Susan Smth-Allen

Susan Smth-Allen

       The story in Scripture describing Creation divides our Lord’s process into 7 stages, designated as ‘days,’ in the narrative.   The marvelous thing is that as each stage, with it’s own amazing changes and additions to what was brought forth previously, EACH is considered, and affirmed by God, as “GOOD.”  That’s of course, good news for us, because somewhere during what is designated “the sixth day, our God spoke forth OUR antecedents, and in the incomprehensible LOVE and HOPE of our Creator, God affirmed creation as “… indeed, VERY GOOD!”   I think that’s why God is so   strongly present at the birth of a child – because God always has so very much hope for each and every one of us!  And we all experience the magnitude of God’s love in the manifold blessings we recognize in each of OUR lives, even in the midst of sad and troubling times.

       We now experience, each of us, in some ways, or perhaps, in many ways, grief, pain, fear of the violence and destruction of which we hear;  illness, death, deprivation, mild or severe, and perhaps MOST difficult, a sense of painful separation:  from one another, from those closest and most beloved; from our accustomed practices, certainly from our parish family and the active and beloved worship, study, interaction, AND the projects we so happily undertake in service to God and to one another.  Our beloved CHURCH is VERY much how we live our lives!  And we desperately MISS that, and long for the rapid return of “LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, before the covid 19 virus.  We fear for our children, and all those whom we love.  We applaud the integrity, the bravery, and the courage of those people whose daily life and livelihood expose them routinely to disease and danger.  We are AMAZED  at their steadfast faithfulness.   Truly, all these heroic souls MUST have internalized Christ’s promise in today’s Gospel to be with us ALWAYS! 

       And we, too, ought to hold that promise close to OUR hearts.  Consider the Creation story:  God examines every aspect of Creation and deems it good.  God is pleased – probably not necessarily with ALL that we do, but clearly with the potential, and the possibilities, with which God has endowed each one of us.  Think of the joy we have in each child  - not only in our own, but in each little one with whom we are associated.  If WE have such joy, how great, then, is God’s joy in each one of us, God’s own children?  God did NOT call forth Creation in order to condemn it! 

     When we contemplate the Creation in which we live, the infinite complexity, the immeasurable and incomprehensible creation of which we are a tiny part, how could we imagine that our Lord, who brought forth all this, infinite in detail and design, did so, simply to destroy?  Did not our Lord Christ remind us that in the Temple, two tiny birds of small size and insignificant value, perhaps two for a penny, were known infinitely and intimately by our Creator.  Would such a Creator create only to destroy?   

     Our problems, our troubles, do not stem from God.  Creation has long endured war, disease, famine, destruction and disaster.  Much of human grief comes from humanity.  Jesus warned us of this, and indeed, Jesus suffered from it. We are horrified by the reports of violence and death humans inflict upon one another. And we grieve for both victim and also for those whose brokenness leads them to violence.   And yet, millennia after millennia, creation endures, by the grace of God, despite humanity. I always learn from my parishioners.  One young man came up after a service and said, “Pastor, the whole trouble is ‘that free-will thing, isn’t it?”  “Looks like it to me, buddy.”  Then in another parish, a sweet, gentle soul, whom I later learned was in her mid-late 80’s, stopped after the service, and said, “Pastor Susan, I think all the troubles we have come down to human greed, don’t you think?”  “Yes, Ma’am. I do believe so.” 

     God did not build destruction into creation, God built amazing love, joy, beauty, substance, goodness, grace and plenty for all creation. “Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the world,” says Jesus.  That’s really all we need to know.  That alone will allow us to set aside fear, and to recall that Jesus gave us marching orders.  “Go, people, teach every one you encounter ALL that I have taught you. Baptize them, send them out also, and remind them that I am with each one of you always and forever. 

     Last week the readings for morning prayer included a passage from Matthew’s Gospel as well.   In that passage Jesus has encountered a pair of demoniacs, who have terrorized the country side, and people could not come near them.  But the resident contingent of demons instantly recognized Christ, and first complained that Jesus’ presence was earlier than originally scheduled.  The demons evidently thought they therefore had leverage, so they asked that they be cast into a herd of swine, as opposed to being cast into outer darkness.  Jesus obliged, and the swine and tag-along demons went off into the deep water and were drowned. Teaching moment: Gotta watch what ya ask for.  Next, the swine-herders, run into the nearby town, tell the story, and the entire village comes out to run Jesus off!  This passage has always STUNNED me!  Let’s see, now.  So the Lord and Creator of all that is, was, and is yet to be, has just run off a whole gang of truly dangerous wicked, evil critters.  Thanks to Jesus, these bad-actors are well and truly GONE! So, where is the band?  Where is the cheering crowd and the ubiquitous ticker-tape parade?  What are WE to conclude from this?  Could this entire village actually prefer the demons they know, to the hitherto unseen Holy One?  The Most High? Okay, so they don’t know that Jesus has come to redeem creation, some of which knows full well it’s need of redemption, some of which clearly failed to grasp the concept.  But it appears these folks are choosing a known evil over God’s call to abundantlife in GOD’S constant presence.  Sometimes I think, as a species, we’re ALL wacked. 

       BUT Our Creator calls us GOOD, and calls all creation GOOD. A Creator of LOVE, HOPE, and BLESSING, NOT destruction! A Creator to see us through Covid-19, through all the grief, pain, hunger, AND our longing for the restoration of our parish family life.  {although I still believe that if we would outfit the whole parish family in hazmat suits, we could resume our joyous parish family interaction.}  Our God LOVES us, folks!  GOD thinks we’re worthwhile!  And God will get us through WHATEVER comes up.  We KNOW GOD WINS!  And when God wins, so do we!  THANKS BE TO GOD!

 

To the glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Amen.

After I, much to the surprise of many, graduated from Seminary, I served two churches in California. While serving at St. Stephens, the Rector and music director decided to research buying a new electronic organ.  So one morning the three of us set out to Mission Delores in San Francisco, a wonderful place to visit.  Shortly after stepping into the sanctuary I realized the whole place was full of angels.  I was so delighted I laughed aloud.

Now these were not Angels one could see.  I have many such angels of that type in my home because I have always loved the concept of angels and it delights my heart to see those little man-made constructs I have all around my place, but the angels at Mission Delores were very real, just not visible, but nonetheless quite tangible.

Ultimately, as I recall, the decision was made to purchase the new organ.  But my whole mind was full of the contemplation of those angels that had made their presence felt, if not seen, and I have even as a child been sure that whenever creation gathers to worship the Creator there are always Angels present, for God created angels for the glory of God. The amazing thing about that is God created us for the very same thing - to glorify God. The difference, of course, is we have free will and we don't always use it to the glory of God.  But we COULD!  We could.

Another event occurred during those years in California: the 15th anniversary of the election of the Right Reverend Bill Swing as Bishop of the Diocese of California.  The commemoration extended over a fairly long period of time and gave me an opportunity to learn of the truly amazing ways in which his grace had chosen to glorify the Lord our God.

The parishes of the diocese were thriving and involved in Outreach Ministry, as is Transfiguration.  The diocese had become, both as individuals and corporately, deeply involved in ministry to the poor, the outcast and the disenfranchised.  One day in conversation with the bishop, I said to him “You have done amazing things in this diocese in the way you have expanded Outreach among those for whom our Lord Christ has special concern.”

And I have not nor will I ever forget his response.  He looked at me, smiled and said “I have not done anything. I'm just the cheerleader.”   That's how one Bishop heard and responded to our universal call in creation to glorify the Lord our God.

We can all choose to be such cheerleaders, and thereby glorify our Lord!  Scripture, as you know, speaks of the “priesthood of all believers” and it is indeed that to which all we are called. We glorify God as we minister to one another, and to all of those we encounter in our lives. In fact, I am certain that it is the one-on-one individual ministry that is most effective against the injustice, deprivation and oppression that plagues so many of our own brothers and sisters.

It is a glorious and righteous thing when we provide well over a million meals to our hungry neighbors, but truly it's not about the numbers or the scope of program. But rather it's about the depth of our love for the Lord, Our God, and for one another.  We cannot truly love, except that God helps us to do so.  Just as truly we cannot glorify our beloved Lord unless God gives to us the grace, the wisdom and the courage to do that.

As Jesus prepared himself to face his crucifixion he tells his disciples that he has a new commandment to give them:  They were to “love one another as he, the Incarnation of the Living God, had loved them.”  And those disciples were to learn all too soon just exactly what Jesus meant by loving.

And it is that command that we love one another with the depth of love Christ has for all creation that resounds throughout eternity.  It is that love which we, as the priesthood of all believers, are called in our creation so that we may live our lives to the glory of God as our Lord has created us to do.  A command not new but eternal.

Both of the Psalms in today's readings begin and end with hallelujah! Praise to God!  And that is indeed a fine place to start and end our worship and our lives.  The two psalms called for God's praise in song with a great variety of instruments and to praise God with dance.  The rector will lead that!

All living creatures are called to praise God and to praise joyfully in our homes, and publicly and in private. Most of all the Psalms imply that we will praise God in the synagogue, temple, church, mosque or wherever we gather to worship.  And right now, we, like much of the world, cannot do that. So we improvise, our hearts longing for our accustomed worship and for the companionship of our beloved Parish family.  And yet our God not only understands, God still assists us to love, to have our faith and to live our worship of our Lord.

Some folks will tell you that God has sent this horrible pandemic to chasen and chastise us.  But though the song speaks of vengeance I don't think God does vengeance but calls to us still, sometimes with persuasion, sometimes with consequences.

Perhaps we know we are being called to acknowledge that God's commands are not those of an arbitrary and autocratic ruler, but rather the guidance and teaching of a loving creator.  Perhaps we are being reminded by our Lord God that we are called to be stewards of creation rather than abusers.  Perhaps as members of the priesthood of believers we are called to be faithful in our understanding that all people and creatures are God's own beloved, as are we!  Perhaps we need to hold that faithful understanding and learn to treat each other accordingly!  Truly no matter what transpires for us our God still loves all creation including us and God will never leave us. We have Christ's own promise on that.

So now I want to tell you my newest favorite story about seeing our beloved Lord God as viewed by some of God's own.  My son Philip shared this with me yesterday. It seemed he had an errand to run and he took with him six-year-old Benjamin and four-year-old Brynleigh on the way into town. They passed a cemetery.

The children, being full of questions, wanted to stop and walk around and look.  So on the way home they stopped.  Philip endeavors to answer all questions in ways that would be relevant to the children.  And, thus, the explanations, as they walked along included the names of some relatives and their titles. Some were living and some had gone to glory such as grandma so-and-so, uncle this, aunt that, cousin whatever.  You get the idea.

Finally, Benjamin wanted to confirm his understanding of what his dad had said which is his usual practice. Daddy says when people die then God collects them. I love that God collects them and takes them to heaven.  What do they do then?  Come on Phillip. We're waiting for that answer. Philip still being relevant for the kids says well then son people get to hang out with God and each other.

Now Benjamin gives that some thought.  Then he says well Daddy, do we all have to wear clothes? Phillip suggested that he could probably wear his favorite John Deere shirt.  Now I confess to you my friends I have no idea whatsoever about the Heavenly dress code.  But whatever it is I know that God still loves us and no matter what pandemics, heavenly people collections, improvised worship and/or paper shortages, the Lord Our God has got this and so we all are fine.

Thanks be to God.

Sermon given by Rev. Susan Smith-Allen

In the last few weeks the Hebrew Scripture readings have been from the writing of the prophet Jeremiah, and we understand that the time period in which he wrote was disastrous for the people of God. And by now, we also know why the book following that of the prophet Jeremiah, which is called Lamentations, was previously attributed to Jeremiah. Jeremiah raises lamentation to an art form! He clearly saw how things were going, not to mention knowing why, and Jeremiah is genuinely grieved for his people. Nevertheless, Jeremiah’s faith in God is absolute, for not only does he hold out hope to his people – without excusing their contribution to their own difficulties - Jeremiah continues to articulate God’s anguish with his peoples’ situation, clearly seeing that all this disaster would have been avoided had the chosen people remembered their covenant relationship with the Lord our God.  And Jeremiah expresses our Lord’s grief for His people! “Is her King not with her?” “Is the Lord not in Zion” WE hear the anguished Creator saying to the children, “Have I taught you NOTHING?”

And then in the Psalm, we hear the despairing response of the people of Zion: “Look at what they did to us, O LORD, our homeland is a wreak! How long will You be angry?” And then, they beg God to get those heathen, essentially claiming that our Lord should remember HIS covenant with them, while evidently conveniently forgetting that they, too, had some covenant obligation! Faced with the consequences of their own choices, they have chosen to ignore the concept of relationship inherent in the term ‘covenant.’   Does this not seem vaguely familiar??? Have all we, throughout history, at one time or another, wanted our relationship with our God to be rather one-sided – to our benefit?  And then we hear the very touching, “Remember not our past sins, let Your compassion be swift, for we are brought very low!” My kids report that some of my granddaughters, faced with evidence of some minor infraction, have claimed that “I shouldn’t be punished because I’m cute and you love me!” Sounds like those ancient Hebrews – “they is us! Maybe what works for grandchildren works with God. . .!

And then we are relieved to hear the Epistle from 1st Timothy, calling us to prayer. Authorship of this Epistle may be unclear but it is certainly consistent with Paul’s theology. In any case, whoever wrote it, has issued a sincere and moving call to prayer. Hopefully WE are led to think of our prayer vigil next week, and sign-up to participate. How wonderful that we are called to “Offer supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings…for everyone, that we may led a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. Now THAT’S appealing! And the only way we get to quiet and peaceable is with God. Some of us may be like me, a wee bit shy on the godliness, and the dignity, but prayer is NEVER wasted.

At Bible Study last Wednesday we had fun with the claim to innocence in the Epistle – (I am telling the truth, I am not lying.) Ya just Gotta wonder why the territory needed defending.         And then, of course, we get to the Gospel. This Gospel has always bothered me, for I just could not imagine our Lord advising the people of God to “make friends for themselves by means of dishonest wealth.” I find this whole passage INTENSE. Jesus sets the scene in three short sentences, we understand the dishonest manager’s situation, and then Jesus describes the manager’s scheme for survival quite clearly. NOW, we’re amazed when Jesus says the landowner commends the thieving manager for his cleverness. But we’ve indicted him for thievery! Jesus notes that the master says this, because “the children of this age are better at dealing with their contemporaries than are the Children of Light,” whom we understand to be the followers of Christ. Like us! We are reminded of Matthew 10:16, wherein Jesus says to the disciples that He is sending them out amidst wolves, so they should be, “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Then, Jesus continues with that surprising recommendation to His disciples that they, too, “make friends by means of dishonest wealth.” But that’s not all Jesus has to say! Jesus then reiterates some of the things He has said previously and will say again. But we are puzzled when our Lord suggests that the reason we ‘go and do likewise is because we will need such dishonestly gained friendships, not only in our lives here, but also in the ‘eternal homes,’ which we take to be heaven with our God. Not helping! This simply adds to the puzzle. Jesus follows with the observation that those who are honest in small things will be honest in major situations, and the converse is also true, that if we are dishonest in small ways, we will doubtless be dishonest in large ways. So, says Jesus, IF one is not faithful with ill-gotten gain, who’s going to trust that person with true riches? Remember that we are urged to store up treasure in heaven, as opposed to earthly wealth. In other words, we devote our time and effort to living according to God’s instruction, as opposed to making ourselves wealthy at the expense of others. This passage ends with Jesus’ observation that one cannot serve two masters, for one or the other will be shortchanged.   And in the Bible Study, we were certain of two things: God is NOT recommending dishonesty, and if we could just work this out, we’d realize that while we don’t always know what our God is saying OR doing, we do know it’s right. And it seems to me that we can draw two things from this Gospel. The first is a bit like Pascal’s Wager. If we choose to deal honestly in all things, no matter with whom we deal, we will be ahead, having chosen the better way. And the second is, our God is completely aware of what it is to live in our world, among those who neither know nor care about the precepts by which we as Christians choose to live, and that if we are to survive such a world, we must be as shrewd and worldly-wise as the wolves and serpents among whom, and with whom, we live and work; and yet honour our obligation to God as well as maintain our integrity, as does an innocent bird who doesn’t try to be what it is not. In any case, we enjoy the relief of knowing that our God loves us, provides us with what we need to live, including wisdom. Our God understands us and knows our desire to live righteously while we live and work in conditions and situations not conducive to honour and integrity. And the best thing is, in all of this, we KNOW through Jesus’ odd conversation with his homies, that our God CONTINUES to accept, love, and receive us. There IS a Balm in Gilead!   God bless us, everyone!    

THANKS BE TO GOD!

Like many folks, I truly love classical music, especially Baroque.  So I have the PBS Classical Music Station on a great deal of the time, and always in the car – probably to the annoyance of whichever poor soul is riding with me – and my secret hope is that this stunningly gorgeous music will somehow eventually render me at least quasi-sane.  Hope springs eternal. . .   I do sometimes wonder whether there’s any significance to the cat’s apparent enjoyment of the music.

Anyway, the station has just wound up one of their fund drives, and I notice they frequently appeal for what they refer to as ‘sustaining members.’   This, of course, means folks who arrange for a monthly sum to be drawn from their account.  I agree that this is reasonable, especially as they do not sell advertising time on their air space, and provide, in addition to the glorious music, considerable community information.  But still, I began to contemplate that word ‘sustaining.’

A form of the word ‘sustain,’ sustaining has some critical connotations for most of us, particularly given its connection to the word ‘survive.’  All God’s critters, in addition to having a place in the choir, require, at various intervals, sustenance.  After parents have exhausted themselves providing the necessary sustenance for us  to survive, we generally venture out the door to endeavour to supply ourselves with whatever we deem necessary for our continued survival; and generally, with considerably more than what would literally be requisite for the continuing maintenance of human life.  There is, however, far more necessary for living a life that could be termed ‘truly human’ than what we can obtain for ourselves.

If, and when we eventually realize that God is the Ultimate Creator and Sustainer of all living beings, we see that God richly provides for creation.  And we, in addition to being amazed at our great good fortune, realize that so much of what enhances our lives is not of our own provision, and we respond to our God with thanksgiving.  As our perception of what God has done for us, not only in terms of eternal survival, but in terms of the incalculable richness of our daily experience, intensifies, our gratitude expands, and we seek more effective ways of saying “Thanks be to God!”  We recognize that our survival is a multi-dimensional reality,  We see that we have been benefited by more than our own efforts, and that this has been true from before our birth.  Our sense of gratitude begins to expand, as does love, exponentially.   Now we contemplate an appropriate response to the Lord our God.

When a friend sends flowers, or takes us to dinner, or proffers to us any of the myriad of kindnesses that people extend to one another, we respond.  We seek to ‘return the favour. ‘ But God doesn’t need any meals bought or carried in, our God provides food.  God doesn’t need flowers, God invented them.  Sometimes we are moved to say to a benefactor, “you’ve saved my life!”  God saves us on an all-encompassing basis; and as for our lives, God has created all life, and gifted us with our lives.  So what is to be our response to this Creator Who gives AND sustains life?

Our Lord Christ, Incarnation of the Living God, provides an answer in the Gospel according to Matthew, 25:40.  It seems that  whatever kindness we extend to all living creatures, in an attempt to thank God for all God’s incomprehensible goodness to us, God accepts as having been done for God’s Own Self.  So might it not be that God, in providing so amazingly well for us, desires that our thanksgiving to God would take the shape of emulating God’s goodness and care for us, and thanking God by offering to other folks what God has given us.  “All things come of Thee, oh God, and of thine own have we given Thee.”  What an amazing privilege is ours, yet one more example of God’s great provision for us,

 

         

 

        Sometimes we wonder what brought the Lectionary readings together, but the readings for today are almost an ‘embarrassment of riches.’ Nonetheless, we customarily find that people who preach involve themselves in research, sometimes with no result.   Having nothing whatsoever to do with the sermon, few days ago I read of a study, (published by a respectable source,) which indicated that two hours after eating a bar of dark chocolate, the adults involved experienced much sharper, clearer vision. Imagine – chocolate for medicinal purposes! However, I’ve found I can get the same good results, without the two hour wait, by simply cleaning my glasses. Thus I think we’re wise to approach research with some reservations. Scholars and academicians have evidently agreed to disagree, and the study of scripture is no exception.

         In the Hebrew Scripture for today, God calls Jeremiah to be a   prophet. Jeremiah tries to beg off. Says he’s just a child, what does he know, and The Lord surely has better candidates for prophetic ministry somewhere in Israel. God’s not buying this, and God tells Jeremiah to hush, touches Jeremiah on the mouth, and explains that Jeremiah is not going out alone, God will be a constant presence, and God’s words will be in Jeremiah’s mouth.   Now there’s an endorsement! God must really love Jeremiah. God promises to be for Jeremiah what the psalmist says God IS – a castle, a stronghold, to keep him safe. Betcha we, too, can claim that promise. God will be with us, a castle to keep us safe, whatever the difficulty into which we’ve gotten ourselves. We have to ask, & expect.

         And then that glorious reading from Corinthians. Almost every wedding for which I officiated included that reading. But Paul’s assessment of the worth and efficacy of love far exceeds it’s application in marriage. We are called into this generosity of love in every aspect of our daily lives. This reading, for me, stands as an heuristic, or interpretive, lens for our understanding of God’s love. Consider:

         Are we not, as adults, keenly aware that all we might achieve or accomplish, or consider ourselves to be, is nothing if not accompanied by love? While we lived on our farm, we attended a little country church called: Prairie Chapel Methodist Mt. Olivet Presbyterian Church! As you might imagine, we were blessed with two pastors AND two organists. Both the pastors were college professors, and excellent scholars. But one delivered factual academic sermons, and one delivered a kind and loving call to God’s loving relationship with us, the children of God. One of the organists was a professional concert musician,. She was mechanically perfect. The other had provided the church with music filled with the love of God for all her adult life. We heard the love.   Think we can agree with Paul – without love in all we do, we’re basically spinning our wheels.

         Love is such a complex concept. It sometimes catches us by surprise, it puzzles us, it vexes us. Love sustains us. We cannot survive without it, and yet, Love requires a great deal from us. Look at the descriptive lexicon in Corinthians: Love is patient, kind, NOT envious, boastful, rude, or arrogant, NOT demanding, irritable, or resentful. Ever held up the recollection of your day’s interaction with the people in your life to this criteria? I find that if and when I do, I fall very short.  

         Love rejoices in truth, believes, hopes, and endures Love never ends. But with us, sometimes love does end. Pretty sure we don’t completely understand love. But God’s love never ends, never fails us.

         The reading from Corinthians ends with the familiar and beloved quote: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” But We can love this way ONLY thru God’s grace.

Today’s Gospel continues where we left off last week. The reaction of Jesus’ hometown folks confuses us. Scripture says, “All spoke well of Him, and were amazed the gracious words that fell out of His mouth.” Probably about as amazed as the “Temple Elders” were at the 12 year-old Jesus Who alarmed His parents by hanging back to chat with the Temple Establishment. But the hometown folks weren’t so happy with everything that Jesus said, because they become so irritated with Him that they “led Him to the top of a cliff” with the intent to throw Him off. Jesus declines to accept this opportunity, and simply walks away. Why were they so angry?   In the Gospel of Matthew, Chpt. 8:28, Jesus, upon His arrival in the country, encounters what Matthew calls “two demoniacs, who lived in the tombs. They were so out of control that people were afraid to approach the tombs outside town. So Jesus sends the demons, at the demon’s request, into a herd of pigs, which runs down into the sea, and drowns. The result of this is that the townspeople, now rid of this evil which dwelt in their midst, come out and beg Jesus to leave the area. What? Are we a species that prefers the evil with which we are familiar to the redemption and restoration that the Incarnation of the Living God so lovingly offers to us? This is why I suggest that we view our reading from Corinthians as a means of interpreting and understanding Scripture as teaching God’s version of love.   In creation, God commits Godself to us. To loving us in spite of ourselves. To loving us as I Corinthians describes love. And God’s commitment is all-encompassing. Sometimes I worry that God might be tired of my constant dependence, and my sometimes stream-of-consciousness-prayer. But then i remember. God embodies love, and commitment, in ways far beyond our understanding or capability. God loves us with a crazy extravagance we can’t even imagine. Corinthians stands as both an inspiration and aspiration for us. A model, if you will, as is our Lord Christ.   So when God calls us to do whatever God has for us, God will enable us as God did Jeremiah, AND all the prophets, AND all the apostles. This is Because, “Now faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.” God’s endless and incomprehensible love.               THANKS BE TO GOD!