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Sermon: Epiphany 5B
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
Have you ever seen that series of DayQuil commercials, in which a person is seen standing in a doorway, explaining to someone that they’re sick and need to take a sick day? When the camera pans to the person they’re talking to, it’s not their boss; it’s a crying baby or a sad little girl ready for a tea party. The narrator’s voice then says, “Moms (or Dads) don’t take sick days. Moms (or Dads) take DayQuil.”
The advertising for DayQuil aside, I so relate to these commercials. Remember that I spent years as a stay-at-home mom, many of those years overlapping with my husband’s years in the professional testing-ground. He didn’t have the freedom to take off work when I was sick so that I wouldn’t have to take care of the kids. So I had to power through. I remember once I was SO sick, and Brad was at work, and my kids were being especially demanding. When I finally got them down for a nap, I laid down in my bed, closed my eyes, and thought, “Maybe I have the flu, and it will get so bad I’ll have to go to the hospital, and people will have to take care of ME. That’d be SO cool.” I fell asleep to that fantasy.
So I always have an instinctual bad reaction to the story of Peter’s mother-in-law being healed by Jesus. In this very brief story in today’s gospel, we’re told that Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then, in one sentence, we’re told, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
I always want to say, “Seriously? The woman’s been sick and in bed, and the moment she gets better, she has to jump up and get you some nachos and beer?”
And that’s the better of my two reactions. Secretly, I always wonder at the fact that Jesus healed her by hauling her out of bed. As if the Son of God were saying, “Woman, my followers don’t take sick days. Now get up and make me a sandwich.”
Of course, that’s not what the Son of God was up to. The better part of me knows that. And the message of this gospel is not that Christians don’t take sick days—that we’re all supposed to deny our own physical needs and limitations, power through, and serve the Lord until we collapse in sheer exhaustion. That’s not what this gospel is about.
Instead, this gospel is about healing and renewal and wellness, and how God is actually very concerned with all three.
Notice that the gospel as it is written doesn’t have Jesus say anything at all as he heals Peter’s mother-in-law. He doesn’t ask her for nachos and beer, or for a sandwich. He doesn’t kneel by her bedside and say, “Psst…Lady. I’ll heal you if you promise to make me a killer pot of chili after.” No—he just healed her. And knowing Jesus as we do, there are a whole bunch of reasons he might have healed her, none of which have to do with food.
Maybe he healed her because he loved and cared for Simon Peter, who loved and cared for her.
Or maybe Jesus knew her before he walked into her house that day, and he loved and cared for her directly.
Or maybe Jesus just saw a sick woman and had compassion for her.
Or maybe Jesus healed her because that’s what God does. God heals us.
Life is rarely as simple as a bunch of “or” statements make it seem, but we know for sure that the last thing I said is the truth: “Or maybe Jesus healed her because that’s what God does. God heals us.” We know that is true because the gospel goes on to talk about later that day, when “people brought him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of illness. That’s a lot of healing. And there’s absolutely no indication that Jesus asked for anything in return.
So what’s the deal with Simon Peter’s mother-in-law? Why does the gospel make sure to tell us that when the fever left her, she began to serve him?
Because that’s the proper response to being healed by God. Gratitude. Thankfulness. And both of those things lived out in loving service to God and others.
This gospel isn’t about a woman who was healed and then put to work. This is about a woman who was healed and then got to work, doing what she could to further God’s kingdom.
And that’s what we’re called to do.
FULL STOP. Let’s hold on a moment here. What did you just hear me say we’re called to do? Take a moment to think about this. I said, “This is about a woman who was healed and then got to work, doing what she could to further God’s kingdom. And that’s what we’re called to do.” What did I just say we’re called to do?
I’m the one who wrote those lines, and even I heard myself saying that we’re called to get to work for the kingdom. It took me a while to hear myself saying that we’re called to be healed.
But we are. They go hand in hand. We’re called to let God heal us, to renew us, to make us well. And then we’re called to get to work.
Jesus even lives this same pattern in this gospel. He’s out healing all those people—he’s working. And then in the morning, before the crack of dawn, he goes out to a deserted place to pray. He’s healing himself, renewing himself, making himself well, by spending some time with his Father. And then those disciples come and hunt him down and, renewed and healed, he gets back to work.
Even Jesus didn’t run on fumes. We see this pattern repeated time and again in the gospels. Jesus was constantly retreating, going to deserted places by himself, to pray.
We are called to spend time with God, letting God heal and renew us, increasing our wellness. And when we have done that, we are called to get to work, but not forever. Sooner or later, we need to spend some more time with God, letting God heal and renew us once again, to increase our wellness yet again.
It’s meant to be a constant cycle, a constant pattern, just as it was for Jesus. We are to seek renewal and wellness, then get to work, then seek renewal and wellness again, and then get to work again. Over and over and over again.
I don’t think it’s any secret why the Holy Spirit would have sent me this sermon message for today: it’s a sermon message that I needed to hear. Most of you know that I work hard, both here and at home. I’ve admitted to some of you that when the work load gets heavy, I tend to fall into the trap of cutting my prayer and study time so that I might accomplish more tasks. That’s not good. That’s not the pattern that the gospel gives me. I’m supposed to shape my life differently.
And so are you.
I worry, sometimes, about how many of you see this place as work—as a place that demands things of you. And to be fair—it is those things; it is meant to be. But this place should also be a place of renewal, of wellness, of healing. Our churches should be places of renewal, wellness, and healing. If they’re not—well, then, we’re missing an important part of the point. We’re missing an important part of who Jesus is.
Recently, a man named Scott Stoner was on a podcast that I listen to, “Priest Pulse.” Stoner is the Executive Director of Living Compass, a wellness ministry dedicated to making congregations centers of God-centered, whole-self wellness. He talked about how when he gets into conversations with strangers and explains to them what he does, he most often hears, “Huh. I never thought of church as a place of wellness.” And he said that’s just about the saddest thing he’s ever heard.
And I agree. That’s incredibly sad, and incredibly anti-Christian.
So, I need to say this. If this place, this parish, is not a place of wellness for you, then please come talk to me. Yes, I like to get things done. I like to work for the Kingdom. But a congregation cannot be productive unless it is well. You are more important to me than what you can do.
So yes, Scripture and the demands of parish life both call us to get to work. But let’s not forget that other step, the other part of the Christian life. We’re also called to give ourselves the time to let God (and, by extension, the Body of Christ, or other people) heal us, renew us, make us well. To let Jesus take us by the hand and lift us up. Not because he needs us to make him a sandwich. But because he loves us, and because that’s what God does.
The Forward Movement’s daily podcast always ends in prayer, and often ends in a prayer that I find especially useful today. So let us pray:
Oh God, I will try this day to live a simple, sincere and serene life, repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust, and a childlike faith in God.
In particular I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating, and sleep which I believe the Holy Spirit has shown me to be right.
And as I cannot in my own strength do this, nor even with a hope of success attempt it, I look to thee, O Lord God my Father, in Jesus my Savior, and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon: Epiphany 4B
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I know something of what it means, what it’s like, to ask that question: “Jesus, what have you to do with me, with us?” I wonder if you too know something of what it means, what it’s like, to ask that question. Of what drives us there, to that place.
Truth be told, today’s gospel lesson from Mark is full of distractions. Perhaps the most distracting element in this story is that the man that Jesus meets is possessed, and Jesus exorcises the unclean spirit. When we read this, as 21st-century readers and thinkers, we might begin by thinking that we don’t really believe in demon possession. That’s the stuff of movies. And then our imaginations might wander to what those movies have shown us of possession and exorcism: bodies levitating, heads spinning, superhuman feats of strength, strange and otherworldly voices coming out of the mouths of children. Well-meaning but clearly out-of-their-depth Catholic priests throwing holy water around and shouting prayers and commands in the name of God, while sometimes ending up being thrown themselves, from the room, out a window, to their deaths.
Now that I’ve planted all of that in your brains, I’m asking you to forget it all. It’s a distraction from what this gospel has to say to us. And worse yet, when we read this gospel through the lens of Hollywood tale-spinning, we end up saying, “This is the stuff of fiction, of sensationalism. What does this gospel have to do with us, a bunch of middle-class, salt-of-the-earth, level-headed Episcopalians? What does this gospel have to with us?”
Just this. If you’ve ever asked yourself the question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” then this gospel was written for you. If you’ve ever known someone who has asked the question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” then this gospel was also written for you. And I’m guessing that means that this gospel was written for every single person in this church today.
Because what drives people to ask that question is nothing more nor less than an unclean spirit.
Now. Before you think I’ve gone off the deep-end, or before you start thinking, “Oh good, she’s finally going to lay out a plan for our spiritual warfare against the demon world,” hear me out. Hear what a reading of Scripture has led me to believe about unclean spirits.
The Old Testament, and particularly the Penteteuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) are full of a concern regarding what is clean and what is unclean, about who is clean and who is unclean. Unlike what we might think, being unclean didn’t necessarily mean that someone lived an immoral or unethical life. One became unclean, for example, if one touched a corpse—even if that touching was done in order to prepare a loved one for burial. One became unclean if one ate an unclean animal, like a pig. One became unclean if one had a contagious disease, like leprosy and other skin diseases. A menstruating woman was unclean, as was one who had just given birth. Having a child or a skin disease didn’t mean that one was immoral, and there are certain types of uncleanness which could be redeemed, purified, and the person made clean once again.
On the other hand, a person could become unclean by killing someone, or by having illicit sex, or by worshipping other gods. These were considered immoral acts, and were punishable, often by death.
So, uncleanness might be caused by disease, contamination, infection, or sin. Why were all these things categorized as uncleanness?
Because the concept of uncleanness simply meant that one was in a state of being separated from God. It meant that one was separated from the worship of God.
I could go on and on. I’m not kidding. I could talk about why eating pigs was considered an unclean act that made the eater unclean. I could theorize at length about why a woman who had just given birth was considered unclean. I could explain why touching a corpse, even if it was to prepare a loved one for burial, made a person unclean, and why that’s actually not as cold as we might think. ‘Cause I’m a geek and this topic actually really interests me. But I don’t need to go on and on.
Instead, here’s what I want you to understand. An unclean spirit like the one we see in today’s gospel isn’t necessarily an evil spirit, or an immoral spirit. Being possessed of an unclean spirit simply meant that something in this man’s life was separating him from God, and doing so in a pretty permanent way.
In fact, I would argue that if this man’s unclean spirit was immoral, the man would be dead—he would have been killed.
Instead, this man was probably sick. Perhaps he was physically sick—since his exorcism included convulsions, he might have had a seizure disorder. Or he may have been mentally ill. But whatever was wrong with this man, it had separated him from God, from fully and truly worshipping the Lord. His spirit was unclean, or it been invaded by something unclean.
This doesn’t mean that I’m trying to make a spiritual matter into a physical one. What both the Bible AND science tell us is that body, mind, and spirit are intricately related. Our physical health impacts our spiritual health, and vice versa. But I’m guessing that I’m not telling you anything new. Chronic pain does its best to separate us from God. Chronic illness does its best to separate us from God. Mental illness does it best to separate us from God. How much harder is it to pray when our joints are screaming? How much harder is it to focus on our relationship with God when we’re always nauseated, or always fighting infection, or always fighting to move the way we want to move? How much harder is it to be right with God when we’re constantly battling overwhelming sadness, or anxiety, or feelings of paranoia, or the urge to self-harm?
No, I would guess that this man wasn’t evil. He was sick. His life had become a nightmare, and it might have felt like his personality had been taken over by alien powers—as indeed, it had been. He was no longer the man he had been created to be. He had an unclean spirit.
How many of us know what that is like? How many of us know someone who knows what that is like?
And here’s the thing. Scripture lays out degrees of uncleanness. I would argue that to have an unclean spirit doesn’t just mean that one’s life has become a nightmare. In fact, the Apostle Paul argues that all human beings are unclean because of inherited sin. We all live in a state of uncleanness because we live in a broken world. So I don’t need to be clinically depressed in order to be separated from God. I just need to be sad, or grieving, or hurting. We might be less separated from God if we’re sad rather than clinically depressed. We might be less separated from God if we tend to worry rather than struggle with clinical anxiety. But we’re still separated from God, to a degree, and for a time.
In other words, we all have unclean spirits.
What are yours?
That’s not a hypothetical question. I’m not going to ask you to speak out loud, but I am going to give you a moment to ask yourself, “How is my spirit unclean? What separates me from God?” You might find sin. In fact, you’ll definitely find sin. But you also might find other things. Things outside of your control. What are your unclean spirits? What are their names?
Now that I’ve taken you to that yicky place, are you ready for some good news?
Let’s go back to the man in the gospel with the unclean spirit. The man who was sick, whose life had become a nightmare, whose personality had been overcome by alien powers, who was no longer the man he had been created to be. Let’s go back to him. What happened to him?
My friends, Jesus happened to him.
Jesus entered the scene and spoke a word and healed him. Made him clean. Brought him back to himself. Restored his relationship with God.
Because Jesus has that authority. That is the major message of today’s gospel. That Jesus has a spiritual authority that is unparalleled. That his authority disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. That his authority liberates us, it heals us. His authority returns us to ourselves and to our God.
So, if Jesus has this authority, why do we continue to suffer? Why do illness and contagion and sin continue to impact us?
The answer is, I don’t know. I’ve said this before: I don’t know completely what God is up to.
But here’s what I do know.
When Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth, he healed people, yes. But he didn’t heal all people, everywhere. He released this one man from his unclean spirit, but he didn’t banish the unclean spirits from the face of the earth. The reign of God is both now and not yet.
That means that the healing of the man with the unclean spirit points us toward something. It points us toward a God who would and will heal us. It points us toward an eschatological future in which there are no more unclean spirits. In which all there is is God and us and God’s unfailing love for us.
And it points us toward what we’re called to do in the meantime. New Testament scholar Brian Blount argues that readers of Mark’s gospel are invited to follow Jesus into a whole new world, into a world of Jesus walking around possessed by the power of the Spirit of God. We’re invited to go with him and help him create the holy people and the holy world that he’s creating.
And that begins by taking care of ourselves—body, mind, and spirit. It means eating right and drinking right. It means getting enough sleep. It means exercising. It means reading books and watching TV shows and movies and engaging with technology in ways that feed the mind. It means developing coping mechanisms to get us through what’s tough. It means nurturing healthy relationships with one another. It means knowing when to go to the doctor, and when to go to the therapist. (And by the way, why is it that getting help for our medical woes doesn’t carry a stigma, but getting help for our emotional and psychological woes still does? Let’s stop that already.) It means reading our Bibles. It means praying. It means worshipping. It means knowing when to get the spiritual help that we all need.
But that’s not where it stops. Because we’re also called to be Jesus here on earth—to be filled with, to be possessed by, the Spirit of God and to transform and heal others. I’m not talking about faith healing, necessarily, though I never rule that out. But I am talking about spotting the unclean spirits in others and lovingly and compassionately naming them, exposing them. And then helping to banish their unclean spirits. To speak the word and to do the things that will replace the unclean with the clean, to banish the unclean in favor of the Spirit of God. To help bring them back to themselves, and to help bring them back to God.
So, what has this gospel to do with us? Only everything. What has Jesus to do with us? Only everything. Thanks be to God for that. And Amen.
State of the Parish Address 2018
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“Almighty and everliving God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP 817)
Last November, on her show On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Jesuit priest Fr. Greg Boyle. Fr. Boyle works with gang members in the Los Angeles projects. In the middle of the interview, he told a story that had happened early in his Los Angeles ministry. Here’s what he said:
“I can remember walking in the projects late at night, long ago, and there was this kid, Mario, sitting by himself, 16 years old, just sitting on his little stoop in front of the crummy old projects. So I see him, and I greet him: ‘Hey, how you doing?’ And I sit down next to him, and he goes, ‘It’s funny that you should show up right now.’ And I say, ‘Why?’ ‘Well, I was just sitting here praying, and I said, “God, show me a sign that you’re as great as I think you are.” And then you showed up.’”
Funny how a 16-year-old gang-banger from Los Angeles could perfectly express what it means to be God’s disciple, what it means to follow Christ. When I heard the story, I actually paused the podcast, and I thought, “You know, if I had to sum up what I would wish for St. John of the Cross, and for the members of her congregation, that’s what I would say. I would wish that people—people who walk in our doors and those who don’t, or who don’t all that often or who don’t walk in for the reasons that we might wish—would say, “Well, I was just sitting here praying, and I said, ‘God, show me a sign that you’re as great as I think you are.’ And then this parish, or a member of this parish, showed up.”
That’s it. That’s my vision. My ministry here, and our ministry together, will most likely never be widely talked about. I’ll never be interviewed by Krista Tippett; they’ll never make a movie of the ministry we do here—even if I have picked out who would play me in that movie. Our ministry is not half as sexy as the ministry that Fr. Boyle does. But we’re all working for the same things. We’re all working to show a world that so desperately needs it the greatness of God and of God’s love for us.
I’ve done this a little backwards, I realize. Usually, I present the numbers and talk about where we’ve been and how we’ve done in the past year, and then I present the vision. Today, I’ve presented the vision first. And it’s not even a very specific vision. But I did so because as I present to you the numbers—those quantifiable measures of how we’re doing—I want us to hold them in tension with that vision. What do the numbers have to say about how well we’re living that vision, or how do they help us work toward that vision, and how do they fall short of really measuring how well we show up, of how well we show people the greatness of God and of God’s love?
So. Here are the major numbers. And here’s what I think they mean and don’t mean.
Our membership is stable. It’s been stable since I came here in late 2014. Every year, we get a few people, and we lose a few people, to death or to relocation or to other circumstances. Here’s what I think is good about that. Church membership has been dropping across denominations for decades. The Wednesday night group and I were just talking about this: there was a time when everyone went to church on Sunday mornings. That isn’t the case anymore. Now, church is one option in a buffet of Sunday-morning offerings. Take that, and add to it the number of people who have been hurt by their churches, and there’s less of a reason for people to go to church, much less to join a church. So the fact that our membership has remained stable just might indicate that there are people who walk into this place, who walk into our midst, and see something of God, and choose to stay. That’s good news.
Our Average Sunday Attendance, however, is on the rise. This is my fourth State of the Parish Address. In 2014 and 2015, our ASA was 38. In 2016, it went up to 41. Last year, it went up again, to 44. Let me tell you what I find exciting about this number. As someone pointed out to me recently, the lower our Sunday attendance, the emptier and deader our church feels. The higher our Sunday attendance, the fuller and livelier it feels. A few extra people in church really does make a difference! It’s hard to see and know a great God in a church that feels empty and dead. So yes, it really does matter whether or not you show up here on Sunday morning. It matters in terms of your own relationship with God, sure. But it also matters because your presence here is a sign of God’s greatness for all those around you and for all those who walk in our doors. The more we show up, the closer we get to the vision, the closer we get to true discipleship.
The budget numbers are where things get really exciting. I don’t want to steal Terry Scott’s thunder, and you will get more detailed information in the business portion of the meeting, but the really outstanding news that you need to know is that you are faithful stewards of this parish. Not only did we end 2017 with our general operating fund over $17,000 in the black, but then our pledge income increased by nearly 24% between 2017 and 2018. Our General Operating Budget is 20% higher this year than it was last year. And since 2014? Well, since 2014, our pledge numbers have gone up 127%.
If that didn’t just take your breath away . . . Well, it takes mine away.
So first, let me say thank you. Thank you for your outstanding stewardship of this parish. Thank you for trusting me and the Vestry to be good stewards of the resources that you place in our hands.
But here’s what makes those stewardship and budget numbers really exciting.
Parishes that are cash-poor tend to be anxious and inward-looking. They’re so worried about how to keep the lights on, the doors open, and the priest paid that they cannot focus on mission, on making God visible out in the world. They don’t have the money to devote to programs that build disciples, or to outreach that allows them to show up to be Jesus for a world that so desperately needs him. A lack of money, in other words, is a distraction. A well-funded parish, on the other hand, doesn’t carry the same anxieties. Its people can develop and participate in programs that form disciples, and they can go out into the world, living witnesses to the Jesus movement, to God’s love for us.
So, there’s lots in the numbers over which we may rejoice, and lots of reasons for rejoicing. These numbers facilitate the vision that I gave you at the beginning: that we might be a sign to one another and to others outside of our parish of the greatness of God and of God’s love for us. And that is good news indeed.
Now, here’s why I don’t think the numbers are as important as we think they are.
God is even greater than the numbers.
In today’s gospel, we hear the story of Jesus calling four men. Four. When Jesus began his active ministry, his first act wasn’t to go out and build a mega-church. He went out and called people, one by one. His apostles numbered only twelve. His band of steady and faithful followers was never huge.
And that is consistent with what the Old Testament has to say about the numbers. Check this out from the Book of Deuteronomy, and hear the words that God spoke to his people then through his prophet Moses:
“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery . . . Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-9)
That’s why the numbers don’t matter nearly as much as we think they do. Because the Lord our God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.
And we’re about to start celebrating 175 years in Bristol. That’s chump change. God is faithful and maintains covenant loyalty not just for 175 years, but to a thousand generations.
Nonetheless, that 175 years is a part of my vision for how we might be a sign of God’s greatness out in the world.
Because it doesn’t get that much older in this part of the nation than 175.
The Midwest didn’t start opening up to white settlers until the early 1800s. Bristol was platted in 1835, making it one of the oldest towns in Elkhart County. And this parish dates back to 1843. Now we should never, ever, ignore the rich history and culture of the indigenous peoples who lived here before white settlers ever showed up. But if you’re measuring the history of white settlement and of Christianity, 175 years old is about as old as it gets in northern Indiana.
And God has been faithful to us, to this parish and to this community, all that time. And God promises to remain faithful to a thousand generations.
In other words, when we celebrate 175 years, and when we do so in a way that is publicly visible, we act as a sign of the greatness of God, of God’s love for and faithfulness to us. This church showed up 175 years ago. And we continue to show up. And thus, people will know that God shows up too—always has, and always will.
175 years ago, the founders of this parish began building what today is just a portion of this building—just the sanctuary from the side aisles on in. Since then, our building has expanded—just as God’s love for us is spacious and expansive. And the roof that shelters us, that protects us, has expanded as well. God’s sheltering love, the wings that hide us and hold us, is spacious and expansive beyond our imagining.
And this year we will tear that roof off. And we will put it back on—stronger and better, better able to protect us from the wind and the rain, from the storms that surround us.
In the midst of all that, in the midst of the scaffolding and the lifts, the workers and the mess, let’s not forget that while the shelter of roofs eventually fail and need to be replaced, God’s sheltering love never fails. We may trust in God at all times.
But more than that, even, I would argue that as we replace this roof, we are called to be figurative roof-builders ourselves. We are called to be a visible sign for all those who sit on their little stoops praying for God to show them a sign that he is great. We are called to be a sign for all those who sit on their little stoops too tired or jaded or hurt to pray at all. To be a sign that God is great. That God is their fortress, their refuge, their shelter. That God will protect them from the storm. That God will hide them under the shadow of his wings.
We can invite more people into the shelter of this place, of course, but we can also extend the safety and the freedom that we know here to others. We can cover their little stoops and free them from the discomfort of the wind and the rain, and from the terrors of the storm.
So, what is the state of this parish?
This is the state of this parish: The Lord your God is God. God is faithful, even to a thousand generations. God hides us under the shadow of his wings. God loves us with a love that is spacious and expansive. And God is greater than the numbers. Even when the numbers are going in the right direction, God is greater than the numbers. That is the state of this parish.
So this year, let’s go and meet people sitting on their little stoops, desperately needing a sign that God is indeed great. And let’s show them that God is—that God is great and faithful and sheltering and loving and spacious and expansive. Let’s show them that God is God.
Sermon: The First Sunday After the Epiphany, or the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ (January 7, 2018)
Sermon: Epiphany 1B (The Baptism of Our Lord)
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I originally returned to church because I was lonely.
Many of you know that I wandered away from faith and from church around the age of 19. I tell a host of stories which all end with the sentence: “And that began my long, slow march back to faith.” But the truth of the matter is, there was never one moment that began my journey back to God and the church. There were many moments, all of which added up together into a willingness to return. But the actual thing that drove me back into a church building was that I was lonely.
I was a stay-at-home mom. My husband worked long hours. On an average day, I hung out with my two very small children. I needed someone to talk to besides them. I needed adult interaction. And I figured that church would give me that. Besides which, my husband and I had decided that we wanted to raise our kids within a church community. So eventually, I walked into Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan, IL, and then later into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mishawaka.
Perhaps loneliness wasn’t the most godly or holy reason to go to church. But it got me in the door. And then God really got to work—on me and on my life. Even before that, God was working in ways that I didn’t see, didn’t suspect, and certainly wouldn’t have understood.
I suspect I still don’t. Actually, I more than suspect. I know that I don’t fully see, or fully suspect, or fully understand all that God is up to—in my life, in the life of this congregation, in the life of the Church, in the world.
Just as all of the people gathered around John the Baptist the day that Jesus was baptized had no idea of the magnificence of what God was doing in their very midst.
Today’s gospel begins by telling us that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” That’s a lot of people going into the wilderness to see and experience a man.
I wonder why they went.
Nearly every scholar that I read makes the claim that all those people were there with John the Baptist because he was preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and they recognized within themselves and within the Jewish community a need for that. And that makes sense—sort of. But here’s the thing. I’ve been hanging out in churches for just long enough to realize that not everyone is there for the reasons that we might think. So I suspect that some of the people who flocked to John the Baptist were there to repent and be forgiven of their sins. But not all.
What about the others?
This is just speculation, of course, but I suspect that some went to John the Baptist because they were discontent with the Judaism of Herod and Caiaphas, the Judaism of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, of the scribes and the high priests, and they went in hopes of finding something better.
I suspect that some went to John the Baptist because they heard that the prophet Elijah had returned, and who wouldn’t want to see and hear Elijah?
I suspect that some went because they had heard about this strange thing happening—a man clothed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey was ranting about sin in the middle of the wilderness. And they were curious. Or in need of entertainment. They went to see the show.
I suspect that some went because someone pressured them into going.
I know that some went so that they expose the charlatan, the fraud, that was drawing all these crowds.
And maybe, just maybe, some went because they were lonely. Outcast. Alone. And hanging out in the wilderness with the baptizer made them feel a little less lonely, like they were a part of something.
I suspect that not everyone who showed up in the wilderness went for the best of reasons.
But there they all were, whatever their reasons, and Jesus showed up. Emmanuel. God with us. But most of them didn’t know that. He was just another guy.
And when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended and a voice came from heaven.
This is mind-blowing stuff. It’s even more mind-blowing if we understand what Mark meant when he said that the heavens were torn apart, or opened. In Scripture, “heaven” often means God’s dimension behind ordinary reality. Somehow, we have gotten this picture of heaven being in the sky somewhere, but we know that can’t be true. “Heaven,” biblically understood, exists just beyond or behind earthly reality. So when the heavens were torn apart or opened, it’s as though an invisible curtain that we can’t see but is right in front of us was suddenly pulled back, and a different reality, a divine reality, a holy reality, was revealed. And in that moment, heaven and earth were joined. Just as God and humanity are one in Jesus.
Can you see it? Can you close your eyes and see the curtain that divides heaven and earth, God and humanity, pulled back? Can you sense the Spirit entering our realm? Can you hear God’s voice around you?
If you can, then you have more than any of those people at the Jordan that day, with the exception of Jesus.
‘Cause here’s the thing. Scripture is clear. Just as Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart. Not they. Not them. He. The Gospel of Matthew uses the same pronouns. Luke is vague. The Gospel of John has John the Baptist testify that he saw the Spirit of God come down upon Jesus. It would seem that this was a sight, an experience, a revelation not meant for everyone. All those people, gathered at the Jordan, for all their various reasons, and they had no idea what God was doing in their midst. They had no idea what was really going on. They couldn’t see or feel or hear the extraordinary, wonderful, grace-filled, holy thing that God was doing.
My friends, I don’t know what brought you here today. I don’t know what brings you to church at all. It might be God. It might be a desire for the holy. Or it might be guilt. It might be pressure from someone else. It might be curiosity. It might be hope. It might be loneliness. It might be any number of things. And it might be different things on different days.
But here’s what I know.
I know that when I get done talking, and I stand at that altar and we pray together, the Spirit will descend and bread and wine will become Jesus, and in that moment the curtain that divides heaven and earth will be pulled back a little. When we sing, we will sing in the company of angels and archangels and the whole communion of saints. When we consume the Eucharist, the divide between human and divine will become a little thinner. Again. When we leave here, we will leave as the Body of Christ here on earth.
But much of the time, it doesn’t look like anything spectacular, does it? It looks like a kooky woman wearing funny clothes doing the same thing week after week, with a bunch of people watching and participating. Standing and kneeling and standing again, doing liturgical calisthenics. Saying the right words at the prescribed times. And when we leave, we leave to be ourselves, living our normal lives and doing normal things. Or so it seems.
That’s where faith comes in.
A good deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by and in this different reality—this reality in which the curtain is drawn back and heaven and earth are one—even when we can’t see it. It’s learning that God is with us, even when we cannot sense him. It’s learning that the Spirit has descended and God’s voice speaks within us and around us and through us—even when life feels very mundane. Yes, there are times when some of us see the curtain drawn back, and we can begin to sense what God is really doing, what is really going on. But most of the time, we walk by faith, not by sight.
Those people at the Jordan River had no idea what was going on in their midst—what God was up to.
The first time I walked into Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan, IL, I had no idea what God was doing, what God would do.
I suspect that most days, when I walk into this church, I do so with very little understanding of what God has in store for us, and how we fit into God’s plan, God’s narrative. And neither do you.
But the story of Jesus’ baptism assures us that God is at work, in extraordinary and miraculous and grace-filled ways that would take our breath away if we only knew.
And it invites us to actively look for it—to discover in our own lives the normally hidden heavenly dimension of God’s world. At work in us.
My friends, two weeks from now, we’re going to gather together for our Annual Meeting. And if we’re lucky, it will feel very mundane. We’ll talk about the roof and how to pay for it. We’ll talk about our upcoming anniversary celebration. We’ll vote for wardens and vestry members and convention delegates. We’ll hear reports—numbers and financials and such. And it may be difficult to see how God is at work in all of that business.
But God is. Whatever brings you to that Annual Meeting—and you ARE being called to Annual Meeting—whatever brings you to church, whatever you feel or don’t feel or sense or don’t sense or understand or don’t understand, God is at work. Doing marvelous things.
Won’t it be glorious when it’s all revealed?
Isn’t it glorious to be a part of it? Even if much of the time, we walk by faith, not by sight.
Sermon: Christmas 1B
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many of you know that I worked at Notre Dame for 6 years, in a unit called the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, with some of those years overlapping my years here. I worked in a relatively small office; there were just 7 of us. I was my supervisor’s only direct report; my supervisor’s name was Anthony.
Anthony is an amazing man in many ways. With a doctorate in English, he has done a variety of odd things at various universities. At the Nanovic Institute, he was the Associate Director of Academics. As such, he had fashioned himself into a true Renaissance Man. He could discuss literature, sure. But he could also discuss, with the best of them, architecture, sociology, psychology, history, theology, wine making—the works. And as the Associate Director of Academics, Anthony functioned largely as a visionary. He spent much of his time dreaming dreams—spinning cobwebs in the air—and then trying to sell them to others. He functioned up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head), in a world of ideas and musings, of air castles and enterprises.
I hadn’t worked for him very long when I realized that he needed a foil. He needed me to be the person with her feet planted firmly on the ground, setting limits AND helping develop the structures that would make his visions reality.
And so I became the creator of humongous spreadsheets. I established and published and enforced rules and guidelines. I knew the budget. I concerned myself with precedent. My computer was full of templates that I had created. I understood university procedures. I was the keeper of the files.
And more than that, I was the one who often called my supervisor to the mat. “Anthony,” I would say, “I have a deadline at 5:00pm tomorrow. If you want me to make it, I need you to make decisions on that stack of yellow file folders that I gave you 2 weeks ago.” “Anthony, can you please explain to me why we bother to put together a faculty selection committee if we’re just going to do whatever you want to do anyway?” “Anthony, we’re already overbudget.” “Anthony, Notre Dame International is going to throw a fit.” “Anthony, I really think we need to pass this by legal.” “Anthony, there’s no way I can do this and remain part-time.” “Anthony, a deadline is a deadline. We cannot bend a deadline just because you want to.”
But more than that, Anthony and I both worked to serve the students, but because he usually functioned up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head), I was the one who knew and formed relationships with the students. I knew what they were working on, and how they were going about it. I knew some of the details of their lives. I reported those details to him when necessary, sometimes making pleas for one student or another.
We were the perfect team. And I’m not even kidding. Because what the Academics branch of the Nanovic Institute needed was both someone who functioned up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) AND someone who kept her boots firmly on the ground. Without me, things wouldn’t have gotten done, or the things that got done would have been late, way overbudget, and made a thousand people mad. Without him, the Institute would have lacked vision and heart and soul.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I want to suggest (humbly) that Anthony and I can function as an imperfect analogy for God as revealed to us in the first chapter of John, and in all the gospels, really.
But to explain this, I need to review with you two words that both describe God.
The first word: transcendence. God is transcendent. That means that God exists beyond the normal or physical level. It means that God is not just a bigger, better, more powerful version of us; God is completely other. God is un-understandable. God is mystery. God exists outside of the created order, because God created the created order. God is up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) in some vague, unknowable, all-powerful, completely sovereign way.
Think, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and you get a pretty good idea of God’s transcendence.
The second word: immanence. God is immanent. To be immanent means to be within, or to be near something. So if God is immanent, that means that God is present within our universe, within our created order. God lives in relationship with us. God knows us. God fills the earth. God takes up residence in our hearts. God loves us. God came to earth, in a specific time and place, in the person of Jesus.
Think, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” and you get a pretty good idea of God’s immanence.
Just as the Nanovic Institute would have been weakened if we hadn’t had both Anthony functioning up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) and me functioning firmly in the real world of policies and procedures and budgets and record-keeping and relationships—just so our conception of God is weakened without understanding or believing that God is both transcendent and immanent simultaneously.
How? How is our conception of God weakened without understanding both God’s transcendence and immanence?
If we only believe in or emphasize God’s transcendence, then we become deists. Desists are people who believe in a supreme being who created the universe and then stepped out of the picture. Like a divine watch-maker who made a watch and then just let it do its thing until it wound down or its battery ran out of power. A God who is transcendent but not immanent doesn’t save us, doesn’t call us to discipleship, doesn’t love us. If God is just transcendent, then there is no Jesus, no miracles, no healings, no feedings, no cross, no resurrection. If God is just transcendent, then our prayers are meaningless. If God is just transcendent, then we’re on our own.
On the other hand, if we only believe in or emphasize God’s immanence, then we become pantheists. Pantheists believe that God and the universe are identical, and God is the world and the world is God. There is no God outside of the world or the universe, because there is no difference between deity and creation. A God who is just immanent cannot perform miracles, because God exists within the created order and scientific laws. A God who is just immanent cannot save us, because we are God and God is us. Our goal, according to pantheists is to more fully realize the divine within us. Sure, Jesus was God, but so are we—he was just better at it than we are. There may have been a cross, but no healings, no resurrection. If God is just immanent, than we’re on our own. There are no surprising works of God; there is no grace.
This concept of John’s that the Word became flesh, is the light in the darkness, that he was in the world but the world did not know him, is pretty darn important. Without it God doesn’t work. Without it we don’t work. Without it the universe doesn’t work. Without it none of this works.
When my children were little, I took them quite a bit to St. Patrick County Park, which sits right on the Indiana-Michigan border. We used to hike to the sign that marked the state line, and my kids would stand with one foot in Indiana and one foot in Michigan, and laugh and say, “Look, Mom—which state are we in?” Later, I told them that that’s kind of like what God is like—that God has one foot in heaven and one on earth, and so exists in both places. God is both up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) and has boots on the ground. God is both transcendent and immanent.
Why have I just gone on about this? Why this crash course in Systematic Theology? Here’s why.
Episcopalians and Anglicans tend to be people of the incarnation. Just as Pentecostals resonate with the Holy Spirit, and Roman Catholics tend to resonate with the mystery and omniscience and power of God, we tend to resonate with the incarnation. In that respect, I’m a perfect Anglican. I love preaching about a God who is Emmanuel, God with us, who was laid in the straw and worked with wood and got calluses and the stomach flu and stubbed his toe and mourned his father Joseph’s death and wept when Lazarus died and got angry with the money changers in the temple and suffered and died as one of us. I love the Christmas story. I love the story of the man named Jesus. And I hope you do too.
But that’s meaningless—or at least next to meaningless—if we don’t balance it with a God who is transcendent.
I suspect—I don’t know, but I suspect—that this is why we need to hear the first chapter of John at Christmastime. (Because it IS still Christmastime, you know! It will be until Epiphany.) Because otherwise, we might focus so much on the King amidst the straw that we forget about the pre-existent Word.
And we cannot do that and call ourselves Christians.
Eventually, at the Nanovic Institute, Anthony and started to achieve some balance. He realized that I had visions and dreams too, and would come into my office and ask me about them. I talked to him about my biggest vision—that we would have a group of undergraduate fellows who we would nurture and support and challenge. We didn’t have the budget for it, or any sort of rules or guidelines or procedures. But when I left the Nanovic Institute, he was working with the Development Office to get the money, and with other campus units to see how they implemented programs like that. Imagine that—me presenting the stuff up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head), and him working in the real world to try to make it happen. We did our best work when we truly worked together as a team, as a unified whole, both of us with visions and dreams and with boots on the ground.
Just as we work best when we embrace Scripture, the Gospel of John, and the historic creeds, and hold God’s transcendence and immanence in balance.
Yes, this Christmas we worship and celebrate a king amidst the straw. But let’s not forget that that king is the Word, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Without that, Christmas, Christianity, all of this, just doesn’t work.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
On the eve of our commemoration of John of the Cross–our patron saint–I delivered a sermon in which I presented the congregation with facts about John of the Cross. I made the argument that one’s patron saint should inform one’s sense of who one is, and if that is true, then we should take the life and theology of John of the Cross seriously. I presented the congregation with elements of John of the Cross’ life, personality, and theology, and paused between each one, encouraging them to think about how we do or do not live each one out in our own lives and in the life of the congregation.
I did not work from a full-blown manuscript. Instead, all I had written down were facts about John of the Cross.
Afterwards, I received several requests to post that sermon. Some day, probably during our 175th anniversary celebration in 2018, I will deliver a full-blown sermon or teaching series on John of the Cross and ask us all to be thinking about who we are in relationship to our remarkable patron. But today I don’t have a full sermon manuscript to post. Instead, I am going to post the facts about John of the Cross as I delivered them on December 13, and ask you to reflect on these questions:
How might John of the Cross inform your life and your relationship to others and to Christ? How might John of the Cross inform the life of this congregation and our relationship to others and to Christ?
Notes on Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross)
- He had an early first-hand acquaintance with poverty and deprivation. He later faced misunderstandings and imprisonment. His final years were full of illness. All of this might have produced a bitter cynic. But instead, while the events of his life were often outwardly sad, they were inwardly transforming.
- His trials and tribulations led to a charity toward others and deep compassion for all who suffer.
- This came with a clear vision of the beauty of God’s creation and an intimacy with God.
- Regrading his experience of poverty and deprivation: he did not just seek people’s spiritual good, but also looked for their material and bodily good as well. He often gave people what they needed out of his own stores, but also begged for others from other people of faith.
- When people were sick, he did not allow the question of money to interfere with their care.
- He was quick to perceive sadness or depression in another and was eager to comfort the downcast, so he developed a gift for humor, and it is reported that people looked forward to having him around.
- While he understood the need to call others to account, he was intent on not discouraging anyone.
- He was a spiritual director. He wanted to free people from their moral and spiritual illnesses.
- Sinners came to him without fear.
- He was focused on communion with God in faith, hope, and love.
- His deepest concern was for those suffering in their spiritual life. He wrote about the afflictions of what he called the “dark night” in order to comfort those in the dark night, so that they might know that God is clearing away the debris of their lives and making room for the divine light.
- He had no sense that he was too good for any type of work. Although he was small in size, he relished manual labor. He quarried stone for construction of monasteries. For the nuns, he laid bricks and scrubbed floors.
- Overwhelmed by an awareness of God’s goodness, he was often heard to exclaim, “Oh, what a good God we have!”
- He was devout in prayer.
- His experience of God was always rooted in the life of the Church, nourished by the sacraments and the liturgy.
- He believed that faith and confidence in God’s care for us is the appropriate response to life’s worries and anxieties.
So, my friends, that is a taste of John of the Cross. What does it mean for us to be mystically connected to him? How does he inform our sense of self and our sense of ministry?
Sermon: Advent 3B
Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-55)
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Tuesday, I was driving Alex, my 15-year-old daughter, to school when she started talking about a band that she likes named “Fall Out Boy.” In her description of Fall Out Boy’s music, she used the words “alternative,” “ukulele,” and “poetry.” I said, “Well, I sometimes like alternative music, and I like the ukulele, and I love poetry, so maybe I’ll like this band. What of theirs should I listen to?” She said, “Listen to Young Volcanoes. It’s my favorite.”
So I got to my office here at church. I opened my Bible to Canticle 15, The Song of Mary (or The Magnificat), and I prayed over it in preparation for today’s sermon. I prayed over the lines I just said:
God has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
And when I had finished praying, I brought YouTube up on my computer, searched for Young Volcanoes by Fall Out Boy, and heard this in the first two stanzas:
When Rome’s in ruins,
We are the lions, free of the colosseums.
In poison places,
We are anti-venom.
We’re the beginning of the end.
Tonight, the foxes hunt the hounds,
And it’s all over now, before it has begun.
We’ve already won.
And it struck me, as I listened to this song with The Song of Mary open in front of me, that I was listening to two different versions of the same thing, with one important difference.
So let’s take a look at these two pieces, and begin by noting what is similar.
But first, let me address why. Why do I want to compare and contrast The Song of Mary with Young Volcanoes by Fall Out Boy? Because, folks, we’re always talking about how we need young people in the Church, and lots of people say that young people aren’t in church because the Church isn’t relevant to young people anymore. And I object to that argument. I think that the Church and our message are extremely relevant to young people. We’re just not great at communicating the how: How is our message relevant to them? And in order to communicate the how, we need to know and understand what’s important to them, and show them how the gospel taps into that. So today is practice. Fall Out Boy is an immensely popular band, and Young Volcanoes is an immensely popular teen anthem. How does the gospel connect to and build on it?
First, both songs—Young Volcanoes and The Song of Mary—depict an overthrow of the social order, and a radical reordering of its structures.
In Young Volcanoes, the lions that are used for entertainment purposes are free. The things that poison us have lost their power over us. The foxes hunt the hounds. In other words, the strong and the weak, the powerful and the powerless, flip places.
The Song of Mary says this too. The proud are scattered. The mighty are cast down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled, and the rich have nothing. Once again, a complete reordering of our society. Both seem to fulfill Jesus’ words, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
Second, and this is the really astounding thing, both pieces depict this as either already having happened or as currently happening.
God has scattered the proud.
God has cast down the mighty.
God has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry.
God has sent the rich away empty.
Rome, the force of empire and oppression, is in ruins.
The lions are free of the colosseums.
We are anti-venom.
Tonight the foxes hunt the hounds.
It is all over now.
We have already won.
And both are confounding, because of course they’re not true as they’re stated. The proud continue to wield their power together, in Senate chambers and around boardroom tables. The mighty sit on their thrones, and the lowly remain lowly. The hungry are still hungry, and the rich are still rich. The forces of empire and oppression still stand. Things and systems and people continue to poison souls and lives. The hounds hunt the foxes, not the other way around.
Yet both depict the present as being already different, already better.
It’s the why that’s different in these two pieces. Why do they proclaim this? What gives Scripture and Fall Out Boy the confidence to keep proclaiming a message that on the surface isn’t true? What gives them this hope?
I would argue that what gives Fall Out Boy this confidence, and what gives young people like my daughter the confidence needed to sing this song, is a youthful over-confidence in themselves. I have a distinct memory of me at 18, saying to someone, “I know that every generation believes this of themselves, but I really do think that Generation X has the passion and the will to change everything for the better. What I see in my generation is a passion for equality and justice. You’ll see—we’ll make the world into a much better place.”
I don’t know if you can see it from where you are, but 46-year-old me is rolling her eyes at 18-year-old me.
But this is the job of youth—young people are supposed to think that they’re better than their elders. They’re supposed to rebel against who we are and what we’ve done. They’re supposed to think we’re dumb. In some, that takes on a destructive edge of poor life choices and thoughtless behavior. But in others, it takes on a dreamy over-confidence and idealism. We are the world. We’ll be the ones to make this world a better place for everyone. We are anti-venom. And we’ve already won.
There’s an old, old heresy called Pelagianism. It holds that humans can take all the steps needed to bring about our own salvation. If we just choose wisely, if we just buckle up and do the right thing, we can save ourselves. We can be the anti-venom. We are the beginning of the end. Pelagianism was condemned at multiple councils of the Church, including the Council of Carthage in 418 and the Council of Ephesus in 431. But Pelagianism is alive and well today. Young Volcanoes is a good example of it.
The Song of Mary, on the other hand, draws its confidence and hope from God. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” the song says, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” We don’t proclaim our own greatness, and we don’t rejoice in ourselves. Our confidence and our hope come from and are centered in God.
And so The Song of Mary looks back at Scripture, at the promises made to Abraham and his descendants, it looks back at all that God had done for the Israelites in the past, and it looks at what God was in the process of doing through Mary, and it concludes that God must still be at work in the world. If hunger still exists, well, there have been times when the hungry have been fed by God, and since God is unchanging, we can say that God is filling the hungry with good things. If we haven’t seen the complete fulfillment of that yet, Mary sings to us that we can live in confidence that God is working on it. That God has filled the hungry with good things, God is filling the hungry with good things, and God will completely fill all the hungry with good things at a time that we cannot know.
But just as Mary watched and waited for 9 months (and probably longer) for God’s promise to her to be fulfilled, we watch and wait, during this season of Advent, for the complete fulfillment of God’s promises to us, for the complete fulfillment of Mary’s song.
But this we know. The social order will be overthrown. Its structures will be radically reordered. In fact, it’s already happening. God has already won.
So is the Christian message relevant to young people? Of course! In many ways, Christians are called to be the world’s rebellious teenagers, dissatisfied and ill at ease with the way the world is. Living in confidence that things will be better. That what generations of human beings before us have done is not all that is. What we are now is not the promise.
And we can even take that youthful passion to make the world a better place and tap into it. We are the Body of Christ here on earth, after all. We are the Jesus movement. We have a part to play. We can take their youthful passion and enthusiasm and idealism and put them to work for the gospel.
What our youth need to know, however, what I needed to know when I was young, is that when plans fail, or we’re weak, when we fail to be the anti-venom and to hunt the hounds—God’s got this. God wants us to participate in God’s work. But ultimately, we need to put our trust and our confidence in God. Because God is the one who makes our songs into holy canticles. If we do great things, it is because God has done great things for us, and holy is God’s name.
So Young Volcanoes isn’t that far off; we don’t need to change much of it to make it right. A few revisions, and it becomes not just relevant, but true:
Rome’s in ruins,
And God sends his lions, free of the colosseums.
In poison places,
God is anti-venom.
God’s the beginning and the end.
Tonight, the foxes hunt the hounds,
And it’s all over now, before it has begun.
God’s already won.
In Advent, we watch and wait—that’s true. But my friends, God’s already won.
Sermon: Advent 1B (2017)
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
My first child took her own sweet time in being born. For weeks I had been going to my doctor’s appointments, and for weeks I had been told that all was ready, and that I would give birth any time now. My hospital bag was packed. I was well-versed on the signs of labor. I knew exactly where to go when labor began, and how everything at the hospital would progress. I was ready.
But my beloved eldest took her own sweet time. A week after her due date, and the day before my doctor was scheduled to go on vacation, my husband and I went to the hospital to induce labor. And even then, she took her time, and nothing felt or went the way I thought it would. My husband and I spent most of that day playing cribbage. They said that I was having contractions, but I couldn’t feel them. The doctor kept coming in to check on me, and every time she would do something to try to speed things up. But my Alex was born when she was ready to be born—over 12 hours after they began to induce.
Giving birth to my second child was completely different. A few weeks before my due date, my body showed absolutely no signs of being ready to go into labor. My doctor was concerned about my weight gain and swelling, and so sent me to the hospital for some tests to make sure that everything was fine for me and for the baby. It was, so he told me to go home—it would be awhile yet. That afternoon, I put Alex, the oldest, in front of the TV—something I rarely did—because I wasn’t feeling well. I thought I was coming down with something. At 5:00pm, I was supposed to start making dinner, and at 6:00pm I was supposed to pick up my husband at the commuter train station. When I picked him up, I told him that I wasn’t feeling well, that I hadn’t made dinner, and so I was sorry but we were going to pick up some Taco Bell on the way home. I barely ate. My husband kept asking me if I thought I was in labor, but I kept saying, “No—it isn’t time, and besides, I don’t think this is the way it’s supposed to feel.” He called his sister, who said I was in labor. I called my doctor, who also said I was in labor, and that I’d best not wait to go to the hospital.
My bag wasn’t packed. I didn’t know which hospital entrance to go into. We didn’t have adequate plans for who was going to take care of our oldest. I wasn’t prepared at all. By the time I got to the hospital, the labor was so advanced that I had missed the window for any pain medication.
I had been fooled once into believing that the time was near. It’s not that I thought it would never happen. It’s more that between my experience the first time and being told the second time that the time for labor was nowhere near, I was lulled into believing that I had plenty of time. I failed to prepare. I failed to keep watch. I missed the signs.
In a Scripture passage that we did not hear today, Romans 8:22, Paul says that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. That’s a lot of groaning, a lot of childbirth. The whole creation is groaning in preparation for the full coming of Christ—for the full realization of God’s Kingdom. The whole creation has been groaning for the past 2,000 years. Together as priest and congregation, we are entering our fourth Advent season together—and we have all been instructed to stay awake, to wait in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord each year. Depending on how long you have worshipped in Christian communities that observe the season of Advent, you have been instructed to stay awake, to wait in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord, over and over and over again.
Much of the time, we are people of faith. It’s not that we don’t believe that Jesus will never come again. It’s more that we’ve been instructed to keep awake, to be prepared, so often, that we’ve been lulled into believing that we have plenty of time. And so we fail to prepare. We fail to keep watch. We miss the signs.
It probably doesn’t help that Advent falls during the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations. Here, we have a deadline. By the evening of the 24th of December, our shopping needs to be done, and our wrapping, and our baking and our decorating and all of it. And that may feel as though we’re preparing. As though we’re keeping watch. But what we’re preparing for and watching for is worldly. Many of us may be asleep to what matters. We fail to watch and to wait for Christ. We fail to be awake to God at work in the world.
Which is a pretty good argument for Advent. I have come to love the liturgical year, with all of its seasons, because they all serve as reminders of the people that we are meant to be. Christmas reminds us that we are people of the incarnation—who know that God is with us. Epiphany reminds us that we are people of revelation—who have seen the wonders that God does and the wonder that God is. Lent reminds us that we are people of repentence. Easter reminds us that we are people of the resurrection. Ordinary time reminds us that we are normal people called to be faithful in and through the patterns of day-to-day life. And Advent—Advent reminds us that we are a people who watch, who wait for Christ, who stay awake to God at work in the world. Even when it seems as though we have been laboring at this for an awful long time. Even when the world would lull us into complacency, or distraction, or sleep.
As we begin this season of Advent, our gospel reminds us of three things. Well, it reminds us of more than three things; it’s a really rich gospel. But I’m going to pull out three things for us to chew on.
First: Christ will come again. The Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. God will tear open the heavens and reunite heaven and earth. God will stir up God’s might, and come to save us, to restore us. God will kindle a flame in each one of our souls. God will transform us into better versions of ourselves. Yes, it’s been a long time. 2,000 years. But let’s think about this for a moment.
The Old Testament spent much of its time predicting the first coming—the birth of the Messiah. And generations upon generations upon generations waited. Moses never saw the Promised Land. The Psalmists never knew Jesus. Neither did the prophet Isaiah. They went into exile. They returned to a temple that had been destroyed. They were ruled by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans. All of those people, waiting. Or not. At times the wait seemed too long, and they built golden calfs or worshipped Baal or depended too much on the law to save them. But Jesus was born—the Messiah came. And so many people missed it. They had been waiting so long, they missed it.
And now, we wait for the second coming—the return of Jesus and the true fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. And generations upon generations upon generations have waited. And truthfully, folks, I don’t know why. I wish I did—I wish I understood the mind of God and what God is up to and how time works for God, exactly. But I don’t. What I do know is that God has proven God’s faithfulness even during long waits. God’s covenant is good and sure. Christ will come again, and we will know the fullness of God’s reign.
Second: we don’t know when, and we’re not meant to know when. And it’s not that people haven’t tried. Here’s the list that I found of predictions of apocalyptic events that were supposed to take place in the past. It’s 19 pages long! 19 pages! Jesus does not mean us to know when he will return. Rather, he is urging us to live as if his return were just around the corner.
Third: In this in-between time, God has put us in charge. Wait . . . What? Let’s make sure of that. Jesus says, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands that doorkeeper to be on the watch.” He puts his slaves in charge. God puts us in charge. God has given us each work to do on God’s behalf, and put us in charge.
Sort of. To unpack this a bit, let’s talk about the movie Ben Hur. How many of you have seen Ben Hur? OK. So you remember that the movie contains and is famous for its epic chariot race, yes? For those of you haven’t seen the movie, Ben Hur has this epic chariot race. For the filming, an enormous set was constructed and then teams of stunt men were trained to drive four-horse chariots. One of those trained was Charlton Heston, and he was worried. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. So he went to the director and voiced his concerns, and the director said to him, “Charlton, you just stay in the chariot and I’ll guarantee you win the race.”
This might be pretty close to what God would say to us. In this life, God asks us to stay in the chariot, to stay in the race, and that takes some real wakefulness. That requires that we stay alert and balanced and do some work. But God has assured the win. God has defeated sin and death, and is defeating sin and death, and will defeat sin and death. Remember point #1? Jesus will come again, and will make everything right. But God calls us to participate in that by staying in the chariot, by participating in the race, by taking care of the house and keeping watch.
So the waiting is not a passive waiting. It’s not a sit-and-stare-at-the-wall type waiting. It’s a get-busy-and-get-to-work-doing-God’s-will type waiting. It’s a waiting in which we participate in the tearing open of the heavens, in the uniting of heaven and earth. We can’t do it alone. But man, Jesus is really clear here. We are supposed to be keeping the house in order. We are supposed to stay in the chariot, stay in the race. We are supposed to be the Body of Christ here on earth. We are called to be the Jesus movement.
In the reflection on today’s readings published by the Living Church, I found this wonderful, baffling sentence: “Waiting for God is his arrival.” Waiting for God IS his arrival.
I suppose that this is where my whole labor analogy at the beginning of this sermon breaks down. Waiting for a child to be born is not the child being born. But waiting for God IS his arrival.
When we light a candle on the Advent wreath, Christ arrives, because we have witnessed to our hope that Christ will come again, and in doing so, we have made Christ visible and present.
When we are faithful in our worship, Christ arrives, because in our worship, we make Christ visible and present.
When we feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, tend the sick, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, comfort the despairing, Christ arrives, because we make Christ visible and present.
When we are waiting in expectation, not passively, but actively, doing the work that God has given us to do in anticipation of His return, Christ arrives.
Perhaps not in his fullness, but he arrives nonetheless.
Waiting for God is his arrival.
So my friends, let’s get busy waiting! I know it’s been a long time. I know we say this every December. I know how easy it is to be lulled into complacency, to be distracted. And I don’t know when the waiting will end. But man alive, we are a people who wait. Not passively, but actively, in expectation and in faith. As though every moment were a vigil. Jesus will not disappoint. God will not disappoint. And waiting for God is his arrival.
Sermon: Proper 28A
Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few weeks ago, a group of us were looking at today’s lesson from the book of Judges, and someone at the table asked why this lesson was even in the lectionary for today. I gave a rather flippant answer; it went something like, “Because . . . Deborah.” Now it’s true that I like to see the women of the Bible highlighted by the lectionary. But even I must admit that that shouldn’t be enough to earn this particular reading a place in the lectionary. So why is this reading in there?
The answer, I must admit, is I don’t know.
I could blame my lack of answers on two handy excuses. One of my sermon prep days was eaten up by a lunch in Valparaiso that I forgot about until the morning of. The second of my sermon prep days was eaten up by a case of food poisoning that I probably got at that lunch. But the truth is, I probably wouldn’t have figured out why this particular section of Judges is in the lectionary anyway.
But I did find out one very interesting thing: this is the only reading from Judges in the entire three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. In other words, this is the only reading from Judges that you will ever hear on Sunday morning.
This shouldn’t be particularly surprising, because Judges is . . . well, disturbing at times. It’s full of illicit sex and violence. It’s full of religious conflict and war. It’s often politically incorrect, by today’s standards. The main characters are a rather questionable, morally ambiguous lot—and that’s putting it kindly.
Funny enough, when I did some research on why Judges is so ignored by so many Christian denominations, I also found a lot of people claiming that the book of Judges is irrelevant to us and to our lives.
So, let me get this straight. Judges depicts a time full of illicit sex and violence, religious conflict and war, political incorrectness, and leaders that are a rather questionable, morally ambiguous lot (putting it kindly). Sure—that’s not at all relevant to our situation today. [profound eye roll] Folks, I don’t know why the creators of the lectionary included this exact section from Judges, but I do know that if we want to know how God acts and what God does during times full of illicit sex and violence, religious conflict and war, political incorrectness, and leaders that are more than a little questionable and morally ambiguous, then we should be studying the Book of Judges. It has something to teach us.
Add to this the fact that Judges also depicts a people intent on worshipping other gods, and it definitely has something to teach us. We might not worship other gods per se, but we certainly worship—or at least put our faith in—other things, things other than God. Things like money, leisure, capitalism, comfort, security, a political party, and technology. Yes, Judges definitely has something to teach us.
So I’m about to do a rather strange thing and use our specific reading from Judges today to address the book as a whole, and what it teaches us about how God acts and what God does during troubling times. Because, you know, we won’t hear anything else from Judges on a Sunday morning ever, so we might as well address the whole thing, right?
But first, a little background is in order.
If you’ve been coming to church this year, and if you’ve been listening to the Old Testament readings, you’ve got most of the background. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. God appeared to a man named Moses in a burning bush and told him to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. There were plagues, and there was the parting of the Red Sea, but the people were finally set free. God formed a special covenant with them, and promised to lead them to a land—the aptly named Promised Land. After much wandering in the wilderness, and under the leadership of Moses’ successor, Joshua, the people entered the Promised Land and settled there, alongside the Philistines and the Aramaean tribes that also lived there. As Joshua had predicted, the Israelites failed to keep their covenant with the Lord, and at the same time often found themselves either threatened or dominated by foreign oppressors.
In other words, the Israelites had made it to the Promised Land, but didn’t live there in perfect freedom. Their disobedience prevented their enjoyment of the promised blessings. And since they weren’t yet a monarchy, they didn’t even have a king to lead them. God was supposed to be their king, but they weren’t faithful to him.
Enter the Book of Judges.
Judges actually tells basically the same story over and over again. In each story, the Israelites do evil in the sight of the Lord. Then, the Israelites are threatened or overcome by foreign oppressors. Next, the people cry out to the Lord to help them. Finally, in his compassion, God raises up a judge from among them, and things are made right again for the Israelites. This cycle is repeated again and again.
It is important here to keep in mind what a judge is really supposed to do. We think of a judge as someone in a black robe making legal decisions. But for the biblical authors, a judge was simply someone who brings justice—who makes things right, who defends the oppressed, who saves the people from their own folly, who recovers the divine promise that seems to have been lost. That means that every time the Israelites screwed things up, the Lord, in his compassion, would send someone who would make things right, defend the oppressed, save the people from their own folly, and recover the divine promise that seemed to have been lost.
And God did this over and over and over again.
Which means, my friends, that this is the way that God works. It’s the way that God worked then, and it’s the way that God works now. We live in a time full of illicit sex and violence, of religious conflict and war. Our leaders are a rather questionable, morally ambiguous lot. We worship and place our faith in people and systems and things instead of fully in God—we depend on them to save us. But into all of this, God is continually at work to bring justice—to make things right, to defend the oppressed, to save us from our own folly, to bring to us the full divine promise that often seems to have been lost. This is how God works. This is what God does.
And God does this even when it’s not entirely obvious. In the book of Judges, there were periods of time in which there were no judges—God seemed to be silent, refusing to bring forth justice and to fulfill God’s promises. But God always heard the people, always remembered his love for them, always kept his covenant, always brought forth justice.
In these post-resurrection times, we know that sin and death have been defeated. We know that the cross was victorious. We know that God is leading us to the Promised Land—to the fullness of the Kingdom. But it’s not always obvious. God can seem strangely absent.
Hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. An earthquake in Mexico. Monsoon flooding in Bangladesh. A mudslide in Colombia. Flooding and landslides in Sierra Leone. Wildfires in California. Terrorist attacks. ISIS. North Korea’s continued missile testing. Racial violence in Charlottesville. A church shooting in Texas. In fact, depending on what you count as a mass shooting, nearly as many mass shootings in the U.S. as days in 2017. The opioid crisis. Domestic violence. Sexual violence. The death of our friends and loved ones. Our very real grief and loss. And that’s just a start to all that is wrong in our world.
My friends, I would never want to respond to any of this with empty religious platitudes, but the Christian hope is hardly a religious platitude. The Christian hope—the hope that begins with the book of Genesis and continues through Judges clear through to the resurrection and then the book of Revelation—is that God is at work through all of it. Setting things right. Defending the poor and oppressed. Saving us from our own folly. Recovering the divine promise that seems to have been lost. When I look at just the past year in our communities, in our country, and in our world, I cannot always see how God is at work. But with the psalmist, I say that my eyes look to the Lord, until he shows us his mercy. Join me in that, my friends. Together, may our eyes look to the Lord, until he shows us his mercy.
The second thing that I would like us to take from the book of Judges is this: God often works with and through those we would least expect.
Look at Deborah, for example. I hate to break it to the biblical authors, but Deborah was a woman! She was a woman, and a prophet, and a judge, and a military leader. All of this, somewhere roughly around the year 1200 BCE! This is astounding! What besides God could have led her to sit under the palm of Deborah, pronouncing judgment? What besides God could have led the Israelites to seek her out for judgment? What besides God could have led her to summon a man—Barak—and to give him military counsel? This was not included in our reading for today, but Barak responds by saying that he won’t go to war unless she goes too! The famous Song of Deborah in chapter 5 says that the chiefs of Issachar came with Deborah, and Deborah is referred to as a mother in Israel. This is a mother as had never been seen!
God worked with and through someone that no one could have expected. And God called the people to respond in faithfulness to this person—this woman!—that they never would have expected!
And she’s not the only judge that wasn’t what one would expect. The first judge, Othniel, was a younger brother in a culture that valued eldest sons. Ehud was a left-handed man at a time when all variation from the norm was held suspect. Gideon was from the weakest clan in Israel and was least in his family, and was kind of a goof who kept questioning God and putting him to the test. Jephtah was the son of a prostitute. And Samson—well, Samson led a rather checkered life. I’ll admit, I do not approve of Samson at all. Yet somehow, God worked with and through all of them. Somehow, God used them to further God’s purposes for Israel.
Which means, first of all, that God can and does work with and through any of us—as long as we cooperate by responding to God’s call. Even if we’re kind of a goof about it.
But it also means that we need to look for God at work in the people that we do not expect. In the women. In the youngest sons. In the left-handed. In the weakest and the least. In the goofs. In the children of prostitutes. In the people of whom we do not approve. In all of our modern-day equivalents of these people. In other words, we need to look for God at work in everyone. You never know who is lending a hand in recovering the divine promise that seems to have been lost. And you know, those of is here in the pews tend to talk about how we need to help the least of these, to treat the least of these with compassion, and we do so with good reason. Jesus does too. But we—we need to go deeper and to be ready to follow the least of these, for God just might be working through them.
So. God is always at work. And God is often working with and through people we’d never suspect, in ways that we would never expect.
‘Cause our God is a weird God, full of surprises. Our God is fond of bizarre plot twists. God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts like our thoughts. And our God is faithful. Our God is making things right, is saving us from our own folly, is fulfilling the divine promise that often seems to have been lost.
You know, my sermons are usually punctuated by anecdotes—stories of my family, of my past or my present, of things that I’ve read about or seen or watched. But there were no anecdotes in this sermon. And the reason is simple. This week, I couldn’t see how God is at work in our broken and sinful world. There were no obvious examples for me. And I couldn’t see how God is working in the people that I wouldn’t expect. No obvious examples there either. But despite the fact that I couldn’t find proof for my assertions, I place my faith in God anyway. In the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Deborah, Ruth, and Esther. In the God of the Judges and of the Kings. In the God of the exiles and of the remnant. I place my faith in Jesus. I place my faith in the Trinity. I place my faith in God’s promises. My eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.
Together, may all of our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.
I have to admit, our Old Testament lesson for today made me laugh. Out loud.
It wasn’t the Scripture itself that made me laugh, exactly. It was more the fact that we were given this Scripture passage on the last day of our Stewardship season—the day that our Planned Giving cards are due.
You see, in this passage from the Book of Joshua, Joshua is near death. Let’s remember for a moment that Joshua took over for Moses when Moses died. Remember him? The Israelites had been in slavery in Egypt when God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and told him to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. There were plagues, there was the parting of the Red Sea, but the people were finally set free. In response to their release from slavery, they were given all of the law and the Ten Commandments, asked to respond to God’s call to them to be holy as God is holy, in thankfulness for their deliverance. God also promised them a land—the aptly named Promised Land. But they messed up, and they whined, and they built this golden calf and worshipped it, and they questioned whether God could really help them defeat the peoples inhabiting the land of Canaan when they arrived. And so they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, being made ready for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Moses died without ever entering the promised land, and Joshua took up the mantle of leadership. And here, in our reading for today, he is about to die, and delivers an address reminding the people that God would fulfill God’s promises to them, and that they are called to obedience and faithfulness. He calls them to service to the Lord, to renew their covenant with their God.
And as I remembered all of this history, as I read about this renewal of the covenant, all I could think of is that this calling the people to renewing their covenant, in calling them to covenant faithfulness in thanksgiving for God’s blessings and love—well, that it’s like Joshua had just collected their Planned Giving cards. ‘Cause that’s kind of what we do every stewardship season, right? We renew our covenant to God and to this parish, and we respond to God’s call that we give of ourselves through our time, talent, and treasure in faithfulness and in thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. So it’s like Joshua had just collected the Israelite’s Planned Giving cards, and his response? It’s not exactly what I would do.
And that made me laugh. Out loud.
In fact, it tickled my fancy so much, that I realized that I wanted nothing more than to reenact this scene with you, on our stewardship ingathering Sunday—the day our Planned Giving cards are due. So—I wrote a script. And we’re going to act it out together. ‘Cause I think we need to hear what this sounds like, and because gosh darn it all, Scripture can be fun! (Have volunteers had out scripts.)
So here’s what’s going to go down. I’m going to play the role of Joshua, because you know, delusions of grandeur and all, and you all are going to play the role of the Israelites. I’ve adapted the Scripture a little to fit our circumstances, but basically it’s the same. So, ready? Here we go.
* * *
So my stewardship sermons, had I depended on Joshua as a source, would have sounded something like this:
Mtr. Jen: “My friends, thus says the Lord, your God: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. And from his lineage came a man named Jesus, Emmanuel, my only begotten Son, who lived among you and died among you and rose again, thereby saving you all.
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve God in sincerity and faithfulness; put away the gods that your neighbors serve—wealth and comfort and security and power and leisure and all the rest—and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom or what you will serve; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
And then, you all turned in your Planned Giving cards, and replied,
Congregation: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the Lord our God who died and rose for us, so that we might be freed from the slavery of sin and death. God has protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the people through whom we passed. He gave us this parish, this Body of Christ. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. This is the sign, and our promise.”
(The Planned Giving cards are presented to me.)
Me: “Phfffff! You blockheads! You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve other gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
Congregation: “No, we will serve the Lord!”
Me: “OK—You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, so serve him y’all.”
Congregation: “We are witnesses.”
Me: “Then put away the other gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, your God.”
Congregation: “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
And so I make a covenant with you people today, and accept your Planned Giving cards.
* * *
Well, that’s certainly one way to go, eh? You know, on our Stewardship Sundays, the vestry makes you brunch and then we write you thank-you notes, but this works too.
Actually, while I would never use this as a stewardship strategy—it’s not my style—there are parts of this that do work.
Let’s take a look at the parts that work.
We’ll start with my favorite line of the whole bit: “Phfffff! You blockheads! You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.” You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.
My friends, I am afraid that that is absolutely true. To serve someone is to perform duties or services for them, to be of some specified use for someone. But our God is a holy God. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient. Our God is transcendent. Our God is a completely different order of being than us—in other words, our God is not just a greater, stronger, more powerful version of us. Our God is completely other. And if that is true—then our God does not need our service. Our God does not need us to perform duties for him, or to be of use to him. Our God does not need our money, or our time, or our talents. Because our God is a holy God.
Yet Joshua says, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Why? And the Israelites go on to proclaim that they too will serve the Lord. Why? Why do we continue to come here on Sundays, on Wednesdays, to turn in our Planned Giving cards, to do all this? When our God does not need any of it, because God is God, and we are not. Why?
Because a call to serve the Lord is a call from love itself. And this God who IS love awakens within us a responding love in the deepest center of our being.
There is no other reason that God would care enough to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. There is no other reason that God would bring them to the promised land. There is no other reason that God’s Son would take on human flesh and become one of us—Emmanuel—God with us. There is no other reason that Jesus would die an excruciating death. There is no other reason that we would be freed from the slavery of sin and death. There is no other reason that God would be in the constant process of leading us all to the Promised Land—the Kingdom of God—God’s full and utter reign. There is no reason that God needs to do any of this, except out of a love so deep, so high, so broad that it can only BE God in Godself.
There is no reason that God should have brought all of us—a motley crew of broken and damaged sinners—together into a fellowship of love, except that God loves us.
A call to serve the Lord is a call from love itself.
And I would propose that that’s why Joshua proclaimed that he and his household would serve the Lord. He was responding to love with love.
And I would propose that that’s why the Israelites proclaimed that they too would serve the Lord. They were responding to love with love.
At the end of the day, I don’t really know why exactly you come here. I have some ideas, some of you have given me some indication, but I don’t really know. At the end of the day, I don’t know what led you to fill out and turn in your Planned Giving cards.
But I hope—I hope and I pray—that you are simply responding to love with love. That you are responding to the God who IS love. That you are responding to the love that you find here, in us. And that all that you do—both here and not here—springs from a responding love in the deepest center of your being.
So that at the end of the day, we all will put away the other gods that are here among us—the wealth and comfort and security and power and leisure and all the rest—and that we will incline our hearts to the Lord, and to one another.
The Israelites, of course, were not faithful to their God or to their promises. And we aren’t either. Not always. But I want to thank you all now for the times that you were faithful stewards of this parish. I want to thank you all now for the times that you were faithful stewards of God’s creation. I want to thank you all now for the times that you were faithful stewards of the people we never see here. I want to thank you all now for all the times that you were faithful.
The Lord our God we will serve, and God we will obey.