Never The End

A Sermon for Proper 28; 1 Samuel 1:4-20, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25, Mark 13:1-8

It all started with PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery. I saw their productions of

  • Morse, an Oxford homicide detective who loved music, was terrible at people relationships, including his bosses, but was a strangely good detective.
  • Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective who applied scrupulous details of minute observations, science and cold logic to the art of detective work solving crimes and mysteries no one else could.
  • David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot Agatha Christie’s immaculate, finicky detective whose little gray cells plunged the depths of people’s behavior to solve the most baffling murders.
  • I have seen Christie’s Miss Marple, as played by Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, and Julia McKenzie, whose intimate knowledge of English village life is the lens that allows her to uncover the most obscure slice of peoples’ behavior and reveals the killer in otherwise intractable murders.

The years the fascination with all these stories lead Angie and me to stumble across Murder in Paradise where a series of quirky English Detective Inspectors lead the homicide squad in the English territory of Saint Marie an island in the beautiful blue water of the Caribbean Sea. The Inspectors’ quirky behavior and obsessiveness with the tiny out of place details don’t appear to match good detective skills any better than murder matches the vision of paradise; nonetheless, it leads to uncovering the clue that reveals the killer.

The dissonance in all these murder mysteries matches the dissonance in this morning’s Gospel story. The disciples are enthralled by the Temple in Jerusalem. And it is awe inspiring, with its gold-plated sides soaring some 164 feet high, built of massive stone blocks weighing two to four hundred tons each. The Temple is the symbol of Israel’s pledge to God, and the divine-human interaction within her walls holds all creation together (Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus’ response is as unexpected as any of the detectives whose stories captured my attention. The disciples and we expect Jesus’ agreement after all the disciples’ observations are correct. Yet, Jesus says, Nothing, will be left standing, all of it will be destroyed. When I heard  that this was today’s Gospel, my thoughts immediately went,

  • Murder in Paradise,
  • Paradise Lost,
  • Paradise California.

Paradise California is a city of 26,000 thousand people engulfed by fire last week. 9,800 homes, many businesses, and a school have been destroyed. As I wrote Friday evening more than 60 people were dead, more than 600 were unaccounted for, and those numbers are growing. By Saturday morning the reports were 61 dead and 1011, unaccounted for. When the fire is out, there are not enough homes in the county for families who lost homes to live in. I think one school has burned, and there is concern where students will go, when school reopens, hopefully, Dec 3rd. The death and destruction in Paradise are is inconceivable as thinking about the destruction of the Temple.

The paragraph that follows Jesus’ prediction, of the Temple’s destruction, is often known as The Little Apocalypse. The disciples want to know how to know when this will happen. Jesus gives them various warnings about being misled by false messiahs, and rumors of war; he speaks of nations and kingdom rising against nation and kingdom, earthquakes and famines; he might as well have added wildfire. His teaching continues until Mark begins his version of Jesus’ Passion.

All of this leaves us feeling as if we are in the depths of despair. It is not unlike the characters in all those murder mysteries, thinking it seems hopeless, feeling that the murder will never be solved. But Morse, Holmes, Poirot, Marple, and serial quirky English Inspectors stay true to themselves. The last thing we hear Jesus say is the hopeful word This is but the beginning of the birth pangs (Cruz). It evokes an image of divine midwifery, working for good, but we have to pass through the birth canal (Epperly). It evokes that lesson from Job; divine causality is questionable, but God’s presence is assured. Danae Ashley hears Jesus telling his disciples, and us, not to get all caught up in the in the chaos of rumors and destruction. They have just one calling, we have just one calling,  to preach the Gospel (Ashley). In the context of actual war, earthquake, famine, and fire, I’m reminded of the saying attributed to St. Francis Preach always, Use words when necessary.

Now an observation about jumping from Jesus’ apocalyptic vision concerning the Temple’s destruction to the wildfire still burning Paradise Ca. It is very likely that when Mark wrote his Gospel story, the Temple and all Jerusalem had been burned to the ground by the Romans in response to a Jewish uprising. Mark’s community would know firsthand the complete destruction of Jewish life, centered around the Temple’s sacrificial system. It is reasonable for Mark to hear more clearly the words of hope Jesus spoke. Yes, our world has been destroyed. But remember Jesus’ promise. This is not the end. Such chaos and destruction are never the end, because God is always present, and that presence is the power to become who we are called to become. Such chaos and destruction are never the end, because Jesus is returning, and that hope is the power to be who we already are, children of God, marked as Christ’s own forever (The Episcopal Church 308). If the chaos and destruction of the Temple are never the end, then the burning of Paradise and the destruction of other wild fires, hurricanes, snow, and other storms, the disruption of empire versus empire, politician versus politician, Disney vs AT&T, mammon versus truth are never the end.

There are many ways for each of us to respond to the Camp fire burning Paradise CA, the destruction of hurricanes Florence and Michael, the rise of political incivility, the increase of hate speech and crimes, the risks of wars and insurrections, the stress of economic hardship in the midst of what we are told is economic growth, and just plain ole everyday life. Each of us will know our calling through prayerful discernment; it is ours to decide to respond. All of us know the hope of Jesus’ resurrection given us through Baptism. Each of us chooses, to allow the fear arising from chaos and destruction to define how we act and who we are, or ~ to reach out to resurrection hope and use its divine power to define how we will respond to chaos and destruction.

We can be who we are called to be. And the truth is, we, right here in Blytheville, in Mississippi County we are being who we are called to be. I am on the boards of a some of local service organizations. One has received generous community support as they recover from dramatic losses during the flood of the late spring rains. A local business has been giving their customers the opportunity to select from a list of local nonprofits to receive a portion of their sale. Both are examples of using the power of divine hope to respond to the challenges of life right here, right now.

Each of us is seeking to do the work we are called to do; we are becoming the people we are called to be. We are embracing and ever holding fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, as this morning’s collect calls to do. The birth pangs are not over, but their presence reveals the new heaven and new Jerusalem are already, if not quite yet, right here, right now.


References

Ashley, Danae. “Journey Through Grief, Pentecost 26 (B).” 18 11 2018. Sermons that Work. <episcopaldigitalnetwork.com>.

Cruz, Samuel. Commentary on Mark 13:1-8. 18 11 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 18 11 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

 

 

 

 

Beyond The Widow’s Mite

A Sermon for Proper 27: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

We know the story of the widow’s mite. We are used to hearing it as a stewardship story. We understand how she is giving all she has; two coins, worth a penny. Sixty-four pennies is a day’s wage so 1 is worth about 10 minutes wages (Harrelson; Keener and Walton). She gives “all she had to live on” literally, she gave “her whole life” (v.44) (Gaventa and Petersen). We see the contrast between her and the wealthy who give a lot, out of what they have left over. It is a valuable lesson in stewardship. It is also a valuable lesson in what it means to trust God (Logue; Lewis). Because in this story we also have to trust. We don’t know how the story ends, so

  • we have to trust that the widow’s story turns out all right; we have to trust that whether she lives or dies, she was God’s (Logue). And knowing the widow is not alone in her plight
  • we have to trust that we can and that we will, act to help the widow(s) to live fully (Lewis).

However, reading the story this way ignores the three verses before it, which seem to be linked if for no other reason than Jesus condemns scribes

because they love to say long prayers for the sake of appearance, but at the same time they devour widows’ houses (Mark 12:40).

And this takes us back to the beginning, well not all the way to Genesis, but to Exodus and the Ten Commandments. The 5th commandment is:

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Ex 20:12).

‘Honor’ literally means “to be heavy” or to “give weight to” (Brueggemann). The parallel verse in Deuteronomy gives an expectation of seeking the overall welfare of the family (Clements). Scripture demands special protection for widows, they are vulnerable, they have no protection, they have no advocates. While Scribes can act as guardians and manage widows’ affairs, often they used the opportunity to seize widows’ property and enrich themselves (Keener and Walton; Harrelson; Gaventa and Petersen). Earlier, Mark tells of Jesus condemning Pharisees and scribes for the practice of Corbin (7:11). Corbin originally was to designate a gift as a sacrifice consecrated to God. Later, you could vow to gift something to God sometime in the future and remove it from other obligations like honoring your parents (Sakenfeld).

Going back

  • to the beginning,
  • to Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes devouring widows’ houses,
  • to the practice of Corban,
  • to the commandment to honor father and mother

helps us to see beneath the surface of the widow’s story. It may remind us of that idea in Job, that wealthy are right in God’s eyes and poor are not. Seeing from the beginning helps us to see that belief system in the widow’s story (and yes it seems that we are not done with Job, we may never be) (Logue).

There is another little tidbit that helps us to see beneath the surface. In the ancient world Temples often doubled as banks, they were a safe place (Keener and Walton). The picture of the wealthy leaving the bank function of the Temple, and dropping some token into the Temple’s coffers, where the widow will place her life trusting in God to live, completely recast this story. It reflects uncomfortable, inconvenient images of the state of the world. We want the story to be about stewardship because then we can avoid its truths;

  • that we are good at ignoring the widow, so we don’t have to think about how we should, or worse yet, would respond to her circumstances;
  • how we hold her up to heights that make it easy to forget who she truly is; and
  • how we support what builds us up at the expense of those in need (Lewis).

It gets more inconvenient if we dare to wonder if we have ever been in the same position the widow is in, or if we know someone who has been. I know I do.

In 2008 I accepted the position as Rector of St. Peter’s Bon Scour, Al. They were surrounded by five housing developments, not including a billion-dollar development on the other side of the river. They wanted to prepare to grow. And if you don’t, we should remember the fall of 2008 and the collapse of the housing market. By the end of my time there, Angie and I meet two families who were in the process of losing their homes. We have a relative who lost their home. People were losing their homes even though HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) was in place. It wasn’t until much later it was learned that two of the largest US banks and several loan service companies intentionally did not direct eligible families to HARP and those loans foreclosed; in other words, they devoured those families’ houses, those families’ lives. It is more disturbing when we learn that the cost of the program was paid for by investors not the banks or loan servicers. The conspiracy of fraud and racketeering activity may reach 100 million charges (not homes) (Home Owners For Justice). As far as I know, the Banks (meaning stockholders) have paid large fines. I have not heard of a single bank executive being charged with a crime or paying a fine. These scribes defied Godly commandments twice, first by devouring family’s homes, and then by structuring it so someone else pays for it.

It’s a dangerous thing to read beyond the surface the scriptures. It’s a dangerous thing to see the truth

  • of our world
  • of our nation
  • of our community
  • of our church and
  • of our selves.

It’s dangerous because we just might come face to face with the widow’s faith. We just might be inspired to wonder “Can we place all we have, all our life in God’s hands?” especially when we remember that it is a dangerous (a fearful) thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:31).

We live in turbulent times. It is easy to feel all fogged up and spun about. Not only are we challenged to place our lives in the living God’s hands we are also asked to confess those ways in which we devour family’s homes, families’ lives, including through perverse nationalistic fervor festering all sorts of isms, and anti-isms; racism and anti-Semitism and all the rest.

The widow is like Job, we don’t get any answers to the questions that her story raises. I don’t know if I can put my life, my family’s life, which is harder, in the hands of the living God. I know I should, I know I want to, but there is this trust thing, this tiny nagging unbelief. Thus, my prayer for me, my prayer for us is “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).


References

Brueggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Home Owners For Justice. foreclosure defense overview loan modification. n.d. web. 11 11 2018. <https://hofjorg.wordpress.com/foreclosure-defense-overview/loan-modification/).>.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on Mark 12:38-44. 11 11 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. The Widow’s Might. 11 11 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Logue, Frank. “Giving, Pentecost 25 (B).” 11 11 2018. Sermons that Work.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

Those Living In God’s Presence, Bring Us To God’s Presence

A Sermon for All Saints; Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, (or Isaiah 25:6-9), Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44

Winston Churchill planned his burial down to the minute details. His burial began with bugler from the west end of the cathedral playing Last Post which is the same idea as Taps in the U.S. A full minute of silence followed. That sounds like a short time, try it sometime, it feels like infinity. Then a bugler from the east end of cathedral played Reveille. Remember east is where the sun rises, and the east end of all churches is where the altar is (no matter what the compass says). Joslyn Schaffer notes that in that minute of uncomfortable silence we find ourselves waiting for God to descend among us, hoping God is preparing a feast for folk we miss but see no more and folk we never knew. That infinite minute, when we wait, hope, and trust, is the moment where we meet the Lord (Schaeffer).

Today, in this infinite moment we remember:

Carter
Charles
Renee
Jimmy
Mark Brown
John
Betty
Pat
Buzz
Sally
Mildred
Stephine
Martha
BJ
Moreland
Joyce
Helen
David

and those others who we love but see no more.

In this infinite minute of silence all sorts of questions about resurrection, and the last day come to mind. Questions like Mary’s Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died? Our question might well be

Lord if you had been here there would have been no shooting in Pittsburg, or a riot in Charlottesville, or killings in Charleston, no death and destruction from Michael, Florence and other storms, fire etc.?

Such questions stand in contrast to this morning’s reading from Revelation.

The phrase I’m thinking of is and the sea was no more (Revelation 21:1). In the Bible the sea is equivalent to chaos; remember Genesis 1(2) the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.

The sea is where evil empires operate, where Satan takes his stand, and where the wicked beast arises from.

When the sea is no more; death, and mourning, crying, and pain are no more;         imperial war and commerce that oppress the peoples are no more.

When the sea is no more, there is a new river, bright as crystal, (Rev 22:1) flowing from the divine throne, evoking the river of life in paradise.

When the sea, when chaos is no more, creation is purified, the transformation of the earth and all life is complete (Keener and Walton).

When the sea is no more God’s sovereignty is absolute (Gaventa and Petersen). When the sea is no more creation is in the control of the creator (Rowland).

These verses run counter to the popular thinking about The Rapture, where those who are saved are taken up, and rest are left behind to live in the abyss for all eternity (Carey). The new city comes down to us, as a blessing, a place which welcomes all. Its arrival ensures that creation is not replaced but redeemed. Its arrival is the sign of God’s eschatological, God’s final act, fulfilling the divine purpose, that is offered to all peoples, not a selected few (Rowland; Gaventa and Petersen). Its arrival paints a picture of life in God’s eternal presence, where there will be no more mourning, crying, or pain (Gaventa and Petersen; Rowland) Its arrival is all-inclusive, all creation, all nations, tribes, and people are invited. Its arrival does not exclude the choice that is before us to make. It is that choice that Bp. Benfield speaks to in his letter How Will We Respond?

Bp. Benfield had attended a memorial service at Temple B’nai Israel, in Little Rock, to remember the people killed by an anti-Semitic terrorist at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

In part he writes:

It did not register with me until I walked out of the building in the midst of police officers that it now has to be frightening for our Jewish cousins here in Arkansas to pray in their holy spaces. They can clearly see what evil looks like in this country, the sort of evil that many of their forebears fled in Europe.

Sadly, we are all beginning to see what evil looks like. Honesty, integrity, and compassion for one’s fellow humans are no longer virtues that are even thought about outside the doors of religious houses;

I pray that seeing such evil makes us change how we live … [and become] a strong witness that evil in the form of racism or bigotry or naked greed is not the currency in which we will trade … [and inspires us]to see the risen Christ in all people [such that we] must act in consonance (harmony or agreement) with what we pray … [which means] to pray is to dare to act (Benfield).

To act on those things, we pray for because we’ve no idea what to do, or are afraid to act on, resonates with Solomon’s wisdom we read a bit of this morning. He wrote Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; which draws us back to Job’s leaning; not that he was tested, but that God is present in the darkness and chaos, that God holds back the sea, and the behemoths that dwell there. The Jobs amongst us, and they are here, act, not because they are more courageous than we are, but because they now know that God is present, which generates trust, a belief, that reveals the glory of God; the same glory that Jesus assures Mary and Martha they will see.

A path to that glory that arises from such belief, born of trust found in the presence of God is through All Saints day. The Holy Day for All Saints is intended for the remembrance of all the named church Saints; however, there is also All Souls Day, right afterward, which is intended for the remembrance of all who have died. It is a thread of ancient Jewish burial rights in which the community surrounds the family. After a death the community sits shiva with the family; the body is never alone, the community prays with the family every day until the burial, and several days following. The prayerful visits of remembrance gradually decline from daily, to weekly, to monthly, to once a year on the anniversary of the death. Some Christian congregations read the names of those who have died in the last year, some read the names of those who the congregation wishes to remember. All this helps families in grieving their dead, but also in remembering their dead, which in our ancient Jewish roots is a form of immortality.

This ancient notion of immortality links to our belief in Jesus’ resurrection in which our immortality, or eternally being in God’s presence, is assured which is the same knowledge, the same belief Job’s journey brought him to. It should not be so surprising that remembering those who live in God’s presence, should bring us to God’s presence in such a way that we can act to challenge evil whenever it and however it presents itself, not with a ho-ra bravado, but in the quiet confidence of those who live in the new city, drawing life from the crystal river of life that flows from God. In such remembrance we are unbound, we are let go.


References

Benfield, Rt. Rev. Larry. “How Will We Respond?” Communiqué #832. Ed. The Episcopal Church in Arkansas. Little Rock, 31 10 2018.

Carey, Greg. Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6a. 4 11 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Rowland, Christopher C. “Revelation.” Keck, Leander. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. X. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Schaeffer, Joslyn Ogden. “The Surprise of the Resurrection, All Saints’ Day.” 4 11 2018. Sermons that Work.