More than business as usual

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  | Psalm 1 | 1 John 5:9-13 | John 17:6-19

Our religious tradition provides us with much I love–namely stability, form, and structure. We have the framework to understand our roles and responsibilities, at least generally. We have our annual meeting at the local level, our diocesan convention at the diocesan level, and General Convention every triennium so we can account for what we’ve done in the past, work we need to do now, and where we’re going in the future. As with your place of work, there are just some things that have to be done, and hopefully these are daily tasks we get to do rather than a daily grind that wears us down. One might say these are the hallmarks of a “job.”

Our lessons and psalm today reinforce the work we do as Christians. In Acts there’s a vacancy among the apostles, so they dutifully and prayerfully cast lots to fulfill that role. (And I’m rather glad they went with the simple election of Matthias so we don’t have to keep up with which name to use!) They took a chance and trust that it will be good. In psalms, we have a traditional song contrasting the wicked and the righteous, and of course we want the rewards of righteousness; it’s like a reminder why we do what we do. Our epistle, the first letter of John reiterates our belief in the Son of God, our key to eternal life. The whole brief first letter emphasizes the unity among believers and insists upon following the command to love one another, for God is love (1Jn 4:8). Even going about our daily business, there can be discord and differing views; the letter aims to restore alignment and unity.

So, carry on, brothers and sisters! We could move right on to recite the words of our neat and tidy faith in the words of the Nicene Creed . . . , but we’re also given our gospel lesson this day. And God bless the gospel according to John, where often words twist and turn like a circular stage, spiraling through different levels of meaning and challenging us in our understanding.

What is Jesus really trying to say here? How does it affect my life today?

If we return to the place and time of the reading, we’ll remember that John 17 is still part of Jesus’s last meal with the disciples, those whom he loves, and he knew it was his last meal with them from the beginning. This is the meal that begins in Chapter 13, where we’re told they gather before the festival of Passover, and Jesus washes their feet, as we continue to do on Maundy Thursday. In this meal, Jesus foretells his betrayal with a beloved disciple reclining against his chest, Judas betrays him, and Jesus gives a new commandment to love one another. Jesus tells Peter he’ll be denied, and though Jesus again and again says he’ll be leaving them, he promises to send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Jesus says he’s the true vine and speaks of the world’s hatred and persecution, and the disciples wrestle with what all this means, Jesus’s words about leaving them. Jesus speaks of being one with the Father and gives the disciples his peace . . . and then he prays for them, as we heard a portion today.

There’s not an “Our Father” in the gospel according to John, but there is this prayer that holds all the context of the meal with the disciples and Jesus’s love for them as he prays. Jesus prays for the disciples and all whom he loves, and it’s terribly hard to imagine the magnitude of this prayer. But we can imagine this: a Christian mother’s prayer for her child/godchild, one who knows her duty and fulfills her mission with faithful obedience.

Imagine this nurturing, life-giving, beloved mother offering her prayer–either silently or aloud–in the presence of her charge. In her prayer, she’s almost reminding God that she has done her work; she’s made God’s name known to the children given to her care. She knows all are from God and the magnitude of her responsibility.

She knows the children have kept the word of God because as it’s been given to and received by her, the children have witnessed the genuineness and authenticity of her belief, her trust, and they receive it for themselves so much that it becomes their own belief and trust.

A mother would rarely wish to be separated from her child, but if circumstances require it, we know that this mother would do all she could to protect and bless those in her care. She will make petition to God, emphasizing again that all that she is has been made possible only through God, and as if to make sure it’s understood, she clearly names the children as truly God’s. What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is yours. There’s little more precious and beautiful than that.

If she has to be away–even to be united with God–she’s going to ask, nearly beg, for God to protect her children, lest all her work to protect and guide and guard them have been in vain.

She has a sense of the joy and anticipation of being united with God, but the pain of humanity, of attachments and persecutions in the world, are all very real. How many times does a mother pray for protection over her children? Let alone when she’s separated from them?

Ultimately, a mother blesses her children with her love. Her prayer to “sanctify” them is to make them holy and also to set them apart. Sanctify can also mean to purify or redeem. This mother wants only the best for those given to her care. Giving the truth, the Word, is the most loving thing she can do to keep them in the company of the divine, even when she’s not there.

This is how I’ve tried to understand Jesus’ words and prayer: through the person of a mother. But maybe every mother’s prayer is really a taste of Jesus’s prayer for all whom he loves, for everyone and everything that thirsts for love and communion with God?

In all our business–or busy-ness–we mustn’t forget this intimacy and yearning that is at the very foundation of who we are as a church and who we are at the very core of our being as children of God. Maybe the “Our Father” is easier to memorize and pray, but every line of that prayer contains all the glory, love, and tenderness of this prayer for the disciples. On this day, may we also hear it as Jesus’s prayer for us as we return to our work and strive to glorify God.

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Our Minds Are Set

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 | Psalm 22:22-30 |Romans 4:13-25 | Mark 8:31-38

Last week, on the first Sunday in Lent, our gospel lesson from Mark recounted Jesus’s baptism, his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness by Satan, and his call that the time is nigh to repent and believe the good news, beginning his Galilean ministry. Jesus goes on to cleanse and to heal, to call his apostles and to preach to all, sprinkling in a miracle now and then because calming a storm, walking on water, and feeding thousands make quite an impression and aren’t actions of a run-of-the-mill preacher. And then, “quite openly,” “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . ., and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Again, we know the story; he’s offering a foretelling to his followers so they can be prepared. Judging by Peter’s reaction, they need all the preparation they can get. Poor Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter rebukes the Son of Man. Imagine that conversation a minute.

Peter: “Jesus, c’mon. You’re doing amazing things. We need you. They need you. Don’t be silly with all this death talk. We know who you are (because Peter’s just called him out as the Messiah, Mk 8:29), but keep your head in the game.”

Jesus hears what Peter is saying. Dramatically, Jesus turns (away from Peter) and looks at his disciples, now doing the rebuking himself, not even looking at Peter.

Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter, who is so eager to follow, so willing to get out of the boat, anxious to mark the revelation of the Divinity, and to name Jesus as the Messiah he is, gets the brunt of Jesus’s admonishing. This is more than a cold shoulder, this is outright denial of what Peter represents in this moment.

And what is it that Peter does that is so wrong?

If a beloved friend and teacher says they’re going to suffer, be rejected, die, and somehow rise from the dead, it’s plausible to imagine a healthy dose of denial and skepticism. It’s not what we would want for someone we love and care about, and it’s not exactly something that makes sense. But it’s not Peter’s heart that Jesus focuses on: it’s his where his mind is. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In our own imagining, everything Peter might remind Jesus of is based on Peter’s attachment to Jesus here and now in their ministry. It could be Peter’s personal attachment to Jesus, or it could even be a more selfless thinking of all the good Jesus is doing everywhere he goes. This is a classic example of sticking to a personal agenda and either forgetting/ignoring/not recognizing God’s will or intent. This is us thinking, “We’ve got this.” At least Peter has Jesus with him. He knows who he’s keeping company with, but he’s lost sight of the magnitude of God’s work that will be accomplished not only in Jesus’ ministry but also through his death and resurrection.

This is hard for us to comprehend, and not just hard for us but for the disciples, too.

In Mark’s gospel there are a total of three times that Jesus repeats the same foretelling of his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. In both of the other times, too, the disciples don’t understand, can’t comprehend what Jesus is saying. They are attached to their finite, worldly thinking: they’re debating who’s the greatest or who will sit at Jesus’s right and left hand (James and John have dibs). In both of the other times, there’s still the contrast between the focus on the human and the divine.

In this first foretelling, though, Jesus does a clever thing in turning his back to Peter. Because if you really want someone to pay attention, you pretend not to be talking to them. Jesus chides Peter for being focused on human things, not divine. Jesus knows that the disciples and the crowd don’t really understand, but, again, their hearts are in the right place. They need something to do. He tells them to take up their cross and follow him.

Is he talking about wearing pretty jewelry or carrying the cross around town or in the procession, showing off our cross so everyone can know how pious and devout we are? Of course not. The cross for these early people of the Way was a symbol of humiliation. If you were to die upon a cross, you had not only lost your honor and dignity, but you had dishonored your family and community. No one would willingly take up a cross because it would be shameful. Yet this is exactly what Jesus is telling them to do. Do something unpopular for my sake. Do something that is so far outside our comfort zone that we have to get over ourself, knowing that what we’re doing isn’t for our own sake but for something far greater. And if we’re too ashamed to do it for Jesus’s sake, he’ll also be ashamed of us.

What would that look like today? What would it look like today to do something that shows you are a follower of Christ? What do Christians do that is unpopular or disrupts the norm, crosses invisible barriers? Where/when do we risk not only being uncomfortable but also risk being judged by others, often negatively (not to mention how harshly we judge ourselves).

On Ash Wednesday, I saw that Father Roger and a priest he works with held “Ashes to Go” in their neighborhood in New York. We just had the traditional service here, but Ashes to Go provides an accessible invitation to a holy Lent and a mark of the cross to signify the day and one’s observance. In Hot Springs, my rector heard from a parishioner who had experienced it in Key West and thought we should do it, too. My rector thought it was a great idea and told me to do it. Obedient curate I was, I vested in my cassock, surplice, and stole, put up a sign, and stood beside the street with ashes from the service earlier. Folks drove up and walked up, happy to get their ashes. For others it was indulging in trying something different. For me, I’ve never more imagined that this was what it must be like to be a prostitute. A woman, standing by the street in downtown Hot Springs, offering something to passers-by, hoping they would want what I had to offer. And I wondered, “God, what are you trying to teach me in this?” I reminded myself this was a holy day, that this was holy work. Nearly everyone who drove by looked my way, saw me in my vestments, saw me smile at them. They couldn’t hear my prayer of blessing for them, nor could they hear the struggle within as I stayed out there, publicly displaying my faith, completely outside the safety of the church walls. Maybe that’s something of what Jesus means in taking up a cross: carrying the burden of showing our faith to the world around us, putting the beliefs in our heart into action in our lives for others to see. How else do we expect them to see Jesus?

Any time we reveal what is within, we step into that realm of the vulnerable. I definitely felt vulnerable. I felt like people were judging me, and this sense reminds me how attached I am to the human things, the self-centered, ego-preserving mindset that Jesus rebuked, even when our intentions seem good. Letting go of this, for Jesus’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, is losing our life as we often understand it. It is through this loss of self that we gain eternal life through Christ. By bringing a proclamation of faith in the good news of Jesus Christ into the world–with our crosses seen and unseen–, we mark the space and time with the presence of Christ, bringing more light and love into the world.

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Unity of Spirit

Genesis 22:1-14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12-23 | Matthew 10:40-42

A month or so ago, Krista Mays contacted me, politely asking if I wanted to use Track 1 or Track 2 for our lectionary. Wisely on her part, she mentioned that Track 1 does include the bit about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. I grimaced. No one likes that story. What kind of first sermon would it be that mentions human sacrifice at the command of God? (Even though it doesn’t happen.) These are my first split-second thoughts. Then I remembered what I asked Rachel Held Evans at the Insight Lecture at Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock just days before Krista called, something like: “What stories do you find you have to lean into when you really want to ignore them altogether?” So I paused, sort of girded up my loins, and said for this new beginning, we would start with Track 1. I wouldn’t shy away from the difficult. And so we begin our relationship with the lectionary we have today.

Our collect this week asks God to join us “in unity of spirit” by the teaching of the prophets and apostles but chiefly of Jesus Christ. We will spend every Sunday, if not every day we spend in Scripture, gleaning the teachings of our ancestors in the faith. But today, how fortunate we are to have some foundational principles that will guide us in our life together individually and as part of the body of Christ. Especially as we look forward to and imagine the future of All Saints’ . . . we have to know who we are and whose we are. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess what this means. We have a tradition already firmly established in the teachings of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles.

In a church whose tagline is “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”, we get the Gospel message today. Our Good News is that whoever you are, wherever you are, you are welcome in this place, you are welcome at God’s table. Given the number of times I think we will have to extend hospitality to each other and the commitments we have made to reach out to others, I know All Saints’ understands the imperative of this teaching to extend welcome to all, to receive one another in the name of Christ, whether we are devout children of God or wandering seekers yearning for something we just can’t wrap our mind around. The graciousness of Spirit that Jesus showed us in his life with all the people he came across, especially the marginalized, that is the graciousness of Spirit we are to embody in our daily lives in whatever way we can.

That’s where the apostles and disciples come in: they show us that the most ordinary folks are acceptable in the eyes of God and that we’re meant to be a motley crew. Last week we got a list of the twelve apostles, but we know there was an even larger band of misfits with them, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, though mostly poor. The apostles teach us that it’s okay to doubt and ask questions. It’s normal to get uncomfortable, especially when Jesus gets excited and breaks yet another social norm, let alone when he starts flipping tables. And they show us that it’s okay to be completely surprised when we do something remarkable in the power of the Spirit. The apostles and disciples show us that if we are full of ourselves, how does that leave room for Jesus to shine through? Only when we’ve given ourselves over to God, become slaves to righteousness, only then can God fully work in our midst, only then is the kingdom of heaven at hand. All of this sums up to living a life in faith and righteousness to the best of our human ability (because we know none of us is perfect).

So we have what we often call the radical hospitality of Jesus and the faith and righteousness of the apostles and disciples. That leaves us with the prophets, and I promised I wouldn’t neglect Abraham.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally think of Abraham as a prophet. Father Abraham, yes. Prophet? Of course he is. He gets a remarkable call from God from the beginning to leave his people, and he goes. He’s told he will be the father of nations, though his wife is barren. And when he does finally have sons, one he is told to send away, which he does, and the other he is told to make a sacrifice, which he sets out to do.

Now, if you want to read a remarkable book on Abraham, I commend to you David Rosenberg’s book Abraham: The First Historical Biography. After I told Krista I would do Track 1, in my conversations with the Rabbi in Hot Springs, I asked him nonchalantly, “So, anything in particular I should be mindful of about Abraham if I were, hypothetically, to be preaching on the sacrifice of Isaac?” “Let me think about it,” he said, and the next time we met, he gave me a 300-page book on Abraham, being the good rabbi and Hebrew studies scholar that he is.

The obedience of Abraham, as with all the prophets who eventually accept their calls, is the main teaching that stands out to me today. (Maybe it’s because I’m so close to this most recent transition in my ministry.) But Abrahams’s obedience–particularly related to the near-sacrifice of Isaac–bears particular significance in lessons for our lives in faith. The translation Rosenberg includes in his book has Abraham responding to God not with “Here I am” but with “I am listening.” Not only is Abraham present, but he is actively receiving the Word of God. And Rosenberg describes Abraham’s actions, as the text does, as very physical, very tangible, yet in a dream-like state. There is something at work here beyond the natural realm, but very much in the natural order. For Judaism, God cannot cross to interfere in the natural world because then He would not be trusted ever again. But the boundaries have to be tested. Boundaries like between life, the affirmation of continued existence, and death or the fear of extinction. Isaac is the one upon whom the continued identity of a nation depends. This situation, Rosenberg says, is a “biblical nightmare” because God is testing Abraham with threat of cultural extinction. We realize how incredibly vulnerable this young nation is, a small family in the midst of strangers.

We might think God interfered directly, but Abraham awakes from his trance-like state from the voice of heaven, not entirely unlike the voice of our conscience. Probably with tears streaming down his face as he holds the blade above his son, both of them showing their devout obedience to God above all else, Abraham hears the voice and says, “I am listening.” And he’s told to stop, for Abraham is shown to have “an integrity dedicated to God,” not just fear of God. I love the translation that shows a father of nations to be filled with humility and integrity dedicated to God. That is the kind of obedience we are to show. Not false humility or empty martyrdom, but a complete devotion in knowledge of our strengths and of our faults that we will do nothing but our best to live into the commandment of our LORD. Every day we are listening, we hear the command to love one another as Christ loved us.

Hospitality. Faith and righteousness. Obedience.

The teachings are spelled out for us, but it is up to us to figure out what they look like in practice, what the process of becoming a holy temple will be like. What makes us worthy of the name Christian in the eyes of God?

So I have my sermon prepared by yesterday afternoon when I checked my email and saw the letter from the Bishop about the Little Rock mass shooting early Saturday morning. I had read about it not long after I woke up and thought, as I’m sure many of you did, “How horrible. How senseless.” Like our state leaders, we probably sent up our prayers to the victims and their families. And I went about my day and wasn’t even going to mention it in my sermon . . . except I read the bishop’s letter that challenged us to think about how we can be life-giving when so much of society condones violence as a solution. How hospitable is it for me to look away shaking my head just because the Power Ultra Lounge isn’t my scene and I’d never heard of Finese 2Tymes before Saturday? The victims at the concert were people’s children; the youngest wounded was 16 years old. If it was gang violence, these are individuals looking for belonging in the only places they think they can find it. How faithful and righteous is it for me to ignore or look away from that which is not pleasant and painful? How obedient is it for me to pretend that this doesn’t affect me or us? Because we are all connected. If I’m going to say my prayers matter, then another person’s pain also matters. We can’t turn away or pretend the situation didn’t take place any more than we can pretend that there aren’t some deep-seated issues in our society that need to be addressed for what they are . . . issues that make a place especially susceptible to fatal violence. I don’t expect us to come up with a response for the bishop right away, but he poses questions worth asking ourselves. Keeping our foundation firm in our teaching, we can engage the questions and embark on the arduous journey together.

It will take time, but I aim to meet with everyone here. Don’t be alarmed when I call you . . . consider this your advanced notice, and please let others know who aren’t here. I’ll not show up unexpected, though you are welcome to surprise me. (I’m a big fan of scruffy hospitality, so be at ease.) I want to know how live into your baptismal vows, what keeps you curious about a faithful life, how you see Christ at work in our midst. Together we will discern how we live into these teachings that give us a sure foundation in all we do because no one of us is at the head, save Jesus Christ. When we serve meals, it is the light of Christ we share first. When we visit jails, it is the presence of Christ we bring first. When we pray, it is the voice of God we listen for, surrounded in the presence of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit.

In everything we do, how and who are we welcoming?

Are we doing it in good faith and righteously?

Are we being obedient to God’s will, or has our own will obscured our way?

The rewards of our practice, of our being Christian grounded in these teachings, is not spelled out in our Gospel today. But allowing the creativity of Spirit to craft our rewards accordingly encourages us to be aware, to keep looking for the glory that awaits us. It won’t necessarily be gold stars or even stars in our crowns, but it will be something like the glory of God manifest in the world around us. Something like that taste of joy when we are aligned with God’s will. Something like the smile of a loving father or mother who tells their child, “Well done, good and faithful one.”

I know we have hard work before us, for Jesus assures us that living as disciples isn’t easy. But our foundation is sure, and our prayers are set for the glory of God. I am blessed to share this journey with you, in unity of spirit, as we fill our community with the light and love of Christ.

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