The Sweet Spot

Within Christianity, there is always a tension between prophecy and culture.  In the playing out of this tension, faith runs the risk of accommodating itself to cultural expectations, bestowing a spiritual imprimatur upon them. When it resists this tendency and is faithful to its prophetic responsibility, faith poses a challenge to prevailing cultural assumptions that conflict with the gospel message of love-justice and tenderness-inclusion.

Prophecy can be likened to the unimpeded free-flowing movement of the Spirit, which like a natural spring of water gushes and spills out everywhere. Organized religion creates a walled reservoir collecting the gushing spiritual spring water of the Spirit, channeling it to become a flow of spiritual energy to irrigate civic and cultural life. This is an essential function but herein also lies the danger of faith jettisoning its prophetic mission in order to compromise with the values of a surrounding culture. When this boundary between spiritual and cultural values is blurred, Christian faith becomes cultural religion. Cultural religion not only suppresses prophecy but becomes its greatest opposition.

When religion puts on cultural blinkers, the journey from Christian faith to cultural religion is but a very short detour.

In the pages of the Old Testament, we witness this age-old struggle between the divine vision for Israel expressed in its covenant with God and its adoption of the cultural values of the world around it. The history of ancient Israel is a rollercoaster ride, a record of the ups and downs in a struggle that finds no simple solution.

The first lesson for this Sunday, the call of Samuel, is set in an age when: the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread.  This is a description of a society in which God’s voice is no longer heard or even expected to be heard.

Samuel grew up to become the last of the great charismatic Judges who ruled in Israel before the age of monarchy. In his call, we see God repudiating a religion corrupted by the misuse of power as identified with the hereditary priest Ely and his corrupt sons.

The period of Samuel’s judgeship is a liminal period between Israel’s tribal confederacy led by a charismatic leader and the emergence of monarchy. This was a period of huge political and social change, which Samuel at first tried to resist. Eventually, under pressure, he finally gave way to the people’s demand to: give us a king like all the other nations around us. Against his better judgment he anointed first Saul, and then David, to be kings over Israel.

Susan Beaumont’s in How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going – writes about the leadership challenges in a liminal season. To capture the essence of liminality she quotes Ed Catmull of Pixar: 

There is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking. 

A liminal season is a place on the threshold between the ending of what has been known and the arrival of what is yet to become known.

Samuel personifies liminality. He is the last judge but also the first prophet. With the advent of the monarchy, Hebrew religion becomes corrupted by the cult of divine kingship. As a result, the office of the prophet arises to speak out against the cultural corruption of Israel’s covenant faith which was always in danger of giving way before a cultural religion that no longer blessed God, but blessed kings who acted as if they were God.

In the politics of ancient Israel, prophecy becomes the constitutional counterpoint story to that of authoritarian kingship.

We are in the season after the Epiphany. 10 days ago, on January 6th, the Epiphany of Jesus, we awoke to an epiphany of another sort – a stark revealing of America’s dark side. This coming week will see Joe Biden become the 46th President of the Republic. His incoming administration will face no greater challenge than the challenge of leadership in a liminal season. For America is at a point of transition from the known which no longer works to the unknown yet to be tested.  

In a liminal season the present moment pivots through an openness to new directions -and the tight spot becomes the sweet spot – the place where originality happens.

With Ed Catmull in mind again – one might say the situation facing the new administration seems hardly a sweet spot – more like a tight spot.   The danger will lie in any attempt to go back to a status quo before Donald Trump’s presidency. The temptation will be to promise solutions that ceased to work a long time before.

The present moment is the point at which the past remembered becomes the future reshaped. The present moment in a liminal season has the potential to pivot between being a tight spot and a sweet spot. In a liminal season the present moment pivots through an openness to new directions -and the tight spot becomes the sweet spot – the place where originality happens.

The key is to be able to linger in the liminal space long enough without panicking.

In these days following the events of January 6th I went back to what I wrote in on the call of Samuel text in 2018. I then quoted Ross Douthat who in a NYT op-ed asked the prescient question:

Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?

Douthat concluded that for all of us the direction of history will be determined by our freely chosen answer.

For Christian faith in today’s America, there is a clear litmus test to determine the vibrancy of its prophetic health. On the eve of the commemoration of Dr Martin Luther King’s birth, that great prophet and agitator for social justice in our time, this litmus test remains simple, clear, and uncompromising. Our Christian faith reminds us that love is the key. A great phrase! But what does this actually look like in practice?  Cornel West has reminded us that justice is what love looks like in the public sphere and tenderness is what love feels like in private.

For all of us, the direction of history will be determined by our freely chosen answer. As people of faith in this liminal season our task is to sit in the sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens – without panicking. When we remain alive to the dangers of jettisoning our prophetic responsibility for accommodation with prevailing cultural assumptions, we become a beacon of hope and force for good; the exponents of justice and practitioners of tenderness in the world.

But as Douthat reminds us the choice is ours.

Stories Thick and Thin

Baptism of Christ 2021: Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Identity is always a moving target. We discover, rediscover, and affirm our identity through the stories we give allegiance to. Our minds are story making machines. The meaning and purpose of life comes to us through the stories we tell. Meaning is missed, purpose is squandered when we get locked into telling the wrong story.

I refer to stories in the plural because while we really only have one life story, nevertheless, we can tell it in lots of different ways. Depending on life stage and context our story changes as we hash and rehash elements in our history – some remembered, some misremembered, others suppressed and seemingly forgotten.

Our experience of living in the expanse of time and space is structured around the stories we tell because it’s through story that the world around us is given shape with meaning and purpose. The question we need to ask about the stories we tell – and story more generally – is not are they true or false but are they thick or thin stories? Thick stories are made up of an interweaving of multiple strands – weaving a rich technicolored picture of experience that fosters human flourishing. Thin stories by contrast weave a threadbare monochrome picture – a picture of experience that is too small for our needs – often too fear driven – confining us and stifling our ability to thrive.

It’s the thickness or the quality and complexity of stories that matters!

Our minds are story making machines. It’s the thickness or thinness of our stories that matter. The meaning and purpose of life comes to us through the stories we tell. Meaning is missed, purpose is squandered when we get locked into telling the wrong story.

On Wednesday of this week, we reached a turning point – a pivotal juncture in the current cycle of a resurgent very thin story in our national life. This is a story of domination, not of flourishing. It’s a story driven by fear – a story in which the thin strands of misremembered nostalgia are woven together to form a fearful story in which domination is empowered and maintained through violence, fear is stoked by conspiracy. This is not a new story for America. It’s a recurring one – periodically resurfacing during times of change as a conduit for the repressed paranoia in our collective national consciousness.  

America is not exceptional in this regard. As Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury reminded us in his message of solidarity with the American people – many nations also have sorry experience of similar thin national stories resurfacing from time to time.

This last week however, we have witnessed the true nature of the particular American story. It is the quality of this story which earns us the epithet exceptional.

This week we saw the final showdown – at least in its current cycle of resurgence – between a thin rendition of our national story and the thick and abiding story of the Constitution. Many of us over the last four years had come to wonder whether when the final showdown came – as we knew it must – the thick story of national identity given to us by the Constitution would prevail in the face of the paranoid imbued strands of a thin story of domination and oppression –supported by the violence inherent in all forms of despotism. And to our relief we discovered – yet again – that thick stories eventually prevail – because they show us a more fruitful way for the remembrance of our past to become our future reshaped.

In 1792, The father of the nation, George Washington, delivered these words in his farewell address to Congress.

 The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.  All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.  However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. 

Washington sounds a further warning:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

We catch more than a glimpse in Washington’s words of the motivating story behind them. The Constitution – like the Bible is often mischaracterized as simply a document. In reality – like that Bible – the Constitution is the transcription of a thick story giving shape and substance to a picture of a people constituted as a republic of citizens empowered to elect their own government according to the guiding principles of a foundational story.

Between our thick and thin national stories, it may often seem the contest is a close-run thing. This week we once again witnessed how the thickness of our founding story preserved a picture of national life characterized by equality in diversity against the attacks of an increasingly undisguised thin alternative.

I’ve noted the events of this past week to demonstrate how stories operate at our national level and how crucial it is which stories we give allegiance to. Choice is everything.

The Christian Kalendar plays havoc with the chronology of time – moving from infancy to adulthood in a matter of weeks. Today we celebrate the story of Jesus’ baptism – a story reported by all three of the synoptic gospel writers. Yet, whereas Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with the story of Jesus birth, Mark begins with Jesus– seemingly out of the mists of childhood and adolescence striding onto center stage as a fully grown man – a man who has come to begin the active phase of God’s purpose for him.

By beginning with his baptism, Mark offers us a different story lens through which to view Jesus. Mark’s Jesus is not born into divine sonship, he is chosen through adoption into his identity of divine son – although Mark, writing earlier than the other gospel writers sticks more faithfully to the Jewish messianic title Son of Man.

The New Testament contains four Jesus origin stories. They differ markedly. From the birth stories of Matthew and Luke to Mark’s baptism story and John’s cosmic story of pre-existence. Even when the same story is being told as in the case of Matthew and Luke’s birth stories, each writer gives it their own characteristic spin.

Likewise, we tell our own individual stories differently influenced by time and context. We can emphasis our identity through birth, and for some – such as members of dynastic families, privileged classes or elites, the birth story is the primary source bestowing identity. Yet for most of us identity is shaped less by birth and more by adoption. We become ourselves through multiple experiences of adoption; each adoption experience shaping the persons we have been destined to become.

The human Jesus at his baptism is adopted by God as the divine son. The story of this event conjures images of a dramatic tearing open of the heavens as the Holy Spirit – the divine breath of God breathes into Jesus – loudly proclaiming his sonship – an action that echoes image given us in the first reading from Genesis where the wind-breath of God swept over the face of the waters.

The story of the Constitution is the foundational story of our nation. The baptism of Jesus is in a very special way our foundational story as Christians. As he was adopted by baptism into his inheritance as the divine son, so through him we too have been adopted by baptism as daughters and sons of God. As God chose and embraced Jesus, so through our baptism God chooses and embraces us as divine children. And like Jesus, we bring God pleasure. As the breath of God enters into us, we become renewed and empowered as Jesus was – to fulfil the purpose God calls us to.

There are times, as this past week has revealed to us, when the outcome of competing and at times clashing stories within us can be a close-run thing.

Stories articulate the core themes of identity. This past week’s political drama represents the struggle over which story will we allow to define our identity as a nation – which story will we draw upon to tell us who we are. Through the story to which we give our ultimate allegiance, we rediscover and reconfirm that identity over and over again in response to new as well as some very old challenges. There are times, as this past week has revealed to us, when the outcome of competing and at times clashing stories within us can be a close-run thing.

A Christmas Story

The human mind is a story telling machine – constructing stories to explain our experience of the world. Religious faith is not – as so many believe – shaped by assertions of propositional truth -true/false, good /bad, light/dark – but by the power of story to communicate more imaginative and skillful ways of living. The Bible is full of such stories with the potential to be life enhancing or life constricting – depending on the way we receive and retell them in each new moment.

Larger stories reframe our own self-limiting stories. Faith-based stories challenge our awareness of pernicious cultural stories that lay claim on us, competing for our primary allegiance. Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from or no other ways to reframe the stories we have.

To the ordinary demands of 21st-century American life 2020 has added the unprecedented stresses of a full-blown global pandemic visited upon us in full medieval horror. On the cusp of 2020 turning into 2021, pandemic losses are urgently reshaping the stories we tell. Threats to the very environment that sustains us now means that there can be no justice that is not environmental justice.

Tonight, we hear the Christmas Story retold afresh in the context of 2020 – as a story of renewal that demands that our long-held certainties begin to give way to the fruitfulness of uncertainty – so that a new world can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

It’s Luke who tells the best story of the birth of Jesus. It’s Francis of Assisi who populates Luke’s story of the birth of the savior with the visual props of the traditional nativity play. We now can’t think of Christmas Eve without the mental images of a ruined stable lean-to, bestrewed with straw, with grazing sheep, lowing cattle, incredulous shepherd yokels, and an angel or two singing glory to God in the highest and peace among all people on earth.

Viewing the old master depictions of Luke’s nativity, haven’t you noticed that the idyllic foreground scene is set against a background of collapsing civilization and darkened sky. Glory to God in heaven is all well and good but the reign of peace on earth is not yet arrived. With the birth of Jesus, the story has begun but it’s ending is not yet in sight or as Sonny Kapoor, proprietor of the Most Exotic and Best Marigold Hotel proclaims it will be OK in the end and if things are not OK it’s because it’s not yet the end.

As 2020 draws towards its painful and still frightening end, it’s not the quaint details of the manger scene that communicate the meaning we yearn for.  Old stories with each retelling have the potential to become new stories. If the particular chemistry of the present moment is the key to the past remembered becoming the future reshaped – our question tonight is not so much what did Luke intend to convey – but what, do we hear in his story?

In 2020 we have all come to experience the frightening novelty of no longer knowing with any assurance where safety lies. Anxiety about who’s safe and who’s not – has forced us to view one another with increased suspicion as we retreat into social isolation. In 2020, so many more of us are experiencing a frightening sense of social and economic marginalization as our previously held certainties no longer feel so certain.

Yet with every action there is a reaction. Social isolation is countered by new virtual ways of bringing us together –ways that will leave a lasting legacy for facilitating social relationships into the future. Hated mutual suspicion of one another spurred by the age-old fear of contamination refocuses our attention on the interpersonal qualities of mercy, forgiveness, humility and compassion. Absence only makes the heart grow fonder. The threat of social collapse demands we relinquish old ways of working that will no longer serve us going forward – requiring that our long-held certainties give way to fruitful uncertainty – so that a new world can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

The enchanted magical realism of Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ birth among angels and shepherds may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, in 2020 we cannot miss the themes beneath the surface; themes of safety versus risk, between invulnerability and vulnerability, belonging and rejection, hope and fear.

So, on Christmas Eve in 2020 I believe in the power of Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus to change our lives. I believe in this story, not because I mistake it for a literal description of true events, but because to not believe in it impoverishes and limits me. My life is all the richer, my ability to weather the vicissitudes of fate strengthened, because I believe that the Creator has entered into the very structures of the creation to experience it as we do.

The universe has purpose and this story reveals how God is actively engaged in bringing that purpose to its fulfillment. Luke’s nativity story is a story we’ve heard before – but in the present context of 2020 it becomes a new story – speaking to us no longer of the past remembered but of future possibility emerging from the tensions of the present time. Tonight we hear the story as the jumping off point to reshaping a future inviting us to grow into our responsibilities as God’s agents – actively engaged in the continual in-breaking of an environmental justice embracing all forms of injustice – as a sign of the divine repair of a broken world.

The birth of Jesus is a story about the creator’s self-emptying into the creation – witnessing the endless power of God’s love to provide the creation with the energy for continual renewal. Hearing the Christmas Story retold afresh in the context of 2020 –requires that our long-held certainties begin to give way to discovering the fruitfulness of uncertainty – so that new worlds can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

Our Christian story is a drama in two acts. In the birth of Jesus God has inaugurated messianic age in which we live. Keeping act two – the final fulfillment of a new heaven and a new earth in mind – reorients us back to the work of the messianic age, i.e. the remaking of a broken world despite the frustrating fact that the in breaking of justice and peace is still in the process of moving towards its final completion.

What better than to end with a contemporary voice – the voice of the Irish mystic poet, the late John O’Donohue inviting us into a future reshaped:

May the stories we choose to live by – enliven us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, to break the dead shell of yesterdays, to risk being disturbed and changed, so to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here for and waste our hearts on fear no more.

Morning Offering

Encountering Mary’s Story

We now inch day-by-day towards Gods third great act of creation. Genesis offers us stories of the original act of creation when the Spirit of God hovered over the abyss and brought order to the hitherto undifferentiated universe – separating night from day, light from dark, sea from sky, and the emergence of solid ground on which God planted the seeds of all life. With the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the primordial garden we see the first shift in the way the creation will hence forth progress.

Genesis reports that things continue – going from bad to worse – until in the story of Noah and the Flood we God’s destruction of all but the sea and sky along with the solitary ark bearing the remnants of living life. This great eruption of divine anger is followed by an act of remorse. God grieves – it seems God has been hasty destroying the very thing he ha most loved. His profound remorse is symbolized for all eternity in the sign of the rainbow – a sign in God of of the triumph of love over rage.

The Christmas Carol It came upon a midnight clear speaks of an angelic song which opens the way for God’s third great action in the story of creation. The carol’s second verse speaks of angel-song as:

With peaceful wings unfurled,
their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

Yet beneath the unimaginable beauty of the angelic strain:

with woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

In God’s third great act in the creation, we find a 15-year-old girl sitting entranced by the words of a heavenly messenger– hail O highly favored one, the Lord is with you. Mary alone hears the angel-song. She lets the words enter deeply into her, slowly allowing them to arouse in her a deep curiosity. Her first words are the predictable how can this be?

On the surface of things, the angel’s greeting makes little sense to her.

Mary’s world is far from secure. A 15-year-old peasant girl occupies a vulnerable place within a world that is consistently harsh and often cruel. A world in which for a young woman there can be little hope of escape from the endless round of servitude and labor. So how can this be?

Yet, there is curiosity in her question. I often comment that curiosity is one of the essentials in the pursuit of a spiritual life. There is a wonder in curiosity in the way it opens the curious to new and undreamt-of possibilities. Curiosity precedes hope – hope the whispering of longing to be translated into action in the present-time.

And so, Mary sits in silence. Gabriel, the angel with unfurled wings hovers soundlessly with a deafening soundlessness that penetrates every cell of Mary’s body – every fiber of her being. Together their silence brings all of creation to a stand-still – like the pause between two breaths. Mary sits, Gabriel hovers patiently, and God – the Creator of heaven and earth and all they contain – our God waits. For God must now wait upon Mary’s response.

Suddenly the waiting is over. From the depth of her being Mary whispers her yes – a simple yes – her word of agreement that will change forever the course of creation.

In the words of the carol through Mary’s yes the creation (the whole world) finally gives back the song which the angels sing.

Despite the difference of time and context separating us from her, like Mary’s – our world is a far from easy or safe place. If nothing else, 2020 has brought this home for many of us who otherwise enjoyed the illusion of a degree of separation from the harsher realities of the world.  We struggle to hope – hope which ultimately requires us the whisper of a yes. But our question is not Mary’s but how can this be? Our question is more often yes, but yes to what? A conditional yes.

All we can know is that when we whisper our yes we, as Mary did, consent to enter into a partnership of covenant with God – giving ourselves over to God’s purpose for us.

In every moment of every day God addresses us as highly favored ones – asking for our willing consent to become those in or through whom the Word of God is born.

Our Advent waiting is over. Our confusion as to what or who we have been waiting for becomes clear. We are the ones God has been waiting for. Let it be to us according to the divine life-giving word.

 Fifteen years old –
 The flowers printed on her dress
 Cease moving in the middle of her prayer
 When God, Who sends the messenger,
 Meets His messenger in her Heart.
 Her answer, between breath and breath,
 Wrings from her innocence our Sacrament!
 In her {white} body God becomes our Bread.

 Annunciation by Thomas Merton 

Who are we waiting for? Sermon for Dec. 13, Advent 3 – from Mark+

Main text Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Advent is a time that refocuses our attention on the spiritual virtue of hope. Hope is the universal aspiration of the human heart. Regardless of differences in the imagined outcome -hope is a universal of the human spirit.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my fatalistic Irish grandmother’s sayings was don’t hope- never be disappointed. This saying captures that quality of risk inherent in hope. To hope is to risk wanting – and wanting raises the possibility of disappointment. But my grandmother’s expression, while it captures our fear of risk, it nonetheless misses the essential point about hope. Hope’s not primarily a picture of a longed-for future – realizable or not. Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.

Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.

You see, hope is not a future dream – although much of human hope is couched in this way. Hope is primarily an expectation for the present. Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment it’s a severe limitation on present time possibility.

We are the ones we have been waiting for is a saying the origin of which has multiple attributions. We are the ones we have been waiting for is however the title of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book about which Alice Walker has said:

We are the ones we have been waiting for because we live in an age in which we are able to see and understand our own predicament. With so much greater awareness than our ancestors – and with such capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy – we are uniquely prepared to create positive change within ourselves and our world.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for was also used by Barak Obama – not to indicate that he or his administration were necessarily the ones desperately awaited but that present generations of our society have the potential to really change American society’s direction of travel towards an – as yet – unrealized future.

Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment it’s a severe limitation on present time possibility.

Sustaining hope is a lifetime’s work. Advent invites us to refocus on this task of sustaining hope in a world that tends often – like my grandmother’s saying – to play up the risk of hope’s disappointment.

We can see the tension played out in the book of the Prophet Isaiah between hope as a longed-for future expectation and hope as the invitation to open to present time possibility. The book of Isaiah begins around 740 BCE when the figure known as First Isaiah begins to prophesy and ends in the mid 650’s BCE with the prophecies of Third Isaiah – The combined prophecies of First, Second, and Third Isaiah form the mainstay of Advent’s O.T. lessons. On Advent Sunday, picking up on Third Isaiah’s plaintiff cry: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, I posed the question: in Advent what are we waiting for, and why are we still waiting? I noted that the answer was too complex for one sermon and I promised to return to the question.

Third Isaiah’s cry: why God are you too long in fulfilling your promises – is certainly a complaint we can identify with. But the problem here lies in the nature of expectation. Third Isaiah’s complaint is an expectation of a God who dwells outside of human affairs and is required from time to time to swoop in to rescue us from our folly. Yet, in the book of Isaiah we find the earlier voice – that of First Isaiah, writing some 200 years prior to Third Isaiah anticipates God’s arrival not as an all-powerful – God who rescues us – but as Emmanu-El –literally, God is with us.

The implications of First Isaiah’s expectation of God as Emmanu-El  – is of a God who has come not to rescue us and take us out of the mess of our own creation, but as a God who enters into the mess of the world alongside us: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.

If our Advent hope causes us to raise our eyes heavenwards waiting for divine rescue – we will miss the object of Advent hope- that God is already here – among us – journeying alongside us in our travail.

At the heart of our Christian faith is the realization that in the birth of Jesus, the Creator, hitherto dwelling outside of creation – now enters to dwell within the tent of the creation. In the Incarnation God comes to be with us. However, the birth of Jesus is only the beginning.

Although not the gospel appointed for Advent 3, Luke’s chapter 4 show us the adult Jesus on entering the synagogue, reading First Isaiah’s words: the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. His audience’s familiarity with these words as future promise give way to astonishment and then to anger as he tells them that: today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. They react badly to being told to forget about the future, and open their eyes to see that things are really happening now. In Jesus, hope has come as the challenge for change in the present time and his first act inaugurating his ministry.

We are the ones we have been waiting for focuses our attention firmly on the present time in which hope is not a future dream but a present-time activity. Of course, there is a hidden irony here. Writing of Obama’s use of the phrase in the Atlantic Magazine, Andrew Sullivan wrote:

But I think some have missed a nuance. The phrase is actually a self-indictment as well as a self-congratulation. The point is surely that we shouldn't wait for someone else to save us, or lift us up, or fix our problems or address our fate.

What are we waiting for and why are we still waiting?  Maybe this is not the question after all.

The great 20th -century theologian Paul Tillich wrote:

the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait

On Advent 3 we arrive at a different question from the one I posed on Advent 1. What are we waiting for becomes who are we waiting for? Allowing for an appropriate sense of humility, if we are not to be the ones we have been waiting for – then who will be?

Stuck in the Clouds

A Sermon from for Advent 1

Advent is my favorite season. There is something about the shortening of the days as in the Northern Hemisphere the earth cycles away from the face of the sun, the weather cools, and the days shorten and darken. Within this natural process something is awakened in us – a kindling of light within us to compensate for the shortening and darkening of the days. This kindling of light finds symbolic expression in the candles of the Advent Wreath. Each of the four weeks of the Advent Season are represented by another lit candle. Despite the darkening and shortening of the days – the kindling of the light within is an anticipation for and an expression of the hopeful expectation – of a moving towards the greater light of the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore creation in a new heaven and a new earth.

Advent is my favorite season in the cycle of the Church’s year. The music is haunting, the rich purple or in some churches blue of the liturgical season chimes so perfectly with the outer world imbued with somber light. The atmosphere of expectation increases as each day we open another window in the Advent Calendar magnetized to the fridge door or pined to the wall.

Advent’s theme is one of hopeful expectation. Although our gaze focuses forwards our immediate experience is one of waiting – and while we wait – we prepare.

What is it we are waiting for – and why is it we are still waiting?

The focus of my exploration on this first Sunday of Advent is a question with two parts: what is it we are waiting for – and why is it we are still waiting? But before I respond to this question I need to note in 2020 our Advent experience will be changed in a time of the pandemic.

This Advent we will have to explore our experience of expectation, waiting and preparation without the supports of in-person worship. For us, this year, the kindling of inner light as each Sunday another candle is lit on the Advent Wreath, along with hearing the haunting melodies of the Advent music against the background of the somber purple of the Church’s vestments and hangings – will be a virtual experience.

We are more equipped for this than we might think. Many aspects of our lives are now conducted from the terminals of our computers, or viewed as our Advent worship will be – through the media of live and recorded streaming through your YouTube app on your TV. We human beings are social creatures and of-course we badly miss the social gathering aspects of worship. At St Martin’s we have been fortunate enough to have been able to prepare for this eventuality over the spring and summer months through equipping the church for HD live streaming.

As part of the process of preparation Linda+ and I have also had time to reflect on the pandemic’s implications for the theology that underpins our Eucharistic liturgy. We have found our way to reclaiming an older strand of Eucharistic theology – one that stresses physical participation less than the importance of participation through our senses of sight and hearing. With each week we continue to learn from our experience in honing the performance of our liturgy to better fit a virtual experience.

On this Advent Sunday, I give thanks to God for his loving providence towards us at St Martin’s. For among the resources that have allowed us to prepare for the challenges of the winter ahead, we have been blessed to have among us the technical skills particularly of Ian Tulungen, David Brookhart, and Emma Marion – our technical production crew, who together with the adaptive skills of our musicians: Gabe Alfieri, Steve Young, Lori Istok, Amanda Neves, Jacob Chippo, and Glenn Zienowicz enable us to open our liturgy not only to our members viewing from home but to so many others who are drawn to worship with us online.

But I’ve avoided the two part question I posed earlier long enough: what is it we are waiting for – and why is it we are still waiting? The answer is too large and complex for one sermon and I trust that the essential elements of addressing the question will emerge over the next 3 Sundays.

In what should be a joyful experience of hopeful expectation ushering in a new Church year – why are we greeted by the doom and gloom of the readings appointed for today?

Our readings point to the experience of waiting for the fulfillment of a promise. When fulfillment is delayed we experience the anguish of frustrated longing, that overshadows the hope within us.

Writing in the time after the return of the exiles from the 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah – remember this Isaiah is the third by this name, laments that despite the exiles return and the hopes of a glorious restoration of the nation -the pallor of exile still hangs heavy over the people causing the prophet to cry out:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence. Is 64:1

In other words Isaiah cries out to God: why do you remain afar from us – up there in the heavens – aloof and distant – can’t you see the mess we are in – understand the help we need? This is a cry of accusation – why have you not yet rescued us?

In the midsts of an earth changing pandemic this ancient accusation finds a deep and anguished resonance in us.

The prophet’s cry alerts us to a central theological strand in Advent, one not often talked about – a strand which in better times is more easily avoided. At the heart of Advent is the painful experience of waiting. Waiting is the hardest thing we ever have to endure because waiting is an experience of helplessness.

In Advent we await what with the eye of faith we know to be the certainty of God’s promise of restoration of the world – a hopeful expectation that in fulfillment of the promise God will finally put the wrongs to rights. With the eye of faith we joyfully celebrate the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise. In the infant Jesus – God the Creator comes to dwell among us within the tent of the Creation.

But the problem for us lies in our experience of the nature of time. In God’s coming to dwell within the tent of humanity – divinity emptying into the life of Jesus, God opens a new and crucial chapter in the long story of Creation. But to our dismay the chapter is not yet complete as we groan with painful longing for its final completion – which the scriptures talk of as a second coming or return.

The third Isaiah’s question – after all this time – and despite the Advent of the Incarnation -remains our painful question too. When – when O God, will you tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains will quake and the nations tremble at your presence? For Christians this question becomes: when O God will Jesus return clothed in the vibrant metaphor of descending clouds of glory?

When indeed? Jesus himself seems to offer little comfort when in Mark he reaffirms the enigma of time. He tells us that we will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds – but about that day or hour no one knows – so keep awake.

What does it look like to keep awake? We will have to return to this next time. So for now let’s simply say, Amen.

Liturgy of the Word for the Kingship of Christ, the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 22, 2020

If you are not a regular St. Martin’s supporter we invite you to

DONATE HERE

Thank you for supporting our ministry during this period of physical distancing.

A note about the structure of this webpage:

This page is set up to enable you to participate in the Liturgy of The Word, during which you will hear the sermon in its natural liturgical context; or you can scroll down the page to hear the stand-alone sermon webcast accompanied by the written text.

You can also view our eucharistic worship and other recordings on our YouTube channel by clicking here.


Order of Service for the Liturgy of the Word

Liturgy of the Word

The Liturgy of the Word begins on page 355 of the Book of Common Prayer or online Eucharist Rt II here. Podcasts produced by Christian Tulungen.

The Prelude: Prelude in G Major, BWV 541a, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750),Steven Young, organ

Welcome: The Rev’d Mark Sutherland, Rector

The Introit: Introit by Iain Quinn (b. 1983), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Greeting: Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and for ever.

Hymn 377 “All people that on earth do dwell” (vv. 1, 5), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

 1 All people that on earth do dwell,
sing to the Lord with cheerful voice:
him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell,
come ye before him and rejoice.


5 To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
the God whom heaven and earth adore,
from men and from the angel host
be praise and glory evermore.

Collect for Purity

The Gloria S 280, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The First Reading: Ezekial 34:11-16, 20-24, read by Melinda DelCioppio

Psalm 100, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

Refrain: Come before God's presence with a song.

1 Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands;
  serve the LORD with gladness
  and come before his presence with a song.
2 Know this: The LORD himself is God;
  he himself has made us, and we are his;
  we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
3 Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise;
  give thanks to him and call upon his Name.
4 For the LORD is good;
his mercy is everlasting;
  and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

Refrain

The Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23, read by Melinda DelCioppio

Hymn 391 “Before the Lord’s eternal throne” (v. 1), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

 1 Before the Lord's eternal throne,
ye nations, bow with sacred joy;
know that the Lord is God alone,
he can create, and he destroy.

The Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46, proclaimed by Linda+

Hymn 391 (v. 5)

 5 Wide as the world is thy command,
vast as eternity thy love;
firm as a rock thy truth must stand
when rolling years shall cease to move.

The Sermon: Mark+  A stand-alone sermon recording and full text also appear below on this page.

The Nicene Creed: We recite together. Please note italicized inclusive language changes.

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
        he came down from heaven:
    by the power of the Holy Spirit
        he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
        and was made human.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
        he suffered death and was buried.
        On the third day he rose again
            in accordance with the Scriptures;
        he ascended into heaven
            and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, God, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified
    and has spoken through the Prophets.

    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
        and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Anthem: “Let All Things Now Living” arr. by Katherine K. Davis (1892-1980), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Prayers of the People, led by Linda+

The Lord’s Prayer, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, 
we your unworthy servants
give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable
love in the redemption of the world
by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace,
and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such
an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts
we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you in
holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

The Peace

Hymn 450, “All hail the power of Jesus’ Name!” (vv. 1, 6), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

1 All hail the power of Jesus' Name!
Let angels prostrate fall;
bring forth the royal diadem,
and crown him Lord of all!
bring forth the royal diadem,
and crown him Lord of all!


6 Let every kindred, every tribe,
on this terrestrial ball,
to him all majesty ascribe,
and crown him Lord of all!
to him all majesty ascribe,
and crown him Lord of all!

The Final Blessing

The Postlude:  Nun danket alle Gott (from Op. 65) by Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933), Steven Young, organ

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #M-400498. All rights reserved.

Stand Alone Sermon

Kingship as Service

On this Kingship of Christ Sunday my thoughts are wide ranging, for today being Christ the King is also the last Sunday in the current Church year as well as being Ingathering at St Martin’s.

It is so hard not to be consumed by an obsessive devouring of bad news for the sorry state of the world, esp. the natural world, the turmoil in the Republic, and the many more local issues that demand attention. Besieged by worry my mind turns to these words:

 And we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.

So, run the words of the General Thanksgiving, that ancient and venerable prayer which concludes the offices of morning and evening prayer. In similar vein my mind turns to our recent Opening Our Doors to the Future  case statement:

Like our namesake Martin, St. Martin’s is devoted to outreach, which it could be said, is the true passion of the church. Our outreach mission is to provide support to the neediest populations in Providence—where we can make the greatest impact and a real difference in people’s lives. Helping women, children, the homeless, released prisoners, asylum seekers, and struggling arts organizations are central to our mission of giving to smaller organizations that may not have large fundraising initiatives. From providing space in our building at no cost or reduced rates to the work beyond our walls, we strive to make a difference in the world.

Put more concisely Opening Our Doors to the Future brings to life the words from the General Thanksgiving: defining that which Paul refers to in his letter to the Ephesians:  the hope to which God is calling us and in so doing – drawing their essence from words of Jesus proclaimed in today’s gospel from Matthew about the sheep and the goats.

Sunday, November 22nd, 2020 finds us navigating the convergence of numerous eddies and currents in the busy life of our St Martin’s community. This past year has been a year of heavy lifting as we have worked tirelessly for the success of Opening Our Doors to the Future. Today, on Ingathering this campaign concludes alongside the yearly annual renewal campaign and it’s been challenging to hold in our minds the tension of twin financial commitment urgencies.

We give thanks that Opening Our Doors to the Future is not simply fruitful in having reached the goal we set ourselves, but more importantly it is a reflection of so much more than just a dollar amount. Our accomplishment is an expression of our members active participation in the spirit of the words of the General Thanksgiving that:

with truly thankful hearts we may show forth God’s praise,
not only with our lips but in our lives
.

This achievement during a time of national and international anxieties of monumental proportions is the fruit of the unstinting generosity of our members and our faith in a future in which the rich legacy past generations bequeathed to us. will continue for future generations.

Ingathering is the name we give to that point in time when we ask all our members to recommit themselves to financially supporting our community for another year. Having so generously supported the capital campaign – it’s hard to bring our focus down to the more immediate, year-on-year needs of the community. Today is the day we asked all of us to have made our recommitment to another year in our community’s life – commitment flowing from an experience of gratitude not simply for all being a part of the St Martin’s community brings us, but gratitude also for what being part of the St Martin’s community enables us together to do what none of us could manage alone.

Compared to previous years at this point, we are lagging a little behind – having received only half of our expected pledges for 2021. Can I urge you please if you have not done so already to return your pledge information because without it attempting to budget for the coming year is akin to shooting in the dark.

I began with a reference to today being the Kingship of Christ Sunday – the last Sunday after Pentecost – bringing to an end this past Church Year. Next week on Advent Sunday we begin a new yearly cycle with the joyful prospect of leaving Matthew behind and returning to Mark for the weekly gospel reflections on the life of Jesus. Yet, we leave Matthew with his parable about the sheep and goats in which Jesus proclaims the heart of our apostolic calling I referred to earlier as a community of Christians:

For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me,  I was sick and you looked after me,  I was in prison and you came to visit me.

These words remind us that the kingship of Christ is not a kingship as in the exercise of imperial power, but a kingship exercised through service.

The opening lines of today’s New Testament lesson from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians express for me all that I feel so deeply thankful for as rector in this wonderful Christian community:

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you.

Moving into a new Church Year, a year that promises both daunting challenges and exciting opportunities, Linda+ and I are immeasurably thankful for the opportunity of serving as priests and pastors in this wonderful community of Christians. We are those who in Paul’s words from Ephesians 1:18:

with hearts enlightened are coming know the hope to which God is calling us.

Amen

 

Liturgy of the Word for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 15, 2020

If you are not a regular St. Martin’s supporter we invite you to

DONATE HERE

Thank you for supporting our ministry during this period of physical distancing.

A note about the structure of this webpage:

This page is set up to enable you to participate in the Liturgy of The Word, during which you will hear the sermon in its natural liturgical context; or you can scroll down the page to hear the stand-alone sermon webcast accompanied by the written text.

You can also view our return to eucharistic worship by clicking here.


Order of Service for the Liturgy of the Word

The Liturgy of the Word begins on page 355 of the Book of Common Prayer or online Eucharist Rt II here. Podcasts produced by Christian Tulungen.

The Prelude: Prelude & Andante from Sonata No. 1 in C Minor by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901), Steven Young, organ

Welcome: The Rev’d Mark Sutherland, Rector

The Introit: “Simple Gifts” (trad.), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Greeting: Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and for ever.

Hymn 574 “Before thy throne, O God” (vv. 1, 4), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

 1 Before thy throne, O God, we kneel:
 give us a conscience quick to feel,
 a ready mind to understand
 the meaning of thy chastening hand;
 whate'er the pain and shame may be,
 bring us, O Father, nearer thee.

 4 Let the fierce fires which burn and try,
 our inmost spirits purify:
 consume the ill; purge out the shame;
 O God, be with us in the flame;
 a newborn people may we rise,
 more pure, more true, more nobly wise. 

Collect for Purity

The Gloria S 280, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Collect of the Day:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The First Reading: Judges 4:1-7, read by Beth Toolan

Psalm 123, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

Refrain: Our eyes look to the Lord our God, from whom we seek mercy.

1 To you I lift up my eyes,
     to you enthroned in the heavens.   
2 As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, 
     and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,   
3 So our eyes look to the LORD our God,
     until he show us his mercy.   
4 Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy,
     for we have had more than enough of contempt,   
5 Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich,
     and of the derision of the proud.       

Refrain

The Second Reading: 1 Thessalonian 5:1-11, read by Beth Toolan

Hymn 9 “Not here for high and holy things” (v. 1), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

 1 Not here for high and holy things
 we render thanks to thee,
 but for the common things of earth,
 the purple pageantry
 of dawning and of dying days,
 the splendor of the sea.  

The Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30, proclaimed by Mark+

Hymn 9 (v. 6)

 6 To give and give, and give again,
 what God hath given thee;
 to spend thyself nor count the cost;
 to serve right gloriously
 the God who gave all worlds that are,
 and all that are to be. 

The Sermon: Linda+  A stand-alone sermon recording and full text also appear below on this page.

The Nicene Creed: We recite together. Please note italicized inclusive language changes.

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
        he came down from heaven:
    by the power of the Holy Spirit
        he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
        and was made human.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
        he suffered death and was buried.
        On the third day he rose again
            in accordance with the Scriptures;
        he ascended into heaven
            and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, God, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified
        and has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
        and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Anthem: “Pie Jesu” by Andrew Lloyd Webber (b. 1948), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Prayers of the People, led by Mark+

The Lord’s Prayer, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, 
we your unworthy servants
give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable
love in the redemption of the world
by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace,
and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such
an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts
we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you in
holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

The Peace

Hymn 680, “O God, our help in ages past” (vv. 1, 6), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

1 O God, our help in ages past,
 our hope for years to come,
 our shelter from the stormy blast,
 and our eternal home.

6 O God, our help in ages past,
 our hope for years to come,
 be thou our guide while life shall last,
 and our eternal home. 

The Final Blessing

The Postlude:  Praise to the Lord, the Almighty by Franklin Ashdown (b. 1942), Steven Young, organ

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #M-400498. All rights reserved.


Stand-Alone Sermon Podcast:
St Edith’s Church, Bishop Wilton

Risk and Reward

The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

“ . . . to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.”

Today’s parable from Matthew involves what I call “stupid money”—a large quantity of cash. And when a parable begins with stupid money, you can pretty much bet that it isn’t really about the money. Earlier in his Gospel Matthew relates a parable of a servant who owed an enormous debt—10,000 talents, which is even stupider money. And of course that story wasn’t about the debt; it was about forgiveness. Similarly, today’s parable isn’t about smart investment strategies.

It’s about waiting.

We know a lot about waiting these days, whether it’s for election results or a COVID vaccine or the even larger issues of racial justice and world peace—we know what it is to wonder, “How long?” More important, though, is the question, “How do we wait?” How are we called to live in a time of waiting, especially when God can seem distant and silent?

The Parable of the Talents is part of a long discourse given by Jesus on the Mount of Olives, during which he describes the eschaton—the end of the world, and the coming of the Son of Man. The parables in this long passage are all about people who are awaiting an anticipated arrival of someone—of the owner, the bridegroom, the master, or the king. The folks who are waiting are all confronted with the rewards and consequences of how they have spent their time. Have they been working or carousing? Wise or foolish? Sheep or goats? Matthew has written with vivid urgency spilling over into harshness, threatening those who don’t measure up with outer darkness, eternal fire, or (his favorite) weeping and gnashing of teeth; imagery that has often outweighed the more meaningful lessons that these parables hold for us.

A man prepares to leave town for an indefinite, but presumably extended length of time.  He has a sum of money that he wants to distribute. The audience of this parable is to understand that it is a lot of money—a single talent is worth about 15 years’ wages. Matthew says that the man “entrusts” the money, so it is probably a significant amount to him as well. It’s not petty cash—it matters to him.

Christian ethicist Mark Douglas observes, “Perhaps, for Matthew, the God we face is the one we imagine.”

He looks at his three slaves and evaluates their ability to look after his money. What is he looking for? Trustworthiness? Intelligence? Cleverness? Regardless, he distributes a huge sum among the three: five talents, two talents, and finally, one talent. And then he leaves.  Gone. Incommunicado.

They are on their own.

The first two slaves get busy doubling their money. In order to do this with such a large amount they need to take an enormous amount of risk, but that doesn’t seem to faze them—they just do it. The risk for them is evidently worth the reward. The third slave, though, is chiefly concerned about the final reckoning of accounts. The Talmud says that taking any risk with a master’s resources is a bad idea, and advises burying the money in the ground. So the slave makes sure he doesn’t lose anything by refusing to risk anything. His reasoning for this isn’t just conservative risk aversion; he believes that his Master is harsh and selfish, and presumably not worthy of extra effort on his part. Interestingly, while he says that the Master is harsh and reaps where he does not sow, what we know is that the Master was actually outrageously generous in distributing his property with no expectation as to what should be done with it. So the slave’s resentment of the Master has led him to confuse fear with prudence.

Christian ethicist Mark Douglas observes, “Perhaps, for Matthew, the God we face is the one we imagine.”

Matthew’s community, like the slaves in the parable, were expectantly awaiting their Master’s return. And the feelings with which they anticipated that return were probably connected to how they were waiting, and what they actually believed they were waiting for. In Matthew’s world of religious persecution and suffering an apocalyptic worldview was common; the bad guys were bad, but God would have vengeance, and there would be a painful reckoning for the enemy. So it was best to be on the side of the good guys so as not to get caught up in God’s wrath at the long-anticipated end.

So, there was a choice to be made. What would it be?  The joy of the Master or outer darkness?

How did the slaves in the parable perceive the time of the Master’s absence? The first two “went off at once” and traded with their talents. They acted immediately, as though they had no time to waste, yet their actions looked toward a future reckoning with the one who would welcome them into the joy of their Master. But the third slave disregarded the opportunity of the interim time; taking neither risk nor gain, and simply awaiting a confrontation with his master.

Two embraced their talents, while the third buried his.

And the God they faced was the God they imagined.

Does it seem unfair of the Master to call the slave wicked and lazy? After all he actually preserved his Master’s wealth— every last denarius was protected, wasn’t it?

Yes, but.

That’s all very well and good if we’re talking about money. But we’re not. This is where the metaphor has gotten in the way of the point. We’re talking about waiting. We’re talking about living a life of taking risks—big risks to match generous gifts—in faithful and trusting expectation of a joyful reunion with the Master. To refuse the risk, to bury the gift and to be fearful of the giver is to choose self-imposed exile from the Divine banquet table.

So how shall we wait? How do we transform the world we currently face into the one that we can imagine?

One of the interesting rhetorical things I’ve noticed about this parable is the grouping of the characters. The third slave is separate from the first two; alone in his narrative of fear, resentment and paralysis. Whereas the first two slaves are alike in action, response and reward—they both embrace their talents and go right to work preparing to offer the fruit of their labor to the Master on his return.

One alone, and two together.

The most risky, creative and challenging work of realizing the Dream of God is done with the understanding that the work is never solitary, even though it sometimes feels that way. The beauty of Christian community is our mutual care and interdependence; that when despair looms and God seems distant and incommunicado, there is always an extra hand to help or shoulder to lean on. Always an extra prayer in the darkness until light returns.

Waiting for Jesus isn’t solitary, it isn’t passive, and it isn’t self-protective.  To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it’s about “living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future… Thinking and acting for the sake of coming generations, but being ready to go any day without fear and anxiety…”

So how shall we wait? How do we transform the world we currently face into the one that we can imagine?

Courageously, gratefully, faithfully, creatively…

…And together.

If you are not a regular St. Martin’s supporter, we invite you to

DONATE HERE.

Thank you for supporting our ministry during this period of physical distancing.

Liturgy of the Word for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost & the Commemoration of Martin, Bishop of Tours 397, November 8, 2020

If you are not a regular St. Martin’s supporter we invite you to

DONATE HERE

Thank you for supporting our ministry during this period of physical distancing.

A note about the structure of this webpage:

This page is set up to enable you to participate in the Liturgy of The Word, during which you will hear the sermon in its natural liturgical context; or you can scroll down the page to hear the stand-alone sermon webcast accompanied by the written text.

You can also view our return to eucharistic worship by clicking here.


Order of Service for the Liturgy of the Word

The Liturgy of the Word begins on page 355 of the Book of Common Prayer or online Eucharist Rt II here. Podcasts produced by Christian Tulungen.

The Prelude: Adagio from Toccata, adagio und fuge, BWV 564 by J. S. Bach (1685-1750), Steven Young, organ

Welcome: The Rev’d Mark Sutherland, Rector.

Read a biography of Martin, our patron, here.

The Introit: “Bread of the World in Mercy Broken,” att. Louis Bourgeois (1510?-1561?), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Greeting: Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and for ever.

Hymn 174 “At the Lamb’s high feast” (vv. 1, 4), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

 1 At the Lamb's high feast we sing
 praise to our victorious King,
 who hath washed us in the tide
 flowing from his pierced side;
 praise we him, whose love divine
 gives his sacred Blood for wine,
 gives his Body for the feast,
 Christ the victim, Christ the priest. 

 4 Easter triumph, Easter joy,
 these alone do sin destroy.
 From sin's power do thou set free
 souls newborn, O Lord, in thee.
 Hymns of glory, songs of praise,
 Father, unto thee we raise:
 risen Lord, all praise to thee
 with the Spirit ever be. 

Collect for Purity

The Gloria S 279, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Collect of the Day:

Lord God of hosts, you clothed your servant Martin the soldier with the spirit of sacrifice, and set him as a bishop in your Church to be a defender of the catholic faith: Give us grace to follow in his holy steps, that at the last we may be found clothed with righteousness in the dwellings of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The First Reading: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, read by Laura Bartsch

Psalm 78:1-7, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

Refrain: God gave them drink as from the great deep.

1 In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
     let me never be ashamed.   
2 In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; *
     incline your ear to me and save me.   
3 Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; *
     you are my crag and my stronghold.   
4 Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, *
     from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.   
5 For you are my hope, O LORD God, *
     my confidence since I was young.   
6 I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
     from my mother's womb you have been my strength; *
     my praise shall be always of you.   
7 I have become a portent to many; *
     but you are my refuge and my strength.

Refrain

The Second Reading: 1 Thessalonian 4:13-18, read by Laura Bartsch

Hymn 309 “O Food to pilgrims given” (v. 1), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

 1 O food to pilgrims given,
 O bread of life from heaven,
 O manna from on high!
 We hunger; Lord, supply us,
 nor thy delights deny us,
 whose hearts to thee draw nigh.  

The Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13, proclaimed by Linda+

Hymn 309 (v. 2)

 3 O Jesus, by thee bidden,
 we here adore thee, hidden
 in forms of bread and wine.
 Grant when the veil is risen,
 we may behold, in heaven,
 thy countenance divine. 

The Sermon: Mark+  A stand-alone sermon recording and full text also appear below on this page.

The Nicene Creed: We recite together. Please note italicized inclusive language changes.

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
        he came down from heaven:
    by the power of the Holy Spirit
        he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
        and was made human.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
        he suffered death and was buried.
        On the third day he rose again
            in accordance with the Scriptures;
        he ascended into heaven
            and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, God, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified
        and has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
        and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Anthem: “If Ye Love Me” by Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Prayers of the People, led by Linda+

The Lord’s Prayer, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, 
we your unworthy servants
give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable
love in the redemption of the world
by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace,
and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such
an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts
we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you in
holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

The Peace

Hymn 665, “All my hope on God is founded” (vv. 1, 5), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

1 All my hope on God is founded;
 he doth still my trust renew.
 Me through change and chance he guideth,
 only good and only true.
 God unknown,
 he alone
 calls my heart to be his own.

5 Still from earth to God eternal
 sacrifice of praise be done,
 high above all praises praising
 for the gift of Christ his Son.
 Christ doth call
 one and all:
 ye who follow shall not fall.

The Final Blessing

The Postlude:  Allegro giocoso from Sept Improvisations, Op.150 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Steven Young, organ

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #M-400498. All rights reserved.


Stand-Alone Sermon Podcast:
William Blake

Bridesmaids

Of the three synoptic gospels – so called because they follow a broad outline or synopsis of Jesus life – I like Matthew the least. Matthew’s depiction of Jesus lacks the accessible humanity of Mark’s presentation and comes nowhere near to the pastoral and social sensitivity of Luke’s portrayal. Matthew’s Jesus – modelled on the image of a new Moses is more elevated and detached – more guru like – a figure above the fray at whose feet the disciples gather to be inaugurated into the Kingdom of God.

The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids – a better translation of the Greek than virgin – is unique to Matthew and is one of his Parables of the Kingdom. Matthew’s parables of the kingdom all end with a warning – usually of severe punishment on those who are excluded or exclude themselves from the kingdom. Images of outer darkness with much wailing and gnashing of teeth abound. Themes of inclusion and exclusion form the heart of Matthew’s Parables of the Kingdom.  Themes of inclusion and exclusion articulate the central struggle for Matthew’s community of Jewish followers of Jesus, now excluded from mainstream of Jewish religious life.

Furthermore, the tones of harsh punishment for those excluded – echo the fierce and judgmental Christianity characteristic of so much white, rightwing, evangelical messaging. For this reason alone, Mathew’s message of judgement often jars upon my contemporary, progressive, Christian ear.

At the end of the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids Matthew sternly warns: Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour”. This is a somewhat daunting demand and can only feed our American cultural preoccupation with self-sufficiency.

Of course, no one knows what the future will hold. We develop a tendency to anticipate events based on what we already know about life. Sometimes experience is an accurate guide, yet, often it’s misleading. Facing the uncertainties of the future armed only with a partial recollection of past experience, makes us even more anxious.

We alleviate our anxiety with the illusion of being prepared, and consequently we live a good portion of our lives caught up in a process of attempting to anticipate all eventualities – of perpetual and neurotic wakefulness.  No wonder many of us no longer sleep well.

The problem with anticipation of an assumed dangerous future is that it encourages risk aversion in life. Life lived too safely, is a very unsatisfying experience!

In our society we reserve our harshest judgments for those who fail the – be prepared – test. How easily the phrases: well it’s his own fault, or she has no one to blame but herself, or its time they really took responsibility for themselves, trip lightly off our tongues. In fact, one of my favorite comments to friends of either gender is: oh, what a foolish virgin you’ve been!

I detect in Matthew’s parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids three themes that disturb me a lot.

  • The first is the stereotypical treatment of women. There would have been quite a number of wedding guests – men as well as women – so why does Matthew focus his treatment on a group of women? He seems to be playing upon the stereotyping of women into two groups – the wise and the foolish; echoing the patriarchal image of women as either virtuous virgins and chaste matrons or wantons and whores.

Motifs of virtue and shame are woven throughout this parable. We are not strangers to this kind of denigration of women -which today is a prevalent theme underpinning conservative (mostly male) hostility to women owning control of their own bodies as compared with so called virtuous women who accept male expectations for both the control as well as the exploitation of their sexuality.

  • Secondly, I’m disturbed by the picture Matthew paints of the relationship between the so called wise and foolish women. We see a group of women who do not share any sense of solidarity or a commitment to support and aid one another. Instead the wise bridesmaids exalt in the superiority of their preparedness, gloating over their sisters for their so-called foolishness in being unprepared – echoing our oft used judgment of others – well they’ve only got themselves to blame.

We catch a glimpse here of the gendered nature of traditional Middle Eastern wedding celebrations. In its gender bias this parable lets men off easily – as if  this parable could never describe a group of groomsmen – who being men would probably not have been left waiting outside for the bride groom’s return because wherever the groom had been – they would have been there partying along with him.

  • Thirdly, this parable reinforces our prevalent scarcity worldview. The lamp oil is a symbol for scarcity – there is only so much of it to go around.  In a culture of scarcity, you keep what you have by not sharing it with others. Within a worldview that sees resources as limited, the pie is only so big – people of necessity are divided into the haves and the have-nots. At St Martin’s like the wise bridesmaids there is no mistaking that we are among the haves when the world is viewed from the perspective of scarcity.

This year’s capital campaign, along with the final weeks of our annual renewal campaign are reminders the importance of our solidarity with and generosity towards each other.

Unlike the bridesmaids we discover again and again that only when our giving flows generously from our commitment to one another in community do we encounter the depths of our gratitude for God’s gracious providential love towards us.

A question remains, why did the so-called foolish bridesmaids panic? The bridegroom is clearly a metaphor for Christ, who is more likely to have rejoiced in their having waited for his arrival. For me it’s their faithfulness in waiting for the bridegroom rather than their self-sufficiency in oil that would commend them to Jesus. The reaction of these women to the bridegroom’s arrival has the whiff of shame about it. 

Matthew’s injunction to stay awake is an odd way to conclude. This isn’t a parable about staying awake – after all, they all fell asleep. His gripe is that they were unprepared and in this there is an aspersion of something shameful. What is their shame? It smells to me to be their failure to be self-sufficient. We all know that failure to be self-sufficient leaves us feeling foolish.

Whose problem (being prepared) is this? It’s clearly Matthew’s and it’s also ours, but it is definitely not Jesus’.

If you are not a regular St. Martin’s supporter, we invite you to

DONATE HERE.

Thank you for supporting our ministry during this period of physical distancing.

Liturgy of the Word for All Saints, November 1, 2020

If you are not a regular St. Martin’s supporter we invite you to

DONATE HERE

Thank you for supporting our ministry during this period of physical distancing.

A note about the structure of this webpage:

This page is set up to enable you to participate in the Liturgy of The Word, during which you will hear the sermon in its natural liturgical context; or you can scroll down the page to hear the stand-alone sermon webcast accompanied by the written text.

You can also view our return to eucharistic worship by clicking here.


Order of Service for the Liturgy of the Word

The Liturgy of the Word begins on page 355 of the Book of Common Prayer or online Eucharist Rt II here. Podcasts produced by Christian Tulungen.

The Prelude: Variations on “Sine Nomine” by Denis Bédard (b. 1950), Steven Young, organ

Welcome: The Rev’d Mark Sutherland, Rector

The Episcopal Office for Government Relations resources to meet the challenges of the election time.

The Introit: Introit by Iain Quinn (b. 1973), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Greeting: Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and for ever.

Hymn 48 “O day of radiant gladness” (vv. 1, 4), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

1 O day of radiant gladness, O day of joy and light,
 O balm of care and sadness, most beautiful, most bright;
 this day the high and lowly, through ages joined in tune,
 sing "Holy, holy, holy" to the great God Triune.

4 That light our hope sustaining, we walk the pilgrim way,
 at length our rest attaining, our endless Sabbath day.
 We sing to thee our praises, O Father, Spirit, Son;
 the Church her voice upraises to Thee, blest Three in One.

Collect for Purity

The Gloria S 278, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

The First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17, read by Melinda DelCioppio

Psalm 34:1-10, 22, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

1 I will bless the LORD at all times;
     his praise shall ever be in my mouth.   
2 I will glory in the LORD;
     let the humble hear and rejoice.   
3 Proclaim with me the greatness of the LORD;
     let us exalt his Name together.    
4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me
     and delivered me out of all my terror.   
5 Look upon him and be radiant,
     and let not your faces be ashamed.   
6 I called in my affliction and the LORD heard me
     and saved me from all my troubles.   
7 The angel of the LORD encompasses those who fear him,
     and he will deliver them.   
8 Taste and see that the LORD is good;
     happy are they who trust in him!   
9 Fear the LORD, you that are his saints,
     for those who fear him lack nothing.   
10 The young lions lack and suffer hunger,
     but those who seek the LORD lack nothing that is good.
22 The LORD ransoms the life of his servants,
     and none will be punished who trust in him.

The Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3, read by David Whitman

Hymn 302 “Father, we thank thee” (v. 1), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

1 Father, we thank Thee who hast planted
 Thy holy Name within our hearts.
 Knowledge and faith and life immortal
 Jesus Thy Son to us imparts.
 Thou, Lord, didst make all for Thy pleasure,
 didst give man food for all his days,
 giving in Christ the Bread eternal;
 Thine is the pow'r, be Thine the praise.

The Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12, proclaimed by Mark+

Hymn 302 (v. 2)

2 Watch o'er Thy church, O Lord, in mercy,
 save it from evil, guard it still.
 Perfect it in Thy love, unite it,
 cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
 As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
 was in this broken bread made one,
 so from all lands Thy church be gathered
 into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.

The Sermon: Linda+  A stand-alone sermon recording and full text also appear below on this page.

The Nicene Creed: We recite together. Please note italicized inclusive language changes.

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
        he came down from heaven:
    by the power of the Holy Spirit
        he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
        and was made human.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
        he suffered death and was buried.
        On the third day he rose again
            in accordance with the Scriptures;
        he ascended into heaven
            and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, God, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified
        and has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
        and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Anthem: “Praised Be the Lord” by Maurice Greene (1695-1755), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The Prayers of the People: led by Mark+

The Lord’s Prayer, The St. Martin Chapel Consort

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, 
we your unworthy servants
give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable
love in the redemption of the world
by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace,
and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such
an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts
we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you in
holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

The Peace

Hymn 343, “Shepherd of souls” (vv. 1, 4), The St. Martin Chapel Consort

1 Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless
 thy chosen pilgrim flock
 with manna in the wilderness,
 with water from the rock.

4 Lord, sup with us in love divine,
 thy Body and thy Blood,
 that living bread, that heavenly wine,
 be our immortal food.

The Final Blessing

The Postlude:  Toccata (Toccata, Villancico y Fuga) by Alberto Ginastera (1916-83), Steven Young, organ

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #M-400498. All rights reserved.


Stand-Alone Sermon Podcast:

Blessed Saints

Fra Angelico: Fiesole Altarpiece, Convent of San Domenico

The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

Blessed are the Saints!

The sentimental (some would argue sappy) hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” reminds us that we are surrounded by saints; the Big S Saints who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew, and for the little s saints who we meet every day in church or in trains or in shops or at tea. During the three-day observances of All Hallows, All Saints and All Souls the Church celebrates the bond between those in heaven and those on earth—the deep bond of fellowship that unites all of the children of God, past and present.

Today is a big deal.

All Saints is one of the seven (yes, seven!) Principal Feasts of the Church. A Principal Feast is a special observance that takes priority over any other festival or commemoration. It’s like a super-charged Sabbath, when we lay aside our work and our day-to-day concerns and just stop for a time of worship and praise. The other stuff will still be there tomorrow, but for today we celebrate.

What are the seven (yes, seven!) Principal Feasts? Christmas and Easter are the obvious ones, but of equal value in the eyes of the Church are Epiphany, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity– and All Saints.

What strikes me about these feasts, in contrast with most of the other observances in the Church Year, is that Principal Feasts are celebrations of relationship. Think about it; you can see the relationship between God and Humanity in the Incarnation, the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and Epiphany. The coequal relationship of God within Godself is celebrated uniquely in the Feast of the Trinity. The relationship between things earthly and things heavenly is seen at All Saints. We can argue about which feasts celebrate which kinds of relationships because there are fine distinctions and overlap in virtually all of them, but the point is that Principal Feasts are all about interweaving, engaging, and interrelating; and these are all things that define God and community.

At All Saints our community honors the relationship between life and death; indeed All Saints calls us to erase the boundary between the two entirely.

A colleague told me recently that someone had asked, “Why do we pray for the dead?” And he responded, “They’re not dead!” Which was a brilliant response, because, whether we think about it on a day to day level or not, that is what we, as Christians, believe.

Our journey is not from birth to death but from life to life.

“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Our journey is not from birth to death but from life to life; returning at the end to the God who loved us into being, and taking our place in the great cloud of witnesses that upholds, supports, and sustains us on our earthly walk.

What does that support and sustenance look like, and what does that mean for us now, as children of God in a chaotic world? There are different perspectives, which aren’t mutually exclusive, and often depend on the religious tradition in which we’ve have been rooted. For example there are those whose relationship with the saints is one of connection; they take deep comfort in the solidarity and witness of those who served, suffered and died in the faith—those, known and unknown, who knew the joy and cost of following Jesus. They feel a sense of communion with someone with whose joys and struggles they identify.

Others see the saints, especially the Big S Saints, as those who intercede for us when we pray to them. But praying to saints is a misnomer, and it has been the source of misunderstanding since the Reformation. We don’t pray to saints so much as we pray with them. Theologian Patricia Sullivan notes that the idea of praying to a saint for intercession can sound as though God needs to be persuaded or instructed to do what God already knows we need. This misinterpretation builds saints up at the expense of God, which is something the early reformers feared and opposed. Rather, Sullivan says, “When we ask a saint to intercede for us, what is happening at a deeper level is that we are taking refuge in the all-enfolding community of the redeemed, approaching God thru [sic] saintly symbols of Christ’s victory and of our hope…The value of our petitions is that they turn us in confidence toward the God who loves us, allowing God’s work to be more effective in us, and thru [sic] us in others.”

In other words, praying with the saints doesn’t turn God toward us; it turns us towards God. It opens our hearts to God’s work in us, and thus to God working through us as we do the healing work we are called to do in the world.

So no matter how we choose to connect or engage with the great Cloud of Witnesses, on this Feast of All Saints we are invited to acknowledge both the saints’ hold on us, and their call to us.

Blessed are the Saints!

Blessed.

In other words, praying with the saints doesn’t turn God toward us; it turns us toward God.

In today’s Gospel Jesus calls our attention to saints among us; hidden in plain sight.

He told his disciples, blessed are the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, the strivers for justice, the merciful, the compassionate, the peacemakers. Blessed are those who know the high cost of discipleship and keep paying it anyway.

Jesus saw saints everywhere. He saw a continuum of saintliness as it reached from earthly suffering to heavenly reward. He saw blessedness in the struggle and holiness in the vulnerable. And he called his disciples into his Kingdom vision, addressing them directly: Blessed are you when your ministry is reviled and persecuted, because you, believe it or not, are saints.

“Blessed are you, you saints.”

A couple of years ago Nathan LeRud of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon updated the Beatitudes for our time. This is part of it:

“Blessed are you when you are depressed and anxious…

Blessed are you who are messed up and scared and vulnerable…

Blessed are you for whom loss, death is not an abstraction…

Blessed are you who are afraid for your kids…

Blessed are you who long to see justice, and blessed are you who have ceased giving a damn…

And blessed are you who have the courage to say “I am not okay,” for you will inherit the earth.

Blessed are you when people call you saints, and blessed are you when they call you things that I can’t even repeat.

Blessed are you when you show up to the glorious mess that is your life, for you are God’s saints, and to you belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed, this day, are the Saints we revere, the Saints with whom we pray, the saints we mourn. Blessed are the saints among us, and the saints within us. Amen.

If you are not a regular St. Martin’s supporter, we invite you to

DONATE HERE.

Thank you for supporting our ministry during this period of physical distancing.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑