How should Christians fight?

FearCharlesLeBrun1760_wikiSERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 11 (Proper 14, preached August 9, 2015, at Church of the Good Shepherd, Town & Country, Missouri)

Family fights are often the ugliest. They can get nasty fast, and they’re very often over the smallest things. Someone takes offense at a remark; two people disagree over the right way to do things. Grudges can be held for years. When things get really bad, one branch may stop communicating with another for generations.

That’s not just true in families. It can be true in communities. It can be true in the Church. Some of the bitterest fights are over the best ways to honor God.

As Christians, we often think that we shouldn’t argue among ourselves. We shouldn’t fight. We shouldn’t bicker. We tend to think that that we should, instead, always get along, because isn’t that what Jesus expects of us?

The problem is that we’re human, and fighting amongst ourselves is a part of the human condition. When it comes to church matters, we’re going to disagree over the essentials of theology, and we’re going to disagree over how to do coffee hour, and we’re going to disagree over everything in between – and there’s a lot of in between. That’s true at the parish level, and it’s true of the national and international Church.

When these fights blow up and go public, it’s embarrassing to all of us. Non-Christians look on our quarrels as signs of hypocrisy: “See how these Christians love one another.”

We’ve been fighting over a lot of things in recent years. When I was young, I knew people who left the Episcopal Church over changes in language in the liturgy. Then there were people who left over changes in the role of women in the church. More recently, people have left over the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full life of the church.

The fights have been ugly, with plenty of nastiness on both sides, with little sign of the love we are commanded to have for one another, with little evidence of attempts to understand where our opponents are coming from. It echoes our country’s unfortunate political dialogue today. But as Christians, we are supposed to be better than that.

There have been conservatives who accused liberals of apostasy, and liberals who accused conservatives of bigotry. There was the bishop who told conservatives, from the pulpit, “This isn’t your church any more,” and to leave. There have been lawsuits, from all angles. None of it has enhanced how those outside the church view us. None of it has demonstrated the love of Christ.

It’s not a recent problem. It goes all the way back to the foundation of the Church. You had the party that believed that Gentile Christians should first convert to Judaism, complete with circumcision, and the party that wanted to welcome all regardless. (Fortunately for us, Paul won that one.)

From reading the epistles, we know that disagreement was rife in the early Church. That’s why, in today’s reading, the author of Ephesians tells us how Christians ought to fight.
It’s okay to be angry, he says, but don’t dwell on it. Stick to the facts; don’t exaggerate. Don’t gossip. Work through your anger, and turn it into something useful, something positive. Don’t tear down others; don’t divide. Instead, work to build up the whole community.

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander,” he says, “together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Well, that’s a lot to ask, isn’t it, when our side is clearly right and the other is wrong? How are we supposed to be kind or forgiving to bigots, or to apostates? Isn’t that a sign of weakness?

No, it’s a sign of paying attention to what Jesus has taught us. The gospels are filled with that lesson. How often are we to forgive? Seventy times seven, as often as it takes. Nobody says it’s easy, but loving our neighbor and forgiving wrongs is a basic part of our faith.

“Be imitators of God,” says the author of Ephesians, “as beloved children, and live in love.” We need to rise above the petty stuff, the coffee-hour disagreements, and put them aside. We need to find ways to reconcile the larger issues, or find ways to part in love and understanding, rather than in bitterness.

“Live in love, as Christ loved us.” That’s the takeaway for this reading, and it applies to every area of our lives: in our families, in our workplaces, in the Church, and in the world outside.

Lord, give us loving and understanding hearts, and the grace to get past our anger and bitterness toward one another when we disagree. Help us to live as you have commanded us, and in the spirit in which you yourself lived among us. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

“Have you anything here to eat?

WhyAreYouFrightenedWiki“Have you anything here to eat?

This is a meditation which centres on food. It owes more to Martha than to Mary, as I’m writing it in the throes of preparing lunch for friends. And these are not just any friends; the husband used to be a professional chef, and is a very good and imaginative cook indeed. I’m perfectly sure that he’ll eat whatever I set before him and be positive about it, but all the same, I want to get things right.

And this isn’t just because I want to try to impress him. I really want both of them to enjoy the meal, and to be able to sit there and eat it with them and relax while we talk over the food. Eating together is such an important thing; it draws us together and cements friendships, lays down memories of good times together and promises more good times to come. Eating with other people is powerful and significant.

The disciples must have spent so much of their lives with Jesus eating with him, feasting with him at the wedding with Cana, sharing whatever they could find while tramping along dusty roads from one town to another, gazing with astonishment at the never-ending supply of loaves and fishes by the lakeshore. This Sunday’s Gospel gives us an unexpected insight into the bonds that held them together.

There they are, not quite daring to believe that it’s their real, solid Lord, back from the dead, standing among them in the old familiar way. So Jesus does the most practical thing imaginable; he asks them for something to eat. What could be more normal and ordinary and completely human? Here he is, returned from the other side of death, eating with them as he’d done so many times before. Then they really believe at last, and he can talk to them freely.

I’d better get back to the kitchen, and get my tagine into the oven; it won’t be long before our guests arrive. Thanks be to God, who gives us food to enjoy and friends to enjoy it with – and his own Son, who died for our sake and rose again to be our friend as well as our Saviour.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

The Collect for the Day

Today’s  meditation marks the welcome return of contributor Susan Leach to GPN.JesusWithBook

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly
wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to
love what you command and desire what you promise; that,
among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts
may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

– Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the Book of Common Prayer

Because I might be best described as a casual Christian, I am frequently surprised by the sheer transcendency of the readings served up each day in the Lectionary. As I began preparing to write this day’s meditation, the Collect for the day made my heart beat faster and I abandoned my plan to try to encapsulate all of the lessons. The Psalms, especially Psalm 51, and the Lessons old and new were all familiar and well-loved and I have written about them many times in years past. I don’t recall, though, ever being quite so fixated upon the Collect; so perhaps the time has come.

Calling out to God that “you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners” and asking that he “Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise” could scarcely be better-stated to restore order to our chaotic planet. The words “swift and varied changes of the world” seem rather mild until examples begin running through the mind. Trying to imagine any latest and greatest improvement being sufficient for more than a moment is futile, and so asking that “our hearts may surely be fixed where true joys are to be found” has seldom if ever been more appropriate.

If it is your custom to look up and consider the readings in preparation for Sundays that is a good thing; there is so much more to consider than you can immediately absorb. If not, listen for the wisdom in our insightful Collects and allow the words space in your thoughts. They can open the way to a better understanding of the Lessons and perhaps a better path to travel as you leave Sunday worship.

Thanks be to God.

– Susan Leach

Sermon notes: Logos

stars_wikiSermon notes, Christmas I, Year C (Given at St. Peter’s/Ladue, December 30, 2012)

On Christmas Eve, we heard the story of Jesus’s birth, the story of how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and found that there was no place for them in the inn. We heard how Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger. We heard of the shepherds, visited by angels, and how they ran to see the newborn king.

This morning, we heard about Jesus from a decidedly different angle: “In the beginning was the Word.”

We have moved from the specific tale of one family, of one baby, to something that human beings cannot wrap their minds around: the nature and immensity of God. It’s as though we’re looking at a close-up of that family in that stable, when the camera pulls back, up from the streets of Bethlehem, up from Palestine, up from the Earth, beyond the Solar System, and into the vastness of space, its blackness blazing with an infinitude of stars.

God is simply too boundless and utterly other for us to comprehend. That’s why we need the baby; that’s why we need the family. Perhaps that’s one reason why we needed the Incarnation in the first place: to show us God in a form we can begin to understand.

This passage, the introduction to John’s gospel, establishes Jesus as an aspect of God. It’s also a foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” There are several lifetimes’ worth of study in these few phrases.

Here is John’s version of the Nativity story: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” It’s the other side of the intensely personal, intensely human story we have from Luke. It’s a reminder that this story has to do with more than the milky infant in the manger who tugs at our hearts, the babe that launched a thousand Christmas carols. There is also a deeper meaning in this birth, a meaning to engage our minds. We need both sides of it in order to grasp the gift that we have been given in Jesus’s birth.

The Nativity story is filled with images of light. There must have been a light in the darkened stable, a little stoneware oil lamp, casting wavering shadows on the walls. When the shepherds saw the angels, the glory of the Lord shone around them, illuminating the night. The light of the star guided the Magi to the infant Jesus.

John introduces Jesus to us as the Light: the light of all people, the light that shines in darkness, the true light which enlightens our hearts and minds. The little oil lamp in the stable could not drive away the shadows, the star faded from sight, but the undistorted light that is Christ lifts the darkness and penetrates our hearts and minds.

The evangelist John’s use of “Logos” – Word – has its foundation in Greek philosophy. Along with the obvious, “logos” could mean reason, order, knowledge. It could mean “expectation.” There are, in fact, as many possibilities for meanings as there are in the English word “love.”

And love, God’s love for us, is one of John’s chief themes here. God loved us so much that Christ came to live with us, to be truly one of us. Jesus gave us “grace upon grace;” Jesus made us children of God, and opened the door to eternal life.

“The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” John writes. The law was added onto and built up until it became an immense structure; until, for some, it became an end in itself.

Jesus came and boiled the Law down to basics: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus provided grace and salvation for all who accept it, out of love.

We cannot comprehend God in all God’s infinite grandeur, but we can comprehend Jesus, a man much like one of us. We cannot comprehend God’s purposes for us, or understand why the world is what it is, filled with sorrow, sickness, and suffering, but we can comprehend Jesus, healing the ill and feeding the hungry, and suffering just as we do. We cannot comprehend the mind and the power that created the universe from nothing, but we know a mother’s love for her baby.

The Christmas narratives in Luke and Matthew show us how God made Man came into the world. The opening verses of the Gospel of John show us who Jesus was, the Word, the Light of the world, Love made manifest. We need both of those accounts, for balance, to take us beyond the stable to the greater meanings and truths of the Nativity. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The other new year

The first Sunday in Advent begins the new church year, which makes the Saturday before it, effectively, the Christian New Year’s Eve.

I have never heard of anyone staying up late to observe it, or using it as an excuse for overindulgence. Indeed, early on Saturday evening Greenwich Mean Time, my friend Prudy, the Benedictine prioress, wrote on her Facebook wall from England, “We have rung in the new liturgical year, we have sung Vespers and our Vigil Office, and now it’s time to go to bed!”

That’s probably as it should be. Advent is a season of watchful preparation, and hangovers aren’t conducive to that spirit.

But there’s another common New Year’s custom which adapts well to a Christian context: making resolutions. I’m not thinking of the usual “I will go to the gym every day, give up eating anything tasty, clean out all my closets, learn a new language, and lose 20 pounds by Groundhog Day” resolutions here. Those can wait for December 31.

What I have in mind are resolutions to be more prayerful, more mindful, more intentional, to start the day with prayer and end it in the same way, to think before speaking, to act with care. This Advent I want to spend as much time helping others as I do shopping, to put as much of my money into giving to the church and the needy as I do into spending on gifts and self-indulgence.  I want to be kinder and more thoughtful, more helpful, more loving toward those I meet.

I feel about Advent and Christmas as I do about Lent, Holy Week, and Easter: How can we fully appreciate the joy of the holy day if we haven’t also experienced the quiet and discipline of the season that comes before it? Quiet can be hard to come by in the stressful, jangling weeks before Christmas, but if we make the effort to seek it out and find time with God, now and throughout the year, our lives will be far richer for it.

Happy new year.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

Sermon notes: The labor of love

In the garden…and on the way out.

SERMON NOTES, PROPER 22, YEAR B (Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue on October 7, 2012)

The comic strip “Non sequitur,” by Wiley Miller, features as a recurring theme the Garden of Eden “B.E.,” or “Before Eve.” In the most recent episode, it put Adam and his dog, along with other male animals, on a sofa in front of a TV set, where they swilled beer, gobbled pizza, belched, and engaged in other obnoxious – and obnoxiously stereotyped – guy behavior.

The humor of this setup lies largely in the implication is that God finally created Eve so that somebody would restore order and clean up the mess – and that the guys were in a true paradise before she came along. But humor is essentially a way of presenting something discordant so that it seems funny.

The Book of Genesis and its account of Creation are problematic for our time and culture. The best scientific evidence available today suggests an age for the universe of about 13 billion years. The Earth is somewhere above four and a half billion years, and life – in some form or other – has existed on our planet for about two and a half billion years.

This is an issue for those whose faith requires them to take everything found in the Bible absolutely literally, and who calculate the age of our planet at around 6,000 years. They get bogged down in the details of the story, instead of concentrating on its larger arc.

They believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days, and, based on the passage we just heard, that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib in order to be his helper. In the next chapter of Genesis, she’ll take the blame for original sin, the Fall of Man, hard work, death, and all forms of human suffering, including, probably, political campaigns.

The Book of Genesis as it has come down to us combines several early sources, and two related but distinct accounts of the Creation. The more basic account, the section which begins the entire Hebrew Bible, presents the events of Creation in a recognizable order that largely matches scientific understandings but on a much-simplified scale: God made the universe, the Earth, plants and animals, and, finally, human beings.

This section presents all of humankind as the culmination of God’s work. All of humanity are equals in God’s sight, and more: “God created human beings in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

And a better reading of the word translated here as “helper” might be “partner”: a true marriage is a genuine partnership, in which each considers the other, supports the other, helps the other, according to his or her own strengths and abilities.

Marriage is seldom a 50-50 proposition. Sometimes it’s 40-60 or 70-30; the give and take flows back and forth, according to personalities and circumstances. But the giving, like the tides, can’t flow in just one direction.

A true, loving partnership is clearly God’s wish for us; such a partnership cannot easily be put aside. But over the millennia, human beings have made marriage into something far removed from that image, something conducted for financial, political or dynastic reasons – just read the Bible – and, at times, something readily dissolved.

We see that in the reading from the gospel of Mark. By Jesus’s day, Marriage had become a matter of convenience. Jewish law, the Law of Moses, permitted men to divorce their wives easily, without cause; the Talmud even says it’s acceptable for a husband to divorce his wife because she burned his dinner. Under that system, only a man can institute a divorce, and the consent of the woman is not required.

The rulers of Palestine were enmeshed in secular Greco-Roman culture, where divorce was an even more casual affair. It was equal-opportunity: women could initiate divorce as well as men. In fact, Herod Antipas, the nominally Jewish ruler of Galilee, had recently divorced his wife in order to marry his sister-in-law, Herodias. Herodias, meanwhile, divorced Herod’s brother, Herod Philip, to legalize a relationship that was wrong on many, many levels.

John the Baptist denounced their marriage as sinful; soon after, John the Baptist lost his head. That political context makes the Pharisees’ question – “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” – a dangerous one for Jesus. They’re playing gotcha, and they’re playing for keeps.

Jesus confounds them by taking his answer not from the Law handed down by Moses, but from the story of Creation. By going back to original sources and then turning them on the Pharisees, he avoids the fact of what marriage had become – a transaction, essentially – and focuses on what marriage should be: a loving, exclusive partnership.

In our time, too, divorce has become casual, a first resort rather than the last, a step taken only after all else has failed. In 21st century America, as in first-century Palestine, we have lost sight of what both Genesis and Jesus are telling us.

Stepping outside of today’s lectionary for just a moment, the First Letter of John proclaims, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” God’s essence is love, and all of us, remember, are made in God’s image.

The important things here are not the details of a particular story about Creation. Let’s not get bogged down in those specifics, but look at the wider arc of the whole point of that creation: God’s love for us, God’s intentions for us, and what they mean for us and for the world.

When we bear in mind God’s generosity toward us and reflect that love in our words and actions toward others, we can truly become partners and helpers to one another. Comic strips are intended to be amusing; selfishness has obvious appeal. Sometimes we have to work hard at loving one another, but it’s a labor for which we were made.

Sermon notes: Miracle sandwich

Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage. (Image from the catacombs of Rome.)

Sermon on Proper 8, Year B (July 1, 2012) Preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, St. Louis

Most gospel readings that deal with the healings or other miracles of Jesus focus on just one marvel at a time. Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark is a little different: it gives us a sort of healing sandwich, with one miracle enfolded inside another.

By this point in his story, Jesus is a celebrity. He no sooner gets out of the boat than he is mobbed by people who want to see him for themselves, to hear his teachings. Perhaps they hope to witness Jesus work wonders; perhaps they want to be the focus of a miracle, to be fed, or to gain healing for themselves or a loved one.

We meet two particular miracle-seekers in these verses. One is Jairus, an important man, a wealthy man, a leader of the synagogue, begging for his little daughter’s life. The other is a poor woman, a sick woman, not important at all, who decides to take the matter of her healing into her own hands.

Jairus is so desperately concerned about his child that he goes to meet Jesus himself, rather than sending a servant. He falls at Jesus’s feet, and says, “My little girl is dying. Come and lay your hands on her and make her well, let her live.” And Jesus and his disciples – and the crowd, sensing a chance to see or hear something remarkable – go with him.

In the midst of this, the nameless woman sees her own opportunity, and takes it.

In first-century Palestine, life expectancy was short; if you made it out of childhood alive, you might hope to hit your 50s. There were no hospitals, and there were many, many ills, from skin diseases and eye diseases to epilepsy, death in childbirth, parasites to cancers. Too many of them had no cure.

Although there were physicians, the first step in treatments for most illnesses was still incantations and sacrifices. Greek innovations in medicine were much celebrated in Rome, but it’s not clear how deeply those innovations had penetrated in backwater provinces like Palestine.

If conventional treatments didn’t work, you might seek out a magician. Demons were generally thought to be responsible for causing not only madness, but heart trouble and asthma, among a host of other troubles. Or it might be that your sins, or those of your parents, were responsible for your suffering. We see that in the case of the man blind from birth, whose healing, recounted in the gospel of John, so irritated the Pharisees.

The woman in the crowd had suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years – which, interestingly, is the age of Jairus’s daughter – and spent everything she had on physicians. They had not helped her.

Besides being poor, she was probably physically weak from her condition. She was almost certainly a social outcast: Anyone with a flow of blood such as she had was considered ritually impure. Anyone who touched her would be ritually impure as well, and face time-consuming rites, with a seven-day purification period, in order to be clean again. (Who could afford the time to be her friend?)

Imagine suffering all this for so long – and imagine realizing that perhaps someone who could repair your physical brokenness was at hand. She knew about Jesus and his healings, and when he stepped off the boat she saw her chance. In what must have been a mixture of faith and deep-seated desperation, she burrowed through the crowd until she got close enough just to touch his cloak. And she was healed.

And here we get one of those disciple “duh” moments, when the very men who have been traveling with Jesus and listening to his teachings and observing his miracles demonstrate how little they really understand of him. Jesus feels the power going out of him, and asks, “Who touched me?” And the disciples say, “What? Look at this crowd. We can hardly move. Are you kidding?”

But the woman knows what he’s talking about, and kneels in front of him to confess. And Jesus calls the pariah “daughter,” and tells her that her faith has made her well. Probably no one but the two of them and a few disciples even realized what had happened.

Then he is gone, with Jairus and the disciples and the crowd, tells the mourners who have already gathered at Jairus’s house that they are mistaken, that the child is sleeping. He raises the little girl from the dead, and, compassionately, orders that she be brought something to eat.

The way these miracles are juxtaposed shows, in compact form, that Jesus and his love were available to all, of both high rank and low. The important may have had easier access to him, but Jesus never turned his back on those in need.

We see, too, that Jesus put all classes on the same level, that he imposed an unheard-of equality on those he encountered. In this, in his calling an outcast “daughter,” we see the truth of what Paul would later write in the letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And this radical equality in Jesus is one of the things that sets Christianity apart. Whatever our status in the world outside the Church, within it we are all accounted equal. We all share in Christ’s love to the same extravagant extent, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, status-heavy or status-free.

The world and human nature being what they are, the Church has struggled with staying true to this concept. Right in the very beginning of the movement, the well-to-do would come to the house churches for the common meal, and eat their own dainties without waiting for others, not sharing with those who had less. We only need to glance at the later history of the Church to see even more egregious examples of a class-based structure within it.

But Jesus calls us to step outside social expectations, to recognize and greet our fellow Christians as sisters and brothers. He calls us to help those who are in need, not only with our checkbooks but with our time and energies. Jesus calls us to be as radical and inclusive in our love as he was. If we truly intend to follow him, we can do no less.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes, Good Friday: Walking with Jesus

Jean-Jacques Tissot: What Our Savior Saw from the CrossSERMON NOTES, GOOD FRIDAY, April 6, 2012 ∙

Today, Jesus’s long journey to the Cross has come to its end.

We have been walking with him on his painful road for the last 40 days, in the Sunday Gospel readings, in the daily office readings, and in our own Lenten disciplines.

From week to week, we have followed the story: from Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, to his teaching his disciples about his future suffering. We have seen him enter Jerusalem in triumph and drive the moneychangers out of the Temple. We have watched as he celebrates the Passover with his friends, and then as he is sold to the authorities by one of them.

The arc of the last day is particularly dramatic. Jesus goes quickly from hero, hailed by the crowd, to criminal, denounced by the mob. And it all happens so fast.

From the supper in the upper room, to the garden where he goes to pray, there is a sense of foreboding. Then he is betrayed, arrested, denied, taken to trial, scourged, condemned to death, all with bewildering speed. It cannot have been more than 12 hours from the time he was taken in the garden until he was nailed to the cross between two bandits.

By now, a little after noon, Jesus has been hanging on the cross for just over three hours. His followers have scattered, afraid of meeting the same horrible fate; only a few of the faithful, most of them women, remain to watch their Lord to the end. His earthly journey is nearly at an end.

Crucifixion has a long and loathsome history in the annals of human savagery. It was a regular feature in the Mediterranean world from the 6th century before Christ until the 4th century AD. For tyrants, it was the perfect combination of public humiliation and unspeakable torture.

Crucifixion assured that the victim would experience the maximum suffering possible, often over a period of several days. It thus had the additional benefit of providing passersby with a vivid incentive to toe the line. The Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero called it “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” I’m always impressed when the ancient Romans denounce a practice as too cruel.

He added that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” Indeed, crucifixion was a punishment for slaves and criminals. To be crucified was to lose whatever status you had in that highly stratified world.

No wonder the apostle Paul found the cross a tough sell to Jews and Greeks alike.

The noted philosopher Mel Gibson has been quoted, in justifying the violence in his film “The Passion of the Christ,” as saying that no one else has ever suffered as much as Jesus Christ suffered. Not only is that untrue – many thousands suffered as much or more as Jesus suffered – but it misses the point.

This is a part of the path that Christ walked, a part of the miracle of God humbling himself to be born not just as a human but as one of low rank, and to die as the lowest. Born in a stable, extending the hand of love to the unclean, feeding the hungry and washing feet, even dying like a slave, Jesus consistently took the part of the poor, the weak, the despised. He died, as we will die, but in dying he gave us life.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, all through Holy Week. In this hour, we watch his last agonies, and hear his final words from the cross.

We sometimes doubt and question God; and even Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God, could cry out in his pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in his pain, Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We see the grief of his disciples, the women and men who had the courage to stay with him to the end. We see the courage of Joseph of Arimathea, who dared to ask Pilate for the body, and took it down from the cross for burial, and Nicodemus, who once came by night to see Jesus, from fear, but now openly assisted him.

We feel the faith of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses, who watched as their Lord was buried, noting the spot. When all seemed lost, on that darkest of days, they still did not desert him.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, but will we continue to walk with him when Lent is over? We will be freed of our Lenten disciplines, but will we remember why we took them on? We will celebrate the Paschal feast, but will we remember Christ’s humility and his love and sacrifice for us? Will we remain as faithful as those who watched and stayed?

Loving God, when the darkness of this day is past, keep us ever mindful of what our Lord suffered for our sakes, and ever walking in your way in faith and truth, that when our own trials are past we may join you in eternal light. This we ask in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Generosity

Sermon notes, Proper 21, Year A (Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St Louis, September 25, 2011)

God has been beyond generous to us in all things, from the Creation in which we live to the small blessings of our everyday lives. But God’s most extravagant gift to us was to become human, as one of us, as our Savior, for pure love.

The New Testament gives us many ways of looking at Jesus. He is the holy infant, born in a stable and revealed as a king; he is the boy with wisdom beyond his years who discusses the Law with the teachers in the Temple.

We see Jesus as miracle worker, feeding the masses, walking on water, healing the blind and the lame. We see him as teacher, working through the use of stories and parables, to help his listeners understand God’s will. We see him as a radical in his time and place, eating and drinking with tax collectors and other sinners, accepting women into his inner circle, confounding the expectations of the religious establishment.

Jesus reveals himself both as God’s son, healing lepers and forgiving his killers as he hangs on the cross, and as an ordinary human being, sometimes hurting, sometimes even a little bit cranky. In all of those roles, he is constantly giving.

Every Christian community from the first century on has focused on a different aspect of Jesus; sometimes it seems as though he has as many roles as Barbie, if not the outfits to go with them. For some, particularly in medieval times, he was the stern judge, bearing a sword to administer swift judgment. He was seen as so strict and uncompromising that his mother was enlisted to ask him for mercy on the souls of sinners, lest they be cast into the agony of eternal hellfire.

For others, the focus was on Jesus as the epitome of caring and kindness, the Good Shepherd, seeking his lost lambs and bearing them home to safety. Stone reliefs carved in the earliest years of the faith shows him in that role.

In 1742, Charles Wesley wrote of Christ as “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” That’s not Jesus the Judge. That’s not the Jesus we see whipping the moneychangers out of the Temple, or offering up a touch of snark to the chief priests and elders, as he does in today’s gospel reading. But it is a part of the picture of our Lord.

These aspects of Jesus, and others, are apparent when we read the Bible. Jesus is fully divine; he’s also fully human in the complexity of his character. He loved us, he humbled himself, he gave himself as our Savior.

Paul, in today’s reading from the Letter to the Philippians, would like us to focus on the most Christly elements of Jesus’s personality. He wants us to be loving. He wants us to be humble. He wants us to be generous – and he wants us to do it all out of love.

Consider some of the ways in which Jesus has been generous to us. The first was in the way he was born as one of us, God made man, in humble circumstances. During his public ministry he gave of himself to all who asked, giving until he was drained and exhausted. He gave us his teachings. He prepared and sent forth his disciples. He gave us life-giving sacraments. He gave his life for us, in a shameful and agonizing death. He went ahead to prepare a place for us in God’s eternal kingdom.

We can’t be as generous as Jesus in our own lives, because we don’t have as much to give. That doesn’t mean that most of us couldn’t be more generous. We are flawed human beings, but we bear Christ’s mark as his own people through baptism. We are pledged – among other things – to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as (ourselves).”

There’s a tendency to think of generosity as something sheerly fiscal, but generosity to others can take many forms. There are gifts of time: babysitting to give the mother of young children a sanity break, visiting shut-ins, taking a sick friend to a medical appointment.

There are gifts of talent: cooking for those who can’t cook for themselves, organizing things, making music, providing leadership, doing unglamorous tasks because they need doing.

There are gifts of treasure: giving to support a veritable rainbow of good causes, from education to the arts, from medical research to housing the homeless, assisting the needy at home and overseas, and, definitely not least, giving to support the Church.

The Church is a conduit for many of the gifts I mentioned, and some of us here this morning have been the recipients of the collective generosity of this parish. Over the last year, as I went through a difficult course of cancer treatments, I was supported by the priests and people of St. Peter’s at every step: through prayer, through loving notes, through meals brought and errands run, through Jim’s and Kelly’s presence during hospital procedures and bringing me the sacrament when I couldn’t come to church. I know that quite a few of us could tell essentially the same story.

The generosity of St. Peter’s Church is possible because of our generosity in supporting the parish. Our contributions help to keep the doors open for worship and for 12-step programs, for service and for fellowship. They help to pay the staff who keep things running and the priests who nurture us spiritually. They help to support the national Church and all the work it does throughout the world.

Stewardship season, in which we are presently immersed, is a time to reflect on all these things, to reflect on all that we have been given and all that we can give in return. It’s a time to reflect on God’s generosity to us. It’s a time to remember whose people we are.

Lord, give us thankful hearts, and help us joyfully and willingly to follow your good example in all we do. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: If God is for us, who can be against us?

(Preached at 8 and 10:30 a.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St. Louis)

“If God is for us, who can be against us?”

A lot of possibilities may spring to mind in answer to that question: the list of people and things that cause us pain – from endless wars to deadly diseases, from an economic disaster that has taken a terrible toll on our country to a series of natural disasters – may seem endless. Some days, it even seems as though the only possible response is, “What isn’t against us?”

In one of the most meaningful sections in the Letter to the Romans, the greatest of the epistles, Paul addresses that question.

Although the worst was yet to come, the Christians of Rome already faced oppression on every side. Persecution came both from Jews who saw Christianity as a dangerous heresy, and from Roman authorities and others who saw it as a serious threat to a society which placed a premium on everyone worshiping in the same ways, as a unifying patriotic force.

Paul himself had already suffered for his witness for Christ. He would meet his death as a martyr in Rome, something he certainly knew to be a possibility when he wrote this epistle. But he went forward with confidence, and with logic that is, for a committed Christian, unassailable.

God, after all, did not withhold Jesus, but gave him up for our sakes. Then, asks Paul, won’t God give us everything else that we need? It is God who justifies us; it is Christ who intercedes for us.

This phrase is sometimes misconstrued: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” It may not always seem that way to us. It’s hard to reconcile Paul’s statements with the evil we find all around us in the world.

Paul was speaking specifically of the persecution of Christians, and there’s certainly still plenty of that going on in the world. Proportionately, there’s as much of it as there was in Roman times. In terms of sheer numbers, it’s far worse today.

Islamists burn churches and riot against Christians in the faith’s first homes, the Middle East and Egypt. Christians are marked for violence and prosecution in Pakistan and India, while the governments of China and Vietnam seek to control or suppress expressions of Christianity. Christians have been targeted in many parts of Africa; in Sudan alone, it is estimated that 1.5 million Christians have been killed since 1984.

There’s not much overt persecution of Christians in this country, but there are plenty of other things to try our faith. The loss of a job or of a loved one can leave us asking how God could let this happen. We wonder where God is in a natural disaster like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, or in the tornado that struck Joplin.

How do you reconcile “All things work together for good” with an act of human evil like Friday’s horrific murders in Norway? How do you reconcile it with monstrous acts of child abuse? We question God’s love for us when we or someone we love are struck down by an implacable illness, or injured by someone else’s carelessness.

But the Spirit is there to comfort us when we call. Jesus walks with us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

As many of you know, in November I was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage 3 cancer, and received an equally aggressive treatment for it.

There was a period of several weeks last winter when I became horribly sick, when my doctors didn’t know what to do, when I realized that I might well die. In my darkest moments, I felt God’s presence; I felt God’s light and love. I knew then that all would be well, whatever happened to my body.

The Love of God is always there for the asking, even when we don’t have the words. The Love of God is always with us to sustain us and comfort us, even when we don’t get the answers we desire.

And it is God’s love of which Paul is writing here. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” The short version of the answer to that is that no one can separate us, no circumstances can come between us, unless we ourselves allow it to happen.

The power of the love of God gives us strength to keep going through the most difficult times. The brilliance of the love of God gives us light to find our way through the darkest passages. The creator of all that is, from the tiniest particles to the grandest galaxies, God still cares for each of us, giving us Jesus as intercessor and the Holy Spirit as comforter, with a love that is larger than this universe. And there is nothing at all that can separate us from that love.

Lord, help us to know your everlasting love in our most joyous moments and in our times of grieving, to remember that you support us in sickness and in health, and that we are called to love and praise you in return. This we ask in our Lord Jesus Christ’s name. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller