My Sermon of Nov 6 2022, All Saints Sunday at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question: “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.” Luke 20:27-38
It’s our Sunday to celebrate All Saints! And we do all have saints in our lives don’t we? We have the capital S Saints who in generations past left legacies, teaching and examples for us to follow. And we all the lowercase s saints, too! They’re the folks in our own lives who may never have a feast day on the church calendar, but who made us who we are. Those saints often raised us as children and grandchildren, they taught us to pray, they sat with us through the hard storms of life, and they are ones who always had a helping hand and open heart to us in all things.
Thinking about saints…
Take a few minutes to think about those saints of your life, especially those who have passed on. Think of a time in life like going to college, being newly wed, welcoming a child into the world or your life, losing a job, making a major move in life… who was there to be a blessing to you in that time? Do you remember someone teaching you to pray, or someone in whose life you could see that faith just made sense and inspired you? Taking time to think about those saints can help us overcome problems in life today by reminding us of what they taught and showed us, and by reminding us that life is much, much bigger than just this moment.
And, here’s something fun to try, Google “Saints on <your birthday>” and see who comes up. You could have several, recognized by different church traditions. See what they are known for and if there’s anything in their stories to inspire you. See if there’s a spiritual friend out there you didn’t even know you had, but who has a gift to offer in your life!
That poor woman!
Our readings today point us to our connectedness, with one another and God, and the hope and strength of that connectedness. Our Gospel reading takes us to a day when Jesus is confronted by a group of religious leaders who denied the immortality of the soul and the idea of resurrection, and therefore denied our connection with one another after death. Life for them is only here and now, and then ended. Now scripturally, they held this belief because they only relied only on the Torah and concepts therein, but when they challenged Jesus, they did so with a puzzle, a hypothetical gotcha question. We read it, and it went like this… a childless woman by a weird quirk of fate is married in succession to seven brothers in hopes of a child. If there’s life after death, what a mess! So, there must not be a life after this one, right?
Now, hypothetical situations are usually extreme and have little to do with everyday life, or experience, but the premise of this question does have at least a basis in Jewish scripture. In Deuteronomy 25, there is a time when a brother of a deceased man is told to bear at least one child by his brother’s widow to keep that man’s name alive among the people. There’s no mention of an ever-cascading chain of obligation and there’s only two examples of this idea in scripture, three if you count an instance in the apocryphal writings (which could even be the basis of this gotcha question). In Genesis 38 Judah tells his son Onan to do this for his brother Er’s widow, and he refuses. In Ruth 4 Boaz explains that his marriage to Ruth will include this type of thing for her past husband, though not from a brotherly duty. This doesn’t seem to be super common, but who’s willing to let real life get in the way of a good gotcha question, right? And I bet I can answer their question for that poor woman about whose wife she’ll be! I bet she would say “Nobody’s wife! For Pete’s sake! No more, please!”
The answer from Jesus is to the point, and to paraphrase it: “The question has nothing to do with the reality of the living God or our faith.” Jesus fully asserts the immortality of the soul and reality of the resurrection while denying that we’re going to be at all subject to the needs and traditions of this life after it. It is another existence all together, in which there is no death and we are with one another and the living God.
And that is something which St. Paul wants to make sure that the church in Thessalonica knows and doesn’t forget… as rough as things seem in this life, even when we are separated for a bit, our time of being gathered back together is coming. In worship today we read verses along this idea from 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 and 13-17, but you may be even more familiar with similar words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
All Saints Day is not only a day in which we recall those who have been so meaningful to us and such a blessing for us, but are also reminded that we’re not done with each other! Our connectedness and life together in God goes on, and we will be gathered together again.
We close this time together remembering the saints of our lives with a prayer slightly adapted from the Book of Common Prayer, pg. 838
“We give thanks to you, O Lord our God, for all your servants and witnesses of time past: for Abraham, the father of believers, and Sarah his wife; for Moses, the lawgiver, and Aaron, the priest; for Miriam and Joshua, Deborah and Gideon, and Samuel with Hannah his mother; for Isaiah and all the prophets; for Mary, the mother of our Lord; for Peter and Paul and all the apostles; for Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdalene; for Stephen, the first martyr, and all the martyrs and saints in every age and in every land. And for those saints who have passed the faith to us, supported us, taught us to pray and loved us, we thank you; especially for those we wait to see again, we thank you. In your mercy, O Lord our God, give us, as you gave to them, the hope of salvation and the promise of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, the first-born of many from the dead.
Amen. Amen and Amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
This is the text of my October 16th, 2022, sermon on justice based in Micah 6:6-8.
October has been a bit different for us, as you’ve probably noticed. We’ve not used the usual lectionary readings for each Sunday as the first two weeks were Homecoming and then Samaritan Ministries, and now we have another special emphasis for the remaining three Sundays of the month. We’re going to be joining a Diocesan initiative to focus on that amazing passage we read back on Oct. 3rd, Micah 6:6-8
“What shall I bring when I come before YHWH, and bow down before God on high?” you ask. “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With year-old calves? Will YHWH be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings — the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.
Micah 6:6-8 Priests for Equality. The Inclusive Bible (p. 1096). Sheed & Ward. Kindle Edition.
This diocesan initiative would remind us of the centrality of God’s call to us, God’s intention for us, to Be Just, to Be Kind and to Be Humble.
This short passage is one of those amazing passages that comes along in our scriptures and captures our energy and imagination by so eloquently summarizing and encapsulating big ideas in a simpler expression. Let’s run through a quick reminder of who Micah was… Micah was one of twelve of what we call the minor prophets, a Judean prophet who in the style of Isaiah is proclaiming both the coming punishment for the people’s disregard of God’s law, and the restoration which comes after the punishment. These two things alternate back and forth in the text, consequences and restoration. But, what were the sins or the transgressions of the people?
- Chapter 1 mentions their idolatry.
- In chapter 2 it’s their theft of land and oppression of neighbors.
- In chapter 3 they are ignorant of justice and the way justice should work for people, and instead their judges take bribes and their priests and prophets extort money.
Chapters 4 and 5 speak mostly of the coming restoration and hope found in turning back to God in obedience. And you’re probably familiar with a verse from chapter 5, 5:2… “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” We hear in it a clear reference to Christ.
When we arrive at chapter 6 God is speaking to the people, asking for their response. And here we have sort of a rhetorical question from the prophet, “What should we do?” We might even hear the question, “What is it God really wants from us?” Do we need to bring sacrifices and burnt offerings? What does God really want? And the answer is given… “Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what ‘good’ is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.”
The rest of Micah’s writing, the rest of chapter 6 and chapter 7 gives one more final round of the people’s offenses like cheating in business, violence, dishonesty, plotting against neighbors and perverting justice with bribes, with the appropriate punishment and then eventual restoration.
Spending time in Micah’s writing highlights the importance of justice that comes up in so many scriptural passages, especially from the prophets. Justice was the will of God and the expectation of God for the lives of people and their society. Justice was the bedrock, the foundation of loving neighbors, caring for the poor and safeguarding the most vulnerable. We often miss it because of the tradition of translators to interpret and translate words differently in version to version in English and from passage to passage, but the Christians ethicists Stassen and Gushee remind us in their book on Kingdom Ethics that the four words for justice in Hebrew and Greek appear across scripture some 1060 times. They contrast this against the main words for sexual sin which appear about 90 times. Because we’ve so often translated those words for justice to righteousness or judgment we’ve made it very possible to miss God’s insistence on justice, on just practices in personal and social life.
We tend to think of justice, it seems to me, in terms of action and consequences, mostly just crime and punishment. That’s been true for my life. We also think of justice specifically in context of the major civil rights movements in our nation’s history and the ongoing work to repair and correct the chronic injustices of our social, political, economic and legal systems. In God’s kingdom, in God’s economy and way of ordering the world, justice does include those movements, and also things like honesty, truthfulness, mercy, hospitality, welcome and mutuality.
Just a quick reminder and overview of what this kind of just living looks like:
1) fields are not harvested for every scrap of produce so that the poor can come and glean the edges (Leviticus 19),
2) the dishonesty of false witness against a neighbor is condemned (Exodus 20),
3) strangers and those immigrating among the people are to be treated as fellow citizens of the nation (Exodus 22)…
When we see God’s intention for our lives and hear the lists of accusations brought against the people by the prophets, we see that this is all about mutuality, seeing ourselves in others until there are no more others, but simply us. Justice is a way of living that welcomes, blesses and upholds our neighbors.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Letter from Birmingham, Alabama jail, April 16, 1963
Time and again the prophets illustrate God’s anger for people leaving the path of justice, abusing their neighbors and for their dishonest practices, for tearing and destroying that weave of mutuality of which Rev. King wrote. The people have been inhospitable to strangers, neglected the poor and the disenfranchised, and they often have done those things while maintaining a religious front, performing sacrifices and keeping feasts. It’s the situation in Isaiah 58 when God has had enough and is furious about those abuses of justice.
I believe that we’d be fully accurate to define justice as the upholding of human dignity. Justice is the truth of people’s worth and the honest action and speech to honor and uphold it.
And this understanding of justice is not confined to the Jewish scriptures but also all over our New Testament! John the Baptizer’s teachings center on sharing equitably and not cheating or extorting one another. (Luke 3) Jesus taught us the same kind of justice in keeping promises and covenants (Matthew 5), forgiving as we are forgiven (Matthew 6), being the neighbor to those in need (Luke 10), and the intrinsic honesty of our yes meaning yes. (Matthew 5) Jesus condemned the Pharisees and religious elite for choosing to major in the minors, paying so much attention to traditions and rules while ignoring the most important matters of justice, mercy and faith. (Matthew 23)
Justice is central to the will and desire of God for us, and we must own the admonition to do justice, to be just… that is to be honest, true, merciful, aware of the most vulnerable and committed to the common good, and to uphold one another’s dignity and value. We do this with our words and our actions, in our business dealings and our relationships. We make it our goal to promote justice in our society, voting for those who will be just and uphold our neighbors. We demand it of our leaders even as we cultivate it in ourselves. We do this in our communities, like our parish family, sharing life with honesty, mutual concern and care, welcoming one another and the stranger.
Justice as we are taught it in God’s kingdom is what we demand and what we deliver. May God give each of us the courage and strength to uphold our neighbors, to safeguard their dignity and in all honesty and joy take our place in that beautiful woven garment of mutuality. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
These are notes from my welcome and sermon of Sept. 5, 2021, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in DC. I’ve included the Gospel reading for the day and the James text from the lessons. The service can be found on Facebook.
Good morning, family, it is good to be together, even digitally! David in Psalm 133 sings about “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.” What does that oil on the head and beard stuff mean for us? I believe it reminds us that is a deep blessing for us when we gather and choose to love one another and be one family… it’s like feeling good, and looking good, it’s refreshing like a new day with dew on the ground… it’s where we find God’s blessings waiting for us, where we find life! So as we gather to worship and look into the scriptures and to love one another, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. Let us worship our God!
Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
I am humbled and thrilled to be with you on this our first Sunday together and the end of this time of transition for me and for St. Timothy’s! The transition is done, but we most certainly are not! The transition is done, the search is done, and we have found each other, and we are far from done. I am thrilled and humbled to be joining you on the mission to follow Jesus by living in love, walking by faith and serving our community… these things are completely relevant and needed today: love, faith and service… living life, walking and moving forward, and seeking, making and expressing community.
I’m going to say it again, our transition is done, but we are not. And I hope you just scared your pets at home shouting amen! I capture such a spark of hope and promise in the Psalmist’s words which we used in opening our time together this morning, that by coming together, loving one another, unifying in our mission, in being kindred, we find God’s richest blessings, we find life. I feel that hope and that promise even when things can also feel a bit overwhelming, confusing, or just not quite like we expected. There’s so much to do, so much to learn of one another and so much to discover of our shared ministry together… it’s ok when things still feel a little wobbly and uncertain, because what we can count on is Jesus moving through it all, meeting us here and healing and us making whole.
The Gospel reading today is an interesting couple of short vignettes, a couple of short stories which vividly illustrate that times don’t always go as planned and can feel a bit uncertain and even derailed. Did you notice how the first story began? Jesus was trying to hide! He needed some time to recharge and just wanted to escape the people for a little while. We can relate to that can’t we? We can also probably relate to it not working at all. He’s found anyway, and then the story doesn’t really flow like we have come to expect these stories with Jesus to flow. We don’t expect Jesus to react as he does in this story, do we? I mean this is the Jesus who sat with the Samaritan woman at the well, who healed ten lepers and praised the one, a foreigner to Israel, who returned to give him thanks. This is the Jesus who opens the Good News to the Gentile non-Jewish world! But in this story he challenges the outsider’s right to his attention. What?
And it goes on… in the second story, after healing a man’s deafness and speech impediment saying “be opened”, Jesus turns and orders them all to keep it quiet. But what happens? That’s right, the scriptures say that, “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” The best laid plans can get a bit wobbly, even for Jesus.
If anything, these two stories show us how the best laid plans can go in ways least expected, but always there is Jesus making things whole. When the path is long, when the path is hard, and when the path may not yet be known, always there is Jesus making things whole, healing the woman’s child, curing the man’s ailments, and I believe moving forward with us as we live in love, walk in faith and serve our community. I can’t tell you that I know exactly why Jesus chose to challenge this woman’s faith, why he challenged her right to make a request, but we can’t miss the fact that Jesus is there healing and making the child whole. This story also appears in Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus really highlights her not being Jewish, but also openly praises her faith. And in the second story we have Jesus healing and hushing, which he does a lot in the Gospels. We may assume that he does it to be able to move about more freely, and that makes sense. But the thing we know for sure is that he is in the middle of the action, as usual, making someone whole. We have much ahead of us, a lot to do, and building on the faithful legacy of this parish family, we will see Jesus moving, mending the broken and making us whole, moving alongside us as we love one another do our ministry.
Who better for the Lectionary to use to remind us of what following the Way of Jesus looks like day to day than James? I have to admit, I do love me some James. James is the no-nonsense, get busy and get real kind of voice of faith that I often need in my life. Who has been a voice like that in your life for you? Someone who says, “Good idea… are you going to do it? Good idea, do you really mean it? Good idea, let’s go, let’s get started!” For me, it was my grandfather, my mother’s father, who we called Pa. Pa had this habit of putting me on the spot when I was teenager… when I’d see him he would stop me and ask, “Where are you at the Word right now?” He wanted to know where I was digging into scripture to grow and learn and get strong. I was so grateful when I finally entered seminary studies and could say, “Well Pa, we’re studying this and that and I’m in Greek class and…” naw, Pa didn’t stand for that, not for a minute. He would still drill down on me, where am I digging into the Word? Today, James often does it for me…
James reminds us that showing partiality and favoritism is not living in love. In truth, we all have our various richness, our riches of money or education or privilege or experience, which can blind us to the value and dignity of those in whom we don’t see those same riches. James says it is not to be so among us.
James reminds us that legalism and rule keeping is not walking by faith, it is not our path. He makes the point that no matter how good we think we might be at keeping all the rules, we’re going to miss one, and all end up in the same basket of rule-breakers. So he says to live by the law of liberty, a life of freedom to love, freedom to embrace one another and to love our neighbors, not to judge them. Our path, our walking by faith, is guided by what James calls the royal law, the freedom and mercy to love our neighbor.
And James reminds us that serving, our community and one another, is done not just spoken. Faith has to be put into action, made real and present, and so does our love and our commitment to one another and our neighbors. James contrasts for us a faith that is only spoken and a faith that is put into action, and he shows us the value of acting on what we have chosen to believe and follow.
If I didn’t know better I would think that James had read our baptismal promises, in an advance copy of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer made available a couple thousand years ago: in which we promise that in study, fellowship and prayer, in resisting evil and embracing repentance, we will proclaim the Good News of Jesus in word and action, seeking and serving Jesus in all people, loving them as ourselves, and striving for justice, peace and dignity for every human being. Joking aside, it’s not James who is reflecting our baptismal promises, but I’m so glad that our baptismal promises reflect the kind of active and serving faith to which James calls us! I invite you to spend some time with the reading from James this week and let that Law of Liberty wash over you. Let his call to an active faith inspire you. Revel in the beautiful worth of the people around you like never before.
Family… again, I am so glad to be with you. I’m so grateful for the history of service and ministry here at St. Timothy’s, so grateful for the chances that I’ve begun to have to meet you and share some time together, sometimes digitally in Zoom, in phone calls, and sometimes face-to-face. I covet your prayers and I will be working to get to know you and I want to hear your stories and your hearts. Know that I am praying for you, every day. Watch for emails to come in the next few days and weeks about the opportunities which we’ll create for praying, studying, fellowshipping and serving together.
Believing that Jesus will be in the middle of us, healing and making whole, we look forward to the ways that God will grow us together and use us to serve our city and our neighbors! Amen.
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.[ For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.]
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
This is my sermon of June 24 2018 shared at St John’s Norwood Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland. We do revisit my recent trip to the MVA a bit, but in light of God’s promise and presence in the middle of trouble. =)
“Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ. Blessed be Abba God, the God of our Savior Jesus Christ, the Source of all mercies and the God of all consoling, who comforts us in all our troubles…” These words were part of the greeting from the Apostle Paul to the Church of Corinth, opening his letter to them, the one we call 2 Corinthians.
In that letter to the Christians in Corinth Paul digs deeply into trouble and being troubled. He speaks of despair, of hope, of opposition and of faith, both the troubles and the faith of those Christians when facing hard times, and his own as an apostle, teacher and prophetic voice for Christ. Paul believes that we have in us from God a deep and strong vein of treasure to be accessed, a wealth of blessing completing us in our spiritual lives and also strengthening us in our daily lives. In chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians he’ll speak of that deep treasure and the troubled storms of life very poetically, “But this treasure we possess is in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we are full of doubts, but we never despair; we are persecuted, but never abandoned; we are struck down, but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”
Paul knew something about the storms of life. In his letters he often speaks of the trials of being beaten, ship-wrecked, rejected and neglected. He knew all about the storms of life. Our Gospel passage today is about a storm, an unexpected storm that stirred up an otherwise routine and placid trip across the Sea of Galilee. Now, this is a Pilgrim Church, so may I see a show of hands of everyone who has taken a boat out on the Sea of Galilee? I was also there, with a group of pilgrims from this parish, just a couple of months ago… but my boat ride was as calm and serene as expected. No surprise winds or sudden storms came upon us, but just the lap of the waters against the sides of our boat overseen by that platinum sky and the pounding midday heat.
We’ve not all been on the Sea of Galilee, but we all know what its like when storms brew up in life, right? I went been through a storm recently, church… I had to go last week to the MVA… the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association. Sometimes our storms in life are less sudden and more directly linked to our procrastination, and I’m not going to lie about it. My car’s registration had expired a couple of weeks before, and I had spend the previous week and several hundred dollars getting various fines and parking tickets cleared up, but I was at the MVA believing that I was all done and ready to get things squared away. Come on… who can ever anticipate what will happen once you get to the MVA, right? I arrived, waited in a long line to share with a very pleasant woman why I was there, just to be told that I had some things to clear up with EZPass. I had spoken with them the previous week and paid about $50 to get that account cleared up, as my transponder hadn’t had funds for a some toll runs, but apparently there was more to do… a storm began brew for my quick run to the MVA. Thankfully EZPass is housed at the MVA, so I just had to go hop in another line and wait a bit to speak to another every pleasant person there. She pulled up my registration and said I had fines of around $650 to clear up before they would release my registration to be renewed. How does that happen? I had not had funds for about $30 in tolls, but they add gigantic “civil penalties” to those tolls, which added up in my case to over $650. Didn’t sound very “civil” to me. My storm was in full swing. I did not have $650+ to spend on these fines, and I had a real problem with their legitimacy and right to so outrageously fine me.
What do we do in these kinds of storms? When sudden storms pop up in our lives, people seem to be arrayed against us, and seems so unjust, that even if I didn’t keep my account current with EZPass, they had said the week before I was fine, and now I see these incredible fines before me… what do I do? Have you ever been in a storm like this? Have you ever just raged along with the storm? Fight fire with fire and all that? Certainly, I felt the storm pulling me into its embrace and tempting me to lash about and blow a lot of hot air of my own.
But thank God, I didn’t. I took a deep breath and composed myself. I didn’t have $650, or even a clue what to do next, but I wasn’t going to rage with the storm or give up or give in, and I would certainly not attack this person before me who neither let my account run out of money (that was me) or was responsible for imposing the fines on my overdrawn account. I took a moment of silence to breath deep and settle myself, and in that moment of quiet I heard her voice again, this time asking me a question, “Have you ever had a one-time waiver?” A one-time waiver? I’ve never heard of this thing, but wow does it sound promising! “No, I don’t believe I have ever had that waiver” I answered. If you don’t know this thing either, ONCE IN YOUR LIFE the folks at EZPass will waive the giant civil penalties by changing every $50 fine into $3! I got away from that little window spending about $70 total instead of nearly $700, and was out of the MVA in about 30 minutes with a renewed registration and an updated Driver’s License. Storm defeated, but not because I out-raged it or fought it to a stand-still or because I had any power at all in the storm except power over myself. I believe that if I had raged and fought and filled the stormy day at the MVA with my own ragings, I probably wouldn’t have heard that important question she asked me, or at least wouldn’t have been able to hear it as the gift and blessing that it was.
So In our Gospel reading today we find our friends, the friends of Jesus, in a boat and in a storm, and they are freaking out. The storm is raging and so are they! They wake Jesus up exclaiming, “You don’t care if we die!” They feel neglected, ignored and they feel acutely the injustice of this storm in their lives. They don’t deserve this storm, they’re serving Jesus! And Jesus isn’t doing anything they can see, so he doesn’t care. And you know how we keep hearing in scripture over and over “Do not be afraid” when God speaks or angels arrive unexpectedly we hear “Do not be afraid.” Well not this time! This time Jesus doesn’t say don’t be afraid, he basically asks, “What’s wrong with you?” Don’t you have any faith? He questions their raging along with the storm. Yes, they were scared. True, they did not have the power of Jesus to dispel the storm. But they had given up the only control they had in that storm, which was their ability to still themselves.
Not all storms in life are going to finish us off, as not all storms are just, not all are deserved, but all of them are opportunities to be faithful to the people that God has called and created us to be. Sometimes we can see God working in those storms, and sometimes we can’t see God in the midst of the trouble. But we know that God has loved us and called us and given us hope to be calm in those storms, true and just in those storms and gracious in the middle of turmoil. We have God’s promise to be with us. In a storm tossed world, we are so greatly needed, church. For we not only ride out the storms for our sakes, but for the sake of those within our reach.
In no way would I ever want to downplay some of the real struggles we face in life with an overly simple comparison to a trip to the MVA: those disciples in the boat sound as though they really thought they were going to die. But I do know that I need the occasional reminder that God’s grace, God’s love and God’s presence are not lost in the troubles of a day, the storms of this life. In these storms God’s grace, love and presence are the truly lasting things to which we cling and claim the power to remain ourselves. Perhaps some of the storms we have most feared will actually become moments of faith, gratitude and potential, when we remember who God has made and enabled us to be. “…this treasure we possess is in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we are full of doubts, but we never despair; we are persecuted, but never abandoned; we are struck down, but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”
When the wind kicks up in the coming week, and the storms of life begin to move around us, unjust and unwanted, may we remember that we are still God’s beloved people. When the fear begins to creep in and our hearts race and our minds reel, and when we don’t immediately see the God in whom we have hoped, may we remember that God is still with us. When we are tempted to rage along with the unexpected twists and turns of the day, may we remember to still ourselves, to remain faithful, just and kind.
As we began with Paul’s greeting to Corinth, we’ll end with his farewell to that church and to us all, “And now, sisters and brothers, I must say goodbye. Mend your ways. Encourage one another. Live in harmony and peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones send you greetings. The grace of our Savior Jesus Christ and the love of God and the friendship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Amen.
The audio of my sermon should be posted soon at St John’s: https://stjohnsnorwood.org/sermons/
This is my sermon transcript for July 30, 2017, and the promised resources to follow up on the idea of daily prayer, weekly spiritual practice and making your own daily prayer (mantra or litany). Be blessed, Beloved of God!
Sermon of July 30, The Practice of Daily Prayer
Good morning, I come to you today in the name of the God who infuses matter with divinity, who does not hold aloof, but enters into our world, our lives and our moments. I come to you as a fellow observer of the God whose Spirit is here and whose essence is love.
From Romans 8, one of our readings for today: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Do we have any fans of Dean Koontz, the author, here? He’s one of my favorites… he writes in a genre blending style, some horror, some mystery, always with some humor and something more than just a little supernatural. One of his most endearing characters is named Odd Thomas, a young man who can see (though not hear) the spirits of the dead. Anyone else an Odd Thomas fan? Among Odd’s colorful family is his very old, salty gambler of a grandmother, Granny Sugars, who taught him her daily prayer, waking each morning to ask God, “Spare me that I may serve.” It became Odd’s daily prayer.
I love to find these little, yet large, things in novels, songs and movies: glimpses of profound truths maybe embedded in fiction or simple daily life. These are reminders that more might be happening and might be present than just what I’m seeing, hearing or noticing.
Finding the profound in the ordinary is a way of describing what I wanted to chat about with you, today. Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a saint, a sinner, one of the last Don Quixote’s in his own right, a Basque soldier, a preacher, an armchair theologian and a particularly astute observer of the human spirit. He founded the religious order The Society of Jesus, most known by the moniker The Jesuits.
St. Ignatius has in many ways been a spiritual friend and father to me, through my Spiritual Director Fr Leo Murray and other Jesuit writers, helping me construct a bit of the missing framework to exercising and daily exploring my faith in ways that help me grow, finding new vistas instead of simply struggling to maintain a place where I have arrived. My father Ignatius famously wrote his guide to hearing and recognizing God’s voice and direction in daily life, The Spiritual Exercises, before any theological education. Central to those Exercises, whether you complete them in the intended 30 day retreat or a one week to a nine month adaptation, is the idea of daily giving oneself to an intention and reflecting on the day that’s gone by. Each morning begins with a prayer of intention, a grace he called it; it’s something we hope to realize in the course of that day.
I’d like to chat about daily prayer, fresh on the heels of hearing Granny Sugar’s daily devotion, “Spare me that I may serve.” I know that Dean Koontz’s books are works of fiction, but he’s so good at developing characters that you can see the way this morning mantra, spare me that I may serve, shapes the life of Odd Thomas. He’s a character wholly devoted to helping others, often at a cost to himself. Granny Sugars’ simple prayer shapes his life and keeps him rooted on a chosen path regardless of the circumstances of any given day.
There’s a deep wisdom in this character and this little prayer. Our intentions do shape us, intentions like daily prayers that reflect the basic decisions we make for the day before the day happens. So, in Romans Paul can say that daily trials don’t reflect the love of God for us, or a lack of God’s love, for he’s predetermined that God’s love is consistent regardless of what any day brings us. Granny Sugars prayed a prayer that assumed she would serve if spared. And we make choices and can affirm intentions before our days happen, choices and intentions that when held closely and believed in will lead us, shape us and sustain us with God’s help.
This is something I think I knew before I realized it was really true. I had an experience four years ago when I went up to Princeton Theological Seminary for a week long summer session on preaching. As I usually do when I travel I became a militant introvert. I’m always an introvert, but I have to act like an extrovert whether I’m working in religious vocation or at Apple at the mall, so when I travel I tend to curl inward and soak up some me time. And I was doing this at Princeton. Here’s the picture: at one point between classes I was out on the campus lawn, sitting under a tree, writing a haiku. That’s the kind of stuff introverts do when surrounded by strangers.
I began to notice that everyone else seemed to be walking around between classes in groups, social arrangements in which they were getting to know each other, and I thought, “What am I doing?” I was like, “I need to go interact with these people and not just play introvert for the week. We’re only here together a few days, and I could easily waste this opportunity to make some new friends.” Its not wrong to be an introvert, and I still am an introvert, but there was something here not to be missed. I ended up composing a prayer instead of a haiku under the tree that day, eventually writing these simple words: Let me love. Let me learn. Let me serve.
As I sat and watched people, people with people, it dawned on me that I needed that connection, or a similar connection with the people around me. I needed connection so that I could better love, better learn what needed to be learned, and to be ready to serve and be served. I was there to learn, it was a preaching class and conference, but learning is not the only value of my life. I sat with that prayer, tweaked it a bit, and came to these three things: loving, learning, serving… my heart, my head and my hands.
I’ve carried that prayer with me now for four years and found it resilient to the different themes and movements of life. I’ve used it as a beginning place of reflection when my day is not going well or when I feel a dissonance within my life; often I find that I’ve neglected one or two of these movements, not loving enough, missing what needed to be learned, or having arrived in a place of detachment and self-service.
The first experience I had of this sort of practice was really years and years ago when studying Eastern Orthodox Theology and I learned about the Jesus Prayer: “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is an ancient adaptation of a prayer Jesus himself shared in a parable about a two men who went to pray at the Temple, a religious leader and a despised tax collector. The Jesus Prayer is a breath prayer, a mantra and a litany. Here’s an exercise for you to try sometime… I will sometimes want to pray, but not really know where to start or how to begin. I’ll start with the Jesus Prayer and then slowly, as I repeat it, change the words to be prayers for specific change in me that I want to see around me, or for the needs of people I love, or just different expressions of praise for Christ, God or the Holy Spirit.
in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, praying for a specific grace throughout a week or month is foundational to keeping focus and attention on what God is doing in my life and how the Spirit is speaking to me, and how to recognize the other voices and spirits in my life to ignore.
One last example, from our time here at St. John’s, and an example of adapting scripture into a daily prayer, is something Teresa and I did with our Sunday School class this past year. We wanted a binding theme throughout the year and began by choosing a passage of scripture to be our anthem. We chose Micah 6:8: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? This passage presents three main ideas: justice, kindness and humility. Justice, kindness and humility.
We spent time with our kids explaining what it means to be just, which is to be true, trustworthy, fair & honorable. We talked about kindness, being compassionate and good to the people around us. We spoke about humbly seeking to walk with God, to draw close to God and to follow God. We eventually comprised our weekly prayer for class and daily prayer for any day of the year: Help me be kind, help me be true, God I give myself to you. After using it a few times, it sticks and has meaning. Who doesn’t face an opportunity in any given day to be more kind, true in our words and actions, and more in tune with following God?
Prayers like these have a way of changing us. They keep us focused and they help us hold up certain truths as a compass for our faith, our emotional well being and our daily walk. As a mantra or a litany I often use my prayer Let me love Let me learn Let me serve reciting in over and over on my drive to work as way of storing up the energy and reserve of intention for my day. This way no matter what comes why way, no matter how people find me or I find them, no matter the moment, my choice has been made to love, to learn and to serve. As I go through my day I draw on that reserve of God’s will and my intention.
This is similar to what Paul is doing in the passage from Romans 8. He knows that some days and some seasons of life can be tough. He knows that we struggle and we experience pain. He himself struggles and faces hurt of many kinds. He also has learned that these daily hurts do not mean that God loves us less, but God’s love is steadfast even in the hardest of days. So he speaks it: God’s love and our lives are inseparable. Bad days don’t mean that God loves us less. God’s love and our lives are inseparable. It’s good to hear this and sit with it before the worst days roll around, so that when they do we have a starting place to deal with those painful times. This is what daily prayers can do for us, helping shape us for the best and worst of life, strength when needed, extra joy when happy and wisdom when pressed.
What’s your prayer? I invite you this week to make an exercise of distilling down a favorite or a meaningful passage into an expression of prayer. Or maybe not a passage, but an expression of the great themes of your faith as you understand them. It doesn’t have to rhyme. You could take something from the end of Romans 8. You could use Micah 6:8. Maybe use the way that Jesus sums up the Law in Matthew 22: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
To help you do this, if I can, I’ve put some resources on my personal blog, and I invite you check them out. First, I’ve prepared a short one-week guide for daily prayer and reflection modeled after the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. That includes a sheet for each day which gives a grace to pray for, a passage to read, and prompts for reflection and prayer. This is best done shared with a spiritual friend, so I invite you to try it out and share the experience with someone else. You’re invited and welcome to bounce reflections and things off me as you pray and reflect through the week. My contact information is in the document. Secondly, there’s a little one page guide on making a personal daily prayer that includes the ones we’ve mentioned today and some helpful tips on making your own. This is all at toddthomas.net, and I invite you to share some of the journey with me and with one another.
I’m no Saint as Ignatius was in his life. I’m not an author like Dean Koontz. I don’t see dead people like Odd Thomas. I’m not even a rough and tumble cool 90 year old gambler like Odd’s Granny Sugars. But I am on this same road with Micah and those Roman believers, as are you. We are each set on a path of life, which is a path of will. It’s a path of choices, intentions and experiences. Our prayers are strength for that walk. Our prayers prepare us for the choices, the forks and turns we will take.
May God bless your path in the coming week. May we all in new and fresh ways, love the world and it’s people around us, learn something which we didn’t know or understand last week, and may our loving and knowing the world lead us to serve it’s needs with greater joy. Amen.