Advent III, Year A – Isaiah 35:1-10
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
December 15, 2019
If you haven’t figured it out by now, at St. Mary’s, we are very intentional about observing the seasonal traditions of the church. For example, during Advent, we wear violet vestments and put up an Advent wreath. Most Episcopalians and other liturgical churches do all of that. But in typical St. Mary’s fashion, we lean into even the obscure customs that may have died out in many corners of the church. You may have noticed that Fr. Bob is wearing a chasuble that is a rather unique color. On the third Sunday of Advent, along with the fourth Sunday of Lent, the Church gives us a bit of reprieve from the penitential and self-reflective themes of the season and bids us to “Rejoice!” The color of the day is rose, or pink, rather than penitential violet, and we get to dust off the old pink chasuble that is faded and almost falling apart. Another tradition that has all but died out is the practice of preaching on the “four last things” on the four Sundays in Advent: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. These themes may seem odd in the weeks preceding Christmas, but the old topic for Advent III seemed like a natural fit for our first reading from the book of Isaiah.
At the time of this prophesy, the Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon and living as slaves to evil foreign overlords. They were desperate to be rescued and to finally go home. All hope was lost; families had been destroyed; pain and suffering abounded. Isaiah had a vision of a place where waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. Weak hands are strengthened, and feeble knees made firm. What he sees is a reversal of everything that’s wrong with creation. For the curse in Genesis chapter three because of human sin extends not only to humanity, but to all of creation. He sees a world in which the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The passage culminates in the homecoming of the Hebrew people via a highway called the Holy Way. This highway didn’t lead to Mount Sinai like the first Hebrew Exodus from Egypt; this highway led to Mount Zion, an important distinction for Isaiah, with Mount Sinai representing life under the Law and Mount Zion representing Jerusalem. The ransomed of the Lord shall enter Zion with singing, and obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. The heart of this prophetic vision is verse 4: “Say to the fearful of heart, “Be strong, do not fear!” Look, your God in vengeance shall come, God’s retribution shall come and rescue you.”
The text says that the unclean shall not travel on this highway, but Isaiah isn’t saying, “Clean up your act so that you are pure and clean and can properly travel on the Holy Way.” This prophetic vision is about God’s action in the world, not ours. The message is this: in the midst of your pain and suffering, despite your being away from home against your will, there is hope! God will come and rescue you and bring you home, but your home will not be as you remembered it. All will be right as it was before the sin of Adam and Even in the garden. The blind will see, the speechless sing, the lame will leap, waters will break forth in the desert. You will obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Friends, this promise given to the Hebrew people so long ago is a promise given to us today. Jay and I usually listen to NPR in the morning as we’re getting ready for work, but the other day, Jay said to me, “Can we please change our routine and listen to something else? I’m really tired of setting the tone for the day with such awfulness and anxiousness.” Many of you are suffering from physical or mental maladies, have trouble paying the bills, or are dreading another lonely Christmas separated from your loved ones either by miles or by death.
Like the Hebrews, we are waiting to be rescued. We long to go home to Mount Zion, a place that the author of the book of Hebrews calls “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” We long to go to heaven to be with God and our loved ones who have gone before.
During Advent, the Church reminds us that as we wait for that day, joy is just around the corner. For the One who will lead us to the highway that leads to Mount Zion is coming soon. The One who will redeem us from sin and death – the One who will give us joy and gladness and do away with all sorry and sighing is coming to save us. The One who strengthens the weak hands and makes firm the feeble knees will be with us very soon indeed right here at this altar, and in the manager at Christmas, and at the last day when all will be made whole. “Be strong, do not fear!” Look, your God in vengeance shall come, God’s retribution shall come and rescue you.”
 Though this is in the section generally referred to as First Isaiah, most scholars believe chapters 34-35 comprise a displaced section of Second Isaiah (generally chapters 40-55). David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 51.
 Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 734-735.
Proper 28, Year C – Luke 21:5-19
The Rev. Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Church
November 17, 2019
As the scene opens in today’s gospel reading, Jesus engages with his disciples as they talked about the beautiful Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the center of public life for the Hebrew people, in matters of religion, politics, and even commerce. The original structure was built in the mid-10th Century BC and was destroyed in 586 BC by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar who forcibly deported the bulk of the Jewish people into exile. Seventy years later, the Temple was rebuilt, and it was this reconstructed Temple that existed in Jesus’s time. It was beautiful and adorned with lavish stones and even gold.
Jesus proceeds to deliver the shocking news that the Temple will be destroyed. This immediately brought to mind the old stories that everyone knew of the destruction of the first Temple, and the misery and despair that their ancestors experienced when they were forced to be slaves for the Babylonians. Jesus’s words invoked fear.
The disciples respond by asking him when the destruction of the Temple will be, and he replies by warning them not to be led astray by others who come in His name. But then Jesus goes on to predict even more dire conditions: wars, insurrections, nations rising against nations and kingdom against kingdom, great earthquakes, and famines and plagues. Then, even more personally, he tells them that they will be persecuted, and that some of them will be put to death because of their allegiance to Him.
Doom and gloom. Fear. This evokes the kind of fear that you and I experience at various times throughout our lives. The kind of fear that arises when we lose our job, or a family member dies unexpectedly, or divorce shatters a family, or when we see people on the margins of our society being the object of hate and scorn.
After foretelling all of these horrible things that were to come, Jesus says, “this will give you an opportunity to testify.” In the midst of fear and conflict and division, we are given an opportunity to testify. The Church is given the opportunity to be the Church. To love our neighbors as ourselves, to care for the widow and the orphan, to feed the poor and tend to the sick, to love and embrace everyone, especially the most marginalized people in our society. In other words, when faced with fear and conflict and division, we are given the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in both word and deed.
Jesus ends his discourse with, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” In our baptismal liturgy, the candidate or the parents are asked, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” The response is, “I will, with God’s help.” This promise to persevere in resisting evil is a bold promise that should not made lightly. It is hard work. It’s much easier to succumb to fear, isolation and the selfish acts of sin than it is to persevere in prayer, and fellowship with one another, and in the breaking of the bread at Holy Communion. It’s much easier to succumb to fear than it is to do the hard work required to love God and to love our neighbors.
But Jesus said, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
It is interesting to note that St. Luke wrote his gospel around the year 85 AD, about 15 years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Meaning his readers would have heard this story as a reflection on something that had already happened rather than a prediction of future events. When the Romans sacked Jerusalem, they not only destroyed the Temple, but they killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jews, and ended up sending the budding Christian movement underground into persecution. The folks who heard this story were living in a hellish world, and these words gave them hope for a brighter future: “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”
When your life seems to be falling apart, when the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, when you are faced with doom and gloom, do not be afraid. Look to Jesus who endured the suffering and shame of crucifixion on a cross at the hands of sinners, so that you may persevere in your faith. For by your endurance you will gain your souls. Amen.
All Saints Day
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
November 3, 2019
In our first lesson, we hear the prophet Daniel recount a fantastical dream he had. Well, we heard the beginning of the dream in which four great beasts rise out of the sea. But then the lectionary skips 12 verses. In those verses, there are descriptions not only of the four beasts and their terrifying power, but ten horns arising from the fourth beast, with an eleventh horn with human eyes and a mouth speaking arrogantly. In response to this last beast with its mouthy eleventh horn, the Ancient One kills the beast and deprives the other three of their power. Then, “one like a human being” comes down from heaven on the clouds to reign on behalf of the Ancient One.
The lectionary then picks back up and we hear the heavenly attendant’s interpretation of the dream. The four beasts represent four kings or kingdoms, but in the end, the “holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom.”
Who are these holy ones?
The book of Daniel was likely written sometime in the 2nd Century BC during the reign of Greek Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, under whose rule the Hebrew people suffered persecution and martyrdom. Up to this point in Hebrew literature, the word we translate as “holy ones” was used exclusively for divine beings and angels, never human beings. The holy ones in this passage are granted dominion over the kingdom that had already been granted to “the one like a human being” in verse 13. Later in Daniel, this “one like a human being” is identified as Michael the Archangel, the head of God’s heavenly army. Thus, this story originally referred to the divine army gaining control over the cosmic forces of evil and chaos. However, “holy ones” was interpreted by the Jewish Rabbinic tradition as referring to the Jews who were persecuted by the Greek Emperor Antiochus, and then later, even more broadly, as a reference to righteous humans sanctified after death. These “holy ones” are wise and pious men and women, who will suffer persecution, be purified, and awake to everlasting life, where they will possess God’s kingdom.
A couple of centuries later, the early Christians began commemorating the anniversary of those who were martyred for the faith. As persecution became more widespread, the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each. And so, the Church appointed a common day for all the martyrs as early as 373 AD. A few centuries later, the feast was broadened to include all saints as well as martyrs.
We continue to celebrate all the saints on this day so many years later. The “holy ones” we remember today, like those in Daniel’s apocalyptic dream, are those who contended long for their Savior’s honor…those who appear like stars…who stand before God’s throne wearing a golden crown and praising loud their heavenly King, as we will sing in today’s closing hymn. In the New Testament, the word “saint” refers to all of the baptized, but from the very beginning, some Christians began to be recognized for their holiness and sanctity, and the word saint in English is now more closely associated with them. Today’s feast isn’t commemorating or remembering all Christians throughout time – that’s All Souls Day which is the day after All Saints Day. No, today, we celebrate the saints – the “holy ones” – who lived out a heroic faith that has been recognized by the wider Christian community over time.
These heroes of the faith encourage us to keep running with perseverance the race set before us. We don’t worship them in the way we worship God, but we certainly honor them for their holiness which sprang from the grace given to them by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Daniel was given a vision in his day when the empire that ruled over the Jewish people persecuted them to the point that they rebelled against the Emperor and ultimately prevailed, a rebellion we call the Maccabean Revolt. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple following this great victory. In fact, this dream can be seen as a dystopian story not unlike the Handmaid’s Tale or the Hunger Games. Like Daniel, we live in a time when the empires of the day exalt injustice and hatred, and pay little attention to the poor, the sick, and the needy. As in Daniel’s day, the beasts with terrifying power seem to rise up out of the sea, threatening to overcome us.
The feast of All Saints reminds us that that the divine army will ultimately win the battle against evil and chaos. But more importantly, on All Saints Day, we are spurred on to a greater holiness by those who, even when they were with us on earth, were not with us in reality, for their minds were focused on God. “They lived on earth as citizens of heaven. Having here no lasting city, they sought a heavenly one; having no earthly riches, they sought the riches of heaven. They were strangers and sojourners” here just as the Jews were under the rule of Antiochus. “Strangers to the world, their whole heart was absorbed in the things of heaven…They longed for the beauty of heaven, its mansions and dwellings, its choirs and hymns, its feasts and its eternal blessedness.” The saints, by God’s grace, sought after these things, and by God’s grace, they attained them. “Their striving was rewarded by admission to the heavenly bridal chamber. Because they labored, now they exult. Because they were not negligent, they now rejoice.”
Friends, let us give thanks to Almighty God for the lives of the saints, and spurred on by their heroic devotion to Jesus, let us “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
 Much of this paragraph is from Wendland, Kristin J. “Commentary on Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 by Kristin J. Wendland.” Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 Commentary. Working Preacher. Accessed November 2, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4271.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Pr., 2010), 223.
 Michael David. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version: with the Apocrypha: an Ecumenical Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1248.
 Much of this paragraph from Bartlett 223.
 The Hymnal 1982: According to the Use of the Episcopal Church (1985: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985), 286.
 The quotes in this paragraph are from a sermon by St. Anastasius of Sinai (d. sometime after 700 AD) as printed Maxwell E. Johnson, Benedictine Daily Prayer: a Short Breviary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 2184.
 Hebrews 12:1 (NRSV).
St. Francis Day
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
October 6, 2016
Click here for the audio recording of this sermon.
John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus at the beginning of Matthew chapter 11, which we heard part of today: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
It is no surprise that John sent them to ask this, for the great judgment he had announced hadn’t come about, the corrupt were still in power, and John was suffering in prison.
Jesus tells them to tell John what they had seen and heard: the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor receiving good news. While this isn’t the mighty judgement John had envisioned, these were surely signs that the kingdom of God was drawing near.
Fr. Sean and I just returned last night from a week in southern Arizona at a clergy conference entitled “At the Border of Holiness.” On the first day of the conference, we visited St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Nogales, Arizona just a few miles from the southern US border and heard three powerful presentations.
The first was from Mother Alison Lee, priest-in-charge at St. Andrews, who described the clinic that parish runs for children living in Mexico who cannot afford the specialized medical care they need. We heard about children with cleft palates healed by the loving volunteer services of the doctors, and kids whose vision is so bad that they can’t see more than three feet in front of them receiving glasses for the first time. We heard story after story of the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, and the poor receiving good news. What hope!
But then, the Anglican Bishop of Western Mexico detailed for us via a translator the stark reality of why people are risking their lives to flee Mexico to come to the United States. Listening to the murder rates, the stories of hidden graves filled with chopped up body parts, and those who were essentially enslaved by local oligarchs and drug traffickers was eye opening to me to say the least. Though I’d heard of folks dying trying to cross the border in the past, hearing all of this helped me to understand why people would risk death or imprisonment to make the dangerous trek to “our great country.”
After the presentations, we all loaded the bus and proceeded to the southern border. In typical form, I was alternating between chatting with my buddy sitting next to me and messing around with Facebook on my phone, so I wasn’t really paying attention to world around me. But then I looked up to the left and was completely overcome with emotion upon seeing a huge, imposing wall adorned with the type of round strands of razor wire you’d see at a prison. I’d seen such things on TV and online, but never in person, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of deep sadness and shame. Shame that this was the first thing that these desperate people see when arriving at our front door looking to escape misery and death.
One of the deacons from St. Andrews explained the history of how the wall came to be. The portion of the wall that runs between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico was built back in the 1990’s, though the razor wire has been added more recently. Until about a year ago, priests from both sides of the border would say Mass frequently next to the wall, and separated family members would gather on the other side. They would pass communion between the slats and also use the opportunity to hold hands with their loved ones. They would do this despite the risk of cutting themselves on the razor wire, but in the last year, metal mesh had been added to the lower part of the wall to prevent something as small as a communion host from being passed through. My sadness turned to anger, and my stomach turned upside down. I felt a sense of desperation wash over me and the hope that I’d encountered at the presentation about the medical clinic was nowhere to be found. My God, this is what we’ve become, I thought.
As John’s disciples said, “Jesus, are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” Lord, where are you in all of this? Why is there still so much suffering? How can you tolerate this sort of cruelty?
We then gathered on the north side of a makeshift altar facing the wall, and as Mother Alison began to celebrate Mass, which she offered for those who had died trying to cross the border, I began to see a glimpse of hope once again. For in the Eucharist, the love of God literally comes to earth. Love and compassion and peace breaks into our world, and the great border between God and man crashes down for a sweet moment and we are given a glimpse of the new heaven and the new earth. In the Eucharist, we are given hope – even a promise – that all will be made right and the world will be restored to how it was in the Garden of Eden before sin and suffering and death erected the borders that divide man from God and nation from nation.
After Mass, we milled around for a bit, most of us somewhat dazed and confused, processing all that was happening. As I was looking at the wall, it suddenly hit me that the razor wire was only on the US side. Prisons use razor wire to keep prisoners inside from escaping. It made me wonder if we, in our attempts to keep people out, had created a prison for ourselves and become those we thought we were avoiding: selfish people willing to go to any length to make things better for ourselves at the cost of those who are suffering the most. Filled with the hope given to me in the bread and the wine, I realized that I was angry. Angry mainly at myself for not doing enough to address this awful injustice.
Now, I hope you don’t hear this as a sermon about partisan politics. As I mentioned, the portion of the wall that we witnessed was built in the 1990’s, not recently. Political decisions from both sides of the aisle over many years have contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves today. And likewise, I hope you don’t expect me to have political answers on how we can fix all of this, because I don’t. But hear me, friends: the gospel of Jesus Christ is inherently political. Those who originally heard today’s gospel reading were suffering under religious oppression from the Pharisees on the one hand, and from persecution under the Roman imperial system on the other in which the ruling elite secure wealth, status, and power at the expense of the lowly. It was from unjust political systems like these that Jesus Christ came to set us free.
This is the context in which Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The Greek word “rest” in the New Testament functions as an image of salvation, of what will be when the world is finally ordered according to God’s purposes and made whole again as it was in the Garden. In promising us “rest,” Jesus promises abundant life under God’s reign in the new world that he is bringing.
Jesus also tell us to take his yoke upon us. The yoke was a symbol of burden bearing, oppression, and subjugation. Yokes were laid on the necks and shoulders of oxen when they were to pull something extremely heavy. What is the yoke Jesus offers? We might infer from the text that it is his teaching, his way of discipleship, which is not burdensome but life-giving. He invites the weary to learn from him, for he is not a tyrant who lords it over us, but is "gentle and humble in heart." His yoke is easy and his burden is light. To take his yoke upon oneself is to be yoked to the One in whom God's kingdom of justice, mercy, and compassion is breaking into this world, and to find the rest for which the soul longs.
In this great feast that we will celebrate in a moment, we will experience a foretaste of this heavenly rest that Jesus promises us. It doesn’t matter the emotions we feel, or whether the altar party gets all of the motions and choreography exactly right. In this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, the love of God will break into our world whether we like it or not, and we will see a glimpse of what the world will be like one day when all will be made right and every wall that divides us will crash to the ground. During the Eucharistic prayer, when we offer and present our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God, we will offer your burdens up to Jesus. And as you receive the host in your hands or on your tongue – when the blood of our Lord touches your lips – you will receive rest and refreshment for your weary soul.
But know that the rest you receive comes with a cost. Know that receiving our Lord’s body and blood means that you’re yoking yourself to the One who loves everyone unconditionally…to the One who gives the blind sight, makes the lame walk, cleanses the leper, raises the dead, and gives good news to the poor. Know that you’re committing to join with the Holy Spirit in helping the lowly, the outcast, the poor, even the children from Mexico who don’t have basic health care. Know that you’re committing yourselves to be heralds of God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and compassion.
Proper 19, Year C – Luke 15:1-10
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 15, 2019
When I was a kid, my music and television habits were heavily influenced by my parents. I grew up listening the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and the like. And I grew up watching movies like Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and Arthur, and TV series like Married with Children, and my favorite, Cheers. For those who are young enough not to have experienced this classic TV show, it’s about a bar in Boston called Cheers where folks gather to unwind and interact with friends. Its theme song is famous not only because of the catchy tune, but because it names a longing that every person has:
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.
That’s the kind of place Cheers was in this show. A place where people could be real and share food and drink with others, no matter their station in life. In today’s gospel reading, it’s not difficult to imagine Jesus in such a place, eating and drinking with anyone, much to the chagrin of the proper and pure. St. Luke tells us that that Jesus is eating and drinking with “tax collectors and sinners” while the “Pharisees and scribes” are grumbling about the fact that he welcomes – that he even seeks out these sinners. In response to their grumbling, he tells the Pharisees and scribes three parables, two of which we heard today.
The first is the parable of the lost sheep. He asks these religious leaders, “Which of you would leave the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” I’m a city boy and have no experience with sheep, but this shepherd doesn’t sound very responsible to me. What about the 99 sheep left in the wilderness? Who will take care of them? These are questions I’m sure the Pharisees asked themselves upon hearing this parable, but perhaps like the Pharisees, I was initially as dense as they were. The utter ridiculousness of what the shepherd does is an important part of the story. He is so focused on the lost sheep that he not only throws caution to the wind, he risks his livelihood by leaving his flock unattended. And when he finds the lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders and comes home rejoicing and calling in all the neighbors and friends to throw a huge party to celebrate the one who was lost and is now found. He ends by telling them, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
The second parable is similar. Instead of a shepherd, Jesus talks of a woman with 10 silver coins. What woman, were she to lose one of them, doesn’t light a lamp, or sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And then once she finds it, what woman wouldn’t call her friends and neighbors together and have a party in celebration for find it? He ends this story like the first by saying, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
I’ve often heard this passage preached like this: you and I are sinners, and Jesus cares so much for sinners that he relentlessly seeks us and rejoices when we are finally found. We should therefore repent and return to the Lord. While that’s not a bad sermon, today’s message wasn’t addressed to the sinners and tax collectors. These parables were addressed to the religious insiders of the day – the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus isn’t trying to get them to identify themselves as one who is lost and needs to be found. Jesus is trying to get them to learn to rejoice! Both of these parables end by calling friends and neighbors together to rejoice and celebrate. Jesus’s focus isn’t on the lost that are found by God, it’s on the rejoicing that happens when the lost one is found!
When the religious people of the day grumble about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners – when they grumble about Jesus’s radical hospitality – he responds by telling them that they should celebrate when God goes after the sinner who is lost and rescues them. Yes, salvation is about being rescued, but it’s even more about being drawn into the eternal party. When you see Jesus seeking the lost, when you see him dining with the worst of the worst, the appropriate response isn’t grumbling or jealousy or judging – it’s rejoicing! That’s what repentance looks like for the Pharisees and scribes as well as for you and me: when faced with God seeking out those who don’t wear the right clothes or drive the right car or smell funny or drive us bonkers – when God seeks them out and finds them, we are called to turn from judgement and grumbling to radical hospitality at a fabulous party!
Throughout his life, Jesus was repeatedly criticized for spending time with notorious sinners and outcasts. He’s inviting us today to join him by spending time doing the same. He’s inviting us to eat and drink with those around us in our lives, perhaps in a context like Cheers. For like you and me, everyone has a deep longing to spend time with others who know that their troubles are the same as ours…a place where everybody knows our name. A place where we feel welcome. Nowhere in this text or elsewhere in Luke’s gospel do we see Jesus commenting on the sinners’ behavior. He eats and celebrates with them. He identifies with them and genuinely cares for them. Yes, he wants to rejoice even more when the sinner repents, but he doesn’t get them to repent by judging their sinful behavior, he gets them to repent by spending time with them. By sharing life with them over time.
For the Pharisees and for all of us, the question is, “Who are you ready to party with?” If the answer is “I don’t party,” or “I don’t party with those people,” then we’ve missed the point entirely. Friends, God is inviting us today to join in the eternal party! He’s inviting us to practice generous hospitality with people from every walk of life. And he’s inviting us to rejoice with Him every time he finds someone who is lost.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 68.
 Ibid 72.
St. Mary the Virgin
August 18, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:20-27, Luke 1:39-56
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
On Wednesday evenings, we have Evening Prayer here in the church, and inevitably, a group goes out to have a bite to eat and perhaps a drink or two. Depending on who goes, we occasionally end up talking about the liturgy in ways that 99% of the planet think are…well…a bit much. I always invite my husband Jay to come eat with us, and while he comes from time to time, I don’t blame him for yawning internally when we start debating whether we’re supposed to turn to the left or the right at the altar and how to properly hold our funny hats.
Likewise, I’m sure that most people (including most of you holy and pious men and women) would yawn and perhaps take a nap were the preacher to get into the nitty gritty’s of the theological implications of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s death. I mean, the details surrounding Mary’s death have been debated from time immemorial, especially since the Protestant Reformation. The name of today’s feast itself is controversial: the Eastern Church calls it “The Dormition [or falling asleep] of Mary” while the Roman Catholic Church calls it the Assumption of Mary. We Episcopalians, as we so often do, have chosen to be vague and simply call it “The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin.” The commonality across all of these is that today, we are commemorating her death.
What do we know of Mary’s death? Nothing from Scripture. But there’s plenty of pious legend surrounding her death from the earliest days of the Church. One account has to do with Mary’s girdle, and by girdle, I don’t mean the modern elasticized garment, I mean a cloth braided belt with a knot at the end, similar to this one. In this account, Mary’s body was assumed into heaven in the presence of all of the apostles except for Thomas who was off in India. Later, when the others told him what happened, he doubted and didn’t believe them, just as he hadn’t believed them earlier when they told him they’d seen Jesus after his resurrection. So Mary appeared to Thomas individually and dropped the girdle she wore at her Assumption down onto him to give him physical proof, just as Jesus had done when he invited Thomas to touch his wounds. Thomas saw and touched the girdle and believed. This apocryphal story presents Mary’s assumption into heaven as a mirroring of Jesus’s resurrection, which leads us to our epistle lesson from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
The Church at Corinth was comprised mainly of Greek Christians, and the Greeks tended to think that the spirit was more important than the body. Some of this way of thinking had come into the Corinthian church, leading some to deny Jesus’s bodily resurrection. St. Paul didn’t mince words earlier in chapter 15 when he said, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
Paul says, “No.” Christ’s bodily resurrection not only happened, it’s essential to our faith. Death came from the Adam, the first human being who chose to be disobedient to God, and so the resurrection of the dead also comes from a human being, but this time, from one who committed no sin, Jesus Christ. Not only did was Christ raised from the dead, he will come again to hand over the kingdom to his Father, and to finally destroy evil and death. The destruction of evil and death by Christ at the last day will finally establish the Kingdom of God in its entirety, whereas now, we only experience it imperfectly. Just as Jesus has already entered into his kingdom through his resurrection, so too will we who follow him and enter the kingdom through a resurrection like his. Paul calls Jesus the first fruits of the dead, and links our resurrection to his. He was the first to be raised up, and we will follow.
And that, my friends, is the foundation of today’s feast. The Blessed Mother was not divine, she was a human being like you and me. And like us, her entry into God’s kingdom depends on Jesus’ resurrection. You and I have to wait until the Second Coming of Christ for our bodies to be raised, but Tradition says that Mary didn’t need to wait until the last day. As she was the first disciple of her Son – the first person to say “Yes” to his call – she is the first human being to follow her son in his resurrection. Her risen body is with Jesus’ risen body awaiting that day when all will be made right. Mary’s glory is a foretaste of our glory. Christ’s resurrection leads the way to our resurrection, and as our Blessed Mother was raised, so too will we be raised at the last day.
What will life be like when our bodies are raised, and God creates the new heavens and the new earth? In her song in the gospel of Luke, Mary tells us that in God’s kingdom, things are very, very different. Unlike our world, it’s not the powerful on their thrones, or the proud, or the rich who will be extolled and given a place of special honor. It’s the lowly, the humble, and the poor. In God’s kingdom, the first will be last, and the last will be first. Status won’t be measured by wealth and pride and fancy titles, but by humility, tenderness, forgiveness, and unconditional love.
While we have to wait until the last day to experience God’s kingdom in its fulness, in a moment, we will pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” as our Lord taught us. When we pray these words, we’re asking God to bring the values of his heavenly kingdom here to earth. To disrupt the value systems of this world. To bring heaven to earth. And we’re asking him to use us to accomplish this.
What does this look like for us at a parish church under the patronage of St. Mary in Kansas City in the year 2019?
Friends, we are called to proclaim the life, death, and yes…bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in both word and deed. There is an unfortunate tendency amongst a subset of clergy in the Episcopal Church to say things like, “I believe in spiritual resurrection, but it doesn’t really matter if Jesus’s body rose from the dead.” Or, even worse, “Dead people don’t come back to life. If you believe in science, you can’t possibly believe in the resurrection.” Hear what Saint Paul saith: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
Like Mary, we are called to live out the incarnation of her Son by proclaiming the coming of His kingdom. And like Mary, we are not to live our lives thinking that this future kingdom of God is something we’re just twiddling our thumbs waiting for, it began to break into our world on that first Christmas night. When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are telling God and ourselves that we’re willing to forsake our own devices and desires and say yes to God. And praying the Lord’s Prayer means that we’re willing to trust that the Holy Spirit will give us everything we need to fill the hungry with good things and lift up the lowly.
St. Mary’s has a long history of feeding the hungry in our area via the food pantry and hot meal – a good and holy thing – but it is time that we intentionally discern how God is calling us to serve the least of these in Kansas City. To that end, our newly formed Social Justice Committee has met a couple of times and meets again in a few weeks. They’re exploring how we might engage in important issues such as prison ministry, racial reconciliation, LGBT rights, economic injustice, immigration issues, and so on. Please pray for them as they discern how God is leading our parish family to cast down the mighty and lift up the lowly in Kansas City and beyond. And then when their program is published, please pray about how God may be calling you to get involved.
Maybe next year for Mary Day, I’ll bore you to tears with the nitty gritty about whether Mary’s assumption was before or after her death and why that matters theologically. But for now, friends, let us follow the good example of the Blessed Virgin Mary in saying yes to her Son and boldly proclaiming God’s kingdom to a lost and broken world. And let us join with Christians throughout all generations in calling her blessed.
 1 Cor 15:12-14.
Fear is in the air.
Everywhere you look – social media, your favorite news website, or even the street corner – fear is in the air. Fear that the economy will fall back into recession. Fear that you’ll lose your job. Fear that the person you ask out on a date will say no. Fear that your spouse will turn you in you for a younger model. Fear about the current state of the political discourse in this country. Fear that you can’t pay next month’s bills. Fear that you won’t finish an important project at work by the deadline. Fear that God isn’t here beside you as you struggle through this life. Fear that you will die alone and unloved.
Fear is in the air.
Our Gospel passage from Luke begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” This isn’t the first time that we heard these words in the gospel of Luke. This is the same message given to Zechariah when the angel told him his wife Elizabeth was pregnant with Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist. It’s the same thing the angel said to Mary at the Annunciation when she was told she was pregnant with God’s son. It’s the same thing that Jesus proclaims to Saint Peter before he tells him that he will be a fisher of men.
“Do not be afraid.”
In all instances of this phrase in Luke, “Do not be afraid” comes before the announcement of a significant, life-changing event. In this case, Jesus says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is no small matter and is just as daunting of a message as the angel telling Mary that she is pregnant with God’s son.
Out of his own delight, God gives us the kingdom. The word kingdom is not easy for us to relate to. The last time we had a king in this country, we rejected his authority and declared our independence! The kingdom of God refers to an inbreaking of God’s love, peace, freedom and justice into the world.
These inbreakings of God’s kingdom in this world happen in what is often referred to as “thin places.” Thin places are moments in which time itself seems to stand still and the divide between this world and the next is very thin indeed. In these thin places, God’s love becomes tangible to us and we get a brief glimpse of heaven itself. The sacraments are thin places, and particularly the Holy Eucharist, where we are transported in time to the hill upon which Jesus died and we are fed the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. In these thin places, heaven kisses earth.
But thin places are not only to be found in the sacraments. They are also found in the face of the homeless person you see on the street corner. In the cries of the sick person you are nursing and taking care of. And in subtle, everyday things like hugging a child or hearing those repetitive words “I love you” from a family member.
These thin places are all around us, and ever difficult to detect. How do we predispose ourselves to be aware of them? Through consistent prayer, Bible study, silence, contemplation, selflessly serving others, and regular reception of the sacraments of the Church. Without making the time and effort to engage in these sometimes-arduous spiritual disciplines, we aren’t able to put aside our fear and be aware of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom around us.
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, for God is giving you his kingdom of love, peace, freedom and justice.” It is in this context that Jesus tells his disciples to sell their possessions and give alms and make purses for themselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. When we graciously accept God’s loving kindness towards us, when we are intentionally aware of the Holy Spirit working in our everyday lives, when we are sensitive to detecting the thin places that we encounter throughout our lives, it is then that we are led to share that love and compassion with others.
I’ll always remember one of the questions I was asked at one of the many Committee meetings during my ordination process. “When you envision yourself as a priest, what scares you the most?” My immediate response was, “Being around people who are dying and their families. I not only don’t know what to say or do, but I can’t imagine what I would have to contribute to people in such pain and grief.” Less than a year later, in my second semester at seminary, I got word that my co-worker’s 17-year-old son had died. His name was Noah, and I’d known him because his mom had asked me to spend a little time with him as he was struggling coming out in high school, and to boot, he was afflicted with mental illness at a pretty severe level. Noah died because he hung himself from a tree. I was terribly sad when I heard the news, but when his mom called and asked if I’d do the funeral, I had an overwhelming sense of fear wash over me. I called my bishop and told him I’d been asked to do this huge funeral for this young kid who died tragically, and he said to me, “Charles, the Church doesn’t normally asked folks at your stage of the process to do this kind of work, but it sounds like there’s an opportunity here for the Holy Spirit to work through you to help a whole lot of people. God’s been preparing you for this moment, and will give you everything you need to get through it. How will you respond?”
With God’s help, I said yes.
Less than two years later, the 21-year-old son of one of the owners of the bank died of an accidental drug overdose. His dad called me and asked me to do the funeral. And to this day, I think some of the most important parts of my ministry here at St. Mary’s have been walking alongside those who are dying, and then ministering to their family and friends upon their death.
I tell you about my greatest fear coming into the priesthood not to encourage you to face your fears head on, or to assure you that things always get better, or to tell you to always say yes when asked to do something you’re scared to do. I tell you this story because God didn’t ask me to help these people out of the blue. In a sense, I’d been preparing for these moments for my whole life. My imperfect attempts to consistently pray, to study the Bible, to listen to God’s voice…my constant reception of the sacraments of the church, sometimes because I felt so unworthy…God used all of that to make me sensitive to these particular thin places, and to have the courage to overcome my fear and say yes. Inevitably when I do, the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the moments that ensue ushers in God’s love, peace, and freedom where it is desperately needed.
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells us, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms! Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit! Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour!” This call to be ready is both about Christ’s coming in our lives today and about his second coming at the last day. The certainty of Christ’s coming is not a cause for panic, but a cause for watchful anticipation for blessing. This call to be ready isn’t a cause to be overly critical of our own sins and failings, but rather to be ready to receive blessings like we could never imagine. To be watchful and ready for thin places in this world, to be watchful and ready for the unimaginable and overwhelming grandeur of being in God’s kingdom in all of its glory in eternity. This call is to be ready for the foretaste of the heavenly banquet when we receive communion in a moment, and to be ready for the heavenly banquet itself in eternity with God.
Friends, do not be afraid! For God, out of his own delight, gives you his kingdom of love, peace, freedom and justice. Be watchful for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the thin places. And be ready for the coming of Christ, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and at the last day.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 335.
 Ibid 338.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13
August 4, 2019
Luke 12:13-21, Colossians 3:1-11
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Our gospel lesson begins with someone coming to Jesus with an estate law question: the man asks him to tell his brother (probably his older brother) to divide the family inheritance with him.
This sort of childhood squabble continues even in our day. In one of the earliest funerals I did after being ordained, I asked the daughter of the deceased, “Will your step-brothers and sisters be coming to the service?” “No,” she responded. “They got all the money when their dad died, and we haven’t been able to stand being in the same room with them ever since. We really don’t want them here.”
In this case, the younger brother gets upset because the law and tradition of the day said that the elder brother receives the bulk of the inheritance. The younger brother comes to Jesus, asking him to solve his problem. “Nope,” Jesus responds. No. Can. Do. The younger brother thinks his request is all about fairness. “It’s only fair that I get half,” the younger brother thinks. But Jesus sets him straight. His request isn’t about fairness. It’s actually about greed.
Those two verses shape the parable that Jesus then tells. A rich man’s land produces abundantly…so much so that he doesn’t have room to store all of his excess crops. So he does something practical: he build larger barns in which to store them. But here’s where the rub comes in. The rich man then says, “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” Now that I’ve saved up and feel secure for my future, I can truly be happy.
God’s response couldn’t have been more high-direct. “You fool!” he said. “Tonight you die! And all these things you’ve stored up…whose will they be?” “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” And then the parable ends. No happy ending like the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the parable of the Prodigal Son.
What does it mean to be “rich towards God?” Does it mean, “You can’t take it with you, so be generous with your assets – especially to the Church?” (wink, wink) Does it mean that you and I shouldn’t plan for retirement, or save for a rainy day?
There’s a difference between proper planning and greediness. I think Jesus’s message for us in this parable is this: you have to balance concern for the future with the call to give glory to God by caring for your neighbor – for the poor, the marginalized, and all those in need. This balancing act is hard work, and requires a lot of discernment.
I am not sure if everyone has this problem, but I have a very rich fantasy life. I like to think about the day when I will hopefully no longer have to worry about paying bills, and dealing with constant repairs of an old home. I like to think about what life would be like if I won the lottery.
Jesus’s response to this rich man – “You fool! Tonight you’ll die! So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God” – this response, as jarring as it is, reminds me that I need to stop being distracted by such fantasies. Frankly, the rich man in this story had become so concerned for himself and his comfort that he had forgotten that God had created the land that produced the excess crop. He’d forgotten that really, all the excess crop belonged to God and he was just the temporary steward of them. And he’d forgotten that happiness and contentedness is not found in the abundance of wealth or possessions.
Paul said in our epistle lesson, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
It is only when we surrender our fantasies, whether they be about wealth or financial security or sexual happiness – it is only when we name these distractions for what they are – idols – and lay them at the feet of our Lord that we can truly set our minds on things that are above. It is only then that we can begin to see what contentedness looks like.
What does it mean to be “rich with God?” It means acknowledging who we are – sinners in need of a Savior – and acknowledging who God is – the creator and author of all from whom all good things come. Being rich with God means acknowledging our fantasy life for what it is, and not allowing it to become a distraction as we seek to follow Christ with all that we have and all that we are. Being rich with God means balancing the need to plan for our future with the need to give away our money and possessions to support the poor, the marginalized, and the needy. Being rich with God means knowing in the deepest parts of who we are that money and financial security and possessions will not make us happy. Jesus is telling us in this parable that we find our happiness in setting our minds on things that are above. On Jesus Christ.
Despite not being worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, God’s unconditional mercy and love towards us makes us worthy to come into his presence with a quiet confidence that “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It is from this deep sense of knowing who we are and whose we are that we should approach our money and wealth and whatever it is that captivates our fantasy life. In knowing who we are – that we are buried with Christ in his death, and raised with him in newness of life – we are able to begin to see money and possessions for what they really are – gifts from God over which we’ve been given temporary stewardship. Yes, God provides our daily bread – everything we need – but we’ve been entrusted with the gifts we’ve been given to return some to God and to care for those in need.
Friends, let us set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life is revealed, then we too will be revealed with him in glory. Amen.
 This concept is from the Theological perspective for this text in David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
 Colossians 3:1-11.
 Julian of Norwich.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12
July 27, 2019
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
I have to admit to you that sometimes, it is difficult to choose which text to focus on for a sermon. I mean, we have three different lessons – four if you include the psalm – and these lessons are often so beautiful and full of meaning that it’s hard to narrow things down. But this week, when I started reading the texts, there wasn’t a lot of discerning going on for me. The lesson from Hosea contains the word whoredom no less than three times, and Paul talks about circumcision in the second lesson. When I finally got to the Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, I breathed a huge sign of relief and made one of the easiest decisions of my life.
“Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus’s disciple asks him. Prayer is quite an intimate thing. Learning how to pray isn’t quite like learning how to ride a bike, or repair a carburetor. It’s more like learning how to kiss, or perhaps even something more intimate than that. There isn’t only one way to do it, but there are certainly wrong ways of doing it. Sometimes, in the deepest parts of who we are, we worry whether we’re not any good at it at all.
Jesus’s begins his response to this question, “Our Father…”. He’s teaching his disciples – and us – to approach God as one we relate to intimately. Someone who is family. But not just any old family member – one whose name is hallowed, or holy. This Father we’re approaching isn’t one who will let us down like our earthly fathers have done (some more so than others), but a heavenly Father who will never stop loving us, no matter what we do.
We’ll come back to the Lord’s Prayer in a moment, but fast forward to the short parable Jesus tells after it, for the verses following the Lord’s Prayer help us to interpret it. My first read of it left me scratching my head. In it, we are asked to envision a person going to a friend at midnight asking for food to feed an unexpected houseguest. He essentially responds, “leave me alone.”
But the translation we heard makes it difficult to think see that Jesus means to describe a highly unlikely scenario. In Greek, the first three verses of this parable are actually a single question that means something like, “Could this happen to any of you?” The question anticipates a negative answer: none of the people hearing this story would expect to have a friend say, “leave me alone.” A friend who refuses to help in such a situation would violate the cultural standard of hospitality of that day and time and would bring shame – and shame in 1st century Judaism is a very bad thing. Jesus is saying that even if the obligations of friendship and hospitality aren’t enough to convince a friend to provide help in this situation – an idea that’s so ridiculous it’s bordering on the absurd – a friend will definitely respond positively to the request because of the desperate persistence of the one who is asking.
And that brings up another problem with this translation – the word persistence. Frankly, on the surface, this parable makes it appear that Jesus is telling his disciples that they will have to nag God until he gets so annoyed that he finally does what they want. As one commentator said, “The notion that, repeatedly, we must bang on the doors of heaven if we are to catch God’s attention is hardly an appropriate theology of prayer.” And this notion certainly doesn’t make any sense in light of the intimacy of the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer.
The word translated here as persistence is better translated as “shamelessness.” In a world where hospitality was very important, the shameless knocking would tell the friend’s neighbors loud and clear that he’s ignoring the needs of his friend, and rather than suffer the shame that would come from that, he would help his friend in need.
So whose shamelessness are we talking about here? The person knocking, or the one who says, “leave me alone?” In other words, is prayer primarily about what we do and say, or is it about God’s goodness? The text isn’t clear until we continue to the next few verses:
Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
It is because of God’s shamelessness that God provides us everything we need…because that’s who he is. This is what “hallowed be thy name” really means: God responds to our prayer to honor his name even when we act in dishonorable ways. If the parents who are evil respond to their children by providing for their needs, how much more does God provide us that which truly nourishes. God’s provision for us is most evident in the gift of the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, the same Spirit who continues to lead us into all truth and advocate on our behalf to the Father. God’s response to our prayer “thy kingdom come” is the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives us the grace to live out the Lord’s Prayer and bring God’s heavenly kingdom to the lost and broken world in which we live.
So, Jesus teaches his disciples to approach God as someone we relate to intimately. Someone who is family. But the God we approach in prayer is holy – set apart – different than our family members who can and do let us down. God’s response isn’t about how often we nag him, or how badly we want what we’re praying for, or how much faith we have. God’s response to our prayer is to provide us everything we need – our daily bread – because of God’s holiness and because of his love and care for us.
And that’s all great. But how do we pray? What do we do when we don’t know what to pray? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but every single service in our prayer book requires the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. And this is not a new-fangled innovation in the life of the Church. The Church’s earliest liturgical manual, the Didache, written in the first or second centuries, recommends that Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer three times per day. And over the next few centuries as the Daily Office and the Mass developed, the Lord’s Prayer remained at the heart of both public and private prayer. And this only makes sense. For when his disciples asked him how to pray, our Lord gave them this beautiful prayer.
I encourage you to take a few minutes this perhaps this afternoon or later this week to reflect on your own prayer life, not to measure whether you’re praying often enough, or long enough, or to beat yourself up if you end up doing so despite me telling you not to. When you pray, do you expect God to provide material things that you desperately want but really don’t need? How do you approach God? Do you approach him as a loving Father whom you know will respond by providing for your needs? Do you trust him to provide the strength and courage you need to love him and those around you? If you struggle knowing how or what to pray, would praying the Lord’s Prayer a few times each day help to remind you of God’s extravagant love for you?
“Lord, teach us to pray,” his disciple asked him. May we too ask our Lord this question. As Jesus teaches you and me how to pray, may we be lay down the deepest parts of who we are that worry that we’re not any good at prayer at his feet as we enter into a deeper, more intimate relationship with him. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 289.
 Eucharistic Prayer D.
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8, Year C
June 30, 2019
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I lived in France working as a missionary, my boss and his wife were an American couple named Scott and Mentanna. In one of our many discussions about the faith, the topic of “freedom” came up. “For Freedom, Christ has set us free,” St. Paul said to the Galatians in our epistle lesson. What does this Christian freedom mean? Doesn’t freedom mean that I get to do whatever I want to do? How can we be free and still have rules to follow? Mentanna had a small dog named Gidget, and being Parisians who lived in a sixth-floor apartment, they had to walk Gidget around four times per day. She liked to use Gidget as an analogy about Christian freedom. “When we lived in Texas,” she said, “we had a back yard with a fence. Gidget wanted badly to get beyond the fence, but clearly, we didn’t think that was best for her. Was she truly free in the backyard being able to run and play and bark at dogs that pass by, or was the fence preventing her from being truly free? The fact of the matter is this: she may have thought that removing the fence would make her truly free, but she would have run out into the street and been hit by a car in no time. God’s freedom always involves boundaries for our own protection.”
My concept of Christian freedom was shaken a bit when we got our little 30 pound rescue dog named Jake. We already had a doggy door into the back yard, but quickly became concerned when we’d heard Jake barking at passersby…from the front porch. It turns out that Jake has absolutely no problem climbing metal fences.
We’ve had him for 6 years, and still can’t trust him in the back yard by himself. I was reminded of the story of Gidget and the fence, and wondered if Jake’s jail-breaking activities made him any more free than Gidget was.
“For Freedom, Christ has set us free.” What is Christian freedom? Is it permission to do whatever we like? From what is it that we are freed?
St. Paul tells the Galatians to “Live by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” He’s not using the term “flesh” throughout this passage in a negative way, as if the human body is inherently sinful or evil. Rather, “flesh” is often Paul’s shorthand for self-centered living as opposed to God-centered living. He seems to be asking the impossible of us: to resist “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and carousing”…and if that didn’t cover it, “and things like these.” Works of the flesh aren’t just material things, they’re spiritual too: “idolatry and sorcery.”
How in the world are we supposed to resist these and all the other self-centered behaviors? How are we to instead bear the fruit of the Spirit which is love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Not by trying really hard, not by pulling ourselves up by our boot straps…but instead by relying on the Holy Spirit.
“Live by the Spirit,” Paul says, “and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Living by the spirit means recognizing that I’ve committed to a new way of life, living for the other rather than for myself. Living by the Spirit means recognizing that I’ve committed to living a life of spiritual discipline that includes daily prayer, contemplation, serving others, receiving the Sacraments, and so on. This life of spiritual discipline is somewhat like training for a marathon. You start out by running perhaps a mile each day, then two, then six, and then ultimately all 26 miles. The more and more we spiritually train, the more and more spiritual habits we form that ultimately change not only our behaviors, but our desires.
The desires of the flesh lead us to self-centered action. Wanting sexual intimacy, we pursue fornication; wanting contact with God, we pursue idols; wanting joy, we party too hard. The freedom we have in Christ should lead us to rely on the Holy Spirit who can help us train for the spiritual marathon that has been set before us.
So, to circle back, yes, in a sense, Christian freedom means we get to do whatever we want. But by choosing to follow Christ and submitting to the Holy Spirit, what we want…changes. Training for the spiritual marathon transforms our desires and we want something different. It is as if God’s grace changes our taste buds. The spiritual cravings we have are no longer for the selfish things on the Paul’s naughty list, but instead, we crave to love God and our neighbor.
Let’s talk about Paul’s naughty list. There isn’t anything particularly special or serious about this list of sins, rather it’s a list representing the various sorts of selfish actions human beings are prone to do. I’ve heard sermons that try to analyze this list of sinful activity and make arguments about what each one means, but that really isn’t a helpful exercise because it’s missing Paul’s point entirely. This isn’t an exhaustive list of things to avoid, it’s simply a small portion of the self-centered things that human beings often do.
It is tempting to use our freedom in Christ as an excuse to self-indulge. Paul reminds the Galatians not to use their freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
This is what it means to “live by the Spirit.” Either you say yes to the desires of the flesh and exhibit selfish unrighteous behavior, or, by God’s grace, you say yes to the Holy Spirit and display loving, self-sacrificial righteous behavior. This is a choice we have to make over and over again in our lives. It’s a choice that we won’t escape, no matter how hard we try, until we die. It’s the way of life we committed to at our baptism. And despite our desires being changed over time as we form healthy spiritual habits, despite the fact that we desperately want to live by the Spirit…we will sometimes listen to that old menace, our Old Self, the one who had the selfish desires. When we are hungry and presented with two pieces of fruit: one, a selfish desire of the flesh, and the other, a fruit of the Spirit, we will remember how good the first piece of fruit used to taste. And we’ll eat it, despite knowing that it will make us sick, for the memory of the delicious taste sometimes seems overpowering. When we do, until the day we die, there is always the opportunity to choose to live by the Spirit in the next moment, even if in the previous moment we’ve gratified the desires of the flesh. For in the Lord there is mercy and forgiveness, and and despite the bump in the road in our spiritual training, we continue with perseverance running the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Friends, no matter what we’ve done in life, no matter how ashamed we are, no matter how tempting the first piece of fruit is, let us strive to live by the Spirit. For we who belong to Jesus have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Let us exercise self-control and put the needs of others ahead of our own needs. Let us do the training needed to run the spiritual marathon, spending time in prayer daily, reading the Scripture, serving those around us in need, and regularly receiving God’s grace in the Sacraments of the Church. As St. Paul says, let us, through love, become slaves to one another. For in so doing, we find the greatest freedom we will ever know. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 187.
 Hebrews 12:1-2.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.
1307 Holmes Street
Kansas City, Missouri 64106