Alive with the Light of God

Christmas Eve, 11:00
24 December 2019

This evening’s readings are:
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Click here to access these readings.

            So, this is something of a night owl sermon, but I’m assuming that if you’re here for the 11:00 Mass on Christmas Eve, you’re something of a night owl. If you’re a morning person, then cool, just wait a bit, I’m going to get to some morning stuff soon, but for a moment, I want to preach about how wonderful it is to go to church late at night.

            I’m a new priest, so I haven’t done many late-night Christmas services. As a child, my family went to the evening service at our local church just up the hill from where we lived. This was in New Jersey, and the church was in the New England style: white walls and tall, tall windows. Outside, everything was dark and sleepy, and this only made the light inside shine the brighter. There were greens and red banners and ribbons all over the place, people were sleepy but awake and strangely energized with that joy of Christmas. We’d sing Christmas carols, listen to the sermon, then leave into the frosty air and drive home to sleep and await Christmas morning.

            But there is something even more different about going to church in the dead of the night. Again, if you’re a night owl, this certainly isn’t the dead of the night (that’s like, what, 3:00?), but by this time, we’ve finished with the work of the day, put away the plates and left-overs from dinner, tucked in the kids, and finally settled down in a favorite chair, maybe cracked open a book. But to go out at this late hour, to put on a coat instead of pajamas, and to come to church to sing and to praise God with our fellow Christians – there’s a grace to this, a special grace and joy. On nights like this, I personally can really feel that God has made the whole Creation new in Jesus Christ. Late nights like this are like fresh snow on the ground, or a pristine starry sky, or that first breath of spring on the air, the golden light of dawn or the blue, twilit evening.

            Christmas Eve is about moving from Advent to Christmas, from the time of waiting, of expectation, of promised joy and light, to the fulfillment of that light, the answer to the promise, to the presence of Jesus Christ. And here, especially at this late service, is when we experience this turn, this turn from “how long, O Lord, how long” to “I am here.” And we know this turn, don’t we? We know those times when we have waited, patiently or impatiently, upon the Lord. We know the Lord’s call on us to wait and to expect, for God does not come at our beck and call as if, when we snapped our fingers, God comes running. But we also know the coming and the presence of God, when God swoops into our lives and fills us, fills us to the brim and then more, so that our cup runneth over and we know that God is good and holy and alive.

            And it is at this service, deep into the night, when we experience that turn, when we gather together and see Jesus coming and experience him here. It’s like driving before dawn (I wonder if you’ve experienced this, too). I’ve been going up to Eugene and Salem a lot recently for meetings, and each time I have to leave super early. And it’s usually pitch black, my eyes are droopy, and I’m alone on the roads heading east on 42. And the whole time I’m wondering, when will it be light so I can wake up? When will dawn come? And I look to the sky, through the trees or around the mountainsides, but it is still dark. Dawn never comes when I wanted it. But then – and usually it is when I least expect it – I turn a corner and my eyes suddenly see the smallest bit of blue peaking through the branches, blue almost at the edge of sight. And I know: it is morning, and light begins to bathe the river valley and everything is glistening and new and beautiful.

            We know this turn, I think, this turn from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from sin to life. We know it in our own hearts, for Christ has come to us like the dawn over the mountains, like birdsong on a cool spring morning. Some of us know the exact day and hour, for others, God has been a presence that we have only slowly come to understand and see and know; but whatever the case, we know that new light and we know its freshness.

            And Christmas is that specific day, that most blessed and holy day, right next to Easter itself, when we celebrate not only our own relationship with God in Jesus Christ but the birth of that light into the whole of Creation, made ready for all, for humanity and beyond. For when God came to us here in this world, he did not come just for a few or some folks here and others here, but for everything, in order to make the whole Creation new. Our Salvation is part of something, part of something great and mighty, a work of God that reaches to the end of time and back. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all might come within the reach of his heavenly grace.

            And we Christians, we Christians who celebrate here the birth of our Savior, and we Christians all around the world, we are part of that good work of God. For we Christians are called on not only to be saved but to be the light of God in the darkness. Our salvation is not ours alone, something that we can keep to and for ourselves. We can’t stick our salvation in a lock-box under our bed or in a safe-deposit box at the bank. Our salvation is not some nice heirloom that we’ve received from our grandmother that we pout on the mantlepiece so that no one (and especially no one with dirty hands) can fiddle with it, and our salvation is not a piece of jewelry that we wear on our fingers.

            Our salvation is a flaming torch, and it is a great fire and a great light that is not to be kept secret but is to light the way in the darkness. Have you ever met anyone for whom this is true? I know I have. By the loving grace of God I have met many people in my life who are alive with the burning light of God. For some of them, it’s their eyes and their faces: I feel hope just in looking at them; for others, it’s their calm presence that speaks love without even parting the lips. I see that flame in our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, as he dances around the church when he preaches; I’ve seen it in the dedication of a teacher I knew in Japan, who I knew (and was helped by) for two whole years before, on my last day before returning home, he mousily told me that he was a Christian.

            But however it shines, that light is a healing light. It is a light of love and of hope and of Life, for it is the light of Jesus Christ, born this day two thousand years ago. It is the light of God Almighty, who created the heavens and the earth and who guides all things to fulfillness and completion. It is the light of Jesus, who is also God, born in a dingy old manger. It is the light of all that is good and all that is beautiful, because it is the light of God, and it will continue to burn until the end of this age and beyond.

Love is Born

Christmas Eve, 8:00
24 December 2019

This evening’s readings are:
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Click here to access these readings.

There is a book at our house that is read each and every day. We think about it in the wee hours of the morning and, often, its words are our last as we lay our head to sleep. No, it is not the Bible; it is not the Book of Common Prayers or our hymnal. It’s this: What’s that sound, baby Daisy?

Now, if you have children, or you had children, or you spent even a tiny little bit of time around children, you’ll know that they love doing things (and especially reading certain books) again and again and again. And I’m like, great, awesome, let’s read these great children’s books that have really beautiful pictures and deeply engrossing stories – but no, we read What’s that sound, baby Daisy again and again and again. And I’m like, really? This again? My kids love this book so much that once Fiona couldn’t even wait until she reached me on the chair but had to throw it across the room at me. And it might not look like it, but this book hurts!

But that’s kids, right? Kids like doing things over and over again. I’ve heard people say it’s because they love routine and things that are set; the world is so confusing for them; they go to sleep here in their car seat and when they wake up, they’re somewhere else! I’ve heard it’s soothing for them to do things each day the same way.

And I think that’s probably true, but I think it’s also something else, and that’s that kids kinda love differently than we adults do. We’ve all got things we’ve learned to like and to not like. For instance, I deeply dislike pickles, and if you ever want to hear the Great Saga of Pickle Day, let me know, but make sure Helene’s not in the room, because I think she’s done hearing about it (seriously, it’s a real thing). And kids have things they don’t like, too, but for them, their hearts are open in wonder, because everything is new for them. The other day, I was telling Gwendolyn what a “one horse open sleigh” was and she was mystified that there was a time where we didn’t have cars. We’re amazed when a new Star Wars movie comes out, or when we find a new planet out in the galaxy that might have life on it, or that it’s finally time for the stores to carry egg nog again. But kids are amazed and filled with the deepest of wonder when you turn down a different street on the way to town (“wow, I’ve never been here before!”) or you open up a rarely-used cupboard, even if it’s empty, and they’re all like, “Wow, the wall opens!” For kids, everything is new, and so much of it is wonderful and magical and unreal. And that’s because they’re new, and their love is open and free.

        And I say all this not to just say something nice about kids but also to say something very important about God. This evening, Christmas Eve, the good old night before Christmas, we gather together to celebrate the Incarnation, that time when God came to us as a human, as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. And when we think about Jesus, and Jesus’ presence in the world, often we think of him as an adult; you know, with that nice beard, the robes, standing with people around him teaching or healing or giving hope where even the word itself was forgotten. Or else we think of him with the Cross, either carrying it step by brutal step, or hanging on it, breathing his last. These images of Jesus, they touch us, they touch us deep in the heart, or in the mind, or in the gut. We carry these images with us as we live the Christian life, for they call us to live as Christ lived, as God lived, and that is to heal those who are sick, to give comfort to the lonely and the sorrowful, to feed the hungry, whether their hunger is of the stomach or of the mind or of the heart, and to place our hope not in earthly things but in heavenly things. Jesus, as an adult, taught us how to live.

        But Jesus was not just an adult; Jesus was also a baby. Jesus didn’t beam down from heaven as a fully formed individual. Jesus wasn’t carved out of stone, like Michelangelo carved his statue of David, perfect in every proportion down to the tiny little pinky finger. Jesus was born. Jesus was an infant and a toddler, he was a little kid and a teenager and a young man. Jesus, who we believe was fully God, also was fully human, and day by day grew up, just like we have.

        And as a child, Jesus must have had that same wonder at the world as I just described. Or, to put it better, we have that wonder because God’s love of the world is child-like. Not ‘childish’, mind you, but ‘child-like.’ The difference is important. We all know the childishness of kids, and all of us, I’m sure, still have a few bits of childishness in us as adults, too. Childishness is taking things for granted. It’s living as if everyone’s job is to comfort and care for us. We act this way as children because we do need all that care and attention, and we haven’t lived long enough to gain a healthy respect for the world around us and not take things for granted. But as adults, this childishness makes us proud, or haughty, or careless. In such childness we forget about others around us, and we put ourselves on a pedestal as an idol. And much of the work of the Holy Spirit, it seems, is knocking that idol over and turning our eyes, again and again, to the loving light of God. Childishness is pretty dangerous.

        Being child-like, however, that’s different. I think our presiding bishop Michael Curry. If you’ve ever seen him preach, he’s always jumping around and waving his arms, and I wonder that he hasn’t knocked candles over and set fire to his alb yet. And his face: you can see the love of God written all over his face, as if his heart was a beacon, drawing everyone around him to the presence of God. But I’ve also seen that child-like-ness here at St. James, in the love of this church and all it has meant to you, even if you don’t know how to put it into words; I see it in your love of a hymn, in your readiness, seemingly without a thought, to welcome people in off the streets no matter how tired or wet or smelly or confused they are, and to work tirelessly to help them. And I’ve had the distinct joy to be with you at the altar as you meet Jesus Christ in the holy sacrament, and I’ve knelt with you as we’ve all confessed our sins with a ready heart. This openness to God, this openness to the hurt and the hope of the people around you, and this love of the beauty of the natural world, the liturgy, and the life of one another, this is a child-like openness. And we adults, who so often forget in our own times of grief and resentment, need to be reminded often, but especially on Christmas, that God was child-like as a baby in the manger and, so too, is God child-like in heaven, in his earnest and eternal love for us.

        And that is the Gospel. That’s that “good news”, which is really what the word “Gospel” means: that the foundation of the world, that the one who created everything that is in this world, from the tiniest little single-celled organism up to the planets, stars, and galaxies, all that is founded firmly on one thing: Love. And I don’t mean the love that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, though that love is (or should be!) founded on that love. I mean this: those moments in your life, and hopefully there are many, those moments when we see that what really matters isn’t the darkness that is all around us, the hatred that people sling at one another like it’s their job, the anxiety and the sorrow, when we see that it’s not those things that are most important, but when we see, even just for a single moment, maybe just in the fleeting glance of a single person, that there is life in the world, and that that Life won’t let us fade away without a fight, that Life itself is not just a vague energy but a Person, and that that Person wants, more than anything in the world, for you and all of us and all this Creation to be whole and healthy and joyful and that, one day, we will be! That’s the love I mean.

        Tomorrow is Christmas Day. We all have different ways of celebrating. Mine involves egg nog, bacon, and my family. Yours might look different. The day after that is the 26th of December. The one after that is the 27th, then on into the new year. And I want to ask you this: we Christians believe that God loved us so deeply that he became a child and lived a human life, even to being nailed up on a cross and killed. Our God did that for us so that he could open up the real meaning of Love and Life to us wayward people. How will you live differently? For we have been given a light, a great torch to bear into the darkness of this world. How will you bear that light to those who do not know hope? How will you bring that light to those locked in the shackles of grief, of hatred, of despair? For on this night, and on each and every day, in each and every moment hereafter, the Christ child may be born inside your heart, so that you too may be a flame to dispel any darkness.

Living death and beyond

the 23rd Day after Pentecost
Proper 28
17 November 2019

Today’s readings are:
Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Click here to access these readings.

        Goodness, those were some grim readings, weren’t they? There’s a bit of fire and brimstone in our readings this morning, and though they were tempered a bit with the beautiful psalm, there was some grim stuff there. And it’s not just grim stuff like on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, but some gut frustration and anger and destruction. When I read these readings at the beginning of the week, I thought, man, how are the kids going to hear all this? Maybe I should ask Tina to keep them in Sunday school the whole time so they don’t have to hear any of it.

        But, but, that wouldn’t have been a good idea. It’s important to hear the whole of the Bible. It’s important that we Christians read and hear, in our own study and here in the gathered congregation of the church, the whole Bible, not just the nice, happy, and joyful moments, but those moments where the sins of the human heart and the world are laid bare. Someone once said that the Bible is like a map of the human response to God – the whole human response, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we need to take it all as God’s word to us in Scripture. It’s kinda, in a way, like marriage: if we want only the good parts, we’re going to have a pretty rocky marriage. But if we are with our spouses through sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, through those nasty fights and those times when our hearts are lifted together in joy to the very gates of Heaven, then maybe that marriage will last. The Bible is kinda the same.

        And now, in the darkening time of the year, we read some of the tough parts of Scripture. And the lectionary is designed this way. Starting around All Saints, when we remember those of our beloved who have entered into the joys of Heaven, our readings focus more and more on the end. Or, perhaps it is better to say that Scripture, through our lectionary, asks important questions: what do we do with endings? What do we do with death? What do we do with little ends and little deaths, like the end of the year, or the parting of friends, or the ending of a relationship? And what do we do with those big ends, the death of loved ones, our own deaths, and that day when all things will end, and the world turns to look God face-to-face?

        Now, we humans can get pretty caught up in endings, be they small ones or big ones. And some of us Christians can get really caught up in the end times. We can worry about when, or how, or where, and who. We can take the Scriptures and work out the math to figure out when Jesus will return. And this sort of thing has been done with our Scriptures since the beginning of Christianity, but Jesus’ word to us is this: do not worry. Don’t get all caught up in all this calculating, because I am with you. I will guide you and remain with you, whatever may come to pass. I will love you and hold you, Jesus tells us, even when you try so hard to forget I’m there. Rest in me.

        Now, this sort of talk, I think, can easily lead to a “don’t worry, be happy” sort of theology. If we don’t have to worry about bad things, if Jesus will be with us and, hey, how can things go bad with Jesus as my co-pilot? We can just sit back and let the chips fall where they may, because Jesus has our backs. But we Christians don’t really have a “don’t worry, be happy” theology. Our God, our beloved Jesus, was crucified on a cross, a fact we’re reminded of every year during Holy Week, each Sunday at the Eucharist, and every time we ourselves die to our own sin and are lifted by God’s grace into his presence. We can’t get away from a bit of tough thinking, and that’s one of the reasons the lectionary prepares us for such thinking at this time of year.

        There is a difference, though, between a happy-go-lucky, all’s right with the world kind of attitude and the attitude that God calls us to through Scripture and the Holy Spirit. We are called not to throw up our hands in grief, nor to throw up our hands in shallow joy, but to live. We are called to be present with the joy of the world and its suffering. We are called to be present to hatred and grief, calm moments of peace and deep, deep anger, and all the range of human emotions and actions. We are called to be followers of Jesus – Jesus, who did not turn his eye from the despair of his people, but walked straight into it, eyes wide open, because his love was so great and his life so grounded in God the Father, that he could do nothing else.

        Now, our collect this week reminds us to do something very important with Scripture, and I want to add to it that we should do the very same thing with life. Our collect reminds us that holy Scripture was written so that we may learn from it to understand more fully and more deeply the world around us and the very lives we lead. And we pray through the collect that God might grant us to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest all that we encounter. And this is all to say that we should not take the joys in our lives, nor the sorrows or griefs or deaths, however little or however large, for granted. For deaths should not just be endured with gritted teeth but should be lived.

        This might sound strange, that deaths should be lived, but it is true. Whatever the ending we are brought to, be it the gentle fall of the year or the end of our own lives, we are to live them, as Jesus lived his own death. And to live them is to see them, to mark them and know what they are. For our Lord God leads us through many deaths in our lives, through many endings. And we can shut our eyes and ignore them, we can grasp and covet those things that should have been laid to rest, we can forget the passing of those who have gone before us – or we can open our eyes to the love of God.

        For me, it works like this: I think of all those people who I never said good-bye to. Helene and I have moved around a lot in the past ten years, and we’ve met a lot of good friends. And those who, when we parted, I was able to say good-bye, many of us have remained friends, and if nothing else, they’ve remained a deep and abiding part of me. I learn from them, if they’re still around, I seek them out for their council, their advice, and their joy, and I am sought out for the same.

        But there are those, for whatever reason, be it that I didn’t think they were important or because of a hardness of heart, who I did not say good-bye, or at least said it poorly. There is a grief in my heart about them. There’s something unfinished. There is a hole in my heart, or a tearing, or a sore. And rarely, at least for me, is that sore healed by not thinking about it.

        This is, at least, where my mind goes when I think about endings, both good and bad. Your mind might go elsewhere, to hopes you’ve had that you have said good-bye to well or poorly, or even how you’ve been able to work through the troubles that come with aging. But whatever the case, our word from Scripture is not to look away in grief and despair but to see those deaths, however small, however large, as they are, and to walk through them with endurance and with hope.

        And we can do this, we can pass through these deaths because Jesus, who came before us, who passed through the great death on the cross, Jesus is with us in every death, every grief, and every sorrow. By dying on the cross Jesus broke death, destroyed it, and remade it to be something that, through him, leads not to despair and darkness but to new life. For death is not, not ever, the last word. Life, is the last word, and it is an eternal word.

        And we know this from our own lives, don’t we? When we have come to an end, and we have come through it, by the grace of God, with our minds and hearts open, and Jesus within us, there is new life on the other side, isn’t there? We are still in this world, where darkness and sorrow run rampant, and there is often still grief on the other side of death. There is a sense of loss for what has died. But above all there is a newness of life, a rekindling of something deep within us, a rebirth and a resurrection of something essential and free. This is something we see in the natural world, where the fall of leaves in the autumn and the bare branches of winter lead to the renewed life of spring. And we see it in our lives in our healing, be it in mind or body or spirit, as we are led through the small deaths of life by the hand of God, until we come to that last and final death, our own death, when Jesus will carry us on his back, like a shepherd carrying a lost lamb, into the eternal glory of Heaven. And then, there, will all deaths finally die, and we will live the life eternal.

Jesus is Alive!

the 22nd day after Pentecost
Proper 27
10 November 2019

Today’s readings are:
Job 19:23-27a
Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

Click here to access these readings.

        I want you to take out your service bulletins again, even though you probably just stowed them nicely away. Take out your bulletin with all the readings on it, the one with the big green bar at the top that says “22 Pentecost.” Now, the first part there isn’t a reading from the Bible (though most of the language is straight from our Scriptures); it’s a collect. Collects are prayers, and they’re always said at the beginning of our worship time on Sundays. There are collects for each Sunday of the year, and for each of the days after Easter, and for each saint’s day, too. They’re called “Collects” because they collect us, they bring is all in from each of our disparate lives and focus us, collectively, as the Body of Christ, the Church, on what we’ll be thinking about and praying about on each particular morning. If you have some time, read through some of these Collects in the Prayer Book; they’re beautiful, short prayers, and many Christians (and not just Episcopalians) use them in their own, private worship.

        And if you looked at all the Collects, you’d notice that they all end pretty much the same way: “where he (that’s Jesus) lives and reigns with you (God the Father) and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” Hooray for the Trinity. And while all the words in here are important, there is one that’s very, very important: lives. Jesus Christ lives, with God the Father and with the Holy Spirit, as one God. Lives. Jesus is alive. Jesus Christ is alive.

        Now, this might seem a little obvious to us, maybe. I mean, Jesus isn’t dead, right? That’s what we talk about every Easter: Jesus died on the cross but was raised from the dead three days later. But for the early Church, this idea that Jesus was alive was of utmost importance. Everything kinda hinged on this. The Good News that they were to proclaim was that Jesus was alive, that he was resurrected, and that this made all the difference. And with Jesus, the one who Jesus himself called “father”, God, who created the universe, is also alive. And the Holy Spirit, sent on the day of Pentecost to form and sustain the Church, is also alive and present with us, even now, two thousand years later. As Jesus tells the Sadducees in our gospel reading this morning, “God is not of the dead, but of the living.”

        And on this morning, two thousand years after the Resurrection, two thousand years after a small group of women, one morning, found an empty tomb and an angel sitting around just to tell them that Jesus wasn’t here, that he was Risen, on this morning this is all still Good News. Jesus is alive. The whole Trinity is alive. But what does this mean, alive? We can understand, surely, the excitement and confusion and utter joy of the disciples that the tomb was empty and that their beloved friend and God wasn’t dead and that they could still talk to him and hold him and break bread with him and hear his voice again. Surely we can understand their excitement, but what about us? Is this still Good News to us, or just old news? Is it news that fills us, or is it news from a long time ago that’s great, but, really, what about now? What does it mean that Jesus is alive?

        Well, I mean, there’s theology for you. If you want to know the answer then read all the works of Thomas Aquinas, come back and listen to ever sermon I give until I retire, pray unceasingly until your last breath, and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Then maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of what it means for Jesus to be alive. But we don’t have to know the full reality of God (as if we could) for us to step towards him, and for that Good News, that Jesus is alive, to have meaning for us today.

        Let me tell you a quick story: this past summer, Gwendolyn spent a bit of time in a small, blow-up pool we have. It really was small, not much more than something to get your feet wet, but Gwen liked splashing around it in to cool off. We emptied it each evening because we didn’t want the grass beneath it to die or the pool to start to mold, and then filled it up when Gwen wanted to use it again.

        And to fill it, we usually just stuck the hose in the pool and let it fill. And when the water got to a certain height, the end of the hose dipped beneath the surface. It was still filling up the pool, of course, but you couldn’t see the usual rush of water the comes out the hose. And Gwen kept asking, is it on? Is it filling up? Is it on? Yes, it’s on! Jesus is alive kinda like that hose is on.

        Poor analogy maybe, and it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story of Jesus, but I think it’s important. Often, when we think of “alive”, we think of exuberance. When we think of someone who’s alive, we think, maybe, of someone out running each morning, or someone who laughs easily and heartily, or someone who’s fresh and open and just in love with life.

But, often, life looks a lot different than that. Life can look worn and dirty, like a baseball mitt that’s seen a lifetime of games. Life can look like a cookbook that’s covered in grease and cookie batter and grubby little fingerprints because it was used to make food that fed people. Life can be present in a hospital room, and it can be present at the grave. For we believe, we Christians believe, that Life Itself was hung on a cross and died, but that even such a death wasn’t strong enough to hold him back from rising to Life again.

Over the next week, from this Sunday to next, I want to give you a challenge. We all have things that fill us up. Some of us are gardeners, some of us love reading. Some have children or grandchildren who touch us deep in our hearts. Some of us may be filled by going to meetings, who knows, but we’ve all got things in our lives that we see as refuges, places of peace and comfort, of grace and love.

I want to challenge you, however, to seek out life elsewhere. Open your eyes and open your heart to life elsewhere as well. Reach out into places of your life that make you tired, or frustrated, or that rattle your nerves. And in these places, ask the question, Jesus, who was raised from the dead two thousand years ago, and who lives even now, where are you in all this? Holy Spirit, help me see the face of my Redeemer, because my Redeemer lives.

And if the answer is, Jesus isn’t here, then ask “How can I bring you more fully into this place? How can I make you, who are Life and Love and Hope, how can I make you more fully known in this place? How can I walk more fully as your disciple, as one who has been given Life by you? Help me see you, help me live you.”

Simplicity

the 18th day of Pentecost
Proper 23
13 October 2019

Today’s readings are:
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

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       I joked about this at our pet blessing last Sunday, but there really isn’t anything in my priest books that tells me how to bless animals. Actually, there’s not all that much in all my books that tells me how to bless anything, really. We’re supposed to make the sign of the cross, put our hand up or something, and often it’s best, when blessing a person, to put your hand on their shoulder or even hold their hand, but all this is really just best practices, not “how you do it.” And that’s because blessing someone is actually really just a simple matter: you pray with them. You turn with a person, or a group, or a little animal, towards God. We say to God, “Please, love this person or group, or animal with the fullness of your being.” And we believe God says, “Of course.”

        You can say the same thing about the liturgy, too. It’s very simple. I know, there’s a whole lot of stuff with our liturgy, and, like I said the other week, all this stuff is important. But even with all the bowing and chasubles and chalices, the whole thing is really very simple. We come together, we pray, we eat, then we head out. Everything else helps, and it helps immensely (again, it’s best practices), but the heart of the matter is a prayer to God. And, really, that’s enough as it is.

        Now, there’s a lot of things we can do to dress things up. The more I wave my hands at your when I’m blessing you, or the more motions I make while celebrating the Eucharist, the more it seems like I’m up to something. And something really is going on: when a priest blesses us, or when any Christian blesses someone, God is really present. God is really there in a special way. But it’s not because we wave our hands or make really heart-felt prayers. And in the bread and wine of Communion: God’s really there, really present, and that bit of wafer and sip of wine really do lift us closer to Heaven; but they do this not because I’ve got a chasuble on or because you’re kneeling. God’s there, God’s here, because God wants to be here with us. God loves us and hopes for us.

        At this point, you may say: Now, Father Tim. The other week you preached on how awesome stuff is in the liturgy and in our Christian lives. And now you’re talking about how awesome things are because they’re simple. So which is it?” Well, isn’t it both? There’s this beautiful simplicity in Communion, of coming to the rail as just us, no strings attached, even though we sin each and every day and just keep on sinning, even still we kneel or stand and say, simply, “Jesus, please come” and he does.

And that moment, that most glorious and humbling moment, is set within the liturgy that lifts that moment up, that focuses that moment, that helps us understand that it is Jesus coming to us and not something else. The liturgy helps us understand the coming of Jesus in Communion, something that is beyond words and beyond all human expectation and hope; and that moment when we meet Jesus, in turn, helps us understand all the prayers, the Scripture and the Creeds, our confession and that we truly are forgiven our sins when we confess them. The simple and the complicated, they work together, each and all together, and all so that we can take another step, however small, towards God, our Creator and our Redeemer.

Now, all of our readings this morning were on faith. And all of them remind us that, although it seems like a pretty complicated thing, faith is actually pretty simple. Not easy, mind you, but simple. I think of caring for a baby: you know, there’s not much to it. You feed them, you change their diaper, and you put them down to sleep. Pretty simple. But in that simplicity there is a depth that is often too deep for words. Because there is a love that you give to a baby, each time you feed them, lay them down to sleep, or even change their diapers. And that love means the world to them, and it is life for them.

Or think of caring for our friends or our family. What they need from us, most often, is just someone to be there with them. Yeah, sure, sometimes our families or friends get into some wacky problems that are complication upon complication upon complication, but what they need, most often, is simple, honest love: a friend to sit by them in the turmoil, a presence of love in all the confusion and anxiety, a word or even just a patient silence that does not demand, that does not press, that does not muck up the problem even more than it already is mucked up. They need just love: simple, honest love. Then, sure you can get down to fixing the problem or working out solutions or whatever. But all of that is founded on that simple love that we give by just being next to them and, well, loving them.

Faith can often be a tough thing. In the face of great adversity, in the face of darkness and sorrow and grief, and in the face of real and true loss, it can be hard to hold onto faith. Our faith can feel like sand slipping through our fingers, and doubt can loom large and ugly on the horizon of our grief. And when we hear “God is with you”, it can be easy to turn around and say, “yeah, sure, where?” But when we sit down and quiet our hearts, when we put to rest our worry and anxiety, when we open our eyes we see that there is a life in this world, a life that isn’t just a thing or a force or an energy but a living presence. In times of fear, it is a tenacious courage that walks beside us; in anxiety, it is a calm presence sitting very still and inviting us to peace; in hatred, it is a word in our ear that all is loved, even that, or especially that, which is lost, forgotten, and alone.

There is no simple way to define faith. There is no simple way to grow in faith. Nor should there be. A robust faith is often found at the end of a lot of heartache, a lot of grief, and a lot of darkness. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, we discover the reality of faith, the reality that God is with us, Emmanuel, that Jesus Christ loves us and died for us and rose for us, so that we could know what true life was really like, that this faith is what holds us and gets us through the heartache and grief and darkness. And each step forward brings us closer to Him: the one who Created us, the one who Redeemed us, the one who Sanctifies us, and the one who Loves us with the fullness of Being itself. And even now this Voice is calling you to turn to that Life.