Category Archives: Sermons

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.

Sunday, November 18, 2018 – Proper 28

Proper 28 Year B 2018
Kevin Gore – St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

As many of you know I grew up attending a non-denominational evangelical sort of Baptist but we aren’t going to prohibit drinking and dancing just judge you a lot when you do things we don’t like church.  I obviously have some opinions about that tradition, but it ultimately was my first experience of Christianity.  One of the focuses in a lot of mainline evangelical Protestantism is the concern for being saved.  You have to actively give God permission to save you, and you need to do it soon because the end of the world, what we would call the eschaton, what they might call ‘the rapture’ or ‘end times’ could be in the next blink of an eye.  I still remember as a teenager being subjected to a movie called ‘A Thief in the Night’, a 1972 film not unlike the more recent and popular ‘Left Behind’ books and movies.  They are an attempt to use that particular theological approach to the Book of Revelation to interpret it through a modern lens, and show people what it could look like if their beliefs came to be.  Interestingly, all these movies are classified as ‘Fantasy Thrillers’.

I mention this because today in our reading from the Gospel of Mark, we hear what is referred to as the ‘little apocalypse’.  Jesus describes the destruction of the Temple, and this leads into a mention of the end of times with wars, earthquakes, famines, and how the disciples are to act in such times.   In fact there are many apocalyptic writings outside of the piece in Mark and the Book of Revelation.  Apocalyptic literature is its own genre that comes out of a post-Exile Jewish culture, and is most commonly identified by containing strange descriptions of beasts and creatures like in Daniel, usually seems shrouded in symbolism, and is actually far more prolific than just the Revelation of John.  But a funny thing has happened for us in Christian tradition.  As the centuries have rolled past and so much has changed from the early church, such writings have lost their original purpose and meaning, and instead have become the imagination of a ruling class bent on seeing those they deem unworthy to get their comeuppance.

Such writings have to be taken in their own context, and understood by acknowledging the time and place in which they are intended to be heard.  In general, Apocalyptic literature is written for a people who have reason to have a pessimistic world view due to their own oppression.  It offers a vision of a future crisis that often mirrors the current situation of the author, and usually contains visions of cosmic upheaval which parallel the physical world.  I have mentioned previously that dating the writing of Mark is something that is often contested among biblical scholars.  One reason is that this particular passage raises some questions.  Jesus mentions earthquakes, famines, and nation against nation.  Well, interestingly enough, in 50 CE there was a devastating famine in Palestine.  Between 61 and 62 CE earthquakes and volcanoes were particularly volatile, including the destruction of Lodicia and Pompeii.  And, if the general state of things wasn’t enough nation against nation, in 67 CE Rome’s armies began to falter at the Parthian invasion.  So the scholarly question here is whether the author of the Gospel of Mark already knew of these events and foreshadowed them in Jesus words, or whether this is written down before any of the fulfillment takes place.  Regardless of that, Jesus here instructs the disciples:  do not be alarmed.  Chapter 13 continues on with much more of Jesus teaching the disciples what will happen to them, and it continues with more apocalyptic prediction and instruction.  The disciples are not to take part in what is to come.

Jesus tells the disciples that many will come and try to lead them astray.  Jesus has set a path for the disciples, and for us, and it is our task to be aware of sticking to it.  These events aren’t really the end itself either, but the events that point to it drawing near.  The end doesn’t come until Jesus returns, and even Jesus himself says that only God the Father, one of the three personas of the Trinity, knows when that is to take place.  That hasn’t of course stopped us from trying to figure it out.  After a quick googling of apocalyptic predictions, I found too many to count having been recorded from as early as the 600s and as recent as April 2018, with many more ‘revised predictions’ from those who have failed to get it right the first three or four times.  The take away here is that we have an interesting fascination with apocalypse and wanting to know when it’s going to happen.  As a people, especially Christians in the Western world, we don’t suffer really that much.  We aren’t under threat of being conquered or subjugated.  So our apocalyptic story telling focuses on the things we do fear.  We have movies about massive earthquakes, global climate disaster, and biochemical epidemics.  Zombies created by viruses and aliens from outer space gaining untold power to wipe out life as we know it.  We still have apocalyptic literature not unlike what we read from Jesus’ time, it’s just colored with a very different brush than what we read in the Gospel of Mark.

As we come to the end of our Church year, this being the last reading from Mark for awhile and look to the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King and our time of preparation in Advent, Jesus calls us as he calls the disciples to watch.  As followers of Jesus Christ we are to bear witness to the continued strife of the world, with its corrupt temples on the verge of collapse, its warring nations, its false prophets.  We bear witness and we call out to a hurting world to offer a vision of hope in the end.  We work with a sense of duty and mission that honors our sense of stewardship of God’s creation, and our faith that the Kingdom of God is at hand.  As I’ve said before, just because we are reconciled in the end, doesn’t mean we get a pass on working towards all that we can accomplish in that now.  Jesus tells the disciples to hope for the coming of the Son of Man, and that the struggles will be but signs to a much greater time.

While chapter 13 is where we finish reading Mark in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, it of course is not the end of the narrative of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.  There are a few more chapters that go into the end of the story, and we’ll of course get to that when we work our way to Easter.  But this place in Chapter 13 seems like such a poetic stopping point for our mission as followers of Christ.  In this passage today Jesus is offering hope, the good news, to his disciples for the hard times to come ahead.  It actually reminds me very much of the first verse of the Gospel of Mark, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”  Every day we reflect on Christ’s ministry is the beginning of the good news.  Every day we decide that our discipleship means more than the allures of the world we offer that good news out.  We are called to watch, to not be a part of the mobs that would seek to tear down the temple or the mobs that would seek to defend it.  Our Kingdom is not built by hands on this earth, but is to come at the end in the full reconciliation of all God’s creation.  That is the only Kingdom we truly belong to, and the one we should wait for with great anticipation and joy in our hearts.  We have no need to trudge about with sour faces and sandwich boards exclaiming, “The end is near”.  Instead, let us offer the vision of the Kingdom we can to those who need it most, and trust that God truly will call us all in when the time comes.

Sunday, November 11, 2018 – Proper 27

Proper 27, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Kevin Gore

Today’s Gospel offers so much in terms of imagery, subtext, condemnation, and maybe even a little Good News.  Of course, as clergy, one might be tempted to forgo vestments or the prayer of humble access on a day with such readings, but in all fairness this passage offers us much to think about today.  We have just begun our stewardship campaign, our national mid-term elections have just recently passed, today marks the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end of World War I …the, “War to End all Wars”, and of course we draw very near to the close of the Church year.  Jesus is now in Jerusalem, well after his triumphal entry, and he is teaching in the temple.  And by teaching I mean completely provoking the religious institution.

Before we reflect on what the Gospel has to say, there is a small piece of context I think is important for this particular passage.  In verse 40 as Jesus is talking about the scribes he says, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”  This is a piece of the Gospel that might be easy to gloss over, as it is a detail to a much more brilliant mosaic, but a cultural context makes the story of the widows mite even more striking.  In First Century Palestine, as I’m sure you’ve heard before from myself and other preachers, women had very little standing socially, and virtually none legally.  When a man died, though his estate was legally his widow’s, she was not deemed fit or capable of managing it.  So legally, the estate had to be put into a trust, and managed by none other than the scribes.  This detail, which of course would have been obvious to First Century listeners, but isn’t necessarily something that jumps out to us puts in even greater contrast these scribes with the long robes and demands of high status, skimming off the estates of the widows and the widow herself, putting in two small copper coins.  The widow who is giving all she has to live on, very possibly due to the scribes in their fancy robes.

So with that in mind, as we look again at this passage, it makes the criticism of the institution…the criticism of the legal system which feeds off the widow, a system intricately tied to the grandiose temple, to which the widow is devoted, a far sharper criticism.  Chapters 11 through 13 are the most critical on Jesus’ part of the religious institution of the Temple, and this is the last teachings Jesus will offer before being arrested.  It is all a larger final act of teaching and pointing directly at the religious institution of the time and how it has completely fallen away from the point of its existence.  Today’s discussion about scribes, widows, and who is giving how much to the temple ties to Jesus’ driving the money changers from the temple, it ties to the other criticisms in chapters 11 and 12 about the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and it is the broader truth to the fig tree which Jesus curses and will no longer bear fruit.

All of this condemnation and pointing out the failings of very human institutions could certainly feel like there is very little we can find about this that is the Good News.  It would be too easy to say that this is only a condemnation, and that’s where it ends.  Jesus is just pointing out the failures of the structure and poking fun at the officials for good measure.  But that’s not all Jesus does and it’s not the end of the conversation about the temple.  Next week we will hear more about the destruction of the temple, but for now I see Jesus very much inviting us to reflect on the systems in which we find ourselves today.

Stewardship season is a great time to offer us space for contemplating why the church exists.  Where do we place our value, and how do we show that?  Many denominations especially have started acting more like organizations.  We hire consultants to talk to us about trends, we survey people to understand what keeps people coming back, we worry about relevancy, and membership, and income streams, and Twitter trending, and while none of this information is inherently bad, it’s the concern for existence that will put a church or denomination onto the wrong path.  That’s not to say I’d ever want the Episcopal Church to stop existing.  In fact I’d probably take that pretty hard if it happened.  But my commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God has to be bigger than our structures.  And yet I also think structure is important.  It helps us organize our resources into ways that allow us to be the most effective at reaching those in need, living out the values of the Kingdom, and doing the work that Christ has commanded us to do.  It is how the resources are managed, how the values are lived out, how we as the church seek and serve the least that makes the institution worth existing.

When we talk about taking up our cross and following Jesus, I think the sort of images we usually have are of torn, dingy robes, a begging bowl, always on the verge of starvation to ensure everyone else has enough.  I think we often forget that taking up our cross also looks like Jesus taking his belt off and using it to drive the animals out of the temple and flipping over the tables of the money changers. It looks like questioning authorities who fail the integrity of the Kingdom of God, it looks like setting in sharp relief the failings of institutions when they cease to do good.  This is the final acts of ministry Jesus does while in Jerusalem, and they are important not to forget alongside the more marketable acts like feeding the five thousand or walking on water.

This isn’t meant to be an advertisement for pledging, or a rallying cry for membership for St. Andrew’s.  I think this is the perfect time to ask ourselves what fruits are we bearing?  St. Andrew’s for its average Sunday attendance, or ASA, does a lot.  We work hard, we give of ourselves, and we do so because that is what we believe we are called to do.  As full time clergy you send me out into the community to make connections with other institutions, to help those in need, to invite in those who are seeking something more, to call those in authority to task when they lose sight of the greater good.  So the question is what fruits are we bearing together here and what new seeds do you want to see planted?  I would certainly hope that no one sees us as that cursed fig tree, but rather fertile ground in which there is much more to come.

Sunday, October 28, 2018 – Proper 25

Proper 25, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home
Kevin Gore

The Gospel according to Mark is the oldest of the four canonical Gospels.  The oldest written fragments we have date to around 150 to 175 CE.  Mark is also the shortest of the Gospels, and modern scholarship now dates its origin to roughly 65 CE.  The reason it’s so short and the reason why we think now that it’s the oldest is that it would have been an oral tradition.  This Gospel would not have started out written down on scrolls, but passed from one elder to the next, used to regale people sitting around the fires at night, or gathered in the catacombs where the earliest Christians hid.  In fact there are people today who have begun memorizing the entire Gospel and reciting it as story tellers of old would have, and it takes only about an hour and a half to recite Mark.  The reason this is so important is that there are so many themes, arcs, and clearly defined sections in the life and ministry of Jesus that offer us reflections on our own lives.  But often when we experience scripture portioned out through devices like the Revised Common Lectionary, we lose the ability to appreciate the broader brush.

Today’s reading is actually meant to be an endcap to a particular section of Mark.  The healing of Bartimaeus is the last public healing in the ministry of Jesus.  From here he will triumphantly enter Jerusalem, and the events that unfold next will lead to Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death.  This healing of a blind man is the closing of an entire narrative of blindness.  It all begins back in the 8th chapter of Mark, verses twenty two to twenty six, where Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida.  That’s the one where the first healing doesn’t quite seem to take, and he says the people look like trees, so Jesus gives him a second dose and all is well.  Oddly, these verses were skipped over in our journey through Mark during this Season after Pentecost, and honestly I haven’t the slightest idea why.  What follows after the healing at Bethsaida are several conversations with the disciples, public acts of ministry, the Transfiguration, and more conversations with the disciples.  In all of this, Jesus several times talks with the disciples about what is going to happen. He tells them time and time again how things will end in Jerusalem; he teaches them over and over that you have to be ready to let go of everything in this life, to let go of possessions, wealth, status, and power to follow.  Just as Jesus will.  Jesus is teaching them that the messiah is not what so many want to imagine…a warlord who comes to rule over the Kingdom of Israel.  God is incarnate in the powerless, beaten, victim of Empire.  That is the way of Jesus.

And how do the disciples react?  They squabble about who gets the seat of honor on the right and left, they try to build a dwelling place for the transfigured Jesus to spend time with Elijah and Moses, Peter actually rebukes Jesus for laying out the events that will take place in Jerusalem.  They are, in essence, blind to the truth of the Messiah, to the truth of what the way of Jesus will mean in the time ahead.  Between the healings of two blind men are multiple encounters of the disciples blind to the truth Jesus lays before them.  It is no accident or small thing that Bartimaeus, the blind beggar along the side of the road knows who Jesus is, has faith in his ability, and calls out to him.  It is also no minor matter of story writing that after Jesus has called Bartimaeus over through the crowd that had tried to silence him, Jesus asks him the same question he asked the Sons of Zebedee.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus says, “Rabbi, Teacher, I want to see.”  He doesn’t say please cure my blindness, he asks for sight.  After Jesus heals him, he isn’t sent away like so many others Jesus has healed.  Jesus doesn’t tell him to go home and tell no one.  Bartimaeus is given sight and joins the followers of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.  There isn’t a lot of time left in this story of Jesus, as they walk the road to Jerusalem, but now near the end, Jesus allows this man who can truly see to join the followers.

I think there is a stark difference we need to hear in the two answers Jesus has given after asking his petitioners, “What do you want me to do for you?”  To the Sons of Zebedee he questions their resolve, knowing that what they are asking for is far more terrible than they understand.  Bartimaeus, already sees in a metaphorical sense who Jesus is, and his faith is the vehicle, as Jesus says, through which he is healed.

It offers us much to ponder in terms of what we ask of God, what we desire, and then where we come to kneel on Sundays.  Do we foster a faith like that of Bartimaeus, or do we hope and expect for the social recognition of the Sons of Zebedee?  But just like last week, when Jesus warns the brothers that what they ask for may be more than they can handle, do we really think we are prepared to see fully when we ask Jesus for sight?  When faced with the truths of our faith and tradition, can we actually see it for what it is, or do we turn away to that which is more comfortable and convenient.  Jesus tells the rich man to give away everything he owns.  The rich man truly sees the depth and importance of this command and leaves grieving for he knows the road ahead is difficult, perhaps even impossible.  We live in a world that fails en masse at those basic commands Jesus gives us, the summary of the law, and yet do we stand up and speak out, or do we huddle with the blind masses?  Do we unwaveringly live for the Kingdom of God or do we draw nearer the comfort of anonymity and deny Jesus as Peter did?

God loves us, and like any good parent will continue to love us no matter what we do.  This is never about our salvation, but about our integrity as followers of Jesus Christ.  This last week has seen incredible highs and incredible lows.  The martyr Matthew Shephard was finally laid to rest in the Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, twenty years after his brutal murder.  It was a moment for the Church to put our values center stage for this country to see.  And yet, this week has seen terrible lows, attempted bombings and two prominent racially motivated attacks, the last being the slaying of eleven beloved children of God at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday as they prayed.  To truly see as Jesus would, the suffering, the evil, the pain, and the joy that this world is capable of is no easy thing to ask for.  To place before us the lens of the Kingdom of God and to respond to our world might seem like more than we can endure.  But yet, we must be up to the task.  We have asked to see, and we have claimed our faith and our Messiah, and now finding our way to maintain integrity to the call of Jesus Christ to take up our cross is our work.  Our faith is about more than prayer, about more than mass, about more than being in or out.  It is about a life lived unflinching with eyes wide open to a world in desperate need for the Love of the Kingdom of God and the Good News – the Gospel – that was first recited nearly two thousand years ago, by story tellers huddled around fires and Christians subverting the Empire by daring to follow in the way of Christ.

Sunday, October 21, 2018 – Proper 24

Proper 24, Year B, 2018
Kevin Gore – St Andrew’s, Mountain Home

Imagine a very different scene than the one in today’s Gospel.  The planet Dagobah, a lush planet covered in swamps and forests, and home to the former Grand Master of the Jedi Order, Yoda.  A young Luke Skywalker has been sent there to find Yoda and train in the ways of the Force.  After meeting Luke for the first time, Yoda refuses to teach him.  Luke is too old to start the training, too impulsive, too full of fear.  Yoda is trying to spare Luke from a path of suffering, even if it is the one he has to walk.  Finally Luke exclaims, “I won’t fail you.  I’m not afraid.”  Yoda replies, “You will be.  You will be.”  That my friends is foreshadowing.  Yoda knows that Luke will face trials and fear greater than anything Luke can presently imagine, especially in facing Darth Vader.  That scene is the first thing that came to mind when I was reading our Gospel lesson this week.  It was the foreshadowing of trials to come, as Jesus is talking to these Sons of Zebedee that made me think of it.  It’s a situation where the apprentice, the disciple, is asking for something they think will be a great honor, but they don’t realize the trial they are actually asking for.

Today’s reading comes almost directly after last week’s Gospel.  There are four verses left out, and they are probably left out because they are redundant.  Jesus is on the road with the disciples and he tells them what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem.  Again.  The Son of Man is to be handed over, to be condemned to death, to be spit upon and flogged, to be killed and three days later to rise again.  That is the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel.  It’s almost too incredulous to think that after Jesus tells them all this, up walk James and John and say, “That’s great Jesus, look, we have a favor to ask of you once you’re all super powerful.  Can we sit next to you so people know how important we are?”  Yes that is a very unflattering synopsis, but basically is why they are asking him.  In the culture of the time, powerful people invited the most important, the most trusted to join them for any function, and would be seated closest to this powerful person.  The problem is that the sons of Zebedee, just like the other disciples, still don’t understand what it means to walk with Jesus.  In fact Jesus’ response, “You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” clearly indicates he knows they don’t get it.  He’s referring to his crucifixion, the agonizing and brutal death that awaits him.  So when James and John ask to be on Jesus’ left and right in Jesus’ glory, and then tell Jesus they absolutely can drink the cup he will drink from, Jesus responds with, “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  There are already two who are destined to be at Jesus’ right and left in that most pivotal moment.  From Mark, chapter 15, verses 25-27: “It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.  The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”   And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.”  Those two bandits weren’t the sons of Zebedee, but they would indeed be baptized in the same way, with blood and violence.  The martyrdom of James, the son of Zebedee, is the only death of the apostles recorded in the bible.  In the Acts of the Apostles, it is recounted how Herod Agrippa, different of course from Herod Antipas, has James executed by sword.  This happened sometime between the year 40 to year 50.  There are different accounts of John’s death, some by Christian persecutions and others say he lived to an old age.  Either way he would have been subjected to the suppressions of the early church and knew what it meant to suffer.  Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink;”

So you may be wondering as I pass about the half-way point in my sermon what exactly Star Wars or the martyrdom of the disciples has to do with us here today.  That is a reasonable question.  The answer is quite simple.  When we walk through those doors every Sunday, when we kneel at the altar rail to receive communion, when we choose to be baptized or to reaffirm our baptismal vows, we are inviting that same cup.  Christianity was never meant to be a dominant religion, or to have great power in the world.  Those are not values of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who subjugate the heretics, for they will inherit a homogenous kingdom.”  No, the path of Jesus, following the values set forth in the Gospel, still to this day will not be taken kindly by most.  But we are lured by ages past when Christian membership was used as the mainstream litmus test of Western Society, when it was used to mean you were part of the good people.  That is not Jesus’ teaching, but it was the way society worked for many centuries.  If we stop to look at the life of Jesus Christ, the teachings, the parables he tried time and again to teach the disciples with, we see a life that we should not invite lightly.  Make no mistake: we should indeed invite it.  It is the way we absolutely should be living.  But invoking our God the way we do should be a far more sobering activity than we often find it to be.  In the realm of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for”, modern author Annie Dillard writes pertaining to people in church, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? […] It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

In truth, that should be our hope.  We pray, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.”  We should want for God’s Kingdom and we should pray for the will of God to be done.  But we must also understand that this is probably not that we are the most powerful, or that we are the most popular.  Perhaps, following in the example of Christ, ‘thy will be done’ refers to how society treats those who insist on caring for the least of these.  How judges fine and imprison those who dare feed the unhoused.  How home owner associations react to the idea of low income or rehabilitation housing near them.  Humanity is broken, it has been for a very very long time.  Jesus knew that, and Jesus also knew that living out the values of the Kingdom of God is not going to make a lot of friends at the head of the wolf pack.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is praying in the Garden at Gethsemane,  Chapter 26, verse 42, “Again Jesus went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  Jesus prayed ‘Thy will be done’ even knowing fully what it meant.  We have asked for the cup to be held to our lips, we have heard the words, “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation” and we have drank from it.  So what does that really mean to us in living out the life of one who follows Christ?  Where is our discipleship?  Where in our lives do we continue to exemplify, to the best of our ability, the values of the Kingdom of God, regardless of the consequences?

In his work The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonheoffer had a lot to say about living out the values of the kingdom of God.  He writes, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  That is the ultimate cost of discipleship, and the one that so many have paid for refusing to abandon those values.  Bonheoffer writes, “Every moment and every situation challenges us to action and to obedience. We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not. We must get into action and obey — we must behave like a neighbor to him. But perhaps this shocks you. Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that, there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.”  Dietrich Bonheoffer was martyred on April 9th, 1945 by Nazis for conspiring against them.  He had refused to leave his native Germany, and instead chose to stay and stand as a witness to the values of the Kingdom.  He drank from the cup that Christ drank from.

I’m sure you hear it a lot from me, but knowing why we are here, why we chose this life and this faith is so incredibly important.  If we are called to take up our cross, if as Jesus says we will save our life by losing it for his sake, then that gives us a lot to think about.  We cannot be like the sons of Zebedee, hoping to sit at the head table because we are Jesus’ friends.  The cup that is offered us, the baptism that we undertake is not one of comfort, but one that asks everything of us.  But that’s ok, because we also know it is worth it.  Make sure there is time in your life to reflect on that.  Spend time in prayer and listening for God’s call.  We must always look deep within ourselves as we approach this table, and decide if we are ready to pay the cost of that cup that is offered to us every week.  It is no small thing to believe what we believe, or to follow Christ, but it is the life that is most worth living.