This was the advice given:
Dear Anonymously Anxious,
So often at these gatherings we want to sit near the host and the most distinguished guests. To the degree that we will sometimes strategize how to get the best seat. I do not recommend this course of action. When we go after the best seats, our actions are telling others just how important we believe we are, and risk putting our host, other guests, and ourselves in a truly awkward position. For if a more distinguished guest arrives, and your host had intended the better seat for them, it will feel disgraceful to be asked to move to a lesser seat.
I would recommend that you actually take the worst seat, the one that is the furthest from the host and influential guests; the one that is uncomfortable to sit in for any length of time. Far better for your host to come and move you further up at the table, and be honored before everyone else. And if I may take this one step further - influential community members like yourself might avoid hosting these kinds of banquets geared entirely for the affluent and prominent. These networking events only ever benefit the powerful people in the room, and an invitation always comes with an expectation of reciprocity. Far better to throw a banquet for those who can never possibly reciprocate. If you want to host a lavish meal, why not invite those experiencing poverty or loneliness? This is the path where true blessing can be found.
Anonymously Anxious, I wish you the best of luck at this dinner party. And remember, as my readers know me for saying: ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’*
Jesus of Nazareth
Alright, so we know Jesus did not really keep an advice column for his local paper. In reality, when we find him in today’s gospel, he is in an incredibly tricky position. Jesus has been invited to attend this sabbath meal at the home of a local religious leader, and is one of many influential guests at this event. The text actually tells us that these folks were keeping a close eye on Jesus to see how he would handle himself (Lk 14:1). When Jesus notices his fellow guests strategically maneuvering for the most prominent seat, he offers them this parable on humility. One reason why we might play with this parable as an advice column is because Jesus’ wisdom in this text is timeless.
Last Sunday during the sermon, I shared a question I’ve been preoccupied with - What does it mean to be the Church today? We explored one of the unchanging roles of the Church: to proclaim in thought, word, and deed the transformative power of God’s Love, which can change this world for the better when humanity works in concert with God and one another. We focused on the idea that one way our generation is particularly called to embody this work is by bringing hope to the hopeless.
While there are many ways we can do this, today’s gospel lesson on humility offers us yet another way of offering that hope. Particularly given the overall sense of loneliness, despondency, and disenfranchisement within our society. We are told again and again through various forms of media that the balm to our souls will be More. More stuff, more alcohol, more drugs, more sex, more netflix and chill; more power; more money; more ego; more, more, more. Yet in spite of this pervasive messaging, these things seem to only deepen our overall sense of despair.
A theme throughout the gospels is Jesus' repeated emphasis on humility, which he models through servant leadership. Jesus rarely focuses attention on himself, and routinely redirects people's attention towards God’s dream for this world; the greater good of creation. Which, in the context of the wider culture, is unusual - both then and now.
It is his servant leadership style that makes him stand out. Some of the most memorable leaders within the history of the Church are the ones who embraced Jesus’ model of servant leadership. Read up on any of the saints for inspiration. They could see beyond themselves, which allowed them a vision of what could be possible when we set our egos aside and work towards a greater good for the whole of creation.
This is what we are signing up for when we choose to follow the Way of Love and be a part of the Church. We are telling the world - it’s not about me. It is about this greater good that we believe is possible through the transformative love embodied by Christ and Christ’s Church.We believe in this so deeply, that we want to live our lives as servant leaders. And when the Church remembers that is what we are about - the world doesn’t quite know what to do with us.
Because the Way of the World is focused on the gratification of the self: what do I want, what do I need, what do I stand to gain. Me, me, me. But the Way of Love is about the greater good of all creation: What is creation asking of us? What do our neighbors need? How can we better support the whole community?
When we embody servant leadership, it is with greater ease that we proclaim in thought, word, and deed that there is another way to live. Those who have been living with the fog of societal despair, witness embodied servant leadership, and it often inspires that fog to begin to lift, and seeds of hope can take root in the soil. The effect of this is that our shared sense of hope grows; we believe that change really is possible when we work in concert with God and one another.
Change starts within each one of us. And it starts with a small dose of curiosity and self-awareness. When we are seeking to solve a problem, ask ourselves: Who am I trying to help here? What are the needs of all the affected parties?
When we are struggling with a situation in our family, with our colleagues at work, or in a ministry at church, ask ourselves: What are my motivations? What will help this system be the best version of itself?
This kind of ongoing examination prevents us from focusing too much on personal preservation, seeking reciprocity or self-serving opportunities. As that is not the dance we have been invited into.
Rather, we have been invited into a flash mob dance. This is when a group of people assemble in a public place and perform together for a brief time before quickly dispersing in different directions. Those who were simply going about their day, suddenly find themselves in the middle of something beautiful and unexpected. These unsuspecting folks are startled awake with a bigger, more beautiful dream of what is possible when we work in concert. In turn, this feeds our collective and communal sense of hope. As the Church, when we say yes to this dance, we become part of a movement that brings hope to the most unexpected places.
As we head back into the world today, I wonder if we all might do some reflecting:
What does the word ‘humility’ stir up in you? Why?
When have you been inspired by servant leadership?
Is there an instance when you saw people work in concert towards a greater good? How did that inspire hope in you?
Where in your life might you need to do some shifting of perspective? If so, what needs to change?
* Luke 14:11
It’s possible this question is redundant; unnecessary even. After all, in some respects the answer is unchanging. In today’s Collect we actually see some of that unchanging answer outlined:
“Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name…”
In other words, we are united by the Holy Spirit as a body of Christ, called to proclaim in thought, word, and deed the transformative power of God’s Love. To proclaim to the world the ability of our Creator to change this world for the better when humanity works in concert with God and one another. This particular calling of the Church belonged as much to the early Church as it does to us today. What does change are the particular contexts that each generation finds itself.
Over the last several decades, America’s religious landscape has changed drastically. While the decline of those who identify as having no religious affiliation, often called the Nones, has slowed down, they still represent roughly 25% of the population. (1). Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, they represent 50% of the population. (2) I share this information not to discourage our work as the Church, but rather to invite our curiosity. Our neighbors in the United Kingdom have been experiencing a high percentage of Nones for quite a bit longer than we have. I wonder, what can we learn from them about what it means to be the Church today?
Our family recently returned from visiting some close friends who moved to England during the pandemic. We explored different corners of the country, and forced our kids to visit what must have felt like an endless number of churches, abbeys, minsters, and cathedrals. They were pretty tolerant about it all, and it helped that many of these cathedrals have their own cafes offering tea and cakes. Admittedly, we are not beneath bribery.
What stood out to me the most was not the remarkable architecture, the dazzling stained glass, beautifully kept gardens and grounds, or the incredible history. Though those were all very impressive. What impressed me the most were the churches that seemed to understand deeply that their church did not actually belong to them. Rather, they were caretakers of a sacred space that belonged to God and was meant for everyone. They use it for their parish life and worship services, but have cultivated an environment in their hospitality ministry that welcomes people of all faiths and none to find rest, refreshment, and renewed strength throughout the week.
We live with a 24 hours news cycle that is dominated by fear and scarcity. Even when we manage how much news we choose to take in, we often can end up feeling overwhelmed by all the desperate, enraging, and heart wrenching news. We may wish we could do something to address the state of our nation, or the climate crisis, or systemic racism, poverty and injustice, but find ourselves feeling too powerless and helpless to do so. It is easy to get sucked into a sense of hopelessness. Honestly, that’s how those holding all the power want us to feel.
Except, we are the Church.
We know a power that is greater than anything else in this world.
We know the Good News.
We know that change is possible.
We know there is always hope.
We know that Love is the only Way.
And as our Collect reminds us today, when we work in concert with God and one another, we can help our world to experience the transformative power of God’s Love.
So, what does it mean to be the Church today?
I think it means bringing hope to the hopeless. And there are quite a lot of ways we can do that, but for the sake of time, I’m going to focus on the one I’ve carried with me the most this summer.
One way that we can bring hope to the hopeless in our community is by welcoming people of all faiths and none into our sacred space. To recognize that this church does not belong to us, but belongs to God and is meant for everyone in the greater community.
Our society desperately needs sacred spaces like ours so people can find the rest and renewed strength they need in order to address the issues facing our world today. We are in the privileged position to share a sacred space that embodies the beauty and mystery of the transformative, powerful, Love of God.
Those cathedrals in England were flooded with people seeking solace and peace. On a smaller scale, here at James and Andrew, we also welcome an increasing number of people as part of our own hospitality ministry. It started with our outreach ministries and then we began sharing our buildings with others to use. Then we began enhancing our gardens and benches; next we started opening the church for folks to pray, rest, and be during the week; then we welcomed the labyrinth onto our grounds; and most recently we added picnic tables. Soon, there will even be bike stands.
Each addition has brought an increased number of people who come here seeking rest and a renewed sense of hope.
We are in our tenth year of living in the rectory, and on any given day we notice dozens of people utilizing our sacred space. Whether they go inside the church to light a candle, say a prayer, experience silence or listen to the organ being played; eat their lunch at a picnic table; play with their children or grandchildren on the lawn; walk the labyrinth; or take a rest on a bench. Our hospitality ministry started as a small thing, and it has grown more and more each year. As members of James and Andrew, we have the great privilege of caretaking for this sacred space that is truly a physical manifestation of God’s Love and peace.
Some of you may know that for a long, long time I used to think church buildings didn’t really matter. So much so, I wrote an article for an Episcopal church practice website on why our buildings just don’t matter. Somehow you called me to be your Rector anyways. Yet witnessing the evolution of this hospitality ministry has affirmed for me what is possible with church buildings when we see them as sacred spaces that belong not just to us, but to God and are meant for everyone.
Sacred spaces come in many forms, and are not necessarily even buildings. Yet whatever their shape or size, they have the power to renew people’s sense of hope and possibility. Now more than ever, we need these sacred spaces and centers of hospitality to renew our sense of shared hope for what is possible in God’s world.
As we live into our daily life and ministry at James and Andrew, may we increasingly embrace God’s invitation for us to be a sacred space that facilitates people finding a returned sense of hope. One small way we can all do this is by finding small ways to make our sacred space increasingly hospitable.
Another small way we can do this is by praying for those in need of hope. We are a people of prayer, and we know that prayer can make a difference. Prayer is one of the many ways we work in concert with God and one another - by directing our collective hearts, minds, and energies towards God’s dream for this world. Add those experiencing hopelessness to your daily prayers - by name or simply by praying for all those seeking sacred spaces and a renewed sense of hope. We also need to help one another maintain our own sense of hope, to remember that we are the Church, and we know of the transformative power of God’s Love that can turn this world upside down, and right side up again, as our Presiding Bishop likes to say.
As we prepare to head back into the world today, I wonder if we all might do a little reflecting…
What do you think it means to be the Church today?
What do you think it means to bring hope to the hopeless?
How do you maintain your own sense of hope?
Today’s teaching sermon is focused on the daily office and daily prayer. I thought we might begin by exploring the role of prayer in our lives, share a bit of history about the daily office, and reflect together on how we might continue to grow in our prayer practice.
In her book, Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life, Chaplain Kate Braestrup suggests we need prayer in our lives. She writes:
"What it can do—what prayer, at its best and at our best, has always done—is help us to live consciously, honorably, and compassionately. Because I am not stronger, more self-sufficient, smarter, braver, or any less mortal than my forebears or my neighbors, I need this help. As long as prayer helps me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer." 2
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, in his book, Prayers for a Privileged People, also emphasizes our need to be vulnerable and to connect to a Power greater than ourselves. He writes:
“Prayer is an act of openness to the One who sits on the throne of mercy. When we pray, we participate in the ultimate practice of humanness as we yield to a Power greater than ourselves. Our best prayers engage in candor about our lives, practice vulnerability, run risks, and rest in confident trust.” 3
Prayer is a sacred conversation with God. Whether it be individual prayer or community prayer, it has the power to offer up the most tender parts of ourselves to God, and in return we find ourselves better equipped:
…to praise the wonderful mystery of God;
…to discern a way forward;
…to discover the wisdom we seek;
…to persevere and renew our souls;
…to experience the healing power of God’s love in this world;
…to forgive ourselves and one another;
…to trust that we are all held in God’s loving embrace;
…to watch the beauty of God in our lives and creation.
Prayer is at the heart of what sustained and guided Jesus. Prayer would have shaped his early life; and he likely practiced the Jewish tradition of saying private prayers in the morning, at noonday, and in the evening. 1. On the sabbath, he likely would have partaken in the local synagogue’s liturgy of the word, and possibly would have attended a daily morning or evening prayer service.
After Jesus embarked on his public ministry, we routinely see him go off to deserted places to pray alone, in order to reconnect with God and revive his Spirit. (1:35; 6:46) He would often teach about prayer, affirming it really can make a difference, and reminding us that when we pray, we are to forgive others. (11:23-25). Because when we hold onto old wounds, they actually get in the way of our faith, our relationship with God, and even our connection with ourselves. The early Church took Jesus’ teaching on the power of prayer to heart, and in one of Paul’s earliest letters, he tells the Thessalonians to ‘pray without ceasing’. (5:17)
As early as the second century, the early Church had adapted the Jewish liturgies of community morning and evening prayer which included psalms, canticles, scripture readings, and some form of homily or instruction. 1 They also adapted the Jewish tradition of private prayers to mark morning, noon, and evening. By the time Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, these prayers became more formal and consistent across congregations.
Just as these congregational forms of ‘the daily office’ were being established, monastic communities were also developing their own forms.1 These two different forms of daily prayer coexisted for several centuries before melding together. Monastic communities have played a critical role in the development of these liturgies, including the Benedictine practice to stop and pray at eight intervals throughout the day.
Late in the middle ages, the daily office became the duty of monastics and clergy alone, making formal daily prayer inaccessible to the laity. When Thomas Cranmer created the prayerbook, he simplified the number of set times for prayer and published it in English, making daily prayer accessible again.1 Our current prayerbook, The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, features Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayer, and Compline, as well as four briefer versions of each liturgy that are meant for individual and family use. You may remember that in May of 2020, we took a deep dive into Morning Prayer. Instead of taking a similar deep dive today, I’d encourage you to review that sermon on our website if you are interested in learning more about Morning Prayer. 5
I do want to lift up the handout of resources that the Ushers gave you, and for those at home, I promise it will be posted online with this sermon. The very first resource listed is a favorite - Daily Prayer for All Seasons. This resource is our Church’s effort to extensively modify and expand those four brief daily devotions for individuals and families in the prayerbook. It offers eight different liturgies for each liturgical season, in keeping with the monastic tradition to pray eight set times a day. We use it to begin Clergy/Warden meetings, and we are more grounded as a result.
This handout also includes:
All that being said, there are endless ways to engage in prayer. The prayerbook defines prayer as: “...responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” 4
It can be as simple as saying a prayer before each meal. While it can be tempting to rush through a familiar prayer without much thought, I would encourage you to pause when you sit down to eat. Notice the beauty of the meal and the many hands that made it possible; appreciate the company you are eating with, or the space you are enjoying your meal. Give thanks with a formal grace or speak from your heart.
All this is to say, prayer is as much about intention as anything else. Being intentional in our prayer life, expressing gratitude for the small things, has a way of connecting us with the divine, creation, and our own sense of self. What matters is not how you pray, but that you find a way to pray each day. Just as you nurture relationships with a spouse, children, parent, friends, or siblings, take the time to nurture your relationship with God.
Maybe you feel called to keep a list of people or concerns that need prayer. I once had a seminary professor, of the American Baptist persuasion, who said in great seriousness ‘If you tell someone you’ll pray for them, then you better remember to actually pray for them.’ It seems silly, but it is so easy for us to assure a friend or loved one we’ll pray for them, maybe offer up a quick word to God, and then lose track of it. If you are interested in keeping this kind of prayer list - it’s easy - find an old notebook or start a list on your phone. If you are interested in praying for others as a part of your ministry with the church, speak to Molly or myself about getting involved with our prayer circle.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a prayer by Chaplain Kate Braestrup. She writes:
What is Prayer?
… Be awake to the Life that is loving you
and sing your prayer, laugh your prayer,
dance your prayer, run
and weep and sweat your prayer,
sleep your prayer, eat your prayer,
paint, sculpt, hammer and read your prayer,
sweep, dig, rake, drive and hoe your prayer,
garden and farm and build and clean your prayer,
wash, iron, vacuum, sew, embroider and pickle your prayer,
compute, touch, bend and fold but never delete
or mutilate your prayer.
Learn and play your prayer,
work and rest your prayer,
fast and feast your prayer,
argue, talk, whisper, listen and shout your prayer,
groan and moan and spit and sneeze your prayer,
swim and hunt and cook your prayer,
digest and become your prayer.
Release and recover your prayer.
Breathe your prayer.
Be your prayer.2
I hope as we depart this week, that we’ll each find a few minutes to reflect on our prayer practice, and one small way we might continue to deepen that practice. Amen.
1 The information in this paragraph is drawn from Marion J. Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, pages: 89-91
2 Braestrup, Kate. Beginner's Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life, Kindle Edition, page 9, 175-176.
3 Brueggemann, Walter. Prayers for a Privileged People
4 The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pg 857
The Daily Office - Resources
Daily Prayer for All Seasons
This is a favorite prayer resource for Heather & Molly. The book offers brief sets of contemporary prayer for eight times during the day for each liturgical season. The themes are: praise, discernment, wisdom, perseverance and renewal, love, forgiveness, trust, and watch. You can purchase this book online, with a local bookseller, or download a free pdf: www.episcopalchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2021/01/daily_prayer_all_seasons_eng_final_pages_0.pdf
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer
We own a great many copies of the prayer book, and are happy to lend them to folks who would like to use them. They are kept in the right hand upper cupboard of the sound cabinet (unlocked). If you need help finding them, speak to the clergy.
A simple, easy to navigate web version of the prayerbook; ideal for desktops: https://www.bcponline.org/
Electronic Common Prayer
A version of the prayer book for smartphones or tablets. Find in most app stores.
Daily Devotions for Individuals and FamiliesThis may be found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pages 136 - 140. It is a simplified version of the daily office. The Daily Prayer for All Seasons resource was seen as an expansion of these five pages.
The Daily Office:
Instructed Morning Prayer Sermon
You can read a sermon given outlining the Morning Prayer liturgy in detail that Rev. Heather gave in the early days of the pandemic. It is available on our website: https://www.saintsjamesandandrew.org/sermons/instructed-morning-prayer
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer
Consider trying out one of these sets of prayers from the daily office. If you want to start with something simple, try saying Compline in the evening. It has some of the most beautiful prayers in the entire prayerbook.
Digital Daily Office with Forward Movement
Forward Movement has put together a simple and fantastic digital format to engage in prayer Morning, Noon, Evening, or Compline. In addition to the liturgies themselves, they include the daily office readings, their forward day by day reflection on the day’s readings, and they even have an option to maintain a daily prayer list that is local to your device. You can also listen to Morning Prayer being led by another person on their site. https://prayer.forwardmovement.org/home/menu
If you are interested in reading the assigned readings for Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, you will want to explore the Daily Lectionary:
Praying With Others
The pandemic has meant that thousands of faith communities have taken their worship online, and you can join other parishes for prayer Morning, Noon, Evening, or Compline. You might check out:
Prayers & Thanksgivings
Be sure to check out Prayers and Thanksgivings, which offers prayers for any occasion under the sun in The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pages 810-841
by The Rev. Ted Thornton
My text this morning comes from our Epistle, The Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, verse 16: “...for he has prepared a city for them.”
And, two chapters later - 13:14 - we read a more extended development of this image, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
A city! According to the author of Hebrews, the Christian dream from the beginning has been an urban one, a community marked by all the features we'd expect from a city: cooperation and interdependence chief among them, and as a Christian city, defined further as a place where its citizens practice loving charity one with another.
Let’s listen to those lines again: “For he has prepared a city for them," and, "here we do not have an enduring city.”
These lines strike my ear at a time when they are especially hard to hear. When Covid struck, and more recently when Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, I, like many of you perhaps, began to feel even more acutely than usual the sense of impermanence that pervades our human existence on this planet: a military attack on a democratic country on top of a potentially deadly virus that just won’t go away, the relentless poisoning of our global biosphere, the senseless loss of life as people armed to the teeth with high tech weapons take life after life in our streets, churches, shopping centers, and homes, political, social, and cultural turmoil and divisiveness in our society, perhaps the worst since the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Yes, at times like these, I often succumb to what the Buddhists call a sense of the extreme impermanence of existence: a penetrating reminder that nothing this side of the grave lasts forever and, sometimes it seems, most of the good things hardly any time at all.
But then into these dark thoughts comes the lovely reminder of God’s promise. Our solace and salvation, Hebrews tells us, is our faith, based on God’s promise in scripture that all of us are in perpetual motion toward a perfect “city that is to come,” however that phrase may translate for each of us. For us Christians, beginning with the author of Hebrews, that city which is to come has been a heavenly version of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem? Jerusalem which to date has been sacked and burned to the ground over and over again by its neighbors near and far? Even the Mongols from far off East Asia raided it. There has been nothing permanent about the earthly Jerusalem to report in our telling of its story. Throughout its long history beginning in the fourth- millennium BC, Jerusalem has been attacked fifty-two times, captured and recaptured forty-four times, besieged twenty-three times, and completely destroyed twice.
Jerusalem? No, not the earthly, finite, transient, and vulnerable Jerusalem of our times. Not that Jerusalem, but "the city that is to come.” What a beautiful vision (if visions are to be trusted)!
Whatever we make of Jerusalem’s often grim history, it is true that cities are the result of relationships, relationships hewn from the trust - the faith - that human beings can cooperate and come together to build healthful, nurturing, and secure communities for the mutual benefit of all.
This morning, I find myself looking back nearly fifty years ago to my years in Divinity School and one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known. His name was Dieter Georgi. Dieter was a German émigré to this country, a minister and New Testament theologian.
But, it wasn’t in college or seminary that Dieter Georgi became a scholar. He became a scholar, he used to say, at the age of fourteen, in 1944 and 1945 as whole swaths of his homeland of Germany were being reduced to rubble in the wake of the Allied advance. Much of that time he remembered spending on the move from bunker to bunker to escape the bombing raids. He was still too young to fully fathom the horror Hitler had been wreaking upon Europe or to be held responsible for any of it. He saw his home town of Frankfurt go up in flames. And, he was in an underground shelter in Dresden when the “firestorm” destroyed that city. These experiences taught him that the essence of life is impermanence, and the essence of faith is what Christian theologians call theologia viatorum: the theology of pilgrims, wayfarers, a people and a theology in perpetual motion, never at rest, always on the move. What this means is that our search for an understanding of God and God’s purpose is never complete this side of the grave. God is never revealed all at once, only by degrees as we journey through life. The best we can do is put ourselves on the path and journey on.
Our atheist friends think we’re fools. They always have. Yes, as Paul tells us in the first century, “we are fools for Christ’s sake (First Corinthians 4:10).”
Whether one is religious or not, the lesson seems to be that nothing stands still and none of us is ever everything we can be; and that, therefore, we should never seek refuge in static dogmas about ourselves, about others, or about this changeable “city” we call our world: no final judgments about anybody or anything. We are never complete; we are never finished products, not on this side of the grave anyway.
Dieter’s experience instilled in him an acute sensitivity to change, a critical capacity for anyone who aims to become a genuine historian or theologian. And, his experience, mediated through his teaching, cemented my own twin loves of history and theology. Dieter was the best teacher of both disciplines I’ve ever known. His principal lesson was that we’re always on the road, always in flux: this is the chief reality of life.
As Heraclitus taught the Greeks, we never step into the same river twice. So, we’d best be humble about any conclusions we’re tempted to draw about one another, and, we’d best nurture a healthy tolerance for ambiguity, a quality, it seems to me, that is in desperately short supply in our world today.
Dieter Georgi’s favorite novelist was William Faulkner, who, he used to say without a trace of irony, was also in his view America’s greatest theologian. One of his favorite Faulkner novels was The Reivers. Like many great novels, the story is about a journey, this one to Memphis in a stolen (or “reived”) automobile. There are many hilarious misadventures on this journey.
Along the way, the car gets traded for a racehorse who, it turns out, always comes in last because he likes to look at the other horses. His owners finally get him to win by slipping him one of the more innovative performance enhancing drugs out there: administered on the sly, of course, and rumored to be a sardine. The story is a metaphor for life as movement, life as surprise, life as a joyride, a joyride none of us asked to be put on and for which none of us has full permission.
Faulkner’s metaphor of life as a journey from one state of impermanence into another is a good fit for all our readings this morning. Notice that in our reading from Genesis when God promises Abraham an eternal line of descendants, the promise does not include what might happen to those descendants along their way through history. It doesn’t include what they will suffer, what adversities they will endure, only that the line of descendents will persevere; it will endure.
And maybe that’s the point: to persevere, to endure. The late Harvard University Chaplain Rev. Peter Gomes used to say that the most fundamental truth is perseverance in the face of human folly.
Implicit in Jesus’ warning in our reading from the gospels today - to be watchful, to be alert - is the discipline of perseverance. To me perseverance is best summed up in our frequent advice to one another to “hang in there,” to endure and in watching out for the return of the master to prepare ourselves to welcome the promised kingdom, God’s new and lasting reality, again, "the city that is to come.”
Jesus’ call for us to be alert, or, literally in the original Greek, to be watchful for the return of the master doesn’t contain a foretelling of what might happen to us while we wait, watch, and remain on alert through our years walking this earth. There is nevertheless a great blessing attached to being watchful. The Greek word Luke uses in 12:37 we translate as “watching” (or being alert) is the present participle γρηγοροῦντας (do you know any males named “Gregory?” They’re the “watchful ones”).
Jesus says, “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes.” More importantly, in asking us to be watchful for the return of “the master,” Jesus is asking us to be alert for signs that God is already at work in our worldly, our secular cities.
Another of my old teachers (still alive at the age of 93) is Harvey Cox, most famous for his 1965 best seller, The Secular City. That title and an insufficiently incomplete reading of the book led many to associate Cox with the “God is Dead!” movement of those times as people started looking for ways for us to carry on without God. Cox, who is an American Baptist minister as well as a theologian, says his original title was not “The Secular City” but “God and the Secular City.” His publisher thought the longer title wouldn’t sell as many books and insisted on the shorter one. But, it’s the longer one that gets at Cox’s real point: that God has not removed herself from the saeculum, the lifetimes of earthly cities and their citizens, but is already hard at work creating “that city that is to come.”
This coming week do your best to comfort someone, especially someone who appears to be in doubt or seems to be losing faith. Encourage them to be watchful, to be alert, to hang in there: in short, to become good “Gregories.” Encourage them to look for signs of God already at work on that “city that is to come” right here and now in our secular cities where people are working to heal, help, feed, shelter, and sustain others.
We are blessed to have a diversity of preaching voices in our parish. Our guild of preachers is a mixture of lay and clergy. We hope you enjoy the varied voices.
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