Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sermon: 1 Advent 2008

Sermon: 1 Advent (30 Nov 2008)
(Isaiah 64:1-9/Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19/1 Corinthians 1:3-9/Mark 13:24-37)
Advent: Stories and Lessons

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

St. Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons and vigorous apologist for the faith, was only once removed from the apostle John: Irenaeus was mentored by John’s disciple, Polycarp, whose own faith was crowned with martyrdom. What Irenaeus has to say about the apostles, then, has about it the mantle of authenticity, the ring of truth.

So, recently I read with interest one of Irenaeus’ few surviving works: On The Apostolic Preaching. I’m not certain what I expected to find there: a theology of preaching, an apostolic how-to manual on sermon construction and delivery, transcriptions of great sermons by St. John? What I did find there was the story. Starting with creation, Irenaeus tells the story: the rebellion of man and the introduction of sin and death into creation; the calling of a man, Abram, and the creation of a people, the Jews, through whom God would redeem and restore creation; the making of covenants and the giving of Law. Irenaeus tells the story of judges, kings, and prophets; of a kingdom lost and restored; and of Jesus – first and foremost of Jesus, the fulfillment of the story.

What has this to do with the apostolic preaching? This is more creed than sermon, more catechesis than oration. And yet, it is the apostolic preaching – the content, the essence of the apostolic proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When they preached, the apostles told the story; Acts makes that clear – Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul. The early evangelists told the story of what God had promised through Israel to the world, and of how God had fulfilled those very promises in Jesus of Nazareth: born of a virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised to new and everlasting life through the power of God, ascended to glory at the right hand of God Almighty, and coming again to judge the living and the dead. Apostolic preaching, Irenaeus reminds us, is the telling of the story – the telling of this particular story and no other.

So it is that the church today – the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic church – continues to tell the story. Our scriptures tell the story. Our hymns tell the story. Our prayers – most fully our Eucharistic Prayers – tell the story. And – please, God – our lives tell the story.

We tell the story in time: in daily and weekly and yearly cycles. We rise in the morning and it is the dawn of creation. We pass our waking hours in toil, earning our bread from thorn-infested ground, sure sign of the fall. We live and laugh and love and sin. And each night we lay ourselves down to die, confessing our sins, committing ourselves into God’s keeping, and hoping for resurrection in the morning, for new life in Jesus Christ – the story told in a day.
For six days each week we remember the old creation, pronounced good and very good by God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and ruined by our father Adam and our mother Eve and by every one of their descendants since – everyone save one. On the seventh day, which is for us the first day of the week, we celebrate new creation, the restoration of all things through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the new Adam in whom and through whom the curse of sin and death is destroyed, in whom and through whom all things are made new and pronounced once again good and very good – the story told in a week. Week after week, season upon season, we celebrate the feasts and keep the fasts of the church: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost and back around again – the story told in a year. Days make weeks, weeks make seasons, seasons make years, and years make lives: our lives tell the story in time.

We tell the story, in part, because it forms us: it tells us from whence we’ve come, who we are, and where we’re headed. There are other stories, of course, and all of us are storied people – no exceptions. There is no truly self-made man or woman; each of us is the product of a culture and therefore the product of the culture’s stories. We believe this story, and so we tell it again and again. We believe it is true. We believe that it is life giving. We believe that it gives order and meaning and direction to the smaller stories of our lives.

A story is always on the move, always going somewhere. It not only has characters; it has plot – purposeful movement toward its climax. But, there is always some danger of getting stuck in a story, of refusing to let the story carry you along. If you know where to look, you see evidence of this in the church. There is the man who has reduced the faith to keeping the rules, who seeks to establish his own righteousness by strict obedience to the “law of God” – a harsh, rigid, fearful man. Such a man is stuck on Mt. Sinai, stuck in the wilderness, stuck with the Pharisees. He has not let the story carry him along to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. There is the woman who keeps Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem, who is so captivated by the gentleness of the holy infant, meek and mild, that she refuses to move with Jesus to the cross and beyond. Life is always Christmas and never Good Friday; worse still, never Easter. There are groups – like the Corinthian Christians to whom Paul wrote – who get stuck in Pentecost, constantly demanding charismatic proof of God’s presence, and who never move on to love, the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts. And, perhaps worst of all, there are Christians who become mired in the Ascension, who see Jesus as absent and so very distant, who have lost all hope of his return.

There is always some danger of getting stuck in a story, of refusing to let the story carry you along. That is one reason the church tells the story – the whole story – each year, time and again. Mother Church refuses to let her children get stuck; the worship of the church forces you along in the story, sometimes against your will, sometimes kicking and screaming, but moving nonetheless.

Today, the church begins the story anew with Advent. It is a chapter of characters: the great epic prophet Isaiah, the elderly and dubious priest Zechariah, his barren wife Elizabeth, and their seriously odd son John, the forerunner and herald of Jesus. Characters, yes, but there is plot, too; in the story, the chapter we call Advent takes us somewhere. Advent always looks beyond itself toward the coming of God Almighty.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence (Is 64:1-2, NRSV)!

This is the Advent for which Isaiah longs: God’s return to a desolate Israel, to an exiled people; God’s return to deliver and vindicate his chosen people and to judge the nations. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” And yet Isaiah’s advent longing is filled with trepidation: Israel, too, is filled with iniquity and, like the nations, deserves God’s judgment. So, while Isaiah calls upon God to tear open the heavens and come down, he does so with a plea for mercy:

8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider, we are all your people (Is 64:8-9, NRSV).

This is Isaiah’s advent lesson to us today: any invocation of God – every invocation of God – must also be a plea for mercy:

Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One:
Have Mercy upon us.

“For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us,” we pray: and well we should.

We listen to Isaiah and learn his advent lesson, but the story moves on and we are swept along with it; there are other advents.

It is Holy Week as Jesus and his disciples exit the temple.

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished (Mark 13:1-4, NRSV)?’

This is the advent that brought tears to Jesus eyes as he approached Jerusalem – an advent of immanent judgment and destruction.

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God (Luke 19:41-44).’

What can one do in the face of such an advent? Simply this: be ready. Be found faithfully about the Master’s work when the Master returns.

33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake (Mark 13:33-37).’

This is Jesus’ advent message to us today: keep awake, keep alert, watch, work. Then you will be among the elect gathered by the angels from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

We listen to Jesus and learn his advent lesson, but the story moves on again and we are swept along with it; there is yet another advent.

“Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” our brother Paul writes to the church in Corinth. Unruly, undisciplined, outrageous, but enthusiastic and faithful: Corinth was the worst the church had to offer, and the best. And Paul gives thanks for them always, for the grace of God given them in Jesus Christ.

5[For] in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:5-7, NRSV).

This is advent future – the advent yet to come – the revealing, the apocalypse, of our Lord Jesus Christ. More than any other, this is the advent chapter of the story in which we live. Isaiah caught us up in the story and Jesus swept us along. Paul incorporates us and gives us our script as we wait for the final revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ. And what is Paul’s advent lesson for us?

8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 1:8-9, NRSV).

Paul’s advent lesson is a promise to us and to all who believe: The God who called us into the fellowship of his Son is faithful and will preserve us, strengthen us, and present us blameless on that great day of the Lord’s appearing – on the great day of that final advent when the dead in Christ shall rise and we shall all be forever with the Lord. What, beyond this, the story holds, no eye has seen, no tongue can tell, no heart can imagine.

So, let us once again enter the great story this Advent season – a story of longing and repentance, a story of waiting and watching and working, a story of promise.

Let us pray.

Faithful God,your promises stand unshaken through all generations:Renew us in hope, that we may be awake and alert,ever watching for the glorious return of Jesus Christ, our judge and savior,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God, now and forever. Amen.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Advent Prayer

Prayer Rule of St. Pachomius

For those Christians who follow the Western calendar, Advent -- and the new church year -- begins on Sunday, 30 November. The season is one of preparation for the advent (coming) of our Lord: not just in the historical incarnation (nativity) but in our lives and in our world as his kingdom comes on earth as it is heaven, and of course in the parousia, the great day of the Lord's appearing. We are encouraged repeatedly in Scripture to be awake, to be watchful, and to be faithful as we await and hasten his coming. This is a primary focus of Advent observance.

Prayer is an essential element of faithfulness, and a renewed emphasis on prayer is especially fitting during Advent. If you do not currently have a rule of prayer, or, if it seems good to adapt your existing rule during Advent, we offer the following adaptation of Rule of St. Pachomius for your consideration.

May you have a blessed season of Advent as together we remember the great promises of our God and Father, and celebrate their fulfillment in Jesus Christ our Lord. May we all be holy and blameless on that great day of his appearing.

The following is an adaptation of the Prayer Rule of St. Pachomius (292-346), the founder of Egyptian, cenobitic (communal) monasticism. It is one of the earliest recorded rules of prayer. The heart of the rule is the Trisagion, Psalm 51, The Jesus Prayer, the Creed (the Nicene Creed in the original rule), and the Lord’s Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is generally offered a fixed number of times (30, 50, or 100) -- a prayer rope is useful for this -- or for a fixed period of time.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Trisagion (thrice)
Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

Psalm 51
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving‑kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
12 Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
13 Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
16 Open my lips, O Lord, *
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

Jesus Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy Name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those

who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever and ever. Amen.

(Intercessions, Petitions, Thanksgiving)

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Homily: 26 November 2008

Thanksgiving Eve: 26 November 2008
(Deuteronomy 8:7-18/Psalm 65/2Corinthians 9:6-15/Luke 17:11-19)
Between the Dreaming and the Coming True: A Thanksgiving Cycle

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth,making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off (Is 55:6-13, NRSV).

Isaiah sings this song to his captive people. He sees – whether in visions or in reality, God only knows – he sees the temple destroyed, the holy city razed, the land desolate, and the people exiled. It is dark; it is night. But in the dark come dreams, and Isaiah has a dream. In Isaiah’s dream, his people call upon the Lord – a Lord who will be found. In Isaiah’s dream, his people forsake their wickedness and unrighteousness and return to the Lord – a Lord who will have mercy, a Lord who will abundantly pardon. In Isaiah’s dream the Lord speaks to his people, “Come forth!” and as surely as Lazarus will one day respond to Jesus’ call to come forth, Israel responds to their Lord and comes forth from their tomb of exile, comes forth into a living land and a land of the living. In Isaiah’s dream the Lord speaks and his people go out from the land of exile in joy and are led home in peace. This is Isaiah’s dream: when the Lord speaks and his word accomplishes that for which it was purposed, then joy and peace shall reign and the land itself – all creation – will be restored. Then the land itself – all creation – will join in praise and thanksgiving to God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, Redeemer of his people. The mountains and hills will burst into song, the trees of the field will clap their hands, the curse will be rolled back – the cypress will replace the thorn, and the myrtle will replace the brier. It is a prophet’s dream.

Centuries later another prophet sings to his people: John the Evangelist, prisoner of Rome, exiled on Patmos. He sees – whether in visions or in reality, God only knows – he sees the coming true of Isaiah’s dream, the liberation of all God’s Israel, all those from every language and people who are united through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ. He sees all God’s Israel – and all God’s creation – united around the heavenly throne joining in praise and thanksgiving of the Lord God the Almighty.

6b Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,‘Holy, holy, holy,the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come’ (Rev 4:6b-8, NRSV).

Whatever else they may be, the four living creatures around the throne are symbols of the fullness of creation: the lion, wild beasts; the ox, domesticated animals; the human, all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve; the eagle, the birds of the air – all creation redeemed and restored and given voice, so that the created order might offer praise and thanksgiving to its Creator and Redeemer. This is the coming true of Isaiah’s dream. The Lord has spoken; his word – Jesus – has accomplished his everlasting purpose; joy and peace have begun their reign; and the land itself – all creation – has been restored. Hear the mountains burst into song. Watch the trees of the hills in standing ovation for the Lord their God. In the dream, all shall be praise and thanksgiving. In the coming true, all is praise and thanksgiving.

But, as Robert Benson notes so well and so truly, we live between the dreaming and the coming true: between Isaiah’s dream of a redeemed and renewed creation filled with praise and thanksgiving and John’s vision of the living creatures giving voice to all creation around the throne of God. How then are we to live as God’s people of praise and thanksgiving between the dreaming and the coming true?

Paul faced this very issue and works it out in the epistle text. The saints in Jerusalem – the Jewish church – were in the grips of a devastating famine. Their terrible necessity provides Paul, and his gentile churches, with a glorious opportunity: organize a gentile relief effort for the Jewish church to demonstrate gentile/Jewish-Christian solidarity. And so Paul encourages “his” churches to join in this goodwill offering – in this text, particularly the city church of Corinth, in the region of Achaia.

9Now it is not necessary for me to write to you about the ministry to the saints, 2for I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year; and your zeal has stirred up most of them. 3But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you may not prove to have been empty in this case, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be; 4otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—in this undertaking. 5So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.
6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written,‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness
endures for ever.’ 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift (2 Cor 9, NRSV)!

We find here a Christian cycle of thanksgiving.

God, in his surpassing grace, has given us an indescribable gift: adoption as his sons and daughters through Jesus Christ our Lord and unity with one another through the Holy Spirit.

God, in his surpassing grace, has given us an unparalleled opportunity: the ability to share our material resources – food, money, clothing, etc. – with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in temporary need. This sharing with the saints is not only a responsibility, but also an act of praise and thanksgiving to God.

God, in his surpassing grace, has given us an unimaginable privilege: the power to help turn Isaiah’s dream into John’s reality by drawing all creation into a great chorus of praise and thanksgiving. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians – and us – that through the ministry of sharing, “11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” Through the thanksgiving act of sharing resources, those who receive will themselves be caught up in thanksgiving, so that the creation begins to overflow with many thanksgivings to God. Between the dreaming and the coming true we have been given the power to hasten the dream toward its coming true.

To all God’s people in Christ the thanksgiving message is clear: Let us be thankful for the indescribable gift of God in Christ. Let us share what we have with others so that they, too, might have ample cause for thanksgiving. And let us join with all creation in praise and thanksgiving of God Almighty – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as we await and hasten the dream come true.


Monday, November 24, 2008

The Reign of Christ (Christ the King) Sunday

I have posted no sermon for The Reign of Christ Sunday simply because I did not preach. Instead, our youth conducted the service and provided a wonderful and insightful dramatic commentary on the gospel text, the Sheep and Goats Judgment. I appreciate their hard work and that of their teacher.

Later this week -- Wednesday, God willing -- I will post a Thanksgiving homily.

Peace of Christ,

(Frederica Mathewes-Green has an excellent discussion of the dual message of the Christ of Sinai icon, above, on The link follows for the short (2-3 minute) video.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sermon: 27 Pentecost (16 November 2008)

Sermon: 27 Pentecost (16 November 2008)
(Zeph 1:7, 12-18/Ps90:1-12/1Thess 5:1-11/Mt 25:14-30)
Missing the Point: Talents and Judgment

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My friend Gary wrote to tell me that he is purging his library of heretical authors and to offer me his titles by Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis. Since I either have those books – in the case of McLaren and Campolo – or don’t want them – in the case of Wallis – I don’t know what Gary will do with them, though I can imagine him sitting outside on a fine fall evening, smoking a good cigar, and toasting marshmallows on a roaring fire fueled with “banned books”.

McLaren and Campolo actually co-authored a book; I guess Gary will consign that one to the nethermost regions of banned-book hell. It has a great title though: Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel. The more I read the gospels, the more they do seem like an adventure in missing the point. Did anyone understand Jesus: his mother Mary; his apostolic rock, Peter; his public friends and secret disciples like Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Joseph and Nicodemus; the religious and political leaders – scribes, Pharisees, priests, Sadducees, Herodians? No: the gospels, from beginning to end, are largely an adventure in missing the point. We see that, of course, in hindsight; through the lens of Easter, everything is much clearer. The point of the gospel was made on the cross and in the empty tomb: this Jesus whom you crucified is both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Confronted with the resurrected Christ, even the slowest of heart and mind got the point. The Acts of the Apostles could even be subtitled Adventures in Getting the Point: How the Spirit-controlled Church Conquered the Culture.

I’m inclined to generosity toward the pre-resurrection disciples of Jesus. Yes, they often missed the point, but I doubt I would have fared better. In fact, I’ve spent my fair share of time missing the point of the gospel, and I suspect I still do. Not the major point, mind you – not the essence of the faith as found in the creeds – but subtleties like…well, like some of Jesus’ parables, like the Parable of the Talents, for example. I’ve often missed the point of such parables due to my self-centered reading of the text. I want the parable to be spoken to me, for me, and about me. But, if I proceed on those assumptions, I will almost certainly miss the point. While the parable has great meaning for me – for us – that is its secondary meaning; primarily it was spoken to someone else, for someone else, and about someone else. To get the point is to understand the parable in that other, original, context.

Take the Parable of the Talents. Assume it is directed primarily to us. What is its point? It becomes a parable of absence, return, and judgment. Jesus is gone – for a long time now – the master visiting a far country. In the meantime he has given us certain resources – talents (not natural abilities, but large sums of money in the parable) – and has instructed us to use them for the growth of the kingdom. In some unknown future he will return unexpectedly to judge our success with those talents. Use them well and we will receive a reward. Use them poorly and we will be cast away from his presence, into a place of punishment and distress. It is, all in all, an unsettling and frightening story that leaves us always with the question, Have we done enough? Have we used our talents? Make this parable primarily to us, for us, and about us – strip it from its historical context – and it becomes a cautionary tale of works righteousness, fearful judgment, and eternal destiny. Make this parable primarily to us, for us, and about us – strip it from its historical context – and it becomes an adventure in missing the point.

So, what are we to make of it if not this? It is Holy Week and Jesus is engaged in holy battle on several fronts. Jesus is struggling with the Adversary, Satan, as Satan works behind the scenes to subvert God’s plan through human intermediaries – most notably Judas. Religious authorities stand arrayed against Jesus, dogging his steps and questioning his every word and deed: scribes and Pharisees, priests and Sadducees. Soon, the political powers will enter the fray against Jesus: Herod and his lackeys and ultimately Rome in the person of Pontius Pilate. Gone is our simplistic icon of gentle Jesus meek and mild. Jesus is on the attack, fiercely taking the battle to his opponents. Just read Matthew 23 as Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees. Woe to you, Pharisees: hypocrites, blind fools, brood of vipers, children of Gehenna. God will hold you and your generation accountable, Jesus says, for the righteous blood of the prophets which your fathers shed -- murder approved by the present generation of Pharisees. But Jesus doesn’t stop with condemnation of the Pharisees; Jerusalem, too, is under judgment. With sorrow and tears Jesus pronounces the coming desolation of Jerusalem for its failure to recognize the time of God’s visitation, the time of Jesus’ appearing.

And so begins Jesus’ parables and discourses on judgment – not some far distant, eternal judgment, but the immanent judgment and destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the religious establishment: scribes and Pharisees, priests and Sadducees. This is the context for the Parable of the Talents. At the most basic level, this is not a parable of future absence and long delayed return. It is a parable proclaiming that, in Jesus, God has already returned after a long silence, has already returned and is even now pronouncing judgment upon those who fail to recognize him and submit to him. Read this as a parable of judgment directed to Jesus’ contemporaries – which is the primary context of this section of Matthew’s gospel – and it makes sense. Moreover, it fits hand-in-glove with the gospel, the good news of God’s restorative justice and grace.

Perhaps we are so familiar with the parable that it will be difficult to hear it this way if we simply read it again. Allow me, then, a retelling.

A noted philanthropist called his three top aides together and announced, “I’ve been asked to lead an international relief effort covering several third world countries. I will be overseas for an extended period of time; it’s uncertain yet just how long. While I’m gone I don’t want to let our inner city work here languish. So, I’ve decided to place each of you in charge of one of our major efforts: Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Knoxville. I’ll provide you with financial resources appropriate to the size of the task. You know my heart and you know my goals. Carry on my work.” With that, he left.

Months passed with little communication. Then one day – quite unexpectedly – the philanthropist returned and sent for his aides. “Exciting things have been happening overseas; I’ll fill you in later. But right now, I want to hear about your work here,” he said. The first assistant reported on the work among the homeless in Philadelphia – some innovative approaches he was pioneering with mixed, inner city housing, rich and poor living as neighbors in communities and condos. The second aide told of the work among the alcohol and drug addicted in Atlanta, about mentorship programs and faith-based and political coalitions. Both aides were excited about the work and their enthusiasm spread to the philanthropist. “Well done,” he said. “Well, done. You have exceeded my expectations and I hope you will continue with the work you’ve begun and even expand it. Of course, I’ll continue to supply all the resources you need.” The third aide was absent; he had ignored the summons to the meeting. When sent for again, he grudgingly came and began his report. “I know how limited resources are, even for you,” he said, “and I was determined not to waste your money, especially when I saw how my colleagues here spent precious dollars on undeserving people: those too lazy to work for shelter and those too weak to kick their drug habits. So, I hired a crack team of investigators to determine those people really worthy of help – good people who through no fault of their own ended up on the streets. I’ve built a building to house our offices and bought the latest computer data systems. I’ve even…”. “But, wait a minute,” the philanthropist interrupted. “How many people have you actually helped? How much of my money have you spent on alleviating homelessness, or combating drug addition, or providing educational assistance, or any of the other efforts that are important to me?” The aide looked stricken. “Well, we’re really just getting started,” he said. “How many people have you helped?” the philanthropist asked again. “Well, we haven’t really moved our programs into the inner city yet,” the aide replied. “We’re still trying to determine who is worthy of help.”

The philanthropist looked at his aide with a mixture of grief and severity. “You knew what was important to me; you’ve been with me for years. You know I would rather waste money on a hundred than fail to meet the needs of one. I love these people. But you, you helped only yourself. And now, you’re fired. Security will escort you to your desk to collect your personal belongings and then escort you to the street. The contracts of your investigators and computer analysts will be terminated effective immediately, and your building will be sold off to recoup some of the money you squandered. I had such hopes for you. You can’t begin to imagine my disappointment.”

This parable is not about absence but about return, not about future eternal judgment but about present accounting for resources used and resources squandered. God, the true philanthropist – lover of mankind – had presented Israel with all the resources necessary to bless the nations: torah, temple, Sabbath, and God’s own presence. But, Israel had hoarded these resources, these talents, as their own possessions. They had refused to be Israel as God intended – a holy people, a kingdom of priests, and a light to the nations. A religious elite – not least the Pharisees – arose, misrepresented God, and by their actions erected barriers between the masses – tax collectors, sinners, the poor and disenfranchised – and God. This parable, and others that Jesus told in this section of Matthew, clearly proclaims that the religion of the Pharisees was an adventure in missing the point. And that misadventure had dire consequences for them and for Israel – the destruction of everything they held most dear: their positions of prestige and authority, their national identity and their land, Jerusalem and the temple – all gone because they buried the talent God had entrusted to them. But others in the parable – the ones we often overlook in our obsession with judgment – others used their talents by investing them in Jesus: Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, the seventy-two disciples, the twelve apostles, Paul, and tax collectors and sinners unnamed and unnumbered. And these faithful servants received their reward, in this world and in the world to come. They missed Jesus’ point many times, too, but they didn’t miss him. And, after all, Jesus is the main point of it all anyway.

So, that’s the Parable of the Talents in context – a proclamation that God has returned in the person of Jesus to demand an accounting of the Pharisees’ stewardship of his blessings, and a judgment on their failure to be Israel as God had intended – a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of his people. It is also a pronouncement of blessing and reward for those who got the point and joined the grand gospel adventure of Jesus. What awaits those in Jesus is not fearful judgment, but the promise of full redemption. That is why the Epistle lesson from 1 Thessalonians is so appropriately paired with the Parable of the Talents. Consider it a commentary on that parable – a commentary directed toward the two, faithful servants – as much to us, and for us, and about us as them.

5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, NRSV).

Both the Parable of the Talents and this text from Paul address judgment, but the focus is entirely different: Jesus spoke of immanent loss for the Pharisees and Israel; Paul writes of eternal blessing for those in Christ Jesus. When we think of judgment, it is this promise that must be foremost in our understanding: 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him (1 Thess 5:9-10, NRSV). There are talents here, too, implied in this epistle text – God’s resources given to us through the Holy Spirit for building up his kingdom: 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation (1 Thess 5:6-8, NRSV). Yes, we are to work in and for the kingdom of God, not from fear of judgment, but in thankfulness that we already have been judged in Jesus Christ and declared righteous. This is good news, news by which we are to “encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

When it comes to judgment, we dare not have an adventure in missing the point. To those in Christ Jesus, to “those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God] will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7). For those in Christ Jesus, judgment is gospel – good news of creation restored, of righteousness vindicated, of faithfulness rewarded. This is the point after all: redemption, reconciliation, restoration – new creation in Christ. So, let us not grow weary in doing good. “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:1b-2a, NRSV), as we encourage one another and build up each other. Amen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Little Flock Gathering

Trinity Church is part of Little Flock Knoxville, an informal coalition of area house churches whose ministers/leaders meet periodically for discussion, prayer, and support. On Sunday, 9 November 2008, several of our faith communities gathered for a first, communal worship service. As the first churches in Acts, we devoted ourselves to the Apostles' teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers, worshipping God with gladness and singleness of heart through Christ our Lord.

I was blessed to officiate at the Eucharist -- beneath the cross at the glorious setting of the sun. Never were the words of the Phos Hilaron closer to my heart:

O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

Please enjoy these few pictures of our service. Perhaps our Lord will make it possible for you to worship with us in the future.

God willing, I'll return with a sermon post 16 November.

Peace of Christ,


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Sermon: All Saint's (2 November 2008)

Sermon: All Saint’s (2 November 2008)
(Revelation 7:9-17/Psalm 34:1-10, 22/1John 3:1-3/Matthew 5:1-12)
Making Saints – Capital “S”, Italics

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is late in Holy Week – only two days before Passover (Mt 26:2) – and Jesus reclines at table with disciples and friends: Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Simon, and the twelve among them. Three gospels recount the events of that evening; only Luke seems not to have known the story.

6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? 9For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’ 10But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13Truly I tell you, wherever this good news* is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her’ (Mt 26:6-13, NRSV).

This extravagant outpouring of resources – a year’s wages used up in a matter of seconds – confounds the disciples. I empathize with them; it puzzles me a bit, too. Leaving asides Judas’ hypocritical, self-interest – he simply wants to pilfer the disciples’ common treasury for the value of the ointment – leaving this aside, his expressed concern for the poor rings true to us, doesn’t it? Here’s Tim Rice’s take on the event from Jesus Christ Superstar – Judas confronting both the woman and Jesus.

Woman your fine ointment, brand new and expensive

Should have been saved for the poor.

Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe

Three hundred silver pieces or more.

People who are hungry, people who are starving

They matter more than your feet and hair (Everything’s Alright)!

Given that rationale, Jesus’ response approving the woman’s behavior seems almost callous: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” What are we to make of this?

Feeding the poor is a good thing, a Christian thing. The Law, the Psalms, the prophets, the Magnificat, the Sermon on the Mount: all these speak of God’s requirements for generosity and justice for the poor. Yes, feeding the poor is a good thing, a Christian thing. But, so too, is proclaiming the Gospel, which is exactly what the woman was doing in wondrously extravagant, symbolic and prophetic action – anointing Jesus for his immanent burial. This story all comes down to this: Which has higher priority for the community of Jesus’ disciples – proclaiming the gospel or feeding the poor?

Frederica Mathewes-Green offers this take on priorities in a recent Frederica Here and Now podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.

[I]n contemporary Christianity, whether Orthodox or otherwise … it is very fashionable to talk about social justice, economic justice, bringing justice for the poor, and that sort of thing. If you can say, “I’m doing it for the poor”, then you get this automatic halo. And that has become extremely fashionable. I think it’s because, in the eyes of the world, the Church has nothing to offer. We’re just annoying and we’re in the way and we probably believe the world is flat, and all of that stuff. But the one thing that we can do is, wouldja just get over there and at least take care of poor people? Make yourself useful. Be good for something. So, the world approves Christianity whenever we say that we are for helping the poor. And that begins to take this disproportionate amount of our concept of what we should do, and what the purpose of the church is. The Church is here to bring the Holy Spirit into this world, and to spread the presence of Jesus Christ. And one of the main things that Jesus will do is to care for the poor. But we get the cart before the horse because we are seeing what the world will approve. We’re seeing what the fashionable thought is. And if it was a debate between someone who was taking a strong social gospel line and someone who was saying, “No, the most important thing is saving souls, we have to preach the Gospel, preach Jesus Christ, bring people to Him. Even the poor. Let the poor have the Good News preached to them, is what Jesus said. He didn’t say, let the poor get wealthy.” That would not really be an even debate, because fashionable opinion leans so heavy on one side (
thought.html#entry2477972, accessed 10/28/08).

What Frederica points out so well, here, is the extent to which the church allows the fashionable opinions of the prevailing culture to influence its understanding of the gospel and to establish the church’s priorities. The gospel and the purpose of the church may include feeding the poor, but that is neither the essence of the gospel nor the highest calling of the church.

The gospel account and Frederica’s essay prompt me to reconsider this fundamental question: For what purpose(s) does the church exist? Frederica summarizes her answer in this statement: “The Church is here to bring the Holy Spirit into this world, and to spread the presence of Jesus Christ.” While I agree in part, I think I would express the church’s purpose a bit differently.

The church is that unique, Spirit-assembled community – Spirit-assembled, Spirit-sealed, Spirit-filled, and Spirit-empowered community – that exists (1) to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through word, through symbolic prophetic action, through obedience, and (2) to make saints out of sinners. Proclaim the gospel and make saints; that is what the church is for.

Now, sometimes the church feeds the poor, but not because the world says it’s a good thing for us to do. We feed the poor because doing so is a proclamation of the gospel, a proclamation that Jesus is Lord and that a new world order – the Kingdom of God – has been inaugurated – a kingdom in which those who fear God receive mercy, in which the proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts, in which the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up, in which the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty (cf Luke 1:50 ff). Filling the bellies of the hungry is one way the church proclaims the gospel to the poor and to the world. Even so, the church has to remember that food is not the deepest need of the poor. Jesus himself came not primarily to feed the poor, but to bring good news (gospel) to the poor (cf Mt 11:5).

Sometimes the church feeds the poor, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes, instead, the church pours out its resources in extravagant – and the world would say wasteful – acts of adoration for the Lord Jesus, prodigal proclamations of the gospel: towering cathedrals, glorious stained glass windows, sublime icons, candles that go up in flame and incense that goes up in smoke – all wasteful, extravagant gifts of lovers for the Beloved. These, too, are proclamations of the gospel – proclamations that Jesus is worthy of the best we have to offer in architecture, music, art, and the rites and rituals of true and beautiful worship. Sometimes like the woman at Bethany, we are momentarily blinded to the plight of the poor from gazing at the glory of Jesus, and we can do nothing but pour out our ointment and let those criticize who will. Such acts as these are also proclamations of the gospel, and this is why the church exists: to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through word, through symbolic prophetic action, through obedience – through acts of mercy and through extravagant acts of worship.

But, the church also exists to make saints. In fact, I think I could mount a convincing argument that making saints is the primary purpose of the church – its raison d’etre, its reason for being. The church proclaims the gospel to make saints. The church pours itself out in extravagant acts of worship to make saints. Whatever the church does, it does, or should do, to make saints. On this All Saints’ Day it is fitting that we think about the church’s role in making saints.

The phrase “make saints” sounds a bit strange, and in one sense it is. After all, saints are born – really reborn as we are taught in scripture – born in the water of baptism. If you have been baptized into Christ – in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – if you have been sealed with that same all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, then you have been born anew; you have been reborn a saint. While we might be hesitant to claim this title for ourselves, scripture shows no such reticence. Saint is the word scripture consistently and unashamedly uses for all those in Christ Jesus, for all those reborn as children of God.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are (1 John 3:1a, NRSV).

In one sense you are never more a saint than in that instant you step dripping wet from the water of baptism.

But, in another sense, there are saints and then there are Saints. You know what I mean: while you wouldn’t mind walking up to the “pearly gates” of heaven with me, who wants to be in line behind Mother Teresa? Robert Fulghum recounts a dream – a nightmare, really – of that exact scene. He’s in line behind Mother Teresa as they approach St. Peter at the gates of heaven. Peter looks sadly at Mother Teresa, shakes his head, and says, “Sorry, Mother. You just should have done more.” Well, I may be a saint – I am, in fact, and so are you. – but Mother Teresa is a Saint, capital “S” in italics. We know the difference, don’t we? There’s Peter, James, and John, and then there’s Susan, Betty, and Mary Kathleen: all saints – not different in kind, but different, perhaps, in degree. While all were born saints in baptism, some were also made saints in the fellowship of the church.

Perhaps it would help to think of “saint” as a verb. We were sainted at our baptism. We are being sainted in the fellowship of the church, and we will be sainted completely in that great day of Christ’s return. Sainthood is a process and some are farther along than others. We know the beginning – baptism – and we catch just a glimpse of the ending:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-10, NRSV)!

In the between times we hold to John’s promise and press onward.

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this; when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themsleves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3, NRSV).

It might not matter so much just where you are in the process, but it does matter very much in which direction you are moving. And that is where the church comes in, because, while saints are born, Saints – capital “S” and italics – are made in the communion of the church.

How does the church make saints? First, the church must call us to sainthood – all of us. The church must continually remind us saints-in-training that we must truly be in-training, there is always more to the Christian life than we are currently experiencing. If I could name just one problem with the Western church it would be this: the “I’ve got my ticket punched for heaven and that’s all that matters” mentality that says once you have prayed the Sinner’s Prayer on Sunday (and perhaps have been baptized, though that seems optional nowadays) life can pretty much proceed as normal on Monday, and on all the days to follow. No. No. When we have been reborn as saints we have just begun, and life can never and must never be normal again. St. Paul is adamant about this.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal (or become perfect, alternate NRSV reading); but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [Do you see that? Because I have become a saint, I press on all the more to become a saint.] Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be of the same mind (Phil 3:12-15a, NRSV).

The church must teach that sainthood is not optional for some, but is expected for all – that sainthood is not exceptional, but normal. The church must hold out hope and awaken passion for sainthood. First, the church must call us to sainthood – all of us.

Next, the church must provide training for sainthood. You know, it’s one thing to walk a few minutes once or twice a week for a little fresh air and exercise. No particular equipment is required and the activity is not very strenuous. Of course, you don’t expect to lose a lot of weight or lower your blood pressure or cholesterol with this minimal effort. But, if you decide to get serious about exercise – if you make it your goal to get in shape to run a marathon – then you must train, seriously, with discipline and with firm commitment. You’ll seek out experts and learn from them. You’ll train with a group who will encourage, support, and challenge you. Running a marathon is not magic, but it requires hard work, discipline, and the collective wisdom of the running community. Becoming a saint is not magic – it’s grace, all grace from beginning to end, but it’s not magic. It requires hard work, discipline, and the collective wisdom of the church. It requires training. The church must provide training for sainthood. And it does if we will accept it. For two millenia the church has borne consistent witness to disciplines and practices that form saints – practices like prayer, sacred reading – immersion in the Word – obedience to that sacred Word, fasting and feasting with the faith community, breaking the bread of life and lifting the cup of salvation, confessing sin and repenting of it again and again, worshipping in season and out of season, and keeping on keeping on even when you feel like quitting. None of this effort is an attempt to earn God’s grace or acceptance; it is rather the response of those who know they have already received God’s grace and acceptance through the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the response of those called to sainthood, to transformation into the likeness of Christ, to ever fuller participation in the divine nature. Sainthood results from a life of discipline, a life of training. As Father Greg Blevins notes in a recent essay in his blog VagantePriest, sainthood (theosis is the Orthodox term for such transformation) “begins here and now with conversion, incorporation into Christ by way of the Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, and participation in the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ. It is renewed in the Mysteries of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. It is pursued by way of prayer, fasting, and alsm-giving.” The way of sainthood is a way of discipled participation in the ongoing life of the church. The church must provide training for sainthood.

And the church must become the Spirit-filled community that supports the believer in the never-ending struggle toward sainthood. Saints are not made in isolation, but in community with other saints-in-training called the church. This is the blessed communion of saints that we proclaim in the Creed: the body of Christ in this and every place, in this and every time, in heaven, on earth, in this age and in the age to come – that great cloud of witnesses that cheers us on toward victory:

12Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners,
so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
7Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? 8If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. 9Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. 11Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed (Heb 12:1-3, 7-13, NRSV).

Are we ready to take our place among this great cloud of witnesses? Are we ready to hope for sainthood, to strive for it, to submit ourselves to the training and discipline of the church to achieve it?

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'