Category Archives: Sermons

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Proper 19 Year C 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church Mountain Home

I wonder if we take enough time in our busy lives to stop and consider the lens with which we see the world around us.  Especially when it has to do with how we think of church, or of our faith, or of the writings of that faith.  All too often there is a danger that those things we experience on a regular basis become too ordinary.  They lose their vibrancy and fade into the background of life.  We don’t have to think about it as much, so we don’t.  But in doing that, we often miss the most beautiful details.  I think perhaps this week’s gospel lesson highlights a good example of that for us.

I don’t know that I’ve ever preached on this particular passage, but I know I’ve certainly heard many sermons on it.  Even without hearing that many sermons, we know already that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, right?  We already know what a good shepherd does.  We’ve heard this punchline a few times.  We already know the right answer.  So when Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  We already know we’re supposed to eagerly raise our hand and say, ‘Yes Jesus, I would!  This is what the good shepherd does!’

While studying this week’s Gospel, I came across a commentary on the passage that really struck me.  It stripped away all of my preconceived notions and assumptions and allowed me the space to see more beauty in this than I had recently.  Now of course, the image of the good shepherd, with the lost sheep slung across his back, is beautiful.  It is a reminder to us that God cares for us.  It gives us a notion of safety and security.  But the part that is easy to miss is that it is absolutely ridiculous.

Imagine for a moment that Jesus is in a room full of shepherds.  He asks this question, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  Then all the shepherds look around at each other as if to say, “is this guy serious?”  Then they all slowly shake their heads to say, ‘no, no one does that.’  When Jesus likens God to a shepherd that leaves ninety-nine of their one hundred sheep in the wilderness, to go off and find the one lost sheep, Jesus is making the point that God’s love for us far exceeds any common sense.  No shepherd would leave their nearly entire flock, without safety, in the wilderness, at peril of wild animals, to wander around, at their own peril as well, to find one sheep.  They would be annoyed at the financial loss and stay with the flock.

Fred Craddock writes, “If the ninety-nine are safe in a fold, then the search for one lost sheep is but an act of frugality, an exercise of common sense.  It is foolish not to act when there is a possible gain with no possibility of loss.  But how is one to assess the search by a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine in the wilderness?  Either the shepherd is foolish or the shepherd loves the lost sheep and will risk everything, including his own life, until he finds it.”

The same can be said for the second parable Jesus tells, of the woman who has lost a coin.  This coin is one tenth of her money according to Jesus.  Generally speaking there weren’t banks accessible to the general public, so she probably keeps these coins on a necklace.  It is assumed by many scholars to be roughly a month’s wages.  The woman goes to every extent to find this coin.  She loses time, burns fuel in her lamp, does not rest until she has recovered it.  There are wonderful paintings done of this parable, showing a woman, stooped, in the darkness with just a lamp to light her sightline, checking every crack in the walls.  I wonder even if it’s very important you might eventually shrug your shoulders and resolve that it will turn up.  I don’t know that most people would go to the extent she does to find it.  She does not rest until the coin is recovered.

Once these lost things have been found, there is so much joy that it cannot be celebrated alone.  The shepherd calls his friends and neighbors together, likewise the woman.  I am left to wonder if there wasn’t a celebration that cost more than the lost coin.

All of this is to illustrate the Good News.  The words that Jesus brings to a people sorely in need of salvation.  God Loves them.  God will go to any length to find them and bring them home.  And when everyone is brought back together, there is always much rejoicing.  This reading today is the opening to the parable of the prodigal son, which also illustrates the same values.  God knows that we wander off like distracted sheep.  The good news is that we don’t have to be afraid.  God will find us wherever we are.  No matter what we’ve done.  No matter how lost we’ve become. 

Unless I completely misunderstand what was used for currency in Jesus’ time, it’s also important to note that this coin does not get lost of its own volition.  The coin does not have legs or the desire to wander like the lost sheep.  It isn’t the case that everyone who ends up lost does so because they chose to be.  Sometimes we end up in places we never intended to be.  But the good news is that God will keep looking for us.

Jesus invites us in to a life that exemplifies these values.  Can we not also rejoice at the finding of lost sheep?  Can we not also live in such a way that we act as a beacon to draw people to the loving embrace of God?  We are a bit of both.  We are the lost, but we also have a responsibility to remind the lost we run into that there is something better. 

Bishop George Craig Stewart is quoted as saying, “The Church after all is not a club of saints; it is a hospital for sinners.”  When we get so used to seeing something and letting it become routine, we often miss the beautiful details.  We forget that everything we do here is not to congratulate ourselves for being good.  If God is like the shepherd Jesus tells us about, he leaves those ninety-nine good sheep to spend time and energy on that one lost sheep.  Let us remember that when that one lost sheep is found, the joy and celebration is so great that everyone is invited to take part.  This is God’s Grace.  A relentless, overflowing love that pursues us into the most dangerous of wilderness and brings us back with great rejoicing.

That my friends is the Good News.  Sometimes these stories we hear lose some of their punch because we’ve heard them over and over again.  Don’t forget how ridiculous Jesus can sound to his contemporaries.  He was proclaiming a Kingdom unlike any other, and a Grace and forgiveness that had not yet been seen.  Jesus was heralding the Kingdom of God, and a grace the will find you wherever you end up.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Proper 18 Year C 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

This week we have more from Jesus on what it means to follow him.  We have more instruction on the kind of life one should lead as his disciple.  Jesus is explaining what life is like if you are going to call yourself a Christian.  But as you well heard in the Gospel reading, if you take what we have in modern English, this reading isn’t very palatable.  Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate”.  That is a strong word, especially hard when followed with a litany of family members and life itself!  There is a lot to unpack in these nine verses, so I suggest we dive right in.

Jesus said to them, “‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  The first point to make here is that the word ‘hate’ does not mean what we think of it to mean or how we would use it today.  Now, don’t be confused.  If you were sitting there listening to Jesus, you’d still think that he was sounding crazy.  But where we need to apply a little critical thinking is in the context and language use of Jesus’ time.  I’m not going to attempt to put you to sleep with Greek and Hebrew translation and language studies.  What we need to know is that in this culture family is everything.  This is all of the closest support you have.  These are the people you turn to if you are struggling, if you need a shoulder to cry on, if you are feeling alone in the world.  What Jesus is saying is to turn away from them.  He is saying that you have to let go of relying on them and seeking support from them.  This is a leap of faith.

Jesus is also talking about letting go of the attachments of this world.  When he talks about hating family and life, we should hear him say that one ought to be willing to lose those things to follow Jesus.  I don’t for a minute think that the same person who says love your neighbor as yourself, wants you to call up your family members to let them know you hate them.  What Jesus wants is for us to let go of holding on to our attachments which have nothing to do with the kingdom of God.  He wants us to put faith in God before putting faith in other people.  He wants us to stop putting our own earthly existence before living out the values of the kingdom.  It’s not an easy ask.  Jesus may not literally be telling us to ‘hate’ these things, but the thing he is asking of us is still as hard.  This also speaks to understanding everyone as part of your family, and not forsaking those in need to prioritize blood relatives.  The ideal Jesus is striving for is that we all find ourselves equally upholding each other through our faith and trust in God and his Kingdom.

Then Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  The impact of this statement cannot be over exaggerated.  Jesus says this before his crucifixion.  Jesus says this before the cross becomes the symbol of faith.  In fact, I wonder if everyone sort of looked around when he said that and thought, “Well that’s a weird object to suggest we all carry.”  The only ‘cross’ that the people hearing Jesus know of is the torture device that the Romans use to execute the worst criminals.  The only cross that would come into mind is the vicious, inhumane methods the Romans have to terrify the people of the countries they occupy.  This certainly foreshadows Jesus’ death which he is on the road to in this passage, but it also is a poignant image for his contemporaries.  If you aren’t willing to carry with you an instrument of death, your own death in fact, then you cannot follow me.  As Christians we must be willing to lose everything for the sake of God’s Kingdom. 

Jesus goes on to explain this in economic terms.  How can you buy something if you don’t know the cost?  How can you enter into any activity or venture without first preparing everything you need, or knowing exactly what it will require of you?  And we certainly don’t want to end up compared to the foolish people who do in fact fail to accomplish something because they failed to estimate the cost or the supplies or the sacrifice needed.  But wait a minute.  We’re human.  We do that sort of thing all the time.  We fail again and again at things.  Life is full of ups and downs and in fact I think we all fall quite short of living up to Jesus’ commands and the price he sets on discipleship.  Thankfully, what we are seeking is not as high stakes as what Christ did.  The crosses we bear can sometimes be too much for us, but the ultimate cross, the one that required the ultimate price and offered us hope and God’s grace, the one that we would never be able to bear, Jesus himself takes that one.  Yes, Jesus asks a lot of us.  He sets the bar incredibly high.  But the Good News that accompanies that is that God’s grace is abundant and salvation is already at hand.  So no matter how much we fail at living up to these expectations, we are still forgiven.  We are still saved.  We are still Christ’s own.  We are still following him, we just stumble on the path sometimes.

The decision to follow Christ should not be one that is done without serious contemplation.  It is no small thing to claim this path, to lift up your cross, and to willingly follow.  We will be asked to sacrifice, to rearrange our priorities, to go against the world for the sake of the Kingdom.  Each one of us walks a path catered to our own experience and needs too.  Though taking up your cross is ultimately about willingness to sacrifice your earthly existence, it also can symbolize the smaller sacrifices and challenges that we find on that path.  Mother Teresa is quoted saying,

“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway. “

God knows what crosses we bear; God knows how hard our struggles can be to carry them.  Rejoice in knowing that Christ has born the one we could not.  Our salvation is assured.  What we do between now and the end of this mortal coil is the work we are left to.

Sunday, September 01. 2019

Proper 17, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Any given day, Anglicans all over the world might be attending mass and many of those liturgies include a prayer that was in the very first prayer book of the Church of England in 1549.  We have preserved that prayer in our own Rite I service, and I’m surprised to find out that other denominations including Presbyterians and Methodists use a form of this prayer.  It is, in fact, one of my favorite prayers we have.  I’m referring to the prayer of humble access.  For our 8am Sunday service, we are no stranger to this prayer, but there are very possibly folks at our 10:30am service that may have never heard it.  If it is unfamiliar to you, I encourage you to grab a prayer book and turn to page 337 to have it handy.  And, I think in light of part of today’s Gospel reading, we should spend a little time reflecting on the prayer of humble access and what it means to us.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is at a dinner and is doing some really good people watching.  He notices that the guests are choosing the best seats for themselves.  Now, it’s probably important to understand that at this time, in the culture of Jesus’ people, when you went to a dinner party, you would be reclining on pillows at a table.  This would be all men gathered around the table, and generally, you would arrange yourselves as a matter of prestige.  For the most part people knew where they fit in society and didn’t try to push too far.  But sometimes, people who felt that they should be given it, or perhaps wanted to manufacture their own move in society, might go to the places of honor at the head table.  How embarrassing then, when the host has to ask you to move because someone more important should be sitting there.  By and large, we Episcopalians tend to be fairly good at humbly taking the seats far away from the front.

But this isn’t just an etiquette lesson from Jesus.  He’s not acting as Miss Manners for first Century Jews.  This has as much to do with the Kingdom of God and our Theology of salvation as it does with how one should act.  Now sure, it is a wonderfully humble thing to do, to seat yourself in a lower station, and what joy when you are invited forward.  But how often do you think someone seats themselves in such a way without some hope that they get that invitation?  How often would we seat ourselves in low station without any desire or hope to be recognized for such humility?

‘We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.’  A very basic tenet of the Christian faith is that we can do nothing to bring about our salvation.  We, as humans, have no power as great as to attain escape from judgment.  That is the primary good news of the Gospel.  That has been taken care of for us.  This parable from Jesus is saying the same thing.  We cannot presume, of our own righteousness, to go and sit at the head table in a place of honor. 

The prayer continues, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”  I’ve have known people who do not like this prayer because of the language in which it describes our cosmic relation to salvation.  I get it.  There are a lot of people in this world who have spent far too much of their lives being told that they aren’t good enough to be loved, that they aren’t smart enough to be worthy, or that they simply aren’t holy enough to ever escape the fires of Hell.  It’s understandable why saying that we are not worthy to gather up crumbs from God’s proverbial table would be distasteful.  But ultimately this is the truth.  We are human.  We aren’t that great.  We ruin our planet, we pretend that it’s okay to murder people if they are carrying a different flag than we do, we fail time and time again to live up to our promise to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

The joy comes in knowing that we are invited to the head of the table by God.  We are assured of our salvation, we know that something far greater awaits us.  It is only in the midst of this joy do we acknowledge that we are human and fail to live up to what God offers us.  But we get to have it anyway.  We don’t have to earn anything or qualify for it.  Salvation is freely offered to us and only because of that does it make any sense to be reminded that we fall short and it is God’s grace that bridges the gap.  Is it not better to sit at a lower place and be invited up, than to be asked to move down?

Our Gospel lesson continues with Jesus teaching a different lesson to hosts, rather than guests; a more practical lesson about living the values of the Kingdom.  This has to do with how we treat others.  In some ways, it also again echoes salvation in the same way that God offers to us something we cannot repay.  So also, Jesus says to invite to dinner those you know cannot repay you.  Do so because we should be acting out of love and not out of hope for benefit.  We are emulating the example of God to invite others into a joy they cannot repay.  This is radical stuff that God calls us to.  Here, unlike other places, Jesus isn’t talking about us providing for the needs of the less fortunate.  He is literally saying we should invite them to dinner.  You can translate the word, ‘hospitality’ to mean ‘love of a stranger’.  This is a moment where host and guest are together, not the host sending out food to those who are hungry.

We are called to remember, not through pity or self-depreciation, but through joy that our salvation is at hand.  Of course we are not able to attain it ourselves.  Our good news is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that tells us God has taken care of that.  We are invited to that head table, because we would never get there ourselves.  Knowing that, then, shouldn’t we be sharing that joy with others?  Inviting in especially those that need to be reminded that there is something better for us all?  Our liturgy uses phrases and prayers to remind us that we are not in control, and that we should not be living lives bent on control.  Our collect today asks God to bring forth in us the fruit of good works.  Now when we leave here today, how will we live in to that?  How will we heed the call that Jesus gives us to live in the midst of God’s Kingdom? 

“He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  Let us go then, and do likewise.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Proper 16, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

In May of 2001, the finale of the second season of West Wing aired.  For those that may not remember, West Wing was a drama about the life and work of the Oval Office, which was particularly well known for a unique style of filming and dialogue.  The show starred Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett.  In the show, Sheen plays the President as a devout Roman Catholic.  Sheen is, in real life, also a devout Catholic.  This matters because in filming this finale of season 2, the setting is the Washington National Cathedral.  They are there for the funeral of the President’s secretary.  It is a very untimely and tragic death, and the President is struggling in his faith and furious at God.  After the funeral, the President asks his chief of staff to have the secret service agents seal the cathedral while he remains behind for a moment.  Furious, the President begins to walk towards the sanctuary of the cathedral, ranting at God in his anger over the injustices that have occurred.  He mixes his insults between English and Latin.  He stops at the bottom of the steps leading up to the high altar.  He curses God.  Then he turns, lights a cigarette, then tosses on the mosaic sanctuary floor and grinds it in with this shoe as we walks away.  Martin Sheen has later said in interviews that it was a very difficult scene to shoot.  Not only was he incredibly uncomfortable raging at God, whether in character or not, but he nearly refused to do the part with the cigarette.  The actor so held the sanctity of the place he was filming in that it was hard to even pretend.

This came to mind this week as I contemplated our Gospel lesson.  What makes something holy?  What makes a space or a day or an event holy?  Moreover, what makes the things we do or the things we wear or the things we say acceptable in such a space?  Sometimes I wear a zucchetto on my head during the mass.  It’s a traditional head covering of a priest, and it is removed during the canon of the mass.  But why then do I cringe when I see pictures of a priest from LA wearing a Dodgers baseball cap during their annual service where they celebrate the opening of the season?  What makes one hat more appropriate than another?  The answer to that question is that it boils down mostly to tradition.  Different traditions inform different levels of acceptability.  In our Gospel lesson Jesus is pushing back against the traditions of the institution.  He does so primarily to highlight that there can be a big difference between the command of God and the tradition of the institution. 

In the commandments handed to Moses, God tells the people that they are to keep the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath, as holy.  It is a day of holiness and rest.  Then, because we are so good at it, humanity extrapolates what that really means.  So when Jesus is sitting in the synagogue teaching, with the whole community gathered because that’s what you did on the Sabbath, he takes the opportunity to show where the failing is.  The woman Jesus heals does not ask to be healed.  None of her friends ask Jesus on her behalf.  Imagine her just sitting in the synagogue, checking out the readings of the day from her bulletin, and Jesus calls her over and heals her.  This of course angers the passive aggressive leader of the synagogue who begins to preach to know one in particular that if they are there for healing they ought to come on a different day than the Sabbath.  Healing is, according to them, work, and so not permitted on this day of obligation.  They should be turned to holy things, which apparently to them doesn’t include releasing this woman from her ailment.

Jesus wants to teach that there may be other ways to think about how one observes a holy day.  And when the leader of the synagogue has something to say about it, Jesus points out that in the traditions of the people, they have made accommodation so that they can ensure their animals have water.  How hypocritical then not to see the importance and holiness in healing this woman.  Sometimes the absurdity of tradition when it serves no function, or worse causes harm, has to be pointed out.  In this case it goes even deeper because this gets at the root of what it means to follow God’s commands and to live by the values of God’s kingdom!  What honors God more?  Sitting on your hands and watching people suffer, or doing something about it even if the institution has decided it’s not the right time.

We have to be on guard with ourselves and how we live out our faith.  That is, after all, why we are here.  This isn’t just some hobby to fill your bored Sunday mornings.  We have chosen to follow God, to follow the way that God teaches us through Jesus.  Sometimes, as I mentioned last week, that’s going to upset the apple cart a bit.  It’s not always welcome.  But that doesn’t change the truth of the message.

Recall when I said that the values of the Kingdom of God are not about being coerced into behaving a certain way, but rather feeling called to live that way.  So too it is when we seem to force our institutions and traditions on people instead of inviting them into a way of being.  I’m not saying tradition is bad, I’m saying that having a, “because I said so” approach is not the way to instill the love of God or the desire for the Kingdom in others.  Instead we should live by example, showing why we do something, why something matters, and always be willing to check ourselves against the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In our Gospel reading Jesus is using his authority and power to show that the Kingdom of God isn’t the sort of place where suffering should continue just because, “this isn’t the right time.” 

As our collect today says, we are called as a church to show forth God’s greatness to the world.  Let us do so with love, with compassion, with a rich tradition that keeps the fires lit, and keeps the praises of God flowing from our lips.  May our house be one that draws people to the love of God, a place we make holy by our words and our deeds, and not a golden calf that we worship in God’s stead.  May we live faithfully, as God asks us to, always looking towards the glory of the Kingdom that offers us a way of grace, peace, and joy.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Proper 15, Year C, 2019

Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The work of the clergy (or the work of a deacon, or the work of a priest, or the work of the church, or the work of God) is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”?  It’s heard it many times, in many contexts, and in some ways I completely agree with it.  The statement reflects the importance of the message of Jesus Christ in the world, and usually that message will stand in opposition to the comfort of the status quo.  So as I contemplated this week’s sermon, and thought about Jesus’ words, that phrase came to mind.  But when I went to trace the origin of that phrase, because frankly, I don’t like quotes or phrases unless I can correctly attribute them, I was surprised to find this one’s origin.  The original phrase was proclaiming that it is the work of the newspaper to, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  It was first coined in 1902 by a journalist named Finley Peter Dunne.  Isn’t it interesting where we place our hopes when it comes to balancing out the scales of justice in society?  Even more interesting to me is that in 1987 this phrase is then used by a Christian author to discuss God’s mercy and wrath.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is well aware of God’s wrath.  Not too long after Jesus has rebuked the disciples for wanting to call down fire on some folks, Jesus himself says he came to bring fire and wishes it was already kindled!  The interesting thing about this is that there are a lot of different kinds of fire in the bible.  There is the fire that consumes and destroys Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins of arrogance and being inhospitable.  There is the fire of the burning bush, which does not consume, and shows Moses that God is present.  The pillar of fire that is the presence of God throughout the Old Testament.  Then the fire that John the Baptist speaks of when he says that he will baptize with water but another (Jesus) will come to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  With the advent of the Holy Spirit we get the flames alighting on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost.  So there are many ways to think about fire, and what Jesus may mean when he says he came to bring fire.  We know that God’s judgement is hanging over creation, but while Jesus may be here to herald that judgement in the fulfillment of the Law, he is also taking all of that Judgement on himself in his death and resurrection.  He is taking all of the fire and shielding us for all eternity from it.  Jesus knows what is to come, the baptism he is to undergo, and in this part of Luke which we currently find ourselves, he is drawing nearer and nearer to the cross.  

Last week I said that I believe when Jesus is discussing how we live in God’s Kingdom, when he is describing the values of that Kingdom, that these are things we should want to do and not necessarily commands that have been carved in stone.  Living in the kingdom means that we have a spirit that compels us to live out the values.  A similar approach is needed to what Jesus says next in our Gospel today about bringing division.  When Jesus says that, it is more than likely he means it as a description of the natural result of discipleship, and not as the command to cause division in relationships to follow him.  It is not the work of Jesus to set parents against their children, but rather when one lives out the call to discipleship, quite often you find yourself in conflict with those who refuse discipleship.  As an example, think of the parable of the prodigal son.  When the father welcomes the prodigal son home with joy and feasting, though the relationship between those two has been mended, the relationship between the father and the elder son, who is focused only on himself, is fractured.  When you proclaim reconciliation and justice as values of life, then you will upset the status quo.  You have to be willing to suffer at the hands of a vile world that does not like the light of the Gospel to shine upon it.  Christian discipleship means valuing nothing over God’s kingdom.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century German pastor, theologian, and martyr wrote regarding the church and the times he lived in, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” 

We cannot afford to simply pay lip service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Either it means everything or it means nothing.  God has made it clear what the cost of discipleship is.  God expects everything from us, and, of course, forgives us when we fail to live up to it.  But the real sin exists in between those two extremes, if we completely refuse to try. 

Bonheoffer goes on to say, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “you were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

It is always time to embrace costly grace.  There is always a darkness growing in the hearts of humanity.  There will always be a price to pay for proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  Sometimes that cost isn’t as high as other times.  We are not called to proclaim when it is convenient.  We are not called to sugar coat the parts of the Gospel that are uncomfortable or might be disliked.  Christ asks of us the very same price he paid for ushering in the Kingdom of God, but at the very least, to suffer not having everyone be our friend.  You cannot make God’s truth comfortable when it doesn’t sit well with others. 

We do not go about this task alone.  St. Paul writes, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  That is our task.  It is the simplest and most difficult thing God asks of us.  We stand in a line of disciples, martyrs, and prophets who followed as God called and did not bind themselves to the whims of the world.  We gather here to hear God’s word, to hear Jesus Christ proclaim the Kingdom of God at hand.  We join with that great cloud of witnesses as we partake in the sacrament of the Eucharist.  Then, we step back out into a world in dire need of costly grace, knowing as Christ says, how to interpret the present time.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Proper 14, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

We are in the long days of late summer now.  Our lectionary continues in the season after Pentecost for another 113 days.  School starts this next week for many children in this area.  We are a long time from any major holidays.  But today’s Gospel reading reminds me of one of the most iconic holiday commercials.  First aired in 1986, it was replayed for seventeen years until it was eventually remade.  A car pulls up outside a snow covered home, a young man quietly lets himself in.  He’s greeted by a small child, and together they make coffee.  The smell of coffee wakes up the rest of the house who come downstairs, presumably at Christmas morning, to find the beloved son who’s been away for awhile.  Certainly when you Jesus talking about the master who is coming home to surprise the servants, such a strong image from mainstream culture comes easily.

It’s funny how a passage can be taken in very different ways.  Growing up in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian church, this passage was a dire warning.  Beware for God is returning soon so your soul better be ready for judgment.  If Jesus returns before you’ve prepared, you will suffer the consequences.  God is coming like a thief in the night so you know you better be afraid.

But reading that passage again, I’m almost perplexed at how it can come across as such a warning and not an expectation of joy.  The master is returning from a feast.  The master has, let’s be frank, been at the party and has been their quite some time if they aren’t returning until the early hours.  This isn’t the image of a stern, joyless master carrying a whip.  This is a master who takes joy in celebrating with others.  This is a master who, when they return, is serving those who normally serve.  This is a master who wants to make sure the joy and peace that they know is shared with those who are willing to serve.  This is not a return to fear, but one to have hope for. 

Hope, maybe more aptly faith, underpins so much of what Jesus teaches us to do.  When Jesus tells us to live a certain way, when Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself, when Jesus teaches that we are to clothe the naked, feed the hungry; when Jesus says sell your possessions and give alms, all of this is about faith.  Living out the values of the Kingdom of God is certainly work we are tasked with.  Jesus makes it really clear what God expects us to strive towards.  But maybe the part we could miss is that Jesus is not dangling us over the pits of Hell to make sure we abide.  All of these commands on how to live, all these ways of living into the Kingdom of God should come to us because of our faith. 

When I say something like pacifism is the most Christian response to violence, it’s not that I hold that to be a rule that must be obeyed, but rather it is my hope that our faith would lead us to that response.  When Jesus reveals to us the glory of the Kingdom, and shows us what those values are, it’s not rules written down on a stone tablet anymore.  It is instead how we live when we have faith in God’s providence.  When we put our faith in God’s ability to provide, when we put our faith in the Kingdom of God, when we put our faith in the promise of a glorious resurrection, then nothing this earth can offer us should be more persuasive.

This passage from Luke starts out with the call to not be afraid.  That happens a lot throughout Luke’s gospel.  There was a lot that one could be afraid of when this was written.  The early Christians were persecuted, disliked by Rome and the Jewish authorities.  But then again, when it comes to survival, there always seems like a good reason to be afraid.  Whether it is saber-tooth tigers or oppressive empires, if we have no faith in our victory over death, than fear will win the day.  This is why Jesus preaches so much on this subject.  It’s why so many ways of living into the Kingdom of God have to do with letting go of the control over our own existence.  If we cannot have faith in God taking care of us in our moments of greatest need, how do we ultimately have faith that God will resurrect us into the Kingdom?

It’s hard to talk about faith in this way.  It seems antithetical to our nature to trust that God is unfolding the path before us when we don’t like where we are at.  We also of course want to tread carefully lest we be heard saying that God intends for someone to suffer.  In fact, we for the most part get to live fairly comfortable lives away from the fears and terrors many people in this world face.  Perhaps that makes our necessity for faith even greater.

Audrey West writes, “The less we want to have, the less we need to have.  This fact is itself one of the blessings God offers, with compound interest.  The less we need to have, the less we need to fear.  The less we need to fear, the more we know that a life of giving allows us always to live, not on the brink of destruction, but on the brink of blessing, where we can more readily hear the promise that the “Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” desiring not to punish but to bless.”  I’m sure we’ve all many times seen the ever popular bumper sticker, “Look busy, Jesus is coming.”  Maybe instead it could read “Have faith, because Jesus is most certainly coming.”

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Proper 13, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

When I was a child, one of my favorite authors was Shel Silverstein.  He wrote, amongst many works, children’s books that included short stories, poems, and anecdotes.  After reading this week’s Gospel, one of Mr. Silverstein’s writings came to mind.  The Prayer of the Selfish Child:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys to break.
So none of the other kids can use ‘em.  Amen.”

Today we hear of humanity’s common lean towards greed, and the way in which we are supposed to respond, as followers of Jesus.  The big surprise is that you’re not, in fact, supposed to make sure all the other kids can’t play with your toys.

Last week we talked about prayer, the power of prayer, and how God wants us praying for the things we need.  The second piece of that is that God is not a prayer vending machine.  This encounter with Jesus further underpins that, when the brothers demand that Jesus settle their dispute over inheritance.  Echoing stories of King Solomon’s wisdom, someone demands that Jesus command that person’s brother to divide the inheritance with him.  Jesus makes it clear.  He’s not here for petty matters of inheritance.  He’s not here to arbitrate matters of this world.  Jesus marks the advent of the Kingdom of God, and in that Kingdom, wealth means nothing.  Inheritance means nothing.  In order to really bring home the point, Jesus tells them a story.

What is nowadays called, “The Parable of the Rich Fool” is a lesson Jesus uses to exemplify the sin of greed.  In telling this story, and even in thinking about how we apply it to our daily lives, it is important to note that money, possessions, wealth are not inherently evil things.  Now, Jesus will always say give your money away and live amongst the poor, but the great sin the rich fool commits is that of greed.  The rich fool is living a life where enough never feels like enough, and where the only person to be concerned about is oneself.  The rich fool doesn’t make sure that the hungry are fed from the surplus grain, doesn’t offer any to his neighbors.  He builds even bigger barns to hoard the grain for the future so that he can leave even more luxuriously than he already does.

Now wait, you may say, isn’t it good to be frugal, to save up, to plan ahead?  Well, yes.  Good stewardship of what God blesses us with is important.  But so is the command to love one’s neighbor.  The rich fool doesn’t even give thanks to God for the divine providence that brings him this bumper crop.  He just hoards it away for himself.  If you want to know how to live in a way that is opposite from a Christian, this is a good example.

The reading from Ecclesiastes underpins Jesus’ teaching.  It cuts to the heart of the idolatry that humanity so often falls easily to.  We worship money, we worship things, we worship tribes and nations.  We ignore the cry that all is vanity.  The toil that we, as humans set ourselves to building up these false idols is nothing but vanity.  Faith in God, following the commands of Christ, ceasing our worship of the idols of this world: these are ways which we break out of that cycle of vanity. 

The reason it is vanity is the same reason we look at ancient burials full of gold and precious gems and think, “what good is it to the dead?”  We know that we can’t take those things with us when we die.  Jesus ends the parable of the rich fool with God saying to the rich man, “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.”  The rich fool will die and all his hoarding will be for nothing to him.  Saint Paul pushes it further though, and shows us how much it is vanity even to the living.  We are no longer Greek and Jew, slave and free, but one in Christ.  Our unity comes through the Kingdom of God bursting into this world.  Nothing matters more than that.  We are all children of the Kingdom of God and any other designation is a human construct and vanity when we use it to separate ourselves from others to our benefit.

I wonder how the parable of the rich fool needs to be changed to make him come out alright in the end.  Jesus doesn’t give us that answer, so we are left to wonder.  Maybe the rich fool should have shared his surplus with those around him.  Maybe he should still save it up, but with the intent that no one will go hungry in hard times.  Maybe just a little humility and seeing that he isn’t the center of the world would go a long way in this parable. 

Albert Pike, the founder of the Scottish Rite, a concordant body of Freemasonry, wrote, “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”  The Rich Fool fails, in Jesus’ words, to be, “rich towards God.”  He leads a self-centered existence absorbed and concerned only with his own achievement and comfort.  God grants us blessing and abundance and it is our responsibility to be stewards of that.  It is not our place to hoard, to greedily feast while we watch our neighbor starve, to pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness.  We are baptized into the Kingdom of God and we follow Christ.  We are tasked with caring for all we have, caring for all we meet, living into the Kingdom of God that is showing forth right now and right here.  This is our call to examine our lives and our values.  God continually invites us into the Grace and eternal abundance of that Kingdom.  All we must do is accept.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Proper 12, Year C, 2019

Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

The old joke goes: A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbor came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did” replied God. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

Why do you pray?  And when you do, what do you say?  Do you pull out your Book of Common Prayer?  Do you sit in a dark room in private?  Do you fall to your knees in the presence of the Most High God?  When Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, Jesus offers a prayer that, upon closer inspection, might really seem rude by many standards of etiquette.  

It starts off well enough, acknowledging the transcendence of God (who art in Heaven), the otherness of God (hallowed be thy name), and the sovereignty of God (thy kingdom come).  But also in the opening is a clue to the relational aspect of the Divine.  We start with, “Our Father”.  God is not some superbeing hurling lightning bolts from the top of a mountain.  God is our origin, our Father, is in relation with us in both a cosmic and personal way.   It is key to our biblical theology that God does not leave us alone, that we are inseparable from the presence of God.  God incarnate wants us to understand this important connection through this prayer and through all the many teachings that Jesus offers to emphasize our connectedness.  

Douglas John Hall, on his review of this passage best explains what happens next: “After the briefest of salutations, the prayer moves to the human condition with what must seem, to the properly theocentric, unseemly haste.  How direct, how ungenteel, how almost rude it seems!  “Give us… forgive us… lead us… deliver us.”  Not only does the prayer rush from glorification to petition in a manner very different from the usual patterns of human behavior where favors are being sought; it shuns all in direct rhetoric to the point of pushiness!  […]  There is no ‘Please,’ none of the softening, pious (and often wheedling) interjections that often mark what is called “spontaneous” prayer — “Oh dear Father,” “Blessed Lord Jesus” and so on.  Just ‘Give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us’!

While this could come across as rather brash and aggressive, I think it instead offers an underscore to the human condition.  It emphasizes our relationship with God and God’s encouragement for us to rely on prayer for our needs.  We are dependent on God, that’s why we say ‘give us’.  We are sinful and guilty of failing to uphold the values of the Kingdom of God.  So we ask, ‘forgive us’.  We are human, we are lost, we need God’s guidance and support.  “Lead us and deliver us.”  God has invited us into this relationship of prayer.  God wants us to be in communication, to ask fervently for those things we need.  And I think in the same token, as we assure ourselves and thank God for in this prayer, we have faith that God provides us what we need.  No, God is not giving us that Bentley we are praying for, but many people find that living by faith provides them avenues to what they need.

I learned an something interesting this week.  If you look through most of the services in the Book of Common Prayer, the Daily Office, the Eucharistic services, and the pastoral offices with the exception of Reconciliation of a Penitent you will find the Lord’s prayer in every single service.  Our tradition finds that particular prayer to be so important that we really don’t do anything without it.  If you look at many of the structures of other prayers like the Eucharistic prayers or the collect of the day, you can also see a similar structure to the movements of the Lord’s prayer reflected in the words of these other prayers.

In many ways Jesus’ lesson on how to pray is an invitation for us to establish and maintain a deep and meaningful prayer life with God.  I can tell you that spending two or three weeks observing the daily office, at least morning and evening prayer, every day, you will feel different.  You will feel refreshed.  You will feel more connected.  This is about keeping that communication with God.  Yes, God knows what we ask before we even ask it.  In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he gives us that wonderful image that when we just don’t even no how to pray, the Spirit, “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  It’s almost as if God, the cosmic parent is standing there with the thing we are praying for and telling us lovingly, “Use your words”.

The examples Jesus then offers after teaching them to pray have at least two big meanings.  The first is that we are the neighbor knocking on the door and God is the sleepy housekeeper.  It’s our job to keep knocking.  Keep asking.  Keep praying.  God wants us to be persistent.  God wants us to shamelessly ask for that loaf of bread for our guests.  I say shameless because in Jesus’ time, this is how the story would sound.  The culture Jesus lived in was way more concerned with proper actions and shame and honor than even the most genteel of Southern manners.  Pray to God shamelessly.  Pray to God fervently.  Pray to God ceaselessly.

Another way to see this is that we are not just the person that is banging on the door, trying to get some bread for our friend, but we also can be the person who’s asleep, who’s already locked the door, but who needs to get out of bed for the sake of Love. And maybe we’re the friend that the bread is being gotten for, or maybe our fellow human is that friend, or maybe we will find God in that friend. Jesus isn’t setting God up to be the dispensing machine of our every prayer and desire here. It is just as much our responsibility to be the hands of Christ in this world, doing the giving as it is for us to do the praying. Give us each this day our daily bread.

Prayer is not the end of our work to spread the Love of Christ in this world, to help create new visions of the Kingdom every day where we are at, but it is the beginning. This is the hard task we are called to, in relationship with God and with Creation. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, is quoted saying, “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. This is how prayer works.” And I would add, this is how Christ’s Love works. This is how the peace of God which surpasses all understanding works.

I really like Teresa of Avila’s writing, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.” I will add to that Christ has no heart to Love, but yours. As you go out from here today, remember to pray, remember to Love, and remember that when you are hurt, when you are offended, when someone is knocking on your door after you’ve gone to bed, because they’re trying to get some bread from their friend, that you are called to that most divine practice of Love, as Christ’s heart in the world.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Proper 11 Year C 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

Have you ever had ‘one of those weeks?’  You know the kind I’m talking about, where everything goes a little south, where everything that can break does, and everyone seems to need something all at the same time?  That’s the sort of week it’s been for me. This week we had the new printer delivered to the office, but of course it doesn’t quite work the same way as the old one. A few of our St. Andrew’s family are unwell or in the hospital so I want to get around and see them, and then people in need start calling the church looking for all sorts of things, even a ride to Yellville.

On Friday as Franny, Jeff, Annie and I stood in the kitchen here, prepping a stack of thirty onions, thirty bell peppers, about 7 bunches of celery, eighteen pounds of andouille sausage, and twenty five pounds of red beans for the Diversity Ball Fundraiser on Saturday night, I realized that I hadn’t really had any time to focus on preparing a sermon, or reflecting on the Gospel lesson for this week.  Followed quickly by the realization that Saturday night, usually when I put my finishing touches on my sermon, I’d be at the event helping to serve the red beans and rice and supporting the Ozark Diversity Coalition’s annual fundraiser. I was so exasperated that all of these tasks had gotten in the way of my sermon preparation. Cooking, printer wrangling, juggling people in need. So when I finally sat down and reread and thought about our Gospel reading today, you can imagine I had to laugh a little bit.

Jesus arrives at this house of Mary and Martha, and is welcomed as a guest.  Even today there are often cultural expectations with welcoming someone. Perhaps offering someone a glass of water or tea, or if they are staying with you, a meal.  Jesus settles in, perhaps in something like a living room, and I suspect he has others with him. One of the house’s owners, Mary, stays near Jesus, sitting at his feet and listening to him teach.  After awhile, Mary’s sister Martha, who has been toiling away probably in the kitchen working to prepare refreshments or a meal for these guests comes out and is just beside herself with all the work she’s been doing, and there is Mary hanging out with Jesus.  Martha tells Jesus to send Mary back to work. Jesus replies, ‘Martha, you are worried by many things’.

One can certainly read this passage in a few ways.  One such understanding would be that, as Mary (according to Jesus) has chosen the better path, then we are supposed to sit around listening to Jesus and not do any work.  But that’s just not an interpretation that I can accept. I don’t think the Mary versus Martha debate has much to do with works in that way. What I see in this is that Martha’s exasperation and statement is truly where the problem resides.  Martha says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Everything Martha has to say is about herself. She refers to herself three times in that statement to Jesus. So the question becomes whether her reason for hospitality is more about being loving to the guest or about making herself look good.

Perhaps instead Mary and Martha exemplify equally important sides of the same coin.  Hospitality is important. Tending to those in need, welcoming the stranger, treating everyone as your neighbor are things Jesus teaches.  These are important values of the Kingdom of God. Likewise is proclaiming the Good News of that Kingdom as it draws near. It is when we separate out the two activities, or lack one from the other where we find ourselves running down the wrong path.  Cynthia Jarvis writes in her exposition of this passage that, “A church that has been led to be “worried and distracted by many things” inevitably will be a community that dwells in the shallows of frantic potlucks, anxious stewardship campaigns, and events designed simply to perpetuate the institution.  Decisions will be made in meetings without a hint of God’s reign. Food and drink will appear at table without Christ being recognized in the breaking of bread. Social issues may be addressed, but the gospel is missed in acts that partake of politics as usual.”

Churches have to be especially careful that they do not turn into social clubs.  We are here for a far greater, deeper purpose. We are here, as followers of Christ, to hear the word of God and to partake of the blessed sacrament.  We are here to renew and refresh ourselves and to revitalize that call to go into the world and make disciples of all people. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t do good.  Everything we do should be a reflection of the Kingdom of God. We don’t raise money for Kindness or Gamma House to make ourselves look better. We didn’t prepare the dinner for the Diversity Ball so we could get more people walking through these doors.  We do these things because it is our duty as followers of Christ to help those in need. It doesn’t come with any strings attached, it doesn’t make us more saved. We should be a little bit Mary and a little bit Martha.  

Sometimes people’s gifts lean them one way or another.  Some people are better at cooking red beans and rice for 150 people, some are better at managing the facility and keeping an eye on those roofing nails, some are better at praying with those in their darkest hours.  Some, like the Roman Catholic nuns arrested this last week for protesting the concentration camps are better at standing up to the Empire and calling out evil. Some are better at helping the vestry interpret the financial statements for the month.  Every gift has its place. Every one of us is called to work for the Kingdom of God in word and deed. These two cannot be separated out without detriment to the other.

Above all that, first and foremost is our commitment and call to follow Christ.  We are given clear instructions about what should matter and how we should live out that call.  We cannot be anxious or overly focused on how our work plays out. What matters is that we put ourselves to the task.  If our only focus is how well we play the host, then we forget why we are called and in whose name we serve to begin with.  So find in yourself a bit of Mary and a bit of Martha. Remember to learn from Jesus, to listen to what he teaches, to let it really sink in.  Remember also to do the work Christ calls us to, without expectation of reward. Otherwise, we run the risk of forgetting the One whom we have gathered to serve.