Sermon for Sunday, November 5, 2017
Today, we remember saints past and present. I hope you do so with great joy. We joy in their ability to live holy lives, we are thankful for the example they give us and we are hopeful that we can live like them. Sometimes, when we think of saints, we remember people who were persecuted. I think of saints like Stephen who was stoned to death or Perpetua who was mauled by animals in the arena, or perhaps Eric Lidell, a missionary, who died in a concentration camp in World War Two. Maybe you think of quiet, solitary people, like Catherine of Sienna who spent much of her life in a darkened room in prayer and meditation, or Dame Julian who lived her life as a recluse in Norwich. We think somehow that the life of a saint is sad, lonely or depressing. But it is not always so. Many saints were joyful, even funny. They often poked fun at themselves and their human failings.
I found some saintly humor in an article by the Reverend James Martin. In the fourth century, the famed theologian Augustine of Hippo once prayed, “Lord, give me chastity… but not yet”. A little known saint named Philip of Neri lived in the 16th century. He once shaved off half of his beard and went out in public. He said, “Christian joy is a gift from God, flowing from a good conscience”. When a young priest asked Philip what prayer would be the most appropriate to say for a couple after a wedding Mass, the future saint said, “A prayer for peace.” Here is a story about Pope John the 23rd. “the pope visited a Roman hospital called the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Shortly after entering, he was introduced to the sister who ran the hospital.
“Holy Father,” she exclaimed, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”
“Well, I must say, you’re lucky,” said the pope, delighted. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”
I share these stories to remind you that saints come in all types and sizes and colors and attitudes. You do not have to be persecuted to become a saint and you don’t have to live a solitary life either. You can be joyful and funny. Today is also a day to remember loved ones who have gone before us. Many of these people are just ordinary, unknown, normal people who lived their lives as part of the Jesus movement.
The scriptures for today were selected to help us focus on the lives of saints. In Revelation, we are given hope and we look forward to the glory of that heavenly kingdom. Many saints went through an ordeal just as Revelation indicates. All of us have struggles in our lives. The saints come to the throne of God and they join together in worshipping God as one unit. Someone pointed out to me the words in our collect: as followers of Jesus we are knit together in one community as members of the body of Christ. We come here to Transfiguration intertwined and connected, supporting each other and praising God together.
Revelation also offers us words of comfort. “Jesus is our shepherd, he will guide us to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Can you feel God’s presence in your life, wiping away your tears?
Comfort is offered to us in the Psalm, “those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good. The Lord ransoms the life of his servants, and none will be punished who trust in him.”
We hear it often in scripture that we are God’s children. But I ask you today to consider those words of 1 John, all of us are God’s children. We are blessed and when we put ourselves in the hands of Jesus and follow him, we will be pure in our hearts. Our sins will be washed away.
Just as our other readings offer words of comfort so do the beatitudes. ’Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. If you are in mourning, perhaps over the loss of a loved one, this reading is for you. God blesses you and wants you to know that God is with you.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you …Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”. If you have been attacked or maligned or feel as if the world is against you, God is ready to take you up into God’s kingdom. God cares for the saints, God cares for the followers of Jesus. Our loved ones that have gone before us are cared for by God. It is a source of comfort.
This week, I have been thinking about the various ways to consider our gospel reading of the Beatitudes. One day I found it to be comforting, another day I found it to be challenging, and one day I found it to be about God’s kingdom. Each perspective has the support of various theologians. I believe that God speaks to us in a way that we need to hear his message and that is different for every person. How is God speaking to you?
The Beatitudes challenge us to live our lives in a certain way. Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness. Just as the Good Samaritan went out of his way to help someone who had been left for dead, we may have to go beyond our normal limits, for those who have been mistreated and wronged. Blessed are the merciful. We must be sensitive to the misery that surrounds us and respond with grateful hearts. After all, we might be where the other person is if not for the blessings we have already received from God. Blessed are the meek. Meek in this case means that we are to be humble, not prideful. Blessed are the pure of heart. Now that one is virtually impossible. All of us are sinners. Yet, the more we stay away from our temptations, the more we focus on Jesus, the better are our chances. The goals are lofty and difficult to achieve. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be discouraged. It is as if Jesus wants us to follow in the path of the saints. Saints are people who made mistakes, people who sinned. We just strive to be a little better than we are today and know that God will accept us as we are.
There is one final way for you to consider these beatitudes. Jesus often turns the world upside down. These beatitudes challenge our world view. For example, our world view is that nice guys finish last. But Jesus said blessed are the meek. Isn’t Jesus asking us too reconsider what we have been taught about the meek. Our world view is that you must have a positive attitude in order to succeed. Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit. God’s kingdom is different than the one we encounter on earth. In God’s kingdom, the meek will inherit the earth. Our world view is that we must be stronger than everyone else so we will not be harmed. But Jesus said, Blessed are the merciful. It is just another example of how God’s kingdom will be different than what we have accepted.
Many people think we should seek power, success, fame or wealth. Jesus may be telling us that there is another way. God’s way is different. A former Lutheran professor, David Lose, wrote that this is less about a particular ethic and more about God’s in-breaking kingdom, a promise that God’s kingdom is real and transformative. David invites us to imagine that kingdom, different than the one we experience. It is not about working harder to follow the rules but more about having a new heart, ”one created by God’s own promise to continue to surprise us by who is blessed, who is loved by God”.
When we are able to set our hearts on God’s kingdom, then we no longer feel that we have lost our loved ones. Rather, we celebrate because they have come to that place where God blesses those whom we cannot bless on earth. They are not far off in our memory and love. Rather they can now shower us with love that we find difficult to understand because of how we see things on earth.
When all is said and done, I prefer that last view of the beatitudes. We should be comforted today. We should try to live our lives as each blessing suggests. But those two things are difficult to achieve. Let’s instead look forward with joyful anticipation to God’s kingdom, seeking to bring it to earth and ready to receive it when we die. Let’s celebrate with all the saints, both here on earth and there in heaven and together sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
be to our God forever and ever”. Amen.
Today, I would like to begin with a confession of sorts. There are times when I say yes but then I don’t really do the work. I think my intentions are good but I often get distracted or put off what I say I will do and then it never gets finished.
So, for example, I promised my wife that I would cut up some boxes and put them in recycling but I forgot and didn’t get that done. I have said that I will send a note to someone or call someone and I forget. My intentions are good but my follow through is not always so good.
The gospel for today caused me to think about this issue. Let me give you another example. On Friday and Saturday, a group of us attended the diocesan convention. It was wonderful to join with other Episcopalians and celebrate our ministry and to decide what we are called to do.
One of the activities of convention is to discuss resolutions, proposals for our common life. I must admit that it is not my favorite time. I find our resolutions to be nice words that often don’t change anything. And then I realized that I may be the problem.
There was a resolution that created an expectation that our church would minister to the Native American community. I think it is such an important ministry. God bless those who are a part of it. Arizona has the largest number of native people in the United States. I would hope that we seek to understand and assist the indigenous people in whatever way they find helpful. But the resolution as submitted didn’t seem to change anything. And after all we connect with the native people in several ways, through the products that we grow in our Chili garden and also, I hope, through our outreach programs.
So, I thought to myself that I would agree with the resolution and then not do anything. And that’s when I thought of the gospel and the story of the son who said he would go and work in the vineyard and then didn’t. I decided I should try a different approach. I have asked a Navajo person to help me construct a prayer that we can offer for Native Americans. And I asked two Episcopal deacons who are native Americans to come and visit us here at Transfiguration. Maybe that will happen next Sunday. I want to do something not just say I will.
Given my own experience this week and thinking that I may not be the only one who sometimes promises and doesn’t do the work I would ask you to consider your promises to God. Has there ever been a time when you promised to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and not done the work? I am not speaking just of some sin, doing something you shouldn’t do, falling into a sin that you thought you had overcome. We all do that. We ask for forgiveness and try to change. I am also asking about the acts that perhaps we should do but have not completed.
Let us take a moment and consider the stories we find in scripture. The story about Moses and the Israelites in the desert is a good example. God had delivered them out of Egypt. God had taken care of them to this point. But now they were complaining to Moses and complaining about God. Their faith and trust in God seemed to be short lived. They wanted God to take care of all of their problems and seemed unwilling to stick with God when trouble arose. They said they would follow but wanted to quit when it became difficult.
In the gospel, Jesus told the parable of two sons. One said that he would not go work in the vineyard but did. The other said he would but did not.
Which one did the will of his Father?
Let me provide a little context. The Jewish people believed that God had offered the Law to all people but only the Nation of Israel accepted it. They said yes. But most of the Prophets in the time before Jesus preached that the people of Israel had not followed God’s wishes. Just like the second son, they said they would go but did not.
Jesus continues this line of prophetic thought. In this case, his argument is directed towards the chief priests and elders, the ones who would eventually have Jesus killed. They were the ones who wanted everyone to follow the Law. But they didn’t here the voice of John the Baptist. They didn’t heed John’s words to repent. They obeyed the word of the Law but did not live according to the meaning of the Law. Instead, John the Baptist converted the tax collectors and the prostitutes. They may have been sinners before but now they repented and returned to the Lord. They had said no but followed God’s wishes anyway. They accepted the teachings of John. Sadly, the chief priests were not swayed by the way these former sinners responded to John’s preaching. They did not accept what John had to say.
What does this passage mean to us. Well, in the first place, isn’t it a warning to organized churches? That is us but the way. We must be careful to always seek God. We should not think that simply coming to church on Sunday means that we are doing what God wants. We are to work in the vineyard outside of the church. And we must not think we are the only ones that have the answers for we might learn that there is a John the Baptist out there who is telling us to repent and return to the Lord.
The words of Jesus are also personal, something for each of us to consider. Have we said yes to Jesus but not done the work in God’s Kingdom. There are many ways to look at the work we are called to do but today I just ask you to consider what have we done for our neighbors.
Have any of you said that you wanted to help the victims of the hurricanes that have ravaged the US mainland and the Caribbean but haven’t yet done anything? Isn’t that just like the son who said yes but didn’t?
This weekend at Diocesan Convention the theme was ministering on the margins. It was a discussion about all those people who are on the edges of society, the ones who need help but often are not seen. We heard a powerful presentation from Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest who started Thistle farms, a place to help woman who were the victims of trafficking and abuse. We had the opportunity to hear about others such as the poor, the imprisoned and the racially marginalized, and others that we might not think about, the disabled, the chronically ill and members of the LGBTQ community.
Our congregation does reach out to some in these communities and I think it is wonderful. But how often do we sit down and listen to their stories? When have we sat with them, shared a meal and treated them as if they were equals? Perhaps we can help them to feel more a part of the community and perhaps we might learn something from these marginalized people.
Paul encouraged the people of Philippi to act this way. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Paul wants us to care for others and he believed that when we acted that way we were following in the ways of Jesus. He wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. Paul said it was all about love.
For me, today is about asking ourselves if we are following Jesus, if we are doing what Jesus did. It is more than saying we will be followers of Jesus. Yes, it is about talking the talk. It is also about walking the walk. Mother Theresa offered this, “Following Jesus is simple, but not easy. Love until it hurts, and then love more”. The gospel of John says it so clearly, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I invite you to join me as I work to live out my commitment to Jesus.
May we all do the work of God in the kingdom and share God’s love with everyone. Amen.
For those of you who love to drink wine, the last two weeks of gospel stories have been just for you. For they have been about the vineyard. Last week, the Father asked his two sons to go and work in the vineyard. One did and one did not. This week’s parable is about the bad tenants in the vineyard. Vineyards had a special significance to the people of Israel. Isaiah wrote that the vineyard is God’s place given for the people of Israel but they had not treated it with respect and care. A vineyard was a sign of God’s kingdom. A vineyard is a sign that God loves us and cares for us, a gift to us from God. A vineyard is a place we are called to do God’s work.
The story here is easy to interpret. The vineyard was taken over by the bad tenants and they did not respect the owner. They even rejected the owner's son. Jesus told the Jewish leaders that they would reject him just as they did many prophets before him. So others will be given the vineyard. It would be easy to dismiss this gospel because we are believers, we have accepted Jesus, not rejected him. But I find the message of this gospel to be about the fact that the vineyard belongs to God, this earth belongs to God and we are to care for it as God would want us to. So, our theme is about working in the vineyard. This week, I am focused on how hard it is to make a difference in God’s vineyard.
And I am saddened as I meditate about God’s vineyard. Sometimes as a Christian member of society I find myself uncertain about what to do and how I should be involved. I feel that way today as I consider all the events that have happened. On the other hand, I find myself consoled by God’s love for us all and I find hope in the promise that Jesus made to us.
I learned this week that a vineyard is a sign of stability for is takes at least three years and a significant investment before the grapes are ready to be harvested. You would only do that in a place where there is peace and tranquility. Don’t we all look for that place of peace and don’t we work to make this vineyard a place of comfort. For we wish to bring God’s kingdom to earth now. And yet, this week, bringing God’s kingdom here on earth seems so far away. My mind keeps coming back to the horrible mass shootings in Las Vegas. Why does it have to be so. It seems like we are so far from God’s peace on earth right now and so far from people behaving as if they were followers of Jesus right now. How do we care for God’s vineyard amongst so much tragedy and so much divisiveness?
We are devastated by the loss of life in Las Vegas. We grieve for those that died and their families. And we are fearful. We worry about whether we can be safe in large crowds, whether our life too might be snuffed out. And in the aftermath of the tragedy, we find ourselves divided. This week our arguments are about gun control. I wish I knew the answer about gun violence. You see, I grew up in a household without any guns. My uncle killed himself with a gun and my mother became deathly afraid of any gun. When my father served in the military, he wasn’t allowed to bring his service revolver into the house. So, guns never meant anything to me. And yet, I have had several friends to whom guns mean so much. I know how much it means for them to use their guns to go hunting. I know that they appreciate the chance to shoot their guns in practice. I know people who want their guns for safety. I even have gone skeet shooting and understand how careful the guns owners are about safety issues.
So, I am not here to take away guns from people. In fact, I believe it is impossible. There are well over 300 million guns in the United States and we have no chance to take all of those guns away from good people much less from bad people. So, I am just saddened. Where is the vineyard, God’s kingdom on earth?
This week, I spoke with a man who was in the service during the Vietnam war. He reminded me of the strife that existed between the blacks and the whites who served in Vietnam. And he told me that when he returned to the United States at the end of his tour of duty, he went to a bar in his uniform and was attacked by three men who jumped him even though he was not the cause of their angst. Perhaps our country is not as divided now as it was during the Vietnam War days. Still, when can we build God’s kingdom here on earth?
But in the midst of my sadness, I was lifted up as I heard the stories of the bravery, selflessness and care that folks had for others during and after that terrible 10 minutes in Las Vegas. I heard the story of the man who was killed as he covered his wife so that she would not be hurt. I watched the news story of the man who put the injured in his pick up truck and took them to a place where they could be helped. I know that people lined up and waited for hours to donate blood for victims. And I listened to a woman tell the story of leaving her post as a waitress and sitting with a man as he died in her arms. It was someone that she did not know. But she stayed with that man for four hours, sharing the sad news with his friends and relatives. She wanted to be with him until someone he knew could be there. I am sure that you have other incredible stories of people caring for others
So, in the midst of tragedy and division, there is hope. That is why I think it is so important to share our stories of kindness. I ask you to tell me of the times that people cared for one another so that we do not become callous. Let us not think the world is hopeless. Many people are out their showing that they are working in the vineyard seeking to bring God’s kingdom to earth. We can make the vineyard fruitful.
I was encouraged also this week as I thought about Saint Francis of Assisi. Today, we have the blessing of the animals in honor of Saint Francis whose feast day was Wednesday the fourth. As a young man, Francis tried serve as a military person and fought several battles but he ended up choosing a different way. Francis stopped serving in the military. He gave up his earthly wealth and all his goods to try to live a life of Christ. Today, we celebrate Francis for his love of and care for creation.
But it is not just these stories that cause us to understand Francis’ care for creation. Francis believed strongly in the relationship between humans and all other creatures. Francis seemed to have a special way of interacting with animals, just as we realize how important our pets are to us. Francis offered this comparison:
“If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
So, in honor of Francis and as encouragement for us to continue our efforts to bring God’s kingdom to earth, I ask you to join me in the prayer of Saint Francis. You can find it on page 833 of the Book of Common Prayer in your pews. It is prayer number 62.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Just the other day, I was with a group of friends from my college days. One of the organizers of the event asked me to offer a blessing before the meal. It is just one of the common things that happens to a priest. After the meal, I had someone come up to me and say, I guess we are different because I am an agnostic. I heard the statement as a challenge and my response was that I was not trying to convert him. After wards, I decided that I was not helpful. I thought it would have been better to say that we are not so different you know. For all of us at different times in our lives have questions about our beliefs and our faith. Once again, today’s scripture causes us to question one of our commonly held expectations. This time it is about fairness.
Our sense of fairness usually is tested when someone mistreats another human being or when something bad happens. There have been more than ten little children killed in swimming pool accidents in the Phoenix metropolitan area this year. It doesn’t seem fair. Many times it seems that the so-called bad people come out on top. It doesn’t seem fair. It might even become personal. I think I have done a lot of work but someone else is recognized and congratulated on their accomplishments and I am not. It isn’t fair.
And how about the questions we ask of God. Why did God let the hurricanes cause so much damage and kill so many people? Why did God let that earthquake kill so many people in Mexico? It doesn’t seem fair that humans experience such tragedy.
But today we must confront the issue from the other side for we are brought far to face with God’s compassion and generosity. In today’s parable, Jesus tells us that many people will be accepted into God’s kingdom. The reward will be the same for people who have been faithful for their entire life and those who only come to God during their last breath. The landlord in the parable asks two questions of the workers, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Can we take a few moments and deal with those two questions? Are we envious of others who are accepted by God? Do we struggle with God’s abundant mercy?
Ok, I know the answers because I have given them myself. Whenever someone says life isn’t fair, our immediate response is that’s right life isn’t fair. All of us have so many examples of times when life wasn’t fair that we just say, that is right life isn’t fair. But, don’t we still wish that is was? Don’t we still believe that it should be? I do. Debie Thomas writes for an online web magazine called Journey with Jesus. She wrote this “we know how the world is supposed to work. Time is money, and fair is fair. Equal pay for equal work is fair. Equal pay for unequal work is NOT fair.” I have the answers to that question as well. God’s ways are not our ways. We cannot understand how God works. Good answers. Let’s try to dig a little deeper.
Whenever I hear this story about the workers in the vineyard, I always imagine that I was one of the first workers in God’s kingdom. I have been a believer for my entire life. I say to myself that I have worked to follow God’s will in this world. I have tried to care for others. Yes, I sometimes think that God isn’t fair for having accepted those who have not been as faithful as I have been.
Perhaps it is helpful to ask why did some come to God so late? Debie Thomas wrote this about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard story and how it might apply in today’s world. “Why did some laborers end up unemployed until 5pm? The parable is very clear: because no one would hire them. Perhaps they weren’t as literate, educated, or skilled as their competition. Perhaps they had children to care for at home. Maybe they had transportation difficulties. Maybe they were disabled or didn’t have greencards or suffered discrimination. Whatever the case may be, the landowner doesn’t ask these laborers to defend themselves. He just makes sure that every worker ends the day with the dignity and security of a living wage — the capacity to go home that night and feed his family.”
Is it possible that some come to understand God later in their life for totally understandable reasons? Perhaps they had a learning disability or were not in a place where they heard God’s message. When we think like this it becomes harder and harder to judge them harshly.
It is so easy for our judgment to be clouded, to be biased because we don’t see the whole story. So, when I am judgmental about others, I realize that kind of thinking is just envy and envy is a sin. I realize that I am judging myself and judging others and that is not my job. Envy can make us bitter. Bitterness is not a good trait for anyone. I think it is hard to be non judgmental, it is hard to understand how God acts.
How about the possibility that we are really not the workers who came to the vineyard early but rather those who came late? While I think I have been faithful perhaps I have not. Then, wouldn’t I be excited to hear these words, to know that God is generous, that we will be included in those who are accepted into heaven in spite of what we have done?
I tried to find some examples of generosity that might help us understand God’s actions better. I am thinking of the ladies of our congregation who give so much for this congregation and for needy people in our community. I was thankful yesterday that they hosted another fabulous reception after the memorial service for Nanci Ahern. The food was plentiful. The ladies are hospitable and generous.
Or how about some financially successful business people who have become philanthropists. I thought of Bill Gates. A year ago Bloomberg reported Mr. Gates, to date, "has donated more than $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which so far has given away $35 billion in grants to fight hunger, disease and poverty”. Aug 22, 2016
In 2015 Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, announced that he and his wife would give 99 percent of their Facebook shares “during our lives” — holdings currently worth more than $45 billion — to charitable purposes. Dec 1, 2015
In 2006, Warren Buffett announced that he would gradually give away the majority of his fortune to charity, he wasn't kidding. In July of this year, the billionaire investor donated another 18.6 million Class B shares of Berkshire Hathaway worth $3.17 billion to five different foundations. That puts his total charitable contribution to the organizations at $27.54 billion in just over ten years.
Certainly this are great examples of generosity but they don’t seem comparable to what God does for each of us. For God gives us something that money cannot buy. God gives us eternal life.
Another important message that we can take away from this lesson is that none of us is worthy of God’s generosity. Or perhaps a better way to say it is all of us are worthy of God’s generosity.
In one of my scriptural commentaries I found this “God never gives any of us what we think is our due. God gives, not out of any real need for our services, but because the nature of God is love. And the nature of love is to be giving. 1st John has a verse that goes like this, “Not that we loved God but that God loved us.” For that we must be eternally thankful, for the Divine gift always exceeds anything we can do or imagine.”
You know when you really think about it, it is better that God is the one who makes the judgements. If we were the ones to decide we would probably make a mess of things. I think today is one of those times that we just accept God’s generosity and be thankful. Let us seek to avoid envy and bitterness. Let us just put the questions about fairness to the side. After all, Can’t God do what God wants with what belongs to God? Amen.