Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thess. 3:6-15, Luke 21:5-16
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
This past Wednesday evening I took Anthony out for a birthday dinner at a well-known Cleveland restaurant. We intentionally arrived a half-hour before our reservation so to have a cocktail at the bar and relax.
The barroom was packed when we arrived and every barstool occupied, so we grabbed a table and I went up to the bar to order our drinks. A few minutes later the bartender placed the cocktails on the bar. As I took out my wallet to pay for them, she says to me, “Oh, you don’t have to pay. It’s an open bar.” My initial thought was, “Wow! This restaurant is even better than I thought it was!” But then I realized the big crowd at the bar was probably a part of a group. So, I said, “Oh, I’m not a part of the group.” To which she replied, “Oh, okay. Thanks for being honest.” Thanks for being honest?
I have been thinking about that comment ever since. Is honesty now something that needs to be thanked for when it occurs? When was the tipping point when honesty and its companion truthfulness, no longer were the norm for our communal behavior, but rather, the exception. So exceptional that when it occurred it required an expression of gratitude?
I recall that when I was in elementary school back in the 1960’s we were not only graded on the academic piece of our education, but on our citizenship qualities as well: civility, cooperation, truthfulness, responsibility, respect, and the ability to form positive interpersonal relationships. I checked on-line and discovered that these citizenship qualities are required to be taught in some school systems, but not in others. Most distressingly these citizenship qualities are not seen as being particularly important in the systems that do teach them, and certainly not nearly as important as the academics.
This lack of emphasis on good citizenship qualities and the fact that a growing percentage of our population views them as being unimportant, explains much about the current state of affairs our culture finds itself in: A state of affairs that has seen a corrosive and toxic atmosphere invade every aspect of our lives, infecting our populace, and diminishing our citizenship. This has been in no small part due to the internet where the ability to post hateful, scurrilous and untruthful comments has created a milieu that is as capable of great harm, frequently diminishing its positive benefits. From a Christian perspective, we live in a time where the tenants of the Baptismal Covenant to persevere in resisting evil, respect the dignity of every human being, and seek and serve Christ in all persons are viewed as being quaint, archaic, and even just plain foolish behaviors . . . behaviors of losers.
Now, I’m not an anthropologist but I feel confident that my observations would confirm that this situation is commensurate with the decline of participation in organized religion. While organized, institutional religion is not perfect, it historically has been a place where honesty, truth-telling, and civility have been taught as important qualities of a life well-lived. And in fact, these qualities are part and parcel of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The new commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us calls us to behave civilly, respectfully, and honestly with one another.
Yet the assault of incivility, untruthfulness and disrespecting people grows daily, and it has taken its toll on our humanity. Sadly, we are growing so accustomed to these behaviors – even while not accepting them - that they are becoming the new normal. It like the rising tides subsuming Venice, one of civilizations greatest treasures: we seem resigned that the forces of global warming and rising seas levels will make this city the next Atlantis. This versus demanding substantive changes of ourselves and of industry and government, to the way we live our lives on this planet earth, our fragile home; working faithfully in the face of a great challenge to save the values and human achievements imbued in this great city. We have given up hope. This is equally as true as we are battered by the forces that assault our values: we are tempted to abandon those values, our higher angels, because it can be exhausting to be under constant assault and therefore hopeless as well. We get fatigued. And it just seems easier to just give in and let whatever happens, happen.
In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle is writing to a church congregation in the Greek city of Thessalonica. This is a congregation that has rejected the values of the greater Roman culture – a culture that devalued human dignity and life, and offered a peace – the Pax Romana - regulated by force and brutality. The people of the church now live by a different standard of values offered by the Gospel; they have become citizens of the Reign of God. Because of that there is intense pressure from the greater culture on this community to abandon those values and return to the life from which they had come. They are under constant assault to abandon the ways of their faith, the values of their citizenship.
Paul describes those assaulting the Thessalonians and creating havoc in the church as, “not living according to the tradition,” and as “mere busybodies” who are influenced by “the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders and every kind of wicked deception” to turn people away from Jesus, “because they refused to love the truth.”
He concludes this passage by offering encouragement to his flock; “do not be weary in doing what is right” he tells them. Do not be weary in doing what is right.
Paul’s words of encouragement to an exhausted congregation are as valuable to us today as they were to the Thessalonians two millennia ago.
Just like that small church community, we in our culture are under assault by those who are in opposition to the values of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus, to the values of our Baptismal Covenant. Under the weight of the constant barrage of false claims, untruthfulness, lack of civility and disrespect, we, like the Thessalonians, are susceptible to fatigue and burnout. As a result, we are tempted by the satanic forces of evil to abandon our values just to get some relief from the assault.
But we must not do that. We must resist that temptation. For if we abandon our values, the ways of evil win. Rather we must take heart from Paul and not become weary in doing what is right.
Paul’s is a clarion call for us to take heart and be hopeful, because despite the darkness, gloom and despair that engulf us, there is God’s promise to redeem us. This hopefulness is captured in the Day of the Lord theme that undergirds all three scripture lessons today, as we prepare for Advent.
The prophet Malachi, addresses the abuses and corruption by the Temple priesthood towards the people they are meant to serve. He encourages fidelity to the ways of God, and like Paul, encourages steadfastness in the face of opposition, because redemption is on the way. “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
Those who promote evil and oppose the ways of God will be eradicated, Malachi prophesies. Those who stay the course and are faithful to God’s ways will see the son of righteousness arise. And they will experience healing and renewal of life.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus also preaches of the end times, that Day of the Lord. The people of Israel are living under the same brutal yoke of the Roman Empire that the Thessalonians were. In addition, the Temple priesthood were again behaving corruptly toward the people with unfair exchange rates between the Temple shekel and the denarius, for gouging the poor, not to mention making the Temple – Jesus’s father’s house of prayer - a commercial district. In the times leading up to when God shall redeem these horrid conditions, Jesus says, there will be false messiahs, wars, insurrections, persecutions and family betrayals. Which sort of sounds like boot camp to prepare us for our family Thanksgiving dinner next week Thursday!
Yet, in spite of all this, Jesus says, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls." Be hopeful therefore in God’s promises to eradicate the evil that assaults you, and bring you to a new day.
The word of God as received through the scripture can not only offer us comfort during times of trial, but also hope that ultimately in all things God’s ways, God’s truth, shall prevail.
In our Collect for today we prayed: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.” In these times of assault on the most sacred values held by our nation and our faith, may we inwardly digest the scriptures so their sustaining word may give us strength to persevere, and the ability to be a people of hope in the world. And may be never weary in doing what is right.
All Saints Sunday
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
We gather this morning to celebrate the confluence of three significant occasions: All Saints Sunday, the in-gathering of our stewardship pledges for 2020, and our 150th anniversary of being established as a parish. So Happy All Saints, Happy successful stewardship campaign, and Happy Anniversary!
A few weeks ago, as we were discussing the jam-packed plans for this weekend, Anthony said to me, “Gee, why not schedule a baptism for Sunday as well, so you cover all the bases?” I did detect a touch of sarcasm in his voice, when he said it. That would have made for a very full service. Anyway, no baptisms today. But very soon!
All Saints is one of the seven major feast days of the Church. Initially it was a feast to honor and lift up the lives of the great saints: Peter, Paul, Mary, (I know, I know, but not them!) John the Baptist, Francis, Martin Luther King. These were the Christian exemplars; role models of holy living and of how God desired us to live our lives.
Later a day of observance was added to honor the lives of the rest of us. We poor folks who fell short of the mark of the great saints. This day was All Souls Day, which occurred the day after All Saints. In the past few decades this observance of two separate days – one for the great saints and one for the rest of us souls – has been pretty much left behind in favor of honoring all people as saints of God, or at least having the potential for a saintly life, on All Saints Day.
Our Gradual Hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” captures this theology perfectly:
“I sing a song of the saints of God . . . and one was a doctor, one was a queen, one was a shepherdess , one was a soldier, one was a priest . . . they were, all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.” These lyrics recognize the universality of the sainthood of all people, as long, as the lyrics say, they “love to do Jesus will.”
Just what is Jesus’ will that those saints loved to do? Well, certainly it was following the distillation of the Mosaic Law that Jesus offered us: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. I would add to that the New Commandment Jesus gave us the night before he died, which was to “love one another as I have loved you.” As Our Presiding Bishop states, “Love is the way!”
Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, lists those ways of loving to do Jesus will that lead to our being saints of God. We begin with the litany of the Beatitudes and Woes, which describe who are blessed, and those who better look out in the world of God’s Reign. They conclude with this summary:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
What we have in this passage are commands about love, nonretaliation and forgiveness. Commands about how we can live lives loving to do Jesus’s will.
Dr. Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. writes this about the passage.
“[Jesus] brings satisfaction and belonging to those who suffer from poverty—which includes more than the people who lack money but also the powerless and the disenfranchised. His ministry feeds the hungry . . . and [he has] a penchant for eating with others [whom society rejects.] It also lays a foundation for the hospitality and meal-sharing that are hallmarks of the community he creates. The people who cry, who live in perpetual loss and grief and who have lost hope, will not be forgotten but will experience joy. Exclusion and persecution prove to be no match for those who share in Jesus’ prophetic, liberative ministry.”
A quick word about those “woe” statements and who they apply to: those people who are now rich, well-fed, laughing, and have people speaking well of them. Woe in this case is not some curse of damnation, but rather means look out! It’s a forewarning to those people who have wealth, health, and happiness and who take the good things of life for granted, and even worse, do not share those good things with, or comfort those who do not have those things. When Jesus says woe/look out, it is to induce an amendment of life from ways that are not of God, and to turn to the ways of saintly living that are of God. The woe statements remind us that God intends us all to be members of that great communion of saints, and that in God’s reign saints look out for the well-being of each other . . . not just for themselves. They do so by loving to do the will of Jesus: which is to tend the sick, comfort the afflicted, be companions to the lonely, the imprisoned and bereaved, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, to not judge, to not seek retribution, to be generous with the giving of themselves and what they have, to others.
For 150 years – in four different edifices, under the spiritual leadership of thirteen different rectors and numerous assisting priests, in times of plenty and in times of scarcity, the people of Christ Episcopal Church have striven to love to do Jesus’ will.
We have not always done so perfectly, and at times we have failed miserably. But after-all we are human, and the really good news of the Christian faith is that God is in the forgiveness business. Yet each time we did not live up to our saintly potential we heard that loving warning of, look out! And we took that warning to heart and amended our ways of life to be in line with the ways of God’s reign. One has only to look through our lovely commemorative booklet produced for this celebration to see the numerous ways we have done Jesus’ will and loved it! And that booklet is far from exhaustive in listing all the ways we have done so. It is why we are still here after 150 years, and why I believe God has another 150 years planned for our doing Jesus’ will.
In a few minutes we will gather-in our pledge commitments of our treasure so that we may determine how we can financially secure our future into the year 2020 and beyond. It is by the generous commitment of those gifts of time, talent and treasure to this parish that we will continue to love to do Jesus’ will. It is by the giving of those gifts that we will emulate all those saints of God – saints like Byrdie Lee, Charlie Buss, Mattie Jackson, John Sanders, Lollie Bailey-Nilson, Molly Vander Hoof, Mo Maloney, Jim Lightbody, Patricia Burgess, Al Corrado, John Sims, Jim Schiller, Ted Ray, and thousands more -who have gone before us in this parish these past 150 years; and who are a part of that great communion of saints. It is by the giving of our gifts in our pledge commitments that we honor those saints, and all saints, and recall that the saints of God are just like us, and we mean to be one too.
 Dr. Matt Skinner, Working Preacher web page: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4256 November 3, 2019.