Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: I Timothy 2:1-8
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
18 September 2022
The death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8 has produced an extraordinary outpouring of grief all over the world. I've seen large-scale demonstrations of public mourning in the past for famous figures - political leaders, celebrities, and the like. But I don't think I've ever seen anything this big and moving - so many people from all different backgrounds and such heartfelt tributes of love and respect. In London, for the past few days, people have queued up in a long line to pay their respects as Elizabeth lies in state in Westminster Hall. In this final stretch before the funeral tomorrow, some may have to wait 30 hours in a 10-mile-long line. Here at St. Mary's, as soon as we heard the news of Elizabeth's death, we placed her portrait and lit a candle in our columbarium. And, this coming Saturday morning, we will honor Queen Elizabeth with a Solemn Requiem Mass.
In a way, the scale and depth of the mourning for Elizabeth should be no surprise. She reigned for 70 long years, and she lived an exemplary life of selfless service and duty to her country and personal integrity in spite of all the challenges that her family presented her. And, for us Christians, Elizabeth is a model and inspiration for our faith. In her annual Christmas messages, she spoke publicly about the centrality of Jesus Christ in her life.
But, as you have probably heard, not all the responses to her death have been loving and respectful. Within hours of Elizabeth's death, Irish soccer fans in Dublin cheered and chanted: "Lizzy's in a box." And as Elizabeth lay dying, an American scholar of Nigerian heritage tweeted: "I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating." So, what is it that Elizabeth did that has invited such anger and hatred? Well, it's not so much what she did but what she was. Elizabeth was the icon of empire, with its history of conquest, oppression, and exploitation. And the British empire was the biggest of them all. At its peak before World War I, it controlled a quarter of the earth's mass and a quarter of the global population. And there have been many tragic chapters in that history.
So, how do we view Elizabeth and her legacy? On the one had, we have the image of the virtuous, beloved monarch, and, on the other, the despicable head of a tyrannical empire. Well, it is not for me to tell you what to think. But I would like to reflect a bit on what our Christian faith has to say about the issue. More specifically, what do scripture and the experience of the Church have to say about empire?
Since I'm a historian by training, let me begin with the history. The relationship between Christianity and empire is a complicated one. Our origins lie in the Roman empire, which not only executed the founder of our faith, Jesus, on a cross; it carried out bloody persecutions against the Church for centuries. But then that all changed with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Christianity went from being a persecuted minority religion to eventually becoming the religion of the empire. We went from being victims to agents of empire. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, but other Christian empires have followed: the Byzantine empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Russian empire. And, yes, the British empire was also Christian, and Protestant at that. Following Henry VIII's break with Rome, English monarchs have been held the title: Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church. Although the role is mostly symbolic today, Elizabeth during her reign did formally appoint archbishops, bishops, and deans of cathedrals.
For all its faults, the British empire was good for Christianity. Its global reach allowed the unprecedented expansion of Anglicanism and other denominations around the world as missionaries fanned out across various parts of the empire. And the missionaries planted not only churches but also built hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Through the schools, they raised literacy rates and introduced ideas about democracy and freedom. The missionaries also carried out wide-ranging social reforms, ranging from abolishing the practice of burning of widows in India to female infanticide in China. Christianity was good for the British empire.
The days of the British empire are long gone. It was dismantled in the decolonization that took place after World War II. But many see the United States as now the heir to the British empire. In its military might and economic power, the U.S. exercises a similar hegemony over world affairs that Britain once did. Likewise, we have had our share of blunders and tragedies in the history of our involvement with the world. And at home today we find ourselves polarized along political and ideological lines.
Whether it is the British empire or the American empire, our role as Christians has been the same: to hold the empires up to the ideals and values of our faith and to reform and to transform according to those ideals and values. As we look back on our own history, many of the great social and political movements, such as abolition, prison reform, women's rights, civil rights, were deeply rooted in our faith and led by devout Christians.
Our charge to reform and transform the empires in which we live comes to us from scripture. In today's Epistle reading from I Timothy, we read: "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity" (I Timothy 2:1-2). The Apostle Paul calls on the early Christian communities to pray for their political leaders. Why? So that they might practice their faith in peace and freedom. What is striking about this call to prayer is the fact that these communities were under persecution by the political and religious authorities. They are, in fact, being called to pray for those who wish them harm.
We, too, are called to pray for our leaders, whether we like them or not. It is inseparable from our work of reform and transformation. We are not instructed how to pray for them. That is left to our conscience. A call to prayer is not necessarily a call to blind obedience and submission. After all, we are also called to pray for our enemies. Our prayer for leaders could be a plea for change in policy or even administration. We just began our weekly discussion of the lectionary this morning, and, as we were discusssing the epistle, Nancy Wagner shared with us that she prays that our leaders would live up to the duties and expectations of their office - we see so much incompetence and corruption these days. When we pray for our leaders, we may disagree on the content, but the important thing is the fact that we pray. It is a part of our work in the cause of peace, justice, and freedom.
In a few moments, Adam Powell will receive the Sacrament of Baptism. The rite of baptism is rich in layers of meaning. Through the waters of baptism, we die with Jesus and rise to new life with him. We renounce sin and evil and commit ourselves to a life of holiness. Baptism is also a rite of initiation into the community of faith. And, as the newest member of our community, Adam will join us in affirming the Baptismal Covenant, which concludes with these words: we "will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being" (BCP, p.305). And prayer lies at the heart of this commitment to make the world a better place, for it is in prayer that we find our vision, our courage, our strength.
In our Episcopal tradition, the call to pray for our leaders is part of our corporate worship. We pray for our leaders each time we gather for Mass. And the Prayers of the People have different forms to do that. Form I, for instance: "For our President, for the leaders of the nations, and for all in authority, let us pray to the Lord" (BCP, p.384). And in Form V, we can even name specific leaders: "For those in positions of public trust, especially Joe, Our President, Michael, Our Governor, and Lucas, Our Mayor, that they may serve justice, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person, we pray to you, O Lord" (p.390). And today on the eve of her funeral we add to our prayer list, Queen Elizabeth II, Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church. Let light perpetual shine upon her. Amen.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 12:32-40
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
7 August 2022
Treasure-hunting is alive and well. I'm sure you've heard about the most recent Mega Millions lottery, worth $1.3 billion dollars. Countless Americans bought the tickets, hoping to be the lucky one with the winning numbers. I read that someone in the Chicago area had the ticket. That person's life will change overnight, soon to be propelled into the realm of the ultrarich. Yes, we hear about how most lottery winners are not really happy and how many of them squander away their wealth. But, to be honest, how many of us would not want a quick billion dollars? Think about the benefits and rewards that would come with that kind of money: the power, the status, the freedom to pursue whatever we wanted.
It is human nature to desire wealth and possessions. And our society celebrates the acquisition of money. The media hypnotizes us with icons of wealth and status, from multi-billionaires to celebrity athletes and movie stars.
In today's Gospel, we have a counter-intuitive and counter-cultural message about wealth. Jesus tells his disciples: "Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treaure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Luke 12:33-40). In contrast to the message around us to accumulate wealth, Jesus tells us to give it away.
Why? For one, there is no enduring value in our material possessions. Wealth comes and goes. Jesus employs the colorful images of worn-out purses, plundering thieves, and moth-eaten valuables to illustrate the fleeting nature of earthly treasures. I heard somewhere that most family fortunes do not survive three generations. What usually happens is that the generations that come after the founder of the fortune usually lack the same kind of hunger for money and end up spending more than increasing the family wealth. In last week's Gospel, we read about the rich fool who makes all sorts of plans for what to do with his money only to die the next day (Luke 12:13-21). As the cliche goes, you can't take it with you when you go.
But there is another, more important reason for not placing our faith in material possessions. Jesus speaks of a different, far superior kind of wealth, "an unfailing treasure in heaven." Unlike the treasures of this world, this heavenly treasure has enduring value; indeed, it is eternal in nature. What is this heavenly treasure? It is none other than Christ himself. Jesus is our "unfailing treasure in heaven."
Jesus is the treasure of God's precious gift of his own Son to the world. Jesus is God Incarnate, God in the flesh. And as God Incarnate, Christ is the source of all creation, the source of all blessings. Everything that we have and enjoy comes from Christ. And through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, he has become our Savior and Lord. We have the promise of life with him in this world and in the next.
Hence, compared to the treasure that we have in Jesus, everything else pales in comparison. In the parable of the Pearl of Great Price in the Gospel of Matthew, we read of the pearl merchant who finds one pearl of great value (Matthew 13:45-46). He sells everything he has in order to buy the one pearl. For the Christian, Jesus is the Pearl of Great Price, the treasure above all treasures for which we should be willing to sacrifice everything else. As we read in today's Gospel: "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Throughout Christian history, many believers have done just that, given up everything for their faith. In the Gospels, we read of the disciples who left behind family and possessions to follow Jesus. And we have the long and rich monastic tradition of monks and nuns who have given up everything to take vows of poverty and service to the poor and needy. Yet, at the same time, we also have examples of wealthy believers in the early church who, though they did not give away everything they had, were generous patrons of the church and its ministries. And throughout Christian history as well as in the present, we have believers on all points of the socioeconomic spectrum. Based on the experience of the Church, the degree to which we sacrifice our material possessions for the sake of the faith seems to depend on our individual conscience, to what we believe God is calling us to do. Perhaps because of my very Protestant background (I don't know any monks or nuns), I personally am not aware of anyone who has taken the radical step of giving it all up.
But whatever sacrifices we make, even giving it all up, they are nothing compared to what we receive in return. From the treasure that is Christ flows a stream of spiritual riches that no money can buy. He is our Redeemer, who grants us the the promise of eternal life. He has conquered death and offers us unending life with him. And in this life, we have the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, sent by Jesus to provide us in our daily lives with wisdom and guidance, and comfort and strength in times of trial. And just as earthly wealth can provide the resources to do what we want, the spiritual riches that come from our relationship with Jesus also empower us, not to do what we want but to carry out God's will. Inspired and empowered by Christ, we do God's work in the world, feeding the poor, healing the sick, visiting the lonely, committing ourselves to peace and justice.
Earthly treasures, like the lottery jackpot, derive their value from being rare and limited to the few. But the heavenly treasure that is Christ is available to all of us. It is God's free gift. And it is available to us now. We claim this treasure every time we come to the altar for Holy Eucharist. As we receive the host and chalice, we receive the precious Body and Blood of Jesus into our own bodies. We thus become bearers of the treasure that is above all treasures: Jesus, God-Incarnate. Dear sisters and brothers, let us now join together and come to the altar to receive our divine treasure, the source of all blessings. And bearing this treasure in us, let us go forth to be Christ to one another in love and service. Amen.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 11:1-13
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
24 July 2022
As Christians, we often refer to ourselves as a family of faith. And we use terms that we ordinarily reserve for family members. We call one sisters and brothers. We are children of God, and the head of our family is our heavenly Father. These days, you may also hear God referred to as mother. We use these family terms to express the personal, intimate nature of the relationship we enjoy with God and with one another. We Christians do not think of God as some distant, aloof deity but as a loving and caring God.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus, surrounded by his disciples, reflects on what it means to call God “Our Father.” He presents two brief parables, both using the example of a father-child relationship. We read: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If 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!” Jesus employs the element of absurdity to convey his message. What father in his right mind would give a deadly snake to a child who asks for fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg? The parables point out that it is in the nature of fatherhood to provide for the needs of his children – in this case, food and nourishment.
Jesus uses the analogy of a caring human father to explain how we, too, can turn to God with our needs and wishes. God will listen and answer our prayers and supplications. Just as a father loves and provides for his child, God, our heavenly Father, loves and provides for us.
While this message may seem straightforward to us, Jesus’ original audience – his disciples – would have been surprised by this kind of portrait of fatherhood. A father’s love for a child is universal, but as in other ancient societies, first-century Jews viewed the father as primarily an authority figure, the head of the household, someone with absolute power over his family. The father was the one who gave orders and imposed discipline, and the role of the rest of the family – the wife and the children – was to obey without question. In contrast to this stern traditional image of fatherhood, Jesus emphasizes the loving and caring side, and uses it to explain the nature of God’s relationship to us.
Today, most of us no longer subscribe to a harsh, authoritarian view of fatherhood as we have in the past. I am going to date myself here, but my generation is the product of TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver” – reruns, of course – or “The Brady Bunch,” in which the father is warm and loving, wise and understanding, even all knowing - remember the show "Father Knows Best"? But we know that the fathers in these shows are idealizations created by Hollywood. They are fictional characters. How many Ward Cleaver’s and Mike Brady’s do you actually know? Sadly, these days, we even hear tragic stories of parents who abuse their children. Some of you may remember the disturbing news story from a few years ago of the parents in California who kept their thirteen children chained and padlocked to a bed, depriving them of food and other necessities. In spite of the idealization of parenthood and family life in our society, reality does not always match the expectations.
When Jesus draws the analogy between a human father and our heavenly Father in his parables, he recognizes the limits and problems in the comparison. Thus, he explains that while God is like a human father, God goes beyond a human father. We read: “If 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!” Jesus reveals that God our heavenly Father is far more loving and generous than a human father can ever be. And the reason for that is God gives us a gift that far surpasses any human gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What is this gift of the Holy Spirit? Scripture teaches us that the Holy Spirit is nothing less than God’s own presence dwelling in us. Thus, as our heavenly Father, God gives us, his children, his own spirit to fill our hearts and minds. Because the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we are never alone. God is always with us, whether we are aware of this reality or not. In describing this divine presence in our lives, the Apostle Paul declares that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19). Just as God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple that King Solomon built, God now resides in us, blessing and sanctifying our lives. In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Comforter (John 16:7). When we experience times of trial or need, the Holy Spirit is there, helping us and giving us comfort and strength. Because of the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, we never have to face the challenges and problems in our lives alone. God is with us always. And when we are so overwhelmed that we cannot even find the words to pray, we are told that the Holy Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26-27). God understands our needs even without our asking.
One of the most difficult aspects of the parent-child relationship is experiencing the various moments and stages of separation. Looking back on my own life, I think of how difficult it was to leave my parents to go off to summer camp for the first time or to go off to college far away. Part of the painful process of growing up is to realize that we can’t live with our parents forever. And later in our lives, we have to confront the reality of aging and death that will separate our parents from us.
In our heavenly Father, we have no such worries of separation. God's presence in our lives is eternal. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God dwells in us now. And in the life to come, we will reunite with our beloved family and friends who have gone before us, we will join our brothers and sisters in the faith, and we will live forever in our heavenly Father’s kingdom. Amen.
Seventh Sunday of Easter
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!