November 19, Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the 24. Sunday after Pentecost

Deacon Sue Nebel

Some years ago, when I had started on the path to ordination, a priest in a nearby parish invited me to speak at an adult formation session.  I am fuzzy on the details, but my memory is that they were doing a series on the variety of ministries in the church.  Or, maybe the theme was  people’s faith journeys.  At any rate, they wanted me to come and tell my story.  So I went. I told them about the various places, as well as the twists and turns, that made up my path. Growing up in a Congregational church in a good-sized city.   Being part of all kinds of things there. Choirs, Sunday School, youth groups. . .and Christmas pageants.  In adulthood, an intentional turning away from organized religion to explore new ideas and concepts. To broaden my thinking and my understanding.  Then, after sixteen years, in response to a growing awareness of my spiritual needs, I returned to the church.  This time, the Episcopal Church, where my faith commitment deepened and grew. Leading, after many years to the exploration of ordained ministry.

After I finished my presentation to the group, there was opportunity for questions.  Someone asked me, “Looking back, what was the most important teaching in your early formation? No one had ever asked me that before.  I remember standing there for the briefest moment, thinking, ‘Oh my, what I am going to say?’  It is a little like being faced with a multiple-choice question on a test.  Teachers tell you to go with your first guess.  You have the knowledge inside of you and the right answer will emerge into your consciousness.  The answer to that question about the most important teaching was deep inside me, but not yet articulated.  I simply needed to trust the Holy Spirit to push it up into my head and my mouth. After a brief pause, I responded, “It was that the abilities we have are gifts from God and they are to be used in the service of others.” I was a little surprised to hear myself say those words.  Surprised because I had never verbalized that learning before. But, at the same time, I knew the deep truth of it.  If you were to ask me that question today, I would respond with the same answer. 

I have spent some time thinking and reflecting about that experience and my statement. The abilities we have are gifts from God and are to be used in the service of others. Where did that come from?  What are the threads that came together to form that belief?  Certainly, my family  experience.  I grew up in a faithful family with parents who were service-oriented, active in many organizations and projects.  They expected their children to do the same.  Church, of course. The Congregational church of my childhood was a downtown church, situated on the edge of the central business district.  The noise and the hustle and bustle of life outside its doors were impossible to ignore.  That church was always reaching out to address the needs of the city.  It filtered down to the youth groups. We had the usual educational programs and social events, but service projects were the big deal.  Mission trips to faraway places never occurred to us. The city and its needs gave us plenty to do right at home.  

Scripture was another shaping influence.  I got a heavy dose of Bible stories in Sunday School classes in my early years. Mostly stories of Jesus and his teachings.  Stories like the one we have in our Gospel lesson this morning: The Parable of the Talents.  A man, about to go off on a journey, gives talents to three of his slaves.  To one, he gives five. To the second, he gives two. And to the third slave, he gives one talent.  The first two slaves immediately begin trading with theirs and double what they had received.  The third slave, the one with only one talent, buries it in the ground for safekeeping. Then the master returns and asks for an accounting. He is pleased with the first two men, for increasing their amount of talents.  But he is angry with the third one for holding onto his one talent and doing nothing at all with it.  I can imagine hearing that story in Sunday School with my child’s ears.  The teacher might have told us that a talent was a large amount of money, or maybe she chose to just let us hear it as a story about human talents.  Whichever it was, I can tell you that I understood it as a story about human talents.  Talents were given to the slaves in the story and they were something given to me.  Not to be held onto, to be buried somewhere to be kept safe. . .and unused..  Talents were a gift from a master, from God, and I was expected to do something good with them.   It became a core belief.

The story of the talents comes near the end of the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus is in Jerusalem; it is the final week of his life.  He is talking to the crowd about the kingdom. Throughout his ministry, he has taught people about the kingdom.  A vision of the world as God wants it to be.  A setting where human life thrives, where the well-being of everyone is a given.  Where every single person—even someone who was considered lowest and least—is valued and loved.  In this long speech before the events of his arrest, trial, and death, Jesus is talking about the kingdom in terms of situations and actions of everyday life.  The kingdom is like bridesmaids with their lamps lit, waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom.  The kingdom is like three men with a gift of money and what they do with it.  Next week, to give you a sneak preview, Jesus will talk about kingdom actions: feeding the hungry, giving a thirsty person something to drink, welcoming the stranger.  

The early followers of Jesus found hope in his talk about a kingdom. They anticipated that it would be a dramatic event, when everything changed.   After  Jesus’ death and resurrection, they told people about his teachings.  They continued the work he had started. Gradually they realized that the big, hoped-for event was not coming anytime soon.  Probably not in their lifetime. The kingdom then became something they would make real through their words and their actions.  They became kingdom-doers. Doing the work Jesus’ described.  Reaching out and welcoming the stranger.  Feeding and clothing those in need.  It is work that has been carried forward through the history of the Church. From then until now.  . We join in that long tradition to do that work in our own time and place. We too become kingdom-doers. 

Today, many of us are probably anticipating the holiday of Thanksgiving.  Planning a festive meal. Welcoming family, or perhaps planning to travel to be with family.  One of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving is the glimpses of the kingdom that we get.  St. John’s in Flossmoor where I served last Sunday, is having a Thanksgiving meal for their members today. A gathering that will be, for some people, their only Thanksgiving because they are alone or elderly and not up to making a big meal.  Other churches, not just Episcopal ones, are making Thanksgiving happen for the community beyond their walls. Welcoming those who are poor, lonely, or hungry. Some are happening today. Others will take place on Thursday.  TV news and newspapers, in the coming days, will give us stories and images of this kind of outreach.  People lining up to receive free turkeys and bags of  food. People gathering  to prepare community meals. People serving and people being served.   It looks like the kingdom to me.

Efforts like this will continue on through what we think of as “the holiday season.”  Efforts by St. A’s and Episcopal churches throughout the diocese to provide Christmas gifts for families served by the Revive Center.  Large boxes in local business, fire stations, and other places where people can donate toys for children.  Dry cleaners, churches, and a local TV station collecting warm coats and jackets.  For a brief, shining time the kingdom seems to thriving, all around us.  The holiday season will come to an end.  All those people who became kingdom-doers (whether they thought of themselves that way or not) will consider their work done.  They will return to their regular routines.  They may be done with kingdom work, but we won’t be.  Not us.  We know better.  The needs of the world around us will still be there.  We have to keep working. Our work as kingdom-doers is not seasonal work. It is lifelong work. not seasonal work for us

Proper 28: Year A

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; Psalm 90:1-8,12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

November 12, Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

We Have More to Offer Than Our Thoughts and Prayers

The Rev. Andrew Suitter

Matthew 25:1-13

My thoughts and prayers are with you. 

No, no. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Over the last few weeks, and especially since last Sunday and the horrific church shooting in Texas, these words have been the focus of many posts woven throughout social media because for many—these seven words have become a source of irritation. 

When a national crisis or tragedy happens—

—like the senseless killings of innocents while sitting in church—

—or when there is an epidemic like the opioid crisis—

—or when there is ongoing generational poverty in certain pockets of an entire city—

—or when there are increasing rates of mass incarcerations—

--these seven words always seem to find their place in the paths of those affected by these situations.

Well, my thoughts and prayers are with you. 

Now—to be clear—I think when these words are spoken—I like to believe they have true, honest, and sincere intent—and they are indeed a gift in the right circumstances.  My thoughts and prayers are yours.  They are indeed with you! 

 

But—let’s be honest—when tragedies happen—any kind of tragedy—we do not always know what to do or what to say—and clergy are no exception!  Not only do we not always know what to say, we don’t always know how to react ourselves—and so we say what might be most familiar—and maybe even what seems most appropriate given our Christian vernacular——my thoughts and prayers are with you.  And with this, we believe it, and we mean it. 

The recent pushback against these seven words comes on the heels of massively violent crimes aimed at innocent people. And this pushback, in all its various forms, asks questions that we don’t always know or have the answers for.  Questions like:

-Are our prayers working? 

-What can we do in addition to prayer so to spare the pain of these tragedies in the future? 

-Whose hearts do we pray, change?

-Am I able to offer more than just my thoughts and prayers?     

If anyone has read or listened to the news in the last 30 days alone, we know there is a lot of pain being felt all over.  And sometimes, it seems anyway, there is only so much that we have to give to the problems of the world on top of those we face in our own lives—and together it can be overwhelming as we search for a place in which to care for both.  Sometimes thoughts and prayers are the perfect offering, but what about when there is more to do?

I am thankful for the voices who have called out those of us who use this language—myself included, because deep down what they are saying is that apart from our theologies, apart from our beliefs about laws and government—we are a people who are called to the suffering of the world—and doing the work of relieving it. 

I am thankful for the critique of those for whom these seven words bother, because they remind us that we have more to offer than only our thoughts and prayers—and they remind us that what we say, isn’t always what is heard—even with the purest of hearts.    

And, if I am honest—the critique is just uncomfortable, despite the gains from it, because it asks me to check myself! 

It is asking me to rethink not only how I pray, but how open I am to ACT!? And what has made me most uncomfortable, is that these voices, calling us out, are a reminder to reconnect, to recommit, or even to begin walking on the path of loving and healing this world—and its not always easy.

Beloveds, these voices crying for deeper honesty, demanding more action, and requiring substance in our care in addition to thoughts and prayers—are reminiscent of the prophets of old who called God’s people to a higher standard of love.

These voices are our prophets today—they are the loud voices—they are the ones calling our attention to reconsider our words and our actions—and asking us to pay even a bit more attention to the pains all around us—because many times we indeed have more to offer than our thoughts and prayers alone. 

It is through our actions as disciples and witnesses to God’s grace, after all, in addition to our thoughts and prayers, that we make visible God’s kingdom in the world….

Today’s gospel lesson highlights the 10 bridesmaids who are a metaphor for our own preparedness for God’s kingdom. And while this lesson is a lesson on heaven—a lesson on life in the aftermath of this world—I would rather like to think that this is an introduction to the kingdom of heaven right here—right now!

The foolish and the wise bridesmaids hold a mirror up to us as we traverse this world.  We run short sometimes.  We fall asleep when we might miss something.  We forget the prudence in being prepared.

Sometimes, though, we miscalculate in thinking that we are being prudent and prepared. Just this week, a friend was in my car and while I was driving, insisted that I pull over to the next gas station.  I was shocked.  I asked what his concern was, and he said, “as cold as it is, your gas light is on, and you need to stop and fill up.” 

I tried to explain that he needn’t worry, that for the last twenty years of my driving, its become a game—how far can I go—and only once have I ever run out and it was when I was 16.  He just looked at me with disgust, and clearly was not impressed.  And standing here telling you this, I myself am not very impressed either.  Processing out loud, always has a different interpretation, yes?   

He started to speak, and so I paused. He said what some of you might have said or be thinking with me now, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, Andrew.  Go to the gas station NOW!”

And so I went—but begrudgingly because I felt like I knew what I was doing—and because my game is fun—for me—but concerning for a passenger.  I was going to get it the next day, I knew I had another 50 miles or so, but any time save for now, did not work for my friend. And, I can’t blame him.  “Wake up Andrew, you’re gonna get us both stuck out here in this cold.” 

He may even have been right. 

****

“Keep Awake!”, the prophets say. 

“Wake up” my friend says. 

“You have more to offer than thoughts, prayers and good vibes” says the world. 

Our friends, while critical of our words, only want more of our potential from us.  Our friends are asking us to pay better attention to the pains we see and to be ever faithful in our care—or to consider that maybe our prayers can become our hands and feet doing the work we are praying for someone else to do. 

Maybe we are the gap.  Maybe we are the answer to another’s pain.  Maybe it is our hand, our time, our resource, our presence, our advocacy, our sense, our comfort that is needed in addition to our thoughts and prayers, that will make a difference for the pain we feel and observe all around us. 

One of the blessings you will hear from this pulpit, is a prayer that we might offer ourselves in care, and compassion for those around us.  The blessing goes:

“Life is short … and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” 

This, beloveds, is our task:  That we stay awake to love, to serve, to be kindness in the world where there is so much pain. 

May we be doers of our words, and answers to the prayers of all the faithful. Amen. 

October 1, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Kristin White

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:23-32

When is the last time you changed your mind? Like, legit, you believed one thing, probably with good reason, and then something caused you to let go of that belief, in order to move toward a different one?

And what caused that to happen?

What authority, if I can use that word, factored into your change of mind, your change of heart?

John White and I started dating in 1992, and I probably met his grandfather in the early months of that year. (I tell this story with permission). Robert Frazee Main was kind, and funny; a child of the Great Depression, he knew the value of a dollar; he took pride in his career with IBM.

We were careful and friendly with one another in the early days that I was getting to know John’s family. And in that time, we grew to genuinely like each other. Some months after that initial awkward caution, we got into a discussion at dinner about business...and women’s rights.

“I don’t understand why women have to make their way into everything,” he said, in reference to women’s acceptance into the Kiwanis Club beginning in 1987. What I didn’t know was that John’s grandfather had been a member of Kiwanis since the 1940s. I didn't know that it had been a rocky transition when his chapter began to integrate women five years earlier. I didn't know that that rocky transition had taken place during the same time that John’s grandfather was nearingretirement from a career he had loved.

I bit my tongue against my first response, which would likely have been the product of the women’s studies classes I was taking at the time. Somehow, I asked about his experience of the group, about what had changed for him when Kiwanis ceased – literally – to be a men’s club. We talked about women seeking equal footing in the workplace, about opportunities to network and build the kinds of relationships that could lead to new clients and contracts and even careers. We talked about the fact that there was no alternative, no real parallel, for women to access and call our own.

Over the course of our discussion, the rest of the family left the table.

And somehow, some time later, John’s grandfather looked at me and said, “You know, you might be right. I believe I have changed my mind.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus shares the parable of a man who calls his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son says he won’t do it, but then he changes his mind and goes. The second son says he will go, but does not.

Jesus asks the chief priests and the elders which son has done the will of his father. They answer, the first – the one who shows up, even though he didn’t give the right answer at the beginning.

There are all kinds of allegories we can read into this text, given the commentaries I’ve seen in recent days. Is the father with the vineyard supposed to be God? Does the vineyard itself represent Israel? Does the first son stand in for tax collectors and prostitutes, and the second for the chief priests who bring on this conversation in the first place?

These are all worthy questions to explore, but the thing that captures my imagination is the question those leaders ask at the outset of this gospel, before Jesus deflects their question with another, before he tells the story of the two sons.

When Jesus enters the temple, the chief priests and the elders come to him as he is teaching, and they ask: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

This passage comes at the point when Jesus is thoroughly upsetting life in Jerusalem. He has made his triumphal entry – on a donkey, on the foal of a donkey – as people lay down their coats and wave palms to celebrate his arrival. He has entered the temple and turned over the tables of the money changers, insulting them and completely disrupting their business. Together with the elders and the chief priests, he has heard the children cry “Hosanna to the son of David,” naming Jesus as heir to that great king.

He seems bent on agitating and displacing life as they know it – life which, for those elders and chief priests, at least, is working pretty well up to that point.

And so they ask their own version of “Who do you think you are?” Which comes out: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you that authority?”

Again, I ask the question from the beginning: when was the last time you changed your mind?

And with it: what caused you to allow your mind, your heart, to be changed?

We have no shortage of agitators today. We have no shortage of people seeking to disrupt and upset. We have no shortage of opportunities where it would probably be understandable to ask: Who do you think you are?

And with that, add righteous indignation and a justifiably defensive posture and an echo chamber of People Like Us, and we can safely and understandably retreat back to places of comfort and the reassurance of our conviction.

And nothing changes.

But I'm telling you, something happened at that dinner table in Oregon in 1992. Something born of two people who knew each other a little and presumed good will. Both of us could have taken offense – I’m sure I said some dumb things in that conversation; and I also could have left the table at the outset. But I didn’t. And John’s grandfather didn’t. He could have seen me as the upstart feminist moving in on his territory; and I could have cast him as the close-minded protector of a good-old-boys’ club. Somehow, maybe by the grace of God, that didn’t happen. When we left the table, it was because our conversation was complete. And both of us were changed on the other side of it.

I don’t know how much room there is for moments like that today. And I hunger for us to carve and protect the kind of space where we can show up for each other, make it possible to pave a way for change, to give people the chance to turn around and find a new way, without risk of being cursed or jeered or gloated over.

We choose our authority, I believe. And authority wedded purely to our own conviction at the cost of our humanity is a deadly thing. I think that’s an authority we can ill afford.

Jesus refuses the question those elders and chief priests pose. When they won’t answer his questions to them about John the Baptist, he won’t answer theirs about who exactly he thinks he is.

After he tells them the story of the two sons, and they respond that the one who does the will of the father is the one who shows up, he tells them: “the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of you. Because John came, and you did not believe him, but they did. And even after you saw it, you didn’t change your minds and believe.”

What might have happened, in that moment, if the disruption had come full circle? What might have happened, if one of the elders, if two of the chief priests, had paused to consider, and responded: “I believe you’re right, and I have changed my mind”? What would have caved and changed and turned itself upside down in a moment like that?

And how can we create and protect space and humanity and grace and kindness in order that we can show up for each other, in order that it might just be possible in our own day?

September 24, Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A

Andrew Suitter

This week as I have been thinking and reflecting on these scriptures and everything else that has been happening in and around this community, I was reminded of a scene in one of my favorite films, Wit, staring Emma Thompson.[1]  In one scene, Thompson’s character, Vivien, has come face to face with the reality that everything she fought for in this life, has in the end come to provide very little. All that she has put first in her life—her career, her academic pursuits and discipline—has left her alone. In her final hours, a former professor who was more like a mother to her, learns of her illness and comes to the hospital to visit. The professor curls up in the bed with Vivien and Vivien cries in her professor’s arms.  As Vivien lays there, the professor offers to recite Vivien’s favorite writer, John Dunne, to which Vivien utters a clear no.  So, the professor reads a book she just purchased for her grandson—a book Vivien also knew well as a child—the Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wisebrown.[2] 

Professor Ashford reads,[3]

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I’m running away.” “’If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you for you are my little bunny.’” “’If you run after me,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.’” “’If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman and fish for you.’”[4]

The professor pauses. “Look at that, a little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.” [5]

“’If you become a fisherman,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will be a bird and fly away from you.’” “’If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, ‘I will be a tree that you come home to.’ “’Shucks,’ said the little bunny, ‘I might as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.’ “’Have a carrot,’ said the mother bunny.”[6] 

The professor tucked Vivien into her bed, kissed her forehead and blessed her as she left sure this was the last time she would see Vivien alive.  Being read to from that book was one of Vivien’s first memories and it would become one of her last. 

One can hope that such an experience might be one of justice.  Where the first is last, and the last is first. Where the forgotten again feels known.  The suffering, soothed.  These are the works of this gospel that we read!  It is the story of tiny resurrections in our lives that we celebrate, that we help bring about for one another, in the ways we care for and serve this world.  It is the idea that love has the final word—that our pain is not perpetual. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Kristin, our new friend Sister Kathleen, and I had the opportunity to go downtown to federal immigration court.  We went to support the fiancé and mother of a young man who was detained in Indianapolis and then sent to Boon County, KY as he awaited his case with the judge in Chicago.  Talking with this family, I learned a lot about the young man being detained. 

I learned that he came here before he turned 18 because he wanted to make a financial difference for his family.  Concerned for him, his mother soon followed.  I learned that after experiencing some hard times, he pulled himself together enough to apply and become accepted into one of the premier Engineering Schools in this country, and that he maintains a status on the Dean’s List.  I learned that he has three letters of support from leading faculty members about the promise of this young man.  I learned that he continues to support family in Mexico.  And I learned that he has continued to overcome setbacks with grace.  The family told me that the fear this has brought upon them has been profound.  The pain it causes them to see him locked up, to be separated, to see him in jail clothes, is becoming too much. They knew that no matter what happened, they would go where he was even if it meant uprooting their lives, too.

I have to admit, it was hard to sit through those cases.  It was hard to sit through them because whether or not one agrees with a reason one is being deported or not, it remains that there is yet another broken family and that justice seems farther away than ever.  It was painful to bear witness to families saying goodbye to loved ones on a screen for all to see, and to be unable to hug them and hold them even but for a moment.  We then went into a recess. 

This week, our lectionary brings us to the vineyard to a passage that is often read as a parable, as an allegory, for how God cares for the less fortunate.  A more common reading of this story highlights the generosity of the man, as the generosity of God—that God’s love and kindness extends beyond Israel to the Gentiles.  In other words, the man’s financial kindness is like that of God’s love.  The concern I have about an interpretation like this is, this seems to be at someone’s expense.  Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor at Columbia Theological, offers significant commentary to this passage and an interpretation I can appreciate.  He says,

We are tempted to see the landowner in God-like terms because he is powerful, he hires workers all day long and pays them all equally, and he declares his own goodness and justice. However, at the end of the day, the workers are all as vulnerable and powerless as they were at the beginning of the day, except that, we will see, they have lost their dignity, and probably their unity. The injustices are intensified, not overturned.[7]

Saunder’s perspective challenges us to not only consider the immediate solutions for the problems people face—but to consider how we can change the outcomes of a situation that seems dismal.

Once the recess ended, we were called back into the courtroom for our case.  After reviewing the paperwork, the judge seemed impressed by the support this young man had through the present family members and religious community—but also through the support of his prestigious school.  After speaking quite honestly to the young man about the concerns she had for him, she also pointed out to the injustice it would be for him to forego the career he has begun as a student in one of the top engineering programs in the country.  Perhaps it was grace.  Perhaps it was her heart—but it was an act of justice to let him finish the work he had begun to then really make a difference in his life and in the life of his family. The judge sent this young man away with another chance to finish what he started, to really make his life better, and agreed to reevaluate in another year his status as being able to stay in the country. 

She made a way for him to try, once again, to live the dream he came for despite some hang-ups along the way.  She chose to maybe see the greater story in this young man—that his church, his family, his school supports him.  To waste his talents, to send him away, might not be helpful to his overall situation in this life.  It was a step in restoring dignity, value, purpose, and self-worth to a young man caught in the crossroads of a life he’s fighting to live. 

Of the parable we read, Sanders says, it is a “limited, and thus false, form of justice. We can tell it is false justice because it produces envy and division, rather than wholeness and healed relationships. It is a harsh reminder that there is no justice, no kingdom of heaven, when we end up alone in the world.”[8]

For all that we live through, whether it is a life of solo pursuits like Vivien, or a life of struggle all in the name of a better life like our friend from Indianapolis—God’s justice is to never to leave us alone or to leave us unchanged.

God’s justice comes in second changes to do things the right way. It comes in being a friend to the ones who are hardest to understand.  God’s justice comes when a young man is offered another chance to finish an education he has fought for and is given the opportunity to afford his family a future they never dreamed of having before. God’s justice comes when a dying woman’s last memories are of being held and not forgotten by a world she often separated herself from.  Justice can come in the final hour.

This parable or allegory, asks us to evaluate several things in our lives.  It asks us to consider those who are really hurting in our life. It asks us to consider what in our power we can do to make a way of justice for someone today—and for their entire life. As theologian Karoline Lewis says, “this parable pulls back the curtain on the way our own world works.”[9] 

Beloveds, we are the detainee, we are the harsh professor, we are the judge—we are the landowner.  Sometimes for reasons beyond our control we aren’t the most social—sometimes life has dealt experiences that have all but leveled us.  Maybe we have fallen on hard times and didn’t get the break we needed. 

As a community of faith, I hope we can work to find and share together, in ways of justice that meet both current needs and change long term outcomes for those among us.  So many of you are already doing this kind of work in your professional lives and you see the ways in which God’s justice can roll like a mighty river. 

As we walk this path together, may we be as gentle as the professor who holds the suffering, as generous as the landowner who pays all his people well, and may we be so bold as to pave new paths of justice in loving and healing this world. 

Amen.  

 

[1] Wit, 2001, HBO film starring Emma Thompson, based on the stage play entitled Wit, written by Margaret Edson, 1999.

[2] Wisebrown, M. (1942). Runaway Bunny. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers. (Pictures by Clement Hurd (omitted)).

[3] Evelyn E.M. Ashford, Wit, film, performed by Eileen Adkins, HBO films, (2001); Based upon Margaret Edson’s stage play, Wit (1999).

[4] Wisebrown, M. (1942). Runaway Bunny. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers. (Pictures by Clement Hurd (omitted)).

[5] Evelyn E.M. Ashford, Wit, film, performed by Eileen Adkins, HBO films (2001); Based upon Margaret Edson’s stage play, Wit (1999).

[6] Wisebrown, M. (1942). Runaway Bunny. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers. (Pictures by Clement Hurd (omitted)).

[7]Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16, by Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor of NT Columbia Theological Seminary Atlanta, Ga., 2017, from Working Preacher (online; accessed 9/21/17) www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3395.

[8] Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16, by Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor of NT Columbia Theological Seminary Atlanta, Ga., 2017, from Working Preacher (online; accessed 9/21/17) www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3395.

[9] Sermon Brainwave Podcast, for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, commentary by Karoline Lewis, as found on www.workingpreacher.org, accessed 9/21/17).

September 10, The Feast of Augustine (transferred) and Homecoming Sunday

Kristin White

From his earliest days, our patron, St. Augustine of Hippo, sought relentlessly after truth. A student of rhetoric, he knew how to prepare an elegant and airtight and even blistering argument, a skill which he would go on to teach his students.

Seeking answers about fundamental truths, Augustine looked to the stars, learned from astrologers who promised wisdom. When that was not enough, he joined the Manicheans, a Persian religion that spoke of a cosmic battle between the spiritual realm of goodness, and the material realm of the wicked. His zealously Christian mother, Monica, kicked him out of the house when she learned he had taken up with that crowd. Eventually, Augustine found that the Manichean idea that they had intellectually mastered everything “made them cold to mystery, unable to humble themselves before complexities that ‘make the heart deep.’ ”[1]

He moved to Milan, became a professor and a Neoplatonist, seeking instead after truth in philosophy. He loved a woman he would not marry. He fathered a child he adored.

His mother prayed and prayed for his conversion to the Christian faith…his mother was no small figure in his life. Augustine, the professor of rhetoric, found his way to the cathedral in Milan, where he heard Ambrose, the bishop, preach. He returned to hear the bishop preach. He returned again.

Agonizing over truth and its revelation, over the pursuit that would not let go of him, he walked into a garden. He heard a voice say, “take up and read.” He opened Paul’s letter calling him to “put on Christ.”

“I have read in Plato and Cicero things that are wise and very beautiful,” Augustine wrote in his Confessions. “But I have never read in either of them: Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden.”

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We come home again, on this Homecoming Sunday, gathering as the body that we are called to be. Welcome home.

On this occasion of remembering our patron saint’s hunger for knowledge, we will give thanks for things like backpacks and briefcases, and other tools that help us learn and grow in our own search for truth. We give thanks for a God who created us with minds that think, using reason as we seek after wisdom and understanding.

In our patron’s honor, we give thanks as well for the ministry of leadership, as we bless and welcome Andrew Suitter’s priesthood here at St. A’s. What a gift you are in our midst, Andrew.

After Augustine’s conversion, he would spend a year at home in Thagaste, thinking and writing, and then return to Milan to be baptized by Bishop Ambrose. He went home again afterwards, helped to establish a Christian community in his hometown.

So the story goes, he traveled to Hippo to find out about the possibility of building a monastery in that area of North Africa. Bishop Valerius heard he was coming to church, and set aside the sermon he planned to preach that day. Instead, with Augustine in the congregation, the bishop preached about the need for priests in the church. The people looked to Augustine. In ways that mimic the calling of his mentor, Bishop Ambrose, the people pushed him forward to become their priest.

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So what does this mean for us, an Episcopal church on Chicago’s North Shore, in 2017?

A great deal, I believe.

Today as we bless learning and ministry, we give thanks for a patron whose mind and heart were “directed toward God’s infinity.”[2] His was a life that would not be satisfied without learning all he could…and then learning that his learning had to point beyond itself. His thoughts “enter and embrace the material world, but then fly up and surpass it.”[3] He could conceive of a kind of perfection that he knew he could not himself attain.

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“I have read in Plato and Cicero things that are wise, and very beautiful. But I have never read in either of them: Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden.”

His intellect would lead him from his studies, to teaching, to theological discourse, to battles for orthodoxy. And though it was an essential part of who he was, his intellect alone would never be enough. His restlessness would define him, in that most famous quote, the one we find etched in our doors:

“You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Throughout his life, Augustine was ambitious. And he was successful. And he would find, again and again, that being ambitious and successful was not enough.

The only time Augustine found solace was when he himself was not the focus. The lifelong object of his mother’s affection, he was raised to believe that it really was all about him. In his description of Augustine, the writer David Brooks describes our patron in his early life as “history’s most high-maintenance boyfriend…in love with the prospect of being loved.”[4]

He would find redemption in the discovery that he was not the agent and organizer of his own salvation. “He came to (find) that the way to inner joy is not through agency and action (which he had mastered several times over, and probably better than anyone else), it’s through surrender and receptivity to God.”[5] It’s through loving the source that is the creation of love. That was the place where Augustine could finally rest, the heartbeat he could call his own. Knowledge, though good, would finally prove incomplete. Only love moves us to the kind of action that proves us most fully who we are called to be.

Augustine would go on to argue that we become what we love, not what we know. In his writing and in his preaching, that was the lesson toward which he would lead the church. He would teach that our process of learning is a process of the formation of love.

Augustine was born in the town of Thagaste, now found in Algeria, in the year 354. The Roman Empire was collapsing at the time, but as with most things that fall apart, that collapse was gradual…until it wasn’t, until was sudden, and complete. His life would end in the year 430, as Vandals marched on the city of Hippo. Rome was crumbling, and refugees fled to North Africa as a place to escape. Hippo was one of the few fortified towns, so many Romans sought safety within its walls. Augustine, now bishop, had fallen ill during the onslaught, as Vandals sacked the city almost without resistance.

They would burn everything they found. Except Augustine’s library. Except the cathedral where he had been ordained. Those would remain untouched, a legacy of thought and word and faith, somehow preserved.

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Today, as we bless the knowledge that we and our children seek, we honor a saint who calls us to embrace reason and intellect, holding with it the humility that we are not our own ends. Augustine reminds us that our deepest learning is found in surrender to that which is worthy of our love.

We live in a world that would seek to create us as that new “most high-maintenance boyfriend,” tell us always that we are the most important thing, that our needs are the only ones that matter, that we can purchase and effect our own salvation. Augustine would remind us that we become what we love. I think he would caution us to pay attention to the stories that we tell ourselves.

As we bless the leadership of this new priest in our midst, we honor the memory of a bishop and priest who took every single detour along the way, in characteristic restless and relentless fashion. Augustine shows us that there is no singular path, that we’re all finding our way in this journey. I give thanks that there are others in our midst called here to lead, called as lay leaders or deacons or priests or maybe bishops one day. To all of you, I ask: remind us again that our love is precious and deserving enough to find its worthiest aim. Remind us, in your ministries, to give ourselves, to lose ourselves, in what truly matters.

Augustine came into this life at a time when the empire seemed more eternal than it would prove to be. He departed this life – by fever, rather than flame – as that empire burned. We can’t know the nature of what is coming, but a whole lot of what we have known seems like it is burning right now, and many of our hearts are heavy laden.

Refugees travel the opposite direction from where they did in Augustine’s time. And the safety they sought here in our own country now stands in question. At this very moment, storms rage, and waters rise, and fires burn, and things we trusted as eternal now seem to crumble.

We cannot know how the story will go and who will tell it, but we can trust that it continues, as Augustine’s does. Because we worship the God who created our minds to think and our hearts to love, who promises us rest, and a home:

“I have read in Plato and Cicero things that are wise and very beautiful. But I have never read in either of them: Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest; take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Welcome home.

 

[1] David Brooks. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr

[3] Brooks, The Road to Character.

[4] The Road to Character.

[5] ibid

August 27, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Kristin White

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Shiphrah and Puah.

I want you to know their names, because God does, and we need to.

They are the women who resisted, bringing forth life and deliverance to this world.

Our Old Testament reading from the book of Exodus begins just after the conclusion of Genesis. Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, went on to use his power with Pharaoh to become their rescuer in a time of famine. He reconciled with his brothers, returned to bury their father, and finally, at the end of that first book of the Bible, Joseph’s own life drew to an end.

Today’s passage begins: “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

Cue the eerie music, the looming dread.

“The Israelites are more powerful, and more numerous than we are,” that king, that new Pharaoh, said. “So come. Let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will continue to increase, and overtake us, and escape.”

So the Israelites, until then guests in the land, now became slaves in Egypt. The Egyptians put those Israelite slaves to work, forced them to serve hard labor as they made mortar and brick, worked them ruthlessly in the fields.

But, scripture tells us, the more the Israelites were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.

So slavery wasn’t enough, the king decided.

He called the Hebrew midwives before him. Their names matter: Shiphrah and Puah. The Pharaoh called Shiphrah and Puah before him. He told them that as they worked, if they delivered baby girls to be born to the Hebrew women, those babies should live. And he told them that if they delivered babies who were boys, those babies should die. The Pharaoh told the midwives Puah and Shiphrah to kill the babies who were boys.

“But the midwives feared God,” the text tells us. Puah and Shiphrah feared God.

So they did not kill the lives they helped to bring into being, boy babies or girl babies. Instead they persisted in bringing forth life, acting together in “conspiracies of hope.”[1]

The babies lived: both the girl babies and the boy babies.

“So God dealt well with the midwives,” the lesson says, “and the people multiplied and became very strong.”

It wasn’t enough, then, for the king to enslave the people. It wasn’t enough for him to command those who would bring life, to end it instead. Because conspiracies of hope had already begun to take hold.

So the king required of all the people: “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Sometimes conspiracies choose interesting folks to work together.

A Hebrew Levite man, from the tribe whose members serve as priests in the temple, married a Hebrew Levite woman. She gave birth to a son, and she hid him away for three months. But when she couldn’t hide him any longer, she made a basket for him, made it as safe as she could for her son, and then, God help her, she followed the king’s command. She cast her baby boy out into the river.

This is a story about conspiracies of hope.

This is a story about Puah and Shiphrah, who resisted the powers that called forth death, and instead took the risk of bringing life into being. This is a story about a mother who entrusted her baby to the waters, about a big sister who watched her infant brother float out among the reeds.

And this story about conspiracies of hope is also about the daughter of that king who enslaved and condemned and commanded death. Because the king’s daughter bathed at that river. And she saw the baby boy cast out into the water in the basket his mother had so carefully made for him.

She knew.

And she took that baby boy out of the water.

“This must be a Hebrew baby,” she said. Because she knew.

“Can I help find you a nurse for him?” the baby’s sister asked. Was she eager? Was she right there, right away? Did the Pharaoh’s daughter notice the resemblance between the baby in the basket and the girl offering to help?

Conspiracies of hope, indeed. So, as it happened, the daughter of that king would conspire with Puah and Shiphrah, with the baby boy’s sister and with his mother. A conspiracy of hope is the only kind of story in which, instead of killing the baby, the daughter of the king who made that evil edict would not only save the child but would use her resources to pay his mother to sustain her own son’s life. The king’s daughter would go on to raise that child as her own son. She would call him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

The baby boy Moses will grow up, will do violence in the name of protecting his people, and will seek to escape. He will marry and tend sheep that belong to his father-in-law, will see a crazy bush that burns and is not consumed, and he will turn aside to find out what that is all about. He will deliver the people from slavery in Egypt, will stretch forth his hand and, with God’s help, he will separate the waters from the waters so the Israelites walk through to safety on dry land. He will hide his face before God. He will hand down the gift of the law. And he will lead the people Israel to the land that God has promised them for generations upon generations.

All of this will be possible because Puah and Shiphrah joined a conspiracy of hope, choosing to bring forth life instead of death.

Most women in the Bible are never named. If they are mentioned at all, they are usually mentioned by their attachment to men, and they are nearly always the objects rather than the subjects of the story. We hear about wives and daughters and sisters, widows and prostitutes. Rarely do we hear their names. More rarely do we see their actions or read words they are remembered as having spoken.

We hear about the centurion’s daughter who is healed; or the woman accused and brought before Jesus; or the widow whose son has just died, leaving her helpless and alone; or the “besides women and children” that accompany the 5,000 men present for the miracle of five loaves and two fish.

Puah and Shiphrah’s names mean “beautiful” and “splendid.”

This story about a splendid and beautiful conspiracy of hope gives us that rare biblical glimpse of women as the agents, acting together to bring forth and sustain life.

Much will come because of what they did in this passage from the second book of the bible. My guess, it’s much more than Puah and Shiphrah could have imagined, when they sat down at their birthing stools to do the simple work of resistance that God gave them to do.

We are a people who have seen too much of enslavement and oppression and condemnation in recent times. We are a people called to simple acts of resistance that, instead of dealing in death, will bring forth life.

We are a people called to conspiracies of hope: splendid and beautiful conspiracies of hope.

And God knows our names.

 

[1] Rowan Williams. “Waiting on God: A sermon for Lady Day 1992, preached to members and friends of the Movement for the Ordination of Women,” A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995. 13.

August 13, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 14A, 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Deacon Sue Nebel

Genesis 37:1-4,12-28; Psalm 105:1-6,16-22,45b; Matthew 14:22-33

This has been an unsettling week. . .and that feels like an understatement.  Belligerent, threatening rhetoric from the leaders of North Korea and our own country.  The very real fear of possible armed conflict with catastrophic results.  Then Friday night and yesterday, the news of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.  A painful reminder of the continuing reality of racism in our country.  Unsettling indeed.  Everything seems shaky and uncertain. Then what do we get for our Gospel lesson this morning?  Heavy winds on the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus’ disciples in a boat on the tumultuous water, gripped by fear.  It seems appropriate.

This morning’s passage from Matthew picks up at the end of last’s week’s reading: the Feeding of the FiveThousand.  The crowds are dispersing.  Jesus has gone up on the nearby mountain by himself for a time of prayer.  He has sent the disciples off in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But things don’t go according to plan.  Strong winds come up during the night, making the water rough and battering the disciples’ boat. Early in the morning, Jesus starts out, walking on the water toward the disciples.  Seeing him, the disciples are terrified. They think he is a ghost.  Jesus calls out to reassure them.  Peter responds to his words, saying: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus replies: “Come.”  Peter then gets out of the boat and begins walking on the water toward Jesus. It is all going so well, but then Peter notices the wind and is afraid, uncertain.  He begins to sink.  Jesus reaches out and pulls him to safety, admonishing him for not having enough faith.

It is tempting, when looking at this story, to focus on the most striking, attention-grabbing part: Jesus walking on water.  Putting our rational minds to work, we try to come up with an explanation of how Jesus manages to do this.  Or we can simply dismiss it as some kind of illusion caused by the emotional state of the disciples.  Quite honestly, I don’t have an explanation for how Jesus does this, but I am willing to accept the reality of the experiences of the disciples.  This is what they saw and they told others about it.  The story was carried forward in the oral tradition until it was finally written down. 

What is important in this story, in my mind, is the part about Peter.  Peter is the most visible of Jesus’ disciples.   He is the one who always speaks up.  He asks questions.  He blurts out what he is thinking and feeling. Peter puts himself out there; he takes risks.  And like most risk-takers, he sometimes fails. But through it all, Peter always wants to be faithful.  He wants to please Jesus.  He wants to meet Jesus’ expectations of a good disciple.  This is what is happening in the Gospel story. Peter does not look around at the other disciples and say, “Watch this. I’m going to walk on water.”  No. Peter focuses his eyes and attention on Jesus. He does indeed walk on water—until he is distracted by the wind and falters. After Jesus pulls Peter to safety, he chides him (gently I hope) for his lack of faith.

The good news here is that Jesus doesn’t give up on Peter.  He doesn’t tell him that he is a failure as a disciple.  He doesn’t dismiss him.  He simply tells him that, in this moment, he didn’t have enough faith.  He continues to value him and to love him.  In turn, Peter doesn’t give up on Jesus. He never quits.  Peter hangs in there. He keeps on trying to be faithful.  Sometimes he succeeds.  Sometimes, he fails.  But he keeps at it.  We can take heart from Peter’s example. We are all Peter.  We too want to be faithful.  We too want to measure up to the demands of discipleship.  Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail.  But we keep on trying.  That is what it means to be faithful. 

In my moments of feeling fearful and anxious about events in the world this past week, I admit I have wished for a heroic figure to appear on the scene. Someone to calm things down and make it all better.   That has not happened, of course. So I have done what I often do in times like this. I turn to a trusted person of wisdom and faith. Steven Charleston is one of those people. He is the retired Episcopal Bishop of Alaska and a Native American.  He posts reflections regularly on the Internet.  This is what he offered on Wednesday morning.

I went to sleep with the sound of sabers rattling all around me and I awoke to find the world still anxious about the threat of war. These are the rare moments in history when we all hold our breath. The historical limit to human leadership seems so clear when the push of a button can end that history. I have been praying hard that people keep talking before they decide to act impulsively. I know you have too.

May the Spirit do what alone we cannot do: restore a sense of calm, open up new paths of dialogue, give peace time enough to serve the cause of justice.

Charleston states the obvious: As Christians we should pray, individually and collectively. I am somewhat relieved that what he hopes for, i.e. that people keep talking before acting impulsively, seems to be happening.

But what else? How do we move forward?  How do we keep being faithful in the midst of all this.  What has emerged for me as I pondered that question in the middle of the night, is the word “fierceness.”   I know that it is the Holy Spirit’s doing, giving me that word.  I also know where it originated.  On my early morning walk a few days ago, when my mood was probably the darkest, a wonderful thing happened.  A blocks from my house, I saw some men with heavy machinery, digging a large hole in front of a house a couple of doors ahead of me.  Just then, I heard a child’s voice and looked to my right.  There was a little boy, probably about three years old, sitting on the front step.  He was fascinated by the men and their equipment. A thoughtful parent or caregiver had set his breakfast next to him.  There he was, happily eating his breakfast and talking to himself, as he watched the men at work. 

In that moment I had an overpowering rush of emotion, an intense affirmation of what I hold near and dear.  I love life.  I love this world that God created and that we try to maintain.  I love God’s children.  I don’t want life to be cut short by some nuclear disaster.  I do not want this world destroyed. I want peace and justice in the world.   I want that little boy sitting on his front step to grow up and become what he wants to be: someone who uses machines to dig big holes in yards, or whatever else.  I want it not only for him, a white child with all the privileges that provides.  I want it for all children. Whatever their skin color, their ethnic background, the country where they live now, or where they have lived in the past.  That was for me a moment of fierceness.  I carry the image of that little boy in my heartHe reminds me to live fiercely.  To care deeply.

The events in Charlottesville were shocking.  Whatever veil of unknowing or ignoring we had drawn across the reality of racism in this country was ripped to shreds.  The violence, the hatred, the use of Nazi signs and slogans.  All of it goes against everything Jesus teaches. To love one another.  To respect the dignity of every human being.  We have work to do.  We have to recognize and name racism.  In ourselves and in the world around us.  To join in efforts to eliminate it.  To keep on being faithful, as best we can.

                Fierceness.  Fierceness—and all that it means to me—is the word that is working for me right now.  I offer it to you, in hope that you can take it and make it your own.  If fierceness doesn’t work, I invite you to find a word that is better.  Remembering Peter, the word faithfulness comes to mind.  Or perhaps, the image of Peter himself might do.  And there is always the image of Jesus, urging us to continue the work he started.  Whatever you choose, embrace it.  Carry it within you, to push you to live fully, boldly.  To live, not live trapped in fear and anxiety, but to be fully involved in the work of faithful discipleship. To make this world a better place for everyone.  Everyone.

 

AUGUST 6, THE FEAST OF THE TRANSFIGURATION

Andrew Suitter

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Luke 9:28-36

Transfixed: Breaking the Silence

Augustine of Hippo, our beloved St. Augustine, once said, “Be what you see, receive what you are.” “Be what you see, receive what you are.” “Be what you see, receive what you are.” In his sermon about the Eucharist, Augustine penned these words about the bread we see raised up every week that we gather together.  He says,

Remember that bread is not made from one grain, but from many.  When you were being exorcised, it’s as though you were being ground.  When you were baptized it’s as though you were mixed into the dough.  When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it’s as though you were baked.  Be what you see, and receive what you are.[1]

One of the first times I ever attended an Episcopal church service, several things stood out to me. First, we had the struggle of juggling a bulletin, a hymnal and a Book of Common Prayer. Second, we had the struggle of juggling a bulletin, a hymnal and a Book of Common Prayer, all the while doing the calisthenics of genuflecting, sitting, kneeling and standing. I wondered what I was getting myself into.  Three, it confirmed for me that introverts everywhere might possibly dread the passing of the peace.  And fourth, and perhaps the most serious, is the sound of the breaking of the bread. 

This thing we experience together every week was for me, the first time, memorable.  The silence in the room was palpable.  Our eyes, transfixed by this bright Host being raised up to God, watch, and out of the silence comes this cracking, this breaking of the bread.  The silence continues as it is brought down, laid on the plate and we pause together for a brief moment.  “Alleluia,” the priest said.  “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.” And we replied, “Therefore, let us keep the feast, Alleluia.”

I have never forgotten that experience, and I hope I never do.  The silence, the sounds of cracking and breaking, of this wafer becoming the body of Christ that is reflected in you and in me was somehow transfixed.  It was as if this Host brought me to attention, and snapped me out of this liminal space where my own problems seemed to go on the back burner. I was invited to sit in that silence, and wait to experience something holy. That silence might well have been the words we hear spoken to the disciples today.  A voice that said, “Hey, Listen. This is my Son.”

Be  what you see, receive what you are.

The transfiguration is a text that present us with the opportunity to imagine where is it in our own lives, God might be saying, “Hey, you.” Maybe it is to say, “I love you,” or “I have this taken care of” or, “this thing over here, this is what I am calling you to do.” It shows us the many ways God comes to us to confirm God’s own love for us, and God’s involvement in our lives especially when we do not always feel it, remember it, or believe it. 

What I have come to love about Luke’s version of the Transfiguration is that the disciples seem to have a certain familiar quality to them.  Sure they are set apart as disciples, but they too don’t always “get it.” They too do not always understand what is before them and miss what might be in front of them—and yet God still calls and equips them. 

Sometimes, we can’t get out of our own way.  We can become so focused on what we know, or on what we have experienced, that it is hard to imagine new ventures, new callings, or even the original one we set out on.    

This is what we see happening with the disciples in this passage.  Consider, Peter.  Just a bit before where we pick up today in Luke, it is Peter who just confesses faith in our Lord—and if we remember the Passion—we know it is also Peter who denies his faith—despite knowing all that he does.  And yet it is that same depth of knowledge and experience that eventually brings him back to faith. 

The two other disciples, James and John, who have more minor roles in this passage, seem to be along for the hike as part of the pack, and are described by Luke as being “weighed down with sleep.” If you have ever hiked in higher elevations, it is easy to imagine this.  Whenever I have hiked in Colorado or Utah, I notice that my body tires much more easily than in normal altitudes.  I have to drink more water, and push through the lingering dull headache that takes a day or two to go away.  Luke tells us the disciples pushed through their weighted sleepiness, and by doing so got to experience something amazing. 

The synoptic versions of this story, found in Mark, Matthew and Luke, vary in some regard.  Luke wrote his gospel with the knowledge of Mark’s gospel.  All three gospel accounts include Peter’s intention to build three dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, but only Luke is specific about the purpose of the group’s trip to the mountain, which was to pray.What stands out to me most about these disciples is that for as long as they have been following Jesus, and been engaged with the Hebrew scriptures, they still did not see what was before them. 

When Jesus appeared with Moses, and Elijah, Peter wanted to build a dwelling place for them and keep them around—despite knowing that what was to come for Jesus was not good.  Perhaps Peter was protective, or perhaps he was even afraid or just shortsighted. But one thing he teaches all of us, is that following Christ into the known and unknown can be hard without the grounding of a community, a Body of Christ, to walk these things out with us. It is often the community gathered here each week, this Body of Christ, that reminds us to keep going, to keep pushing through even if our faith or our courage is challenged.

Luke calls us, the community of the Body of Christ, to prayer.  Luke calls us to the quiet, to the places where we might have to push through, in order that we might hear from God. And graceful Luke reminds us that even when we do listen, when God does speak so clearly to our hearts, we still may not get things right on the first try or two—and that is part of our faith journey together. 

Be what you see, receive what you are.

Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit I felt that morning in my first Episcopal Service.  Perhaps it was the divine moving through imperfect hands and people, calling us to do holy things. 

In a recent conversation with my friend and seminary colleague, Claire Brown, she said something quite thoughtful about how striving for perfection in anything, especially our understanding of God, and our service to God, can blur the ways we can see and hear God at work in our lives.  Claire says,

Perfectionism is wanting not just a change of clothes and a walking stick for our mission, but also maybe some decent hotel reservations, a game plan, and a buddy system—at least Siri…Perfectionism is sending the hungry crowd away because we can’t try the hard new thing if we think we might fail.  Perfectionism, God help us, is trying to interrupt the epiphany and put a shrine around it so that we can control what’s happening or document it…[2]

Perhaps we live with these expectations from time to time.  Perhaps we, like the disciples, want to build a box for God.  Perhaps we too get overwhelmed, and unable to see maybe where God has been in the story all along, or where it is God is leading us in the future. 

Listen to the silence after the bread is broken.  It calls us back time and time again, and invites us to relationship with God and one another—as imperfect as we are—to break bread, to break new ground, and to offer our hands and our hearts to the work of our Lord that is loving and healing this world.  This is the body of Christ in action.  This is the word made flesh among us. 

Be what you see, receive what you are. Amen.

 

 

[1] http://www.stansleminstitute.org/files/Augustine/%20Sermon%20272.pdf Augustine of Hippo, Sermon about the Eucharist, numbered 272, found in St. Anslem archives.

[2] Conversation with colleague Claire Brown, thoughts around perfection and the drive to always get it right.