Keys to the Kingdom

A Proper 21, September 30 & October 1, 2017              Grace, Traverse City

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

These are harsh words for us nice people, living comfortable lives, sitting in a nice church with a nice priest who will hopefully say nice things today!

You see, I cannot help but think that surely it is a good thing I am not a prostitute or an extorter! So, what is Jesus saying to me? To us? What is the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus is talking about, that tax collectors and prostitutes and other rejected persons of humanity are going to enter before us? How can we nice people also get there?

There are at least three things, which may help. Three keys to the Kingdom.

  1. The first key to Kingdom of God is humility.
  2. The second key to Kingdom of God is to accept God’s power and authority over our own power and authority.
  3. The third key to Kingdom of God is compassion and sacrifice.

The first key to the Kingdom of God, or the Reign of God, the βασιλεία θεός, has everything to do with humility, in particular, the humility described in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

He wrote that humility is not selfish or ambitious or conceited. Humility regards others as better than ourselves. Humility does not look to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Humility is love and sharing in the Spirit, and the compassion and sympathy that brings true joy.

Humility is having “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” That is the humility required of Christians.

The second key to entering the Kingdom of God involves accepting God’s power and authority over our own power and authority, i.e. being emptied of our egos and agendas.

Forty-six years ago, I began my education preparation for ordination in the Episcopal Church. I was required to do field work, and I chose to work in a hospital for indigent alcoholics.

The first day that I met my supervisor, an Episcopal priest, he introduced himself by saying, “Hi. My name is Bruce Noyes, and I’m a recovering alcoholic. You don’t know what that means, but you think you do. During the time you are working with me you will stop wondering why alcoholics drink and begin to wonder how anyone ever gets sober. The first thing I want you to do, is to attend an open AA meeting.”

So I went to my first open AA meeting. I arrived late and I didn’t talk to anyone, because I was afraid. I was afraid someone might think I was an alcoholic. To me, that was just like someone thinking I was a prostitute, I suppose. But during the meeting, which took place in an Episcopal church basement, I experienced something I had never experienced in church – I experienced the speakers sharing incredible personal stories of faith and hope and love.

They didn’t always use the word “God”; but they spoke with such authentic trust in a spiritual being or higher power, that I was profoundly moved, in a way that I had never been moved in church worship services. And these people were humble. They did not trust in their own power, but they had the humility to trust only in the power of God.

Humility is about being willing to work for God’s good pleasure, as the Apostle Paul wrote, not simply for my own desires.

Because we are all born as “I want what I want when I want it” people, we need to be “saved” or “healed” from our “original” and persistent selfishness by being baptized or brought into a community of faith that wills and works for God’s good pleasure, so we can become “I want what God wants when God wants it” people. Submitting to God’s will for God’s good pleasure is the second key to the Kingdom.

Finally, the third key to the Kingdom of God is compassion and sacrifice.

When we have the humility to trust in the power and will of God, we will inevitably be drawn into a life of compassion and sacrifice. God is love and God’s will and pleasure for us is to love others as Jesus loved us, with compassion and sacrifice.

The one follows the other. We can only have compassion (which means suffering alongside of – com passio in Latin), when we have experienced or desire to experience what others have experienced.

Then if we are compassionate and choose to suffer alongside of others, we will need to sacrifice our own desires and money and things; we will need to sacrifice our own will and power.

Anne Lamott is an author who writes about both her Christian life and her recovery from addiction to alcohol and drugs. In her most recent book, “Hallelujah, anyway,” she tells about one of her first AA meetings. As she was going up the stairs to the meeting room with her sponsor, there was a man in front of her, who was very drunk. Then he had diarrhea that ran down his legs and into his shoes and on the stairs. Yet when he got into the room, instead of being shunned, he was immediately helped by men who took him next door to get a shower and who washed his clothes and gave him coffee and something to eat.

Each person who helped him had either experienced something similar or knew full well “there but for the grace of God go I.” Each person who helped him had the humility to reach out in compassion and sacrifice. That’s why people sometimes experience the Kingdom of God more fully present in the basement AA meetings of the church than in the worship room upstairs.

Christians are a people of the Eucharistic Table. When we gather for Eucharist, we can be formed in humility to seek the will and good pleasure of God. We can be formed to live lives of compassion and sacrifice. In Eucharistic Prayer D, the words of the prayer are: “Grant that all who share this bread and cup may become one body and one spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ, to the praise of your Name.”

Augustine of Hippo, who was born in 354, said, “It is you who lie upon the altar; it is you, your very life, within the cup.”

You see, the altar is where there are sacrifices, and as Christians, our very lives are to be the sacrifices of thanksgiving to the living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Evelyn Underhill, an Episcopal Christian and mystic, wrote these words: “…the fully Christian life is a Eucharistic life: that is, a natural life conformed to the pattern of Jesus, given in its wholeness to God, laid on His altar as a sacrifice of love, and consecrated, transformed by His inpouring life, to be used to give life and food to other souls.”

Finally, Frank Weston, the Anglican Bishop of Zanzibar in 1908 wrote: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum…in the ragged and the naked, in the oppressed and the sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them and when you have found him, gird yourselves with His towel of fellowship and wash His feet in the person of His [sic] brothers and sisters.”

Humility, the will to work for God’s good pleasure, and compassion and sacrifice – these are the keys to the Kingdom of God.

  1. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might join with people from St. Phillips and the Diocese to go to Texas and help people rebuild from Hurricane Harvey.
  2. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might give money sacrificially to Episcopal Relief and Development so that people in Puerto Rico or Florida will be helped.
  3. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we might speak out against discrimination and injustice like Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the Head of the United States Air Force Academy did this past week.
  4. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might come and help serve the meal on Friday which helps our local poor and elderly.
  5. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might walk or contribute to the CROP Walk next Sunday.
  6. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might seek to give more to the life and work of Grace Church in our stewardship giving in the year to come.

There are uncountable ways we can become the living sacrifice of the altar of Christ. But humility, compassion and sacrifice all require that our lives, as Christians, be disrupted. To will and to work for God’s good pleasure is not always what we want, when we want it, but it is always opens the door to the Kingdom and Rule of God.

Let’s pray that we can all find it together as Christ’s living Body, as Christ’s living sacrifice.

May it be so. [Amen.]

The Reverend Canon Meredith Hunt

 

 

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Overcoming Barriers

Sermon Year A Proper 15 August 20, 2017                    St. Christopher’s, Northport, MI

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We are gathered together today as a group of Christians to share worship and to pray together. And maybe even to be edified by the sermon?

For certain, we each come with our own concerns or burdens, with our own thoughts and fears. We may be facing health challenges or we may know friends who are. We may be facing family challenges or we may know friends who are. We might be seeking consolation or hope, or maybe we simply want to give thanks for our blessings.

In any case, we each bring the events of our lives with us, as well as our reactions to the events of the world around us. Today, I bring with me the recent events in this country and in the world, and my profound concern.

Members of my family are Jewish. Members of my family are Chinese. Members of my family are Roman Catholic. There are members of my family who don’t have any religious practice.

Good friends of mine are equally diverse, from many religious, cultural, and ethnic groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, just to name a few.

This past week a young man, who calls me “Mom”, drove three hours to visit with David and me. He is an undocumented immigrant. He came to this country from great poverty in Mexico, as a youth. He is now halfway through college, while working full-time. He lives with the knowledge that he could be deported at any time, with no recourse, regardless of all the contributions he has made to this country, which he now considers his own. I consider him a son.

Just yesterday, a Congregational Church Pastor from Zimbabwe, who also calls me “Mom”, sent me pictures of his battered old truck, which needs about $400 worth of repairs. That’s an entire month’s salary for him, which he often doesn’t get paid in full and sometimes not at all. In addition to his own two children, he is raising the two children of his brother and sister, who both died from AIDS. Daily, I pray for him and seek for ways to support his ministry. I consider him a son.

Another man, who calls me “Mom,” is a Palestinian American, originally from the West Bank of Israel. He is a US citizen, loves this country, and owns a restaurant in Michigan, which serves wonderful Middle Eastern food. But because he is a Muslim, he is vulnerable to discrimination and attacks from other US citizens. I consider him a son.

I have been affected by the events of this week because there are hate groups, neo-Nazi groups, white supremacist groups, armed militia groups, and fundamentalist terrorist groups, not only in other parts of the world, but here in the United States of America. All of them would seek to remove or eliminate from “their world” all of my “sons”, all of my family members, all of my friends who are different than them. I am full of deep sorrow and profound concern, because this is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, this is not the vision for the Kingdom of God.

The Good News for Christians is that Jesus died for all people that we might be reconciled to each other. Reconciliation is the proclamation of today’s Gospel. It is a healing story, which is both difficult and inspiring.

First, imagine the scene. Jesus leaves a place where he has just challenged the religious leaders of his day to understand that righteousness or “right relationship with God” is not merely a matter of following rules or obeying laws, but rather, “right relationship with God” is a matter of what we do that comes from the heart. Jesus explained to his disciples, “…out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”

In other words, what defiles (or redeems) humans is what is in our hearts and the behaviors that follow.

After these challenging words to his followers, Jesus then leaves that place and goes into Gentile territory. Life under Roman occupation was not easy for Jews in Galilee, but in Tyre and Sidon there were even more Gentiles.

So, it might seem a little strange that Jesus would head north. When there were so many of his own countrymen and women who needed him, why would Jesus go there? We don’t know.

Maybe it was actually to get away from the crowds who were pursuing him for healing and teaching. Maybe he wanted to get a rest. However, it seems that his reputation preceded him, for almost as soon as he arrives, we are told that a Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting, imploring, bothering him and his disciples, seeking healing for her daughter. She calls out to Jesus, “Lord, Son of David.” She begs him, “have mercy on me.” But Jesus ignores her.

This is the difficult part of the story for me, because this doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know from other Gospel accounts. For example, the Good Shepherd, who seeks out the lost and the lame. Or, the Jesus who responded to every person who came to him, requesting healing. Matthew tells us earlier in the Gospel: “Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”  (Matthew 4:23)

Yet, here in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus ignores this distressed Canaanite woman, who only wants her daughter healed. He even justifies his silence to his disciples. When they complain about her creating a disturbance and ask Jesus to send her away, he explains that his ministry is only meant for the “lost sheep of Israel,” for his own Hebrew countrymen and women.

This part of the Gospel story is about two different groups of people who did not trust each other, even hated each other: Jews and non-Jews. Jews were a small minority in the region we now call Israel. They worked hard to maintain their unique identity, and they experienced persecution for their differences. They had strict dietary laws. They had specific worship practices that involved animal sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jews worshiped ONE God – Yahweh (or because the Holy Name was never spoken, God was called Elohim or Hashem). There were no images or statues. They did not worship the Roman Gods or eat with Gentiles. Furthermore, Jewish men did not speak to women except those who were family. Jews kept to themselves. Since Jesus was a Jew, he too was raised to stay apart from Gentiles, just like everyone else.

It is natural to want to stay in our own group, and among the people we are most comfortable with. Jesus was reflecting the human condition of all of us, when he ignored those pleas of a Canaanite woman.

What happens next in the story is instructive, because it reveals that God has a bigger plan for the world. A plan which includes everyone.

Both Mark and Matthew wanted the early Christian community to know and remember this story, because this story is essential to the Gospel, the Good News for all people. It is a story of overcoming barriers which divide us. It is a story of humility. It is a story of healing, not just a person, but a healing of attitudes which divide us.

As the story continues, we learn that the woman refuses to be kept away. Instead, she comes and humbles herself in front of Jesus, and asks, “Lord, please help me.”

At this point, of course I expect “my Jesus”, the nice and kind and welcoming Jesus, to respond kindly and compassionately. But no, the very human Jesus rebuffs the poor woman again. He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus is calling this woman, and her daughter, dogs, animals considered unclean in his culture.

This is difficult for me and even repulsive. What is happening here? Well, Jesus is still behaving as a very human Jewish man. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with this woman from a different group. But the rebuffed woman doesn’t go away. Instead, she challenges him back. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

That’s when a remarkable thing happens, almost unimaginable. Jesus, the man, is humbled. The response of this woman opens his eyes. His heart is touched through the persistence of her need and the depth of her faith. Now, the compassionate Jesus, the Son of God, shows up. He says, “Woman, your faith is amazing and you have touched my heart! Let it be done for you as you desire.” The woman’s daughter is healed immediately.

There is both humility and persistent faith in this story, which overcame the divide between these two people, Jesus and the Canaanite woman, and these two groups, Jews and Gentiles. It is what is also required of us, if we are seeking the healing of the world.

We must be humble enough to learn from those who are different from us, like Jesus. And we must be persistent in our faith of God’s plan for healing, like the Gentile woman. Healing from fear, healing from hate, healing from violence. The opposite of fear is love. The opposite of hate is forgiveness. The opposite of violence is peace. It starts with what is in our own hearts.

When we follow Jesus by living lives of forgiveness and love, in all that we do, we then can become the Beloved Community. We can grow into the Body of Christ, which welcomes people different from ourselves, which helps people in need no matter their nationality or culture, which works together to create a better world, and finally which celebrates all life together. We can then become the Eucharist for which we yearn – the Eucharist for the healing of the world. May it be so.

Trees, dead and dying in Michigan

Trees, dead and dying in Michigan

By merdyd

 

Highwayscapes sprouting

acres of aching,

skyward reaching, skeletal arms

 

countless bare,

beseeching wooden fingers,

pleading futile prayer

 

trees, dead and dying in Michigan,

against the summer sky

 

the gods of acid rain

laugh in derision

 

 

8 August 2016