Sunday, November 11, 2012

November 11, 2012 - Proper 27B

*Please note that the first reading was taken  from the previous Sunday (Ruth 1:1-18, Proper 26B) in which we used the All Saints' Day readings in place of the lessons assigned for that Sunday.

Almighty God, may you guide us to seek the Truth: come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might. Amen.
            The freedom to choose is a blessing, but over the past several months, choice has seemed more like a burden than anything. We’ve had billions of dollars spent trying to influence our choice, we heard the debates, and we made our choices- both as individuals and a nation. The one refrains I heard lead up to this past Tuesday was “I can’t wait for it to be over.” We’re exhausted from making choices. So I suspect that “just tell us the Good News preacher” might be your desire for this sermon. The issue is that there is still one more choice to make. There is one issue that was left off the ballot that is worthy of our consideration this morning.
            When we make choices, we often think that we’re exercising freedom. If you’re not free, then you can’t make a choice- or so goes the standard logic. But this morning we’ll wrestle with that assumption. Can you have your hands tied and yet remain free? I’d like to take a very rare opportunity to lift up two women as examples. It isn’t rare that women are deserving of being great examples of faith, but just rare that that we get stories told about them in a male-orientated Bible. Ruth and the widow in Mark will be our lens for exploring choice this morning.
            And I want to make it clear, I’m not lifting these women up on a pedestal, but rather am pointing to them as examples. There is a problem with calling people heroes or saints because it makes their actions and sacrifices seem unattainable. We often think of people such as Mother Teresa, inner-city teachers, or today on Veterans’ Day, wounded veterans as heroes to be honored. And while we should honor them and thank them for their service, there is a great danger in lifting them up too highly. Saints and soldiers accomplish courageous and amazing feats, but that does not mean we can’t follow in their footsteps.
The widow in Mark and Ruth, in the same way, should not be seen as being on a level that we’ll never get to. We do heroes a disservice when we name streets after them and enshrine them in stained glass as a way of domesticating them and protecting ourselves from being asked to make a similar choice. But their choice is our choice. Just because they accomplished something great does not mean that we are excused from greatness. Rather, they are examples of regular people who step out in faith. The best way to honor these heroes isn’t with words and statues, but it is to make their sacrifices worth something by continuing the work that they began. So with that in mind, the widow and Ruth are great examples of making a choice, but not in the way we might expect.
We’ll begin with Ruth. The book of Ruth is relatively short and would make for great Sunday afternoon reading if you’re interesting in reading a good story. Elimelech and Naomi have two sons and lived in Moab, and their two sons married two Moabite girls. This passage is often read at weddings because of the wonderful words that Ruth speaks to Naomi later in the passage. But it’s rather ironic that the story begins with the death of the three husbands; not sure that this reading bodes well for the husbands at weddings.
Anyway, the men all die. Naomi was a Jew and had heard that God had provided food in Israel, so she begins the long journey back to her native land. But she tells her daughters-in-law to return to their families in Moab. And Ruth and Orpah refuse to leave this woman who had become family to them. But Naomi insists that they leave her. Naomi knows it is a long journey, and she knows that as a widow, she will be dirt poor and unable to find much food when she returns home. We see this reality in our reading from Mark. That widow only had two coins to rub together. Naomi also knows that two foreign women will not fare very well in her hometown. She says “what, do you think I’m going to bear new sons for you to marry?”
And Ruth responds with the wonderful song, saying “where you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, your God my God. Where you die, I will die.” It seems that she has made a choice to stay with her mother-in-law. But how much of a choice was it? If she stayed in Moab, where there was a great famine, what chance did she have of surviving? She herself was a widow, so her prospects for remarriage or escaping poverty were slim to none. It doesn’t really work this way here, but in many cultures when you marry someone, you don’t just marry the individual, but the entire family. Ruth captures this sentiment when she says “your people will be my people.” The fact that her husband died didn’t change her relationship to Naomi; they were still kin.
So I’ll ask, what choice did Ruth really have? Could she have done anything other than remain dedicated to Naomi? My response is no; she had no choice. But you might say, “Robert, that’s ridiculous. She very much had a choice. Even if the choices were bad, she still had freedom. Look at Orpah, she clearly made a choice to not stay with Naomi and Ruth could have done the same.” And I would still respond that Ruth had no choice.
So why is Ruth worthy of being an example to us if she didn’t really make a choice but was forced into a decision? Ruth is an example to us not because she made a choice, but because she exercised a choice. Even if you don’t have a choice, as I am suggesting that Ruth did not, how you handle living that choice makes all the difference. What Ruth did to make her worthy of our emulation wasn’t her making a bold choice, but rather was her embracing the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is a wonderful word in Hebrew that, unfortunately, can’t easily be translated into English. It is defined in many ways such as “goodness,” “loving kindness,” “fidelity,” or “steadfast love.” Some scholars say that hesed is the most important word in the entire language of the Bible. In most instances, hesed is the primary word to describe God in the relationship to Israel. God loves Israel unconditionally and shows goodness towards the people.
One of the few places that we find the word hesed applied to a human in the book of Ruth when Naomi extols Ruth for showing hesed to her. Ruth is an example of faith, not for making a choice to live hesed, but rather in her exercising of that hesed. We are all called to love like God does. In our Baptismal Covenant, we are all called to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Embodying God’s unwavering and total love of hesed is something we all strive towards. It isn’t a choice anymore than choosing to be born is a choice. It is simply what we are created to be.
So even though Ruth didn’t make the choice to show hesed, since it was the only fitting thing to do, she still is a great example to us because she thrived in that hesed. Even though she had no choice, no real faithful option, other than loving and supporting her aging mother-in-law, she still exercised her choice, or lack thereof, beautifully.
So let’s now turn to the widow in Mark. We should not ignore the first half of this reading from Mark, as it sets the tone. Jesus begins by condemning the Temple structure that devours widows. The Temple has become a self-serving den of robbers where justice is not done. They do not practice what they preach. They have gotten too comfortable in their faith. So along comes this widow to put her offering into the Temple treasury. She comes and puts in her last two coins, making a choice to give it all. But was it really a choice?
You might say “okay Robert, I can get on board with the idea that Ruth only had one faithful option and it wasn’t really much of a choice. But this widow clearly had a choice. There was no gun to her head. In fact, the Temple was supposed to support widows, not the other way around; she didn’t have to give anything. And even if she did, giving half of what she had would have been more than enough. She obviously made a choice to give more. She had freedom, and she had a choice.” And again, I would contest that she had no choice, but like Ruth, she exercised her choice in a way deserving of our attention.
So this widow comes and gives, not out of her abundance, but out of her poverty. If you had two pennies, what good does it do you to keep one? What could this widow have realistically done with one, or even two, coins? It wouldn’t have bought her a house, wouldn’t have gotten her a meal. St. Chrysostom said about this widow that you can’t buy the Kingdom with money; and if you could, this widow wouldn’t get very much. But she clearly seems to be inheriting the Kingdom in her actions.
This widow was absolutely dirt poor, and in that culture, as a poor widow, and real no prospects for changing her life situation. There was no pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, no Medicare system to pay for her stay in a long-term nursing facility. She was totally dependent on the grace of God and the goodness of others. She depended on hesed. And hesed was the only choice she had in living her life.
I was talking recently with someone who works with the poor and homeless and he said the difference between the rich and the poor isn’t money, but choice. I could go out and give all of my possessions away today, but I have the intellectual and professional resources to get it all back within a few years through hard work. The poor don’t have that choice. The oppression systems that put them in poverty are designed to keep them there. The poor can’t choose to go out and get a job, to have people put away their racist and discriminatory points of view, or have the bank give a loan to someone with no credit history or stable income. They have no choice but to remain poor. And the widow had no choice.
But despite her lack of choice about being poor, she exercised hesed. Like Ruth, there really wasn’t an option other than hesed, but she still wore the garment of steadfast love with all the grace and beauty of a queen adorned with jewels and fancy clothes. Her life was made possible by the hesed of God, and the only fitting response, the only viable option, was for her to return this hesed. So she put the two coins in the treasury, not because she made a choice to do so, but because it was the only choice that she could live with.
In both of these examples of the widow and Ruth, their hesed defies explanation. There is no reasonable motivation for their actions other than being out of options. It is interesting that in these passages, the lowest of the low, the widow and the sojourner, those without the choice, are actually the ones with the greatest freedom. They are able to practice hesed like no one else. There are no boundaries or conditions for hesed. It isn’t just an attitude, but hesed is action. Their actions force us to consider our own motivations for action. What do our actions say about us? The text of Mark literally says that the widow gave her entire life. Where do you put your life?
Marriage is a good metaphor for this lack of choice. On your wedding day, regardless of how prepared you think you are and how well you know your future spouse, you have no idea what you’re getting into. I have a feeling that having a child will be a similar experience, and I’ll confirm that with you in a few weeks. But when we enter a relationship such as marriage, we commit to giving up choice. There are inevitabilities in marriage that we cannot be prepared for. Life circumstances change. People change and grow. But we stick it out. We don’t wake up each morning and decide to renew our wedding vows or put our rings on again. We live in hesed to each other, being reminded of God’s fidelity to us. Now, of course, in some sense I do have a choice in my marriage. I could do things that would be destructive to the marriage, but they don’t make sense to do so. They aren’t real options, I don’t have a choice. And in that lack of choice, there is a freedom beyond comparison.
We are free to not have to make millions of decisions each day. We don’t need to listen to debates or compare platforms. We don’t really have a choice in this. As Christians, we live in hesed. We are loved extravagantly by God, for no particular reason other than the fact that God loves us. And in turn, the only real choice is for us to abound in this love. The only fitting response is to love the Lord our God with all our soul, with all our heart, with all our might and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This lack of choice doesn’t take away our freedom, but rather gives us the freedom to actually take the road that set before us, following Jesus on the way.
So today, we give thanks for the examples of Ruth and the widow. They aren’t heroes to be enshrined in stained glass windows, but are faithful witnesses to be followed. Neither of them had much of a choice to act with steadfast love, with hesed. There was only one way forward for them, but yet they exercised this inevitable choice with grace that inspires us to do the same.
The Good News comes when you look up the name “Ruth” in the index of your Bible. There is one place, outside of the book of Ruth, where her name shows up, and it is in the beginning of Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus. Ruth, by her hesed, became the great-grandmother of King David, who was one of the ancestors of Jesus. We never know what sort of impact our hesed might have. Again, Ruth chose hesed not because she necessarily wanted to, but because it was the only right option. And in her hesed she participated in bringing the Kingdom to reality, in enabling the way of salvation to come to all people. When we give up the idol of choice and instead accept the way of God as the only way forward, we too can participate in the miracle of God’s salvation. And to be clear, the way of God is the way of extreme love, of hesed. I started this sermon by saying that we have one more choice to make. But maybe I was wrong; maybe taking the path of radical and transformative love is our only choice.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

November 4, 2012 - All Saints' Day B

Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant, we beseech thee, to thy whole Church in paradise and on earth, thy light and thy peace. Amen.
            Today, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’ Day. As you know, All Saints’ Day falls on November 1, but we move its celebration to the following Sunday so that we can fully commemorate this day. All Saints’ Day is one of the major feasts of the Church year, but it is often forgotten. Right there with Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, All Saints’ is one of the four holiest of holy days. It brings to mind questions about sainthood and what that means for our lives. November 2 is another feast day in the Church, and is All Souls’ Day. It is a day to remember and give thanks for the cloud of faithful witness who have preceded us in life and faith. With this feast, we consider the topic of death. So on this morning, let us consider the topics that these feasts days bring up: sainthood, fellowship, and death.
            We’ll start with sainthood. Each week, in the Creed, we affirm that “we believe in the communion of saints.” What does it mean to be a saint? There are several different ways to answer that question. In the Roman Catholic tradition, to be a saint means you are part of the small handful of saints to ever walk this earth. To be canonized you must have three confirmed miracles in your life. That’s a bit out of my reach. We might then understand sainthood as being one of the heroes of the faith- perhaps CS Lewis or Martin Luther King. But again, though most of us aspire to be remembered for our great acts of faith and courage, our legacies will probably be more humble than theirs.
            Perhaps sainthood is about virtuous living, such as keeping the commandments. But virtues are not things to accomplish. None of us are perfect, and if sainthood is about perfection, then I’m afraid not many of us will be remembered as saints. Instead, the view that I’d like to lift up this morning is the traditional Anglican view of sainthood. And in that understanding, we are all saints of the Church. You are a saint. The prayer book defines the communion of saints as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise.”
There is a book we use called Lesser Feasts and Fasts that outlines many of these saints who have days on which we remember their life and ministry. These are people like the martyr Perpetua, William Tyndale, and Charles Wesley. They also include a lot of people that live fairly ordinary lives that are made extraordinary by living for the Gospel. As one of our hymns today proclaims, “Saints lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will. Why shouldn’t we be one too?”
So if sainthood is understood as something that we all can take part in, who exactly is a saint? I think it’s important to realize that saints are people, not attributes. Unwavering faith and martyrdom are not saints, but rather people are saints. People are not perfect. The Church has lifted up as all kinds of people as saints- saints who were disciples of Jesus, saints who were single, saints who were divorced, saints who were poor, saints who were rich, and saints who did evil and then changed their life. Being a saint is about living a life that is open to the Holy Spirit. In Scripture, the word used for saint simply means set apart or holy. In our baptisms, we all have been set apart. When you were baptized, you were given a halo. When I look out at you all, I can see halos above your heads, because you are the saints of the Church.
This is a very important message- that sainthood is not just for a few; but rather sainthood is for the many. Some people wonder if we should baptize infants or practice “believers baptism.” Baptizing babies is a great reminder that we don’t earn our halos, they are given to us. We don’t have to earn our sainthood, we are saints. The question isn’t “do I deserve to be called a saint?” but rather “do I believe that I’m a saint?” Don’t strive for sainthood, you already have it, but how will you live your life as a saint? It isn’t a question of whether or not you have a halo, but how you wear it. When you look in the mirror, do you see a saint of the Church wearing a halo? Can you see the halos above the heads of your friends and neighbors, and even your enemies? We can treat people poorly and diminish their sainthood, or we can strive to build it up. We’re all in this together, that’s why we pray for the communion of saints.
So we now focus on the “communion” part of the communion of saints. We are reminded that sainthood is not something we do alone, but is part of a fellowship. There is a theological term known as “realized eschatology” that we would do well to consider here. Eschatology is a word that means “the end of the things,” so if it is realized, then it has already happened in some sense. This differs from those who practice a sort of anticipated eschatology, where they look forward to some apocalyptic event. Realized eschatology reads our passage from Revelation today not as talking about the end of the world, but rather as a reflection of what Jesus has accomplished and how we follow him.
In our reading from Revelation, the one sitting on the throne says “It is finished!” in the perfect tense, meaning that the action has already been accomplished; it has been realized. This vision of the new Jerusalem is not some promise for the future, but it is already a present reality. We enact it when we pray “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
Wearing a halo means that we work together in this reality of the realized eschatology. The metaphor of this passage reinforces this idea of fellowship. The passage says that “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The metaphor used for the new Jerusalem is marriage, a relationship. The new Jerusalem, the hope towards which we strive as saints, isn’t some place, but it is a fellowship. The text says “God will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” It is about fellowship.
We don’t strive to escape this world, but we work to transform it. It is worth pointing out that the text clearly says that the new Jerusalem comes down from Heaven, not that the world is destroyed and raptured up to Heaven. God comes to us, making all things new. The saints are those who do this work of transformation in the face of the persecution and death. The saints are those who are “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
One of the questions of theology that I am asked most often is “why do we pray for the dead, aren’t they all set in Heaven with Jesus?” It’s a good question. With this fuller and deeper understanding of the fellowship of all the saints, we realize that our journeys in faith don’t end once we die. We do not go to Heaven to sit around as a mindless drone that simply worships God around the throne. We go instead to participate more fully in the love and grace of God. We continue to do our works as the saints of the Church, building up the Kingdom. And so we pray for all the saints, the living and the dead. We pray for them because we love them, regardless which side of the grave they are on.
We also pray for them because their work is not finished. Think about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Consider Peter and Paul. These are saints of the Church, but their work, which is the completion of the prayer “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven” is not completed. They depend on us to finish their work. Without us, they are incomplete. Without future generations, we are incomplete. We need each other.
The best way I know how to describe this comes from an experience I had earlier this year in Israel. We were at a museum which had a very detailed model of ancient Jerusalem; it was about the size of our nave. Our instructor was showing us various building that Jesus would have known. At one point he used his laser pointer and pointed to some walls and a section of Jerusalem and said “ignore that wall and those buildings, those weren’t there during Jesus’ time.” It hit me, as we were looking at this model of Jerusalem, that this might be a way to understand the communion of saints.

We all live in the city of Jerusalem. We only know sections of it, and it changes throughout time. The people that lived in those sections that we were supposed to ignore were still citizens of the city. We all dwell in this mystical city of God, there are some walls that our current vision can’t see past, but all the saints dwell together. There is a wonderful quote about death that says “death is a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limits of our sight.” So we pray for the dead, and all of the saints, because we trust that we are citizens of the realized new Jerusalem, even if we aren’t able to peer through the walls and see them.
And this brings us to the final consideration this All Saints’ Day- death. Our culture has a very unhealthy and uncomfortable view of death. We fear death as some unknown force, we fear fading into oblivion, we see death as being unnatural. But as I’ve just mentioned, death is simply moving from one part of the new Jerusalem to another. Jesus’ interaction with Lazarus is helpful.
It reminds us of the proper place of grief when we encounter death. Jesus wept and “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Jesus experienced a tough loss, and he was grieved. Even if he knew that Lazarus simply had moved to a new zip code in the new Jerusalem, it meant that the nature of their relationship had changed. But he didn’t wallow in his grief. He didn’t let the death of his beloved friend define him.
Today is a day for us to remember those listed in our bulletins, our friends, family, and parishioners who have died in the last year. Today we remember those who have their names inscribed in our hearts. We grieve the loss of our physical relationship with them. We acknowledge the pain of loss, but we are invited to know that Jesus unbinds us and resurrects us, just as he did for Lazaurs.
One theologian suggests that, using the metaphor of childbirth, that faith is not an epidural, though people too often to try to use it as one. Phrases such as “this was part of God’s plan,” or “it’s wrong to be sad at death because it is joyous that they are with God,” or “the pain will go away with time” are not only wrong, but they are unhelpful. Faith is not an epidural, nor should it be. Faith instead is more similar to a midwife, who helps with the birthing of new life. There should be pain, and there should be Resurrection in our faith. Faith helps us to see that rich feast that is mentioned in our Isaiah passage.
As I’ve said before, what God gives us is maximum support with minimum protection. We will not be spared from death and grief in our lives, but we will be upheld by God and the fellowship of all the saints. We will be strengthened to have death bring about new life to us, as it happened to Lazarus. Jesus comes to Lazarus and says “Lazarus, come out!” God will come to us upon our deaths and call us by name, and will say to us, “come out!” Come out of the chains of death and grief, come dwell with me in the new Jerusalem that has been prepared for you. Come live with all the saints, past, present, and future.
Death is a tough subject, because it hurts to have loss. But we trust that though death hurts, it can be redeemed. Our funeral office begins “I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die.” So today as we remember our loved ones who have died, we grieve their loss, while still knowing that death will not have the final say; trusting that they dwell with God, just as we do.
May God bless us this All Saints’ Day, helping us to faithfully wear our halos and see the sainthood of all those whom we encounter. May God strengthen the bonds of our fellowship, that we might continue in the work of those saints who have come before us and leave a solid foundation for those who will seek to further build God’s Kingdom after us. And may God be the midwife in our deaths, helping us to bear the pain of grief and death so that new life might emerge in us. You are the saints of the Church. May God bless us as we live the words “For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” Amen.