Sermons

Sermon given by The Reverend Andrew J. Hege on Sept. 29, 2019

Michaelmas
9.29.2019
AJH+
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God
ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
In the mid-1950’s, the Episcopal Church, like most of the mainline denominational traditions of
the United States, was nearing the end of a period of remarkable growth. In the midst of the
so-called ‘Fourth Great Awakening’ in this country, American congregations had experienced
sharp increases in Sunday attendance, notable growth in giving, and, as a result, stirred much
interest in building campaigns and the establishment of new parishes in emerging communities.
During this period of time, in Lexington, Kentucky, where I served for five years prior to
accepting the call to come to Blowing Rock, Bishop William R. Moody had a vision. The concept
was simple – an Episcopal parish in every neighborhood of the city. He grounded this plan in
four neighborhood parishes at the four corners of the city, named for the four archangels we
encounter in sacred scripture – Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel, Saint Raphael, and Saint Uriel.
The city of Lexington would be surrounded and supported by the angels and archangels, he
said. It was a bold and daring vision that, I believe, tells us much about the Church’s belief in
the angels of God and their activity in our world.
From the very beginning of our scriptures, early in the Book of Genesis, and all the way through
to the end, the presence of angels as messengers of God, communicators of the holy, and
protectors of the good is proclaimed and affirmed. The angels of God are active in the Garden
of Eden, they surround the throne of the Almighty at the completion of things, and they turn
up, over and over again, in God’s story of us.
At every turn, when angels appear in scripture, they are a foreshadowing of God’s coming
presence and a testament to God’s continued awareness of and attention to the events of the
world in which we live. Consider the passages we read this morning…
In Genesis, we enter into the dream of Jacob the traveler. With a pillow of stone and sleeping
on the hard ground of the place identified as holy ground, Jacob has a grand vision. His is a
vision of a ladder reaching from the earth all the way to the heavens, with angelic beings
coming and going, up and down, from holiness to humanity.
The Hebrew term used for ‘ladder’ might also have been used for a type of ‘staircase,’ a long
flight of steps on which the messengers of God travel near and far, to and from the presence of
the Holy One. Jacob, like any of us who may have experienced a vivid dream, awoke from his
sleep terrified, struck by the presence of God. He calls the place where he slept, Beth-el – the
house of God, for, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”
The Psalmist imagines the throne of God in this song of praise and thanksgiving. Surrounding
the Almighty are the hosts of angels, listening to God’s voice and carrying out God’s work
amidst the creation. The writer of the psalm calls them God’s ministers, the ones who carry out
God’s will in all places of his dominion.
Saint John, in his Revelation offers us the most action-packed of accounts – “War broke out in
heaven.” Michael, the archangel of God, along with a company of followers encounter an evil
dragon, identified as the serpent of old, a deceiver of the whole world and an intruder not
welcome in the realms of heaven. With great might, this evil one is cast off, thrown down from
the holy place to the depths below.
And, finally, in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to one of his earliest followers about the greater
things he will soon see, the angels of God ascending and descending, distinct from Jacob’s
vision only in that the angels are traveling upon the Son of Man rather than a ladder. The
revision of the ancient and familiar image is intentional as Jesus places himself among the
angels, as their mode and means of passage, the pathway by which we rise above the
ordinariness of this world to encounter the beautiful holiness of God.
These are wonderful stories, remarkable imagery, and powerful imagination on the part of the
writers of scripture, but what do these tales and the reality of angels have to do with us, God’s
people, here and now?
Jacob’s vision, revisited by our Lord, is particularly important here, for it reminds us that God’s
host of messengers do not remain distant or disconnected from the created world in which we
live. Time and time again, the stories of our faith teach us that the angels are active and
moving amidst God’s creation, working for its good. In their image, we are reminded that God
has long been active in the world through faithful servants attesting to God’s love.
One writer says, “In the Bible, when angels show up, they're never the focus. They signal that
God is about to show up. God is about to pronounce or fulfill a promise. God is acting to set
people free.” Why should we suspect that times have changed?
The angels of God seem to have been present and active in the world from the very beginning
of time; so, also, must it be in this, our time. Do we dare look and see, pause and listen? Do we
risk acknowledging all the places where God is breaking in, where God’s promise needs carrying
out, where God’s freedom needs enacting?
In the Gospels, Jesus’ first encounter with angels following the singing choirs at his birth, is not
in the Temple; it is in the wilderness amidst temptation, hunger, and loneliness. If we wish to
see and experience God’s angels, if we long hear their good news, we must be willing to go to
such places of need, where wounds and sorrow are present.
The angels of God are surely many and are surely present and active in our world, ever calling
us to be attentive to all the places God intends to be, in every space where Jesus’ loving
embrace needs to be extended. May we follow where they lead us, and, may the whole
company of God’s angels go with us, protecting us and praying for us, all along the way. Amen

 

 

Sermon given by The Reverend Andrew J. Hege on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019

Proper 19 C
9.15.2019
AJH+
“The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
“Those who say, ‘I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of
sinners’, have never dwelt in the tents of sinners.”
Nathan Baxter, sometime Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, is said to
have uttered these words in a sermon offered a number of years ago. The good bishop’s point
was to poke a little fun while also raising a larger point about the company Jesus so often keeps
in the Gospel accounts. Perhaps, Baxter suggests, Jesus found more joy, more grace in the
company of those labeled ‘sinners’ than among the religious of his own day.
Indeed, this morning’s Gospel lesson finds Jesus in a familiar locale for Luke’s telling of the good
news story. Our Lord, the great teacher, is once again the subject of the Pharisees’ gossip and
grumbling, indicted in the court of public opinion for spending time with ‘sinners’, persons
defined as living on the fringes of society, the unclean masses, and going so far as to share a
meal with them.
While it may have been more entertaining and enjoyable to dwell among the sinners than
among the law-abiding of his day, Jesus’ choice of company, the people with whom he chooses
to surround himself, and the way that he conducts himself in their presence, tells us much
about who he is and the message he came to proclaim. Hence, Jesus responds to their
accusation with the two parables we read this morning.
They are two parables of lost things – the first, a story of a single sheep, lost in the wild,
separated from the herd. The faithful keeper of the flock, the good shepherd, if you will, leaves
the ninety-nine behind in safety to go in search of the one that is absent and wandering.
The second is the story of a lost silver coin. In Jesus’ context, this coin represents as much as a
day’s wages in the eyes of the working class with whom he is speaking. It is no meager sum
that is being referenced, much more than the elusive dime that fell beneath the driver’s seat of
my car this week. The woman in Jesus’ story leaves no corner of the home unturned to seek
out the precious, missing coin.
In both stories, the image of God is suggested by the character who ventures out, diligently
searching for the missing thing. Interestingly, Jesus uses both male and female images to depict
God’s role in the parable. Though it is among the only times a female image is used for God, I
believe it is no less a powerful testament to the boundary-breaking nature of the Gospel.
In each of these two parables, Jesus, God’s beloved son in the world, once again announces
that he has come into the world with a message of divine, good news, an invitation to the way
of being God has always intended, a summons to life itself. And, even more, the message he
has come to announce is for more than the devout religious, the members of the in-crowd;
God’s good news is for the one that has wandered off, the one that has been pushed away, the
one that has been forgotten.
Jesus, God-incarnate, the Divine Creator in human flesh, came among us, not just for the
ninety-nine in safety, but also for the one astray.
This truth, that God in Christ does not leave even one to be lost and alone, proclaimed by Jesus
in his parables, is nothing short of miraculous, in and of itself. However, when taken in the
larger context of Jesus’ parables and the company that he keeps, it becomes even more
powerful, I believe.
Throughout the Gospels, as Jesus situates himself among those labeled ‘sinners,’ the ones we
might be tempted to immediately label as ‘lost ones’, remember and consider what he does
and does not say to them.
Jesus rarely draws attention to their sinfulness, whatever condition may have warranted such a
label. Our Lord very rarely uses these moments for sermons about repentance; these are not
situations in which Jesus seeks to initiate further shame or disgrace. Like John the Baptizer, his
forerunner, and the great company of the prophets before them, Jesus saves such messages for
the committed religious, the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, those who know the
Law and pride themselves on their observance of it.
Jesus spends his time among the so-called ‘sinners’ differently, present rather than preaching,
caring rather than critical. In so doing, the Gospel once again overturns our every inclination
and shatters our every expectation.
Those labeled as ‘sinners’ by social norms of Jesus’ day, of our own time, do not need another
sermon preached to them; they’ve heard more than enough of those already. Over and over
again, they’ve been told that they are too sinful, too marred, too soiled.
Perhaps, however, the religious in-crowd, most of us here, myself included, if we are truly
honest, could use such a sermon every now and then, a sacred reminder of our own sinfulness,
our own brokenness before God. None of us are without blemish, not one of us perfect.
Jesus continuous, gentle presence among the apparent ‘sinners’ of his own day, coupled with
his frequent critique of the religiously devout, is an honest living out of the value portrayed in
the two parables he shares with his detractors in this morning’s Gospel lesson – in Jesus the
Christ, God’s persistent, relentless pursuit of loving relationship is not merely with the many or
with the few, not only with the lost or the found, not limited to the sinner or with the saint.
In the Christ, God’s love, God’s invitation to true and abundant life, is for one and for all.
This morning, whether you arrive in this place confident or skeptical, penitent or heedless of
the call, hear this Good News: in Jesus, God keeps company with us, among us, searching for us,
calling us, each and every one of us, to consider the hurt and broken reality of our lives, and to
walk with him in a new direction, into the way of true joy, life that knows no ending. Amen

 

 

 

Sermon given by The Reverend Andrew J. Hege on September 8, 2019

Proper 18 C
9.8.2019
AJH+
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
“Seek the truth; come whence it may, cost what it will.”
These are the words of the Reverend William Sparrow, professor of Church History at the Virginia
Theological Seminary during the mid-nineteenth century. According to campus folklore, they were
repeated often to his students, seminarians preparing for a lifetime of service in Christ’s Church, in
this country and around the world.
Sparrow’s words are today engraved in the stone that sits by the entryway to the Bishop Payne Library,
a hub of the campus community and a location where they cannot be overlooked or forgotten. To
generations of Jesus-followers studying for Holy Orders, and to all who read them, they are a telling
reminder that walking in the way of Jesus does not come cheaply.
Indeed, if we are truly honest, to follow Jesus costs everything.
By the time we arrive at the fourteenth chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has accumulated quite a
band of followers. The unrelenting crowds accompany him everywhere he goes, night and day. Even
when our Lord tries to get away to steal a few quiet moments for rest and contemplation, they are
present. As we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson, the eyes of many are watching his every move,
some with good intentions and others less so.
At the home of a religious leader, Jesus has just shared three parables to further illustrate the kingdom
of God, the table in the home becomes the perfect stage to enact the values and principles of God’s
renewed realm of justice and abundance.
Jesus’ final parable in the series, skipped over by last week’s Gospel reading and our portion this
morning is significant, a sort of hinge point, if you will, in the broader narrative. This story offers the
image of a man who is determined to throw a great dinner party and invite many guests.
As would have been the custom of the day, invitations were sent well in advance for the great banquet;
however, when the evening came for all to gather around, none were present. The invited guests sent
their last-minute regrets with a multitude of explanations – one was tending to a new plot of land,
another to new oxen, and another has just been married.
The host is indignant because of the empty banquet hall, but he is not defeated. Rather than let the
party go to waste, he sends his servants out to invite any and all who wish to come and share with him
in the bountiful feast.
On the one hand, this is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about the always-broadening nature of God’s
kingdom. In God’s kingdom, boundaries are constantly broken to make space for one more unlikely
guest.
However, as Jesus tells this story, it seems that he may have another intention in mind; there may be
a dueling moral to the story, revealed by the teaching he offers in our Gospel lesson this morning. To
the ever-growing crowds, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does
not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…”
Now, Jesus is not literally saying that we should go forth to hate our parents or our siblings, though
more than one angry teenager would be happy to cite our Lord’s words as a helpful proof-text when
storming away. Neither is Jesus saying that we should do anything less than love and adore our
spouses and children. Nor is Jesus suggesting that we should not find means of enjoying our lives.
However, Jesus is saying that following in his way is difficult and those who dare to walk such a path
must be prepared for its challenge. And, even more, Jesus emphasizes, to follow in his way is an allencompassing
pattern of life.
Some scholars have suggested that Jesus, here, is trying to whittle down the size of the crowds that
have grown so large, to turn people away from his movement with harsh language, to scare away those
who could not go all the way to Jerusalem with him. After all, we know that many in the company of
his followers, among his closest disciples even, see the movement as an opportunity to improve their
status, to claim their place of honor in the coming reign of God.
Though it may appear to make sense to read this text in that way, such a depiction of Jesus seems to
be inconsistent with the whole of the Gospel story.
On the contrary, I believe that Jesus, in this moment, is actually doing what he does best – Jesus is
speaking, to those gathered around, with a profound honesty. Such language startled those of his own
day, and us in our present age, because such intense candor and raw sincerity is incredibly rare.
Following Jesus is hard.
My friends, following Jesus means that we must be willing to allow ourselves to become sullied and
stained by the world in which we live. We must be willing to get dirty, to be wounded and hurt,
shamed and disgraced. To follow in the way of Jesus means that we must recognize our own call to
step into his shoes and walk a while, even to the point of the cross itself.
The obstacles that stand in the way of us truly following Jesus are many and they are varied. Though
it might be tempting, this is far more than a simple stewardship sermon, using our Lord’s admonition
to give up all your possessions an invitation to discover life’s deeper meaning through increasing your
pledge and giving a little more.
But, Jesus’ command to take up and carry the cross is an invitation to much, much more.
The call of discipleship, to follow in the way of Jesus, is the summons to consider every aspect, every
corner of our lives, to learn what we hold most dear, and, then, be willing to walk away, to give it all
up, for his sake and for sake of God’s good news.
There is no sugar-coating to soften and sweeten this message; Jesus’ words are direct and demanding.
He spoke them to challenge those around him, and they continue to challenge us, here and now.
Will we walk in his way, follow in Jesus’ steps? Are we willing to give up all that we have, all that we
are in order that God’s good news of mercy and justice may go forth? Do we dare take up the cross
and go with him, “…come whence it may, cost what it will”?