Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, 2012

Proper 27B
11 November 2012
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, Ga.
Old Testament: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm: 127
Epistle: Hebrews 9:24-28
Gospel: Mark 12:38-44 (“beware of the scribes” who “devour widow’s houses;” the widow’s mite)

Story of the Pentecostal revival service & the offering plate being sent back through the congregation until the pastor was satisfied:

  • First more money into the plates, then jewelry:  a wedding ring, even
  • Then, on the third circulation, several sets of car keys into the plates!

But what’s the point for us, really? Am I trying to make excuses for corrupt TV-preacher types who will keep making the teary-eyed appeals, who will keep the band playing the sappy songs, who will keep the 800 number prominently displayed along the bottom of the screen . . . who will send the plate back around until they’re satisfied they’ve wrung everything possible out of the faithful? Not at all.

Are we going to change things up here, perhaps? Lengthen the offertory anthems so the plates can go around several times? I confess I know of no such plans. This doesn’t mean I’m not confident, though, that God can work with gold & silver jewelry, and precious stones, and even with a Toyota minivan and a Mercedes sedan. I can’t speak to any donated jewelry, but those two cars have, in fact, been given over to God’s work in the community right here, by members of this very congregation.

No . . . this is not about guilt and it’s not about alerting you to an upcoming change in our liturgy or stewardship campaign. It’s simply one image, an image from a world different from ours but not too different - still church - an image of what it might look like to be so caught up in prayer and praise, in gratitude for what God has done in your life and is doing in the lives of others in and through the life of the Church, to be so excited - at least for a moment in time - about your relationship with your Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer . . . to be so ready and anxious and expectant for the good things to come as to be “” To bet, to risk, to give yourself and the things under your control over to a work that you know is trustworthy.

You know this phrase “all in” of course. If nothing else you know it from the famous card game of poker. Seems to me it didn’t really come to prominence until Texas Hold ‘Em took the poker world by storm - is this me talking all expert-like about poker? several seminary classmates of mine, perhaps, men AND women, I might add, but this guy is assuredly no expert - and ESPN started televising the Poker National Championships and the winners got advertising contracts and reality TV gigs and...and “all in” became an iconic phrase, uttered by the player so confident in his position, so assured of being on the right track, so excited about the winnings that were to be reaped at the play of the next card, as to be ready to put everything on the line right then and there.

And there are other images, of course. Look no further than the Old Testament lesson and the proclamation of the Mark’s Gospel we just heard.
Ruth, we learn, in the book that bears her name, went “all in” with her mother-in-law Naomi, and with Naomi’s people, the Hebrews. Left widowed and without even brothers-in-law - therefore without the traditional family system of support - Ruth took up with her mother-in-law Naomi, a Hebrew. Against Naomi’s will, even, she clung to her and promised to be her companion, even as Naomi set out to return to her own people.  Even knowing the animosity that existed between Ruth’s Moabite people and Naomi’s Hebrew kinsmen. Yet, these Hebrews, they were the people of Yahweh. And great things were to come; great things were to follow, in God’s own time, from Ruth’s commitment to her new family, from her willingness to be “all in” - not with the tribe she’d been born into - but with the one she’d come to love, the one that had adopted her as it’s own.

And then from St. Mark we get to overhear Jesus observing, for the benefit of the apostles, the goings and comings at the Temple treasury there in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Jesus first notes how the wealthy are contributing - and let’s be clear: he does not condemn them. He merely observes that they are giving from a position of abundance. Their giving, that is, even if it’s at the expected level of their 1st-century Jewish context, is not likely to cause any discomfort to their standard of living; it’s not a risk of their assets; it’s . . . it’s almost like they have given without much expectation of a return on investment. Given out of obligation, perhaps given without much expectation of a return on investment; given without much of a stake in what will become of their gift; given without much trust - much faith that God will multiply and work wonders with their gifts. 

But the widow . . . and her mite - as the KJV puts it. Jesus observes that “she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” The widow, shall we say, is “all in,” all in for the community of the faithful. All in for what God can do with our gifts. All in for investing in the community knowing that the returns will not only go out to others, but also through the goodness of God will multiply and return blessings to her - someone without a family to care for her, one of the most vulnerable of the whole society. Casting all her hope on God.

So, dear ones, we’re left, then, with a question: what does it look like, for you, in your life at this point in time, to be “all in” with God, and “all in” for the common life of Christ’s Body, the Church? Can you imagine yourself caught up in prayer and praise, in gratitude for what God has done in your life and is doing in the lives of others in and through the life of the Church, to be so excited - at least for a moment in time - about your relationship with your Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer . . . to be so ready and anxious and expectant for the good things to come as to be “”?

Those of us who were blessed to represent you Friday and Saturday, at the annual gathering of Episcopalians from all over north Georgia, heard a good bit from our new bishop about being expectant for good things to come, about the exciting possibilities when we intentionally engage God’s mission in the world. Bishop Wright cited a text from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus as a key inspiration for his episcopate: “Now to Him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the church....”  “It reminds us,” the bishop said, “of the dynamic partnership that God initiates with us.  It reminds us that God’s power is available through the conduit of our faith to achieve real results, results that exceed our thinking and praying.  And, that the climax of this process is God’s church increasing God’s celebrity in the world.

The verse reminds us (he said) that we should be expecting, more from God and more from each other.  Implicit also is that the world should expect more from a church with such a readily available power source.  ...we are expecting in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta! Through our faith we are expecting more from God. By our faith God can expect more from us.”

My hope and prayer this morning, friends, is that you are able to agree, to say, “Yes, Bishop, I, too, am expecting something...expecting something from my commitment to Christ and his Church. I’m “all in,” and I’m expecting something from God, and from God’s people, from those who have gathered here with me in THIS place, at THIS moment in time.” There is so much we can do together right on the horizon - in mission, in formation, in works of mercy, peace, hospitality, and justice, in study, in praise - and I want to be a part of it. I want to invest my time, talent, and treasure. I want my kids to be a part of it. I want my neighbors to know how much it means to me. I want it to transform lives in my community. With Ruth, with the widow in Jerusalem . . . I’m all in.

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost 2012

Proper 21B
30 September 2012
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, Ga.
Old Testament: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm: 124
Epistle: James 5:13-20
Gospel: Mark 9:38-50 (“Whoever is not against us is for us;” and on not putting stumbling blocks before “these little ones who believe in me”)

Today marks our third week of reading in Mark’s Gospel since Jesus’ first prediction of his Passion, and accordingly the third week since the focus switched from Jesus’ deeds of power to the character and the COST, of discipleship:  switching to a focus on what it looks like to be on the road with Jesus, to believe, to trust, to obey, even . . . on what it means to “take up your cross and follow me,” and inevitably, given human pride and vanity, to what it looks like to be “in” the group of disciples or “outside” of it. Remember last week the 12 arguing about who among them was the greatest, who was the “best disciple?” This week they seem more united, do they not, but perhaps only because they’ve found a common enemy: “someone [namely, not one of the 12] casting out demons in [Jesus’] name” who “was not following us.”

But our Lord will have none of this bickering about the new guy, the new kid on the block who seems to be performing real and effective deeds of healing and restoration - by calling on the authority of Jesus - yet isn’t welcome in the club because … well, because he’s so new. He’s the suspect ‘new guy.’ But it’s almost shockingly clear in Jesus’ rebuke, isn’t it, (“Whoever is not against us is for us”) - clear that the new guy’s discipleship is mainly defined by WHAT HIS ACTIONS DO TO LIBERATE OTHERS from the oppressive forces that beset them. And don’t miss how Jesus draws a very clear line between acting in his name and believing in him: someone healing in his name “will not be able to speak ill of me for long,” he says. To DO - that is, to work for positive change in the lives of others, or in our own lives, for that matter - in the name of our Lord, is, in itself, to come to BELIEVE. Doing and believing cannot be separated. Disciples, those trying to follow the Way, those trying to stay on the sometimes narrow path, Jesus says to the apostles - and to us - are those who are coming to believe because they are coming to know the transformation of human lives made possible through the power of God’s unconditional love.

So how often, how consistently, at what commitment level - today’s text seems to challenge us - do WE ACT like we BELIEVE in this Jesus, as we claim we do? Like we really believe that calling on and imitating and enacting God’s love can heal? or reconcile? or lead to personal growth? or drive out demons? If we’re mainly focused on worrying about others’ credentials, on whether they are good enough to be called one of us, Jesus seems to say, then chances are we’re getting in the way...creating stumbling blocks to their health and wholeness, to their own encounter with the living God - and he’s shockingly clear - with this talk of hellfire and of millstones taking one to the bottom - about how bad that is, is he not?

Oddly enough, we just heard from the Book of Esther the bulk of the origin story for the Jewish holy day of Purim. This past Mon. sundown to Tu. sundown was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (at-ONE-ment), for our Jewish bros. and sisters

1. Conclusion to Jewish high holy days, most holy & solemn day of year
2. Day marking reconciliation, reunification - if you will - with God; the human reconciling with the divine; the temporal reconciling with the eternal; the mortal reconciling with the immortal:  the day of returning our most important relationship - the one with our creator - to the way it was meant to be
3. Day of atoning for sins against God, not for sins against other people: to observe Yom Kippur one must first seek reconciliation with anyone you have wronged over the previous year, and if at all possible, put things right with them in material, concrete way
4. When this has happened, Jews understand, then on Yom Kippur God actually comes US; God comes out to meet us and removes our stumbling blocks, wipes away those things that have accumulated between us and God over the past year . . . crowding the space, fogging up the windows, blocking the pathway.

Rabbi in Wash. Post:  “Most people want to do the right thing.  But sometimes life gets in the way.  On a daily basis, stumbling blocks disturb our path.  As the year moves along, we begin to see more and more stumbling blocks.”  Ah, yes, we know how this goes, don’t we? We know as well as anybody how our own selfishness, pride, envy, sloth, or just plain fear of the unknown, gets in between us and others, and between us and our lives of intentional discipleship. How it snowballs, even, and before long we feel powerless to recover, to bless anything about our busy lives, much less to bless the lives of others.

Rabbi: “On Yom Kippur, Jews believe that [G-d] removes our stumbling blocks. Normally when someone makes a commitment it comes from a person deciding on their own that they want to commit.  But on Yom Kippur, it is different.  On Yom Kippur, God comes out to meet us and helps us take that extra step of commitment to Him.”

Isn’t that a great image, God rising up, as if from a chair or a couch, walking out the front door of the mansion, with hand outstretched, to meet us - as we stagger and stumble up the path, vaguely in God’s direction - steadying us by grabbing us by the arm, and leading us into the house?

For us Christians, then, it is IN CHRIST that God has done this very thing - both once and for all 2000 years ago, and continually in the sacraments, and in our life together in the Spirit - to emerge into the midst of our human pain and suffering and greed and pride - into our simple, sheer exasperation with everyday life - to take the initiative to come to us and to remove the stumbling blocks. And if Christ’s sacrifice and vindication has removed the final stumbling blocks between the human and the divine, in a way that we here in the Church claim to recognize uniquely - that is, if GOD has come out to us FIRST - then how much more weight is on our shoulders - as Jesus suggests today - not to put barriers and hardships and doubts and curses between ourselves, or in front of those “little ones,” those just beginning to wonder about this Jesus . . . those who through OUR witness might yet come to believe?

“Therefore confess your sins to one another,” says the writer in the letter of James to the Church, describing how we are to live together, “and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” For us it’s almost the reverse of how the rabbi described Yom Kippur, isn’t it:  God has come to us FIRST, while we were yet sinners, as Paul says, and BECAUSE OF THAT ACTION we are called to respond, with a discipleship of upholding one another, of looking not only to avoid or break down the everyday barriers that prevent US from experiencing the presence of God, but being careful not to unwittingly put UP the same barriers for our families, our friends, and our neighbors. Let us continually act, even when it seems hard or even impossible, like we believe. Let us be that salt that does not lose its saltiness.

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Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 September 2012 by M. Edwin Beckham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost 2012

Proper 15B
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
19 August 2012
Old Testament: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Psalm: 111
Epistle: Ephesians 5:15-20
Gospel: John 6:51-58

Today’s Gospel passage, again from the sixth chapter of John’s account, continues John’s commentary on the signs Jesus of Nazareth performed at the beginning of the chapter, the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on water that immediately followed. And the question for us, as for the crowd of those following Jesus back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, remains essentially the same: Who is this Jesus and what does he uncover about God?

Jesus’ statements to the crowd of followers have become ever more provocative, culminating in what we heard in conclusion last week, and what we opened with today, in verse 51: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” It was already difficult enough, it seems, for the crowds to hear Jesus identifying himself with the God of the Exodus, who alone, according to the tradition, had provided the manna, the life-sustaining food for the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. And now, as his discourse goes deeper, pushing folks to think less about physical hunger and more about the eternal, universal human longing for ABUNDANT LIFE, Jesus provokes them further: referring to his own flesh & bones as bread; referring to his own blood as thirst-quenching drink; speaking of himself as something that can be eaten, something that can be consumed for the receiving and sustaining of life.

Are we to take this, Lord, metaphorically, or literally?

Despite the directness of this language, of this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood (and as for us today, clearly it was difficult for the crowds in the story, who literally “fought” with one another about it, in the Greek), one approach here could be to take Jesus’s words entirely metaphorically. The great Church reformer Martin Luther took this approach in a sermon in the 16th century, saying that Jesus, in using these phrases, was essentially just provoking the crowd to think deeper: deeper about just what, and who, made the difference to the sustaining of abundant life. The important thing was not some nonsensical call to consume Jesus’ own flesh and blood, but the provocative claim about who he was, about his relationship to the God and Father of all: MY flesh is true food; MY blood is true drink. No one else’s bread - or body - can compare. Not surprisingly, Luther found a way to use BEER to explain. This is not about Annaberg beer being just as good at quenching the thirst as Wittenberg beer, Luther said, but rather more like: “If you do not drink Wittenberg beer, you will find no other beer to slake your thirst!” It was JESUS’ life alone - no one else’s - that revealed the life of the ages, the abundant life, to be had in God.

But, to listen carefully to Jesus words today and imbue them purely, and only, with metaphorical meaning, would be to ignore 2000 years of Christian sacramental practice and theology around the Holy Eucharist. To not engage, as best we can, with the so-called literal meaning of Jesus’ words - “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” - would be to miss the human physicality of God incarnate in Jesus, the real intimacy with God we have access to in Jesus, the sharing in Christ not only of our joy but of our suffering and pain, all these things that Christians throughout the ages have come to encounter in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Indeed the Johannine community, that is, the group of Jewish Christians who produced John’s Gospel- by the very late 1st century when this book was written down - already would have been decades into observing the Lord’s Supper as the centerpiece of their own life of communal worship and fellowship. They would have looked back on Jesus words here almost certainly with that sacrament in mind, with Christ’s own words said at that table in the Upper Room, and so familiar from their weekly routine, words first taken, well before any of the Gospels were composed, from Paul’s report to the Corinthians: “Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is given for you. … In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood...’”

If these ancient, ancient words of our Lord sound familiar to us, too, and resonate in our hearts and minds when we hear Jesus’ talk today of himself as living bread, of his own body as something to be consumed so that we may have abundant life, it is because the Church for eons has understood the sacrament of Holy Eucharist to be at the heart of what it looks like to partake of, to participate in the life of the God of all Creation. It is intimate, it is physical, it involves our bodies, and mysteriously it also involves the Body of our Lord, sacrificed once for all on a cross. It is not about having the correct knowledge, or having the correct metaphor. It is not symbolic. It is consumption of “the living bread that came down from heaven” so that we may be formed in Christ’s image, and enjoy the life of the ages.

So school is back in session. The summer vacation season, at least in this part of the world, is more-or-less behind us. It is a time for fresh starts. A time to make a new beginning. A time to eagerly embrace fresh routines, altered schedules, and new encounters: new teachers for our young people, new sets of students for our teachers, new chances for self-education and community service for so many of our seniors - new traffic jams and lines at the Kroger. And despite the headaches, all of this newness does seem, at a very visceral, intuitive way, to be full of promise. And here in this setting of a parish community, as a group of people bound together in common worship; in common desire for growing in holiness; in common cause to participate in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world; and ultimately in common purpose to form ourselves and those in our care into Christ’s likeness, shouldn’t it also be a time to make a new start, to eagerly embrace a new beginning, a fresh routine of sharing in ministry and sacrament - neither of them independent of the other - a routine that recommits us to our own formation more perfectly into the very Body of Christ we, as the Church, claim to be?

So for our life as the Church it is also a time full of promise. And today our Lord calls us to take him in, to consume him, in Word and in Sacrament, to both be LIKE him - as metaphor would have it - and to abide in him, and he in us - as the mystery of the sacraments would have it. We take him in - we draw as close as humanly possible - in the word heard and proclaimed, and in the wafer and the cup offered. We take him in in study and at play: in the hands-on style of the Catechesis atria, in the playful storytelling about our own daily lives in The Catacombs, and in the exchange of heart and mind in adult fellowship and Bible study. And as we consume the person of Christ in all these ways are we not formed into the one whom we consume? And is the bread that is given for the very “life of the world” not to be desired above all else?

To me that sounds like something worth recommitting to.