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.