Proper 24 A, Exodus 33:12-23, Matthew 22:15-22, 2017

This rather confusing Old Testament lesson is a part of the fall-out from the incident of the Golden Calf, which you heard about last Sunday. If you remember, anxiety lay at the root of the incident, an anxiety caused by Moses’s longer than expected absence up on Mt Sinai talking with God and receiving the commandments and the law. As Exodus reports the Israelites saying to Aaron, “. . . as for this Moses . . . We do not know what has become of him. So make us gods.” Whether made by ourselves or coming from somewhere we must have gods and anxiety can cause us to change them.

In case this doesn’t seen relevant, some 3000 years later, I remember several incidents in which a well-liked clergy person was moving on from a congregation. And I was hearing things like: “I don’t know what we will do without Fr. So-and-So.” But in the modern world, it’s not so much that we must make a new god as that we don’t know what to do without the old one – but in the case of Father So and So the god is a golden calf, a god we have made for ourselves. If a congregation is truly Christian it knows exactly what it will do when a much loved leader – lay or ordained – dies or moves on. It will continue to do what it has always done – worship Gold and serve the creation. If it doesn’t know how to do that without Fr. So and So then he wasn’t doing his job or the congregation wasn‘t listening.

So it was anxiety fueled by absence, especially that of Moses, that motivated the ancient Israelites to create a false god. And that’s no rare situation. I have seen churches chose clergy on the basis of who can deal with their anxiety rather than who evinces the integrity required of a leader. This happens while selecting leaders outside the church also.

When today’s Old Testament lesson picks up the story, God has just told Moses that the Israelites are to leave Sinai and continue to the Promised Land. The question is whether God will go with them as he had earlier in the Exodus. In vs. 2 and 3 of chapter 32 God says he will not go up with the Israelites, because if he gets irritated with them again its curtains for them. But he will deputize and send an angel.

Well, the Hebrews don’t want to settle for second best, so Moses bargains with God to change his mind, and God does. He promises that he, himself, will go with the Israelites.

But what God promises to Moses is precisely what Moses asks for, God’s presence. He does not promise an absence of pain, or of conflict, he does not promise constant success, he does not promise an absence of anxiety.
Moses next request of God models true religion: he asks to see God’s glory. In modern language, this means to know God truly as he really is. I leave it to you as to how much contemporary Christianity is seeking a problem solving God and how much of it is seeking the God who will be our companion in our problems. The former is prompted by anxiety, the latter by love. To seek to know God truly is beyond problem solving.

This contrast has emerged all through the story of the Exodus. God promises his presence and the gift of an identity that comes with being his people. What the Israelites demand of God is the solution to particular problems: what shall we eat and what shall we drink. And these are important problems and God solves them: water springs from the rock, quails descend on the camp and there is manna in the wilderness. But all the while God is longing for the Israelites to seek his face, not just desire the use of his power. God desires those he has chosen to choose him in return.

In other words, God is to be known and loved in the midst of our insecurity, an insecurity ultimately based on the fact that we will all die. The value of a problem solving God ceases with our deaths. Whether it’s heaven or hell there will be no anxiety producing questions about our fate. But the value of a known and loved God is forever. Ultimately it is love, not power, that conquers death. Jesus may be raised from death by means of the power of God but he is raised from death because God loves him. And so are we all. Power may accomplish the resurrection, but it is love that motivates it.

Now, a quick word on the gospel. In the golden calf the Israelites were seeking a God they could see. (Our anxiety is relieved by the seen, not the unseen.) In today’s Old Testament lesson God says he is a God
who can be seen only partially. In symbolic terms, Moses seeks to see God’s face and ends up with a view of his back. But that is more than any other person had ever seen. Today’s gospel turns on a contrast between two images. One is on the coin Jesus asks for, the image of the emperor who claims the power to tax, to control. The other image is the image of God made invisibly resident in every human being at his or her creation, the image of God in which we are made. When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” the statement is radical, revolutionary. Caesar gets that with his image stamped on it and God is to get what is stamped with his image. And Jesus leaves his listeners in no doubt about where their primary loyalty should lie. Give to God what is God’s – the whole of our humanity touched with the divine image. And to Caesar the disks of metal stamped with his lifeless, unnourishing, power representing image.

In the long run that’s the choice Jesus offers, the choice we, also, face, and it runs through all subsidiary choices we make on church questions, on political questions, on questions in our relations with each other, on questions of our dealings with the natural world: do we opt for a God who solves problems for us with an exercise of power or a God who shares problems with us as an exercise of love?

For the Christian the death of Jesus delivers a definite answer. It is that answer we seek to emulate as we strive to realize the humanity of Jesus in our own humanity, to realize the image of God within ourselves and to seek its presence in those around us. In Christ God does not solve the problem of death for us. He accompanies us through death so that death is not a problem solved but an aspect of human existence incorporated into love because God loves who we are and we are creatures who die. Our everlasting life thus originates in the power of love.

But when we confuse the power of love with the love of power we become creatures of death. The death of Jesus is the supreme example of God’s rejection of power. He chooses to experience the negation of death in solidarity and love with all humans everywhere. He does not call twelve legions of angels to overcome those who capture him. He does not speak to vindicate himself before Pilate. He does not step down from the cross. And so we, who are his followers, are pledged in baptism to seek the course of love, the path of the imitation of Christ.

So seek his face in the finitude of human life. Seek his face in our ignorance of the right thing to do. Seek his face in loss and in suffering. Seek his face in your anxiety and the God who is love will receive you home after all your seeking because your seeking is the measure of the stature of your love. Not success, not even good deeds, not service to the church, not a pious life, not belief in doctrines, but accepting the presence of Christ in your suffering and your sorrow, your grief, and in your insecurity, in doubt and in hope, is salvation.

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Pentecost 22 A, Matthew 21:33-46, 2017

Well. So far as the ethics of the situation are concerned, there’s more to be said on the side of the tenants than meets the eye and the absentee landlord has a bit of the stink of corruption about him – but I don’t like anybody in this story very much. The question is whether or not one interprets this historically, as an allegory in which the owner of the vineyard is God, the vineyard is the creation, the messengers the owner sends are the prophets, and his son is Jesus who is executed. So there are two broad directions interpretation can take.

Now, this story is usually understood as an allegorical presentation of the life and death of Jesus. There are excellent reasons for believing this to be a secondary interpretation of the story imposed on the original by the authors of the gospels, especially Matthew, who presents the most detailed allegory. All I need point out now is that in the extra-biblical literature of the time versions of this story exist – in the Gospel of Thomas, for instance – without any reference to the life of Jesus and without the faintest trace of allegory. The story is found in Matthew, in Mark and in Luke and the oldest gospels are the ones which present the least allegorized versions of the story. Mark, for instance, presents a much less allegorical version of the story than Matthew.

But for me the real problem that casts doubt on the allegorical interpretation of this story is that allegory doesn’t inform us how or challenge us to live a new life which is somehow different from the world. Allegory invites the hearer to believe the truth of certain facts, but not to conform their lives to the pattern of God’s kingdom. In allegory, where does Jesus challenge us to change our minds, our hearts, our way of existence? And the gospel is never an invitation to the truth of merely objective fact, but always a challenge to turn one’s own life from the world to Christ. The question is always in what direction to turn, not merely what is factual.

So let’s see what can be done with an interpretation of this story according to historical context and economics.
Matthew informs us that it is this owner who has planted the vineyard and gone to the considerable expense to create the infrastructure needed for a wine production. So the vineyard is recent, in a land where every inch of arable land has been under cultivation for centuries. We know from extra-biblical sources that Galilee and the upper Jordan valley were, in the 1st half of the 1st century, experiencing a rapid increase in what today we’d call industrial agri-business. This expansion of large estates was happening at the expense of single family farms, small farmers being pushed off their land for nonpayment of taxes and forming a pool of landless laborers who provided day labor, sometimes on the land their fathers had owned outright. It is a familiar recipe for agrarian unrest.

Since wine was a more profitable, because more processed, crop than grains there was a push to convert former grain land to wine production, especially for large growers who could afford the infrastructure. In fact, the situation got so bad that the Roman senate was forced to prohibit, for the whole empire, the conversion of grain lands to vineyards – not that the law was effective.

So the picture painted in this parable is excruciatingly true to the unrest, the class hostility, and even endemic violence we know to have been the case. All pictures of a mild Jesus preaching to a poor but happy rural peasantry while holding a lamb are pipe dreams and romantic balderdash. His audiences were bitter about the immediate past, frightened of what they could see in the future and hopeless about the ability of the institutional systems of the time to protect them. They were ripe for violence and smarting under the systemic violence already practiced against them in systems of taxation which could absorb up to 50% of their crops in any given harvest and about the formation of large estates belonging to absentee landlords which drained resources from the local community and were driving them into poverty for the benefit of outsiders.

So much for the cultural background to this parable. Another point, not usually noted in the commentaries, is that Jesus’ arguments against the tenant’s actions are on pragmatic grounds, not moral ones. It’s a battle the tenants ultimately cannot win, so why fight it? He condemns the violence of the tenants not because it is immoral, but because it is ineffective. The tenants simply cannot command sufficient force to make their position stick. The Lord of the vineyard will meet their violence with his own more powerful violence and they will be destroyed. Which is another argument against the allegorical interpretation of the story, because it requires the Lord of the vineyard to ultimately descend to the level of the tenants’ violence to deal with them, which is an utterly unworthy picture of God, although a popular one. The picture is one of the parent who, while spanking a child, says, “I’ll teach you not to hit your little brother.”

So what can we draw from this story if we ignore the allegorical and focus on a story about economic injustice, agrarian unrest, and revolt against intolerable economic conditions? So we go to the scripture quotation Jesus uses, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” And what stone is used, by both tenant and landlord, to build a society in this story and what was the stone rejected? The stone of violence was accepted. Make no mistake, it has been used against the tenants to dispossess them and they use it against the agents of the landlord. And as the bystanders answer Jesus’s question, the landlord will use it again against the tenants. The appeal to violence was the foundation of the world and the question was, who was capable of the greater violence?

And I think about our own society – thinking about what we are building with increasing violence. Our political discourse reeks of violence. Much of our entertainment depends on it. And are we so much better than the ancient Romans because our violence is digital or cinematic rather than staged in the arena? One thing which separated the ancient Christians from the surrounding culture was a refusal to countenance the violence of the gladiatorial games. Christians did not attend. But we tolerate a level of violence in political language, in entertainment and even in sport which can compete with that of the ancient world. And so we are attending to violence and it is made the foundation of our culture as it was the foundation of the confrontation between tenants and vineyard owner. We are fools if we believe that there is an invisible barrier which will prevent us from doing tomorrow what we are saying today.

So the stone the builders have rejected is the stone of peace. It is peace which is the work of God and peace which is the fruit of the kingdom and the kingdom is taken away from the vineyard’s tenants and, by the way, from the owner too who resorts to unpeace to assert his rule over the vineyard. At the end of the story the owner of the vineyard is still trapped in the response of violence to violence that characterizes life as usual in this world. And that is the final reason the owner of the vineyard cannot be understood as God. This parable is a story of the hopelessness of violence to lead to any new or better world. Jesus is saying this system does not and cannot work.

Now a final comment. When confronted with actions of violence such as the horrible murders in Los Vegas the immediate response of many people is the comforting reassurance that this action is that of an aberrant individual or group who does not in any way represent us. We move to separate ourselves from the horror. But I believe that these repeated shootings have clearly become characteristic of our culture – they certainly happen often enough. And I must say something very hard and sharp. We need to be looking not at how we are different, but for the roots we share. What do we accept in our society that provides the roots out of which such sorry fruit can grow? And I think we need to search our souls for our acceptance of violence, our acceptance of it as entertainment, our unspoken but practiced belief that it constitutes the significant news there is to watch or hear and most of all our belief that it is an effective way of solving problems. If we weave our world out of violence and the power to inflict it, it is no wonder if it returns to haunt us. The elements of a culture reflect the souls of those who live in the culture – and if violence is an element of our culture we need to examine our own souls for the violence there. And the passing of the peace needs to be more than a greeting, but an understood foundation for life in the world

In Estonia, there has been a movement by ordinary citizens to provide all police cars and emergency vehicles with teddy bears so that when the police have to transport children in crises the children can have the comfort of the bear to hold. For a Christian, such news is as important as any news of the world and the Christian’s life needs to be woven of such gestures of peace.

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Proper 18 A, Matthew 18:15-20, 2017

Let’s take off this morning from a rather peculiar question – what does the text of this gospel actually say? Not “say” in the sense of “mean”, but what words belong to this text and are there words commonly in it of which we should be suspicious? Remember that before about 1450 all Bibles were hand written and showed all the variations that handwritten documents show, unless great care is taken in copying. Usually, variations in the New Testament text did not affect the core meaning of a passage, but occasionally they did and today’s gospel is an example of this.

In resolving these questions of text many factors need to be considered: the relative ages of different manuscripts, whether the differences can be traced to any one of a number of types of merely mechanical copying errors, whether a variation in text is a response to some theological or organizational question agitating the church at the time certain manuscripts were copied and so on. The study of these things is its own special branch of biblical studies and rather neglected in this country as it requires an exact knowledge of a number of languages and much attention to detail.

In the case of today’s gospel there are two different readings of the first sentence. One reads as the version of the gospel we heard today: “If your brother sin against you . . .” here’s what you do. The other group of manuscripts lacks the “against you” and reads simply, “If your brother sin . . .”, here’s what you do.

Well, it’s a close call, but it seems to me the preponderance of evidence goes with the shorter reading. If your brother sin, here’s how you respond. And what’s at stake is whether the instructions of Jesus relate to the settlement of personal disputes or constitute a general instruction for dealing with sin. The interpretation I’m used to treats the passage rather as if it were instructions for negotiation. It’s important to remember that the word used is sin and not “difference of opinion”. We are not dealing with a disagreement about how to conduct stewardship campaigns or decorate the tables for a parish dinner. We are dealing with expressions of pride, wrath, sloth, envy, avarice and so forth.
So immediately there is a question about the sense in which we are to understand these instructions: settlement of disagreements, or response to sin. This question is made more acute by the context of the passage. It is preceded by the parable of the lost sheep, the ending sentence of which is, “It is not your heavenly Father’s will that one of these little one’s should be lost.” (Matthew 18:14) This gives us God’s standpoint on reconciliation. It is to be a fundamental aspect of the lives of those who follow Jesus and is a concern, therefore, of the whole church body and not merely specific individuals within it.

If we ask what the human response to God’s intent is to be, it is given in the story that follows today’s gospel, Peter’s question about how many times we are to forgive. And Jesus says, “Not 7 times, but 70 times 7.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

In the face of context, any interpretation of today’s gospel which induces one to at all hurry from individual confrontation to the next steps is mistaken. If we escalate the process upon the first rejection what becomes of 70 times 7? Either Matthew has no sense of logical consistency or we are to take the 4 step process of today’s gospel in a non-rigid, non-legalistic way. Clearly, a mechanical interpretation of the process outlined in today’s gospel is not Matthew’s intent. Instead, the only legitimate interpretation is one that sees today’s lesson as practical instruction about how NOT to lose “one of these little ones.”

So there’s more here than meets the eye. One more comment about context. The 18th chapter of Matthew is about life in the church. It discusses the aspects of that life which apply to all the church’s members, not just some of them, not just appointed officers. If the methods of responding to the presence of sin were to apply only to leaders or officers of the congregation it would have been in chapter 10 which deals with the commissioning of the disciples. Instead we find it in a chapter dealing with the common elements of church life. Any formal reconciliation carried out by the clergy can only be a symbolic example of the style of life to be lived by all members of the body.

In a fully lived Christian life love must deal with sin. We are all lovers. We are all sinners. Since sin destroys both those who sin and those who are sinned against, to ignore it is a failing of love and an instance of “those things we have not done that we ought to have done” mentioned in the prayer of confession we will shortly recite. And it is one thing to correct our children, but quite another to correct our peers. Yet there are times when silence is evil, and modern history is full of them.

So what we have in this gospel is not an operations manual for the church, describing in detail which buttons to push when, but an example of the spirit in which church members are to approach each other: with moderation, and reticence, and with a respect for the truly fallen nature of all of us.

If we are not to imitate the instructions given in this gospel but to be informed by them what shall we learn?

1. First, awareness. It does no good to be blind to weakness in the body of Christ. Not only all individuals, but also all churches have their failings and denying their reality is never helpful. Silence is sometimes appropriate but willful ignorance never is.

What this passage from Matthew is telling us is that we have to respond not only to a sin but also to a person. Notice that the actions dictated in the lesson are responses to a person and are to be governed by a hope of “gaining your brother”. Any approach which allows the sin to come to the foreground and not the person is disallowed.

2. An orientation toward the future.
The word “to gain” is used of making a commercial profit, but is also used of the process of forming a Christian through conversion, education and training. So to approach a person one must have more in mind than a failing, but also have in mind the contribution the person can make to the kingdom of God. They are still one person and what lead to a fault, properly used and understood can lead also to the kingdom of God. Before one taxes a person with sin, Matthew implies one has to know how to include the roots of that sin into the kingdom. And that is much more than simply saying, “Don’t do this. Don’t do that.”

So this passage is addressed to church members to instill in them a sense of reticence, a caution, about criticizing the behavior of their fellows. Critique only when you are prepared to include.

Most, perhaps not all, but most, sin arises from seeking the right things in the wrong ways or seeking the right things from the wrong sources or seeking small things as if they were great ones or limited things as if they were of universal importance. To correct these things is not just to announce that wrong is being done but to be prepared to offer a vision of restored proportion, to substitute proper ends for mistaken ones, to offer truly Christian means in place of false ones.
When we are prepared to do these things we can then speak to each other about sins.

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Proper 8 A, Matthew 10:40-42, 2017

This gospel reading is the closing of a much longer section of Matthew’s gospel dealing with the church’s mission both to itself and external to itself in the world. So when thinking about this passage think about the concept of mission, but of mission as a two way street: the mission out and the mission in; mission to the world outside the church and mission in dealing with change and continuity within the church itself.

Now for the church to be able to go out to the world in mission it must also go in – into the knowledge and experience of God and into the sources of such experience. Without this going in we have little with which to go out. We must receive God before we can share God. This gospel reading is usually understood as discussing the relation between Christian missionaries and the unconverted – I believe it also describes the process of the church going into itself so that it knows and can therefore proclaim the rock on which it is built. The collect addresses this: the church is built on the apostles and prophets as on a foundation and the essential stone of that foundation, the one on whom everything else rests, is Christ. As the gospel puts it, he who welcomes you welcomes me, that is Christ, and he who welcomes me, that is Christ, welcomes him who sent me.

Our unity with Christ is through that relationship with the apostles and prophets and through them to Christ and in their relationship we find a model, a road, a support for our own. “Grant us so to be joined together in their teaching that we may be acceptable to you.” (Collect for Proper 8 Book of Common Prayer p. 230) And think about it, it is through the four evangelists that we know Jesus, it is through the men and women of the early church that baptism and the Eucharist have been mediated to us. It is through the church that the possibility of knowing Christ and the means of such knowledge, scripture and sacrament, have been mediated to us. We can seek Christ directly in our lives only because he has been witnessed to by others. We are dependent on the community, on a chain of transmission: whoever welcomes you welcomes me and who ever welcomes me welcomes him who sent me. In the chain of transmission the effectiveness of each link in the chain is dependent on reception by a willing heart.

So we welcome Christ into our lives, and in order to do that we cannot welcome him merely as an entity floating a foot and a half above my right shoulder. He must be welcomed as he manifests himself in the other members of the church, and in the creation. He must be welcomed in his concrete reality, in his continuing presence in history and particularly in the church that still seeks, when she stops to think about it, to welcome the one who shows us God and to welcome him as he expresses himself in all the intriguing and infuriating variety of the people who look to him in hope.

So the key word is “welcome” which is used six times in this short passage to denote the relationship inhering between the disciple, Jesus, and the Father. In other words, it describes the process of the church going into itself and also into the world. It’s somewhat straight forward to welcome a new comer, or even a new community – their perceived difference gives us a foothold for inclusion. But it is a different story to welcome a person who has sat beside you in a pew for 20 years – but no less essential to the church’s mission. If Christ is born anew in each of us then we have to welcome anew. And the welcoming needs to happen as often as the rebirth.

Now there is a point of tension here. Every English translation I have consulted – seven of them – published before the New RSV, use the word “receive” in place of “welcome”. The change from “receive” to “welcome” happened with the publication of the New Revised Standard Version toward the end of the 20th century. And in contemporary English there is a significant difference in meaning between the words “welcome” and “receive”. Can we move toward an understanding of the evangelist’s intent here? How are we to understand “welcome/receive“?

First, there is no doubt that “welcome/receive” is understood by Matthew to refer to a lasting condition and not a temporary one. The reward received is the kingdom of God. Compare this with the beatitudes, in which each beatitude lists a reward and each reward is stated as a variation on “he/she will receive“. So I believe that welcoming denotes a permanent condition of the church that faces both ways: we welcome both God and the world. In fact, without welcoming God we cannot welcome the world truly.

Second, there are overtones to the word translated as welcome. It has at least two secondary meanings: first “to acquire knowledge of” and, second, “to accept a burden or task”. Whoever receives (or welcomes) you acquires knowledge of you and whoever acquires knowledge of you acquires knowledge of Jesus. But this is not just “facts about” knowledge, but the knowledge that comes from sharing a history. To welcome into means, to Matthew, to share a story with. You see, the purpose of a real church is not to spiritually feed people – whatever that means – but to present them with a story worth having and knowing and sharing. Whether the story helps me feel good is beside the point. Does the story provoke honest self-knowledge? Does it offer hope when we suffer? Does it encourage us to overcome prejudices? Does it witness our unity? These are more than how the story makes me feel. They are considerably more precise than whether or not I feel “fed”.

Last Sunday we placed three memorial bricks in the labyrinth. Those bricks witness to the continuing unity in our community between the living and the dead. To walk the labyrinth is to participate in a witness to the unity of the living and the dead. The church provides the means for that. And on and on. A story worth sharing tells a tough story and enables us to ask tough questions about ourselves and others. To remember the dead and so witness to our continuing unity with them is a tough story to tell. It reminds us that we will, one day, join them.

In line with the second meaning of the Greek word translated “welcome” it enables us to accept who we truly are without blinders because we know we are loved even in failure and sin. To experience the true burden of the self is to know the truth of God. But most of all, does the story encourage us to welcome God in others or to receive God through others? If you are encouraged to receive God from the other members of the community that is a story worth sharing. To know another truly and, therefore, to be able to welcome them truly means to know where in them God seeks to be born as Christ – born within their actual flesh and blood and mortality and glory, Christ born into their own human story.

Ultimately, what St. Hilda’s has to share that carries conviction with it is its own life. In that life those who have eyes can see the birth of Christ and the welcoming of Christ week by week. And if the truth of faith is not found in the day to day life of the body it is not likely to be found at all.

My teaching cannot create it, no formal worship will renew it, no program can manifest it unless “welcome/receiving” is included within it. It is the welcoming of each other every Sunday morning, especially as symbolized in the passing of the peace, which confirms our mutual acceptance as members of the body of Christ. The peace may seem a small or ordinary thing, but properly understood it is the cup of cool water offered to the other little ones, the other disciples, that refreshes the soul and encourages us, because we are truly recognized, truly known, and then truly loved, to go into the world to love and serve the Lord. To know Christ is to receive his love so that we may welcome all into that love.

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Easter 7, 2017, Acts of the Apostles 1:6-14, John 17:1-11

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in Glory everlasting. Amen

In today’s collect we ask God not to “leave us comfortless”. And my question is, “What should comfort a Christian? Should full churches comfort us or financially secure ones?” Or, on another level, should the ability of the church as we know it to continue comfort us? Should we be comforted by a clear and assured future? If we could know that our church – or the good parts of it – would continue beyond our own deaths would that comfort us?

And I must say yes, could I have all these things, I would be comforted. And my soul would be in danger because each of these things can be sought and obtained without love, each can be sought for the satisfaction of my own vanity or the easing of my own anxiety. So my original question needs to be refined to: “What sort of comfort does God desire to give us?” He may need to educate us a bit about what we ought to seek. And things have been called the Holy Spirit which are not.

The reading from Acts reflects this problem. Instead of restoring the kingdom of Israel, which was the comfort the disciples looked for, Jesus promises them the ability to be his witnesses to the whole world. That was what the comfort sent by God enabled them to do. They were comforted by knowing that the Spirit of Christ dwelt within them and their task as a Christian was to seek the Spirit’s expression in and by means of their own lives.

So instead of a securely restored, powerful kingdom what Christ gave to his disciples to comfort them was the chance to be martyr witnesses on his behalf – the chance to die alone and misunderstood and rejected in strange lands – but in the rock hard conviction of their hearts and minds that their inner identity was secure with Christ and nothing of this world, even death, could shake it.

We hear the same thing in the gospel reading. It is all about connections, about relating, about the relation between Jesus and the Father and consequently, the relation between the disciples and Jesus which ties them to the Father. It is participating in that relationship with Jesus which brings us to the Father and also brings us true comfort.

All else, the full churches, the financial security, the continuation of the church which we have found good, are things we legitimately desire – but it is of the essence of Christianity to discover what we should desire most of all and so avoid confusing the marginal with the central. A full church means nothing without the love of Christ moving among the people filling it. And there are lots of ways to fill churches having little to do with Christ. There is violence and fear of judgment and collusion with the values of a culture. There is the church whose object is to help us feel good about ourselves without challenging us to sacrificial and righteous living. As for financial security, Jesus leaves us with two messages. First, don’t be like the man who built the tower but didn’t estimate the cost and had to stop halfway through. But also remember that the lilies neither toil nor spin and yet God cares for them. Sorry, such tensions are a part of the New Testament message and we must do the best we can with them. Consider such things closely, but do not let them rule you for they are not God.

So what should we desire most? What would comfort us most? And Christ gives us images for this: build your house upon the rock; lay up treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupt. And it is God’s relation with us which comforts – not even ours with him, but his with us. Comfort comes to those who are open to receiving his gifts, which are frequently strange and unexpected.

And how should we think about receiving the comfort of his gifts? Well, every witness we make to having received a gift – even giving thanks with a friend over a cup of coffee in your kitchen – is like a pebble tossed into a lake. The ripples may disappear from our sight, but the hidden movement of the waters reaches the edge of the lake. Every act of sharing Christ reaches ultimately to the ends of the earth. As to the fact that you do not see the results of your witness – well, how much of your day do you spend watching the ends of the earth to see if your words show up there?

So what comforts a Christian? The knowledge that he or she has been given the Spirit of God and is, therefore, called to witness and to ministry. We are comforted not by the results we achieve – all results are in the hands of God – but by the fact that God thinks so much of us that he actually gives us tasks in the grand process of bringing in the kingdom. You are valued by the tasks you have been given, not by the results you achieve. There may be more glory in heaven for the one who dares the impossible for Christ’s sake and fails than the one who shrinks from all but the easiest tasks because he knows they can be accomplished.

Now, I will be frank with you. This congregation is not rich, not numerous, not distinguished in what this world regards as resources. In addition, most of you are, shall we say, maturing. It is easy to look at this and say, as I find myself saying about my own ministries, I can no longer do for the church what I once did. I have less stamina, less energy. I am disappointed that numbers and resources have eluded me. Will there be anyone to carry on when my friends and I are gone? And so the temptation, and it is a true temptation, is to slip by almost unnoticed degrees into anxiety and from anxiety to despair and from despair into a joyless and grim obedience while I wait for the end. But let us have instead a lively seeking of God’s love and a firm belief that because I am loved my witness counts and counts in the courts of eternity even as I watch things I care about slip away in the history of this world.

But what comforts Christians in their confrontation with aging, and loss, and seeming failure is that to express their witness to Christ is always possible. His relation to us is secure. We may forget. He does not. Let me illustrate: Your primary witness is to worship God in his church with his people on Sunday morning. Your presence here witnesses Christ to every other person here. Faithful witness here is foundational for all other genuine witness. Your presence here witnesses to the strangers and visitors who occasionally come. It witnesses to the clergy who can be quite vulnerable to despair – believe it or not. And it witness to yourself in the development of the habit of putting first things first. It is no small thing to sustain with your words the body of Christ by adding your voice to its worship. And unimportant as you may feel, that is exactly what you are doing every Sunday. Your words, your presence are the stones from which the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem are being built and it goes on here at St. John’s, Sunday after Sunday. The body is incomplete without you.

If you cannot be here, say one of the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families found on page 137-140 of the Book of Common Prayer. Then let the congregation know you prayed with them and for them on Sunday when you couldn’t be here.

If you have guests and cannot be present on Sunday, invite them to pray with you as you say the office. Better yet, of course, invite them to worship here with you. When you can no longer physically attend church insist on regularly receiving the Holy Communion in your place of residence. It is your right to pester the clergy to fulfill one of their most important functions, enabling your witness to the fullness of the body of Christ. And your witness to the body of Christ is your comfort.

Another important and frequently overlooked witness is to have instructions for your funeral arranged ahead of time and on file with the church. Consult with your clergy and leave instructions as to the prayers and hymns you wish used. Thus your witness to Christ extends beyond your own death. Making sure that your financial and business affairs are in order is such an obvious act of love and charity toward your survivors that I shouldn’t need to mention it as Christian witness and it carries with it the comfort of knowing the evidence of your love extends beyond your physical death.

The Eucharist on Sunday morning cannot do it all – it is intended to be the summary and climax of a life of prayer, not its entirety. I know many of you pray much. St. John’s is a praying church. I do not know you well enough to know what disciplines you use in your prayer. Is there some systematic method by which, between Sundays, you pray for the church and its mission, the nation and all in authority in government, the welfare of the world, its peace and good order, for the concerns of local communities, for those who suffer or are in trouble and for the dead? That list should be familiar. It is the outline of what we pray for every Sunday in the prayers of the people and is an excellent outline for a life of private prayer – comprehensive but not so detailed as to be burdensome, open to a variety of forms of usage: one category a day, for instance, with meditative thought on who and what is in that category of prayer.

Do you know the resources the church provides to assist you with private prayer? For starters, read slowly, a few prayers a day, through the prayer collection on pages 814-841 of the Book of Common Prayer. Some of the finest prayers ever written are there and it is the duty of every Episcopalian to be able to utilize the resources provided by the church to enrich his or her private prayer.

And also remember, our witness to Christ is first to each other and then to the world. But it is finally a witness to God himself. Even though the world does not consciously hear your private prayer its sound goes out to the end of the earth and to the ends of heaven.

Well, that’s enough of that. And I haven’t even touched on witness as a part of our public and relational life with friends and family and neighbors and colleagues. That will have to come at another time. But when we pray today’s collect and ask not to be left comfortless, what we are asking for is a ministry, a way of witness, a conduct of life that is centered on God and because centered on him does not fear the world nor allow the world to bring us to anxiety and despair. To be comforted is to be sustained in relationship, to be steadfast in faith and hope and love. And steadfastness is not dependent on your energy level, on your physical strength. When I have visited in care facilities I have been careful to use the standard Lord’s Prayer because it is the one older people know. And I know of no witness to Christ more powerful than a room of people, many of whom cannot remember their names or the day of the week but who nevertheless remember the Lord’s Prayer and still find it giving meaning to their lives in the midst of encroaching darkness. Let us all live lives of prayer so that the last words on our lips are words of witness to Christ as our comfort and our hope of glory.

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  • Invite, Build, Serve through Christ

    Sunday
    10:00 a.m.

    Holy Eucharist and Fellowship

    Wednesday
    8:00 a.m.

    Holy Eucharist and Fellowship