Give Out of Your Abundance…Out of your Poverty

The below sermon was preached on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost – 2018 at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church. An outline and interpretation of today’s Biblical readings relied heavily upon the sermon, “A Tale of Two Widows” by Bishop Robert Barron. Here’s a link to his sermon for further reference.

When I was going through the formal discernment process for the priesthood, my fellow discernment candidates and I were asked to spend one night out on the streets of Atlanta. We spent the day walking the streets, talking to our homeless brothers, sisters, and siblings. We had Holy Eucharist at a local shelter, then we gathered up sleeping bags found an abandoned parking lot in downtown Atlanta and slept – or at least tried to sleep. I wish I could say it was a humbling experience in that I learned an important lesson in humility and poverty and charity. Perhaps I can lift up those virtuous things in hindsight to a certain degree, but in that moment, it simply was not pleasant to say the least. The parking lot that was chosen for us was beside a MARTA station whose trains came in and out of the terminal at all hours of the night. Sounds of sirens from nearby Grady Hospital would interrupt any chances of sleep. Trash, drug paraphernalia, and smells so rank littered the parking lot as well as our senses. Late night drug deals and possible prostitution were openly witnessed. Even though our bodies were worn out and our feet aching from walking all day, sleep simply did not come. Two weeks later I would find myself becoming extremely ill from a deadly bacterium strand I picked up that night. I was hospitalized twice, lost 10 pounds, and it took me one whole year to regain the weight back. I remember being frustrated and angry with the Diocese of Atlanta for my illness. I wrote a hostile letter to one of the Canons in the Bishop’s Office expressing my anxiety, hostility, and anger towards the ordination process, and blamed them for my illness that was still inflicting my body. More on that later…

Today’s first reading from the Book of Kings sets up a similar tone in power dynamics. The context is this:  We’re in Sidon in the 9th century BCE. The notorious Ahab and Jezebel sit on the thrones. Famine and draught are in the land, which the prophet Elijah attributes to the sins of the King and Queen. There is a lowly widow, and she (as well as her son) are down to their last meal. She has no future. She sees no hope. Then Elijah comes to her and says, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she walks away in order to fill his request, he further orders her to bring him something to eat as well. He is asking for something she cannot give. Upon first glance the beginning of this story strikes me as cold. It was Elijah himself who ordered others to take care of the widow and the orphan. Why, then, would he kick this widow while she was down not following his own advice? I find no comfort in his words; and yet, the story continues with a miracle. She acquiesces, gets him his water as well as makes the cake, and her family is fed (and continues to be fed) from the abundance it produces even as the land remains stricken with famine.

Perhaps the lesson is this: When we are down to our last meal, and have hit rock bottom, God (like Elijah) comes in. But did you notice what happened? Elijah did not comfort the widow; instead he asked her for something. She’s in dire straits, has nothing to give, and yet is still asked to do so. Why give something when in reality she needs to receive? And yet: Reality isn’t all what we see is it? The further lesson is this: Elijah asks her to give, and in doing so she receives Divine grace. Abundance comes from the willing gift.

Turning to today’s Gospel we discover the scribes and the Pharisees milling around the Temple. Bishop Robert Barron describes them as being in a hording mode. They are hording and garnering for attention, honor, privilege, titles, etc. Mark’s Gospel contrasts the professional religious with the widow. She gives the last thing she has for the gift and glory of God. Unlike the widow in Elijah’s story, however, we do not know what happened to her. We do know that in the very next chapter, Jesus predicted the Temple’s destruction. This was telling in that the widow gave all she had for a building that (historically) would not be there in a few decades. Put differently, she gave out of her poverty to what would one day be an impoverished place; and yet, we know God received her gift with pleasure for he knew her heart, and would give her grace in His Son whose Body became a grace-filled temple for all.

The great spiritual truth from both of these stories is one of paradox; that is, we have and obtain love by giving love away. Want more love, give it away? Want more faith, share it? Want more joy in your life, make other people joyful. It’s not about clinging to power, but contributing out of our abundance as well as our poverty. It’s not about holding on, but letting go. It’s not about hoarding but sharing.

It was these hard lessons that I personally learned in another street encounter in downtown Atlanta. Discernment candidates were at a local homeless shelter celebrating Holy Eucharist again. After the service, a homeless man came up to one of the deacons, shared a bit of his story with him, then asked the deacon to pray over him and bless him. The deacon laid hands on him, prayed, then pronounced a blessing upon him. Just as the man was turning to walk away, the deacon grabs him by the shoulders and orders the man, “Now it’s your turn. Give me a blessing.” The man (as well as myself) was shocked. Worlds collided. Heaven was awakened. I was humbled. Here was a man who spent his days walking the streets. He got to experience Holy Eucharist that day, but where I was able to go home, he (later that evening would have to) gather up a sleeping bag (if he had one) find an abandoned parking lot in downtown Atlanta and sleep – or at least, try to sleep. It would not be pleasant to say the least. The parking lot would be beside a MARTA station whose trains come in and out of the terminal at all hours of the night. Sounds of sirens from nearby Grady Hospital would interrupt any chances of sleep. Trash, drug paraphernalia, and smells so rank would litter the parking lot as well as his senses. Late night drug deals and possible prostitution would be openly witnessed by him. Even though his body would be worn out and his feet aching from walking all day-everyday, sleep simply would not come. He had no status in society to write hostile letters to his representatives, expressing his anxiety, hostility, and anger towards his situation. He had hit rock bottom; and yet, the deacon (like Jesus) asked him to give. “Give me a blessing.” And he did.

At that moment, all my anger towards the diocese left me. I understood that I was hording title, power, privilege and prestige. In that man’s blessing I was broken and in my newfound brokenness I was asked to give. Later, my gift would be to humbly apologize to my elders, not complain about my illness, and pray that one day I would become the priest that God (not myself) had in mind. This morning, I wonder what your rock bottom is? I wonder where you find yourself impoverished. Perhaps Elijah and Jesus get to experience your weakness, and yet ask you for something you think you can’t give, but hope to discover that you can. Give away a blessing today, perhaps out of your abundance, perhaps out of your poverty.

Intimacy Requires Commitment

Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s Gospel focuses on two things: Preparedness and Intimacy.

Five of the bridesmaids were prepared to participate in the wedding banquet. Five were not. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches what preparedness “looks like” in the form of new commandments. A good Jew would have followed Holy Torah starting with The Ten Commandments. Jesus took this Divine teaching a step further, and gave us the Spirit behind the commandments that are captured ever so beautifully in The Beatitudes and The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5). In other words, to follow God is to be prepared by following his commandments, and living into the graceful Spirit found within them. But wait; there’s more!

Jesus offers himself fully to us – his life, death, and resurrection. This truth is captured ever so eloquently each and every time Christ offers his Body to us during Holy Communion. Like a bride offers herself to her husband, and a husband offers his body to his bride, Christ offers his very flesh to us in this very intimate act of communion and consummation.

We are wise when we recognize this intimacy, and commit fully to Christ’s redeeming love by accepting his grace as well as living into his Holy Commandments. We are unwise when we expect intimacy, yet are not committed to everything that goes along with the graces found in intimate relationships.

All are invited to the intimacy of the wedding banquet. Don’t be turned away for lack of wisdom.

 

 

In The End Love Remains

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MawMaw and I dancing at my cousin Tony’s wedding a few years back

Romans 6:12-23

When those who are close to us die, or are actively dying all the pettiness of life with its distractions and annoyances are disregarded like a heavy coat. The living suddenly awaken to shed inconsequential irritations in the name of love. This may be the last lesson from the dying to the living. When those whom we love have died, reflecting on all our silly habits, the way we spend our time, and the people we have ignored or left unforgiven are all revealed. The dead and dying gift us with new, living eyes that expose our trivial ways. In the end, we are all left with nothing just as we had nothing upon entering into life. Why do we spend large amounts of time, energy, and money seeking things that will pass away? In the end, love remains. Love brought us into the world and it stays with us in the end.

In today’s Epistle, St. Paul is promoting new life; but this new life – this new beginning – is only revealed when we have bumped up and against death. When we face death, we see the things we should have seen all along. We remember love. We see beauty. We experience gratefulness, and even regret. The regret (I suppose) comes from bumping up against the truth – the truth that love was always there, and is always an option. It is not inconsequential. Being able to see these things anew can make one regretful of their past sins.

Christians believe that Christ’s death was and is a gift. His death is a gift because we are asked to join him in his death, and in doing so we get to shed those parts of ourselves that keep us from loving – that keep us from His Love. The good news of Jesus Christ is that death is not the end, but a new beginning in Him. Just as Christ has died, we will die (in him) but just as Christ has risen – we too are called to newness of life. St. Paul put this way, For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). What Paul may be saying here is that we can do nothing apart from God. God is with us when we are dying, dead, and done. God is with us when we are living, alive, and experiencing life eternal. We cannot get away so why not choose life (in Him); and if we choose this life Paul says we are set free. Free to love. Free to forgive. Free to be forgiven. Again, all our pettiness passes away and the road to freedom is made clearer.

What then, do we do when we remember the freedom of Christ and at the same time forget it? Paul answers this with a fancy word. He says, the advantage…is sanctification (Romans 6:22). Sanctification defined is simply being made holy in and by and through God. In other words, you can’t be made holy on your own. Holiness comes from God; therefore, we are only holy when God’s holiness is shining and showing through us. This may be Paul’s argument in a nutshell, but what does it mean for us today?

I believe it leaves us with two choices: To get busy dying, or to get busy living. For Christians, however, these two choices become one reality when we realize we are constantly dying to ourselves in order to experience more of the eternal found within us. This is what’s called a life in Christ. Christ unites the dead to the living and at the same time transcends both. So again: What does this mean for us? Here in lies the brilliance of God: It has nothing to do with “us” and everything to do with Christ. In other words, God is asking “us” to get out of the way, and to be receptive to his love, forgiveness, mercy, and sanctification. This is such a hard lesson because we always want to do something. St. Paul is saying we don’t do anything; instead, we let go, and let God.

On Friday, I personally had a let go and let God moment or two. I got a call from my Mom letting me know that MawMaw (my 99-year-old maternal grandmother) was having post-operative complications. She was non-responsive; her blood pressure was dangerously low, and nobody (including the doctors) knew if she was going to pull through. Listening to my Mom’s retelling of her last 24 hours put me into two different mindsets. One was that MawMaw was simply ready to go. She had lived an amazingly full life, and her time was immanent. The other thought was more selfish: What about her 100th birthday party? So many people, including MawMaw, are so looking forward to it, but like the above example that referred to choices of life and death these too were transcended in Christ, and I remembered God’s transcending power. I remembered that ultimately these things have nothing to do with me, and everything to do with God.

This afternoon, Henry and I are driving to Texas. For Henry, it’s a planned trip where he will get to see his MeMe and Papa. For me, it’s an unplanned trip where I may be saying a last goodbye to my MawMaw or not. As of yesterday, she has perked up and is doing better. Also, we still have plans to celebrate her 100th birthday in August, but for now thanksgiving and gratefulness are made present in my heart, and what will be will be when August 20th rolls around. In fact, what will be will be at any old time. This whole experience has awakened me to pay a bit more attention to the things that matter most in my life. It has also given me the chance to reflect on my own life and to focus on what’s important and what to let go. Finally, it has allowed a part of me to fall away and to remember that it is not all about me. It’s about Christ, and relying on him to do what he always does: To hold the balance of life and death in Himself, yet transcending it all, awakening the heart to trustworthiness in His Love.

MawMaw&Henry MawMaw and my son, Henry, in her sunroom