Category Archives: Sermons

Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost 11-08-20: The Wise and The Foolish Bridesmaids

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We hear another one of Jesus’ parables today. We are told that the kingdom of God is like ten bridesmaids, half of them are wise and half of them are foolish. So the challenge to readers is to determine what it is that makes the wise bridesmaids wise so that we can be like them. The parable is set at the groom’s house. The maidens wait for the groom’s return from the bride’s house where he has gone to gather his bride and bring her to his home. They went out a short ways to escort the new couple in a festive torchlit procession back to their new home. The delay was likely about negotiating the details of the marriage contract and it could take a while. They have torches (or lamps) because they expected that it would stretch past sundown (but not until midnight). So they all get drowsy and fall asleep waiting. So far, the wise and the foolish are the same.

They are only different in one all important detail. The wise five had put in some extra effort into being prepared for the occasion and had brought with them oil to soak the top of the torch in so that it will burn well and long. The foolish did not and only thought about it when at midnight, there was a shout that the Groom was about to arrive. They soon realized that their torches were not going to burn long enough to escort the groom home, they then turn to the five wise women and demand, “Give us some your oil, our torches are going out!” The wise say, “No,” refuse to share, and hurry off to meet the wedding couple.

Now I don’t know about you, but to me it is puzzling why Jesus would applaud the women who refused to share. After all, giving was one of the things Jesus spoke most about. He is the one who taught, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…. Give to everyone who asks from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:40-42). When the rich young ruler came to Jesus, he didn’t say, go and get a good return on your money. He said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). In this case, however, the bridegroom was about to appear. It was too late. There was nothing to be done. Jesus taught in parables not because he enjoyed being vague and unclear, but because he wanted us to discover the truth for ourselves through the kind of insight that only comes when you have put your mind to something to figure it out.

The drowsy unwise bridesmaids, having left such preparation to the very last minute, scramble, run out to buy oil, but by the time they do, they missed the procession; the door to the home was shut. They failed to fulfill their assigned part and they weren’t welcomed at the banquet so much so that the Groom tells them, “I don’t even know you.” It seems kind of harsh, but there may be a reason for that.

Jesus concludes his story saying, “keep awake, be prepared, be like the wise women.” It makes me wonder how they could have gotten this so wrong and what Jesus is warning us against, what kind of “left out” is he trying to save us from by telling us this parable? We don’t really know why the foolish bridesmaids were caught so unprepared. It is tempting to think that they were just lazy, or had a bad case of procrastination, we all, from time to time, don’t start on things we need to do soon enough or have trouble finishing. But they might not have been lazy at all. Maybe they were just frugal, holding back, not wanting to incur an expense they did not need to. The Groom might have arrived earlier, the procession could have been quite short, and there would have been no need for extra oil for the torches. Or maybe they so did not want to get it wrong that they made themselves so anxious that they couldn’t get anything done. That happens. Whatever the reason was, the point of the story is that they held back and missed out on joy. After all, they weren’t just invited to the celebration, they were given a privileged position in the joy. The parable really is about, how not to miss out on joy. And that is something worth knowing.

Probably nothing is more natural to us than joy, but it slips through our fingers all the time. I have sympathy for the well intentioned bridesmaids because what they did and failed to do happens all the time to most of us despite our very best intentions. I grew up in a home that had a lovely full set of china hidden safely away in a cabinet. I was frequently told not to touch it because I might break it (and the truth of the matter is that I did break any number of things as a boy). I barely remember ever eating on it and have very few joy filled memories of it. Just “don’t touch, don’t break!” But, I too, hide away precious things for fear of losing them. Every now and again I come across one of them and realize that it has become outdated by time and not by use. It would have been better if I just wore them out in love than hiding them away and never enjoying them. It’s hard for me to realize that fearfully clinging onto something so tightly is not the best way to keep it. The fear of losing something or someone can inhibit our very living and become itself the road to loss and missing out.

One of the best things about church is that it is often easier to learn something and try something out here than it is in our homes where there is usually more at stake for us. Previous generations have entrusted us here with their treasures and we have here a great safe place to be stewards of that all the while learning together how not to miss out on joy.

For example, All Saints’, like every other business or household in America, has a budget. Ours is a very lean and responsible budget where the exact numbers are public record open for anyone to see. We rely entirely on annual pledging to keep the doors open, gifts from our own parishioners and their families. Pledges go to support the maintenance of our building, clergy and staff service, and another small amount for the ministries of the Diocese of Massachusetts. As we are putting together our 2021 budget, it is an especially challenging time for us financially, because some (but not all), of our faithful supporters have a lot fewer resources during the pandemic. We can–like those drowsy yet foolish bridesmaids–think of the demands of our budget as a problem that we back into because we are worried and just don’t want to mess it up. Or we can look at it like those wise eager bridesmaids as an opportunity for abundant life; a time to give and prepare having faith that joy is to come because of it. That faith, and the expectation that comes from faith, was much of the difference between those running to greet the bridegroom and those caught unprepared because they held back.

Elsewhere Jesus promised, “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38). Many people have learned from Jesus that without generosity, there is only scarcity no matter how much you have. When we feel scarcity, it feels too risky to give, and fear’s grip upon us can get tighter and tighter. Jesus’ invitation to generosity is the invitation not only to give, but to have faith that God can help you, and to live each day with the expectation that good things will happen to you and us. This insight of Jesus applies not just to money, but also to other things such as time and love and learning. “The measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

It wasn’t the case that the well prepared bridesmaids could not share. It was that the very enthusiasm that goes into joyfully preparing for the feast was what the Groom wanted from each of them. The reward of joyful celebration grew out of the anticipation and preparation. The anticipation and preparation were essential to the whole experience. It was for this reason that this was one those things in life that each bridesmaid had to do for herself. This is why the only help the wise could give was to encourage the foolish to do whatever they needed to light each of their own lamps.

I invite you this year over the next couple of weeks to take the risk of pledging to All Saints’ and believing Jesus that if you do, more of what you need the most will come back to you “pressed down, shaken together, and running over.” People often assign numbers and percentages to Jesus’ teaching which can be helpful, but the real point is to be sure to give something and for it to be enough so that you feel it. That means that the amount will vary person to person and year to year and that is perfectly ok, especially during a global pandemic. If you have not pledged to All Saints’ before and your concern is that you may not be able to fulfill your pledge if circumstances change for you, don’t worry, you can just notify us at that time and we’ll adjust. The point is to participate however you can, to get your own lamp burning in its own way, and I hope that every one who values this place will join in as an expression of the ownership you have of this space as your church. The joy of giving is an essential aspect of the good news of Jesus. The real reason we ask everyone to pledge is so that you don’t miss out on the joy that is yours in Christ Jesus.

In this stewardship season, may the Almighty God who not only invites us to live with joy, but is the giver of all good gifts, grant us the faith to give freely, and bless us so thoroughly that we can, again and again, be a blessing to others. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

All Saints Day 11-01-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count.” So says our reading from the book of Revelation. In our religious tradition, there are a few days a year we are expected to set aside whatever drama and worry we may have going on any particular day, in order to be happy together for something that we didn’t earn, but something that has been given us as a great gift. We remember and honor today, the faithful departed. All Saints Day causes us to remember the faithful dead, but more than that, it calls us to celebrate their lives.

What I like most about All Saints Day is that on this day the dead can still cast their vote in the holy democracy that is the church. Their aspirations and dreams and wisdom carry on and in no way are defeated by death, which–despite everything–does not win among us Christians. It is the day to remember those Christians who have gone before us, those who have touched our lives either when they were alive or dead. These people in many ways taught us what we know and gave shape to our world. Although we probably take it all for granted most of the time, our human world is populated with ideas and achievements that they thought up, fought for, and suffered for. It is an almost unthinkable thought, that the vast majority of us live in homes we did not build, were educated in schools that were there before we were ever named, go to hospitals that already existed before we ever knew we needed them, worship in churches that were already here before we ever needed them, and so on and so on. Just how much do we owe the saints of ages past? Who can measure it? Who can say anything but “Thank you.”

It is also a day to remind ourselves of who we are, because sometimes we forget. This is especially needed in 2020 where each day has brought it own crisis, and, all of us, are having trouble remembering who we are not in this crisis. We need something solid, solid like our stone church. I suggest that the building itself has the capacity to remind us of who we are as the descendants of those who built it. Our distinctive stone church has not always been what it appears to be today. In the mid 1950s All Saints’ faced a crisis created by the fact that our town of Chelmsford changed dramatically at that time and All Saints found itself becoming very different than it was in its founding almost a century earlier just after the American Civil War. The construction of modern highways brought Chelmsford within the orbit of the City of Boston and led to rapid growth. The large, unforgettable stone, worship space that we know and love, that you see part of behind me, did not yet exist.

The parish had always met in what we call the chapel. There was an Easter Sunday where they did five services in a row filling the chapel each time even with chairs in the isle. It was not sustainable and they stepped out in faith to design and build a much larger church adjoining the smaller one. Of course, they worried whether or not there would be enough money to build it, they proceeded in faith. In their words, it was to be “a building that is contemporary enough to be intensely relevant for 1961 and coming generations. At the same time, it is [to be] traditional enough, and recaptures enough of the flavor of the present church to be right at home next to it.” Sixty years later, we unanimously agree that they succeeded marvelously. Their faithfulness, courage, and endurance in their crisis was to our great gain as they reinvented All Saints’ Church for a new generation.

Here is the best part! They built it out of stone to match the old, original, church. Where did they get stones to match? What store sells those stones? It has been said that New England “doesn’t kid around; it wears its bones [on the] outside” (John Updike). As any of you who have ever dug into the New England soil and hit hard rock, our feet here rest on granite not on wishy washy mud. Anyone who owns property in New England owns piles of rocks, often piled along the property lines. I once served a parish that had a fairly large colonial cemetery and one of the tombstones was this large oddly shaped stone with the name Sarah Fuller carved into it. When I inquired about it, I was told that Sarah Fuller had insisted that a stone be brought from her own property to be serve as her gravestone. I had never thought of that as an option before, but the moment I heard it, it seemed to me to be a very New England sort of thing to do.

Much like Sarah Fuller, the parishioners of All Saints’ brought stones from their own property to build the new church out of the same local stone the old church was made of. If you have ever moved such stones, you know that they are unwieldy and heavy. The very stones speak the message of what they could accomplish together and the church stands today as a monument to their shared effort where everyone contributed what they could.

That generation could look at the wall behind me and pick out the stones they contributed. We still have some of them with us and it is an excellent longtimer All Saints’ brag to have contributed stones to the church. It is kind of like the way you all are going to brag one day about carrying All Saints’ on your backs at great personal cost through the global pandemic. Some rector of All Saints’ on some future All Saints Day will remind that congregation how this church once pulled together during the global pandemic to keep as many of us as possible alive and preserve our cherished church for future generations.

The constant activity of All Saints’ parish for more than a century and a half has been only for the good. Few things are more spiritual than this material space, this religious space. There is nothing to be cynical about here. We don’t have to choose between the spiritual and the material, but here we see them joined together not in contradiction. Here spiritual yearning expands into material space for the benefit of all. That is a great gift. That is something to celebrate. And that is something that is worth handing on to future generations in the same way it was given to us.

The name of our parish testifies to that Spirit of cooperation and togetherness. Most churches are named after this saint or that one. More churches than any other around the world at their founding choose St. Mary as their patron Saint. We Anglicans are particularly fond of St. Paul, but we also have our St. Peter’s, our St. Luke’s, our St. John’s, our St. Andrew’s, our St. Thomas’s. I imagine the long ago founders of our parish debating which saint would be the patron saint of our parish. Who was it that first suggested, can’t we have all of them? Couldn’t we invoke for our inspiration and protection all the saints and have an All Saints’ Church? We still do not pick and choose. We were for that “all” in past crises and we are for that “all” in the current ones. We have all the saints at our side and in the Spirit of All Saints’ we continue to ask everyone to bring your stone to our church and together it will amount to something far greater than what we would otherwise achieve alone.

Today’s reading from the book of Revelation describes, “a great multitude of saints that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” We are told that they all cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne.” All Saints Day is about learning what God did through them when they gave all they had, and what God can do through us even in our current suffering. It is a day celebrating how generation after generation has discovered for itself value and meaning surpassing anything available by their own efforts and resources. At the limits of the human experience and their own efforts, they found that that was not all there is. They were not hopeless or alone.

As we think of all the Saints of God, let us be truly grateful for what they sacrificed so that we could be here today, and may our faith be renewed, our resolve strengthened, and our feet be placed on solid rock, as the God who has been faithful to each generation forms in us the expectation that the good news of Christ will carry us through our current troubles, both now and forever more. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost 10-25-20: Which is the Greatest Commandment?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are told in the gospel reading that a lawyer approached Jesus to ask him a question. Now lawyers were often well educated in matters concerning the Jewish law. He asked Jesus, of the commandments which one is the greatest of all? This was no easy question because the Jewish law is said to speak of some six hundred thirteen commandments. He asks Jesus out of all these commandments that we have been given, laws that we are told that we should keep, which one is the most important? Continue reading

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost 10-18-20: Saving Politics from Politics

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In our Gospel reading this morning, we are told that religious leaders set a trap for Jesus, and yes, even Jesus had a small group of people that were out to bring him down. As the crowds gathered around Jesus in the usual way, their delegates approached Jesus with loads of flattery and then asked him an apparently straightforward question, “Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22:17). Why was that a trap? It is because there are only two answers, “yes” or “no”, and either one of them were likely to get Jesus killed. Continue reading

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost 10-11-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We had one of the harder weeks of the pandemic this week, and that is really saying something at this point. The losses continue to mount and the necessary isolation makes them all so much harder to bear. We are in this together, but it does not always feel like it without the personal togetherness, the handshakes, the hugs, and a hundred other small, kind, gestures that we usually rely on far more than we knew we did. I don’t get to talk to nearly as many of you week by week as I would like to, but I am hearing that a lot of us are feeling this heavy cloud these days. It doesn’t help that the days keep getting shorter, darker, and a bit colder. Continue reading

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-27-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the beginning of the pandemic, six months ago now, we had a reading from the prophet Ezekiel. I remember ruminating on it because it is such a sad, heartbreaking book. It’s a book, of faith and hope though, nevertheless. It is a book for 2020. It rarely appears in our readings so I was surprised this week to see it again. It must be worth paying attention to. Continue reading

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-20-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We meet up with Jonah at the end of the book this morning and not at the more famous beginning where–running from God–he hurls himself off a boat at sea and is swallowed by a sea monster. After all that, God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah replied, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Jonah was angry at the bush, really angry. To be fair, Jonah had had a really long week. The bush withering and letting him down was just one things too many. He had hit his limit. It is tempting to judge Jonah here and laugh at this comic scene of the man coming completely undone by a bush. Isn’t it? But in 2020 a lot of us have had days that are just one thing too many. There has just been too much disappointment and loss, already. The story of Jonah has had something to say generation after generation and 2020 is no different. From the earliest Christian centuries, we find ancient pictures of Jonah, see here is Jonah on the boat, Jonah being eaten by the sea monster (always drawn more like a dragon than a whale because their knowledge of whales wasn’t great), and Jonah sheltering under his bush.

Jonah was really upset because he had in his mind a pretty clear idea about the way things ought to happen. Ninevah was the capital city of the ancient Assyrian Empire. Ninevah was one of the first cities that realized it had the power of enslaving all of its neighbors simply by having the most powerful army. Jonah happened to be one of those neighboring peoples forcibly subjugated to this empire. Out of his deep faith in God, Jonah believed Justice would prevail and really wanted to live long enough to see Ninevah finally get what it deserved. He was waiting for the reckoning. Jonah is one of the good guys and a much-heralded prophet according to the Bible.

Jonah’s real problem was that God didn’t agree with Jonah’s plan, no matter how good it was. As the Bible tells its readers all the time, in the words of the Jonah’s fellow prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8). Jonah was angry at the bush, but he was really disappointed and sad that God had failed to punish the Ninevites according to Jonah’s notion of what is right and wrong. As Jonah complained to God, Jonah explained how much he did not want to give the citizens of Ninevah even the opportunity to change their ways. He said, “I fled [because] … I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” It’s a hard story for any of us that happen to be too attached to what we think should happen in the world.

For those of us who really want our ways to be God’s ways and our thoughts to be God’s thoughts. Anger–like Jonah felt –is such a powerful emotion, that much of the time we don’t realize that it is really a kind of substitute emotion, or a kind of stand-in for something else that is underneath it that we don’t have to feel if we are angry enough. Usually, anger, in its own destructive and primitive way, is doing its best to protect us from disappointment, powerlessness, or sadness. Anger may protect us temporarily, but it doesn’t heal us.

Jesus may well have been thinking of Jonah when he tells the story of the landowner who early in the morning agrees to pay a group of workers a certain amount to work in his vineyard all day. A few hours later, he hires more workers to work the remainder of the day. He does the same again a few hours later and finally, with just about an hour left in the workday, he hires yet another group to work the final hour. At the end of the day, the landowner pays every worker the same amount, the amount that those who started earliest in the morning had agreed to. Of course, those who worked the longest cried unfair and were no longer happy with the amount they had earlier thought was just about right. Jesus’ landowner responds saying, “I chose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” “Are you envious because I am generous?” Like Jonah, I’m sure they answered, “Yes.” And they had good reason to be angry. They worked from sun up to sun down and didn’t get any more than the ones that just worked the last hour.

Jesus’ landowner doesn’t feel obligated to explain anything. It could be that like most small business owners, he didn’t want to spend more than he had to, but needed to hire workers because the fruit needed to be harvested before it went bad. And as the day went on, it wasn’t clear that the job was going to get done, so it became worth it to pay whatever it took to get the fruit harvested, especially when they were still working that last hour. I can see the landowner– as that last hour approached–deciding to overpay because that was the only way to get the job done. But that explanation wouldn’t have helped those who labored all day.

“Unfair” is so powerful and feels so bad. It feels bad when we’re children on the playground, or when we’re adults in the workplace, or sitting next to Jonah, doing all the right things, while watching evil doers seemingly go unpunished, or not be able to hold our annual September “welcome back” picnic last Sunday at the church in the sunshine with the children running around giggling for no fault of our own. And God says, “Paul, you’re not angry about all that, are you?” It feels not fair.

There is the “unfair” we feel from other people’s action or inaction, but Jonah and Jesus’ parable are not really talking about that. The “unfair” they are talking about is–like nearly all the stories in the Bible–about God. They are talking about when you get past everything else that might be bothering you, and you get to the very Source of the universe, you get to the heart of the matter, and Jesus says there, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

It is good Jonah at the end of the book, really angry staring down his God, knowing that God was going to do whatever God was going to do. After three days in the belly of the sea monster, and more time in Ninevah with people he hated, and finally, alone hiding under a bush that feels like his only shelter from the bad mean world, the bush withers suddenly, and he is completely exposed and left with nothing but God. As readers, we travel so far with him and then we’re never told what he decides to do. Who does he decide to be? In the same way, Jesus doesn’t tell us what the disgruntled workers do when it’s time to show up for work again the next day? Of course, we’re not told, because both the stories are not about them. They are about us and the fundamental decision we make, over and over again, about who we are, in the world we have, in relationship to the Source of all of it, the God that is ultimately bigger than every one of our understandings (the understandings that we are so attached to, but are no more permanent than Jonah’s bush).

Jesus and Jonah offer us a connection to life that isn’t constrained by our constant need to explain everything and put everything in boxes labeled “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.” At the end of his unhappy week, Jonah may well have laughed not knowing why, and put one foot in front of the other, not alone, but in the company of a God he didn’t understand at all. Because he finally saw that God was God and he was not, and that that is a perfectly fine way to make one’s way in a world where most things are beyond our control. He may well have felt a bit lighter, unburdened by the weight of his own convictions about the way things ought to be.

So may the God who always surpasses all our efforts to understand, who alone laid the foundation of the earth, whose wisdom far exceeds even our most thoughtful notions of justice and fairness, liberate us from the burden of our own thoughts, free us from all anger, and make us inwardly strong and able to face the challenges yet to come. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-13-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The pandemic has not only threatened our physical health. It has taken away from us things that were essential to maintaining our mental and spiritual health. One of those things is what the Book of Common Prayer calls, “the principal act of Christian worship” (BCP p. 13), that is, Holy Communion. We have so far faced the pandemic without it. We have been fasting from Holy Communion because the very communion we experience risks spreading the virus. This fast has been a testimony of the love we have for one another. Jesus has been present with us these months in new and interesting ways.

That being said, there has been no more dramatic change in our worship life than displacing the central act of Christian worship. I know many of you miss it like you miss life sustaining food. We have been weaker without it. We have been weaker when we need to be strong. It has bothered me a lot.

Like many things though, we have discovered we can accomplish most of what we need to during this pandemic if we pull together, use our collective intelligence, skills, and imagination, to find a new way forward. Today, therefore, is our first Holy Communion service in six months. We’ve done it without changing any of our cherished norms governing the sacred. Many of you know that under normal circumstances, Holy Communion is brought from the church with great care and reverence to those who–due to illness, age, or circumstances–could not be present to receive it. It’s an ancient practice that goes back to the earliest centuries. Christians in prison awaiting martyrdom would receive Holy Communion from visitors. Churches would send the consecrated elements to others churches affirming the communion they had with each other. What we have done today is send communion out to the whole congregation because we are all in need and can’t participate in the ordinary gathering. If you have one of these bags it itself is a sign of your communion with us and God. If you don’t have one and are within driving distance of Chelmsford, look for the next sign-up and sign-up!

It is my hope that the restoration of Holy Communion to our shared life will be a source of strength and spiritual power. It always has been and will again be as we, starting today, chart a new path. Since it has been absent for half a year, it is worth spending a few minutes reminding ourselves what it is. It is the central act of Christian worship because it is charged with meaning. It has layers of meaning that are all true at the same time. We don’t always talk about all the layers. There is no way we could, but it is a profound sacred act instituted by Jesus himself to be frequently repeated by his followers to nourish their souls and guide their growth.

We talk most about the most obvious, outward, and elementary aspect of Holy Communion (as we should). That is, that it is shared around a table. Of course, outside the church we are all very different people. We disagree about many things as people do. But when we gather here at this table, those differences are overcome, as we eat the same food together. As Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). In 2020, where American divisions are so deep that we as a country are having great difficulty pulling together to defeat this virus, it is so hard for us to set aside our differences even in the face of death, the most obvious and outward meaning of Holy Communion could not be more relevant. Listen to a sentence from the earliest Eucharistic Prayer that we have that is not in the New Testament. It is likely more than 1,900 years old now and it instructs the priest to say, “As this fragment of bread was scattered upon the mountains [as grain] and was gathered to become one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom” (Didache 8:4). If a message of gathering and uniting what is otherwise scattered and divided is appealing to you, this is an act of worship for you. We need it and we need it badly.

The spiritual resources of Holy Communion, though, are way more than that. You likely have noticed that the table we gather around is also called an altar (that is the place of ritual sacrifice, eek!). And here’s where it gets really serious, but at this point in 2020 it is time to be serious. Is it a table or an altar that we gather around? It’s both at the same time. Who made the friendly meal table into an altar of sacrifice you ask? Jesus himself did. He did when he gathered with his closest disciples and took the bread in hand and said “This is my body given and offered up for you.” He took the wine and said, “This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Tables don’t have bodies and bloodshed. Altars do. Why would Jesus transform the table into an altar?

He was thinking of a very identifiable Old Testament story. There we are told about a lamb without spot or blemish whose blood is shed so that everyone else may live (Exodus 12:1-14). Its blood was to be spread on the doorposts and then it was to be eaten by those safe inside the house. When Jesus read that story, he said, “That is me. I am the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The night before he was crucified Jesus told his followers to commemorate him with a meal with bread and wine that they understood to be his body given for them and his blood shed for them. Like that ancient Passover lamb, Jesus became the sacrificial offering. He voluntary took upon himself the guilt, pain, or suffering of all. In this way, his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins.

You might ask of both stories, of Exodus and Jesus, why does there need to be any sacrifice at all? Couldn’t God just forgive everybody? After all, if you are really omnipotent and good, it should be within your power to forgive without the shedding of blood (I told you we were getting serious!). Of course, God could just forgive everybody, give out grace on the cheap like Mardi Gras beads. If that were the case, what about the victims? What about any sense of justice? Would there be any meaningful moral order in the universe if God shredded it with pardons?

God honored and upheld the moral fabric of the universe by becoming the sacrifice himself. Without ceasing to be who he is eternally, he suffered what justice demanded for wrongs past, present, and future. The ark of the universe bends toward justice only because the Creator chose to uphold the demands of justice at unfathomable personal cost.

We return again and again to that table that becomes an altar. Any and all of us who have ever been victims, any of us who have suffered at the hands of another, see none of that as overlooked, undervalued, or set aside. The blood sacrifice is to be offered. Any and all of us who have victimized, who have wronged another, identify with those who crucified our Lord, and voluntarily relive the guilt and the crime and hear then Jesus say what he said on his own cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Grace is offered there, but requires a lifelong returning and returning again and again to the altar confessing and being forgiven. This grace is not cheap. Its precious. It is nothing less than the renewal of a moral order that loses all credibility apart from our devotion to it. I kneel before this altar seeing my incapacity (and our social incapacity), but also get to see that incapacity overcome by God for me and for us. Forgiveness is not the elimination of our responsibility for our own choices but is its elevation and healing. Thanks be to God. Those wronged and those who have wronged gather before the same altar forgiving and being forgiven, again and again. The central act of Christian worship is powerful stuff.

Peter asks Jesus in today’s Gospel, “Lord if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? Once, twice, or “as many as seven times?” Oh Peter, Peter, it is time to lift your heart, and understand mysteries exceeding your elementary counting. There is a forgiveness more powerful than you know to be offered wherever 2 or 3 will gather in the name of the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

We welcome Holy Communion back with joy and awe! It is also called “The Great Thanksgiving” (or Eucharist in Greek) for a reason. We are thankful. There are furthers layers of its power and mystery that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, may the God whose goodness upholds the moral fabric of the universe yet wonderfully is also the source of both justice and mercy, give us the power to forgive ourselves and other people of the wrongs we have done and the sins we have unjustly suffered, so that we might be worthy followers of Christ, who on his own cross prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him, and now lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-6-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus gets really personal today. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…. if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” The Epistle of James echoes Jesus’ admonition from the other side of the relationship, from the perspective of the one confronted. James says, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed (5:16).” Jesus talks about this sort of relationship conflict because well … it isn’t something any of us wants to talk about. People, including me, don’t tend to look forward to conversations about how their behavior may have harmed another person. Few of us ever want to say, “Yes, let’s talk about how I’ve hurt you.”

In fact, many of us have developed elaborate techniques to avoid having that conversation. James says simply, “Confess your sins to one another.” He doesn’t suggest that if you explain in great detail how you only had the best of intentions, and didn’t mean to hurt anyone, maybe you’re not to blame. Or, there is a much more difficult maneuver. It is expert level, but quite possible to achieve. You can withdraw and act so hurt that the accusation was ever brought up in the first place, that the whole situation gets turned around so that the person who initiated the conversation is the one who ends up apologizing. I’m not going to continue down that road, but I don’t think I am wrong that human beings tend to rely on some serious defenses to avoid having the very conversation that Jesus commends to us this morning when he says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault…” One of the effects of the pandemic is that it has put extra pressure on the people we live with as we have been forced to do more and more from our homes. That’s likely what any of us are thinking about when Jesus discusses the periodic need to have sometime yet truthful conversations with those we depend upon.

Part of the reason why so many of us avoid these conversations is that we’ve learned somewhere along the way in our lives that conflict in relationships is bad and always destructive. And if that is what we think, and that is what our experience is, then we would have good reason to go to great lengths to avoid conflict and just not talk about what needs to be talked about. But, I really don’t think Jesus would encourage us to do anything that is bad for us. I personally have had plenty of arguments with him, where I was pretty sure that his advice was wrongheaded, but, every-time he has turned out to be right about what is good for me.

It may be that we think that these confrontational conversations that Jesus talks to us about this morning are bad and too hard, because we just haven’t learned how to have them. Frankly, anything seems impossible when you don’t know how to do it. Even a new remote control for my television, can push me to the breaking point of frustration, because I don’t know how to use it. But once I figure out that the more important the button is, the smaller they make it, then I’m eventually ok and I wonder what was so impossible about it in the first place. There is a lot more at stake in a conversation with a loved one, friend, or church member that begins, “You hurt me.” If our experience of those conversations is bad, it may just be that some of the people in that conversation were just lacking skills needed for the conversation to be healing, and even life-giving.

How to have that conversation is so important that it is part of the Christian faith and something to learn, and practice in church, so that we can have those conversations in a truthful healing way outside of the church. Critics of Christianity often put our emphasis upon sin and confession of sin in a negative light. They say that what we teach people is that they are bad and that is why they need to confess, over and over again, that they are bad and guilty. I’d like to suggest to you that these critics don’t understand the purpose of our language of sin and confession at all. Its purpose is exactly what Jesus says it is: it is to transform conflict into creative, positive energy in all of our most important relationships. In other words, confession leads to communion in our church services, but also in our personal lives.

If, as these critics suggest, we teach that the proper response to “You hurt me,” is to say, “you got me, I’m a sinner, you’re right about me, I’m guilty, I’m a bad egg,” then we’re not helping anyone. No one saying, “You hurt me” needs to hear that. That is not the healing they are seeking. And if we hear it that way, if we hear it only as blame and not as a desire for connection, then, no wonder, we feel compelled to muster all of our defenses. But that is not what Jesus’ language of sin and confession is about.

To confess, is most fundamentally, about understanding how one’s actions, or inaction, have affected other people. Or, more specifically, about showing another person that you understand what it is like to be them in relationship to you. “What it is like to be them in relationship to you.” It is that act of deep understanding that is healing, it is that that is called for by Jesus, not dramatic declarations of how terribly wrong or bad one is. It is out of that experience of feeling understood that forgiveness comes and relationships repair and deepen.

And it’s a conversation, to be truly had, that happens more than once. Notice that Jesus anticipates, on the one hand, that you may not be heard the first time, or, on the other hand, you may not be able to listen at first. No one is going to get this right the first time. Anything worthwhile takes time. It is not, “I said ‘I am sorry’ so I shouldn’t ever have to talk about this again. It looks more like, “yes, we are continuing to talk about this because this is a healing conversation. It’s a conversation that brings us closer together. It is not one that pushes us farther apart.”

When my daughter was quite young, after one of her early birthdays, I ate the rest of her birthday cake, the leftovers as it were. The next day, apparently, following the words of Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” She informed me about how wronged she felt by that. I confessed to her that it was me, “yes, I ate your birthday cake.” (That still sounds bad after all these years). What she wanted wasn’t for me to confess to her what a bad dad I was. She didn’t want to have a bad dad! What she wanted to know was that I understood what it was like for her to live in the world of birthday cakes that would disappear anytime she fell asleep. And insofar as I was able to show her that I understood what it was like to be her, and not defend my right as Dad to eat all leftover birthday cake, that this conflict was transformed into an opportunity for greater love, trust, and finally, forgiveness.

In the push and pull of human life, with all the demands placed on us, and our all-too-human limits, needs, and desires, we’re bound to hurt one another. That is why it is so valuable to develop the skill of how to offer the experience of understanding of the other rather than defending oneself. But in concrete situations, when our very selves feel accused and in jeopardy, it is surprisingly difficult to get out of one’s own way. We need help and we have it ready at hand. Notice how Jesus concludes his teaching saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” It is his presence, if we can be open to it, that can give us the strength and assurance to set aside the current version of ourselves, and its justifications, and instead be open to the presence and experience of others even when it leads to confession and change.

When we are children, we learn right and wrong as a set of rules and believe in a world where it is those standards that are the source of the bond between human beings. As adults, rather than that sort of justice, we come to see that the real world is about the messy business of loving, understanding, and changing, about forgiving and being forgiven, and that forgiveness is a stronger bond than fragile notions of justice. As St. Paul says in the passage from his letter the Romans that we just read, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

It is about forgiving the world for not being all that we wanted it to be; it is about forgiving ourselves for falling short of those standards of right and wrong; it is about forgiving those who have wronged us; and its about accepting the forgiveness of God and others when it is offered. Forgiveness is never deserved; it can never be demanded. It arises out of shared understanding and is always experienced as a gift.

All Saints’ is a safe community in which to learn skills that are utterly necessary everywhere else. Oh there are occasional conflicts, misunderstanding, and hurt from time to time, but this is a place where through Christ confession leads to communion and where we discover that it is Christ’s presence with us that gives us the strength to be open to a love and a connection with other people bigger than any of our own defenses. May we all experience Christ’s love for us as one that enables us to lower our defenses, confess our sins to one another in such a way that it leads to an experience of greater understanding, so we are free to love others as they are, and accept ourselves as forgiven and loved all the same. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost 8-16-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our gospel reading tells us of Gentile woman with a sick daughter who pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter. The world Jesus lived in, however, was afflicted with many of the same prejudices, divisions, and hatreds as our world is. The vast majority of our memories of Jesus are stories where he is with his own people. There are a few stories where a true outsider intrudes. This morning’s desperate mother is one of those outsiders. Notice that he at first ignores her and does not respond at all, as if she lacked the necessary status to bring to Jesus any request at all. Jesus’ disciples urge him to send her away complaining how bothersome her shouting at them is. They want it to stop. Dismissed and insulted, nevertheless, she persisted.

Jesus doesn’t look good in this story does he not? It is in the Bible, though, because clearly there is something we are to learn from her. Jesus explains to her that his ministry is first of all to the Jews and later it will spill-over to Gentiles like her. She can wait. Likely with her ill daughter in mind, this woman will not wait. She gets on her knees and begs for help. He, likely giving voice to what his disciples around him were thinking, says out loud, “it would not be right to give the food intended for the children of Israel to the dogs.” How very insulting! She had probably heard that kind of dehumanizing insult before and here it is from Jesus no less. (And after his big speech insisting that it is what comes out of the heart that defiles. Maybe Jesus should listen to himself?).

Is she done persisting? No, not her. When confronted with an attitude of Jesus that appears near bigotry, She does not defend herself. She does not say, “I am as much a human being as any Jew!” (She would have been right!). Still kneeling she says, “Lord even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” What a disarming answer! Jesus praises her saying, “Woman great is your faith!” We’re not told anythign about the disciples who wanted her chased away like a dog, but they likely stood there ashamed. Jesus grants her request and heals her daughter, Gentile and all.

She is held up in Scripture as a forerunner of what would become the Gentile church, or what we call Christianity. It is a hard story for us to hear though, because of what looks to us like embracing humiliation. It seems to push in the opposite direction of much of how we are taught to look at ourselves and how to look out for ourselves.

One of the extraordinary things about our time is the enormous pressure put upon everybody to market themselves, that is, to manage how they are perceived by the world by promoting a certain image of themselves, and maybe defend against would-be critics. Children in middle school often already have Facebook pages where they are curating pictures of themselves and their activities, presenting themselves as happy, successful, and attractive. Our media age has made it possible in a way to place an image between you and the person looking at you. That is so powerful. It used to he that to be a professional at anything was just about have a skill that people were willing to pay for. Now part of professional life is making yourself a brand. Some of the most successful professionals these days are not necessarily the best at what they do. What they are particularly good at is managing their brand, with all sorts of social media pages devoted to promoting themselves, or, more specifically, a certain image of themselves. It is time consuming and it can be all consuming. There are people now who are only a brand. That is all they do.

The Gentile woman in today’s Gospel has no brand, she’s not managing an image when she says, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” I don’t think her example is one that says not to engage in social media managing a certain image, but it does mean that there really does need to be somewhere where, like her, you are you, the real you, the unmanaged you, the you not burdened by the pressures of self-presentation and self-preservation. It certainly means that that you is to the one to bring to Jesus who has no interest in our brand or image and sees through all of that anyway.

You longtime Episcopalians probably noticed that the words of this Gentile woman show up in our Book of Common Prayer uncredited to her. There is prayer technically named, “The Prayer of Humble Access.” It appeared in the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and in every one since then. It is what was to be said prior to the reception of communion. In the Rite I version of our liturgy it goes like this: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.” The instructions are that it is to be said kneeling just like the Gentile woman.

Some of you may have noticed, that there is a difference between our prayer and hers. Our prayer says that we are “not worthy of the crumbs”, while hers insists that she was worthy. Why it is that way is that the framers of the Prayer Book did not want us too easily to assume that we are worthy of making her words our own, as if too easily or too cheaply we assume that we are her equals. Nearly 500 years of prayer books have assumed that we kneel next to her saying we are not even worthy of that, but Lord grant our request anyway just like you did hers.

This determined humble woman anticipated the great Christians of the following centuries. Her confident humility exposes the empty posturing that is too common in our media age. She is such a contrast to every adult playground bully that seeks to appear powerful but in the larger scheme of things amounts to nothing. This sort of proud arrogance wants to be admired for always defending itself. People puff up like balloons, but each balloon in fact grows weaker the more air that goes into it. If we live this way, it is difficult for us to be vulnerable to God or to other people or to have any confident security that is larger than ourselves. In bringing before us this woman to be our example, Scripture wants to move us away from an empty presumption that is all bark, that is all style but no substance.

Scripture wants to move us toward her strange confidence that is real; it has substance and not only style. It challenges us to have such confidence in God that we are free to no longer conceal our weaknesses. It is that that allows us to own fully our faults, failures, and finitude as creatures, and to find the fullness of life without continually hiding who we are through image management. It makes available to us a true closeness, togetherness, or solidarity, because we are only really loved when we are known and loved as we truly are and not just as who we present ourselves to be. In short, our Gospel reading exposes the superficial selves our culture promotes and offers instead a daring vulnerability that is most human and most Christian.

As Christians we come to God not as members of the Jewish people that he brought out of Egypt and made promises to, we come to God as this Gentile woman did. She foreshadows the Gentile Church, and even when others are saying, “send her away,” she maintains her great faith. In this non-defensive faith, she is loved by Jesus. May we have her confident humility so that we can be free not to be always defending ourselves. May we be as vulnerable to Christ as she was and find the strength that is found in weakness, so that our Lord Jesus Christ may approve of our faith as his did that of the Gentile woman. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet