A Dependable Foundation

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, October 30, 2012. The liturgy featured the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude, Apostles, transferred from October 28.

Readings

Deuteronomy 32:1–4
Psalm 119:89–96
Ephesians 2:13–22
John 15:17–27

Homily

Saints Simon and Jude appear in the gospels in the lists of Jesus’s disciples. Sometimes Simon is called Simon the Less or Simon the Canaanæan or Simon the Zealot. This helps us to remember he is not Simon Peter. Jude appears sometimes as Judas not Iscariot or Judas of James or Thaddæus so that Christians will know he is not Judas who betrayed Jesus.

That’s really all we know about these two apostles, their names and that they labored to lay the foundations of the Church. The foundations of a house, when it is ready for habitation, are hidden behind the interior finish and the earth graded back into place around the house. A solid foundation gets no attention; no one who visits our home ever remarks, “What solid footers; what sturdy basement walls.”

This is a good reminder for us as we celebrate the work of Saints Simon and Jude, because their unheralded labors to spread the Good News rest dependably and invisibly beneath us as the footings upon which our lives of faith stand solid.

In the reading from Ephesians, we heard, “… you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19b–20, NRSV). That is a powerful and encouraging word of promise.

It might seem some days—or maybe even most of them—as if our lives are shaky and precarious. Perhaps violent storms threaten to blow off or wash away all we own, while we watch impotently. A devastating diagnosis comes and casts into grave doubt the health we just assumed was ours. The phone does not ring, the letter does not come, and the days turn to weeks and to years since we heard last from a loved one, making the gift of family feel hollow. Controversies arise in the community of the church and division splits the family of God, leading us to wonder what has become of the unity we thought we shared.

These challenges test both us and our faith, but beneath us—always—sits “… the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

“My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” a beloved hymn, written by Edward Mote in the 1800s, offers us a reminder of Christ’s utter dependability:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’s blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’s name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

Come, let us prepare for the feast of Christ’s body and blood, the solid Rock, the foundation of our faith, passed on to us by the apostles. Amen.

“Are We Able to Drink the Cup?”

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, July 24, 2012. The liturgy features the feast of St. James, Apostle (c. A.D. 42), transferred from July 25.

Readings

Jeremiah 45:1–5
Psalm 7:1–10
Acts 11:27–12:3
Matthew 20:20–28

Homily

Today we recall the life, ministry, and martyrdom of Saint James. He and his brother, John, were the sons of Zebedee from the town of Bethsaida. According to the gospel accounts, he witnessed most of the miracles Jesus Christ performed in his ministry. As Acts tells us, King Herod executed James. This was probably around A.D. 42.

Matthew’s gospel tells us one of the conversations that Jesus had with the mother of James and John. Perhaps acting a little too protectively, she asked Jesus for a special favor for her sons, to grant them special positions at his right and left in the kingdom. His response is one that haunts us: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matt. 20:22, NRSV).

Are we able to drink the Lord’s cup, the cup of suffering for the faith, the cup of giving our all to God the Father in obedience to Him? Jesus raises the cup in the hours before his own sacrifice of suffering through his arrest and torture, his condemnation and crucifixion. As St. Paul tells the Philippians, this cup points to Christ’s “obedien[ce] to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8, NRSV).

Are you are able to drink the cup? Am I? No one can answer for another. Remember that the mother of James and John asked for honored placements for her sons, but they themselves answered Jesus’s question. She did not say for them, “Yes, of course they can.” And as we know from the account in Acts, James himself fulfilled his vow by dying a martyr’s death around a dozen years later.
Are we able to drink the cup? Are we able to profess Christ when faith in Him is uncomfortable, unpopular, countercultural, or even proscribed? Are we able to express our faith through witness, charity, and service, knowing we may suffer loss, setback, or ostracism for our sacrifices?

No one can answer for us. On the other hand, we are not left alone to make our answer. The Holy Spirit binds the Father into loving union with Jesus, the Son, so that He may drink the cup, carry the cross, and submit to sacrifice. The Father pours out that same Spirit upon us in baptism and rekindles it in us in the Holy Eucharist so that we, too, may say, along with James and John, “We are able” and then live by that vow. Amen.

Practice and Perseverance

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. The liturgy features the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, Abbot of Monte Cassino (c. A.D. 540), transferred from July 11.

Readings

Proverbs 2:1–9
Psalm 1
Luke 14:27–33

Homily

Since early 2000, I have studied Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese art that adapts moves designed for self-defense into patterns that carry strange and wonderful names like “Crane Spreads Wings” and “Ride the Wild Tiger.” My teacher continues to remind me that practicing Tai Chi is just that—practice. One does not perfect the practice; even the masters continue to refine their movements throughout their lives.

That’s an insight that helps to shed some light on the treasure we inherit from St. Benedict, whose Rule forms the foundation of western monasticism. In the Prologue, he writes:

And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow. For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from His school, but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom (RB Prol. 45–50, The Rule of Saint Benedict, Leonard Doyle, trans., Collegeville, Minn., The Liturgical Press, 2001).

In today’s Church, the religious—monks and nuns—live by this rule in cloistered communities. Others are oblates, who live by the spirit of this rule beyond the walls of monasteries. All of God’s people, as Proverbs tells us, hear His summons to seek to “incline our hearts to understanding” His wisdom. As Jesus reminds us in Luke’s gospel, He calls us to “carry the cross and follow him.” In that way, Benedict writes, “… we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ …” (RB Prol. 50).

These acts of discipleship and obedience are ones we practice, but do not perfect, despite a lifetime of attending “a school for the service of the Lord.” St. Benedict encourages us not to lose sight of the benefits of our practice: “… as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love” (RB Prol. 49). Amen.

“… We stand here as free, under God’s sky ….”

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, July 3, 2012. The liturgy features the memorial of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Writer and Prophetic Witness.

Readings

Isaiah 26:7–13
Psalm 94:16–23
1 Peter 3:8–12
Matthew 23:1–12

Homily

Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Connecticut from 1811 to 1896. She is most famous as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, the nineteenth century’s bestselling book. Despite its formal tone, it depicted in powerful ways the horrific effects of slavery on families. Many Northerners found inspiration in her writings to fortify their opposition to slavery, while numerous Southerners reacted with anger at the message of her work. The escalating tensions soon found their release in the outbreak of the Civil War.

It may be an apocryphal story, but President Abraham Lincoln, after meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, is reported to have said, “So, this is the little lady who started this great war!”

Remembering this author’s life and work so close to Independence Day leads us to reflect upon the power of ideas and words to overcome the forces of arms and actions. Great revolutions always find their roots first in thoughts, which then grow into deeds. Our Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, George Harris, a slave, gives voice to his own declaration of independence, saying, “We don’t own your laws; we don’t own your country; we stand here as free, under God’s sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we’ll fight for our liberty till we die.”

President Lincoln echoed these thoughts when he stood on the grounds of the national cemetery in Gettysburg in 1863 and said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. …[F]rom these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Taking increased devotion from the honored dead—that’s just exactly what we do when we memorialize our forebears in the faith. So today, we remember Harriet Beecher Stowe for giving written voice to the truth that all people have receive liberty as a blessing from God. With this blessing, God grants us the grace to live as St. Peter guides us, “Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but, on the contrary, a blessing, because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9, NAB).

Amen.

Mystical “Friends of God”

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, June 12, 2012. The liturgy features the memorial of Evelyn Underhill, Anglican teacher.

Readings

Wisdom 7:24–8:1
Psalm 96:7–13
John 4:19–24

Homily

Evelyn Underhill, an Englishwoman, lived from 1875 to 1941. Her adult life was rich with her study, writing, and teaching about the rich traditions of the mystics in the Church. While she felt drawn to the Catholic Church, in the end, she found her home in the Anglican Church.

A hundred and one years ago, she published Mysticism, the fruit of her research into the depths of the Church’s wealth of experience and insight invested in her mystics. The book explores the ways that some of God’s people find themselves strangely and powerfully attuned to His presence in human life. It shares how they struggle, at times, to express those experiences and to share their visions of God and their passions for His presence.

A verse from today’s first reading reminds us of the powerful and mystical ties that bind God and people together: “And passing into holy souls from age to age, [Wisdom] produces friends of God and prophets” (Wisdom 7:27b, NAB).

Friends of God. That strikes me as a good way to define a mystic. A friend of God wants to spend time with Him, to hear about His life, to learn His history, to grow closer to Him, and to bring others to Him. The friends of God our Father find their holy souls alive with His Wisdom—Jesus Christ—and moved by His Spirit, so that they cannot help but be attuned and consumed by that life-changing friendship.

In her work, The Light of Christ, Evelyn Underhill writes these words about Julian of Norwich, a mystic: “Julian says at the end of her Revelations that what she received from her vision of Christ was ‘Light, Life, and Love’; everything was gathered in that; an energy to show us the Truth, quicken us to fresh vitality and fill us with adoring devotion.”

We might not think of ourselves as mystics; they seem to be spiritual sprinters and marathoners, while we are amblers and mosiers at best. But God our Father has made us His children by water and the Spirit, baptizing us into the death and life of His Son. That means we are the “holy souls” in this age, the ones into whom God passes His Wisdom. This gift makes us friends of God. As God’s friends, we are invited into the mystery, to abide in the Light, to find strength in the Life, and to share the Love of God with others.

Amen.

Testifying to the Light

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, December 27, 2011. This is the third day in the Octave of Christmas and the Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist.

Readings

1 John 1:1–9
Psalm 92
John 21:19b–24

Homily

In Advent, we heard the cries of John the Baptist calling to us from the wilderness, baptizing and saying, “Repent” (Matthew 3:2) and “Behold, here is the Lamb of God” (John 1:36b). As John’s Gospel reminds us, “[The Baptist] came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:6–8).

Today, we celebrate the feast of the other John, the saint and apostle and evangelist. In his letter, he reminds us that the apostles say, “… this [word of] life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it” (1 John 1:2a). Their testimony is simple and pure, like the clear ringing of a bell that cuts through the noise of our lives and calls us to silence, to reverie and prayer.

John’s testimony is this: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Right there is the Good News in a simple sentence. Jesus Christ, who is the Word in the flesh, is the light that shines in the darkness and overcomes it.

Even when we may feel that darkness presses in upon us like a wall of unbreakable stone, like a wave of irresistible force, the light—who is Christ—shines in our lives. He breaks that wall; he repels that wave. Darkness may seem unstoppable when Christians die in bombings in their churches on the Feast of the Nativity, when families lose loved ones in tragic house fires, when relatives do not speak to one another, when congregations face division and disintegration, and when we know that “we lie and do not do what is true” (1 John 1:6).

Darkness may look victorious. But John tells us: stick to the light; walk in it; live in Christ. As he says in his letter, “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

And so, here we are, coming into the light, gathering around the table, offering our gifts in sacrifice, praising God our Father, receiving the body of God the Son—the bread of heaven—and the blood of the Word—the cup of salvation.

Soon we will leave, heading back into the darkness. But we will bear the light that shines unstoppably. We will testify to the light—Jesus Christ—who overcomes all darkness. Amen.

Christmas Reflections

The Holy Family

Memories are sometimes fluid and elusive.
We can come to believe
that we recall an event
in the kind of vivid detail
that only arises from personal experience.

But as we turn the memory over and over in our mind’s hands,
and look at it from different angles,
it gets hard to tell when our actual recollection ends
and our memories about the stories of those memories begin.

It’s what happens when we look at faded snapshots
taken when we were children.
Do we remember the lived event
or have we just built a memory
around the image in the photograph,
the stories our relatives have recounted over the years?

It’s hard to tell.
But in the end,
I don’t think it really matters,
because memory is not a transcript, a recording, a documentary.

It’s less than that, but infinitely more.
It’s our personal story,
and even if it’s not accurate in every detail,
it bears the truth of the meaning of the memory of the event.

That’s why our original memories
get overlaid and adorned and filigreed
with snapshots and anecdotes and stories and new memories
about those times when we have shared our old memories
with friends and family.

The picture we can envision
to help us understand ourselves
is of an attic, with boxes and chests
scattered in delightful disarray.

Some of these treasures are well marked,
but others are just a jumble,
waiting for us to come and to sort through them,
to make sense of them,
to put them in order.

This common and familiar experience
is what I imagine we share with Mary, the mother of our Lord.
Luke’s familiar telling of the birth of Jesus
reminds us how she and Joseph
found themselves swept up
in the Spirit’s whirlwind of action.

We know that God’s angel, Gabriel,
had announced to Mary
that the Spirit would come upon her
and she would conceive and bear a child,
the Son of God and Savior of the world.
That’s why the Church calls her Theotokos, or God-bearer.

And Mary remembers all of this, vibrant with detail.

And then the political powers
do what they do,
and upend the lives of the common people
to achieve their own ends.
So Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem
in the midst of her pregnancy.

And Mary adds to her memories.

They end up finding shelter with the beasts.
Then Jesus—God in the flesh—is born among the animals
and rests his head in a feed trough.
Soon the shepherds come and testify to the angels’ message:
“Do not be afraid. A Savior, the Messiah, the Lord is born.”

And Mary remembers this as well.

As St. Luke tells us,
“But Mary treasured all these words
and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19, NRSV)

It’s the treasuring and pondering
that draws a picture for me
of the ministry of memory we share with Mary.
As the years go by and Jesus grows up,
Mary finds time to go to the attic of her memory,
she kneels beside a great big box,
and takes from it some straw,
a long strip of cloth,
a curl of lamb’s wool.
They are reminders to her—
in an age with no cameras
and in a time when she had no money
to pay scribes to write the memories on scrolls—
of the miracle of her son’s birth.

And “Mary treasured all these words
and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19, NRSV)

The Greek words Luke chooses are powerful.
What we read as “treasured” is the Greek word suntereo.
It means “to preserve (a thing from perishing or being lost),”
or “to keep within one’s self, keep in mind (a thing, lest it be forgotten).”
(http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/suntereo.html)

And where we read, “pondered,” the Greek is sumballo.
This means “to throw together, to bring together,
to converse,
to bring together in one’s mind, confer with one’s self,”
or “to encounter in a hostile sense.” (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/sumballo.html)

It’s the work of a lifetime
to sift through memories such as these,
to keep them fresh in one’s mind,
to sort through the jumble,
to let the conflicts that arise work themselves out.

This was Mary’s work,
but it is ours as well.

We are like Mary in being swept up by the Spirit,
having our lives changed by the birth of God’s Son,
finding our journeys redirected,
walking to places we had not imagined,
meeting people we had not anticipated,
hearing messages we had not expected.

This is what happens when God our Father
gets to work in our lives,
when he breathes his Spirit into us,
when he comes among us in the flesh of his Son,
the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is nothing else for us to do
but to follow Mary’s lead,
to “treasure[] all these words
and ponder[] them in our heart[s].”

And as we do,
we can kneel together
before the manger
and tell one another in gentle whispers
how this helpless infant,
so “tender and mild,”
how this Son of God,
has touched us, changed us,
given us life and freedom,
blessed us with love
that we might follow him,
no matter what and no matter where it leads,
even to the foot of that baby’s cross. Amen.

What One Sentence?

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, October 25, 2011. This is Tuesday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time. The Feast of Saints Simon and Jude was transferred from October 28 for this mid-week Eucharist.

Readings

Deuteronomy 32:1–4
Psalm 119:89–96
John 14:21–27

Homily

This Friday is the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude. Jesus chose them to be his apostles. And that’s really all we know about them. Beyond that, Tradition tells us that they preached the Gospel in Mesopotamia and Persia—present-day Iraq. Their shared ministry eventually led to their martyrdom in that land on the same day.

It’s helpful to be reminded by these apostles what most lives of service look like. Few of us can expect to be remembered for the details of our discipleship. We’re not Peters or Pauls. Instead, we are much more like Simons and Judes.
Jesus Christ has called us, like Simon and Jude, to be his disciples. He gives us faith in him, leads us to praise his Father, and empowers us by their Holy Spirit to witness and to serve.

One time my wife, Anne, and I were visiting with one of her cousins who had become the family genealogist. As she was flipping through these large binders of family history, she would stop on a page, point at a picture, and say one sentence about that person’s life. I don’t remember what she said, but each sentence was something like this: Harry lived in a white-frame house and collected old phonograph records.
What has stuck with me ever since that day is a haunting question: What one sentence will some future family genealogist use to describe my life? What sentence would you write to describe your life? Simon and Jude were called by Jesus to be his disciples and apostles. It’s only one sentence, but it really does say all that we need to know about them.

The First Reading appointed for today from Deuteronomy contains a verse that captures the voice of the faithful—the people of Israel, Simon and Jude and the other apostles, along with the great crowd of unnamed disciples who have labored for the Lord over the centuries. It’s a thought we can hold in our hearts and speak with our lips. It’s only one sentence, but it says all that we to say about our lives of faith:

For I will proclaim the name of the LORD;
ascribe greatness to our God
(Deuteronomy 32:3, New Revised Standard Version). Amen.

Formation Under God’s Hand

When the Spirit-Driven Task Force at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church met on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011, the members discussed Christian Education. This was a reflection shared during the devotions.

In the second creation story in Genesis, we hear that “the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7, NAB). And later, the prophet Isaiah proclaims to God, “Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands” (Isaiah 64:7, NAB)

How long does it take for a lump of clay, pounded, kneaded, picked free of stones, thrown onto a wheel, pressed under strong hands, shaped by firm muscles, drawn up into graceful curves, adorned with patterns, and then set aside to dry, to face the fires, to be glazed and fired again—how long does it take for that lump of clay to fathom the potter’s mind and heart?

How long does it take us to begin to glimpse the splendor of that potter’s creative vision? How long to come to appreciate the intricacy and the beauty of the design pressed upon us, the plan guiding the throwing of a whole set of pieces, the compassion of pounding down a misshapen pot and beginning anew until the lump takes just the right form?

At least a lifetime. At least all the days we have received as gifts from our Master Potter. And so we begin. From the day he washed the dirt from us in Holy Baptism and made us his children, we have confessed, “I believe in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then we have learned to ask in company with those who have gone before us, “What does this mean?”

And for the hints of an answer, for insights into wisdom that lies beyond us, we turn to the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Confessions, the Church’s Traditions of Liturgy, and her Teachings of Morality. We look in these places for the palm prints, the impressions of the divine hands that shape us, that turn us from formless muddy lumps into creatures fashioned in the image of God, people redeemed from death by the Son’s sacrifice, sinful saints living only by the power of the Spirit.

How long does it take? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps we ought to ask God, “We won’t ever finish exploring your mind and mission, will we?” Why would we want to? What else could possibly matter more, be more significant, consume us so fully, fill us so completely?

Because we are God’s pottery, we are not God, but instead his handiwork. The shape we have, the grace filling us, the promise that leads us all come from him and not from within us. And so for us to learn about God is to come to appreciate the form he has given us, the marks he has pressed upon us, the design he has worked into his world, the plan for our redeeming. We learn about God when we receive our form, shape, and pattern, our ways of thinking and reflecting, our wisdom and understanding from what comes to us from beyond us.

That’s why we, as God’s pottery, do well when we embrace our learning as formation rather than education. Formation reminds us that our shape comes from outside of us and is pressed upon us. Education leads us instead to focus upon what we draw out of ourselves—the word’s root meaning.

What is the end—the purpose—of our formation? St. Paul offers a prayer for the Ephesians that speaks of us, as well:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:14–19, NAB).

Amen.

Giving and Proclaiming

Introduction

Emmanuel Lutheran Church, east of Beatrice, Nebraska, invited me to preach and preside at worship on Oct. 16, 2011, the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Readings

Isaiah 45:1–7
Psalm 96:1–13, antiphon v. 7
1 Thessalonians 1:1–10
Matthew 22:15–22

Homily

Let us pray …. May the words of my mouth and the meditations in our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Freedom from Want
Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell

One of America’s most beloved and iconic images is this one [Show print.] Sometimes it’s called “Thanksgiving Dinner.” Norman Rockwell painted it during World War II as an illustration for a war bonds poster. Then it appeared as the cover art on the March 6, 1943, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Called “Freedom from Want” in that issue, it was the third of four paintings to appear in the magazine to dramatize the Four Freedoms that President Franklin Roosevelt outlined in his January 1941 State of the Union address.

I think we’d be safe in saying that this image rests in our memories more as the ideal of Thanksgiving than as a reminder to us of war bonds or even of the President’s speech. Even so, the themes of Thanksgiving and Freedom from Want somehow tie together.

Here in the painting, a family gathers in joy and peace around a table dressed in white. Young and old together, they are all smiling, except the grandmother who may be more focused on finding a space for the turkey platter and the grandfather who perhaps is resisting the urge to guide the platter to its resting place. And we are there too, at the foot of the table, taking in the scene, our eyes caught in the gaze of the gentleman in the corner looking expectantly at us.

The turkey is large; the fixings are simple and not overly abundant. The drink is water. A good meal in wartime; surely the family will be praying in just a minute, basking in the diffuse white light filtered through the curtain from the sun, shining on a land and a people caught in the throes of war.

It’s funny, though. Our understanding of words has changed over the years. This was a painting about Freedom from Want, but if you look at the food on the table, you see a meal that offers freedom from need, not want. Or perhaps the family in the painting wanted less in the middle of World War II than we do today.

Even so, despite the differing interpretations we might make of this painting, it sticks in our minds’ eyes as an illustration of Thanksgiving, of gratitude for the sufficiency of God’s gifts in our lives.

But sadly, now as then, not all people can look forward to placing enough food on the table to feed a family. They cannot afford what they need to eat, much less to pay for what they might desire beyond their needs.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report released last month notes that across the United States in 2010, about one in seven households experienced what experts call “food insecurity.” That level of insecurity shows the effect of lacking the resources to afford to purchase the food needed to eat nutritionally sound meals. So it’s easy to see that poverty and hunger go hand-in-hand. In 2008, government statistics showed that 15.4 million Americans found themselves living in extreme poverty, where their family annual cash income didn’t amount to one-half the poverty level. That meant that their income was less than $10,000 for a family of four. (http//www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/us_hunger_facts.htm, accessed Oct. 13, 2011, citing http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR125/err125.pdf.).

Numbers and statistics can quickly cause our eyes to glaze over. So, it helps to keep faces in mind. Perhaps you know someone who doesn’t get enough to eat, or some family facing questions of what they might find to eat, rather than figuring out if the leftovers in the fridge are still safe after a week or more.

Those are the faces to envision as you gather your offerings for the food pantry. Picture the joy on the faces of a family as its members gather around their table—lifted up by the generosity of the community—and prepare to give God their thanks and to eat the meal he has provided through your contributions.

Why do we give canned and dry goods to the food pantry? For a variety of reasons. First, we and others give because it is a kind and neighborly thing to do. America is not always all about competition and getting ahead, making a killing off of those trying to make a living, just as it is not always about getting one’s fair share without contributing the sweat of one’s brow.

A great and deep strand in our national heritage is to reach out to others, to help them when they have a need, just as they will help us when we face a need. As Christians, we can ands ought to give for this reason, working alongside of others who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ.

This type of charitable work is good. We see a need. Someone is hungry. So, we share our food. That’s our basic humanity at work.

But for us as Christians, other, deeper motivations take root. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’s pointed parable about the judgment of the sheep and the goats reminds us that the righteous king will say on the last day, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me …. Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25: 34–36, 40, New American Bible).

So beyond acting out of basic humanity and basic decency, we can trust our Lord’s promise that when we feed people who are hungry, we are offering food to him. And so, in our minds’ eyes, our Lord joins us around the table spread in white. He comes to eat whenever we give our food to someone in hunger.

And finally, there is a third reason to give food to hungry people, to share what God has given us with the food pantry and other ministries that serve people in need. St. Paul hints at this third reason in his first letter to the Thessalonians. In today’s second reading, we heard him say:
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction … (1 Thessalonians 1:4–5a, New Revised Standard Version).

The message of the gospel comes not only in words, but also in power and in the Spirit and with the full force of conviction. And so, we give food to hungry people because it is humane, because by feeding them we feed the Lord who gives us life, and finally, because our actions proclaim the gospel with power. We can say that God loves his children and that he calls us to care for others. Once we have said that, we can share God’s love and care by giving food.

And beyond that, if someone asks us why we give food to people who are hungry, we can say we do so because we are neighborly and because we are grateful to God. But in truth, when our giving prompts someone to ask why we give, then our proclamation comes fully to life, “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” as we take that opening as an invitation to tell them about the love and grace we have received from Jesus Christ.

So, when we discover the opportunity to share food, we have privilege of giving to meet a need and the chance to proclaim the grace of Lord. For that, we can say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.