims of the powers and principalities of this world. It is also good news for us who give ourselves on behalf of that word. God is with us and holds our lives for all eternity.
Annie Dillard in writing about the church, in Teaching a Stone to Talk, wrote:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
The mission of God is to reconcile the world to himself – it is to proclaim one world of peace and justice. It is to invite all humanity to live in harmony with God and one another. We’re invited to share in that mission and to bear that good news.
May we find solace in God’s promise to be with us and courage enough in God’s promise to let go of our fear and proclaim the good news. Amen.
Trinity Sunday – June 15, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Saint Mary’s, Falmouth
Today is Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday of the church year nominally focused on a doctrine. Many profoundly boring sermons will be preached today attempting to describe the nature of the Trinity and to explicate the categories of Greek philosophy the church fathers used in attempting to describe God’s interior nature.
All such sermons will miss the point. Because the purpose of Trinity Sunday is truly not to describe the nature of God – as if God could be described in Godself – but to consider the implications of God’s nature as we experience it and to ask if we, the church, live a Trinitarian life. To state the matter positively, we, the church, are empowered by God’s spirit and sent into to the world to preach the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ so that God’s project of reconciling the whole world might continue in us. Do we live that life?
Our God is a sending God. God sent the Word to create all that exists. God sent the Son, the Word made Flesh, to draw all creation to God. God sent the Spirit to strengthen us for participation in God’s work. God sends us as workers of reconciliation into the world God has made. Our call, the invitation God gives us in Christ, is to join God’s project, to be God’s hands and feet for the renewal of God’s world.
This is the Trinitarian life to which we are called. This is the mission God shares with the church. But the focus of this work, as it has been from the very beginning of time, is not the church, but God’s world. John 3:16 does not say that God so loved the church God gave God’s only son… John 3:16 says that God so loved the world, God’s creation, God’s body, that God gave God’s son.
We are often confused about that. We often think that the focus of the Christian life is the church. I believe to the depths of my soul that God loves us, loves us as her very own creation, loves us as participants in the life of his son. But I don’t think God is particularly concerned about our liturgical worship, our neo-Gothic church architecture, our squabbles about theological correctness, or the many other matters that often occupy our time and energy, except as they serve to provide a launching pad for our participation in God’s project. What God cares deeply about is our recognition of God as the source for our lives and our commitment to share God’s love with our neighbors.
These are difficult days for the Christian Church across the board. All Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Church, are experiencing a decline in members and resources. Of young adults, 30 and under, fewer than 30% identify with any church or, even, any religion. Only about 15% of Americans are participating in any church on Sunday morning. The average age in the US today is 34. The average age in The Episcopal Church is 58. For the vast majority of American families, Sunday is a day to recover from the week past, to prepare for the week to come, to share family time with children, to participate in sports or other activities. The church no longer owns Sunday – if it ever really did. And we are suffering.
What we are experiencing, I believe, is not simply the loss of cultural supports for the church, but the wisdom of the culture that if participating in the life of the church simply means supporting one among many narrowly defined and competing institutions, then it’s not worth the effort. And I would agree. If the point is simply to sustain the church, then it’s not worth the effort.
But if the point is to participate in God’s work of reconciliation, then there is nothing more important on God’s green earth. For the other reality of our time is that our world is increasingly fragmented, alienated and violent. There are more wars between nations, civil wars, famines, droughts and floods than we can track. The only question about mass shootings is where they will happen next. And despite all the warnings, we continue to treat God’s creation as if the natural world will simply absorb whatever we do to it. There has never been a time when the ministry of reconciliation has been more important, more crucial, to the life of the world. Moreover, survey after survey indicates that Americans of all ages and backgrounds hunger to be known and loved, hunger for genuine community, hunger for opportunities to help their neighbors and improve their communities. As the body of Christ, we know a lot about these things. But folks will not come to us to find them. We are being sent to them to share our gifts where they are.
The Good News of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ is that God lives in the midst of God’s world. God lives in us. God is present and active in the world God has made. If we don’t see God at work, it’s because we’re not looking. Our task is not to bring God to the world, but to join God in the work God is doing. And so we must begin the wrenching work of turning our focus from the life of the church to the life of the world. We have to see our life, our hope, our future, in joining God’s project. No church, no congregation, however large or small is exempt from this work. As it has ever been, the future is in God’s hands. Our own lives will be transformed as we join God in reaching for that future.
We are God’s children, created by God and joined to God’s son in baptism. We are God’s hands and feet empowered and sustained by God’s spirit. We are ambassadors of reconciliation sent by God to every person and every place on God’s earth to continue God’s work. We are born of God, reconciled by God, nurtured and empowered by God, sent by God, sustained by God for God’s project. For all that God has done for us, we come together here to give thanks. For all that we might do with God, we commit our lives in faith to go out to serve God’s world.
Thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pentecost – June 8, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Barnabas’, Rumford
Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
The story of Pentecost, the one we’re all familiar with, is the story from the Book of Acts. There, in wind and fire, the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples empowering them to proclaim, in all the languages of the known world, the Good News of new life in Christ. In Acts, the disciples not only receive the promised gift of God’s spirit in a very public way, but they also begin the movement that has become the Christian Church.
In the Gospel of John, the gift of the Holy Spirit comes not on Pentecost, but on the evening of Easter in the upper room where the disciples have hidden themselves away for fear of the authorities. Jesus comes among them, through closed doors, and bids them be at peace. He breathes on them and invites them to receive the Holy Spirit. And then Jesus gives them the authority to free people from their sins or bind them in their sins.
Two profoundly different stories about the same event. One public, the other private. One in broad daylight, one hidden away. One about proclaiming good news to all people, the other about forgiving sins. But I would suggest to you that the essence of the two stories is the same.
Despite the triumphal aspects of the story in Acts, the disciples at that time are anything but a victorious movement. They’re just a frightened bunch of fishermen, tax collectors and other misfits. They haven’t yet claimed the good news of the resurrection. Haven’t begun the work of sharing that good news with others.
And the coming of the Holy Spirit hasn’t solved problems for them – no, the Spirit has created problems. The Spirit has driven them from the safety of their upper room, from the anonymity of returning to their former careers, and has transformed them into bold proclaimers of God’s truth. The good news they now carry into all the world will get most of them killed.
The Spirit of God has, perhaps, delivered them from fear, but it has also delivered them into a hostile world in which their lives will never again be safe. The Spirit has set them on the road burning with good news that they must share, good news which has changed their lives, and with which they now wish to change the lives of others.
And how could it be otherwise. The Spirit they receive is the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ; the Son of God who died in order that we might live, a death and a life that we now share. If Pentecost is the birthday of the church, it may also be the most dangerous day in history, the day when the Spirit of God was set loose among ordinary men and women, among believers and those who might become believers.
In the Gospel of John, sin is understood as the failure to know who Jesus is. In all the great stories in John, the ones who are saved are the ones who recognize Jesus as the Messiah. And the ones whom Jesus challenges and condemns are those who fail to recognize who he is and what he represents. So to forgive sins means to release people from their ignorance and to retain sins means to fail to convey who Jesus is. In other words, forgiveness of sins is as much about those who deliver the good news – or fail to – as it is about those who hear it and act – or fail to.
In other words, the Spirit of God sends his disciples into the world with a life-saving word, and it is incumbent on the disciples to deliver it. The life of a disciple is full of risk and challenge, a life of trying and often, no doubt, failing; a life in which the disciple is compelled to take the word of God to every person and every place.
On Pentecost, we, as disciples and members of Christ’s body, are invited into this same life of risk and challenge. We’re empowered to leave our hidden, upper rooms and go out into the plazas of life to share what we’ve been given. We’re driven to let go of our anonymity and to engage with the people we meet, speaking their languages. We’re invited to spend our lives helping others to recognize and know God.
I’m not sure that’s how we often feel about the church. We’d rather, I think, consider the church a safe place, like the upper room, not a launching pad into the world. And we’d like consider our work safe and comfortable not full of risk and, no doubt, failure. But Pentecost was not the end of anything – not the destination. Pentecost was the beginning, and the work begun on that day continues to this day.
Pentecost overturns our conventional wisdom about the life of faith. Pentecost tells us we have nothing to lose by trying new things, nothing to lose by taking risks, and everything to lose by playing it safe. Pentecost tells us that our lives and the life of the church are to be found out there speaking the language of the people.
May this Pentecost be a day of renewal for us, a day of receiving God’s Spirit, so that we may live disciples’ lives of challenge and risk, so that everyone may hear the good news of God’s love. Amen.
Easter 5 – May 18, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Andrew’s, Millinocket
John 14:1-14 – If you know me, you know my Father
John’s Gospel was written in the late first or early 2nd century, before 110 AD. It had been two full generations since anyone living had witnessed the founding events of the Christian movement. There was no one left alive who had known Jesus of Nazareth or had been present for the crucifixion or resurrection. And Jesus had not returned. The world had not come to an end. So, the expectation that Jesus would return soon was fading.
Moreover, John’s community was struggling with persecution from both the Jewish community and the Roman Empire. The Christians had been thrown out of the synagogues, and the Empire considered them traitors. And so, for John’s community there were profound questions of faith. How can we trust the stories of our tradition? How do we know that they are true? And, more important, how do we come to know God? John’s Gospel was written to answer these questions. It was written, as we are told at the end of the story of Thomas, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Today’s Gospel, drawn from Jesus’ dinner address – the Farewell Discourse – at the Last Supper, addresses the same set of questions. The focus is particularly on God the Father. How do we know God? How do we know that there is a place for us with God? How do we get there? Jesus speaks lyrically and metaphorically, and the disciples, thinking concretely and literally, have a hard time understanding him. They want to know where God’s mansion is. They want a map. And they want to be shown God.
Too often we Christians have also understood Jesus’ words concretely and literally making Jesus some sort of divine ticket-taker who controls access to God – you can only come to the Father through me – rather than, as in all the other I AM statements, the source and giver of abundant life. I AM the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except by me. And… you know me. The word translated from the Greek as “if you know me” is a condition of fact. If you know me… and you do; since, in fact, you know me, then you do know the Father. The words are a promise and not a threat. The words are an invitation, not a restriction.
To know Jesus is to know God. To be in Christ is to have eternal life. Why do we resist that? Why do we want there to be something else?
I suspect we resist because knowing Jesus is at once too easy and too hard. It’s too easy because Jesus sat at table with everyone. No one existed outside his table fellowship. There are no limits to his loving embrace. To be in Christ does not make you special or elite. There’s nothing you have to do to earn his grace. The invitation to sit at the banquet is free and open to everyone. It’s all too easy. There ought at least to be some sort of entrance fee.
And it’s also too hard. It’s too hard because to follow Jesus means to love the world as he loved it, to care for all those poor and sinful people whom he loved, to set our own cares in the context of the larger community, and to be willing to suffer and die for the sake of others. To follow Jesus is to involve oneself in the suffering of the world. To follow Jesus is to stand at the foot of the cross praying for the dawn. To follow Jesus is to work for the restoration and renewal of the world. And it’s just too hard. Like the disciples we want to sit with a pina colada at God’s right hand in God’s kingdom.
What we miss, in our focus on ticket punching, is that Jesus’ words are words of promise. I AM the way, the truth, and the life. To be in Christ, as easy and as hard as it is, is to be heirs of the promise, to be heirs of the way, the truth and the life. Following Jesus may indeed involves suffering, may indeed require paying the cost of compassion, but our suffering takes place in the context of a promise that God loves us and has a place for us.
Brother Curtis Almquist, of the Society of St John the Evangelist, in one of the Lenten videos in the series Love Life, said we are God’s beloved. “Love is a decision, and it’s God’s decision. God adores you. You make God stay. You are the apple of God’s eye.” God wants to spend eternity with you. That’s the truth. That’s what Jesus is talking about.
And we know that it’s true because Jesus told us and, more importantly, he showed us. He showed us by embracing us at table, though we were but poor and outcast, not rich or powerful or politically correct. He showed us by dying for us on the cross. He showed us that we are, as 1 Peter puts it, God’s own people, a holy nation, grafted into Christ from every race and nation.
So the invitation before us is not to pass some entrance exam, to be worthy of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. It is, rather, as members of that kingdom to live as members in the midst of God’s creation – to love others as Christ loved us, to serve others with compassion, even at the risk of our own comfort, to trust that, come what may, God loves us and has a place for us.
Our task is to claim the promise, to take it, to believe it, to live it. There is a place for us that cannot be lost because God is holding it for us. And secure in the knowledge of our place, we are free to love our neighbors the way Jesus loved us. That’s what it means to be baptized. That’s what it means to live a baptized life.
My brothers and sisters, your rooms are reserved. Late arrivals are no problem. The light is on. You are expected. May you live in the strength of that promise.
Easter 4 – May 11, 2014
The five churches of the Southern Kennebec Valley worshiping together at St. Mark’s, Augusta
John 10:1-10; Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47 – The Good Shepherd
The last verse of Psalm 121 goes this way: “The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, for this time forth for evermore.”
Going out and coming in: a poetic way of describing the whole of life, the daily process of leaving home in the morning and returning home in the evening. It’s a metaphor illustrating our lives of work and rest, of going out into the world to earn our daily bread and coming home to the safety of hearth and family.
That same understanding was also applied by first century Jews to the thresholds or the doors their homes. Devout Jews affixed a mezuzah to the doorposts of their homes – small leather cases in which was placed a small parchment with the words of the Shema – Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God… As they crossed the threshold, the members of the household were supposed to touch the mezuzah and to remember their identity, to remember that they worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It’s this tradition that Jesus addresses when he speaks of himself as the gate, the door, to the sheepfold. He is the source of identity for the sheep. The sheep who go out and in through him will find pasture and protection. They will find, as he says, abundant life.
Our Gospel today is the beginning of the long discourse in John 10 in which Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. The immediate context is the story of the man born blind and the analysis of who actually sees – the man born blind or the “blind” pharisees and teachers of Israel. The pharisees cannot, despite all their training and their piety, recognize who Jesus is. But the blind man sees that Jesus is the Son of Man.
Jesus tells the story of the man born blind in response to a question: Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Neither, says Jesus. He was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him. Whatever we might think about God’s using a blind man as a demonstration project, the thing to notice is that the story is not focused on human sin, but on faith and on the healing of human “blindness” – pride, self-righteousness, arrogance – our human inability to see what is right in front of us – that Jesus is the Son of God. Those who recognize that find their identity in him.
The promise to those who find their identity in Jesus, who put their whole life in his care – all their comings and goings – is that they will find pasture and protection: abundant life. Jesus is not simply one who saves us from our sins. Rather he is one who has come to be the focal point for the whole of life and who promises us abundance both in the larger world, in the challenges of work and society, and in our private lives in our homes and families.
We don’t talk much about abundant life or, if we do, we too often see it in personal terms: my success, my happiness, my health. But what Jesus means by abundant life has to do with God’s people. To have abundant life is to find our identity in Christ, to be accompanied by him as we venture out into the larger world, and to come home to him and find our rest in him. To live an abundant life is to live a life free of fear, to live a life in which we find sufficient freedom from our own concerns to live with compassion toward others, to use the gifts we have been given to uplift the community around us. Or as the Book of Acts puts it, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
Such a life seems impossible to us – and perhaps vaguely politically incorrect – and it is, unless we have found our identity and our rest in Christ. Only then can we have the confidence to follow Christ out into the world and to do as he did.
We in the Southern Kennebec Valley have been wrestling with our identity for a while, and we’ve had some successes. We’ve shared a number of important ministries for several years. We’ve begun to get to know one another better. We’ve begun worshiping together. We understand that our future is tied together – that unless we join together for God’s sake, we will each sink alone. But let me suggest that even when we speak of The Episcopal Church in the Kennebec Valley, we still tend to think of ourselves as members of St. Mark’s – or St. Andrew’s or St. Barnabas’ or St. Matthew’s or Christ Church. And we still often see our task as saving our churches, when our true vocation is to claim our identity in Jesus Christ and to join him bravely in the healing of the world.
Jesus is the gate through which we find our identity. Jesus is the gate through which we find meaning. Jesus is the gate through which we find the courage to join God in the work of reconciliation. It’s time to let go of our history of distrust and suspicion. It’s time to cease thinking in terms of winners and losers. It’s time to let go of our ceaseless competition for bodies and dollars. It’s time to turn our attention and our gifts to God’s purposes and the needs of God’s world.
All who follow Christ are truly one body, one flock. We hold all things in common, and they are at our disposal for the renewal of God’s world. This is scary business, and we don’t know how to do it. It may be for us the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But Christ is with us.
So let us cling to Christ. Let us trust that Christ goes out with us, and waits for us as we return. Let us believe that in Christ there is abundant life, and that we will find it through him as we go in and out together.
Easter 2 – April 27, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Luke’s, Wilton
John 20:19-31: Trusting in the witness of others
There is a substantial scholarly consensus that Thomas, whom we often refer to as Doubting Thomas, is getting a bad rap. In the first place, Thomas only asks for to see the other have already seen. He wants simple proof that the one who has presented himself is the one who died on the cross. Seems fair enough, don’t you think?
And, secondly, Thomas is most likely meant as a foil for the first century audience who is listening to the stories of Jesus. The Gospel of John was probably written after 90 A.D, perhaps as late as 110 A.D. John’s community seems to be made up primarily of former Jews, Jewish Christians and Gentile God-fearers. And for all of them the thrill of the resurrection is fading, and the wait for Jesus’ return is getting long.
Remember that life expectancy was only about 35 years in that time. So it’s been a full two generations since the generation that shared in the ministry of Jesus or witnessed the events of Holy Week. It’s now all about the stories, all about the tradition, all about depending on the witness of others for belief.
That’s a big problem. There is no institutional church. There are no professional clergy. The Christian movement is beginning to move in a significant way out of the synagogue and into Gentile communities, but there isn’t anything like what we would consider a church structure. Constantine’s conversion is over 100 years in the future. There are no orders of ministry to speak of. Some deacons. A bishop here and there. The church is mostly small groups gathering in households to tell the stories and to share bread and wine. Christianity is diverse movement of peoples gathering in small communities.
So, depending on the witness of others is crucial. That’s the only way the faith can be spread. And if the witness is not believed, then the Christian movement ends.
That’s precisely our situation, isn’t it. There haven’t been eyewitnesses to the events of Holy Week and Easter for thousands of years. All we have is the shared witness of the church and the experience of the risen Christ in our own lives. That’s all we have.
And ours is a time when the witness of others is suspect. We don’t trust one another. Whether it’s politics or religion, we’re divided, and we suspect the other side of lying. Like a couple in the midst of a bitter divorce, even the facts are in doubt. Each side is convinced the other is misusing the facts or, even, manufacturing the facts. And faith requires trust – trust most of all in God, and trust that the experiences we share with one another are true.
It seems quite remarkable, doesn’t it, that God would place faith on such fragile foundations – the witness of others. But there it is. That’s what God has done.
And that’s why we meet in community – to tell THE story, to tell OUR stories, to bolster one another’s faith, to witness to the presence of the risen Christ in our lives and in the world around us.
We’re living through a remarkable time in the life of the Christian Church. For the past three generations, we’ve relied on the institution of the church to carry our faith. We’ve relied on professional Christians, folks called clergy, to teach us and to administer our churches and to carry the faith forward to the next generations. But that’s not working any more. Fewer and fewer communities are capable of paying for a professional Christian. More and more, it’s up to us.
We need to explore new ways of being church. We need to discover new ways of forming and education Christians. We need to find new ways to engage God’s mission in the world around us. But most of all we need to learn again to tell THE story – ourselves. We need to become the witnesses of what God has done in Christ. That’s job one, to be witnesses to the resurrection.
I think that’s what all the work we’re doing in Maine is about. That’s what your work with St. Barnabas’, Rumford, is about. Yes. We’re trying to preserve a worshiping congregation. Yes, we’re trying to maintain an Episcopal presence in Rumford. But God is not an Episcopalian. The most important thing is to keep telling, in our words and in our lives, the Good News of God in Christ. Without that, all the rest doesn’t matter.
Thomas got the proof he was seeking. But the Johannine community did not. So John ends his account of Thomas by saying, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
The invitation this morning is for us to believe. Belief is a choice. But it’s not a mindless or a knee jerk choice. It’s a choice rooted in the sincerity of others and in the truth of our own experience. We know Christ is risen because we trust what others have said and we know the truth of our own lives. And this is the raw material which we use to tell others. The story of Thomas is not only an invitation to believe the witness of others, but an invitation to become witnesses ourselves. Will we, like Thomas, confess, “My Lord and my God.” And will we tell others that Good News?
Palm Sunday – April 13, 2014
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. George’s, Sanford
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31, Philippians 2:5-11, The Passion According to Matthew
Many of us can still remember the days when this Sunday was called, simply, Palm Sunday – the day of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We now call it Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday or simply the Sunday of the Passion.
The change has been made for two reasons. First, Palm Sunday was celebrated in an era when many, if not most, Christians would be in church for the services of Holy Week. Now, the vast majority of Christians will next be in church on Easter. If the Passion were not read today, we would simply go from triumph to triumph – an understanding of life that is decidedly unchristian. Life, as we all well know, passes from life to death to life. There is no resurrection without the cross.
And second, to celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem as though it were genuinely triumphal is to create a naive picture of the event. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem may, in some fashion, be triumphant – the crowds may unintentionally be proclaiming the deep truth of the power of God’s love – but it is also deeply ironic. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is street theater of the highest order because Jesus has come to Jerusalem to die. The tension and drama of Palm Sunday are rooted in this truth: the son of God arrives in triumph to be tried in a star chamber and executed as heretic and traitor.
What Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday truly is is an extended meditation on the nature and use of power – judicial power, religious power, military power, and divine power. It is a study of the contrasts between the power of the establishment, the power of empire, the power of religion, and the power of God. And the ironies are generated in the contrasts between appearances and reality. Only God arrives without the trappings of power – not on a warhorse, but on an ass. And only God behaves without the power of threat, without the power of coercion. Jesus has no centurions. Jesus bears no weapons. So who, truly, has power?
The human beings in the story are constantly scheming, jockeying for position, betraying one another – constantly seeking advantage. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. The religious establishment tries to manipulate the empire into doing its dirty work. The government seeks to maintain order at all costs.
Nothing has changed in our own day. Consider the Assad regime in Syria, Putin in the Ukraine, the Israelis and the Palestinians. Consider how the problem of homelessness in Portland has become a matter of free speech rather than care for the poor. Consider how Republicans and Democrats make health care a matter of who is in control rather than who needs to see a doctor.
And through all these machinations, all this scheming, God meets God’s unfaithful children with the power of love. God alone refuses to scheme, to manipulate, to threaten. God in Jesus loves us as we are and accepts the worst we can do.
All this makes Passion Sunday a profoundly hopeful day; somber, yet hopeful. Not that the outcome of the day is good. Not that death of Jesus is something to be celebrated. Not that the agonies of the day are any less painful in any way. But that God’s love is undeterred. At the end of Good Friday, God’s love is as unshaken as it was on Palm Sunday.
That unshakeable love calls for a loving response from us. Bishops Against Gun Violence, an alliance of some 40 Episcopal bishops, including the Bishop of Maine, has just concluded a major conference in Oklahoma City at which more than two hundred people considered how to address the epidemic of violence, especially gun violence, in the United States. More than 30,000 people die of gunshot wounds every year, most either at their own hands or the hands of a loved one. And yet we’ve turned this matter into a discussion of personal, civil rights rather than a matter of why there is so much anger and despair in our country. We now stand and throw verbal rocks at one another rather than attempting to understand one another and build on common concerns for the health and safety of our families. The conference was an attempt to begin and model a civil conversation about violence and to kneel together before the cross of Christ to ask forgiveness.
Martin Luther King Jr., once famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” That in a nutshell is the story of the Passion.
May you, in your life, remember that you are God’s beloved, that God created you in love, for love, and still calls you to love. May you consider your own part in the scheming and manipulation of the world. And may you kneel before the cross begging forgiveness and considering the ways you might live a new life in the days to come.
Pentecost 26 – November 17, 2013
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Andrew’s, Newcastle
Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Today’s Gospel feels as though it was written for this week. After spending a week watching the human and ecological nightmare created by Super Typhoon Haiyan, it doesn’t take much imagination to think that the end of the world is upon us. Watching the survivors pick their way through the shreds of what was once a city of 200,000, we might think the apocalypse has arrived. I believe that many people are despairing about the future of the planet, and I suspect there will be a good many sermons preached on such themes this morning. But such preaching is mistaken, both in terms of the text and the future of the planet.
The fundamental misunderstanding about apocalyptic literature in Scripture is that it is a prediction of the future. That’s not the case. Apocalyptic literature was written as a prediction in order to give the author credibility, to invest the author with the divine power to describe future events. But the readers of apocalyptic literature always read it in relation to the events of their time. Apocalyptic literature was written not to predict the future, but to make sense of events that had already happened. Apocalyptic literature was written to give hope. In our Gospel, Luke presents Jesus as the perfect prophet who accurately describes the events leading up to the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 A.D. It will, says Jesus, be torn down. Not one stone will be left on another.
And that is what had happened in the time of Luke’s readers. More than that, Luke’s prediction was a narrative about what the disciples suffered before the Temple was destroyed, suffering which Luke recounted in his second volume, The Book of Acts. “…they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name.” All true. That’s what happened.
So Luke was not writing to predict what will come, but to say that God comprehends what has happened; that the suffering of the disciples is not outside God’s ability to cope, not beyond the plan God has for salvation.
The question before us this morning is not whether or not Typhoon Haiyan is a sign of the end of the world: not whether or not the deaths suffered in Tacloban were necessary as part of God’s plan for the end of the age. Typhoon Haiyan is part of the complex reality that is global warming. Along with Superstorm Sandy, it is perhaps a portent of climate change. But the question for us is the same as it was for Jesus’ disciples in the midst of persecution. In the face of what’s happening, in the light of all the wars, all the natural disasters, all the pollution and environmental destruction, where is our hope? In what, in whom, do we place our hope?
Hope is the hidden current that runs throughout the Gospel of Luke. But it is hope of particular kind: not that the world will remain the same, not that the world will not be changed. Rather, it is hope that the world will be turned upside down and made new; Hope, as Mary says in her Magnificat at the very beginning of the Gospel, that the mighty will be thrown down and the lowly lifted up. For those who have a stake in the status quo, Luke’s hope is very challenging indeed.
Hope is also important to us because it is our job to testify. The things that happen, as Jesus says to his disciples, provide an opportunity to testify. All the things happening in our time present us with the opportunity to testify. And what will we say? What is our testimony?
For Luke, and for us, the reference point for all the change in the world is not ourselves. Our lives are not the standard against which change should be measured. The standard, the reference point, is God. God is unalterably opposed to much that is happening in the world, and God is bringing it to an end. God intends to establish the new heaven and new earth that Isaiah sings about, a new world where everyone lives to be a hundred years and where the wolf and the lamb feed together: a world free of death and destruction.
To the extent that we see our own lives as the reference point, to the extent that we believe the future is solely a matter of our choices and our preferences, then the changes of our day are challenging – even shattering. To the extent that we believe that God is doing a new thing for ourselves – and the whole world – then we open ourselves to hope.
Such hope is most fully realized, most fully understood, in Jesus. Through all the things that happens to us, he is with us. And he is the sign that all these disasters, these wars and rumors of wars, do not have the last word. The last word belongs to God. The last word is life, and God will not let even a hair on our heads perish.
Do we believe that? That’s the question before us. If we don’t believe it, then we best circle the wagons and get all we can for ourselves. If we don’t believe it, then selfishness is a virtue and violence is justified to protect what we have. But if we do believe it, then we are called to works of righteousness. We are called to labor for our bread and for justice. We should not fall into idleness, we should not live off the labor of others, but we ourselves should work for the new world that is coming. “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”
Compared to what happened in the Philippines this past week, what’s happening to the church in North America hardly counts. Yet both things, the super typhoon and cultural change in America, are signs of change we cannot control. Like Jesus disciples, we can try to hide from it all or we can testify to the hope that is in us.
In just a moment we’ll turn to our baptismal covenant and the service of confirmation, and we will pledge to testify by word and example to the hope that is in us. We will promise that, in the midst of our lives, we will give thanks to God, we will turn from sin, we will proclaim Good News, we will seek Christ, we will advocate for justice and peace – because we know the world is in God’s hands and nothing can take it out of God’s hands. May God renew in us the grace given us at baptism and strengthen us for doing right. Amen.
Pentecost 25 – November 10, 2013
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Christ Church, Norway
Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
The Sadducees were the strict constructionists of their day. They believed in the cult of sacrifice, the supremacy of the Temple, and they rooted all of their beliefs in the five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Since there is no discussion of resurrection in the Books of Moses, the Sadducees did not believe in it.
Their question about the resurrection is absurd, based on an extrapolation of the law regarding levirate marriage: a practice which was meant to provide an heir for a deceased man. It’s not clear that levirate marriage was actually practiced much, and the example offered extends the practice to a ludicrous degree.
Apart from the absurdity of the question, there is its disturbing misogyny. Women, in the minds of the Sadducees, served only one purpose and that was to be vessels for a man’s future by providing him with male offspring. The woman’s feelings, her concerns about being married to seven men, the propriety of sharing her body with a series of brothers, had no place in their consideration. The question for them was about to whom she will belong.
Jesus points out the absurdity of their concerns – in the resurrection there will be no marriage… But then he moves the discussion in a different direction. God, he says, is a God of the living, not the dead. Jesus is referring to Exodus 3:6 where God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” in the present tense. That authoritative verse would have set the Sadducees to pondering.
Jesus is saying two things here. First, resurrected life is so unlike our current lives as to be unimaginable. Resurrection is not like this life – only more so. Resurrection is a life in which our current concerns about life fall away and are replaced by greater joy. In the resurrected life, rules about marriage fall away. Concern about first marriages and second marriages or about being reunited with an abusive husband or even about being reconnected with deeply missed family members are subsumed in the greater joy of new life with God – something we actually can’t imagine.
And second, resurrection isn’t an event or place, but a person. Resurrection is about our life in God through Jesus Christ. We don’t know what our lives will be like, but we do know that they will be with God.
One of the difficulties with any sort of change is that we often lack the ability to imagine it or to talk about it except in the terms of the present. Despite the absurdity and maliciousness of the Sadducees’ question, they can be forgiven for not being able to think of marriage in any way other than the way described in the Law of Moses. They could not imagine a different kind of relationship. They could not imagine a different role for women. They could only extend what they knew into an unseen future which produced in their own minds a surreal reality. Their question was absurd to them, and that’s why they asked it. They thought it must be absurd to Jesus as well and that it would catch him.
But Jesus was not imagining first century Palestine writ large. In fact Jesus didn’t describe the resurrection, except to say what it is not – and that it is to be connected with the living God.
I think we suffer the same sort of imaginative failure when we try to think about the future of the church. All we can think about is what we have known and loved. We can’t imagine the church without those things. We think something must be terribly wrong that what we’ve always done no longer seems to work. We think that a good church, a happy church, must be some better version of what we’ve known. We can’t imagine that God may have even better things in mind. We can’t imagine Jesus saying that in the resurrection people neither attend The Episcopal Church or go out from the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed no one will be part of any church anymore because they will all share in the kingdom of God.
But like those who have lost beloved family members or spouses, who wait to be reunited with them in the land of their hopes, we are caught in between times. We long for what we have known. We want to see them again. We can’t believe that God may have something even better in mind.
And that better thing is Jesus Christ. In the resurrection we are all joined to the One in whom all our lives are perfected and all our hopes realized, but not in our terms – in God’s terms. The kingdom of heaven, the life of resurrection, is not 21st century Maine writ large. It is something good beyond our imagining.
So, what does this mean for us now in the church? It means, I think, that we must approach the change and uncertainty of our time with hope. We can’t see what’s ahead. We don’t know if the things we are trying to do will actually produce what we want. But God is with us, and God has good things in mind. The losses we experience, the deaths that trouble us, will be swept up in God’s new heaven and new earth. We will all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye, as Paul put it. We don’t know now what that will look like.
That doesn’t make our situation any less scary. That doesn’t make our grief any less real. We deeply miss the things about the church we once knew. But it should give us confidence that on our pilgrimage, on this journey, God is with us, leading us to a new land, a land of milk and honey, a land of joy beyond our imagining. It’s that hope, that confidence, that allows us to try new ways of being God’s church, to discern new ways to preach the Gospel and meet the needs of our communities. God is not done with us, and the best times are ahead of us.
May it be so. Amen.
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Ann’s, Windham
November 3, 2013
Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Gospel 19:1-10
The Gospel of Luke frequently speaks of wealth and poverty, and when it does, the rich usually come off badly. Jesus’ mother sang about the rich being sent away empty in her Magnificat. The Beatitudes not only bless the poor, but curse the rich. In the parable of the seeds that fall on ground, riches are like thorns which strangle the word of God. There is the parable of the foolish farmer who built extra barns to hoard his harvest, then died. There is the tragic parable of wealthy Dives and poor Lazarus. It is easier, said Jesus, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
So Zacchaeus’ wealth does not bode well for his encounter with Jesus. And yet, and yet… Zacchaeus is also a tax collector, a notorious sinner, and that, strangely enough, gives some reason for hope. Jesus asked a tax collector to be one of his disciples. Just a week ago, we read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who prayed together in the Temple, the tax collector confessing his sins and, as Jesus put it, “going away justified.” So knowing that Zacchaeus is rich and a tax collector should perk up our ears. Something interesting is happening here.
Before going on, it’s probably important to say that tax collectors in the Roman Empire were not like employees of the Internal Revenue Service. They were not collecting graduated taxes established by a representative process and based on verified statements of income. Tax collectors were more like mafioso collecting protection money. They were licensed by the Empire to collect taxes. They were not paid for this work, but permitted to extract fees from taxpayers. They were also permitted to operate an armed militia to make sure people paid. Such licenses were generally purchased and went to folks who were already wealthy. A chief tax collector was a person licensed to operate a government-sponsored extortion ring.*
That’s why tax collectors were so hated. There was no sense of fairness in their work. Tax collectors insured that most people stayed poor. Their work was coercive, violent, and sometimes murderous. And their oath of loyalty to the Emperor meant that they were traitors to the Jewish nation.
Tax collectors, for their part, lived a life of wealth and dis-ease. Outwardly they seemed powerful and comfortable, living above the grinding poverty most Palestinians endured. But inwardly, they lived on the edge. They had to keep their Roman overlords happy, so they constantly tried to curry favor with the local governor. Woe betide the tax collector who was suspected of holding back payments due the Empire! The tax collector’s little gang of thugs was no match for a Roman century. If the tax collector had a conscience, if he had not wiped out every feeling for his faith and his neighbors, then the sinfulness of his behavior, the injustice, the cruelty, niggled uneasily at his heart, his spirit. So tax collectors are symbols in Luke, not only of great sinfulness, of lives gone terribly wrong, but also of the possibility of redemption, of a life ready to turn.
Zacchaeus gives a sign that this is true. He hears about Jesus and goes to see him. But he’s short and can’t see over the crowd. He’s not accompanied by his militia because this is not an occasion on which he wants to be seen… so he climbs a tree – a very undignified act for a person of wealth and power – and visible to everyone. Jesus sees him, as does the crowd, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus gratefully welcomes him, and the crowd grumbles. Why has Jesus gone to the home of this notorious sinner?
We don’t know what transpires between Jesus and Zacchaeus, but clearly there is an encounter between transforming grace and a sinner. Zacchaeus repents. He gives half his wealth to the poor and promises to pay any he had robbed four-fold – which is the restitution required by the law for theft.
There’s a lot going on here – and the first thing is that it is a terrible sin to cause people to be poor. Poverty is a curse. And those who have a hand in it stand in need of redemption. We cannot call ourselves a Christian nation when one in seven Americans is eligible for food stamps. We should not rest easy when 1 in 8 of the world’s population goes to bed hungry.
But, and here’s the point, it’s not simply about money. It’s about our relationship with money. It’s about the ways our relationship with money draws us into behavior that is, at first, self-centered, then obsessive, and, finally, murderous. What we do with money matters, and it is a challenge for everyone of us who has some. Whether it’s the glitter of a new electronic device or a set of golf clubs or a new car, or a contribution to our investments or our pension fund, we all face temptations to focus entirely on ourselves without reference to our neighbors. Money creates choices we must confront every day our whole lives long, the consequences of which are real and important.
And the solution to our dilemma is not to feel guilty or to feel badly about ourselves. The solution is to open our hands: to respond to Jesus’ call to love God and our neighbor, to let God’s transforming grace touch us, make us new. You see, all of us are terrified of being poor. We all look at the world and wonder what’s going to happen to us. We are all lost. Jesus saw Zacchaeus and loved him. Jesus took pity on Zacchaeus and went to his house and set him free – set him free from his sin, from his fear, from the burden of all that money – then put him to work to build the kingdom of God.
That, I think, is what we are trying to do in our own small way in this place – to build the kingdom of God. Not just to build a church, but create a place where we can be transformed and from which we contribute to the kingdom. Capital campaigns are wonderful things because they help us consider our personal needs in relation to the community’s. They give us a sense of how much room there is in our personal finances, and invites us to wrestle with our faith, our trust in God.
The story of Zacchaeus is actually the story of a great blessing, of a man who had done a great evil in his life discovering a new way of life and a new kingdom to live for. What God cares about is not how bad we’ve been, but how good we can be, how we can turn our lives around and align them more and more with our neighbors and with God. God cares about how we care for one another and our neighbors, our recognition that our neighbors are, in fact, “us.” God cares us about how we use the gifts God has given us to care for God’s children. And God lets us try over and over again to get it right.
May this ingathering Sunday be a blessing for us. May it lift our hearts to the possibilities that God holds before us. May it be a sign that the God who holds nothing back from us is delighted with us when we truly give some of it back for the building of God’s reign.
* Some ideas drawn from New Proclamation Commentary, Lance Pape.
Homily by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Celebrating 100 years: St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Portland
October 19, 2013
Ezekiel 34:11-16; Psalm 87; John 21:15-19
Today we mark 100 years of faithful service by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to the people who live on the east side of Portland. The first meetings of what would become St. Peter’s were held in December of 1912 under the authority of then Bishop Codman. The purpose of the mission was to serve the railroad and shop workers employed by the Grand Trunk Railway. Many of those workers had emigrated from England and were Anglican by background. St. Peter’s is rightly proud of its English heritage, and has retained a number of features of its original ministry, including the annual Harvest Home festival which we celebrate today.
There are no words that can fully capture and convey the meaning of 100 years of ministry. Countless celebrations of the church, countless occasions marking birth and death, countless ministries of service, countless acts of kindness and encounters with God and one another have taken place over 100 years. We give thanks to God for all them and trust that, though most of them are now lost to us, they are held for ever in the heart of God. God alone knows all that has been done here and nothing held in God’s heart is ever lost. For all that has been done, we can only offer our thanks.
We who live our lives as Episcopalians, as inheritors of the English Church tradition, are also heirs of a still older tradition of governance and administration rooted in the Roman Empire. The Episcopal Church is divided into dioceses, geographic regions under the jurisdiction of a bishop. The word “diocese” comes from the Greek for “administration.” Dioceses were originally subdivisions of Roman provinces. The Roman Province of Gaul was divided into seven dioceses. The Roman Province of the Orient (East) was divided into 13 dioceses, one of which was Palestine. Roman provinces were administered by proconsuls. Dioceses were administered by governors.
Dioceses were themselves divided into parishes or manors, units of land held by a local landowners or some other administrator. When the Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, the Church adopted the administrative structure of the Empire. Bishops and priests took on civil as well as religious duties. As the Roman Empire collapsed, the church sometimes assumed civil jurisdiction in the areas lost to the Empire.
Key to the effective functioning of dioceses and parishes are three notions. First, these administrative divisions are geographic and permanent. They are enduring, defined solely by geography and not by who lives there. Second, there is an overlapping of civil and religious function. Dioceses and parishes are recognized by the culture as units of authority of importance to all. And third, everyone who lives in a diocese or parish belongs. Everyone is at least nominally Christian. All belong to the church. The diocese and parishes are responsible for everyone who lives there, no matter who they are.
These notions still deeply influence our culture as The Episcopal Church. When this parish was established, it was created by the self-evident need of the English railroad workers. It was probably not on anyone’s radar that the railroad yards might someday pass away and, with it, the railroad workers. And even if it that were conceivable, it was probably not imagined that the people who lived around St. Peter’s would not support it. No one imagined the vast changes in population that characterize this neighborhood today – and the indifference of most of those people to St. Peter’s.
As we celebrate 100 years of St. Peter’s today, we must also acknowledge that our assumptions about the church, about dioceses and parishes, have prevented us from recognizing the vast changes that have occurred around us and have inhibited our ability to adapt. We love the English Harvest Home festival. Most of the world hasn’t a clue, and isn’t interested.
The call for those of us who love Jesus is to feed his sheep. And more than that, as Ezekiel puts it, to seek them out and find them. To rescue them from all the places where they are scattered, to bring them together and to feed them on rich pasture. If we love Jesus, we will not rest until all the sheep are fed. And this feeding will take us to places we do not wish to go, into territory, into circumstances, that are quite literally foreign – land which is alien, strange and unfamiliar.
We live in a culture that is only nominally Christian, where more and more people do not know the story of Jesus, where many of the residents – if they have a religion – are devotees of Allah or Krishna or Buddha. Our ministry is no longer to English railroad workers, but to Sudanese and Somalis, to Hispanics and Iraqis, and to the Nones – the unchurched.
In an ironic twist, we are being invited to serve, not just the few folks who identify as Christians, but all the folks who live around us, the sheep that Jesus has given us to feed. We are called to share the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ, even in a land that is suddenly foreign.
Recent figures indicate that on Sunday morning about 650,000 Episcopalians attend church in the United States. That’s .2% of the US population of 313 million. If there were any proof that our system of dioceses and parishes is a fiction, this is surely it. The vast majority of Americans have no knowledge of The Episcopal Church. If we do not pay attention to this, we will certainly fail in our mission to feed the sheep.
In order to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of St. Peter’s or of the Diocese of Maine, we will need to adopt an expansive vision of feeding the sheep. I know you’ve been working on that. I know that your Missio: Engage! project is designed to create new opportunities for engaging God’s people. Thank you for this work. It is our future.
Jesus’ charge to us has not changed. The love of God is revealed in the feeding of God’s people. Those people will certainly not be English railroad workers. But they are beloved of God. They need to hear the Good News of God’s love.
And we need to hear it as well. God still love us. God still calls us. God still empowers us to feed his sheep. As we rejoice in 100 years of ministry, may we take heart from our endurance. May we be emboldened to reach out in love to all those in our parish. May we we trust in God’s presence with us and hope that God will walk with us in these new days. It is in our faithful following of Jesus that we glorify God, both in life and death.
St. John Baptist, Thomaston
September 15, 2013
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
We continue today with Luke’s discussion of the consequences of bad behavior. That discussion, which began last week, culminates with the story of the Prodigal Son at the end of Luke 15. Luke wants us to know that our actions have consequences, that there is a cost to sin and, equally, a cost to following Jesus. Yet Luke also wants us to know that, in God’s economy, the cost may not be at all what we expect.
As we begin our reflections this morning, let us remember that God, in Luke, is a God of reversals: the God of the Magnificat, who pulls the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. And the parables we hear today are full of reversals.
The narrative begins with the Pharisees complaint that “this guy,” this supposed rabbi, Jesus, is dining with sinners. From the Pharisees’ perspective this makes Jesus’ teaching and ministry suspect. By meeting with sinners, by sharing table fellowship with them, Jesus is undoubtedly contaminated by their sin. “This guy,” who should know better, is allowing himself to become unclean.
Interestingly enough Jesus does not dispute their point. Rather he responds by teaching about the Kingdom of God. And he does so in an entirely unexpected manner. He tells two parables in which the protagonists are suspect.
Neither shepherds nor women would have been seen by the Pharisees as examples of anything good. Shepherds were always unclean by virtue of their ongoing contact with animal blood and other fluids. And women were regularly unclean by virtue of menstruation. Moreover, both shepherds and women were stereotypically viewed as foolish or, even, stupid. The parables are about a stupid shepherd who loses a sheep and then leaves the whole herd unprotected to go and find it, and a foolish woman who loses a day’s wages inside her house.
The unspoken answer to Jesus’ question about which shepherd would not leave the herd and search for the sheep and which woman would not search for the coin is “None.” “No one.” No shepherd wealthy enough to own 100 sheep would leave the herd to save one lost sheep. And no woman wealthy enough to have ten drachmas, ten days wages, in her house would turn the house upside down to find one coin. There is no crisis. The loss is not serious. But the response to the loss shows dangerous dysfunction. The shepherd and the woman should be embarrassed about their behavior. They should keep it a secret and not tell their neighbors. They should praise God that the herd was not lost and that no one saw the woman on the floor pawing through the dirt. The behaviors of the shepherd and the woman prove how foolish they are.
And then Jesus reverses field again. These clowns, these foolish people, these sinners, he says, are like God, and their rejoicing over finding the one that was lost is like the rejoicing of God in heaven. God is like a shepherd who risks everything to find one lost sheep. God is like a woman who does not rest until she finds her lost coin. In other words, says Jesus, each lost sheep, each lost coin, is of incalculable value in God’s economy. For each one, God will spare no effort, will take every risk, and will rejoice when it is found.
O, the foolishness of the divine economy! God’s way of counting the cost is very different than our own. God’s sense of the just consequences of our foolish actions is very different than our own.
Now if this were all that Jesus said in these two parables, we would be left, I think, with a baffling conundrum. We would know that God loves the lost. We would know that God is willing to take all sorts of risks to find the lost, but we would be left with an equation that simply makes no earthly sense, an equation we could not live with. We can’t leave the 99 for the one…
But Jesus says one thing more. He offers one final reversal. He says there is more joy in heaven, in the kingdom of God, over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance… What ninety-nine people would that be? What ninety-nine do you know who are not sinners, who have no need of repentance? The truth is there are no such persons. That’s Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees who complain about his eating with sinners. Jesus came into the world, as Timothy puts it, to save sinners. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the lost, and they is us.
When I was a seminarian, back in the 70’s, a popular definition of evangelism was, “one beggar telling another where to find bread.” And when I was in parish ministry, in the 90’s, a popular definition of the church was “field aid stations for the wounded.” The thrust of both of those definitions is that there is no one who does not need the healing love and mercy of God. I don’t know about you, but what I really want is to be found by God. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I go to church. There is truly no one who does not need God. There is truly no one who cannot grow in grace. There is truly no one who cannot offer greater service. And there is no meaningful distinction between those who are members of the church – the scribes and pharisees – and those who are not.
It is an enduring problem for the church that we tend to set ourselves apart from the world and to see ourselves as somehow different or better. We forget that we all want to be found by God. We quibble over definitions of sin, setting up standards and hierarchies which favor us, when sin, in its simplest and most universal form, is simply living with something other than God at the center. That other thing may even be the Law of Moses or the church. We all live with something other than God at the center some of the time.
Our Sunday worship really needs to be a celebration of the return of the lost, a reflection of the joy in heaven that we have been found. And our welcome of others into the church must be a sharing of the joy of being found, the joy of being loved by God. Our table fellowship is a meal in which Jesus eats with sinners – us.
Jesus’ teaching to the Pharisees is that there is no difference, at least none that matters to God, between themselves and the sinners with whom Jesus eats. All need to sit at table with the One who has found them.
And our place, as representatives of the kingdom, is out among the sinners, out in God’s world where our membership in the community of the lost is sometimes clearer than it is inside these doors.
As we renew now our baptismal covenant may we see anew that the Good News that Jesus came for sinners, that Christ may be found in every person, is good news for every one of us, and may we commit ourselves anew to a table with a place for everyone.
Pentecost 16St. Columba’s, Boothbay Harbor
September 8, 2013
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
In the serendipitous and mysterious manner of the lectionary, today’s readings seem designed for a week in which our leaders have spent much of their time debating the cost of an armed intervention in Syria. Is the price reasonable? Do we actually know what the price is? Can we or the family of nations afford the price? Will a military strike now merely raise the price later? Who will bear the ultimate cost? Will we not simply create more victims? And on and on…
Life is consequential. The conversation about consequences, about cost, is one of the most important conversations any people can have either at the personal or the corporate level. A big part of growing up is recognizing that we can’t have it all, that every choice we make eliminates other choices. If I choose to go to medical school, then I’m probably not going to be a concert violinist. If I choose to play high school football, I can’t also play soccer.
Moreover, the choices we make have an impact on the people around us and the ways those people regard us. The consequences of some actions can’t be taken back or easily repaired. Drinking and driving can have consequences far beyond those we intend. The organic, interconnected nature of the world means that everything we do has a ripple effect.
In the same way, the actions we take as communities and nations have significant and long lasting impact. It’s important that, as communities, we ask what the consequences are of our decisions. Can we afford – financially, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually – to absorb the consequences? Who will benefit? Who will suffer? Will our actions strengthen the life of our communities or tear it down?
Our lessons this morning raise these questions, but then take them a bit further. Because the reference point for our consideration is not simply what we think, but rather, what God thinks. What matters is not simply the consequences we experience, but the consequences to God’s creation and God’s children. God is at work renewing and restoring the cosmos. God is shaping the whole creation, like a potter shapes a pot. And God will not be deterred. God is inviting us to share in God’s work – and there will be consequences if our work is contrary to God’s or, even perhaps, if we follow God’s way.
Jesus talks about the cost in stark terms. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” And the cross here is not my boss or my mother-in-law or some such, as we have so often trivialized Jesus’ words. It’s the cross piece for the Roman instrument of execution. If one is not willing to follow Jesus in life and death, then one is not in accord with God’s intentions. And the question is, “Can we carry the cross piece?” It’s not possible to be in tune with God’s design and do anything less.
Very stark. And I think Jesus meant it to be. He was speaking to a people and to a society in which family, and family connections, were everything. Family meant tribe, and tribe meant nation. Who you were, who you were related to, meant everything. Women and children, especially, had no identity other than the head of the household, the head of the extended family. Marriage, family, heirs, occupation, identity, wealth, security, all came from the family. Yet devotion to family must be as hate compared with devotion to Jesus – because God is creating a new heaven and new earth.
It was, as we know, an impossible burden for Jesus’ followers. Jesus is saying these things as they journey toward Jerusalem. The disciples couldn’t bear it. Ultimately they all ran away and hid. And it’s impossible for us as well. We’re not going to give up our lifestyle, our property, for Jesus. We’re not going to give away all our possessions. We have people depending on us. We have bills to pay. We want things. We can’t do it.
Ultimately, I think, our lessons today are about trust. Do we trust Jesus enough to turn over control of our lives, control of outcomes to God? Hard for us as persons. Even harder for nations. We’d like to control the outcomes in Syria. We want to end the suffering and to punish the bad guys. We want to use our power to make things right as we see them. If only it were that simple. Life is consequential. And, in God’s eyes, every Syrian is a child of God, and God loves them all.
The Good News in our lessons today is that Jesus trusted God enough to turn over his life to God. Jesus did indeed give away all his possessions, including his life, for the sake of God’s new world. The One who makes these demands on us has already paid the price, has counted the cost, and can be trusted as we wrestle with the costs of living in this world. The One who makes these demands has given us his life, has incorporated us into his body, so that his life may carry ours.
Following Jesus is costly. Choosing to follow Christ, choosing to live a baptized life, means living no longer by the values of the old regime. It means recognizing that there is more to life than being the biggest, the best or the strongest by some worldly standard. Following Christ frees us from simple self-interest to live a more generous life, a life in which we count the costs not only to ourselves but to our neighbors; a life, in fact, in which the cost to our neighbors may matter more to us than the cost to ourselves.
Sitting here in a Christian Church on a Sunday morning, it cannot be a matter of indifference to us that our country may soon agree to launch a military action against Syria. We no doubt have many different opinions about the right thing to do, but as Christians we are invited to count the cost as God would, in terms of the new world that is coming. As we renew our baptismal covenant, we are asked both to count the cost and to remember with joy that Jesus has paid it. May we trust Jesus enough that our counting the cost amounts to real wrestling with our consciences and with God.
May it be so. Amen.
Pentecost 11 Sermon
Trinity Chapel, York Harbor
August 4, 2013
Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
I spend a lot of time on the highways and byways of Maine, and one of the things I see on the outskirts of almost every little community is a self-storage facility behind a chain-link fence – you know, Uncle Bob’s Self Storage or EZ Storage. As I look at them I wonder, how is that people have so much stuff that they can’t keep it all in their own homes? I mean, Maine is a poor state, how did they get all that stuff? Then I remember all the stuff in my own overstuffed basement, and the two years when my garage held all the stuff from my wife’s parents’ house that had no place to go after the house was sold. We Americans have a lot of stuff – and we seem reluctant to let it go. It’s not only the rich man who wants to put up bigger barns!
Of course, apart from some family heirlooms that represent personal identity and history, the stuff itself isn’t all that important. I mean who actually needs another set of avocado green plates and bowls? It’s what the stuff represents: my success, my wealth, my status.With all that stuff, I have it made. I’m secure. I’m ready for that rainy day. I can keep the wolf at bay.
Except for two realities that our Gospel this morning rather indelicately points out; two things that are very hard for us to hear. And the first is, you can’t really keep your stuff. Death always wins. No matter how much stuff you have, you will lose it. Despite the bumper sticker proclaiming “He who dies with the most toys, wins,” the truth is that any winning is only temporary.
The second reality is that wealth, however we understand, is not an individual possession. It is derived from the community and intended to benefit the community. Such an understanding of wealth is rooted, in our Gospel text, in the word “land.” “The LAND of a rich man produced abundantly.”
The Hebrew people understood “land,” the land, the land of Israel, as a gift from God to God’s people, to be tended and stewarded. The bounty that was produced by the land – not by the farmer – was meant to be shared, even to the extent that a portion of the produce was left in the fields to be gleaned by the poor. And although land could be sold or inherited, it was never intended to venture very far. Every fifty years, at the Jubilee, debts were to be cancelled and land restored to its original owners…
Now it’s not clear that Israel ever really practiced what it preached about land. Most of the land was in the hands of the wealthy. Most of the poor were subsistence farmers who worked a small plot or worked as tenants for someone else. But the theory was that wealth was derived from God’s gift and was intended to benefit God’s children. All of which is summarized in God’s harsh words: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is, said Jesus, with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.
So the question before us this morning isn’t really about stuff – who has the most – but about greed, about the desire to accumulate whatever it is we are tempted to accumulate without thought about what God requires. The rich man is not condemned for his abundant harvest, but for thinking he can keep it all to himself.
We just celebrated Henry Ford’s 150th birthday. Henry, by all accounts, was not a very nice man. He was famously anti-semitic and tried to create a vertical monopoly to support his car manufacturing – even to the point of building a rubber harvesting village in South America. But he invented the assembly line – the foundation of modern manufacturing – and he paid his workers enough to buy one of his cars. Henry, even as an industrial tycoon of the gilded age, recognized that wealth is a community possession, that he benefited only as everyone benefited. It wasn’t enough to build cars – he also had to sell them.
Which, I think, is the message of this morning’s Gospel. God has given us many gifts – our lives, our families, our personalities and intelligences, this beautiful earth our island home – and death gives us a horizon for our use of these gifts. We will not possess God’s gifts for long, and it is incumbent on us to use them for the benefit of God’s people so that all may thrive. To hoard them, to withhold them from those who need them, is to see the world falsely, to see ourselves in God’s place rather than as beneficiaries of God’s gifts and as brothers and sisters of those all around us. Life is not a competition of all against all, but rather an opportunity to add to the abundance God has created.
“Teacher,” said someone in the crowd, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” We don’t know anything about the circumstances of this request. We don’t know if the man was being wronged or was simply impatient. And Jesus didn’t respond; he didn’t adjudicate. Rather, he warned about greed. It’s not about getting your inheritance… it’s about using it.
So how do we understand the things that we have? How do we understand the gifts, the wealth, we have received? What is the use to which they might be put? What is required of our stewardship? Is it enough to rent another storage unit, or is something more required?
We who have been raised with Christ, says Paul, already have all that we need. We are free to set our hearts and minds on the things of God and to live without the false distinctions created by wealth and status. You have “clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the creator. In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all!”
Think about where we’re sitting. Thinking about what you drove past on your way to church this morning. We in The Episcopal Church have abundant gifts. God has richly blessed us. May we be generous toward God and one another for God’s sake. Amen.
Pentecost 7 Sermon
All Saints Summer Chapel, Orrs Island
July 7, 2013
Galatians 6; Luke 10
I grew up in a small farming village in western New York State. My home was located on the long side a rectangular block where all the houses backed up on an open field. There were many, many children on my block, and we all played together in that field. The mothers of all those kids – more than 30 of us – knew each of us by name, and if any of us got in trouble, our own parents knew about it before we got home. My best friend lived directly across from my back yard, and his family life was difficult – his mom was an alcoholic. So David spent a lot of his early life at my house. There were five of us kids at my house anyway, so – as my Mom said – there was always room for one more at the table. David was as welcome at my house as at his own house – although at my house he had to follow the rules and customs of a bunch of Presbyterians rather than Roman Catholics. Still, I imagine he learned a good bit about love and life at our table.
Another place I’ve experienced this kind of open table fellowship has been at summer camp where boys and girls of diverse backgrounds come together and, at table together, governed by the ideals of the Christian community, learn to be brothers and sisters.
It is, I think, this kind of intimate, respectful and open table fellowship that Jesus had in mind when he sent his disciples out to share the urgent, good news of God’s presence. Jesus was inviting his followers to leave behind the comforts and security of the lives they had known. His charge was to go, but not to go in strength. It was not to go fully equipped and bankrolled. Rather was to go humbly, as a guest, and to connect with those who offered hospitality. It was to live in homes and eat at tables and, from the standpoint of a guest, to establish relationships. And, then, in the context of those relationships, to share the faith that so enlivened their lives.
Remember that Palestinian homes were mostly one or two room affairs that housed several generations and, often, some animals. To dwell in such homes was to live in an intimate relationship with the residents. Remember that to eat what was set before you probably meant that you could not keep kosher. Your eating might make you unclean. But accepting such food gracefully was to express full acceptance and respect for the household. Rather than shaping the context by going in strength, Jesus instructed his disciples to go in humility and to seek for opportunities to share the word and heal the sick from within newly formed and interdependent relationships.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but such an approach required that the disciples love the world. The world was not an evil place to be converted, but the beloved home of God in which God was at work. The people of that world were not “ignorant savages” – or whatever other projections those early Christians might have put on them – but human beings and sinners, just as they were. And the mission of the church was accomplished, not in the synagogue, but out in God’s world at others’ tables.
It’s been a long time since Jesus sent out his disciples two by two, and I think we’ve forgotten a lot of the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching. The scriptural justification we’ve used for the work of the evangelism has not been Luke 10, but the Great Commission of Matthew 28: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
The imperative has been to go and convert: to deliver to all nations the faith we carry, teaching them obedience. Such an imperative was easily conflated with economic and political imperatives, and the result has been the dismal history of imperialism and colonialism, which have tarnished both western culture and Christian faith. Indeed, many of us feel more that a little apologetic about the use of Christianity to justify colonialism and have developed an almost allergic response to talk of evangelism.
The difficulty with the “making disciples” approach, apart from the ease with which it is abused, is that it misses a fundamental point. Christ has all authority, but we do not. The purpose of the mission of the church is not to impose the faith on those who don’t have it, but to seek God among them where God is already at work. The purpose of the mission of the church is to gather all of us together into God’s one kingdom in which our fundamental unity as children of God and brothers and sisters is recognized and celebrated. Our task is to work together to discern what God is up to and join in.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that even today many in our culture see the church’s work of evangelism as a kind of imperialism, as imposing an agenda that has more to do with sustaining the church than transforming lives; not unlike like those early Jewish Christians Paul writes about in Galatians who wanted converts to be circumcised before being admitted to the church.
Are we as Christians genuinely interested in others for their own sakes or only for what they can do for us? Are we willing to share good news, not here in the church, but out there at their tables and on their terms? Are we willing to join them in their search for God and share the little that we’ve learned about that search?
It’s my conviction that God is calling us out of our churches and into our neighborhoods. God is inviting us to sit at tables not our own and share the good things that God has done for us. God is asking us to make ourselves vulnerable to people who are not yet friends in the hope that together – and as friends – we can build God’s kingdom.
The good news is that the success of this mission is not up to us. God is always and everywhere at work. Our piece of the mission, our job, is to make friends for the kingdom of God: to meet people on their own turf and on their own terms. Whether we know or not, God is already at work in the neighborhood. I pray we can go and seek God there?
Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Portland
June 29, 2013
Isaiah 58:6-12; Psalm 84; Acts 6:2-7; Luke 22:24-27
The primitive Christian church, as recorded in the Book of Acts, was a spirit-filled, but unstructured community: empowered by the Holy Spirit, shaped by a radical sense of koinonia in which all persons were equal and all things were held common, and committed to a vision of selfless service to God and one another. The early church was an extraordinary experiment in holy anarchy, unique in the ancient world, fearless in its attempt to do a new thing – and plagued by the all prejudices and entitlements that trouble human communities.
Tom Breidenthal, Bishop of Southern Ohio, writing in the Spring Edition of The Anglican Theological Review, asserts that the selection of Stephen and six others to serve at table is evidence that those whom we now call deacons represent both the creation of the first order in the church and also the first admission of failure by the church. And they represent the hope-filled possibility that the church may both hold to its ideals and be self-critical at the same time.
In Breidenthal’s view, Stephen and his companions were the first order of the church because they were the first to be commissioned or ordained for an assigned role: to oversee the daily distribution of food so that the apostles could continue their ministry of telling the stories of Jesus. (The work of telling the stories of Jesus was later assigned to a second order, the elders or presbyters, who succeeded the apostles.)
Deacons were also an admission that the church as holy anarchy had failed because their commissioning grew out of the inability of the church to treat all her members in accordance with radical unity given in baptism. The Spirit-led character of the church was not, by itself, sufficient to overcome the deep-seated sense of privilege held by Jewish Christians. Much to everyone’s embarrassment, the widows of Gentile members were being neglected in the daily meal service. For the very first time, the church acknowledged that something more than the Holy Spirit was needed to keep it true to its founding principles. The church needed organization to hold to its ideals.
I find Bishop Breidenthal’s reading of Acts to be provocative. First, it suggests that the orders of the church are not all rooted in priesthood, but rather in the ministry of the apostles and the koinonia of the primitive church. A deacon is not a priest writ small. Nor is a bishop a priest writ large. Rather each order grows out of an aspect of the apostles’ ministry that expanded beyond the capacity of the apostles to sustain. All the orders together represent the apostolic ideals of service, teaching and oversight.
Second, it is clear that the Holy Spirit, by herself, is unable to thwart our human tendency to lift ourselves up at another’s expense. The desire for privilege, for pride of place, lurks in every human heart. The church, with the guidance of the Spirit, must organize to conform to apostolic ideals and to correct itself when it falls short. Sin is not to be mocked. Sin is real and carries real power to corrupt even the most Spirit-led community. Real world community requires real world organization.
Third, Breidenthal invites us to recognize that service, the outward expression of the radical koinonia of the primitive church, is the lens through which all ministry must be viewed. As Jesus put it, “I am among you as one who serves.” Such service is not the provision of services, it’s not the offering of social services, although such is certainly included. Rather it is the belief that all of life as lived in the service of God and God’s world, in service of the ministry of reconciliation. God’s eternal purpose is the reconciliation of all creation with Godself. All ministry, all of the life of the church, is similarly directed toward reconciliation. Worship, teaching, preaching, feeding, healing, serving, making justice – all are offered for the reconciliation of the world.
So our need to reorganize the church in our time should not discourage us. It is neither new nor unique. It is rather part of the enduring struggle of the community of faith to be true to its apostolic ideals, to correct itself in response to failure, and to reform and redirect itself in the interests of reconciliation. We are being called one more time to reclaim our radical unity in Christ.
Isaiah speaks to this reclamation work: the untying of the yoke, the sharing of bread, the covering of the naked, the removing of pointing fingers and speaking evil, the rebuilding of foundations, the restoring of streets to live-in: all the work of restoration, all the work of recovering original unity. All the work of living in service to God and one another. Yet, as beautiful as Isaiah’s words are, we find it hard to commit ourselves to the work.
So the struggle of the primitive church described in the Book of Acts is a struggle we all understand. We know that in our own churches there is a constant tension between our zeal to serve God’s world and our desire to celebrate our pride of place as God’s chosen. For all we hope to seek and serve Christ in others, we secretly harbor the confidence that true believers will be just like us. For all we know that the Christian life is a journey, we take pride in our places. Has the church of the 21st c. fallen prey to the same desire for privilege that befell the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem? Yes, I think so. Have we become more concerned with our status, with our privilege in society, with getting our share in the church, than we are concerned about all the members or indeed the ones who don’t yet belong? Yes, I’m afraid so. Can we commit ourselves once again to organizing the church to reclaim our ideals?
Yes, I think we can. And I believe that deacons can help us do so.
It is the deacons’ role to remind us that we may not neglect the Gentiles’ widows while we tell the stories of Jesus, that feeding the stranger and telling the stories are actually different aspects of the same ministry. It’s the deacons role to remind us that if we aren’t feeding the Gentiles’ widows then we actually haven’t heard the story, that there is an enduring connection between hearing and feeding, between praying and sharing. It is the deacons’ role to remind us that apostolic ideal is only achieved as we constantly correct our tendency to focus on ourselves and neglect the world around us.
Our new deacons have been called to serve at a time of great distress in the life of church, at a time when the world in which we live seems to be changing at light speed. In the midst of all this distress, in the midst of institutional changes that will leave us with a very different church, these deacons remind us of apostolic ideals. We are called by God into a radical unity in which no social or cultural distinctions divide us. We are called by God to serve in a church where roles differ, but intentions do not; where all are called to the ministry of reconciliation. We are invited to follow Jesus, to model ourselves on the one who told us, “I am among you as one who serves.”
May God bless you, Jane, Corey and Lanny, in the ministry to which we now ordain you, and may you help us all to serve. Amen.
St. Francis by the Sea, Blue Hill
June 16, 2013
1 Kings 21:1-14, 15-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
In today’s Gospel we hear for the third Sunday in a row a story about the deep faith of a person on the margins of Palestinian society. The first story we heard was of the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to save the life of his slave. The second story we heard was of a poor widow who asked Jesus to save the life of her son. Today we hear of a “woman of the city, a sinner” whose faith in God’s love for her allowed her to take incredible risks to welcome and care for Jesus. We are invited again today to consider what it means to have faith.
The dinner table was very heart of Palestinian and Jewish culture. It was at the table that the primary virtue of hospitality was exercised. Even one’s enemy was safe while he ate at one’s table. And it was at the table that all the divisions and inequalities of Palestinian society were revealed. Only men were present for dinner. No women and children were allowed, except perhaps to serve. No female presence to render the male diners unclean or to tempt them with inappropriate expressions of femininity.
Jesus was a guest at the home of a Pharisee, although clearly not an honored guest. Perhaps he was simply the object of Simon’s curiosity or perhaps the evening’s entertainment. But Simon did not put himself out for Jesus, did not exercise the customary hospitality. No doubt, from Simon’s perspective, Jesus was a bit of a risk, someone potentially unclean from his habit of meeting with sinners.
And Simon, as a Pharisee, was very concerned with cleanliness, with purity. Simon, in his own eyes, and certainly in the eyes of his society, was a leader, an elite member, of his culture. He kept the law scrupulously, protected himself from uncleanness, rigorously policed his community to make sure that no unclean persons or practices contaminated the community. Of all people, Simon knew that he was right with God, that he was no sinner.
But he had this interesting, perhaps amusing or dangerous guest for dinner, this Jesus, this scandalous rabbi. And this Jesus was attended by – now how did she get in here? – a woman of the city, a sinner, a dinner crasher uninvited and unwelcome, probably unclean, who now threatened to make all of them unclean. She was ministering to Jesus in a way only a wife might, with tears and her hair and expensive ointment. It was unseemly, even erotic. And Jesus didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps he didn’t understand who she was. Perhaps his prophetic powers had been vastly overrated.
In the midst of this shocking scene, Jesus invited Simon to consider forgiveness and love. Is it the greater or the lesser debtor who shows the greatest love? Simon answered that it was the greater debtor, of course. Such, said Jesus, is this woman – who has many sins, which have been forgiven, and who now shows great love.
The issue isn’t that Jesus doesn’t recognize who the woman is. He understands her perfectly. And she knows who she is. No, the issue is that Simon doesn’t understand who he – Simon – is. Simon doesn’t recognize his own sinfulness and his own need for forgiveness. And therefore he does not love, can not love, as he should.
The woman of the city, the sinner, knows that she lives by God’s forgiveness, and her response is immense gratitude and love. She alone offers the Son of God the hospitality he deserves. Simon doesn’t he know he needs forgiveness, let alone that forgiveness is offered – not through the law, but through faith, faith in the love of God. The woman has with great courage entered a forbidden zone to share her life as a forgiven sinner and pour out on Jesus the love she has for God.
Jesus was at dinner with a sinner, but it was not the woman who was the sinner. Jesus was eating with a different sort of sinner – Simon the Pharisee – and Simon did not know it, did not understand that forgiveness and love were offered him as well. And as if to underline the point, Luke ends his story with a list of all the faithful women who supported the disciples.
Luke is, as always, interested in role reversal, in the mighty being cast down from their thrones, and the lowly lifted up. The Pharisee and the woman of the city are the perfect foils for this story about faith – because the woman knows her need for God and the Pharisee hasn’t a clue. Faith, as each of the stories we’ve heard makes clear, is not about observance of the law – Jewish or otherwise – but about trust that God can do what we cannot do and trust that God will do it. Faith is about believing that God loves us, can heal us, can bring life out of death, can forgive our sins and give us a fresh start. Faith is about living in that trust – and pouring on others what has been poured on us. In many ways, faith is simply about getting out of our own way, getting over ourselves, asking God to do for us what we cannot do, trusting God will do it.
These are very troubling times for all of us who want to live by the rules, who wish that the verities of our childhood or of the Reformation and the Enlightenment still governed the world. We’re tempted to see the pain and chaos of our changing world as a failure of society to do what is right and to think the solution is to clamp down and tighten up, to require that people keep the old laws and the old ways. How very first century of us!
The solution – the true solution to our difficulties – according to Jesus, is simply to recognize that God loves us and invites us to love God and one another in return – lavishly, without reservation. Rules will not save us. Status will not save us. Guns will not save us. Only love has the power to save us. Only love can set us free to make a better world.
As the woman entered into the forbidden chamber in Simon’s house, Jesus invites us to enter that liminal space, the dangerous and empowering zone where love and forgiveness already exist, and to claim it for ourselves. In today’s Gospel story, as in the other two, Jesus himself does little more than to acknowledge the faith that is already there, the love and power of God which the protagonists have claimed.
This morning, we celebrate the sacramental rite of baptism and renew our baptismal covenant. In doing so we are invited to see that we live in a realm of love and justice where healing and forgiveness and new life already exist. In making our promises we pledge to claim that new life and live lives of love and justice on behalf of others. May we receive the outpouring of God’s love, and may we pour ourselves out for others.
St. Aidan’s, Machias
June 9, 2013
I Kings 18:20-21, 22-29, 30-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
The new Pope, Francis, commented just this past week that even atheists may be redeemed by the blood of Christ. No one is beyond the reach of Christ’s saving grace, and even though atheists may not believe, they may still do good. It is in doing good, said the Pope, that believers and unbelievers meet. Quite a remarkable statement from the head of an institution that believes that itself to be the one true church! It’s also a statement that may help us understand today’s Gospel.
The story from Luke is the story of a centurion – a commander of a Roman cohort of 100 soldiers – who is concerned for the life of his slave. As a primary representative of the hated Roman occupation, the centurion does not approach Jesus directly, but through intermediaries. To approach Jesus directly might make Jesus unclean and almost certainly would create political problems for them both. So some Jewish elders approach Jesus on behalf of the centurion saying that he is a good man, worthy of Jesus’ attention – he has even built the Jews a synagogue. (No mention here of the worthiness of the slave!) As Jesus approaches, the centurion decides that he does not need to meet Jesus in person, that he understands what power is, what faith is, that he knows that Jesus has the power to heal, and that alone is sufficient. Jesus can heal his slave with a word.
Jesus is simply astonished by such an expression of faith, and so – from a distance – without ever seeing either the centurion or his slave, Jesus heals the slave.
What are we to make of this? None of the primary characters in the story, except Jesus, ever appears. We don’t know what the centurion believes, what religion he professes. We don’t know anything at all about the slave, except that he is ill and his owner values him – although we can speculate that he is Jewish. Everything takes place through intermediaries and at a distance, and yet faith is expressed and healing takes place.
It’s perhaps helpful to remember that a centurion was probably the most powerful man on the local scene. He was both the local sheriff and the local judge. He held the literal power of life and death over, not only the occupied peoples, but his own soldiers as well. He was used to issuing orders and having them instantly obeyed. He had confidence in the system he served. He lived a life of faith in his system and his own power. He knew what he could do, and he was prepared to do it.
Yet the centurion also recognized the limits of his power. He knew that there were things he could not do. He could not heal. He had no power to retrieve life from death. And he recognized in Jesus someone who had power of a sort that he could not muster. Having faith in his own power to do what he could do, he had faith in Jesus to do what Jesus could do. His expression of unworthiness before Jesus was neither false piety nor low self-esteem. It was the recognition of another order of power.
Yet the centurion also did what he could. He sent for help. He worked through intermediaries. He asked that his slave be healed. And he stood aside trusting that Jesus could do what he could not. This pagan and hated, foreign occupier of Israel did what he could in the service of love. He’s the atheist whom Pope Francis says has been reached by the grace of God in Christ.
So faith, as it’s laid out before us this morning, is neither an abdication of responsibility, a turning away from our own power, nor a belief in magic. Rather it’s a willingness to do what we can and to trust in the greater power of God to do what we cannot. Not only to trust it, but to expect it. To wait for it.
And faith, as it’s presented today, is intercessory. It’s exercised not only on behalf of ourselves, but, more importantly, on behalf of others – the nameless, faceless slave whom we never meet, whom Jesus never meets, yet who is healed.
Too often, I think, we turn things over to God only when we think there is nothing else to be done, when there is no hope. We don’t see faith as an active partnership in which we work with God for good – doing what we can and turning over to God the things we cannot do.
I know that many thoughtful folks today are overwhelmed by the environmental crisis. We know there’s too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – we have not been able to adjust our lifestyles. The atmosphere now contains 400 ppm of carbon dioxide despite the fact that many scientists have warned that 350 ppm was the point of no return. We know the climate is changing significantly. We despair that the problem is bigger than any one country, let alone any one person, and so we throw up our hands hoping that God will save us – when, in fact, we could work to reduce our own carbon footprint, we could adjust our own energy consumption, we could work on behalf of our neighbors for policy changes that will make a difference. Can we save the planet? That’s in God’s hands, and we need to trust God. But the greatest sign that we trust God is to do our part even when it seems very little.
What’s the balance of trust and power in your life? Do you do the things you are able to do to make the world a better place? Do you do the good you can even though you know it’s not sufficient by itself? Do recognize the limits of your power and expect God to do what you cannot? Do you offer yourself in the service of love, even on those days when you’re not sure you believe?
It’s in doing good in the name of love that all of us – believers and unbelievers – meet. I’m sure the centurion did not believe in the God of Israel. I’m sure he did his brutal and oppressive work with typical Roman efficiency. And yet, in the midst of his occupation of a foreign land, he cared for the people enough to build a synagogue and for his slave enough to seek his healing. He did what he could and trusted God to do the rest. Jesus ascribed to him the greatest faith he had ever seen.
May we have the faith of a centurion. Amen.
St. Stephen the Martyr, Waterboro
May 19, 2013
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17
The great outpouring of God’s Spirit, which we call Pentecost, is celebrated as the birthday of the church and the giving of the Advocate to the faithful. The Spirit’s presence is manifested in tongues of flames and in the speaking of tongues – not glossolalia per se – but the speaking of all the languages of all the nations where Jews had made their homes. Each visitor to Jerusalem heard in his or her own language the Good News of God in Christ. And what’s significant about the explosion of tongues was not simply the ability of all the peoples present to hear the Good News. Rather it’s about the new community, the new culture, that the Good News creates.
We who live in our North American democracy forget that the ancient world was a world deeply divided by race, culture, religion and class. Everyone had a place into which he or she was born and in which he or she died. There was very little social movement, no upward mobility. You were born to rule or born to serve and no change was possible. Additionally, you were born into a culture that rigorously preserved its boundaries and its purity. Your racial and cultural identity meant primarily that you were not someone else. Despite the great mixing of nations and cultures caused by the trade and the conscription of the Roman Empire, Jews did not join with other people, pagans did not become Jews. There was a great fear of mixing, of diluting national and cultural purity.
But the Big Bang of Pentecost, as ABC Justin Welby calls it, was not only the birthday of the church, but the creation of a new world order in which every person – regardless of race, class, culture, religion or language – had a place. Pentecost was not only the birthday of the church, but the birth of a new world in which none of the divisions by which the people of the earth distinguished themselves had any meaning. The question, “Who is my neighbor?” now had a global response. My neighbor wasn’t simply another Jewish shepherd or that nearby Roman soldier. My neighbor was every single human being who walked the face of the earth.
Moreover, the dreams, the hopes, the aspirations of people were no longer limited by their race or their age or their sex or any other characteristic. Now, as Joel put, “Your young men may see visions and your old men may dream dreams…” and those visions may be about new things that God is calling you to no matter who you are or where you are. You must no longer consider only those things possible for a Jew or a slave or a woman.
The gift of God’s Spirit is meant for us today in the same way. We are not called to do the same things that have always been done. And we are not invited to live in the same ways we have always lived. Rather through God’s gift of the Spirit, we are empowered to do new things and to be new people and to serve in ways we’ve never served before.
God, as Justin Welby has said, is in the giving business. And that’s what we celebrate at Pentecost – the giving of God’s Spirit to everyone, to the whole world. So the question is not about what’s possible. With God, all things are possible. The question is, truly, what are we willing to receive, what are we willing to do?
The movement of the Spirit is a threefold movement – God pours out the Spirit, we receive the Spirit, and, then, we share the Spirit. God is always giving. The pouring out of the Spirit which began at Pentecost has never ceased. We remind ourselves of that every week when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. God is always giving us new life, new hope, new power.
But we do not always receive. Indeed, receiving God’s gifts is a conscious act. We have to want to receive. We have to open our hands. And the key to that is prayer – attentiveness to the gifts God is giving, nurturing a desire to receive those gifts, a hope that we will receive them. We pray not to cause God to give God’s Spirit – God is a fountain that never runs dry; we pray instead to open our hearts to receive God’s Spirit. For me the effort to stay open, to stay engaged, to receive what is being offered, is the daily battle of faith. It is so much easier for me, so much less effort, to cut off, to shut down, to let go. Then, I don’t struggle with the world’s pain. Then I don’t have to make the effort to do something about it. Then I don’t have to care for my neighbor.
But if I stay open, if I receive what God is offering, then, as I live in the Spirit God is giving, not only do I have the responsibility of serving others, not only do I have to think about what God is asking me to do now in God’s world, but I have the great joy of being part of the movement of God into the world. To be filled with the power of the Spirit is not only to know the pain that God feels over the plight of his children… it also to know the joy of lives renewed and made whole, to receive the gift of love from others as well as to give it, to be part of a community in which all are welcome and all have gifts to offer.
In my own life, the hardest work, the greatest challenge, I have ever confronted is to serve as your bishop in these days, to confront head on your sorrows and your fears. And yet, the greatest joy I have ever known is to be among you, to work with you, to struggle to create new life from old. The more deeply we engage the world in which we live, the greater the possibilities that are revealed, for God is still pouring his Spirit upon us.
In the Service of Confirmation we pray – “Almighty God, we thank you that by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service. Renew in your servants the covenant you made with them at their Baptism. Send them forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before them…”
To be sealed in the Spirit is to be bound to Jesus and to be called to be like him – to live in the world in unity with God and one another. That is the hope of Pentecost – that there is one God, one Body, one world – to which we are all bound and toward which we are all moving. Our spiritual task is to ask God to empower us for service, to give us the courage to open our eyes and see the opportunities all around us, and the faith to take hold of the ministries before us. On this Pentecost may we too pray to receive the gift of God’s Spirit, and may we seek and serve Christ in all God’s children.
Easter 6 Sermon
St. Philip’s, Wiscasset
May 5, 2013
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22:5; John 14:23-29
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
This passage has often been interpreted as a passage about obedience. We are to obey Jesus’ commandments, and God will come among us. And certainly that is a legitimate reading.
But the word “keep” has, I think, broader meanings. “Keep” also means to observe, to watch over, to guard. Think of a keep, a watchtower, a fortified residence, and you get a sense of this larger understanding. And so I think Jesus is not simply talking about obedience with all its connotations of discipline and self-denial, with its sense of burdensome responsibility. He is also talking about a way of being, an embrace of God’s word, a lifestyle, if you will, that is liberating and joyful – a way of living that gives freedom and power.
The lesson from Acts helps understand what true “keeping” might mean.
In the reading from Acts, we meet Lydia, who has often been thought of as a wealthy cloth merchant – a seller of purple cloth to royalty and an early patron of the Christian movement. But the text does not support such an understanding. Paul meets her and other women, not at her shop, but outside the gate and down at the river. The location suggests that Lydia was not a seller of cloth, but a dyer of cloth. Dyeing was women’s work, and it required lots of water. Dyeing also required the use of animal urine which created quite a stench and made the user unclean – both in the normal sense and in the religious sense. And so Lydia, rather than being wealthy, may well have been a very poor woman doing necessary, but quite unsavory, work. She was a marginalized, perhaps even, a migrant, worker who lived outside the city walls and whose work permanently stained her arms and her legs. She was surely not a citizen of the Empire or a peer of Paul’s.
And it is to Lydia and her fellow dyers that Paul preaches the Good News. Lydia’s heart is seized by what she hears, and she and her entire household are baptized in the river. In her joy, Lydia embraces her newfound status as a member of Christ’s body. She believes God’s word and, in an unexpected outburst, Lydia suddenly asks Paul to come to her home. We can imagine Paul’s discomfort, his disinclination to accept her invitation. But she persuades him – am I not acceptable? Paul, in accepting her invitation – as we learn he does later in the chapter – violates all the social norms his day: accepting the invitation of a woman, a poor woman below his stature, and an unclean woman, to boot! Paul’s entering Lydia’s home is a metaphor for the way God enters our homes when we keep his word!
The story of Lydia illustrates what it means to observe Jesus’ word – being empowered to stand before God and one another as equals in God’s sight, being empowered to embrace one another cross lines of sex and class and culture. Here we see the radical hospitality of God – the God who shows no partiality – and the radical inclusivity of the early Christian community which caused the church to grow so explosively in the first years.
So, how do we keep God’s word? How do we observe and guard and watch? How are we empowered and set free? Do we think of keeping God’s word in the narrow terms of obedience to commandments or in the broader terms of service to God’s world?
These are hard times for the church. No one needs to tell you that. Many of our congregations are struggling with budgets and facilities, and – more than that – struggling with a culture that suddenly seems disinterested in what the church has to offer. Our buildings don’t attract, our worship doesn’t inspire, our presence doesn’t engage. We are being driven to look hard at who we are and what we do and to ask what our purpose is. Why are we here? What are we to do?
The answer, I think, is to keep God’s word – to show by the lives we lead that God has made his home with us, that we are empowered to share God’s love. And that means moving out of our churches and into our communities, engaging with folks across the lines of class and culture with God’s good news.
That’s not easy for us. We’ve spent 200 years expecting people to come to us, to come into our buildings and join us. To go out, to go out of the gates and down to the river, takes us way out of our comfort zones. But it is, perhaps, the place God is calling us to go.
The very good news of Easter, as Jesus tells us, is that we don’t go alone. Rather the Holy Spirit, the Advocate and Comforter, goes with us to strengthen and support us. And we go with one another. As members of the new community in Christ’s blood, we, like Lydia, claim our place in Christ’s body and go together to share the power and the joy of what we have received.
It is the word that we have received that gives us life. It is in keeping that word that we are empowered to be Christ’s body. Our call, beyond everything else, is to love and serve God wherever we are, among all of God’s people. May it be so. Amen.
Easter 4 Sermon
April 21, 2013
Good Shepherd, Houlton
Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
“What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
This sermon has now been re-written twice as the events of the Boston Marathon and its aftermath have unfolded. It has been a profoundly shocking and discouraging week as we have witnessed in our own streets the political extremism that we thought was reserved for other places. We perhaps have a glimpse of the danger and disorientation that ordinary people in Baghdad and Kabul and Karachi live with on a regular basis. How profoundly vulnerable and insecure it makes us feel! How we yearn for security! We can understand why some people might wish for the security of a police state so that going to a race or the public market is not a life-threatening event.
Our questions multiply: What’s happening? What can we do about it? How can we recover a sense of safety and hope? Where is God? Why does God let this happen? We may have come here this morning with a profound sense of disillusionment and doubt – with a question about whether or not our faith is real.
It may seem a bit of a stretch, but our lessons today actually address this very situation. Jesus was being proclaimed as the Messiah by his suddenly unleashed followers. Even Peter was performing miracles. And yet this Messiah was not the one long expected by the followers of Yahweh. He had not come with a conquering army. Caesar and Herod still ruled. The Roman legions still exercised their brutal control. Things just didn’t add up. Is Jesus the Messiah or should we expect the someone else? Is there a better Messiah out there? Is there a stronger God?
For those suffering from the brutality of Rome and the impoverishing taxes of emperors, kings and priests, these were very real questions.
The difficulty in that time, as in our own, is that we have the questions backward. The questions is not whether we should choose this Messiah, this God. It’s not about whether this Messiah measures up to our expectations, meets our criteria. It’s not about whether the world changes according our desires, our worldview.
It’s about whether God has chosen us… it’s about understanding that God has come among us and has chosen to remain.
This is God’s world. This is the world God made, and God lives in. We are God’s people. Because God has chosen us – and nothing can snatch us from God’s hand. It isn’t about our belief or our doubts. It’s not about what we think or do. It’s not even about our faithfulness. It’s about God’s choice and our willingness to listen for God’s voice. God knows us – and if we listen – we may hear God’s voice.
Many years ago, in a community I served in upstate New York, during the summer vacation, a 16 year old adolescent murdered a girl a year younger and the two year old she was babysitting – with a knife. It was a horrific event, and though the crime was quickly solved in a few days, the trauma went on and on – through the fall and into the winter. The community was thrown into doubt, dissension and recrimination. Why were these young people left unsupervised? Why was a 15 year old left in charge of a 2 year old all day while both parents left town to work? Why did no one see them together? How could this young man possibly be capable of this crime? Where were his parents? And on and on… It must be, some said, the power of Satan. It must be that we had been abandoned by God and overcome by evil.
There was a lot of work to be done, and I’m not sure the community ever fully recovered. But what I saw was not abandonment by God. My conviction is that God was right there. With the victims, at the very place where the bodies were wounded, in the responses of all those who tried to help and rebuild the community. And that’s where God was in Boston. What we saw, repeatedly, was not people running away from the blasts, but toward them – into the abyss – to pull down tangled fences, to staunch gaping wounds with t-shirts and bare hands, to run two additional miles to the hospital to give blood, to carry wounded victims or to transport them in wheelchairs, to participate in the search for the perpetrators, to risk and lose their own lives to stop and capture them.
Were the helpers in Boston thinking about God in those awful moments after the explosions. Perhaps… Perhaps they lifted a cry of anguish and doubt – oh my God… But probably not. They were too busy… But were they hearing God’s voice call their names? Absolutely. Without a doubt. They were being called out of themselves and into God’s service.
And that sort of heroism is not unique to Boston. Thankfully it’s abundant in Boston, but I see it everywhere disaster strikes. The video footage I see is always of people plunging into the chaos to bring God’s love and God’s healing.
I think we tend to engage in some sort of magical thinking where faith is concerned – that God will speak to us in Hebrew or only in the midst of our prayers. But the Good News of Easter is that this world is God’s home – and we have not been able to drive God out. God is present among us calling our name and the act of faith we are asked to make is tuning our ears to God’s voice.
That’s where we start. God is calling our name. We may not yet be hearing God’s voice, but God is calling.
God is among us building God’s kingdom. It is not a work that requires the cooperation of nations or governments. It is the work rather of our own hearts and our willingness to let God call us. As we open our ears, as we hear and respond to God’s call, then hunger and thirst are addressed. Then someone brings a cup of cold water and tears are wiped away.
We might wish – I think we often do – that God had chosen a different way to build God’s kingdom. We might have hoped that God would do all the work for us. And whether or not we join in, the work goes forward. God persists… God will not leave us… and he is calling us to follow.
Easter Day sermon
St. John’s, Bangor
March 31, 2013
Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118; I Corinthians 15:18-26; John 20:1-18
Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed!
That’s the classic Christian greeting for Easter morning. The son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is now the risen Christ: freed from death, freed from the grave, risen to the right of God to rule and to judge…
But what if we were to say instead of Christ is risen, Jesus is alive! Yes, Jesus lives among us!
I think there is a difference, perhaps, even a profound difference. “Christ is risen” is an historic greeting. It’s a greeting reserved largely for one day. And it has a subtext, he is not here. He is risen. And he’s gone to heaven. But Jesus is alive, Jesus lives among us, says something quite different. It says that Jesus has not gone anywhere. It says that he is still available to to us and that we are called to follow.
This is precisely the dilemma that confronted dear Mary in the garden. She’d seen Jesus die. She knew he was dead. She never expected to see him again – ever. She expected to find his body. She understood, even though it grieved her deeply, that someone might have stolen the body. What she did not expect, could not understand, was that she might meet him again, that he might be alive. So strong were her expectations that she did not recognize him when he stood before. Only when he called her could she see who it was. And then Jesus instructed her as to what she was to do.
I think we all understand Mary deeply – in our bones. We understand death. We understand grief. We understand being lost, having our world turned upside down. What we struggle to understand and to do is to follow Jesus through the griefs and upsets of our lives, to follow Jesus even through death. But Jesus is alive!
Jesus lives. He might look like the gardener – or the mailman or an electrician or a street person or a neighbor – but it’s Jesus – and he calls us to follow.
What’s at stake here I think is the difference between an idea about resurrection, an idea about the victory of life over death, and the concrete daily practice of following Jesus. Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s right here among us, and he still has instructions for what we are to do.
The greatest problem for the Christian Church is that we worship Jesus instead of following him. By worshiping him, we put him at arms length, we put him up on a pedestal, we make an icon and a model – and we make him dead and irrelevant. What Easter calls us to do is to follow him anew, to talk with him, to pray with him, to serve him in the people we meet.
Today, as part of our Easter celebration, we will administer confirmation, and in so doing we will renew our baptismal covenant. I think that renewing our baptismal covenant helps us to put our belief in resurrection in perspective. We believe in resurrection not so that we can celebrate an historic event and worship the one who rose. We believe in resurrection so that our own lives can be transformed, so that we can overcome our fear of death and live – now – the life God is calling us to live.
Worship in The Episcopal Church is a beautiful thing. Nobody celebrates better than we do. Yet what’s truly beautiful is not worship in the church, but the transformed lives of those who follow Jesus. What’s truly beautiful is the peaceable kingdom we are building by following Jesus.
May this Easter be for us an occasion to celebrate not only that Jesus rose once for all, but we are risen, too… that Jesus lives in us and calls us to follow.
Alleluia. Jesus is alive…
Good Friday Sermon
St. John’s, Bangor
March 29, 2013
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; The Passion According to John
Over the years I’ve preached and heard many sermons about the Passion of Jesus. Although the themes are fairly consistent – Good Friday is always about the unjust murder of the son of God – there’s a little argument that goes on among the preachers. Who’s fault is Good Friday? Who’s responsible? Who murdered Jesus? The Roman State, the Jewish establishment, the disappointed Zealots or the fickle mob? Or are all of these groups simply metaphors for us – did we murder Jesus?
And then there are the questions about God. Did God intend the murder of his Son – from before time? Is Good Friday part of God’s plan? Did God know what would happen when God sent his Son to be born of Mary? Or did God simply take the worse we could do and turn it to good?
I think suspect the answer to all these questions is probably yes. Yes, Rome murdered Jesus – and so did we. Yes, God no doubt knew what would happen and turned it our benefit. And if God did not intend to kill his son, God certainly did not act to prevent it. The profound irony of Good Friday is that the Man who did not save himself, did, by dying, save the whole world.
Our tendency in asking these questions is, I think, an effort to place ourselves more comfortably in the drama. We know we belong there, but we want to get a little distance or create an angle that will protect us from full responsibility, that will give us a small platform from which to proclaim our relative innocence or our relative goodness. Surely not everyone was equally at fault, not equally guilty. And if it was God’s plan, then surely God shares some of the responsibility. Surely, God – or the devil – made us do it.
But, I think all of these efforts to protect ourselves founder on the reality that it is human nature that is on trial here. Whether it’s our desire for public peace and good order, or our desire to practice religion properly and without interference, or to protect ourselves from the prejudice and ill will of others, or to put ourselves into the seat of power, or to build ourselves a safe haven apart from the world – all these very human desires caused those around Jesus to betray him, to abandon him, to offer false testimony, and to execute him. And they still do today.
The difficulty that each and everyone of us must confront on Good Friday is our inability to believe that love is the true way of the world: that love has the power to transform the world, that love can overcome even death. In the end, we all fail to trust in love, and we put our trust in something else. What we trust is probably different for each of us. What unites us is that it isn’t love.
That’s the struggle revealed in the whole Jesus story. From the very beginning, when the son of God was born to a peasant couple, through his ministry in and out of Galilee, to his death on the cross, Jesus disciples and everyone else wanted Jesus to be someone else. They wanted him to be the returning king of the Davidic monarchy. They wanted to him to be the commander of an army of angels. They wanted a leader who would reshape the world according to their likes, in ways that would put them on top of the heap.
But, as Jesus said repeatedly, there is no heap to be on top of. There is no kingdom but the kingdom of God. There is no power save the power of love. God will not miraculously intervene to save you from yourself or your life. God does call you to a new way of living and loving in his kingdom.
Our desire for rescue is intense. Particularly in these times, we have this little wish dream about being rescued, about being restored to what we imagine is our rightful place. We dream of prosperity and security and immortality, of being saved from the human condition and from human weakness. We want God to do for us what we want, to guarantee us what we want. All these dreams conspire to get us to deny and to kill Christ over and over again.
And yet God takes all this, and by offering himself, transforms it. As Pilate said, “I find no case against him.” Jesus was innocent. As Caiaphas said without understanding, “It is better for one man to die for the people.” And he was right. One man died and all humanity was set free.
The only response we can make to such an offering is to simply to be astonished – and silent. “Kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” To let go of words. To let go of protestations of innocence. To let go of self-justification. To let go even of guilt and shame. To simply fall silent before the mystery of God’s offering, God’s offering to heal us by God’s own bruises.
God has entered our lives to take our wounds upon himself and heal them. God has not intervened to protect us from life, has not intervened to protect us from ourselves. God has not intervened to make us conquerors. God has entered our lives to share them and to invite us, in turn, to share God’s life.
What God offers us is the chance to be transformed, to live a new life in a kingdom powered by love: a kingdom in which we care for others as much as we care for ourselves; a kingdom in which we take on our neighbors burdens and confront the powers of sin and death; a kingdom in which we entrust ourselves to the love and mercy of God, come what may; a kingdom in which we decide to follow Jesus – in life and in death.
Today is God’s day, God Friday, the day when God entered our life and made it good. On this day God showed us that there is no limit to the depths of God’s love, no limit to what the power of love can achieve. We still resist that understanding. We still turn to other sources of power. God Friday tells us it is to no avail. “Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”
The hard part about Good Friday is that we, indeed, are responsible. And we can’t escape our responsibility. We are responsible for sin and death in the world. The Good News of Good Friday is that God is with us and has taken our lives as God’s own. In so doing, God has transformed our lives and offered us the gift of transformed living.
Christ Church, Gardiner
March 28, 2013
John 13:1-7, 31b-35
The service for this evening is among my favorites of the year, in part, perhaps, because it was the one service of Holy Week celebrated by the First Presbyterian Church of LeRoy, NY, in which I grew up, and, in part, because it is the signature service in The Episcopal Church regarding the way we should live with one another.
We are expected to be in relationship with one another as humble servants who offer each other direct care. We usually don’t think of one another in such ways. Indeed, we ordinarily relate to each other protected by layers of social convention and personal space. We rarely touch one another, except for the occasional handshake, and we rarely kneel before one another looking at our legs and touching our feet. It’s an uncomfortable posture, one in which we feel vulnerable, awkward and unprotected.
Which is precisely why we engage in this rite on Maundy Thursday. It is a profound reminder of our common humanity and weakness and of Jesus’ presence among us as a servant, as one who washes our feet. This is the service required of us by love. This is the model and the end of all our service – the care of our fellow human beings in all their need and vulnerability.
It is, I think, a basic tendency of human nature to think of our life in the world, our purposes as a church, as somehow grander than this. We like to think of salvation and transformation, of a new heaven and a new earth. And that’s certainly God’s intention – that we join God in creating a new heaven and a new earth. What we forget is that such a new heaven and new earth is built one human being at a time, one pair of feet at a time. We cannot create a new heaven and new earth conceptually. We must build it concretely in relation to the very real people among whom we live.
The Christian Church and we in the Kennebec Valley are experiencing a period of considerable change and disorientation. What used to work doesn’t work any more. I’ve been urging us to take risks and try to new things. I’ve been urging us to move out of our doors and into our communities. I’ve invited us to meet people we haven’t met before and to engage them around their needs and concerns. And the point is to bring us again into the relationship that underlies this service of Maundy Thursday – a relationship of mutual and humble service.
We’ve moved a long way from the modest last supper in an upper room. We’ve moved a long way from relationships in which we understand ourselves to be essentially equal and equally needy. We’ve weighed down our lives with issues of status and privilege. We’ve allowed wealth and class and education and employment and political party to separate us into competing camps. We now peer at one another suspiciously across barriers and through veils of our own making. We think of friendship as being rooted in mutual interest and affection rather than being rooted in our common paternity as children of God.
The night Jesus knelt at the feet of his friends, one of them was preparing to betray him. Yet he was still at table with Jesus. God does not look on friendship and affection as we do. It’s not earned or deserved. It is rather given: God gives us to one another to love and to serve because God loves us all.
This night of the Last Supper, of the New Commandment, of the foot washing, reminds us that we, in our relationships with one another, are not undone by Good Friday. Yes… We killed Jesus. And we still kill one another. But God’s design for us has not changed. We are still invited, still, as Christians, called, to kneel at one another’s feet.
I can’t imagine that it will ever be anything but awkward. Yet I hope, in our awkwardness, we will recognize one another as the brothers and sisters God created us to be.
Annual Renewal of Vows by Maine Clergy
Chrism Eucharist, Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland
March 26, 2013
The recent Spring retreat of the House of Bishops was a profound occasion for the bishops of The Episcopal Church. Our theme was Godly Leadership in a Time of Loss, and we heard reflections from our fellow bishops on what they have learned from leading in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Hurricane Sandy, the earthquake in Haiti, ministering among Native American communities where the unemployment rate exceeds 80%, and ministering in the face of one’s own significant illness and loss.
George Councell is the soon to be retired Bishop of New Jersey. For most of his episcopate he has suffered from Parkinson’s disease which has made many of the tasks of daily living difficult. George was attending a conference out of town when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and he couldn’t get back, which, in an odd sort of way, was helpful, because he could communicate when much of the damaged area had no power and no phone service. So from far away, George struggled to count noses and rally the troops.
George’s first reflection on that period was that it is a profound privilege for those of us who are ordained that we get to spend our time doing the thing we love the most, with the One we love the most, among the people we love. To be chosen by God and the Church and to serve on behalf of Christ among people whom we love is a gift beyond counting. Gratitude for this vocation, for this privilege, should be our daily bread.
His second reflection on that time was to ask what is it he does the rest of the time that is more important than counting noses and rallying the troops. In the face of disaster, that’s about all that matters, and, perhaps, it’s what really matters all the time.
And third, in reflecting on the leadership issues, George said: “We’ve tried not to waste this crisis. We’ve tried be a diocese, to stay connected, to be in touch, to strengthen one another, to advocate for the poor among us, to notice the people who have always been there – under the bridges and near the dumpsters.”
“We’ve tried not to waste this crisis…” I hear that as a genuine encouragement for ministry in the times we live in. We are called to new things – yes. To new structures, perhaps, to greater flexibility, to greater clarity about what’s important. And yet, at the same time, we are called to the things we’ve always been called to: to stay connected, to strengthen one another, to pay attention to the people who have always been there – to seek the ones who have not.
God’s desire for all creation to live in harmony, to participate in the cosmic dance of love and justice, has remained unchanged from the beginning and was the intention of Jesus’ crucifixion – that all would be drawn to God, that all would be lifted from poverty, illness and oppression to healing and wholeness at God’s table. That’s the good news we get to preach and the work we get to embrace every day.
The cultural winds and tides which buffet our church sometimes feel like a storm surge, but what we should do is more elusive than the ways we would respond to a hurricane. The tide we are facing is moving in slow motion, giving us time to wonder, to worry: what should we do? What can we do?
We used to have this all figured out. Now we don’t. Now we are called to be creative. Now we have to make an effort to learn new ways. And by the grace of God we get to keep starting over. Every morning. God never loses patience with our efforts. God never stops offering us new starts. In fact, letting in the new thing God is doing keeps us alive. When nothing new gets in – whether breath or food or ideas – we die.
So let’s not waste this crisis. Let us see it as the work of the Holy Spirit among us inviting us to love of all of God’s people anew. Let’s stay in touch and do the thing we love with renewed vigor and with trust that Jesus, from the cross, is lifting us to new life.
March 2, 2013
St. Barnabas’, Augusta
Stand with the Fig
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
We human beings live in a cause-and-effect universe in which, according to the laws of physics, every action has an opposite and equal reaction. When things happen, we search for a cause, for a reason. One of my pet peeves has to do with coiled wire and what is called “metal memory.” I hate the way wire kinks and wraps around things and fights me when I try to straighten it. I’ve been known to say, “I hate physics” when I’m struggling to untangle a twisted wire.
Part of the process of growing up is coming to terms with this cause-and-effect universe. We learn not to step in front of moving cars; we learn that – all our childhood fantasies not withstanding – we can’t step out a second story window and fly; and we learn that our decisions and actions have consequences.
When we encounter something we can’t understand, we look for a reason because – as we say – everything happens for a reason. We just don’t know what it is. And if the mystery is deep enough, we say that it must be God who is responsible. God has done it because – everything happens for a reason.
What we’ve done here is to equate the physical universe and God’s action. And we have converted the love and mercy of God to a system of divine scales in which good is rewarded and bad is punished. When bad things happen to good people, we say there must be a reason; they must have done something wrong.
This is a terrible temptation, and it causes us to blame the victim for all sorts of things. For many centuries the church justified slavery with the notion that Africans were less than fully human and deserved and benefited from slavery. Some argued that the victims of AIDS were receiving the just punishment for their homosexuality. And today we sometimes hear that the innocent victims of fighting in Afghanistan are being punished for sheltering Islamic extremists. We also say that, when a child dies, that God has decided to take an angel home.
In our Gospel today, Jesus says very clearly that God doesn’t operate this way. God is not holding scales and meting out justice according to good or bad behavior. Bad things may happen to good people, but God is not behind it. The universe is incredibly and subtly complex. There is much we don’t understand, but God doesn’t behave according to the laws of physics. God behaves according to the law of love.
The point is underlined in the reading from Exodus. Moses is standing, presumably, on ordinary desert ground. But it is the ground for encounter with God. In God’s presence it is holy ground. And the name of this God is not simply, as we first hear, your God, the God of your fathers, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This God is named “I AM who I AM,” or, in some translations, “I will be who I will be.” God is independent of the world God has created. God operates according to God’s own standards.
God, according to Biblical commentator Margaret Aymer, “stands with the fig.” In our cause and effect universe, we are tempted to pull up any “bad” tree that doesn’t produce good fruit. This is simply good stewardship. But it is not divine stewardship. In God’s mercy, God gives the fig time and space and, more importantly, love and nurture. God cares enough for the fig to encourage it repeatedly to bear good fruit.
This is the reason we are all able to stand before God, why we are not all condemned to eternal damnation – for all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And this is the challenge to us in our relationships with one another. We can choose to blame and condemn one another for all our failings, real or imagined, or we can stand with one another, in love and solidarity, understanding that what happens to people is not simply a matter of their righteousness, but the result of living in an extraordinarily complex universe; understanding that whatever happens, God loves us all.
In the extraordinarily complex universe in which WE live, the church we know and love seems to be failing. The things that have worked for generations no longer seem to produce the desired results. Our temptation is to blame one another or the world, to seek a cause or a fault, or to blame God for abandoning us. What’s at risk here is not only our beloved church, but our ministries, the temptation to turn our attention more and more to ourselves and our own survival, rather than standing with the fig. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to stand with the fig, to offer our care and nurture and patience to those in need. Instead of saying, there must be a reason and using that as an excuse to sit back and do nothing, we need to say that God is merciful and good and to reach out in the name of God to all the figs among us.
In the divine economy, it is not physics that matters. It’s mercy. The repentance that is required of us is the repentance from a worldview that insists on seeing people as objects, as so many worthless objects under a falling tower who deserve their fate. Rather it is to see people as God sees them, as children deserving our love and mercy. Such a way of seeing is costly. It requires us to give up our own sense of moral superiority, to give up our safe armchair view of the world, and to get involved. It requires us move out into the world as God does, to meet people as God does, to exercise concrete care – to dig, to water, and to fertilize. Who is God inviting you to stand with? Who needs your love and care?
God grant us the courage to move out in such love and service. Amen.
February 24, 2013
St. Nicholas’, Scarborough
Trusting God to meet us on the terrifying path to Easter
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
Last week we read the story of Satan’s temptations of Jesus; of the devil’s attempts to draw Jesus from his appointed mission. Satan’s temptations took the form of encouraging Jesus to trust himself, to trust his own power, rather than God. Satan invited Jesus to come up higher and to take God’s place. But Jesus refused those temptations and chose to remain himself and one-with-us – not high and lifted up, but here with us – and to follow the path God had set before him.
This week we learn of the very real threat to Jesus posed by King Herod and the resulting temptation not glorify himself, but to protect himself, to save his life. The Pharisees, in warning Jesus, are not necessarily concerned for him, not trying to save him. They may, in fact, being trying to draw Jesus away from his work. But, whatever the case, their warning is true. Herod is out to get Jesus and to have him killed.
Jesus, in his response, is very clear that his work must continue not only today, but tomorrow and the third day. He must continue his work, even unto Jerusalem. Nothing will distract him from his mission – not Herod’s threats nor the prospect of a confrontation in Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.
Now one of the things that trouble many people about the Christian tradition of Lent and Holy Week is Jesus’ movement toward death. Jesus almost seems to court death. And our Gospel lesson is a good example. This idea is deeply unsettling to many people, and makes us wonder about a God who would demand such sacrifice.
But the context of our Gospel is not simply sacrifice. The sacrifice offered by Abram in our Genesis reading is neither a sin offering nor a thank offering. Rather, it is the costly sacrifice of covenant. In the ancient tradition, when two parties made a covenant, they each offered sacrificial animals, cut them in half, and then walked from opposite directions between the pieces. The covenant was sealed by the blood of the sacrifice. It was ceremonies like these that gave us the phrase “cutting a covenant.” The cut pieces were also a warning about the cost of breaking the covenant. A broken covenant would lead to bloodshed.
In the covenant ceremony between God and Abram, God promises to make Abram the father of a great nation and to give him the land. And Abram prepares the sacrifice. But he does not walk between the pieces. Rather he falls into a deep sleep and is covered by a terrifying darkness. The covenant ceremony is not complete; the covenant has not been sealed. But then God himself, in the form of a smoking pot and flaming torch, passes between the pieces and seals the covenant.
We are grateful, no doubt, that we no longer make covenants in this way. But let’s not lose the meaning here. For the Hebrew people the making of covenants was quite literally a matter of life and death. Daily life for most people was very fragile, very marginal. People died all the time from injury and disease, in accidents and childbirth, from wounds and infection. The offering of the life force of the animals in the covenant ceremony was all about preserving the lives of the people and the nation. Sacrifice was not unique to the Hebrew people. It was common throughout the ancient Near East. What was unique was the idea that God was willing to take some of that burden on Godself. God himself sealed the covenant with Abram. And, Jesus, in moving toward Jerusalem and the cross, is part of that same movement of God toward God’s people. Though the God’s people have failed to heed the son, have not lived as God would have them live, God will be faithful. God will fulfill the covenant.
And let’s not kid ourselves about this. Our covenant with God is still a matter of life and death. The world around us is piled high with the shattered pieces of broken lives. And we know that we have not done what we could or should do. In Lent we acknowledge that we have failed to keep up our end of the bargain. Our journey to Easter morning, the whole thing, is founded on our belief that, despite our failures, God will keep faith. God can be trusted. So Jesus’ refusal to turn from his path, his insistence on going to Jerusalem, is not a death wish on his part or God’s, but a sign of God’s faithfulness – that God will keep the covenant no matter what.
That’s certainly good news… but here’s the other piece. God’s keeping the covenant does not mean that we have escaped our own confrontation with death. Following Jesus does not mean that death is avoided – only that it’s overcome. And, following Jesus may lead us to difficult and uncomfortable places, and even to death.
The reality that Lent addresses is the terrifying darkness that covered Abram, that paralyzed Abram so that he could not seal the covenant. We, too, face that paralyzing darkness – whether that darkness is our fear of death, or our fear of confronting the powers and principalities, or our fear of reaching out to our neighbors, or our inability to trust God. That’s the stuff we’re working with in Lent. That’s what we’re offering to God. That’s what we trust, what we hope almost beyond hope that God can deal with.
The temptations Jesus faced were not only those of building himself up, taking God’s place, of trying to be someone other than who he was created to be. The other temptation was to run away and hide. And those are the temptations we face as well. It’s the way human beings have always confronted fear. But there is another way, neither fight nor flight, but embrace – to embrace the human situation in all its terrifying darkness. To stay on the path in the midst of all the brokenness around us. To offer what we have to God. And to know that nothing will prevent God from keeping God’s covenant with us.
May it be so. Amen.
1 Lent Sermon
February 17, 2013
Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Portland
Lent: Giving God something to work with
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
And Galadriel said, “I have passed the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”
So here we are, once again, at the beginning of Lent. And many of us are still considering the disciplines we will accept in Lent, the things we will give up or take on, in preparation for Easter. Unfortunately, for many of us, such disciplines are a bit like New Year’s resolutions: small commitments to self-discipline for the sake of self-improvement. Self-improvement is good thing – but it’s not what Lent is about.
Rather Lent involves a much more fundamental shift, rooted not in the force of one’s own will, but in one’s willingness to turn toward and trust God. Indeed, the Temptation Story in Luke might be titled, Whom Do You Trust? And Satan says, essentially, trust me or trust yourself – you don’t need God.
In Luke’s Gospel, Satan’s temptations aren’t simply appeals to Jesus’ baser instincts. They’re not only about building himself up. Satan is far too clever for that. Rather Satan appeals to Jesus to use his power in ways that will benefit many – to create bread from stones, to rule over the nations of the world, to overcome the power of gravity and death. In the process, Satan invites Jesus to trust in his own power or in the devil’s, rather than God’s. Satan invites Jesus to come up, to come up higher, to separate himself from God and from God’s people. It’s that separation from God and God’s people that Jesus successfully resists. Instead of trusting in himself, Jesus continues to trust in God, and therefore remains where he is supposed to be: down here, with us, in the land of the least, the lost and the lonely.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as the Company of the Ring begins to fall apart, Frodo offers Galadriel the Ring of Power. And she says, “Would you trade the Dark Lord for a Queen? Not dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morn. Treacherous as the Seas! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth! All shall love me and despair!” She stops for a long anguished silence, then resumes, “I have passed the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” So too, Jesus sets aside the temptation to be other than he is, the temptation to take on God’s power. Jesus declares that he will remain God’s son and will follow the path that God has set for him into the world among God’s people, to Jerusalem and the cross.
The question presented to us on this First Sunday of Lent is much more profound than one about our will power, our capacity to improve ourselves. To what end would we give up chocolate, stop drinking, lose weight, or read the Bible? To show ourselves that we are capable of such discipline? To satisfy our need to be good people in the eyes of others? To puff ourselves up in our own eyes in comparison with others?
The real question is: Will we be true to our creation as children of God and members of Christ’s body? Will we trust God in the midst of our harried, fragile and imperiled existence? Will we trust God enough to follow him – into the streets, into our neighborhoods, into God’s world?
When it’s all about chocolate, we’re not giving God much to work with. But if we offer to God our fear instead… well, then we’re really putting something on the table for God to work with.
Can we say to God, I’m afraid to follow you? I’m afraid to take the risk of stepping out in public to follow you? I’m afraid to engage with my neighbors or Portland’s street people. I’m afraid to talk about the ways violence is corrupting our culture. I’m afraid to bring what Jesus has taught me to bear on the issues of the day? Can we say to God, I don’t trust you?
That’s the fundamental issue of Christian living: trusting God enough to follow God, trusting God enough to offer our genuine fears and doubts, trusting God enough to turn in a Godward direction no matter what we leave behind.
The hard part in all of this is, as Jesus discovered, that trusting in God doesn’t make life easy. Trusting in God may actually lead one into the desert, may lead one to the cross. And there’s no way to trust God other than to trust God. The act of faith we’re all asked to make is to trust God. There’s no hedging our bets – no turning stones to bread, no ruling over the nations of the earth, no leaping off towers – there’s just trust. Yet such trust is essential if we are to remain who we were created to be, whether that’s Galadriel or Steve or you.
If our Lenten discipline is only about self-improvement, then I think Jesus has already given us the answer. A better, more powerful Jesus isn’t required. But if our Lenten discipline allows us to clear some space where we might consider the essential things, might wrestle before God with our fear, then by all means, carry on. And God will be with us.
Remember, it’s not about earning new life. Resurrection is a gift. All we need to claim it is to trust in God.
May it be so. Amen.
Ash Wednesday Sermon
February 13, 2013
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland and St. Andrew’s, Winthrop
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Probably many of you are aware that today, across The Episcopal Church, in many dioceses, representatives of our faith communities headed outside the doors of their churches and offered “Ashes to Go.” Here in the Diocese of Maine, ashes were offered in two locations in Portland and in three other communities.
I think it’s a good thing; an opportunity for ministers of the church to meet the people of God in the places where they are rather than behind the doors of the church.
But, except for the convenience of taking a cup of ashes and some prayers to a public location, Ash Wednesday seems an odd day to take the ministry of the church to the public square. I mean why not a major feast day? Why not Christmas or Easter or, at the very least, Pentecost. Ash Wednesday is one of our “churchier” days – sackcloth and ashes, mortality and penance. Doesn’t seem like a day to grip the public imagination.
Or perhaps mortality and death, sin and penance are elements of the spiritual life that the world still understands. Perhaps, in this time of massacres in elementary schools and drone strikes controlled from two continents away, mortality and death, sin and repentance – always lurking anxiously just below the level of consciousness – are pressed forcefully into awareness on Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we give one another permission to express what we fear all the time.
That, by the way, is one purpose of the Church Calendar. We don’t deal with mortality and death, sin and repentance only in Lent. Neither do we deal with new birth only at Christmas or resurrection only at Easter. We deal with them all, all the time. The church calendar supplies the annual occasions when we pull these matters to consciousness, when we give ourselves permission to address the big questions of life, death and the universe.
So what’s the big question for Ash Wednesday? What’s the question behind the assertions of mortality and sin and repentance? Why does the church makes such a big deal of Ash Wednesday? Why does the world pay attention?
I think, if I may offer a suggestion, it’s because the question we raise on Ash Wednesday is this, What makes for a meaningful life? What way of living can give real and lasting meaning and value to lives that seem so fragile, harried and imperiled? How can we find meaning in the midst of massacres and drone strikes and snowmageddon and all the rest?
Jesus is very clear about this. He makes it very clear. Outward appearance has nothing to do with a meaningful life. Riches and positions of prestige have nothing to do with a meaningful life. Neither does formal religion nor prescribed religious devotion have anything to do with a meaningful life. Prayers prayed for the sake of public affirmation or self-satisfaction have nothing to do with a meaningful life.
What gives meaning to life is a life in which the primary things – my relationship with God and my relationships with my neighbors – are the focus of my living. A life in which there is coherence between my inner life and my outer life. A life in which the treasures of my heart and the activities of my living match.
So the question for us this Ash Wednesday is, What are the treasurers of your heart? Does your living express your heart?
This question has been forced into my consciousness by the terrible events at the Sandy Hook Elementary School – 27 deaths in less than 5 minutes. Twenty children, six teachers, and one deeply disturbed young adult. And now, strangely, we are in the midst of a passionate debate about the second amendment. Certainly the second amendment is important – but what about the children? What’s our treasure here? Are the children simply, as one second amendment advocate put it, the price of freedom. That to guarantee our freedom to own guns we need to sacrifice our children?
What’s our treasure? Do our actions conform with our treasure?
Or snowmageddon? Will we simply shovel out, but make no efforts to change our way of living? Will we not ask why two major hurricanes and a 100 year storm have struck the Northeast in just eighteen months? Is our lifestyle, and all the fossil fuel it requires, a greater treasure than this fragile earth, our island home?
What’s our treasure? Do our actions conform with our treasure?
Or our relationships with our neighbors? Will we simply watch the growing number of homeless people on our streets? Will we continue to cut back on services to the poor and needy to balance our budgets and control our costs? Is the issue here taxation? Or is it something else?
What’s our treasure? Do our actions conform with out treasure?
What we’re talking about here is the sacramental nature of life. The way we live is a sign – outward and visible – of the inward grace by which we live. That’s why we repent during Lent – because so often the way we live reveals a heart that is not focused on the things that matter to God.
Yet the good news of Ash Wednesday is that despite the strained connection between our hearts and our actions renewal is possible. Despite our mortality and sinfulness, God wills for us new life. Both by changes in our living and by trust in God, what is broken may be repaired and what is dead may be raised. What we begin today is our walk to Jerusalem – to the cross – and to Easter’s empty tomb.
May you in this time of Lent consider the treasures of your heart – and by God’s grace may your actions confirm and strengthen your life. Amen.
Sermon by Bishop Stephen T. Lane
February 10, 2013
St. Alban’s, Cape Elizabeth
Transformation off the mountain
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
We read the Transfiguration twice a year: once, in August on the Feast of Transfiguration, now indelibly associated in the U.S. with the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and once, on Last Epiphany, just before Lent. The Transfiguration is understood as a prefiguring of Jesus’ resurrection and, more pointedly, his second coming – Jesus, heir of Moses and the Prophets, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Savior of the world, the Cosmic Christ.
It is as if the Church thinks we need to pause twice a year to re-orient ourselves, to get clear again who this Jesus is, to remind ourselves that this rabbi, this teacher from Nazareth, this strange, kind and powerful man, is also the son of God.
And if we read the narrative from this perspective we see that the story itself is one of orientation, disorientation, and re-orientation…
Jesus takes with him the “big three” – Peter, James and John – up on the mountain to pray. Nothing surprising here. Peter, James and John are clearly Jesus’ lieutenants. And Jesus frequently goes apart to pray. So the leadership team, the executive committee, draws apart to pray. This company of friends. This rabbi and his principle disciples. This small community of an offshoot of Judaism.
And while on the mountain Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the great prophet. Peter tries to force this vision into the box of his understanding. He tries to makes sense of this overwhelming vision in terms of what he already knows. Jesus has been revealed as the fulfillment of Judaism. Peter wants to make a feast day out of it. Something like the feast of booths. Again, nothing surprising here.
But God won’t have it. Jesus’ appearance is transfigured, burnished with light. Then a cloud overshadows them, obscuring the figures of Jewish tradition, and a voice – like the voice heard at Jesus’ baptism – proclaims, this is my son: listen to him. Here is not merely the heir of Judaism. Here is the son of God. Here is the power of God. Here is God incarnate. And Peter has nothing to say.
In the next piece of the story, which we haven’t read this morning, Jesus and his lieutenants head down the mountain, and Jesus heals a child possessed by demons, lamenting at the same time that people don’t understand who he is. The message here, to the disciples, to the crowds, to us, is this: pay attention! Whatever you think about Jesus, whoever you think Jesus is – there’s more! Much, much more.
What’s happened in our story is that Peter, representing the disciples – and us – has gone up the mountain comfortable in his orientation toward Jesus. On the mountain he has been profoundly disoriented and then forcefully re-oriented. He has been converted to a new understanding. He has been turned around. Look! Here is the son of God!
Orientation, disorientation, re-orientation. The process by which all of us learn and grow. The process through which we discover the truth. The sacramental act by which the surface of reality is broken open to reveal the depths beneath.
I just returned from the annual conference of Living Stones, a partnership of 20 dioceses, who meet annually to share case studies about issues related to ministry, particularly the ministry of all the baptized. In recent years our case studies have examined the various efforts dioceses are making to confront the cultural changes going on all around us. We’ve met the last two years in Las Vegas on Superbowl weekend, a location and occasion that has rather forcefully emphasized something of the distance between the church and the culture. And this year, many of our case studies disclosed that what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working: that we are becoming more and more disoriented, that efforts we’ve been making to draw people into the church have been failing.
The Christian Church, including our own Episcopal Church, is largely a “settled” church – established, independent, long-standing, served by “resident” clergy, focused on place. Everything we do is related to “coming to church.” We come to church for worship, for nurture, for fellowship, even for mission. We invite people to “come to church.” We have great treasures to offer for those who come to church.
But more and more, they’re not coming. And the truth is that the foundations of the church are not about coming. They’re about going. Going into all the world to baptize. Going down the mountain to heal and to free. Going down the mountain to Jerusalem and the cross. In our love for our places, we have perhaps forgotten the deepest truth. The most important thing we do is not hospitality. It’s not building booths in order to worship. It’s mission. It’s going out from worship to love and serve the Lord. It’s engaging the world with the love of God.
That’s what this final Sunday of Epiphany invites us to see. To see the truth about this Jesus and to re-orient ourselves as we head into Lent and toward Good Friday.
Mary Oliver, in her poem, Sometime, writes this: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
Like Peter, we frequently don’t pay attention. We don’t question our frame of reference. We don’t really see what’s real. But if we open our eyes, if we look deeply at reality, then we are astonished. The truth is far greater than anything we’ve ever imagined, and we have no choice but to tell about it. We are compelled to go out into the world and share what we’ve seen.
Our call as members of Christ’s body is, like Peter’s, to leave the mountain, to leave the beautiful booths we’ve so painstakingly built, and to go out among the demons. The Good News is that, indeed, is where God is. That is where we will find God at work. That is where we will be transformed.
Sermon – Advent 3
St. Thomas’, Winn
December 16, 2012
To what empires do we belong? Whose offspring are we?
Zephaniah 3:14–20; Isaiah 12:2–6; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:7–18
I’m delighted to be at St. Thomas’ this morning and to celebrate with you… Thank you for your courage in working with St. Andrew’s, Millinocket, and for attempting this new thing…
“You brood of vipers!” exclaims John the Baptizer. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” What an image! Not words likely to endear the speaker to those who heard them. John is equating the people who’ve come to him for baptism with the offspring of a viper – baby snakes – who are fleeing as from a grass fire. The viper in question is, perhaps, Satan or, more likely, the Roman Empire. With these words, John is continuing his attack, which we heard begun last week, on the politicized and corrupt religion of Israel under the Roman Empire.
John is proclaiming and offering a baptism of repentance, a ritual act of turning from an old life to a new one. There two striking things about this baptism. First, it’s free. The baptism is offered on the banks of the River Jordan, outside the City of Jerusalem and outside the Temple, where every act of devotion was accompanied by a fee. Those fees filled the coffers and lined the pockets of the religious elite and, ultimately, the Roman Empire. The Temple in Jerusalem was an enormous tax collecting machine whose proceeds kept the religious establishment in place, the Herodian pretender on his throne, and the Roman overlords happily at a distance.
Second, the efficacy of this baptism is measured not by religious purity or by the keeping of the religious law, but by the care offered to one’s neighbors. It’s not meant to be repeated as a ritual act of devotion, but to transform those who are baptized. It’s meant to create a new people who lead new lives.
The people who have come to be baptized are bewildered by John’s challenge – What shall we do? How shall we cease from being little snakes? “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” says John. Treat one another not as citizens of Empire to be exploited for personal gain, but as fellow citizens of a new kingdom, the reign of God. Share your worldly goods and your food with one another. Give up extortion and violence. Do not treat one another as potential sources of profit, but recognize your kinship with one another. Break away from the corrupt system of mutual exploitation which sustains the Empire.
John is talking about changed people for a changed world; people who live not by the rules of Empire, but who do the will of God and love one another. John is talking about the coming reign of God and the people who will be part of that reign.
But John himself is not the coming one. He is not the fire that is coming. But the One who will separate the wheat from the chaff, that One truly is coming.
These are challenging words for Advent, and particularly for Rose Sunday, Gaudete Sunday – gaudete being the Latin for “rejoice” taken from the Introit for today. They are especially challenging the day after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But they are part of the deep and mystical tradition that is Advent. For we expect in this season not only Jesus, the human son of God, born in a manger, but also Christ, the resurrected son of God, who will come again to rule over us. We are expecting not only the sweetness of a baby born into a poor peasant family, but also the transformation of a world ruled by the power of sin and death into God’s new world of peace and justice. We are expecting more than the old world writ large, more than same old, same old. We are expecting a world where the social forces and the mental illness that produced a mass murderer are no more. We are expecting a world that is not yet, but is surely coming.
The challenge for us this morning, just as it was for the crowds who flocked to the River Jordan, is this: Who holds our devotion and loyalty other than the reign of God? To what empires do we belong? Whose offspring are we?
The temptation, of course, is to fall back on our tribal status. The Jews could say, “We are the Jews. Abraham is our Daddy.” We could say, “We are Episcopalians.” Or, “We are Mainers or Americans.” But none of that addresses the issue. Are we choosing those identities over our participation in the reign of God? Is our membership in those kingdoms more important than the ways we treat one another? Are we passive observers rather than active participants in the reign of God?
There all kinds of forces inviting us to see one another as enemies, as destroyers of the American dream – Republicans and Democrats, Tea Partiers and Progressives, taxpayers and welfare recipients, 1% and the 99%, gun owners and gun control advocates… you name it… when, in fact, we are all kindred, all brothers and sisters, all children of God and little snakes for whom Christ died. We must not let our parties, our little kingdoms stand in the way of our membership in the world that is coming.
Advent says there is a different way of looking at the world, a different way of living in the world, and, most importantly, that different way is coming. Advent is the season of hope and expectation for the world that is coming, and an invitation now to live that world. In Advent we believe we can live in that world, and we, as Philippians puts it, “Rejoice because the Lord is near.”
So whose little snake are you? Who pulls you from the love of God and neighbor? Who invites you to feather your own nest at your neighbor’s expense? Who urges you to turn your back on the suffering poor and protect what you’ve got?
Do you know that God is coming? That the roots of Empire are being cut? And that even now you can live as a member of God’s kingdom? Even now you can rejoice in God’s presence? Even now, you can be made new?
May God richly bless your hope in this season. Amen.
Sermon – Advent 2
St. Peter’s, Portland
December 9, 2012
Baptism is meant to bring change.
Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
I rejoice to be with you this on second Sunday of Advent. I want to begin this morning by thanking all of you for your participation in this experiment in renewal… Larry, Kelly, Ben, Tim… I know there remain many unknowns, but I think we are doing exactly what we said we would do. I hope you will commit yourselves to fully engaging in this effort.
I believe we live in an Advent world: a world of the now, but not yet; a world of hope and expectation for a future that is very different from the reality we face every day. In the church, Advent is the season of preparation, of hope, not only for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth as the babe in the manger, but also for the return of the Christ to rule all creation. It is the season of anticipation for “God with us,” both as a human child and as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The spokesman for this Coming One is John the Baptizer, whom we meet this year in the Gospel of Luke not as a half-crazed, camel skin-wearing and bug-eating eccentric, but as a prophet of great power. This John eloquently quotes the scripture from Isaiah and makes radical demands for change on the part of all who hear him. This John is a spokesman for the new heaven and new earth, the reign of God, that is coming.
The baptism John offers is a baptism of repentance, a baptism of turning from the life of sin, to a new life. As we will hear next week, those whom John baptizes are expected to turn from their ways, to end the practices of feathering their own nests at the expense of others, to end practices of violence and of selfishness. John is calling for changed people to live in a changed world.
That’s the whole point – change. Baptism is meant to bring change.
It probably would help us to remember that John preached in a time that was very religious. There were all kinds of religions and cults, and everyone belonged to something, perhaps, several things. At the very top of the religious heap stood the cult of the Roman Emperor and the practices of Emperor Worship. Whatever beliefs one might have, one needed also to acknowledge and bow to the Emperor. There was no separation of church and state. All religion was political, and whether the local ruler was a political appointee, like Pilate, or a pretender to the Jewish throne, like Herod, or a ruler of the Temple precincts, like Annas and Caiaphas, all were clients and subjects who served the interests of the Emperor.
The interests of the Emperor were simple. The Emperor wanted tribute, usually in the form of taxes, and the Emperor wanted peace, usually in the form of the subjugation of captured peoples and the brutal repression of dissent. (Not for nothing was the road into Jerusalem lined with crosses.) The Emperor’s clients were expected to deliver these goods to him, and therefore religion was not only political, it was also corrupt. The City of Jerusalem and the Temple precincts were one vast tax collecting machine through which, by some estimates, half the wealth of Israel flowed each year. Every offering, every sacrifice, all the acts of devotion required by the Law of Moses, all the acts which required a pilgrimage to the Holy City, had a fee attached.
The baptism which John offered, a ritual cleansing like those usually performed by the priests for a fee, was offered outside the Temple precincts, outside the City, and it was free! John’s baptism was a direct attack on corrupt religion, the religion of “go along to get along,” the religion of maintaining the status quo, of keeping the peace at any price. There was no charge for John’s baptism – but the price was a changed life. From henceforth devotion was to be offered to the reign of God and to be measured by one’s care for one’s neighbors. No wonder they killed John…
Some scholars have wondered if the people of John’s day actually recognized the radical nature of the message he preached. Did they understand that they were participating in an attack on the corrupt religious establishment of the day? Who knows… but I think they knew they were getting something they valued, and usually paid for, for free. I think they knew that John was practicing the Jewish faith outside the norms of contemporary practice and authority. I think they knew that to accept John’s baptism was to be challenged to change their lives – and they flocked to the River Jordan.
That same question could be asked of us as well. Do we understand what our baptism means? I think we rarely think about our own baptisms in terms of revolution, in terms of overthrowing the old world order. We, like our ancient counterparts, baptize our children because it’s the expected religious thing, because it’s the way to join the church, the way to belong. But baptism is, and has always been, about much more. It has always been about acknowledging the presence and activity God in our lives, about claiming the power of the Spirit to empower and transform us, about a committing to follow Jesus in our daily lives. It has always been about proclaiming our primary allegiance to the reign of God, which is coming.
The challenge for us this morning is this: can we live into the meaning of our baptisms? Can we live out the baptismal covenant we’ll recite in just a few moments? Can we commit ourselves to following Jesus first? Can we see ourselves as members of a movement for transformation and not simply of a static institution? Can we, as John challenged his hearers, orient our lives more in terms of the ways we love and serve our neighbors than in terms of going along to get along in this world?
The hope of Advent is that, yes, we can. With God’s help, it is actually possible for us to envision a new world and to participate in it. Despite the weariness of this world, despite the heaviness of these times, the bad news that pours from our televisions every day, our lives can be shaped more by the kingdom that is coming, than the Empire that is here.
We trust that, ultimately, our membership in God’s kingdom will mean more to us than anything else, and that, by God’s grace, we and all the world may be made new. May we live daily in that trust and commit ourselves fully to living new lives.
May it be so. Amen.
Sermon – Pentecost 18
Sunday, September 30, 2012
St. Patrick’s, Brewer
Be People of Real Flavor
Esther 7:1-6.9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Our readings from the Gospel of Mark over the past few weeks have been an extended commentary by Jesus on the social structure of his day. His ministry as the Messiah, says Jesus, is to upend this social structure, to break through the rigid hierarchy of class and status and to create a new social order. In this new order, the mighty will be cast down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up.
Jesus has tried to teach his disciples about this new world order. He’s described himself not as a conquering Messiah, not one who will restore the throne of King David, but a suffering Messiah, who will identify with the lost and the oppressed, be crucified and die. He’s placed a child in the midst of the disciples and declared that he is that child and that, unless they receive him as a child, they will not receive God. Children you remember, along with widows, were metaphors for the poor and the outcast. They had no power in society, no status, except the reflected status of their protectors. They were the lowest of the low, and Jesus says, I am among you like a child.
Today Jesus continues this discourse. The disciples are distressed that someone who is not one of their company, not one of the disciples, someone who does not share their status as Jesus’ students, is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Their own failure to cast out demons may be on their minds, but, in any case, they want it stopped. They want proper order restored. They want their place upheld. Jesus, of course, focuses on the important thing: that demons are cast out. And then says, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will soon after be able to speak evil of me.” What matters is not status, not formal relationships, but the work of the kingdom.
Then Jesus launches into a provocative and, even shocking, discussion of wholeness. In Jesus’ day, physical wholeness was a prerequisite for participation in Temple worship. Deformities, physical injuries, were considered a sign of divine disfavor – a carrying of sin in the body. Such persons were considered permanently unclean and could not be restored to a pure state. But Jesus, now paralleling a discussion of wholeness with the previous discussion of status, says it is better to do the work of God than to be whole. In fact, if your physical purity is an impediment to the work of the kingdom, then it would be better to maim yourself than to enter the kingdom of God whole. We can imagine that the disciples, who have yet to understand the new world order Jesus has proposed, would be simply reeling over this discussion. It’s not about who joins us. It’s not about who fits the definition of the faithful Jew. It’s simply about who does the works of God.
What a challenge to us this morning… We Christians, who are so locked into our denominational cells, who tend to look at other Christians, other denominations, as a threat to ourselves and our work, who spend more time trading members between churches than actually bringing the good news to someone who has never heard it before. We are being invited to consider what’s important. And it’s not how sound, how whole, we are. It’s not about how healthy our church is. It’s not about whether or not others recognize our status as Jesus’ disciples or give us credit for the work we do. It’s simply a matter of whether or not, in Jesus’ name, we are doing the work of the kingdom.
There’s a vast mission field all around us. Demographers tell us that 70% of adults under 30 have no current religious experience, that they are not part of any Christian denomination or, indeed, any faith community. Furthermore, we know that 1 in 4 children in Maine is growing up in poverty, that food insecurity is major issue for a significant percentage of families in Maine. There is no shortage of work to do or people who need to hear good news. Can we let go of our own concerns enough to address the concerns of God’s larger world? Can we let go of our desire for status and recognition enough that we can make common cause with whomever in the community is willing to work with us to further God’s kingdom?
Today’s Gospel ends with some difficult and, scholars think, sloppily edited comments about fire and salt. They’re difficult because they seem to be mixed metaphors in some ways and used with different meanings in successive sentences. But what joins them is that both fire and salt were used in preservation and in purifying. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the challenges of the kingdom, including the loss of conventional “wholeness” and “purity,” are like refiners fire – purifying us and strengthening us; that the willingness to risk loss of status, loss of conventional purity, makes us new people, stronger people, a real flavoring for the body politic. And so he exhorts us to have the salt in ourselves, to be people with real flavor, at peace with our saltiness and with one another.
What I take this to mean is that we can’t be followers of Jesus and be conventional people. Following Jesus is supposed to give us a real flavor, to make us stand out from the world around us. And more than that, following Jesus is supposed to change the social structure around us. We’re supposed to give the world a new flavor, a new zest, a new order. By our prayers and our work, we are to transform the world, overturning unjust structures and expressing God’s care for all people, especially the poor and the oppressed. And that’s what matters most, more than anything else, even, I would venture, our own survival as congregations.
I think Jesus’ words are no less challenging to us than they were to his disciples. And I think we may resist them just as fiercely. We may not want to lose even more of our status than we already seem to have lost. We may think that the preservation of our institutions is necessary in order that Jesus get credit for the good work, that without us, no one will know who threw out the demons. But our call, says Jesus, is to be salt: to re-flavor the world. And that’s the most important thing.
The Good News, the counter-intuitive good news, is that it is in being salt, in receiving orphans and widows, in taking risks by associating with people who live outside approved circles, that we in fact encounter Jesus, and thereby, meet God. In letting go of concerns for status and reward, in associating with those who have no status, we there encounter the God who favors them and dwells among them. We discover a God who dwells even among us, with all our impurities and unworthiness; who loves us enough to be with us and walk with us as we seek to be God’s salt.
May it be so. Amen.
Sermon at Ocean Park Chautauqua-by-the-Sea
Sunday, September 2, 2012
Is There Hope for True Religion?
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian and reformer famously disliked the Letter of James calling it a “gospel of straw.” He didn’t like it because he had discovered in his own studies what he called the “free gift of God’s grace.” By grace alone we are saved, he proclaimed, and for him James was altogether too much about “doing.” He thought that James advocated a works righteousness that could tempt one into believing that one could earn one’s way into heaven rather than depending on God’s grace alone.
Luther’s discovery led to an explosion of religiosity, to the end of the monopoly enjoyed by the Catholic, now “Roman” Catholic, Church, to the birth of many new Protestant churches, and to the genesis of church and congregational life as we’ve known it for 400 hundred years. Churches flourished and grew like never before – new denominations, national churches, and independent sects. Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Quakers. Most people in most places in the Western world belonged to some sort of church.
But… now we live in a time of unprecedented distress for the Christian Church and, indeed, for the practice of religion in the Western world. (Although my comments here are largely about the Christian Church, the practice of religion of all kinds is in decline in the west.) Everywhere we turn, we see church communities in distress. Attendance and giving are both down significantly, and many people consider church attendance to be unimportant or irrelevant in the lives they lead. Efforts to recruit new members, to make churches more hospitable and more relevant rarely seem to work. Churches are closing at a rapid rate across all denominations. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland just concluded a process reducing the number of its parishes across Maine from 120 to 65. There are thousands of unused church properties for sale across the country. Studies indicate that the so-called megachurch phenomenon is actually more a story about people trading small communities for larger ones than it is about real growth. Indeed, church participation in absolute numbers has remained flat since the late 1970’s.
While most Americans profess a belief in God, only about 16% attend worship services in any given week. This is a far cry from the 35% reported in the 1990’s or the 50% in the 1970’s. (This data is from the Gallup Organization, which acknowledges that people have always tended to inflate their faithfulness when reporting church attendance.) Further, the Gallup Organization and the Pew Institute agree that 70% of people under 30 have no contemporary experience of any religious tradition. The baby boom generation, in its desire to give its children a choice in matters of faith, often unintentionally denied them that choice by giving them no faith experience of any kind. Many young adults are uninitiated in any faith tradition and have no knowledge about what it means to “go to church.” A couple of years ago, I preached a sermon in which I referenced, but did not talk about, Noah and the rainbow. At the door after the service, a young adult asked me who Noah was.
The reasons for these changes are the subject of both intense study and intense speculation. Some of it has to do with Americans’ increasing skepticism about large institutions, including not only the church, but big business and government as well. Some of it has to has to do with harsh changes in economic life. Real income has been dropping for 40 years, and what one job could provide in the 70’s now requires two incomes. The Department of Labor has been telling us for some time that the rising generation will be the first American generation to do less well than their parents. I frequently hear stories from parents about grown children who are unemployed or underemployed and cannot find jobs commensurate with their education, let alone sufficient to pay off their college debt.
Some of it has to do with changes in hard science, with the end of Newtonian physics and the rise of chaos theory and the butterfly effect. We no longer understand the universe as fixed and unchanging, but as an organic whole in which each entity exists in relationship with many others, and in which patterns are easier to discern than individual facts. We now understand ourselves to be part of large, multi-faceted systems in which each of us affects and is affected by others.
These factors, and many, many more, have led us to a place where old answers to old questions no longer satisfy.
Church Historian Diana Butler-Bass, in her recent book, Christianity After Religion, argues that the basic religious question in the Western world since the Reformation has been: What shall we believe? What is the correct creed, doctrine or practice?
Churches, denominations, and religions exist to answer that question. They are fully prepared to tell you what to believe. And each of them believes itself to be the true church, the true religion. Hear their many beliefs: “You must be born again.” “Take and eat. This is my body given for you.” “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.” “Allahu Akbar – God is Great.” The differences, particularly among related Christian denominations, may be small, even invisible to outside observers, but the differences are real. Most religious groups are emphatic about who they are not; what they don’t believe.
According to Phyllis Tickle, author and keen observer of the contemporary Christian scene, there are currently something more than 39,000 distinct Christian denominations worldwide – more than 37,000 in North America. When the focus is on belief, it’s clear that religion is very, very good, at providing answers.
The problem for religion is that the question, What shall we believe?, is no longer the primary religious question and hasn’t been for a generation. The question for today’s young adults, and, indeed, for many of us on the planet, is How shall we live? How shall we get an education, find a job, buy a home, make a family? How will we make meaning in the midst of an increasingly unstable and unreliable world; a world characterized by global climate change, over-population, global economic instability, wars and rumors of war, the threat of global pandemics, the paralysis of governments, and the increasingly shrill voices of many messiahs telling us that they alone know what to do.
The original purpose of religion was to put people in touch with the divine, to give meaning and purpose to their lives. The spiritual life and the religious life were one and the same – to experience the divine, to offer oneself to the divine. But over the centuries, the focus of religious life has shifted. Religion is now mostly about answering the belief question – and maintaining the religious institution – while people are still yearning for a connection with the divine. More and more people describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. The same Gallup poll I cited earlier shows that nearly 90% of Americans still believe in God and that 80% still pray. It’s just that they don’t do it in church – and aren’t persuaded that the church will help them do what they want and need to do.
The lesson I chose for this morning is the Epistle for this Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary, and the theme for this Sunday is a discussion about what makes for pure religion. The Gospel for today, from Mark, has to do with a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over dietary and purity laws, which the Pharisees insist are required for the practice of true religion. Jesus understands them to be used by the Pharisees to separate themselves from other, in their view less faithful, practitioners of the faith. Jesus then opines that it is not what goes into a person that makes one unclean, but what comes out of a person. It’s what one does that makes one unclean. Pure religion is not simply the observance rules, but the practice of right relationships.
The Letter of James makes the same point. Faith is a gift. It is to be received. And therefore, pure religion is not simply a matter of belief, but of what one does with the gift. It’s not about simply following the rules or holding the right understandings, but about how one behaves. Pure religion is a matter of practice, of living rightly in relation to God and neighbor. It’s something one must put into practice and keep practicing, every day.
The passage from James ends with a telling statement. Pure religion is to care for the orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. “Widows and orphans,” in scripture, represent a class of people, the least and the lowest. They are outcasts, persons who have no status in society and no place to go. They are utterly dependent, quite literally, on the kindness of strangers. And, they are also undoubtedly sinners. Why sinners? Because, in the common wisdom of the day, God was just and people got what they deserved. To be an outcast meant one must be in some way a sinner. And to care for such a person was to risk being contaminated, to risk being stained, by their sin. Common wisdom would encourage one to stay clear of widows and orphans.
But the wisdom James offers is just the opposite. It is in caring for widows and orphans that one keeps oneself free from the cruelty and hatred of the world, that one rises above the sin of the world. It is by practicing compassion that one reveals one’s loving, compassionate heart – God’s heart – the God who first loved you without cause and gave you faith. It is the practice of love that reveals pure religion.
The task for today’s churches is to find a new way to be, to position themselves to serve the needs of people trying to make their way in the world. Discussing right belief is not, by itself, sufficient, especially if it leaves little room for practicing right living. It is kindness and compassion that matters. It is serving the widows and orphans in our communities that matters. If all we do in church is seek consensus about what to believe – or what hymns to sing or what roofing material to use – we will never get around to helping one another live, we will never get around to loving our neighbor, and we will neither connect with people around us nor distinguish ourselves in any way from the ways of the world.
The hope for pure religion lies in practicing it. As churches we will need to let go of being right, let go of institutional concerns, and give ourselves to right living and to the care of the orphans and widows. In doings so, we Christians, at least, will end where we began: following Jesus and serving God’s world.
May it be so. Amen.
Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Portland, Maine
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 119:30-41; 1 John 3:11, 16-24; Matthew 9:35-38
My congratulations to all of you who are being ordained this morning. Your presence here is the culmination of a long and sometimes arduous journey towards ordination. Your discernment, your persistence, your faithfulness and hard work with seminaries, teachers, mentors, and the members of the Committee on Holy Orders and the Standing Committee, have brought you to this day. To you, and to your loving, supportive (and sometimes long-suffering) families, friends and communities, I offer my prayers of thanksgiving and my best wishes for rich and satisfying ministries. This is a day to celebrate and to enjoy.
In my four years as a bishop, I’ve spoken with the diocese many times about the need for adaptive change. The church is changing as we watch, and the prospect of full time employment for clergy, which seemed reasonable four or five years ago when some of you entered the ordination process, now seems a lot more unlikely or, perhaps, even impossible. We are rapidly becoming – already are – two churches: a church where the old ways of being church continue to work after a fashion, and a church where operating in new ways is essential. For us in Maine, just one-third of our congregations are able to employ a full time priest. The rest of us are already wrestling new employment patterns and new ways of relating as priest and people. I am well aware that for some of you the joy of this day is tempered by questions about what you will do and where you will do it. We look ahead with some trepidation and wonder if the default future of the church isn’t some form of continuous decline.
I’ve recently been watching episodes of Foyle’s War, a BBC series about a police detective trying to enforce the law and seek justice in rural England during World War II. The plots are enormously complicated involving the random violence of the Blitz, espionage by German agents, the heavy-handed presence of British and American military units, and the scheming of ordinary Brits trying to survive the destruction of the stable, pastoral life they’ve known. Watching this decent policeman as he struggles to maintain his integrity and the standards of his civilization in the face of a devastating war and the ubiquitous reality of human sin has humbled me. Our time is not the only time in which human beings have struggled with change beyond their understanding.
So I begin this morning by recognizing that our days are far from the worst days we’ve experienced as a people or a church, even in our recent history; far from the devastation and loss of life of World War II or Vietnam, far from the economic privations of the Great Depression, far from the Constitutional dangers of Watergate. We still have much for which to be thankful.
And yet these are, indeed, difficult days for us as a nation and a church: we continue to struggle with a long, slow recovery from the recent recession, we continue to face the heartbreak of the longest military campaign in our history, we continue to confront deepening political gridlock at all levels of our society, and we watch long cherished institutions – Rotary Clubs, volunteer fire departments, and the church – continue to lose traction and members. Americans no longer seem willing to support and maintain institutions simply because they have a history of doing good. Nor do Americans seem much interested in labels or doctrines. Instead Americans of all ages seem to coalesce around institutions and processes that help us find meaning for our own lives now and make a difference in other lives now.
We are in the grips of what some call historical process, the tearing down of the old so that the new can take its place. The United States is young enough that there are very few places built on the ruins of old places – although we occasionally find evidence of native American settlements or burial grounds when we dig the foundations for a new building or lay down a new roadway. We haven’t yet witnessed the tearing down of parts of our own civilization. In many other parts of the world, where communities have survived for millennia, we find the current church building is the sixth one built on this site which is itself the place where the Druids or Zoroastrians worshipped for hundreds of years before that.
Our lessons today would suggest that this historical process, this plucking up and destroying, this building and planting, is, in fact, of divine origin. It is the plan of God who sends his servants to pluck and destroy, to build and to plant, so that creation may be made new and God’s people once again discover that they are loved by God.
It is inevitable, I think, that we forget, both as individuals and as a people, that God loves us – all of us – that each and every one of us is a child of God, of infinite worth in God’s eyes, a beloved son or daughter for whom the Son of God suffered and died. In our struggles with our budgets, with our own sense of need, with our greed, in our competition with other nations, people become expendable, become part of the cost analysis, become collateral damage. Should we send to Mexico an English speaking child, a thoroughly American teenager, because her parents, who brought her here as an infant, are undocumented aliens? Well, of course, too bad for her, our policy on immigration requires it. Should we cut 15,000 recipients from MaineCare because they are unemployed, have too much income, don’t otherwise meet the eligibility requirements? Well, of course, we have to balance our budget. They can go to the emergency room if they get sick enough. Should we maintain at all costs the church buildings which once served a hundred people in lively communities, where now only a handful gather to remember better days? Well, certainly, sustaining my experience is the most important thing.
Perhaps God is once again calling us to pluck up and destroy, to build and to plant.
And the focus of all that work is this: that we should love one another. As Christ laid down his life for us, so we ought to lay down our lives for one another. For Christians no person is more important than any other. For Christians there are no “others,” no enemies, who may be shunned or turned away. For Christians there is no command greater than this, that we should believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another.
And you, my brothers and sisters who are ordained today, are the icons and servants of that love. You are among the laborers sent out into the fields of the Lord to remind us all that God loves us. And you are to share that message and convey that love no matter how the forms of church and society shift around us. It is not ok that one in five American children lives in poverty. It is not ok that we continue to solve our disagreements by means of violent force, whether as individuals or nations. It is not ok that we tear up the earth and pollute the air and water making life more dangerous for all God’s children in the pursuit of energy or profit. It is not ok that we treat those who differ, by race or culture or sexual orientation, as anything but beloved children of God for God loves them all and commands us to do the same.
The landscape of life in America is changing… but then it always is – always has, always will – because God is always calling for greater love, for each of us, for all of us. All around us are the helpless and harassed crowds, seeking nurture, seeking shelter, seeking God’s love.
And so, my brothers and sisters, we send you today to carry the word of God’s love and to proclaim it no matter the form of the church or the means of your ministry, however it is you put together your economic life. But we do not send you alone. We send you as part of this great company gathered here, as colleagues of all of us who are baptized into the body of Christ. We have called you, we have discerned with you, and now we ordain you. And we will go with you – we will work with you as laborers sent into the harvest God has prepared. You can count on our love, our prayers, our support – and our own sense of God’s call – as we serve God together.
Beloved, let us love one another. Amen.
Sermon at the Celebration of New Ministry
The people of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, Boothbay Harbor, and the Rev. Maria Hoecker
Saturday, June 16
Ezekiel 34:11-16; Psalm 98:1-4; 1 Cor. 3:11-23; John 21:9-19
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”
If there is a better metaphor for what we do on Sunday mornings, I’m not sure what it is. Come and have breakfast with Jesus. Come and be fed by Jesus. It’s not a beach here, to be sure – although we’re not far from the beach. And it doesn’t look much like breakfast at the diner or a cookout on the shore, but surely, what we do is to gather and share a morning meal with our shepherd.
There are a couple of things about this metaphor that can help us understand who we are and what we do.
First the meal that we share comes from the abundance produced by God’s love. There is enough and more for everyone. Like a catch of 153 large fish, the meal that is offered is enough and more for everyone who comes. There is no limit to the love of God, no limit to the number who can be fed. And all are invited. “Come and have breakfast” is an invitation to everyone.
Indeed, as the reading from Ezekiel reminds us, a large part of our task is issuing the invitation. Our shepherd takes the time to gather the lost and the sick and the injured. He seeks them out from the desert and the wilderness and brings them into his rich pasture. And no matter how many there are, the net will not break.
Second, the meal we share is both prepared by Jesus – he is the host – and is Jesus – he is the feast. And when we eat with him and eat him, our intention is not only to worship him, but to become more like him. We mean to take him into ourselves, into our lives, so that we can manifest him in our lives. If we love Jesus, if we know ourselves to be loved by Jesus, then we will, in turn, love others.
And it is our being like Jesus that is the essential element in feeding others. We do not feed them so they will be grateful. We do not feed them so they will be like us. We do not feed them so that they will join our church. We feed them for their own sakes, because they need to be fed, because God loves them and longs to gather them together. In our feeding others we reveal that we belong to Jesus and want them to belong to Jesus, too.
You are celebrating this new ministry at a time of new vitality, even robust vitality, at St. Columba’s. You have accomplished some remarkable things over the past several years. And I join you in rejoicing over your success and in praying for continued growth and health.
And yet this celebration today has not come without woundedness, without suffering. In the lives of both parish and priest there have been painful losses. And so this occasion is not a celebration of our strength, but a witness to God’s profound love for us and God’s power to heal us and to bring us through.
This celebration of new ministry also comes at a time of great confusion and uncertainty in the church, when many neighboring congregations are faltering, when no one seems certain about whether or not the church as we’ve known it can survive. Maine now officially has the smallest percentage of people claiming religious affiliation of any state in the union. Many folks, here and elsewhere, no longer see the church as primarily a place for spiritual growth and discernment, but rather as an institution consumed with its own survival and committed to archaic beliefs and to innumerable rules about right and wrong. Despite the widespread hunger for an experience of God, many don’t believe the church is a place to find it. However unfair that characterization may be, it is one held by a lot of people. According to recent studies, 70% of adults under 30 have no contemporary experience of the church – and don’t think they want one.
Confronted by such realities, it is tempting to throw up our hands – which might actually be a good thing if it meant we were reaching out to Jesus and not simply giving in to despair. Our job, I think, is to have breakfast with Jesus. Our faith is fundamentally about following Jesus, rather than simply worshiping him. The life of faith is not about our style of worship. It’s not about what rite we use or what hymns we sing. It’s not even about agreeing that transforming the world is a good idea.
Rather the life of faith is about moving beyond agreement, to commitment; to understanding that our foundation, the rock upon which we stand, is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s about committing ourselves to be like him.
Like Peter, our call is to love Jesus more than these – these other members of our community – to put Jesus first, and out of love for him, to love one another and the world. Maria’s job is to help stay us clear about that, to ensure that the Gospel is preached here and that everything we do grows out of our love for Jesus. And your job is to help this church stay connected to the larger world in which we spend most of our time, to bring to the table the needs and concerns of the world, and to carry the love of Jesus wherever you go. Your relationship as priest and people is a partnership that grows out of our common membership in Christ’s body – that we are the friends of Jesus who gather for breakfast with our Lord.
Such a partnership, such a ministry, is one of significant commitment. The job of feeding sheep first requires going out to them. It is not our job to prepare a nice place in case the sheep come to us. It’s our job to go where the sheep are, to meet them where they are, to bind their wounds, to bring them to good pasture. We need to move from being simply a welcoming church to being an inviting church, a church that makes sure that breakfast is ready and then takes it to the hungry. We can’t say, “Come and have breakfast” if we say it from behind our closed doors. We’ve got to take it to the beach where men – and women – have labored all night and caught nothing, where nets are empty and frustration is high. We’ve got to take to the streets, where women and men are looking for God and walking right past our doors.
The good news is that you know something of that struggle. And you know the love and mercy of God. You have everything you need to feed Jesus’ lambs. Will you join him in the invitation – Come and have breakfast?
Sermon for Pentecost 2
St. Michael’s, Auburn
Sunday, June 10, 2012
1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15; Psalm 138; 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
One of the ongoing story lines of the old Star Trek series had to do with the existence of parallel universes, of matter and anti-matter, which, if joined, would destroy everything in a cataclysmic explosion. The Starship Enterprise was repeatedly confronted with situations involving holes in the universe, connections between two worlds that threatened catastrophe.
Our lessons today suggest a similar conundrum in the life of faith: the existence of two ways of being, two ways of living, which, when they come in contact, threaten violence and death.
The unique thing about Hebrew religion was that it posited that there was one God, who ruled over every other god and all creation. Indeed, next to the God of Israel, every other god, all the gods of the Canaanites and the others who inhabited the ancient Near East were mere idols – powerless statues and images, but not God. And therefore, there was for Israel only one way, God’s way, as defined by the Law of Moses, and one king, God. The tribes of Israel were organized into a loose tribal confederacy, with locally anointed tribal judges ruling over each tribe. God alone was king. This egalitarian structure stood in pointed contrast to the hierarchical kingdoms of the Canaanite city states.
But Israel suffered from corruption and from competition among the tribes. As some tribes grew stronger, they struggled with the temptation to dominate their neighbors. And pervasive corruption made many in Israel hunger for order and integrity, for someone to rule with justice. So the elders of Israel came together to ask for a king. Our text from Samuel speaks of that moment when local government gave way to centralized power. Samuel argues against their request, telling them all the things that a king will mean: forced conscription (v. 11); a standing army and a militarized economy (v. 12); state expropriation of labor and resources (vv. 13, 16); an economy geared to the elite (v. 14); and of course, heavy taxation (vv. 15, 17). The people refuse to listen, and they make Saul their king. As the text points out, the offense is not against Samuel, but against God. They have rejected God as their king.
In much the same way, Paul categorizes the choices confronting Christians: the outer nature v. the inner nature, momentary affliction v. eternal glory, what is seen v. what cannot be seen, what is temporary v. what is eternal, the earthly tent v. a building from God. These are not if/then comparisons; what happens now leading to what happens next. They are parallel realities, in which the unseen reality of God eclipses all present loyalties, all political arrangements of privilege and power, and all circumstances of suffering.
The clash of parallel universes reaches its apex in the Gospel when Jesus confronts the temptation to choose the temple and the family over God. Jesus has been out and about, teaching and healing and casting out demons. He’s already run afoul of the religious establishment. The scribes and Pharisees have accused Jesus of being in league with the devil because he has spoken out against him. And his family is concerned that he is not in his right mind because he has preferred the company of his disciples to the loyalties of family and clan. Jesus responds to these accusations by proclaiming that these other loyalties, these other kingdoms, if you will, are the works of Satan. Jesus is the strong man who has come to bind Satan and plunder his house. As we hear Jesus’ words, we know the violence that will result from the clash of worlds.
Our texts this morning put the lie to all those who claim that the life of faith has nothing to do with politics. The life of faith has everything to do with politics, because it is about how we live. Unlike Captain Kirk, who dashed about trying to keep the parallel universes apart, Jesus’ invites us to choose a world knowing that our choice will provoke a confrontation with the other world. There is more than one way to live, and these ways are at odds. We cannot serve two masters, but must choose. And the decision we make affects everything. We have to decide which universe we wish to live in.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is consistently presented as the strong man, who breaks into – who invades – Satan’s house in order to bind him. He binds Satan in order to set the people free from political and religious oppression, from the societal bonds of class and family, from the power of sin and death. And he sets them free to serve God and neighbor, to live free from the fear of death, to work to create a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus represents the power of God breaking into the world, so that that the mighty might be pulled down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up.
The problem for us is that, just as the Israelites chose Saul over God, so we may have trouble aligning ourselves with Christ. As an African proverb puts it, “It’s easier to get the people out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of the people.” We have to choose, and we cannot choose both.
The invitation to us this morning is to choose life, to choose the kingdom of God, to choose the strong man, and to recognize that the choice is not merely intellectual. It’s not only about agreeing that creating a new heaven and a new earth is a good idea. It’s about committing to work for its coming, to live ourselves as signs of its coming, to see ourselves as first members of the body of Christ and then as members of families and churches and nations. It’s about joining the strong man who enters this world to bind its leader.
For those of us who live in the context of American empire, and in a time of great struggles for freedom in the Muslim world and elsewhere, our lessons this morning should give us pause. The call of our baptismal covenant is not only to worship God and seek the forgiveness of our sins, but also to proclaim good news, to seek Christ in every person, and to advocate for justice in the larger community. It is a call to see ourselves as disciples of Christ whose community is often at odds with the ways of the world, and it is call to commit ourselves to building the new world that is coming.
May God bless and us, and grant us grace to live faithfully in the war of the worlds. Amen.
Sermon for Chrism Mass and the Clergy Renewal of Vows
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bangor, Maine
April 10, 2012
As we were saying earlier, hope requires the experience of God who is present with us: palpable, authentic, life-changing. Most of us here, I imagine, have experiences of God in other people, in events, that sustain us as we go about the work of ministry. But for many people God’s presence is not so clear – and what they get in church is not a substitute for experience.
I’ve just finished reading Diana Butler Bass’ new book, Christianity after Religion, which examines the matter of religious experience closely. It’s her best writing and research to date, and I commend it to you.
Butler Bass roots her book in an extended analysis of “spirituality” and “religion” and the ways these two words intersect and overlap both historically and in contemporary culture. Spirituality, she writes, is about connection with the God and neighbor. Whether we’re speaking of animism or Buddhism or Christianity, spirituality is the seeking after direct experience of the divine, reaching out to touch God. There is a great hunger for such experience in our time, and most people describe themselves as either “only spiritual” or “spiritual and religious.” Very few people describe themselves as “only religious.”
Religion, originally understood as re-ligio, meaning “to bind together” God and humanity or “to reconnect,” has always had as a primary purpose the provision of opportunities and practices for apprehending God. But over time, as a religions and denominations have tried to establish themselves over against one another, religion has also come to be characterized by an emphasis on right belief. As each religious body has emphasized its own right belief, then religion has become increasingly concerned with membership: who belongs, who doesn’t. In our time, such concerns have been folded into institutional and survival concerns, so that for many contemporary folk, religion means people fighting over who has the right beliefs and trying to get others to give money to save their institutions.
Robert Putnam, sociologist and author of Bowling Alone and now American Grace, writes that for young people who came of age in the 80’s and 90’s during a time of resurgence in American evangelicalism, Christianity is, rightly or wrongly, associated almost exclusively with rules and regulations about sex and with conservative politics. According to the latest Pew Research studies, 70% of adults under 30 have no contemporary experience of the church.
But most of them hunger for an experience of God. “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Indeed.
The question for all of us is: Where is he? Where is Jesus? Where is God?
Jesus’ response to the question is a simple as it is unexpected: up here, on the cross. That’s where Jesus is found. That’s where God is found. And that is the key, I believe, to helping all those spiritual seekers. We, along with Jesus, need to invite them to the places where Jesus is: where there is suffering, where there is loss, where there is death, where there is new life. Jesus is in the places where need and compassion meet. He’s in relationships as people come together to share deeply the joys and sorrows of their lives and work together to bring life and love to their communities.
Bob Honeychurch, the Episcopal Church staff person for church growth, is doing an in-depth study of Episcopal Churches who have evidenced growth in each of the last five years. There are just 42 such churches out of 6800 in the Episcopal Church. The study is of 12 of them. Bob was here in Maine two weeks ago to interview the people of St. Ann’s, Windham, one of the 12. I got a chance to sit down with Bob, and I asked him what he had already learned about growing churches. He noted several factors:
1. Dynamic clergy leadership – meaning clergy who are energetic about their ministries and are fully engaged in creating significant relationships with congregants and the community.
2. Long term, stable lay leadership – meaning people who are identified as leaders by the congregation and who are loyal and supportive of the congregation through thick and thin, who are steadfast as clergy leaders come and go.
3. Dynamic worship – meaning worship where people expect something to happen, where people expect they might be changed.
4. Integration with the larger community – meaning that the walls between church and community are porous and that there is a belief that the community is our community.
In each of these aspects there is a sense of seeking after depth: deep relationships, enduring commitment, life-changing worship, integration with the surrounding community. There is a willingness to face pain and suffering, to share joys and sorrows, to make a significant commitment to change. There is, in the life of the church, a desire to imitate the dying and rising of Christ.
Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The key to meeting the spiritual hunger of our age, for people both in the church and the many more who are outside the church, is to stand at the foot of the cross, to be where he is: for real life to meet a real God.
As we renew our vows this morning, may we embrace our dying and rising friend and savior. God grant us grace not to hold back, but to pull out all the stops, to be where Jesus is, so that others may find him.
Sermon for Palm Sunday by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, Maine
April 1, 2012
Mark 11:1-1; Mark 14:1-15:47
When Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect, or Governor of the Roman Province of Judea, entered the city of Jerusalem, he most likely did so mounted on a warhorse surrounded by a company of mounted bodyguards and, perhaps, accompanied by a small phalanx of foot soldiers who roughly cleared path for him through the crowded streets. Or if the occasion demanded a slightly grander entrance, Pilate might have been a passenger in a chariot. Unless it was a special, ceremonial occasion, there would have been no crowds lined up to watch, only the residents of the city going about their daily tasks. And, in Palestine, there certainly would have been no cheering. The Roman occupiers were despised by the people.
A Roman Prefect was a minor Roman authority, a military functionary empowered to collect taxes and to keep the peace. If there were major trouble or a major occasion, the Prefect would give way to his superior, in Pilate’s case, the Legate of Syria. The Legate of Syria is the one who appointed Caiaphas as High Priest. Roman public pomp being what it was, Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem was a mere shadow of the pomp that would attend the Legate or the Emperor.
Pilate ordinarily lived in Caesarea, but his duties took him throughout the Province of Judea. He was undoubtedly in Jerusalem for the Passover because the Romans had learned through hard experience that Jewish festivals were often the occasion for popular unrest. Pilate no doubt wanted to make sure that things stayed quiet in Jerusalem. It’s estimated Pilate had about 3,000 soldiers under his command, and he probably arrived in Jerusalem with a beefed-up force for the Passover.
So Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem on a colt was a significant piece of street theater. This royal personage, this Jesus, arrived without fanfare, without bodyguards or a phalanx of soldiers. But as he arrived, crowds of people – we should read – a couple hundred folks probably mostly street people and children, gathered as he rode along strewing the street with green branches and their outer garments. As they walked along the crowds chanted, “Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
Each of these exclamations means a different thing. The word “Hosanna” is actually the prayer of an oppressed people: “Save, now, please, O God.” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” is clearly an expression of messianic hope, although it is similar to language used about the Roman emperor. And the final phrase, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” seems to locate the messianic hope in the restoration of the throne of the great King David. So the hope expressed altogether is one for the overthrow of the Roman oppressor and restoration of the royal throne of Israel.
So Jesus’ simple parody of a royal Roman procession was filled with tension and irony. It was a mockery of Roman pomp and circumstance. It was the occasion for the display of Jewish messianic hopes – the very thing Pilate wanted to avoid. And, finally, it was an ironic statement about who Jesus is and what he has come to do. He is the Messiah, yes, indeed. But he is a Messiah who has come to die. He is a Messiah who means to conquer not just Rome, but the human heart.
So we see in this little bit of street theater all of the elements, all of the tension and misunderstanding, all of the hopes and fears, and all of the realities of the Jesus’ suffering and his resurrection that will characterize the week to come. Like the young man who escapes the Roman guard by pulling out of his linen garment and running away naked, so is every emotion, every hope, laid bare by Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
And what do we think? What do we think of this little bit of theater? How do we perceive what Jesus is doing? Who do we think he is? Is he a lunatic impostor, a pretender of to the throne of David? Is he a megalomaniac rabbi who has manipulated the hopes of the poor to build himself up? Is he, as he says to the high priest, “I AM” – taking the name of God – and therefore claiming divinity for himself?
What do we think of his method, this challenge of the Roman warhorse with a colt? Is God in the warhorse or the colt? How is power overcome by love? How is death banished by death? Are the events of the coming week simply a sad charade – a wish dream of the poor and the oppressed? Or are they signs of the true nature of reality, evidence of an inexhaustible love that powers the universe?
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of colt, there were only two possibilities: he was either the author of an incredibly brave, but ultimately deluded, act of defiance against the oppressive authority of church and state, or he was the author of a new heaven and a new earth. As we enter into Holy Week and our journey to Golgatha, I invite you into your own journey of prayer and reflection. Who is this Jesus for you?
Sermon for Lent 5 by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Saviour’s Episcopal Church, Bar Harbor
March 25, 2012
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Some Greeks, meaning some Gentiles, some non-Jews, came to Philip, and said: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Indeed. Don’t we all. Is this not the experience that every person of faith – and even many who have no faith – ardently desires? To see Jesus face to face. To know him. To follow him.
Jesus’ disciples bring the question to Jesus, and his response is a seeming non sequitur. “The hour has come,” he said, “for the Son of Man to be lifted up.” “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant also be.”
Is Jesus simply ignoring the question? Is he simply moving on to talk about what’s important to him? Or is he answering the question with such profundity that it transforms the question from a simple inquiry to a matter of cosmic importance? We would see Jesus… but where is he?
The Jews, you recall, were expecting a Messiah, a Messiah connected with the throne of the late, great King David, who would rally a mighty army, overthrow the Roman oppressor, and restore Israel to days of glory. The Jews were expecting a great reversal, one that would make them the rulers of Palestine. But Jesus was not raising a mighty army. His ragtag army of followers consisted mostly of poor people, and women, and the disabled, and Gentiles.
There was a great hunger for freedom in Jesus’ day. The people were taxed quite literally into starvation. The peace of Rome was maintained by the brutal authority of the Roman legions. The road into Jerusalem was lined with crosses as a grotesque reminder of Roman power. King Herod and the Temple authorities preserved their own power by collaborating with the enemy. Every Jew, every Palestinian, yearned to be set free. But Jesus did not seem intent on changing the social order.
Yet he did have power – unmistakably. He healed the sick and cured the lame. He touched the lepers. He opened blind eyes. He challenged conventional wisdom and conventional teaching. He didn’t seem afraid of anyone or anything. And he was willing to engage everyone who came to see him: well/sick, male/female, child/adult, Jew/Greek, believer/unbeliever. We would see Jesus. But where do we find him?
It’s a question for our time as well. Where in the midst of everything that’s happening, do we find Jesus? The news has been particularly troubling in the last month or so. Early and very deadly tornadoes. Sixteen Afghan civilians murdered by a US soldier. Brutal attacks on a French Jewish school. A Florida teenage shot by a neighborhood watchman. Ongoing human rights abuses in Syria. And on and on. Where is Jesus?
Jesus’ response to his disciples answers the question – but it may not be the answer we want. Jesus says, I’m up there – on the cross. And when I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.
Where is Jesus? In the twisted ruins in southern Indiana. In the Afghan village. In the sergeant’s prison cell. Among the victims and families in France and Florida. Among the terrorized citizens of Syria. That’s where he is.
Moreover, Jesus says, if you want to see me, follow me. Come with me, be where I am. Join me in my work. The challenge of our lessons today is that there is a deep connection between seeing and following. Indeed, following may allow us to see, may open our eyes to Jesus’ presence.
We are invited this morning to consider where we have seen Jesus at work, where we have been moved to follow. Have we allowed ourselves to be in the places where Jesus is – where there is suffering, where there is grief, where there is oppression? Have allowed our hearts to be moved with compassion by the needs of others? Have we shared what we have for the welfare of others? Have we spoken a word of kindness, a word of blessing, a word of hope?
That’s what Jeremiah means when he speaks of writing the law in our hearts – not that we will simply memorize by heart the law of Moses, but that our hearts will be changed, that we will be new people, that we will live in new ways. No longer will be we simply observe the law. Now we will follow God.
The problem with all this, of course, is that the cross is a painful place to be. To stand at the cross, to stand with Jesus, is to risk sharing in the pain and suffering of all those Jesus came to save, to share in the pain of the homeless, the outcast, the prisoner, the refugee. It is to let our own hearts be pierced by the pain of others.
At the spring HOB meeting this past week the Presiding Bishop, in one of her meditations, invited to the Holy Spirit to keep piercing our hearts so that they could open enough to take others in. We can wall ourselves off from the hurts of the world. We can turn our backs on the suffering of others. We can focus our attention solely on our own needs and those of our loved ones… but then we’ll still be looking for Jesus.
Jesus did not come to overthrow the Roman Empire. He came to turn the whole world upside down: to transform the cosmos, and to transform our hearts. It is the transforming of our hearts that makes journey through Holy Week and Easter so hard, that makes finding Jesus such a puzzle. Because we don’t want to change, and we certainly don’t want to suffer.
The Good News is that, visible or not, Christ is right here with us. Christ is everywhere someone suffers, including us. There is risk in seeking Christ – yes – but also the joy of knowing and being with Jesus.
It’s not magic, what we’re talking about, but it is mystical. It’s opening ourselves to a deeper level of reality, to the reality of cross and resurrection. Sir, we wish to see to Jesus. Go to the cross.
Sermon for Lent 2 by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. Dunstan’s, Ellsworth
March 4, 2012
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8: 31-38
I think you all know by now that Abraham, the father of the Israelite people, the ancestor of a multitude of nations, was not really a great guy. He was a schemer. He passed his wife, Sarah, off as his sister and gave her to the king of Egypt for a wife. He fathered a child by his wife’s slave, Hagar, and then disowned them both. He owned slaves, conquered and enslaved Canaanites, and tried at all times to cover his own butt. He may, in regard to all these behaviors, have been no different than any other wealthy nomad, living by his wits, but he was hardly a model citizen or a pillar of virtue – either by the standards of his own day or our own.
But God favored Abraham and promised to bless him, and Abraham, by hook or by crook, kept faith with the promise. Abraham believed what God had told him, what God had promised, and God counted that as righteousness. That’s not to say that Abraham was actually righteous… but God counted his faith as righteousness.
It’s important that we not see Abraham’s faithfulness as some sort of achievement, as a muscular act of spiritual will power, something we should emulate. Because it’s not that. Rather Abraham’s faith is a matter of his response to grace and to the Giver of grace.
Faith and promise stand in an interesting and paradoxical relationship. Without a promise, there’s nothing to believe. If I don’t tell you I’m coming at six, then you have no reason to believe I’m coming at six. But without faith, the promise has no meaning. If you know I’m never on time and you don’t believe I will come at six, then my promise is empty, meaningless. You might count yourself lucky if I show up, but you don’t have faith in me. Faith allowed Abraham and Sarah to hear God and to imagine a future in which the reality of the future overturned the reality of the present. But you will remember it was a hard go – both Abraham and Sarah laughed.
So the whole thing is not rooted in the muscularity of Abraham’s belief, but in the reality of God’s grace. It is out of God’s grace that God chose Abraham and promised to make him the father of many nations. It is out of grace that God kept God’s promise in the face of Abraham and Sarah’s laughter. And grace is as well the source of Abraham’s faith that God would do as God promised. (Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters call that prevenient grace – the grace that goes before grace.)
All this is important because today we’re reading about taking up our cross and following Jesus, and our temptation is to think that taking up one’s cross is a matter of gutting it out, stoically enduring the trials and tribulations of this life for the sake of a reward we will receive in the future. We tend to think of the cross in terms of hardship, of suffering, of unpleasantness. And we’re tempted to hold up Abraham as a role model thinking that if Abraham could do it, well, so can we. But carrying the cross is not about human strength. It’s about imagining a future beyond what humans can accomplish by themselves. It’s about death and resurrection.
And it’s about faith. About believing the promise. Jesus seems to be saying that saving our lives and losing our lives are actions within our control. To follow Jesus is to move beyond a fixation on self-preservation, to move beyond scheming. It’s to see the present in the frame of eternity. The cross we are to bear is not a pre-determined struggle, a hard row we must hoe. It’s rather a daily effort to focus on the things that endure, that matter, that are good. It is to keep in mind eternity. It is to keep in mind that there is nothing we can give in return for our lives – except our lives.
This time we live in with all its hardships – a struggling world economy, global warming, wars and rumors of war, toxic politics – all these things make it hard for many us to have hope. What can we do we wonder? How will we solve the problems confronting us? Whom can we find to lead us, to give us the fix for the mess we’re in? We keep behaving as if it were all up to us, and we have no answers.
But as people of faith we know – we should know – it’s not all up to us. We have a role to play. There is good we can do. But we know that it is God who takes the good we do and makes of it something truly transforming. We know that our lives take place in the frame of God’s eternity. We know that God is, even now, moving this old world to its final fulfillment – to a new heaven and a new earth. In these days, perhaps, to take up our cross means simply to believe that God is in charge and, in spite of everything, to trust in God and hold fast to what is good.
There is suffering in trusting God to be sure: to be hopeful in the face of despair, to treat everyone with love and respect, to name as neighbors the poor and the outcast, the stranger and the alien – to do these things is to put ourselves on the wrong side of the politics of division (of both parties). To believe that love can win and to live that way, to give some of what we have away rather than hoard it all for ourselves, is to take risks in this shaky economy. To plant a garden or a tree, to protect the earth, the water and the air, is to believe that this old earth has a future beyond what so many see as imminent death.
To carry the cross is to live without shame in this adulterous and sinful generation, to live lovingly and hopefully – trusting that God will keep God’s promises, trusting that there is a future beyond what we can imagine.
God grant you his grace to bear the cross. Amen.
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
at the Celebration of New Ministry for the Rev. Craig Hacker and
the people of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Bridgton, Maine
February 18, 2012
Brief readings from Genesis, Exodus, Jeremiah, Luke (the Magnificat), Matthew and Mark (the empty tomb)
In that not too distant past, this service was known as the Institution of a New Rector, and the focus was on the role and responsibility of the priest. The service is now named the Celebration of New Ministry because we rightly recognize that the ministry priest and people share is the ministry of Christ, and the service marks a new phase and a new partnership in that ministry. As the reading of salvation history and the reaffirmation of our Baptismal Covenant make abundantly clear, we are all called, together, to seek and serve Christ in all people.
This is, perhaps, not a particularly auspicious time in the life of the Church for the celebration of a new ministry. In many places, the things we have long done as churches are no longer working very well. Making the rounds on the Internet the past few days is a video by the rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota. She tells the story of how, after years of trying, the parish has cancelled its adult education programs and its weekday services – because no one was coming. And it’s not just a problem in St. Paul. Two congregations of this diocese have recently ended Sunday School programs for children – because no one is coming. As the rector of St. Mary’s laments, “I feel like a failure as a priest because I feel called to teach. But it’s clear my congregation is not interested in hearing me teach about Jesus.” She notes that they do seem interested in outreach ministry and they are still showing up on Sunday morning. But adult education is not something they care to do.
It may be that the educational programs offered at St. Mary’s are not very good – although the parish seems to have tried many different approaches. Or, it may be that people’s lives are simply too full, too busy, to make time for education. Or, it may be that our whole way of forming people for the life of faith no longer meets the realities of contemporary life. But whatever the case, one thing is clear: without followers, leaders can’t lead.
Ron Heifitz, the Harvard professor who has written a great deal about change and coined the term “adaptive change,” notes that a crisis exists when the standard solutions to standard problems – like the need to educate people – no longer work or require a change beyond the power of the leader to provide – when the solution requires every person to change his or her behavior. That seems to be the crisis at St. Mary’s. An adaptive change is needed, a new way of forming Christians that requires every member of St. Mary’s to change.
And I think that’s the reality facing the Christian Church across the United States. As long as people expect the clergy to provide the solutions for the problems the church is confronting, the church will continue to decline. The solutions lie within the collective wisdom of the whole body, each member of which must be willing to change in order for the solutions to emerge.
What might that look like? Well, I’m not entirely sure – and if you expect me to have the answer, then you are still expecting a technical fix. But I think it has to do with a very old idea – and that is that church is leaven in the loaf, functioning as the yeast in the dough of the community and not as a body drawn out from and separated from the community.
The church is to be a community with very porous boundaries, where the line between members and non-members is blurred. It is a community that recognizes oneness and unity across the distinctions of service provider and client, member and recipient – a community where each person expects to receive gifts from the other. It is a community where the primary concerns are the needs, not of the church, but of God’s world. Where we see ourselves formed and nourished for the renewal of the world – where our goal is the transformation, the redemption of God’s creation. It is a community where the distinctions between holy and mundane, sacred and secular, cease to have much meaning – where we recognize that you and I, business owner and street person, are all bearers of God’s spirit, all persons who may reveal the presence of Christ. It is a community where the celebration of relationship with God, the celebration of our service to others, is more important than the music or the niceties of the liturgy – where we lift up all who show us the way – even the little children.
In order for the church to thrive, we will all need to be leaders. Some of us will lead from formal positions of authority – like Craig – who will try to provide some order and some organization. And some of us will lead from the outside, with new ideas and insight, with creative possibilities. But we will lead together or none of us will go anywhere.
Because what we are engaged upon here is not the ministry of St. Peter’s or the ministry of the Episcopal Church, but the ministry of Christ. Here we will worship God, turn our hearts toward God, proclaim God’s love, seek Christ in every person, and advocate for justice. That’s what we are all called to do. That’s what makes us the church. Without this, the success of our Sunday School doesn’t make much difference.
The Good News is that God will empower us for this work. Our task, truly, is not to be successful, but to be faithful, and for each us to do his or her part. Craig can’t do this work alone – and shouldn’t try – and neither should any of us. Only as a body, as Christ’s body, with Christ as the head will God’s mission be fulfilled.
May we, all of us together, enter into this new phase of Christ’s ministry with joy and with hope. Amen.
Bishop Stephen T. Lane’s Christmas Eve Sermon
Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Portland, Maine
December 24, 2011
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
A friend of mine called recently about her grandson. A bright, sensitive young man, he dropped out of college this fall. Training for the National Guard Reserve, he’s had trouble making himself go to weekend training events and has gotten himself in some trouble with the military. He’s depressed, unsure what he should do, searching for community. When he talks with his grandmother, as he still does now and again, he asks her, “What hope is there for me, Grandma? What hope is there for my generation.”
It’s not hard to identify with that question. Looking at the violent world scene, witnessing aghast our breathtakingly dysfunctional political system which itself reflects the breakdown of our community life, watching friends and neighbors and children look fruitlessly for work, we may be asking it ourselves. Whether or not we find ourselves in sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street movement, few of us would argue that things are not seriously out of whack.
That’s certainly one story we can tell about our times: a story of faded dreams and lost hopes, a story of disappearing opportunities, a narrative of decline and disaster. I’ve been struck again and again this fall by the hardship and the sadness of our days. Nine years of war in Iraq. The first anniversary of the discovery of Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme. Rich and poor at odds across the land. Tough times. Tough, tough times.
But not the first tough times; nor the worst tough times. Not the worst we’ve seen in our own country. Not like the Depression. And certainly not the worst the world has seen. Not as bad here as in many other places around the globe. Not as bad as what the people endured in Jesus’ time.
I think what’s hard about our times, here, is that the contrast between what is and what we hope for is so great. It seems to be innate in human nature to wish for fulfillment, for wholeness, for unity with God and one another. Not too long ago, we thought, we dreamed, that we might be achieving that fulfillment, and now it seems to be fading away. We know there is a better way. We know there is a better world. And how we yearn for it! How we long for it! Come, Lord, Jesus!
There is, however, another story we might tell. A true story about who we are and where we’re going. It is, in fact, the story we tell tonight. And the story is that we are beloved. We are God’s beloved. Our existence began in the mind of God, as a glimmer in God’s eye. We were born for a purpose: to be loved by God and to love God and one another in return. And behind all we see, behind and beyond all the sadness and the pain of this hour is another reality. A world of fulfillment and wholeness, a world of justice and peace, a unity of God and humanity, is taking shape. It’s hovering on the horizon. It’s appearing here and there among us. We catch glimpses. We hear echoes. We discover signs: a child in a manger; the kindness of strangers, the generosity of communities, the resilience of the human spirit. And we rejoice. We rejoice that God is with us. We join the angelic chorus. We dance to the music of the spheres.
That story says that the best days are yet to come. What we experience now is a mere foretaste, an appetizer for the feast that is to come; a promissory note on a pledge that will be paid.
The story we tell matters. The first one makes us victims, whines that we’re alone in the universe, drains the hope and the life right out of us. The second story gives us cause for celebration, empowers us to act, invites us to share our hope with our neighbors.
The story Luke tells, of a Jewish baby born to a carpenter and his bride, in a small Palestinian village, two millennia ago, to be a sign of God’s presence among us, is actually our story, everyone’s story. God not only gives us life, but shares our life and walks with us and among us so that we might share that life with others. It is the beginning of a cosmic reversal wherein the universe of dog-eat-dog becomes a peaceable kingdom, and a little child leads us.
It is the universal human trait to hope for more, to seek a greater wholeness, a greater fulfillment, a greater love. Don’t ever let that go. Don’t ever surrender that hope. On this night we know that hope is not in vain, that we together, by God’s grace, can make our way to the manger and see the world that is coming. Together we can share our hope.
May it be so. Amen.
Bishop Stephen T. Lane’s Sermon at the 192nd Diocesan Convention
October 22, 2011
Sunday River, Maine
Acts 1:1-9; Psalm 121; Luke 10:1-9
Last week The Episcopal Church held its second Everyone, Everywhere conference on the Church’s mission. Folks from all over the world came together at Estes Park, CO, to discuss God’s mission and the Church’s place in it. The thrust of a couple of the presentations was that the Church has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of God’s mission. We’ve thought of it as something the Church does, rather than something the Church is. But mission is not outreach. Mission is the Church’s identity. Or to use an old line, God’s mission has a Church, and not the other way around.
The core, therefore, of God’s mission is not a program – as important as programs may be. The core of God’s mission is relationships – both within the body of Christ, and through the body of Christ with God’s world. We need to get beyond our comfort zones and engage with people who are very different from ourselves.
Several of the speakers at the conference were missionaries who spoke of beginning their work in far places and of their preparation to share their training and their expertise with those in need. They discovered upon arriving in those places that God was already at work everywhere, and learned of their need to work in partnership with the people they met. It’s not that they didn’t have something important to offer. They did indeed bring important skills and training to the table. It’s simply that they discovered many others who also brought skills and training to the table, and who represented the dignity and integrity of the people they served. The world is not full of people waiting for our help. The world is full of people waiting for God’s justice and for friends who will work with them to achieve it.
Another way to say this is that mission is not done by patrons on behalf of those who are incapable of helping themselves. God’s mission is done by brothers and sisters in partnership, who work together for the benefit of all.
Our readings for this service are drawn from the Propers for a Missionary, and they offer some insights into the nature of God’s mission.
And the first is simply that – it’s God’s mission. Our help is in the name of the Lord. The mission does not belong to us. We belong to God’s mission. And our hope is not based on what we can accomplish, but on God’s faithfulness. The God who created everything still looks after us, morning and night. Still shields and protects us. God’s mission will be accomplished because that’s what God chooses.
So despite what may be happening in our communities, God is not absent. Indeed, God may be calling us away from things that no longer serve, no longer work, and inviting us to consider new possibilities. Is there no one left who will volunteer to teach Sunday School? Are there too few attending such a Sunday School to make it viable? Is there no one who will attend adult Bible study? Perhaps then God is inviting us to look at new opportunities for Christian formation, whether that might be in small house groups or at the food pantry.
Second, it’s clear that mission is our primary purpose. We’re sent. Some of us call our Sunday worship the mass. And the source for that word comes from the dismissal at the end of the Latin mass: Ita missa est. “Go, you are dismissed.” Each week we are sent from worship to do God’s mission.
Jesus sent the disciples out two by two. So, mission is not Lone Ranger work. It’s something we do together. But it’s clear we’re meant to go out. The disciples were told to enter fully into the life of the communities they served. They were to make themselves dependent on those communities, dependent on them for food, clothing and housing. They didn’t invite people to come to them. They went to the communities. They were sent to proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near you.” And they represented that kingdom.
Our primary work is not to invite people to join our church. It’s to go to them with the good news of the kingdom. The hospitality we offer in our congregations is not something we do because we want new members. Hospitality expresses our participation in the kingdom of God. We’re hospitable because God is hospitable. And more important than hospitality is solidarity – the recognition that our neighbors are God’s children and our partners in ministry. It is by going to meet them that we turn strangers into friends. Our call is not to invite others to be like us, but for us to be more like Jesus and to go where he goes.
Third, the timeline for God’s mission is not up to us. It belongs to the Father. It’s not for us to know the times or periods the Father has set. We have received the Holy Spirit who has empowered us to be witnesses for the kingdom of God. And that is enough.
I suspect this is the most difficult matter for us. We don’t know when God will restore the kingdom to Israel, and we’re invited to labor without knowing that. The changes that have hit the Church in the last two decades are simply overwhelming. All the cultural supports we used to enjoy seem to have vanished. We want to know when all this will end. We want to know when God will restore our church. But we don’t know. And God doesn’t seem much interested in telling us. Rather God invites us to continue our witness.
Is the period we’re in an aberration that 100 years from now we will recognize as such? Or in 100 years will we recognize the situation of the postwar period as the aberration? I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters much. Because the task before us is the same: to witness that God is among us, that each of us is loved by God, and that God invites us to work together for the well being of all. That’s God’s mission and it is, I believe, the only growth strategy we need.
The kingdom of God is a kingdom of resurrected people, people who understand that beyond all appearances God is working God’s purposes out. God’s kingdom is born out of the death of this old world. And that dying and rising includes our beloved church. A way of being church is dying – and we can’t stop it. But a new way is being born – I do believe it! Death is not something we seek, but when it approaches we meet it with faith, confident that God is up to something for our good; confident that life will rise from death.
Like the missionaries of old, we are venturing into foreign territory. To be effective we’re going to need to travel light, to be flexible, to immerse ourselves fully in a new and often strange world. We do not know, probably can not know, how effective we will be. We don’t know if the seeds we plant will grow. But we do know that God will bring new life. There will be resurrection. May we go about our work, go about God’s mission, in such hope. Amen.
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
September 9, 2011
St. Stephen the Martyr Episcopal Church, Waterboro
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Our Gospel this morning is one of the parables of judgment. Martin Luther specifically did not like to preach on this one calling it the “terrible gospel.” And it’s difficult to rationalize. If we succumb to the temptation to make it a simple allegory in which the king is God and the son is Jesus, then we end up with a story in which God kills the Jews for failing to come to the wedding feast of the son, and then invites others – read Gentiles – who will respond to the invitation. But then we get stuck with the piece about the wedding garment. So reading it as a simple allegory is probably not helpful. Yet it’s hard to read the parable without identifying some of the characters because Jesus tells us it’s about the kingdom of God and the story ends with the comment, perhaps by a later editor, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
It may be helpful to remember a bit of the context. Jesus has been engaged in a hostile debate with the priests of the Temple and the Pharisees, that is, the leaders of Judaism. We’ve been listening in on those debates and hearing Jesus’ parables for the last two Sundays. And Jesus is clearly upset with the leaders of Judaism, declaring that they have failed to teach pure religion and have used the precepts of Judaism for their own gain. They have failed to see that they are stewards in God’s vineyard and have failed to deliver the fruits of the vineyard to God.
And then, Jesus tells the parable we’ve just heard. Same audience; still the priests of the Temple and the Pharisees. Jesus teaches them that the kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet. Without repeating the details of the story, we know that the host of the banquet is exceedingly generous, issuing his invitation three times. But the invitation is refused, and more than refused, it is denied with contempt. So the host of the banquet, the king, responds to the guests hostility by denying them a place at his table for ever. Then the king invites everyone, good and bad, right off the streets. The host is, again, exceedingly generous. And the people, good and bad, flock to the feast. Unlike the original guests, they recognize the grace that has been offered. They are grateful for the invitation.
But one guest, apparently, has not fully understood the nature of the invitation. He has not understood that this is a wedding feast, and is not properly dressed. So he is expelled, as perhaps, many will be.
Hmmm… So what do we make of this parable? What is Matthew trying to tell us? Is he telling us God will kill us if we don’t accept his invitation? Is he telling us that only some of the good and bad will be accepted? That some forms of badness are not acceptable?
Matthew was, as you may recall, a tax collector. Tax collectors were considered tools of the Roman oppressor and traitors to the people. They lined their own pockets by overcharging folks when they paid their taxes. Tax collectors served as icons of really bad sinners. But Matthew was a disciples of Jesus, and a couple of weeks ago had Jesus saying that tax collectors and prostitutes would go into the kingdom of God before the priests and Pharisees. So we have to believe that there is a certain irony in Matthew’s telling of this parable.
It’s also important that God has promised never again to destroy his people. That’s the promise God made to Noah after the flood. It’s the promise God keeps when Moses talks God out of killing the people of Israel for making a golden calf. And we know that when Jesus was killed, God did not destroy his murderers, but raised Jesus from the dead and offered everyone eternal life.
So perhaps the meaning here is not about being destroyed for our failures. Perhaps the meaning here is that God’s grace demands a response. God gives us what we don’t deserve, gives to both the good and bad among us. God invites us over and over again. God reaches out to us whoever we are. But when we are reached, when we accept the invitation, then God expects us to live into it. God expects us to change, to put on new clothes, as it were; to live a new life.
There is in Christianity a deep paradox that lies near the heart of our faith. The grace of God is offered freely. We can never earn it or merit it. It’s given to all without regard for who we are or what we’ve done. It’s offered over and over again. And yet, once God’s invitation is received, once we’ve accepted the invitation, then we’re expected to live new lives. We’re expected to live lives of gratitude toward God and love toward our neighbors. We are expected to think on those things that are honorable and commendable and pure and excellent. We are to be more like God than we were before. We’re expected to follow Jesus.
We try to describe this paradox using lots of different language in the church. Sometimes we talk of repentance – turning around. Sometimes we talk of a new birth – being born again. Sometimes we talk of salvation – being raised from sin and death. Sometimes we talk about being transformed – transfigured. Sometimes we talk about being made holy – divinization, growing up into Christ. All these concepts are meant to describe what happens after we’ve accepted the invitation, after we’ve shown up at the wedding feast. The threat that we face, from the standpoint of faith, is that we might be left out; that we’re going to decide that we’re too busy, or we need to take a trip. We’re going to decide our own interests are more important. Or, even worse, perhaps we respond to God’s invitation with contempt or even violence. And we lose our place at the table. We cut ourselves off from the grace God has offered.
And so the question before us this morning is this: how have we responded to the invitation we’ve received? How are we living new lives?
In just a few moments we’re going to move to the service of confirmation, and we’re going to promise to live into the grace we’ve received in baptism. We’re going to promise to love and worship God. We’re going to promise to repent whenever we fall into sin – over and over and over. We’re going to promise to proclaim the good news of God’s freely offered grace by word and deed. We’re going to promise to look for Jesus in every person. We’re going to promise to be advocates for justice and peace in our communities. We’re going to promise to live the new life of grace…
The world we live in is a lot like the world Jesus lived in. And all kinds of folks are invited to the feast. In our lives, as we love God with our whole heart, and our neighbors as ourselves, we’re going to show that world there is a different way.
May it be so. Amen.
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
September 11, 2011
Christ Church, Norway
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was with my bishop on the way to a joint meeting of Episcopal and Lutheran clergy representing churches in the city of Rochester, NY, to discuss how we might share in a ministry to the city. The bishop had been listening to the radio in his office and turned on the radio in his car. We heard all the confused reports of a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
When we reached the Lutheran Church where the meeting was to take place, we found a small group of clergy huddled around a television in the parish hall watching the tower burn. As we walked into the room, the second tower was hit by a plane. We stood in stunned silence, and then joined for prayer.
No one else ever arrived for the meeting. The Lutheran Bishop called to say he was turning around and heading to his office. We quickly adjourned the meeting and headed to our respective churches to begin the work that lay before us. The meeting was never re-scheduled, and, as far as I know, the joint city ministry never took shape – one of the infinite number of consequences of that morning.
In the universe God has created, life is consequential. Every decision has an impact, and every action has eternal consequence. Life has no do-over. There is no going back, and we all live with the new realities created by our actions.
There was a sense after 9/11 not only that the events of the day were terribly wrong, terribly unjust, but also that we had been betrayed in some fashion by the universe. Were we not the good guys? We were not the heroes of WWII? Were we not the new Israel planted on the American continent? Many, I think, had expected God to protect us as he had protected Israel with a pillar of fire and the parting of the sea. We were not accustomed to feeling vulnerable, to being so profoundly and fundamentally exposed to the actions of others. Some wondered, in those early days, if God had abandoned us. Some wondered if God were punishing us for some terrible sin. Some wondered if God were calling us to new holy wars. We have spent much of the last ten years trying to restore a sense of our place in the world and to recover a semblance of security in a world which seems increasingly vulnerable in all sorts of ways. We hate – I hate – feeling so vulnerable.
Our lessons this morning, in the ineffable way of the lectionary, are all about mutual vulnerability and about the ways we are called to live together with that vulnerability. In the world God has created, no one is isolated, no one is independent. It is a given that we are different and that we do impact and influence one another. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;” wrote Anglican poet and theologian John Donne. We may wish to be invulnerable, we may dream of perfect security, but such longings are only that.
In the Gospel, Jesus has been speaking with his disciples about life in community and how we should address the sins of our brothers and sisters against us. Last Sunday we heard Jesus recommend a prolonged and public conversation whose purpose is to reconcile the parties, and, if that fails, then the offender is to remain in the community as a tax collector or a Gentile – an irony we should not miss since the Christian community was wrestling with the admission of Gentiles and the author of the text was himself a tax collector.
This week we hear Jesus answer Peter’s question on how often we should forgive by answering that we should forgive 490 times, and then illustrating the point by telling the story of a king who forgave a debt of 10,000 talents and a slave who refused to forgive a debt of 100 denarii. A denarius was about a day’s wages for a laborer in Jesus’ time. A talent was 6000 denarii, or something like 16 years’ wages. 10,000 talents was 160,000 years’ wages for a day laborer. In contemporary terms something like $3 billion. In other words, the debt of the first slave was unpayable in any possible manner, and the debt of the second, though severe, was well within the realm of possible repayment. And Jesus says that our indebtedness to God is like the first and our indebtedness to one another is like the second, and therefore we must forgive one another from the heart.
There is always a temptation to turn readings like this into a sort of a manual, a dummy’s guide to forgiveness, which, I think, is not Jesus’ intention. Rather, I think Jesus is talking about reality and relationships. We are, first, all different. And as the Letter to the Romans makes clear, our differences are substantial. It’s not a matter of giving up our beliefs. As Paul says, let all be fully convinced in their own minds. But second, we all belong to God. Whatever we believe, whoever we are, whether we live or die, we belong to God. And God has given us to each other and invites us to live together.
There have been so many consequences of 9/11, we have lost so much and paid so high a price, and still do every day, that even after 10 years we’re probably too close to the event to talk about it with any objectivity. We certainly won’t forget, shouldn’t forget. And many of us aren’t ready to forgive, even if we knew whom to forgive. But the way forward, at least as our tradition describes it, is to recognize that we are all God’s children given by God to one another to live together.
What are your thoughts on this 9/11 Sunday?…
In just a few moments we’ll turn to the service of baptism and the renewal of our baptismal covenant. And as we do so, I invite us to consider that the covenant we share is not so much about what we believe – we all interpret the Creed to suit our liking – but about how we will live; how we will live together. It’s an invitation to consider how we will manage our shared vulnerability and how we will treat one another so as to recognize that we are children of God and brothers and sisters of one another. As our Presiding Bishop noted in a recent sermon reflection on 9/11, vulnerability is a gift of God. It’s what makes community possible. It’s what makes intimacy possible. It’s the means by which we each find our place in society and contribute to that society. And it is the reality of the world as God has made it. We are invited by God into a life of inescapable relationships, relationships which by God’s grace, can make for the health and the wholeness of all creation.
God grant us grace to wrestle faithfully with God and one another.
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Pentecost 2 – June 26, 2011
St. Philip’s, Wiscasset
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
I don’t intend to preach on the story of Abraham and Isaac this morning, but before I move on, I do need to talk about it. The story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his first born son and of Abraham’s obedience presents both God and Abraham in a despicable light. God’s command to Abraham, if it is genuine, is obscene, and so is Abraham’s response. Because it seems so arbitrary and cruel, this story has been read in many ways – as an explanation for why the people of Israel, who once worshiped fertility Gods, moved from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice; as a story about how God calls us beyond our most immediate and profound self-concerns; as a story about how God uses even those who fail the basic tests of humanity and charity for God’s purposes. Was God testing Abraham’s obedience? Or was God testing Abraham’s moral sense? Was God expecting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac or to refuse? We don’t know, but whether Abraham passed the test or failed it, he became the vehicle for God’s promise that God will make of Abraham a great people.
Despite our moral and other problems with the story, the theme of the story is that God will provide – God will provide the lamb, God will provide the faith. It is not Abraham’s faith – or lack thereof – that is the subject of the story, but God’s. God is supplies the faith we need to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.
Similar difficulties in understanding are also found in relation to this morning’s reading from the Epistle to the Romans. Paul is using an image of slavery that modern minds find hard to countenance, even if it is slavery to Christ. How much clearer is a parallel verse from Galatians. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Let me read to you from Petersen’s The Message to give a different sense about what Paul is saying.
The Message – Romans 6:12-23
12-14 That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time ~ remember, you’ve been raised from the dead! ~ into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God.
What is True Freedom?
15-18 So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!
19I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing ~ not caring about others, not caring about God ~ the worse your life became and less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?
20-21As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end.
22-23But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.
The issue is that we all bind ourselves to something – our jobs, our families, our country, our pensions – and once we bind ourselves, then our lives are shaped or misshaped by that binding. In these hard economic times, it’s become abundantly clear that we Christians, like almost everyone else, are deeply bound to our nation’s economic life. We are driven by our need to pay the mortgage or to save for retirement or to provide for health care. And therefore, for many, if not most of us, the most important thing is our paycheck or our savings account. It interests me a lot that Petersen uses the word “pension” – “Work hard for sin your whole life, and your pension is death.” For clergy in the Episcopal Church, the Church Pension was one thing that secured a life that was often spent in lower paying jobs or was spent in a variety of settings with a variety of pay scales. The one reliable thing was the Church Pension. But that pension is rooted in years of full time service, and one thing in short supply today is full time jobs. So suddenly a life of service in the church looks a lot less secure than in once did.
The issue is not that, I think, that we can or should ignore our economic life, should ignore our pensions. Rather, the issue is the binding. To what or to who are we bound? The thrust of Paul’s message is that anything other than Christ causes us to lose our God-given freedom. And therefore, anything other than Christ amounts to sin – to putting in God’s place of something that does not belong there. And that would include our jobs, our families, our country, and our pensions. For those yokes bind our noses to the grindstone and can cause us to neglect the needs of the poor, to neglect all those things that upbuild God’s people. Such binding makes us decide we can’t give us much as we’d like or don’t have the time that we’d like – or, to paraphrase Paul, don’t have the freedom to do what God is calling us to do.
And the way it is in the world, once we are bound by something other than Christ, eventually our whole life is consumed by that something else, so that we lose even our capacity to exercise hospitality or to give a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty.
And so the question for us this morning is, “What binds us?” What takes Christ’s place in our lives? What keeps us from responding to God’s call? What do you struggle with?
Clearly this is not a new issue for faithful people. Indeed, it’s as old as Abraham. And the cure is equally ancient – to trust in God. God will provide. The testimony of the centuries is that tying our lives to anything but Christ distorts those lives and denies us our freedom. Despite all our uncertainties, despite the fears of our generation, God can be trusted.
The spiritual challenge is for us to relax our clenched fists, to let go of our fears and our anxieties, to trust that God accompanies us even now and even in our circumstances. By relaxing our grip a bit, we can begin again to see Christ in one another and, indeed, all the people around us. We can begin to offer one another a cup of cold water.
In just a few minutes we will continue the service of Confirmation, and we will renew our baptismal covenant. As we do so, I’d like to invite you to think of that covenant as expressing what it means to be free in Christ: to worship God, to turn from all that alienates us from God, to proclaim the Good News of God’s love, to seek Christ in every person, to advocate for justice and peace. Such a life is profoundly different from the life we are often tempted to lead – in fact, often do lead. But it is the life God continually offers us, and the life, by God’s grace, we are able to lead.
May it be so. Amen.
Ordination Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
June 25, 2011
Cathedral of St. Luke
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 84; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:30-40
Today we mark a major milestone in the lives of the six persons we are ordaining. For each of them, this liturgy marks the culmination of years of hard work and devotion, not only for them, but for their loved ones and parish families. I offer to each of you our thanksgiving for your steadfastness and dedication and for the support of your communities. We are proud of you, and we look forward to serving with you in the years ahead.
Yet today’s service is not so much about the ordinands as it is about our lives as a faith community, because in the service we proclaim as the body of Christ our understanding of our common call to ministry. Our service, including the ordination of deacons, transitional deacons and a priest, gives us an unusually fulsome opportunity to reflect on the nature of holy orders as this church understands them and to reflect, further, on the relationship of ordination to the mission of God.
As we shall soon experience, the source of the power to ordain, the wellspring of the Spirit which is invoked at ordination, is the prayer of the people of God. It is out of the silent and fervent prayer of the people that the bishop conveys, on behalf of the community, the authority for the offices of priest and deacon. And these offices, therefore, are representations, in a focused and limited manner, of the priesthood of all believers: the call that every baptized person has, in the words of the Catechism, “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to them wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world…”
There should no notion that the offices of priest and deacon are somehow offices of greater holiness than the ministries of the baptized. Indeed the witness of scripture and the history of the church instruct us that the ordained ministries are purposefully limited to and focused on empowering the baptized for their work of reconciliation, which is God’s work. As described in Chapter 6 of the Book of Acts, the early disciples created the role the deacon so that the apostles might continue to focus on proclaiming the Word of God. The work of deacons was to wait tables, that is, to prepare for worship and to share among the widows and orphans the food and alms that were gathered at the sacred meal. The work of the apostles became the ministry of priests. The waiting on table became the ministry of deacons. Over the centuries, the church has so focused on sustaining the church as an institution that the fundamental role of priests and deacons in forming the people of God for service in the world has sometimes been lost. But our lessons this morning remind us that the field of operation for the ordained, as for all the people of God, is the world.
And these two offices, priest and deacon, are not related to one another in a hierarchical manner. Rather each stands as a full and equal order, each representing an aspect of the fullness of Christ. The priest is the icon of God’s presence, a sign to the gathered community that God is present among us, one who teaches and forms us from riches of the scriptures, and who offers signs of God’s continuing love and care through the sacraments and pastoral support. The deacon is the icon of Christ’s service, one who witnesses to Christ’s love for the world by offering service to the poor and needy and who encourages and trains us for our own ministries of witness and service. And both offices are essential for the people of God to have a glimpse of the fullness of our calling: the sharing in God’s work of reconciling all creation to God in Christ.
In working together, priests and deacons, with the bishop, represent and enact the collegiality and mutual interdependence which is to characterize the life of the Christian community as an image of the life of the triune God.
We are holding this service in a time of profound and rapid change in church and society. Indeed, every time we think we might draw a bead on what’s happening, things change again. Recent studies indicate that Americans today are, in many ways, every bit as religious as previous generations. Better than 70% of Americans claim to believe in God and to pray regularly. By every measure, the US remains among the most deeply religious countries in the world. Neither is there any indication that younger people are hostile to the intentions or practices of the church. Indeed they often give voice to a deep hunger for the very things the church is intent on providing. And yet institutional expressions of the church, congregations, are in decline in many places. Maintaining institutions for the sake of maintaining institutions no longer has much traction in our society. Only as people find life transforming experiences are they willing to commit to an institution. Since we believe we are in the business of transformation, the fact that others don’t see us that way is a profound challenge. It’s something we will be working on for the rest of our lives. None you being ordained today will likely have what was once called a “career in the church.” You will all work, for at least some of the time, as part-time, bi-vocational or, even, non-stipendiary clergy. The nature of the congregations you serve is also uncertain, but surely many of them will do their ministries in new configurations and in collaboration with other congregations and with the community at large.
All of this could easily be depressing, and those being ordained might be forgiven a certain cynicism about the church as an institution. Certainly old mother church is having a rough time and cannot be depended on to provide for the clergy in the manner of earlier generations. A way of being church is ending and the new way is not is not yet visible.
Yet though these faithful servants of the church are being ordained in the church according to the ancient traditions of the church, the goal of their work is not to save the church. In fact the church does not need saving. We are the church, and our ministry it is to serve God’s dream of reconciliation. Our call is to be the church, to represent Christ wherever we may be, and to carry on Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.
One, old, tongue in cheek definition of the Christian Church is “one beggar telling another where to find bread.” We may chafe a bit with the notion that we’re beggars, but the bread bit is undeniably true. All the bread we have is from God. It’s not from Moses or church or anyone else. All we have is from God, and our job is to share it – with everyone. The charge that Jesus has received from God is that he should lose nothing that God has given him, but raise it up on the last day. What we hold together, as the body of Christ, is the apostolic faith, the bread which came down from heaven. And all of us are invited and empowered to share that bread.
That’s job one. And it’s more important than anything else. The evidence that we are living and sharing the apostolic faith is not the beauty of our liturgies or the beauty of our buildings, but the quality of our lives. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near… by prayer and supplication… let your requests be known to God… Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
We are called to practice our faith, to be the church, to empower God’s people for ministry, whatever the circumstances of our lives. It is the call we have received from before we were born, and it is a call that continues come what may. My charge to each of you, as you begin your ordained lives in a church where the road is quite suddenly uncertain, is to tend the faith that is in you. Be for us models and examples of what it means to live trusting in God. Help us grasp hold of our own faith and discern what God is doing in our lives. Help us have a vision of ourselves as the beloved community building with a God a new creation of truth and justice.
May it be so. Amen.
Sermon by Bishop Stephen T. Lane at the Area Confirmation Service
Cathedral of St. Luke
May 1, 2011
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’m just not sure… you know, about God… about God and Jesus and the Resurrection and all that. What I want, what I fervently desire, is for the Resurrection to be real – very real. And for it to make a difference. I don’t want my faith to be an intellectual construct or a spiritual fantasy. I want faith to be so real that the world must be changed…
That, of course, is what Thomas wanted. He wanted to see Jesus. But more importantly, he wanted to see the Jesus whom he had followed, whom he had loved – and who had died. He wanted to see the nail holes. Because only the nail holes would demonstrate that the risen Jesus was his Jesus. Only the nail holes would prove that Jesus had risen.
The other disciples had seen, to be sure. But that wasn’t enough. After all, they were under a lot of stress. They were afraid. It was not stretch to think they had imagined it. And even if they hadn’t, was it the same Jesus – the wounded Jesus? Because that Jesus was the only one that mattered.
In many ways, my problem, our problem, is the same one Thomas faced. We haven’t seen the mark of the nails. We haven’t seen the wound left by the spear. There is such a longing in my heart for Jesus, for his presence, for a resurrection faith that will change the world.
This has been such an extraordinary week. We have witnessed a veritable army of tornadoes march across the Midwest and South. Over 340 have been killed. There is billions in property damage. Whole communities destroyed. The destruction in human terms is staggering. What it may mean in terms of environmental change is terrifying.
We’ve continued to witness the incredible uprising of ordinary citizens in Libya and Syria, thousands of people risking their lives to express their hunger for freedom, absorbing in their unprotected flesh the shattering impact of modern weaponry. It’s a display of both human courage and of government cruelty unlike any we’ve seen for a while.
And closer to home, a young mother went missing, her infant daughter left untended in the parking lot of the Cranmore Mt. ski area. Five days later her body was found in a nearby pond, the victim of an unknown assailant or undetected despair.
So perhaps we haven’t seen Jesus, but the wounds to his body are everywhere. Perhaps, in fact, the wounds are so omnipresent that we just don’t see them anymore, don’t want to see them, don’t want to consider what they might mean for us.
For Thomas, as for us, the true problem isn’t the reliability of the witnesses. Mary had been absolutely correct in what she reported. The disciples were likewise correct. No, for Thomas the real problem was that if he accepted the witness, if he chose to believe, then he would have to change. Then he would have to come to terms with the staggering reality that death was no longer the most powerful force in the universe. Love was… love is… and love would call him to act.
For me, at least, the problem is that I always want someone else to believe for me, to show me that there really is no need for faith, to save me from having to take the risk of making my own decision. I want Jesus to do it for me. I want Jesus to make it unnecessary for me to have to do anything at all. But, my friends, the ball is in my court…. It’s my decision… my call. For more than 2000 years the church has proclaimed its experience that Christ is risen. And now it’s time for me – for us – to decide; time for us to take the risk that the witness of our forbears in the faith is reliable enough…
The Good News of Easter is that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth changes everything. Not only is he changed, but so are we. The wounded Savior now becomes the standard for God’s work in the world. Jesus, in showing his wounds, has shown us the reality of life in this world and has invited us into his work of healing the wounds. By our baptisms we are empowered by our wounded Lord to witness to and touch the wounds of his body. And we can do so, not because we are perfect beings, but because we share his wounds, because we know from our own lives the woundedness of living in this world.
For centuries faith has imagined a perfect world, hoped for a peaceful kingdom. It is the hope witnessed in the Garden of Eden and the Servant Songs of Isaiah. We still hope for that New Jerusalem. But the faith we proclaim is not one that ignores or covers up the pain of our world. It’s not one that buries its head in the sand and pretends that everything is fine. It’s not a faith reserved for a quiet cloister or golden sunsets. It’s rather a wounded faith for a wounded world. It’s a faith that sees the suffering which Jesus claimed as his and for which he died. And it’s a faith that invites us, in all our weaknesses and limitations, to do our part, to share with Christ in the healing of the world.
The vision of the kingdom of God keeps us going. But it’s our wounded savior who empowers us to minister in the world as we find it. As we renew once more our baptismal covenant, may God grant us courage to accept the witness of those who have gone before and proclaim Jesus as our Lord and God.
April 17, 2011
Trinity Church, Portland
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Passion According to Matthew
Today we mark what used to be called Palm Sunday – the Sunday of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. We no longer call it simply Palm Sunday, but now also include the reading of the Passion.
We do that for a couple of reasons: The passion reading for this Sunday is read from one of the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark or Luke. If we didn’t read from the Synoptics on Palm Sunday, the only passion narrative we would ever hear would be from the Gospel of John, which is always read on Good Friday.
The other reason we read the Passion today is that most Episcopalians, indeed, most Christians, don’t attend church during Holy Week. And therefore, their experience of Holy Week would move from the Hosannas of the Triumphal Entry to the Hallelujahs of the Resurrection. Singing songs of Hosanna and Hallelujah only would give us a very misshapen understanding of Jesus’ journey to the cross. The reading of the Passion tells us where we’re going during this Holy Week, and it makes clear to us just what sort of weird procession the triumphal entry really is.
The fact is that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is anything but triumphal. Jesus rides not on a stallion, but on a donkey. His triumphal parade is a profound bit of performance art, a divine street theater. As the crowds dance and frolic, treating him like a conquering king, Jesus is the only one who knows the meaning of the procession. And if he is a king, he is a king unlike any king ever seen before.
The crowds who cheer him are exclaiming “Hosanna” meaning, “salvation now” or “save us now.” They are shouting their joy that liberation has come. Jesus is the long expected messiah, the heir to David’s throne. He will rescue Israel from the power of Rome. He will free the people from subjugation by both the political and religious authorities.
Yet, in very short order, as Jesus fails to raise an army, as Temple and Empire collude and Jesus is made to stand before Roman justice, those cries of “Salvation” change to shouts of “Crucify.” Far from mounting his throne, Jesus is entering Jerusalem to mount his cross. And the final irony is this: throne and cross are the same. Salvation comes through crucifixion, through the peace of the cross.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is not a journey upward, not the battle march of a conquering hero, not a time when Jesus is filled with earthly power and might. It is a journey downward, the funeral march of one who is relinquishing his power, a time when Jesus empties himself of every trace of divinity and becomes simply – one of us; God fully incarnate in human weakness even to death. In entering Jerusalem, Jesus becomes simply the human one, the son of man, Emmanuel.
Now all of us who are created in the image of God, who hold within us the divine spark – all of us want to be God, to have the power and the glory, to bend the world to our control. Only Jesus was content to be the son, to be fully and only human, and to let God be God so that the world might be saved.
The crowds were fickle then. Our faith is fickle now. We want to follow God, but we also want to be rich. We want to follow God, but we also want to be powerful. We want to follow God, but we also want to create a sphere of safety within which our way of life is secured against the needs of others. We say, “Save us” and “Crucify him” in the same loud voices never understanding that we are saying the same thing. Jesus is crucified, and the world is saved. Jesus is crucified, and we are crucified with him. Jesus is crucified, and we are all called together into life in his name.
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland
March 9, 2011
September 5, 2010
St. Anne’s, Calais
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17; Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33
I’m delighted to be with you this morning at St. Anne’s for my first official visit. I look forward to meeting with you and talking with you about the life and ministry of St. Anne’s. Our job is to discover together the ways we can strengthen Christ’s ministry in this place.
This past week President Obama spoke to the nation about the end of American combat operations in Iraq. He did not declare victory. Rather, he spoke of the handing over of security to Iraqi security forces, and he counted the cost. He counted the cost both in terms of the loss of life to American and Iraqi armed forces and citizenry and the economic costs to the American economy. He spoke of the urgency of restoring the American economy. Hearing President Obama, I was reminded of the king in today’s Gospel.
The harsh sayings of Jesus are difficult to hear and difficult to preach. Today’s Gospel contains one of the harshest. And there is no way to soften the word “hate.” Luke seems deliberately to have chosen that word to describe the nature of the choice that confronts Jesus’ followers. The other words English translators might have chosen, like “abhor” or “despise,” would not have made our conversation any easier.
Yet the use of the word “hate” seems very much at odds with Jesus’ Summary of the Law: love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got and your neighbor as yourself. So we must ask: What might Jesus be suggesting when he says that his followers should hate family members and even life itself?
Jesus has been preaching in group settings in the lessons we’ve been reading from Luke, and the number of folks following him is growing. Jesus has created a sensation, and large crowds of people have begun to follow him. They are both inspired and perplexed by Jesus’ teaching, and they keep asking one another, “Who is this? “What does he mean?” I think it’s fair to say that they did not have much understanding about what it would cost to follow Jesus. And I think Jesus knew that if they didn’t understand, they would turn away at the first sign of difficulty.
So Jesus began with the primary loyalty of his day – family loyalty. And he said, “If your loyalty to me and my cause does not make your loyalty to family seem like hate, then you can’t follow me.” Using the hyperbole common to Semitic story-tellers, Jesus poured cold water on the thoughtless enthusiasm of the crowd. “Unless you understand this as a real choice, as a choice with life-changing consequences – unless you’re really prepared to change – you can’t be my disciples.”
And then he goes on to give two quite ordinary examples of what happens when one fails to count the cost.
Several years ago, I was in the Dominican Republic for a meeting of the Executive Council. All along the waterfront in Santo Domingo were large hotels and casinos, and among them were several unfinished hotels and apartment buildings. They stood out like sore thumbs – three or four stories completed with empty superstructures towering above. I discovered that in the Dominican Republic financing such large projects was a year-by-year matter. Like ancient cathedrals, the buildings went up a little at a time, as money became available. No one knew when the buildings would be finished or if they would be finished. Some had been sitting there for years.
Unfinished buildings were not uncommon in Jesus’ day either. But then, as now, unfinished buildings were a blight on the landscape, as much a liability as a benefit. Jesus said you must count the cost BEFORE you start to build. Otherwise you may end up a laughingstock and your legacy may be a slum. His example about fighting a war was much the same. If you don’t count the cost, in lives and material, you may end up suing for peace at a disadvantage.
The life of faith requires the same counting. The life of faith is the real deal. It’s supposed to change everything about us. It’s supposed to invite us into a new perspective and a new way of life. The dying and rising of Jesus is to become the pattern of our lives. And nothing should stand in the way – not even family.
Most of the people who followed Jesus were poor. I don’t think counting the cost meant much in material terms. They lived from hand to mouth anyway. But the cost in terms of their place in society and their relationships with family, with the Temple, with their Roman overlords, was great. Jesus asked if they were willing to put all that at risk. Would they give their first loyalty to the kingdom of God?
Although we think of Christianity as commonplace in the United States, truly following Christ may also put our relationships at risk. And for us who are much more affluent, who own homes and cars, and perhaps a summer cottage, counting the financial cost may be much more painful. Are we willing to use our possessions, our resources, in serving Christ? Are we willing to offer them as a sacrifice?
That’s what these lessons are about: sacrifice. Sacrifice is not a popular word these days. The arguments of an earlier time that sacrifice is a social good and a Christian virtue have gotten lost as we rightly confront abuse and the suffering cause by injustice. But externally imposed sacrifice is not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is talking about an offering of our lives in response to the offering of his life.
The kingdom of God requires sacrifice because what God intends is not a few minor adjustments to the world as it is, but a new world order: a world of justice and peace, a world of harmony, a world in which the quality of our neighbors lives is every bit as important to us as the quality of our own lives.
In just a few minutes we’ll join in the service of confirmation, and together we’ll promise to live according to this new world order. This is our moment for counting the cost, for taking a good hard look at what the life of faith requires. We’ll promise to worship in community, to repent, to proclaim good news in word and deed, to seek Christ in every person, and to advocate for justice and peace. The question before us is, “Will we fully commit to this way of life or will we be an unfinished building?”
The good news is that God’s does not expect perfection. God will accept and use the offerings we make. But God expects it to be a genuine offering. God expects our first and our full devotion. God expects our loyalty to God’s kingdom first of all. May God grant us grace to make a genuine offering of our lives.
Celebrating Frances Perkins
May 16, 2010
St. Andrew’s Church, Newcastle, Maine
Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Today we mark an important and relatively rare occasion: the celebration of the life of a local saint. Our new calendar of saints, Holy Women, Holy Men, includes a feast day for Frances Perkins on May 13. The calendar is for trial use, and one of the requirements for making it permanent is to demonstrate that there are places where the day is marked and celebrated, where there is, as it were, a cultic expression of support for the saint. [You are the cult of St. Frances.] So this afternoon we both celebrate the life of Frances Perkins and proclaim to the larger church that Frances is a saint worth keeping.
You have already heard much about Frances Perkins. It’s not my intention this afternoon to talk about her life. Rather I’d like to reflect on the meaning of her feast day for our own lives.
As I’ve considered Frances’ life, it’s struck me that she addressed one of the questions that all of us must answer. To use Cain’s phrasing, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” To put the question in more religious terms “Does God have intentions for our relationships as God’s people?” “Are we responsible before God for more than our own lives?”
As you may know, Frances came of age and was nurtured in the Anglo-Catholic culture of New York City of the early 20th century. That culture, influenced by Roman Catholic and Jewish thinking, held a “theology of generosity,” which contrasted sharply with a “theology of righteousness.”
The theology of righteousness held that people get what they deserve, that their wealth and status are signs of their relationship with God. It was a theology of social Darwinism, a combination American individualism and Calvinist Predestinarianism. Good, hardworking people get what they deserve. Sinful, lazy people get what they deserve. Good people are not responsible for alleviating poverty, although they may out of their goodness offer charity if they choose.
In contrast, the theology of generosity held that all we have is a gift from a generous God. The particulars may be influenced by our own effort, but the foundation is the generosity of God who gives to all people without regard to our particular circumstances or merit. If we are wealthy, we are wealthy only by God’s grace. [Get down on your knees.] If we are poor, we are poor because the circumstances of our lives have blocked our access to God’s blessings. It is, therefore, the obligation of those who have been blessed to share those blessings with the poor.
That belief, along with Frances direct experience with the grinding poverty of the people who worked in the mills and the factories of the industrial revolution and her witness of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, caused her to work with unrelenting passion for the establishment of what we now call the social safety net, most particularly the regulation of labor and Social Security.
In our day, as we survey the vast populations of impoverished people spread across the planet, as we witness the increasingly violent competition for resources, as we struggle to maintain the lifestyles to which we’ve become accustomed, the theology of generosity may seem a bit naïve. Certainly we are no longer confident that God’s blessings may be fairly distributed by legislation alone.
Yet the tensions between rich and poor which Frances confronted have not faded. They have only increased. In our day many believe that there are not enough resources to go around and that it is our right to keep whatever we can hold. If we use 25% of the world’s oil, well, so be it. We have a right to our place in the sun. A theology of scarcity has replaced a theology of righteousness, but it still means haves and have-nots.
The question before us is whether or not all God’s children deserve a place in the sun, whether or not the abundance which God has been given might not be used in ways that enrich many more lives.
Jesus spoke of wealth and poverty more than anything else. He taught that the use of the earth’s goods is primarily a spiritual matter. Wealth itself is morally neutral. But the use of wealth is a matter of eternal significance. God holds us to account for our use of what God has given. Therefore, as Deuteronomy has it, “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” And this is an issue not only for individuals, but also for us as a people.
When Frances joined the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she famously said, “I came to Washington to serve God, FDR, and millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.” Her charge came from God and was lived it out in her daily life as an educator, administrator and consummate politician. For Frances there was no question that she was accountable to God for the work she did and that her work was to help create the world God intended.
The Gospel appointed for this Feast of St. Frances is the Lucan version of the feeding of the five thousand – a signature story of the Christian faith and a delicate narrative about the interaction of God’s abundance and the willingness of God’s people to share. The story says that by God’s grace there is enough for all and more if we are willing to pass the baskets among us.
Frances believed that and her feast invites to offer our own answers. Are we our brother’s keeper? Do we believe that God intends to bless us all? Are we willing to conform our lives to God’s intentions? Will we share what we have so that others may enjoy what God has given?
May this celebration of the life of St. Frances of Newcastle inspire us to address anew these fundamental questions of human living and to answer, with Frances, in a resounding “Yes.”
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
St. David’s Episcopal Church
April 18, 2010
“Come and have breakfast…” I’ve often thought that these words might be the best invitation to and description of what we do here on Sunday mornings. “Come and have breakfast.” Come and share the meal I have prepared for you so you may do your work.
Scholars are agreed that Chapter 21 is a later addition to the Gospel of John. It does, after all, follow the obvious end of the book in Chapter 20 where John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe…” But late addition or editorial insertion, scholars agree that the material is consistent with themes and perspectives in John.
The story begins in much the way that the story of the resurrection begins, “early on the first day” – “just after daybreak.” And the story continues to echo the theme of seeing Jesus but not fully recognizing him by his appearance alone. In the case of Mary at the tomb, Jesus needed to speak. In the case of Thomas, Jesus need to show him the wounds. And here, the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus when they catch the fish. It is Jesus’ actions which give him away.
And the story clearly reflects Eucharistic action. It reminds us of the Last Supper. Jesus invites his friends to come and eat. He takes bread and gives it to them. He shares the fish. And they know it is the Lord.
Yet the story is different in important respects. The disciples no longer seem to be living in fear. They’re no longer in Jerusalem. And the seven named in the text have returned to their lives as fisherman. They’ve returned to everyday life. This resurrection appearance occurs in the midst of normal life.
And despite the great events that we know disciples have already lived through, this story has elements of a call story, of beginning again, of recalling them to the life of discipleship they seem to have left. But this time the call is based on their experience, on the relationship they already have with Jesus.
One of the difficulties of the resurrection – at least for me – is that it is such high drama: Roman centurions, a rigged trial, questions before the Procurator, the screaming mobs, the release of a convicted murderer, beatings and whipping, a staged and gruesome death, words of mercy from the cross, a misplaced corpse. Talk about a story that’s over the top in almost every way… My life does indeed get stressful at times, but the events of the crucifixion and resurrection are beyond my experience. And I hope it remains that way.
There is something about the quiet dignity of this story, of working people going about their jobs, of a breakfast among friends, and of a call to risk all for the sake of others that speaks deeply to my faith.
We are, at least most of us, I think, ordinary folks. We work, we raise our children, we try to be good neighbors and citizens. We try to live peaceful, productive lives. The world we live in is a difficult place and seems to be becoming more difficult all the time. Many of us would like nothing more than to live an even quieter, less eventful life. It would be fine with us if we could just get back to fishing.
We know the world could be different. We know, in fact, that the world should be different. We even know that the values of our faith put us at odds with a good bit that goes on. But to confront all that just seems too hard. We haven’t got the energy. We haven’t got the time. Perhaps, we haven’t even got the faith to do what’s needed – to follow our Lord and to feed his sheep.
And then we meet him on the beach, and he invites us to breakfast, and we are filled with grace to do more than we think we can.
It is profoundly true that we are living in a time of great change. The economic difficulties of the last year are just the tip of the iceberg. We know there are constraints in the natural environment, in natural and financial resources, in the desires of poor people everywhere to have a share of the world’s riches that mean all of us will need to make changes in the way we live with one another. We worry about the world our grandchildren will inherit.
And in this world, we Christians are called to love God, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely, to be peace-makers, to be seekers after justice, to be voices of hope for a new and better world. That’s what it means to be baptized. That’s what we will promise in just a bit as we renew our baptismal covenant. But we just aren’t sure we can do it.
And then we meet him on the beach, and he invites us to breakfast, and we are filled with grace to do more than we think we can.
The good news of Christ’s resurrection is that God can use whatever we give God and make it good. God can take our feeble efforts, our misguided efforts, our sinful efforts, and use them for new life. We just have to have breakfast with him. In the midst of our daily lives we have to seek him, look for him, and when we find him, follow.
We don’t know where it will lead. But we do know it will be surprising. And whatever is asked of us, God will supply what we need to respond. Like Peter, we won’t do it perfectly. We may not love him enough, we probably can’t love him the way he loves us, but we can feed his sheep.
By God’s grace, we ordinary men and women have extraordinary capacity. Jesus said, “Come and have breakfast… and come follow me.”
May it be so. Amen.
Chrism Eucharist Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
March 30, 2010
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland, Maine
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12:20-36
I renewed my vows of ordination as a bishop last Wednesday at the House of Bishops’ meeting. I enjoyed it immensely – I had never had the opportunity to renew my vows with my fellow bishops before. But I also found it a bit odd: odd because there were, in fact, only bishops present and because we bishops are so conscious that we are not, by ourselves, the church. In The Episcopal Church, we are only church as bishops, priests, deacons and people come together.
We believe in the priesthood of all believers. It’s probably helpful to remember that initially that phrase meant every Christian could interpret for him or herself the meaning of Holy Scripture. Sola scriptura – the “Scripture alone” was authoritative. No priest was needed. Anyone who could read could serve as a priest for him or herself.
The phrase quickly expanded to mean that the faith itself required no mediation by priest or church but was accessible to every believer through the Holy Spirit. As such the priesthood of all believers was an attack on the mediating role of the Roman Catholic Church and the abuse suffered at the hands of arbitrary and corrupt authority. It’s deeply ironic that today some reformed denominations have prescribed understandings of the faith, including Holy Scripture, to which their members must now give their assent.
In our tradition, the Anglican Tradition, the priesthood of all believers has taken on a deeply incarnational sense, that each of us, as baptized persons, incarnates the ministry of Christ, indeed, Christ himself. Each of us is charged to carry, convey, and mediate Christ to the world around us. That is why today our service of renewal begins with the renewal of baptismal vows and invites the participation of the whole people of God, not just the ordained. In our understanding, lay and ordained have differing roles in the priesthood of all believers, and the effective functioning of the body requires all of us to do our particular jobs, fulfill our particular roles, to the best of our abilities.
Because we are a liturgical church, because we enact our life in our worship, it’s sometimes difficult to see that everyone is required. It sometimes looks like ministry is something the ordained do, something they offer on behalf of the people. One of the helpful things the Emerging Church is doing for us is offering a radically egalitarian vision of church, where everything, including liturgical planning and preaching, is done by the community. It’s done carefully, accountably, using the gifts and graces of seminary-trained clergy, but it’s shared. Such worship is truly liturgy – the people’s work.
The task for each of us, for all of us, is to represent Christ, to be Christ for the world around us. But none of us is Jesus. We can’t fully represent Christ alone. Only together, bringing our roles and our work together, can we begin to approximate the fullness of God’s presence among us.
Bishop Duracin of Haiti was present at the House of Bishops. It was good to see him and to hear him. And though he didn’t provide any new information about the earthquake or the recovery efforts, his words gave greater nuance to what we knew. He said, “Port-au-Prince is gone. Everything – all the buildings, all the churches, all the services – everything is gone.” Everything has collapsed. There are no public services. There is no plumbing. There are no lights. There is no security. There are between 3 – 400,000 dead – many bodies still trapped in the rubble. And the primary concerns for most people are food, clothing and shelter. But, he said, God is present. We know God is present because the amazing about the earthquake is not how many died. What’s amazing is how many people survived. All four members of Bp. Duracin’s family were in their house when it collapsed. And all got out alive. Our job, he said, is to testify to God’s presence, to the love of God, in the midst of this disaster. And we testify as we worship, as we feed people, as we provide safe shelter, as we bury the dead.
You see, the glory of God is revealed in the innumerable acts of kindness, the innumerable expressions of hospitality and welcome, and the innumerable acts of feeding and forgiving, that are offered every day by God’s people. That is how the seed, dying in the earth, bears fruit a thousand-fold. That is how Christ, who died, lives eternally among us.
The earthquake in Haiti has proven to be a great challenge to faith. All over the blogosphere one can find testimony that the earthquake proves there is no God. But I suspect the earthquake is no greater challenge than the one offered by the crucifixion of Jesus. What kind of God dies? What kind of God endures death as though God were a mere mortal? Our God… our God.
Our God was not content to keep God’s ministry to herself alone. It was God’s intention that such ministry should be ours as well. It was God’s intention to embrace our death so that we might embrace God’s life. Our vocation as people of God is to be children of light, to bring the light of God’s love to every place we are.
It is not something we do without struggle. Indeed, the more we allow ourselves to experience of life the more we immerse ourselves in Jesus’ own struggle. And it’s not something we do alone – each of us and all our ministries are required. It is in the worship of our churches, in a cup of hot soup, in the offering of health care for all, and in a smile – in all these that the love of God is proclaimed.
It is our vocation to take Christ to the world. May God grant us renewal in our vocation and in our love for God and for the world. Amen.
“In the midst of death, life will emerge”
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland, Maine
January 24, 2010
Ordination Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen Lane
June 20, 2009
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland, Maine
Jeremiah 1:4-9; Psalm 119:33-40; Acts 6:2-7; Luke 22:24-27
When I served in parish ministry one of my favorite services was the service of Maundy Thursday with its agape supper and foot-washing. There is a simplicity and directness to the service I found very appealing. The message is eat and drink and be like Jesus, and even very young children could grasp it. We held the service in the parish dining hall where spilling water wouldn’t be a problem. The children loved that part. Making a mess was part of the liturgy, and a grown up got down and washed your feet! Too cool!
The foot washing was never really popular. I think it grew to maybe 30 people over the years. There was always a particular awkwardness to the foot washing. I always found myself a little flushed afterwards. I discovered that no one thinks they have nice feet. And a lot of people actually have club toes and messed up toenails. There’s a kind of reversal of the expected social order. And then there’s the whole matter of offering personal service, of treating someone’s unlovely feet with reverence. It’s recognition of an intimate, a sacred, a holy, connection with someone I don’t usually think of in that way. After a time, I came to see the awkwardness of the foot washing as the whole point: a reminder that social conventions are simply that – matters of arbitrary status – and a reminder that the service of Christ always involves relationships of love and care with other folks – folks who are all pretty much the same under their socks.
The early church made the connection between preaching Christ and serving Christ pretty early on – in fact, almost immediately. The apostles quickly discovered that there was more work to do then they could manage by themselves. They saw their primary responsibility as preaching the good news of the Jesus Christ crucified and risen. Yet they recognized their responsibility for what their preaching produced. Everywhere they went communities of believers sprang up. And those communities needed to be supported and organized, worship needed to be conducted, instruction needed to be offered. And then, in every community, there were those members who could not really care for themselves – who were poor or sick or old. The community needed to care for them.
Indeed, care for the widows and orphans soon became a major undertaking, so important and so time-consuming that the apostles needed help. And so the first servants of the church were chosen, the Magnificent Seven, who were given responsibility to care for weaker members of the community, to visit the sick, to prepare for worship.
And so, from the very earliest days, the church was marked by worship, by preaching and teaching, and by service. We now call the icons of Christ’s service deacons. Deacons represented Christ’s own service. Deacons represented and were emissaries of the bishop. Deacons shared the gifts of the community with the wider world.
But foot washing has never been all that popular in the church. As the church grew, the deacons were soon outnumbered by the elders, the leaders of the local communities, who represented the apostles in that place and led the services of worship. And over time, as the church embraced the trappings of empire, the offices of deacon, priest and bishop became hierarchical and serial. Eventually the diaconate became a stepping stone from the offices of acolyte and sub-deacon to the office of priest. And it has remained that way until today. We still require priests to be transitional deacons before they may be ordained priests.
The recovery of baptism and the renewal of the diaconate both began in the Vatican II era in the mid 20th century. It’s probably no surprise that they’re linked because both movements are rooted in the conviction that the church is the body: the church is the body of Christ whose members carry the ministry of Christ to the world. And because that’s so, what happens outside the church is every bit as important as what happens inside the church. The renewal of the diaconate is helping us to recover our balance as a church, to rediscover the ancient balance of worship and service.
And perhaps, even more important, the diaconate is helping us recover our theological conviction that the purpose of the church is to help us grow up into Christ, to be like Jesus, to be like the one washing the feet. “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. I am among you as one who serves.”
To make direct, intimate human service the goal of the Christian life is awkward. It means to forego our usual notions of status and power. It means to recognize our essential equality as human beings and the need we all have or will have for such personal care. It means to acknowledge that someplace close to the heart of our faith is the necessity of putting the neighbor in first place. It means being like Jesus with all the risks he once faced.
The world desperately needs this humble service. We are confronted by so many intractable problems in the 21st century – global warming, religious fundamentalism, declining standards of living, poverty, air and water pollution – you make your own list. None of these problems will be solved unless we are willing to humbly wash our neighbor’s feet.
We in Maine have done a good job with the renewal of the diaconate. We have deacons serving in many communities. But we have much more to do because the goal is not to make a lot of deacons. The goal is to help the people of God be like Jesus. Deacons can be for us persons whose own ministries serve as examples of the ministries to which we are all called as servants of Christ. Deacons bring the needs of the world into the life of the church so that we can see and respond in the name of Christ. Deacons help us pray for the world, recruit and train us for service, organize us to do Christ’s work. There is no limit to the need and no limit to the possibilities for service.
These ordinations this morning give me hope… not because I think these deacons are a source of cheap labor for the church – I’ve given them specific instructions to resist that – not because I think they will help us solve our financial problems as an institution, but because I think they will call us to wash feet. The heart of our baptismal promise is to live a life that is faithful to the one who calls us, the one who sees us all as children of one family, the one who understands that we all have the same needs and the same hopes, the one who died for us that we might live for him and one another.
My prayer for you, my friends and colleagues, is that you will simply get on with it. That with our support you will plunge into the work that lies before you, that you will show us the opportunities for our own service and help us claim them, that you will makes us feel a little awkward, help us to see the world as it really is – help us to see all those feet out there in need of a good washing.
God grant you the will and the grace to accomplish the ministry God sets before you.
Passion Sunday Sermon
April 5, 2009
by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland, Maine
Joel; 2 Corinthians; Matthew 6
I grew up in the Presbyterian Church where Ash Wednesday was celebrated not at all. In fact the only real observances of Lent and Easter were Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Day. So all of Lent was compressed into one week and the focus of that week was the betrayal of Jesus and the inauguration of the words of institution at the Last Supper. [I can assure you that we did not celebrate the foot-washing on Maundy Thursday.] Ash Wednesday, being considered a Roman Catholic service, was not observed.
My first real encounters with Lent occurred as an adult when I served in youth ministry in the Diocese of Rochester. There I was involved in a rather intensive bit of programming in which we planned and presented Lenten educational programs and worship events with parish youth groups. I remember one particular Good Friday vigil when a life-sized cardboard Jesus, nailed to a large wooden cross, launched itself like a huge paper airplane and soared out into the congregation. Impressive – if not quite awe inspiring! I don’t remember, though, that we did much with Ash Wednesday.
It was when I was a newly ordained priest, in Corning, NY, that I had my first soul-stirring experience of Lent and, particularly, Ash Wednesday. It was there I first truly encountered the rich and moving experience of marking people I knew and loved with a cross of ashes. My boss, Scott Harvin, a low church graduate of Virginia Theological School, taught me to provide congregants with the option of washing off the ashes before they departed the church so that they would not make a show of their religion, as the Gospel advises. For Scott, Ash Wednesday and the disciplines Lent were spiritual exercises whose purpose was not to serve as signs to others, but as spiritual signs to ourselves.
The providing of wash cloths or paper towels has been part of my practice for many years. And yet I have always found the marking or being marked with ashes as sacramentally significant. It is an outward and visible sign of the truth, a reminder that we are mortal, creations and gifts of God and destined to return to God after our lives have ended. And we are marked with ashes at the outset of Lent so that we can consider our life before God in proper perspective, not much lower than the angels, perhaps, but mortal nonetheless. Our struggles here on earth, our battles with sin and death, must be seen in light of our mortality and our creaturely life before God. None of us is perfect. Indeed, perfection is not a possibility. All we do is dependent on the grace of God, who loves us.
So how DO we mark Ash Wednesday – pun intended – without making a show of our religion? How do we observe a holy Lent?
The definition of a sacrament, for those of us who remember our catechism, is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The purpose of a sacrament is to make visible that which is invisible. We baptize in order to see that we are beloved children of God in whom Christ dwells and that we are invited to be part of Christ’s reign. We celebrate communion to see that God loves us still and dwells in us and sustains us in our daily lives. The sacramental meaning of ashes is that we are mortal. We will die. Our lives are dependent on God, who calls us into her love and invites us to share in her care for the world. The purpose of the ashes is to help us see and respond to our need for God.
Another way of expressing of this is to say that the purpose of Ash Wednesday, indeed the purpose of Lent, is to strip away all that is inessential in our lives so that we can see what is essential and can focus on that. The purpose of Lent is to get to the heart of the matter and, perhaps, to see what is in our own hearts.
How do we do that? Well, the traditions of the church suggest self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy word. And I would encourage you in those disciplines. It’s important to try to get past the inessential and to focus on the essential. And it won’t hurt us to be more reflective, more prayerful, less gluttonous, and more grounded in God’s word.
But let me also suggest another possibility. The ashes that you may receive today will soon be washed away – later today or by tomorrow, for sure. But if you were to try to symbolize what’s at the heart of the matter for you, what is central for you as a child of God, what would that symbol be? What would be the outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual grace? Would it be your love for the members of your family and community? Would it be your service to others in the community? Would it be your worship of God in prayer and praise? Would it be your kindness toward all those whom you encounter? What would be the symbol, the sacrament, of your Christian life?
A few years back a popular aphorism ran, “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” More recently the “pass it along” television campaign has encouraged us to pass along the kindnesses we’ve experienced as a way of up-building community. Both efforts are intended to help us see the social benefits of kindness.
For Christians the standard is much higher. We might say our baptismal charge is to “practice daily acts of kindness and intentional acts of beauty.” Kindness is one of the marks of Christian belief. Could we really do that? Could we be kind every day?
At the Lambeth Conference last summer, I met bishops from the Churches of North and South India. In India, proselytizing is illegal. Even the simple act of putting a cross on a sign for a church sponsored medical clinic can result in arrest and imprisonment. So I asked a bishop from South India, “How do you cope? How do you spread the good news?” And he answered, “You know, we have to make our service so beautiful that people want to know why.” How about us? Could our service be that beautiful?
Lent is about rediscovering the heart of the matter, about reminding ourselves and one another what it means to be followers of the cross of Christ May be this Lent be a time when you discern the heart of the matter – and you let it show. Amen.
All Saints Day
by the Rt. Rev. Stephen Lane
November 2, 2008
Christ Church, Norway, Maine
Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
It’s my joy and privilege to be with this morning. I’m looking forward to getting to know you and to strengthen with you Christ’s ministry to the people of Norway…
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, one of the seven Principal Feasts in the Episcopal Church calendar. [The others are Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity.] Of the seven, All Saints’ is the one day that’s moveable to the nearest Sunday. All Saints’ is almost always celebrated on the Sunday nearest to November 1, not on the first itself. And that’s because it’s quite important to have the saints present if we’re going to celebrate their day.
The Episcopal Church understands the saints in three ways: the great saints of the first centuries of the church, the founders as it were, figures such as Peter and Paul, Mary, James and John, etc. Then there are the great figures of the church who served as leaders, heroes and martyrs, people like Ambrose, Gregory the Great, the Martyrs of New Guinea, Martin Luther King, Jr. – persons we celebrate throughout the year in the calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. And finally, but not least, are the one’s St. Paul calls the saints, the Christians of every age, past, present and future, who have loved and served our Lord Jesus Christ. And that’s all of us. We’re the ones we sing about in that much loved hymn, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God. (And I want to be one, too.)
So All Saints is a celebration of our history, our founding and our development as a community of faith. It’s a celebration of our heroes, all those who have been models and mentors for us. It’s a celebration of our hope, eternal life in the kingdom of God. And it’s a mystical day, the day we recognize that we are connected with all the saints, past, present and future, those who have lived and died, those who are alive now, and those yet to be born.
But how do we hold all these understandings together? How can All Saints’ celebrate both our heroes and martyrs and also celebrate just us? How can we be saints, too?
The answer, I think, rests in our Gospel from Matthew, the so-called Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. The church has always struggled with the Beatitudes. There’s more than one version. The one in Luke is a bit more direct, less spiritualized than the one in Matthew. And quite frankly, a number of things referenced in the Beatitudes don’t much seem like blessings. And there are translation issues. Some scholars have suggested that a better word than “blessed” might be “happy.” While we can perhaps rationalize some notion of mourning being blessed, we would hardly call such persons happy.
How is it that we are blessed when we are poor, when we mourn, when we hunger and thirst, when we are persecuted or reviled? What does that mean? Is this all about “pie in the sky when you die?” Or is there something for us now?
The conviction of the Biblical writers, the conviction of the Church, is that we belong to God. All of us. Now. Indeed, all creation, the cosmos, belongs to God. And more than that, Christ is in all the things that God has created, in every person we meet, whether Christian or not. Our task, our job, is to look for Christ, to seek after him and find him, and to assist him in building his kingdom. And that kingdom is always and everywhere under construction, so we are able to build at work, at school, in our homes, in our communities, when we are well, when we are sick, at the grave, in the midst of conflict, when we are persecuted, whether we are rich or poor. Every occasion is an opportunity to proclaim that this world is God’s world and that we are building God’s kingdom. And that way, we are always blessed and always have the chance to be a blessing to others.
In her All Saints’ message to the Church, our Presiding Bishop, asked, “In your neighborhood, who is the saint who picks up trash? Who looks out for school children on their way to and from school? Who looks after an elderly or frail neighbor, running errands or checking to be sure that person has what is needed?” She didn’t ask, “Who are the Christians?” She asked instead, “Who does the work of Christ?” Who reveals Christ’s presence in the world? The person who picks up litter might be a Baptist or a Seventh Day Adventist. The crossing guard might be a recent immigrant, a Hindu or a Moslem. The person checking on a neighbor might be an unchurched young person or a Buddhist. It doesn’t matter, because the work of Christ is being done.
What makes us saints, the only thing that has ever made saints of whatever kind, is that we are followers of Jesus and fellow travelers on the road to the City of God. It’s not our denomination that matters, or our theological position, or even, dare I say, our formal membership in the Church. Rather it has always been the case that what matters is doing the work of Christ. It is our call to recognize our poverty before God, to mourn with the hope of eternal life, to live humbly, to seek justice, to be compassionate, to model holiness, to make peace, and to endure persecution with patience as our Lord did. Because it all belongs to God, and God’s kingdom is our home. Christian living is living with this perspective. And as we come together week by week, we affirm and support one another in such living.
In just a few minutes we will celebrate the renewal of our baptisms, and in so doing we will be upholding our participation in the mystical body of saints. We will remember our call to live as members of God’s eternal kingdom and we will affirm our desire to do the work of Christ. May we, on this All Saints’ Sunday, be filled again with God’s holy Spirit, and may we claim our place, our life, as saints of God.