Good news!

A sermon for Annual Meeting Sunday at the Church of the Epiphany, and the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.

 

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?”

The good news of the gospel is bursting out of today’s readings. Isaiah, the prophet, has been through some rough times, with international affairs and foreign powers providing plenty of hardship for his people. But now, the prophet is ready to proclaim some gospel hope.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not fai
nt.

They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint. Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.

 

For Paul, the good news is what drives him forward, across land and sea, through shipwrecks, arrests, all sorts of unwelcome adventures. He is unable to resist the siren call of the gospel to preach the good news to all who haven’t yet heard it:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?”

 

On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the people are spilling out of Saturday synagogue after the Sabbath service. They are buzzing with excitement, as well they might be. They just heard Jesus preach! They saw him command an evil spirit to leave their community, and it obeyed him! They hurry home. “Have you not heard?”

At Simon Peter’s wife’s parents’ house, the news of a healer is welcome. His mother in law is burning up with a fever. “Have you not heard?” they ask her. “This one has the power to raise you up!”

Such great excitement, and the news spread like wildfire. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”

A couple of weeks ago, our Senior Warden asked the Vestry, “What is it that we want to be known for?” What do we want people to hear about us, to say about the Church of the Epiphany?

My suggestion is that it is this: that we should be known for good news. That we should be heard proclaiming the gospel of Christ: that those who wait on the Lord shall have their strength renewed. That those burning up will be rescued from the fire. That even those who sit in the ashes will be lifted up. That there is solidarity for the sorrowful, and release of the imprisoned and possessed, and celebration of all of the blessings of this life with which God has endowed us. That is what I would like our neighbours to find here. That is the buzz that should be about this place. And perhaps it is. I hope it is, at least, a little buzzing!

 

A lot has been made of the fact that, according to Mark’s account, as soon as Peter’s mother in law was restored to health, she hurried to serve her special guest. Some people have found this to be a sign of the lingering problems of a woman’s place in the church, in the home, in our society, as though Jesus soothed her fevered brow and then said, “Woman, now get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!”

I understand how this might rub some of us the wrong way.

[Just in the past week, a serious contender for public office asserted that his support for women’s rights came at the price of his fiancee’s agreement to have dinner on the table for him by six every evening. I also read about a teenaged explorer who got so many “make me a sandwich” messages after her successful trip to the north pole that when she skied to the south pole, she took a sandwich with her for the photo shoot, to offer her critics.]

Fortunately, there is another way of reading Peter’s mother in law’s return to full strength, full health, full authority, and it is good news.

There are those who point out that the word used to describe her service to Jesus and her son in law’s other guests is the same word as we use for deacons. They wonder if this was, in fact, the first example of Christ ordaining a deacon for the embryonic church.

That’s one way of reading it; another argues that, ordained or not, it is in restoring her to herself, to her own authority in her own household, to her own strength and freedom that Jesus made this woman a model for all of us who are called into Christian service.

Once our own needs are met: when we have been fed, forgiven, embraced by the love of God; only then are we able to notice the needs of others, and to have the love left over to serve them. Once we are restored to our own dignity, by the radical and absolute acceptance of Christ, then it comes naturally to respect the dignity, to demand the dignity of others. Once we are healed of our burning fevers, of conflict and covetousness, then we have the calm collection in which to notice the way in which God has infected all that we have, and do, and are, and to respond in wonder, love, and praise.

It is by the grace given to us in the gospel that we are able to reach out in love to serve those whom Christ has brought to us, has sent into our house; and we are called to serve them in love and humility, with dignity and with honour.

Whether we are known for our dramatically delicious community meals, or for our involvement in the affairs of the city of Euclid, for our pancakes or our peacemaking, for the colour of our doors or the colours of our faces, for our open hearts, our open minds; however we are called to serve our community, we are able to do it first and only because of the good news that we have heard and known. We do it because Jesus has raised us up to do it, has healed us of our fever and our fear, has restored us to our whole selves.

We live in a world that is fevered and fearful, angry and tired, and more than a little anxious. But we have known, we have heard that Jesus has the authority to cast out demons by his word. We have known, we have heard that the gospel is on the move, and in our midst. We have known, we have heard that those who wait upon the Lord shall mount up on their wings like eagles.

Those who are raised up to wait upon him who comes into the house for the meal at the time of the Sabbath service, all who celebrate this Eucharist, all who share this Communion, may they all find their strength renewed.

Amen.

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The Feast of the Presentation

Simeon has been dismissed.
Anna shed her widow’s weeds,
went dancing with the turtle doves,
snowing feathers; all that remains
is dust and the rubble of a memory,
the echo of a prayer, and a child, caught
by his woven onesie in a thornbush.

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Marking time

As published at the Episcopal Cafe’s Speaking to the Soul

In the beginning, at the very beginning, on page one God separates the day from the night, and there was evening and there was morning, a day never to be remembered by a living soul, except for the One brooding over the deep waters. It was a day without history or precedent, never to be repeated; a day like no other.

Since then, each day comes with its burden of proof: the anniversary of a kiss; the caked-on accretions of a birthday; the unthinkable number of days, weeks, hours that have passed since she died.

We face the paradox that each day is a new and joyful creation of God, and that there is nothing new under the sun.

The action of turning the calendar page is a challenge to understand how each day anchors us in that moment between the gravity of time and the weightlessness of eternity; a moment in which to remember, and to rest upon the constancy of the One who watched the sun rise over the newly born day, and proclaimed that it was good.

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Love builds up

A sermon for the Churches of Epiphany and St Bartholomew, Euclid and Mayfield Village, during the shared sabbatical plan, Epiphany 4, 2018

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Paul’s letter is not about eating meat or going vegetarian. It’s not even about idolatry. It is about relationship. It’s about consideration. It’s about love. Anything less brings the gospel into disrepute.

Many years ago and many miles away, my child’s class was studying world religions in a modest, six-year-old way. One of the students was a member of the local Sikh temple. I don’t know a lot about the Sikh religion, to be honest; I know that the men wear turbans, and from that elementary world religions class I know that their devotions involve a lot of food and feeding the community, reaching out in love to their neighbours.

The student’s family invited the class to take a field trip to the temple on a Thursday lunchtime, to taste the curries and see first hand the way that this congregation fed the community around it. Permission slips were sent home, along with guidelines for how to dress and to behave in the temple; how the children might show respect and gratitude to their hosts. Honestly, as in most religions, the youngest children, these six and seven-year-olds, could have been exempted from most of the requirements of tradition and convention, but their teachers wanted to make sure that they understood that they were entering a space that was holy and important to their hosts, so they asked the girls to cover their heads.

I was part of a group of Christian parents who met monthly to pray together for the school, its staff and students. A week or so before the field trip, we met, and one of the women expressed her concern at providing a head covering for her daughter. “Isn’t it worshipping false gods?” she wondered. She had no problem with her daughter visiting the temple – there would be no prayers or other confusing religious rituals to contaminate her child’s Christianity, but she worried about the dress code. “If we show respect for their religion,” she explained, “isn’t that the same thing as honouring false gods?”

Well, no, some of us countered. It’s more like respecting our neighbours, honouring rather than dishonouring their home. If the alternative is either to shun them or to insult them, by staying away or by showing up uncovered, what ambassador is that for the gospel of Christ, which demands first the love of God and immediately following that the love of one’s neighbour?

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Teaching a child that her religion is superior will puff her up; teaching her to love her neighbour, one of the founding commandments of her faith, will build up the whole community.

We serve a Christ who was a faithful and observant Jew for the whole of his life – not the demographic of most of us here. We serve an Incarnate God who spent his life among us as a man of the first century, in the culture and climate of the Middle East, at odds with the western traditions of the Romans. We should know how to respond in love to those whose traditions differ from our own. We should know how to build community across difference, responding with love rather than condescension; respect rather than rejection.

We serve Christ, who cast out demons and reconciled the word of God to its application, healing on the Sabbath because love is more important than letters. Anything less brings the gospel into disrepute.

At our Community Meal, which we host on the fourth Sunday of every month, we stretch our hospitality, and we exercise our love. We encounter people different from ourselves, and we are challenged whether to know better than them, or to love them better.

For a start, this Meal came about as a partnership between two parishes. Each wanted with a loving and grieving heart to do something to feed the needs of our neighbours, to do something more than to write a check, to reach out in love and to build relationship with those who live around us, who surround us but with whom we never, almost never sit down and have a conversation, or share a meal. Each parish had its heart in the right place, but neither quite had the resources to put the meal on alone.

There was a division to overcome in order for these two parishes to come together, to work together, to get this ministry started. There were the old traditions by which parishes competed for members – let’s face it – and argued over styles of music and liturgy, and whether or not it was ok to call a woman or a gay person as their priest, and whether or not decaffeinated coffee belonged at the coffee hour. Parishes divided and isolated themselves, in the old days, in the old ways, knowing better than one another, puffing themselves up instead of building up one another’s ministries. It happened with the first disciples, too; they argued among themselves as to who was the greatest, and Jesus told them that the only way forward was to stop, to kneel at the feet of the other, and to serve him.

In order to work together, to start this Community Meal, our parishes had to set aside our pride, acknowledge our need of one another, and find out how we could serve and help one another before we could serve our neighbours. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up, and in mutual love we were able to build something beyond what either parish could manage by itself.

And because we learned to love one another, we were able to build something that feels loving and nurturing, welcoming and respectful to our guests, many of whom present themselves differently than the Sunday morning crowd, and some of whom have special, secret knowledge which they love to share over the dinner table, and some of whom look and sound just like their servers.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The key to greatness is not knowing better than anyone who comes through our doors; not even knowing Christ better than anyone; but the key to greatness, as Jesus told his first disciples, is to love one another, seeking and serving Christ in all persons; even the ones closest to us. Anything less brings the gospel into disrepute.

But here’s the kicker. Here’s the gospel that we proclaim:

God knows it all. God knows all of our hopes and fears, our secret sins and shame, our desires, the love that dares not speak its name; God knows how small we have become, and how much God knows. And what does God do with such knowledge?

God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up; and God knows you and loves you in the most mighty way possible, and through Jesus Christ that love has been proved and found to be true.

Amen.

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Sharkbait

A sermon on repentance and our part in it, on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany at Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”

Hold on, this was only the second time? That means that Jonah disobeyed God once; ran away from God once; tried to hide from God only once, and ended up nearly shipwrecked, swallowed by a sea monster, and spat up without ceremony on the beach.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” No wonder Jonah didn’t make the same mistake twice. Once! Once, he disobeyed! And look what happened.

It makes me wonder whether we – whether I sometimes presume a little too much on the patience of God. As much as I love and miss the ocean, I do not want to end up as shark bait.

Last Sunday we heard that the word of the Lord was rare in the days that Samuel spent sleeping on the floor of the temple. Nevertheless, when he was called, Samuel was ready to leap up, to wake up Eli, to listen and obey. And today, there is an urgency to the messages of scripture – from the cautionary tale of Jonah to the radical ramblings of Paul. In the gospel accounts, Jesus calls, and his disciples do not take so much as a beat to decide, and to act decisively, to follow him.

Now, I don’t think for a second that if those fishermen had taken a moment to consider their options, that Jesus would have abandoned them, or given up on them. After all, it is not as though the Lord gave up on Jonah; on the contrary, God pursued him across the ocean and into the depths in order to rescue him, in order to give Jonah that second chance to obey the word of the Lord, and to give the citizens of that den of iniquity, Nineveh, a chance to do the same.

Even so, it hardly seems polite to keep Christ waiting when he calls, after all that he has done for us. The present moment is passing away, says Paul, philosophically, since the present is always slipping through our grasp. Where is our sense of urgency for the gospel, for the word of the Lord?

The story of Jonah does not begin and end in the belly of a big fish. Before he boards the boat, Jonah has rejected God’s call for Nineveh to repent. It’s not only that Jonah doesn’t think that Nineveh can be saved, nor even that he doesn’t think that Nineveh is worth saving. Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to be saved! Jonah hates that Nineveh repents and is saved! After he preaches to them, and they repent, and return to the Lord, Jonah gets angry with God for showing them mercy; even the same mercy that Jonah was shown, if you like, what with God saving his life after he was cast into the ocean in the middle of a storm.

The people of Nineveh are Jonah’s enemies, politically, economically, religiously, ethnically. Jonah would rather see them suffer than be saved. Jonah would rather see them continue in their sin than do the right thing, because he would rather be righteously angry with them than risk having to confront them as sisters and brothers, children of the one living God.

He reminds me of the elder brother, in the parable of the prodigal son; the brother who is jealous of the love that their father shares with his younger, more foolish sibling, as though there is not enough for them both; as though the younger is stealing their father’s attention. You would think that Jonah would have had enough of God’s attention to be going on with.

Sometimes, I worry that we have given up on Nineveh. We look around, at bad news and bad neighborhoods. We worry about rising crime and rampant gun violence. We cringe at the state of public discourse, and the coarseness of our politics. We hear rumours of wars, and warnings of warheads. Our idols topple like dominoes: him too, him too, him too. We wonder if there is any goodness left in the world worth our passion, our urgency, our attention. And let’s be honest, there are those we would rather let rot.

Jonah lived to tell the tale of his flight from God and his fight against the grace and mercy of God the better part of three thousand years ago, and have we learned anything from his foolishness in the meantime? Or would we still prefer to be right than gracious; justified than reconciled? Would we still prefer to let Nineveh rot in its own evil deeds than convert it to the righteousness of the kingdom of God? Are we still running, with Jonah, from God’s call to preach the Gospel to everyone? For everyone?

That doesn’t mean just making nice and pretending that all is well with the world. It does mean calling out what is evil in the sight of God, and recommending righteousness and repentance. That is what God sent Jonah to do in Nineveh: to make a fool of himself by calling out their foolishness and telling them, “This is wrong!” But not only “This is wrong,” but, “There is a better way. God’s anointed one has shown us a better way. Jesus has shown us a better way.”

It means risking looking foolish by sharing our faith with the lost and the blind, the captive to sin and the courtesan of evil. By risking our faith on the rocks of another’s shipwreck. It means standing for the word of the Lord; standing on the promises of God; on the promises of our baptismal covenant.

It means living with the hopeful expectation that repentance is possible, that righteousness can prevail, that even when our hearts fail us, there is room in God’s heart for redemption. It means ridding our own hearts of bitterness, so that there is room for God’s righteousness, and the mercy of the living Christ. It means standing on the side of love, and in the shadow of the hope of reconciliation.

And what if Nineveh were not to repent?

Jonah still gets to go home by another road, and I can only believe that God has a Plan B for Nineveh, too; one that doesn’t involve Jonah, or me; one that I can safely leave between God, the people of Nineveh, and their very own very big fish.

If we give up on Nineveh; if we write off our enemies, or however we define the bitterness of our hearts to political opponents or prodigal sons; if there is someone that we think we would rather let hang than let hear the word of God, then that is the person we need to pray for first, and with whom we need to share the righteousness and the revelation of God in Christ.

If we give up on Nineveh, we run the risk that instead of becoming fishers of men, we become like Jonah, in need of a fishing vessel to rescue us from the deep water we get ourselves into when we turn our backs on the grace and mercy that God has for all that God has made.

The good news is that if we miss the mark, there will be a second chance. After the storm, and the belly of the whale, and the undignified beaching, God will call again.

For my part, this time, I hope to God that I may listen.

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Discernment

I asked God a hundred times or so to show me the way. Trying to wrestle guidance from the silence was like wringing a dry towel in the desert and hoping for water to soothe a burning tongue.

Today, whether driven by desperation or its more dignified cousin, dogged determination, I asked again. “I know everyone’s opinion except yours and mine: give me a sign.”

After a century of silent prayers at last, God spoke.

I heard the Divine Parent say, “My child, you are a big girl now. You must learn to make your own decisions.”

And so, at once affirmed, deflated, defeated, I set up camp in the shade of that opaque, obstinate oracle.

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Holy innocents

Their wisdom was not wanted
by the powers that be, in case
it would unseat their certainty
of their own anointed state.

Warned in a dream, they went home
another way, pursued by rumours
of mothers kneeling in the ashes
of their frankincensed fire.

One returned to Zion, preaching
a dream he had seen lying in a manger.
They burned him with the little ones
for disturbing their peace.

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