Tag Archives: Jesus

Beloved | Sermon for Holy Name

Note: Today’s sermon was my first as vicar of Church of the Holy Apostles in Oneida, WI. Founded as the Oneida Indian Mission in 1702 in New York State and moved to Wisconsin in 1822, Holy Apostles is the oldest Native American mission in the Episcopal Church.

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“Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Like Jesus we have not only titles, lots of them, but also a name.

Jesus’ Titles

Jesus’ most common title, Christ, isn’t really Jesus’ last name (and H. is not his middle initial). Christ is the Greek adjective that means Anointed; it’s the same as the Hebrew word Messiah.

In the stories of his birth that we read from Matthew and Luke last weekend and this morning, Jesus has another title, Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

Perhaps some of you have seen that poster that lists many of his other titles?

names-of-jesus-poster

But perhaps Jesus’ most important title is Lord.

The first proclamation of faith after the resurrection – and from the patron of my former parish “doubting Thomas” no less – was “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Jesus is both Lord and Savior. His title is Lord, and his name means Savior.

Jesus’ Name

The name Jesus, according to the angel, means “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Paul writes to the Philippians that, because of the self-emptying, obedient love that Jesus demonstrated on the cross,

God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)

From before his birth, Jesus’ name starts to show us who he is and what he is doing.

We have names, too

My name is Rodger – Lindsay – Patience.

My name comes from my father and grandfathers and our Scottish ancestors.

I also have clan names – Ross, McColl, and Lindsay.

You each have names – some of you that I’ve met already, like Ken House (Hoyan), have two names.

Your names may come through your mothers and grandmothers. There were certainly a lot of Betties in the church basement a couple weeks ago when we were tying the cedar ropes that decorate the church for Christmas!

Many of you have clan names, too – Wolf, Turtle, and Bear.

Our names begin to describe us, at least in relationship to other people in our family and clan.

We have titles, too

I have a new title – Vicar.

The kids at St. Thomas have been having fun the last few weeks trying to remember to use another new title “Father” instead of my old title “Deacon.”

I am called a Senior Faculty Member at work. I’m not actually “senior” yet; my boss keeps trying to give me a promotion.

I am a Delta Diamond Medallion™ Member, and I have the luggage tags to prove it.

When we meet for coffee, Richard Ackley jokes and refers to me as “White Male Privilege” – that’s more about entitlement, but it comes from the same root word.

I am also a recovering alcoholic, a title that has transformed my spiritual life in the last few years.

Some of the titles we use are descriptive of who we are; some are aspirational. Some only serve to bring us down; others remind us how far we’ve come.

Beloved

But in the Body of Christ, in the “company of friends” who follow Jesus, we really only have one title, and that is Beloved.

Jesus is Lord, and we are his Beloved. John, who was actually known as the Beloved Disciple even while Jesus was alive, wrote that

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)

We each have different names that connect us to our families, we each have titles that define our aspirations, but as friends of Jesus we have only one true title.

We are Beloved.

No other title should be allowed to obscure that one or to separate one Beloved child of God from another.

No other title – Episcopal/Methodist, Republican/Democrat, Oneida/White, Packers/Vikings, Christian/Muslim/Jewish, believer/atheist, no family name or clan affiliation – should keep us from sharing our lives with others as Beloved children of God.

Paul insisted that

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit …. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor. 12:12-13; 27)

So as Jesus’s Beloved, it is our joy to cooperate with God and “plant in every heart the love of him who is the Savior of the world.”

We are – first, lasting, and always –

Beloved friends of a loving Savior
who remind God’s other Beloved children
of the self-emptying love of Jesus which is for them, too.

If other people are to believe in Jesus’ saving love, if they are to trust the loving purposes of God, they will have to see that love in his Beloved.

They will have to see it in us.

Amen.

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That they might lovely be | Sermon for Advent 3

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.

“Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” – I think that verse from the hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” is the single best description of the Incarnation that I have ever heard.

In Advent, the Church prepares to celebrate that great mystery of Incarnation: God becoming a human child out of love for us, living among us in order to make us children of God.

Mary’s rejoicing on this Gaudete Sunday (“gaudete” means rejoice) comes from her knowledge of the God of her ancestors.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), she sings of the God who:

has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly

 [who] has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty

Mary knows that God shows love to the loveless, and she willingly participates in that work by saying “yes” to God and by bearing Jesus, the Son of God, in her womb.

Love to the loveless shown

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, born at nearly the same time to Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth, is in prison.

This is the same John who last week berated the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the Jordan to receive his baptism of repentance: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

John is a wild-haired but clear-eyed prophet and he is all too aware of how unlovely people are. The loveless act badly, and he calls them to do better. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”

But he’s been waiting his whole life to see the kingdom, and now he’s in jail and in peril of his life, so he sends word to Jesus by his disciples.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer to his cousin is cryptic, but it points to God’s purposes:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. (Matt. 11:4-6)

The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor – notice that being poor is even worse in this catalog than being dead! – all of these have good news brought to them.

Love to the loveless shown. That’s how you’ll know the kingdom has come near, says Jesus.

That they might lovely be

Can you hear that good news for yourself?

What would it take to break through your blindness, your stumbling, your illness, your selective hearing, your deadened heart, and your feelings of scarcity and need?

What would help you hear good news?

For me, it was hearing a version of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, two summers ago.

A group called Theodicy Jazz Collective played for one of the Eucharists at the General Convention in Salt Lake City back in 2015. I followed a link to check them out, and I was moved to download more of their extraordinarily lovely music.

As I listened to their album Vespers, I was inspired to start sketching liturgical notes and outlines for “A Jazz Vespers for Recovery.” I’d love to help create and bring a service like that to the Fox Cities, and my head began swirling with the possibilities.

But their song “The Magnificat” checked my stride (and my pride) and brought tears to my eyes. The soprano began simply:

My soul magnifies the Lord
my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior
my soul magnifies the Lord,
for God looks on my loveliness with favor.

Can it be true? God looks on my loveliness with favor?

Even though part of me knew that I had simply misheard the lyric, the rest of me sat stunned and grateful.

My experience of recovery has been an experience of grace and repentance, of admitting my own powerlessness and discovering that God continually pours out blessings on me. All I have to do in response is follow “certain steps … which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

My more recent experience accepting the bishop’s call to serve as a priest (after nearly 21 years as a deacon) has also been an experience of grace. I’ve spent most of this year working with other people to discern the strengths that will serve me and the church well and to look clearly at the weaknesses that still require my attention. God pours out blessings on me, and I must continue to turn toward him as I follow his unfolding invitation.

Like John the Baptist, I know only too well how unlovely I can be.

Like John, I usually know that I should point beyond myself and my own efforts to Jesus, the Son of God, who brings the good news of the kingdom.

Like John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary, I usually know to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”

But can it really be true that God looks on our loveliness with favor? Or, to sing Mary’s song correctly, that God looks on our lowliness with favor?

How can that be? Like Mary, I ponder that question in my heart.

Oh who am I?

The complete first verse of the hymn we started with goes like this:

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

Who am I indeed?

In Advent, we pray at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer that “when [the beloved Son] shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP 378).

As we look forward to the Second Coming, we have a sense for what to expect based on Jesus’ first coming.

John’s question this morning comes fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. The good news is fulfilled, paradoxically, in Jesus’ death on the cross.

We heard that story on Christ the King Sunday just before Advent began.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41)

Who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

Too often, I am the mean thief deriding Jesus from the cross while also pleading, “Save me!” Too often, I am in trouble or filled with shame and fear.

But the good news is that I am not who say I am. The good news is that I am who I am who I am says I am.

Let me repeat that: I am who I am who I am says I am.

And what I am who I am says – what God says – what Jesus, the Son of God says – is that I am so lovely that he will go to any lengths to save me.

You are so lovely that God will go to any lengths to save you.

You are not what you say about yourself. You are not what others say about you. You are beloved, that you may be lovely.

This is the message of the Incarnation, which we prepare during Advent to celebrate at Christmas. This is the good news, to which we point with John the Baptist and for which we rejoice with Elizabeth and Mary.

The child born to Mary, Jesus – the Son of God, who died for us and rose again – looks on your lowliness with favor. You may without shame or fear rejoice to behold him at his appearing.

You are who God says you are, and you are lovely. Amen.

 

Image: Magnificat © Jan Richardson from The Advent Door.

Stay thirsty, my friends | Sermon for Proper 24C

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin (where I serve as deacon) we’re in the middle of a six-week series of sermons on the Beatitudes, sayings of Jesus that are found in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.

Jesus is addressing Jews and Samaritans and Greeks, a mixed crowd of believers and non-believers, those who think they belong and those who have been told they don’t.

He says we are “blessed” – happy or fortunate – when we are poor in spirit, when we are meek, when we mourn. He’s announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, where things are as God intends them to be.

Today we’re on the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Righteousness is when things are as God intends them to be.

Righteousness comes from the Greek word dikaiosune, meaning fairness or justice; my wife tells me that in German, the word for righteousness is like “richtig” – meaning that things are done correctly.

Righteousness is divine approval; what is deemed right by God.

Those who are righteous are those who are as they ought to be. Those who receive a righteous judgment are those who are treated justly, fairly, correctly – as God would have them treated.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, then, are those who eagerly desire to see everyone treated as God would treat them.

Fr. Aran told us two weeks ago about the rabbinical way of riffing on Scripture in what is called a “remez.” I want to riff on just one word, the word thirst – righteousness may feel like too big, too abstract a concept. Thirst we can understand.

A remez is the second of the four traditional levels of interpretation of the biblical text the historical, philosophical, homiletic, and mystical.

So here’s another philosophy – a remez – about thirst that you’ll recognize:

“Stay thirsty, my friends.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World does not really hunger or thirst for righteousness, does he? He thirsts for adventure and acclaim that set him apart from other people. In fact, with his recent well-publicized blast-off to Mars, he’s about as far apart from us as he can get.

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He’s more “up in heaven” than “down here on earth.”

The flip side of that beer commercial (on the day before my third sobriety anniversary) is a very down-to-earth story about Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frustrated by the slow growth of the AA Fellowship, and anxious about the thousands of copies of his “Big Book” Alcoholics Anonymous remaining unsold in a warehouse, he spoke to Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who appeared at his New York apartment one cold, rainy evening in 1940. As the story goes,

Soon Bill was talking about all the steps and taking his fifth step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this priest who had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his anger, his impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions.

“Blessed are they,” Father Ed said, “who hunger and thirst.”

Bill replied, “Is there ever to be any satisfaction?”

Father Ed said, “Never. Never any. Keep on reaching – in time your reaching will find God’s goals, hidden in your own heart.”

He reminded Bill W., “You have made a decision to turn your life and your will over to God … you are not to sit in judgment on how God or the world is proceeding. You have only to keep the channels open … it is not up to you to decide how fast or how slowly AA develops … For whether the two of us like it or not, the world is undoubtedly proceeding as it should, in God’s good time.”

Father Ed basically describes the pattern of the Christian life, what we call the way of the Cross, and Bill began to learn that night that he had to turn his thirst for success and the approval of others toward self-sacrifice instead, putting down his own ambition in favor of working his own program, one day at a time.

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“We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

We Christians learn about the way of the Cross, what we call “the way of life and peace,” from Jesus himself, especially from the way we see him act as the end of his life and ministry draws near.

The Beatitudes come from the beginning of his ministry, where he is drawing large crowds.

But even before that beginning, just after his baptism, Jesus had to face a trial of temptation. He is alone in the desert and the Devil appears to him.

“You look hungry; why not make these stones into bread?”

Jesus realizes that he must turn his own hunger, his concern for his own life and ministry, his power as God’s beloved, which could just make him self-sufficient, into concern for others. He must aim his hunger elsewhere, as the Word of God will teach him.

His ministry must be about feeding others (and with overflowing baskets of bread, in fact) while he eats the bread of life from God’s word which, as Paul later reminds Timothy, “is useful for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But at the end of his life, on the night before he died, he is once again all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” Perhaps in his Agony he remembers his own parable “about the need to pray always and not lose heart.”

“I’m thirsty,” he says to the Father, “but I don’t want to drink this.”

“Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.” The prayer he taught to his disciples – the Lord’s Prayer which we pray daily in the church, the Lord’s Prayer that many AA meetings close with – rises to his own lips: “Thy will be done.”

Jesus must aim his eagerness for the Kingdom of God, finally, away from all success, away from the crowds, away from his closest friends, and toward the one final act in the drama of redemption which only he can perform.

He gives up his freedom. He is bound and arrested, tortured and mocked, beaten and finally crucified as though he were a murderer or a thief. He endures injustice and unfairness and what is not right for the sake of the whole world.

As he hangs from the cross, Jesus says with nearly his last breath, “I thirst.”

i-thirst

He aims what he thirsts for at the heart of the Father, and “earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God” (BCP 287).

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 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Being filled in the sense that Bill W.’s story and more importantly, the example of Jesus, suggests is less about the achievement and more about the process.

The fellowship is growing too slowly for the Wall Street money man’s tastes, but it’s not about him. He must work the Steps himself and stay humble.

The Devil is persuasive to a hungry man in the desert, but he resists the temptation to use his newfound power for himself only.

The cup is bitter, like “sour grapes that set one’s teeth on edge,” like sour wine mixed with gall, but the thirsty man drinks it so that God’s will for the whole world will be fulfilled.

Over time, and with constant practice, as we do our best to set aside our ambitions and focus on our own way of the Cross – as we try daily simply to carry out our ministries fully – we will find that our reaching and God’s goals have become one.

“It’s not up to you to decide … We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

Righteousness will come about not because we aim to “save the world” – which Christ Jesus has already done anyway “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (BCP 334) – but because we aim what we thirst for, our ambitions and desires, at what we can do for the sake of others today.

So, stay thirsty, my friends.

Amen.

A green olive tree in the house of God | Sermon for Proper 11C

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)

Gethsemane

The earthy smell of the olive trees in Gethsemane, ancient and alive at the same time, reminds Jesus of Martha and Mary. He smiles in the dark, his face wet with tears.

His disciples follow him as best they can, but look at them sleeping over there on this night so heavy with decision!

The men and women who crowd around him are sometimes caught up in his vision of the kingdom of God, sometimes seem to understand what he’s trying to say, but it’s his friend Mary who draws the vision out of him, whose listening ear gives him space to talk.

And it’s Martha who makes a home for him to rest in, to eat and drink and recover from the stress of his ministry.

He’s in agony now in the grey moments before dawn on this Friday morning, his heart racing just as it was when he heard that his friend, their brother Lazarus, had died.

Lazarus

Martha challenged Jesus right there in the road when he finally arrived — “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Hands on her hips, she gets right in his face: “You should have done something!”

Martha’s love drives him to tears, the living water pouring from him in waves of grief and love, like healing oil for his friends, for her and Mary and Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” he says.

“Unbind him.”

The wailing of the mourners in Bethany is silenced, and all he can hear is tree limbs creaking in the breeze. The scent of the grave clothes is sharp and pungent, earthy and spicy.

Bethany

The first time he had come to Bethany, the whole house was warm, and the aroma of bread and spices filled his senses.

Martha was cooking something delicious – everything she made was delicious – and she gave him some green olives to eat before dinner was ready.

She chided Mary for not helping, but he laughed and said Mary had chosen the better part, and it would not be taken from her.

Mary held a rose in her lap, and she was listening, helping him to relax and put his thoughts in order while Martha busied herself in the background. The sharp taste of the olives kept his mind from wandering.

“You are busy with many things, Martha. There is only one needful thing.”

Like a green olive tree

On one knee in the crowded Jerusalem street, he struggles to rise. The earthy scent and the deadly weight of the wooden beam press him down, causing blood to flow freely from his wounded back and head.

Later, as he hangs from the cross, his breath getting shallower and more labored in the noonday heat, he is given a taste of sour wine.

His eyes close. What he wouldn’t give for another taste of green olives, for another evening in the warmth of Martha’s home!

Pain pierces his hands and feet in waves of grief and love as he stretches out his arms, offering himself with the same gesture she made when the meal was ready and she invited him and Mary to come to the table.

“Take, eat …”

“They know not what they do … but now I know what I am doing.”

“Lord, I know that the Messiah is coming.”

“I am the resurrection and the life … O Martha, believe.”

His vision of the kingdom completely clear now, he speaks to the one hanging next to him.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.”

Jerusalem

In the garden of Gethsemane stand olive trees that are more than 2,000 years old.

Fr. Aran tells me they still smell earthy and spicy, ancient and alive, just as they did in Jesus’ time.

They have endured the endless agonies of men and women down the centuries, continually bearing fruit from their gnarled limbs and giving oil for healing.

Another beloved disciple and friend of Jesus did catch his vision and followed the Way of his Lord into old age. In a revelation, John glimpsed “the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

In the center of the heavenly city flows the river of the water of life, “and on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree – like a green olive tree in the house of God — are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).

Amen.

 

12 Steps of Christmas | Thursday

Step Seven – “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

The service for Morning Prayer on this Thursday after the First Sunday in Christmas can be found here.

The Gospel reading for this evening, which we will miss because the Eve of the Holy Name takes precedence, can be found here.

Do you want to be made well?

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” (John 5:2-8)

Jesus asks the sick man, “Do you want to be made well?”

Today in Step Seven we humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.

For many of us in recovery, “working the steps” doesn’t happen right away. We may spend a few months “working the program” first — attending meetings (perhaps every day to start), reading Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and hearing speakers share their stories of “experience, strength, and hope.”

It may be several months, in fact, before we find a sponsor and begin diligently working through the 12 Steps, talking with them about our powerlessness, admitting we can’t do it alone, taking stock of our failings and character defects.

But even so, eventually the day arrives and the question our sponsor puts to us now is just as abrupt as it was for the sick man lying by the pool at Beth-zatha.

“Do you want to be made well?”

So many excuses

“Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Like the man at the pool, sick for 38 years, up until now we have made so many excuses.

We now clearly see that we have been making unreasonable demands upon ourselves, upon others, and upon God.

The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear—primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded. Living upon a basis of unsatisfied demands, we were in a state of continual disturbance and frustration. (76)

It took me 46 years to realize that the serenity I wanted to acquire could not be bought, only received. It took me a lifetime to recognize how sick I was and finally to lay down the self-confidence, the pride, that kept me making excuses instead of asking for help.

A whole lifetime geared to self-centeredness cannot be set in reverse all at once.

Still goaded by sheer necessity, we reluctantly come to grips with those serious character flaws that made problem drinkers of us in the first place, flaws which must be dealt with to prevent a retreat into alcoholism once again.

The notion that we would still live our own lives, God helping a little now and then, began to evaporate. Many of us who had thought ourselves religious awoke to the limitations of this attitude. Refusing to place God first, we had deprived ourselves of His help. (73, 75)

Something like real peace of mind

The slow progress in early recovery works on us very subtly.

Week after week, meeting after meeting, day after day, we practice a new way of living.

Day after day, we try simply to avoid drinking and to do what is in front of us. Week after week, we “work the program” with others who are in the same boat. Meeting after meeting, we begin to share our stories, too.

We “keep coming back,” and discover that “it works if you work it.” (It’s probably a sign of how much I need them that these are the slogans that grate on me most.)

But when we have taken a square look at some of these defects, have discussed them with another, and have become willing to have them removed, our thinking about humility commences to have a wider meaning. By this time in all probability we have gained some measure of release from our more devastating handicaps. We enjoy moments in which there is something like real peace of mind. To those of us who have hitherto known only excitement, depression, or anxiety—in other words, to all of us—this newfound peace is a priceless gift. (74)

When you humbly ask God to remove your shortcomings, you are not only asking for a fuller measure of that peace you have tasted.

You are also asking to be made well, and you will soon be invited in Steps Eight and Nine to “stand up, take your mat and walk” — to put your newfound peace of mind into action.

In the Morning

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer 461)

Choose the Kingdom life, you brood of vipers!

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

Look, it’s Gaudete Sunday and we’re lighting a pink candle in the Advent wreath. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Christmas is just around the corner … but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!

What a downer! C’mon, John  ….

At least John is just a forerunner, announcing the coming of Jesus.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild — infant holy, infant lowly — whom we celebrate at Christmas.

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Yeah, we’ve been hearing from that Jesus all week in the Daily Office readings from Matthew 23.

And you know what? He sounds an awful lot like his cousin John.

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ … You snakes, you brood of vipers! (Matt. 23)

So, yeah, let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

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I mean, what’s going on here?

What happened to our gentle Lord Jesus?

Well, you see, the Pharisees and the Herodians are plotting together to trap him (Matt. 22:16).

(You remember the Herodians — they follow Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, the guy who had all the babies of Bethlehem killed when Jesus was born. Yeah, that guy.)

The religious and the political powers are converging around Jesus, trying to silence his message, which up until then had been about the kingdom of God, about healing and restoration.

They’ve been badgering him ever since he arrived in Jerusalem on that Sunday, riding on a donkey through the gate of Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna from the the palm-waving crowd.

They were probably still upset about the whole tables of the money-changers thing, still smarting from his response about paying taxes, still angry about his undermining their authority and evading their questions.

The chief priests and the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the lawyer … push push push!

But Jesus has probably just about had it, too.

He turns to the crowd and delivers his outburst against the Pharisees and scribes — the hypocrites. He goes all John the Baptist on them.

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But that’s not the end of it.

Jesus does not win over the crowds — or the religious leaders — by railing at them.

In fact, he doesn’t win over the crowds at all.

As he leaves the Temple, he tells his disciples a number of parables, then says: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matt. 26:1-5)

It’s hard to tell whether it’s Advent or Lent … whether it’s Christmas or Good Friday.

Christmas is just around the corner, but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.

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I’m grateful to my Bishop, Matthew Gunter, who offered this brief meditation at a discernment retreat yesterday:

In response to what’s going on in the world around us, all the fear and violence, we can pick up a hammer and nails, or we can pick up a basin and towel.

The hammer and nails speak in the world’s language, the language of power and victory. The hammer pounds with the force of John the Baptist’s conviction, and the nails ring out with Jesus’ piercing clarity as he argues in the Temple.

But the hammer blows ring out against Jesus two days later, and the troublemaker hangs silent, nailed to a tree.

It seems the authorities have won.

But the basin and towel turn everything upside down.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks after the Last Supper is concluded, as he dries his hands on the towel around his waist.

You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13).

The basin and towel set an example for us of Kingdom living, of a new way of acting in the face of the world’s power and violence.

The basin and towel wash our feet and set them on the way of the cross, which is paradoxically the way of life and peace.

The basin washes us just like Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan washed him.

Jesus, at the very end of his life, shows us how we should live, what we should do.

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“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John the Baptist back at the beginning.

In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)

The Rev. Steve Pankey, on his blog Draughting Theology, writes:

John’s answer is simple. In fact, it is so simple as to be terrifyingly mundane. He doesn’t tell them to fast for 40 days or to move to a cave in the wilderness or to give away everything they own. Instead, he says “share,” “don’t cheat,” and “be satisfied.

Wait… what? Share, don’t cheat, and be satisfied? That’s what Kingdom living looks like? That’s, well, just so easy a child could do it. Which is precisely John’s point.

Kingdom living isn’t difficult, we just choose not to do it, which is why the punishment is so severe.

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Even now the ax is laid at the root of the tree.

So bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Choose the Kingdom life — the basin and towel — instead of the life of power and control that nailed gentle Jesus to the cross on Good Friday.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you lovely brood of vipers.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Give it away entirely and come into the oasis

Many of you know that two years ago this week I acknowledged my addiction to alcohol and began living in recovery.

I carry a pocket medallion as a reminder of the grace I have received in recovery – grace far beyond my imagining. Most days, I have a sense of living in what a friend calls “the oasis” and AA refers to as “a daily reprieve … contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

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My prayer life, my practice of the Daily Office, the teaching I do and the conversations I have with colleagues and friends – all of it has been reinvigorated by what the Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr calls in Breathing Under Water the “coded Gospel” of the 12 Steps.

You may not realize, though, that stopping drinking was only a small part of the work that I have had to do in recovery. In addition to the medallion in my pocket, I also wear a bracelet around my wrist, one of the last things I bought without my wife’s knowledge before losing my job.

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My addiction to spending and to indulging myself has been much, much harder to deal with – it’s the same struggle alcoholics face when they can’t stop thinking about their next drink.

You lack one thing

I think I know a little bit about how the “rich young man” felt after he found Jesus.

A man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments …. “ He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

You lack one thing …. you have many possessions.

Here’s where I think the rich young man realizes what the living God asks of each one of us. The living God asks for all of us.

The young man is looking for inspiration, but Jesus, who loves him, points to the one thing that really keeps him from God – the wealth he cannot imagine doing without.

“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.”

What a state he must have found himself in:

If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face! (Job 23:8-9,16-17)

The Almighty has terrified me

In our Old Testament lesson, Job has lost everything, and he does not yet have the answer that will help him remain faithful to God. The Almighty has terrifed him, and Job doesn’t yet understand that God loves him.

In the meantime, his friends and his wife, as Fr. Ralph reminded us last week, are giving him conflicting (and bad) advice. They can’t help him discover either God’s love or the one thing he lacks.

Unlike Job’s companions, however, my wife and my friends have given me good advice and steady support.

Their willingness to share love and to confront me about the things I lack has helped me do the hard work of staying steady in recovery.

  • A dear friend made sure I was “fearless and thorough from the very start” in admitting my failings.
  • A fellow deacon in another diocese helped me admit I needed to go to AA meetings and – laughing at how upside-down I had it – helped me understand that sobriety was an oasis, not a burden.
  • The first boss I had after losing my job, who has been sober for several years, gave me his 3-month sobriety medallion when I reached that milestone myself.
  • The guys in the Thursday morning breakfast and Bible study group here at St. Thomas drew me into their circle of support.
  • And my wife has cheerfully accommodated my being home and underfoot after nearly 10 years on the road, encouraging my new habits and being patient with my stumbling.

church-circle-graphicMy recovery – my new faith in this “coded Gospel” – really is something I have to work at every day. But what I have to work at most is not to do with drinking, but with spending money.

It’s a Pendleton, you idiot!

Sitting on the sofa watching TV one night a few months ago, I was in jeans and my favorite flannel shirt, and I thought “I really like this shirt; I should buy another one.”

A couple beats later, after that thought went away, a new one came in. “You’re an idiot; that’s a Pendleton shirt. It’ll last for 100 years. You’ll be dead before it wears out. You don’t need another one.”

“Oh, cool.”

Contentment is weird.

People in recovery are more used to being “restless, irritable, and discontented” (Big Book xxviii).

But when you’re content, it’s like you can just be, and everything is all right. Perhaps eternal life is like that – just being with God, living in an oasis.

What must I do?

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks the rich young man, who probably had several shirts.

Jesus loves him, and says, “You lack one thing … get rid of the thing that’s keeping you from God, whatever it is. Give it away entirely, and you’ll have treasure in heaven.”

For me, giving away my desire for a drink and giving away my desire to buy more things have together led me back to Jesus and to “a faith that really works in daily living” (12and12, 43).

What is the one thing you lack?

What might Jesus, who loves you, point to in your life? What’s the one thing that keeps you from God?

Is it money?

Food? Anger? Gossip?

Is it drinking or drugs or politics or something equally addictive?

Is it approval or being right or getting your way?

What are you holding onto so tightly that you can’t receive the treasure of heaven?

Give it away entirely, and enter the oasis!

Speaking of oases

The story of the rich young man reminds me of another favorite story, this one not from an oasis but from the Desert Fathers of 3rd century Egypt:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

 Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “Why not become totally flame?”

abbas lot and joseph - all flameWhat’s the one thing you lack? What’s holding you back from God?

Why not give it away in order to find a faith that works, in order to find contentment?

Why not become totally flame?

Why not give it away entirely, and live now in the oasis with God?