Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon: Unexpected Grace

Sermon for St. Michael and All Angels
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse, September 29, 2013
Lectionary readings for the day, click here.

Open our lips, O Lord,
that our mouths might proclaim your praise. Amen.

Today we commemorate
the Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels. 
Since the Middle Ages, this day has
1) honored St. Michael,
who defeated Lucifer in the war in heaven,
2) recognized the ministry of angels and archangels
“help to defend us here on earth,” as today’s collect offers.

Scripture reveals that angels serve two main functions.
First, as messengers who serve and praise God and
second, as non-material spiritual beings,
signs of God’s power and will.

See, angels reveal God’s grace in unexpected times and places.
And since today is our annual Open House event,
we hope you recognize all the angels in our midst
who have prepared grand hospitality
to evoke in you Jacob’s response,
“Surely God is in this place!”

Angels are quite popular in our culture.
From Chubby-cheeked cherubim in greeting cards,
to TV shows such as the 9-year hit "Touched by an Angel"
to movies such as "It's a Wonderful Life" or
“Michael,” staring John Travolta as the imperfect winged one 
with the big belly laugh, who loves to eat sugar and
smells like homemade cookies…
Travolta plays the famed Archangel with the tagline,
“He’s an angel, not a saint.”

Michael comes to earth to serve God in a specific task.
He is on a mission to mend broken hearts.
Once he gets Frank and Dorothy back in love,
he returns to heaven.[1] Or maybe he ascends to heaven,
like the angels from our readings today.

Today’s gospel is from the “call” story of the disciples
Philip, Andrew, Peter and Nathanael – we hear the 2nd half;
presumably 1)to highlight angels (since this is their feast day).  
and 2) to draw us into the mystery at the heart of Christianity –
how could Jesus, this ordinary human,
who until then had
performed no miracle, shown no sign, engaged in no teaching,
how could Jesus really be Divine?

In this text up till now, in this call story of the disciples
from chapter 1 in John’s Gospel
Jesus has proclaimed nothing about the reign of God
that could excite the imagination of Philip or anyone else. 
And when Philip says to Nathanael that he has found
“the one of whom it is written in the book of Moses and prophets, 
Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,”
Nathanael is scoffs.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” 

That’s a familiar sensation; and it made me wonder
…if there is a little bit of Nathanael in all of us, right? 
I wonder if our mistrust or skepticism get the better of us.

Can anything good come out of … Congress? 
Can anything good come out of … that mega-store 
who shall not be named moving into the neighborhood nearby? 
Can anything good come out of …a Vestry meeting?

Are we tired? 
Are we jumping to conclusions
about how the future will unfold, like Nathanael?

So Philip replies to Nathanael, simply, “Come and see!” 
Today, Jesus says to us, “Come and See!”

When Jesus sees Nathanael across the way,
under his breath, Jesus remarks,
“here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Or, in many translations, no “guile” –
no cunning, no craftiness, no slyness. 

Nathanael wears his mistrust, doubt and wariness, 
like a protective vest; “Where did you get to know me?”
Jesus replies,
“I saw you under the fig tree.” 
Jesus “saw” him even before Philip called him. 
Jesus “saw” him.

This “seeing” reminded me of the SciFi movie Avatar.
Human explorer Jake Sully takes on the digitized body form
of the Navi race to befriend the tribe, ultimately 
to gain access to precious metals to save humanity.

In avatar form, Jake meets Neytiri,
a full blooded Navi, and they develop a love interest. 

There is that scene where these two get to know each other. 
Jake learns the tribal greeting, from Neytiri, “I See You.” [2] 
Neytiri explains: when Navi persons “see” each other,
they allow this greeting to deeply affect them,
and it affirms that they are One tribe.

While that is sci-fi, it seems this is what happened between Jesus and Nathanael.   
Jesus “saw” him –
from the depths of his soul, to the last hairs on his head
looking right through his outerwear of doubt
– Jesus saw him. 

And, Jesus sees us – profoundly, deeply. 
Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton
calls this *seeing* “Le Point Vierge,”  “The Virgin Point.”

At this mysterious center of our being,
Le Point Vierge is that point,
“…which is untouched by sin and by illusion,
a point of pure truth, a point or spark
which belongs entirely to God, …
from which God disposes of our lives,
which is inaccessible to the fantasies
of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.”[3] 

Le Point Vierge – is where
Jesus sees us, loves us and calls us,
even before our friends invite us here.

Well, Jesus’ remark surprises even Nathanael. 
and elicits a response appropriate to the Divine –
that wild profusion of messianic titles,
“You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!” 
echoing Jacob’s comment, “Surely God is in this place!”


Nathanael’s believing response
was not based on empirical evidence, not on facts, 
but on the mystery and sureness of love -on being seen (and known).

Jesus then invites Nathanael
to go deeper – to go beyond his “belief.”

Jesus invites us, too,
to go deeper – to go beyond our “belief.” 

Today, in our Open House event,
in the mystery of the liturgy,
in the song notes floating above the musicians,
in the smiles of children who yearn for love,
in the presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread,
today, we are invited to go beyond our “belief.” 

“Do you believe just because I saw you under the fig tree?” Jesus asks.

“Well,” he continues,
“…you ain’t seen nothing yet! 
you will see greater things that these!”

Here, something interesting happens in the Greek text,
Jesus switches pronouns to plural “you” as in “y’all”. 

Jesus says, (in a southern vernacular)
“Truly I tell y’all, y’all will see heaven opened
and the angels of God ascending and descending
up on the Son of Man.”

He addresses not just Nathanael,
but all the disciples who were there gathered –
Philip, Andrew, Peter…
And he is addressing us, as his disciples. 

We can’t help but make a connection
between this image of angels ascending and descending
and Jacob’s vision of the ladder of angels at Bethel
from our first reading. 

In that connection to Jacob, and in Jesus’ remarks,
we realize this text is not just about Jesus;
it is about Nathanael

Nathanael is “seen” by Jesus as one awesome Israelite
“in whom there is no deceit” – no “guile.”

See, although
*Jacob* was divinely given the name Israel
after he wrestled with the angel all night,
*Jacob* was known as one who saw God face to face
and was utterly transformed by the encounter,
*Jacob* was a man who had guile,
having deceived his brother Esau
out of his father’s blessing.

When Nathanael is “seen” by Jesus
as an “Israelite without guile”
Nathanael becomes a new Jacob…
Nathanael, beholding Jesus, is seeing the very face of God
and is utterly transformed…
Nathanael, as the guileless Jacob,
is the prototype of a new humanity reborn in Christ. 

And in that seeing, Jesus reveals himself as the ultimate ladder
stretching between heaven and earth,
with angels ascending and descending.
Jesus connects the finite and infinite, time and eternity. 

The good news today is that this text is about us, too.
We are transformed in the presence of this Holy One. 
When we love God and each other with our “whole heart,”
when we love our neighbors as ourselves,
when we share the sign of peace,
we are beholding the face of God. 

And we are all utterly transformed by the encounter. 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? 
Can anything good come out of an Open House event? 
Realistically, I think Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber
is right when she reminds us that
while church is founded on God’s love for all people,
it is a human project and of that I don’t want to be idealistic.

Realistically, it’s a human project
with human mistakes and human foibles. 

Realistically when you come and “see” us today,
it is possible that at some point,
I or someone in the church will let you down.

Please decide on this side of that happening
that you will still stick around; that you will revisit. 
Because if you leave, you will miss the way the heavens open,
the angels ascend and descend and the way that
God's grace unexpectedly fills in the cracks
of our brokenness.

“And *that* is something too beautiful to miss.Don't miss it.”[4]

Come and see, take a tour, enjoy the hospitality,
tell your story, come and “see” us.
Jesus invites us to co-create God’s kingdom here on earth:

a new humanity, a new reality, a new body of Christ –
and, you will see more than that! 

You will see angels revealing God’s grace
in unexpected times and places. 

For that, we praise God,
joining our voices with angels and archangels,
and all the company of heaven!


[1] Summarized from cited on September 23, 2013
[3] As described by Kathleen Deignan in Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours, note 25, page 30. Originally included in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, (Image Publishing, 1968)
[4] Excerpt from Krista Tippett interview on cited on September 23, 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sermon: Labor Day

Sermon for Labor Day, 2013
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse, September 1, 2013
Lectionary readings for the day, click here.
Sermon based on Gospel According to Matthew 6:19-24
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to You, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

When I was a child, Labor Day was a play day –
a time to hang out with friends,
enjoy a last summer swim, and
make homemade ice cream.
It sometimes coincided with my mother’s birthday,
so we thought the holiday was for her.

As we commemorate Labor Day in our worship, we explore how we offer our ‘labor’ to bring about God’s kingdom – how God is calling us toward heavenly aspirations.

Labor Day – this day of rest and respect –
actually emerged out of conflict.
First celebrated in Boston in 1882 by the Central Labor Union, it became a federal holiday in 1894. 
President Cleveland signed it into law to reconcile
with the labor movement following a deadly encounter
during the Pullman strike –
a confrontation between labor unions and railroads.[1]

That conflicting labor movement,
often facilitated by Christian leaders,
brought about many of the benefits and rights
that we appreciate today: vacations, holidays, health care,
workers comp, days off, disability,
protection from discrimination, fair pay, and
collective bargaining.

This year marks 100-years of the Dept of Labor,
established in 1913 by President Taft, giving workers
a direct seat in the President's Cabinet for the first time.[2]  

In 1933, Episcopalian Frances Perkins (the first woman appointed to the President’s Cabinet) served as
secretary of labor. She was the principal architect of
·        the Social Security Act of 1935
·        maximum hour laws
·        a federal minimum wage
·        regulations on child labor and
·        unemployment insurance
(Incidentally, she won the Golden Halo award this year
in the  whimsical, online “Lent Madness” competition.[3])

Labor Day is more than symbolic.
It reflects a prophetic concern for justice of hard working people, the poor and the vulnerable in work and in service.

The collect for today asks God’s blessing on our linked lives,
and asks for guidance in all work we do,
“…that we may do it not for self alone,
but for the common good and,
as we seek a proper return for our own labor,
make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of [all] workers…”

It is to these “rightful aspirations” that we turn today
in the gospel text, which occurs during Jesus’
“Sermon On The Mount.”

During this part of Jesus’ sermon, he is describing what community life is like in God’s economy,
(as opposed to the world’s economy).
This has radical implications for the disciples.

Jesus confronts cultural and economic norms
“Do not store up treasures on earth…
store up treasures in heaven.”
He sets up a dualism between
earth and heaven,
temporary goods and permanent goods,
serving things and serving God.

With classic hyperbolic language,
Jesus points to the “rightful aspirations” of the disciples.

Perhaps in the midst of Jesus’ Sermon, he felt
the disciples needed reminders
about why they were serving to begin with. 
Jesus shifts the disciples’ orientation,
their “aspirations,”
away from “what they got” as a result of their labor
to “whom are they serving.”
In spite of all the changes between then and now,
some things remain the same.
I wonder if we, too, need clarity of purpose–
reminders of our aspirations?

Have you ever wondered, like me,
if your labor, your service, matters?
Or thought,
Can I trust that in serving God my needs will be met?

Jesus’ teachings has radical implications for us disciples.

For one thing, it is really hard to take into account God’s will
in the midst of a culture that revolves around economics,
the need to have money, and a greed to have more.

It is hard to give whole-heartedly in an employment culture that often shows lack of concern for
the conditions of workers.

Does it strike you as ironic that stores offer Labor Day sales, even while the original reason for Labor Day
was to offer rest and respect for workers?
It seems our culture’s Labor Day aspirations are to
“store up for ourselves treasures on earth.” 

As I hear the text of the gospel today,
I hear Jesus asking us to shift our orientation,
our aspirations,
away from “what we get” as a result of our labor
to “whom we are serving.”
When the disciples make that shift, toward the grace of heaven, they find Jesus sanctifies their kingdom labor.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew,
Jesus reminds the disciples
“the kingdom of heaven has come near” –
in fact, it was already arriving! 

Jesus invited the disciples
to view the world
through God’s clear eye, with lightness. 
to live in God’s economy
with treasure in their heart
to find meaning for their labor
outside themselves – in God’s kingdom.

In other words, Jesus taught the disciples that
the compensation for their labor,
is God’s gracious, everlasting and faithful
It is God’s desire to use our every day activities
to create a more just and vibrant world. 
It is God’s desire to sanctify your work and your service.

Author, educator, and spiritual activist Parker Palmer says, 
“The power of a fully lived life
…comes only as we let go of what we possess
and find ourselves possessed
by a truth greater than our own.”

And in being possessed by that truth greater than our own, Palmer reminds us,
Our strongest gifts are usually those
we are barely aware of possessing.
They are a part of our God given nature,
with us from the moment we drew first breath,
and we are no more conscious of having them
than we are of breathing.”[4]


Today, Jesus reminds us that all gifts offered
in service of God’s reign is sacred - the labor of
workers, leaders, employers, blue-collar, white-collar, no-collar,
paid and unpaid, employees and volunteers. 

The labor of  
parents, siblings, co-workers,
citizens, educators, musicians,
knitters, care-givers, pray-ers,
candlestick polishers, chief executive officers, politicians,
lawyers, students, farmers,
gardeners, chefs, librarians,
All labor in God’s reign is sacred. 

The first reading today from 2nd century B.C. Ecclesiasticus,
emphasizes this very idea:
“All these rely on their hands, and
all are skillful in their own work.
Without them no city can be inhabited, and
wherever they live, they will not go hungry.”

Which is why today and tomorrow, we can thank people who labor for us. Take a moment to thank folks for their service.

If you ever thought that your small part
does not matter, think again. 

Brother Lawrence,
who served in a Carmelite Monastery in the 1600’s
became known after his death
in a short but profound memoir,
The Practice of the Presence of God.[5]

Br Lawrence worked in the monastery kitchen. 
There, with the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning
at the constant demands of his superiors,
he developed his rule of spirituality and work.

For Brother Lawrence, “common business,”
was how he found and experienced God’s presence.
He said,  
“…the sacredness or worldly status of a task mattered less
than the motivation behind it.”
“…is it [not] that we should have great things to do…
We can do little things for God;
I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him,
and that done, if there is nothing else to call me,
I prostrate myself in worship before him,
who has given me grace to work;
afterwards I rise happier than a king.
It is enough for me to pick up
but a straw from the ground for the love of God."

Brother Lawrence knew for whom he served;
he felt that having a proper aspirations about tasks
made every detail of his possess surpassing value.[6] 

He reminds us that
what you do matters –
no matter how big or small –
in service of God’s reign. 
God sanctifies our work, our service, our labor.

God links our lives to bring about God’s reign, God’s kingdom-come-near, which is that place where, as our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says,

“where no one goes hungry
because everyone is invited to a seat at the groaning board,
…where no one is sick or in prison because all sorts of disease have been healed,
…where every human being has the capacity to use every good gift that God has given,
…where no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another,
…where all enjoy Sabbath rest in the conscious presence of God…”[7]

All labor is sacred.

That’s where our treasure is.
That’s where our heart is.

May God bless our heavenly labor.


[1] Excerpt From Bruce Epperly, “Seeking God’s shalom: Reflections on Labor Day,” at cited on August 30, 2013
[2] Excerpt from Department of Labor’s centennial website, at cited on August 30, 2013
[3] As noted on cited on August 30, 2013
[4] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass., 2000) p. 52
[5] This short book can be found at bookstores everywhere and online at cited on August 30, 2013
[6] Bio of Brother Lawrence excerpt from on August 30, 2013
[7] Katharine Jefferts Schori, 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States