Monday, December 31, 2012

God appears and God is Light

Christmas 1
Dec. 30, 2012
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Years ago, when Tim was the rector of the Syracuse Urban Cluster, we worked closely with the minister of a Pentecostal Holiness congregation. We shared services, festivities and community events. We marched through the neighborhood, praying in front of crack houses and anointing with oil any who came up to “Father Hall” or “Minister Ellis,” as our friend was called, to be saved.

Not long before he started his congregation, Minister Ellis was a jazz musician, a studio and session musician, and the grandson of folksinger Libba Cotton. What drew him and his congregation to the Episcopal Church, we wondered? After not too many sermons we understood: it was the Gospel of John, with its deep poetry, its stark contrasts between darkness and light, between those who hear Jesus’ voice and follow him and those who stray. The Gospel of John is not easy to understand, but if you live a life of ups and downs, of tragedies and near-misses, the Gospel of John is easy to feel.

Soon after we moved back here a year ago, Tim ran into Larry Ellis, a joyful reunion with many promises of getting back together. Sadly, not long after that, Larry Ellis died, unexpectedly, putting to rest a glorious voice and a magnificent soul. His music rose from the depths of his experience to the heights of glory, confident that no matter what came to pass, he belonged to Jesus, the rock of his salvation.

A theology based on the Gospel of John revels in contrasts: darkness-light; knowledge-ignorance; blindness-sight. Taken to an extreme, it defends an “us against the world” understanding of Christian community. It can feed notions like the “clash of civilizations,” leading to the demonization of “others” who just don’t get it, others who reject our world view.

It is all too easy to stay on the surface when we read the Gospel of John, and revel in its dualisms of good and evil, dark and light. But to do so can distort the Jesus about whom John is talking in this Gospel, a Jesus who brings a light to enlighten everyone – everyone – into the world.

In 1803, the English poet William Blake wrote a poem which ended,
God appears and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in Night;
But does a Human Form display
To those who dwell in realms of Day
God comes in a form we understand. If we live in gloom or trouble, God first appears to us as light. But if we already have had a glimpse of that light, God comes to us as one of us, embodying our hopes for righteousness and justice, love and freedom, giving us something tangible to hold on to and model our lives upon.

The Gospel of John reminds us that God has been calling us into being since the beginning of time. The light still shines and there is no darkness – no depth of human evil, no ignorance or fear or violence or death – that can block it out. If you listen closely, you can hear the angels – and Larry Ellis – sing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

All we have is a child, and everything in the world looks like a promise

Christmas 2012

Christmas is a confused jumble of stories, sources, traditions, customs. We pull together what is “Christmas” to us from a variety of places. At the 4 pm service we read the accounts of the birth of Jesus from both the Matthew AND the Luke gospels. Those two evangelists tell different stories about Joseph, Mary and the Babe in the manger; Mark and John tell us nothing at all about how Jesus got here, but they both allude to Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters.

We also include in “Christmas” dozens of customs from all over – a mélange of Charles Dickens and medieval carols and Coca Cola ads. The piano accompaniment to “the Charlie Brown Christmas” means the holiday to us as much as Handel’s “Messiah.” “The Miracle on 34th Street” captures the essence of the season as much as any number of elegant musical settings by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughn Williams. This season is a sentimental time, and a hopeful time, as we approach the turning of the year and all of the promise that the birth of a new child brings.

But back to the Bible: even with all these different strands of stories about the birth of Jesus, the Gospels all include some mention of dark things. Even the blessed Wise Men, when they come to honor the Baby Jesus, inadvertently play a role in terrible destructive things. Herod, powerful and yet weak, so fearful of this child, this king-to-be, uses the Magi’s hopeful seeking for his own wicked ends. He uses his military might to kill all the baby boys just in search of the one who escapes his grasp. The Holy Family flies to safety, just in time.
Christmas has always included this poignant mix. Charles Dickens wrote his “Christmas Carol” against the backdrop of the deprivations and hardships of industrial England, contrasting the bounty and warmth and cheer with loneliness and hunger.

Christmas is, in a way, a kind of crystal ball: what we see in it, what we experience, is influenced by what we bring to the encounter. There is an old saying, that if all you have is a hammer, then everything in the world looks like a nail. The terrible events of the past couple of weeks have reminded us that if all you have is a gun, then everything in the world is a target.

But tonight, all we have is a child, and to us, everything in the world looks like a promise: a promise of hope, of love, of grace, of forgiveness, of starting over, of seeing the world in the way this child sees it. And since this child is God, that means seeing this world in the way God sees it.

One of the things that our Christian tradition enables us to do during this season, is to hold together all of these things: the promise and the pain, the abundance and the loss. We can miss someone so much during these days that it hurts, and yet at the same time be overjoyed with gladness at the things around us. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

We are all meant to be mothers of God

Advent 4-C
Dec. 23, 2012
Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15: The Magnificat 
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

People of faith are viewed by many people in this society as kind of kooky. People of faith are just not realistic. Even the “I’m spiritual but not religious” types are seen this way by the hard-headed realists. We are sometimes dismissed as “Religious do-gooders,” airy-fairy types. Just how much of a difference can our meager efforts make in this world where the problems are immense and the solutions nearly unimaginable?

Mary and Elizabeth must be seen as the ultimate kooky “people of faith.” What could be less realistic than the words Mary sings when she meets up with her cousin, Elizabeth? Casting mighty from their seats of power? She, a pregnant, poor, unmarried girl? Filling the hungry with good things? Her cousin Elizabeth is elderly, and is now pregnant for the first time in her life. These are just ordinary people, not miracle workers; how much more delusional can they be?

These two women, and the two baby boys they carry in their wombs, come to us today in the line of prophets. Mary and Elizabeth came from people who read their Bibles carefully. They lived on the fringes of society, where they could see the things that were wrong, where they could see how poor and powerless people were treated. They knew their Bibles well enough to know that God promised that the world would be a better place. They stood in a long ling of prophets who listened carefully to God, and who looked carefully at the world around them, and said, Wait a minute here. There are things going on in this world that are not what God intends. When Mary and Elizabeth listened for God, they heard the great and powerful swooshing sounds of angels’ wings, the Holy Spirit coming upon them, overshadowing and empowering them to see the world as God sees it, and to speak and to act.

And all the world is grateful that these two kooky women, these people of faith, and hope, these attentive listeners to God, said yes.

Meister Eckhart, a popular and mystical teacher of the Middle Ages, said this about Mary: “We are all meant to be mothers of God.” To be mothers of God in the sense of being a kooky person of faith like she was. To be a person who listens closely for the swoosh of those mighty Holy Spirit wings, and who looks closely at the world around her. We are all meant to be mothers of God when we say yes to the promises God has in store for us. Mary and Elizabeth certainly saw lots of darkness and violence in the world around them – December 2012 has no corner on that! – but in spite of that, Mary and Elizabeth said yes to the goodness God put here when God created this world. We are meant to be mothers of God when we open ourselves to be changed by God, even if we only take one step at a time, not exactly sure that what God would have us do is reasonable, or socially acceptable, but we do it nonetheless. To be a mother of God is to be willing to be a kooky person of faith.

There is something curious about this Magnificat song that Mary sings. It is in the words of a young woman, talking about the promises God has made for the world, but it is spoken from the point of view of something that has already happened. God has already overthrown the mighty and given the hungry enough to eat. God has already pulled the downtrodden up and sent away the rich people, who were not willing to participate in this way that God would have the world work.

This kooky person of faith seems to think that all those things have already happened, and that the birth of the son she carries is part of this ongoing process of healing the world, of bringing it back to the world God created it to be.

What a kooky imagination this Mary has, to listen to the swooshing, swooping powerful wings of the Holy Spirit, and to begin to see the world as God sees it – to take it on faith, as it were, and to begin to live her life, now, in the real world here and now, believing it to be true.

“We are all meant to be mothers of God.” Kooky. Hopeful. Knowing that the world could be, and is, a better place, and saying yes to God, when God shows us how this could be so.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sharing our coats, sharing our hearts

Advent 3 C
December 16, 2012
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9: Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:1-6

How hard it is today to sing “rejoice!”, as our first three lessons from the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah, and from St. Paul’s letter to the people in Philippi, exhort us. Everyone’s hearts, since the horrific news came out on Friday morning, have been torn and tortured, our minds filled with terrible things, and our feelings angry and agitated:

What then should we do? What then should we do? Gun control? Better treatment of people with mental health? Turn our elementary schools into locked-down fortresses?

What then should we do? What then should we do? Hug our children more tightly? Praise the heroic acts of gym teachers and librarians and school psychologists? Weep? Mourn? Shout? Stay home and pull the covers over our heads? All of the above?

And is any of this an appropriate conversation to have in church?

Churches in Newtown, CT
Even though I was born in Syracuse, my mother’s family has New England roots, and several years ago she came upon a quote from the diary of one of our 19th century Peabody relatives, who had gone to hear Henry Ward Beecher – one of the great American preachers. “Politics and the pulpit don’t mix well together,” was my ancestor’s now famous (in our household at least) line in response to Beecher’s visit to his New Hampshire town. 

That remark may have signaled one of the first cracks in the non-separation of church and state in America. There was a time when politics and the pulpit were joined, when everyone who came to church understood church as so much a part of American society and American culture and the American way of life that preachers could and did combine the two. Everything fit together, reinforced each other. Maybe some of us here think we remember that time of happy union – happy for Protestants with New England roots, anyway. We are probably remembering its distant echo in the church-going 1950s – when churches like this were planted, grew and flourished in an expanding, prosperous and peaceful America.

But not only for Mr. Peabody but for many other Americans as well, what happened in church became disconnected with the travails and challenges of daily life. A survey of the current church-going habits of Americans revealed that right now 20 percent of us – fully one-fifth of all Americans – have no religious preference. Many of these people believe in God, have an active prayer life, even went to church in their younger years, but now, on Sunday morning, when we get in our cars and come here, they say, no, thanks. I’ll stay at home. I’ll go to Starbucks. I’ll go to the gym. I’ll do yoga. I’ll spend time with my children, and hug them tight, because, after all, you never know.

I think this is what the people who flocked around John the Baptist were talking about. The religious establishment of their time – the Temple and their leaders who were in the thrall to the Roman Empire – and of course the politics and economics of their day were, from their point of view, morally bankrupt. John the Baptist made sense to people for whom nothing worked. Prophets like John used to speak to the reality of real people – prophets like Isaiah and Zephaniah, and that whole host of characters we read during Advent – prophets who promise that God’s creation of abundance and mercy and peace will be restored. In the lives of the people gathering around John the Baptist, their religious leaders are paying no attention to those prophets, and so are paying no attention to the daily needs of these people, no attention to the challenges and demands of their lives. What then shall WE do, they say to John the Baptist. What then shall we do? For these people at the bottom of the social ladder, it all made sense: share your warm coats. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. It’s pretty basic. The Good News from God is pretty basic.

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t come to church, why the membership of this parish has declined in recent years. Some of those reasons have nothing to do with us: the population has shifted. Corporations who were massive employers have left the area. Sexual abuse, loss of trust, bitter fights over who is in and who is out – all of that and more are prevalent in the big society, and there are echoes of that here. Some people are just bored with the church of the 1950s, or ‘60s, or ‘70s – as lovely and attractive as we think we are -- and want nothing to do with it anymore.

Look again at the appeal of John the Baptist to the people around him. He was direct. He spoke to their reality. He did not mince words. He paid attention to them. He offered real hope that spoke to their real longings.

What do we offer today, on this Third Sunday of Advent? What do we say to our friends and neighbors who are hurting and yearning for hope? To whom are we opening our hearts, and our doors? 

It is time we took our light out from under the bushel. This is a safe, a meaningful, an important place to talk about the things that matter to us. This is a place where we share our coats and share our hearts, where we know, and where we are not shy to say, that in the face of the horror that drove that young man to kill all those innocent children, God is with us, God is with us, God is with us.

Find the Prayers of the People from today's service, along with links to the authors of some of the prayers, at our Forming Disciples blog.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tender Mercies

Advent 2-C                 Dec. 9, 2012
Malachi 3:1
Luke 1: 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

We live in a time obsessed with the particular. TV news shows are on a lot at our house. Pundits, bloggers, reporters, editors, historians, analysts, you name it. At any time on any channel, frequency or URL, you can find a comment, an opinion, a fact about someone or something important, middling important or just plain gossipy. If it walks, talks, flies or misbehaves, we will soon know about it.

We think of this obsession with taking the pulse of the body politic as something modern, but look here: the Gospel of Luke is very concerned to place John the Baptist in his particular social and historical context. John the Baptist was not wandering around the Jordanian wilderness at any time; it was in the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberias, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee. Nor are we living in just any time: it’s the 4th year of the presidency of Barack Obama, the 2nd year of the Governorship of Andrew Cuomo, Joanie Mahoney is County Executive and Gladstone Adams is the bishop. The way Luke is telling this story of John the Baptist, place – and who rules that place – is crucially important. It was in THIS place at THIS time that the Word of God came to -- not just anybody, but to John son of Zechariah.

To the first readers of Luke’s Gospel, these little phrases would mean a lot. “The Word of God” comes to prophets in the Hebrew tradition. All the prophets identify the rulers whose reigns their prophecies will unseat. Remember Isaiah, to whom the word of God came “in the year that King Uzziah died.” Baruch, a scribe for the prophet Jeremiah, writes from the context of the terrible exile in Babylon. Malachi was written at the end of the exile, when Cyrus was King of Persia. Prophets come from particular times and places, and the word of God speaks to them and through them in those particularities.

Luke shows us a different picture of John the Baptist than we get in the Gospels of Matthew or Mark. There is no description of his attire, no eating of locusts and wild honey. He doesn’t even baptize Jesus in this Gospel – he has challenged Herod so much that he lands in prison before Jesus gets to the Jordan River.
But Luke is very careful to place John in history. In place of the psalm today, we read the passage from the first chapter of Luke that follows the announcement of the birth of John. This is the song of Zechariah, an elderly righteous man, “living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” As he serves in the temple, an angel comes to him:

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”

Gabriel announces the birth of John:

“ … he will be great in the sight of the Lord … He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah was made speechless by this prophecy, and not until baby John is born does he speak, revealing some of what Gabriel had told him. This is not any child, Zechariah says; this child will be the prophet of the Most High, preparing the way of the Lord, letting the people know that God’s salvation will come, that sins will be forgiven, that by God’s tender mercies the dawn from on high will break upon us. This child, Zechariah says, will be the one to announce the Good News.

But even though this child is a New Prophet, he does not proclaim NEW news. This Good News is Old News, Zechariah says, reciting in his song all the mighty deeds of God, saving the people from their enemies and showing mercy.

That is what all this particularity is about, placing John here, in this family, under these rulers, and not just anywhere. He’s not just any righteous man: the same Word of the Lord comes to him that came to the prophets of old – the Good News he brings is the same Old Good News of the covenant made with Abraham. Those rulers might be very current in their fashions and their weaponry and their empires and their Roman names, but they are the same enemies from whom God has always rescued his people. Those representatives of the shadow of death might be unique and particular, but the words John speaks, of the dawn from on high, the light in the darkness and the tender mercy of God, are the old words, the old prophecies, the old promises of God’s love.

The wilderness itself is old and familiar, reminding the people of Israel of the very place where God first called them “My people.” Out of that old place John calls the people together again, calls them back, as the angel Gabriel promised his father he would: even the disobedient ones will come to the wisdom of the righteous. John will make them ready.

This is the Old Good News, a prophecy of restoration. John quotes the prophet Isaiah, writing about how the people of Israel will be able to return from exile to Jerusalem: the Lord will lead the way, on a path straight and smooth, only now, it’s not only to Jerusalem. It’s not only to one particular people or one particular place and time. It’s for all flesh – all of us in our particular time and our particular place – this time all of us will see just what God has in store.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Prophecy and apocalypse: trust in the future

Advent 1 C
Dec. 2, 2012
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Ps. 25
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

There are people in this world who like to hoard secrets. Someone I used to know drove me nuts, because he had a way of telling you something and leaving out the back story – the most crucial parts. It’s like he would tell me things in a way that implied I was “in the know” but I really didn't quite know what was going on. I always felt I was coming in in the middle of the story, but left outside of the secret.

There is a certain aspect of that to today’s readings, all about the apocalypse, the end time. Is everything really falling apart? When is this supposed to happen? I've said here before that there is quite a lot of popular fascination with the End Times, in a way that makes “apocalypse” equal “destruction.” But if we look at the meaning of the word in Greek, and how it was used in the New Testament – especially in the Mother Lode of all apocalyptic literature, the Revelation of St. John the Divine – the word “apocalypse” means taking the cover off that which has been hidden. It means discerning something’s deeper meaning, deeper purpose. It’s not about keeping secrets but about opening everything up. It’s not about figuring out some arcane puzzle – we don’t have to be theological detectives like Tom Hanks’ character in The DaVinci Code. When people of faith write “apocalypse” they are trying to make sense of the world – trying to discern the patterns of God’s work in the world around – they are trying to understand the meaning of what is going on, especially when what’s going on might be frightening or dangerous.

The partner of apocalypse is often “prophecy” – a word which also needs some unpacking. As a biblical scholar reminded me,

… prophecy is not a fortuneteller's prediction, but a projection forward, a warning of what may come if we don't change direction …

When a prophet speaks, as Jesus is speaking in this passage from the Gospel of Luke, or when the writer of the letter to the Thessalonians talks about “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints,” or when Jeremiah declares that the day of the Lord will be a day of righteousness and justice, that prophecy is not a secretive portent of bad things to come, but

… a vision of hope and trust in God's ability to save the world from whatever mess we've made of it. The truth of prophecy does not lie in whether it came true the way a weather prediction comes true; it lies in the deeper insight it gives into our existence and God's way of working in the world.[1]

Good prophecy spurs us to action, just like “good apocalypse” helps us understand what is going on. Global warming might indeed be apocalyptic even in the disaster-movie sense, but an environmentalist who is a good prophet tells us the terrible facts, along with the hope that there might indeed be something we can do to mitigate the disaster we might otherwise be heading for.

These apocalyptic readings in the Bible remind us also that we are not alone – we are not solitary Christians. More than any other writings, we read here about what God has in store for everyone, for the whole of creation. They were written thousands of years ago, in particular times and places, among particular people facing particular challenges, but they resonate deeply across time. 

People of all times, who are facing terrible circumstances, can find their story and their experience in these words. But always, always, tempting as it can be to find a blueprint in these long-ago writings, we have to approach them with humility. Our interpretation can be only that: “There are always signs in the heavens and distress among nations, and we are always wondering how the story of this world will end.”[2] Being o-so-certain that this in the Bible really means that, or that gives the people or groups we don’t like the same condemnation as has been given to the long-ago enemies of the writer  -- that kind of triumphalism we must guard against. It’s like my former friend and his “secret” knowledge; his was not the final interpretation of what was going on. If you ever feel you are getting it “right” and everyone around you is “wrong,” re-reading our psalm today – Psalm 25 – can help you put yourself in a better perspective.

Prophecy and apocalypse are not about secrets; they are about trust in the future. They are about humans taking a hard, discerning look at what is going on around them, and placing what is going on in the context of how God would have it go on. 

We do not know how the world will end, but we do know that God does not want it to end. All the prophets want us to pay attention, to know that who we are, as a community and as individuals, matters, and that what we do matters. Reading these funny, ancient books reminds us, if nothing else does, that we are part of the whole stream of human history, and of the history of creation before human history. The truth of that creation – the meaning of our own lives -- is always being revealed, the cover of secrets is always being blown off, and we are always drawing closer to that glorious end time when we – all of us -- will be embraced by God.

[1] Janine A Goodwin,
[2] Ibid.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Good King

Proper 29 B; Nov. 25, 2012
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

The movie “Lincoln,” now in theaters, opens with a group of Union soldiers talking to the President. He sits in a simple chair, on some sort of a porch, in the dark night in an army campground, and the soldiers are in awe of meeting the great man. One of them says he enlisted just after the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery; his brother died in that battle, and then he speaks from memory Lincoln’s words on that day. Other soldiers come by, simple farm boys and even freed slaves, and slowly, from soldier after soldier, we hear the brief speech in its entirety.

In such a scene is how we Americans like to remember our kings: humble and fallible, yet brilliant and regal, powerful and complex, and standing on the side of right. That scene of Lincoln quietly and informally conversing with soldiers on the eve of battle is what comes to mind with later in the film Mary Todd Lincoln declares to a White House full of politicians, including those who would oppose him, “The people love my husband!”

We have ancient models of kings in our memories – of David, for example, the ideal king of Israel. We read his “last words,” today in our first lesson, words which remind us that such kings who rule with the justice of God bring order and prosperity and peace and beauty to the world.

That sounds good, of course, but is the figure of the king not an outmoded concept for us today? A king who cannot be elected or thrown out of office, a king who does not reflect the will of the people, who rules without the consent of the governed?

All true. All good reasons, of course, for democracy, and after all, even the Queen of England does not so much as rule as preside rather delicately at the will of Parliament.

So why Christ the King? It’s not a feast from the Bible, like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost or Ascension. It’s not an early church custom, like Lent or Holy Week, or something borrowed from folk religion, like All Saints. A King, and a Kingdom, are political terms. A king rules territory: a kingdom. Everyone within those boundaries is subject to the king. The boundaries of a just king, a righteous king, enclose a pleasant land, a land like that spoken of by David, where the people live in peace and prosperity. If you live in the kingdom of a just king, you get it all. You don’t have to join anything – you don’t have to register for one political party or another, vote a particular way. You are there; part of the Common-wealth.

Of course, for Christ the King, there are no geographical boundaries, as well as no political litmus tests. Say yes, step up to the font and get washed in the waters of baptism and you’re in. That’s all it takes to be one of the people of God’s pasture, one of the sheep of God’s hand. Everyone is welcomed into this kingdom, even those who can’t curtsey, or those who can’t pay, those who aren’t always good and those who are not nearly so bad as some people think.

No, Jesus tells Pilate, my kingdom is not from this world. I don’t have to fight for it with violence for I win it with love. Not even the death with which you threaten me, Jesus says to Pilate, can overthrow my kingdom.
On this last Sunday of the church year, we are reminded of the cross, and the death which Jesus will die. Next Sunday begins Advent, when we prepare for the birth of this same Christ in the humility of a poor family with only a barn for shelter. With such a beginning and an ending, no wonder Pilate, draped as he is in the trappings of the empire, cannot comprehend this Jesus as a king. Pilate has no idea why anyone would choose to follow this king.

But we, his followers all these long years after, still know the sound of his voice. We know it’s true when he says all are welcome here, at this table. We know it’s true when he says, eat this bread and drink this wine, and be part of my body. We know it’s true when he says follow me to the death, for with the love we share, even that death is turned into life.

End time?

Proper 28-B
November 18, 2012
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Ps. 16
Mark 13:1-8

Now that the election is over, the politicians find it safe to talk about global warming. Even with Hurricane Sandy rearranging the coastline and wiping out whole towns and neighborhoods in two of the most populous states in the union, Governor Cuomo didn’t quite want to take sides, but he did admit we’d better be better prepared for more “extreme weather” than we have seen in the past.

Talk of what to do when the End Time comes is nothing new. It was, for example, one of Jesus’ big themes. When he left the Temple, after denouncing the “fat cats” who took advantage of the “widow’s mite,” the first thing he said was, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes … there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

Humans like talking about The End Times, big, dramatic and scary. And not to diminish either what Jesus said, or the very real effects of global climate change, we have been talking about The End Times for a very long time. And all that talking can wake us up – which is what I think Jesus intended when he told his disciples about the signs to come – or it can paralyze us into despair, powerlessness and inaction.

Obviously, talking about The End Times hasn’t gotten us anywhere. We can focus our considerable energy on the “pangs” about to come, or, like Hannah – Hannah, who is barren, Hannah who is heartbroken – we can focus on the “birth.” On the future. On the child Hannah will bear. On what we can do to participate in the signs of hope that are breaking all around us. We can pay attention, take action, band together, connect the dots.

Yesterday at Diocesan Convention, we heard some amazing stories that are signs of hope in desperate times and places. There was a re-cap of the twenty-some years of our companion relationship with El Salvador, how we walk with the people of that very poor nation as they recover from earthquakes, wars, hurricanes, with resilience and grace. We watched a tribute to Bishop Martin Barahona, who will soon retire – looking at his leadership not only as a kind pastor, but as someone who took risks for social justice and structural change and for the hard work of peace-making. We heard the report of the Episcopal Church Women, who at last summer’s General Convention announced that they had given away millions of dollars in grants to address human need and build permanent good in 37 dioceses and eight countries.

And here at St. David’s: this has been an autumn of abundance – raising nearly $4,000 to help Bol Garang bring his mother to the U.S., partying at St. David’s Court, serving at the Samaritan Center, helping residents get to services at Van Duyn, raising money through the CROP Walk for Meals on Wheels, getting CoDFISH off the ground. And it’s not over yet: we’re still collecting canned goods and funds for holiday food for the Springfield Gardens Food Pantry and will have our own in-gathering of the United Thank Offering Blue Boxes on December 2.

Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year, and as we read these words of Jesus about the End Times, we wonder, what is this all about? The way the Gospel of Mark writes the story, Jesus is concerned with the present: with the kairos moment, the fulfillment of time. Mark’s story is about the one who brings about the beginning of the reign of God. Mark's community is the community of the New Age, a community who understands that their domination by corrupt, terror-filled and self-centered political powers will soon be over, and that God will vindicate the righteous. Their sufferings mark the culmination of history, and the birth-pangs of the rule of God.

What Mark leads us to look to is hope -- hope not only that the future will be better than the present, but that even the present troubles we experience now are part of the providence of God. Mark encourages us to stand firm throughout; God will triumph! In fact, we are not merely spectators to God's drama, but participants, partners with God in God’s mission of health and wholeness. We who follow Jesus see these signs of the times, these signposts of the triumph of hope over the paralysis of despair.

Women crossing borders

Proper 27 B     Nov. 11, 2012
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Psalm 126
Mark 12:38-44

We visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia this week, and on the tour with us were lots of schoolchildren. At the beginning of the tour, the Park Ranger quoted Abraham Lincoln, noting that this was the place where the words were first penned that inspired Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: that this was a nation: “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We know, all too well, that by 1863, that original declaration of “equals” was in the bloody process of being expanded – to all men, to all men and women, to all adults born here, to all foreigners who come here and go through the process of claiming and believing that promise of liberty and proposition of equality. It was very moving to hear those words spoken, looking around the 18th century space we were in, at all the wild and representative diversity of who are, today, Americans.

Perhaps because it is Veterans Day weekend, the ranger ended the tour by talking about the “rebellious” Pennsylvanians, who were imprisoned in the upstairs room of Independence Hall, after it had been captured and occupied by the British. Many of those men, veterans of what we now know as the Revolutionary War, died in that room, and were buried outside in a mass grave. The story reminded us that war, even among people who are as ethnically and socially alike as colonial farmers and British soldiers, is a breathtakingly horrible thing. “Let us never forget,” the ranger said, “what cost must be paid to defend our liberty against all who would take it away from us.”

Among the schoolchildren were girls wearing hijab, or the headscarves worn by Muslim girls and women. As I listened to them chatter while we toured the building, I heard their very American accents. If the school group had been only boys, we would never have noticed them as “different,” but the girls, with their distinctive dress, stood out. Americans all, visiting the cradle of liberty: at what point do “foreigners” stop being “foreign” and become “us”?

We have two bible stories today about women who are different: women who are foreign, and women who are poor. Women who cannot blend into the rest of society, women who must fend for themselves, with only the slimmest of social protections to rely on.

We encounter Ruth and Naomi today in the middle of their story. Naomi’s husband and two sons have died, and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, has chosen to stay instead of returning to her family. The two of them have nothing: no home, no food, no way of making a living. Naomi even gives herself the name “Mara,” meaning “bitter,” a sign that she believes she no longer even has a future. The one slim chance they have is to return to Naomi’s Hebrew family, where Boaz may feel some responsibility to care for the widow. Ruth, who comes from Moab, is a complete foreigner here, but because of her loyalty to Naomi, she stands out; she is allowed to pick up the leftovers of the harvest, like other poor women. This gives Naomi a glimmer of hope: maybe Ruth will catch Boaz’ eye for other reasons as well – and indeed he does. Ruth and Boaz marry, they have a child, and this child becomes none other than the grandfather of David, the greatest of Israel’s kings. Through this foreign woman, Ruth, a poor widow is returned to her home, and not only is Naomi given a future – a grandson – but the whole people of Israel are given a future with the birth of this child. (And if you read the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, you will read Ruth’s name among the patriarchs and kings.)
Over the centuries rabbis have debated about the presence of Ruth, this foreigner, in such an important place in the Bible. Jews were not supposed to marry foreigners. Jews would fight against foreigners for the Promised Land – but here is Ruth, the one who is loyal, the one who carries God’s love and God’s promise for a future.

In that same Hebrew Bible, we find an acknowledgement that poor widows, like Naomi and Ruth, were treated so badly that they had to be singled out for protection in Jewish law. Common courtesy did not prevail among men with property; the Torah had to define how faithful Jews were to treat widows and orphans: Leave your field for the stranger to glean. Do not steal or deal falsely. Do not oppress the neighbor, or exploit your employees, or discriminate against the disabled. Do not take the widow’s cloak in pledge.
That is the Torah, the law. And there is the story of Ruth, the testimony to how God wants those who follow him to treat poor widows and foreigners – and not only because you “have to,” but because of all the blessings that will fall upon you when you do.

And now to Jesus: God’s pious followers were not so faithful to the Torah commandments about poor widows. This story is not so much about “the widow’s mite” – not so much about her faithfulness and duty – but about the faithlessness of the religious and political system of the day that would tax a poor widow down to where she has nothing left. Jesus’ condemnation of this “legalized” exploitation comes as he leaves the Temple for the last time, during the last week of his life.

Yes, there is a stewardship sermon in this Gospel story, but it’s not about wrenching the last penny from your fingers. It’s about how we participate in God’s justice: about how we welcome strangers, how we feed hungry people, how we treat poor people with dignity and respect and not cast-off charity. It’s not about how we circle the wagons but about how we open our borders, and our hearts, and yes, even our pocketbooks. It’s about how much more we do together than any of us can do alone. It’s about how our generosity is a piece of God’s generosity, and God’s blessings, and God’s liberties, and God’s future.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

All Saints: Loving God and Loving Neighbor

Tired of the election

All Saints Sunday          Nov. 4, 2012
Isaiah 25:6-9
Ps. 146
Mark 12:28-34

Who did not sympathize with that little girl, strapped in her seat in the back of the car, while her mother listened to an endless loop of campaign speculation and punditry on National Public Radio? The little girl who burst into tears at the mere mention of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? It is not always helpful to quote the Bible at distressed children, but perhaps she would take comfort from today’s psalm:

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.

What would people in Staten Island, or along the Jersey Shore, make of these verses:

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
whose hope is in the LORD their God;

Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;

Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.

On the endless news loop this week we were more likely to see compelling and forceful cries for help from residents of New York City who felt utterly cut off from the rest of the nation. They had experienced the mighty force of heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them crashing down on their heads. If God sent justice to the oppressed, or food to the hungry, it came through the tireless efforts of rescue workers, and Red Cross volunteers, and Salvation Army food trucks. Multiply the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” about a thousand times in this situation: it takes a nation, a state, a society, all of us, to restore any food, clothing or shelter to people so devastated. Even a FEMA trailer looks good to people who would otherwise choose between a cot in a school gym or their flooded, burned out or blown away home.

The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

The LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.

Not everyone who is giving their all to help thousands of people in need are doing it out of the conviction that when we do good, we do it in the name of God, or that when we do good we are carrying out the mission God has laid out for this world. If the orphaned and widowed are sustained, it is human hands that do it.

Not everyone understands “doing the right thing” in this God context. We can be suspicious of outsiders. The scribe, who questions Jesus in today’s Gospel, was part of a group that was very skeptical that what Jesus was doing was in the name of God. That scribe had to reach out to someone shunned by all the leaders around him, and when he saw was he was doing, and listened closely to what he was teaching about why he was doing things like healing and feeding, he reaches across the divide, and Jesus reaches back: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

When we are in the middle of a disaster on such a massive scale, religiosity – the modern-day equivalent of “burn offerings and sacrifices” -- all those phrases about God’s providence, or about the will of God, or God watching out for so-and-so while the person next to him drowned – I find it pretty hard to recognize that hand of God in events like those. But where I do see the hand of God is in the hands of those people – no matter their motives – who are there right now, doing the right thing, people who, wherever they are coming from, are not far from the kingdom of God.

This feast of All Saints is about all those people who have the two great commandments – to love God and to love neighbor – written on their hearts. This feast of All Saints is about people who did not have to think twice: people who put their bodies between an innocent victim and an oncoming bullet; people who cared for sick and dying people even as they risked their own lives; people who lived lives of love and compassion.

This feast of All Saints is about people who, even when times are bleak, know that God’s promises are meant for them: God’s promises of great feasts of rich food and fine wines – God’s promises that in the face of death itself God is there, wiping away tears and removing all their shame and disgrace, along with all the rubble of broken homes and shattered lives. 

This feast of All Saints is about people who believe that these promises are not just for “our kind of people,” our next-door neighbors only, not just for the people who vote the way we do or listen to the same radio stations, but for all people – that our God, for whom we wait, will bring this justice and abundance to all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

With Jesus, on the Way, from blindness to sight

Proper 25 B
October 28, 2012
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
Mark 10:46-52

Seeing is believing. What you see is what you get. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Today, Jesus restores sight to a blind beggar. What is going on here? What does Jesus want us to see?

Two weeks ago it was the rich young man. Last week it was James and John. Today a beggar by the side of the road. In these three stories, who is the true disciple? Which one was truly blind, and which saw what was truly going on?

All during the Epiphany season -- you may or may not remember as far back as last winter -- we read stories of Jesus healing and teaching. Traveling through Galilee, he proclaimed that God’s rule was now here. Everything he did was to show that what people thought of as “the norm” was not the way it truly was. Isolated, poor, an outcast in society? Jesus showed that you were at the center of God’s care. Sick in body, mind or spirit? Your nature was restored to wholeness with God’s justice. Even the dead were brought back to life. And this was not just for a few people – it’s like “Save the Rain” in Onondaga County: everyone benefits, whether you would have lived next to that sewage treatment plant that didn’t have to be built or where you just benefited from better control over your water rate. In these stories from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was not acting as a prototype for Robin Hood, robbing from the rich, the secure, the privileged and the happy to give to the poor; right and wrong were not merely re-ordered: Jesus revealed the true order of the world as God created it to be, just as “save the rain” falls on the just and the unjust. It’s all right there, if you could only see it.

All of this terrific healing stuff Jesus did throughout Galilee has caught the attention of people with power and privilege who just don’t want things to change. Throughout the Gospel, we read rumblings of discontent from people who benefit from keeping things the way they are. Over and over Jesus tells the disciples this is not going to be easy; this is the Way of justice and wholeness and healing, yes; but it is also the Way which leads to suffering, and even death. It’s like what St. Paul will later write, the whole creation is groaning – as God’s order is revealed the old order is cracking, breaking, resisting with all its might.

The disciples don’t want to see this. The rich young man, devout as he is, doesn’t want to see this. James and John, who just want some of the privileges of the new age, certainly don’t want to see this. Riches, privilege and power are not Jesus’ to grant, but those closest to Jesus just don’t seem to want to see it that way at all. Jesus is on the Way to Jerusalem. Jericho is the last stop before the entry into Jerusalem, riding on the donkey, the beginning of the Passion, the Way of the Cross. Who will go with Jesus on this way? Who is the true disciple?

Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road, blind, with his beggar’s cloak as a sign of his station in life. He, like the other people Jesus has healed, is not only poor and disabled, but a social outcast – someone who can never better himself or pull himself up by his bootstraps. The whole system of who has money and land and family and status and health and a future will never let him have any of those things. Unlike the rich young man, he does not ask about eternal life. Indeed, in his eagerness to approach Jesus, he leaves behind his cloak, his one possession of any value. Unlike James and John, he does not seek out “top posts in the new administration,” but asks only for mercy, for sight. And what is Bartimaeus’ response to receiving sight? To follow Jesus on the Way as the true disciple, the one who really sees what is going on.

But the other side, those – even those friends of Jesus – who resist the demands of discipleship? What of them? What are the costs of not seeing? Of not being able to part with possessions? Of not taking that risk to follow Jesus? Of not leaping up off the side of the road joyful but turning away sad? What is unbelief but despair, despair that nothing will ever really change, despair that paralyzes us and locks us into what is and keeps us from seeing what could be, what God wants to be.

But really: the Gospel of Mark is not about them, way back there in history. The Gospel is about us: do we see what is going on? After all, the characters in the Gospel of Mark do not know the ending of the story. They do not know that through the suffering, through the passion, through the death on the cross that something else happens. In fact, we are more like Bartimaeus: once we were blind but now we see, and we see that following Jesus on the Way, to the other side of the cross, through all the disappointments and losses and griefs and sorrows, through trials and errors, through sickness and health, through leaking roofs and crumbling foundations: on the other side of the cross is life abundant. It’s like being able to swim once again in a clean and clear Onondaga Lake – impossible, but within reach. Do we see it yet? It’s just coming into focus …

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Serving the ones whom God loves

Proper 24 B; October 21, 2012
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Psalm  104:1-9, 25
Mark 10:35-45

Everybody wants to get ahead.

Every politician in this election season reminds us: times are tough, here, and certainly around the world. Do you remember, years ago, when the “Great Recession” began, how people would talk about how this economic downturn would make us all more friendly, more frugal, more compassionate? I don’t think it has quite turned out that way. The old demon greed seems more active than ever, even in a time when there is less to go around. Maybe it’s the dark side of human nature, when we fight for crumbs, steal from our neighbors, who might be even poorer than we are. We begrudge the least advantage someone else gets; “sharing” and “generosity” seem concepts long ago forgotten. This dark side can be seen in all kinds of people, whether you live in a homeless shelter or are receiving (still) big bonuses from your job on Wall Street.

This dark side was even seen in the disciples, James and John. Who can blame them? They just want to get ahead. They just want a little job security into the future. They just want to know that they’ll get theirs. Sounds like the American dream. Sounds like they work for – dare I say it? – Bain Capital. Who can blame them for trying? Especially in today’s economic climate, where no one feels there is enough to go around, and that I will get nothing if I don’t hustle.

Astounding to think, isn’t it, that thousands of years ago, in a society made of up peasant farmers and fishermen, we’d see the same jockeying for position that we see in today’s corporate raiders – or in our own lives?

You’d think James and John would know better. After all, they have Jesus right there with them: God IS one of us, walking around right there with them. Have they not been listening? You can hear some of Jesus’ exasperation in his response to them. Have you not been paying attention, he seems to say? Following me is not a path to upward mobility and privilege. In the eyes of the world, it is downward mobility – it is a life of service, of self-giving.

But whom do we serve when we follow Jesus? Service is not servility. Jesus does not expect us to be doormats for the rich, or that our “downward mobility” helps somebody else get more.

When we follow Jesus, we serve God, and the ones whom God loves: we serve the ones whom no one else serves, or cares about, or loves. We serve the world God has made, to make it greener, safer, cleaner – we serve the world by working to restore it to the beauty God intended when God created it.

This sounds beautiful, but it is hard stuff. That old demon greed, and “get-ahead,” and “me first,” and “this is mine you can’t have it” and “I want more” – well, those are powerful forces. God can seem far, far away from the pressures of life, and our fears of not having enough loom large.

Our first reading is from the Book of Job, the story of the upstanding, wealthy man who lost it all. His friends, even his wife said, you are so miserable; curse God and die; be done with all this. Job refused to curse God, and for much of the book seems to suffer in despair: why is God doing this to me?

Then comes this famous passage where God answers Job. In short, what are all of your miserable complaints against the mighty creative power of God? We can read this and be kind of confused; what kind of an answer is this to Job’s questions about why his life became so miserable?

But wait. Don’t go down that path. To think that way is to miss the point that God is here. God answers Job, comes to Job, speaks to Job. Job is part of that creation that God so lovingly describes. God is in Job’s face.

How often, in our misery, do we not recognize when God is in OUR faces? James and John, miserable and worried and greedy, could not even see God in their beloved teacher, friend and constant companion, Jesus.
Job, James, John: there is more to life than your little problems. There is more to you than what money you have, or don’t have. You are part of the fabric of the universe, created, loved and sustained by God. You are loved by God. You will have enough. And the part you play, in this great adventure God has launched with the creation of the world, is the part of service to all those whom God loves.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Loosening our grip on all that stuff

Proper 23-B
October 14, 2012
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22
Mark 10:17-31

“No one is good but God alone”? God is good? Ask Job. The excerpt we are reading today finds Job in the middle of his God-induced misery, having been harassed by friends, as well as his wife, to curse God and die, or to find in his own behavior a cause for this terrible treatment. As one wise biblical teacher puts it, Job “is still laboring under the old delusion that God is reasonable.” “Oh, that I knew where I might find him … I would lay my case before him … I would learn what he would answer me.” Job is suffering. Job is the archetype of suffering, suffering without the relief or assurance of God’s love.

The rich man who kneels at the feet of Jesus is also suffering. He is worried that, although he lives a good life, as he defines it, it is not enough. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he plaintively asks the one he calls “good teacher.” Jesus gives him some answers, but they are no more welcome to his ears than God’s silence is to Job. In fact, Jesus’ words may as well be silence, for they are not what the rich man wants to hear.

Jesus takes “good behavior” a few steps beyond the “10 commandments.” To that list Jesus adds, “Do not defraud.” This word for “defraud” in Greek means cheating a worker you’ve hired out of the wages due to him, or it means refusing to return goods or money someone has entrusted to you for safekeeping. And then Jesus throws in the kicker: “Sell what you have, and give the money to the poor.” You can see Jesus using this man’s seemingly purely spiritual and religious question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and turning it into an indictment of all wealthy people. They have obtained their money through fraudulent means; they have cheated those whose labor created their wealth, they have not returned that which was entrusted to them. Jesus demands restitution. “Go. Get up,” he says – a phrase otherwise used by Jesus when he heals someone. “Get up and be healed of your sickness of accumulation, of using wealth as an end and not a means. “Sell that which you have. Give it too the poor. Follow me.” And this is the first and only time in the Gospels when Jesus says to someone, “Follow me,” and he does not do it. The rich man refuses to be a disciple.

The disciples are really shocked; this is too hard, they say. No one can do this, rightly recognizing that these harsh statements of Jesus do not apply only to the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” crowd. They apply all of us, for all of us can find something we would rather keep than follow Jesus. “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” These two stories – that of the suffering Job and the suffering rich man – hit us at the heart of our anxieties, our fears that we will not have enough – that one day God’s favor will withdraw from us like the tide going out and we will be left high and dry.

There is no doubt about it: to live in America in the 21st century is to live in a world with too much stuff – and having all that stuff contributes to that anxiety about being left high and dry. There are people in this world who can detach from all that stuff, who can rid themselves of things in order to concentrate on, to use the shorthand phrase, “eternal life.” Twenty-seven-thousand of us went to see one such saintly person this week: the Dalai Lama was in town. But even there we were hardly possession-less. All the tickets cost something – mine were very generously given to me! – and even the Dalai Lama himself joked that at home he had 21 caps with various university logos emblazoned on them, and that he might just sell them for a little fast cash.

It is possible to rid ourselves of everything and devote ourselves, as Jesus suggests, to the poor. It is possible, but not likely. We are embedded in this world, in relationships and families and commitments. What would it mean, then, to have these possessions, but know that they do not have us?

Note that the Gospel text says that Jesus loved this rich man, even if he could not see beyond his possessions to understand what it meant to love Jesus. What does it mean to live with all these possessions knowing that Jesus loves us anyway? Knowing that all our possessions are not the sum-total of our lives? Knowing that we have all these possessions not just in service to ourselves, but in service to the world, and to the people, Jesus loves? To know and to do this is impossible, as Jesus says; but then he goes on: “With God, all things are possible.”

We do have a common example of this in human life. In marriage, the two people vow to honor each other, “with all that I am and all that I have.” The two people throw themselves into this relationship with abandon – indeed, abandoning all their personal hold on their possessions in service to, and in honor of, this new thing, this new beloved, this new relationship. Knowing that in the best of marriages this, too, is an impossibility does not make it any less likely that people will get married. Maybe it’s the love that kind of makes us crazy enough to let go of our grip on what we as individuals have in order to be part of this new thing. No, sometimes it does not work, but the fact that we are only human doesn’t make us stop trying.

It is like that with following Jesus. Crazy love: just because it is impossible does not mean we don’t want to. Loosening the grip on our possessions means we can see the world in the different way – things are no longer ours to hoard but the blessings God gives all of us to enjoy.

The last, the least, the littlest and the lost lead the way

Proper 22 B
October 7, 2012
Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Ps. 26
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-1-12
Mark 10:2-16

No doubt about it: we are suffering through an extraordinarily contentious political season. Perhaps the Gospel of Mark is just the right gospel for us this year, because in these latter chapters in Mark’s story of Jesus’ life, Jesus is engaged in some pretty contentious debates of his own. The religious establishment tries at every turn to “get him” – to win the debate, to find that “gotcha” quote, to get him to stumble and fall, to expose him to his adoring followers as a fraud. If Jesus is a fraud, they figure, then that establishment can dismiss him as just another religious nut.

I found the presidential debate last week almost mind-numbingly dull. Trillions here, trillions there – I know the issues at hand are critical for this nation and the world, the numbers and policies do count, but aren’t we all desperate for some word that connects with the heart of the matter? If we read that debate in a Biblical context – with the values the Gospel of Mark would place on it, it would be like this story about Jesus’ opponents trying to trip him up with his opinions about the legal status of divorce. The questions being raised are about the technicalities, all the stuff up there: how do I bend this law without breaking it so I can get my way? Jesus, however, gets to the heart of the matter, to the difficult stuff. He talks not about divorce but about marriage – and makes all of us, even thousands of years later, very uncomfortable. He reminds us of the ideal God sets for human community, reminds us that marriage is a blessing of intimacy and commitment between two persons – and he reminds us that as soon as God set that ideal, humans betrayed it. God really wants our hearts. Jesus reminds us. God also knows that our bodies are not always able to follow through.

If you read these two chapters of Mark – chapters 9 & 10 – you will notice a narrative flow. Our passage today deals with marriage and divorce. A few weeks ago the disciples were arguing over who would be the greatest, and Jesus in the same way took the discussion away from the superficial argument “up here” and brought it down to the heart: he used a child, a little one, one of the “anawim,” as an example of true discipleship. Notice again and again in these chapters that Jesus names the little ones – the children, the poor, the sick, the outcast – as his true followers, the ones who get to the heart of Jesus’ message. The least will lead the way into the kingdom of heaven, and what they have to teach us, the privileged ones, is that for us to lead, we, too must get to the heart of it all – we, too, must be servants of all – that that is what following Jesus means.

It is probably nearly impossible for any of us, with a lifetime of choices and setbacks and mistakes and commitments, to receive the kingdom of God as a little child. But time and again, even when he is angry or indignant, Jesus reaches out and gives us another opportunity. The way is always open for us to enter the kingdom of God. The barriers, Jesus points out to us, over and over again, are all ours. If it is all about the technicalities, if it is all up here, if you are only out for the gotcha moment, the loophole, the fix, then you are missing out on what these little ones know and see and feel in their hearts. But then, if you take their example, you can see the way ahead.

Walter Brueggeman, the biblical scholar I often consult on difficult passages like today’s Gospel, reminds us that what holds the long, whole narrative of scripture together is that it insists “that the world is not without God, not without the holy gift of life rooted in love.”[i] God is not our fair-weather friend, the guest at our wedding but not the shoulder we cry on when the marriage relationship ends in acrimony and despair. God is not just our companion on the sunny side of the street. God’s blessings are not commercial transactions that we parcel out and consume. God’s blessings come to us in the fullness of life – in the easy times and in the hard ones, and always at the heart of it all. We receive all those blessings, and, like our hearts, we break them, and share them, and, with the openness of a child, we know there will always be enough to go around.

[i] From Struggling with Scripture by Walter Brueggemann, William C. Placher and Brian K. Blount (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, Sermon Seeds,