In God’s creation of the world and providing humankind with all the elements we need for life God exercises providence – loving care. From a human point of view, we would say that this loving care includes foresight, as well; planning into the future. Remembering God’s providence reminds us of our dependence upon God; everything that we have is a gift that has been wisely and generously given to us by our loving Lord.
The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of God’s inner and spiritual grace.” They convey the generous and gracious love of God to us (inner and spiritual) by tangible means (outward and visible).
The Church has two primary sacraments – baptism and Eucharist. The outward sign of baptism is water and the sign of the Cross made with chrism (blessed oil); the inner grace is new life in Christ. In Eucharist the outward sign is the bread and wine, and the inner grace is participation in God and being at one with fellow believers.
Five other sacramental rites are available in the Episcopal Church and are all vehicles of God’s grace, but are not rites that every Christian will necessarily be part of: Confirmation, Marriage, Reconciliation (private confession), Ordination, and Anointing at the Time of Death (“last rites”).
The word sacrament has to do with making something holy. The outward, tangible part of a sacrament reminds us that God uses the good creation he has made to be an avenue of divine grace and blessing for us.
To lament is to express grief, sorrow, or pain in an open and heartfelt way. It is not something our modern American culture tolerates very well; we always hear that we should be strong and carry on without complaint. There certainly is a time and place for that. But lamentation has deep Biblical and Christian roots. The Psalms are full of lamentation – both as individuals and as a people, a communal statement of anguish. Perhaps the most well-known and profound example of lament is Psalm 22 which begins: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus utters that Psalm verse when he is dying on the Cross.
Lamentation is a way of being honest before God and before one another. It says that something is not right, out of joint, broken and painful – whether that is in our personal lives, in public life, in the tragedies of disaster. Lamentation lays bare our hearts and allows room for the healing light and presence of God to come within us and among us. To lament is a very faithful way to pray.
A covenant is relationship between two parties, with rights and responsibilities on both sides – with the emphasis on the relationship. There are a number of different covenants in the Bible, and they have all been initiated by God. The best known is the relationship between God and the Hebrew slaves after they had been freed from slavery in Egypt. In the desert, on Mount Sinai, God promised that he would be their Lord if they would be his people. The commandments that God gave to the people through Moses were to be markers and patterns of life that would show they were living according to God’s ways (what we call the Ten Commandments).
Covenants are about loyalty and faithfulness, which is why the Prayer Book refers to “the covenant of marriage.” At the Last supper Jesus also referred to the bread and wine as the sign of the new covenant that God was making in the Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The disciples and all others who would follow were being invited into a new and life-giving relationship with God.~ VGM+
Sabbath is the practice of regularly refraining from work and resting. It is about trusting that the world will go on, the sun rising and setting, without any help from us. Our trust is in God. God made the universe and gave it life, and God’s care for creation far exceeds any of our efforts to make things happen. In the Ten Commandments, given to Moses after the Hebrew slaves were freed from bondage in Egypt, God tell the people to “remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” In the first story of creation in Genesis (the first book of the Bible) we hear that God made all things in six “days” (large periods of time), and on the seventh day, God rested. And so we are called to rest, as well.
In Judaism the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and extends until sundown on Saturday. Christians originally celebrated the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, the day of Resurrection, on Sunday. Those two practices merged over time, as Gentiles (non-Jews) became followers of Jesus.
Sabbath, for Christians, is primarily Sunday and is to be a day dedicated to God in worship, rest, family time, even unplugging from the rest of the world. But any day or period of time can be taken as time to practice an intentional Sabbath for renewal, refreshment – physical, emotional, and spiritual. ~ VGM+
~ VGM+The word peace appears nearly three hundred and fifty times in the Bible. It is far more than the absence of war or strife. Nor is merely a polite “go along to get along” attitude. Peace is a state of wholeness and balance that comes from being in a right relationship with God and with neighbor – and within oneself. The ancient Hebrew word for peace was “shalom”, meaning wholeness, completeness, soundness, health, safety, prosperity, and serenity for an individual and for the community. It is still used as a greeting in modern Judaism. Peace is a positive state; the way God wants us to be. It is a value that is expressed in one of the blessings in our services: “The Peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” ~ VGM+
Words of Faith
Words matter – what they mean, how we use them, the feelings they convey, the way they shape our experience of life. For centuries Christians have had a “vocabulary of faith” which was a collection of words and ideas that was generally understood by society at large and by believers in particular.
Over time that changed. Some words became very secularized; for example, in sports we hear about players making sacrifices for their team, but originally “sacrifice” meant “to make holy.” And then some Christian groups have taken faith words and defined them in ways that most Episcopalians would have trouble resonating with.
Add to all of that the perceived split between “public life” and “private faith” – and we have lost confidence in our ability to know and use the vocabulary of our Christian lives. That can make it difficult for us to think and reason clearly about our faith, and to express to others what it is we believe and why we behave as we do.
As we have been living through this time of health crisis, we know that whatever is on the other side of this will be different than what we started with. We will be different, and we will face some new challenges and realities.
It will be good for us to remember and renew and become confident once again in the words of our faith and our expression of the Christian life as we understand it in our Episcopal and Anglican tradition. To help us with this I’ll be sharing a word on most days, with a short definition or explanation of what it means, Christianly-speaking. I hope you find this encourages you to think about the words you say, the words you pray, and the way God is shaping, forming, and equipping you to do God’s work in the world.
Grace means gift – God’s gift to us of love and blessing that we neither earn nor deserve. God offers us grace before we are even aware that we are in need of it; and God already loves us fully, before we even do anything to respond to him.
We often think of someone being graceful or moving with a quality of grace, like a dancer. That image conveys a sense of fluidity, ease, motion, even beauty. When we are on the receiving end of God’s grace we gain that sense of moving through life with greater ease and dignity because we know that we are loved to our very depths.
Jesus said: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:7
This is the season of The Schedule. It’s the time to make sure the family Google calendar syncs up with the new fall routine, after the glorious disruptions of summer and vacations. And if you have children in your household you know (or may remember) the particular September scramble of fitting in after-school activities, sports, homework, social events, with work, household chores, and volunteer efforts. Sometimes it feels like you need a computer program to figure out who needs to be where, with what, or whom, when. And heaven help you if a small detail changes and you have to rearrange everything! Even if you don’t have children at home, the early fall always arrives with the drive to get organized, make sure your commitments are in your calendar in ink, so you know what you are doing, and begin the new program year. It can feel like multiple requirements are pressing in on you all at the same time – at least until you can get your schedule somewhat tamed.
And into the midst of all of this September scramble comes Jesus, with his challenging and difficult words this morning. The carefully stacked blocks of our schedules and commitments may just get knocked over, like pulling out the last block which collapses the tower in a game of Jenga when we hear what Jesus has to say; and we may not like it at all!
He addresses the large crowd who were travelling with him, people who had seen his miracles and healing and wondrous works, who had heard him speak with authority about God’s purposes and had followed along to see what else was going to happen. Maybe there would be an even more spectacular miracle; maybe Jesus would even more brazenly denounce the Roman governing system and hand the running of the country back to Jewish rulers; maybe there would always be food enough for all of them. Curiosity and desire can draw people on for a long time.
But instead of encouraging the crowd, Jesus turns to them and says, “If you want to come with me and be part of what I’m doing, here’s what needs to happen: you can’t put your family first; you need to know that there’s a strong possibility this is going to end with a torturous death; you can’t be weighed down by an overabundance of possessions. You need to count the cost of all of this before we go any further together.” Wow. Take a minute and let all that sink in.
And then the objections come: isn’t Christianity supposed to be family-friendly? didn’t Jesus die so that we don’t have to suffer? What’s wrong with owning lots of things? These are all really good questions, and we could spend an hour pondering and discussing each one. For now, I’ll just say that Jesus is making it very clear that anyone who wants to follow him, to be his disciple, needs to be aware of the realities and costs involved.
I recently heard about a church in another part of the country, in a downtown area that had a big banner on its front lawn that read: “Come on in. It’s easy.” That may seem like a good marketing strategy – a low bar to get folks to cross the threshold. And in many ways, it’s what the socially-accepted expectation of church was – at least in America, in the decades after World War II: “Come through the doors, you’ll meet people like yourself, you can be comfortable, not too much is going to be required of you.” Now, of course, that’s an over-generalization, but the point here is that the message on that 2019 church’s banner is not true. It’s not true of Christian faith, of following Jesus, of worshiping God; it never has been true.
The very first commandment that God gave Moses after the Hebrew people were freed from their slavery and they were being gathered and shaped as a people, the very first command was “Hear the commandments of God to his people: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.” This command to worship and serve God alone was of course about turning away from the various Egyptian deities, or the Canaanite gods they would later encounter. But it was always understood to include any person or idea or value that we might want to put in God’s place as an idol; whether we are intending to do that or not. And Jesus, as God Incarnate, is bidding his followers to make sure they understand and are prepared for this challenge. It’s anything but easy.
The New Testament scholar Tom Wright uses this image in commenting on this passage: ‘… think of the leader of a great expedition, forging a way through a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villagers cut off from the rest of the world. ‘If you want to come any further,’ the leader says, ‘you’ll have to leave your packs behind. From here on the path is too steep to carry all that stuff. You probably won’t find it again. And you’d better send your last postcard home; this is a dangerous route and it’s very likely some of us won’t make it back.’ That’s truth, that’s real; there’s a lot at stake in following Jesus.
And if we think that setting out the costs of discipleship in a clear way is a lousy recruitment tool, that it merely drives people away, I would ask us to think again. I would offer the example of a number mythic stories that have been written by faithful practicing Christians as an expression of their understanding of God and the world and being disciples, books that are beloved and have huge followings: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter.
In each of these books, while there are one or two central characters, there is always a larger core group of people and beings (because not all the characters are human). Each member of the group has their own very different gifts, abilities, personalities, graces, physical features, and attributes. And they are all drawn together, not by their fondness for each other, but to take on a dangerous and important mission that that they could not ever have imagined on their own: those who are loyal to Aslan, the Fellowship of the Ring, Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix.
Certainly, each of these series of books – which have spoken so profoundly to so many - is full of stirring, heroic scenes and battles between good and evil. And they seem very exciting and attractive… from a distance; kind of like the feeling of watching a video of runners crossing the finish line at the New York City Marathon and thinking that would be a really cool thing to do – until you start the actual training. But the crux of these stories, the turning point, the truth-with-a-capital-T in each book has to do with the protagonists making a hard choice, giving something up, coming to a costly awareness or decision – whether it is mercy or repentance or sacrifice. It is because Tolkien, and Lewis, and JK Rowling write the Truth – even without mentioning God – that their work endures and continually finds new audiences. The Truth they portray is hard and beautiful and good.
Jesus’s words are hard; they are challenging. They call us to examine our lives, our schedules, our commitments. Did we think faith was going to be easy? Do we try to fit God in as an after-thought, a “nice-to-have”? As the Prayer Book puts it in Eucharistic Prayer C, do we look to church “for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal”? Solace and pardon can be good places to start, but we can’t stay there – not if we are going to go the whole way with Jesus.
So, at the start of this new season, let’s take the time – each one of us - to ask God how we might count the cost of our faith, the cost of what God is asking us to do and to be, so that we can be more fit and ready to serve our Lord with truth, mercy, beauty, and goodness.
Let us pray.
Grant, Lord God, to all who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, that, as we have put away the old life of sin, so we may be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and live in righteousness and true holiness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. ~ BCP, p. 252
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8, 2019
But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Luke 14:13-14
For many Americans, Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. Gathering with family and friends, cooking together, telling family stories, sharing reminiscences, playing games (whether touch football or board games), relaxing around a table of abundance and taking time for gratitude - all these help us remember what life is all about, they help us press the re-set button.
In quite a number of ways the Jewish Sabbath – Shabbat – does the same thing as Thanksgiving does. Far more than just being a day of prayer and worship on which work is prohibited, Shabbat is the weekly remembrance and observance of God’s good and abundant blessings in the gift of Creation (“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth... Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 1:1, 2:1-3). It is a time for leisurely feasting and enjoyment of family, friends, and guests. It is a time to let go of the troubles of the world, and rest secure in the knowledge that the world does not revolve around us and our efforts but is in God’s loving and powerful hands.
And this Shabbat celebration happens every week – not just once a year. In the ancient world this weekly day of rest and refreshment was quite radical. The Greeks even considered Jews to be lazy because in the pagan world work went on all the time, punctuated only every so often by a public festival; unless, of course, you were wealthy and didn’t need to work every day.
This picture of the Sabbath is what we need to have in mind as we consider today’s passage about Jesus attending a Sabbath meal at the home of an important religious leader. Jesus is the guest at this meal, but he very quickly takes on the role of the host, the one in charge. As he observes the other guests and their behavior and takes notice of who has been invited to this Sabbath meal, he has some pretty sharp things to say to them. He tells the guests not to jockey for places of honor, not to assume that they should get the best seats at the table just because they are impressed with their own importance. And he tells the owner of the house not to invite his friends, brothers, relatives, or rich neighbors, who will just repay him with an invitation in return. But he is to invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, blind – all considered markers in Jesus’ day of somehow not measuring up, not living according to God’s Law, getting what you deserve.
Jesus is speaking here on several levels at once – as he so often does. To begin with, Shabbat is not a time for human distinctions and divisions, but a recognition that all we have and all we are is a gift from God. Some may have more, some may have less, but fundamentally life and all its blessings are given by God’s gracious loving-kindness; full stop. In the face of God’s generosity, humility is called for, not jockeying for position. And since God has treated us with such goodness, we ought to act in like manner, sharing God’s blessings with others who cannot repay us any more than we can ever repay God.
By the time Luke was writing and circulating his two-volume Good News concerning Jesus – the Gospel and the Book of Acts – about fifty years after the Resurrection, the Christian imagery around festive, holy meals had taken on a new meaning. The change began with Jesus’ teaching and language in passages such as the one we are considering this morning when he began to speak of wedding banquets and resurrection, and started to point to images of God’s Kingdom as being like a wedding feast to which all were invited to join in. The idea of the feast, with its celebration and joy, was to reach its fulfillment at the time of God’s Kingdom coming on earth in the same way it already exists in God’s realm that we call heaven. But even now, Jesus’ disciples could participate in that heavenly banquet through the celebration of the Eucharist – a foretaste of what God will do in God’s own good time.
Many of the qualities of the Christian Eucharist are drawn from Shabbat, as well including some that are new and distinctively Christian – thanksgiving, gratitude, recognition of God’s sovereignty and power, abundance, blessing, resting in God’s gift of life, and God’s gift of New Life and New Creation in Christ’s Resurrection.
And so, Jesus’ words in this passage look both forward and backward: forward to the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom as much and backward to God’s original act of Creation and rest. If our goal is God’s Kingdom which is akin to a banquet of joy and celebration, inclusive of all God’s people, then it would behoove us to start acting as if the banquet were underway now, whenever we have the opportunity. Practicing traits, markers of God’s Kingdom such as humility and generosity, are ways that we grow more into Christ-likeness and help to make Jesus’ presence felt and known in life here and now.
Humility and generosity fly in the face of much that the world wants us to believe. We are told that if we are to succeed, we need to start by assuming that we are the best, the most deserving, that anything good we have is because we have earned it. And that then makes it hard to be generous, because we are never sure if another person has earned or deserves what we might give them. Or perhaps we are afraid that if we share something, or give something away it will diminish us, that we won’t have enough for ourselves.
But as Jesus’ followers, as those who already know the abundance and loving-kindness and goodness of God, we know a deeper truth than what the world knows. We know that we are both made in God’s image and always in need of grace and forgiveness. We know that God’s goodness is greater than our fear, and that God is the Giver from whom all blessings flow.
So we need to practice these traits of humility and generosity, so they become even deeper than second-nature to us. We live in a world of overlapping realities, of “already” and “not yet”, of knowing that Jesus is present with us always, and also looking for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom. This is not easy. It can be disorienting at times. None of us ever gets it perfectly, and yet we are called by Christ and gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do this very thing, to be the heralds and guests and celebrants of God’s great feast.
Humility, and generosity; generosity and humility – twin attitudes and practices that express the truth of God’s goodness to us and to all whom God has made, and the joyful feast to which we are invited.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
~ A General Thanksgiving, Book of Common Prayer, p. 101
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
September 1, 2019
Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Luke 10:41
One again, we have a very familiar Gospel passage at the center of our worship. Last week we heard Jesus tell the parable of the man from Samaria. Today we have an account of an event from Jesus’ ministry. And just like last week it will be helpful to hear the story afresh, lest we think we know what it says and just gloss over it.
In the course of his ministry travels towards Jerusalem, Jesus arrives in the village of Bethany and a woman named Martha opens her home to him, and his traveling companions. Remember back several weeks ago we heard Jesus sending out the seventy disciples and telling them to expect and accept the hospitality of those strangers they encountered? Well, here is a real-life example of what he was saying.
Martha is the homeowner, there doesn’t seem to be any husband, brother, or father around; her sister Mary lives with her [In the Gospel of John we do hear about their brother Lazarus, but he does not appear at all in Luke’s Gospel]. Somehow in the village, Martha encounters Jesus and extends an invitation to her house.
Martha welcomes Jesus and then sets about to prepare a meal. Mary takes a place in the front room, sitting and listening to what Jesus has to say. Something that would have been very obvious to first-century hearers of this story but may be lost on us is the fact that in faithful Jewish households the areas for men and women were pretty clearly demarcated. The kitchen was a woman’s area of influence and activity; the public room belonged to the men. And it's still that way in traditional Muslim households.
So when Martha comes to the door and tries to recruit Mary’s assistance, she’s not just asking for help, or chiding Mary for shirking responsibility for their guests, she’s trying to get Mary to conform to the traditional division of men’s and women’s spaces; and not to scandalize the important visiting rabbi.
But Jesus tells Martha that she’s so frantic and distracted that she’s missing the point of his visit, and missing out on being able to hear what he has to say; that in fact he wants both Mary and Martha to be in on this conversation.
It’s like those times when family or friends come to visit and you or someone else in your family has to be coaxed out of the kitchen, or whatever other place they are working, to set that aside for a while and spend time with the folks who have come to call – which is the whole purpose of the visit! After all, how easy would it be to put off reading a story to a young child or hearing about a teen-ager’s college plans or an adult son or daughter’s new young man or young woman because you were hyper-focused on getting a meal served or meeting some last-minute work deadline? We’ve all done that; and we’ve probably all regretted it later. Those moments come and go, and you can’t always get them back.
So, Jesus is saying to Martha: it’s important for you to be here, too. I want you to hear what I have to say, as well. We can take time for conversation now and enjoy the meal a bit later.
When Luke describes Mary as sitting at Jesus’ feet, he’s saying that she’s taking the role of a student who will one day be a teacher. That’s the way first-century rabbis-in-training were talked about; St. Paul describes himself as having sat at the feet of Rabbi Gamliel. It means that Jesus was inviting and expecting Mary to listen to his teaching, so that she would be equipped to share his teaching with others. And Jesus was inviting, urging, Martha to do the same.
In the Kingdom of God, as Jesus was living it and teaching it, the old boundaries were being broken down. Paul puts it very succinctly later on in the Letter to the Christians in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no ‘male and female’; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28).
It’s a mistake, therefore, for us to think that there is some sort of hierarchy between different modes of service – as in, prayer and study are better than hands-on care for others. That is a false dichotomy that is very unhelpful. After all, in last week’s Gospel the Samaritan’s physical and financial care of the beaten Jewish man was offered as a very clear example of living God’s law. And at the start of that reading when the religious law scholar gave Jesus the answer about inheriting eternal life and the answer was: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself, that covered both contemplation and action. And the week prior to that, when Jesus was sending out the seventy disciples he fully expected them to accept the hospitality that was offered them; so clearly cooking, serving a meal, providing a clean and restful place are all valuable, and those things don’t just happen by themselves.
But today the invitation is to stay focused on Jesus and on what he wants us to learn, on what he wants us to receive from him. Jesus wants us – men and women both – to take the time to listen, to learn, to put what we hear into practice, to take what we live and believe as disciples and share it with others. We can’t do that if we are worried, and frantic, and distracted. The challenge for most of us, I suspect, is to find ways to take time intentionally on as close to a daily basis as possible. Coming to church to worship with others, to hear the Sunday Scriptures, to listen to the sermon, to pray the liturgy are all essential – but it can be a long time between Sundays; and even longer when your schedule doesn’t permit you to be here every week. At those times the near-daily practice of sitting quietly, listening to God in prayer and Scripture and silence becomes even more important. Otherwise we will all too easily find ourselves running on fumes and getting spiritually exhausted and ill-equipped, and even lose the thread of what the Holy Spirit is trying to say to us.
So hear the voice of Jesus speaking to you: come, sit, rest, listen, pay attention, and know that I am calling you in love so that I may send you forth in compassion to the world.
Let us pray.
O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and
rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be
our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray you,
to your presence, where we may be still and know that you
are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ BCP
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 21, 2019
Sermons & Reflections
Sermons and reflections from clergy and lay leadership at
All Saints' Millington