Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Good News of Not Being Finished

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37.

If you’ve been in my office, we might have been in a conversation and you might have looked up to the top of a bookcase. There you would have seen pottery with faces looking out at you, North Carolina face jugs, to be exact.

Face jugs, these pottery jugs with faces on them have an uncertain history. Most of mine come from the Piedmont and Mountain areas of North Carolina. Some say the practice of making jugs with faces on them came from African slaves and had to do with burial rites or memorial practices. Another tradition suggests that the ugliest face jugs were made to keep moonshine, and they were made ugly so they’d scare children away.

I like them because they come from the earth near where my people are from and they make me laugh.

And sometimes, they make me think. I wonder about the faces. Was the potter thinking about a particular person? When the face is especially ugly or contorted, was the potter using the clay as a kind of exercise in aggression-- making a version of someone in particular’s face, and then making it look really ugly? Or was the potter somehow conveying something the potter felt deep inside?

If anyone has ever worked with clay, you know that the object made really does come from the potter. It is shaped by the potter’s hands. Its image comes from the potter’s mind. The potter’s time and talent are expressed in the object. And sometimes, given the ingredients of the glaze or paint that might be used (especially in the old days of using lead glazes); the potter actually risks his or her personal health in crafting the object.

In firing up a kiln, in overseeing the process, sometimes the potter bears marks or wounds that result directly from the process of making pottery. For all of these reasons, it makes sense that Isaiah would use the image of the potter and the clay to express an aspect of our creation and existence from God.

In today’s reading Isaiah begins by lamenting the condition of the world. “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence . . . to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Isaiah is tired of people ignoring God and God’s ways, and so he’s asking God a question that comes up again and again in the scriptures, and maybe comes up in our own prayers—“Get ‘em, God. Make them pay. Why do you let the wicked prosper? Why don’t you do more for the poor and the oppressed?” Isaiah goes on for a bit, ranting and railing at God. But then, in the midst of his prayer, Isaiah begins to reconsider. Like a little child who throws a tantrum and then finally, exhausted, falls into the arms of her mother, Isaiah falls back into the arms of God. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.” And then, the line I like so much, “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand."

Isaiah begins in a vengeful, angry place and eventually moves to one of compassion. We might expect that in a prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures, but we may be surprised when we encounter language of wrath and vengeance from Jesus. But that’s what it sounds like in today’s Gospel.

Jesus speaks out of a tradition of Jewish apocalyptic literature, an old tradition in which people of faith looked to God to come and save them, especially when things in this world looked bad. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and especially Daniel, all contain sections though of as apocalyptic literature—literature that looks for the end of the world as we know it, as God ushers in a new reality for those who have kept the faith. The New Testament also has apocalyptic literature, most famously in the Book of Revelation, sometimes called simply, “The Apocalypse.” But there are also “little apocalypses,” Mark 13, (Matthew 24, and Luke 21). Biblical scholars debate which parts of this chapter might be original to Mark the Evangelist, and even which portions might accurately be attributed to Jesus. But in the general tone of his words, and in the context of our reading and hearing this Gospel on the First Sunday of Advent, I think Jesus is, indeed, speaking.

Christ tells us that everything has a process. Baking a loaf of bread has a preparation time, a time in which changes can be made and the actual bread formed and set, and then a time when the bread is baked and either must be eaten, given away, or will go bad. Everything has a process. People are born, grow mature, and eventually die. The world itself is created, groans and grows through maturity, and will one day come to an end. Jesus is saying simply this: God is not finished with us yet. The end is not quite here. It may be tomorrow. Or it may be hundreds or thousands of years away. We don’t know, and it doesn’t accomplish much to muse on it. It will come when it will come. The point is—we’re in the middle now. There is still time.

It’s as though we’re a jug being fashioned into something by a potter. The clay has been dug, we’re being shaped and formed and molded. Once we’re put into the kiln and glazed, it’s too late. Like those face jugs I have—their faces, whether they sneer, or laugh, or have an evil grin, or gracious smile—once they’re fired and glazed, they’re stuck. We’re like those jugs, except that we’re still on the potter’s wheel. We are still in God’s hands, able to be shaped and changed, and formed for good, formed for love.

Today we begin the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching, a season of God making and remaking things new. The symbols are all around us. The blue reminds us that part of the early church used this season is special. It is different. The Advent wreath is another symbol of our waiting for increasing light, as each Sunday, another candle is lit. Those who keep Advent Calendars wait actively, as they open one window or door each day-- a reminder that every new day brings a surprise from God.

The lessons we’ve heard today are not meant to scare us into right living or to make us so preoccupied with the Christ’s coming that we miss the holy right before us. Just the opposite. The intention is that we treasure each day, live it as best we can, and rejoice in the fact that we are all in process.

The world may seem beyond repair, but the good news is that God isn’t finished with it yet. Our families may seem broken, but God isn’t finished yet. Our relationships may seem completely out of shape, our own lives might seem like a badly formed clump of clay, but the good news—the really great news, is that God the Potter is not finished with us yet.

May this season bring us increasing light, increasing joy, and increasing love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Doing Gratitude

A sermon for Thanksgiving Day. The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 8:7-18, Psalm 65, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, and Luke 17:11-19.

For me, today’s Gospel is easy to imagine. It’s vivid. It has strong characters. Jesus is healing. The disciples are not getting in the way. The religious authorities are not trying to control him. And in this short story, some of Mary’s song is being enacted, “great things are being done, mercy is shown, strength is shared, the lowly are being lifted up, those hungry for healing are filled with good things, and God is coming with holy help.” It’s a good day on the way to Jerusalem.

But it’s not a perfect day.

Jesus sees the lepers, but rather than heal them and be done with it, Jesus shares the power of healing. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus knows the larger social context well. He knows that without the official sanction of the temple, the community will not fully accept the lepers back in. So the lepers go away. And one returns.

He turns back to Jesus, praises God with a loud voice, falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. He is a foreigner, being both a leper and a Samaritan this man is a kind of “double winner,” really. Twice outcast. So perhaps from his vantage point, the healing seemed even more of a miracle. But for whatever reason, the one healed leper returns to give thanks.

As much as I like this story, when I begin to think about where I might have been in the story, or where I might be, I don’t like it as much. Maybe you would have been that one leper to return, but I doubt that I would have been. I might have gone by the temple to check in with the priests, but I think I would have been so excited, so renewed, so strengthened by the change, that I would have simply gotten back with life as I remembered it, or as I hoped it might be. I would have plans. I would have hopes. I would have an agenda—all of which would have been put on hold by the leprosy. So the minute it’s lifted, it would have “show time” for me. It would be back-to-action. It would be back-to-life, in many ways. My feelings of joy and health, and gratitude, would probably not have taken me to the feet of Jesus, but would have taken me somewhere else.

Part of the problem, for me, anyway, is that I’ve often thought of gratitude as a feeling, or an emotion. Our society has encouraged us to express our feelings and show emotion. But where does that leave us when our feelings may point us in the wrong direction? Feelings are flakey. My feelings cannot always be trusted—sometimes they are completely off base. Sometimes they are not rooted in reality.

A friend of mine recently put the theme of this day very bluntly. “Gratitude is about doing something.” Gratitude may sometimes come, and sometimes go, with a feeling. But real gratitude has to do with action, with doing something, with moving outside myself toward another.

Monday’s New York Times had a good little article about the effects of living with gratitude. Not so much feeling grateful, but living with gratitude—sometimes different things. The author, John Tierney, suggests that practicing gratitude is “linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.” Give thanks to God. Live longer and love better. Happy Thanksgiving!

The article suggests a few things that some of you probably already do. It suggests that if you’re down in the dumps or are facing some kind of problem, try jotting down five things for which you’re grateful. Just put one sentence for each thing. If you just do this once a week, over, a few months, you’ll see a change.

Other practices can be helpful.

Don’t confuse gratitude with indebtedness. Even though I may be grateful to one person, simply letting gratitude soak into my left and turning it outward will affect others, and me.

Make a gratitude visit. Think of a person to whom you’re grateful. Think about what you might say to the person. And then visit him or her in person, and tell them what you’ve been thinking.

As kind of emergency gratitude approach, a gratitude triage or sorts, Tierney suggests thinking of how things could be worse.

When your relatives force you to look at photos on their phones, be thankful they no longer have access to a slide projector. When your aunt expounds on politics, rejoice inwardly that she does not hold elected office. Instead of focusing on the dry, tasteless turkey on your plate, be grateful the six-hour roasting process killed any toxic bacteria.

But gratitude is “doing something.” It may be not speaking. It may be helping someone else. It may be sending a note or making a call. It may be giving away something—something big like money or clothing or a car, or it may mean something smaller, like giving away one’s need to be right, giving away one’s temporary comfort, giving away one’s pride.

Ten lepers are healed. Nine go their own way. But one returns to Jesus, says thank you to the source of his healing, to the source of all creation and life. And Jesus then sends him out, to live out his gratitude.

May God accept our thanksgiving, and show us how to be grateful and do something.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A King like no other

King Sam (wearing a crown) and JB (wearing a spider), Halloween 2011

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2011. The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, and Matthew 25:31-46.

A while back there was an article in the Washington Post about Nana Amuah Afenyi VI, king of Otuam, in Ghana. The article describes the king and a relative traveling by taxi in Ghana. The taxi reaches a police checkpoint. The officer stops the car and looks at the driver’s license. “This has expired!” the officer says. But the driver argues, “No, it hasn’t expired.” The policeman gets angry and shouts back, “Don’t contradict me. It has expired.” After seeing that he’s getting nowhere, the driver reluctantly begins to open up his wallet to get money out and pay the “fine.”

At this, the king, sitting in the back seat of the taxi, becomes enraged. The king is a large, dark woman named Peggielene Bartels: she works as a secretary in the Embassy of Ghana here in Washington by day; but by heredity and custom, she has become chief of Otuam. She glares at the officer. “Expiration date 2013. What is this nonsense? His license has not expired. You are trying to extort a bribe from him. I am the lady king of Otuam and I will not put up with this!” ["All the King’s Men," Washington Post, March 14, 2010]. The officer manages to squeak out an apology in the face of what must have been a combination of shock, of surprise, and of fear. This is a king unlike any he has ever seen before. King Peggy, as she is known to some, may not look like a conventional king. But through relationship, people experience her power. Through conversation with her, people hear her wisdom. In bringing problems to her, people get another point of view, one that lifts their own situation.

Today is called Christ the King Sunday. And while we might have images of what a king looks like, or how a king behaves (images from scriptures, or history books, or our own imagination) we should notice than Christ is not a king who wants to be worshipped. He is not a king who wants to sit back in a grand castle and admire his finery. Instead, he is a king in action. Christ compels us closer into relationship with him. By knowing him, by talking to him, by listening to him, our lives are lifted up. Our lives are expanded and made into more.
In the first scripture reading, Ezekiel points to a God who is unwilling to rule from afar. This is not a God on the sidelines, who might regard creation without passion or without interest. Instead, God gets in the middle of thngs. God likes to get dirty—after all isn’t that the very picture of God creating humankind: God stoops down into the mud and fashions friends. In Ezekiel, God is like a shepherd who searches out the lost sheep and rescues them to “bring them out, and to gather them, to feed them and to nurture them.” These were encouraging words from Ezekiel to the people of Israel who were exiled in Babylon. They were longing for their homeland, longing for the familiar, and longing for a renewed sense of purpose and direction.

The second part of Ezekiel’s words point to an even stronger shepherd who prefigures the coming of a Messiah. Here is a shepherd who judges between what Ezekiel calls the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Those who are puffed up, who are full of themselves, who think they have no need of God, will be left behind. Those who are lean and who lean on God, will be saved.

The Gospel today continues with the idea of King on the move. Salvation comes through this king, judgment is a part of it. It’s no great mystery though-- people who have always assumed their safety and salvation may find, in the end, that their names are not on the guest list. While those who have felt themselves unworthy or unfit for the kingdom, who’ve been left out or squeezed out, may just be at the top of the list.

Through it all, Christ calls into relationship. And we will find him when we look and listen more closely to those he loves. Care for those who hunger and thirst, he says, and you will see me. Help those who don’t have enough, and you will see me. Welcome in the one who is left out and you will see me. Visit the one in prison, or engage the one who has just come out of prison, and you will see me. By serving others, one becomes blessed.

And that’s what real royalty looks like, Jesus says. Look for the King of Love in the stranger who is welcomed, in the naked who is clothed, in the hungry who is fed, in the imprisoned who are met, in the lonely who are visited, in the sick who are offered the healing of friendship and prayer.

A few weeks ago, I met a king. It was at the church Halloween party, and the king came in the form of seven-year-old little girl. Samantha refused to be seen as a queen. She was a king, she explained. She was a king complete with crown, cape, and wooden horse to convey her royalty wherever she wanted to go. In some ways, Sam’s idea of a king comes much closer to God’s revelation as king than the most exquisite artistic rendering or the most developed theological concept. King Samantha wanted to play. She brought laughter, and joy, and energy, and spirit. In so doing, she paved the way for this day, when we open ourselves to Christ the King—in his exalted lowliness, in his shabby regality, with his wealth and wisdom poured out freely for all.

St. Paul prays that a spirit of wisdom and revelation might help us to know God, that, “with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we might know what is the hope to which we are called, the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for those who believe.” May Christ the King lead us through the messiness of ministry, even the rockiness of relationship, so that in one another (and in ourselves), the risen Christ would be revealed, known, and loved.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2011

All Souls' Day 2011

The Columbarium on All Souls Day, November 2, 2011

A sermon for the Feast of All Souls.

“What happens when we die,” is a question asked in every age, by every culture. And yet, people answer it differently. Even people of faith. In the scriptures we’ve heard tonight there are various images.

The Wisdom of Solomon is a collection of sayings and teachings. Included in that first lesson is the idea that life on earth is a kind of testing. But those with faith endure and they grow in the love of God to shine like stars.

Psalm 130 invokes a separation one feels even in this life—in depression or disease or sickness—in which one feels like one is at the bottom of a deep pit or cavern, calling, crying for God to hear. And so we wait. We wait all through the night, but eventually comes mercy. Eventually comes redemption, plenteous redemption.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians offers encouragement that those who have died will rise again and the Gospel reminds us that just like when we are born into this world, God whispers “hello, beloved,” when we die, God is there, too, whispering our name in welcome, in love, and in joy.

In all our readings, God offers different images for “what happens when we die.” Through them all, God speaks to us the way we need to hear. God shows up in forms we can recognize. God blesses in ways that feel like blessings, and God heals us through love.

All Souls’ Day invites us to remember especially those saints we have known. We recall the strange ones, perhaps in our own families or among our friends. We recall the delightful ones, whose smile continues to warm us. We recall the fierce ones, who made us slightly afraid, but also made us better people. We remember the ones who perhaps gave us much of the meaning, the reason, the love of life. When they die, a part of us dies. But the Church reminds us that they are alive somewhere, and the Church reminds us that we, too, should feel ourselves resurrected, lifted up, and blessed.

Tonight’s Gospel comes just after Jesus has healed a man in the place called Bethsaida, or Bethesda. The religious leaders are trying to figure out how Jesus has been able to heal, and Jesus connects the power to heal with the power of God to heal. God heals us of every disease and even heals us from death. Jesus says, the time is coming, when “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Those who hear, will live.

Those who hear the good News of God in Jesus Christ, live and live again.
Those who hear his message of peace and forgiveness, live and live again.
Those of us who believe that the saints are with God and smile upon us still, live and will shall live again.

This Mass gives thanks for all the saints and all the souls who have inspired us, touched us, loved us, and who are carried still within our hearts. This Mass also gives us power to love, strength to rise, and confidence that the resurrected Jesus Christ walks by our side and leads us into the love of eternal life.

Saint Paul reminds us that

We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. . . . Then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:51-57, passim).

Thanks be to God for the saints and the souls who surround us this night and forevermore.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Communion of Saints by Elise Ritter

A sermon for All Saints' Sunday. The lectionary readings are Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, and Matthew 5:1-12.

Last Sunday our bishop-elect met with some of the clergy and spouses. It was meant to be a casual gathering, one in which we could ask questions of one another and begin to prepare for the future. At one point someone asked Rev. Budde what plans she had for the current staff at Church House, the building that contains our diocesan offices. She answered by saying that it would take her some time to understand exactly what the future needs of the diocese might be, that she would make no rash decisions, and that if, over time, any positions were phased out or changed, she would work with people to be fair and forthright. The person asking the question must have looked unconvinced, because Mariann then said, “I guess what I can say is that I’m not bringing people with me who I want to put to work in Church House. In other words, I don’t have ‘people.’”

We all laughed. But while I would not want to correct my future bishop, and while I know what she meant, I would also suggest (in the context of All Saints’ Day) that she DID have people, she DOES have people, and she WILL CONTINUE to have people. As she moves to Washington, she brings with her all of the people who have ever inspired her in her faith, all of the people who have encouraged her, or challenged her, or pushed her to deeper faithfulness. Our new bishop also moves into a faith community that is ready to offer help, offer support, and to pray with her and for her. That’s what All Saints’ Day is really about—it’s about the fact that, as people of faith, we are never, ever alone.

All Saints Day reminds us that “we’ve got people.” We’ve (all of us) got people.

Having people, having support, having help makes the words of today’s Gospel possible. Otherwise, the Beatitudes would be hopelessly out of reach. They are lofty ideals, they are high, and for many of us, the blessings they contain are far, far away from our every day experience. How many of us are very often among the poor in spirit, the meek, or those who hunger and thirst after righteousness? When have we been pure in heart, shown mercy, or practiced the art of peacemaking?

To approach the Beatitudes is a little like beginning to climb a mountain. Some in the Orthodox tradition have pictured the Beatitudes as a ladder. In a Ladder of Beatitudes, “Each one leads to the next, and is placed in a particular order. To reach the second step, we need to make the first step.”

Whether we imagine the Beatitudes as a ladder, or a mountain, or simply a series of signs that points us in the way of holiness, the good news is that we are not alone in our journey. There are others who have climbed this ladder, who have ascended this mountain, who have received the blessing upon blessing that Jesus offers. These are the saints. And they offer us holy help.

From time to time I call on holy help. For example, when I am running low on faith and when doubt is about to do a number on me it helps me to know that St. Teresa of Avila once went years wondering whether God was really listening. When the political nature of life begins to get me down and discourage me it helps me to know that Hugh of Lincoln, bishop-saint of the Middle Ages, was able to be prophetic with kings as well as commoners. Our local saints inspire and help me, as well. When I’m discouraged about some problem facing our church, I hear the words of our former senior warden, Nancye. And I’m encouraged. At various times, and in different predicaments, I imagine Jeff, and Mary, and Erling, and Frank, and many more.

In the New Testament the word “saint” normally just refers to someone who puts her faith in Jesus Christ. In the New Testament sense one does not have to be a martyr or even a particularly holy person to be called a saint. The Apostle Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In helping the Corinthian church sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians. In Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints—some who have died for their faith, others who have died natural deaths—but ordinary believers made extraordinary by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is a grand and glorious company.

. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”

We have help in heaven and on earth. We’ve got people. We’ve got saints surrounding us. And by the grace of God, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be saints for one another—helping, supporting, encouraging, challenging, growing together into the likeness of God. Thanks be to God that we’ve got people.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.


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