Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas 1, Year C, Sunday December 27, 2009

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

When I was in high school, I spent one summer traveling in France with a few classmates and our French teacher. We visited the famous places: the Louvre, the Eifel Tower, Versailles, Mont Saint Michel. However, one of the most impressive things I saw wasn’t in a famous church or museum, but rather it was the very ancient drawings in the Lascaux caves, estimated to be around 16,000 or 17,000 years old.

I saw these drawings in 1962, and in 1963 the caves were closed because the many visitors were bringing in contaminants, and eventually the paintings would have been destroyed. I feel very fortunate to have been able to go into the actual caves, and walk where those ancient people walked, and see the paintings exactly where they were painted.

In spite of all of the study of these drawings, I don’t think that we know even today exactly what they were supposed to mean. They seem to show little stick figures of people hunting, and they include magnificent representations of animals, especially some large wooly animals, which might be bison. There are bulls, horses, deer, and over 900 animal drawings in all. There is even a large bison which has one leg drawn in front of the other to show perspective, which was not attempted again in Western art until the 15th century.

Perhaps these ancient people had visions, and wanted to record what they had seen. Perhaps they were telling the stories of the hunt. Perhaps they hoped to influence the future, and have a successful hunt the following season. We don’t know what these drawings meant to the original artists or to those who saw them. We do know that they are breathtakingly beautiful.

We can’t always know what art is supposed to “mean.” There was once a student who had been asked to write a term paper about a poem. This student couldn’t make heads or tails of the poem, so he wrote a letter to the poet and asked him what the poem “meant”. The poet wrote back to him, and said that he didn’t know what the poem meant either. The poem just was what it was, and it meant what it meant to those who heard it. The poet Archibald Macleish also wrote about the simple “being” of a poem in “Ars Poetica”: “A poem should not mean, but be”.

I’ve noticed this also with my icon paintings. Other people will see the most amazing things, that I had no idea were there. They will see an emotion or likeness in a face I’ve painted. They will see symbols that are meaningful to them, but that I never intended. Over the past year I’ve been working on a large icon, 3’ by 4’, and now after all this time it is finally finished and ready to be shipped.

Part of me wants to keep it, but mostly I want to let it go, almost like letting a grown child go out into the world. So I will light a candle and pray in front of it, and then pack it up for shipping. When I do send it off and let it go, I will feel some emptiness, but I’ll also be glad that it will achieve its own meaning for the people who look at it, engage with it, and pray in front of it.

The Gospel of John is a work of art. The other three Gospels tell of the story and the miracle of the Good News of Jesus Christ and they give powerful witness, each in its own way. However, the Gospel of John tells the Good News in words of true poetic power. Especially in this prologue that we heard today, the words evoke a truth that is beyond proof and reason.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Every year, on the first Sunday after Christmas, our lectionary appoints this passage from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. We have just barely heard the story of the birth of Jesus, and the Gospel of Luke is very specific in telling us when it happened, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus and while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and exactly where it happened, in Bethlehem, the town that is in Judea, not the other Bethlehem that is up north.

Now, all of a sudden, just days later, we are launched by the Gospel of John into a mystery that spans all time and space. We are in the realm of poetic art, without secure handholds, but with the promise of the divine light that is God’s gift to all people.

Jesus is the true light, which came into the world; he was born a human baby, lived a simple, human life, died on the cross, and rose again. He is also the light that existed from the beginning of all time, and continues to give hope and comfort. This is the light that helps us to see Christ in our grumpy neighbor. This is the light that helps us to be patient when we are grumpy and tired ourselves. This is the light that shows us the way when we are lost. This is the light that helps us to be kind and compassionate and loving towards all people and creatures, which God also loved into being.

This is the light that helps us to see God, and to love God, and to have faith in the saving power of God’s grace. The very nature of faith is that we can hold belief and hope without concrete proof. The words of the Gospel of John illuminate a truth that is clearer and deeper than anything we can touch or see.

In the depths of time and human origins, a few early people sketched their dreams on the wall of a cave. They could have made simple scratches to remember how many bison were caught in the hunt. Instead, they created a tableau that spoke of desire for something more than just a hunt or a vision. They, and all human peoples who followed them, have been reaching for the divine.

The divine Word came to us in Jesus, who became human, that we might see the divine more clearly, believe in Him, and carry hope in our hearts, and be ourselves transformed in the Spirit into a holy people of God. As the true light came into the world at his birth, in the first century, in Bethlehem, may we also see that light here, today, and may it be enkindled in our hearts and shine forth in our lives forever.

Christmas Eve, Year C, Sunday December 24, 2009

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

On a late night long ago, some shepherds were settling in for the night, having a last chat by the fire and rubbing their hands to keep warm. They were grubby, rough, somewhat disreputable characters, living on the fringes of the town of Bethlehem. Suddenly they heard a choir of angels and a startling message. They rubbed their eyes and scratched their heads. They asked one another, “Did you hear that?” “Did you see those angels?!” “How can it be that angels would appear to the likes of us?”

During my trip to the Holy Land in November, we visited a hilltop near Bethlehem called “Shepherd’s Field.” After a bus ride from the convent where we stayed for the night, we arrived at a garden with lovely olive trees and shaded walkways. We had a view of hills and valleys all around. At the end of the main walkway, there was a small outdoor altar and simple stone benches, and nearby there was a little grotto that had been converted into a chapel.

There was also a little church with frescos painted high up on the walls, including one of the shepherds listening to the message of the angels. Windows high up in the dome let a stream of light pour down on the altar. We gathered inside this church, and one of the members of our group read the story about the shepherds and the angels from the Gospel of Luke. We sang “Angels We Have Heard on High”. Then we were given time to wander and to pray.

We have no way to know for certain that this really was the place where those shepherds were watching their sheep on that night so long ago. As I walked among the trees, and experienced the great peacefulness of that place, I felt that it just didn’t matter. It seemed to me that this was still a very holy place, which was set apart to commemorate and honor the witness of the shepherds and which has received the prayers of so many pilgrims over hundreds of years. It was also a very ordinary hilltop in that region.

In a lovely and ordinary place, those rough and scruffy shepherds, were the ones chosen to receive the message of the angels and the Good News of the birth of the Messiah. They were blessed to be the very first to visit and adore the newborn Jesus. They were also the first evangelists, since they “made known what had been told them about this child”, even though people who heard their story were “amazed”, as the Gospel says, and they probably doubted the story, given the reputation of shepherds.

These shepherds lived difficult lives, and they lived in a time of war and conflict and of much suffering and poverty and oppression. Today we also live in a time of war and conflict, and much suffering and poverty and oppression in many parts of the world. Also, it seems to me that this past year has been especially difficult for our beautiful, fragile world, and for many of us in our personal lives.

Some years ago I had a spiritual director who would catch me up as I was in the middle of telling her about my latest woe. She would stop me in the midst of my saga, and say, “Now, wait a minute.” She would pause to get my attention, and then she would lean forward and say, “So, where is God in all this?”

Indeed, where is God in the midst of all the pain? God came to be born a human baby at a time and place which was also messy, chaotic, and suffering. There was no perfectly peaceful, holy time and place for Christ to be born, so why not in the first century, in a small village in a distant corner of the Roman Empire? And why not make the primary announcement to some ordinary shepherds?

These shepherd were terrified and then touched by God’s message, and they believed. They were ready to get up and go to Bethlehem, and afterwards they persisted in telling the Good News to others. Then, why should not the message and the blessing come to us now? I believe that if the message of the good news could be sent even to those grubby ancient shepherds, God also has a message of hope for us, here, tonight. That one event in ancient Bethlehem transforms all time and makes all places into a “Shepherd’s Field”.

Even now, God calls us to come to him and to find him, a humble, simple, human baby. As he was fully human, he could enter into and understand our human condition of suffering and of joy. As he was fully divine, he brings infinite compassion and offers to shoulder our burdens. God comes to us now, today, right here, always taking the risk to offer to us Love without bounds and without end.

God takes this risk. Can we also take the risk of responding to this gift and receiving Him? What sort of commitment does this require from each one of us? When God has risked and given all for us, how can we give him anything less than a full-hearted response? When all else is falling down around our ears, who else but Christ can be our strength and hope and comfort?

During this past year, we have been on our own journey here at Saint Augustine’s towards calling a new rector. This is rightly a time of stress and anxiety as well as anticipation. It would be natural to assume that this new rector will be the savior, and that he or she will grow the church and fix everything that could possibly need fixing. I’m sorry to say that the new rector will not be the savior. The job of Savior is already taken. The new rector will more likely take the role of the angels, announce the good news, and point the way.

Do not be afraid, the angel said on that night so long ago. This is also the message to us today: do not be afraid; do not lose heart. Instead, come and see what God has done, and is doing, and will do to make known the glory and love of God, even in the midst of all the messiness of our lives and the brokenness of our world.

Today, in this place and this very night, we have the invitation to get up and go to Bethlehem. We are offered a glimpse of the eternal presence of God’s love and the promise of salvation, which is for all people through faith in Christ. As spiritual nourishment for the journey, we will gather shortly at this altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Then we will be sent forth, propelled out into the world by our deacon, to proclaim in word and deed the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior and the Redeemer of all the world.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Advent 4, Year C, Sunday December 20, 2009

Micah 5:2-51; Canticle 3; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

In the town of Nazareth today there is a re-creation of the ancient village where Jesus grew up. There’s a village carpenter’s shop, an olive press, and a boulder where grapes were stomped and aged into wine. There’s a shepherd with a little flock of sheep. There is a woman who is dressed in traditional costume and who demonstrates the spinning of raw wool into yarn, which is then dyed and woven into blankets.

There are also examples of villagers’ homes, with thatch roofs, stone walls, and mud floors. These homes were lit with little clay lamps, about the size of a cupped hand. We can imagine that the life there was very, very hard.

In Nazareth there is also the Church of the Annunciation which has been venerated for centuries as the exact place where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. Inside the church, downstairs, we can enter a spacious sanctuary built in a circular design, with the main altar in the center and seating for the congregation surrounding all sides.

As you look down at the altar, on one side there is a gate through which you can see into a little grotto or cave. Inside the cave is a small altar, and in the back you can see rough stairs and maybe shelves in the walls. The cave is very natural and simple, and quite small. This space is venerated as the actual place of the annunciation, and the cave itself is simply called “Mary’s house”.

We don’t know for sure whether this was the house in which Mary grew up or the exact place where she heard the message from God that she had been chosen to bear the Savior of the world. We do know that there is one ancient well in Nazareth, not far from the church, which is called “Mary’s well”, and archeologists are convinced that Mary must have drawn water from that well. “Mary’s house”, on the other hand, holds no clues that can definitively prove its identity.

When our tour leaders gave us some quiet time to meditate and pray, I sat for several minutes by the gate in front of the front of the cave. For a short while there was no press and or bustle of crowds. It felt so peaceful and quiet. I thought that this could be the house of Mary, and it could be the very place where she was astonished, afraid, perplexed, and finally knelt in acceptance of Gabriel’s words. I could feel the prayers of millions of people over the centuries that have soaked into the stones, and I felt the peace of her gentle surrender to the will of God.

The cave is very simple, but the church surrounding it is quite magnificent and it was built to honor and enclose the simple little cave. It serves as a fitting symbol of the words of Mary’s song, the Magnificat. The poor and simple little cave dwelling has been exalted and sanctified and honored. God has indeed looked with favor on the lowliness of Mary. God has brought down the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.

We could also translate the song of Mary into more modern words: as God has given favor to a simple, young girl, so also God gives blessing and hope in our own time: serenity of spirit to the depressed; healing of body, mind and spirit for the sick; hope to the unemployed; consolation to the grieving; compassion to all those who suffer.

This is so much a part of the Christian tradition that we forget what a scandal it was in ancient times. The idea of the blessing of God going to the poor and lowly was counter to everything that ancient people believed about God. Everyone knew (or thought they knew) that it was exactly the opposite: the wealthy and healthy were the most blessed by God, and the lowly and poor were out of favor with God and perhaps even notoriously sinful. Mary’s song celebrates the upside down world of God’s mercy: it is exactly those who are meek and humble and suffering whom God will especially bless and heal and comfort.

Mary’s song echoed in our hearts as we left the Church of the Annunciation and explored the courtyard outside. On the walls enclosing the courtyard, there are paintings and frescos and stone inlays of Mary donated by many countries. There is a Japanese Mary who looks like a lovely geisha in a kimono. There is a Mexican Mary who looks like a Spanish peasant. A Korean Mary has a traditional high-waisted gown and big bow. There are Marys depicted in folk art style, and Marys in traditional icon style, and highly modern Marys who are hard to discern at all.

Mary has been adopted by each culture and tradition, and each of us may find her reflected in our own experience and prayer. She is for all times and all people, the eternal mother of Jesus and the one most blessed and favored by God. The call to Mary is to a unique one, and also a reflection of the message that God sends to us all: to be faithful, to trust, to hope, and to open our hearts to receive the Christ child.

While we were in Nazareth, someone noticed that there are hills surrounding the town, and we wondered whether Mary went to visit Elizabeth in the “hill country” nearby rather than traveling far south to Judea, as reported in the Gospel of Luke. I think that it doesn’t really matter where they met. The two women greeted each other in joy and anticipation of the birth of their two very special children, and they both believed in the promise of salvation.

As we draw nearer to Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, may we also be pregnant with the hope and anticipation that God gave to Elizabeth and Mary. In these humble and faithful and holy women, in the midst of their daily work and struggles, God entrusted the hope of all the peoples of the world, and they provided the humble hospitality for the one who came before and the one who would come after, and who would be our Savior. May we also provide our own humble hospitality for God to come to us, and may we also say “Yes!” as Mary does, to whatever surprises, blessings, and challenges God may have in store for us.

We may feel that we are poor vessels to receive such a call and to receive Christ and to do God’s work. It sounds like that’s just the point: in the upside-down world of God’s mercy and grace, we are all chosen and entrusted with the precious gift of God’s son, and in Him, we are also blessed with the hope of salvation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent 3, Year C, Sunday December 13, 2009

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

Just when we thought it would be a lovely and happy thing to come to church and enjoy Advent and Christmas celebrations, and just as we finish hearing these exuberantly joyful readings from Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Philippians --- then suddenly we hear John the Baptist blasting his followers: “You brood of vipers!”

I wish I could say to John, get a life; forget the diet of locusts; have a Christmas cookie! His sermon definitely puts a bit of a damper on the Advent and Christmas spirit. He sound awfully angry, and he goes on to rant about chopping down unproductive trees and throwing them into the fire. His listeners understand him to mean that some of them are like trees that do “not bear good fruit” or like useless “chaff”, and they fear that they are in danger of losing their souls to an “unquenchable fire”.

How can this be “good news”? How can this be cause for rejoicing? We hear that large crowds of people came to hear John the Baptist preach and received baptism from him. At first we may wonder why. He seems to have been highly successful in attracting followers, in spite of this dreary and even frightening message.

There must indeed be some “good news” somewhere in all this, and I do think there is. In those days, there were synagogues in many towns and cities, but there was only one Temple, in Jerusalem, and it was there that people came to worship and to celebrate the great festivals, if they were able to make the trip. It was a long and arduous journey to get there, and once someone had arrived, they would have had to climb the hill to reach the city, and then climb a long flight of stairs to reach the Temple gates. The steps were built with a long, flat spaces between each step, so that people would be forced to climb with dignity, one step at a time. The gates were very impressive with wide entrances and large stone archways overhead. As our worshipper mingled with larger and larger crowds, we can imagine his increasing awe and amazement.

After passing through the gate, our worshipper would enter the outer Court of the Gentiles, and if he was a Jewish adult man and ritually clean he could enter the inner courtyard to give his offering to a priest. Only a priest could offer the sacrifice. And only the High Priest, once a year, could enter the most sacred place of all, the Holy of Holies, where it was believed the presence of God rested.

Not everyone could make the journey to Jerusalem. Not everyone could become or maintain ritual purity. Not everyone was Jewish and adult and male! All others were excluded from entering fully into the worship and ritual, and from receiving the blessings of offering sacrifice and atonement for sin.

This reminds me of a worship experience of my childhood. When I was growing up, I remember singing in the children’s choir in a very large Episcopal church in New York City. Every Christmas eve, the children’s choir sang the hymn “O Holy Night” with the adult and boys’ choir, and some of us could even quiver and quake our way up to the very high note, at the end of the last verse, “O night Di-viiiine….” It was a very special and lovely occasion that I looked forward to every year, but there was one catch. As I said, it was a very large church, and on Christmas eve the children’s choir sang from the balcony. Being almost always the tallest in any group when I was growing up, I was seated at the back of the balcony. Every Christmas, from the back row of the balcony, I looked down on the sanctuary, very very far away, where the boys’ choir was, and the boy acolytes, and the men who were servers and the master of ceremonies, and the men who were the lay readers, and the men who (of course) were the priests.

One year it occurred to me that something was strange with this picture. I didn’t have the foggiest thought at that time that I would ever see women priests in my lifetime, or that I would ever be one (I think I would have fallen off the balcony if anyone had told me that!), but still I felt excluded. By not seeing a woman or girl anywhere in the picture, I felt somehow that I must be somehow unacceptable and just not good enough to be near God.

Many years later, I was singing in a choir in New Jersey, and there came one Sunday in summer when the rector (a man) was away on vacation. The curate (a woman) was the celebrant that day, the acolyte was a girl, and the lay reader was a woman. I’m sure this was all a coincidence, but looking down from the balcony I felt for the first time that perhaps, just maybe, I could after all be fully acceptable to God.

There are many times in our lives when each one of us may feel excluded or ashamed or inferior, but the most painful seems to me to be when the hurt comes from someone close to us whom we respect and love. It can be most hurtful at church, because that is a place where we are especially trusting and vulnerable. My mistake, so many years ago, was to believe that because the choir director had put me in last row of the balcony, then God agreed and to God I was only worth putting in the distant, dark balcony. The “good news” of Christ is that this is nonsense.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist tells his followers that their souls are in danger from the “unquenchable fire”. When the people ask, “What should we do,” he responds to them all, even Gentiles and despised tax collectors and Roman soldiers. Their task isn’t easy: they were paid very little because it was expected that they would take bribes and line their pockets. John requires them to be satisfied with their wages and to share what they have, with the expectation that they too may anticipate the salvation of God.

The “good news” of John the Baptist is that the Messiah is coming, and he will bring salvation for all people. He calls us all to amendment of life and to transformation through Christ’s baptism. The words of John the Baptist are “good news” and cause for rejoicing, because they give hope and promise that it is possible for all people to be embraced and welcomed as God’s own beloved.

We don’t need to change who we are in the world to hear and attend to these words, to amend our lives, to receive the blessings of grace, and to be drawn into the fellowship of the people of God. Today, just as we are, we can follow Christ in right relationship with our neighbor. We can prepare to receive the mystery of grace in the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in whom is our hope and our trust and our salvation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Advent 2, Year C, Sunday December 6, 2009

Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

So many of my visual images of Bible scenes and events have been completely re-drawn after my recent trip to the Holy Land. For example, the city of Jerusalem is usually described as “stand[ing] upon the height”. I guess I always pictured a high hill, with a city perched on top and enclosed by some sort of wall, and surrounded by an open plain.

On our trip, we saw that the “old city” of Jerusalem is indeed placed on a hill but it is surrounded by several valleys and other hills. From the Mount of Olives, nearby, you can look down into the Kidron Valley and then up to the high walls of the city itself. In ancient times, those walls fully enclosed the city; today the modern city of Jerusalem sprawls out beyond the walls and across the nearby hills and valleys.

We can still imagine what it was like for ancient travelers as they came “up” to Jerusalem. They would have crossed barren deserts and wilderness, fields and rocky hills, forests and river valleys. They would have passed through small villages and modest towns, but mostly they would have travelled through open countryside. It would have been a long and arduous journey. As they approached their destination, the great city of Jerusalem, there would have been still more hills to climb and river valleys to cross, until they reached the magnificent, high walls and imposing gates. Ancient travelers must have been fit and hardy indeed for such a journey.

John the Baptist used the experience of ancient travelers to describe the difficulties in preparing for the coming of the Messiah. The task that he set before his disciples was repentance from individual sins. Also, in the tradition of all the ancient prophets, he called his followers to faithfulness as a community to the one God of Israel and to generosity to the poor.

In coming forward for baptism, John’s followers made a commitment to repentance and to preparation, individually and as a community, for the coming of the Messiah. In Advent, we also set aside a time of preparation for the birth of Jesus and for the Christ’s mass on the eve of his birth. Traditionally Advent has been like a little Lent: a time of lighter penitence, but still a very special and sacred season.

It’s a time of preparation and especially a time of waiting, which isn’t always easy. It might seem easier just to get on with the main event. Why not go directly from the end of the season of Pentecost right to Christmas? Other than time for Christmas shopping, why have a season for waiting at all? It seems completely contrary to our culture to set aside a time dedicated to anticipation and waiting, rather than doing. We have so many self-help books and programs on how to be more efficient, get more done, achieve more success. We see very little if anything on the self-help shelves about how to wait, and how to do nothing, and just be.

After my first time to visit a convent for a silent retreat, someone asked me “What did you do last weekend?” I answered, “Oh, nothing.” That was true, in a way, or at least I tried, but “doing nothing” was ever so much more difficult than I could possibly have imagined. In fact I alternated between wanting to leave and puttering around looking for something to do.

There is a story of a hermit who instructed his followers simply to stay in their rooms, which they called “cells”. “Stay in your cell,” he said, “and your cell will teach you everything.” When we do figure out how to sit still long enough, it’s amazing to find that inactivity can be enormously productive, in a spiritual sense. When we slow down long enough, and listen attentively, a sense of peace and clarity may come, and we may even give God a chance to get a word in edgewise!

One of my sisters is fond of saying that we all are “human beings”, not “human doings”. I ask each of you to think about one what inactivity might be helpful to you in preparation for the coming of Christ. What would be most helpful for you -- not to do? And, I might add, not to worry about not doing?

It may seem very odd for a preacher to say “do less”, rather than saying “do more, give more, etc.” Such quiet, preparation time is an opportunity to reflect and to rest the soul, stop spinning wheels and making quick choices. It’s time to listen for the call of God. What I’m describing is a time of preparation for the transformation of our lives in Christ, with faith that in good time the most valuable and important and life-giving things will be done.

As a parish family, we will be having our annual meeting this morning, including a report on our activities for the past year. We have counted the numbers of people and numbers of dollars and listed events and ministries, and all that we have to report is quite impressive! On the other hand, it’s much harder to report on the quality of our worship and fellowship. Hardest of all would be to report on what spiritual growth has been happening in this time of waiting for a new rector.

In the midst of activities and programs and ministry, there are the in-between grace-filled moments when we are not doing anything that we can count or measure. This is holy, fallow time when the seeds of the Spirit are resting and preparing. This is time for prayerful and attentive listening.

We may see obstacles in our way, individually and as a parish. Our scripture promises that through the grace of God, once we set out, the journey will be made smooth. Mountains and valleys can be made level and there will be shade from the sun. We can walk safely on our journey to the holy and heavenly Jerusalem, which is the place of God’s presence where “all [people] shall see the salvation of God”.

Through the grace of God, we are being led safely on a highway, which is smooth, unobstructed, open access, a two-way street, for God to come to us in the birth of the Christ child, and for us to go to God. My dear friends, it is a journey that we continue every day in search of our personal and parish goals, and also a journey which is already fully complete in the fellowship of each moment that we spend in worship and service and quiet waiting in the presence of a gracious and loving God.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent 1, Year C, Sunday November 29, 2009

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

There was a biblical scholar who visited the Holy Land after teaching Old and New Testament courses for many years. He had expected the trip to provide “a top dressing” on his scholarly knowledge. After his first visit, he wrote that he “left ashamed that [he] had presumed to teach for so long out of so much ignorance”. I’ve just returned from a three-week visit, and I completely understand his experience. I thought my trip and pilgrimage would fill in some gaps, but instead I now realize that I knew, and still know and understand, so very little.

Every passage and every story in the Bible evokes a location, a time in history, people, and situations. As we read these verses today, we can create a picture in our minds of what it might have been like and of what was happening, and what God’s messages are to us. After visiting the Holy Land, many of these pictures in my head have been completely re-drawn and my experiences there have opened up so many new questions.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we hear Jesus speak of dire signs and foreboding that will overshadow the world. He assures the disciples that these things will take place even before their generation passes away. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus also says that the very stones of the Temple will be thrown down. We hear these verses today with the knowledge that indeed the Hebrew Temple was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans. If we leave it at that, we may miss the deeper message.

The Temple once stood on what is today called the Temple Mount, a large open space of 35 acres where the Muslim Dome of the Rock now stands. All that remains today of the ancient Temple is the Western Wall. The stones of the existing wall are massive, as are the walls of the city of Jerusalem and of the ancient palaces and homes of the wealthy. The people coming up the hill to Jerusalem would have been awed by the massive walls of the city, and overawed by the grandeur and majesty of the great, high stone stairway leading up to the Temple. Once inside the Temple enclosure, they would have felt even more awe and reverence for the beautiful sanctuary building itself which enclosed the Holy of Holies.

The people listening to Jesus would have been dumbfounded when he said that the Temple would be thrown down. Back then, they would have heard his words with incredulity. It was impossible to imagine that such a massive structure could be destroyed. It was impossible to contemplate the end of the Hebrew sacrificial system and the authority of the high priests and Pharisees. The end of this center of their worship was unimaginable, and contrary to the words of the prophets as they understood them.

These ancient Hebrews were longing for the reestablishment of a truly independent kingdom through the lineage of King David. They knew the words of the prophet Jeremiah promising “that [God] would cause a righteous branch to spring up for David” which would mean the reestablishment of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and also the end of the Roman occupation. Back then, Jesus’ word would have seemed counter-productive to that end, since the high priests and the Temple were the sole remaining center of power, and the sole remaining focus for their national and ethnic and religious identity. Why would Jesus want all this to be destroyed?

The early Christians, however, heard Jesus’ words with hope for a new Jerusalem, without walls or buildings or priesthood. Jesus was promising relationship with God and access to worship for all people, outside of the Temple and without the Temple authorities. He was promising the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as well as at the end of time.

Today, these words bring hope for the overturning of evil and the coming of a new creation and new relationship with God. We need not hear these words as an ancient prediction of the literal end of the world. Instead, we can hear them as an invitation to remain always alert to the presence of God and the coming of God into our world and our lives. Rather than “fainting with fear and foreboding”, Jesus calls on us to have faith, not to be afraid, and to “stand up and raise your heads”, and to stay alert.

I had a special experience of staying attentive during my trip to the Holy Land. Towards the end of our journey, we were taken to a Jerusalem suburb, called Motza, which is one of the sites that archaeologists believe may have been the ancient town of Emmaus. Nearby, remains have been found of a Roman road dating back to the first century and we were taken to walk on that road.

Someone read us the story of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus, in great sadness and despair after Jesus’ death on the cross. They met a man who walked with them and opened up the scriptures concerning Jesus, but they didn’t know who he was until they sat together to eat supper, and they recognized Jesus as he broke the bread.

We don’t know whether this was the actual road that Jesus walked with the two disciples. I’m not even sure how they could tell it was a Roman road of the first century, but it didn’t matter. We listened to the biblical story, heard about the excavations, and then we were led in prayer. Our leader suggested that we pray for Jesus to walk with us and to listen to what he might be saying to each one of us.

We walked among briars and overgrowth and followed a rocky, meandering path. In just a few places we could see large boulders cut square giving evidence of the ancient road. We had to watch our feet carefully, not to trip. We had to pay close attention to where we were going to follow the path. We had to help one another over the uneven places. We had to be attentive to the moment, not to miss the whisper of Jesus’ words to us.

Rather than a prophesy of doom, I believe that Jesus’ words give us a glimpse of a profound transition to a new age, new order, and new hope for all creation, in the establishment of God’s kingdom here on earth and in the life to come. Let us give thanks, on this Thanksgiving weekend, for the words of Christ which will not pass away and which will continue to guide and call us to attentiveness each day of our lives so that we may be ready to welcome and receive the gift of the Christ child and for his coming again in Glory.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pentecost 19 (proper 23) Year B, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Preached by Rev. Dr. Frank Sawyer

The Gospel today and the readings confront us with two big questions. Should we believe in God at all, and what do we need to do to enter God’s Kingdom. Job shows us the way in the first reading. Job has always been faithful and righteous, but God has allowed Satan to take away Job’s children, his wealth, and bring sickness, pain and suffering upon Job. Yet even having lost everything Job keeps his faith in God and never even curses God. In this reading we see Job almost waver in his faith because he cannot see God and doesn’t know for sure if God even hears him. At the end of the passage Job seems to want to be like this unknowable God and vanish into the same darkness where God seems to dwell.

Job shows flashes of an agnostic view of God that we may know only too well in our own lives. How do we know God is there hearing our prayers, guiding our lives, seeking us out, and actually saving us through his Son Jesus Christ? As far as we may be concerned God exists but we can’t know him. God may be out there but we feel alone. And Job shows us another human temptation, to just be free of our problems and our responsibilities. Job wants to vanish into the darkness and escape his real world pain. Don’t we often want to do the same thing? But Job chooses a different life. Job chooses to believe when God seems far away. Job chooses to face his pain and his responsibilities with faith instead of turning away from God in anger. And at the end of the story Job is redeemed and restored. If we put our faith in Jesus Christ we can overcome our doubts and we can live transformed. God is giving us grace upon grace. We just have to respond with faith.

Look at the rich young man in the Gospel who comes to Jesus today. Jesus tells him he is faithful but that he has to be truly transformed in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus wants us to go beyond the law, beyond just following the rules. This morning I learned about how the windows of your church tell the history of our salvation. To my right is the window depicting Moses holding the scroll of the Law. In Jesus Christ we are liberated from being only a people who follow rules. God enters human history and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to see God face to face and to live in the Spirit and to love as God loves. Jesus wants us to love with our whole heart, to be fully human and to reach for the divine. And if we can overcome our doubts and actually believe in God, we should do everything in our power to be with God and to know God’s love, peace, and power every moment of every day of our lives.
So what does Jesus do? ….. He looks at the young man. He looks into his heart. Jesus can tell that something is missing in this young man’s life. His heart is not complete. This man’s cup is half – empty. So Jesus tells him, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.’
Again and again Jesus uses extreme language to open our eyes. Jesus has looked into this man’s incomplete heart and he wants to make this man complete.
The rich young man is shocked – it’s like he’s been asleep. Jesus is giving him a shake and he still isn’t waking up. He doesn’t even ask Jesus why. He just goes away sad because he has many possessions – this rich man is too afraid of losing what he has. His fear of losing what he can see for faith in what he can’t see is too much for him. It’s the same for us. Our lives are far too full of choosing to hold on to what we can see with our eyes instead of what we can see with our hearts.

I like that the gospel reads ‘many possessions’ instead of ‘he went away sad because he had a large income’. This is important because I believe that it is possessions – things – that can come between us and God more than the amount of money we make. Worrying about keeping the things we have or about the things we want can affect us all, rich or poor.

After the young man goes away Jesus tells his disciples it is hard for someone with riches to enter the kingdom of God, he says, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
The disciples are as shocked as the young man because Jesus is once again turning a commonly held belief on its head. For people of the Jewish faith, like people of the pagan religions of the time, if you were rich it meant that God, or the gods, favored you.
By using such vivid and extreme language Jesus gets a reaction from his disciples. They really have to stop and think, just as we who are hearing this gospel today need to stop and think. And what do the disciples think? They take this statement about the camel going through the eye of a needle literally and ask, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Is Jesus really saying that no one who is rich will enter the Kingdom of God?

Jesus can clearly see the disciples are panicking. So Jesus answers the disciples’ question by getting to the heart of the matter – by telling us not to worry – Jesus says ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’ Suddenly, getting a camel through the eye of a needle is possible. Jesus tells the disciples it is possible for those with riches to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The key to the Kingdom of God is our relationship with God, for with God nothing is impossible. Money, possessions, things that we have or desire – all of these can get in the way of our relationship with God – but they do not have to.

The rich man wants to be close to God, but Jesus recognizes that he is too worried about his wealth and possessions. For the young man material things provide such comfort that he lives in constant fear of losing them. Possessions – things – are more real than God. So, he goes away from Jesus sad because he depends on his riches for his happiness and security. But he has actually staked his happiness on something that is not guaranteed – riches can come and go – and yet he lives in fear of losing his riches.
Yet the man knows that something is missing in his life – that is why he approached Jesus in the first place. This young man is in good health, he is rich, he is comfortable, but his heart is half-empty, his soul longs for something more, a relationship with the source of life and peace that passes all understanding. He wants a relationship with God.
Our souls are restless. In fact our souls will always feel uncomfortable in the world because the soul’s desire is to be free of the world, our soul’s wish is to be free of the body, our soul’s greatest need is to be at peace – to be with God and to live in God. This spiritual desire is essential to our human nature. We see the world’s other religions trying to answer the same question. In the Hindu faith the soul seeks release from the endless cycle of reincarnation to become united with the universe. For the Buddhist the goal is to overcome the sufferings of life by gaining enlightenment or peace with the universe. Only in the Christian Faith do we find the true answer in knowing that we are made in the image of God and that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that we should not perish but have eternal life.

The real threat to our relationship with God is not money, or the things we have, or even the things we desire. The problem is the way we think about money, possessions, and desires. It is the fear of losing things or not having things that affects our relationship with God. It is this fear that keeps the soul from being free and at peace with God.
If we can let go of worrying about material things then our souls are free. If we let go of the fear of losing what we have then our whole attitude to life changes. Our possessions have the power to own us, things have the power to control us – Jesus is saying do not be afraid, trust in God. We need to see Jesus at work in our lives every moment of every day. Only Jesus brings true security and peace of mind.

The Kingdom of God is for us all if only we can open our hearts to it. And this Kingdom is not just some future reality of peace and love that lies beyond death. Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of God is among you.’ When we free our hearts from the worries of the world and see God at work in our lives and the lives of others we begin to feel this eternal and mysterious Kingdom of God in our lives. In this Eucharist we enter into communion with God and together we realize the Kingdom of God is among us.
Jesus said ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,’ to wake us up. Having our attention Jesus calls on us to abandon our worries and our fears about the things we have and the things we want.

We need to be able to let go and give of our time, talent and treasure. Giving sets us free from fear and liberates us to love others as God loves us.

And Christ leaves us with this message of hope - For God all things are possible. When our hearts awaken to God’s love, nothing is impossible, and we are never alone in this universe, because Jesus Christ is our guide and our savior. AMEN

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pentecost 18 (proper 22), Year B, Sunday Oct 4, 2009

Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

Today, October 4th, is the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. There are so many wonderful, even fantastic, stories about this much beloved saint, including the stories of his love of animals and nature. In his biography, we hear the story of a wolf who was taking villagers’ sheep. Francis went and scolded the wolf, and promised him that if he would be good, the villagers would feed him. Then Francis went back into the village with the wolf tagging along beside him like a tame puppy. According to the story, the villagers did feed the wolf and he never bothered their livestock again.

Francis wasn’t always a saint. When he was young, he was quite a man-about-town. Then he decided to make a break with his former life and to follow Jesus, and he went to the town square to make public his intentions. It is said that he gave away all that he had, even his clothes, so that he would make a completely new start, in total poverty. According to tradition, at that moment he took off the clothes he was wearing, and then the local bishop wrapped Francis in his cloak, covering his body, literally, and also figuratively taking him under the sponsorship of the church.

As followers started to join him, Francis kept his commitment to complete and radical poverty. He didn’t permit his brothers to own anything at all. When one brother asked for a prayer book, he was told no because then he might become attached to it. When someone referred to the room that Francis slept in as “Francis’s cell”, he never slept there again so that it wouldn’t be called “his”. If the brothers received money, they were instructed to give it all away before sundown.

Today there are Franciscan communities, of men and women, who follow the teachings of St. Francis. They not only serve the poor, but they even live like the poor and among the poor. They also attempt, as much as possible, not to own any possessions. I have a Franciscan friend who gives away the shoes he is wearing anytime he sees a poor person without footwear.

When I became a novice in the Order of Saint Helena, I was able to choose a name in religion, and I chose to add “Francis” to my baptismal name. I chose Francis because I greatly respect him and those who follow his path, even though I know that I’m not called to the Franciscan style of monastic life. What really attracts me to St. Francis, more than anything else, is his consistency in his commitment to following Jesus. If Jesus was poor and homeless, so would Francis be, in every way. If Jesus noted how lovely the lilies of the field could be without worry for tomorrow, so would Francis be too. Francis would rather have been called “a fool for Christ” than make any compromises in his rule of life.

This was a very difficult path for Francis’s followers. Towards the end of his life, Francis saw that the brothers had built a large chapel, and he despaired that his complete commitment to poverty and simplicity would not be upheld. Sometimes it was difficult even for Francis to be “Francis”. One time when he was ill, he ate some chicken, and then repented because he had intended not to eat meat or poultry.

It’s not always easy for us to follow Jesus, either. Sometimes it’s not even easy to understand what a scripture lesson is saying. Then we need to pray and study deeply and try to understand the difficult lesson within the broader sweep of salvation history and the saving grace of Christ.

Sometimes, however, the lesson is abundantly clear, and we’d like very much to be able to explain it away. Take today’s lesson from Mark. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether a man can divorce his wife. (Notice that they only ask about men divorcing their wives, not the other way around!) Although the Law of Moses permitted husbands to divorce their wives, Jesus raised the bar and he addressed both husbands and wives. He says that neither should divorce their spouse, because “What God has joined together, let no one separate”. (Mark 10:9)

The reality of divorce is still with us, on occasion justifiable, sometimes inevitable, and always tragic. The intent, at marriage, is always supposed to be to live together and support each other “as long as you both shall live”, and the words of Jesus are abundantly clear. Yet bad things do happen, even to good people, mistakes are made, and the hard work of living together may go beyond what one or both can bear. Even Francis, who tried to follow Christ as perfectly as possible, still slipped. How much more will the rest of us inevitable slip and fall away from following Jesus’ teachings in certain, difficult things.

Divorce is certainly one of “the bad” things that can happen. It may be very difficult to figure out what is the right thing to do in a bad marital situation: when to stay the course and when the better, saner, healthier thing may be to go separate ways. What often happens, also, is that those who divorce (or who commit any significant sin) may suffer from gut-wrenching pain and guilt for a long, long time.

I believe that God does not dwell on our sins nearly as long as we do! Jesus simply told the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and sin no more”. (John 8:11) After carrying for a time the heavy burden of sin, eventually we may give up trying to forgive ourselves, and through grace, we may become aware of the full power of God’s forgiveness.

Jesus tells us that the most blessed by God are the poor, the mourners, the meek, even the little children, who are the lowest on the social scale in ancient society. Surely also blessed are sinners who repent and who give over the self-destructive feelings of guilt to God’s mercy. Surely we sinners are still among those just a little lower than the angels and are also worthy to receive forgiveness, and to praise and glorify and stand before God.

The Bible tells us of God’s infinite forgiveness and grace. We receive good and bad in our lives; we sometimes succeed in following Jesus and sometimes we fall away. Even Francis fell away too, occasionally. We still can praise God for all the abundant blessings that we do receive and that are poured out upon us through God’s mercy and love. Through the saving grace of Jesus, we are forgiven, healed, and restored to become a people transformed through a free gift of grace, perpetually offered and forever ours when we accept Christ’s presence in our lives and the promise of eternal life in Him.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pentecost 17 (Proper 21), Year B, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Preached by Rev. John Warner

Easy Street

If there is one thing that the process leading to my ordination as a deacon taught me, it was patience. The initial interview with Bishop Louttit led to a six-month discernment period followed by several years study of scripture, ethics, church history, theology and liturgy. I progressed from discerner to postulant to candidate to ordinand. Like many before and probably after me, I wanted to hurry the process; however, the Commission on Ministry wisely included a series of minimum waiting periods within the process that prevented me from rushing through it. I had encountered the proverbial “hurry up and wait!”

Anyone who is currently in or has graduated with a college degree, especially a postgraduate degree, has had similar experience. When you begin college, all you can focus on is a long series of quarters or semesters arrayed out ahead you. If one needs a college degree for a better job, higher pay or more prestige, the number of courses required can be daunting and depressing. Many may be tempted to short circuit the process and seek an alternative route.

Before retirement, I had the occasion to recruit a professional to fill a vacancy at the regional mental health office in Augusta. As the resumes were submitted, I would review the content and sort each into one of three piles: 1st group interviews, 2nd group interviews, and “over my dead body” interviews. Since the positions required a minimum of a Bachelor degree with experience, a red flag would go up when an applicant’s resume including a Ph.D. hit my desk. Frequently, the schools awarding these postgraduate degrees were unfamiliar to me; therefore, I would use the miracle of the Internet to review the quality of the school’s academics. What I found shocked me.

There are several sites that offer advanced degrees for “life experience.” For a fee you can receive a diploma and a transcript of grades without attending one class. For an additional cost, you can receive a diploma with honors to display, a cap and gown to hang in your closet and a student ID card to allow you to receive those student discounts. While during my Internet research, I discovered a news item about Chester Ludlow, a pug dog from Vermont who received a Masters in Business Administration for its life and career experience. Now, that is one talented dog—my dog Suzy can only sit on command!

To paraphrase Dr. Scott Peck from The Road Less Travelled,”Life is no easy street.” Life is a series of obstacles which requires self-discipline to overcome. I believe that the life worth living isn’t the easy life, one reflected through only the goal achieved, but the life of struggle where obstacles are wrestled with that makes life worth living.

This view of life also applies to our Christian faith, which I believe that Jesus alludes to in the Gospel reading. His words today are disturbing:

· If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
· If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.
· If you eyes cause you to stumble, pluck it out.

However, before you believe that Jesus is inviting us into a practice of self-mutilation, remember that Jesus was a master storyteller frequently using metaphor and hyperbole—exaggeration—to drive his point home.

No, Jesus isn’t inviting us to amputate various body parts. I do believe he calls us into a Christian life, one that requires self-discipline and struggles against the world’s temptations enticing us to travel the easy street, a path that leads us away from Christ’s calling.

Some may want to know what the minimum is that we must do to be considered Christians. It would be easy to believe that Christianity only requires us to show up in church, at least on Christmas and Easter, to profess our love of Jesus and to say our prayers for an easy life. However, I believe that Jesus is telling us that to embark on the Christian life that will cost us everything. A similar sentiment is addressed by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?”

After the events described in today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples continue their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. His fate is to be betrayed, arrested, tried and crucified. For the disciples and other followers of Christ, suddenly, the cost of following in Jesus’ footsteps became dearer. With the exception of only a few that dared to stand with Jesus has he hung on the cross, the crowds who followed Jesus disappeared fearing a similar fate. During the next few centuries before Christianity was sanctioned by Constantine, hundreds of individuals who proclaimed themselves to be Christians were martyred for their faith by stoning, crucifixion, burned at the state or some other form of torture or capital punishment. For others, when faced with persecution for their Christian faith, continued adherence was too great; therefore, they renounced their faith.

Jesus understood what it was like to be human. He knew what it was like to be tempted to take the easy path through life. He was tempted in the desert shortly after his baptism to accept an easy life of power and plenty. While praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he momentarily asked God to free him from his journey to the cross.

Most Americans today don’t encounter the threats to our Christian faith as did our apostolic fathers. Nor do we experience the persecution similar to many small Christian groups today in some third world countries. Although we are tempted to take Easy Street, such a path isn’t without consequences. A life lived influenced more by the self-centered world outside these walls rather than a Christ-filled life is a life of emptiness and meaninglessness.

Jesus was serious about the way we live our lives and the consequences of not living our humanity to its fullest, our divine potential . That is why Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel:

· It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, where the fire never goes out.
· It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.
· It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.

Jesus calls us to walk with him on the Way. The Christian life isn’t always easy; it can be a difficult journey. Being a resident of the kingdom of God is what Jesus is calling us into. It is a journey worth taking.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pentecost 16 (proper 20), Year B, Sunday Sept 20, 2009

Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

There are many wonderful drawings and paintings of Jesus surrounded by children. The children are crowding around him, and some are leaning against him or hugging his knees. They are looking up adoringly at him and listening to his words. Sometimes he is holding a little child in his arms. These are such very tender images and express to us one of the ways in which we imagine Jesus, as gentle and kind and even fatherly/motherly. These images illustrate His teaching that it is especially the meek and lowly who are most blessed and loved by God.

However, the ancient people who were present with Jesus for the event described in our Gospel reading, and the early Christians who heard this story, would have most likely reacted quite differently. To ancient peoples, Jesus’ actions and words on that day would have been shocking and scandalous!

In the ancient Middle East (and even today), homes were constructed with walls around them to separate the household from the outside world and to enclose family space. The areas outside of the walls were the domain of men. Inside the walls, there was often a courtyard where men could meet and discuss their business, and then there were family spaces for the women and children. Children were usually not running about in the courtyard or the men’s meeting areas.

We also know that in the ancient world there was a definite social pecking order. Men and especially wealthy men of status were at the top. Wealthy women and wives of important men might also be near the top. Then there were ordinary men and craftsmen; then ordinary women; then at the bottom of the social scale were slaves, widows, and children.

In today’s reading we hear that Jesus “took a little child”. Most likely he had to go and find one, perhaps even by going near or into the family section of the house. Then the story continues: “He… put it among them”. He would have had to bring this child into an area where children would not normally be, perhaps in the courtyard where the men had gathered.

Then, he did something even more shocking by taking up the child in his arms, raising up the very lowest in the social order, to make his point even more clearly: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)

As we have seen in the modern artistic renditions of this scene, we might interpret this as a lovely moment, with Jesus holding a cuddly, cherubic, gurgling infant. We can imagine a scene of domestic bliss, with the perfect baby and the perfect wife and mother, and the perfect father.

Now imagine, if you will, what this scene more probably looked like. Imagine how most young children would react to being seized from their mother’s arms and taken into a public space with lots of strange faces all around them, and then picked up and held by some strange man. Let’s rephrase Jesus’ statement: “Whoever welcomes this squealing, squirming, squalling baby in my name, welcomes me….” It’s easy to welcome the cute and cuddly, and much, much harder to welcome the messy, complicated, real people whom God actually brings to our door.

At the convent where I live, we sisters gather in our chapel to chant the Daily Office four times a day. Our chant sounds something like the chant that we use in this parish when we chant the psalm. We sisters have chanted together four times a day for so many years that we really get to know each other’s voices and how to stay together (mostly). We sing very quietly so that our voices blend, and we try to make all our voices sound like one. All is well, until we have visitors. We love having visitors at the convent, but sometimes their voices are loud, or flat, or too slow. We try to keep up the pitch and the pace, and sometimes we say in our hearts: we love our visitors, and we love it when they go away again!

Who is usually most welcome in our midst? Certainly those who are most like ourselves, who blend and harmonize most easily, who bring as little change as possible! Who is least welcome? It’s usually the ones who change and challenge us.

There is a church in New York that was not doing very well, either financially or in terms of attendance. As they were searching for a new rector, they told one of the candidates that they wanted to grow and prosper, so he answered them, “If you hire me as your rector, this church will grow. But I want you to understand that you’re not going to like it.” I think he was confronting their very earnest desire to grow, but only to grow in a comfortable way.

At Saint Augustine’s we have expressed a commitment to growing, especially by bringing in younger people. I have to be honest with you about this – at my age, I have been very comfortable here, with all of your help and with the warm welcome that I’ve received. Also, the average age of this congregation about the same as mine! It wasn’t until I saw some results from the parish survey that I realized that we are indeed a mostly aging congregation (as I also am reluctantly but inevitably aging). A substantial influx of new, energetic, enthusiastic, spirit-filled young people would definitely be a change and would definitely bring new life in Christ in our midst. And an influx of new, energetic, enthusiastic, spirit-filled young people would definitely challenge us in every way.

Our mission is to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and to live in love and to welcome all those who come to us for spiritual nourishment and fellowship in Christ. This means accepting some disorientation. Jesus himself was really good at shaking up the traditions and customs of his time. In the midst of change and challenge, the one constant is God, who is eternal and changeless in His grace and mercy. God knows our need, and will give us the strength and skills to persevere.

When we welcome anyone whom God has sent to us and who is drawn to be part of our worship and fellowship, we welcome Jesus in our midst, who was ready to speak with women, eat with tax collectors, and who gave his life for all who strive to follow Him. When we welcome anyone in His name, we welcome Christ into our midst and we are all blessed by the grace of God to heal our differences and open our hearts to work together and to live always in His love.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pentecost 15 (proper 19), Year B, Sunday Sept 13, 2009

Proverbs 1:20-33; Wisdom 7:26-8:1; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

In the far distant reaches of human history there was a time when the earliest humans began to look up at the stars and across great vistas of oceans and mountains and plains. They were filled with awe and they started to ponder. They began to reflect on what they saw and felt, and they began to think beyond themselves and beyond the present moment.

It was a most profound moment when people started to ask themselves some new and deeply reflective questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Who are we as a people? How did we get here?

Throughout recorded history, people continued ask these essential questions concerning human existence. Today, we still yearn to understand why we are here, how we can know God, how we can be in relationship with God, and how we can understand where God is calling us.

The Gospels were written with the purpose of addressing these questions by revealing who Jesus was and is. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus himself ask the key question of his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” This question underlies all of the Gospel stories, and eventually unfolds as the Good News of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

But here, at this point in the narrative, Jesus’ ministry and identity are still unfolding. Here, Jesus explicitly asks the disciples for an answer. He knows that he causes quite a stir wherever he goes, and in his full humanity he may be asking this question quite honestly: “What do you hear people saying about me?”

The answer is that people really don’t know what to think or what to say about him. Jesus doesn’t quite fit any known pattern. The closest they can come is to describe him as a prophet, such as Elijah, or perhaps even as John the Baptist.

Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” We can hear a confident, divine Jesus posing this question to the disciples so that they can learn to know him as the Messiah. I wonder, also, if the fully human Jesus is asking for some reassurance and even for their support. We may be able to hear just a hint of gentle wistfulness in the question: “After all is said and done, who am I to you, my closest companions?”

Good old foot-in-mouth Peter. He gets it just right, and at first he says to Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” So far so good. But then Peter immediately sails off course. He is shocked to hear Jesus describe a very different messiah than he can possibly understand: a suffering servant messiah, who willingly gives himself up to a shameful death and who will “after three days rise again”. Peter’s one moment of deep wisdom, that Jesus is the Messiah, is lost in a heartbeat in his befuddlement and incomprehension of what that will mean for his friend and teacher.

Wisdom is perhaps the most profound form of knowledge, beyond our direct experience and beyond any concrete understanding. Wisdom is the deepest knowledge of God’s will, God’s presence, God’s sanctity and God’s “divine goodness”. Most of us may hold such deep insight for only a fleeting instant, and then lose it in the next moment, as Peter does.

We do well, when we can discern and follow the path of divine Wisdom, which God intends to “pour out” and “make known” to us. Wouldn’t it be nice to have clear sky-writing that tells us exactly what is God’s will for us? Unfortunately, we don’t always understand what God wants to make clear. We may well, as James says, “make mistakes” in judgment and discernment. In our life choices, James describes a “very small rudder” which can change our life directions in major ways. Robert Frost wrote in one of his poems about two paths that diverged in the woods, and how he decided to take the less traveled path, which made “all the difference”. Frost adds, wistfully, that after making his choice, he knows that he will “never come back”.

Whatever our ages, we’ve all made choices and mistakes. I’ve made some real whoppers along the way. All these choices and, yes, even mistakes, become part of who we are and who we are becoming. As I grow older, I’m more and more convinced that mistakes, and side paths, and journeys off-course are never wasted, but they all become part of our stories, part of our spiritual growth, part of our search for God. Who are we? We are the total of all of our stories and our mistakes, our journeys off-course, as well as our successes. We are our happiness and our sorrows, our good as well as less fortunate choices. And we are not isolated, self-sufficient individuals, as we waver on and off-course, but rather we are our relationships with each other and with God.

We do get some sky-writing in this Gospel reading after all. Jesus is very clear in describing who God is calling us to become: a people who can “deny” ourselves, take up our cross every day, and follow him. “Denying” ourselves is not usually meant to be self-destructive, but rather a free choice, without resentment or obligation. It may mean as little as a kind word to a friend; it may very rarely mean as much as a major sacrifice or giving up our lives to save another.

Taking up our cross isn’t about suffering, as in “I guess this illness is my cross to bear”, nor is it about taking up someone else’s cross! Taking up our cross is also a free choice, and a firm, honest, complete dedication to generosity of spirit and to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus in our words and in our lives. It’s not about easy, convenient, half-hearted commitment. It’s not about church-lite. It’s a major life choice and whole-hearted dedication to Christ.

Who am I? Who are we? We are human, created in the image of a loving and merciful God. We are created to wonder and question; to make both wise and foolish choices. We are not alone, or solitary, or isolated. We are who we are in relationship to other people and to God. We are most closely defined by who we say that Jesus is.

As we learn to answer that question, we will also begin know who we are as human beings, as a community of faith, and as Christians who attempt in all things to follow Christ.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pentecost 13 (proper 17), Year B, Sunday August 30, 2009

Song Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

A few of my Jewish friends still keep the traditional kosher dietary laws. One evening, one of my most strictly observant friends joined a group of us at someone’s house for dinner. She brought her own food and utensils, and everything was fine, until we got to desert. There was a lovely cake that someone had brought, and she declared that it was “parve”, so she could have some, but we didn’t have a kosher knife, or a kosher plate, or a kosher fork. We finally coped with the situation by using a napkin and breaking off a piece for her, and she munched her dessert directly from the napkin. Not an elegant solution, but it worked!

There were special accommodations that we needed to make to include her in a way that was respectful of her tradition and beliefs, but still there was a feeling of separation because we couldn’t share our food as well as our fellowship. We realized that it would be complicated to continue to include her in social gatherings.

The purity laws of the ancient Hebrew people started with basic moral laws, such as the Ten Commandments, and gradually also included prudent practices for hygiene (washing hands before eating is always a good idea) and for public health (better not to eat pork if it might carry disease). As these laws evolved and became more firmly established in the Jewish tradition, they began to foster intentional separation between the Jews and all others.

Eventually, the purity laws also separated Jew from Jew. The Pharisees and the Jerusalem Temple authorities kept themselves as much as possible in a state of ritual purity so that they could at any time offer prayers and sacrifices. This was something of a luxury, since the common people would often become ritually impure just in the course of their daily lives.

Jesus had a very different experience of God from the religious authorities and the Pharisees. The Pharisees and religious elite believed that they had a special vocation and position at the Temple in Jerusalem. They believed that they held the key to holiness for all others, and that they were the closest to God.

Jesus had a very different experience of God. In his heart, he knew that he was close to God, even though he was not from a priestly family or a Pharisee. He felt blessed by God even though he was from a small, poor town far from Jerusalem and even though he grew up in a carpenter’s home. It may have been a shock to him, on his first visit to the temple as a child of about 12, to discover that the religious elite held themselves above the common people. He may been repelled by the elitism of the ritual sacrifice. His father, Joseph, would have purchased an animal for sacrifice, but would not have been able to offer the sacrifice himself and perhaps not even put his hand on the animal as a sign that it was his own offering to God.

Jesus had a more open and inclusive experience of God. Jesus felt absolutely convinced that a close and intimate connection to God was possible for all, especially the poor and weak and sick and the marginalized. For Jesus, any barriers to the holiness and sanctity of God would have to be of human and not divine origin. For Jesus, touching a leper was a way of holiness and service rather than an act that would defile and separate him from God. As he preached of the blessedness of the poor, those who mourn, and the meek, so he also did compassionate acts of healing.

To Jesus, God was close enough for him to call him Father. God was close enough to call Jesus “My beloved Son”. To Jesus, God was so close and so loving, that Jesus wanted to teach other Jews that they too could find God in their hearts and in their prayer, and that they need not rely on the religious authorities or special laws of purity to be able to approach God. Jesus did not intend to abolish the law altogether, but to fulfill it in a way that made it possible for all Jews, and Samaritans, and even Gentiles to know God.

No wonder he kept running into difficulty with the religious elite. He was challenging their special privilege and status to the core. He was undermining their position of authority. He was turning their teachings and traditions inside out and upside down. By not doing the ritual washing before meals, Jesus and his followers were demonstrating that holiness is not dependent on external ritual actions, but rather is dependent on the state of the heart.

A priest I know in New York was in charge of a little church that had been founded as a mission many years ago by a much larger church. He was hired to do some innovative things, such as jazz Vespers, and to start outreach programs in the local community. As he started to put new programs and services in place, he found that the clergy at the founding church would show up and take over the services, they would nitpick his work, and be critical, and generally not let him get on with what he felt needed to be done. I met him about two years after he left that little church, and it took him a good half-hour to tell me all that had happened. Then he said that all that resentment and anger were like poison in his heart, and like a kind of defilement. He said that he was learning to let go of the negative thoughts, and learning to forgive.

We all may hold some such defiling thoughts and sometimes we may speak angry, spiteful, and revengeful words. Following in the way of Jesus, however, is the way of forgiveness, even as he was dying on the cross, saying: “Forgive them, Father.” As we are forgiven and as we receive the blessing of grace, so we can learn to fill our hearts with forgiveness and blessing, which will crowd out the thoughts and words that defile and poison our hearts.

When Moses first encountered God, God asked him to take off his shoes while standing on holy ground. Removing his shoes was a ritual act that honored God and led Moses to become aware of the presence of God. There are ritual movements and actions that we still make, such as kneeling at the altar, which draw our focus and attention to the holiness and sanctity of God. There are everyday acts of kindness and forgiveness that are also sacred acts. Such actions express and deepen the holiness of the moment, and help us to fill our hearts with peace. As we approach the holiest moment of each Eucharist, we can bend the knee of our hearts, and receive the grace of God, the forgiveness of God, and the love of God, which is offered to all who trust and believe. When our hearts are full of love and a desire for peacefulness, there is no room for anything else.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pentecost 12 (Proper 16), Sunday August 23, 2009

I Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Preached by Deacon John Warner

Family Dinner

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

I thought I was from a large family, being the oldest of five children and one of sixteen first cousins, the children of my mother and her two sisters. However, when I married Marsha and began attending family reunions, birthdays and holiday celebrations, I learned the true meaning of a large family. Marsha grew up in a rural community traditionally characterized by large families needed as labor for family farms. Although Marsha was only the youngest of three siblings, her parents’ brothers and sisters could have outfitted a football league. Marsha’s father was one of eleven siblings while her mother was one of nine.

These family events offered an opportunity to catch up on family news—who’s pregnant, engaged, separated or ill. Food was brought in from the cars and trucks and set on tables being sure to reserve one table for the “sacred” desserts. Everybody had their favorite dessert. You might hear one father tell his daughter to run and grab one of Aunt Mabel’s limited supply of fried apple tarts--or a family member telling her sister that she just had to try a slice of Aunt Louise’s delicious coconut cake. And who could resist a piece of Aunt Mae’s chocolate pie? My mouth waters right now thinking of these heavenly delights.

The church has its own communal meals. Although I have heard church members tell visitors that we at St. Augustine are the “eatiness” group of people with its summer breakfasts, foyer groups and Special Event dinners, I’m not talking about these events; I’m specifically addressing the Eucharist that we share as a community each Sunday.

During August, the Revised Lectionary have taken a break from the Gospel readings from Mark for a series of readings from the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John where Jesus making a series of claims referencing his role for those who call themselves his disciples. First, Jesus states that he is spiritual food. Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Next, Jesus indicates that the bread from heaven is superior to what has come before. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…(John 6:51). Finally, Jesus indicates the communal importance of the Christian meal when he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56).

The students of our weekly EFM classes have learned to tolerate the odd questions I throw out to them to stimulate group discussions. One question that I ask the first year students is as follows: “You are Tom Hanks, a castaway on an isolated South Pacific island and its only resident. Can you begin your own religion? The rationale for the question is that one of the EFM writers pose a premise that any religion, including Christianity, involves two dimensions—one, a vertical relationship between humanity and God and two, a horizontal relationship within a community of man (and woman).

The Eucharist is one of the Church’s great sacraments, an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace. We gather together at the altar to give thanks and praise to God. It is also an opportunity to remember Christ and His sacrifice for us. These actions satisfy the concept of the vertical dimension, our relationship with God.

However, from the earliest times, the Eucharist has involved the community—the family of Christian believers. It has always been a public affair rather than a private devotion. Even when one of our Lay Eucharistic Visitors takes the consecrated host to the homebound, the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics remind us that “it is desirable that fellow parishioners, relatives and friends be present” to take part in the meal. The Eucharist reminds us of the horizontal dimension of Christianity, the responsibility that we have for each other—to love your neighbor as yourself. In this action, we, too, as the body of Christ, become a sacrament—an outward and visible of inward and spiritual grace.

Physicians and psychologists have reported on the benefits of regular attendance in a faith community. Dr. Daniel Hall from the University of Pittsburg Medical Center have demonstrated similar improvements in life expectancy among three experimental groups who respectively engaged in either regular exercise, underwent statin therapy, or attended religious services on a weekly basis. Psychologists have demonstrated a correlation between being an active member within a community of faith and corresponding reductions in stress, pain perception and reduction in risks from depression and anxiety disorders.

Can the health benefits within a community of faith be attributed to frequent church attendance or is it because a community of faith broadens our support systems, family members caring for and looking out for each other? Maybe both have a part to play in health improvement.

Although we generally feel more comfortable with our private connection with Jesus Christ within the sacrament of the bread and wine, we should not come to the altar and receive the Eucharist and neglect the other family members around the table. St. Paul expresses this truth when he says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake from the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). As we individually receive Christ into ourselves around the altar rails, we are inextricably bound to one another as the body of Christ. As Christ takes on flesh and blood in each of us, we become one as the collective body—the body of Christ.

As you participate in the Eucharist today, pay close attention to each person in the congregation, both church members and visitors. Do you know them? Maybe today would be a good time to introduce yourself. Are you aware of health or other life trials they might be experiencing? Is someone absent? Ask God to open your heart to be more mindful and attentive to the needs of others. Ask God to allow the shared Eucharistic experience to become an impetus to further bind us into a loving community. Finally, ask God to help you discern how this loving response to our family can be extended into the world. Amen.