Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent 1A. 28 November 2010.


          Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem titled, "If…"  I am sure many of you have heard of it. 


If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;


And it continues for seven more stanzas, beginning each thought as a conditional phrase with the word, "if."  Hence, the title of the poem. 


          The conditional phrase is common grammatical construct.  The condition is "if," the consequence is "then."  The poem builds anticipation this way: if you can do this, if you can do that, if you can do this.  All the while the anticipation is meant to create the unspoken question in the mind of the reader of what the consequence is.  In the very last lines we learn that the consequence of all these virtuous acts is: then "yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!"


          We learn that the poet is writing this poem for his son.  This knowledge doubles the rhetorical power of the poem, because it comes as fatherly advice—intended to be both loving and helpful. 


          If you go down through this poem, and look critically at each line, Kipling has cast a very broad moral vision for the living of life.  It may be well summed up in the first lines, "If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/ If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…"


          I have not lived many years, but from the sources of wisdom I have encountered both within and without of the Church, the common denominator seems to be "keeping your head about you."  Living a life that is passionate, yes, but at the same time, reasoned.  Thoughtful.  Not easily shaken.


          Jesus said as much.  "Do not let your hearts be troubled."  In the parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders in Matthew's gospel, Jesus says that those who follow him are like a man who would build his house on a rock, and when the storms come, the house stands.  Likewise, those who do not hear and follow, are like foolish builders who build on the sand, and when the storms come, the house falls.  In the King James Version, Jesus says, "And great was the fall thereof."  I love that phrase!


          If I were to show you the textbooks I have on clergy leadership, or if you were to peruse the Management section of Barnes and Noble, you will see countless books dedicated to "keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you."


          I think it was Churchill Gibson—that great saint of the Diocese of Virginia—who said this—but if he didn't, he should have—that it is wise to treat groups of people like stray animals.  Make no sudden movements.


          In the course of my life, I have discovered time and again the benefits of taking time to reflect and consider and pray.  Quite often, when I am stuck on a text in the Bible or when I encounter some kind of quandary, the answer is almost never found at my desk.  The answer is found driving to a pastoral visit, or bathing the children, or simply trying to go to sleep at night.


          Sometimes the answer is found in the hills and valleys of Shenandoah County.  I have gleaned wisdom traveling on Orkney Grade or Senedo Road.  It is a simple act—slowing down to consider something in that non-anxious, playful, easy-going way you do when your mind is free from needing to make a quick fix.


          Consequently, I have become very wary when someone wants me to decide something instantly.  You get a phone call from someone telling you about a limited time offer, and you can almost hear the whistle as someone tries to railroad you.  I like advice that calms me down.  Something simple, like the poem. 


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, 

Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch; 

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; 

If all men count with you, but none too much; 


          (Isn't Kipling great?  If you've never kipled before, you are Kipling now!)


          So—in the light of the thoughtful approach—it feels strange to read this lesson from Matthew in which Jesus talks about a day that is coming that only the Father knows.  Not even he himself knows.  A day like any day.  People are going about their business.  Jesus sort of spells it out poetically.  Remember the story of the Flood, he says.  "They were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage."  If you look at the Greek there is a rhythmic cadence to it.  It almost sounds like a song, "eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage."


          Then that rhythm is broken by harsh sounds.  "Until the day Noah entered the Ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and washed them all away.  So too will be the coming of the Son of Man."


          And then he returns to poetry to describe the sense of uncertainty.  He uses repetition.  Two in the field: one is taken, one is left.  Two grinding at the mill: one is taken, one is left.  Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.


          After this he teases our minds a little bit with the analogy of a thief coming in the middle of the night.  It's a playful thing to do.  God is not a thief, but the analogy serves.  It's going to happen when you might least expect it, so be ready.


          I cannot speak for the Church as a whole, but my sense of most Episcopalians is that we would rather not speak of the return of Christ.  I am not saying that Episcopalians don't believe it.  I'm an Episcopalian and I very much "look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."  But I'm not sure that folks would want to sit down to a discussion of that.  And I can understand why.


          Our biblical tradition of apocalyptic writing contains the premise that "what is going on" is not really what is going on. That there is more to it than meets the eye.  And if you choose to look at the world through those lenses, then everything has a symbolic meaning to it.   You begin to sound like a conspiracy theorist, and people will say, "Oh, come off it.  This is not a cosmic drama of good and evil, this is just two groups of people who disagree."


          But, there is a very strong tradition in the Bible for that way of looking at things.  Jeremiah clearly understood the Babylonian exile to be God's punishment for the infidelity of the people of Israel, and their worship of other gods.  That is the narrative of the Exile, which comprises a huge section of our Bible.  Within those writings there are multiple layers of tradition, all essentially saying that there is more to this than meets the eye.


          If we open up the Book of Revelation we are met with countless cosmic visions of what the end of the world will look like.  There is so much imagery that it staggers the mind, and leaves even scholars scratching their heads. 

          But the premise remains, what you see is only the tip of the iceberg—it's symbolic of cosmic fight between God and the devil, or good and evil, or however you wish to say it.


          My guess is that this is why many faithful Christians are happy to live in the expectancy that Christ will return after they have died.  But (and this is only my opinion) I don't think there are many who are looking for Christ to return while they are living.  It may be that they believe it is na├»ve to have that kind of expectancy—that it makes them a religious fanatic.  Or it may just be that they do not want to live to see all the destruction and turmoil that the Revelation to John describes.  I can understand both reasons, and if you can think of other reasons, I'm sure I will find them just as understandable.


          We are talking, after all, about uncertain things, and they are written about in the Bible with poetic language—meaning that even Jesus resorts to poetry and imagination in describing these events. 


          But it seems to me that the intention of this lesson is not to frighten us, or make us wary of what will happen.  The language Jesus uses is, on the surface of it, very anxious—it is intended to make us sit up in our pews and realize that the status quo will change.  But that is—I think—the secondary intention of the text. 



          The primary intention is to encourage us to" be ready."  And I'm going to insist on the tense of that verb as present tense.  Not the future—as in—"get ready"—as in—"You aren't anywhere close to where you need to be!"  But "be ready."  Live ready.  Living that is the entirety of the devout Christian life—to be given to prayer and acts of service.  To be faithful to God in crisis and in peace. 


          St. Irenaeus of Lyons once wrote, "The glory of God is Man fully alive."  In Latin, Gloria Dei Vivens Homo.  That God's glory is the human being—the image and likeness of God—living the fullness of the life God intended.  This is what, I believe, the prophet Micah meant when he wrote, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God?" (6:8)


          I do not believe that we are meant to live in fear of the end of days.  I could be wrong, but I really don't think it is part of God's character to want us to be afraid.  I think God wishes us to be fully alive.  To do what he said from the beginning: replenish the earth and subdue it.  Be fruitful. (Genesis 1)  Live a life of holy relationships with others, and with him.


          If we are doing those things...  If we are living the life we have been given in obedience to the Gospel, and in service to Creation, then I think we will "be ready" at whatever hour God chooses.


          I we can do that, then—with apologies to Kipling—yours is the earth and everything that's in it, and what is more, you'll be a Christian, my son.


          Remaining seated, let us pray.  I want to offer part of a prayer by Jeremy Taylor, one of the great Anglican Divines of the 17th century.


O ETERNAL and holy Jesus, who by death hast overcome death and by thy passion hast taken out its sting and made it to become one of the gates of heaven and an entrance to felicity:  Have mercy upon [us] now and at the hour of [our] death.  Let thy Grace accompany [us] all the days of [our lives] that [we] may, by an holy conversation and an habitual performance of [our duties], wait for the coming of our Lord, and be ready to enter with thee at whatever hour thou shalt come.  Amen.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I have been trying to discern

why it is that I become afraid at this time of the year.  I am happy to report that I am no longer feeling quite so anxious, and perhaps that is because the "undertow" of the holidays is at last upon us, but I don't know.  I thought at first it was because I don't like to see summer go—primal feelings of wanting things to be warm and sunny, therefore, in my mind, happy.


One day, I consulted a very good friend of mine, who has no name.  He's the large oak tree that grows in our neighbor's yard, but overhangs our driveway.  He's very large and almost perfectly symmetrical, and over the last three years we have become quite close.  I drive beneath him every morning on my way to church.  He's the first thing I see when I turn onto my street at lunchtime, or in the evening.  I walk beneath him in the afternoon to get the mail.  I sit with him while the children play outside. 


In fact, there was one afternoon recently when the children were happily playing by themselves and I was free to sort of wander around, and I took some time to just look at him and smile and enjoy the silent relationship we have.  All his leaves had changed to this gorgeous shade of yellow, and because of the slant of the afternoon sun, they looked golden. 


I told him, "I'm scared."  He said, "I have been scared, too."  "Really!?" I said, surprised, "What do you have to be scared of?" 


He said, "Well, it's been a good summer—just the right amount of sun and wind.  I wish we had had more rain, of course, but I'll get by.  The thing is, I don't want to let go of these leaves.  I'll end up standing here naked.  And you and everyone else will see that there are some limbs that just aren't as alive as they once were."


I didn't know what to say.  My impulse was to console, but it seemed a little silly.  The wind started up and a few leaves came down.  I gave us a couple minutes of silence, and then I asked, "Wait a second, you said you have been scared.  Are you still scared now?"


"No, I got over it," he said, "there's nothing I can do about it anyway.  At a certain point the wind gets to be too much, and you get too weak to hold on.  You just have to let go."


Well, that's easy for him to say.  He's a tree.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Christ the King C. 21 November 2010.

For the audio version, click here and select Last Sunday after Pentecost


          As I read the Gospel lesson, just now, it may have seemed a bit abrupt that we would find ourselves at the Cross.  In the Episcopal Church we are not accustomed to reading the story of the crucifixion of Jesus outside of the full story of his trial and the events leading up to the Cross.  Until the General Convention of 2006, we were using the lectionary found in the back of The Book of Common Prayer, which as I understand it, is an old Roman Catholic lectionary. 


          In 2006, the Episcopal Church decided to drop that lectionary in favor of the Revised Common Lectionary—which most other denominations are using.  I remember hearing people say, "Oh, the Episcopal Church is trying to get away from the Bible."  But actually, the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary are longer, and they include more familiar lessons than the old one. 


          If you've been an Episcopalian all your life—under the old lectionary—you probably haven't heard many sermons on the crucifixion of Jesus, because the lessons never brought it up.  Well, now they do, and we are better off for it, because the crucifixion is culmination and climax of Jesus' ministry.


          This is the Church's story.  It is our story—the story that makes us Christians.  Without it, we are just a bunch of nice people in a pretty building.  Everything we do and say in this space is a footnote to the death and resurrection of Jesus.   


          So often we have encountered it—as I said before—as one long "Passion reading" on Palm Sunday or Good Friday—with so much for the listener to hear that it feels like drinking from a fire hydrant.  Any little bits of the story that intrigue you, or move you, as you listen become lost as the narrative carries you ceaselessly to the Cross.  You think, "what was that about?"  But before you can reflect, we're on to the next.


          One such part of the narrative is the part we read today, the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals who were hung beside Jesus.  When we see the image of the Cross—like on the Altar, or around someone's neck—it is usually a solitary cross.  If the Cross also bears a likeness of Jesus on it, it's called a crucifix.  Either way, we remember Jesus being crucified, but rarely does that image encompass the two criminals.  Even more rarely do we remember that there was a discussion between them. 


          It is likely that we don't remember it that way because this discussion is only recorded in Luke's gospel.  Matthew mentions that two bandits were also hung with Jesus—but no dialog.  John records Jesus' conversation with the disciples and Mary, and simply writes that "two others" were crucified with him.  Mark doesn't mention anyone at all. 


          I want to try to talk about this interaction between Jesus and the two criminals, but there is an over-arching context to this text that gives it a power we could easily overlook. 


          The power of these sentences can be eclipsed by reading ahead too quickly to the Resurrection.  And we do that.  We do that quite naturally, because the Gospel of Christ is the Resurrection.  It is our "Alleluia" that Christ triumphed over the powers of sin and sickness and hell, and rose again from the dead, giving life to all who want it.  That is our story, but you cannot have the Resurrection without the Cross.  He has to die.  He has to be utterly and completely dead, or the story isn't the story. 


          The pathos of the part we read is that these three men—Jesus and the two criminals—are dying.  They are dying a very painful and embarrassing death in front of who knows how many people.  It was painful.  The word we use to describe pain of this magnitude is what?  Excruciating. 


          The word excruciating is derived from the Latin word ex-cruciare, which means to crucify.  The word carries in its full meaning the total horror of crucifixion.  That it is embarrassing, torturous, and agonizing—all three of those words combined.  Humiliating emotionally.  Mentally torturous—meaning, not knowing when it will end or how bad it is going to get.  And agonizing—painful to the body. 





          When people say they felt "excruciating pain," God bless them, but typically they are describing agony.  Excruciating is a complete assault on every faculty of one's being for who knows how long before death.  You and I cannot imagine it, unless we live it.  And if we lived it, we could not live to explain it.  Do you see what I'm trying to say?


          Here are three men who are being excruciated.  If they were only dying it would still be horrific, but do you understand that they are not only dying? 


          It is one thing to know you are dying, and another thing entirely to know when.  We all know that we are dying.  I remember very clearly when I was a little boy finding out that in time we all die.  I don't remember exactly how old I was, but I was probably about Peter's age, and I was sitting on the front steps of our house.  The girl who lived across the street was also sitting on the front steps of her house and we were talking across the street at each other.  She was a little older, and I don't remember how it came up or exactly what she said, but I remember her saying, "Everyone dies.  You will die one day."


          It was like Eve giving me the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.  And I ate the apple.  And I looked down and realized that we were both naked.  Not really, of course, but that's what it feels like when you realize that you are not as safe as you thought you were. 



          It happens in little bits over the course of your early years.  And when you are a child you can't always accommodate new information.  You go to your room and play with your toys, but your mind creates these little tangled thoughts and questions that lie around on the floor.  Sometimes they can actually form coherent thoughts, like "Grandma got sick and died.  If I catch a cold, will I also die?"  "My mother takes medicine.  If she stops taking it, will she die?" 


          Children ponder these sorts of things long before parents know, and sometimes there is a breakdown in their ability to express the anxiety that those early thoughts produce.  They don't know what to do with their thoughts.  No one can get inside their heads with them to see what they are thinking and to gauge the limits of their mind's ability to put things together.


          When we are very very young and we first encounter the concept of death, it is like opening a door to a room with no windows and no light switch.  The light from the hallway only goes so far.  We can see the floor leading in, and we're able to put our head inside just to see what we can see, but it isn't much. 


          We spend most of our days walking past that room.  We know it is there, but we don't really like to think about it.  Occasionally someone opens that door and walks through it into the room, and they don't walk out.  And we gather around the door frame in our "Sunday best" and the priest tells the story about a man named Jesus who once walked into that room and came out again. 

          That's our story, you see?  That's God's answer to the many little tangled questions we started asking when we were kids—and continue to ask, even now.  (Pause.)


          Three men were up there, excruciating.  Slowly, painfully, dying.  Two of them were criminals, being executed for crimes they committed.  One of them offered no defense at his trial, and did nothing worthy of execution.  What was passing through their minds?  We have no real idea.  Trying to look into their minds is like trying to look into the dark room, and only being able see but so far.


          As they hung there, they were mocked and derided by the crowds, especially Jesus.  As the criminals heard the epithets being flung at him, one of them joined in.  I want you to look at him with great compassion.  He's desperate.  He doesn't know what else to do.  He's in pain that we cannot imagine.  He said, "Are you not the Messiah?  Save us and save yourself."


          Luke writes that the other criminal fired back at him, "We deserve this.  We were condemned for what we did, but this man did nothing at all."  And then he said, "Jesus.." 


          Did you catch that?  Not Rabbi.  Not Teacher. Do you remember the first chapter of Luke, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary?  He said, "You shall call him Jesus."  The name Jesus is the common form of the name Joshua.  The name Joshua… Can anyone tell me what the name Joshua means?   It means, Salvation…Deliverer. 


          The other criminal is not showing any disrespect by using Jesus's name.  Quite the contrary.  The criminal is saying, "You are the One who delivers.  You are the One who brings salvation."  And he says,  "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."


          Now, don't fast forward to the end, or you will miss this!  They are dying.  This is it.  They are walking into the dark room together.  And from the cross of a desperate, dying man comes this prayer of faith.  "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  The second criminal does not believe that this is the end.  More than that.  The second criminal believes that the man beside him is a king.  And in death, this king will be bringing in a whole new kingdom.


          This is the Coronation of Jesus—the climax of his ministry.  Offering himself to be excruciated: tortured, humiliated, agonized for as long as it takes to kill him.  He does nothing to bring himself down.  As he dies, humanity, hanging there dying beside him—in the form of a convict—finally recognizes who he is


          Humanity, facing death finally sees Jesus for who he is.  He's a King.  He is the One.  He is the Messiah.  He is the Son of God.  He is the Lamb that has been slain.  He is the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end. 




          The criminal and the Savior join hands and walk through the door of the dark room together.  But before they do, Jesus says to him—and by extension to all of us: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."


          At the point of death—the final words from Jesus are not a reproach, a criticism, a parable, a thought, a meditation, or even a verse of Scripture.  They are a reassurance.  We will see him there, and there will be no cross, and no excruciating.  The dark room that has scared us since we were children will be bright, and we will never have to peer into the darkness again.


          That's our story, you see?  That's what makes us Christians. 


          When time takes our hand, and the shadows lengthen, and the unbearable is borne, we are not alone.  From the Cross, humanity had the grace to see the King and his coming kingdom.  And as we finally tried to give him the robe and crown, he meekly, but beautifully, took our hands and walked into the darkness with us. 


          One day, he will also take our hands and walk us out.



                If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Proper 28C. 14 November 2010.

Audio version, click here and select 25th Sunday after Pentecost


          When I was a child I sang in the children's choir in church.  One day a week, after school—I think it was Tuesday—I would walk home from school, drop off my backpack, gobble down a little snack, and then walk down to our church.  Our church had two worship spaces: the large newer sanctuary, and a smaller chapel that was the original sanctuary when the church was first built. 


          We sang in the chapel.  It was beautifully, but plainly decorated.  Both before and after choir, there was free time and we used to wander aimlessly around the church.  It was a large church—lots of Sunday school rooms for children and adults, too. 


          I used to wander around looking at everything.  All the windows were stained-glass, and we didn't dare turn the lights on, so we viewed the church in this sort of spooky half-light.  But it was never spooky, really.  I was never afraid of it.


          There is something about being in a church when it's dark inside.  It smells the same as Sunday morning, but because of the darkness it's a little cooler and calmer.  Sunday is always so bright, but on a weekday when nothing is scheduled, you can wander around, and experience a very different place.

          I don't really know how to describe it, but I love it.  The closest I can get to describing it is feeling like you are wading through a spiritual fog that has been left by the countless thoughts and prayers. 


          You go through the Sunday school room and smell the chalk from the blackboard, and look at old Bibles mixed in with worksheets and cartoon drawings of Noah and the Flood.  Little wooden chairs with crayon marks.  Pencils with teeth marks. 


          The light slants through the windows in the afternoon leaving long tired shadows on the floor.  You move about in the darkness from room to room, knowing that even though it feels as empty and silent as a tomb, God is there.  And the presence of God can seem both painfully distant and overwhelmingly present at the same time. 


          Time marches on, but it feels as if the world could spin on to eternity, and God would still breathe steadily in and out within these walls. 


          You see his presence in the simplest of things.  Little particles of dust, revealed by the sunlight, swirling and dipping.  A door opens and closes down by the offices, and up through the steps, over the carpet, the air shifts.  The change in atmosphere is marked by the movement of those tiny particles suspended in the air.  Is that the Holy Spirit, or is it the wind?  In church, who can say?  The air is charged with God. 




          I felt this way especially in the church I grew up in, but I get the same feeling in all churches.  There is something about them.  You look at the wood and stone, the plaster and paint, and you know that it was faith that built these spaces.  This building didn't start off as a garage or a home—each brick was laid with the intention that people would be standing in this place, singing hymns, praying prayers, receiving the bread and wine.


          The building of the church is so much more than just a building.  It needs maintenance from time to time, but because of what it is, the church has an air of invincibility about it.  All other buildings are likely to suffer loss, but not the church.  A church should never be touched by damage.


          Last month, the chapel at Virginia Seminary burned.  Not all the way to the ground, but it is uncertain what the full extent of the damage is.  We don't know if they'll have to tear down the rest, or rebuild what is there. 


          While it was on fire, it was difficult to view the images of the smoke and flames—the sight of vestments and books that burned.  The Altar Cross came through, but with soot stains around its edges…  It's unthinkable.  I mean, we know these things are things.  Churches are built by human hands, but they appreciate with time.  The years roll on, Sundays tick by, but the building is meant to endure.  There should be memories associated with it that link the generations to each other.




          The Temple in Jerusalem served this function.  In fact, the Temple was more that just a large holy building.  It was literally the house of God.  The power and glory of God lived in the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant rested.  People moved in and out of the courtyard.  The outer parts of the Temple had a market place where merchants could sell small animals to be offered as a sacrifice in penitence or thanksgiving, or both. 


          The Temple linked the generations to each other.  You could walk around the Temple and feel that the air around it was charged with the presence of God—such as you and I could not imagine.  Our churches are more like synagogues.  The Temple was like a cathedral, but unlike the many cathedrals of the world, there was only one Temple and it stood in Jerusalem. 


          Jerusalem.  The Holy City.  Zion.  It has always been THE city for the three monotheistic religions:  Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  All three faiths trace their lineage to Jerusalem.  At the time of Christ, Rome had political control, and Judaism was the prevailing faith.  Islam did not exist before the early 600s.  As Jesus was walking around the Temple with his disciples, it was unthinkable that anything could ever match its beauty and meaning.


          I'm not sure I could describe the sense of power that the Temple had.  The power of the Temple itself, but then the political power of the Sadducees, the Temple priests.  The power of the Pharisees—powerful, rigorously devout, politically savvy. 

          There was power in God's people being in the land that God himself had given them.  I'm talking about power, sitting on power, being powerful.  Power—religious, social, political, you name it.  If you were part of that system, you knew exactly who you were and what your place in life was. 


          Jesus was walking around the Temple with his disciples, and they were admiring its beauty, and noticing all the gifts that people had given, and Jesus says, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."


          After what I've described, you can imagine how jarring it was to hear Jesus say that.  And you can almost hear the trembling in the voice of the person who asked the inevitable follow-up question,  "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?"


          And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."


          Jesus describes a complete and total end of everything around them.  No more Temple, no more power structure as they know it.  Earthquakes, insurrections, governments shifting, signs in the heavens.  And when all of this occurs they will arrest the followers of Jesus.  The disciples will be brought before kings and governors to give a testimony of what they believe.


          It will not surprise you to learn that everything Jesus has described has already happened.  The Temple was destroyed in 70AD, some thirty or forty years after Jesus ascended into heaven, by the Roman General Titus who would later become Caesar. The only surviving wall of the Temple is the famous Western, or Wailing Wall, where devout Jews continue to offer prayers. The disciples would all be martyred, along with many early converts to Christianity. 


          Yet, the Church does not regard these words as prophecies fulfilled.  We do not cast them onto the recycling pile with the old newspapers.  We continue to read these chilling words and they continue to reverberate in the Church.  Why do we do this?   Why don't we just let them go?  They are prophecies fulfilled.  We wouldn't save and re-read the weather forecast from the weeks leading up to Hurricane Katrina.


          Well, we continue to read these words because somewhere along the way the Church realized that if you take the long view of history, nothing stays exactly the same. 


          I mentioned Islam.  Islam did not come along until the 600s.  The iconic image of Jerusalem now is not the Temple, but on the Temple Mount sits the Dome of the Rock—a Muslim shrine.  The Dome of the Rock is built around the Foundation Stone, where some believe the Ark of the Covenant rested—the place called the Holy of Holies.  For Muslims the Foundation Stone is where the prophet Muhammad ascended to receive guidance from God—in what is known as the Night Journey of Muhammad.


          But still, no building stands forever.  Who knows what will happen to the Dome of the Rock with time.  Kingdom rises and against kingdom.  There are earthquakes, fires, and floods. 


          Immense churches and cathedrals are built to convey the message of God's enduring presence, and our relationship with him.  Sometimes it seems like everything about the building is meant to convey endurance and timelessness.  This church was built long after the medieval era, but those who built it continued to use the Gothic arch—a symbol of architectural strength.  The message is: this church is built to last.  And I couldn't agree more.  The church is built to last.  But not merely with bricks and mortar.  Not only by plaster and paint. 


          We read this lesson because occasionally we need to be reminded that the faith that built our church buildings is stronger than the buildings themselves.  The family is always more than the house.   


          Occasionally the Church needs to be reminded that Christianity is a controversial faith.  In 2010, sitting here today, it may be the furthest thing from our minds that everything around us can change, and that being a Christian could become a reason to be brought up before kings and governors—that even brothers and sisters would betray us.  But stick around long enough and it can happen.


          Kingdoms will rise against kingdoms, nations against nations.  There will be earthquakes and famines and plagues, "but not a hair of your head will [ultimately] perish," says Jesus.  "By your endurance your will gain your souls."


          The faith that builds the buildings will endure.  And the People will be the Church.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Monday, November 8, 2010

All Saints' Sunday. 7 November 2010.

I am sure that many of you are familiar with what are called the Beatitudes. The word "beatitude" comes from the Latin "beatus," meaning "blessing." Most Christians are familiar with the eight beatitudes found in Matthew. They begin what is known as the Sermon on the Mount.

Today we read the beatitudes found in Luke's Gospel, which are a little different. In Matthew they are all "blesseds." "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." And so forth. But Luke's version also contain reproaches, "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you…" In fact, if my math serves, there are only three beatitudes, and four "woes." Would that Luke had been content to simply copy Matthew's beatitudes and leave the "woes" out, but he didn't.

Most people like the beatitudes in Matthew because they have no reproaches, and because they have a coziness to them. Their cadence is very familiar on the ear. Blessed are the X, for they shall have Y. Which makes for an even harsher sound to the reproaches, because they take the same form, "Woe to the X, for they shall be Y." Because it's like suddenly the clouds grow dark and heavy with rain.

As I mentioned in last week's sermon on Zacchaeus, there is a sharp contrast in Luke's gospel between the rich and poor. Nowhere is this contrast more evident than in this section.

A couple weeks ago, when I was looking ahead to the readings I would be working on for this Sunday, I found myself staring at this lesson in the way you might regard a familiar photo or artwork on your wall at home. I knew this lesson well. Actually, it was more complicated than that because I couldn't look at it without thinking of Matthew's version.

I spent more than a few days just reading this text over and over in my mind. I did all the work that I was supposed to do. I read the commentaries. I underlined certain words, and made my own notes in the margins of the text. But pretty much, I just sat there looking at it. It was just like that familiar picture on the wall. You see it a hundred times a day. You could almost sit down and recreate the whole thing from memory, but I couldn't seem to lift this text off the page into a sermon, because it didn't make sense to me.

"Blessed are the poor," Luke writes. In Matthew, it's "Blessed are poor in spirit." Well, that's much better, see? We can work with "poor in spirit." I don't know many people who would dare to consider themselves rich in spirit. Poor in spirit is infinitely more preach-able. But here's Luke's version of Jesus' words, "Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."

And he continues, "Blessed are you who are hungry now…" Not like Matthew, remember? "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness"? See how Matthew spiritualizes things out a bit?! You can preach that! But no, no… Luke writes it as "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.

"Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man." "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that's what they did to the false prophets."

Do you see how stark these sentences are? And do you see how Luke's account of Jesus' words make the poor and rich seem intrinsically good and bad? Well, this is where I got hung up. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

Blessed are the poor. Really? I have worked with and been around a fairly good number of poor people. Not like the destitute of the third world, but those in our local community who are struggling, and I don't think any of them would consider themselves blessed in any sense of the word. The same for those who are hungry. If I were to meet someone who came to me with a need by saying, "Blessed are you for being poor," I think they would probably want to hurt me.

It seems like Jesus is saying that we should aspire to poverty. They are blessed, not the rich—so strive to be poor. Well, of course there is precedent for that in Luke's gospel when Jesus tells the rich ruler to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. Still to this day, anyone entering a monastery must take those words literally, and give it all up to join the community.

But strive to be poor? (Pause.) If you are poor, then you have little, and you need help—the kind of help that comes from someone with enough to share. And the people with enough to share are not poor. It seems like Jesus is asking us to embrace a lifestyle of anxiety and want. It doesn't make sense.

From the moment we are born, if we are fortunate enough to be born into a loving family, then we are educated, and fed right, and nurtured—all with the hopes, prayers, and expectations that we will then discover a vocation in life that pays well enough for us to take care of ourselves and perhaps start our own family. That's civilization.

We can't have an economy that sustains human life without the common goal of financial security. And Jesus wants us to do what? Blessed are the poor. Are we to become poor and just live morsel to morsel, praying our prayers, rubbing our pennies together, and hoping that someone will occasionally take us in?

Jesus has this backwards. Blessed are the rich, for they can take care of the poor. Blessed are the full, for they can share with others. Blessed are those who are laughing, for they shall encourage those who are weeping.

And what is this nonsense about people speaking well of us? What's so wrong with that? It seems to me that if people think well of you, and you're a Christian, then that should be a good advertisement for the church. You wouldn't want it to be like: "Aww, there goes old soandso…he's a real piece of work. He's a Christian? I wouldn't want to go to that church."

Jesus has it backwards. If people speak well of you, the church is sound, people will come. If people avoid their eyes when you walk by, how is that advancing the Kingdom of God?

I know probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 clergy, probably more than that. I don't know a single clergyperson of any denomination who would want people to revile them, hate them, or persecute them.

I sat there looking at this text in Luke's gospel, shaking my head. And then the light bulb flickered, and I remembered that in Jesus' day, in first century Palestine, there were two aspects of culture that are simply not part of our modern day world. In the first place, there was no middle class. You were either rich or poor. And second, there was no way to change it. If your daddy was a farmer, you were a farmer. If your daddy was a Temple priest, you were a Temple priest.

Jesus is preaching to people who are caught in an inflexible society. No matter how hard you worked or tried to save your money, you were what you were. And people treated each other with the respect their status demanded, rather than the basic, underlying culture we have, "That all men are created equal…"

You and I cannot imagine it. Oh, we have our own little status stuff, sure. But the son of a mechanic can become a lawyer. The son of a college professor can become a plumber. We wouldn't bat an eye at that, but it simply couldn't happen in Jesus' day.

When Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor/Woe to the rich," what is he really saying? It seems to me that he's really speaking against the inflexibility of society—the inability to be identified as more than just what your status is. So he says, "If life is good for you, woe to you, because you don't care, and you don't have to care about those who struggle. And for those of you who have struggled, blessed are you."

I still had some trouble, with that word "blessed." It just didn't seem possible that Jesus was saying that the poor are blessed so we should strive to be poor. But then I thought about it this way. Maybe he is trying to say, "Your culture just sees you as poor, but God sees more than your status. God sees you for you, and because God values you, you are blessed." (Pause.) It seems, then, that if God finds value in people whom society ignores, then they are indeed blessed, and that we too should find value in them.

Fortunately, we are not just beginning to learn this. Our culture is very different, as I said before. By and large, most of us remain true to our American cultural value of equality, but of course, there is still room to grow. Whenever we fail to value people, but treat them in categories of ethnic or racial stereotypes, we would do well to remember this lesson.

Perhaps Luke would allow me to rephrase the beatitudes a little bit, just to help them speak more clearly in our present day:

Blessed are those who are trapped in the stereotype of their race, blessed are they, because God cares about them, and values them. Blessed are those who work very very hard, and still never get ahead in this life; God will move heaven and earth to help them. Blessed are those who are hated for no reason other than their faith—for so they treated the prophets of God.

But woe to you who carry on as if everyone has enough to live and be happy, and pay no respect or regard for the less fortunate among you. Woe to you who believe you can do nothing at all to help those who cannot help themselves, for you do not understand how hard it can be. Woe to you when you get cheap laughs for denigrating others, and people speak well of you for your intolerance because you sound like one of them. Woe to you, for you do not know that the people you cut down are just regular folks who are just trying to make a life for themselves and their families. (Pause.)

A couple weeks ago, we had the Oktoberfest dinner at Emmanuel as a benefit for the Shenandoah County Free Clinic. Some of you came to that event and heard Mr. George Brinkley speak so thankfully to those who came. One of the things he said that stuck with me—I wish I could remember his exact words—is how there were people the Free Clinic has helped who had been okay financially, but who were facing some real hardships—people who, perhaps, never thought that they would be needing help from the Free Clinic. And sure enough, here they were coming to get help. Those people—once rich, now poor—will never look down their noses again at people in need. (Pause.)

The message that comes through is a sobering reminder that we need to take care of each other, because when times get tough it doesn't matter whether you're a college professor or a trash collector, ultimately what matters is that we are all children of God—loved by God, and intrinsically valuable to God. "Woe to them who are filled, for they will be emptied." "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Those weren't Mr. Brinkley's words, but that's what he said.


If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.