Monday, July 25, 2016

Father Riley's sermon from July 24, 2016

[Our Bishop Jake Owensby will make his annual visit with us Sunday August 7th.  Please join us for the 10am service led by Bishop Jake and fellowship and lunch in the Whitaker Parish Hall following the service.]

10 PENTECOST, PROPER XII - C - 16     LUKE 11. 1-13

What is God really like? I have been asked that question many times over the years, even by a number of life-long Christians and by those who know nothing about the Christian faith. Perhaps you have been asked the same question, or maybe you have asked yourself “what is God really like?”
Where does one turn for the answer? And can we really know what God is like? Holy Scripture is our source for knowing God and our knowing about God. Today’s first lesson and the gospel join forces to reveal certain characteristics of a God who is loving, kind and faithful.
In the Genesis reading Abraham persists in bargaining with God about how many or how few innocent people it would take to spare the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. We might even say Abraham was pushing the envelope in his persistence seeing just how far he could go in his asking before God would say “enough.”
In this story God is clearly shown to be patient, one who leans towards mercy. He is willing to listen, not only to the cries of the people, but to Abraham’s plea for mercy on behalf of the people. He is the judge of the whole world but for the sake of ten just people within the walls of these wicked cities he will forego their total destruction.
In today’s gospel the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray after having observed Jesus at prayer. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, as we know it, is said by some to be closer to the original than Matthew’s expanded version. Either way it helps to answer the question “what is God like?”
Jesus gives us the parable of the friend at midnight to reinforce what God is like, and to show that our asking of God, that is our petitions, especially for “daily bread” is always heard.
The laws of hospitality in the ancient Middle East were strict. If a traveler arrived needing food and shelter one was under obligation to provide it. The friend in the street knows that the friend in bed will understand, even if his asking is at an inconvenient hour; he would do the same if the roles were reversed. What counts is persistence.
Prayer is first of all about asking. What Jesus is encouraging by giving us this parable is a kind of holy boldness, a sharp knocking at the door, an insistent asking, a search that refuses to give up. That, Jesus says, is what our prayer should be like. This kind of prayer is more than a routine or formal kind of praying; it is a means of engaging in and combating spiritual warfare.
Just look at our world today, our nation, our state. There are so many things to pray for and about that are urgent, complex, and important. Liturgical prayer has it’s place in corporate worship when we gather together, as the family of God, to offer our prayers as the Body of Christ. Together we lift up our hearts to God. But each of us has to be engaged in regular and disciplined daily prayer outside the confines of these holy walls.
We are to pray out of the privileged relationship we enjoy through our adoption as God’s sons and daughters. We do that by acknowledging that relationship in the beginning of our prayers by addressing God as Father as Jesus has taught us. We pray by focusing on God’s holiness and our unworthiness and on what God ought to achieve in the world. We need to pray for the needs of the community for sustenance, forgiveness, and God’s help. And in light of the turmoil that exists in our nation today, we need to pray for peace.
Jesus teaches that prayer is indeed asking, but that our asking is subordinate to the purposes of God. It is important for us to realize this. He does not tells us that we shall get what we want when we ask; or that when we seek, that we shall find what we expect; or that when we knock at the door, that what awaits us on the other side will be altogether to our liking. Rather, it will be what God deems best for us.
The point of the parable is not that God is like a man who does not want to be bothered and answers prayers only because he is tried of listening. Rather it is the typical rabbinic argument from the lesser to the greater; if even this reluctant man responds to requests, how much more will God, who is anxious to meet our needs. The parable demonstrates God’s faithfulness to those who are in need and who pray with persistence.
Neither is the “Lord’s Prayer,” as we have come to know it, not just a loosely connected string of petitions. It is a prayer that grows out of the very mission of Jesus himself. When asked to teach his disciples to pray, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. He is going on behalf of the Father to accomplish the opening of the kingdom to all who believe in Him.
He was already offering forgiveness, and would accomplish it completely in his death. He was already demanding from his followers that they imitate the graciousness of God in forgiving their enemies as well as each other. This is the only place in the prayer that refers to Christian action. Jesus’ response to his disciples stands as a framework for wider praying. It did then, and it does now.
The gospel lesson ends today with a repetition of the theme; that we never ask, seek, or knock in vain; that we are to persist by keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking. In prayer, we can expect to be heard, to be attended to. We may not expect that all of our wants and desires will be met, but we can expect that God will give us what is best for us, our daily bread.
What is God like? God is as father and sustainer; God is friend to whom we may go, even in the dead of night, and ask without shame or embarrassment. God listens to, and is open to those who approach him. And God is the giver of all good things through the gift of the Holy Spirit; the first gift for those who believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Redeemer, who is the true bread which came down from heaven and gives life to the world. AMEN+




Sunday, July 17, 2016

Father Riley's sermon for July 17, 2016

[Bishop Jake Owensby will make his annual visit to Christ Episcopal Church August 7, 2016, and conduct our 10am Sunday service with fellowship to follow.  All are invited to join us to welcome the Bishop to St. Joseph.]
9 PENTECOST, PROPER XI - C- 16     LUKE 10. 38-42

Again St. Luke presents us with a well-known story. Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany, a small village not far from Jerusalem.
Because we know the story so well there is no real need to go into every little detail. Rather, let’s take a look at it from the standpoint of two questions. First, who is “serving” the Lord here? Is it Martha? Or is it Mary? Or both? Next, Jesus says Mary has chosen the “better portion.” What does he mean?
Hospitality in the Middle East before and during the time of Jesus meant everything. Just look at today’s first lesson. Abraham receives three unexpected guests (The Holy Trinity) and goes out of his way to provide hospitality. He focuses his undivided attention on the visitors in order to meet their every need. Abraham, we might say, is present to them and his attentiveness is rewarded with the promise of a son.
It would seem from today’s gospel story that Martha is going all out to provide hospitality to Jesus. A simple meal consisting of a single dish would have been sufficient for the time. But it would appear that she is doing much more than what is socially required and or expected.
Her attention is focused on her “serving” Jesus’ physical needs, so much so, that she is distracted and becomes upset with her younger sister who is just sitting there listening to Jesus. “Can’t you tell Mary to help me?” She asks Jesus. To which Christ responds, “Martha, Martha, you are doing too much. One dish is plenty. Mary has chosen the better portion.” I love Jesus’ use of the word “portion” in this case. A portion is in itself a “serving.”
Martha is “serving” in her own way. Mary is “serving” Jesus in her own way and in doing so brings nourishment to Christ’s spirit. She has given him her undivided attention, making herself present to Him in a most real way much in the same manner as Abraham did with his three visitors in today’s first lesson.
Wouldn’t we all like to know what Jesus was telling Mary? Was He speaking of the kingdom of His Father, or simply telling her about the Father. Luke doesn’t say. Whatever it was Mary was captivated by it to the frustration of her sister Martha.
Martha thought she was doing what was needed by providing hospitality. She thought she was meeting Jesus’ needs in every way that was expected and then some. While Mary, at least in the eyes of Martha, was doing nothing. But in reality Martha was distracted with Mary and allowed her distraction to take her away from what was really important, making herself present to Jesus as Mary did.
How true is all of that today in terms of human relationships. By that, I mean how often we encounter another human being but never really make ourselves present to them. Oh we speak and sometimes engage in conversation, but are never really present. Blame it on distractions or the fact that we are simply too busy to give ourselves to another person. And then again most of us have been on the receiving end.
When I was a full-time rector of a large parish social events were frequent. There were baptismal parties, engagement parties, and wedding receptions to name a few. And because I was the rector I was most often invited to such events.
It was a common occurrence, at least for me, to have someone walk up  and greet me, and I in turn attempt to strike up a conversation, only to realize that they were not really present to me. Their eyes were looking past me, checking out the room to see who else was there that they had rather speak to, and when they sighted that person would politely make their exit with a smile.
No interpersonal bond took place. Just a subtle nicety. Although you made yourself present to that person, they did not reciprocate. Presence was given but not received. Distraction took the other person away, leaving you standing there somewhat disappointed.
To answer our first question “who is serving Jesus?” The answer is of course Mary. Mary is “serving” Jesus by giving him her “real” presence in a way that exceeds Martha’s hospitality. Mary’s undivided attention has nourished Christ’ humanness in a way that physical food could never do. And, not to be overlooked is Jesus’ “serving” Mary as the “servant of God.”
Brother Lawrence, a 14th century monk, wrote a spiritual classic entitled “Practicing The Presence of God.” His little book is all about our learning to make ourselves present to God whatever the surroundings or humble the situation might be. We must learn to acknowledge that God is always present to us at all times and in all places and learn to be present to Him.
It is easier to do, for most of us, when we enter this sacred space and tougher out there in the market place of life where it is difficult to find Him with so many distractions. This is where we come to think about God, listen to His word and receive the Holy Sacrament. This, above all places should be where we give God our undivided attention. There is reason most churches are referred to as sanctuaries. Here we can escape from the world outside and “practice the presence of God.”
Church custom has always been to enter in silence, and acknowledge the altar before entering the pew and kneeling to say our prayers prior to the beginning of the service. Have we become so lax in our worship that we have forgotten where we are? In whose presence we come? The Real Presence of Jesus is here. The Sanctuary Lamb reminds us.
Are we so much like Martha that we allow ourselves to be distracted upon entering this Holy Space by bringing the outside world’s distractions with us? To do so is to fall into poor spiritual habits that carry over into worship and in our human relationships. This is a Holy place consecrated to the worship and glory of God.
It is, and should be unlike any other place we enter during the week. There should be sights, sounds, and on occasion even smells that are not encountered anywhere else. Our behavior, then, while in this Holy space, likewise should be different; our posture different; our responses different and our attention undivided as we make our presence “real” to God, by being attentive to the hearing of God’s Holy Word and humbled in receiving the Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of His only Son, Jesus.
It is in learning to make ourselves truly present to God, first in worship, then, no matter the surroundings or the circumstances, that we in turn are able to make ourselves present to one another. Making ourselves present to God and neighbor is a means by which we “serve” both.
Our relationship to God is in a person, Jesus Christ, and through Him to God the Father. It is a community Jesus came to build, one relationship at a time; a community based on Love. To know Him as He knows us is to Love Him as He Loves us.
Mary had the better “portion” because she had come to know Him. In the giving of her “real” presence to Christ an interpersonal and everlasting bond was established; one based on Love. That relationship, that bond, and the Love that comes with it is “the better portion.” 
And the promise of Jesus to Mary, and to all who give themselves to Him, is that “portion” will never be taken away. AMEN+





Sunday, July 10, 2016

Father Riley's homily for July 10, 2016

8 PENTECOST, PROPER X - C - 16     LUKE 10. 25-37

Today’s collect sets the tone for today’s Gospel passage: “O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them…”
It would appear that the lawyer in today’s gospel who asked Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” already knew the answer. His question was a standard rabbinical one to which there were standard answers, much like the questions and answers in our own Catechism. Jesus confirms his answer and directs him to go and live it and he will indeed inherit eternal life.
Each of the synoptic present a version of this same question. In Mark, for example, a scribe asks Jesus which commandment is “the first of all?” Jesus answers with the summary of the law, “ we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind; and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.” There is no other commandment greater than these two.
The scribe recognized the truth of Jesus’ response and commented that such love for God and others is much more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus was surprised by his comment and told the scribe in turn that he was not far from the kingdom of God.
Matthew says that the question comes from a Pharisee. His version of the incident emphasizes the fact that the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself “is like” the command to love God with one’s whole being. Although each of the Synoptic presents us with a different version of the question the basic message is the same: love God first, then our neighbor as ourselves.
The uniqueness and richness of each of the gospel accounts lies in their individual contributions to the over all picture of Jesus and His teachings that tell us who he really is and what he is all about. For example, Luke alone gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan that appears in today’s gospel as a response to the lawyer’s second question “who is my neighbor?”
It appears that Jesus’ response to his initial question was not enough. The lawyer leaves God out of his second question, perhaps because he thinks he knows all he needs to know about God, and focuses entirely on the concept of “neighbor.”
His sole purpose in asking the second, however, is to justify himself in the eyes of God; hoping that in the final analysis God would find him acceptable. The answer Jesus gives surely must have shocked as well as surprised him.
During the time of Jesus, Jews and Samaritans literally hated each other. This hatred had gone on for hundreds of years and is still reflected in the smoldering tension between Israel and Palestine today. Both sides claim to be the true inheritors of the promise to Abraham and Moses; both sides, in consequence, regard themselves as the rightful possessors of the land.
Few Israelis today will travel from Galilee to Jerusalem by the direct route, because it will take them through the West Bank and risk violence. In exactly the same way, most first century pilgrims making the same journey would prefer, as Jesus did himself, to travel down the Jordan Valley to Jericho and then turn West up the hill to Jerusalem. It was much safer.
Some might go so far as to say that Jesus’ response was not “politically correct.” The priest, who represented the highest religious leadership among the Jews does not come off well, and neither does the Levite, who, in the time of Jesus, was a Lay-Associate of the priest. The Samaritan, on the other hand, was not expected to show mercy to any Jew. And As far as Jews were concerned, there were no “good” Samaritans.
With that said, the one thing that has always interested me about this well-known story is the fact that the lawyer had not asked “how” one is to be a loving neighbor, he had asked how one is to recognize the neighbor we are called to love. He asked “who;” he was told “how.”
We are familiar with the story, and we get the point. The Samaritan’s actions are the gospel ideal. And like the lawyer, we are to “go and do likewise.” But wouldn’t it be a lot easier if we only knew who it was we are called to love instead of “how?” if only we could identify those persons. If only we could get a list.
If God would only provide their names for me at the beginning of each day as I prayed the Morning Office. Then, I could be on the look out for those individuals throughout the day expecting to find them. But it doesn’t work that way. I don’t know and you don’t know. Because God’s love is unconditional towards us, our love of neighbor is to be likewise; nothing less than a reflection of His.
We are not provided with a list in advance, and we never will be. Jesus’ description of “how” we are to love tells us that the “who” is open-ended. Neighborly love knows no limit. The moral of the story is “if you see someone in the ditch, go and help them.” Neighbor is anyone in need.
What is at stake, then and now, is the question of whether we will use the God-given revelation of love and grace as a way of boosting our own sense of isolated security and purity, or whether we will see it as a call, a challenge to extend that love and grace to the whole world.
No Church, no Christian, can remain content with easy definitions which allow us to watch most of the world lying half dead in the road and do nothing.
Rather we pray that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and that God in his wide reaching grace and mercy will give us the power to faithfully accomplish them, that is, to live the gospel ideal, not in hope of justifying ourselves before God, but for the Glory of God and for the sake of Him who died and rose again, even Jesus Christ, Our Lord. AMEN+