Presented by Rev. Sandra Haines-Murdocco
Waiting Without Expectations
The Rev. Amy Spagna
December 11, 2016 - Advent 3A
Have you noticed how impatient people are these days? We hate waiting for anything, whether it’s for the mail, or for food to be cooked, or for Christmas to hurry up and come. When we want something, we want it yesterday, and sometimes will stop at nothing, including going into large amounts of debt and/or hurting other people, in order to get it. I confess to disliking sitting around and twiddling my thumbs, while just waiting for something to happen, as much as anyone else does. I don’t know what’s worse, the nervous going through all the possible things that could go wrong, or the jittery, rocking-back-and-forth-and-then-pacing-a-hole-in-the-carpet excitement over expecting something big and wonderful to happen. And if whatever – or whoever – it is turns out not to be what I was expecting when or if it finally arrives, well, it’s disappointing. And I don’t always deal with it well. Sometimes I rationalize it away: “Oh, that’s okay, I didn’t really want it that badly anyway.” And sometimes, in criticizing both the outcome and myself for wanting too much, I act like one of the kids from A Charlie Brown Christmas. They only grudgingly give Charlie Brown a chance to prove he’s able to do something right when they send him out to get a tree for the Christmas play. So when he comes back to rehearsal with a poor little pine tree, instead of the shiny aluminum one they wanted, they spare him no grief: “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown. Can’t you tell a good tree from a bad one?”
We hear the same brand of disillusionment in the words of John the Baptist’s followers this morning. A lot has happened since we last saw John, baptizing and preaching to the crowds on the banks of the Jordan River. John is cooling his heels in jail, for what Luke’s Gospel tells us is the crime of speaking out against King Herod’s marriage to his half-brother’s ex-wife. Jesus has also been busy. He’s gone off into the wilderness for 40 days, been tempted by the devil, fed 5000 people, preached a lot of sermons, healed the sick, and sent out the disciples on mission trips. All of this all fine and good, but none of it is in line with John’s warning about someone who is coming to separate out and destroy those who refuse to change their sinful ways. That prediction and Jesus’ actions do not appear to be more different, so it’s little wonder that John seems to be so upset. At the heart of his disappointment is a need to know that Jesus is the real deal, and thus worth the price he is paying for proclaiming his arrival. His visitors haven’t been able to tell him otherwise. However, instead of calling Jesus a blockhead as Lucy would’ve called Charlie Brown, at the first chance he gets, he sends some of his friends to give Jesus the what-for: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Clearly Jesus is not the guy about whom John thought he was preaching. Sure, Jesus has had a lot to say about what the Kingdom of God is like in the early stages of his public ministry. But instead of visiting fiery judgment on those whom John deemed unworthy, Jesus has been doing something else to show the world who he is. The blind have received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, the poor have had good news brought to them. Jesus’ works ARE his words, as St. Augustine put it. By them, anyone who happens to be watching will know that Jesus is in fact who he says he is.
Even if he’s able to take Jesus at his word, John’s skepticism is warranted. He has paid dearly for his willingness to tell people to repent because God’s anointed One has arrived. And yet, his experience of Jesus has not, so far, measured up to his expectations. He seems to have hoped Jesus’ very presence would drastically change the world in an instant. Yet things are still the same as ever. To put it another way, what John saw in Jesus was the embodiment of all of God’s promises to Israel. And now, sitting alone in a dank prison cell and with only a handful of his closest friends to tell him what’s going on in the outside world, he is still waiting for that promise to be kept.
John’s disappointment is readily apparent in the message he has for Jesus. Instead of the one who was to destroy anyone who didn’t bear fruit worthy of repentance, what he’s got is a nonviolent champion of the down and out. John does not understand just how badly he has gone wrong, and so he goes straight to the source to demand an explanation. Like Charlie Brown, his frustration has reached a boiling point. And so he’s left with little else to do besides yell into a nearly empty school auditorium, “Can ANYONE tell me what this is all about!?”
It is probably safe to assume that John was more than a little shocked when Jesus didn’t measure up to his expectations. It’s turned John’s ideas about his own place in the world, and about God, upside-down, to the point where John feels threatened by more than just the rats lurking in the shadows of his cell. The disruption to his sense of who he is, is something with which we also can identify – and, like John, we don’t like it one bit. It is not fun to discover that we’re suddenly vulnerable and can’t do it all ourselves, or that what we have come to expect from life in general is not the case any longer. Acknowledging it publicly makes us seem weak in a culture where that kind of vulnerability is not valued at all. Regardless of whether we do so publicly or not, having our proverbial apple carts upset leaves us to ask if what we took as THE thing to put all our stock into is really “it” after all. If we’re lucky, we’ll have someone like Jesus who can reassure us that things will turn out OK. If we’re not, we run the very real risk of descending into a state of despair and self-loathing, and doing harm to ourselves or others in the process of trying to find the way out of it.
The good news is, we can avoid falling down that particular rabbit hole. We can ask the hard questions, like John’s messengers do. We can also take the answer Jesus gives us – that he is the one we’ve been waiting for - at face value. That’s where faith comes into play, as does our willingness to own those questions in the first place. Those questions don’t make us weak and vulnerable – far from it. In her 2012 book Daring Greatly, researcher Brené Brown reminds her readers that, “[Vulnerability] is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves… is a measure of our own fear and disconnection.”
Landing in prison has transformed John the Baptist from a fired-up, self-assured prophet into a man who acts from a place of fear and disconnection. By reminding him of all the good he has already done, Jesus is trying to tell him that it does not have to be this way. What’s more, Jesus tells his hearers that John does possess an incredibly deep sense of courage and clarity of conviction. He’s put his own neck on the line to make the path straight for the one even greater than he. He would not have done so if he was not absolutely convinced that Jesus is everything John says he is. Matthew does not tell us how John reacted to his friends’ delivering this message to him. It’s not hard to imagine that their words would have given him a great deal to think about. And maybe, just maybe, they were enough to remind John not only of his own strength, but also to re-light the fire which had landed him in prison in the first place. This Jesus may not be the political avenger-type of messiah so many people had hoped and prayed for. What he has done is to reconnect us with the hungry, the poor, the blind, the lame, and anyone else for whom God’s justice in this world is lacking. And blessed are those who take no offense at him.
 A Charlie Brown Christmas. 2009. Blu-Ray Disc. Burbank, California: Warner Home Video.
 St. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount; Harmony of the Gospels; Homilies on the Gospels: Sermon XVI. http://www.ccel.org/schaff/npnf106.vii.xviii.html [accessed December 5, 2016].
 David Lose, “Disappointed with God at Christmastime.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2911 [accessed December 5, 2016].
 Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery Books, 2012), 2.
The Rev. Amy Spagna
Pentecost 26C – November 13, 2016
Well… we survived.
I have to admit, at times in this awful political season it’s felt like we were collectively shoved back into elementary school. Instead of the “normal” campaign process which involves respectful listening and debate, the name of the game this year was finger-pointing and name-calling. It only served to throw fuel on the fires of fear and anger, to the point where they short-circuit our brains’ ability to process them rationally. No matter which side you happened to be on, the sentiment is the same: I’m afraid of what I might lose in terms of social status, or income, or privilege if the other side wins. The difficulty presented by overcoming those fears makes living into our Baptismal vows just that much harder. We only have to pull up our favorite news app to see reports of swastikas and “Sieg Heil!” spray painted on buildings in downtown Philadelphia, or of white students yelling racially-charged insults at their Black and Latino brothers and sisters, or of frustrated and angry protesters destroying property. NONE OF THESE THINGS IS OK, not by any stretch of the imagination. Fear is getting the upper hand where they’re happening, and if we are not careful, it will damage the delicate fabric of our society for generations to come. Katharine Jefferts Schori, our former Presiding Bishop, noted in a sermon last weekend that, “We’ve all died a little – our hope for this nation has dimmed, we’ve lost trust in our fellow citizens, we’ve raised our guard against other opinions and those people because we don’t think we can take any more… The tragedy is that the level of fear is preventing thoughtful dialogue. We pin on labels that say ‘enemy’ and think that settles the matter.”
Despite this grim assessment, however, we’re not dead yet. Not by a long shot. I’ve had so many conversations to that effect in the past several days. Their sum total reminded me of one of the early scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A mortician is wheeling his cart through town, crying out, “Bring out your dead!” A customer approaches him with an old man slung over his shoulder. He offers the mortician 9 pence to take the old man off his hands – despite the old man’s protests of, “I’m not dead!” Now, I’ve always wondered what the customer’s motivation was. Maybe the old man was a relative who’s overstayed his welcome. Maybe he was genuinely ill and the customer simply wanted to take advantage of the incredible convenience of having a mortician right outside his door. Or maybe the customer is afraid that the old man is somehow going to get in the way of his grand plans for world domination. Regardless, the customer does the only logical thing: he flings the oldster over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and takes him to the mortician… who promptly whacks the old man over the head with a club and adds him to the growing pile of bodies in his cart. “See you on Thursday!” he says when he’s finished – as if it’s nothing but business as usual.
The “business as usual” approach is part of what makes the scene so funny. However, being able to laugh about something which frightens most of us is helpful only to a point. Like its close cousins anxiety and depression, fear about what MIGHT happen has a tendency to take away our ability to envision a much more positive scenario than what either the facts or our imaginations tell us is in store. I’ve heard quite a bit of that expressed in the last five days. So many people are wondering how we can go on, when we’re afraid that some of the things we take for granted are about to be completely dismantled. On the other side of that coin, what’s become clear is, that question was already being asked, and roundly ignored, until it wound up tipping the balance of the Electoral College in an unexpected way. What I learned from it is this: if there is one place this nation can truly claim to be united, it’s in the fear and uncertainty which result from contemplating a future that, no matter which candidate received your vote, is not what we thought we were promised.
Being in this place is nothing new in the scope of human history. The ancient Israelites were right there with us after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and deported most of the people. We can hear their fear and anguish in the words of the Psalmist: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion… how shall we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil?” (Ps 137:1, 4; BCP)
And yet, their faith in the very God who had allowed this to happen prevented them from losing hope altogether. A generation or two later, things were looking much better. The Persians had replaced the Babylonians as the dominant power in that part of the world. Jerusalem itself was still a pile of rubble, but people had begun to return home and to think about rebuilding. It’s against this backdrop that the last ten chapters of Isaiah were recorded. In them, we hear the comforting reassurance that everything will turn out in line with God’s expansive plans for the world. In the beginning of Chapter 65, it seems God’s stance toward the people’s wrongdoing has softened a bit. Verse 8 gives the first hint of this: “Thus says the LORD: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all” (Isa 65:8, NRSV) The vision expands from there, as God promises to transform Jerusalem into a place where natural predators and prey will be found eating at the same table. It is unapologetically optimistic. Its intent is to reassure a people who have been forced to defend themselves from one threat after another that God has not, and will not, abandon them.
It gets better: God’s peace in this newly created world will no longer include the need for alpha predators like lions and wolves to destroy gentler lambs and oxen. What’s more, the serpent, whom God cursed when humanity was cast out of the Garden of Eden, will still be cursed. By providing that linkage back to a time before we were hobbled by things like fear and shame and hostility toward one another, Isaiah has made clear that the blessings God is offering can never be threatened again.
This sounds an awful lot like what we’ve come to call “the American Dream,” doesn’t it? The ideal that everyone is on equal footing regardless of where we’ve come from, and the expectation that we will live long and prosper, are what form the backbone of this nation. And just as it was with our ancestors in the faith, our fears, which are at least partly grounded in the reality of the world around us, are trying once more to get the upper hand. Instead of giving in to them, let’s try something else. Let’s try holding onto the hope contained within the ideal of the peaceable kingdom which Isaiah outlines. And, let’s try putting our faith in God’s proven ability to bring this vision into existence. These two things, hope and faith, must be what guide our words and actions in the days to come. In his letter to the diocese this week, Bishop Knisely reminded us, “We must remember our baptismal covenant in which we promise to uphold the dignity of every person. We are each made in the image of God – and each one of us is infinitely precious simply by virtue of that fact. We can help others to see their neighbors as the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see one another.”
Getting to a place where we’ll be able to do so will not be easy. For many right now, it is very hard to have any hope at all that things will ever get better. For others, it’s a whole new day, with entirely new opportunities to help shape this country for future generations. And still others are caught in the middle, wondering not only what will come next, but also desperately trying to be heard. Reconciling all of these things begins with listening to each other. Our response must not be one of judgment, but instead one of prayer. Once we have listened and prayed, then we will act. We have been presented with an incredible chance to show the world that the Gospel we proclaim is still relevant. We can, and we MUST, make this our primary task, because God needs us to be agents of God’s justice and love in the world, now more than ever. May God who has given us the will to do these things grant us the power to perform them.
 The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, “Bridging the Political Chasm.” http://www.saintjamescathedral.org/worship/sermons/2016/11/06/bridging-political-chasm. [Accessed November 7, 2016.]
 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, special ed. DVD. Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2001.
 Carolyn J. Sharp, “Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=678. [Accessed November 7, 2016.]
 W. Nicholas Knisely, “A Divided Community: Responding with Hope and Action.” http://episcopalri.org/ForClergyCongregations/ResourceLibrary/ViewArticle/tabid/96/ArticleId/135/From-Bishop-Knisely-in-response-to-the-2016-elections.aspx. [Accessed November 12, 2016.]
It is still hard not to ask that question when we see what’s going on in the world around us. Take the civil war in Syria, for example, where on Thursday UNICEF reported that yet another elementary school was bombed without any concern for the children inside. Or how the Standing Rock Sioux are having to defend their ancestral burial grounds and sole water source in North Dakota from an unwanted oil pipeline project. It’s a peaceful and prayerful protest whose participants have been violently removed from the land, and one where our own Episcopal Church has added its voice to those calling for law enforcement to stand down. Closer to home, I’ve heard that question asked many times. Whether it’s expressed in in the need for a new job, the desire to help a loved one in crisis, or anything else, the question underneath all of those things is why. Why does God not seem to be listening? Why isn’t God answering my prayers RIGHT NOW, when God clearly knows there is a great need?
Adopting Jesus' Way of Life .
Today in the midst of our summer the readings from the lectionary seem to have an Advent theme. Isaiah reminds us that God will come out to judge our actions, which must be congruent to our worship patterns. God does not want us to offer beautiful services filled with sacrifices if we forget to do Good. So Isaiah reminds us that we are to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow, in other words we are to watch out and care for all members of our community!
Paul reminds us to be people of faith, people with an abiding trust in God, and in this trust we are to act on the promises of God- even when we do not know if our actions will fortuitous for us. And as we trust in God as people of the OT did in their time- we too will be a part of that city of God, prepared for the faithful.
And in the Gospel we are told to "Wait, Watch, be alert - and learn to find our security in God. Perhaps, in the midst of a lazy summer we are called to remember some important concepts.
Foundational in our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
1. But how are we to prepare ourselves for that coming of Christ? For the final establishment of the Kingdom?
I. Many get ready by predicting God's return. The Second Coming of Jesus is such a touchy subject for the church. From the 1st Century even to the present moment there are people who
Perhaps our Advent hope or rather our Christian hope should not rest on figuring out a date for perhaps our faith requires us to simply trust in this reality. And prepare by adopting a way of life that is rooted in God.
In the Gospel Luke Jesus contrasts this way of life with a life rooted in the securities of the World.
In the passage preceding today's Gospel reading Jesus encounters a young man who was arguing with his brother about an estate that was unfairly divided. The young man wants Jesus to preside over his case and resolve the matter. Because he wanted a secure financial future. Jesus said, I am not your lawyer young man but I will give you a piece of advice: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”
And then tells him a parable about a rich man who had a great crop and stored it all for himself but that night his life went in unexpected direction. On the very night he got his barns built and secured his future he died. He never ate a single grain of corn. It is better, therefore, Jesus concludes, to be rich toward God.
Jesus then turns away from this young man to address his disciples and he says, this fellow is worried about his life and how it will all turn out. I don’t want you to worry about your life. I don’t want you to worry about what you will eat. I don’t worry about what you are going to drink and I don’t want you to worry about what you are going to wear. Consider the ravens and the lilies, he said. Doesn’t God take care of these, how much more valuable are you?
Jesus understood that most of our life is spent on worrying about our security. But what would happen if we trusted in God to provide our needs? What if we used our energies, our abilities, talents to help the world around us instead of wasting time and energy in worry . What if we adopting a posture for living is rooted in the understanding that God will provide all our needs. What if instead of living in fear- we lived with a sense of purpose and abundance- how rich would we feel, how satisfied would we feel?
And for Jesus this adopting of God's way of living is also adopting a posture of service.
For all the words that we use to describe Christian behavior there is none better than servant. One whose life is focused on helping others and creating a better world. In today's parable from Luke. A master has left to go to a wedding banquet and there is no way for the servants of that master to know when he will return. It could be that very night. It could be the next. It could be three days before he returns home. They are simply to be ready when he knocks on the door.
Everyone listening would have understood. The servants would be responsible for the household, everything must be kept in order, the work of the house must be run well in accordance to the wishes of the master and then when the master comes, they must be ready to feed him, help him unpack,give him an accounting. If they are not ready they’ll be judged harshly!
This makes sense--- but in verse 37 there is a twist. It is not the servants who wait on the master but in Jesus' story it is the master who waits on the servants. It will be good for those servants who are ready for the master not because there is the threat of punishment inattentive behavior but because there is the promise of a lavish master who upon his return graciously gives to his servants. The Master sits them down and serves them!
This is quite a different picture of a master and a servant. This picture of God's relationship with his servants gives us an understanding of God's abundant grace and love. Jesus' vision for us the servants for God is clear when the Kingdom in its entirety- God will sit us down at his banquet table and not just as servants but as children of that Kingdom.
For the reality is my friends when when we trust in God, adopting God's view of the world, God's view of service, we can also trust that God's wonderful kingdom will come. And yes my friends by each Good choice we make we are making that Kingdom a reality and we servants are among those who participate in it!
A Good Roman and Unexpected Possibilities
The Rev. Amy Spagna
Pentecost 2C (Proper 4) - May 29, 2016
“When [the centurion] heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking
him to come and heal his slave.” (Luke 7:3, NRSV)
It’s a familiar story, one which is repeated in some way or another throughout the
Gospel accounts of Jesus’ early ministry. Someone from outside of Jesus’ inner circle of
hears about what he’s been up to, and asks for his help. Jesus’ fame has grown
exponentially at this early stage of his public ministry, thanks in no small part to the people
he’s fed and healed, and the sermons he’s preached. It seems like everyone wants a piece of
him. The centurion, whom we never meet face-to-face, is not all that different from anyone
else who seeks Jesus’ attention. His method is much less direct than those who threw
themselves across Jesus’ path and begged for mercy. He first sends some of the Jewish
elders with whom he’s been working, and then, when Jesus gets close to his house, he sends
some of his friends to ask for him. And all of them give the same glowing recommendations
about this centurion’s character and why he deserves Jesus’ help.
I have to admit, his indirect way of going about it reminds me a little bit of being in
middle school and how boys would try to approach girls whom they liked. (For context, this
was in the late 1980s in the South, so attempting to ask anyone of the same gender to go for
ice cream or to the school dance was an absolute no-no.) You can probably picture how it
went: the boy sends one of his friends, and/or one of her friends, to ask her, instead of
doing it himself. Maybe it’s because he’s too scared she’ll say no, or blow him off in some
way, or otherwise reject him, and to have his trusted friends deliver that blow is easier. I
don’t know. But I do remember how it happened to one of my best friends… and she said
no, to a soft-spoken boy a year older than she who was in her band class and played the
trumpet. The boy, to my knowledge, never risked talking to her again, and life went on. She
didn’t give it another thought until recently, and messaged me on Facebook with a, “hey, do
you remember that time when I told that kid I wouldn’t go with him because I didn’t know
who he was?” She’d heard through the grapevine recently that he was doing well, and was
wondering if maybe she’d missed out on a shot at being friends with a really great person
all those years ago.
Our centurion wasn’t exactly in search of a dinner date, nor are we told whether he
had the same what-if type questions after this encounter with Jesus. We don’t even know
the fate of the slave, other than that the centurion’s emissaries found him in good health
when they got back to the house afterward. However, a happy ending for the characters
themselves isn’t the point of this episode. That someone can possess – and act on – faith in
God while falling clearly outside of the socially acceptable parameters for that faith, is. This
was a huge issue in the early Church. There was a faction known as the “Judaizers” which
held that one had to be Jewish in order to have a proper faith in Christ. If one wasn’t, full
conversion, including circumcision for males, was required before one could be baptized.
There was another faction, whose leaders included Paul and likely the writer of Luke and
Acts, which said that no, God’s grace and a person’s faith in Christ were more than adequate
prerequisites for inclusion in the Church.
This passage is one of the places where the tension between the two groups shows
up – along with a challenge to push the boundaries of the community outward. For a while,
the Judaizers’ somewhat narrow point of view prevailed. It would have been a shock to
them that someone decidedly outside of the boundaries of the Jewish community could
possibly have the kind of deeply authentic faith which would lead him or her to ask Jesus
for help – and get it.
The centurion was probably what we’d call a “lifer.” A career enlisted man, his rank
in the Roman army was roughly the equivalent of a master sergeant. He commanded a
group of 80-100 other soldiers, known as a cohort, but was also accountable to those
officers higher up in the chain of command. He’s one of the good Romans, who gets along
really well with the Jewish elders. He even built a synagogue for them. His respect also
extends to observing parts of the Law. He doesn’t dare to risk inviting Jesus into his home
because of the risk of Jesus’ becoming ritually unclean. Hence the multiple emissaries and
their request that Jesus not trouble himself on the centurion’s behalf.
Yes, this centurion clearly has clues about how to work within the prevailing
cultural norms where he serves. The one thing we might find a bit offensive about him is
the fact he owns at least one slave. While our modern sensibilities might question him for
it, it would not have been unusual for a man of his standing to have at least one or two
slaves as part of his household. Most of Luke’s original readers would probably shrug it off
as a normal part of life. That is, as long as the slaves were treated well, which it seems that
this particular one is. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t wonder about the
centurion’s motives in seeking out Jesus’ assistance in healing him of his illness in the first
place. Does he only want to ensure his property will keep producing income on his behalf
for a long time? Does he regard the slave as an equal, and wants to help him out as friends
do for each other? Does he want to test Jesus on behalf of his Roman superiors? Or is it
Regardless of his motives, it’s clear that the centurion has a great deal of respect for
Jesus. As one who is both under authority and possesses it over others, the centurion is
able to acknowledge Jesus as someone who operates under similar circumstances.2 This is
in direct contrast to the people at his home synagogue in Nazareth, who had all but run him
out of town on a rail a few chapters back when he tried to tell them who he really was. It is
also one of the first hints we receive from Luke about the universality of Jesus’ nature and
message. Faith in him, and its benefits, are not limited to a select few. He’s for everyone,
regardless of whether they have Jewish heritage or not. His willingness to engage with the
centurion serves to push the boundaries defining the community of faith outward. In giving
voice to the marginalized – in this case, the slave, and possibly the centurion as well – he
drives home the point that our connections to one another are far more important than
strictly adhering to the rules which produce sharp definitions around who’s “in” and who’s
“out.” They are the key to our shared, lived reality. We need each other, to put it simply.
And despite what our stiff-upper-lip New England culture tells us, it is not a source of
failure or shame to admit it. We require the the larger community, including the
community of faith, to speak with and for us, and to help us name what is just and hold us
1 Verlee A. Copeland, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost
and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 95.
2 David Lose, “Unexpected Faith.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2592.
3 M. Jan Holton, “Pastoral Perspective: Luke 7:1-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and
Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 2010), 96.
This is exactly the point which the evil King Ahab in today’s Old Testament lesson,
and the community St. Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians, have missed. Both Jesus
and the Roman centurion understand it completely. We can’t go it alone. Nor can we simply
dismiss someone out of hand because they don’t fit within our preconceived notions of
who’s properly included. We too run the very real risk of missing out on something
fantastic, when we fail to stop and consider the unexpected possibilities when they’re
presented to us. We don’t just miss the possibility for new relationships like the one my
friend short-circuited all those year ago. We lose out on the chance for God to work in and
through us, and for lives to be changed as as a result. It’s precisely this kind of openness to
new possibilities which allows for the slave’s healing, as well as for Jesus to turn the tables
on society. His actions clearly say to them that even this slave, and his master, who is
unable to come talk to Jesus himself, are worthy of the love he is shown. “I tell you, not even
in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9, NRSV)
“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost Thy seven-fold gifts impart…”1
Did the writer of this ancient hymn really know what he or she was praying for?
Does ANYONE really know what they are praying for when they invite the Holy Spirit into
their lives? Think about it for just a minute. It’s as if we are playing with fire, in the most
literal sense of the phrase. Fire is something which requires a great deal of respect. Yes, it
can be life-giving. But one misstep, one puff of wind blowing the wrong way, and we’ve got
the potential for a major disaster on our hands. Fortunately, destruction was the last thing
on God’s mind when God sent the Holy Spirit blowing through Jerusalem with the rush of a
hot wind, and enflamed the hearts of Jesus’ followers. The end result was a lot like what’s
left after a forest fire. Once the smoke has cleared, it does not take long at all for the forest’s
ecosystem to start rebuilding itself. Often, that new life can be hard to see if we’re not
looking for it intentionally. A colleague who went hiking in a recently burnt area of
Montana describes it this way:
“… The charred remains of spruce, lodgepole pine, and fir were all that I could see.
Burned sentinels of formerly majestic trees rose ahead and above us, and those no
longer standing littered the forest floor as if some great force had arbitrarily tossed
1 “Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.” The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985), 504.
them and let them lay where they fell… Amidst the desolation, I began to see that
life was everywhere, pushing upward in infinite detail, where, previously, my vision
had been limited only to what was most obvious to the eye. I caught a glimpse of a
mule deer, drawn to the open terrain by the lush, waist-high vegetation now
growing in the sunlight. Fireweed, a lovely plant with lavender and pink flowers that
grows in just such burned-over land, was everywhere around us. How had I missed
it?... I had not seen it in part because I had not paid attention to the moment and to
the larger, more complex picture it contained. Focusing only on the blackened trees
straight ahead and above me, I failed to see the profusion of life flourishing right
beneath my feet. Seeds of lodgepole pines needed only the intense heat of the fire to
release their inner Chi—the deepest, essential life breath and energy—but I had
both literally and metaphorically not seen the emerging new forest for the desolate,
burned trees. Indeed, flourishing was everywhere, in stark contrast to the all too
evident reminders of what had been, on the surface, a very challenging time for this
We don’t know too much about wildfires here in coastal Rhode Island. However, we
do know a few things about hurricanes and flooding rainstorms. So many of you still talk
about the infamous 1938 hurricane which killed several of our parishioners. More recently,
there are still many people in Westerly who don’t have adequate housing almost four years
after Hurricane Sandy struck. Similarly, the aftermath of the biggest flood of ancient history
– you know the one, where Noah built an Ark and brought an entire zoo with him, without
2 Bill Harkins, “Transition, Resilience, and Fireweed.” http://www.atthispoint.net/articles/transitionresilience-
asking his wife’s opinion first – is what the people living in Shinar knew all too well about.
For some of them, that epic flood might well have been in living memory, or at least had
been their parents’ favorite story to tell them about the bogeyman living in their closets:
“Go to sleep, or God will flood this bedroom!”
Underneath that, however, is a real anxiety over how this community, which had
suffered so much physical damage and still needed to do some rebuilding, will make its
name for future generations to remember. It’s more than just their legacy that they’re
concerned about. They’re also nervous about what this walled city, with the baked-brick
and bitumen ziggurat at its center, communicates about the character of the people living
there.3 Instead of leaving something which tells their descendants that their greatness
extended all the way to heaven, what they’ve done is the exact opposite of guaranteeing the
security they crave. In building their walled city, they’ve separated themselves from the
rest of the world. And their reward is exactly as they feared: “So the LORD scattered them
abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.” (Genesis
They did exactly what my colleague had started to when he looked up at the
destroyed forest, and saw only the charred remains of the trees. By focusing only on their
own self-definition, they missed the important stuff, the signs of life they could only find by
looking down at one another. Instead, they looked up at heaven and thought the best way
to access it was by building a skyscraper. What they didn’t realize was that the skyscraper,
3 Dennis Bratcher, “Commentary on the Texts: Genesis 11:1-9.”
as big as it may have been by their standards, was nothing at all by God’s standards. And
maybe, just maybe, God really intended for them to focus on something other than what
they could build with their own hands and wills. That something was, and still is, authentic
relationship with God and with one another. Living into those relationships requires
breaking down walls, not building them. Whether they are literal walls made of stone and
mortar, or figurative ones constructed from our own pride, anxiety, and/or need for
control, they have the same function of getting in the way. And that is the point of this
story: that the very things which drive us to define the world in our own way result in a
world where communication and authentic relationship are impossible.4
God’s sending Jesus, and then the Holy Spirit, are meant to fix that problem. Jesus
showed us how to love one another with no regard for our own welfare. And then, after he
left, he sent us another Advocate, to be with us forever. It’s this mysterious Spirit of Truth
Jesus was talking about, and it arrives on the scene in spectacular fashion. It blows into
town like the wind, and manifests itself among the disciples with tongues of flame. If that
isn’t enough, everyone who was present received the further shock of hearing the Gospel
message spoken in their own native languages. It was absolutely chaotic, to the point where
some in the crowd thought they were witnessing a giant frat party still in progress from the
night before. Nobody knew what it meant. It was not until Peter explained it to them that
they truly understood that God had some something astounding. Later in the chapter, we
are told the crowd was, “cut to the heart” and left to ask Peter just what they were
supposed to do about it (Acts 2:37, NRSV).
4 Bratcher, “Commentary on the Texts.”
This is not a comfortable situation. Nor is it meant to be. As Peter and the rest of the
disciples already knew, the Holy Spirit has a particular knack for stirring up trouble. This,
its first appearance, is no exception. In addition to the people in the crowd who grumble
about the disciples’ already being drunk at 9 am, there are some 3000 others whose lives
are suddenly changed forever by this encounter. The heat of the Spirit’s fire and wind
cracked open their hearts. In doing so, it opened them to a whole new way of life – one
lived in the hope and light of the Resurrection, and devoted to, “the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, NRSV).
They were not promised it was going to be easy, or that their saying yes would
guarantee their safety. What they were promised, however, were two things: one, a way of
being God’s people which placed sacrificial love for one another ahead of strict adherence
to the Law; and two, perhaps most importantly, that they would never be left alone. That
promise is still very much in effect now, some 2000 years after it was made. As was the
case for our ancestors, the Spirit’s celestial fire will crack us open, too, if we lower our
defenses long enough to let it. Just like with those lodgepole pine cones in Montana, it’s key
to our long-term survival. That is, if we have any intentions at all of helping the Gospel to
take root and grow outside of these walls. By catching just a tiny bit of its heat and energy,
we receive the opportunity to be planted in the soil and thus to share the gift of the new life
with a world which still desperately needs it. And if, like my colleague, we can stop just long
enough to look more closely at our surroundings, we just might catch a glimpse of it,
growing in our midst.