Category Archives: Sermons

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

I remember around November or December of 2017, nearing the middle of my last year of seminary, I began having discussions with different people about finding that elusive first call.  One of those people was Father Andrew Hybl, the Dean of Students at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.  Father Andrew is also originally from Arkansas, and previously served as the priest at St. Peter’s in Conway.  Well Father Andrew and I were talking about some of the many possibilities starting to open up across the church, and he asked me, “have you consider the Diocese of Arkansas?”  I’m not sure if the sound I made was more laughing or more simply scoffing, but was certainly to communicate how ridiculous I thought that idea was.  Arkansas?  All the way over on the other side of the country?  I don’t think that sounds like the sort of place I’m going to go.  No, that would be completely out of the question to take a job in Arkansas of all places.  He pressed, “you really should consider it, it’s a great diocese and the bishop is amazing.”  I thanked him for his counsel and reassured him that was one of the last places on Earth I would end up.

You see, I seem to have a bit of a talent for daring God to make the next move.  My three successive positions I held at Symantec were like that.  I would be talking with the person doing that job and would exclaim, “I would never want your job!”  Six months to a year later I would be doing it.  Of course, this doesn’t quite work like a spell.  I’ve tried that.  For example, I would hate to be independently wealthy.  Oddly that statement has not produced any results.

The point is that God calls us to places, to work, to ministries that we don’t always expect, don’t always understand, and sometimes don’t know that we will want.  There are countless examples of this throughout scripture.  One could argue that it is one of the clearest hallmarks that God is involved.  Someone reluctant is told to go do something.  Moses.  Jonah.  Abraham.  Peter.  Paul.  So many times God speaks, and for the stories we read today God speaks clearer and louder than most people ever get the opportunity to hear, and yet still those that God has called try to refuse.  They try to bargain or find their way out.  It’s not that God has taken their free will, they ultimately choose to follow one way or another.  It is something that they will feel compelled to do. 

Some like Jonah go kicking and screaming.  So do we.  We hear God’s call and sometimes it’s too difficult.  Or maybe it’s too scary.  Or maybe it’s too unbelievable.  Sarah had that experience.  She laughed when she heard God tell Abraham she was going to have a child.  When God speaks, we might be tempted to laugh.  I think we all have stories about that in our lives.  But we also have stories of times when that call from God was as clear as Jesus telling Peter where to cast the nets. 

Peter doesn’t argue with Jesus when the command is given.  Peter says, “If you say so, I will do it.”  Jesus is not a stranger entirely to Peter and the others, though this seems to be their first meeting.  But certainly it would be hard to believe that Peter and the others involved in our Gospel lesson today haven’t already heard of Jesus.  They had to have known of some of the things Jesus had done, some of the miracles, some of the teaching; certainly this spectacle of Jesus needing to go out on a boat to address the crowd would tell them something.  Peter has faith in Jesus and in following what he is told to do.  It makes me think that we today, with the benefit of all this scripture and thousands of years of Jesus still find it hard to follow as readily as Peter did.

Let’s also be clear about something else:  Even when those that have been called follow God, they don’t automatically become perfect.  Peter is of course our best example of that.  How many times does Jesus have to correct Peter in our Gospels, leading of course to that most famous line, where Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”  The book of Jonah ends with Jonah sulking under a shrub and cursing the shrub that God has put there to give him shade.  Moses never gets to enter the Promised Land.  In the reading this morning Isaiah clearly does not see himself as worthy or clean enough to take on the call of God.  He exclaims that he is unclean even though he has gazed upon God.  Peter falls to his knees exclaiming that Jesus should go away from him because he is a sinful man.

That highlights the other element that is so incredibly important to passages such as these today.  While God calls us all through either obvious or mysterious encounters, one response we might always have on hand is not thinking we are worthy enough to take up the work.  In these stories, it isn’t that they just think poorly of themselves or are being demure.  I think it’s fair to believe Peter and Isaiah when they point out their unworthiness, and to accept they truly believe it.  But what God offers, has already offered long before any call is issued, is forgiveness.

Isaiah is ritually cleansed when the angel touches the hot coal to his lips.  It’s fair to say this act is symbolic and certainly not a practice we will begin participating in anytime soon.  But the forgiveness, the blotting out of sin, the acceptance of humanity in its broken and healing nature is as intrinsic to the nature and narrative of God and the ministry of Jesus Christ as calling people to their work.

God calls us all to something.  For some of us it is to be clergy, some to teach, some to lead in a multitude of ways.  Some to sing, some to sweep, some to pray.  That call that God offers will always be waiting.  It’s not something that ever quite goes away or seems completed.  It is lifelong work.  What is equally important for us to recall is the forgiveness that goes along with it.  If there is ever a time when you are contemplating what you know God has called you to, and telling yourself that maybe you just aren’t good enough or holy enough or worthy enough to follow, remember that forgiveness from God is eternal and unwavering.  God’s forgiveness holds us lovingly and when we can embrace it, takes away those obstacles we put in front of our call.  Listen for where and to what God calls you.  Know that you are loved, you are worthy, and you are forgiven.  Nothing stands between you and the tasks to which you are called.  Take up your nets and cast them where God has told you to.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019

Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

The Gospel lesson today is the continuation of the story for last week, where Jesus takes a scroll of the writings of the Prophet Isaiah and reads them in the synagogue of his home town.  As we continue on in this story we hear a very commonly quoted phrase, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town” and Jesus preaches a bit more.  Then of course, as we have come to expect, the people who have been there to hear his preaching try to throw him off a cliff.  Just so we’re clear, that is not an acceptable way to lodge complaints about anyone’s preaching.

I have to admit that this is a passage that I have not paid as close attention to in the past as I should have.  I have always assumed that the reading of the scroll, the proclamation that the prophecy is fulfilled is what angers people.  The way this story is written in other Gospels it also seems that Jesus’ familiarity with the people is to blame for his inability to perform miracles.  But taking another look at this, I’m not actually so sure that familiarity is the problem when it comes to a prophet in their own town.  In fact I think there is something far more simple to explain what happens and clearly in Luke’s telling it is Jesus’ preaching and interpreting after the scripture reading that has fully angered the people.

Every preacher seems safe to stick to reciting scripture, but people don’t always like being reminded of what scripture actually says in full.  That’s where things go awry here.  I can imagine the scene at the Synagogue in Nazareth.  Jesus, the local home town boy, ‘the son of Joseph’ as some have exclaimed, shows up in synagogue to read and teach.  The folks in his home town have been hearing about Jesus!  They have heard about the miracles he is performing, the work he is doing in the exercise of his ministry.  They have pride in that the child they’ve watched grow up, the kid they probably had to put up with from time to time.  In fact I don’t think it’s a far stretch to imagine they have some sense of ownership.  This is THEIR Jesus.  Surely he will bring his best miracles for them then.  Surely they get some honor for having been the proverbial village to raise a child.

But that is not the case.  Jesus either sees what they are expecting or might have already been asked by folks to perform miracles.  Instead he refers to two stories of Elija and Elisha when God specifically shows that God’s grace and miracles are not just for a select few.  Jesus uses this illustration to press the point that just because he is from that town does not mean these people should feel special or get any accolades.  In fact these examples are extremely far to the other end of the spectrum.  These stories from Jesus illustrate times when the ‘chosen people’ of Israel were suffering, and the prophets bring miracles to non-Jews.  Jesus makes clear that the foreigner, the stranger is just as worthy of being blessed, and though I am extrapolating a bit here I think it also shows that those closest to God are tasked more with the work of the Kingdom than the benefits.  Jesus certainly makes clear that his message is not just for the chosen, but for all.  Jesus is clear that what is being offered is offered to those farthest from who we think it should be offered, those outside of our circles.

The continuation of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we hear, probably one of the most well known passages from it’s use at weddings, underscores our work as Christians to the world.  This passage is still about the divided and broken community in Corinth.  This is still addressing the wrongs and problems that are occurring in a Christian community.  And yet, I think it is accurately paired with the Gospel lesson today to contrast with the lack of love that the people of Nazareth have for Jesus when we tells them they will not benefit from him as others have.  Our work in the Kingdom of God is above all else to Love.  That is the message brought by Jesus and the one that Paul is seeking to deepen in the hearts of the early church that still bear weight today. 

At a time such as this, while we are consumed with political power, with walls to keep out the stranger, with high ground and winning, perhaps Paul might say you can have all that, but without Love you have nothing.  You can fight, you can hoard wealth, you can refuse to share your fruits with a hurting world, but if you lack Love, than there is an emptiness in you greater than any other object or feeling can fill.  Our work as followers of Jesus Christ is to teach the Love that is inherent to the Kingdom of God.  Everything else comes after that.  Orthopraxy, orthodoxy, how to vest, what creed to recite, what direction you cross yourself.  If you don’t have Love, then all of it is for naught. 

I have often said that the easiest and most difficult thing God has ever commanded of us is to love one another.  It is simultaneously so simple and yet not fully attainable.  It is our work to strive for that in the realization of the Kingdom.  We are called to Love.  Everything else comes after that.  Give freely and generously of your Love, and the ministry of Jesus Christ will follow.  As the dismissal calls to us at the end of the service.  Go in peace to Love.  And to serve the Lord.

Sunday, January 27, 2019 – Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Since my arrival here, I think I have preached almost exclusively on the Gospel reading on Sundays.  This pattern works well because of the ongoing narrative that plays out through the lectionary, whether sometimes disjointed or not.  Every once in a while we are offered a two week telling of a story, and this week is one of those times.  Next Sunday we will hear the conclusion of the story of Jesus reading and teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.  This affords me an opportunity to turn my attention elsewhere today without losing the narrative, and especially as it falls on the same Sunday as our Annual Meeting, how can I pass up an opportunity to talk about Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth?

Paul writes to a church that is fractured.  There are competing members of the church and the relations in that community are very broken.  Paul wants to make a case for unity and connectedness which the church is struggling to maintain.  What better way to talk about the unity of the Body of Christ than in terms the listeners would already know?  Paul sets about describing the body of Christ in terms of body parts.  Ears and eyes, feet and hands.  This idea of imagining society as a body, an straightforward example, exists throughout classical literature, so the church Paul is writing to has heard this sort of language before.  The difference is that Paul’s writing takes this common trope and turns it on it’s head.  Pun very much intended. 

The image of society as a body was often used to showcase how some members of society were more important than others.  Surely a brain has more importance than a pinky toe.  Except….have you ever stubbed your toe?  There are certainly times when that little toe is far more important.  Of course all of this is set in a very different time, with different science, and a different understanding of medical function, so we know now that truly every part of the body serves some function, and if one part is harmed, other parts may be too.  Paul’s description pushes in a different direction.  Paul wants the church to understand that every member is equally important to the survival of the church and the community.  I really like the phrase, “if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” 

The idea that the lowest members and the highest members have their existence tied together in the function of the body of Christ is what Paul is driving at.  We know that there were times when poorer members were kept from entering the room where the mass was being celebrated, because there wasn’t enough room for them, or perhaps they were not invited to the larger feast of the community.  Paul addresses these sorts of practices a few times throughout his letters and his aim is to reflect the same values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus did.  Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew that the first will be last and the last will be first.  The hierarchy of the Kingdom of God is proclaimed as something upside down from how most of society functions, both at the time and still today.

Finally Paul moves into showing that this subversion of hierarchy isn’t just for the members, but extends as well to the hierarchy of the community.  He lists rolls like apostle and preacher, and gifts like speaking in tongues or healing.  These are all members of the body of Christ and they all flourish together, not singularly.  Just before this passage we read today, in First Corinthians, Paul has that similarly well known writing about their being many gifts but one Spirit.  This is in many ways a continued explanation of that.  Teaching that every member of the body is equally important, just as every gift the Spirit is important, because we are all bound and buoyed up by the same Spirit that Christ has sent into the world to assist us in carrying out the work of the Kingdom of God and Christ’s ministry.  As one body functions only together, so too will we only thrive if we strive to work together.

How, you might ask, does this apply to us here at St. Andrew’s?  Well, without sounding too congratulatory, I think it’s important to acknowledge we don’t struggle with the same issues in the same way that the church in Corinth did.  We are not fractured, we are not divided entirely, and though we all have our differences we gather ourselves as one parish to proclaim with a loud voice in this community the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But, it is important to be reminded that no one person can shoulder all the work of this parish, nor does this parish thrive without all its members taking a part.  Imagine if the Altar Guild was to simply stop coming, or the secretary to disappear.  The building committee, the worship committee, the choir, the folks that are greeters out in the narthex, or those that sign up for coffee hour, or those that volunteer for our pantry.  These are just some of the many facets of life and ministry here at St. Andrew’s and without one of them the rest of the body hurts. 

In the grand scheme of things I tend to think I’m more an elbow.  I bend and move, and try to support others in their work.  I have a function here just like everyone else, and I don’t deserve any more praise at a successful working of ministry than anyone else here receives.  We thrive or we perish together as one body. 

As I turn my thoughts to our Annual Meeting and all the reports that have been written around the various ministries I think about our body of Christ here at St. Andrew’s.  I think about all the work that has been done and all the work that we have before us.  Much of that work is by choice.  We can as a community decide to continue working to our mission or not.  We can enliven ourselves and as we come into a new age of this parish, begin discerning anew our gifts, our call, and our lives together.  I want you to take time to think about where God is calling you.  Pray about what gifts or interests you feel called to explore. 

Truly this body has so many parts, so many members and each one of us has something important to offer.  Maybe you have a love for cleaning and pressing linens.  Don’t laugh, I actually loved doing that when I was a sacristan in seminary.  Maybe you love to read.  Maybe you feel called to healing ministries.  Maybe the Spirit has awakened in you a passion for some other ministry that is yet to be started.  Maybe you are called to just show up from time to time and share in the sacraments.  Wherever it is that the Spirit of God is calling you, let us enter into that discernment together.  We should all be praying about and exploring together the different gifts and parts of this body and how that work contributes to the wholeness of the community. 

 As the one Body of Christ, it is our call to do all this together.  Some days we will do it better than others, but we are always called to prayer and discernment about where God is inviting us.  We all gather around this table, to share in the sacrament of bread and wine, the body and blood, as one body, so let us always strive together to live into that vision that Paul gives us, and the command that Christ gives us, to be one in the Spirit. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019 – Second Sunday after Epiphany

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Even before we got engaged last November Annie and I had started planning our wedding.  We were discussing venues, dreaming of what clergy we wanted to preside, even starting to pick out hymns.  Yes, this is what happens when church nerds plan a wedding mass.  As we contemplate the reception, there’s one thing I know I can count on.  There’s a tradition in her family, as Annie and her father enjoy making wine as a hobby, that for all the children’s weddings, there is a special wedding wine that is made and bottled.  Now of course this needs to be preplanned because wine has to sit in the bottle awhile and condition.  Then of course it’ll need to be brought to the wedding location from Oregon, and hopefully enough has been made for the Midwestern Lutheran sized wedding set in an Episcopal sized church.  It seems like perhaps what we should do instead is just invite Jesus and friends.

Now last week we observed the Baptism of Jesus, which alongside the visitation of the Magi, and the first miracle at the Wedding of Cana are how we mark our understanding of literally the epiphany that Jesus Christ is God incarnate.  These events herald the incarnation of God into the world, and are part of the early understanding of Jesus’ legitimacy as the Christ.  The interesting thing is that in the synoptic Gospels, immediately following Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit of God drives him into the desert for 40 days.  Obviously, since we aren’t starting Lent for another 45 days, we need to talk about something else first.  So we get the wedding feast at Cana.  This is the first public miracle of Jesus’ ministry and there is a lot said by such an almost nonchalant telling of the event.  This event is only recounted in the Gospel of John, and is one of the very few times that Jesus’ mother is mentioned in that gospel.

There we are at a wedding feast in Cana.  A small town by any account, and it’s hard to imagine the wedding feast consisting of more than one or two hundred people at the very most.   In the midst of the feasting and celebrations the wine runs out.  Mary brings this to Jesus’ attention and his response is really curious.  He says, “What does this have to do with me?  My time hasn’t come yet.”  Now this of course is very good foreshadowing to the institution narrative, to Jesus saying drink of the wine for it is his blood of the new covenant.  But, this is also important about how the author of John writes and where the focus is at.  I don’t know about you, but if I ever, even today, responded to my mother by first calling her ‘woman’…I’m going to guess that isn’t going to go well for me.  But that phrasing connects directly with the moment during the Passion when Jesus tells his mother to regard the Apostle John as her son.

Now, at the wedding feast, Mary doesn’t argue with Jesus, they don’t discuss it, she simply instructs the servants to do as Jesus says.  She leaves the decision on what he’s going to do in his hands.  Jesus tells them to take the stone jars full of the water for the rite of purification and start serving from those.  I think there is some importance in recognizing that Jesus doesn’t wave his hands over the barrels.  He doesn’t swirl his finger in them seven times, he doesn’t do anything to indicate this is a magic trick or to draw attention to himself.  He simply tells the servants to pour from the barrels.  When they do, what is handed out is exclaimed as the best wine by the steward. 

There are a few things I want you to notice.  The first is that when this happens, the servants don’t go to the steward or even the host and say, “by the way, that amazing wine was actually changed from water by the guy sitting over there.”  There’s no grand public demonstration, no big revelation, no one is thanking Jesus for this, it’s really a moment for him to show his disciples that the one they are following is more than just your average rabbi.  The second thing I’d like to point out is based on a little math I did.  Our translation of John says these six stone jars each held 20 to 30 gallons of water.  So they fill them all to the brim, so let’s say they’re each 30 gallons…which means we’re talking about 180 gallons of wine.  Just to be clear, in our modern standard system of 750mL per bottle that comes out to 908 bottles of wine, or seventy five and a half cases.  Like I said, invite Jesus and his buddies to your next wedding.  This isn’t a wedding in Jerusalem, or Rome, this is Cana.  That is a lot of wine for a wedding in Cana.  That, coupled with this being the best wine the steward has tasted together speaks to a very important change in the world.

John the Baptist has been in the wilderness eating locusts and honey, wearing hair shirts and proclaiming that the time of repentance is at hand.  The messiah, the God incarnate shows up and overflows the wedding feast with more of the best wine than the party can reasonably consume.  This is the change.  Jesus Christ, the one foretold has come and now the Kingdom of God is at hand.  That Kingdom is one of abundance, of grace, of joy, and of celebration.  Isn’t that what the Psalmist says, “They feast upon the abundance of your house; you give them drink from the river of your delights.” 

One of the most helpful lessons for me that I often reflect on in this story is how Mary interacts with Jesus around what the problem is.  She doesn’t demand that he fix it, she just lets him know what’s going on.  She tells the servants to do whatever he says.  She trusts in Christ’s judgment and work in the moment when she has informed him of the situation.  She has faith that Jesus will do what is best, and she basically is asking the servants to do the same.  So I think for us, our takeaway is twofold.  The first thing is that we need to have faith in God’s movement.  We don’t always like or understand how things work, but that shouldn’t stop us from bringing our cares to God and laying them at Christ’s feet.  God knows what we need even before we ask, but in the asking we ourselves might be opened to seeing better the hand of God at work.  The second lesson is to trust in God’s abundance.  God’s love and grace are overflowing to us, and this almost facetious act of water into wine is a reminder that the Kingdom of God is abundance.  When we live with a fear of scarcity, we tend to hold on to the things we don’t need.  We keep that extra coat in the closet while others are freezing.  Living with faith in God’s abundance is a radical act of living into the values of the Kingdom, and a way in which we can work towards that existence.

Sometimes we have to hold faith that Jesus might just show up and bring ridiculous amounts of wine with him.  We don’t get to know if the host of the wedding feast was stressed about running out of wine, hadn’t been able to bring enough, or had more people show up than expected.  We don’t even get a reaction from the host after the steward compliments the better wine that has all of a sudden appeared.  What we do see is the first sign, a declaration by God incarnate that the Kingdom is at hand and the abundance that is promised is very real.  Let us all recall the generosity and abundance of Christ’s miracle at the wedding feast as we go out from this place today, back into a world sorely aching for that reminder of the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

First Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019
(Baptism of our Lord)
Kevin Gore, St Andrew’s, Mountain Home

The more I preach, the more I often feel like an apologist for the Revised Common Lectionary.  Today as we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, as is always the case on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we have moved our narrative from last week’s Jesus being somewhere under the age of two, to adulthood and about to start his ministry.  Added to this fast forward is the way in which the lectionary pieces together a life story of Jesus that isn’t always congruent.  In fact our baptism narrative today is from Luke, which is where we will spend most of our time in this liturgical year.  But Luke’s nativity does not include magi or the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents.  It does not include the holy family’s flight to Egypt either, all of which is found in Matthew.  Instead, Luke’s story includes a narrative of Jesus growing up in Galilee.  The circumcision and dedication of Jesus, the stories of Anna and Simeon in the Temple, and Mary and Joseph losing Jesus in the temple when he is twelve years old, because he wandered off to teach.  Luke is creating a narrative of a very traditionally raised Jesus, one who has undergone all the proper ceremonies and rites for a Jewish child of the time.  So we have skipped over all of that, we have already talked about John the Baptist as portrayed in Luke back in Advent, and now we are at the end of John the Baptist’s ministry with the baptism of Jesus. 

If you notice on your handouts there are three verses missing from the Gospel reading today.  We stop at verse seventeen and pick up again at verse twenty one.  What we miss out on are these three verses: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.”  I understand why the writers of the lectionary left it out.  It might appear distracting or maybe even confusing from what seems to be the main event, the baptism of Jesus.  However, I think that the consequences of leading a life following God, of proclaiming the good news, are certainly exemplified by what happens to John the Baptist.  He decries the evils and sins of the insane ruler and because he speaks truth, he is punished for it.  We also know that John is not the last person this will happen to.  Jesus, of course, will be crucified for his declarations of the Kingdom of God, and his followers will suffer a multitude of gruesome ends as well.  These events are reminders to us that what we undertake, as followers of Christ, as those whose work is to live with one foot in the Kingdom of God, is not always going to be an easy task.  It is not always going to be popular or welcome, but to proclaim the Kingdom in the face of danger or persecution is all part of the mantle we accept. 

I have been to one of the two pilgrimage spots on the Jordan River where it is believed Jesus was baptized.  Qasr el Yahud is in the West Bank, Palestinian land by right, but occupied by Israeli military forces.  It is a surreal experience.  After leaving Israel proper, traveling through giant concrete walls with armed guards, knowing we are only getting through because we are a tour bus full of Americans, you drive through the countryside to finally reach the turn off.  By now we have gone into the wilderness and it is fairly flat, rocky terrain.  The spot is four or five miles directly north of the Dead Sea, east of the city of Jericho.  This is a place where Christians have observed the baptism of Jesus for centuries, with archeological evidence that they started worshiping there between the 2nd and 5th centuries.  The existence of churches and monasteries is what we base a lot of our evidence on in deciding on the spot, in addition to geographic clues from the bible, and common sense about how the Jordan river was during the life of Jesus.  So you travel along a highway for awhile getting to a very non-descript turn with a small sign indicating the spot.  You drive about 1000 ft down a two lane road, before you begin to see the signs behind a simple wire fence on either side of the road.  Caution.  Landmines.  This goes on for another 1000 feet or so and then you begin to see old shells of buildings.  Some more intact than others, but all exterior walls pocked from the repeated gunfire of conflicts past.  You go by two old monasteries, one looking someone like an old medieval fort.  All abandoned.  The signs warning you of landmines are still all over.  Eventually about a mile and a half down this road you reach the guard station.  We almost didn’t make it in that day as we had come very late.  The military let us pass anyway, and we drove a little farther to the parking lot.  Once there you walk to the river, and there is a structure with steps and tables, lots of places for people to gather, sit, pray, change into clothes to go into the river, and showers to rinse off afterwards.  And roaming all of this are Israeli soldiers with assault rifles.

You go down to the water, where there are steps leading down into it to aid in immersion.  People often will wade in to be baptized.  But in this little section of the Jordan River, amidst reeds and cloudy water, there is a bright yellow rope with floats on it halfway through the water, accompanied by signs warning that you will be shot if you cross the rope.  Then you see, standing on the other side of the river, which is, mind you, no more than maybe 30 feet across, Jordanian soldiers carrying assault rifles.  There is a visitor’s center on the other side, Jordanian flags flying, and not too far off a Christian monastery that the King of Jordan has allowed to exist.  All this surrounds the spot where Jesus may have been baptized by his cousin, John.  All this surrounds the place where Jesus, joining the queue with soldiers, tax collectors, and all the others who came to hear John’s message, joins in the subversive and holy act of baptism. 

I don’t paint this picture to talk about Israeli politics or occupation or the uneasy borders with Jordan.  I offer this image to you because that day, reflecting on miles of land covered in explosive devices and bullet riddled ghosts of monasteries and churches, in approaching this holy site surrounded by weapons and threats of death should one misbehave, it offered me such a disturbing and moving image of what baptism really is.  Jesus did not undertake this task lightly.  He knew that standing with the broken people in this act of water and renewal showed him to be other to the popular life.  We too, cannot enter into our own baptism lightly.  We are marked as Christ’s own forever, and with that comes the joy of being part of that family, and also the burden.  We make promises in our baptismal covenant that are not in keeping with how most people choose to live in this world.  These promises and the act of baptism set us aside as other, as dangerous, as those who are called to live in the Kingdom of God at hand.  That has to be the first and greatest rule to which we apply our lives. 

It won’t be a perfect application.  Jesus even knew that.  He still had to navigate the world, even if the world was ultimately going to kill him.  He pushed the boundaries and rules, and we too have to be willing to stand with God and the values of God’s Kingdom regardless of the cost of our discipleship.  It is a dangerous thing to enter in to, to be marked as God’s beloved children.  No wonder the path to and from is littered with land mines, the site itself watched over by uneasy guards carrying deadly weapons.  Baptism is dedication of our lives to something greater than we can understand.  It is the point where we are invited into the mysteries, the joy, and the danger of following Christ’s footsteps.  At the end of the baptism liturgy there is a welcome that the celebrant and people say together to the newly baptized: “We receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  Remember as you go out from this place today that as you are marked as Christ’s own, so too you are called to the work of the Kingdom of God.  No matter what the road looks like, no matter who looks askew as we strive for the Kingdom of God, there is one thing we can be assured of.  God has looked upon us, and said as Isaiah reminds us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed  you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Sunday, January 6, 2019 – Epiphany of Our Lord

Epiphany of Our Lord, Year C 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

The visitation of the magi, which we observe today on the Feast of the Epiphany, is developed into one of the more odd traditions surrounding Christmastide.  I say that because it has grown into what we think of today as the ‘three kings’ or ‘wise men’ which we even have names for.  But if you look at the handy little insert in your bulletins, you can see that Matthew (and Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions them) does not in fact tell us how many there were or what their names are.  If we look deeper into the traditions surrounding this story globally we find in some other Christian traditions the magi depicted as being up to twelve in number.  In more recent tradition, and by more recent I mean now and the 5th century, we have landed on three simply because of the three gifts that are brought for Jesus.  The names we use, Melchior king of Persia, Caspar king of India, and Balthasar king of Arabia, come from manuscripts written between the 6th and 9th centuries.  All of this we fold into our traditions, in marking lintels with initials and numbers as an Epiphany blessing on any dwelling place, in all sorts of cultural celebrations, and embrace this understanding that these strangers, gentiles from faraway lands, came to pay homage to this king of kings.  Also a note about timing.  Matthew does not say that the magi arrived the same time as the birth, or any particular amount of days after.  The only speculation we have regarding when they might have arrived is based on Herod’s decree to kill all male children under the age of two.  There is no telling when the author of Matthew intended for the magi to have arrived specifically.

There is certainly a sermon in pulling apart what magi are in the biblical tradition versus us calling them kings, and what that is meant to signify, but perhaps I’ll save that for next year’s Epiphany sermon.  Or we could talk about the gifts and the significance of those three objects of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  This story is both so vague and filled with such folklore that the imagery offers many, many opportunities to reflect on what this can or should mean to us here today.  But for now, I want to stick with what Matthew writes, and in fact I want to go a little further because I think our lectionary stops a little short of where we should be today.  Our reading stops at verse twelve, but I think this story continues in a very important way.  In verse twelve we learn that the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who is pretending to want to pay homage to this child king, but is secretly trying to use the magi to find out where the child is.  So the magi escape Herod’s plot and then we pick up with verse thirteen: “Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” 

This part of the story is usually reserved for December 28th, when we commemorate the Holy Innocents, the children who died because of the rage and insanity of Herod.  I think it is important to remember in our telling of the visitation of the magi because otherwise we tend to make the stories around Christmas a little too sanitized and cheery.  We tend to only focus on images of a cooing baby Jesus, of shepherds and angels, and of the magi, but forget looming over all of this is the megalomaniac that is about to slaughter countless children.  This part of the story is important in the Gospel of Matthew as the author seeks to build a story which showcases similarities between Jesus and Moses, a savior of the people. 

This part of the narrative is also important to remind us that the birth of the Messiah, God’s incarnation in the world did not come about without suffering.  It is a reminder that no matter what is going on, there is still good and evil playing out in this world.   God does not promise us that evil is eradicated, or that evil people will not do evil things.  God is not naïve about the evils of the world, and this story is a reminder to us that we cannot be either.  This part of the story doesn’t get tied up with a shiny bow or get a place of honor at the Christmas pageant.  Honestly, there isn’t any evidence that it’s even historically accurate.  But that’s not what matters.  What matters is how the stories we hear shape our faith and inform how we follow God. 

For me, I confess I cannot read the account of the magi, the slaughter of the holy innocents, or the story of the holy family living as refugees in Egypt and not think of the four children who have died in custody at the government run internment camps our country has setup, most recently the two of the children that died near Christmas.  Herod ordered the slaughter of the innocents because he feared any challenge to his power, even that of a child.  Now clearly these children who have died in custody were not ordered to be executed, but how can we worship a God whose incarnate self was forced to flee and not reflect on how we personally and nationally treat those fleeing their own persecutions.  The magi refuse to return to Herod and tell him where this child is that is called the king of the Jews, because they have been warned in a dream, presumably of what Herod would do to the child. 

As in any biblical story, I find the practice of reflecting on where we see ourselves to be a helpful one.  Are we like magi who would not reveal the hiding place of the child?  Are we like the dutiful soldiers carrying out Herod’s command slaughtering the innocents?  Are we like Egyptians who welcomed the holy family and kept them safe until Joseph was told in a dream they could return?

The story of the magi on a long and perilous journey is one that no doubt captures our imagination.  Mystic sages from lands wrapped in colorful silk, heavy with the scent of ornately spiced foods, riding camels across untold miles of desert following an astrological sign God has placed in the sky for them.  Magi bearing gifts with weighty symbols.  As the church Father Origen says, “Gold, as to king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.”  This is a rich story that should captivate our senses.  But remember that it also too is for us a reminder that though the brightest light shines in the world, so too darkness follows.  We, as followers of that Light, of Jesus Christ, must not forget the whole story, must not forget the slaughter of the innocence, lest we ourselves are doomed to complacency when the world again offers evil in the face of children.

Sunday, December 23, 2018 – Advent 4

Advent 4, Year C, 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

                 There are a lot of words we associate with Advent.  Peace, Love, Joy.  Waiting, patience, expectation.  But the one word I see running through the season of Advent, one that sums up so much of the story we are telling leading up to Christmas is wildness.  We start with the little apocalypse from Jesus, in Advent One, with the heavens and the Earth shaking at the foretold second coming.  Then we move to John the Baptist, the wild-eyed prophet proclaiming the messiah to come, crying out to make straight the pathways, admonishing those in power, and upending the understanding of what it means to repent.  In Advent we live on the edges of the Kingdom of God which is about to burst forth into the world with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, seeing flashes of the Kingdom in everything that leads up to it.  Then today, when the tension is at its highest, when some churches might decide to give up and do Christmas pageants, when the anticipation of the nativity is so palpable, we have one of the wildest and radical events in our scriptures.  Often referred to as the Visitation, it is the story of Mary going to see her cousin Elizabeth after the angel Gabriel has come to tell her that she will bear the child of God, the messiah who is prophesied to come.  What follows is, arguably the first proclamation of the Good News by Mary herself in the Magnificat.  In fact I would make the bold statement that one of the ways in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ, told through the lens of Luke, seeks to upend the norms of the time is by having a woman be the first one to proclaim the Gospel in Mary, the mother of God, and for women to be the first evangelists and apostles to herald the resurrected Christ.  Don’t worry, we’ll get to that second one in Easter. 

                The Visitation is itself such a wild, absurd moment.  First we have Mary, who has just been visited by an angel, to be told she will conceive a child by God.  Her response is to say she is too young, that she is still a virgin, and yet the angel assures her it can be so.  At the end of the encounter with Gabriel, Mary basically just says, “Ok.  I’m in.  Let’s make this happen.”  She seems rather nonchalant in my book.  But then she races off to her cousin’s house.  Now we add the second person to this absurd scene, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is much older than Mary.  In fact she’s so much older she probably fits more like an aunt or elder confidant and role model.  Elizabeth is also barren, and yet in the verses before Mary shows up we learn how God blesses Elizabeth and Zechariah with a pregnancy.  Elizabeth is the first person Mary goes to tell about this encounter.  She doesn’t go to Joseph, she doesn’t go to rabbis or priests, she goes to Elizabeth to share this news.  These two women are the ones discussing the God incarnate who is coming into this world.  Through this sharing of the news, and the confirmations for each other of the shared state of pregnancy, because recall that Mary didn’t know Elizabeth was pregnant until the angel told her, they are affirming the salvation of humanity that is at hand, two women of decent means and status, but not royalty.  These women aren’t part of the ruling class or the religious elite, they are just people whom God has chosen for this. 

                What comes next has been a rallying cry of the Kingdom of God for centuries, recited, chanted, or sung in pretty much every Christian domination.  The Song of Mary, or the Magnificat, is the proclamation of what’s about to happen.  It is an extraordinarily subversive statement, decrying the rich and powerful, asserting that the lowly will be lifted up, and all being recited by a young woman in her cousin’s house.  Can you imagine if a Roman soldier or Judean official happened to walk by the house as Mary is exclaiming that, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Either they would roll their eyes at the ridiculousness of it, or worse they might arrest the women for conspiring against the Emperor.  This heralding of the Messiah isn’t done by a rabbi, or the high priest, or the Sanhedrin, or the emperor.  This statement isn’t from a warlord or anyone who frankly has any say or legal standing.  In reality, Mary isn’t even married yet.  Her standing in society isn’t going to be very good.  But she is the one to whom the messiah will be born.  The Magnificat is a statement of the Kingdom of God.  It is the world in which the followers of Christ indeed should live.  The hungry are fed, mighty are cast down, the lowly are raised up.  It turns everything on its head, and everything about the heralding of the messiah shows this. 

                In ages past, to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, the time of Christmastide, there were many events such as the Feast of Fools where the poor and the outcasts would be welcomed into the feasting halls of the royalty.  The King of Fools would be crowned and rule for a day.  Cathedrals would seat the ‘boy bishop’ in all his finery.  The selecting of a child chorister to be made bishop for a day still exists in some English cathedrals and elsewhere.  The point is that Jesus’ message is subversive.  Everything we have heard from Mary, to John the Baptist, to Jesus himself is about starting with the least of these and raising them up.  The Kingdom of God is not like any kingdom we can conceive of, and so these festivals are an attempt to show what that would be like.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, the downside is such practices are only for a short time before those in power step back in to wield their might in ways that do not always reflect the teachings of Jesus. 

                So in a way this is our invitation, our opportunity to turn the world on its head once more.  It is our time to be nothing less than fools for Christ, if that is what the world would label us.  If we are to celebrate the birth of the messiah by ringing those bells outside tomorrow night, should we not also do so by rooting ourselves firmly in the words of the Magnificat?  We are called to the work of lifting up the lowly, of feeding the hungry.  I know that I say this sort of stuff a lot, but this is the time to feel the tension between the ‘what is’ and the ‘what should be’.  Jesus Christ came to proclaim the Kingdom of God at hand, to teach the values of that kingdom, and his mother, Mary was the herald of this kingdom to come.  The popular hymn, “Canticle of the Turning” written by Rory Cooney in 1990 reworks the Magnificat into poetic prose, and the refrain exclaims, “My heart shall sing of the day you bring.  Let the fires of your justice burn.  Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.”  The world truly has already turned, and now as we are holding our breaths for the proclamation of the birth of the Messiah once again, we should turn our minds and our hearts to preparing for the work that is before us in this world where our souls do indeed magnify the Lord, and our spirits constantly rejoice in God, our savior.  So that we are ready to let the wildness of God’s Kingdom send us out proclaiming the Good news of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 16, 2018 – Advent 3

Advent 3, Year C, 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

This is the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday, which takes its name from the reading of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.  Rejoice, Gaudete, is the first word in verse four.  You may have noticed that there is pink candle in the Advent wreath, among the purple, and often a parish will use pink or rose colored vestments on this Sunday.  In fact in the decade that I worshipped at St. John the Divine, in Springfield, Oregon, I quite often tried to convince Father Peter that we should have a set of rose vestments.  He had a fairly strong opinion about not wearing them; so much so that I really wanted to find a cheap set I could have shipped here just for this morning.  But alas.

There is actually purpose behind the change of color.  This Sunday is meant to be a reprieve from the fasting of Advent.  Its origin comes out of a time when Advent started on November 11th, with the Feast of St. Martin, and was referred to as St. Martin’s Lent.  That’s in part why it historically shares a liturgical color with Lent.  So in the fasting during the 40 days of Advent, much like there is in Lent, it made sense to have a Sunday of a lighter color and a lighter mood.  Today’s readings are meant to reflect the joy of the coming Messiah, the triumph of the salvation that is at hand.  We hear from the prophet Zephaniah how all of Zion is to rejoice at its salvation.  To dance as its oppressors are cast down.  The song of Isaiah speaks of that day when God saves us, and the joy we will experience.  And until then we trust in this expectantly and not fear.  As I’ve already said, the name itself comes from the opening of Paul’s letter that we heard.  And then there is John the Baptist.

Now, at first glance, I’ll be honest, John the Baptist seems to fail the hallmark test.  I’m not sure where you would look to find the cards that read, “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers” but asking someone why they are trying to flee the wrath of God in such a scornful way doesn’t sound like it has much to do with joy.  And yet, the author of the Gospel describes John’s work in verse eighteen as proclaiming the good news.  Surely then what the Baptizer is saying contains more than dire warnings.  We recall from last week that John is in the wilderness.  He’s out far beyond where anyone reasonably lives, in that harsh environment, and yet people are coming to see him.  We hear about the crowds, and some of the people in them.  There are even tax collectors and soldiers who have shown up to hear what John has to say, to be baptized, and to see this man who some might even think is the messiah.  He is the voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of Lord, and these people have come to do just that.

Though he calls them a brood of vipers, though he admonishes them for seeking relief from the judgment of the coming messiah, the weight of his statement is not on the phrase that is fun to repeat, “you brood of vipers” but on what follows.  He says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  The narrative John is working against is one that says because these people are already the chosen of God, they can offer acts of contrition and all will be well.  John is using this righteous anger to wake them up to the new reality that your bloodline does not save you.  Your works are not going to save you.  Being associated with the right crowd is not going to save you.  The one that is to come will be the only way to salvation.  The baptism that John offers is not an insurance policy or a just in case action, he means it to be an awakening and a true amendment of life for the people that are coming to him.

Once the crowd begins to grasp that John’s message is about more than regular purification rights they ask him, “Well what are we supposed to do then?”  When all that they have understood about how to please God is no longer the message, and the time of God’s reign is at hand, they ask this wild haired, raving prophet in the wilderness what the alternative is.  I’ve talked before about how I sometimes imagine these scenes playing out, as if I’m the director behind the camera.  I almost want to see John the Baptist get a sly little grin and say something like, “well I’m glad you asked.”   John has the most nightmarishly radical admonishments for living.  Take your excess and give it to those who have nothing.  He doesn’t tell them to give all they have so that they are impoverished.  He says, “if you have two coats, give one of them to someone who has none.  Whoever has food must do likewise.”  That is the sort of kingdom values that Jesus will later preach to the people, but John is trying to help make straight the way for the kingdom to come now.

Likewise for the tax collector and soldier.  He doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs, and follow him.  John is not the messiah after all.  But he is helping them prepare for even more difficult ways of living than simply not cheating people or extorting money at the end of a sword.  They will be called to an even more radical denial of the values of the world for the values of the kingdom of God, but this is a good start.  And that my friends is where the joy comes into it.  This is a start in how to live out a life worthy of the inbreaking of the kingdom.

Not only is the messiah coming, not only do we have the invitation and guidance on how to turn our lives in a direction that welcomes Christ into our midst, but we have the joy of faith, that the one that is to come, baptizes with fire and will be there to help us clear out all those parts of our lives that don’t fit.  I’m not a biblical scholar, and by no means am I the last word in biblical interpretation, but I do not believe that the same word would be used twice in verses sixteen and seventeen without having some shared meaning.  John says that the one that is to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  That baptism is not an either/or, and is not to say some will be saved and some won’t.  John then uses the allegory of gathering wheat into the granary and burning the chaff away with fire.  I do not hear that as an explanation of Heaven and Hell, or of selective salvation.  How I hear that is this: We all have chaff in our lives.  We often have more coats than we need, we have places where we can give of our surplus to those who have nothing.  We have spaces in our being for improvement.  Like the tax collector or the soldier, there are ways we can continue to do what we do while aligning more with the Kingdom of God.  Our joy is in the knowledge that the one who was, and is, and is to come has indeed baptized us with the spirit and with fire, and that fire can help burn away everything that we need to get out of our lives.  Everything that stops us from making the path straight, everything that dims our hope for the return of Christ, everything that seduces us from living into the Kingdom of God that is at hand.  All of it is burned away if we are willing to take that step.  As John says, to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”  This Gaudete Sunday rejoice in your salvation that is at hand.  The Messiah, the God incarnate, has come and soon we will tell the story again of his incarnation.  Now is our reminder to clear away the things holding us back from living into the Kingdom of God, and to follow the Christ who removes our burdens and burns away our chaff.

Sunday, December 9, 2018 – Advent 2, Year C

Advent 2, Year C, 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Last Sunday we started our movement into Advent.  We began to think about hope and what that means in terms of the already and not-yet dual nature that Advent offers.  Our Gospel lesson was another vignette by Jesus of what to expect at the end of times, another small apocalypse.  Today though we have readings in many ways more characteristic of that expectation that comes with Advent.  Readings that drop us into the beginning of the story, not quite the very beginning, but close enough to feel more like we are leading up to Christmas.  The words of Zechariah we heard in the Benedictus that takes the place of a Psalm today are about his joy in the birth of his son, John, who will become known as the Baptist.  Zechariah has a vision and prophecy that leads him to understand that his son will herald the coming of the Messiah.  Which is why that canticle is paired very neatly with the Gospel reading from the third chapter of Luke.  We have skipped over the birth of Jesus, and over his growing up as a refugee in another country, after his family has fled the murderous and insane Herod the Great.  We hear today of John the Baptist, the voice calling in the wilderness, heralding the coming Messiah, right before Jesus’ ministry begins.

Luke introduces the third chapter with something that might often be glossed over, but there is, I promise, a very good reason for how this reading starts.  Unlike so many gods, demi-gods, or mythological heroes of old, Luke tells us exactly when this was by telling us about who was ruling the land.  Not only does this place the events very clearly into a historical context, but it also says something about the fractured and divisive nature of the area.  We know that this really happened because we know when it happened.  This isn’t a long time ago in a kingdom far far away.  This was the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee.  That means we know this is, historically speaking, year 29 of the Common Era.  Now of course, that’s all a bit convoluted since history has been marked and years numbered more recently based around the birth of Jesus Christ.  But, that doesn’t diminish how important it is for Luke and should be for us that this is something we can actually point to as a historical event.

Now at this point in the story, the Herod we are talking about is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.  He is the one we’ve talked about before.  A megalomaniac who is starving his people while feasting in his palace.  Who is constantly assassinating or getting rid of people in his court who he thinks are scheming against him. And of course, divorced his first wife to marry Herodias, the former wife of his brother.  Enter John the Baptist.  He’s in the wilderness, which is not a nice place to say the least.  I’ve been there.  It’s dry, dusty, there’s very little shade.  It’s very rocky.  When it rains there are flash floods.  There is very little to subsist on.  Against the opulence of the insane King Herod, feasting in his halls and filling his court with all sorts of hedonism, stands John the Baptist.  Dirty, wandering in the desert, perhaps we would think of him as homeless or vagrant in modern terms, though that might be a stretch.  Wearing camel’s hair…I promise you not a comfortable or popular fashion statement.  Eating honey and locusts, as opposed to royal feasts.  In the history of salvation John the Baptist plays a very important role for the Hebrews.  The last prophet of God before John was Malachi, and he lived approximately five hundred years before John.  So having the Baptist showing up wandering the land, repeating the words of a very well know prophet, Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Is a momentous occasion in the wider narrative of the Hebrew faith.  Luke says that John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness with these words, but what exactly does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?

This last week I have spent countless hours cleaning my apartment.  Annie arrives this coming Friday morning and she hasn’t been here since July.  So, for five months I have been left to my own devices in what is essentially a bachelor pad.  Now, I’m generally a tidy person, but I also spend a lot of time working so I don’t pay as much attention to upkeep as I should.  There was a lot of cleaning out old mail, vacuuming, mopping, and even unpacking a few more boxes that I hadn’t gotten to.   I am preparing for the arrival of someone important to me.  Don’t we usually go the extra mile to make sure that a special person arriving feels welcome and at home?  Wouldn’t we do even more to prepare for a visit from a dignitary?  Imagine what we might do if the Presiding Bishop was going to visit us here at St. Andrew’s!  Now the imagery that Isaiah is invoking is on an ever greater scale.  At the time that Isaiah says, “Prepare the way of the Lord” the royalty didn’t visit anywhere without bringing their entourage.  Usually they were either pulled in large comfortable carriages or carried by slaves in palanquins.  As you can image that sort of travel doesn’t do well with hills or twisting roads.  Quite literally they would level the roads, make the paths straight, they would prepare the way of the royal caraven to be able to traverse the path.

History lesson aside, what does this then mean for us?  It sort of reminds me of those bumper stickers, “Jesus is coming!  Look busy!”  Really, we shouldn’t just look busy.  We have a lot of work to do.  A call to repentance and salvation, by making the paths straight.  We have a lot of hills and valleys in our lives.  We have twists and turns.  We have all sorts of obstacles that are always distracting us from living out our call to follow the path of Christ.  Our world doesn’t really work in our favor or support us in living out the values of the Kingdom of God.  There is always a distraction, whether electronic or not.  Our hobbies, our families, our 24 hour news cycles, every aspect of our modern lives are designed to make us constant consumers of all manner of goods.  Where do we take the time to pray?  Where do we take the time to listen for God’s call?  Where do we take the time to just be in the presence of the one who created us and loves us?

John the Baptist stands outside of everything that wealth, power, and busyness does to make sense of its existence.  He stands near the Kingdom of God, calling people into right relationship as the ministry of Jesus approaches.  I’m not saying we need to put on camel’s hair shirts and eat locusts just to make the metaphorical path straight.  But you might find turning your phone off to be as uncomfortable as that camel hair shirt; carving out precious time in your schedule for reflection and prayer to feel as ascetic as subsisting on locusts and honey.

As a brother of the Anamchara Fellowship, one of the vows that I take is of Simplicity.   It is often expressed in the idea of living simply so others can simply live.  It is existing without a spirit of accumulation, but it’s not necessarily all about financial simplicity.  It’s also simplicity in how we harmonize with all of Creation.  Slowing down the pace of life.   It is divesting ourselves of the clutter that is both physical and spiritual to prepare the way of the Lord. One of my favorite expressions of this in Celtic traditions is ‘Listening for the heartbeat of God’.  It is the idea that in every moment of our day, in every bit of Creation that we encounter, in every person we talk to, in every moment that tests us, we are listening for the heartbeat of God, we are seeking the Spirit, discerning the way.  Personally, I find it to be a very helpful reminder to slow down, to consider my day, my life, to reflect on the choices made and the paths taken.  I don’t always succeed at this, but I’m often reminded that I need to do try.

The whole point of divesting ourselves, of clearing the paths of our hearts and minds is for the coming Christ; for the one that was, and is, and is to come.  The one who tells us the Kingdom of God is in our midst.  We know that failure to live up to this will be often, and should never be a discouragement.  I like to say that practicing our faith is like trying to learn to ride a bicycle you will never really master.  You will fall, and every time you fall, you have to get up and start again.   But the whole reason we do what we do is to indwell in the Spirit of God, to seek our relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ, and to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives that we might catch a glimpse of that glorious Kingdom of God wherein our salvation and the salvation of the whole world has been fulfilled.

 

Sunday, November 25, 2018 – Proper 29

Proper 29, Year B, 2018 (Christ the King)
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

In the Autumn of last year I was serving as a field ed intern at Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church in the Mission District of San Francisco.  I was also living at my seminary, CDSP, in the middle of Berkeley.  A stone’s throw from the north edge of the UC Berkeley campus.  It was a volatile year, with protests, minor riots, and clashes between white supremacists trying to march through town and students refusing to let that sort of hatred find any welcome.  During all of this a white supremacist from England, Milo Yiannopoulos had attempted to hold rallies on the UC Berkeley campus and a conversation ensued about free speech.  Cal has always upheld itself, from the earliest days, through the Vietnam war, to today as a bastion of free speech.  But, when they canceled the visits of someone who incites violence and hatred towards people of color and women, people questioned whether this was hindering free speech or much like not being able to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, was not allowed as it posed a threat.  During all of this I had a conversation with a congregant at Holy Innocents I will never forget.  She was struggling to make sense of the situation, on one hand knowing that what this person wanted to proclaim from a stage was hate speech, was horridly racist vitriol that would serve only to buoy up the most hateful of people, and on the other hand she thought it was very important that free speech be preserved.  She asked me how I saw a way through this conundrum and my answer was simple:  the confusion comes because we are straddling two very different value sets.  As Americans, we grow up being told that freedom of speech is an inalienable right, core to the values of this country.  But what we never stop to acknowledge is that it isn’t a Christian value.  In fact most of our rights, laws, and what are drilled into us as inalienable as part of this man-made government have absolutely nothing to do with Christian values, and they aren’t supposed to.  I suggested to this person that her struggle was not in figuring out what is and isn’t acceptable free speech, but rather the values of empire were conflicting with the values of the Kingdom of God, and honestly I’m not sure there are any easy answers to that conflict.   Which brings us to our feast observed today.

Today is the Feast of the Reign of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost.  It is the end of the Church year, and marks the triumphal end of the narratives around the ministry of Jesus that we’ve heard through the summer.  Soon we begin anew, moving into Advent and anticipating the birth of the Messiah.  But first, today, we celebrate Jesus as sovereign King.  The Reign of Christ the King sounds like a grand, medieval tradition that one observes in concert with countless throngs of Christians for centuries before us.  A quick search on the internet will show you that in fact the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe as it was first called, was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius the eleventh.  Not so much the ancient observance one would think.  It was instituted at a time when the world was changing, and in the eyes of the Roman Church, not for the better.  Post World War I there was an increase in secularism, nationalism, and Benito Mussolini had been ruling as Prime Minister of Italy for three years.  This feast was instituted with the hope that it would encourage people to turn more towards seeing Jesus Christ as their supreme head, the one to whom they were to be most obedient above all others and away from the growing shadow that was spreading across an already war torn Europe.

While I think we could certainly go down the road of comparing the values of the Kingdom of God and following Jesus Christ to our own current political climate, and which path we should probably be choosing, it occurs to me that there is something far deeper here to reflect on.  Something that can help us think about how we approach (or whether we approach at all) calling this the Feast of Christ the King.

Let’s stop for a minute to really think about the way we live.  How many times have you done what Jesus commands of us throughout the Gospels?  We’ve all done something, we’ve fed the hungry, we’ve donated clothing, and we’ve reached out to those in need and tried to help as best we could.  We do what we can to live as subjects under the rule of Christ the King.  But I suspect we’ve also walked past the person on the street and not offered our kindness.  I suspect many of us haven’t spent a lot of time visiting those in prisons.  We often put the values of a capitalist market or the worship of the Empire above the Kingdom of God.  We also fail sometimes to be faithful subjects.  What matters is how we try to live our lives, knowing that perhaps we are going to have to decide from time to time what we are going to follow.  The point here is that if you want to live outside of the Kingdom and serve the Empire all the time, if you are going to consistently turn your back on those in need, then you will build up for yourself a place that feels separated from the Love of God.  And I’ll let you in on something.  I personally do not believe for a minute that we are ever actually separated from or beyond the Love of God.  We are only unable to experience that which we turn ourselves from.  It is turning ourselves away from sharing that love with others, it is disconnecting ourselves from our human condition with each other that brings us to a punishment, albeit self imposed.  God is always there ready to extend the Love which is asked of us, when we are ready to embrace it, whether that is now or in some unimaginable future.

Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  To me this statement makes clear that to be of the Kingdom of God one is removed from the kingdoms of the Earth.  It’s not an easy task, or one that is even fully possible.  I cannot, as an example, refuse to pay my taxes because I do not wish to contribute to the Empire.  I will not cease to vote, whether it feels pointless or not, because influencing government is not a Christian value.  I will strive to exemplify the values of the Kingdom of God, and how I live as a subject of Christ the King above any other fealty I might be expected to swear.

This passage allows us the open door to ponder what our image of God is, especially when coupled with the idea of ‘Christ the King’.  Do we see God as Christ the King?  What even is a king to us?  Do we see God as Queen?  Do we see God as punisher, as healer, as parent, or perhaps as a feeling or an emotion? I want to invite you to take this question and spend some time, perhaps this week, really thinking about how you see God.  What is God to you?  Because I promise you that whatever you come up with for God will be in some way what you either want to or are reflecting out into the world as your best self.  We strive to be of the Kingdom of God, to live into those values as much as possible, and yes sometimes those are going to conflict with the values of the Empire we have been taught to uphold.  In those times we must ask ourselves what the cost of discipleship is, what is God’s Kingdom, and how are we to proceed?

What is God to you and how do you live into that truth and serve that Kingdom?  That is your work.  Do not squander the knowledge of God’s Love, or forget to remind the world to what we are all called and to who’s Kingdom we ultimately belong.  Some days we will serve the Empire.  Some days we will do better at serving Christ the King.  But every single day for the rest of eternity you are held in the Love of a God that has already come to cast down the power of every earthly empire and ruler, the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty, and invites you into their embrace.