To be paired with readings from Romans 7:15-25a & Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Monday, August 26, 2013
Sermon for Year C, Proper 14 (On Isaiah 58:9b-14 & Luke 13:10-17)
Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings both share a theme of Sabbath—the practice of intentionality, rest, and reflection, that we, as Christians, inherit from our Jewish forbearers. But they seemingly take two conflicting views. The passage from Isaiah tells us that if we refrain from trampling on the Sabbath, from pursuing our own interests on God’s holy day, then we will learn to take delight in the Lord and our lives will be like a watered garden, whose springs never fail. But in the Gospel passage, Jesus’ actions cause us to wonder whether or not he supports keeping Sabbath laws.
Unsurprisingly, today’s Christians seem collectively stumped by the confusion surrounding this gift we’ve inherited. And as such, we’ve allowed it to fall into disrepair. Like weeds in an overgrown garden, pressures for productivity and busyness have crept in, leaving our lives overcrowded and unmanageable. Today, we will look at these seemingly conflicting perspectives to try and understand just what it is that Jesus is communicating to us today. But first, I think it’d be helpful if we took a deeper look at the discipline of Sabbath.
Not long ago I heard the story of a woman named Sylvia Earle. Now 78 years old, Sylvia spent most of her career working as an oceanographer, studying the mysteries that lie hidden beneath the veil we call sea level. During a time when much attention was turned skywards for the Moon landing, Sylvia plumbed the depths of inner-space to discover a jungle of life right beneath our noses.
Slyvia’s peers know her as “Her Deepness,” a title she earned by leading the first team of women aquanauts on a dive to over 1,200 feet below sea level. There, with the aid of a small submarine trailing behind her and a now antiquated diving suit, she walked with her own two feet on the ocean floor. Her exploration lasted for over two and a half hours—about the same amount of time that Buzz Aldren spent on the Moon—but few noticed.
In that vast subterranean wilderness, Sylvia found herself surrounded by tall plants in the dark currents that shimmered with bio-lumenesant light. There were crabs and fish of all shapes, colors, and sizes. She saw creatures barely describable as creatures and patches of sand that glowed when touched. After some time, she ordered the submarine to turn off its lights, so she could be fully immersed in the wonders that surrounded her.
In many ways Sabbath can be likened to her journey, for it teaches us the importance of exploring those hidden, rarely visited corners of life—of listening for the still, small Voice. With all the noise of today’s continuous stimulation (from radios, TVs, bills, and trying to stay on top of email), rare is the person who feels they can take time away for renewal. But our spiritual… and even physical health… demands this. And like Sylvia turning off the submarine lights, taking such time gives us a chance to pause and bask in God’s goodness—a time to grow still, love those we cherish, and nurture a quiet awareness of God’s presence.
When Sylvia reflects back on her life, she’s quick to point out how much has changed. Creatures never before fathomed have been brought to light. The earth’s resources have been used in new and exciting ways, transforming life as we know it. But what began with perhaps limitless optimism, has given way to a myriad of unanticipated problems.
Now, when people ask Sylvia where she would go diving, if she could go anywhere in the world, she answers, “Oh… just about any place… 50 years ago.” She says this because of all the damage that’s recently happened to underwater ecosystems. Many species of ocean creatures have been reduced to five or ten percent of what they once were… and some have been fully eradicated. Apparently, for instance, Galveston used to have Monk Seals, a species that once stretched from here to Florida. But the last Gulf Coast Seal was seen in 1952.
This highlights another facet of Sabbath—the need to exercise restraint. Failure to set limits, by allowing time for rest and replenishment, reliably precedes burnout. God modeled rest for us on the seventh day of creation and Israel received the Sabbath as a gift, after being freed from slavery—hard things to argue against.
So why then does Jesus wind up squaring off with the synagogue leader today? Was Jesus really opposed to Sabbath? Well, if we revisit the story, we notice that the woman who was bent over didn't come to Jesus. She didn’t interrupt his teaching. She lurked quietly within the crowd and had Jesus not called out to her, she would have left unnoticed. But that’s not what happens—because Jesus had a point to make.
Now, the voice opposing Jesus was correct in saying that he could have waited until the next day to heal the woman. After all, she’d already been waiting for eighteen years. But, by moving to heal her anyway, Jesus makes a theological point about Sabbath’s purpose. In the Message translation, Jesus responds, “You frauds. Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall. You lead it out for water and think nothing of it. Why then would it be wrong for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has kept her bound?”
You see, Sabbath is about more than rest and renewal… it’s also about freedom from bondage—about grace and healing. Its rules and commandments ought to be subordinate to the greater purpose they serve—that of freeing us to walk in a fuller awareness of God’s presence and provision. Or as Jesus says in Mark, “Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”
So God’s chief concern, made known by Jesus today, is the full and unhindered flourishing of all life. But, as Sylvia and others point out, the need for Sabbath extends beyond humanity to the whole of God’s creation. Soil needs rest for the replenishment of nutrients. Groundwater needs time to recover. And when resources are overtaxed, they wither and dry up. But we do likewise.
And, in this way, we mirror today’s ecological predicament. Today’s endless chase for outward economic gain comes at a cost. We find ourselves held captive by a society that expects ever longer working hours—where families are strained and relationships sacrificed. A contagious hunger to prosper or have the greatest, most respected credentials has left us scattered and depleted. Even our self-images have fallen prey, for we never feel free to simply rest. There’s always more that can be done.
In seminary, I had the opportunity to take a class on Judaism from a local rabbi. I was surprised to learn of all the forethought it takes to keep Sabbath—to live intentionally with no work for one day. Consider eating, for example, when no cooking is allowed and neither is shopping for groceries or commerce of any kind. Such rest requires planning.
What would happen if we approached our lives with that same intentionality? If Sabbath is meant for our blessing, or as Isaiah puts it, “to make us ride upon the heights of the earth,” then surely we clear some space to listen for that still, small Voice.
Let us then cherish the gifts we’ve been given and, like Sylvia’s dazzling walk at the bottom of the sea, allow Sabbath to open up new horizons of wonderment. But we must be willing to dive deep—to clear space with intentionality. Because like tithing and loving our enemies, Sabbath requires discipline. But as Jesus reminds us, our reward can be walking in the perfect freedom God wills for us, with an ever-increasing awareness of God’s presence in all things!
When was the last time you paused to reflect on your deepest longings? Remember, God gave your heart its passions, so whatever emerges, it’s sure to bring God glory! For Sylvia, she’s turned much of her attention to raising awareness about the environment, thus joining her work to God’s desire for a thriving creation. But, this calling will look different for each of us.For some it may mean more time with family. For others it may be turning off the radio on the way to work. And for those in intractably busy seasons of life, it may mean cultivating a sense of God’s presence, throughout the busy workday. How is God calling you to listen more closely?
Jesus promises that God’s grace and care are waiting to heal and set things right, if only we will step forward when called.
Let us not be like those, during the landing of the Moon, who were so ready to focus outwards, that they neglected the mesmerizing world within…
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Monday, November 12, 2012
Sermon on Widow’s Mite – Proper 27, Year B
When the Church preaches about giving over our whole selves to Christ… all that the rest of the world hears is “we want your money.” But really, it’s about so much more.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard today’s passage about the widow’s mite presented in ways praising her for her selfless generosity. The moral is always that we need to be more like her, offering our whole selves to God. But when we try to figure out what this means, things get confusing.
To make sense of this and what we are called to, we should first revisit the circumstances of this story. It comes at the end of Jesus’ public ministry, after he had spent much time caring for the poor and ostracized. He arrives in the Temple, only days before Passover.
I imagine his eyes narrowed as they caught sight of the money changers and those selling pigeons. Maybe he saw some laughing as they bantered back and forth, while a long line of ragged, threadbare people stretched out before them. Then, in an instant, before they could realize or resist, their tables had been whipped over and a burst of pigeons flooded the sky.
The moneychangers? Sure. They charged interest which was forbidden by Jewish law. But why the pigeons? Because they were the sacrifice offered by the poor—those who barely enough to feed themselves. People like today’s widow…
Next, Jesus confronts the Scribes and Pharisees, right there, on their turf. He rails against their conceit and corruption. And then, just before predicting the destruction of the entire Temple system, he says what we heard in today’s reading. He points out the hypocrisy of some scribes, accusing them of “devouring widows’ homes.”
We’re offered no explanation, but some historians believe scribes were the ones who decided what amounts pilgrims paid to worship. Next, Jesus calls our attention to this widow’s gift, saying her two coins far exceeded the value of the many larger contributions being made.
We are told she had nothing else to live off of—no other money to feed herself. So Jesus lifts her up as yet another example of the Temple’s excess. Like those who could hardly afford pigeons, he commends her sacrificial giving, yes, but also he condemns the wrongness of her plight… Remember, Hebrew scripture carries a strong tradition of urging care for the poor and vulnerable…
But, if the Temple was corrupt, who was to blame? Surely, we can’t peg everything on the Scribes. After all, they too were seeking God in the only system they’d even known—the one they inherited. Earlier in Mark we find Jesus having earnest, heartfelt exchanges with some of them, so we know Jesus isn’t making a blanket or two-dimensional indictment. Things aren’t black or white, good or bad. Like all of us, the scribes and this widow had virtues and flaws.
So who or what was at fault? Maybe it was “the System,” right? It’s always “the System!” Or maybe… Jesus is pointing towards an inescapable tension that we as humans inevitably face. That pull between the need to take care of ourselves and our desire to help others...That line between the duties of our chosen profession and our ethical convictions—between our desire for stability and safety… and our wish to grow in the likeness of God’s generous nature……
These are tensions we all face. They surface when we try to balance our home and work life, but also when we are approached on the street by someone in need… Things get even more complicated when we consider money. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” but do we consider how Jesus is made manifest by our spending habits? Are you willing to spend extra money (or abstain from buying things!) to only purchase ethically produced goods… And how is your answer linked to your faith? And what we do here…?
Those aren’t easy questions, but I believe that Jesus provides us with a way forward. Following today’s passage, we see Jesus and his disciples leaving the Temple. One of them marvels aloud at the splendor of its grandiose stonework, to which Jesus replies, “Not one stone will be left atop another. Soon, they will all be thrown to the ground.” Later, when Jesus surrenders and is being interrogated he says he will destroy the Temple and raise up a new one not made by hands. In effect, he is pronouncing the end of an atonement system that had become a conveyor for materialistic gain… but not without opening a new way…
As Christians, we hold that Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all sufficient—freeing us from our dependence on the Temple. Maybe you’re thinking, “Great, but how is that related to the tension between preserving our security and living generously?” Well, maybe you, like me, sometimes feel like the scribe, trapped in a system that broken and corrupt… Or maybe, like the widow, you feel compelled to give all you have to a broken, messed up world, doubting it will ever matter, but truly wanting to help…
If that’s you, be of good cheer. . . because as followers of Christ, we are blessed with many ways of dancing with these tensions. In baptism, we are made members of the true and living body of Christ. And every week, as we gather together to commune, over God’s word and sacraments, we are reminded of a different reality where our lives are seen as gifts from God.
We hear this in the words of the liturgy when we proclaim God to be “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” In fact, think about the very name of this gathering we’re taking part in—Holy Eucharist. Which means “thanksgiving!” In other words, we’re combating the myth of scarcity right now, by giving thanks for God’s abundant provision…
This… is a protest of the world’s lies—that we must compete and struggle against each other. We do this by remembering that all good things flow from God… and therefore belong to Him. “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” This is what we pray… and this is how our faith teaches us to us to see the world through new eyes.
I know it’s early for a Christmas story, but think back to Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. Remember how, before that night with the three ghosts, he lived a miserly and lonesome life? He saw relationships, even with family members, as potential threats and drains on his control and security.
But after being shown his life through others’ eyes and glimpsing the hellish future towards which he was processing, Scrooge does a 180. He comes to see his need for others. He realizes what a gift life is and that the only joy in having, comes from gratitude and sharing. But such a shift can take time, which is why we ground our lives in the rhythm of Eucharist. What does Eucharist mean, again? Thanksgiving!
I’ll leave you with this… A while back I read about a Christian couple who were unable to have children. They happened to meet a woman who was six months pregnant and homeless, so they invited her into their home. It proved to be such a beautiful experience that they decided to continue living together to help raise the new baby girl while the mother pursued her dream of going back to nursing school.
Years later, they are now like a family, the baby is a teenager and the mother a nurse. A heart-wrenching twist in this story is that the wife of the married couple became very ill with multiple sclerosis, but now she has a nurse living in her home who could care for her, just as she had cared for the nurse.
This is the divine gift of mystical providence made possible by living radically generous lives. But, this must spring forth from a place of deep gratitude… and not all of us can expect such immediate returns. So, is freedom from the scribe’s chains, wedding him to the system, or from the widow’s destitute plight possible? Yes! But tasting such glory requires giving our whole selves over to Christ! So… shall we?
Thursday, October 25, 2012
Come gather in the woods of Austin's Greenbelt at nightfall for a solemn, yet celebratory remembrance of saints past and present. There will be Holy Eucharist, Poetry, and Music by Local Artists.
Stay afterwards for HOME BREWED BEER & Soul Cakes!
Look for us On the Meditation Trail at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, 2128 Barton Hills Drive, Austin, Texas 78704
Stay afterwards for HOME BREWED BEER & Soul Cakes!
Look for us On the Meditation Trail at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, 2128 Barton Hills Drive, Austin, Texas 78704
Tuesday, June 19, 2012