Monday, October 22, 2012

Which cup?

A sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2012.  The lectionary readings are
Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, and Mark 10:35-45.

Back in August, I was in Seattle for Brenda Sol’s ordination.  One morning I went into a coffee shop with every intention of buying a cup of coffee and continuing to walk and explore the city.  The shop was one of a major chain, but was decorated within an inch of its life to reflect the very hip, very green, VERY Seattle neighborhood.  As I stood in line, I noticed that everyone in front of me was ordering coffee just like we might up the street, but when they got their drink, it came in a ceramic cup.  Every single person got a cup “to stay,” and they weren’t saying anything unusual.  I tried to look over the counter to see if, if fact, they even had paper cups for taking away, and finally I saw a few, but it was clear to me that paper cups were just not the “done thing” in this particular shop.  I worried what might happen if I ordered a coffee “to go.”  Would the cool music stop, the lights be turned up full, and everyone stare?  Would they instantly label me as “East Coast,” or would they boo me out of the shop calling me a “tree killer” and the most conspicuous of consumers?  I ordered a coffee, got a ceramic mug, and sat down, as though I had planned to stay, all along. 

That Seattle coffee shop is not the only place where “which cup” takes on additional meaning.  If you go to buy coffee in 7-Eleven, (in a paper cup) you are asked to choose between an Obama blue one or one that is Romney Red.  In that context, the cup I choose makes a statement, if not a vote. 

In today’s gospel Jesus asks James and John if they are sure they’ve chosen the right cup.  They have left their former lives; they’ve begun to follow Jesus.  But he asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”  “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  These brothers, who Jesus nicknamed “sons of thunder,” thunder forth and respond, “Yes.  We are able.” 

In today’s Gospel and in several other places, Jesus uses the cup as a symbol, as an image that holds within it a number of different things.  The cup from which Jesus drinks holds suffering.  It is layered with service and sacrifice.  But finally, it is a cup that overflows with joy.

In the Garden of Gethsemane we see the cup of suffering.  Jesus prays in agony.  His friends fall asleep.  The authorities are coming.  And he prays to the Father, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  Through his acceptance, through his prayer and through the love that he continues to show others, Jesus begins to transform the cup of suffering into a cup of redemption.

We need to say one thing for certain: and that is, that suffering is not always changed into redemption.  Suffering, itself, is not to be glorified.  Children who die of AIDS, women who die from abuse, the elderly who die alone and forgotten—this kind of suffering is pointless.
 There is no redemption in it and we blaspheme if we in any way suggest that it might be a part of God’s will.  Rather, it is the will of God to redeem, to bring to life, to restore and we are most faithful when we do everything we can to lift one another out of such suffering. 

But there is another kind of suffering.  Suffering that is on behalf of others is of a different quality.   It is a different cup altogether.  In today’s first reading Isaiah sings of a Suffering Servant.  In words we also read on Good Friday, we typically see Jesus as the one who has “borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. . .  by whose bruises we are healed.”  But the interpretation of Isaiah by faithful Jews before Jesus (and after) is also relevant.  Israel understood itself as the suffering servant.  As the nation suffered but remained faithful, others would be see and would be brought to God.  Through the suffering of a remnant, the whole world might be saved.  The idea that redemptive suffering is communal rather than individual may sound odd in a culture as self-focused as ours.   But I think about it for a minute, it invites me to worry less about what I, alone, might accomplish.  It encourages me to think and pray about what we might all be called to do together.  In what ways might we be called to suffer so that others might know redemption and life? (Not a popular question, and not a question easily answered.)  

When Jesus asks James and John if they are able, he is asking if they are able to endure suffering.  He is also asking if they are willing to live a life of service.  Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom of God is not built on power or greatness, but on serving one another. 

Ours is a faith of one-anothering.  Jesus uses that term over and over again: “love one another,” “bear one another’s burdens,” “submit to one another,” and “encourage one another.”  Our faith comes alive when we are able to serve one another—not just in volunteering or being busy or performing tasks—but really letting down our guard, allowing the other person closer, and even being open to being changed by the other.  The cup of service is one the disciples drink from.  They share this cup and they pass it on. 

We continue to pass it on.  After every Eucharist we pray that we might be sent into the world to love and serve God.  Well, we accomplish that “loving and serving” not in the abstract, but by loving and serving those made in God’s image.

Jesus drinks and shares a cup of suffering and a cup of service, but the cup he lifts highest and offers to all is, in the end, filled with joy and celebration.  It is, for lack of a better term, a victory cup.  It is beyond any hope of a Holy Grail because as we share this cup of the blood of Christ, we really drink in everlasting life, here, together and everywhere the Mass is celebrated.

In this Gospel where Jesus explains that greatness comes through service, and honor comes through sacrifice, he also asks if the disciples are truly able to undergo a baptism like his.  Just as Moses led people through the water from slavery to freedom, baptism with Jesus submerges us in death.  It is a death to sin.  A death to the power of the world.  A death to the demands of the devil.  It is a death to self and a dying to selfishness.  But we are brought out of death into new life.  Baptism changes us, it changes everything and we are made new.  We are born again and enabled through confession and forgiveness to be born again and again and again.  If we choose it, that is. 

We have many choices, of course.  Too often we begin trying to live a good life, giving occasional attention to God, but gradually drinking more and more of this world.  Before we know it we are satiated with ourselves, with work, with relationships, with success, with our goals and plans and schedules.  We loose our sense of taste for things holy.  And so, to sip of religion can at first seem bitter and strange.

Austin Farrer describes this taste as “God’s goodness” on our palates, a taste with a “new and unthought-of flavor”.  “God’s goodness,” Farrer writes, “which we taste in wine and in bread, in friendship and in every blessed thing, is the love that died in agony for our salvation.  That is where the taste of it comes out; yet it is not a bitter taste; it is the wine of everlasting joy.” (The Brink of Mystery, p. 67)

And so, the suffering, the service, and the sacrifice, are all poured into one cup, one cup that overruns with everlasting joy.  Which cup will we choose?  Strengthened by the risen Christ, may we choose wisely, with faith and with love. 

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

Sunday, October 14, 2012


The All Souls Window, (c) 2010 Ron Ross

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2012.  The lectionary readings are
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, and Mark 10:17-31.

“Who can be saved?” the disciples ask.

Who, indeed, can be saved?

Though we may not always use that kind of language, and though we may even be a little embarrassed by the vocabulary of “the saved,” and the “not saved,” we should be also be honest, I think. We do want to be saved. Salvation is the goal. That’s why we’re here.

Salvation looks like many different things, depending on our perspective.
For some, salvation looks like eternal life;
for others, it looks like healthy children.
For one or two, salvation might be like a day without pain, given a chronic condition that seems not to respond to medicine, or careful living, or even prayer.

For others, salvation has more communal characteristics, it is saving on a more global scale. Salvation may look like equal rights, regardless of race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or income, or physical or intellectual ability, or anything else.

And for still yet others, “being saved” might be as simple as the moment or two that are worry and burden-free—not worried (for the minute) about the aging parent, no longer worried about the child who can’t quite fit in, no longer worried about the spouse who is looking for work, just no longer anxious, or preoccupied, but alive.

We do want salvation. And so, there’s a part of us that perhaps can relate to person in today’s gospel. He runs up to Jesus, excited, asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus has him reflect on the commandments, the basics. The man says, “oh yes, well, I’m pretty good with all of those.” “I haven’t killed anyone, I honor my parents, I don’t steal.” But then, Jesus says to the man, “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.” The man hears this and is shocked. He goes away, grieving.

But that’s not the real point of the story. The story continues.

The disciples see this and they’re confused. Here is this very good guy, who keeps all the commandments. He does exactly what the whole tradition has taught. He keeps the Sabbath day, he doesn’t lie, he certainly doesn’t murder. But then Jesus seems to reinterpret everything. He changes the rules. He broadens the perspective. In some ways he blows apart the whole idea of what it meant to follow God.

It’s almost like another story in scripture, the story of the Prodigal Son. You remember it’s where there’s an older brother who has done all the right things, followed all the rules, stayed at home and worked hard, dedicated his life to the father and the farm, and then there’s this younger brother. The younger brother is the cut-up who goes out, plays hard, and squanders his inheritance. He returns home humble, like a beggar. But it’s for the younger brother that the father throws the big party, gives all the attention, and makes the special feast. The older brother feels like the rules have been changed on him. He’s angry, he’s bitter, and (I bet) he’s more than a little bit jealous.

Both the older brother in the Prodigal Son story and the rich man in today’s story hear what should be good news from Jesus: that one cannot buy or earn the love of God. And they, these characters are so invested (and I use that word on purpose)—they are invested in all that they have imagined they are doing for and giving to God, and so they want their return. Jesus shows that the economics of God’s love work very differently.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Ok, then, who can be saved?” But as someone has pointed out, Jesus doesn’t answer this question. Instead, he poses the real question: Not, “who can be saved,” but “Who can do the saving.” And that’s the question that Jesus DOES answer.

It is God and God alone who does the saving. In God’s own way, in God’s own time, in God’s lavish self-giving, self-offering, overflowing love.

God saves us. God saves us from ourselves. God saves us from becoming too attached to our possessions, to our ideas, to our friends, to our family, even to our own sense of ourselves.

In both our readings from the Prophet Amos and our Gospel, there’s an aspect of the reading that follows an expected pattern, but then there’s some ambiguity at the end. There’s some room within what some might see as a forgone conclusion. There’s room for us to move toward God. There’s room for God’s grace to move in us.

Amos thunders about injustice and oppression. His words often indict the people, and he predicts the culture’s crumbling in, upon itself, because of its greed, because of its selfishness, because it ignores the way of God. But then Amos has these words,
Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;[and] it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

“It may be,” says Amos. In other words, the future of those who seek God is not set in stone. It is open for change, for growth, for repentance, for (dare I say it) salvation.

Likewise, in the Gospel, one reading can have the story of the rich man and Jesus end in a pretty sad way. Jesus says to the man, “You lack one thing, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and follow me.” And we’re told that “when [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” It’s not that he was rich, that was the problem. The rich are not better or worse than the poor.  The problem is that this man is reluctant to follow Jesus, to let loose of the things that weigh him down, and to move toward salvation. He goes away grieving. But I don’t think the story really ends.

We don’t know if the man turned around and met up with Jesus the next day. We don’t know if later, after hearing about the amazing events in Jerusalem: Jesus’ crucifixion, his death on the cross, his rising again in glory… that the man may have yet had a change of heart and decided to follow Jesus. The story leaves room for us to imagine. It leaves room for grace, just as our own lives—no matter where we might be in our own calling to follow Jesus, no matter what might currently stand in the way of our being more faithful disciples of Jesus, not matter what might seem to be in our way of living freely--- there is room for us to respond to God. There is room for God’s justice to smash the barriers, God’s mercy to forget all sin, and God’s grace to break through and bring us closer.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that God is eager to take away whatever burdens us, whatever makes us sluggish to follow him, whatever keeps us from love. God offers to empty our hands, to take whatever we cling to, and gently lay it aside, so that our hands may be empty—our hands and our hearts, so that we might receive the love of God for this live and the next.

With God, all things are possible. Who can be saved? Every single one of us.

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

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Marriage into unity

"The Universal Man" by Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operam, 1165.

A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, and Mark 10:2-16.

Last Saturday in this room we celebrated the marriage of Hilary Wilcox and Mike Craig.  It was a wonderful wedding:  a happy couple, loving family and friends, and great music.  One of the scriptures readings we heard that day was from Ecclesiastes.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Eccl. 4:9-12)
If you’ve been to a lot of weddings and never heard that reading, you would not be unusual.  In our Prayer Book, in the marriage section, there is a list of recommended scriptures for weddings.  A couple is not bound to those, but it’s a good start and usually covers what most people might want.  But the wonderful Ecclesiastes reading that I just read for you comes from another source.  It comes from the list of suggested readings in the new proposed liturgy for The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant, the form our recent national meeting of the Episcopal Church endorsed for use in same-gender marriages, beginning this Advent. 

The new proposed liturgy encourages us to think in several new ways about marriage, union, or covenant, or whatever you want to call the blessing of a committed relationship.  Not only are there new readings suggested—many of which add a refreshing breach of the Spirit into a wedding of any kind, but also the whole liturgy recalls imagery of the baptismal service as well as a traditional marriage liturgy.  What’s different is that the couple come before God as two people, not as “man and wife.”  Also, the woman is not “given away” from one man to another, as though she is property.  There is additional language about the community of faith, making no mistake that what the couple does in binding themselves one to another is not just about the couple, and not just for the sake of having children, but is about a larger witness of faith, fidelity, and communion. 

The Church’s understanding about marriage is changing.  It is growing and deepening and, in many ways, is being baptized and sanctified in new ways.  But what may be surprising about the church’s willingness to adjust and change in its view of marriage, is that this in nothing new.  Since the beginning of time, people of faith have understood marriage (and the ending of some marriages) in ways that have been fluid and changing, both influenced by culture and guided by God. 

Listening to the Gospel we just heard, one could think that the sermon today was going to be about divorce.  The Pharisees are perhaps genuine in their question of Jesus, or maybe they are trying to trick him.  But he does take their question seriously. Jesus is asked about divorce, but he responds by talking about marriage.  He’s more interested in the relationship as it might be, as it can be, and God intends for it to be at its very best.  The provision for divorce, Jesus suggests, is there because of human fallibility. Jesus suggests that the law allowing for divorce is not there to encourage divorce, but as a necessity when there’s no other alternative.  God gave the law to Moses out of compassion, because God knew that humans can sometimes do harm to one another, and there needed to be provision for dealing with broken relations.  Sometimes a marriage needs to end, and so the law of Moses was provided for those situations.   

But this doesn’t settle the matter for the disciples.  They want to hear more.  After they leave the Pharisees and go indoors, the disciples push Jesus further.  They want to be clear what Jesus think about divorce, perhaps because they are aware that not everyone agrees about divorce.

Jesus answers by interpreting the religious law of his day.  But if we look closely, we’ll see that Mark, the writer of this Gospel, has already adapted Jesus’s words to the Greco-Roman culture of Mark’s day.  In Jesus’s day, there was no provision for a woman to divorce her husband, a provision that came later.  But by Mark’s time, this was a reality, and so Mark’s community of faith had already begun to grapple with those places in which scripture, tradition, and reason don’t exactly line up.  So already, we see a progression, a change, an interpretation of where God might be in the marriage relationship and where God might be when a marriage ends. 

The way we understand relationship changes.  The way we tell our story changes.  The way we understand God in our lives changes—and this has been so since the beginning of time. 

The Book of Genesis begins with a difference of opinion.  Genesis does not begin once.  It begins twice.  Genesis 2, from which we have today’s Old Testament readings is by a source scholars call the Yahwistic source. It emphasizes humanity and tries to explain how why it is that there’s a loneliness in the heart of us, and that this loneliness finds healing in another person.  Genesis 1 is of another source, called the Priestly source, and in those first few words of Genesis, it’s all about God. From the very beginning of our scriptures, there is difference and diversity of opinion.

If we zoom through time to the Sixteenth Century, we can see there was a particular difference of opinion about marriage.  Some people will flippantly say that the Church of England came about as a result of a divorce.  It was created, they say, when King Henry VIII’s wanted to break his marriage with Catherine of Aragon.  The Pope refused, so the King refused the primacy of the Pope, made himself head of the church in England and got the divorce he wanted.  But there were larger issues. 

At stake was the interpretation of scripture, the understanding of marriage and divorce in English law, and an undercurrent of theology and exploration made possible by the printing press and intellectual developments in the mid-sixteenth century.  Very simply put:  things were changing.  And things have always been changing ever since. 

Our own Bishop Mariann Budde remembers when she was a little girl and her parents got divorced.  [She mentions this in her interview on the Diane Rehm Show, December 21, 2011.]This was not an easily accepted thing in Episcopal circles.  In fact, it was only in 1973 that the Episcopal Church, meeting in general convention, passed a canon that allowed for remarriage after divorce. 

People of faith have wrestled with how to understand divorce and the Church continues to wrestle with how to understand marriage.  In the Episcopal Church, at least, we have having these conversations openly.  We read our scripture and take it seriously.  We read the tradition of the Church and take seriously what others before us have done and said.  And we use our best thinking to take into consideration history, theology, psychology, medicine, and every other good gift God has given us.  As we discern, we let faith guide us through the Holy Spirit, so that not just one person is given the truth, but groups of people coming together in faith and humility.

Our Church is still discerning how, diocese by diocese, it understands marriage, just as our country is discerning state by state.  But I am grateful that the Diocese of Washington, and your vestry have given me permission to welcome any couple who meets our requirements for marriage to be married at All Souls.  I will continue to meet with couples who request a blessing, talk with them, pray with them, listen for God’s Spirit moving through their lives, and officiate at those marriages that seem appropriate for us to host in this place.

We have been talking a lot about marriage this morning, about committed relationships between two people, and even though the Church has sometimes privileged married persons over those who are not married, our Epistle reading from Hebrews reminds us that God’s image is not best reflected in marriage, but “[Christ] is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”  Christ is the model and the goal for love, friendship, and all relations, and in Christ are both male and female. 

When the disciples ask Jesus about marriage, Jesus responds with Genesis 2 in which male and female are helpers, partners, and part of each other.  Genesis does not mention marriage there, but speaks in larger terms that apply to all. 

The union of male and female in Christ is something the saints have aimed for.  And it is precisely this blending of male and female in a graceful and loving way that shows up in people like St. Francis of Assisi.  Describing Francis, Leonardo Boff writes
The feminine and the masculine are ontological determinations of every human being, in such a way that each individual carries something of both within him or herself….The male must integrate the anima that gives him strength, that is, the dimension of gentleness, of care, of attraction, of intuition, of all that is linked to the mystery of life and generation. The female must integrate the animus that is found within her existence, that is, the objectivity of the world, rationality, ordering, and direction—everything that is linked to history….[And so, in Francis of Assisi] without machismo or feminism, without fragility or rigidity, there blossoms in him, harmoniously, a gentle strength and a strong gentleness that are the brilliance and the archetypal enchantment of his personality” (Francis of Assisi: a Model for Human Liberation, p. 26)
The famous Prayer for Peace ("Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace...), attributed to St. Francis, asks for a kind of peace that results from reconciling opposites:  hatred/love, injury/pardon, discord/union, doubt/faith, despair/hope, darkness/light, sadness/joy.  We could add to this list, male/female, masculine/feminine.  Duality goes away.  In its place is integrity, unity, wholeness, and peace. 

God’s intention for humanity is that we be as whole as possible in this life, which prepares us for the next life in which we receive the fullness of God.  If what moves you most into wholeness and completion is being with another person, then link up with someone and let that relationship grow in God.  If you’re moved most toward wholeness by being single, then let God sanctify your singleness and free you to grow more deeply into God. 

Whether single, married, in relationship, or out; may God fill us with love so that, with Francis and all creation we might sing,
Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.  (Canticle of the Creatures)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Spin vs. Simplicity

St. Francis preaching to the birds
All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Photo by Ron Ross

Over the last few Sundays, the Epistle readings have been from the Letter of James, one of the shorter books of the Bible.  It is near the end of the New Testament, just before Revelation.   Last Sunday’s reading began with James 5:13, but I wish it had included verse 12.  In that verse James encourages people to be careful about swearing oaths.  He concludes the section, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no…”  Jesus says the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount, but even if we heard these scriptures every Sunday, I’m not sure they would be any easier for us to follow.

In an election year such as this, with advertising and campaigning all around, simple truth is scarce.  Almost every party or person adds a slant, a spin, or a tone that affects the way things are said and tries to affect the way things are heard.  While we all know when someone is trying to persuade us, I wonder how much the sense of “spin” affects the things we say as individuals.  I don’t have much control over political advertising, but I can try to practice clarity and honesty in my own speaking.   

When I tell a story, answer a question, or try to explain a decision I have made, I suppose it is only natural to want to justify myself and present myself as competent and thoughtful.  But how often do I adjust things ever so slightly?  How often do I add an extra sentence in an effort to charm or color?  Are there times when I phrase things in just such a way as to leave the impression that my own role in something has been more than it actually has been?  This is a challenge—but a holy one, I think—to let my yes be yes, and my no be no. 

We celebrate St. Francis of Assisi this weekend and will continue to reflect on his life through the year.  Francis was simple.  He was not formally educated and he did not view the world with nuance.  He spoke simple truth.  He lived with simplicity, and he sought to be a brother to the simplest of God’s creatures.  Even though Francis traveled and preached, journeyed and served, he didn’t “spin.” He didn’t try to enhance or exaggerate his life, his words, or even his God.  Instead, wherever he went, whatever condition he was in, Francis offered himself completely to Christ.


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