God’s Love in Tragic Times

Fr. Tim’s sermon for the third week of Lent, March 24th, 2019

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Click here to access these readings.

            Sometimes, there’s not that much difference between our times and those of Jesus.  This isn’t always the case, of course.  First century Palestine was a very different place and time than 21st century Coquille.  Not only were there no cell phones, but no phones, nor telegraphs, nor even an organized, national postal service.  Life was more focused on the family, centered around farms and small towns.  There were kings, generals, and emperors.  And this is saying nothing of differences in culture or religious worship, everything from how they married and died to how they began a meal.  Jesus was talking to a culture much different from our own, and it’s important to remember that when we try to understand what the Bible is saying.

            But the people of first century Palestine were human, and there are certain things that all humans struggle with.  And one of these common human experiences is tragedy.  What do we do when tragedy strikes?  How do we deal with our sudden grief, our anger, our sudden, arrested hopes?  How do we make sense of the world after a tragedy and, perhaps most importantly, how do we understand God in all of it?  Who is God to us now that we’ve been through such grief?

            And people in Jesus’ time, just like people today, try to make sense of tragedy and, especially, of God’s role in (or God’s absence) from grief.  We hear about a few such instances in our readings this morning, where people reflected on tragedy and asked, “Where is God in all this?”  And just as we might wonder about natural disasters and accidents like the floods in Nebraska, earthquakes in Asia, tsunami in Japan, the people in Jesus’ day were wondering just the same things, here about a building that fell on top of people, killing eighteen of them.  Such sudden accidents and disasters seem to have no reason behind them.  People were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the weather just took a nasty turn, or the earthquake came from a place, and at a time, when no one expected it. 

            And as we reflect, we might wonder, “Why did this happen?”  And there are always reasons: earthquakes come from the movement of tectonic plates; the weather in Nebraska was particularly bad this year, the tower of Siloam’s foundation was weak and old.  Asking these questions can lead us to answers that, hopefully, can prevent or lessen tragedies in the future.  But it is human nature, it seems, to ask not just “Why did this happen?” but “Why did this happen to them?”  Why did this tragedy happen to these people?  We humans want to understand everything, to make even things that are natural occurrences into things that can fit into a nice, neat, rational box.  And so we want to know, “Why them?”

            The people in Jesus’ time, and a generation later in St. Paul’s time, were asking just this question.  And their answer?  Those people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them?  The Galileans who Pilate killed?  Or those people destroyed by serpents?  They must have suffered these tragedies, people were saying, because they deserved it somehow.  They must have done something wrong, people thought, and these tragedies, they must have been some sort of cosmic backlash.  It was their sin, people decided, that had led them into disaster.

            And this line of thinking, as I said, is natural.  We humans love figuring out the reasons for things.  We don’t just want to know “how” but also “why”.  And our faith tells us that God is present in all things, working all Creation to the good.  And if this is true, the thinking goes, then it must mean that God wanted these people to die.  Tragedy occurs only to those who sin, those who “deserve” it.  And so we end up blaming the victims and blaming God.

             But Jesus rejects this way of thinking.  He challenges those who were gossiping about the guilt of those who Pontius Pilate killed, or about those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – Jesus challenges, and rejects, the idea that our tragedies have anything to do with our moral worth.  Just as we don’t earn our way into Heaven, but are given salvation as a free gift of grace; so too we don’t earn tragedies and disasters by our sins.  Our sins can hurt others, and hurt ourselves, and sins have a great effect on our community and society, but sins don’t necessarily cause towers to fall down or rivers to flood.

            So what, then, does Jesus ask us to do?  We are still human, we still want to know “why”, and not just so that we can prevent tragedies from happening in the future.  Humans are why to the bottom of Creation and back, and if we can’t blame ourselves or God, then what do we do in the face of these tragedies?  Jesus doesn’t say blame, but he says “repent”, which in Greek is “metanoia”, to turn, or RE-turn, to God.  This is the same turning we talked about with the baptismal covenant, where we turn from sin and doubt and hatred to love, joy, and grace in Jesus Christ.  And this is our call, always, as Christians, that when tragedy strikes, whether it is the falling of a tower or a natural disaster, or even if it is something where a person can indeed be blamed, we are to return to God and refound ourselves in his eternal love.  And this is why, on the day we read these stories from Luke’s gospel and St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, when we read about people struggling to make sense of the world, our lectionary also has us read the story of the burning bush and how deeply founded God’s eternal covenant is with us human beings.  Our God is not just so powerful that he can move us around like little pieces on a chessboard, but our God is that great being that is the beating heart of all reality.  God, the source of all love and hope and joy and all good, true, and beautiful things, is where Jesus directs our gaze and the ground in which he firmly plants our wandering feet.

            And yet, we may still ask: sky do tragedies happen?  Why do bad things happen to good people, or, if not just good people, then people simply going about their lives, good or bad, trying so hard to be happy?  Many generations and many cultures have asked this question, and no one has come up with a perfect answer.  But what we do know is this: that Jesus cried at the grave of Lazarus, that God is present with those who are sick, or who mourn, or who grieve, and that after death Heaven shines with a radiant light that knows no sorrow.  When we face tragedy, or death, or despair, Jesus says, do not blame.  Do not seek reasons in the moral worth of others.  Turn to God, for God will not just make your sorrow or doubt disappear, but will plant it firmly in the rich soil of true reality. And there, in the light of Heaven itself, we may find healing, and reconciliation, and hope.

Beneath God’s Wings

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Click here to access these readings.

        I want to begin my sermon this morning with thanks.  As you know, we flew to New Jersey rather suddenly on a family emergency, and your prayers and words of care were present at every step of the way.  In our weekly emails this past week, I wrote a bit on how your prayers and presence during this time of grief grounded us, and I want to say it again, aloud: thank you.  In times of death, everything seems unstable and in flux.  Your prayers helped us feel and experience God in our grief, and they reminded us of the loving community here in Coquille to which we would return.

        And, now, with this sudden trip, I missed the beginning of Lent with you all, and so this sermon will be, in part, a start-of-Lent sermon, but I also want to talk a bit about community, and especially the loving community that we call the Church (capital “c”) and our own church (lower-case “c”), St. James’.  We the church, in both senses, are the Body of Christ on earth, and that church is here to care for and love one another and the world into God’s presence.  The things that we do – the prayers we pray, the sacraments we celebrate, the ministries we do – all of it is done to lift all humanity and this entire world into the presence of God.  And if this seems a great thing, well, it is: for the Church is a miracle, a living miracle of Jesus Christ that turns away from darkness and despair and turns to the light and love of our Creator. And this miracle renews people’s lives, and it renews the world.

        Lent is no different.  Lent is also about community/  This might seem a surprise.  Lent, as I’ve said, is about contemplation, discipline, and penance, and things like contemplation, discipline, and penance seem like things that we do alone, outside of community.  The forty days of Lent – that specific number forty – remembers Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert, where he was alone.  If you remember a few weeks back, I printed an image of Jesus in the desert on the front of our bulletin.  He sat on a rocky ground, his back hunched over, his hands clasped together, his brow dark.  And our own times of darkness are those when we feel alone, either from others or from God.  If Shrove Tuesday, or Easter, or Christmas seem like parts of the Christian year where we celebrate as a church, Lent may seem like it’s that part of our tradition that we do on our own.

        But this is only seeming, for Lent is truly about the rebinding and the refounding of community.  Lent has many roots, but two of the major roots are the preparation for baptism and the rejoining of penitents.  So here’s a short history lesson.  In the past, the Easter Vigil was the singular time for baptisms, which is why we are baptizing Fiona this Easter (and not on, say, Pentecost, or All Saints’ Day).  And this makes sense.  What better day to bring someone into the Church than the day that we remember when the whole world was brought into the full glory of God’s grace in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Easter is the world’s second birthday, when the whole cosmos was born again into the light of Christ.  And we celebrate this, in part, by bringing new Christians into the Church, into our community, into that body of faithful and hopeful people, who, as it says in Acts, continue in the teaching of the apostles, the prayers, and the breaking of the bread. 

        The other root of Lent I mentioned is the rejoining of penitents.  You see, there were times in the Church’s history when certain people who had committed a crime were barred from receiving communion.  Such crimes were often a public scandal or some particularly heinous act against the community and the Church.  Such people, however, were admitted back into the Church by observing a time of penance.  Nor was this penance done alone, but together with members of the community to guide them, and it involved frequent prayers and discipline.  This penance came into focus during Lent, and after the forty days, these penitents were readmitted to the community of the church at the Easter Vigil, when they would again join in the Eucharistic feast with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

        Now, in the Church today, and especially the Episcopal Church, we don’t observe these bits of culture.  Baptisms can happen at any time (Gwendolyn was baptized on All Saints’ Day; I think I was baptized some time in the middle of February), and we don’t really excommunicate people anymore.  But what these bits of cultural heritage did give us is a sense that Lent is about the reforming and refounding of community.  It is a time when we don’t just take on disciplines to make ourselves better in some vague way, or when we beat ourselves up because (sarcasm) we sinners really deserve it.  We do all this because we are preparing for Easter, when we remember when the world was saved from sin and death, sorrow and grief, when we find again the gifts of grace and joy and love planted deep down in our hearts, when we see that all the world is alive with the promises and expectation of the Living Christ – and we want to do all of this together, as the Church, as one body in Jesus Christ our Lord.

        Lent is a time of gathering and it is a time of collecting together.  And we are reminded in our gospel reading this morning that it is not we ourselves who gather together on our own will and initiative.  It is Jesus who gathers us, and not just to gather us and have us all in a single, nice, convenient spot, but so that he may guide us and protect us and love us into Being – together.  It is Jesus who calls us out of our loneliness and our despair, who opens his arms wide and says there is goodness and love beneath my wings.  Come, Jesus says, come and open your hearts and let me love you, my brood, my flock, my people.

        And we are those people, you are those people, who live under the wings of God.  And in that love there is healing, and not just healing that sets us back up on our feet and sends us on our way, but a healing that lights a fire in our hearts and our minds and our spirits.  It is a fire lit on the day of our baptism, and it is a fire that was lit two thousand years ago on that first Easter morning when the tomb was found empty, and it is a fire lit, a wind breathed out over the chaos, however many billion years ago when all the universe was Created.  It is the fire of God Almighty.  And our work here in Lent is to turn towards that light and accept it into our heart of hearts.

Fr. Tim’s sermon for March 3rd, 2019

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43a

Click here to access these readings.

        Okay, it’s time for another field trip in the BCP.  Can you all pick up your red BCP and open up to page 363.  Now, look down at the bottom of the page.  Do you see those two little phrases there, one right next to the other, is two columns.  There’s something interesting that happens here, and it’s always made me smile. 

        Now, this is right after the Eucharistic Prayer.  We’ve heard Jesus’ invitation to us (“Take, eat, this is my Body”), and the priest has consecrated the bread and wine.  We’ve proclaimed the mystery of faith, and we’ve all said the great AMEN.  And here, at the bottom of 363, we have to choose one of these two phrases to say, though they both basically say the same thing.  We here at St. James’ choose the left side and I say, “And now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say.” 

        Now, when I was first coming into the Episcopal Church, this phrase always made me smile.  Because it’s rather grand, isn’t it?  This word “bold”; it makes this sound like Star Trek: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”  And I liked that.  There is a power to the phrase, and a joy.  I felt like the priest was saying to me, “Get ready!  This next thing is gonna be big!  Time to be bold!

        And what was this phrase preparing us to say?  What’s the next part of the liturgy? [wait for answers].  That’s right, the Lord’s Prayer.  This surprised me.  I wondered, at the time, “What is so bold about the Lord’s Prayer?”  This was my good-night prayer.  My parents taught it to me before I was in elementary school.  I could rattle this thing off without even thinking of the words; what’s so bold about saying the Lord’s Prayer?

        Now, this word “bold” here is important, and that’s one of the reasons we use it here at St. James’.  First of all, here in the liturgy, it’s a sort of marker.  If you flip to the next page, you’ll see two different translations of the Lord’s Prayer, one in traditional language, the other in contemporary language.  And you, the people, know which we’ll use by whether I say “we are bold to say” or “we now pray.”  So “bold” is a sort of liturgical marker to help you all along with a liturgy that can be, at times, complicated.  I use the traditional translation, because I like its theology better, and so I say, “we are bold to say.”

        But I say “bold” for another reason.  Think about this: God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who made everything from the Sun in the sky to the tiniest little one celled organism, who sustains our life and leads us to eternal salvation, came down to earth as a human being and taught us how to pray.  And the way he taught us to address God, the Ruler of All Things, basically, was to say, “Daddy.”  There’s a boldness to this.  There’s an audacity to looking up to the Creator of Existence and saying, “Hi.  I’m hungry, and I’m sorry.  Please be with us forever.” 

        Early Christian leaders were in awe of the Lord’s Prayer.  They called it the perfect prayer, and some early writers even considered it one of the Sacraments.  Every single type of prayer, from intercession to thanksgiving, is found in the Lord’s Prayer.  And it was spoken by Jesus Christ himself, our Lord and our Redeemer, the man who joined Heaven and Earth and brought us eternal salvation. 

        When I think about this, when I think about all the history of this prayer, the holy lips that first spoke it, and the eternal Being that I address when I speak it, I feel in awe, and I hesitate.  It seems too much for me, I who am so small, just a single man who is trying his best to be a good Christian.  And I’m not alone in feeling this, because I think it’s something of what Peter felt when he saw Jesus Transfigured on the mountaintop.

        You see, Peter is also struggling to understand the power and the grandeur that’s right in front of him.  Earlier in chapter nine of Luke’s gospel (where we are in our gospel reading this morning) Jesus takes five loaves and two fishes and feeds five thousand people.  He then tells the disciples that his road isn’t to glory, but to death, and a pretty nasty one at that.  And he also tells them that if they really want to follow him, whoever really wants to save their life, they must lose it.  And if that’s not enough, up on a mountaintop, Peter and John and James witness Christ revealed, in all his heavenly splendor.  Their heads must have been spinning.  This guy who they’ve been traveling with, this man who they’ve been eating with, sleeping next to on the dusty ground, trudging under the hot sun with, and probably complaining to, this guy is not just a guy, but God Almighty, here in the flesh.  On the front of your bulletin is an icon of this scene, and in it, one of the disciples is so amazed that he’s fallen on his back with his feet up in the air.  His world has turned upside-down. 

        And Luke doesn’t record it, but I wonder if, after the Transfiguration, after they’ve come down from the mountaintop, the Peter, James, and John gather together and wonder what to do.  “We’ve just seen God, all but face-to-face.  How do we go on?  How can we just sit down next to God himself and eat a bit of bread, or fall asleep around the campfire next to him, or wake up in the morning without constantly falling to our knees and worshipping him”.  I’m not sure if the disciples wondered about this, but I know I would.  Here is a piece of Heaven on earth; how do we go about our normal lives in front of him?  Or, thinking of the Lord’s Prayer, another piece of Heaven on earth, how can we just say it, knowing the holiness from which it came?

        Now, if this worry bothered the disciples, it certainly didn’t bother Jesus.  Because look at what happens after they come down from the mountaintop: Jesus is back with the crowd, back with those who are hungry and scared, sick and in need.  A man comes up to him, shouting, probably not just to be heard but because of the pain in his heart, begging Jesus to heal his son.  And what does Jesus do?  Jesus who just yesterday stood as God on the mountaintop?  He invites them in, and he heals the boy, and gives him back to his father. 

        And, maybe, maybe Peter realized something when he saw this.  Maybe he saw that holiness doesn’t mean falling on your face but opening your arms.  There is a boldness to saying the Lord’s Prayer, surely, but it is a boldness that says, “God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, and of all things in the cosmos, whose voice is contentment, and whose presence is balm, our God:  is here.”  Our God is not some distant being, off somewhere beyond all knowledge, checking in on us every once in a while to make sure we’re not ruining the place.  No, our God is with a young boy who is sick, and his father who has nowhere else to turn.  Our God is with poor, the sick, those who mourn, the meek, the peaceful, and the merciful.  As one of our collects at morning prayer says, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.”  Holiness is the presence of God in the very fabric of our lives.

        In seminary, we were introduced to a bunch of different Sunday school curriculums.  Each of them were good in their own way, but one I really liked.  It instructed kids on how to be Episcopalians, and so it taught a lot about the liturgy, about the sacraments, and the church year.  And, when teaching about the Eucharist, it encouraged the teacher to use the actual vessels that are used in the church service.  You know, the expensive, highly breakable, glass vessels.  At first, I was really anxious about this.  I knew these things were going to break.  The kids would pick them up, and not even by anyone’s fault, they’d drop them and they’d break.  And the instructor said, yeah, sometimes they break, but actually, this is how kids learn about holiness.  They pick up holiness and they turn it in their hands.  And she said, the reverence these kids have for these vessels, and for the Bible, and the altar, and, really, for God, is amazing, because they could touch them, use them, see how we treat them  Letting kids touch these vessels was inviting them into that holiness.

        Nor is this lesson just for children, but for us adults as well.  God has invited us into the holy through Jesus Christ.

Those who bring us to Christ

This morning at prayer breakfast, we read 1 Peter 5:1-4.  These verses are about leadership, and the conversation quickly turned to mentoring.  And this brought up an interesting question for me, and it’s one that we heard a lot while in seminary: who is it that brought you to a deeper understanding of God in Christ?  And how did they do it?  God the Spirit works in our lives to enlighten and deepen our faith, surely, and often the Spirit works through people in our lives.  Who were these people? 

Two priests come to my mind, though surely there are many others.  These were priests who both served at an Episcopal Church I attended in Athens, Georgia.  At the time, I knew very little about the Episcopal Church, and both were open and patient with my questions.  They never made me feel bad that I didn’t know about something, and they were happy to sit with me as I struggled with my growing understanding of God.  And they were funny!  They laughed a lot, and when I try to picture them in my mind, the first images that come are them smiling and laughing.  Both of them were good priests, and such good, good Christians as well.

Thinking of these two priests, I wanted to ask all of you: who were your mentors?  Who brought you closer to Christ?  Who deepened your faith through their words, actions, or just plain who they were.  And if you feel open to doing so, post a bit about these people below.  I’d love to hear more about them.

~Fr. Tim

This meditation was posted on our Facebook page. If you’d like to share stories about your mentor with us, hop over to this Page and leave a comment.

Father Tim’s sermon for February 24th, 2019

Jesus in the Desert, by Ivan Kramskoi

Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

Click here to access these readings.

        To much joy and many accolades from the children, we are going to be changing our seasonal colors again soon.  We’ve been in green for six or seven weeks, and, after Ash Wednesday, we’ll be in the long months of purple.  And you’ll probably remember from my sermons before and during Advent, purple is the color of contemplation, reflection, and penitence.  Purple marks the times of the year when we sit down, alone or in community, and look at our lives in a mirror, strengthen ourselves and deepen our faith.  It is a quiet time, a calmness before the storm.  But the storm in this case is Easter, when light and life and joy is poured out upon us by the Spirit.  In this time of Lent, we remember and witness in our own hearts the last gasp of Death before the Resurrection, when Jesus rose above death and made the whole creation new.

        This time of reflection, though, is not often easy.  These times of muted colors, when we turn to face the darkness of the world and the darkness of ourselves as well, are not easy.  And it is not a coincidence that the time of Lent follows the season of winter, and that time just before the coming of spring.  Oregon seems particularly apt for a dark, cloudy, stormy Lent.  I wrote this sermon on Saturday morning, when it was cold and rainy and still.  And so it may seem like the best cure for the dark and dreary is for a nice dose of joy, to turn up the lights, lighten to some happy music, and sing and dance.  And doing so may certainly help, but doing so would ignore the wisdom that is in the dark and stormy times, not just of the seasons but in our own hearts as well.  In Lent, the Christian tradition says, “God is here as well.”

        And we know that God is here in the dark times, because Jesus was here when he walked on this earth.  Lent is forty days long, a number that is pretty rife with symbolism in the Bible.  Noah’s ark was out on the sea for forty days and forty nights; the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years; and Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days.  And on the cover of your bulletin, I’ve put a magnificent and haunting picture of Jesus in the desert.  It’s a 19th century oil painting by Ivan Kramskoi.  When I think of Jesus in the desert, I often think of him as stoic before the devil, denying each temptation with an easy wave of the hand.  But Jesus wasn’t annoyed by the devil; he was tempted.  In this image, Jesus remains strong and steady, but there is deep grief written all over his face and in his clenched hands.  God, in Jesus Christ, knows the dark times of this world and our hearts, because he lived through them, too.

        Now, during Lent, we are called upon by our Church to take on some practice or discipline.  And we do this not as some kind of self-improvement scheme but instead to help us see God more clearly in the world.  I remember one of the first times I took part in Lent, I gave up my mornings.  Now, I really, really, really like to sleep in, so I thought, hey, that’s something that I think is good, so why don’t I give them up for a few weeks?  I’ll wake up early, maybe pray a bit, read from a devotional book, and start the morning right.  Yes, that’s what I’ll do.  And I failed.  In those forty days, I think I got up a total of three times, and once I fell asleep in the chair while reading.  And part of the reason I failed is because I really, really, really like to sleep in, and my will-power is at about zero in the morning, but also because I did it because I thought I should do it.  I thought it’d be good for me, that God wanted me to get up early in the morning, because that’s just a good thing to do.  My discipline was more about me than it was about God.

        And it was around this time, as I was struggling with my disciplines, that our bishop, Michael Hanley, told a story about his own struggles.  He also met with failure, and he also realized that some of his practices were more about himself than about God.  And so he did something very simple: he sat down with God and said, “God, where do you want me to be today?  How can I do your will?  How can I give your love to your people today?”  And after praying, he wasn’t hit with a great epiphany of what to do or how to serve, but each time he sat down with God he asked this question again.  And just by praying this way, just by looking away from what he saw was his failure, he turned himself, each day, more and more fully to God.  This is what we should be doing in our practices.  If there’s a “goal” of Lent, this is what it is.

        Our practices are seeds.  St. Paul writes that we don’t sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed.  And what he means by this is that we don’t start in perfection.  We aren’t baptized into a full and perfect faith that never falters and never fails.  We may come into moments of beautiful clarity and presence before God, but then we see again the grief of the world, and we despair; or a loved one dies, and we doubt; or we speak an evil word, and we lose hope.  And we think: my faith is so weak, what good is such weak faith to God? 

But the ground, the soil, that we are sown into is pictured on the front of your bulletin.  Our ground, the thing that nurtures our seed, that gives it nutrients and water and warmth, that life-giving ground in which we grow is Jesus Christ.  And haven’t you experienced this life before?  Those times when you’ve prayed, “God, I need your help to get through this” and you find that, somehow, you can; or just that person you really needed to talk to calls up or walks in; or the grief lessens just a little bit so that you can see where to go next?  In our lives, be they in conscious practices of turning to God or us just going about our business, in all our lives we encounter these moments of life, of renewal, of hope, strained or free.  These are encounters with God, even if, or especially if, they are small.

We are about to enter into Lent, and Lent is something we prepare for.  A week or so ago, I gave you a challenge, and I gave the people at our Soup Supper last Wednesday a similar challenge.  And I’ll give it to you again this morning: God has planted seeds in our faith and in our lives, and God is right now nurturing those seeds.  Where is God calling you, right now, to focus.  To which seed, or which sapling, or which young tree, is God calling to you to tend and nurture with him?  How is God asking you to not only observe Lent but make it a holy, life-giving Lent?