Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Kingdom at Hand

Sermon for Dec. 8, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7,18-19; Matthew 3:1-12

Well, that’s quite a Gospel reading!  Here we are, sending cards and decorating trees and buying presents; and here comes John the Baptist, wearing animal skins and eating locusts, crashing our pre-Christmas party.  Prophets are good at that, coming onto the scene with just what folks don’t want to hear.  And, of course, that puts me in the role of standing up here, two and a half weeks from Christmas, and talking about fire and wrath and repentance.  Just call me Fr. Buzz-Kill.  
Well, I want to start this morning with a little history.  If you aren’t a fan of history, hang in there because we’ll then move to a little prophetic witness.  And if you aren’t a fan of prophetic witness, still hang in there because all this will come down to you, in the end.
So, here’s the history:  That first reading we heard, from the prophet Isaiah, comes from the time of the Syro-Ephraimite War in the 730s BCE.  That little-remembered conflict may not mean much to us, but for the people of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, it meant a lot.  Here’s the short version:  Israel and another tiny kingdom decided to ally against the major power of the day, Assyria.  They tried to get the Kingdom of Judah to come along, but Judah declined to kick the Assyrian bear.  In the end, none of the small kingdoms made out well.   Israel was taken over by the Assyrians, who began deporting the conquered people.  Judah, and its capital of Jerusalem, turned into a vassal of Assyria, losing its autonomy.  So, when Isaiah writes about the “stump of Jesse,” he’s acknowledging that the Kingdom of Judah has become next to nothing, just a stump, compared with the glory days of kings David and Solomon. 
But even in this sad situation, Isaiah says, don’t lose hope.  From that stump will spring new growth, a green shoot no one expects from dead wood.  A descendant of King David will arise, and he’ll reign like David, only more so: bringing God’s rule to the people once again, governing with righteousness, bringing justice to poor and powerless people – in fact, ruling so faithfully that God’s peaceable kingdom will arise, the paradise of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the young goat, and a little child leading them all.
OK, here’s some more history.  Fast-forward 700 years, and we find ourselves out in the desert wilderness, near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea.  The Jewish people are still waiting for their faithful king to arise, and the waiting has only gotten harder over the centuries.  At this moment, the Romans are the imperial oppressors du jour, and the people are yearning for freedom and justice and empowerment more than ever.  
Into that world, God raises up our Christmas-party crasher, John the Baptist.  John goes out into the deadest place you can picture and proclaims hope – that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).  Matthew identifies John as the prophet expected for centuries, returning to get people ready for the coming of God’s king, even wearing clothes that harken back to stories about the prophet Elijah.  John and his message are attracting quite a following, with crowds coming out from Jerusalem to hear him rail against their oppressors and to purify themselves through baptism, to make themselves worthy of God’s intervention on their behalf. 
But John isn’t content with haranguing the Romans; he broadens the indictment to include some of the folks in the crowd.  He sees “many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” and he calls them out:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt 3:7).  Now, it helps to know who those folks were.  The Pharisees were legal rigorists, calling people to apply the law of Moses strictly to daily life while missing the point of relationship with God that the law was intended to nurture.  The Sadducees were powerful, aristocratic priests, concerned primarily with position and authority.  Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the religiously privileged and powerful, fighting with each other while failing to lead regular people to love God and others, thereby bringing God’s kingdom to life. 
So, to these privileged and powerful religious leaders, John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:8) and then come back and see me about baptism.  You’ve got bigger trouble ahead than me calling you out in public, John says.  Someone’s coming who will indeed baptize you –purify you – but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He’s coming to separate the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, and guess where you folks in charge will fall?  Good luck, coming out here and going through the motions, John says, because “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12).
John the Baptist, and the prophet Isaiah, and our psalm this morning all call us to righteousness and justice and repentance.  So, it’d be good to understand what these concepts mean on the ground, in our day-to-day lives, because we may not all hear these churchy words the same way. 
For example:  We might hear “righteousness” as being about personal holiness – doing good things and not doing bad things.  But God’s intent is deeper, because righteousness is the orientation of our hearts.  Righteousness means being in right relationship with God – giving God praise and glory, following God’s heart of love, living out the dictum that God is God and we are not. 
Similarly, we might hear “justice” as being about the proper functioning of legal systems.  But God’s intent is deeper, because justice is the outcome of righteousness in the world around us.  As we note in our Baptismal Covenant, justice means honoring the inherent dignity of every human being – sharing opportunity with the poor, hearing the powerless, giving challenging people the respect and love we’d want for ourselves.  
Similarly, we might hear the call to “repent” as a call to be sorry for things we’ve done and left undone.  But God’s intent is deeper, because repentance is the choice to reorient our way, to choose a new and Christlike path, to turn toward righteousness so that justice will roll down from it like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
So, there’s your bit of history and your prophetic call.  I appreciate you hanging in there, because now the rubber meets the road.  Ultimately, neither John the Baptist nor Jesus Christ came to clarify concepts for us.  They came to offer us a choice.  This prophet, and our Savior, each came proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2, 4:17).  Now, that’s not exactly news.  Preachers calling for repentance is not groundbreaking stuff.  But here is some news, and it is good:  Your repentance, your choosing to turn toward righteousness and justice – this isn’t just your personal ticket out of unquenchable fire, though it is that, too.  It’s also where your life finds its meaning.
Let me give you an example, a story we celebrated just last Sunday.  In the Jewell Room after the 10:15 service, we honored the 100th birthday of parishioner Jean Dooley Peterson.  Most of us probably know her as Ann Hyde’s mother, and the two of them sit up here near the front at 10:15.  What you may not know is that Jean Peterson earned a doctorate in psychotherapy and religion, and she worked for years as a family therapist, improving people’s lives and honoring their inherent dignity at every turn.  Several years ago, she decided she wanted to be confirmed, and I got to know her in that process. 
Now, at about the same time, Jean was the first person at St. Andrew’s to challenge us to provide hot lunches to the 150 or so students at our partner school in Maniche, Haiti.  Jean saw the connection between full bellies and minds ready to learn, so she sponsored lunch at the school one day a week.  And that support went on, year after year.
Fast-forward 12 years, and the school has grown to more than 400 students.  As we heard from Kathy Shaffer last Sunday, it’s still open and forming young minds even in the midst of Haiti’s worst political and economic crisis in decades.  And as she turns 100, once again Dr. Jean Peterson has renewed her gift in support of the lunch program at St. Augustin’s School.  Years ago, she made a choice to turn her heart and her life Christ-ward.  In her faithfulness, she became an agent of God’s justice, respecting the dignity of those children by opening doors of opportunity for their futures.  After 12 years, she’s been responsible for more than 75,000 lunches served at our partner school.  Through her witness, the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Of course, the truly amazing thing is that Jean’s story is just one of hundreds in this room.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near through lives of prayer for the well-being of others.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by mentoring children at local schools.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by creating living-wage jobs that lift people out of poverty.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by hiring or renting to people others might write off.  Those choices do not go unnoticed by the One with the winnowing fork in his hand.
Now, I imagine that, for most of us on any given day, we may not feel like we’re particularly vital parts of God’s work of salvation.  In fact, on our more challenging days, we may doubt the holy value of what we have to offer.  But here’s the surprising truth:  God brought the shoot of new life, Jesus the righteous King, out of what seemed the dead stump of the house of King David.  God brings the hope of divine justice to people oppressed by one imperial power after another.  God calls us to turn our hearts and our lives toward righteousness and justice, committing ourselves to follow this king and bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Our stories can mean so much more than we think.  Our choice for repentance and righteousness and justice can change the world, one person at a time. 
And the time to make that choice is now, as we see the Lord coming toward us this Advent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Making Christ's Body Whole

Sermon for Sunday, Nov. 17
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

In the announcements over the past few weeks, you may have noticed a new request about those blue and white cards in the pew racks.  In addition to asking you to share your prayer requests and pastoral concerns, we’re asking you to let us know who’s missing.  I have to admit that I am terrible at noticing who is and isn’t here on a given Sunday.  I have some gifts and skills, but that is not one of them.  So, on those prayer cards, we’re asking you to share who you’ve been missing, so we can check in and follow up.
That’s important because it helps us do better pastoral care, but it also illustrates a theological truth: that the body isn’t whole without each of us.  As the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, just as each of us has a body that “is one and has many members” – hands and feet and eyes and ears – “so it is with Christ. …  You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor 12:1,27).  We, together, make up Christ’s body in this congregation and Christ’s body sent into the world, equipped with the gifts God specifically wants to share with this world God loves, all those gifts empowered by the same Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:11). 
The young man you just heard from, Brandon Kirmer, is a case study.  Without Brandon – without his presence with us these 18 years, without his ability to play a mean tenor sax, without his work as an Eagle Scout, without his service as an acolyte, without his presence in youth ministry, without his heart – our congregation and our world would be so much the poorer.  Right?  And so it is with each of us.  The body of Christ isn’t whole without you.
So, the apostle Paul would have agreed with that statement, but he might have added some attitude: “Yes, you’re part of the body of Christ – so get off your behinds and get to work.”  At least that’s the attitude I hear in the second reading this morning.  Yes, Jesus is coming back, Paul says to the Christians in Thessalonica, but he’s not coming back next week.  So, you can’t just take it easy or, worse, diddle around causing trouble in the church.  You’ve got to do your part, Paul says.  Our actions today matter.  Christ has work to do in this world, now, and you’re an essential part of it.  So, he exhorts the folks there in Thessalonica to keep their noses out of each other’s business and “do their work,” never growing “weary in doing what is right” (3:12,13).  The affliction he sees and names there in Thessalonica is “idleness” (2 Thess 3:6).
Well, if that’s the standard, then we are exceptionally blessed at St. Andrew’s because idleness isn’t exactly a spiritual affliction here.  And when I look around and consider the incredibly faithful work being done by so many of you, it’s enough to make me just stop and say, “Wow.  Thank you.”
For example: We are blessed with exceptional staff doing exceptional ministry, lay and ordained.  They don’t just put in hours but put in hearts and minds and souls for God’s work here.  I have never worked with such a collection of people on a mission.  And just to call out one, the last person who’d want to be called out: Mary Sanders.  Mary is like a juggler who has a new ball thrown at her every day.  And yet, she offers herself with an ethos of self-giving the likes of which I’ve seen maybe one other time in all my working life.
In addition to a great staff, we’re blessed here with hands-on lay leadership.  You know, in some churches, vestries function as a gaggle of critics.  In other, healthier, places, vestries function as a board of directors, and that’s good.  Here, your Vestry functions not just with board responsibility but also as parish ministry council, each member taking ownership of some aspect of our congregation’s life, from children’s ministry, to finance, to discernment, to parish engagement.  And our executive team, the wardens and treasurer – they put in uncounted hours to help realize God’s call to this congregation, that we would change hearts and thereby change the world.  Again, here’s someone who wouldn’t want to be called out but whom I’ll call out anyway – senior warden Melissa Rock, a force of nature in so many ministries here.  I am blessed, like no other priest I know, to have colleagues in collaborative leadership.
And we’re blessed with ministry commissions collaborating with staff and clergy in every facet of life here.  Again, from youth ministry, to outreach, to adult formation – all the work you see going on here, all the groups you find out about as they host coffee hour – all this work is led by people whom God has raised up and empowered and impassioned to care for this parish and to reveal God’s love.
And we’re blessed with people doing the work of the faithful, day to day and week to week.  We have prayer warriors and pastoral-care givers, officially and especially unofficially.  We have hospitality volunteers, and folks serving coffee at HJ’s each morning, and people who tend the gardens.  And we have the people here right now doing liturgy, which means the work of the people – saints of God singing Good News, and serving us Christ’s body, and proclaiming God’s Word, and greeting folks as they come in, and leading us in prayer.  As beautiful and holy as it is to enter into the courts of the Lord here, our worship is no spectator sport.  Everyone in the room is part of God’s people called to come together, in common prayer, to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
And, we are blessed with people who give financially to make everything I’ve named possible.  There is no such thing as “just” giving money in support of God’s work.  The apostle Paul named it specifically in his list of spiritual gifts, listing “the giver” right up there with the minister, and the prophet, and the teacher, and the preacher, and the leader, and the one who loves others with deep compassion (Romans 12:6-7). 
So, clearly, with all these amazing people doing all these amazing things, we are not afflicted with idleness.  And – not “but” but “and” – here’s another holy truth to hold up alongside that: Jesus needs you to make his body complete.  None of us has all the gifts that Christ’s body needs, but each of us has some of them.  And offering all those gifts begins in the same place: in prayer, in the commitment of ourselves to take a next step, each day, in the process of discovering joy in our journey of discipleship.  Every day, each of us can offer to God the gift I think God wants first and foremost, which is simply a conversation.  I promise you that as you reach out to God, God will reach back to you.  And that giving and receiving of connection is the spark for every other way God longs to come alongside you, to partner with you, to collaborate with you, in making your life and this world reveal love just that much more.
We’re a week away from the conclusion of our stewardship season.  Next Sunday is St. Andrew’s Sunday; and in addition to wearing tartan, and hearing bagpipes, and singing our St. Andrew’s hymn, and everything else on that wonderful day, we’ll gather our pledges of giving for 2020, and we’ll bless them here on God’s altar.  Those pledges are sacraments, outward and visible signs of your connection with God and outward and visible signs of the Body of Christ alive and well and changing lives here. 
Our goal is that every household will make a pledge.  I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.  If you already have made a pledge, thank you so much for that.  If you haven’t yet, let me ask you please to do so.  Like I always say, the amount of money you pledge is not the point.  I would absolutely love for us to receive hundreds of new pledges to give $1 in 2020.  The point is not the amount.  The point is your commitment.  The point is the outward and visible “yes.”  The point is the unbelievable, even shocking, truth that God desires every last one of us to offer precisely what we’ve been equipped to offer, warts and all.  The point is this: that Christ’s body isn’t whole without you.
So, I’m tempted to ask you to chant that together.  But I imagine many of you probably would react to that like I would, muttering it dutifully while resenting being asked to say something out loud when you’re not sure how you really feel about it.  So, let me invite you to do something else instead. 
In a few minutes, we’ll come forward for Communion.  You’ll come here to God’s altar or there to a standing station, and members of your parish family will serve you bread and wine.  But, of course, we’d say it’s not just bread and wine that we receive because Jesus is really, fully present in that bread and wine, and in the assembly of all of us gathered here.  When we come to the Table, we receive nothing less than the Body of Christ empowering us to be nothing less than the Body of Christ.  As St. Augustine said about the consecrated bread and wine, “Be what you see; receive what you are.”1  So, here’s my invitation:  When you come forward and put out your hands to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, pray this stunning truth:  “Christ’s body isn’t whole without me.” 
And then – when our worship is over and our service begins – go out and live that way.

1.       “Augustine on the nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist: Sermon 272, Latin text with English translation.” Available at:  Accessed Nov. 15, 2019.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Stepping Into Sainthood

Sermon for All Saints' Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019
Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

We’re celebrating the feast of All Saints this morning.  And I think that raises a question that often comes without a good, clear answer:  What does it take to be a saint?  What gets you into the club of that cloud of witnesses we remember today?
I hope to be able to give you an answer to that question.  But first, I want to share with you the story of a saint you’ve probably never heard of, unless you come to the Friday noon Eucharist and his feast day happened to come up.  This saint’s name is Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, and his feast day was a couple of weeks ago.1  
He was born in Lithuania in 1836 and grew up a devout Jew.  As a young man, he moved to Germany to study to be a rabbi, but he found Christianity instead.  At 23, he left Europe and came to America, intending to be a Presbyterian minister.  Instead, his journey took him to the Episcopal Church.  He went to seminary, and as soon as he was ordained, Schereschewsky heard God calling him to move again.  This was the mid-19th century, a time of witness and evangelization in Asia for the Episcopal Church; so Schereschewsky set out for China, learning Mandarin while he was on the ship.  Once in China, in addition to serving as a priest, he translated parts of the Bible and the Prayer Book into Mandarin.  Eventually, in 1877, he became bishop of Shanghai but also began translating the Bible into another Chinese language, Wenli.  He kept going until Parkinson’s disease forced him to resign as bishop, but even then he didn’t retire.  Instead, though limited in his movement, he spent the next 20-plus years translating Scripture into Wenli, typing 2,000 pages with one finger of his disabled hand.
Yeah, that sounds like the story of a saint.  But I’d invite you to hear it as something other than a story of holy accomplishments.  When we think about what it takes to be a saint, we usually start listing achievements or miracles or acts of service, as if sainthood came from earning enough points on a scorecard.  Instead, think about this aspect of the story of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky:  He never stopped moving.  Certainly, his travels bear that out, but so does his spiritual journey.  Even when he couldn’t move physically, he never stopped moving forward toward a life with God at its center.
That’s what I think it takes to be a saint: choosing a journey of transformation, a journey of heavenly intent.
Actually, I would say that a journey is also a good way of understanding God’s promise to the saints, the promise of eternal life.  Again, we often think of that in terms of achievement – getting to heaven, where presumably the journey stops.  You’ve probably heard me say this before, but I think it makes more sense to see eternal life as a work in progress, a story in three chapters.  And, by the way, you can see each of these stages in that great hymn we’re singing this morning, “For All the Saints” (Hymnal 1982, 287)
Chapter 1 is now, as we live in the kingdom of heaven that’s among us, as Jesus said; and we see it in those moments of blessing when we’re able to transcend ourselves and live out the call we heard in today’s Gospel reading – what the Greeks called kenosis, the call to empty ourselves.  What’s that look like?  Well, Jesus said, love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  If someone strikes your cheek, give them the other cheek.  If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt, too.  Give to everyone who begs from you.  In a nutshell, do to others as you would have them do to you.  Eternal life, Chapter 1, is all about the blessedness of giving ourselves away.
Chapter 2 is what we usually imagine as heaven – the paradise of blessed rest.  It’s the stage of eternal life we see in that glorious window in the columbarium, appropriately with saints at rest all around it.  As the window says, it’s a stage of deep thanksgiving, with the peace of God ruling in our hearts.  Sounds pretty good to me.
But even that’s not the end, for there is no end to this story, just the next chapter.  Chapter 3 is our real hope, the fullness of joy, the end time that’s not an ending – when God brings earth and heaven back into the unity God intended in the beginning, with all of us saints rising into life and relationship richer and more rewarding than we ever knew possible.  That’s the life that goes on, the journey that literally never ends.
We start off on that journey toward heavenly transformation right here in this pool of baptismal water.  Though the pool is small, its power is vast.  As we’ll pray in a few minutes: In it, we are buried with Christ in his death.  “By it, we share in his resurrection.  Through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 306).  And when we take these steps of dying and rising again, we’re marked with the sign of the cross, in oil blessed through ancient apostolic prayers, to help us remember what we heard in the reading from Ephesians: that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  In ancient times, a ruler marked his seal on what belonged to him, what received his protection and shared in his power.  And so it is with us.  We are we sealed by the Holy Spirit as a pledge of our inheritance as the people who belong to God, the saints in light.
After those first few steps through this water of baptism, for the rest of our days, God yearns for us to keep moving along a journey of joy.  If that sounds familiar, it should – it’s the theme of this year’s stewardship season, “discovering joy in the journey.”  I believe that’s actually God’s longing for us: that we would keep moving toward heavenly transformation, not because it adds points to our scorecard or because God can’t do holy work without us, but because it delights God to see us coming closer, just as it delights a parent when your child runs into your arms.
Well, if we saints are on a journey, then we probably need a map – maybe even an app to download onto our hearts so we can see where our blue dot is right now, compared with our heavenly destination.  You can map a journey from many different perspectives, but I like the one that guides the spiritual assessment we’re making right now as a congregation.  So, this is my shameless plug, where I ask you to take the Spiritual Life Inventory.  There’s a link to it in the e-newsletter you received yesterday; you can find it through our website; and there are paper copies in the entryway.  This inventory will help us find where we are on our collective spiritual journey and – more important – how we can serve you better as you take your own heavenly path. 
It’s a journey that starts with exploration – exploring a life with God – and moves through stages of growing that relationship, and deepening that relationship, and eventually finding that our life has God at its center, the focal point of all our work and relationships.  If the journey of a saint takes those four stages – exploring, growing, deepening, and centering yourself in relationship with God – then St. Andrew’s needs to be guiding people intentionally along the path through those four stages.  That’s what this assessment process will help us build – our capacity to be the map, or app, that helps you chart your heavenly course.  So, please, take the assessment and help us serve you better.
So, if the journey of a saint takes those four stages – exploring, growing, deepening, and centering yourself in relationship with God – then where are you?  That will be the next spiritual inventory we’ll offer, in the new year, when you’ll get the opportunity to learn where you yourself stand in your journey.  But even at a gut level, without looking at a personalized map, I’ll bet you have a pretty fair sense of where you are.  Are you exploring a life with God?  Or growing a life with God?  Or deepening in life with God?  Or living with God at your center? 
Wherever you are, if you’re leaning into the call, you’re a saint.  Now, your saintly journey doesn’t have to merit a special day on the calendar.  You don’t have to travel from Lithuania to Shanghai, or from being Jewish to Presbyterian to Episcopalian.  You don’t have to translate the Bible into different languages or type it out with only one finger.  You just have to take a step. 
So, what’s yours?  If you find God in prayer with others, we’ve got Morning Prayer at HJ’s three times a week and contemplative prayer on Thursday evenings.  If you find Jesus especially present in the Eucharist, try out the 45-minute service on Fridays at noon.  If you find God in serving others, you’ll see opportunities in the bulletin every week.  If you find God in study and conversation, we have more than a dozen classes and groups, from Bible and book studies, to the aptly-named “Christian Journey,” to groups of married couples, to the Back Porch Alliance.  And, if you find alone – on a walk, or reading Scripture, or over a cup of coffee – it only takes setting aside a few minutes a day.  Wherever you find God, if you’d like to talk about what’s next for you, Mtr. Anne or Fr. Jeff or Deacon Bruce or Jean Long or I would love to help you discern what that may be.
Whatever it is – just take a step.  Aspiring to sainthood is simply leaning forward and running into the arms of the God who loves you more than you can imagine … at least more than you can imagine so far. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

Satisfaction or Joy?

Sermon for Oct. 20, 2019
Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, transferred, and beginning of stewardship season
Matthew 11:25-30

First of all, I want to thank Bill Aliber for giving us a window into his journey as a person of faith and a member of this church family.  His is quite a tough act to follow,.  How do you compete with the leader of Sinner’s Row?
So, as Bill said, in addition to everything else going on today, we’re starting our annual season of stewardship.  If you’ve been in the Episcopal Church a while, that comes as no surprise.  If it’s fall, you know the church will be asking you to make a pledge of your financial giving for next year.  As former senior warden Steve Rock says, some of us were born with a pledge card in our hands.  In fact, I’m grateful to be able to say that your Vestry members have led the way this year, all of them having made a pledge before the campaign began.
So:  Stewardship definitely involves money and giving money.  But it’s also so much richer than that, theologically.  You can define stewardship all sorts of ways, but I’d say being a steward is basically being God’s manager.  So, stewardship is the faithful, loving management of what God gives us.  And what does God give us?  Well, everything – including our pets, as we remember today.  But also our relationships, our families, our income and wealth, our bodies, our spirits, our planet.  There is no part of our lives that we aren’t called to manage with love, as God’s stewards. 
And, as Bill Aliber’s comments showed, when God asks us to be loving managers of everything we’re given, God doesn’t expect us to get the job right on the first try.  Our call to be stewards is a call to a journey.  And thank God that’s true, because at least for me, I certainly haven’t gotten it “right.”
Some of you may have heard me say this before, but I can remember going to a presentation at our church in Blue Springs one fall Saturday, probably 25 years ago now.  It was billed as a chance to get to know the church and its ministries, and Ann and I were new to the congregation.  The event ended with a plea for pledges of financial support for the church’s coming budget year – and I was angry.  It felt like a bait-and-switch.  And how dare they ask me for money when Ann and I were new members trying to raise two little kids on an editor’s salary? 
But as I sat in my car and stewed about that, I heard a little voice in the back of my head.  It said, “What’s up with the anger?  Why does it push your buttons that they’re asking you to give back to God?”  This is a pattern I’ve finally come to see about myself – that if something really pushes my buttons, it might be God asking me to consider my own stuff.  Whatever I’m pushing back against, that’s probably where God is trying to tug me forward. 
So, long story short, we made a pledge.  Fast-forward 25 years, and we’ve moved to the point of tithing from our net income, giving 10 percent or more.  And the thing is, that journey of loving management of what God gives me – it’s far from over.  This may be more than you want to know, but my physical and spiritual well-being could absolutely use some better management.  Just because I’ve put in a 12-hour day doesn’t mean I’ve earned a cheeseburger, fries, and a glass of wine or two.  Just because I say my prayers in the morning doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be talking with a spiritual director, too.  At this point, taking better care of myself is what God’s putting on this steward’s to-do list.
That’s not just the gospel of personal care, which sometimes gets in the way of the real one.  The holy irony is that God blesses us with an unlikely journey – a journey of what can seem like downward mobility, a journey away from the goal of personal satisfaction but one that actually brings us up into the last things we’d expect to find – peace and joy.  As Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “Come to me, all you that are weary … and I will give you rest….  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28,30).
Well, celebrating the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (even if it is two weeks late) is the perfect time to reflect on this journey away from personal satisfaction and into joy instead.  You may know some of St. Francis’ story, but there’s a lot more to it than talking to the animals.1 
He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Italy, born in the late 1100s.  As a young man, he lived into the worst you might expect from the spoiled child of a wealthy family – entitled, wasteful, drunken, arrogant.  Then Francis got the chance to play soldier and go off to war, so he spent a lot of his father’s money to buy a horse and fine armor.  He was taken prisoner, and he spent a year waiting for his father to ransom him.  (It would be interesting to get his father’s take on that….)  Once he was free, Francis went back to his unsavory lifestyle until he got the chance to go play soldier again, this time leaving as a knight for the Fourth Crusade. 
But then, God came knocking.  It seems to be a pattern, doesn’t it? – God knocking on the door of the last person you’d expect.  A day’s ride from Assisi, Francis heard God calling him to turn back home.  It must have been a persuasive moment, because the arrogant man-child did go back home.  He resumed his old lifestyle, but he also kept listening to God, who apparently also kept knocking.  Francis began to see that he’d been taking the wrong road, that the life he was leading was contrary to the call he heard from Jesus in Scripture. 
And one day, Francis encountered what Jesus encountered in last week’s Gospel reading – a leper, a broken, impoverished, smelly man with an awful, contagious skin condition.  The leper was the antithesis of everything Francis valued – fine clothes, fine food, beauty, power, strength, wealth, all that.  But Francis got off his horse and greeted the leper with the kiss of peace.  Contrary to everything he knew, when he greeted that leper, Francis felt not disgust but joy.  And it sent him further along his journey. 
Francis heard God calling him again, asking him to rebuild a broken-down local chapel.  So, Francis took some of his father’s fine cloth and sold it to pay for the repairs.  By this point, his father had had enough; he dragged Francis before the local bishop, demanding that Francis return the money and renounce his rights as heir.  Well, Francis took it one step further.  He shed his fine clothes in the public square, tossed them on the ground, and renounced his connection to his family, acknowledging God as his only Father.  Then Francis left with literally nothing more than a brown cloak to begin a life of wandering service to people he would meet, preaching about loving God and the people around us. 
Before long, others saw Francis’ joy in the freedom he’d found, and they came with him.  Eventually, there were scores of them.  Francis organized his companions’ life around a simple rule of giving away their possessions and taking up the cross daily – serving the people they encountered in acts of self-sacrificing love.  They owned nothing but the joy that comes with the perfect freedom of following Jesus’ teachings.  The story is told that a thief stole the hood of one of the brothers, and Francis made the brother chase after the thief – not to get the hood back but to offer him his cloak as well.  Against all the world’s expectations, this movement caught on, with thousands following Francis’ model.  Eventually, they had to be organized, and the Franciscan monastic order was born.
What does all that mean for us?  Well, you’ll be grateful to know it does not mean we’re supposed to shed our clothes in the public square.  But instead, I do ask you to consider this: Think about St. Francis’ model of committing himself to God’s dreams for the world, purposes that seemed contrary to his own personal satisfaction.  Think about the peace and freedom St. Francis found – as well as the thousands of others who followed in his path, and the great blessing his movement became to the world.  As a steward practicing loving management of all that God gave him, St. Francis didn’t find personal satisfaction in the way his culture taught him.  Instead, he found joy. 
So:  What button is God pushing for you?  What unlikely joy is God trying to tug you into?  And what simple “yes” will bring you one step closer to it?

1.      St. Francis’ story is taken from “St. Francis of Assisi.”  Catholic Online.  Available at:  Accessed Oct. 17, 2019.

Getting Well

Sermon for Oct. 13, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-15c; Luke 17:11-19

It’s good to be back with you.  Ann and I were away for several days to see our kids in New York, which was great.  Then, as soon as we were back in town, I had a two-day diocesan clergy conference to attend. 
And now, I must admit to you a sin:  I typically don’t look forward to diocesan clergy gatherings. 
Why might that be?  Well, some of it is busy-ness, in that I’m always further behind when the conference is over.  Some of it is the complaining that can accompany clergy gatherings, as people vent their frustrations about congregational or diocesan life.  But more than that:  I haven’t looked forward to our clergy gatherings because of the anxiety that always seems to accompany them. 
As most of you know, mainline denominations have been losing attendance and membership for years, and that trend has played out for many of our congregations in West Missouri.  In fact, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Maryville has just closed.  So, when we come together as clergy colleagues, many priests and deacons bring anxiety about a future whose outlines we can’t quite see. 
In addition, over the past few years, we’ve been through a complicated and confusing process of mediation with our bishop.  That came to an end a year ago, when Bishop Marty announced his retirement in 2021.  But that mediation process reflects deeper divisions among our congregations and clergy, conflict that’s been present here for generations. 
So, take all that together, and going to a diocesan clergy conference wasn’t exactly at the top of my list this week.  But, as it turned out, the time there was stunningly good, maybe even marking a turning point in our journey toward health and well-being as a diocese. 
The speaker – a priest, former monk, spiritual director, and author – went to the heart of our anxiety by helping us to see our relationship to it differently.  It comes down to a theme we’ve worked on here at St. Andrew’s for several years now – collaboration with one another, and with God, in creating the future.  God invites us not just to follow orders, or to solve some secret code of discernment, but to join with the Holy Trinity in creating the future God longs to see. 
In fact, the speaker was arguing, God goes so far as to regard us in a way many of us have trouble wrapping our hearts and minds around.  God doesn’t see us as worker bees or foot soldiers in ministry that’s basically looked the same for centuries.  God sees us as friends invited to join in bringing God’s future to life in the particular here and now that we inhabit.  As Jesus said to the disciples in John’s Gospel, while they shared the Last Supper, “I do not call you servants any longer because a servant doesn’t know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends” (15:15).
Understanding ourselves as friends of God and collaborators in bringing about God’s future helped us clergy to see how we might address our persistent conflict and anxiety, the water in which we’ve been swimming for so long that we usually aren’t aware of it.  The way forward for our diocese isn’t sprinkling the fairy dust of the latest church innovation on congregations that are stuck.  It’s the journey of building relationships with each other – we who are co-workers with God, together creating the future of what our Episcopal Church can be in this time and place.  To see and create that future, clergy and congregations will have to engage more intentionally with one another – sharing our experience and hopes and fears, learning from each other, holding each other up, and living out the truth that in the brave new world of a changing Church, we’re all in this together.
All that may be more than you ever wanted to know about the well-being of the diocese of West Missouri.  But I think it matters for us at St. Andrew’s, for a couple of reasons.  First, the diocese is our church, too – our larger church family, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement on the ground in this part of God’s world.  Because of St. Andrew’s leadership position among our 47 congregations, we provide significant time, talent, and treasure for God’s mission in this diocese; so, we’re literally invested in our extended family’s health and well-being.  All that means you need to know when things are challenging – and, even better, when we can see ourselves turning a corner.
But all this matters for us in a deeper sense, too.  Go back to the readings we heard today from Second Kings and from Luke.  Both of them are about healing that nobody saw coming.
First was the story of Naaman, commander of the army of Aram, present-day Syria, which was an enemy of Israel from time to time over the centuries.  Though Naaman was successful and powerful, he was also afflicted with a painful, disfiguring skin condition.  Well, he learns that a prophet in Israel has the power to cure him, but he thinks he’ll have to go through royal channels to authorize it.  Eventually, Namaan comes to the house of the prophet Elisha with great pomp and circumstance, expecting the prophet to perform complicated rituals of divine magic to make his skin condition disappear.  Elisha tells him simply to go wash in the local river, and he’ll be fine.  And Naaman gets mad, thinking he’s being disrespected – but when he follows Elisha’s simple direction, God heals him and brings him into the family.  It’s a great story because it shows God’s desire to bring healing to all – even an outsider, even an enemy of Israel – and it shows that finding God’s healing and wholeness isn’t nearly as complicated as we tend to make it.
Then we have the story of Jesus healing 10 people with leprosy.  Now, as with the story of Naaman, these 10 people don’t particularly deserve to be healed.  But they’ve heard about Jesus’ power and his love, so they take the risk to put themselves out there, coming to Jesus as he passes through and asking for his help. 
The story says the 10 lepers keep their distance from him, observing Jewish law so they wouldn’t make Jesus ritually unclean.  But maybe their distance goes deeper than that.  Maybe they’re keeping their distance from healing itself.  Maybe they don’t even know what to ask for, what the new reality of being healed would even look like, given that they’ve lived for so long with this condition that cuts them off from relationship with their wider community.  Or maybe they’re afraid of being disappointed by asking for too much, afraid of the pain of failure or rejection if Jesus can’t or won’t help them. 
But still, though they keep all that distance, they take the risk to step out and ask Jesus for his help.  And he cures them all, taking away their skin condition, making them ritually clean, and allowing them to join the society that’s excluded them.  That’s pretty amazing, a great blessing. 
But their cure is only the first step in what Jesus wants to give them.  One of the lepers comes back, praising God, and thanking Jesus, and honoring him as the provider of this great gift.  Jesus wonders out loud where the other nine are, why only one of the 10 people he cured came back to say thank you and offer God praise.  Because the thing is, Jesus was just getting started when he cleansed the 10 of them from their leprosy.  The real gift came when the one came back, recognizing God’s life-giving power and aligning himself with it completely.  When this leper comes back – and a Samaritan at that, a mistrusted outsider – when this leper comes back, he’s giving himself fully to God’s desire to work in his life.  He’s giving himself to collaborate in living a future he couldn’t have imagined the day before.  He’s trusting in God, through Jesus, to open the door for him into life made new. 
So, Jesus comes alongside him, not just granting his wish to be free of leprosy but giving him more than he even knew to wish for.  Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19).  Not just made you clean.  Not just made you able to participate in your community and your religious practices.  But your faith has made you well in the deep sense of shalom, the oddly energizing peace and freedom and wholeness that comes to us when we join in with God’s project of blessing, of creating and re-creating, of making all things new.
Being made well may not look the way we imagine it.  For the congregations of our diocese, it won’t look like returning to the glory days of the 1950s and ’60s.  It also probably won’t look like copying the hipster churches with pastors who preach in their skinny jeans, with a Bible in one hand and a latté in the other.  As we’re learning here at St. Andrew’s, we’ll have to experiment, seeing what works and what doesn’t.  We’ll have to trust that we are co-creating the future with our God who dares to trust us, and come alongside us, and work with us as friends.
And, you know, the same truth holds about the future God desires for each one of us.  As you reflect on these stories of unexpected healing, I invite you to give some thought and prayer this week to some questions that might just open your heart to healing and wholeness and delight.  You might ask:  Where is my anxiety?  How am I holding myself back from God’s oddly energizing peace and wholeness, the true wellness God longs for us to know?  What conditions am I putting on God’s desire to bring me healing?  How am I distancing myself from the future God wants to open up – not just for me but with me in blessing to the world?  Am I willing to step out in trust, into a future I can’t quite see, and collaborate with Jesus in being made well?

Friday, September 27, 2019

Divine Comedy

Sermon for Sept. 22, 2019
Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13

We usually hear Jesus’ parables as nice little illustrations that teach us something about the kingdom of heaven.  Think of a famous one: “A sower went out to sow,” and he scatters seeds on different kinds of soil.  Different things happen in three different locations, and each situation clearly stands for something.  Then the ending wraps things up with a nice, tidy bow.  It’s great when storytelling works that way. 
But then, there’s today’s parable about the dishonest manager.  I’d like us to consider hearing this one very differently.  And it’s OK to do that because parables aren’t necessarily tidy little Sunday-school stories.  Like the human experience that Jesus came to inhabit, sometimes parables are messy.  And today’s is maybe the messiest one of all. 
So:  A dishonest manager either wastes or steals from his employer and gets caught.  The dishonest manager tries to cushion the blow of being fired by ingratiating himself with the customers, reducing their bills so they’ll help him out.  And Jesus apparently commends such behavior to the disciples, advising them to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” (Luke 16:9).
Hmmm.  Here’s a secret:  Given what we know about Jesus, that doesn’t make any sense.  I know it’s what the words of the reading say, but it doesn’t make any sense.  
Well, in a situation like this, you can find all sorts of interpretations trying to make it make sense.  Maybe the manager is nobly cutting those bills by the amount of his own commission, in which case the manager is sacrificing his earnings because he’s at fault.  OK.  Or maybe the lesson is broader, about making friends with the powerless, giving to them with no strings attached so that the poor may welcome you into the kingdom of heaven.  Well, OK.  But the truth is, there is no commonly recognized way of making sense of this parable. 
So, let’s look at it from a different angle.  I can’t promise you this is the “right” interpretation because, with parables, the point is that they spur a variety of interpretations.  That’s why biblical interpretation is fun!  No, really….
This is the first of two parables Jesus tells about the dangers of idolizing wealth.  And importantly, this one is an intimate tale, one told not to crowds of thousands but to the disciples, the people closest to Jesus.  So, imagine Jesus telling this story over pizza and beer rather than from a pulpit.  And imagine it’s more a comedic sketch than a lecture on proper behavior.
In this story, the rich man probably isn’t God but probably is just a rich man.  The story isn’t about him anyway; ethically, he’s a neutral character.  The story is about the rich man’s manager, an important servant in his household – sort of like Carson, the butler in Downton Abbey.  But I think the character of this manager is about as far from Carson in Downton Abbey as you can get. 
In fact, this manager is a scoundrel, a talented con man who at least is blessed with self-awareness.  He’s indolent – too weak to work hard and too proud to beg.  So, having been caught skimming money, his solution is to ingratiate himself with the people who owe debts to his boss.  He goes and invites them to join him in committing fraud – it’s in the customers’ interest to save the money, after all.  But he’s actually scamming them as much as he scammed the rich man:  They’ll have to “take care” of the manager once he’s fired because he’ll blackmail them into silence.  As a scam, it’s Hollywood-worthy. 
Well, the rich man finds out what’s going on.  And he’s impressed with the manager’s cunning and the shrewdness of his plot, probably wishing the manager had used those talents to help build his business instead of stealing from him.  
So, there’s the story.  And looking at his friends around the table, Jesus observes that the “children of light” – the good folks, his followers – they aren’t very shrewd in their dealings with the world, letting themselves be taken by folks with a dubious moral compass.  You know, just because you live to serve others doesn’t mean you want them duping you. 
So, I imagine the disciples looking up from their pizza and thinking, “Yeah, but a while back, you told us that if someone takes our shirt, we should give him our coat, too.  So, now you’re saying you want us to be more like the dishonest manager and look out for ourselves?”  As they sit there chewing their pizza, maybe one of the disciples – probably Peter; he was great at sticking his foot in his mouth – maybe one of the disciples asks that question out loud:  “Well, Jesus, is that how you want us to act?  Like the dishonest manager?”  And Jesus looks over his glasses at the poor sap and gets a little snarky, a little sarcastic.  He says, “Yeah, right.  Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it’s gone, those folks will welcome you into the eternal homes.  That sounds like a great plan.” 
If Jesus’ response is holy sarcasm, then what he says next makes better sense as the point of this teaching.  “No, of course not,” Jesus tells his friends.  “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much … and by the same token, whoever is dishonest is a very little is dishonest in much.  If you aren’t faithful with the wealth you have here, why would God trust you with the great treasure of eternal life?  Look, you can’t honor two masters.  You can’t serve God and wealth.”  
That last word is important.  In the Greek text, the word is mammon.  That word goes back to a root that has to do with confidence – where we place our trust.  So, mammon doesn’t just mean wealth; it means wealth in which we place our trust, wealth that functions as an idol for us.  Can you serve God with wealth?  Absolutely, in very holy ways.  Can you worship wealth as your god?  Only at your own risk. 
For us, it’s not very comfortable or comforting when Jesus talks to us this way, but he’s standing firmly in the tradition of the prophets, whom God sent not to comfort the people (at least not off the bat) but to confront them instead.  In our first reading, we hear from Amos, one of the earliest of the Old Testament prophets.  Like most prophets, Amos wasn’t exactly a popular guy.  God called him to bring the word to the leaders of the kingdom of Israel, the northern kingdom, at a time of peace and prosperity, at least for the folks at the top of the ladder.  The people with power, status, and influence were doing just fine, thank you very much – keeping the letter of the law by observing religious festivals and making the Temple offerings the law required.  But at the same time, they were shortchanging their poor customers, and selling worthless merchandise, and profiting from the slave labor that came from people who couldn’t pay their debts. 
Like the teaching Jesus brings us today, Amos’ word indicts the perspective that profit and wealth are themselves the ultimate good, more important than God and God’s command to love our neighbor.  If we demote the Lord and make money our god, Amos says, God will return the favor and bring the kingdom to somebody else.  In Amos’ day, that meant judgment in a very outward and visible way, destroying the kingdom of Israel and sending its leaders and people off into exile.  That’s what’s coming, Amos said.  And just a few decades later, he was proven right.
That’s pretty confrontational stuff, between what Amos and Jesus have to say.  But to the extent the story fits, we have to wear it.  Life offers us many idols, many not-Gods in which we might place our trust.  Mammon is certainly one of them, though it’s not the only one.  Our golden calves might be position and authority, or other people’s perception of us, or being the expert, or simply getting what we want.  But all of these, like money, can lure us into putting something else in the place of God and trusting it instead.  And when we do that, our actions tell the story of where our priority lies.  As the wealthy and powerful of Amos’ day might have put it, “Come on; when will all the God talk be over so we can get back to business?” – because it was their own efforts, their own projects, that they seemed to think would save them.  And that didn’t work out so well.
So, there we have our happy little readings for this Sunday morning.  They’re hard to hear, but maybe we need a little confrontation.  Sometimes we don’t recognize how lost we are until someone hits us upside the head with it. 
But remember that judgment isn’t God’s last word.  Remember what we heard last Sunday:  God goes to great lengths to find the sheep who are lost.  Think about the parable of the prodigal son, which comes immediately before Jesus’ teaching this morning, actually:  God waits very patiently for us children to recognize how we squander what God gives us and honor ourselves instead.  And once we look around at our lives, and shake our heads, and see how far we are from hitting the mark, God welcomes us back with open arms, rejoicing that we finally figured out just how lost we are.  And that very day, life begins again.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Changing God's Mind

Sermon for Sept. 15, 2019
Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Don’t you wonder sometimes why God doesn’t just get fed up with people and walk away? 
I mean, think about human behavior.  For thousands of years, people have been judging each other based on meaningless differences, keeping others away from resources God has provided, and treating each other violently.  
And think about our own behavior.  When I offer Morning Prayer each day, and the time comes for the Confession of Sin, I find myself mostly confessing the same things I confessed the day and the week and the month before.  That may mean that I suffer from a failure of imagination, but I don’t think I’m alone.  Try this thought experiment:  How do you take your own path and turn away from what you know God would prefer?  Bring a few examples to mind.  Got some?  OK, now, if I’d asked you that question last week or last month or last year, would you have given very different answers?  I imagine hearing our confessions must be incredibly boring for God, because the story really doesn’t change much as time goes on.
For the first people of the covenant, the people of Israel, their collective category of sin seems to have been idolatry, in the sense of embracing gods other than Yahweh.  Sometimes those gods looked a lot like our own idols: possessions, privilege, power.  But sometimes those idols looked like, well, idols – as in today’s reading from Exodus. 
Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to receive God’s Law, and we know he’ll be gone 40 days.  But the folks back in the camp, at the foot of the mountain, don’t have any idea what’s happened to Moses.  Maybe they’re just looking for a chance to party, but maybe more than a month of silence has made them wonder whether this Yahweh really was the one who’d brought them out of slavery after all.  Maybe it was the local deity – which is how people understood divinity in that day, different gods reigning over particular geographies.  So, they create a representation of a local god, a golden calf.  Maybe it’s celestial fishing, trying to see whether that god would take the bait.  But for whatever reason, they do what people have been doing forever, which is to put the worries of the moment, and their own self-interest, first.
So, God sees this and goes into a rage.  “What, it’s not enough that I inflicted plagues on your enemies, and freed you from enslavement, and gave you water from a rock, and fed you in the wilderness with the bread of angels?  You want to worship something else instead of me?”  God tells Moses to get out of the way while the Lord brings the hammer down.  “Don’t worry,” God says to Moses, “I’ll just start the covenant over with you once I consume all of them.”  
But Moses says to God, “Wait; hold on a minute.”  And he talks the Almighty out of it.
OK, let’s hit the “pause” button on this story.  Here’s Moses – not exactly a guy with a perfect history, a murderer who turned down his call from God multiple times – here’s Moses interceding for these stiff-necked people who are dancing around the golden calf.  Now, put yourself into this scene.  Imagine that God was speaking as directly to you as to Moses.  And imagine that God was about to bring down judgment on everybody but you.  Would you decide to ally yourself with the people God was about to “consume” in righteous anger (Exodus 32:10).  What was Moses thinking? 
I don’t think Moses was on the side of the rebellious people per se; I think Moses was on the side of the relationship with God that they’d broken.  Once Moses got back down the mountain, he was just as angry with the people as God had been.  It’s not exactly a happy little story that follows today’s reading:  Moses and his supporters kill everybody who’d turned against his leadership, and God sends a plague against the ones who remain alive.  Clearly, there are consequences for turning away from a covenant you make with God.  Because keeping the covenant is job one.
So, back to the story.  Up on the mountain, Moses explains to God why the Almighty’s plan is wrong.  And then comes maybe the only thing more surprising than Moses’ response to God.  It’s God’s response to Moses:  God changes God’s mind. 
OK, hit the “pause” button one more time.  Isn’t God supposed to be omniscient?  At least some Christians would say that God wrote the whole script for existence before the Big Bang ever happened, that God knows all and has worked out everything yet to come.  But here, we see God changing God’s mind.  What’s going on? 
Maybe both for Moses and for God, the answer lies in the importance of honoring commitments.  Moses pledged to God that he would bring the people out of slavery – slavery to Pharaoh and, now, slavery to their own temptation to choose the gods they want.  And well before that, God pledged to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to bless them and their descendants with land and abundance.  God and Moses are both fully aware that the people have failed utterly by substituting their own solutions for God’s.  But in a covenant relationship, you’re not simply pledging to observe the stipulations of the deal.  That’s a contract.  In a covenant, you’re pledging yourself to the other party and committing yourself to walk along together. 
We know a little something about covenants.  Every time we celebrate Eucharist, we remember Jesus’ New Covenant with God’s people, eternal life for all who’ll trust and follow him.  Every time we celebrate baptism, we renew our Baptismal Covenant, pledging to trust in God who is Father, Son, and Spirit; and pledging to live our lives following Jesus, in loving commitment to God and the people around us.  When we get married, we stand before God and make a covenant with our beloved to invest ourselves in that relationship as long as we both shall live.  When we’re ordained, we make a covenant with God and God’s people to live out the trust and responsibility of a new order of ministry.  So, covenants seem to be our pattern of commitment, too.
I think it’s interesting that what God asks of us is not just our worship or our tithes or our following of the rules.  Apparently, what God values most is covenant living – investing ourselves in relationships, with God and one another, even when the other covenant partner doesn’t deserve it. 
Think about how crazy it is that the most influential follower of Jesus in all Christian history is the apostle Paul.  At the start, Paul even beats Moses as the most unlikely hero, not just telling God “no” but “Hell, no!”  In the second reading today, Paul describes himself as “formerly a persecutor, a blasphemer, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13), arresting and killing followers of Jesus because they were breaking the religious rules of the day.  For having co-opted God’s role as judge, Paul was the last person to give us a gospel of grace, of divine love freely given – but that’s precisely how God asked Paul to change his mind. 
Paul didn’t deserve a second chance any more than the people of Israel.  The truth is, neither do we – and our redundant confessions confirm it.  So, here’s the good news: that God chooses love over the highest holiness score.  Remember the Gospel reading today:  Where God works the hardest is with the one who’s lost.  Where God works the hardest is in the areas of our lives that are out of alignment with divine purposes.  Sure, God appreciates all the coins that are properly collected and kept neatly where they’re supposed to be.  And God appreciates the 99 sheep who don’t go off on their own paths.  But what makes God rejoice is when the lost one is found and brought back home.
So, in our own lives, what are the relationships that challenge us the most, the ones we might feel justified in letting go?  Where do we need to consider changing our minds?  Maybe it’s sticking with someone we’d sooner leave behind.  Maybe it’s entertaining the possibility that there might be some truth, maybe even some holiness, in the “other side’s” world view.  Maybe it’s remembering that being in relationship is what makes all people grow into the full stature of Christ – both “them” and “us.” 
When we ask ourselves those hard questions, and when we do the work to strengthen the covenants that challenge us most, we gain the last thing we’d expect – peace.  In the upside-down reality of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, we find that committing ourselves to hard relationships brings counterintuitive joy.  We are blessed with being stuck with people we find hard to love.  We are liberated from judgment when we bind ourselves to God’s grace. 
In those moments when we think we know best, when the world tells us we’re completely within our rights to walk away from the people we’re bound to, or even to punish them for their sins, that’s when God says, “Wait.  Grace beats judgment, even when judgment seems deserved, even when judgment seems righteous.  After all,” God says, “even I changed my mind.”