Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
8 March 2020
Nicodemus is an intriguing figure. Mentioned only in the Gospel of John, he comes to Jesus under the cover of night. He has heard of Jesus’ teachings and miracles, and even acknowledges his divine authority. But Nicodemus wants to talk with Jesus in secret, away from the public eye. A teacher of the law and a religious leader, Nicodemus needs to be careful about his reputation. Yet as learned and well-respected as he is, Nicodemus has difficulty understanding Jesus’ teachings. Jesus tells Nicodemus during their conversation that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus responds in astonishment: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3: 1-6). Nicodemus takes Jesus’ words literally to the point of absurdity – physical rebirth, reentering the womb, and he misses entirely the point that Jesus makes: spiritual rebirth and renewal.
Nicodemus is not alone in being confused about Jesus’ teachings. It happens frequently to Jesus’ own disciples. There are numerous accounts in the Gospels where they misinterpret his words; they just don’t seem to get it. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples about the religious hypocrisy and corruption: “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” But the disciples mutter to themselves: “It is because we have brought no bread” (Matthew 16: 5-12). Like Nicodemus, the disciples take Jesus’ words literally and find themselves confused.
Lest we judge Nicodemus and the disciples too harshly, Jesus is not always so clear and straightforward. He speaks in parables, metaphors, and hyperboles, and he often presents difficult and controversial ideas. Centuries of biblical scholarship testify to the depth and complexity of Jesus’ teachings. When I went to seminary, I thought, like many of my fellow students, that a formal theological education would give me all the answers, and I believed that becoming a priest meant that I would need to have the Christian faith all worked out. Well, to my surprise, I discovered that the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew. Far from answering all my questions, seminary gave me more questions.
Furthermore, now that I am actually working in a church, I am encountering more areas where my training and knowledge are lacking. Ordained ministry is like other professions; you learn far more on the job than when you were in school. Here at St. Mary’s I don’t know how many times I’ve had what might be called “Nicodemus moments.” I frequently ask Fr. Charles or a member of the Altar Party a question about the liturgy or theology, and, every once in a while, I will ask that really stupid question. And, of course, everyone is very kind in responding, but I can only imagine what is going through their minds: “You’re asking what? And you’re a priest?”
As we can see from the examples of Nicodemus and the disciples, as well as our own personal experiences, Christian faith is quite complex. We will never have all the answers to our questions, at least in this life. When we look across the broad and diverse spectrum of the Christian Church, even the clergy and the experts don’t always agree on doctrine and practice. And ultimately there are limits to our ability to reason. Our finite human minds are not capable of fathoming all the mysteries of our infinite God.
So all of us can probably identify with Nicodemus when it comes to confusion at certain points on our faith journey. For me, I can identify with Nicodemus in yet another way. He makes a second appearance in the Gospel of John. This time he is with his fellow Jewish leaders, who are plotting to arrest and punish Jesus. While his colleagues are raging against Jesus and his movement, Nicodemus quietly raises a procedural question: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” His colleagues lash back with suspicion and anger, and ask whether he might be one of Jesus’ followers, Nicodemus is quickly cowered into silence (John 7:45-52). When I read this, it seems like something that I would do. Like many of you, I’m assuming, I have an aversion to confrontation or conflict, especially when it involves holding a dissenting view. But at the same time my conscience would compel me to speak up. So I would try to do it in a way that is as diplomatic, risk-averse as possible. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll beat a hasty retreat, like Nicodemus. Academic types are rarely known for their boldness and courage.
The views of Nicodemus in the Church are split. Most Protestants do not see him favorably because of his failure to openly proclaim his faith in Jesus. He comes to him secretly at night, and his protest in his meeting with Jewish leaders is quite mild and ambiguous. John Calvin, the great Reformed theologian and leader, castigates Nicodemus for possessing a mind “filled with many thorns, choked by many noxious herbs.” He is, in other words, confused and unable to make a clear profession of faith. During the Protestant Reformation, Nicodemus even lent his name to the creation of a term, “Nicodemite,” to refer to those who disguised their faith, in particular Protestants who tried to pass as Roman Catholics to avoid persecution.
As much as I respect the Protestant reformers, especially Calvin, I think that they are unfair to Nicodemus. Frankly, I think they’re wrong. It’s not only that I can personally identify with Nicodemus in temperament; the Protestants seem to neglect what Nicodemus does later in the Gospel – his final act. He makes a third appearance in Gospel of John, and this time it is at Jesus’ Crucifixion.
For all the confusion, hesitation, cowardice, and even duplicity, Nicodemus, in the end, takes courage and steps up. While other followers of Jesus, including most of the disciples, flee for fear of their lives and abandon their Lord, Nicodemus comes forward to bury him. We are told that Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of costly myrrh and aloes to embalm Jesus’ body (John 19:39). As a result of this act of faith and devotion, Nicodemus is remembered quite differently in other Christian traditions. He is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as among Anglo-Catholics. His feast day is August 3.
Dear sisters and brothers, our Lenten journey is taking us to the same place where Nicodemus found himself, at the foot of the cross. This past Wednesday, here at St. Mary’s, we began our weekly Stations of the Cross. And for me I had the additional privilege of joining our sister parish, St. Augustine’s, for their weekly Stations of the Cross this past Friday. If you haven’t already, I would encourage all of you to come either to St. Mary’s on Wednesday or to St. Augustine’s on Friday and experience this beautiful and powerful service in which we visualize and meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus Our Lord.
On your service bulletin today, you will find the photo of a statue sculpted by Michelangelo, depicting the body of Jesus being taken down from the cross by Nicodemus, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. In the stories of the Passion and Crucifixion, we often do not notice Nicodemus, but he was there, embracing Jesus’ body. Nicodemus cast aside his initial reluctance and fear, and took his place at the cross.
Let us join Nicodemus at the foot of the cross. There, at the foot of the cross, we will gather with him and countless other followers of Our Lord, and we will witness and grieve his suffering and death. But it is also there, at the foot of the cross, that we will claim the hope and promise that Our Lord first proclaimed to Nicodemus that night he came to him: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, King James Version). Amen.
 Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on John 3:1-17,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=43.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol.1, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calving Translation Society, 1843), 107. Quoted in Robert Hoch, “Commentary on John 3:1-17,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1979.
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
16 February 2020
Today’s Gospel reading has some very strange sayings of Jesus: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29-30). We are obviously not supposed to take these commands literally. Otherwise, we would all be sitting here with missing eyes and hands. I am not aware of any of Jesus’ followers in the Bible or throughout Christian history who have actually torn out their eyes or cut off their hands as a consequence of sinning.
Jesus is employing a rhetorical device, hyperbole, making exaggerations for dramatic effect. He takes what appears to be a minor offense – lust or anger – and imposes an extreme, violent punishment – physical mutilation – out of all proportion with the offense. This seems absurd, almost comical. I’m not a big Monty Python fan, but it seems like something you would see in the kind of grotesque physical comedy of a Monty Python film – tearing out an eye, cutting off a hand – “it’s just a flesh wound.” So what is the point of the graphic hyperboles in Jesus’ teaching?
The context in which we find these sayings is the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ sayings that lay out his moral teachings. In today’s passage, Jesus takes two basic moral injunctions, namely the Sixth and Seventh of the Ten Commandments – You shall not murder and You shall not commit adultery, and he explains to his followers that it is not enough just to obey the commandments not to murder or commit adultery. Jesus declares that it is no less a sin to become angry or harbor lust: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery”…But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28). Jesus thus sets a higher moral and spiritual standard for his followers than what their society expects of them. He takes the old laws and intensifies and radicalizes them.
And this intensification and radicalization take place as Jesus points inward into our minds and hearts, exposing our deepest thoughts, feelings, and emotions. There is, in other words, a profound internalization of the law. For followers of Jesus, externally observing the laws through our actions is not enough. He expects complete inner control of our minds and hearts – in effect, moral and spiritual perfection.
I know there are several of you in our parish who are from Methodist backgrounds, and you may know that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed a doctrine known as Christian perfection. He wrote a book, in fact, titled A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. I have to tread carefully here since I’m not an expert on Methodism, and we do have some experts on Methodism, like Fr. Larry Parrish, a former Methodist minister, and Mr. Isaac Petty, our Postulant for Holy Orders, who has been trained at Nazarene Theological Seminary, deeply rooted in the Wesleyan heritage. As I understand the doctrine, Wesley believed that it was possible that in spite of the shortcomings and limitations of our human condition, we could, through faith and love, attain a state in which we are free from sin. And, of course, there is Biblical basis for this. In the very next section of Matthew that follows today’s reading we find Jesus preaching: “Be perfect, there, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
In our Anglican tradition, we don’t often use the Wesleyan language of perfection. Instead, we prefer to use another word: “holiness.” Wesley talks about holiness as well. By the way, as many of you know, Wesley was an Anglican priest and remained so until his death, so there are clear Anglican influences on his theology and piety.
The word “holiness” is especially dear to us Anglo-Catholics. Some of you may have heard the old Anglo-Catholic slogan: the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. Most interpret the phrase in terms of our glorious liturgy- the sense of holy mystery in our worship, but it applies more broadly to the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Holiness is, indeed, a way of life for us, and it takes on a particular, distinctive form in our tradition.
As you know, St. Mary’s has recently started to offer Daily Mass. We are the only Episcopal church in our diocese to do so. And I remember a few months back when we were discussing and planning this, Fr. Robert Hutcherson, our Rector Emeritus, sent the clergy team an email that eloquently captures the heart of what we do here at St. Mary’s and what gives us our identity. Fr. Hutcherson rejoiced how the Daily Mass will contribute to our catholic piety and discipline. That phrase “catholic piety and discipline” struck me, and I thought about the different ways in which we practice that here at St. Mary’s: Daily Mass, Private Confession, Marian Devotions, Saints’ Feast Days, Morning and Evening Prayer. Soon we will begin the Season of Lent, in which our spiritual discipline will become even more rigorous with fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving. Holiness is hard work. It requires intense spiritual training.
Yet, for most of us, no matter how hard we work, we will never attain the state of Christian perfection and holiness in which we will be free of all sin both in action and intention. Can you imagine a sustained mental and spiritual state that has banished forever anger, lust, envy, greed, or any of the vices that plague our daily existence? I certainly cannot. It seems superhuman. But as elusive as such a goal may seem, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. We believe that Jesus lived such a life. He is our model and inspiration for holiness, spiritual perfection. Moreover, we also hold special recognition for the saints, those exceptional individuals in the history of our faith who stand out as exemplars of holiness. For most of us, however, ordinary people that we are, such spiritual maturity and perfection will be difficult to attain in this life.
Dear sisters and brothers, you and I may not be on the path to sainthood, but we, too, are called by Our Lord Jesus Christ to live the life of holiness. Therefore, let us strive to shed ourselves of all the sins that keep us from God and from our neighbor. Reaching deep into our reservoir of faith and love, let us commit ourselves to good works and pure intentions. Let us create in our daily lives the beauty of holiness.
 The quote is from the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975). King Arthur has sliced off both arms from the Dark Knight in a duel, but the latter insists: “It’s just a flesh wound.” My thanks to Mr. Isaac Petty for the reference.
 Amy Ogden, “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37,” Working Preacher. https://workingpreacher.org/preaching-aspx?commentary_id=795.
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
5 January 2020
In today’s Gospel we read about the wise men from the East who visit Jesus and the Holy Family. We mark this event with the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation or showing forth of God to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ. God’s revelation to the non-Jewish wise men from the East means that Jesus came to redeem not just the Jews but all people. Jesus is Savior of the world.
One of the most popular hymns that we sing to celebrate the Epiphany is “We three Kings of Orient are.” We’ll be singing it soon today as our Post-Communion Hymn. I remember being very intrigued by this hymn when I was growing up. I’m going to date myself here, but there was a time when the term “Orient” was quite common. The term “Oriental” was not politically incorrect as it is today, and it was actually the term used to refer to people of Asian heritage like me. The term that we now use, of course, is “Asian-American.” So if we were to translate the title of this classic hymn into today’s politically correct English, it would be “We three Kings of Asia are.” What fascinated me about this hymn was the possibility that there might have been Asians or “Orientals” present at the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. And, in fact, in some visual depictions of the Three Kings or the Wise Men, there is usually one with distinctly Asian features, with the other two having African and white European features – a kind of United Nations in miniature.
Well, I was a bit disappointed to later learn that there was no Asian wise man. Neither was there an African or white European. According to historical scholarship the wise men were Middle Easterners, mostly likely Persians from the Parthian empire, which is present-day Iran. “Orient,” like “Asia,” is a pretty broad designation, and it refers to the Middle East as well as East Asia. I also learned a few other things. For one, the wise men weren’t kings; they were astrologers, trained in the study of the heavens and predictions of the future. And we don’t necessarily know that there were three of them. The passage from Matthew today simply refers to the “wise men from the East” and has no number or names. The Bible provides very little information on the wise men. But down through the centuries a rich tradition of legend and lore has developed around them in the Church.
A relatively recent, modern addition to the many layers of tradition about the wise men is a short novel written in the late nineteenth century by the Presbyterian minister Henry Van Dyke called The Story of the Other Wise Man. I remember being part of a Christmas pageant based on this story when I was little. Some of you may be familiar with the story, but for some reason we don’t seem to hear much about it these days. It’s a beautiful story, and I’d like to share with you the basic plot. In addition to the three wise men, there was a fourth wise man from Persia named Artaban. When he sees the Star signaling the birth of Jesus, he sells all his possessions and buys three precious jewels – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price” – to present to the new-born king. He arranges to rendezvous with the other three wise men to travel by caravan together.
But on his way, he comes across a dying man. Artaban cares for him, and the delay leads him to miss the appointed meeting with his colleagues. Not able to join the caravan, he is forced to sell one of the jewels, the sapphire, to buy his own camels and supplies for the journey. Artaban arrives in Bethlehem, but he comes too late. The Holy Family has fled to Egypt in the face of Herod’s persecution. But while in Bethlehem Artaban manages to save the life of a child from the slaughter by bribing one of the soldiers with the ruby. Artaban then travels to Egypt as well as many other places in search of Jesus but always one step behind, and during his journeys he performs other acts of charity. Finally, after 33 years of looking for Jesus, Artaban finally locates him, but again he is too late. Artaban finds Jesus nailed to a cross on Golgotha. While in Jerusalem, he uses his last jewel, the pearl, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery. Artaban, at the end of his life, is frustrated and disappointed that he has failed in his life mission to meet Jesus. But then a voice comes to him as he lies dying: “Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus had been present with Artaban all along throughout his long journey.
When our Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, there were very few people who were privileged to witness the event – some poor Jewish shepherds and a handful of Persian astrologers. But, like Artaban, the fourth wise man, we, the followers of Jesus, have endless opportunities to encounter Our Lord. When we help and serve those around us in need, we are encountering Jesus. And our ultimate encounter with Jesus occurs each time we come to the Altar for the Holy Eucharist. Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, and we unite with His Presence through the Sacrament.
We usually focus on receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, but the Sacrament also involves the offering up of ourselves. And this is deeply embedded in the liturgy. The Offertory Sentence invites us to follow Jesus in giving of ourselves as an offering and sacrifice to God. And during the Offertory, we present our gifts at the Altar. We tend to think of our gifts mainly in terms of money, but in other parts of the world, Christians present various objects. In Haiti, for example, the worshipers present fruit, vegetables, and even live chickens during the Offertory. The Offertory is our opportunity to bring our gifts, just as the Wise Men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Our Lord. But we possess a gift that far surpasses the value of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Like Artaban, the other wise man, we have the gift of our very selves to present to Our Lord and in service of those around us. I heard a sermon once in which the priest likened this offering of ourselves to having a gigantic alms basin and us climbing into it to be placed at the altar. I don’t think Fr. Charles or our Sacristy team would ever approve of such an inelegant gesture, but it gets the point across.
There is a lot we don’t know about the wise men from the East who visited and worshiped Jesus at his birth. But we do know that they began the powerful tradition of offering gifts to Our Lord, especially for this Season of Christmas. Dear friends, let us join the wise men from the East and bring to the Altar our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But, above all, let us “offer and present unto [Our Lord,] our selves, our souls and bodies.” Amen.
 The main reason that the term “Oriental” became politically incorrect was the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). In the book, Said explains the various ways in which the idea of the “Orient” is associated with Western imperialism.
 Henry Van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man (CruGuru, 2008).
 Matthew 25:40.
 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 342.
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
8 December 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Today we observe the second Sunday of Advent, the season of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. As Fr. Charles explained in his sermon last Sunday, our waiting is three-fold: we wait for Jesus to come to us as a infant in Bethlehem, we wait for him to come to us through His Presence in the Holy Eucharist, and we wait for him to come in all his glory at the end of time.
In today’s Gospel we join the Jews in first-century Palestine who are waiting for their Messiah. And out of the wilderness appears the strange and mysterious figure of John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He identifies himself as a prophet announcing the imminent coming of the Messiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Matthew 3:3). In his preaching, John urgently calls on the people to repent of their sins and be baptized as they wait for the appearance of the Messiah.
Although John saw his role as only a messenger, someone who was sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, he acquired quite a following of his own. We are told in the Gospel that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6). His fame drew the attention of the religious authorities as well as the king. Prior to John’s birth, the angel Gabriel had appeared to his father Zechariah and foretold that John would become a mighty prophet like Elijah (Luke 1:13-17). And the greatest compliment that John received came from Jesus himself, who told his disciples: “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28).
Yet for all the accolades and popularity, John never lost sight of his focus, to point to the Messiah, and he repeatedly humbled himself before Jesus. John called himself “the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.” Furthermore, he explained that Jesus “must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:29-30). And in today’s Gospel he states that he is not worthy even to carry Jesus’ sandals (Matthew 3:11).
It couldn’t have been easy, however, for John to play second fiddle, especially considering the fact that Jesus was his younger cousin. John was a great prophet, but he was also a human being, after all. He must have struggled with his ego. John had begun his ministry before Jesus and had a larger following. But then some of his disciples started to leave him for Jesus. Although he graciously accepted this as part of God’s grand plan, it is difficult to imagine that he wasn’t personally affected in some way – even hurt – to see his loyal disciples and long-time companions abandon him. And it seems that John occasionally had doubts and questions about Jesus. At one point he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you really the one?” (Matthew 11:3). Yet, in spite of the blows to his ego and his doubts, John remained faithful to the end. The Church remembers and honors him as the prophet who paved the way for Jesus, the last of the great prophets.
Moreover, John sets an example for us of how to live the Christian life. He takes the focus away from himself and turns it on Jesus. This is no easy task. I don’t know about you, but for me, the self – my ego – constantly intrudes no matter how noble and lofty my intentions may be. As you know, I was ordained priest this past May, but the process for ordination began about three years ago. We have several parishioners at St. Mary’s who are currently Postulants for Holy Orders – Lynda, Richard, Isaac, and David – and you can probably relate to what I’m about to share – or rather, confess.
For me, parts of the ordination process were rather narcissistic. I lost count of how many psychological tests I took to learn more about myself and how many times I had to articulate my faith journey, my calling, and my vision for ministry. On the one hand, this was a wonderful process of self-discovery, but, at the same time, I also struggled to keep the focus away from myself to the reason why I began the process in the first place – to serve Christ and His Church. And the struggle with my ego has not stopped. As you know, I’m a bi-vocational priest, and in addition to serving at St. Mary’s, I also teach history at the University of Central Missouri. There are several of you in our parish who are also teachers. And we all know that we get into teaching for the big money. As a clergy friend who used to be an academic once observed, we teachers may not make a lot of money, but we do tend to become obsessed with status. Academics measure their self-worth in terms of their degrees, the numbers of publications, the schools they attended, and official titles.
Unfortunately, the Christian ministry is not immune from the game of status and recognition. I’m sure you have encountered ambitious clergy who can barely hide the fact that they aspire to wear the purple shirt of a bishop someday or at least become rector of a large, well-heeled parish with a substantial salary. The Church is no stranger to power and money.
In this penitential season of Advent, let us examine and reflect on those areas of our lives in which our egos stand in the way of our faith. Where in our lives do we encounter the temptations of power, status, and wealth? When do pride and self-centeredness get in the way of serving God and those around us? How do we orient our lives so that it is not about us but about Jesus?
One of my favorite theologians is Karl Barth. Never mind the fact that he is a Reformed theologian, coming out of the Calvinist tradition, and I’m an Anglo-Catholic, and, of course, the two sides don’t always see eye to eye. I still like what Barth has to say. Well, Karl Barth had a painting of the crucifixion by the German Renaissance artist Matthias Grunewald hung above the desk in his study. In the painting there is an image of John the Baptist, who is standing off to the side and pointing his finger to the cross of Jesus in the center. Of course, this is not historically accurate. John the Baptist had died long before the crucifixion, but this image comes from the artist’s imagination. The story goes that whenever Barth would have discussions with visitors about his theological writings, he would direct them to John the Baptist in the painting, and he would say, “I want to be that finger." Barth did indeed become a finger pointing to Christ both in word and deed. Barth’s theology is firmly grounded in Christ as the revealed Word of God, and in his personal life as well, his focus on Christ never wavered. At a time when most of the clergy and theologians in Germany, threw their support behind the Nazis, Barth wrote a personal letter to Hitler proclaiming that he has no lord except Jesus Christ. He paid for this act of defiance by getting fired from his position at the University of Bonn.
Dear friends, in this holy season of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Jesus, we give thanks for the witness and example of John the Baptist, herald of the Messiah. Let us listen to his voice calling us to “prepare the way of the Lord” and live not for ourselves but for Jesus. Let us also take a moment to visualize John the Baptist’s finger. It points to our crucified and risen Lord. And today that finger points to none other than our own Altar at St. Mary’s. For it is here that Christ will soon come to us in the Holy Eucharist. Come, Lord Jesus!
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
10 November 2019
This past Wednesday, we held a Solemn Requiem Mass in commemoration of All Souls Day. We remembered and prayed for those in our parish who have died this past year and for our loved ones who have gone before us. We also reminded ourselves of our own mortality. As Fr. Charles explained in the introduction to the service, we can view All Souls Mass as our own funeral.
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke continues our reflections on death and the afterlife. The Sadducees, who do not believe in the resurrection, ask Jesus a question to try to stump him. They present him with an extreme hypothetical situation, in which a woman marries seven brothers in succession according to the custom of levirate marriage, in which a man is responsible for marrying the childless widow of a deceased brother. In the resurrection, the Sadducees ask, whose wife will the woman be? Jesus answers that in the resurrection, there is no marriage. The resurrected state will be a very different sphere of existence than what we are used to in this earthly life. There is no marriage. There is no death. As children of the resurrection, we will become like the angels.
The Gospels vilify the Sadducees along with their colleagues the Pharisees as the primary opponents and enemies of Jesus. Denouncing him as a troublemaker, they challenge him at every turn, and they ultimately want to eliminate him. Yet, I don’t know about you, the Pharisees and Sadducees frequently become the voice of my own doubts and questions. They are, after all, devout Jews, well-versed in the Torah, and, whatever their faults and intentions, they ask good, rational questions, such as the one today.
Although our Christian faith is, at the most basic level, a religion of salvation dealing with death and the afterlife, it provides us with few details about what actually comes after death. We don’t have a lot of concrete information in the Bible. We are thus left wondering and asking a lot of questions. I once heard about a dying man asking the priest whether he will be able to continue his favorite hobby of gardening when he is heaven.
There’s a fascinating book titled Heaven: A History that traces the various views and beliefs about heaven that Christians have held down through the centuries. What is especially interesting is that many Christians today conceive of heaven as simply a continuation of what is best in this life, like the cabin on the lake, a memorable trip, a favorite pastime. They project their personal experiences and desires onto the afterlife.
The TV show “Simpsons” has a funny episode in which Homer and Bart are thinking of converting from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, and Marge is very concerned. One night, Marge has a dream, in which she is shown a vision of Roman Catholic heaven and Protestant heaven. In Catholic heaven, Homer and Bart are having a fun time at a big party, complete with a Mexican fiesta and Irish step-dancing. Meanwhile in Protestant heaven, where Marge finds herself, she finds a bunch of preppy types playing croquet and badminton. The ethnic stereotypes aside, Marge’s dream is probably not too far off from what most Americans would like to think of heaven. After I preached this sermon at 8 o’clock Mass, our fellow parishioner Hugh Kierig shared with me another good one. Several years ago National Lampoon did a piece on the different views of hell among churches. The Roman Catholics had images of Dante’s Inferno. For the Episcopalians, there was a well-dressed couple sitting in a nice restaurant – and behold a rude waiter!
The fact is, the Bible does not spell out all the details of what happens to us when we die. Of course, there are references to heaven and hell, but these are usually vague and open to different interpretations. Consequently, Christians hold diverse views of the afterlife. Some believe in immediate heaven or hell upon death. Others believe in purgatory or a temporary state of sleep. Some believe heaven to be a place inhabited by disembodied spirits floating around. And some would even reject the idea of an afterlife, interpreting heaven and hell in metaphorical terms. We have quite a spectrum of beliefs and opinions in Christianity about the afterlife. Yet, whatever our differences, we can all agree on one fundamental conviction. Jesus is the source of our salvation. As the Bible states, he is the author of our salvation (Acts 3:15 & Hebrew 2:10). To extend the metaphor a bit, we do not yet have all the details of the book of salvation that Jesus has authored, but it will eventually be revealed to us.
One detail, however, that Jesus does make abundantly clear is the reality of the resurrection. Just as he died and was resurrected, we, too, will die and be resurrected. We are told in Scripture that when Christ comes again at the end of time, all the faithful will be resurrected and share in Christ’s glory. We are offered glimpses of what this resurrected state will be like. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared on several occasions to his disciples and followers. And in all the post-resurrection accounts, we know that he was no ghost or spirit; he came to his disciples physically, in his resurrected body. Jesus ate meals with his disciples (Luke 24:13-35 & John 21:1-14), and so-called Doubting Thomas touched Jesus’ hands and side to be convinced that he had indeed risen (John 20:24-29). The Apostle Paul explains that this resurrected body will be different from our human body. There will be a transformation that takes place. The resurrected body will be “incorruptible” and raised in “glory” and “power,” but it will be a physical body nonetheless (I Corinthians 15:42-43).
In our Anglican tradition, we affirm this belief in the resurrection each time we hold a funeral service. The very first words of the Burial Rite in the Book of Common Prayer are these words of Jesus: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Even as we grieve and mourn in the face of death, we defiantly proclaim Jesus’ conquest over death and his promise of resurrection and eternal life.
It is not only in our funeral service that we express this faith in Christ’s saving power. Our two primary sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist, also embody this resurrection hope. In baptism, we die with Christ and rise to new life in him. The waters of baptism represent death as well as life. This is perhaps most vividly illustrated in those traditions that practice immersion. Going under the water represents a dying, a “drowning,” if you will. But then the coming up out of the water represents our resurrection. As we emerge out of the water, we are cleansed, transformed, given new life.
In the Holy Eucharist, we repeat this act of uniting with Christ in his death and resurrection. What begins with Baptism continues with the Eucharist. We remember his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. And as we receive his Body and Blood, we unite with Christ in the mystery of the Sacrament. He dwells in us, and we dwell in him.
Dear friends, as we approach the Altar this morning for the Most Holy Sacrament, let us renew our hope in Jesus, our resurrection and our life. Let us unite with him in his death and resurrection in this Holy Mystery. And let us look forward to the day when our hope in the resurrection will find fulfillment as Christ comes again in all his power and glory.
 Colleen McDannel and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
 Andrew Davison, Why Sacraments? (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 15-16.
 Davison, 39.
The Rev'd Dr. Sean C. Kim, SCP
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
20 October 2019
Today we commemorate St. Luke the Evangelist. We know him best as the author of the third Gospel. He also wrote the Book of Acts. In addition to being a writer, Luke accompanied the Apostle Paul on some of his missionary journeys. Paul calls Luke his “fellow worker” (Philemon 24), and, as we read in today’s Epistle, during Paul’s time in prison, Luke is his sole faithful companion (2 Timothy 4:11). Paul also identifies Luke as the “beloved physician” (Colossian 4:14). Luke has thus become the patron saint of doctors, nurses, and other health care workers.
St. Luke the evangelist and physician holds special significance for us at St. Mary’s. Luke is what we call our Proto-Patron or First Patron. As many of you are aware, before we were St. Mary’s Church, we were St. Luke’s Church. So St. Luke was our original Patron, the saint for whom the church was named, the saint who protects us and intercedes for us before God. St. Luke’s Church was established in 1854 in Kansas City, the first Episcopal parish in what was back then a frontier trading town. The first building was located at 8th and Walnut in the downtown area, but then later, Mary Troost, a major benefactor of the church, donated land at 13th and Holmes for a new building with the condition that the church change its name and patronage to St. Mary. The current building in which we worship was completed in 1887.
Our spiritual forebears at St. Luke’s Church laid out a powerful vision not only for their own faith community but for the city as a whole. In response to the educational needs of the early settlers, the church ran schools for boys and girls in the downtown area, and it reached out to the working poor, providing hunger relief in the West Bottoms. Moreover, faithful to the legacy of their patron, St. Luke the physician, the church started a hospital. In 1882, the Rev. Henry Jardine, the rector, gathered a group of businessmen to discuss the need for medical care in the growing city. This led to the establishment of All Saints Hospital, which later changed its name to St. Luke’s Hospital. Today the Saint Luke’s Health System has grown to be a major hospital for the region. Kansas City’s only locally owned, not-for-profit health system, Saint Luke’s continues to be a faith-based hospital, with oversight by the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri. The bishop serves as chair of the board of directors. Some of you may have noticed that one of our stained-glass windows is dedicated to St. Luke’s Hospital. It’s the one back in the corner by the spiral staircase. The reason we have that is because our church began the hospital.
By laying down the foundations for the Saint Luke’s Health System, our forebears were carrying on a rich tradition of healing ministry in the Christian Church. The history of healing in our faith, of course, goes all the way back to Jesus himself. Healing was central to his ministry. As we read in the Gospels, Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the lepers; he treated all sorts of diseases and conditions. Subsequently, for over two millennia, Christians have continued Jesus’ work of healing. In the Middle Ages in Europe, medical care lay primarily in the hands of monks and nuns. The early hospitals were the ministry of religious communities, dedicated to the care of the sick and dying. Then, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Protestant medical missionaries spread modern, Western-style medicine all around the world. Considering this legacy, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the roots of modern medical care are in the Christian Church.
If you would please indulge me for a moment, I would like to share with you some personal experiences of how my own life has intersected with the history of healing in the Christian Church. I’ve mentioned before that I was born in Korea, but the hospital where I was born, in Seoul, South Korea, was called Severance Hospital. No, Severance is not a Korean name. Louis H. Severance was an American businessman, one of the founders of Standard Oil. Severance also happened to be a devout Presbyterian, so when some pioneer Presbyterian missionaries in the 1880s proposed plans to build Korea’s first modern, Western-style hospital, Severance generously provided the funding. One of the reasons I was born at Severance was my father was a medical student there for a couple of years. He ended up switching to business, though. He was doing fine until he had to dissect cadavers, and he quickly decided that medicine was not his calling. Later in life, he hoped that one of my siblings or I would become a doctor, but, contrary to stereotypes about Asians being good in science, none of us were particularly good at it nor were we interested in a science-related career. I’m not good in math either. We did, however, manage to get a doctor in the family through marriage. My sister married a physician; my brother-in-law is a cardiologist at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Kansas City.
The next chapter in my experience of the Church’s healing mission took place in 2009, when I joined my fellow parishioners back then at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City for a week-long trip to Haiti. We were there about a month before the great earthquake. It was surreal to see in the media the images of the destruction and ruin. St. Andrew’s sponsors a birthing center – what the Haitians call a maison de naissance, a birthing home – in a remote, mountainous area of the island nation. Established by Dr. Stan Shaffer and Dr. Kathy Shaffer, parishioners at St. Andrew’s – Dr. Stan Shaffer used to serve at St. Luke’s, the birthing center has saved the lives of countless mothers and babies who would otherwise have died without the proper medical care and education. St. Andrew’s is not alone in its healing ministry in Haiti. The country is filled with clinics and hospitals sponsored by American churches.
The third and final story that I would like to share with you brings us back to Saint Luke’s Hospital. A couple of years ago, I served as a hospital chaplain at Saint Luke’s Hospital as part of my pastoral training. As some of you know, our Postulant for Holy Orders, Lynda Hurt, soon to be deacon, did the same program this past summer. And I think that Lynda would agree with me on this. When I first began the program, I thought that I would learn exactly what to say and what to do when visiting the sick, the dying, and their families. But contrary to expectation, that’s not what I learned. In fact, the most important lesson that I learned was how to provide a caring presence. In other words, our physical presence, the companionship we provide – being there to listen or to simply sit together – is what is most important. The details of what we say or do ultimately don’t matter much. A caring presence, on the other hand, has the power to heal.
When I look back on those dark moments in my own life when I have been broken in body, mind, or spirit, I think of the people who were there for me – family, friends, clergy, fellow church members. And the older I become and the less reliable my memory becomes, I tend to forget what they said to me in those difficult situations. But I will never forget their presence. Nor will I forget the reflection of God’s love on their faces.
Not all of us are called to be doctors, nurses, medical missionaries, or hospital chaplains. All of us are, however, called to be healers. Following the examples of Jesus Our Lord and our Proto-Patron St. Luke, we are called to pray for the healing of those around us who are broken in body, mind, or spirit. We are called to provide a caring presence. When we do, we will find that Jesus himself will be there with us.
 St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (www.stmaryskcmo.org/our-history.html)
 Saint Luke’s Health System (https://www.saintlukeskc.org/history)
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
29 September 2019
Click here for the audio recording of this sermon.
We Christians believe that Jesus is our source and guide to matters of the spirit. He teaches us how to pray, how to worship God, how to live out the life of faith. But when we turn to the Gospels, we find that for a spiritual leader, it’s surprising how often Jesus talks about money. Of the thirty-eight parables that he preached, including today’s story from Luke, sixteen of them deal with money. And, believe it or not, one out of every ten verses in the Gospels touches on money in some way. So why the attention on money?
Today’s Gospel tells the story of the rich man who lives it up, wearing the finest clothes and eating the best food. And right on his doorstep is the beggar Lazarus, who would have been happy even with the rich man’s table scraps. Both men die. While Lazarus is carried up by the angels to be with Abraham, the rich man ends up in Hades. The two men’s fortunes are reversed in the afterlife. Now Lazarus is the one who enjoys the comforts, while the rich man suffers in agony and torment. The rich man appeals to Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so that he can warn them. He doesn’t want his five brothers, who are leading the same lifestyle, to join him in Hades. Abraham replies that they have already received the message through Moses and the prophets. And since they haven’t heeded the message from Moses and the prophets, why would they listen to Lazarus?
Like most parables, Jesus does not explain the meaning of this story. But it’s not difficult to interpret what that would be in this case. Money gets in the way of faith. Money can even drag us down to hell. Jesus tells this parable in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees, identified a few verses before as “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). Today’s Epistle reading from I Timothy issues a stern warning against the “lovers of money”: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (I Timothy 6:10). The pursuit of wealth and status is fraught with all sorts of temptations and dangers that can lead us to stray away from God and from our neighbor. People lie, cheat, and kill for money.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he repeatedly attacks the wealthy while holding up the poor. In his very first sermon, Jesus declares that he has been anointed by the Holy Spirit “to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). And in the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20-24). It is clear that the poor occupy a special and privileged place in Jesus’ ministry, while the wealthy are warned about the perils of their status. But then this begs the question: what can the wealthy do to be saved? What can they do to avoid the fate of the rich man in today’s parable? It seems unfair that an entire class be condemned without some means of redemption. Isn’t Jesus’ message of salvation for all people?
One option for the wealthy is to give it all up and join the poor. And this is, in fact, the message that Jesus has for some of his followers. When a rich young ruler approaches Jesus and asks what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. The young man sadly turns away. Jesus then makes the colorful and well-known comment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:18-26). But many others do respond to Jesus’ call to give up everything and follow him. Throughout Christian history, we have many examples of those who have believed that to follow Christ is to take a vow of poverty. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, was born into wealth, but he gave it all up to become a monk and take a vow of povertyt. And he required all those who joined the Franciscan order to do the same.
But what about for us today? Whether we are rich, middle-class, or whatever socioeconomic status, giving up everything we own is not a viable option. Moreover, if all Christians were to do this, there would be dire consequences for the Church. For one, we would not be able to worship in such a beautiful space as this church or enjoy the sublime music of our choir. Nor could we support any of our ministries. The fact is, Christianity as an institution would not survive if all the believers were to take a vow of poverty. We would follow the fate of the Shakers. They were once a thriving Christian group, but because of their vow of celibacy, they are now on the verge of extinction. A collective vow of poverty would have a similar effect. It is simply not sustainable for an institution.
Nor is it what Christ expects of us. While many of Jesus’ disciples and followers led lives of poverty, others maintained their wealth and used it to support Jesus’ ministry. We read in the Gospels of his well-to-do followers – tax collectors and the like – who hosted Jesus in their homes. And in the early Church, it was in the homes of the wealthy that the first communities of believers met to worship. Yesterday was the feast day of St. Paula on the church calendar. Paula was born in the fourth century into one of the wealthiest aristocratic families in Rome, and she used her vast resources to set up monasteries and convents, and to support the poor. I bring up St. Paula and these other examples not as a way to rationalize our wealth and possessions, but rather to point out that there are different ways of using our resources for the work of the Church in the world. There is no set formula for everyone. Some do give it all up. Other tithe ten percent of their income. Still others give as they are able. It is ultimately up to us to discern individually with our conscience what God is calling us to do with our money. I didn’t intend this to be a sermon on stewardship – it’s a bit early for that, but it looks like it’s turning into one.
Returning to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, let us pose a hypothetical question. What if Abraham had consented to the rich man’s request that he send Lazarus to his brothers? What would be Lazarus’s message? For one, he would inform them that their brother is in Hades for being a pig. But what else? I believe that Lazarus would tell them to open their eyes to the poor in their midst, to have compassion, to be generous, to share what they have. This is what the rich man failed to do.
St. Mary’s has a long tradition of serving the poor, whom our Lord Jesus held up as the object of his special care and concern. And soon we will renew and expand our commitment to the poor through the work of the Social Justice Committee. As we begin this new chapter in our church, let us pray for wisdom and discernment as we seek to make the best use of our God-given resources – our money, our talents, our time. And however we individually respond to Jesus’ call to serve the poor, let compassion and generosity be our common guide.
 “Statistic: Jesus’ Teaching on Money,” Christianity Today, 2019 (https://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1996/december/410.html).
 Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31,” Working Preacher (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1784).
Fr. Sean Kim
August 25, 2019
An audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years. She has spent those long years bent over and unable to stand up straight. When Jesus sees her in the synagogue, he interrupts his teaching to call her over to him. He lays his hands on her, and she is healed. The woman stands up straight and begins to praise God for the miracle.
The healing of the crippled woman is one of many healing stories in the Gospels. Part of the reason why Jesus attracts such large crowds wherever he goes is because of his reputation as a divine healer, a miracle-worker. I don’t know about you, but I personally struggle with the healing stories. Every time I hear a healing story, I ask myself: Why don’t these healings occur today? Why aren’t the people that I pray for cured miraculously?
If I were a Presbyterian, I could provide a clear answer to this problem, but as an Episcopalian, as is usually the case with theological issues, I’m not so sure. As many of you know, I come from a Presbyterian background, and I know that my lingering Calvinist attachments have been of some concern to Fr. Charles. But I actually think there may be some other closet Calvinists in our midst. The official Calvinist theological position on miraculous healing is that such acts stopped or ceased with the age of the apostles. The technical term for this is cessationism – from the word cease. According to this doctrine, all miracles, including divine healings, are believed to have ceased with the age of the apostles two thousand years ago. In other words, Jesus and the apostles had the power of divine healing. We do not. The story goes that some people came up to John Calvin with a challenge. They told Calvin that the Roman Catholic priests were performing great miracles among the people And they dared Calvin to perform even greater miracles as proof that he was right and that the Roman Catholics were wrong. Calvin’s response: “I will not perform any miracles for you. The age of miracles ceased with the apostles. The miracles were necessary only to establish the foundations of the church. But since that time, the power to perform miracles no longer exists.” Many Presbyterians, as well as many other Protestants today, are cessationists. They believe that miracles existed back in Jesus’ day, but not now.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, we have Pentecostals and other charismatics who firmly believe in divine healing and other gifts of the Spirit. Some of you may have seen such claims of healings, what we used to call “faith healings,” on television or in person. The Pentecostals and charismatics reject the idea that miracles are limited to the apostolic age, and they believe that we, too, have the power to perform the same miracles.
When we turn to the Roman Catholics, we also find a spectrum of views on divine or miraculous healing. On the one hand, we have such phenomena as Our Lady of Lourdes. Countless pilgrims travel to Lourdes, France, to be miraculously cured by the healing waters, and there are many testimonies of healing. Yet, at the same time, the Roman Catholics also have a tradition of seeing illness and suffering as a virtue. Many of the saints who are venerated contracted devastating, debilitating diseases, and many died young, but their suffering is seen as part of their imitation of Christ.
Confused? So what should we believe about divine healing? What do we make of the healing stories in the Gospels? What is it that we pray for when we pray for healing? There is no clear answer to these questions in Scripture or tradition. But I would like to share with you some personal reflections on these questions. Going back to my Calvinist, cessationist background, I’ve come across some awkward situations in my ministry when it comes to pastoral care. Our Postulant for Holy Orders, Lynda Hurt, has just completed her training for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Saint Luke’s Hospital, where she served as a hospital chaplain. I did my CPE training a couple of summers ago. One day, I was called to the bedside of a dying man. His family had just decided to take him off life support, and he had just minutes to live. The man was surrounded by his wife and three adult children. One of the children, his youngest son, was very distraught, and seeing me in my clerical collar, he cried out: “Do something! Heal him!” I was caught off guard, to say the least, and before I realized what was coming out of my mouth, I blurted out: “But I’m not a Pentecostal.” Fortunately, the family did not kick me out of the room, and I was able to minister to them without any more embarrassing incidents.
As you can tell from this story, divine, miraculous healing has not been a part of my personal experience. My father died of ALS, and my maternal grandfather and mother both died of Alzheimer’s. In spite of all the fervent prayers that we offered up, they suffered terribly and died. Actually, in the case of my grandfather, my grandmother tried to cure him by calling in a Pentecostal healer to our house, but the only thing the healer managed to do was frighten my grandfather with her loud prayers and yelling.
So both my theological and personal background predispose me against believing in divine healing. I know of many Episcopal clergy who have had extraordinary miraculous experiences. I am not one of them. Yet, at the same time, I cannot subscribe anymore to the doctrine of cessationism, at least in its strict form. Medical science has changed dramatically over the years. We no longer believe, as we used to, that the body and mind are separate, and that healing involves only fixing the body. Today we have alternative medicines as well as music therapy, pet therapy, and a host of other ways to address illness. The logic behind all this is that the mind – and spirit – have a profound impact on the body. Healing is no longer just a clinical process treating the body; healing is holistic – it involves the whole person. You have probably heard of studies that show that people of faith live longer lives. So there’s an element of the unknown – mystery – behind healing and health. Then, who am I to deny that miracles can happen? Who am I to deny the countless testimonies of those who have been healed through the power of prayer? Divine healing may not be a part of my personal experience, but it is an integral part of the faith for many of our fellow Christians, perhaps some of you here this morning. We believe in an Almighty God, who can do anything God wills, and the very act of prayer is a request for divine, supernatural intervention. God can heal through natural or supernatural means. It is not for us to limit what God can do. When we pray to God for healing, we open ourselves up to the possibility of divine action.
In our prayer to the Virgin Mary, the Salve Regina, we speak of life as a vale or valley of tears – a beautiful, poetic expression of the trials and tribulations of life. Who is immune from sickness, accidents, and ultimately death? Life is filled with brokenness. But we need not despair. We have the promise of hope and healing in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Divine Physician. As the crippled woman came to him two thousand years ago, let us also come to Jesus and pray for the healing of our whole selves – body, mind, and spirit.
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
21 July 2019
The audio recording for this sermon can be found here.
Recently, I’ve noticed an interesting trend among Christians to identify themselves as either a “Martha” or a “Mary.” If you’re a “Martha,” you’re the busy, active type, involved in various activities of the Church. If you’re a “Mary,” on the other hand, you’re the quiet, contemplative type, preferring to spend time in prayer and devotion. When we read today’s Gospel from Luke, we certainly get that kind of contrast between Martha and Mary; they appear to be two sisters with very different personalities. It also appears that Jesus favors Mary, privileging the life of contemplation over work.
When we delve deeper into the text, however, the story becomes a bit more complex. To begin with, there are certain rules of hospitality to consider. Martha and Mary have invited Jesus over for a meal, and it is their job as hosts to prepare the table. The fact is, both Martha and Mary can’t be sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him. Then who would prepare the food? At the same time, if Mary were to join Martha in the kitchen, that would leave Jesus to sit alone by himself. That wouldn’t be very polite either. In the story, both Martha and Mary are doing what they should be doing. Martha takes care of the food, and Mary keeps Jesus company.
The problem for Jesus is not that Martha is busy preparing; it is her attitude. We read in verse 40 that “Martha was distracted by her many tasks.” Martha is stressing out and irritated, and she complains to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself. Tell her then to help me.” But how does Jesus respond? Instead of sympathizing with Martha, he says: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.”
What, then, is this “one thing, the better part” that Mary has chosen? Biblical scholars believe that the reason Jesus holds up Mary in this story is not to argue for the primacy of the contemplative over the active life. The reason is actually much more profound and radical. When Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, she is physically assuming the position of a disciple. In first-century Judaism, disciples sit at the feet of their master to listen and learn. Mary is thus no longer just the host engaging in polite conversation with her guest; Mary is claiming her place as one of Jesus’ disciples, a follower of his teachings.
This would have been unthinkable for a woman at the time. Yet, for Jesus and the movement that he began, women disciples formed an integral part of his ministry. The Gospels mention by name several women followers of Jesus: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Mary the mother of James and Joses. Women stood at the cross, they were the first to enter the empty tomb, and it is Mary Magdalene who is the first among the followers to encounter the resurrected Jesus. Since then, over the past two thousand years of Christian history, countless women have become disciples and leaders in the Church. And they are only recently beginning to receive the recognition and credit that they deserve. Our seminarian, Isaac Petty, is currently taking a fascinating course on the Early Mothers of the Church. You’ve probably heard the names of such Church Fathers as Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose, but how many of you have heard of the Church Mothers – Macrina, Thekla, Melania, Paula? During the Middle Ages, the monastic life of the convent provided opportunities for leadership and scholarship for brilliant women like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. In the modern period, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Protestant missionary movement inspired thousands of American and European women to fan out across the globe as teachers, preachers, nurses, and doctors – all of them disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church still has a long way to go in realizing gender equality, but at the same time we can rightfully claim a history of women’s liberation and empowerment.
If you would please indulge me, I would like to share a personal example and tell you about my maternal grandmother, Shin Ae Lee. She, too, was a disciple of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Grandmother was born in the early twentieth century into a privileged background. Her family belonged to the old, traditional Korean aristocracy. But like all women in Korea at that time, including high-born women, she was denied any form of education because of the prevailing Confucian patriarchy. She had to teach herself how to read and write. In Confucian Korea, women were valued only as wives and mothers, and even rudimentary learning was considered improper. Moreover, women were physically confined to certain quarters of the house and were not permitted to go outside unaccompanied. Grandmother had a hard life, including the death of three of her children in infancy. During the Korean War, she along with the rest of my mother’s family became war refugees and suffered hunger and grinding poverty. Fortunately, by the time I was born, Grandmother was able to enjoy more stable, prosperous times.
And late in her life, she found her calling to serve as a deacon in the Methodist Church. Grandmother committed herself to working in the various ministries of the church. Her special passion was evangelism. She even partnered with a minister to plant a new church that grew to several hundred members. I was born in Korea and came to the states when I was eight years old. When I was growing up in Korea, my maternal grandparents lived with us. In spite of Grandmother’s busy schedule, she made time to take me to church every Sunday and vacation Bible School every summer. She planted and nurtured in me the seeds of the Christian faith. Grandmother found personal liberation and empowerment in the Church. Like Mary in the Gospel story, Grandmother claimed her identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ in spite of the oppressive patriarchy of her society and culture. But she was no quiet, contemplative type. She had a strong personality, and she was so busy with church work every day that I rarely saw her at home. In temperament, she was a “Martha.”
To return to the Gospel story of Mary and Martha that we began with, Jesus holds up Mary for claiming her place as his disciple, but that doesn’t mean that Martha is to be dismissed. In fact, the Church remembers and honors both Mary and Martha with a feast day, coming up soon on July 29. According to tradition, Mary and Martha represent two inseparable dimensions of the Christian faith. Mary represents contemplation, a life of prayer and devotion. And Martha represents action, a life of good works and helping others. Or to put it another way, Mary embodies the love of God, and Martha embodies the love of neighbor. Christ calls us to follow the examples of both women, minus Martha’s attitude, of course. Our personalities and dispositions may incline us in one direction, but we cannot neglect the other. As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to both the contemplative and the active life. In loving God, we love our neighbor, and in loving our neighbor, we love God.
As we look to Mary and Martha as pioneers and models of our faith, I would like to close with the Collect that we pray on their Feast Day:
O God, heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany: Give us the will to love thee, open our hearts to hear thee, and strengthen our hands to serve thee in others for his sake; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and forever. Amen.
 The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p.1875.
 Calendar of the Church Year, according to the Episcopal Church. satucket.com/Calendar.htm (accessed July 19, 2019).
The audio recording of today's sermon can be found here.
Today’s Gospel reading from John recounts the final words of Jesus before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. In anticipation of his separation from his disciples, Jesus gathers them for their last meal together, preaches his final message to them, and concludes with a parting prayer – his farewell. In the prayer, Jesus asks God to unite his disciples and followers and make them all be one: “For you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me that they may become completely one…” (John 17:21-22). In his prayer for unity, Jesus envisions the relationship of the Father and the Son as the model and foundation for the relationship of his followers to one another. Just as the Father and the Son form a perfect and harmonious union, we, too, are called to be united with one another.
But if we look at the historical experience of the Church over the past two thousand years, we have fallen far short of this goal of unity for which Jesus prayed. Christian history is filled with strife and division. From the letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, we read about the various theological disputes in the early church, such as whether to keep Jewish customs like circumcision and dietary laws. Then, there are the many heresies and schisms that plagued the first centuries of the church: Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and so on. About a thousand years after the founding of the Church, the Christian world in the eleventh century suffered its first major division, when the churches on the eastern side of the Mediterranean and those on the western side mutually condemned each other. The eastern wing of the Church became the Orthodox, and the western, the Roman Catholic. Then, about a half century later came the Protestant Reformation, when the unity of the Church in the West was forever shattered, and countless different churches proliferated. You probably didn’t realize you were going to get a lecture on church history today, but that’s what you get when you hire a historian as your priest. I will restrain myself, though, and stop there – at least for now.
One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians ask about Christianity – and it is often a stumbling block to faith – is why there are so many churches: Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox. The fact of the matter is we Christians have not done such a good job fulfilling Jesus’ prayer for unity. Even in our own denomination, the Episcopal Church, we have recently suffered tragic divisions over issues of gender and sexuality.
And I have to confess that I am no impartial observer of the divisiveness. I am symptomatic of the divisiveness. I am complicit in the divisiveness. Let me give you a very recent example. This past week, I went to my office as usual at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg where I teach. As I drove in, I saw all these people, mostly young teenagers, that I would ordinarily not see on campus. The boys were wearing monochromatic dress shirts with slacks, and the girls were wearing long dresses, some of them wearing head coverings. This was quite a change from seeing our students during the school year with their sweats, flip-flops, and even pajama bottoms. It turned out that the university had rented space to a fundamentalist Christian group that runs private schools and homeschooling, and they were holding their annual conference. In my initial response, my prejudices and biases immediately kicked in. I thought to myself: “They look and act strange. They hold onto values that contradict my own.” Quite frankly, I found their presence intrusive and inconvenient. Needless to say, I wasn’t thinking very positive thoughts. And I am sure that if they were to see me today in my vestments and our liturgy at St. Mary’s or if they had seen me this past Friday evening at our church booth for the Kansas City Pridefest, they wouldn’t think such positive thoughts about me.
If I could have it my way, I would prefer to avoid or ignore such people altogether. But here is the problem. They belong to the same Christian faith that I profess, and, what’s more, Jesus calls us to be one. How do we do that? How do we work for unity with people who are so different from us? For many of us, the issue of Christian unity is more than just an abstract theological problem. We have family, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues who belong to different and often conflicting branches of Christianity. In what ways can we achieve in our daily, personal interactions the kind of unity of faith envisioned by Jesus?
The technical term for working toward Christian unity is ecumenism. And I am no expert on ecumenism. But I would like to offer up some ideas and suggestions as we reflect on this challenge of Christian unity. To begin with, we can focus on what we share in common rather than what divides us. In spite of the variety of different expressions, there are certain basic, core beliefs and practices that define us as Christians. The great Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis, calls this “mere Christianity,” and it is the title of his book, which many of you may have read. The book explains the core of the Christian faith, our common ground with all Christians. This ecumenical vision is also central to the work of our current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry. He calls our church “the Episcopal wing of the Jesus Movement.” Whether you call it mere Christianity or the Jesus Movement, all Christians hold in common the core beliefs that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord, and that the Bible is the Word of God. Moreover, central to the practice of our faith are the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion; these are the core rituals that define and distinguish Christian faith. In a moment, Norah will be baptized, and in the waters of baptism, she will be uniting not only with our community of faith here at St. Mary’s but with the community of all Christians on earth and in heaven. Likewise, as we come up for the Eucharist, we will join countless other Christians around the world this day to unite with Christ through his Body and Blood. Sadly, in the midst of all our divisions and squabbling, we often lose sight of these common bonds of faith.
Another way to work for unity in our faith is to pray together. This past Thursday, we had a glorious Evensong and Benediction in celebration of the Ascension, and, following the service, several of us have accepted the invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to join him in the global prayer movement called Thy Kingdom Come. From Ascension to the Pentecost, which is next Sunday, we will join Anglicans around the world as well as with Christians from many other denominations in daily prayer as we seek to bring more people to come to know Jesus Christ. Through such movements of common prayer, we lay aside our differences and divisions, and unite and lift up our voices together to the throne of God.
Focusing on our common faith and praying together can promote Christian unity, but for the ultimate answer to the question of how we Christians can become one, we return to the passage from the Gospel of John that we heard earlier. It is here that Jesus himself points the way to unity. In the conclusion to his prayer, Jesus asks the Father that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Matthew 17:26). Love defines the relationship between the Father and the Son, and it is that same love that will bind together all of us. Perhaps the most eloquent and concrete definition of Christian love in Scripture is found in the words of the Apostle Paul in that famous chapter on love from I Corinthians 13:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13: 5-7)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, let us join together to work for the unity and oneness of faith for which Jesus prayed. Let us focus on what we share in common, let us pray together, let us love one another as Christ has loved us. In spite of our divisions, we are, in the end, one family of faith – children of God.
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