Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

October 18, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23

Psalm 99

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

MATTHEW 22:15-22

Here we are today, just over two weeks away from what may be the most momentous election in our nation’s history, and – of course – the Gospel is about money and politics.

This is also Jubilee Sunday, when we lift up the biblical tradition of the seventh year when fields are left fallow and all debts forgiven.  This year, we are observing Jubilee when the election may literally decide whether the world’s poorest countries and our own poorest citizens are granted a Jubilee of debt forgiveness – or pushed into an even deeper pit of debt.

Today’s short reading from Matthew 22 is the first of four tests or controversies faced by Jesus.  The reading follows last week’s parable of the wedding feast where all are invited.  On previous Sundays, we heard stories and parables about driving out vendors in the temple, good intentions versus good behavior, labor practices, and property rights.  All a prelude to today’s story about money and politics.

What makes today’s trick question so malicious or evil is that the Herodians (the Republicans) and the Pharisees (the liberal Democrats) were so desperate to get rid of Jesus that they collaborated to put Jesus in a no-win situation.

Jesus could say, “Pay the poll tax” – pay the required tax that conferred both the benefits and obligations of the Roman empire.  But, in the process, Jesus would betray those devout people like the Essenes and the Zealots who pledged loyalty to the God of Israel alone.

Or Jesus could refuse to pay the poll tax – and solidify his status as a dangerous radical, a revolutionary who would invite Rome to crush what little life and freedom was left in Judea and Galilee.

But like the parables we’ve experienced in the past weeks, today’s puzzle cracks open a new reality.  Jesus asks his interrogators to provide the coin, demonstrating that he doesn’t carry Roman coins.  Significantly, this coin was a denarius, a day’s wages – which for most people is what they earned and then spent to be able eat that day.

Even more significantly, the Roman coin bore the image of the Emperor and the inscription, “Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.”

Jesus acknowledges Roman authority, and he accepts that this is indeed Caesar’s coin, which the Judeans and Galileans were giving back to Caesar.  But Jesus says that this coin is all Caesar gets.  We are to give to God what is God’s.

And what is it that we give back to God?  The implication is that we give to God what bears God’s image– namely ourselves because we are created in God’s image.  Thus, Jesus challenges his interrogators – and us today – to give ourselves, our entire created being, back to God.

Of course, these words of Jesus are a judgment on the Pharisees and Herodians – and a judgment on us as well.  They – and we – want to be safe and secure in life.  We pay what is necessary to get along.  We make a deal in the hopes that political power will protect us – and maybe even provide some sense of worth and happiness.

But Matthew’s first readers knew that divided loyalties is a deal with the devil.  They would remember the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness.  Even more telling, they were well aware that political accommodation in Jesus’ time led to corruption and oppression, which resulted in the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans some 30 years after Jesus’ death.

For us today, it is equally deadly to live with divided loyalties, to try to buy our happiness.

Jubilee points out how the even well-intentioned use of time and money can lead to greed and corruption that enslaves others in our own country.  Predatory lending, fines that mount up, and housing costs beyond the means of most people – all cry out for Jubilee.  In developing countries, debts held by banks and other countries deprive the world’s poorest people of health care, basic education, and agricultural development.

In a real sense, the trap that the Pharisees and Herodians set for Jesus feels like a trap that God seems to have set for us.

We’re put in a situation where accommodation and divided loyalties seem the only option.  Even though we are created in God’s image, how can we possibly give ourselves completely to God?  There are so many competing demands for our time, attention, and resources.  And, to top it off, our seemingly innocent lifestyle decisions implicate us in creating a life-crushing debt burden for so many.

The good news – the source of hope and cause for joy – turns again on that word image.

In our first reading today from Exodus 33, we hear that God won’t let Moses see the face of the divine, a vision Moses hoped would confer God’s favor on him.  But God does allow Moses – while also protecting Moses – to catch a glimpse of God’s back, an image if you will of God’s goodwill.

You’ll recall that Matthew’s Gospel sifts through the expectations about the Messiah who was to come and restore Israel to greatness.  Matthew keeps linking Jesus and Moses, the great liberator and prophet.  But, for Matthew, Jesus is always more than just another Moses, and he is greater than King David.  The One who John the Baptist runs before and announces is the true Son of God – not some imposter like Caesar.

Jesus is the image of God who does give himself completely to God.  Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we see what it means for Jesus to give himself to God– to heal the sick, welcome the outcast, and feed the hungry.  We also see that, as in today’s Gospel, this giving of oneself brings Jesus into conflict with religious and political authorities.

And this conflict ends in Jesus’ execution on the cross.  For Matthew, Jesus’ death is the way Jesus gives himself – as God’s Son – back to God.  All to redeem convicts, sinners, and hypocrites.  Including us.

For Matthew’s first readers and for us today, they knew and trusted that the crucified Jesus was also the Risen Christ.  Risen, but very much present and active among us as they gathered for the Eucharist, as they baptized others, and as they fed the hungry.

In our baptism, we are buried with Christ and raised with him, and our image gets conflated with the image of the Risen Christ.  In our baptism, we are given the wedding garment for this banquet of joy that we experience even as we gather remotely.  And, what makes this banquet so joyous, is that all are invited – including those who are burdened with debts.

This banquet – our worship together even over Zoom – is truly Jubilee, forgiveness rooted in the Sabbath, the seventh day when the God of creation rested.  God’s rest from creation is the source of our freedom from striving, our freedom from greed, our freedom from piling up goods we hope will make us happy.  An outpouring of sheer grace, this rest and freedom are available to all.

And, as we saw just a few decades ago when the nations of the world agreed to debt forgiveness, Jubilee restores society and rebuilds the community that makes all life possible.

Yes, Jubilee – in all its forms, both personal and communal – is our comfort now and our hope for the future.  Amen.

 

Oct. 10, 2020 Sermon

Sermon 10/11/2020

The Rev. Dani Gabriel, Deacon

St. Alban’s, Albany

Readings: http://lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp23_RCL.html

Have you ever been invited somewhere you weren’t sure you’d fit in? Have you ever been asked to attend a party for someone you barely knew, or maybe a work function with your boss hosting? Have you worried what to wear, if you had appropriate shoes, which tie was right?

I was invited to an extremely fancy party, pre Covid. It was the first actual black tie affair I’d ever been asked to attend. I was initially horrified, because I didn’t want to wear a gown. Tulle and taffeta are not for me. I went thrift store shopping and bought a tuxedo jacket instead.

The party was every bit as over the top as I had anticipated. I was extremely uncomfortable, walking between the open bar and the trays of hors d’oevers. I kept thinking about how much everything had cost: that ice sculpture must have been a month’s worth of groceries, that dessert was more than a tank of gas. But everyone was welcoming, and I found myself having a good time in spite of myself.

We are all invited to the party. God invites us to meet his Son, invites us from the streets or even whatever jails we occupy, he’s demanding our presence even. It’s an over the top affair.

How nervous you are to meet fancy people or be at a King’s banquet doesn’t matter. You are worthy. Show up. All your mistakes, all your failures, all the things that trouble you in the two a.m. darkness don’t matter. You are worthy. Show up. The identities that push you to the edges of conversations and keep you out of community, they are valued. You are worthy. Show up.

That is a message for this week. As we see division all over our tv screens and many of us are left wondering: is there a place for us in America anymore? This is an alternative vision. A lavish banquet that God is basically begging us to attend. One that has room for the ordinary, and the outcast, and the other.

We need to think about who we invite into our spaces, too. Is our worship welcoming to all? Who do we not invite to come to events or participate in conversations? How can we lengthen the guest list to include everyone who might be interested?

When I was first invited to attend an Episcopal church I said “no.” Emphatically. I definitely did not want anything to do with the Episcopal Church, thank you very much. I didn’t feel particularly welcomed and I didn’t think I’d fit in. It took the person who invited me six months of pestering to get me to go, and then look what happened. Ten years later I’m ordained in the church.

What happened was that when I got to that party I met God. I met God in the liturgy and I met her in the people. That was a lavish party to be sure, full of grace. I never ever wanted to leave. The more we can share the unique things about the Episcopal Church, the more we can share that we really do mean ALL are welcome, the more that we can invite people directly to join us, the bigger and louder and more celebratory this party will get. And that will have a positive impact on the world.

And what about these original guests who refused the invitation? I am often like one of them. Too busy to hear God’s call. I’ve got things I want to do, I’m not interested in God’s agenda even when I’m given a clear invite. I have to practice prayer so I can hear God’s call, so that there will be space for me to respond.

And what about this guest that is cast into the outer darkness for having the wrong clothes? That doesn’t seem to fit with the message.

One suggestion I have read is that this guest has refused to be “clothed in Christ.”[1] He has shown up to the banquet, but wants to retain his earthly clothing and his earthly ways.

How would we be clothed in Christ? What would we wear to this heavenly banquet?

Maybe a scarf woven from our gifts to the poor.

Maybe a hat sewn from our service to the sick.

How about a dress cut from our care for our families?

A shirt tailored with our love for people who are difficult.

Shoes cobbled from patience, and kindness, and mercy.

You don’t need a tux from the thrift store for this party. You don’t need to look this way or that way, you don’t need anything expensive.

If “many are called, but few are chosen” maybe it’s because we got the invitation but not the deeper message.

You just need to show up with your best try, with your efforts at putting on the ways of Jesus, and dance.

[1]Bartlett and Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 4, pages 164-169.

Reflection for Pentecost 18, & St. Francis Day 2020

Reflection for Pentecost 18, & St. Francis Day 2020

by Pastor Jim Stickney

I’d like to start this reflection with a word of gratitude for being invited back

to lead this service — a good adaptation of our normal ways of worshipping God.

I last led the worship at St. Alban’s in 2006, but over the years I’ve been following you,

and I rejoice to see so many new names — which means parish growth.

 

And I’m really glad to be asked on this St. Francis Day, because on October 4th, 1997,

23 years ago, Joni and celebrated our marriage at St. Alban’s Church.

We’ll share some pictures of that event with you later, at the virtual coffee hour.

 

St. Francis was a nature mystic, finding God not only in people, but in Brother Sun

& Sister Moon, in cosmic forces, in Sister Mother Earth, and even in Bodily Death.

Francis praised God for all these good things in a poem called “the Canticle to the Sun.”

 

When the Celebrant uses Eucharistic Prayer “C”, we hear the phrase,

“this fragile earth, our island home.” When we are in danger of changing the climate,

a person like Francis reminds us of the care we ought to have for all creatures.

 

We’re especially reminded of our earth’s fragility during this terrible fire season,

when heroic firefighters are risking so much to keep us safe.

The divisions facing our country include serious debates about climate change,

its reality and the economic challenges that confront our decision makers.

 

We may be uplifted by looking up into the heavens, but we do not live there.

We may try our best on earth, but we still encounter setbacks and selfishness.

Jesus expresses this tension in the parable story I just read, about a vineyard.

Last Sunday we heard about the workers in a vineyard. That’s also the scene

for today’s episode, just after the harvest — a vineyard that is a fertile success.

 

St. Francis’ poem praises God for Sister Mother Earth, Brother Sun,

Sister Water, Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms,

and all the weather, through which God gives all creatures sustenance.

All these creatures have now produced a rich harvest for the owner’s vineyard.

 

But some short-sighted persons put immediate profit over good stewardship.

These greedy folks see money where they should see God’s rich abundance.

They are tenants, rebelling against the rightful owners of the rich land.

They rebel, and one by one they reject the authentic messengers, even killing them.

Their avarice expresses itself insanely: “This is the heir — come, let us kill him,

and get his inheritance.”  What has driven these men crazy?  Love of wealth.

 

At the end of this parable Jesus asks his listeners to tell him what happens next.

Jesus’ listeners prescribe the death penalty, with cruel and unusual pain.

(I find it very telling that Jesus himself does not utter a condemnation of death —

and yet he does not contradict the harsh verdict of his followers on that day.)

 

The wicked will be replaced by other tenants who will give a share of the harvest.

In other words, the replacement tenants will be better stewards of abundance —

these new people will realize who really owns the vineyard, and act accordingly.

 

Jesus agrees with his followers’ vision of transformation. In fact,

Jesus proclaims that such a transformation is about to happen after his death.

Those who believe in his resurrection will be the ones to share in his new life.

 

Recall the first part of this sermon, with Francis’ celebration of God the Creator,

almost hidden in the wondrous beauty of created things. This is the experience of God

beyond personality — our wonder at the marvels of an expanding universe.

 

Since this day is also the Feast of St. Francis, I’ll conclude with that cosmic poem

known as the Canticle of the Sun. This poem is the basis of the Rose Window

found in Grace Cathedral. And many years ago some of our parish members shared

their talent of needlework in the cushions for the choir stalls in Grace Cathedral,

which was a Diocesan-wide art project celebrating Francis’ Canticle of the Sun.

 

Most high, omnipotent good Lord, all praise is yours, all glory, honor and blessing.

 

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through Brother Sun,

who brings the day, and you give light through him. And he is beautiful

and radiant in all his splendor.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and all the stars;

in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms,

and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;

she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night;

he is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds and rules us,

and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you;

through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace.

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace

no living person can escape. Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve God with great humility.

 

Amen. Alleluia!

 

Reflection, Proper 21, Year A, 9/27/20

Reflection, Proper 21, Year A, 9/27/20

Barbara Metcalf

Our gospel reading today asks us a big question: What makes for authority? Who merits our deference? Who is worthy to render judgments, offer guidance, make choices that impact us, — tell us what to do — whether as individuals or as part of a larger community?

Like most Americans in this agonizing political year, we’ve each no doubt made that decision at the national level. We may also be finding authoritative voices outside obvious places. Who might they be? A close friend, one of the most socially conscious and progressive people I know, said to me recently that she had been astonished this past summer at how much she had to learn about racism. In the past month, she said, she realized that she had only begun to have some sense of what it meant to be Black in our society. The people speaking with authority were not the experts, but the “ordinary people” who from the depth of personal experience were able to teach us. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom we’ve all thought so much about these past days, wound up in a formal place of authority. But in her early years she was a voice crying in the wilderness. Who is the early Ginsburg, that marginal person, we are missing today?

In this story, the people, the men, formally in authority, the priests and elders, confront Jesus. “Who gave you this authority?” they ask.

And Jesus replies almost in the style of a fairy-tale riddle: “I’ll ask you a question and if you can answer my question, I’ll answer yours.”

Did John’s authority come from humans or from heaven?

We tend to read Jesus’ words with suitable reverence and in a monotone, but I often wonder what his tone and facial expression were in conversations like this. How did he sound when he asked this question? like this?

As for the question, like the fairy-tale suitor who could not answer the princess’s question, the elders failed the test. Jesus did not respond with a put down. Instead, he invited them to consider what was at stake if they opened their minds. And, as I read it, he offered real sympathy for their dilemma.

He did so by asking a second question, and this time, he lobbed them a softball.

A father had two sons. He asked each to work in the vineyard. Each defied him. The first said he would not go, but then he did. The second said he would go, and then he did not. <Which did the will of the father?

The first, they answered, hands down.

They didn’t need to know anything about the father or the sons or the vineyard. In a society like this one, the father’s authority was paramount. The father was the patriarch, the linchpin of the family as social and economic building block. Sons obeyed fathers. (at least for people like the priests and elders)

I think Jesus was offering the priests and elders sympathy over their dilemma. Doing what was right could be very hard, even when the obligations were obvious, even in regard to something as mundane as doing your part on the family’s farm.  There was no third son who said “Sure, Dad; I’m on it,” and then jumped in.

Making the right choice to accept the authority of someone as marginal as John and Jesus as people were doing — voting with their feet to hear them and other teachers and rebels of the times – that could be hard. The Hebrews’ paradigmatic myth of the hard journey from Egypt, which we encountered in the first lesson as we did last week, made it clear that change was hard and following appointed authority was hard. It’s a week later and the Hebrews are still complaining. But God, ever present, ever ready for conversation, ever generous, as Chantip reminded us last week, shows mercy.

Hard or not, the stakes were high.  Jesus was explicit about what the questioners were missing in the choice they had made.

The tax collectors and the prostitutes are making their way[1] into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.

And Jesus marveled at the elders’ blindness. You resisted, he tells them, “even after you saw” saw all those prostitutes and tax collectors who gathered to hear John, and now him.

What did they see? Or, maybe, what should they have seen? The prostitutes and tax collectors had said no to the authority of community standards by the choices they had made. But then they found a new community and certainly a new authority.  And in doing that, they had intimations of nothing less than the kingdom of heaven. Intimations in the repentance and reconciliation John called for made them part of the stories our Psalm describes, the stories that they heard “from of old. things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us,” the stories of God’s power and mercy exactly like the Exodus story. They must have seen healing and feeding, they heard Jesus’ message of love, creating the kind of community that we hear Paul call for, long for, week after week in our lessons: “having the same mind, having the same love…[looking] to the interests of others.” They found welcome.

All this the priests and elders had seen – or should have seen? –

And they still did not believe.

I mentioned that I often wonder in these gospel readings about Jesus’ tone, the look on his face. Do we hear this gospel differently if we hear it with the sections of the chapter that come before and after? Our selection today follows the entry to Jerusalem and the palms, the cleansing of the temple, the withering of the fig tree.  The elders were reacting to much more than Jesus’ teaching at that moment. I think we can hear Jesus’ voice as deadly serious,[2] not least because his teachings escalate, culminating in the section following what we heard today with the portentous parable of rejection of right authority with a vengeance. That is the parable, or allegory, of the defaulting tenants who kill the landlord’s son.  We need to hear seriously. Like the prostitutes and tax collectors we need to seek gratefully the richness of God’s hospitable grace. Unlike the priests and elders, we need to find ways to welcome the fragile[3] into community at every level.

Collects often begin by reminding God of who God is. Today we pray in our collect to a God who shows “mercy and pity.”  Recognizing authentic authority and then committing to it is hard –so we need God’s grace and mercy to share in the “heavenly treasure” of the right relationships of the kingdom that Jesus offers. This was the treasure that the tax collectors and prostitutes, and Paul’s beloved saints in Philippi, were “making their way toward.” May we pray to make our way there as well.

[1] The Jerusalem Bible translation

[2] Aha. Jerusalem Bible says he told them “solemnly,” not “truly.”

[3] A word owed, with thanks, to Steve Hitchcock, whom I thank for his incredibly helpful response to a draft of these comments.

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Reflection – Chanthip Phongkhamsavath

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 20, 2020

Good morning. After last week and the beginning of this week spent mostly indoors, I will say it has been a blessing to be able to open up some windows and take a deep breath. A much-needed deep breath it felt…to clear my mind…and to find something different which I hadn’t pieced together before in today’s readings.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the passage from Exodus or of the laborers and the landowner, however I struggled with it a little more then I feel like I have in the past. Maybe because it hasn’t been so long ago that we woke up to a red and orange sky – a day filled with eerie darkness. A day that seems like it could be a journey in a different type of wilderness, although I was blessed to spend it inside there were many laborers who were not. I cannot seem to get the image of the farmworkers harvesting outdoors set against the orange sky out of my head. And I wonder if they complained to the landowners for having them work that day.

My natural inclination in the readings was to see the complaining.  In Exodus, “Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you  out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?”

And in Matthew’s Gospel, the laborers grumbled against the landowner.

It seems fair on both accounts given the immediate situation at hand.  However, in both readings there was something else that was present, yet was a little harder to initially grasp, because it was not for me the easiest to relate to right away – and that’s the generosity. When the people complained to Moses, the Lord responded with a bit of a test through providing food. However, it is a generous test, one that gives nourishment first not requiring the Israelites to past their test before being rewarded.

And the Landowner’s response to the grumbling laborers who have worked a full day, “‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

I think the very human response of wanting fairness created my resistance to the portion of that reading that is also accurate – as I imagine the laborers and the different hours that were worked I am envious – initially envious of what seems like those who only had to work shorter hours – yet what I began to realize was I am more envious of the generosity.

I know that I am capable of generosity, however I wonder if I am capable of the type of generosity that is in the readings today. After bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, it seems the Lord has to continue to show them through the bread how blessed they continue to be.  And in the reading from Matthew, Jesus through the parable notes the generosity of the landowner – God’s generosity.

And that is where in our current day, it is sometimes hard to believe in that type of generosity. Someone willing to give a day’s wage for anyone they come upon willing to work. It makes it harder considering, just a week ago, the headlines of a Time’s article read, “The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%—And That’s Made the U.S. Less Secure.” That was just one article, there were numerous others that highlighted how COVID-19 has further exacerbated the wealth gap across the country. It amazes me to think of how wide of a gap that is in the world, the U.S. and even in just the Bay Area alone.

It makes me want to take from the top one percent and redistribute it – it makes me want to complain about how unfair things are. Except what would I do if I were in that top one percent – what would you do?  Would you be willing to be generous with what you have?  Would you be willing to give someone you hired the same amount for working just one hour versus someone who worked all day? Especially if you also had family and others you cared about and wanted to ensure were taken care of?

Except this is a parable and in the Kingdom of Heaven I don’t think its wages that are being given out. It can be very easy for me to be stuck in the literal, in hours worked and comparisons of hours in a day. That is the limitation that I feel like I need to be reminded to push past, to get out of thinking about how I would feel as the complainer – and remember instead what is being offered.  And it is being offered to all who are willing to receive it and there is no limit.

An opportunity for the work that I and we put in to be part of a greater whole, to benefit from God’s generosity. The generosity does not make any of us worst off, it only makes us all better off. Because for each of the laborers, if I imagine what happens next, each one is able to take that wage and go home – to hopefully purchase dinner for themselves and their families. And because of the generosity of the landowner more are nourished, and in a literal sense are not starving. So why would I not want the landowner to continue to seek others willing to put in as much work as they can when they are found, for in the end the more who are willing to work, I would hope the work lessens – maybe just a little.

Work though, even if there are many to help in finishing a task, is still work.  And even though it is Sunday, it is a different type of work that we do together. The work that tries to understand the extent of the struggle in not being perfect, in not being envious of our neighbors, of wanting more than maybe what we have – and recognizing the salvation and grace offered to us.  It is a generous offer, despite our imperfections or because of it and our work to follow Jesus’ teachings, that we are given God’s love.

There is a portion in the second reading from Philippians which I think encapsulates it, “And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well– since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  I would say it is not suffering but rather the work that we are asked to do, in order to recognize and receive the generosity of God’s love and to practice it with others. The most rewarding things often come when there has been some hard work and struggle put in, so let us do this work together and appreciate the generosity of our Lord and Savior.

Amen.

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Reflection for September 13, 2020

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Genesis 50:15-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Lawrence DiCostanzo

The readings today from Genesis and Matthew are about forgiveness.  I will tell you:  This has been the hardest scripture for me to tangle with.  I think that the reason is that the land of forgiveness shares a very long border with the land of sin.  And I do not like to think about sin.  Amazingly, tangling with the topic has brought me right back again to the Sermon on the Mount.

So . . .  forgiveness.

Let’s say I live in a lovely house.  It has trees on the lawn and pretty shutters.  The kitchen is beautiful and sparkling.  There is a great room for reading and TV and a nice, clean, neat work shop.  Even my junk in the basement is neatly stored in boxes or covered with plastic sheets.  It’s satisfying.  Then, like a good householder, I wonder about checking the foundation.  So, I dig a little to assure myself that the house is nicely built on rock. This is called denial.  What I find is plenty of wet sand, centipedes, and little rock.  That is my house.  I have to do something about this foundation.

I have to build a new foundation or engage in the unending process of rebuilding the old one.  That means excavating my dark side.  This process of excavating and building requires forgiveness.  Forgiveness is part of the machinery of rebuilding.  Forgiving others, forgiving ourselves, and one of the hardest things — working out forgiveness when the person we’ve hurt is not available any more.  Sometimes we just need to ask for the grace of being forgiven.

There is always another person besides myself that I need to consider.  Just as wrongdoing is relational, so is forgiveness.  Therefore, maybe a better word is reconciliation.  We mutually forgive and are forgiven.  If love has subspecies, forgiveness is one of them.  So, forgiveness is love.

But it is dreadful and scary to look at what’s under the basement.  There is unease and dread and sorrow.  I have done something wrong to a human or an animal or an aspect of creation.  I may have left someone to grieve even in a small way.  Denial is my protection. It is just too hard to take on the burden of dread or sorrow. .

God is with us in those moments of sorrow and dread.  This just has to be the case.  For one thing, St. Paul says says sorrow precedes repentance.  (2 Corinthians 7:10)  I mean, who’s to argue with him?  But for another, Jesus scolds us about forgiveness.. Think of his warnings in the Sermon on the Mount.  Do not let the sun go down on your anger!  Reconcile with your brother before you make that offering at the temple!  You’ll burn just for calling your brother a fool!  Settle with your neighbor before you get to court and feel the pangs of judgment!  This is his way of saying: your heart does suffer when you do wrong.  Your heart suffers when you don’t forgive.

Let’s look at some very great wrongs and see how it goes.

You will recall that there was an awful genocide in Rwanda in 1994 when 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days.  A lot of them were slaughtered by hand, one-on-one.  A few years ago, the New York Times ran a stunning photo essay on a selection of perpetrators and victims.  In the photos, individual victims and survivors posed with the individual perpetrators who had committed the atrocities that personally affected them.  I burned down her house!  He killed my children! They were neighbors and fellow townsmen.  Just like in South Africa at the instance of the blessed Desmond Tutu, Rwanda initiated a coming together.  After the suffering and dread and shame, the perpetrator actually comes to the victim’s house and kneels and asks.  It takes courage on both sides, a putting away of dread and shame and rancor.  They now testify (I am paraphrasing):  Forgiveness is mercy; I used to be a dry stick; I found peace in my heart.

In Genesis, Joseph suffered a terrible wrong.  His brothers had always been violent men.  Now, they stripped Joseph and threw him into a pit out of jealousy and hatred.  They were going to kill him., but, instead, they made money off him and sold him into slavery.  Then, they lied to their father Jacob and kept their lie hidden for years.  In the meantime, before his rise to the heights in Egypt, Joseph was first a slave in Egypt, suffered an injustice and then spent years in prison.

After all the great revelations were made and after Jacob had died, the brothers asked Joseph for forgiveness.  They were motivated by fear that Joseph would hurt them.  They perhaps made up another lie about how Jacob told them to ask Joseph for forgiveness.  Whatever was the case, when Joseph responded with tears, they truly did ask for forgiveness.  They wept and fell down before him.  Of course, Joseph took the high road, saying that God had planned it all anyway.  But I doubt that Joseph had forgotten the injury done him and still carried its weight.  Nonetheless, the tears are witness to the reconciliation.  As high and mighty as he was, the inner boy Joseph needed to be recognized.  He was entitled to forgive.  The brothers were now entitled to forgiveness.  This is what was on offer in Rwanda.

In today’s really difficult Gospel passage, Jesus, though a parable, tells a story about us.  In the first part of the parable, the king forgives an incredible debt.  This is ten thousand talents!  An amount out of the Arabian Nights.  He does it because the debtor begs for more time to repay.  The king, of course, knows that the man will never be able to repay.  Nonetheless, the king forgives completely. He is moved by pity.

It is my default when I read this passage to think that the king is God who forgives always the ways in which we do not measure up.  Always – seventy times seven!  This is, in my opinion, a limited view the parable.  The king is also us.  Why?  Because Jesus is answering Peter’s question about how often he should forgive his brother.   Jesus’ reply is:  Be like the king!  Just for the sake of the story, Jesus pumps us up to high status and unlimited generosity.  His exaggeration gives us an aspiration.  In his challenging way, he is saying:  Be like God!

In the second part of the parable, Jesus tells the parallel story, the story of non-forgiveness. I think the parallel story is needed to give the story of the king better perspective.  The forgiven man does not do as was done to him.  He refuses to forgive a paltry debt.  Note how this man is owed, but is not a victim – not like Joseph or a Rwandan victim.  He is simply called to forgive or extinguish a debt.  He is being called to love.  But his issue is simply that he does not love the debtor.  When we think how the king was moved by pity, we see that the wrongdoing is a failure of love.

I started by saying that preparing this reflection eventually led me to the Sermon on the Mount.  In the Sermon, Jesus says a lot about reconciliation.  Do not let the sun go down on your anger!  Reconcile with your brother before you make that offering at the temple!  You’ll burn just for calling your brother a fool!  Settle with your neighbor before you get to court and feel the pangs of judgment!   Jesus is smart and he knows that we have a dark side and he knows that we suffer because of it.  But he knows more than that.  He wants us to step up to a lot more.  He wants us to be Joseph and the king.  He wants us to love and not be like the unforgiving man who failed at love.

Jesus’ advice about reconciling with your brother and so forth almost immediately precede the Sermon on the Mount’s unique, far-reaching, summary of the highest law.

. . .  I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous . . .  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This passage seems to me to apply both to perpetrators and to victims.  It says what forgiveness really is.  This passage helps in the continuous project of building my house on rock and not on the sand.  Of taking my dark side into the light.  It’s not that I’m perfect like my heavenly father – I mean, who could!  But I can be a work in progress towards being a house on rock, a better citizen of the Kingdom.  I can at least be aware of God’s example.

Gathered in my Name

The Rev. Dani Gabriel

Sermon, September 6th, 2020

Readings: https://lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp18_RCL.html

Gathered in my Name

I love Sundays. My old habit was to wake up early and walk to church in the morning chill. I’d get to St. Alban’s at least an hour before the service. I’d let myself in and I could hear Fred in the Parish Hall getting ready for coffee hour but otherwise nobody else was in the building. Usually the hallway would be dark. I’d open the sacristy and get a chill, it’s always colder in there for some reason. I’d place my sermon on the lectern, corners folded, and check the Gospel book and the altar book. I’d make sure the bulletins were out and I’d often mess with something the Altar Guild would prefer that I didn’t. I’d go back and put on my alb and listen to people arrive in the sanctuary. One by one, each voice I knew, settling into the pews. And then Richard would begin to play and whoever was serving would join me in the sacristy. We would pray together, and that always marked the real start of the service for me.

This passage is all about the collective nature of our lives as Christians. It refers to the church, one of only 2 times the word appears in the Gospels, the body that has changed greatly over time but seeks still, in ways the disciples couldn’t have imagined, to follow Christ. This passage is about how we are to manage those relationships with great care, and at the heart of it it’s also about how relationship is significant to God. Relationships are how we know God, and relationships are where God meets us.

We quote this passage all the time, but what does “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” mean right now?

I can’t listen to you all arrive, or get an early cup of coffee from Fred. There’s no altar party to pray with. The peace at St. Alban’s was legendary, it was one of the highlights of church for me. I’ve never seen anything like it. Every single person shaking hands with or hugging every other person, the news of the week being shared, and such boisterous joy. I remember having to shout to regain everyone’s attention. But no more. We can’t congregate in the sanctuary, and a handshake or a hug would be a total impossibility if we could. Our lives have changed. Our life as a church has changed. It’s been six long months. I don’t know how it feels to you, but to me it feels like years.

My new routine is different. I’m still up early but there’s nowhere to go. I bring my coffee with me to church. I’m still always early, to check in with Becky before the service starts. There’s often some issue with Zoom. Then one by one names and faces appear until the screen is full. I still find Zoom overwhelming, I can’t always focus. But I do hear those familiar voices, and then seemingly from a million miles and a million years away, Richard plays the prelude.

It is both a radical departure, and the same St. Alban’s that has been a comfort and a joy to our community for so many years.

At the beginning of the pandemic I questioned whether we could even be gathered over the internet. Like, would it count? Would Jesus show up? It sounds a little silly but I honestly wasn’t sure. I was nervous that we would cease to be the Body of Christ if we couldn’t physically gather as a body. I am embarrassed now that my idea of the Holy was so small that I doubted.

We have had our share of mishaps. Some Sundays the hymns won’t play right, the wrong person speaks at the wrong time, someone neglects to mute themselves. But the Gospel is always the Gospel. It always carries Good News for the poor and the oppressed, which has only become more relevant in recent weeks. And that is what brings us together and makes us who we are as Christians, this message of hope for the hopeless, in all times and places, even this one.

If I were a little more clever I would create a Zoom account for Jesus, so we could see Him arrive in our midst, maybe I’d even add a picture. But He is surely here where we are gathered, just as if he had his own little rectangle on the screen. He’s here in our commitment to keep showing up, to keep being church, to keep being active in our church community and our community at large as voices and labor for justice and for service.

Let’s continue to care for our relationships, to notice who’s not here, and to build the beloved community in new ways. None of us thought we’d be here a year ago. There’s no telling where we’ll be a year from now. But I believe we will still continue to gather in some format, and that Christ will be present wherever and however that is, and that it will be nothing short of miraculous.

 

 

Call of Moses and the Burning Bush/On Holy Ground

Year A  Proper 17    August 30 2020  St. Alban’s
Exodus 3:1-15   Call of Moses and the Burning Bush/On Holy Ground

Rev. Peggy Patterson

Yahweh begins this morning’s Hebrew Scripture with the familiar conversation between Moses and the Burning Bush in the Wilderness of Mount Horeb.

Moses turns to the Burning Bush and hears the Angel of Yahweh call to him:
“Moses, Moses.”
“Here I am” Moses replies.
“Come no closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is HOLY GROUND.”

God says: “The PLACE ON WHICH YOU ARE STANDING is HOLY GROUND.”
What does it mean to be on HOLY GROUND?
What makes it HOLY?
Have you ever felt as if you were standing on HOLY GROUND?

Before we dive into Moses’ whole conversation with Yahweh,
I invite you to take a moment to think about what makes a place HOLY GROUND for you?
… is it an intimate experience of God?
A Sacred Shrine?
A sense of CALL from GOD?
It certainly does not have to be in a church, …in fact, we call our Study Circles on Anti-Racism “SACRED GROUND”.

Before we accompany Moses to the Burning Bush this morning,
Before we join him in his HOLY GROUND experience of God’s CALL…
I invite you to spend a minute… 60 seconds in silence,
recalling, conjuring up the most SACRED, MOST HOLY ENCOUNTER
you have had with God.

“Take off your SANDELS,” at least figuratively, for one minute, and acknowledge the way you feel when have an intense experience of GOD’s PRESENCE, maybe even hear God’s VOICE within you.
Can you remember a time when you knew you were standing on HOLY GROUND?
(ONE MINUTE, 60 seconds, of silence…) Hold onto your image.

I pondered my own experience of Holy Ground this last weekend.
I began to think how differently my mornings would unfold if every single day I stepped out of my bed and into my day remembering that EVERY MORNING I do stand on God’s Creation, on HOLY GROUND.

This morning, we walk with Moses up to the Burning Bush in the Wilderness of Midian.
Moses almost didn’t live to tell the tale!
You remember last week, when Larry beautifully reminded us of Moses’ birth story…how he was hidden during the first three months of his life so he would not be killed by the Pharaoh who was jealous of the Hebrew children.

Three courageous women saved Moses:
Moses’ Mother created his safe passage in the basket, and gave him milk from her body to nourish him,
Moses Sister spoke up at just the right moment to assure that Moses would be brought up as a baby in his own Hebrew home with his own mother,
And Pharaoh’s daughter had compassion on this immigrant baby, and took him into her own home, raising him as a royal child.
In fact, Pharaoh’s daughter gave Moses’ a NAME with TWO meanings to help keep him safe.
The Hebrew NAME “MOSES” meant “taken up out of the water” which was surely Moses’ fate…but in EGYPTIAN, MOSES meant “SON OF KING TUT, the Pharaoh’s SON”…
CLEVER PRINCESS: what better way to assure that a Hebrew baby boy would be safe as he grew up in the palace!

And GROW UP MOSES DID…
Today we meet Moses all grown up.
The narrative has fast forwarded past Moses’ upbringing in Pharaoh’s PALACE. Now he is a full-grown man, aware of his dual immigrant heritage and now increasingly uncomfortable with the plight of his Hebrew brothers and sisters.

One day, his temper got the best of him as he watched an abusive foreman treat a fellow Hebrew slave unconscionably/He flew into a RAGE and KILLED the OVERSEER.

Moses almost escaped without anyone’s finding out, but eventually in another heated argument over treatment of the Hebrews, an Egyptian Overseer taunted MOSES by saying: “Oh, you are the one who killed the foreman.”

That was enough to make MOSES flee to the Wilderness…away from the big city of RAMESES and off to distant relatives in the land of MIDIAN.

In true biblical fashion, MOSES met his future wife at the well of his future father-in- law.  She was watering the Priest Jethro’s flocks… Happily,
Moses was welcomed into the family by his new father-in -law who was glad to add a man to a family with seven daughters!

Moses and Zipporah lived a long life in the wilderness of Midian. In fact, Moses was 80 years old when he received his call from Yahweh in the BURING BUSH.

On the day in question, MOSES was minding his father-in-law’s FLOCKS and took them to a new pasture beyond the wilderness, near Mt. HOREB,
the Mountain of God.
Moses was standing in the clearing in the field when he saw the BURNING BUSH full of fire, but strangely, it was not consumed.
Moses was curious…and when Yahweh saw Moses walking over to the BUSH, he CALLED OUT TO HIM:
“MOSES, MOSES”
“Here I AM” he said.
“Come no closer, PUT OFF YOUR SANDALS, for the ground on which you are standing is HOLY GROUND.”
Moses knew this was real…and he was afraid!
He hid his face so he would not see Yahweh, for fear he would die!

In one of the tenderest passages of scripture, Yahweh poured out his heart to MOSES: confessing his LOVE for ISRAEL and his COMPASSION for His PEOPLE.
“I am the God of your Fathers,
I am the God of Abraham,
the God of ISAAC,
and the GOD of JACOB.
I have seen the affliction of MY PEOPLE who are in Egypt. I have heard their cries. I know their suffering.
And I have come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, to bring them up out of that land to a GOOD and BROAD LAND,
A Land FLOWING with MILK and HONEY.
I have heard the cries of my People ISRAEL!

Then, Yahweh looked directly at MOSES and said:
“COME, I will send YOU to Pharaoh that YOU may bring forth my people, the people of ISRAEL out of Egypt.”

With that, Moses looked up in disbelief:
“ Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of ISRAEL out of Egypt?”

Moses Protested!
You know how this conversation went: Moses thought of FIVE reasons he should not accept Yahweh’s CALL.
1.    First, Moses protests that he is unworthy…and God says, “Don’t worry. I WILL BE WITH YOU.”
2.    Second, Moses insists that the people will not believe Yahweh has sent him. He insists that he wants to know GOD’s NAME… After all Egypt has many gods. So, God provides his NAME:
“I AM who I AM.”
3.    Third, Moses does not think the people of Israel will listen to him…So God surprises Moses with a magic staff with a serpent’s head…and even demonstrates its healing powers.
4.    Then, Moses says he is afraid that he will not be heard or understood because of his speech impediment…so GOD says,
“I made your mouth and I will provide you with words for PHAROAH”
5.    Finally, Moses admits that he is afraid to go to Pharaoh ALONE, so he asks God to send someone along with him.
God says, perhaps a little frustrated:
“After all, I WILL BE WITH YOU”…but I WILL ALSO SEND AARON TO BE YOUR MOUTH PIECE and your STRENGTH.

If you think about it, Moses is amazing! Even standing on HOLY GROUND, MOSES is not afraid to have a genuine conversation with GOD.

Maybe the boldest thing MOSES asks of God is his NAME:
Of course, Usually, Yahweh’s NAME not even spoken by the Hebrews:
“MY NAME IS: “I AM WHO I AM.” Tell the people that I AM  has sent you.
Some scholars say that a better translation of God’s Name might be:
“I WILL BE WHO I will be…or I will be who I AM”

In other words, Yahweh is PROMISING, and REASSURING MOSES and US that God will always be GOD for you.
Yahweh says: “I will be FAITHFUL and I will always be YOUR GOD.”

Think back on your HOLY PLACE, your HOLY GROUND. What was it like to remember that time/place/voice?

Interestingly, Moses did not have to go to a HOLY PLACE far away to find that Holy Ground. He heard God in the midst of his everyday life,
tending the flocks of his Father-in-law JETHRO.

Granted, he did have to look up from what he was doing, (thank goodness he didn’t have an iPhone!) Moses did have to “look ASIDE” AT THE BURNING BUSH (WHICH WAS NOT CONSUMED), but he saw it in the midst of his ordinary life.

PERHAPS, this week, we may look for the messages from God.
Remember they may appear in unexpectedly places and times in our lives… You never know when you may find a BURNING BUSH at our feet, calling you to a new journey…
You never know when you may be called to set others FREE in our own day, to listen yourselves to a voice from A Burning Bush or from the Ground of the Holy One.

In the HOLY PLACES of our lives we are asked to listen, to respond and to act  to the people crying out today in our streets, in our detention centers, in our families so that more people in our country and in our world may live and taste the Land of MILK and HONEY which God has provided for us all.

“TAKE OFF YOUR SANDALS this week,
The LAND ON WHICH YOU ARE STANDING IS HOLY GROUND!”

THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● April 26, 2020
Sermon by Steve Hitchcock
GOSPEL: LUKE 24: 13-35
During the eight weeks of Easter, those who designed the lectionary decided to make the “Old Testament Lesson” a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s not true that their decision was based on the fact that Acts is Becky Osborne-Coolidge’s favorite book of the Bible. But I could be wrong.

I think the reason they chose Acts is because it illustrates how the apostles carried out those final instructions of Jesus that end Matthew’s Gospel. On the mountain top, the Risen Christ says two things: (1) I will be with always whenever you are together in my name and (2) go out, baptize, and make disciples of all nations.

This is the Third Sunday of Easter, and our Gospel reading takes us back to Easter day – rather than a week later as was case with Thomas and the disciples in the locked room. Today, we have the happy conjunction of the penultimate story in Luke’s Gospel and an early chapter of Acts. You’ll recall that Luke and Acts were a two-volume narrative, written by the same author.

Thus, many have noted that the road to Emmaus is similar to a story in Acts. In chapter 8, Phillip is on a road and catches up to a chariot with an Ethiopian eunuch who is perplexed as he reads the prophet Isaiah. Phillip opens the Ethiopian’s eyes to see how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, the embodiment of God’s promises.

In our Gospel for today, though, the two disciples are more than perplexed. They are disappointed and full of sorrow. Their hopes for the future are dashed. As is often the case in these situations, they ended up in a heated argument. “Discussing” is a weak translation of a verb that implies at least “vigorous debate.”

These days, we too are engaged in heated debate – sometimes only with our isolated selves. As individuals, we uncertain about what to do next. As a society, we our engaged in mass anxiety about the future. We, too, might wish that could escape Jerusalem and head for Emmaus.

But another story in Luke – an echo of today’s reading – suggests how we might find joy in our present circumstances and hope for the future.

All the way back at the end of chapter 2 in Luke, we have the account of the boy Jesus in the temple. This young whipper snapper is explaining the true meaning of the Scriptures to the elders, the religious scholars of the day.

Now in chapter 24, we are invited to walk along with the two disciples. The journey to Emmaus provides narrative space to review “all the things of Jesus of Nazareth” – from those early days in the Temple onward through Luke’s Gospel. And, what we hear is a review of all of history as Luke’s genealogy starts with Adam.
As Phillip later does with the Ethiopian dignitary, Jesus provides the interpretative key to the Scriptures. The key is Jesus himself as the pivot point in Luke-Acts: everything before is the old era and everything after is the new era.

And what makes that new era possible is Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was God’s plan (that’s what “necessary” means in the Gospels) that Jesus suffer rejection and death at the hands of the religious leaders.

That Jesus was rejected by some – and put to death yet raised to life – made it possible for all people to be saved. In the words of Simeon in the temple, which we know as the Nunc Dimittis: “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.”

This is Luke’s Gospel, so salvation and revelation involve a meal. Without much encouragement, Jesus joins the two disciples as they recline to eat.

To be sure, this meal represents the Eucharist, the breaking of bread in which the Risen Christ is present. But this three-person meal also prompts a review all the other meals in Luke and Acts – meals that bring together people from all walks of lives, rich and poor, sinner and saint, the upstanding and the criminal.

In the account immediately following today’s Gospel, the Risen Christ appears to all the disciples and repeats the same interpretation of the Scriptures he gave to the two disciples. And, once again, it’s not until Jesus eats something that the disciples’ eyes are opened. Significantly, this meal involves both fish and bread.

Thus, the meals at Emmaus and at the end of Luke’s Gospel remind us of that really big meal – when Jesus takes two fish, breaks five loaves, and feeds the 5,000.

The good news for us today is that life is a joyous banquet of abundance. We can’t help but trust that there’s enough for everyone – and that there no work or eligibility requirements for these benefits. We all get new wedding dresses and tuxes.

No wonder, then, from its earliest days as we hear in Acts, the church appointed deacons to see that those in need were fed. We, too, at St. Alban’s continue to feed those in need, despite the extra effort it takes now to distribute the food.

And all over the country, Christians and others are pressing their members of Congress to expand SNAP – and suspend those mean-spirited restrictions. Our representatives in Congress are also working to pass legislation to make sure children receive school meals all summer long.

Last week in John’s account about Thomas, we heard the good news that – even while isolated – reading the written words about Jesus connects us with each other as God’s family. Today, we hear the promise that every meal during these anxious days is a meal we share with others. Even in our isolation, we have lots opportunities to break bread – and to experience and give thanks for God’s gracious abundance. Amen.

Christ: the King of costly grace

 

Readings: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Pentecost/BProp29_RCL.html#ot1

The end WWI saw the fall of many royal families across Europe, and a rising number of nationalist movements. In 1925, Pope Pius XI, responding to this newly-shaped world published the encyclical Quas Primas,[1] (Latin: in the first) in which he created the feast of Christ the King Sunday, which we mark today. The Pope had a number of things on his mind when he published this letter to the Roman Catholic bishops. What has carried down to us today, as this feast has been adopted in many mainline Protestant churches, is this reminder that, as Christians, our first and primary allegiance must be to Christ. This call precedes any national identity, and necessarily reconfigures our priorities.

If we claim Christ “the King,” we are choosing to follow one who disregarded long-standing tribal identities, who sought healing for those on the farthest margins, and who questioned even the rules of his faith tradition, when they got in the way of healing, feeding, and worshipping.

I wish it was called something that reminds us a bit more of the irony of the title, maybe “the feast of Christ, the Lord of the upside-down kingdom,” lest we get confused about what kind of royalty we’re talking about here.

Pilate, asking Jesus political questions, is looking for political answers that fit his frameworks for power and authority. They are having a kind of parallel conversation: Jesus is not looking for what Pilate understands as a “kingdom” – his revolution is built on pretty much the opposite of everything that shaped the Roman empire. Jesus’ building blocks, his strategic plans, his roadmaps, and his foot soldiers (so to speak) are all rooted in something very different: they are built of the power of love– the power of love: from which flows justice, wrapped in mercy; strength, knit of compassion; and boldness, empowered by understanding that God, and not Caesar, is the ultimate arbiter of our lives.

With this kind of ultimate authority comes a freedom unknown in any earthly realm: no one needs to fear the healing, merciful, unshackling power of God’s love. God does not seek to overthrow our self-centeredness or lack of love with might, but instead to turn us around to grace, with breath-taking experiences of abundance where we least expect it; of overwhelming gratitude when we get those glimpses of what the gift of life really means; and of mercy—in our everyday interactions with others, and when we risk love and sometimes more to stand up for Gospel values.

When Pope Pius wrote his encyclical, one of his concerns was that ALL people should call on Christ as king and Lord. This had, as it turns out, political implications for him as the head of the Papal States. Now, I have no aspirations for any kind of religious office that involves a funny hat, but I can tell you that I’m a lot less concerned with the whole world becoming Christian, and a lot more convinced that it’s past due time for Christians to simply act as though Jesus is the Christ, and thus the model after whom we ought to pattern our lives.

This, too, has political implications: it means that before we are Americans, or Brits, or Nigerians or Germans or Russians or Italians or Mexicans or any human-constructed political entity, we are first citizens of God’s reign. And this places responsibilities of allegiance on our hearts. It ought to shape decisions that mark our lives, every day: how do we treat the earth? how is our food raised? How do we know, treat, and love our neighbors? How do we see those labeled “other”? Especially those from other places, other racial groups, or those with views or practices we find challenging?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who famously went to his death for plotting the assassination of Adolf Hitler, wrote, taught and died for his belief that Christians have a higher allegiance than nationality, and that his fealty to God meant acting to stop tremendous evil. Meanwhile, here in this country, today, people are being housed like little more than cattle, families are being stripped apart for being foreigners and those who have come here from countries deemed something by our president that I won’t dignify with repeating are persecuted largely for the color of their skin.

In Durham, NC, this week, a man who has been living in his church until he can receive a fair immigration hearing went as required to report to immigration officials. Entering the court building, he was tackled by plain-clothes officers, handcuffed, and taken to jail. He was reporting in to fulfill requirements leading to the hearing for his appeal.[2]

We’ve been down this road before: we have imprisoned entire racial and ethnic groups, kidnapped and enslaved the offspring of many nations, with their surviving generations continuing to be abused and killed for the color of their skin, and we build political capital off the backs of the oppressed. Multitudes have lived and continue to live well off the proceeds of these transactions.

But, through the lens of God’s love, all are diminished by the reducing of some as “other,” as “not worthy.” Through the lens of God’s love, the first questions to measure a community, a state, a nation, ought to be, “how does love direct us to love and serve all?” How does mercy tend her children here? Does justice offer a fair hearing for everyone?Or, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, following Jesus Christ means opting for costly grace, and saying no to the cheap goods:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like [a huckster’s] wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “[you] were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.[3]

Costly grace is Emmanuel – God with us, the Prince of Peace, Christ the King. Our allegiance to this King costs us everything, and gives us back life in the fullest.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quas_primas

[2] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/samuel-oliver-bruno-immigrant-arrested-by-ice-durham-north-carolina-church/

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, first published in German as Nachfolge in 1937, is widely available in an array of publication formats.