Christmas is filled with images of children: telling Santa Claus what gifts they want, waiting for Santa Claus to bring those gifts, opening the gifts, breaking the gifts, going to Grandma’s house, sitting at the kid’s table for Christmas dinner (usually a card table either stuck next to the end of the main table where the adults eat, or put in an adjoining room so the adults can eat in peace). Of course the main child image of Christmas is the Christ child, because he’s what the whole hassle is about, anyway.
Paul adds two more child images to our Christmas celebrations in our second reading today. Those image are of us humans – Children of God. He mentions that God gave us laws to live under in order to form us into adults, and then he says that God also adopted as children when God lived among us as our brother Jesus. That might not make sense, but no human words can ever fully explain God, and Paul was doing his best to make the incomprehensible comprehensible.
Maybe it could be put this way: God creates us to be his Children, God puts his stamp of approval on us by being one of us, and God further claims us (his natural children) by adopting us as doubly worthy of God’s name. That might not make sense either, but once again, human words can only go so far.
What it all boils down to is: we are God’s Children. As Children, we must grow. Contrary to what a lot of tv preachers and political candidates and people knocking on doors with Bibles say, becoming a Child of God is a beginning, not an ending. As Baby Jesus had to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and nursed by his mother, as kids at Christmas time have to wait for the gifts to come and Christmas dinner to be served, we have to admit our dependency on God. We also need to realize that growth is difficult and takes a lot of work, so we must be open to the things God gives us to grow and use them to our advantage with a minimum of whining. That is difficult, and I certainly don’t do it very well, but it is the only way to grow.
So while we are in this life, our vocation is grow, even though we will never be fully grown. This table up here is the kid’s table, even though the host is the King of the Universe, who chooses to feed his children himself, with himself. May we take what God gives us today with joy and gratitude, and may we be open to all the good gifts to come. AMEN
Job 19: 23-27a
II Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
Our scripture readings from Job and the Second Letter to the Thessalonians are both about trusting God. Paul talks about God a lot, but his words all boil down to two phrases near the end of the reading this morning: “the Lord is faithful” and “the steadfastness of Christ”. Job is a different character than Paul. In fact, Job leaves all the talk about God up to his friends, and instead, chooses to talk to and with God. Because of his relationship with God, Job is able to say that even with all his troubles and arguments with God, he knows that God lives and will hold him in life. The Sadducees in the gospel story (along with the Pharisees in most other gospel stories) have gotten an undeserved bad reputation. They did not mean or want to be stupid and evil, and the vast majority of them were not stupid and evil the vast majority of the time. They just wanted to understand God and live the way they understood God wanted them to live. Maybe the reason they got such a bad reputation in the gospel stories is because they spent so much time trying to analyze their relationship with God that they didn’t have any time left for an actual relationship.
We can so easily be like Job’s friends or the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Paul at his wordiest, spending so much time talking about God that we never get around talking to and with God. Of course, talk about God can and should be helpful – it is called theology, and there is nothing at all wrong with it. We just need to steer clear of substituting theology for relationship with God. In fact, Paul, most Sadducees and Pharisees, and probably Job’s friends, all had wonderful relationships with God, and those relationships were most likely helped and fueled by their theologizing. However, the Book of Job, the Gospels, and The Acts of The Apostles all show us how theology can never be a substitute for trust in God.
Jesus talked about God a lot, too, like the example in our gospel story this morning. But we must always remember that he also spent a lot of time talking with God. We need to follow his example, and discern the proper times for theology and the proper times for prayer. We need to be like Job, and know when it is more helpful to talk to God than to talk about God. We need to be like Paul and know when our words are getting in the way of our lives. And we need to be like all those good Sadducees and Pharisees, and allow our religion to help us and others around us.
God is the God of the living – living words and living relationships. Both are good, and both can help the other. May God help us to know which to turn to and when, and may we be open to God’s directions. AMEN
Genesis 32: 3-8,22-30
II Timothy 3: 14-4:5
Luke 18: 1-8a
The first sentence of our gospel reading from Luke this morning sums up the basic idea from all our scripture lessons today: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Pray always + don’t lose heart = perseverance. That might seem easy for Jesus to say, because sometimes we have the mistaken notion that Jesus found it easy to pray. All we need to do to dispel that misconception is to read the story of the night in Gethsemene before his arrest. Knowing how difficult it was for Jesus to pray, we might wonder why he expects any of his disciples to pray, and we find an answer to that problem in the parable we just head from Luke.
Usually, the parable is interpreted in such a way that the corrupt judge represents God, and the widow represents us, and if we only nag God enough, we will finally get what we want. However, it might make better sense to see the judge as ourselves, and the widow as God expecting us to do the right thing, and persevering in that expectation. Megan McKenna explains it this way in a book in our library: “we see ourselves as the woman, the righteous one, demanding our rights from God, when prayer [should be] acknowledging we have no rights…We never think God might be the widow and the tables might be turned.” (Parables – The Arrows of God pp105-106).
In other words, we are not to pray in order to change God; we are to pray in order to let God change us, so that we can see the world as it truly is – as God sees it. Praying in order to change ourselves is much more difficult than praying in order to change God, because when we truly see ourselves and how much we need to change, we usually don’t like what we see and we often despair at the possibility of ever growing. That’s why the first sentence of our gospel reading this morning is so important: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” (Perseverance.) As Megan McKenna says in the book just quoted: “In Hebrew the word for prayer means to stand in the presence of God, to be seen for what we are, to be judged and not run away.” (p 109) We need to keep at it – to stand in the presence of God with nothing hidden, knowing that God loves us more than we ourselves or anyone else ever could, even though God knows all our secrets. God knows us best, yet God loves us most. God knows the wonderful people we can become if only we persevere in truthfully allowing God to change us. God knows firsthand, because God is one of us. Jesus persevered in prayer, as difficult as it was, and asks us to do the same.
Prayer is not the only thing that needs our persistence. We also need to persist in our work, as the other scriptures we heard this morning make clear. We heard Paul writing these words to Timothy: “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” Those instructions are for a pastor, but we are all called to be pastors in some way to the people around us in our everyday lives. Jesus worked and prayed as he fulfilled his calling, and we are to do the same. Every walk of life offers opportunities to bring God’s love, peace, and joy to the little part of the world around us. As Paul tells Timothy: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
With all of this in mind, the strange story about Jacob from our Old Testament reading this morning might make a little more sense than it usually does. Jacob was not a good person. He was a cheat who was cheated and then cheated his cheater. Now he wants to change, to repent. He wants to turn around – to come back home and do the right thing, but he is scared of what his brother (whom he cheated) might do to him. Jacob is not used to doing the right thing, so he takes every precaution to protect his assets in case something goes wrong. The one person he can’t protect himself from is God, so finally God confronts him. Jacob perseveres in his encounter with God, and in doing so, is changed so much that he is given a new name. He also carries with him a wound from the struggle. So it is with us – we might be wounded from life’s struggles, but we can’t say we have truly lived until we have truly lived until we have had those struggles. And even though it often seems a struggle, like Jacob wrestling, it is only through perseverance in prayer that we can be changed, given a new name, and become a blessing to those around us.
So that is our job as Christians: to persevere in prayer (standing in the presence of God with nothing hidden, allowing God to make us into a new creation), and persevering in our work (bringing Jesus into our own world in our own way). It is not easy, and it never gets easier, but it is necessary. AMEN
In our first reading from the book of Genesis, Jacob had a vision of angels which caused him to realize that he was in the presence of God, or as he said: “surely, the LORD is in this place.” The vision was accompanied by good news for Jacob, who responded by saying: “this is the gate of heaven.” Angels have been regarded in different ways around the world and throughout history: as troops in the armies of the spirit world; as fantastic creatures with lions’ bodies and eagles’ wings; as plump, smiling putti strumming lutes. The main consistency with which scripture regards angels is the idea that they are messengers of God, no matter what they look like or how they convey their message. Those are the good angels.
The book of Revelation, that we heard in our second reading, speaks of war in heaven between those good angels led by Michael, and the angels of the dragon (who is called Satan). Satan and his angels have also been envisioned many ways: as gruesome hairy monsters dripping venom from their fangs; as horned, hoofed tailed sprites carrying pitchforks; as Uncle Sam burned in effigy by rioting Iranians. As with the good angels, there is a consistent view in scripture of Satan – that of an accuser. The word “satan” actually means someone who gives false testimony. In our reading from revelation, the angels of God get tired of Satan’s false accusations and throw him and his angels out of heaven. Unfortunately, they landed on earth, and that will be dealt with later.
The stories of all these angels might seem strange to us today – they probably seemed strange when they were first told, but there is a theme to all the angel stories in the Bible, and it is the idea that God uses messengers to bring news (good news and bad news). What a joy to bring good news from God, and what a dreadful, but necessary task to bring bad news form God. In either instance, it is an honor to be God’s messenger, and it is an honor which all of us can have. We often think of the angel Gabriel saying to Mary: “You have found favor with God.”, but we all have the same opportunity to say to those around us: “You have found favor with God.” We may say it in different ways, but we still have the opportunity. We also have the opportunity, like the angels in Jacob’s dream, to show people that no matter where they are, God is in that place. By doing so, we can be the “gate of heaven”, pouring out God’s love to the world around us. We also might need to bring warnings to people (what they would consider bad news), such as the angels brought to Sodom: “The way you are treating people is unacceptable, and if you don’t put a stop to it, God will.”
We also have an opportunity to throw Satan out of our world, just like the angels threw Satan out of heaven. Whenever we encounter people burdened with false accusations such as: “God is not in this place with you.”, “You are not a child of God.”, or “God does not find favor with you”, we can counter those accusations with the truth of God’s love and total acceptance. Of course, in order to do that, we must believe in the truth of God’s love for ourselves, because we are often our own satans, teling ourselves that God could not and does not find us lovable. We must cast these satanic lies out of ourselves, as well as casting them out of the world around us. Perhaps to do this, we need only listen to the angels that God has sent to us – people near and far who love us and tell us so in different ways.
We may think ourselves unfit or unable to be an angel of the LORD bringing news of God’s love. In fact, it is difficult for some people to verbalize their love and concern for others. However, we can, each in our own unique way, show God’s love, so that working together, wherever we are, whomever we are with, we can let people know “surely God is in this place.” May God help us, and may we help each other, as we try to do just that. AMEN
Occasionally, one finds a surprisingly wise person on television. One such person is Red Forman, a character on That 70s Show. His house is usually filled with high school kids doing typically foolish high school things, and he gets agitated at them and tries to set them straight before throwing them out of the house. He usually begins his wide sayings with a burst of profanity and ends them with ridicule of the person he is addressing, but rarely, the script writers give us a glimpse that the reason he says anything at all is because he really cares for all those kids, and deeply loves them. Of course, being a man of his era, he is not good at expressing his love in any way other than providing a house and food and punishment for bad behavior, but even so, he does his best in those areas. One of his wisest sayings was to a dope-smoking slacker (Hyde) who was being sullen at his own birthday party because he thought it was silly. Red knew that his wife and the other kids had put in a lot of work on the party, and seeing Hyde belittle their efforts made him angry. He took the guy aside and said to him: “(expletive deleted!) Being a man is all about doing things you don’t want to do.” He did not finish his speech, because what he really wanted to say was: “(expletive deleted!) Being a man is all about doing things you don’t want to do, because you love the people you are doing them for.”
Being a mature Christian as described by Paul in our second reading this morning from his letter to Galatia has a few things in common with the words of the prophet Red Forman. There is the obvious connection to doing things we don’t want to do because we love the people we are doing them for. We all know about that one – we do certain things when we are tired or would rather be doing something else because the task we are doing will make a better home or world for the people around us. Sometimes we are given the grace of a good attitude about it, sometimes we are not, but we do the tasks anyway, because our eternal love does not depend on our momentary attitude. Of course, the more often we do the actions, the more opportunity there is for the grace of a good attitude to be given to us by the Holy Spirit.
However, there is a less obvious connection between Red’s words to Hyde and Paul’s words to the Galatians. Being a man or a mature Christian sometimes involves doing things we don’t want to do simply because it takes so much effort to figure out what to do. We are no longer under law – we don’t have a convenient list of things to do and things to avoid. We are now in Christ, and Christ taught us that doing the right thing was a lot more complicated than just simply following a list of dos and don’ts. He also taught us that doing the right thing was a lot more satisfying for us and helpful for the world around us than just following a list of dos and don’ts. Basing our acts on faith is more work than basing them on law, because faith operates on love, and to love people we have to see them as Jesus sees them – as worthy enough to die for, as we heard in our gospel this morning. Basing our acts on love rather than law does not mean that we just do what we feel like. Love takes a long term approach to what is truly best for everyone, not just a short term solution so that everything is tidy and looks good for the neighbors. Living a life of love by faith does not include dismissing rules and regulations as irrelevant. Faith knows that rules and regulations exist to help us learn how to love, and so has the utmost respect for law, but faith also recognizes rules and regulations as only the beginning of love, not the fulfillment of love.
That is why mature faith takes a lot of work – we have to gratefully take the wisdom of laws learned from God and handed down to us by Godly, loving people in the past and use them as a basis for our own life of Godly love. We have to respectfully listen to Godly, loving people from other cultures, places, and points of view as they share their understanding of law and love so that we can learn from the Holy Spirit speaking through them, guiding us to mature decisions. We have to honestly search our own motives for everything we do, making sure they are based on a desire to serve God, rather than ourselves. Being a man is all about doing things we don’t want to do, because we love the people we are doing them for. Being a mature Christian is all about doing things we may or may not want to do, because we love our selves, our neighbors, and our God so much that we will do the work it takes to find out the right things to do. The more we do them, the more chance the Holy Spirit has of giving us the grace to want to do them, and the more we will learn to love doing them. But until then, we just have to be grown up and do them. So thank you, Red Forman, for loving those kids enough to get upset at them. May we work as hard at loving the people around us, but without the profanity. AMEN
Our first scripture reading from the Acts of the Apostles mentions two ways of dealing with inconveniences caused by other people either not doing what we want them to do, or doing what we don’t want them to do. The first way (one of dismay and disappointment) is shown by the reaction of the owners of the slave girl, out of whom Paul exorcised the fortune-telling demon. Instead of being happy for her freedom from demonic possession, her owners were upset at their loss of income. They were more interested in someone else making them comfortable that in the comfort of that someone, and their self-centeredness brought a lot of useless trouble and disturbance to many people, while never restoring their income from the slave. The second way (one of joy and happiness) is shown by the reaction of the jailor in charge of Paul and Silas when the earthquake opened the prison doors and unfastened the prisoners= chains. Although he was initially upset enough to consider suicide, once Paul convinced him that the prisoners were all still there, the jailor wanted to know how he could have a share in Paul and Silas’ saving God, and then he brought that salvation the rest of the people in his house, and the next day the prisoners’ cases were dealt with in a favorable manner. The jailor’s ultimate positive reaction to the freedom of his prisoners brought about a chain of good events.
Unfortunately, our reaction to other people’s good fortune is often that of the slave owners, because we tend to focus on our own inconveniences more than on the freedom of others. In the heat of the moment, we don’t usually stop and consider the fact that another person’s good fortune can only add to our good fortune in the long-run, even though it might be a block to reaching some of our short-term goals. We tend to be not only self-centered, but also short-sighted (and in fact, the two are the same). We all depend on each other, because that is the way God made us, and the true fulfillment of others can only be good for us and everyone else. Every person is equally loved by God, and so is deserving of our respect. By building up others, rather than tearing them down, we strengthen ourselves. By being joyful at others’ good fortune, no matter how it makes us feel initially, we only add to our joy and the joy of the world around us. A book in our library by Sister Ayya Khema calls this good reaction to others’ good fortune “sympathetic joy”, and she lists it as one of the four best friends we can have in life (the other three are loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity).
Sympathetic joy is difficult for us because we tend to falsely believe that we are the center of the universe, and so if we are not at the top of every heap, our universe is in danger of collapse. The truth is, that if we are the center of our universe, then our universe is already collapsing, whether or not we are the top of the visible heap. God is the true center of everything, and by allowing God to be our center, we are free to be our true selves (relieved of the burden of holding our universe together), and others are free to be themselves (relieved of the burden of propping up our false regimes). Others might do things or believe things or say things that make us uncomfortable, but that will be ok, because it won’t be a threat to our false godhood anymore.
God is God, and we are not. As we heard in our second scripture reading from the revelation to John, Jesus is the “Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Jesus will hold our world together and will be everything we need, so our legitimacy and integrity do not depend on how well others buttress our world view, beliefs, and desires. Our legitimacy and integrity spring from God, who says: “Come”, so that then we can say to others: “Come – let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” We are not given the option of deciding who does or does not get to come and drink. We are only given the option of being happy about it or not. Life is too short to choose unhappiness, and eternal life is too long to choose unhappiness. Sympathetic joy really is one of our best friends. AMEN
I Kings 8:22-30
I Peter 2:1-5,9-10
Many people, on their first visit to St. Gregory’s, mention how the church seems bigger on the inside than on the outside. Of course, it is the same size inside and out, but even though people realize that, it still looks and feels larger once inside. That illusion of space and importance is sort of a good thing, because it reminds us that what we do in here is valuable. Our task in this building is to acknowledge the centrality of God in our own lives as well as in the functioning of the entire universe.
However, we must never succumb to the conclusion that it is ok for us to be bigger on the inside than on the outside. In other words, we must never live in such a way that our internal relationship with God grows while our external relationships with the people around us stagnate or shrink. Of course, to grow in love for God while not growing in love for the world around us in impossible; just like the church, we cannot be bigger on the inside than on the outside. The two dimensions are dependent on each other. We foster our relationship with God by fostering our relationship with our neighbors, and we learn to love our neighbors as we learn to love God.
Both internal and external growth come solely from God, but it is up to us to take that growth from him and apply it to our lives. Internally, that means being faithful to our task of prayer not only the corporate prayer here in the church, but also our daily private meditation time and daily scripture reading time. Externally, it means being faithful to our daily chores and helping to make the world a better place being where we are supposed to be when we are supposed to be there, and doing as good a job as we can. It is also important to do those things (internally and externally) especially when we do not want to, because learning the fact that our wants are not the driving force behind the universe is one of the most important keys to growth.
Since our growth comes from God, we can never think we have gotten as far as we can go. God is infinite, and we can never reach the end of God’s desire for us. We just have to be constant and faithful in our inner and outer work, never smugly thinking we can rest because we have grown more than others. We must also never despair because we think we are not growing. Only God really knows our progress; our job is merely to be faithful to our work and prayer. We are the temple of God, each of us individually and all of us collectively. May we do all we can to become as strong and as beautiful as we are meant to be, both on the inside as well as on the outside. Neither can be neglected, because both are equally important to God. AMEN