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Sunday, November 10, 2019

All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.

Pentecost XXII - Proper 27 C - Track II
November 10, 2019
St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Seaford, DE

This morning’s gospel passage from Luke is one of those times when you can almost see Jesus doing a facepalm. If you listen closely enough, you can almost hear him pray an exasperated prayer to God under his breath, “Seriously? I have to explain this to them?”

This is the 20th chapter of Luke’s gospel. There are 24 chapters in Luke’s gospel. Now, in the 4th chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus healed Simon’s mother of fever and before the sunset on that same day, healed many who were sick. In the 5th chapter, he filled the empty nets of the fishermen with so much fish the nets were almost breaking; he also healed a leaper, and cured a paralyzed man who had to be lowered to him through the tiling in the roof.

And, that’s just in the first five chapters. The miracles go on and on –feeding five thousand with 2 loaves and five fishes, healing children with seizures and a woman with an 18-year infirmity, etc., etc. All this, and yet there’s absolutely no sign of the Sadducees asking Jesus any questions about any of those miracles. 

The first time they come to him, here in the 20th of 24 chapters, the Sadducees don’t ask him about anything he’s done, not any of the miracles of healing or, in fact, anything he’s said. Instead, they bring to him a hypothetical situation thinly disguised as a way to get him to say something about a theological concern of theirs about resurrection – in which, the Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, do not believe.

So, this hypothetical situation is almost comic in its exaggeration. A woman – who was considered property in ancient Israel, simply a vehicle through which a man could produce an heir – has lost her husband to death. Torah says that the man’s brother must then care for her – with, of course, all the rights and privileges and “other benefits procured unto us by the same” which was afforded to a man in marriage (wink, wink).

The ancient understanding of the purpose of marriage is to reproduce, to sire an heir – which is the primary reason why sex was prohibited outside the bonds of marriage. 

It was really all about protecting one’s property – the woman and any children she bore. The law of Moses was designed to protect the “investment” of a man’s “property” – especially since the ancient culture was not kind to widows or any other unmarried woman.

In this scenario, however, the Sadducees carried the point to the intersection of the sublime and the ridiculous. There were seven. Seven brothers, all of whom married the same woman. All seven brothers died without producing an heir. And finally, after seven husbands, the woman finally died having never produced a child.

The story reminds me of the “tests” we kids used to create for the priests and nuns of my youth. I grew up Roman Catholic and as kids, we took endless delight in asking questions that mirrored our sense of what was – to us – absurd ideas which we were carefully taught. My favorite one was this:

So, Sister, we know that God is all-powerful, right.

Yes, my child, Sister would say, not looking up from her desk (“custody of the eyes”) or continuing to clean the chalkboard (remember those?).

So, if God is all-powerful, God can do anything, right, sister?
Yes, my child, Sister would say.

So, if God is all-powerful and God can do anything, can God create a rock that he can not lift?

Ha! We thought we were so clever!

We practically squirmed in our seats, waiting to hear Sister stammer and sputter as she was stumped for an answer.

We forgot that Sister had been studying Jesus.

She would stop what she was doing, look kindly upon our mischievous souls and say, “Now, that is a wonderful question. Very thoughtful. Good for you. That shows you are using the old noggin’. So, what do YOU think, children? Can God create a rock that he can not lift?”

And, just like that, Sister had stolen the glee of our trickery and turned it into a class in religion. Right there, in the middle of recess or lunch break. And, the worst of it was that Sister never stopped smiling kindly. She always seemed to be secretly amused – like she knew the trick and had gotten ahead of us. I think I hated that smile most of all.

It seems to me that the Sadducees did the same thing with Jesus. What I find amusing – and, I’m sure it didn’t pass the attention of Jesus – is the subtext of what the Sadducees were asking. They place their concern about the resurrection squarely in the midst of what some religious leaders throughout the centuries have always concerned themselves.

In the exaggerated hypothetical situation of one wife for seven brothers, what the Sadducees seem most concerned about is not justice, not peace, not mercy or walking humbly with God. No, they are concerned with who has the right to claim this woman as his property. And, that, quite frankly, means, who is first in line to have sex with her in the afterlife.

You see, it’s not just The Episcopal Church that has consumed many years and many General Convention resolutions about the sex life of others. There really isn’t anything new under the sun.

Which is why I see Jesus doing a facepalm. Or, maybe that’s my projection. More likely, he was probably smiling kindly just as Sister did when we asked her about the omnipotence of God.

What Jesus essentially says to the Sadducees, to use Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message, is 
“Marriage is a major preoccupation here, but not there. Those who are included in the resurrection of the dead will no longer be concerned with marriage nor, of course, with death. They will have better things to think about, if you can believe it. All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.”
All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God. What a brilliant way to answer their question. It’s almost as if Jesus has stolen the glee of any unintended trickery and turned it into a class in religion. Right then and right there. I suspect Jesus never stopped smiling kindly. Perhaps he even looked to be secretly amused – like he knew the trick and had gotten ahead of them.

I don’t think there’s any question you can’t bring to Jesus. You may not get the answer you want – you may not hear the answer because you want another answer – but you will always get an answer. Sometimes, the answer is ‘no’.  Sometimes, the answer is ‘wait’. 

And, sometimes, sitting with the question – prayerfully and expectantly and hopefully – will bring you an answer you never expected or anticipated, something to challenge the comfort of the status quo, something that calls you to an action you couldn’t have asked for or imagined.

You’ve probably heard the story of the woman, a harried mother of four very active children, who said, “I used to pray all the time to God for patience. ‘Give me patience, Lord,’ I would pray. And then,” she said, “God sent me four children, and I’ve been learning about patience ever since.”

Sometimes, I wonder when we pray for peace, if what we get is war so that we will really understand and appreciate peace.

This weekend as we remember and honor our Veterans, I hope when we pray for peace we really mean it. Which means that we are willing to work to achieve it.

God knows, right now there are enough wars around the globe to make us cherish peace. There is enough gun violence in this country to have reduced some of our cities to something akin to war zones. The rise of Nationalism with its attendant racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance of immigrants has resulted in acts of violence and cruelty to men, women and children. Threats of civil war have been heard if election results are not what some want.

I think it takes observances like this Veteran’s Day weekend when we remember those who have fought and died or who have fought and lived through the unimaginable horrors of war, to make us grateful for the men and women who cherish peace. 

We honor them best by working to ensure that peace will prevail and that we will, as that song goes, “study war no more.”

Jesus tells us that God is the God of the living and the dead, for all are alive in the sight of God.

Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

There is great comfort in that mystery.

I urge us to live through that mystery that is our faith in a God who loves us so much that we are giving the gift of free will. And, when our choices are not the best for us or others and we repent, we are given the gift of grace to seek forgiveness.

Free will and grace. These are two gifts whose generosity can’t be measured.

Turns out, God can create a rock that He – or She – can’t lift. Unless, of course, God wanted to lift up that rock and then God would, indeed, lift up that rock.

Because, well, God is God.

If God can do that, God can also allow us the freedom to fall short of the mark and still provide us with the means, through grace, to lift ourselves up and try again.

I find great hope and take comfort in that mystery. Because that means that nothing I can do will ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not even me.

And, because I believe in “the forgiveness of sins, the the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting,” I also believe that All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.

In the words of St. Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians, 
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ and God our Creator, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”    

Sunday, November 03, 2019

A soulin' in Hallowtide

All Saints' Sunday - November 3, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Meat nor drink nor money have I none
Yet shall we be merry
Hey, ho, nobody home. (Hey, ho, nobody home.)

+In the name of the Great Mystery of God, who was and is and is to be. Amen.

Can there be anything more spectacular than the light in autumn? Well, except, perhaps, the light in spring? I have a particular affinity for the autumn light, the way it dances on the leaves as they change color before they die and fall off their branches; the soft, tender way it embraces the trees that have gone bare; the soft caresses it gives to a face surprised by the sudden chill in the air.

There’s a bit of magic in the air this time at the end of the harvest and beginning of winter. The ancients thought this time between the solstice and the equinox was a time when the veil between this world and the next was thinned and those who had died that year were now able to cross into the spirit world and otherworldly beings and fairy folk were able to cross into ours.  

Celtic spirituality celebrated this time as the pagan festival of Samhain, the Feast of the Dead, and lit bonfires on fairy hills to help light the way to heaven for souls who were caught or stuck between worlds.

Pagans in Galicia in the northern part of Spain, influenced by the Celts, celebrate the Dia de la Muerte, the Day of the Dead. Those Spaniards who traveled to the “new world” brought those festivities with them. We see variations of them in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Haiti.

Americans native to this land have always worshipped the ancestors as have those in Africa and the African diaspora, which varies from nation to nation and tribe to tribe.

When the Christian movement began in those countries, much of pagan thought was easily co-opted by the Christian understanding of resurrection, heaven and hell, and their rituals were adapted and modified to accommodate this new belief.

In the Middle Ages in England, the Celtic festival of Samhain, the feast of the Dead, became a time for “a soulin’”. The time of October 29th  – November 2nd was known as “Hallowtide” – a holy time in the universe.

It was believed that some fairies caused mischief, but most likely that became a cover for the pranks and tricks which all children of every time and culture like to play, especially as the doldrums of a long winter stretched out before them.

The evening of November 2nd was the time when the poor and children would go a soulin’.

They would go from house to house, begging for money or food. “Soul cakes” were handed out, along with a penny or a ha’penny. Soul cakes are little cakes that look more like muffins and are richly filled with berries and nuts.

Other versions of soul cakes are a cross between what the British call a biscuit (but we call a cookie) and a scone; they are sweet and carry a cross made of currents (or, raisins). I’ve made both kinds for your pleasure at coffee hour.

The soul cake given to the poor and children had a currency all its own. It was believed that when you did an act of kindness for a poor soul, it would help move the soul of a loved one to pass on from Purgatory to Heaven – or, from being stuck here on earth to move on to be home with Jesus. Every cake eaten represented a soul freed from Purgatory.

Whatever soul cakes were leftover were either left on a plate beside the door for hungry, haunted souls and fairies as appeasement against mischief. Or they were tossed into the bonfire as sacrifices for the dead.

As the poor and the children would wander from house to house, they would sing:
Soul, a soul, a soul cake
Please good missus a soul cake
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.
Yes, our modern practice of Trick or Treat no doubt comes from this old ritual, but more importantly, it is into this “Hallowtide” – this holy time which is midway between the solstice and the equinox, the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter – that the church hallows the saints who have gone on before us.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Gospel selected for this day is the Beatitudes from St. Luke, with the blessings and the woes, reminding us of the difference between here and there, between now and then, between heaven and earth.

There is great hope for the poor in these promises of Jesus.  

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” 

“Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.” 

And, there is a warning for those who think that the material things and the successes they have had in this life is all there is.

It is Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message that speaks most powerfully. He writes:
But it's trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
What you have is all you'll ever get.
And it's trouble ahead if you're satisfied with yourself.
Your self will not satisfy you for long.
Jesus not only reminds us of our own mortality but also our human fragility. He calls attention to the dangers of self-satisfaction and greed, and the importance of living this life, this one life that we all have here on earth – to the betterment of our lives and others.

Jesus acknowledges that our human failings and flaws not only hurt ourselves, but others are also hurt. Other people go hungry. Other people are poor. Other people do not have shelter, much less a home. And, Jesus tells us that there is justice in the world.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., so famously said, “The moral arc of history is long, but it always bends toward justice.” King didn’t just make that up. He got that from reading the Beatitudes.

Here’s the thing I appreciate about this Hallowtide, this time from October 29th-November 2nd .

For me, the whole theology of resurrection can be summed up in one line from the Eucharistic prayer we use at funerals – in both Rite I and Rite II. It is this: “for we know that life is changed, not ended.”

Changed. Not ended.

Let that sink in for just a moment.

It means that we believe in a life after this life. We don’t know what that life after this life will look like. We only believe that it exists. It doesn’t mean that one life has more value than the other. It means, to me, that all life is sacred.

To remember our loved ones who have died is not a morbid exercise. It is not an exercise in cheap sentimentality. Rather, it is a ritual that celebrates life – all life – in this world and the next. It is a ritual that honors the everlasting soul of every human being.

This is why the rubric for funerals in an Episcopal church, the casket is closed and covered with a pall. If the body has been cremated, we cover the urn with a pall. We do that because we do not place the emphasis on the body but on the soul. We celebrate the resurrection.

We honor the spirit of the person who has died, knowing that the body may be gone, but the spirit has united with the One who created us and gave us life and is bathed in Light Eternal.

Today, after the Prayers of the People, we will read the Necrology – the list of those who have died. I am going to ask you to participate in something people in Hispanic cultures practice on this Holy Day of All Saints. As the names are read, if you knew and loved that person or even if you didn’t know that person but you recognize the name, I’m going to ask you to say, “Present”.  

In doing so, we will be affirming life. We will be affirming our faith. We will be affirming what we say we believe about “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting. Amen.”

As a child, my grandmother would always observe this Hallowtide by taking the family to the cemetery where we would have a picnic lunch. We would spread our blankets near the graves of our relatives and she would tell us stories of their lives. She would also tell us stories of relatives we had never met – her father and mother and brothers who were buried back in Portugal. She would say to us, “You need to know about them so you can better know who you are.”

I suspect part of what’s wrong with our culture is that we live disconnected lives. We all live so far away from each other. Which can be overcome, of course, by visits and technology.

But I fear we don’t tell our stories to each other any more. It’s important to know the family stories – and all the characters and their stories. We need to know about them so that we can better know ourselves.

Eugene Peterson translates the last part of Luke’s gospel in this way:
There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests - look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors!
Your task is to be true, not popular."
As we move away from the end of the harvest and enter the beginning of winter, the days will become shorter and the nights will become longer. Soon and very soon, it will be Advent and we will begin to light candles to light the lengthening shadows as, once again, we await the coming of the one who is The Light of the World.

Until then, enjoy the autumn light. Let its gentle clarity guide you through the rustle of dead leaves, the dry, bare tree branches, and the barren cornfields. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have come before you and for all that they have made possible for you today. Count your blessings – name them one by one. Share what you have with those who don’t.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

And, take some time to enjoy the autumn light. There is an undeniable bit of magic in the air. Take a hint from what is happening all around you and try to slow down and enjoy and be grateful for this life you’ve been given.

If you are still, if you are quiet, if you listen, the sound you will hear as the wind blows the leaves to the ground and the barren branches clack against each other is life calling after life in the veil between heaven and earth which is especially thin this time of year.

Perhaps you too will find yourself doing your own version of “a soulin’” – looking for lost souls to help, to share what you’ve got with those who don’t, to commit a random act of kindness and bring a little light into a world that will soon grow dark and cold.

Transforming souls – your own and those of others – through kindness and generosity is the best magic of all.

My shoes are very thin.
I have a little pocket
To put a penny in.

If you haven’t got a penny
A ha’penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
Then God bless you.

Soul, a soul, a soul cake.
Please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum a cherry
Any good thing to make us all merry.

One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for him who made us all.