Monday, December 3, 2018

Be Advent


Charlotte Collins Reed
Christ Church Episcopal
December 2, 2018

1 Advent C

          The stories of my childhood included both “Chicken Little” and “The Boy who Cried Wolf.”  “Chicken Little” is an ancient folk story in which the main character, Chicken Little, believes that the sky is falling and the world is coming to an end because an acorn has fallen on his head.  Depending on which of the many versions of the story you read, the moral of the story is some variation on “Don’t jump to conclusions,” or “Don’t be a chicken.” “The Boy who Cried Wolf” is one of Aesop’s fables.  In this story, a little boy cries “wolf” and summons help so often just to get the villagers to come running that one day when a wolf really does appear, no one comes to help. 

          This morning’s gospel reading reminds me of both of these stories.  On the one hand, ever since the gospels were written, people have read the signs of the times to indicate that Jesus’ return is imminent.  Wars, rumors of wars, plaques, famines…at various points in the gospels disasters both natural and human-made point to the return of Jesus and the end of time as we know it.  When those events do happen, which is far too often, we can easily believe the end is here.  The sky is falling.  On the other hand, year after year on the first Sunday of Advent, we hear Jesus predict his return.  Depending on which gospel we are reading, we hear some version of "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”   Just in the past year, there have been natural disasters enough to satisfy this description, to say nothing of the disasters we humans have managed to create.  And still Jesus has not returned.  Is Jesus the boy who cried wolf?

          So, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, hearing about Jesus’ return, however and whenever that is going to happen, accompanied by scary events that we do not want to think about, when what our hearts really long for is a tiny baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. 

          The reading from Jeremiah makes a little more sense as an Advent reading, as we are pointed to God’s promise to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  A branch shall spring up from David, who will bring justice and righteousness to the land.  Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  As Christians, we understand this person to be Jesus and Jeremiah’s words fill us with great longing for the Messiah and the peace and safety the Messiah will bring.

          The psalmist describes God in a way that does not at all fit with the dreadful events described in the gospel.  In the psalm, we hear “Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.  Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting.”  In the reading from 1 Thessalonians, Paul is full of joy and love.  So, what gives with Jesus this morning?

          Immediately before our gospel reading, Jesus has told his disciples about the persecutions, hardships, and hatreds they will endure as his followers.  What Jesus is describing as a future experience is actually the reality of his first century disciples.  Jesus is encouraging those enduring great tribulation by telling them that, in the midst of their suffering, he is quite near.  Jesus uses dramatic language because the experience of his followers is dramatic as they are handed over to synagogues and prisons, as families are divided, and as their temple is destroyed and the faithful are scattered.  Jesus is not crying wolf here.  These events are actually happening and the sky is really falling for his followers.

          In the midst of persecution and hardship, Jesus tells his disciples to raise their heads and look.  Be alert.  Effort is required to see Jesus in the midst of the suffering of the world.  But the promise of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is near even and especially when God seems utterly absent. 

          Jesus is not saying “The sky if falling” nor is he crying wolf.  Jesus is telling us to look.  In the midst of natural disaster, personal hardship, and national and global tragedy, Jesus calls us to see where the Kingdom of God is breaking through.  Jesus calls us to believe his promise that he is near and to watch for him.  Jesus calls us to make Advent an action word, to do Advent by finding Jesus in unexpected places, and by looking for Jesus in those places where he seems most absent.  But Jesus also calls us to be Advent.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to show others that Jesus is present.  Advent calls us to use our lives to reflect the God who wants safety and peace for God’s people, the God of compassion and love, and the God who draws near in those times when God seems most absent. 

          Advent is a time of preparation for the arrival of the Christ Child.  I believe that when we keep a holy Advent by looking for Jesus in unexpected places and using our lives to reflect the Love of God for the world, we also prepare ourselves and the world around us for his arrival whenever, where ever, and how ever Jesus decides to come.  In this holy season, let us both  Do Advent and Be Advent. 

                                                                             Amen.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Buildings


Charlotte Collins Reed
Christ Church Episcopal
November 18, 2018

28 Proper B

          Today, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of our Noack organ, an amazing instrument that has brought joy to this congregation and to the community for two decades.  Yet today, we also hear one of Jesus’ disciples say “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings” as if the Temple was all about stones and buildings.  Today, we think about the way music enhances our worship and our experience of God in this magnificent building.  Yet today, we also hear Jesus say “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Today, we sing our hearts out in some of our favorite hymns.  And at the same time, we hear Jesus talk about division, wars, earthquakes, and famines.  Clearly, our gospel lesson this morning is yet another installment in the series “I don’t pick them.  I just preach them.” 

          The commentaries clearly come down on the side of Jesus condemning beautiful places of worship, the time and resources required to maintain such buildings, and the temptation to worship the building rather than God.  On the one hand, I get that, having spent part of last week without heat in our offices.  But on the other hand, I found myself a bit annoyed.  Some years ago, I had the chance to worship at York Minster in England.  The faithful have worshipped on that site since the 7th century, and the construction of the current building took over 200 years.  More than 5 generations of people worked on the building.  They dedicated their lives to their little piece of a great cathedral being built to point the whole city to the glory of God.  The deep faith that went into such building projects is humbling, and the temple in Jerusalem was no different.  And, while I know that everyone’s experience is different, great church hymnody is key to my experience of God and of worship.  So, I found myself with little patience for what I was reading in the commentaries. 

          So, what are we to make of Jesus’ words this morning?  In the 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel, also known as Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” Jesus describes the end times, the time just before he returns.  Apocalyptic writings in scripture usually describe what is actually happening in the lives of the original readers, while also describing the salvation that will come in the future.  The original readers of Mark's gospel were being persecuted.  They were experiencing many of the kinds of things Jesus describes in this section of Mark's gospel.  In the verses following our gospel reading, Jesus continues to describe the present and coming persecution in some detail.  But in the final verses of the chapter, Jesus promises that this is not the end.  Jesus is coming and may even be here now, and Jesus calls his followers to watch.  Passages such as this give people hope that the challenges they endure do not have the final word, and the challenges do not mean that Jesus is absent.

When times are difficult, we can easily wonder where Jesus is.  Between natural disasters like the fires that rage in California, the issues of immigration and gun violence that divide families and friends, and personal challenges of health or family concerns, we can easily wonder if Jesus has disappeared or God is asleep. 

In the reading from 1 Samuel, Hannah is crushed by her lack of a child.  She is experiencing bullying by her peers and the heartbreak of infertility.   At the time when God seems most absent to her, what does Hannah do?  1 Samuel says she presents herself at the temple, but from the way the passage reads, I think she throws herself down at the temple, is deeply distressed, weeps bitterly, and pours out her soul to God.  She is reassured by Eli, the priest, that God has heard her.  God has not abandoned her, and eventually she does conceive and bear a son.  Yes, she does get her heart’s desire, which does not always happen, not even in Scripture, but the point is that, rather than run from the God who seems so absent, she drew near to God and she did so in the temple.

 Scholars do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews or the circumstances around that writing, but the words at the end of our reading this morning are among my favorites.  "And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."  Provoke one another to good deeds.  The word "provoke" actually means "to call forth" but I find myself provoked more often to anger or impatience as Hannah was by her rivals rather than being provoked to good deeds.  When the writer says "and all the more as you see the Day approaching," the writer is telling us that the need to provoke one another to love and good deeds, and not neglect to meet together only increases as challenges increase.  The early church did not gather to sing hymns, share scripture, and break bread together because life was easy.  They gathered because life was hard and they needed each other in order to be able to find Christ in their midst. They needed each other in order to be able to make Eucharist, which is the Greek word for thanksgiving, when being thankful was too hard to do alone.

As we gather this morning to worship in this beautiful space and celebrate the gift of music, Scripture reminds us that God is closest when God seems most absent, and that we experience God's closeness and find Jesus in our midst by coming together. Together we can encourage one another, provoke one another to love and good deeds so we make a difference, and stick together as we meet life’s challenges.  Scripture reminds us of what we already know-that there is strength to be found in our worship in this place, and that God can be experienced and glorified here through each other and through our worship in good times and in hard times.  Anything less would be just a building.

                                                          Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Poverty


Charlotte Collins Reed
Christ Church Episcopal
November 11, 2018

27 Proper B

          When Don and I lived in Springfield, Ohio, our church had a neighborhood fair every summer.  The church sat on the edge of the poorest neighborhood in Springfield and each August the neighbors looked forward to the afternoon of free games, food, and entertainment.  Many of the folks came year after year and were also regulars at our food pantry, so they became very familiar faces to us and we to them.

          One of the booths we offered at the Neighborhood Fair was Charlotte’s Prayer Booth and Tattoo Parlor.  Anyone with a prayer concern could come by and we would pray and they would get a free stick-on tattoo.  I was skeptical about how popular my prayer booth would be, as well as naive about how hard it is to get those tattoos to stick.  However, my afternoon was filled with people wanting prayer for all sorts of things, almost always for other people.  The folks who came to my booth were anxious to tell me about their relationship with Jesus, what Jesus had done for them, and how Jesus was holding them together.  These are folks living significantly below the poverty level.  A permanent address is considered to be a place they have lived more than a few weeks.  For many of them, our hot dogs and walking tacos were their meal for the day.  I was humbled by their cheerful reliance on God and the depth of their faith in the face of challenges I cannot begin to imagine. 

          I think about our friends at the Neighborhood Fair when I hear the stories of the widow of Zarephath and the widow with the two small coins.  The widow of Zarephath had nothing with which to make a meal other than a small bit of meal and a little oil.  Her plan was to bake a small bit of bread for herself and her son, then lie down to die.  Her life felt completely hopeless.  Elijah convinces her to make bread for him and for herself and her son and promises her that the oil and meal will not run out.  The woman does not have a lot to lose at this point, so she does as Elijah asks.  Indeed, the oil and meal never run out.  The woman was willing to let go of her hold on that last little bit of food and trust God that she would not run out.   

          Jesus tells us that the widow at the treasury, who put in her last two coins, which were worth about a penny, had put in more than the rich people who had given large sums of money.  Jesus is simply stating a fact here.  The rich people had put in out of their abundance, but the widow had put in everything she had, all that she had to live on.  Many a stewardship sermon has been preached on this passage, encouraging the faithful to be risky in their giving like the widow.  However, I think that financial stewardship is only part of the story and Jesus is calling us to something even deeper here.  Jesus has commented on the scribes who walk about in long robes, who have the best seats in the synagogue and at banquets, and who enjoy being recognized in the market place.  He sees many rich people putting in large sums of money.  But then he observes that the widow who put in her last two coins has put in the most because she has given out of her poverty. 

          The most significant statement in this story is “but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she has.”  Like the widow at Zarephath, the widow at the treasury has let go of what little she has.  Now she, like the widow at Zarephath, will have to rely utterly and completely on God for her security.  She has nothing else to rely on.  On the other hand, the scribes and rich people believe they can rely on their robes, places of honor, and riches for their security.  Likely they have homes, plenty of food, extended families, and employment.  The widow has God.

          Both of these widows call us to let go of our grip on the things that feel scarce to us and rely on God for our security.  For the widow of Zarephath and the widow at the treasury, like so many of the people at the Neighborhood Fair, that scarcity was food and money.  Life without the resources to provide for one’s family is scary and hard, and those of us who have plenty are certainly called to do God’s work in the world, helping provide for those who live in poverty.  Jesus recognized those who put in out of their abundance.  However, Jesus commended the widow for giving out of her poverty.  We live comfortable lives with enough money in our pockets and abundant food on our tables.  How do Jesus’ words about giving out of our poverty apply to us?

I believe Jesus calls us to give out of our poverty as well.  Our scarcity might be time, as the demands on our time seem to exceed the number of hours in a day.  Or our scarcity might be love as we work to love those who hold views so very different from our own.  Or perhaps our scarcity is hope as violence snuffs out even more innocent lives, or faith that we can do anything to bring about a better world.  Our poverty is whatever seems so scarce that we must hold on tightly to what little we have.  The more tightly we hold on to our scarcity, the less open we are to God’s abundance. Like the widow’s mite or the bit of oil and bread, these stories call us to let go of what feels scarce and rely on God rather than the strength of our grip.  Jesus watched the rich give out of their abundance and Jesus watched the widow give out of her poverty.  Jesus calls us to give not only out of our abundance, which requires generosity, but to give out of our poverty, which requires faith.

                                                                    Amen.

Saints


Charlotte Collins Reed
Christ Church Episcopal
November 4, 2018

All Saints’ Day

          Jeff Cohen is the doctor at Allegheny General Hospital who took care of the alleged shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue last Saturday.  Robert Bowers had been shot multiple times by police as they tried to take him into custody.  Dr. Cohen is Jewish and is a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue, as is much of the staff that cared for Bowers.  One might reasonably think that the staff would have mixed feelings about saving the life of a man who had just caused unspeakable tragedy in their very own place of worship.  But instead, when asked about treating Bowers, Dr. Cohen said, “My job isn’t to judge him…it’s to care for him.”  After meeting Bowers, the doctor said “Quite honestly, he’s just a guy.  He’s some mother’s son.  And how did he get from that to where he is today?  That’s going to be a large debate that we have to wrestle with as a society.” 

          In a week that has seen so much sadness, anger, fear, and frustration over the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings, as well as the deepening polarization in our country, as well as the challenges we or our loved ones face, the tears in three of our four readings on this All Saints’ Sunday seem to be something of a divine coincidence.  In the reading from Isaiah, we hear of a time when God will swallow up death forever and will wipe away the tears from all eyes. The reading from Revelation gives us a vision of a future in which God will be fully present with us, and will, again, wipe every tear from our eyes.  In the gospel reading, we not only see the tears of those who loved Lazarus, including Jesus, we also hear Mary’s anger: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  We hear the people’s frustration with Jesus when they say, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  These are the same tears, anger, and frustrations that we have all experienced, if not this week, then certainly some other week. 

          The tears in these readings are also our own tears as we remember those who, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “we love, but see no longer.”  We pray for those who have gone ahead of us to live eternally with God, and we take comfort in both the fact that there is no pain or grief in God’s nearer presence and in the promise that one day we will be reunited with those we love.  We look to that future time described in Isaiah and Revelation when we won’t need All Saints’ Day because all the saints will be together every day.  On that day, God will come to dwell fully with us, making for all people a feast of rich food, erasing all mourning and crying and pain, and drying all our tears.  At that time, there will be no further need to remember our loved ones with candles and prayers as death will be swallowed up forever.

          But the story of the raising of Lazarus is different.  John’s gospel begins with the words “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Then we hear “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  In Jesus, God has broken into the world in a new way and created a new reality here and now.  This morning, Jesus calls us into a new reality in which life is stronger than death as he calls to Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out!”

          Lazarus has been dead for four days.  We can wonder with those who said “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying” and ask why Jesus hasn’t raised our loved ones from the dead as well.  We can be angry along with Mary and say, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Or we can see this story for what it is-a present glimpse into the future Isaiah and Revelation describe when the fullness of God’s reign is present on earth.  The story of the raising of Lazarus shows us the power life has over death now.  The story of Lazarus calls us to come out of the tomb of division, hatred, and death and claim the power of unity, love, and life.  The story of Lazarus calls us to be about the work of making God’s future vision a present reality, by using our lives to proclaim that unity is stronger than division, love is stronger than hate, and life is stronger than death. 

          The Saints of God are people who use their lives to do just that.  In the face of division, hate, and death, Dr. Cohen said “My job isn’t to judge him, it’s to care for him” and he saw Robert Bowers not as someone to be despised for the great pain he caused, but as “some mother’s son.”  Dr. Cohen is making God’s future vision a present reality, proclaiming with his life that love is stronger than hate and life is stronger than death.  Just as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb and into life, All Saints’ Day calls us out of the tomb and into the world to proclaim with our lives that the final words belong to life and love.

                                                                             Amen. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Vending Machine


Charlotte Collins Reed
Christ Church Episcopal
October 21, 2018

24 Proper B

          One spring break many years ago, the kids and I took a quick trip to Indianapolis where the Children’s Museum had an enormous Lego exhibit.  We spent the night in a hotel with the requisite swimming pool and pizza delivery service then headed out to the museum the next morning.  The Lego exhibit was incredible with huge Lego structures to examine and plenty of Legos available for kids to experiment with on their own.  A huge water exhibit upstairs gave the kids a chance to get soaking wet while experimenting with what floats and what does not.  All in all, the trip to the museum was quite successful.  But, as was often the case with our kids, the highlight of the trip had nothing to do with the incredible displays and experiences at the museum. The highlight of the trip was the vending machine back at the hotel that magically produced hot French fries on demand.  Slocomb and Caldwell were probably 8 and 11 at the time.  They had never seen such a curiosity before, whereas they had seen plenty of Legos and lots of water.  Their young minds were fascinated by this machine which, for dollar and 90 seconds, produced piping hot French fries.  The kids spent hours trying to figure out how the vending machine managed to make hot French fries, and their ideas ranged from magic to incredibly complicated engineering.  The ability to put money in a machine and get hot fries out bordered on the miraculous for them.

          This morning, James and John approach Jesus and say to him “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” and what they want is to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus.  A friend of mine calls this the theology of Jesus the magic vending machine, turning Jesus into a dispenser of divine favors much like the vending machine that fascinated my young sons.  James and John come across self-centered at best, and arrogant at worst.  What makes their request even more mindboggling is that, in the sentences immediately before our gospel reading, Jesus predicts his passion for the third time.  Jesus has just said “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’  Not only do James and John come across as selfish and arrogant, they also seem rather insensitive.  Jesus has just told the disciples about his upcoming suffering and death, and James and John are all about places of honor beside Jesus.

          To think that James and John are selfish and insensitive is to perhaps give them more credit than they are due.  I think perhaps they are more the victims of selective hearing, rather than having heard Jesus and ignored him.  Either way, Jesus is patient with his two disciples.  Jesus says to James and John “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

          “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Earlier in Mark’s gospel, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan.  At Jesus’ baptism, he saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove.  Then the voice from heaven said “You are my Son, the beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  If this is the baptism James and John are thinking about, then no wonder they say “yes” to Jesus’ question.  This baptism, complete with a dove from heaven and affirmation straight from God, fits right in with their desire to sit at Jesus right and left hand in glory.  James and John have hit the baptism jackpot!

          But James and John have not been listening.  The cup that Jesus will drink and the baptism with which he will be baptized are described in those sentences right before the disciples make their audacious request.  No one in their right mind would sign up for being mocked, flogged, spat upon, and killed, and this is certainly not what we have in mind for little Lucy as we baptize her this morning. 

          Had James and John been listening to Jesus, not only would they have heard Jesus describe his upcoming suffering and death, they would also have heard him say “and after three days he will rise again.”  In our baptism service, the prayer over the water includes these words “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.”  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.”  Baptism is not the promise that nothing bad will ever happen to us.  Baptism recognizes that life will throw us some curve balls.  Hopefully those curve balls will not involve being mocked, flogged, spat upon, and killed, but the curve balls can knock the wind out of our sails and challenge us beyond anything we ever thought possible.  Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus is the promise that no matter how fast or hard the curve balls hit, life will always have the final word.  And then Jesus tells us that the proper response to being baptized with the Baptism of Jesus is not a victory dance, or places of honor at the table, or power and glory, but to follow the One who came not to be served, but to serve. 

          In a few minutes, we will baptize little Lucy Kosanovich.  Being baptized with the baptism of Jesus is not about getting Jesus to do for us whatever we want, or about special privileges or powers, or about never having another bad day.  Being baptized with the Baptism of Jesus is God’s promise to Lucy that the final word will always belong to life.  Lucy’s gift to God will be to live as a person who believes God’s promise to be true.  

                                                                             Amen.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Identity


Charlotte Collins Reed
Christ Church Episcopal
October 14, 2018

23 Proper B

          Tiny houses are a source of fascination for me.  I love the idea of a home that is 200 square feet or less and, at least in theory, includes everything one needs for abundant living.  200 square feet is not much space.  Our living room is that size!  Of course, to live in a tiny house, one’s belongings have to consist of the bare minimum of clothing, a few well selected cooking utensils, a couple of pieces of furniture, a cell phone and a laptop.  So, significant downsizing is required.  Hard choices have to be made about what to keep and what to get rid of.  However, tiny house enthusiasts all claim that having less stuff and a small space is actually liberating.  While I find the thought of that kind of radical downsizing completely overwhelming, several years ago I took on a Lenten discipline called 40 bags in 40 days.  The discipline was to fill a bag every day with things I no longer used and donate the bag to charity.  Forty bags did not put a dent in what I needed to get rid of, which was proven one thousand times over the next Lent when we were getting ready to move to Hudson.  But filling a bag a day with things I no longer needed was liberating as closets and drawers became less crowded and I made decisions about what I actually need and use.

          Today, Jesus seems to be calling the man in the gospel reading to a drastic downsizing. Jesus is not calling the man to simply cull his belongings so he can live in 200 square feet.  Jesus is calling the man to sell everything including the house and follow him.  Jesus did not require that much of Peter, James, and John!  All they had to do was walk away from their boats and their families and follow Jesus.  No interim step was required.  Why is Jesus so hard on the man this morning?

          Here is the hint that Jesus is not really talking about downsizing, even completely and totally, in order to follow him. 

          After the man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus says to him “You lack one thing.  Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then, come and follow me.”  Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem at this point in the gospel.  By the time the man goes home, explains all this to his wife, lists all his belongings on the first century equivalent of eBay or Craigslist, sells them, ships them to the new owners, finds a realtor, sells the house, then figures out how to distribute the proceeds among the poor, Jesus will have been arrested, tried, crucified and resurrected.  So, total and complete downsizing is not going to solve this man’s problem.  I wonder if the man went away grieving, not because he was so attached to his possessions, but because of the absolutely overwhelming, impossible task Jesus had set before him. 

          Here is the real problem.  The man asked “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The man thought he must do something to earn eternal life.  He has kept the commandments since he was a youth, but apparently did not think obedience to the law was enough.  What else must he do?

          The book of Job, from which we also hear this morning, was written to refute the belief that, as my Hebrew Bible professor used to say “Piety pays and perversity punishes.”  In other words, we earn God’s favor by being good, and we earn God’s wrath by our misdeeds.  If we are prospering, that is evidence that we are living faithfully.  If we are suffering, that is evidence that we are living sinfully.  Job, however, is suffering greatly and has not sinned.  He is so angry by the time we get to this morning’s reading that Job wants to put God on trial for the grave injustice of his plight. 

          I believe the man in the gospel lesson was completely overwhelmed by the impossibility of what Jesus requires of him.  I also believe Job is overwhelmed by his suffering and the injustice of his situation.  In the news this week, we saw countless people totally overwhelmed by natural disaster as hurricane Michael blew through and washed away everything but their very lives, and in all too many cases, lives were lost as well.  Clearly people are overwhelmed by the rancor and division in our country, and people we know and love are overwhelmed by the personal battles they fight every day.  How might these two stories help us when we are feeling utterly overwhelmed?

          The man asked Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  However, inheritance is not about doing something.  Inheritance is about identity.  We inherit because we are the beloved son or daughter or grandchild or church of someone who has died.  We are beloved children of God, and our inheritance, eternal life, is a result of that identity.  Perhaps this is what both the man and Job needed to learn.  Jesus gives the man an impossible task in order to show him that eternal life cannot be earned.  Job will learn that his blessings are a gift from God, nothing he has earned with good behavior or lost because of bad behavior. 

          Jesus looked at the man and loved him.  The importance of this story is underscored that the fact that this is the only time in Mark’s gospel when we are told that Jesus loves someone.   Jesus loves this man and he wants the man to know that God’s love for him is what gives him eternal life.  That’s all.  This is why Jesus says “How hard it will be for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.”  Like the man, we want to earn what is ours.  We know that what we earn belongs to us.  Like the man, we can easily rely on what we earn to give us our identity and forget that our real identity is as a child of God and that identity is a gift.  When the disciples ask “Who, then, can be saved?”  Jesus’ reply is that, for God, all things are possible.  What Jesus is reminding the disciples, and us, is that our status as children of God and our inheritance of eternal life is all God’s action and is a gift because God loves us.

          When we are overwhelmed by whatever life throws at us, Jesus calls us to remember our true identity and the inheritance we have already received.  Jesus calls us to rest in the knowledge that we are beloved children of God, whose inheritance is eternal life.  Nothing, no matter how overwhelming, can change that fact.

                                                                   Amen.

Connections


Charlotte Collins Reed
Christ Church Episcopal
October 7, 2018

22 Proper B

          After our father died back in April, my brother, sister, and I needed to figure out how to celebrate his life and that of our mother who died five years earlier.  For those of us who live and breathe in the church world, we have a starting point for that celebration.  We will have a funeral or memorial service.  My family of origin-my parents and siblings-does not have that starting point.  I am the sheep who left the fold in search of other pastures.  So, my siblings and I threw the great memorial cocktail party. We set the date in late June and sent out invitations by email, snail meal, word of mouth, and any other means we could think of.  Our goal was to invite anyone who wanted to come and celebrate the lives of our parents.

          When the day arrived, my brother, sister, and I were bowled over by both the people who came from far and near, and the deep connections we felt with people we had not seen in decades.  George, our babysitter when we were elementary school children, came from California. I’m pretty sure I had not seen George since 1970.  I had not seen Burton, our cousin from Nashville, since our grandmother died in 1988.  Julie was our dad’s friend from elementary school in New York during World War 2, and I hadn’t seen her in at least 40 years.  And 90-year-old Harry was our next door neighbor in New Jersey in the 1980’s.  Despite the time and distance since our last encounters, the deep and lasting connections we had with each other were renewed in a single short afternoon.  Our friends and family span the religious and political spectrum from one end clear to the other.  But our shared stories, laughter, and memories gave us an experience of our common bond and deep connection that I will not soon forget.

          Job, on the other hand, is feeling quite the opposite this morning.  In a story that develops over many chapters and raises more questions than answers, Job finds himself tested by Satan and disconnected from his health, his family and friends, his belongings, and his future.  The story raises disturbing questions about God when we hear God agree to let Satan test Job's faith right up to the limit of taking Job's life.  While the intent of the story is to wrestle with the problem of why bad things happen to good people, the story also points to the fundamental importance of being connected with other people as part of our being connected to God. 

The Pharisees have no interest whatsoever in connections this morning. In fact, their intent is quite the opposite as they arrive to test Jesus.  They ask Jesus "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This is perhaps one of the most difficult and painful gospel lessons in the lectionary and I know from your faces as the gospel lesson was read that you are wondering what I will do with this text. However, the Pharisees are not really interested in Jesus’ teaching on divorce.  They are interested in trying to trap Jesus in a loose/loose situation.   The Pharisees ask Jesus "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" If Jesus says "no," he will contradict the teaching of Moses, which allowed a man to write his wife a certificate of dismissal and divorce her. He will also be in trouble with the Romans, since just 4 chapters earlier John the Baptist lost his head, literally, for being critical of Herod Antipas who had divorced his wife to marry his brother’s former wife. If Jesus says "yes," he will raise a whole host of legal and theological questions about marriage. Jesus appears to be trapped.

          Our response to this gospel reading often divides us in one of two camps.  For those of us who have never been divorced, we can easily think that finally there is one hard teaching of Jesus does not apply to us.  For those of us who have experienced the pain of divorce, this passage can make us feel judged, alienated, and condemned by the church, if not Jesus.   Whenever we think Jesus is dividing us, however, we should probably read a bit more closely. 

To respond to the Pharisees’ test, Jesus appeals to Scripture as he usually does when being tested. But Jesus does not appeal to the law of Moses, which would give a straight forward answer to the question put to him. Instead Jesus raises the stakes much higher and appeals to the Creation stories which remind us that we are all connected. Jesus’ answer to the question about divorce is really a teaching about all those places where hardness of heart has caused separation and division that is contrary to creation as God intended it.  The rancor, finger pointing, and name calling we have seen over the past weeks on all manner of issues have brought out the worst on all sides of every issue. I believe God’s heart is broken by the way human beings treat each other.  God created us to be connected, even when we disagree.

Jesus is not letting any of us off the hook this morning.  The Pharisees came to test Jesus with a question about divorce. The answer they anticipated would give separation and division the final word. Instead, Jesus reaches all the way back to the creation of humankind to give them and us an answer that applies to all occasions of human brokenness and gives our connection with each other the final word. Then Jesus takes little children into his arms and blesses them. Little children understand that their survival depends on their connection to God and other people.  This morning, Jesus holds before us the deep connections God intended for us in creation and intends for us now and always.
                                                          Amen.