Monday, January 28, 2019

Sermon: Jesus' Purpose Driven Life

January 27, 2019
3 Epiphany, Year C
Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church, Exeter

Jesus’ Purpose Driven Life

We make an assumption about the people who come to our doors to worship with us on a Sunday morning.  We greet them and hand them a printed bulletin.  The assumption is not they are cradle Episcopalians and will know when to kneel, bow, sit or stand during the service.  We can’t always be sure of their economic status: are they struggling or well-healed or somewhere in the middle – living like most people do – dare I day “paycheck to paycheck.”  The assumption that we are making handing them a service bulletin is that they can read.  In English.  We are printed word centric, which is why I wanted us to trying something different and just listen to the words of the Gospel. 

In the centuries before Jesus, the people of Israel told and retold their sacred stories orally – they spoke and listened to them from one generation to the next.  What they heard grounded and formed their lives. They were a people: loved by God and never forgotten.  When the sacred stories and psalms and prophesies were finally written down, they were hand copied by scribes on large scrolls and read in public.  There were no leather-bound printed personal Bibles in those days.  

We heard first today a passage from Nehemiah – which I would venture to say is not among the best known or loved books of the Bible.  What is compelling about the image is how the people, who had returned from home from the long Exile to begin rebuilding their shattered lives and remaking the customs they had nearly lost, they gathered into the square before the Water Gate.

It is believed that the priest/scribe Ezra was among the 3% or so of the people in his day who could read and write.  And Ezra did read from the Law of Moses from morning to midday and all the people stood and were attentive.

What makes you and I stand up and pay attention with the same sense of urgency?   

We know that attentiveness is a challenge in today’s digital streaming world.  We have distractions galore calling us to watch, click, like, share and respond.   There are apps to remind us how much we are using our cellphones, which of course one needs to download – on one’s cellphone.  There is so much to wade through it is hard to know what is worth taking the time to read, learn and retain.

Nehemiah gives us a sense of what it means to be a gathered people looking for direction from the God who has never left them.

Enter Jesus in Luke’s gospel who effectively says:  I’ll give you direction.

Jesus returns to Nazareth, his home town, and goes to the synagogue and like Ezra reads from Scripture in public.  Word was spreading about Jesus: so far do good -- everyone was praising this hometown boy now grown.  (Luke 4:17) Jesus stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written.

If there was ever a mission statement for the life and work of Jesus – his echoing the prophet Isiah pointed him and us to the central meaning and purpose of his life. In one brief passage, we see what drove him and we discover a roadmap and a guide to our own.  Buyer beware: this is no easy to-do list.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

The message is as simple as it is vast.  To bring good news.  To proclaim release. Recovery of what was lost.  Let go and set free.  To shout the Lord God’s favor.    And the object this call to action -- the base of Jesus’s support – are the poor, prisoners and captives, the blind and otherwise cast offs. The oppressed.  

Where do we find ourselves in this list if we do not consider ourselves poor, captive, blind or oppressed?  Are these words of good news for others less fortunate or do they reflect back on us somehow?

I read this same passage from Luke during a communion service at the jail yesterday in Dover to immigrant detainees.  I asked those gathered around the make shift altar if they saw themselves in the gospel.  They blurted out: “we’re the captives.”  “We are the poor.”  The young man being deported back to El Salvador this week and thinking about his return to home to a ravaged country -- he knew he made the list of the oppressed. 

Friends, if we dig deeper and get honest and real about ourselves and our own lives, we know that Jesus is making room for us to recognize our need and deep desire to be set free from what hold us down.

How do we join in this work?  Are we expected to accomplish all of these God and Jesus centered activities each and every day?  Let me risk saying: no.  Yet over the course of our lives we can use this call to bring, release, heal, and set free as markers to know when we are getting closer to what God wants us to do and be with this life we have given. 

This past month many of her admirers mourned the death of poet Mary Oliver, who was 83 and longtime resident of Provincetown.   I admit to have purchased books of only three poets.  Wallace Stevens, because my family had the fortune of living in his one-time home for nine years in Hartford.  Billy Collins, whose poems often make me laugh out loud, and Mary Oliver.  She was a rock star in the poetry world – and she sold lots of books – no small feat.  Her poems have been quoted widely in sermons and are taped up on the refrigerators, dashboards and computer screens of those she touched.

In her poem “The Summer Day,” she taps into the question that I am asking in response to the focus of Isaiah and Jesus.   She writes: “what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”

For as long as there will be people with minds to think and hearts to love on this good earth, we will wrestle with this simple question.  What is the purpose and meaning of my life?  That is the spiritual and philosophical loop that we all push up against sooner or later. It rattles around in the minds of mystics and saints, and those of us toiling in the vineyard of everyday living: teachers, gardeners, parents, women, men, caregivers, bureaucrats, and barbers.  

Mary Oliver thought and wrote a lot about getting older and what to make of it all.    One of her most well-known works is “When Death Comes.”   

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver paints a picture of the world that Jesus could call home.

Let us not be mere visitors to this world. 

Remember that Ezra and Jesus read Scripture in community.  We are both blessed by -- and stuck with -- one other.  

The life and the work we have been given is meant to be shared widely and often.  It is world filled with people aching for good news – the kind of news that only God and God’s people can bring.   To those oppressed by memories of the past, violence that shapes their days, and fear of the future that no one can know or control – what I hope we hear today is the message that we both hear and take out into the world is one of freedom and release.

So: what sermon might we preach in and through our lives?

What poems will we write? 

What are the songs we might sing? 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Christmas Ever sermon 2018

Christmas Eve, 2018
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church, Exeter

Christmas Joy and Heart Break

The story of our parish began on Christmas Day in 1864, near the end of the Civil War, when three Phillips Exeter Academy students walked eight miles to Epping. I like to imagine that they were crunching through snow and fighting icy wind, but I’m not sure of those meteorological details. Here’s how the story is recorded:  “The Academy permitted one day’s freedom at Christmastide.  William Waters persuaded another student Frederic Thompson to walk with him to Epping to receive Holy Communion on Christmas Day.  At this time there was a church (St. Phillip’s) in that town, eight miles from Exeter. On the road Waters and Thompson came upon another student, Francis Rawle, who was undertaking the long, cold journey for the same purpose.”

What we do know is this: those three men wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ that day by receiving the sacrament that Jesus began with his followers on the night before he died to tell them that he would be with them always.  Take, eat and drink, do this in remembrance of me.  Their eight-mile journey, there and back, on that day long ago began our story as a worshipping community.

I wonder what it says to us today that our gathered community has its roots on a long walk on a cold Christmas morning?
Christianity was once described by a renowned pastor from Sri Lanka as “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”  (D.T. Niles).   I suppose we are all beggars on this holy night:  begging for some peace and holiness – begging for some tradition in a world where everything seems to change too quickly.  Beggars looking for bread right here. 
We make claims about who God is and what God does.  We read, hear, and talk about the Christ child born on this night.

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry became a Royal Wedding crasher of sorts this past year and reminded roughly billion-people watching that the way of Jesus and God is love.  He did not preach doctrine or dogma, guilt, sin, or implore more church attendance, he said that if you want to know God, love.  

The public part of Jesus’ life only lasted some three years: we know very little about how he spent the other thirty. But we do know how his story began. 

In Bethlehem.  With his young mother and her new husband Joseph. Among extended family. Gathered, we’re told, to follow the command to return to one’s family town to be registered.  Shepherds. Angels. The birth. The newborn baby wrapped tight and laid in a simple feeding trough for animals.  The story is imprinted in our imaginations. 

The church makes big claims at Christmas.  We say that this Jesus, born in a small remote village two thousand years ago, is the way and the One whom God chose to come to us and make known what God is most like. The test and culmination of that outrageous claim is the One whose birth we celebrate. This Jesus is God in flesh and blood: walking and talking, loving and losing, living and dying, and being raised on the Third Day.  God is with us.  Not over, under, behind or before, certainly not against us -- but with us. And those directional details make all the difference. 

We try hard at Christmas.   Preachers try hard to say something that we might remember.  Parents try hard.  Children try hard to fall asleep on this night. 

I have to admit that Christmas Eve in our house have not always been easy.  Granted: I “kind of” work on Christmas Eve.  And Christmas Day.  It is good work, mind you, I’m not complaining… and I often think about those who work on this night.  At gas stations.  Outside in the cold fixing roads.  Plowing snow. In hospitals. Waiting tables in restaurants and the dish washers in the kitchen out of view. Those working in our jails.  Farmers who cannot leave their animals -- modern day living shepherds who still guard their flocks by night.

When my children were young, my wife and I went to great length to do it all.  Sound familiar?  Presents, Santa, open houses and parties, visits from family, and yes: church.  Lots of church.  I have memories of coming home late from church one Christmas Eve when it wasn’t even Eve anymore and making sure everything was ready to go for the morning. The tree and stocking set up was just right.  Kids asleep. Then collapsing into the bed until the alarm went off a few hours later.  It was a joyful exhaustion.

We all probably wrestle living in between the ideal and the “should be” with the real and life as we know it.

And once we name this messy in-between, we learn yet again about the sweet spot of God’s attention.  This is the place and the time where God comes close.   Somewhere between being afraid and feeling assured.  Between giving up and giving in.  Between holding on and letting go.  Between faith and doubt. Between mourning the loss of someone we loved, and embracing those who continue to fill our days. 

A colleague of mine shared an experience of conversations he undertook going around his town in southern NH.  His task was to walk around the neighborhood where his church was located and engage with the people who would meet.  On first take, this to many of us would sound downright frightening.  We are not prone to street corner evangelism let alone talking to people we do not know about matters of faith.  Some people downright did not want to talk. Others did.  He saw a woman who was working as a parking meter attendant in the middle of town.  Checking meters. Writing tickets. He began to talk with her later and asked her two questions.  The first: “what brings you joy?”  She did not skip a beat when she answered: “the dogs.”  The dogs in the neighborhood.  “How so?”  Because, she said, “the dogs see me as a person.”   And then my colleague asked the next question he asked of everyone he met: “what breaks your heart?”  The woman looked at him deeply and replied: “that most people don’t see me.”  

May we see one another more than we often do.  The message of Christmas is that God sees in each of us someone holy, worthy, and lovable – even when and if we do not return the favor to our fellow beggars for bread. 

On your way home tonight, before you go to sleep, consider these two questions: what brings you joy? and what breaks your heart?  God can be found both in the question and your answer.  And how we answer will make all the difference in how we will carry the spirit of Christmas far into the New Year and beyond.

Let me close with one of my favorite prayers in our Prayer Book said at the end of a long day.  Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shied the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.