Pentecost 22

So from August 30th to October 10th, I performed or attended eleven funerals, three weddings, and two baptisms.  There’s a joke in there somewhere, I just know it, or at least a movie title.  So much of what a priest does somehow involves the so-called cycle of ‘hatch, match, and dispatch’ that the saying itself exists.

 

Baptisms are almost always joyous affairs; the same can’t always be said for the weddings and certainly not for the funerals, and yet our culture is obsessed with both marriage and death.

 

We fight political and religious wars around the manner in which both of these things can be executed, so to speak, and about what happens after either is executed.  This is nothing new, as our Gospel illustrates for us today.

 

The Sadducees come to Jesus with a question that seems simple enough on the face of it.  But the problem is that the Sadducees are asking a question not to get an answer but to prove a point in their belief system, that there is no resurrection, no life after death.  They get an answer they didn’t expect.

 

So a “man dies, leaving a widow.  His brother marries her.  This little scenario is repeated until seven brothers have married the woman.  The Sadducees want to know who will be her husband in heaven.  “Remember, seven married her.””  No one there asked the obvious question of why, say, the fifth brother married her, considering the fate of the first four.

 

“Christ’s response is that in the life to come there will be no marriage.  “They become like angels and are no longer liable to death. God is not the God of the dead but of the living.  All are alive for God.””

 

“But a question remains unanswered.  What is the nature of the relationship between the resurrected life and this present one?  What is the connection?”  Is heaven completely different than earth?  Are we completely different there as opposed to here?[1]

 

This is not an easy question to answer, and there are, as you would imagine, many views on the subject, too many to put forth here.  So to waaaaaay oversimplify a rather orthodox Anglican view of it: Yes, life in heaven is completely different from life here, and no, we are not completely different.  We’re still us.  Our choices follow us and continue in the afterlife.

 

As C.S. Lewis put it, those who cling to their fears, who hug for dear life their resentments, who refuse to let go of their prisons, can only be given what they endlessly demand.

Those, however, who give their lives in hope and trust, who cast themselves into the arms of the living God, no matter what their shame or sorrow, find what their hearts desired.

 

That desire, as our wedding liturgy states more than once, is a desire for something like a marriage with God, a union between Christ and His Church that cannot be rent asunder, with a spiritual intimacy that nothing in this life can match.  Heaven is, and again, this isn’t a new idea, like a marriage feast put on for the wedding of Christ and us, the Church.

 

So I guess marriage and death (and baptism, for that matter), are more related than we, or the Sadducees, for their part, perhaps usually realize.  There’s a joke in there somewhere, I’m sure.

 

 

 

 

[1] Quotes from John Kavanaugh, SJ: https://liturgy.slu.edu/32OrdC111019/theword_kavanaugh.html

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All Saints’ Sunday

So we just wrapped up All Hallowstide, easily the least understood mini-seasons of the Church year.  We start with Halloween, which is, yes, a Christian holiday; it’s Hallows’ even, the even, the evening, before the feast of All Hallows, All Saints.  This year on Halloween, we celebrated Fr. Salmon’s 55th ordination anniversary, and he was surprised and moved by the amount of people, clergy and lay, from here and around the diocese, who came to celebrate with him.

 

Then we have All Saints, November 1, when we celebrate those know to us and unknown, who have reached heaven itself.  These are, I’m sure you remember, the big-S Saints.  Facebook memories helped me remember that on my first All Saints Sunday here, 11 years ago, we had 8 baptisms at the Sung Mass.  We almost wore poor Fr. Salmon out that day.

 

Then we moved to All Souls, November 2, when we remember those departed from us, who, sealed with the mark of baptism, are in the greater presence of the Lord.  The difference between All Saints and All Souls is not terribly difficult to understand, but my colleagues seem to confound and conflate them all the time.  The easiest way to remember the difference is that on All Saints we remember St. Mary, and on All Souls we remember Aunt Mary.  And we pray that Aunt Mary will become, sooner that later, also a Saint Mary.

 

Every year on All Saints, I give some historical background on how we even have the holy day, and honestly, after 11 years of historical background, I’m running out of historical background.  I did find one interesting story from the Eastern Church, the Byzantines:

 

Eastern Christians of the Byzantine Tradition follow the earlier tradition of commemorating all saints collectively on the first Sunday after Pentecost.  The feast of All Saints achieved great prominence in the Byzantine world in the ninth century, in the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI, Leo the Wise.  His wife, Empress Theophano. lived a particularly devout life.  After her death in 893, her husband built a church, intending to dedicate it to her.  When he was forbidden to do so, he decided to dedicate it to “All Saints,” so that if his wife were in fact one of the righteous, she would also be honored whenever the feast was celebrated.  Apparently, even Emperors are not allowed to just name churches after their wives all willy nilly.  Though it should be noted that Theophano did manage to eventually be named a Saint – her feast day is December 16.

 

Theophano is known to us, as she should be, but All Saints is a celebration of, well, all Saints, known and unknown.  Our reading from Ecclesiasticus highlights this, I think.  It starts out “Let us now praise famous men,” but then the author only spends half of the passage bothering to do that.  The author, who’s name was Yeshua ben Sira – Yeshua, remember, is the Aramaic of Joshua, Jesus – is known now is Sirach.  Sirach talks about famous men, but somehow, like as if Sirach was anticipating All Saints Day, he shifts.

 

Sure, we have the famous men, “but of others there is no memory… but these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten… their bodies are buried in peace, and their name lives on generation after generation.”

 

That always gets me a little fired up.  I know that in 50 years, when Amelia or Asher is running this place, I’ll be lucky enough to have my name on a plaque or two, but I also know that no churches will ever be named The Church of St. Matthew of Bordentown.

 

Most of us will likely face the same end, right?  But we can still be Saints!  If we can, like the Collect says, eke out some manner of virtuous and godly living, then we too can be godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.  Our bodies can be buried in peace, and our name can live on in generation after generation.

 

I think that All Saints Sunday is a good day to dwell on which deeds of ours will not be forgotten.

 

 

 

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Pentecost +20

So in the world of homiletics, you have (unofficially) several different options.  You have sermons, homilies, the dreaded sermonette, and the few words about the Collect of the Day.  Sermons can be long or short, but most often carry the connotation of what you might hear at a Baptist church for 45 minutes to an hour.  Homilies are shorter and usually have one point – perhaps I preach homilies, as understood to much of the Christian world.  Sermonettes are dreaded because the great John Stott once said the “Sermonettes create Christianettes.”  Sermonettes are usually 3 to 4 minute collections of thoughts.  You can guess what a few words about the Collect looks like.

 

I tell you this because for the next few weeks, you might be getting a few Sermonettes.  Many of you know that I don’t feel so hot.  I am, or hopefully was, a couple steps away from clinical exhaustion, and my doctor has ordered me to drop all non-essentials and rest, lest I drop altogether.

 

So perhaps my ego has gotten in the way of my health, which would not be the first time for me or for religious leaders in general.

 

In the story we get from Luke today, there are two men.  One is an egotistical religious leader, and the other is a tax collector who knows his place.

 

Both of them have done a good thing: they’ve gone to see God, to be in God’s house, but they’ve gone through the doors of the Temple in very different ways.

 

Now, it’s been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who walk into a room and say, “There you are,” and people who walk in and say, “Here I am!”

 

The Pharisee, obviously, walked in and said to God, “Here I am!”  He went to present himself to God, to show God how wonderfully suited he was to be in His presence, as if he was doing the Lord a favor by being there.  “I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  He actually thanked God for how awesome he was.

 

Then there’s the tax collector, who walked in, found God there, and said, “There you are!”  He went not to present himself to God as much as in the hope that God would be present to him, a sinner, one who is not worthy of being in the presence of God.  “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”  He thanked God for how awesome God was.

 

Jesus tells us that it was this man, the sinner, who went home justified, rather than the Pharisee.  What does justified mean in this context?  It means to be in right relationship with God.  It means knowing who God is, knowing who you are, and knowing that when you show up to church, who’s doing who the favor.

 

What is this parable saying to us today?  It might be saying that accomplishments are good and righteousness is great, but you still can’t earn your way into the Kingdom of God, here or in the hereafter.  To be a citizen of the Kingdom of God, we must first be justified, put into right relationship with God; and being justified is not something you can earn or win – Jesus has won that for us.  It’s our job, so to speak, to remember that; to let that give our souls rest so that we can give our egos a rest.  It’s our job to walk into this place, feel the presence of God, and say, “There you are.”

 

 

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Pentecost +19

I grew up with a guy named Gene.  Now, Gene was always just a little tougher than anyone else, a little rougher.  He was a nice guy – he was no bully – but you wouldn’t want to mess with him.  He was the first of my contemporaries to get a tattoo, a huge dragon on his calf, and this was before everybody seemed to have tattoos.

 

So Gene ended up being one of the best wrestlers in the state.  He was state champion at 171 pounds at least a couple times, but there was a problem: there wasn’t anyone on our wrestling team he could legitimately practice against.  He usually practiced with the coach, but the coach would get tired of that, and so the coach (who was also my track coach) would ask me to come in and wrestle Gene.  In theory, at around 200 pounds, I would be hard to move around.  In practice, I was really just there to get my butt kicked from one end of the mat to the other.  It was all I could do to just hold on and pray Gene didn’t accidentally rip my arms off.

 

That experience makes me feel for poor Jacob in our story today from Genesis.  Jacob wrestles with a “man”, but this man is really either the Angel of the Lord or the Lord Himself, an opponent, like some others, against whom Jacob cannot possibly win.

 

The problem, though, is that we can never really feel sorry for Jacob.  Jacob was not a good man.  He swindled his way through life: he cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and their father’s blessing; he manipulated livestock futures, he lied to his uncle over and over.  You wouldn’t want to play cards with Jacob.  Even the name Jacob means cheater, manipulator.  Sorry.

 

So our story picks up with Jacob on his way to see his brother Esau, whom he hasn’t seen in a couple decades.  Jacob is not looking forward to this – he figures that Esau is going to kill him at first sight – but the meeting is inevitable, so on he goes.  Jacob sends men out in front of him to meet Esau’s men, to get a lay of the land, so to speak, and sends messengers with gifts every hour to his brother.  The day passes and Jacob decides to spend the night in a safe place, on the other side of a swift river from his brother, and that’s when things get exciting.

 

A man appears.  We’re not told if the man was looking for a fight or if Jacob just decided to fight him, but fighting was in Jacob’s nature.  This man – my guess is that it was the Angel of the Lord, maybe Michael – could have ripped Jacob’s arms off at any time, but surely winning wasn’t the point of the fight.  When the angel saw that he “would not prevail” against Jacob, meaning that Jacob was never going to give up, he “touched the hollow of his thigh”, meaning that he really did sort of rip his leg off, or at least out of joint, like Bo Jackson did to himself.

 

But still Jacob would not let go.  “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” were his exact words.  “What’s your name,” the angel asked him, knowing full well the answer.  “Jacob.”  The cheater, the manipulator, that’s my name.

 

But not for long.  “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

 

We’ve talked before about how names work – the Confirmation Class spent several minutes with the meanings of names in the Bible a few weeks ago.  When a name ends in -el – most of the time, at least – -el is a suffix which means ‘of the Lord’.  So if your name is Michael, that’s a mash of the name Micha and el: Micha of the Lord.  Dani-el, Rapha-el, and so on.  Isra—el is not very different.  Isra is the same Hebrew root word as Sara; Sara means to fight, to contend, to strive with, to wrestle with.  So the name Israel means ‘to strive with God’, to wrestle with God.

 

That might sound bad right on the face of it, to wrestle with God, so why did an entire people take Jacob’s new name?  Because to contend with God, to wrestle the Lord, is to be in intimate, even physical relationship with Him.  To take the name Israel is to acknowledge that you are nothing outside of that relationship; your very being is rooted in and worthless without your striving with God.

 

Being imperfect creatures with imperfect wills and desires means that we will inevitably bump up against the perfect will of God.  We will offend Him, and we will sometimes feel as if His will stands in the way of where we want to go.  If we are to be God’s people, then what comes next has to be a wrestling match: fighting to discern the will of God, grappling with our own wills, holding on to the Lord for dear life all the while.  If we do that, when the light dawns, God will call us by our names, and bless us.

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Pentecost +15

As you can probably feel in the nighttime air, we are in the midst of the changing of seasons.  It will officially be autumn on Monday, of course, but we’re already in it, right?  Church School is starting up, the choir will be back with us, we’ll bless some animals pretty soon.  Football is on, pumpkin spice lattes have been spotted all over town, and I actually wore full—length pants the other day, an anomaly even in winter, though I think we can be reasonably certain that Suzanne Wheelock stuck to shorts.

It’s also been wedding season around here.  Friday was my third wedding in four weeks, and we’ve got more coming.  Weddings are great for all kinds of reasons, but one in particular is that, as the service itself reminds us, that marriage signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.  And so, in the economy of the Kingdom of God, salvation, going to heaven, looks more like a marriage, a wedding feast, than it does, say, something transactional.  That’s why our second reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy, I think, should be added to the readings for weddings.

In his letter, “Paul says it is the will of God that every human being be saved.  But it is part of Christian doctrine that not all human beings are saved.  Not all human beings go to heaven when they die.  How could it be that an omnipotent God wills something, and yet it doesn’t happen?

“Here we need to remember that heaven is like a marriage.

“For a human person to be in heaven is for her to be united in love to God.  Now, union between God and a human person requires that each have a mind and a will, in order for there to be two to unite together.  If God’s mind and will are the only ones present, then whatever there may be, it isn’t union between God and another person.

“In consequence, God cannot bring about union all by himself.  God can do all the work needed for union.  He can offer the grace necessary for it as a gift.  But if the will of a human person rejects that grace and refuses God, then even an omnipotent God can’t get union with that person.  God cannot succeed in giving grace if a human person chooses to reject it.”[1]

So what does that look like in real life?  Well, when you reject God’s grace, it’s difficult to be full of grace to others.  And so it looks like dissention and betrayal.  Purposefully ignoring the other, especially the poor.  Seeing people who are different than you as unwanted or as a threat.  It looks like choosing the lesser in all things, because you always choose yourself.  In our religious leaders, as Paul wrote, it looks like preaching and teaching things you know to be false, in order to corrupt and mislead, often to your own benefit, or in ignoring your duties altogether.

On the flip side, what does it look like to accept God’s grace?  Well, it looks like unity overcoming estrangement.  It looks like having joy even in the toughest of times.  It looks like freedom, the freedom of not having to be afraid of being engaged in real life, or having to be afraid of death.  It looks like seeing the other not only as they really are, but as Jesus sees them, and seeing Jesus within them.  Loving each other as God love us.  But most of all, I think that living within the grace of God looks like hope; the hope of heaven, of course, but also the hope, even the expectation, that what was lost can be found and what was old can be made new; the hope that nothing can separate us from the love of God, nothing can keep us from the marriage feast that is heaven.

It is God’s will that every person be saved, saved from eternal disunion from God, certainly, but also saved from an earthly life devoid of love and hope and joy.  God’s grace abounds: it is free and always there to be received.  May it be with you, and remain in you, always.

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Pentecost +14

So when I was researching today’s Gospel lesson from Luke, Howie Mandel popped into my head.  If that sounds weird, it is, but I couldn’t help think of how Howie, through no fault of his own, really won’t shake hands with anyone.  He “has spoken publicly about having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which can take many forms, including mysophobia (which is a fear of being contaminated by germs).  Mandel’s anxiety affects him to the point that he does not shake hands with anyone, including enthusiastic contestants on Deal or No Deal, unless he is wearing latex gloves.”[1]  Like I said, this isn’t Howie’s fault, nor do I judge anyone else who doesn’t like to be touched.  My mentor Fr. Doug was famous for always being a good two arms length away from everybody.  But Jesus, apparently, was a hugger.

“In Luke 15:2 we are told that one of the main reasons the Pharisees disdained Jesus so much was because he “welcomes” (receives in the RSV) sinners and tax collectors.  The Greek verb for “welcome” is PROSDECHOMAI from the root DECHOMAI, which literally can mean to bring into one’s arms.  The image here is very nearly of an embrace.  This is not just a polite word of “Welcome” spoken at the front door of someone’s house when a guest arrives but more an active embrace, a drawing in of this person.”[2]  It’s a bear hug.

What kind of people did Jesus tend to hug?  The worst of the worst.  Tax collectors, those rotten scoundrels who were traitors to their own people, in this case Israelites exacting tolls and fees to funnel to their own oppressors.  “Sinners” seems like a broad term, and it is.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, after all.  But there were a few groups of people that the Pharisees and other religious rulers considered to be beyond the pale: Jewish money lenders who charged interest on loans to other Jews; business managers who stole wages and deprived workers of what was theirs; degenerate gamblers (think the Prodigal Son, spending his money on games and loose women); and those loose women themselves, prostitutes if you want to boil it down.  And Jesus apparently had a habit of hugging all these people.

The Pharisees did not approve of all this, nor do they come off as big huggers anyway.  And so Jesus tells the Pharisees, and not just them but everyone gathered, the righteous and sinner alike, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

These are not the most difficult of Jesus’ parables to figure out.  God loves us so much that He pursues us.  He puts on His gear and breaks out His tactical flashlight and comes after us, like an old lady searching for a coin that represents the last of what she has, or like a shepherd who’d rather die than lose his favorite sheep to the encroaching wolves.

No, this parable is not difficult to decipher.  But it can be heard in different ways by different people.

The Pharisees no doubt did not like this message.  Theirs is an easy trap to fall into: I’m an upright citizen, I go to church every Sunday, I never break the law, and I’ve never even laid eyes on, say a prostitute; surely God loves me more, maybe He even likes me more, than those sinners.

On the flip side, those same sinners no doubt rejoiced at hearing this parable.  I can’t count the amount of people who have told me that they are beyond redemption, unsavable.  They’ve done too much, seen too much, too much has been done to them.  God doesn’t want them.

Not so, says Jesus.  God loves them so much, wants them so much, that He leaves the righteous where they are – they’ll be fine – to be with the lost, the excluded, the hopeless sinner.  To literally sit down and eat with them, comfort them, bring them back to the fold.

What all of us need to hear, for the first time or for the hundredth, is that no matter if you are the righteous or the sinner, the ruler or the excluded, is that God wants you; He will chase you down; and when you turn to Him, even if you’re really into personal space, He’s going to give you a huge hug.

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Blessing of the Firetrucks

Last month, on August 8th, at 5:50 in the morning, I had a thought, a thought that I would presume goes through the heads of firefighters, EMTs, police officers everywhere.  We got called out the Petro station for what was reported to be a fire at the gas pumps.  And so I found myself in the back of 6015, struggling to figure out how to put my pack on and wear a seat belt at the same time (a new conundrum for me), when I had that thought: What am I doing?  What series of terrible choices have I made in my life to end up where I am right now?  I am not embarrassed (maybe a little embarrassed) to say that I was remarkably relieved to hear that fire was not only not at the pumps, but already handled.

 

We all make choices – all day, every day, whether we want to make choices or not.  Having the freedom to choose one thing or another seems like a universal human right, at least here in the U.S., and Americans are loath to be limited in our choices.  And yet, having too many options to choose from can be paralyzing.  As Barry Schwartz wrote in his book The Paradox of Choice, “though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”  The classic example is when we go to the Acme and there’s 170 different kinds of cereal to choose from, anxiety sets in: if I choose the Golden Grahams, will I regret not choosing the Special K?  (the short answer to that is a hard no)

 

There are, of course, bigger choices to make.  “See, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”  Moses had a way of narrowing down the choices, possibly to make it easier for his people to choose.  Certainly they, and by extension, we, would choose life and blessing over death and curse.

 

Or…would we?  Let’s remember that the entire Bible is, if read in a certain way, the story of humanity finding all kinds of new and exciting ways to choose death and curse.  From forbidden fruit to golden calf and straight on through to the Cross, God reaches out and we bite the hand that created us.

 

But, of course, there’s a better way, a better choice.  What does that choice actually look like?  Surely God does not care very much if we choose the Golden Grahams or the Special K, but just as surely, there are choices that God cares about very much.

 

Moses said that God wants us to choose “to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.”  Jesus boiled it down to choosing to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and choosing to love thy neighbor as thyself.

 

The interesting thing about these choices is that you have to keep choosing them.  You can’t just choose one time to love God and neighbor and things go swimmingly; you must choose these things daily, sometimes many times a day.

 

Now we’re lucky, because we all know that in churches and certainly firehouses and squads everywhere, there’s never any fighting; no acrimony or disagreement, right?  We always choose life and blessing over death and curse, right?

 

Perhaps not always.  But I’m inspired and always have been by the choice made by our first responders, that first and continual choice to put the welfare of others ahead of themselves; the choice to sacrifice time and money and effort, more than most will ever know or appreciate; and the choice, as we put it in the Church, so seek and serve Christ in all persons, especially in the times of greatest need.

 

“See, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.”  The choice is ours.

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