keep alert! and leave the shade up !

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017

Several years ago, when our family was living in San Antonio, Ann and I went to a James Taylor concert. One of the songs he sang, from his “Hourglass” CD, was about the death of a close friend. The words, like the words to several of the songs we heard that night, had a dark, gloomy side:

 They brought her back on a Friday night, the same day I was born.     

We sent her up the smoke stack, and back into the storm.

She blew up over the San Juan Mountains, and spent herself at last,

The threat of heavy weather, that was what she knew the best.  

 When Taylor finished the song, someone from the audience shouted, “change the subject!” Some of you may have felt like that when you heard today’s gospel reading with its violent  picture of the end of the world: “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Today, the first Sunday of Advent, is the beginning of a new church year. It’s a time of hopefulness and joy as we prepare for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. Why do we have to hear such a gloomy, frightening message?  It’s hard for us to admit, but in the life of faith, we often have to face the darkness of life before we can see the light.

During his concert, James Taylor so much as admitted this when he told of how, at an earlier time of his life, he had spent a whole year in the dark haze of drug addiction. Maybe those songs about facing the sober reality of life and death were Taylor’s attempt to move out of his own personal darkness toward the light. Each Sunday in Advent, we begin the service by lighting another candle on our Advent wreath….a sign that the light of Christ shines in the darkness, but also a reminder that each week the days get shorter and the darkness around us increases. Each Advent, as we celebrate the coming of the light of Christ, we also know that our life consists of waiting in the dark without losing hope….we know that it is in the midst of the darkness that the light of new life will come.

Our gospel was written around 70 AD – forty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when the Jerusalem Temple again lay in ruins, destroyed by Roman soldiers.  The followers of Jesus are experiencing persecution, families are splintered, and the promise of the presence of God seems like a cruel joke. It is to these disillusioned and desperate believers that Mark, our gospel writer, tells the story of Jesus. He has Jesus speak words of hope to a people experiencing the absence of Jesus. What he offers to them is a choice.  We can either stay alert and hopeful in the abyss, or we can cave in to bitterness, negativity and despair.

The reason that we Episcopalians focus on the season of Advent rather than rushing headlong into the celebration of Jesus’ birth is that Advent calls us to prepare for something that is actually much bigger than the yearly arrival of Christmas. Despite the temptation to focus on the comfort and joy of the holiday season, Advent calls us to pay attention to the world around us, even as it is wracked with suffering, violence, and hunger. Advent reminds us that our ancestors once called out for a Savior, and that we in the Church wait for the return of one. We wait, and we hope, knowing nothing other than to keep working, keep watching, and keep awake.

In our world torn by pain and division, we look at the pain all around us and we wonder, “how long?” How long will people in our own country have to live with the fear of violence in their communities and in their schools? How long will we live at odds with our neighbors and endure division in our families? How long will our nation continue to be polarized in our debates over immigration, the environment, and race relations? How long will people have to endure violence and hunger, and the spiraling rise of drug addiction? In our lowest points, we are tempted to wonder if things will be this way forever.

It is told that the famous inventor, Thomas Edison, worked for months, all day and late into the night, trying to invent the light bulb. As he came out of his lab one evening, he looked exhausted. A friend asked, “How many experiments have you done already?” “More than 1,900” Edison replied. “More than 1,900!” exclaimed the colleague. “That’s incredible. You must feel very disappointed by now, very much a failure.” Edison straightened to his full stature, and his eyes glistened. “Not at all,” he said. “I don’t feel like a failure. I’ve made so much progress. You see, I now know more than 1,900 things that won’t work. One of these days, I’m going to hit on the one that does.”

 This is what it means to remain alert in the abyss, to live by faith and by hope, and to depend on a wisdom and a timing beyond our own.

 The people of Jerusalem, acutely aware of their sinfulness and alienation from God, called upon an absent God to become present in their lives, like a clay pot emerging out of a potter’s hands. Years later, in the silence of a Bethlehem stable, their prayers were answered. Likewise, the bloody, tormented Christians in the gospel – finally aware that their human powers are spent – respond to Mark’s words by waiting….watching…. alert in the smoldering ruins of their faith. For both Isaiah’s people and Mark’s people, the waiting is active, expectant, alert – and the waiting pays off – but on God’s timetable and not their own….out of God’s power and promise and not their own.

One of the great preachers of 20th century America, Harry Emerson Fosdick, was pastor of Riverside Church in New York City for many years. When he retired, he moved to the town of Bronxville, in Westchester County, where my father grew up. After retiring, Fosdick kept an office in Manhattan and he used to take the train every day into the city - a train ride I used to take, when I visited my Grandmother on Thanksgiving holidays. On the train, Fosdick began noticing that, every morning, a fellow commuter, who always caught the same train, would pull down the window shade as the train passed 128th St. in Harlem, and then he would close his eyes.

 Having observed this ritual for a while, Fosdick said to the man across the seat, “I have watched you pull your shade every morning, and I’m curious as to why.” The other man explained, “I was born in that slum, and I find it painful to be reminded of those early days. Besides, there is nothing I can do about the pain.” After a sympathetic silence, Fosdick responded, “I don’t mean to poke into your private life, but, surely, you could at least leave the shade up.”

However we pass the time of waiting during this Advent season, Jesus invites us to “leave the shade up.” That means we need to pay attention to the world around us, and not to lose hope.  Jesus tells us to “wake up!” Wake up and pay attention to whatever life is bringing you:

·      wake up to pain, if that is what is there for you to wake up to, because you can’t be healed until you admit you’re hurt;

·      wake up to the love that you will not let yourself have because you are afraid you will lose it;

·      wake up to the future you are so furious about because it is not the one you ordered;

·      wake up to all of the dark and desperate times when you assumed that God was not present;

·      wake up to the feelings and concerns that have kept you isolated from others or from God, but which you have kept silent about;

·      wake up to the ordinary, even boring things that need to be done in your life.

For in that darkness, in that sense that God is absent, the Lord promises to bring something new into being…if we could only pay attention, face the darkness, and be alert enough to observe the new thing that God has done or is doing in our lives. If we could only let go of what is old…let go of it so that it can crash and burn…so that something fresh can be born in its ashes.

No matter how we wait, Jesus says “stay awake” and remember that the one who is coming to create something new is a friend and not an enemy. Amen.

 

Our king is already here

Sermon for the Last Sunday After Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 2017

Today is the last Sunday of the Church Year. What we call the liturgical year – the year that begins in Advent and moves through the birth of Jesus, his baptism, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection, the coming of his Spirit and the birth of the Church – comes to its conclusion and climax today, and next Sunday we will start all over again on the First  Sunday of Advent. And we call this day “Christ the King Sunday.”

The celebration of Christ the King Sunday came about when Pope Pius XI found the increasing secularism of modern society eroding people’s faith. This was in 1925, and the Fascists under Mussolini were making their presence felt in Italy. Pius thought it was necessary to remind the faithful that whatever political powers might hold sway, ultimately, it is Jesus Christ who is “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

What a funny king! No purple robes. No crown. No legions of soldiers. No great processions and parades. No castle. No place to live. This king claims to be poor, and hungry, and a stranger, and in prison, and sick, and thirsty. He claims to have nowhere to lay his head.

He says to us, his disciples, "See all these sisters and brothers of mine who are homeless like me? They are me. I am them. Do you see those Rohyinga refugees in Bangladesh who, like me and my parents, had to flee for their lives? They are me. I am them. Do you see all those men and women filling American prisons at record rates? I was a prisoner of the Romans for a short period of time. They are me. I am them. To serve me you must serve them. When I come back, I will see what you are doing and whom you serve." Then at the end of the whole Gospel he says, "Lo, I am with you to the end of the age."

Over the past several weeks we have heard stories about judgement, separation and preparation. The ten bridesmaids were locked out of the wedding banquet because they didn’t lay in enough oil for their lamps. Three servants are given enormous sums of money by their master. Two of them invest the money, but one servant buries the treasure in the ground because he isn’t able to share in the joy of his master, but, instead, fears the master’s judgement. In my sermons I have suggested that these parables are less about judgement and more about the fact that Jesus invites us to come into his banquet, to taste the abundance of his love and grace, to share in the joy of self-giving love. Can we respond to this invitation? As Christians, will we live our lives, not in fear of judgment, but joyfully embracing Jesus’ invitation to live and love as he did?

The problem in these stories, including today’s gospel, is that, because these stories involve a judgement of some kind, we tend to think Jesus is not here, and we interpret these stories as if we are awaiting God’s judgment at the end of time.  And, because we interpret the gospel in this way, we think that Jesus can’t see what we are doing. But, he says he is with us always, to the end of the age. He already sees us. He knows who we are with and whom we are serving. We can’t expect to wait until the last minute before his coming and then scramble to do the work we know he has sent us out to do. We can’t deceive him into thinking we have been doing it all along. Because he never left.

In so many words, Jesus says to us, "I am these people. The poor you will always have with you. I am with you always to the end of the age. I am the poor. They are always with you. I am always with you. I am them and they are me. Serve me through them." We can scramble and rearrange the words any way we wish, but it always comes out the same. It is a description of what life is like in his kingdom. And we are the people of his kingdom.

To understand our role in his kingdom more clearly, the Prayer Book offers us a job description. Please turn to the Catechism on page 855 of the Prayer Book. I will read the questions if you would please read the answers:

Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.

Notice who comes first -- before bishops, priests and deacons: lay persons. The ministry of the laity is the foundational ministry of the church.

Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given to them, to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.

...according to the gifts given them …

That is what Jesus is talking about. God equips us to do the work God calls us to do. God gives us gifts. Not all of us have the same gifts, but all of us have gifts important to God.

We are not expected to do any more than God has equipped us to do. And, of course, we are not expected to do anything less than those gifts allow. The life of faith is about discerning and using these gifts to carry on Christ's
work in the world. When Jesus returns he will expect to see us carrying on his work. Bearing fruit worthy of repentance. Reconciling the world. Choosing the way of life instead of the way of death.

In the past few weeks we have been reminded  how people in positions of power and authority – movie producers, famous Hollywood actors, politicians, clergy, teachers, powerful business executives - frequently make poor choices and succumb to the temptation to exploit the power of their office or station in life.

But in our better moments we hear the voice of Christ the King - a prophetic voice telling us that there is a kind of power that does not lead to harassment. There is a kind of power that does not lead to abuse. There is a kind of power that does not attempt to intimidate or coerce people to surrender to our wills.  We sense that our world and our relationships do not have to be a series of power plays that drain our physical and spiritual resources. We can believe that our power is to be used for the good of the weak and the vulnerable, and that judgement is reserved for those of us who do not use our power for the good.

This is what Pope Francis meant when, last Sunday, he celebrated a mass to mark the first “World Day of the Poor” in Rome. He said:

It is when we turn away from a brother or sister in need, when we change the channels as soon as a disturbing question comes up, when we grow indignant at evil, but do nothing about it; God will not ask us if we felt righteous indignation, but whether we did some good.

And Francis added, “Indifference to the needy is a great sin.”

When we say that Jesus is “King of kings and Lord of Lords” this means that Jesus is the one who shows us who we are and what we want to live for.  Jesus is here, inviting us into his life of self-giving love. And because he is here we can look forward to facing him the end of our lives so that we can say, “Yes, Lord, I did see you in the face of the poor, the hungry and the needy. I saw you and I chose to love them as you have loved me.” Amen.

 

 

enter the joy of your master

Sermon for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost, November 19, 2017

This parable has been a favorite text for preachers during stewardship campaigns. This is largely due to the fact that the word “talent” has two different meanings. Its original meaning in the Greek refers to a huge sum of money. In the ancient world, a talent was worth what an ordinary laborer earned over the course of 15 years. In giving each of his servants one or more talents, the master in the story is entrusting them with a fortune.

The second meaning of the word “talent” results from the fact that the master entrusts his servants with “talents” just as God entrusts each of us with abilities. “Talent” has thus come to mean ability or skill. We say that someone has a talent for music or cooking or business.

So this parable is often interpreted in sermons as a story about the importance of wisely and faithfully sharing our gifts of time, talent and financial resources with others, and being willing to take risks in doing so. And there is usually a judgement involved. Unless we use our gifts faithfully there will be negative consequences. The servant who is criticized by his, master is the one who buried his talents and didn’t use them in any way. He feared his master so he squandered the opportunity to earn interest on the money he is given.

However, if we decide to interpret the parable of the talents in this way, we may miss the real point of this gospel passage.

What is initially striking in this parable is the superabundance of gifts. To borrow from last week’s gospel story about the maidens who are invited to a wedding banquet, the banquet table, so to speak, is overflowing. Five talents would be such a large sum of money that the person receiving it wouldn’t really be able to comprehend it.

If we place all the emphasis on the last scene and the judgment of the third servant, the parable becomes merely a story about judgment. If, however, we put more emphasis on the superabundant gifts as described at the beginning of the parable, we invite listeners into understanding a deeper reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This reality becomes clear when we focus on the character of the master. In many parables, an allegorical temptation is to equate the master with God. But here, in Mathew’s version of this story, Matthew equates the master with Jesus. The master, like Jesus, is the one who is present with the servants and then the one who departs only to come back again. When the community interprets the master as representing Jesus Christ, the dynamics of the parable change. Jesus can’t be interpreted as a hard slave-master who demands unjust practices for profit from his servants. Jesus invites us to the banquet of his love and grace. And the master invites his servants into a fullness, a superabundance of grace that is continually offered to everyone.

The master in the parable already possesses the gift of the talents and invites his servants to share in his joy. When the first two are finally invited to "enter the joy of their master," they are being invited to recognize and celebrate the joy of living faithfully – the joy of the feast that is self-giving, sharing, being distributed into the world.

In this sense the interest gained on the talents is like the hundred-fold that the disciple receives when he or she gives everything away to follow Jesus. "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29). The obedience of trust is not a burden. We don’t come to trust God or decide to be disciples of Jesus out of a fear of judgement. We become disciples of Jesus because we want to experience the joy of giving our lives in love to others. The joy of discipleship is its own reward.

So, as tempting as it is to interpret this parable as an encouragement to manage our finances wisely or to be willing to take risks with our gifts of time, talent or treasure, this would be seriously misusing a profound Gospel invitation into a realm where calculation is abolished. In this kingdom the reward is not the return on our investment; it’s not a reward for our willingness to take risks with the gifts we’ve received.  The interest we receive comes from giving ourselves away. Or, using the image of the banquet, we could say that we are invited to a meal where there is simple but good food and most importantly enough for everyone. And when we go into this banquet we participate in the joy of our master.

What can we say about the third servant? The judgment still appears to be very harsh. However, if we consider the parable as a parable of invitation, perhaps his plight takes on a different perspective. If the master is inviting, continually inviting into superabundance, grace, and joy (which is nothing other than inviting into discipleship) then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the third servant is not able to hear or accept the invitation. The third servant has not only hidden the talent, he has buried himself. The third servant is not so much condemned as he condemns himself to a place - a life - that doesn’t know joy.

How does this gospel speak to us, the people of Good Shepherd, today? Where do we find our joy?

Frederick Buechner, the well-known Presbyterian preacher and writer once said, “God calls you to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Maybe this is what Matthew’s Jesus had in mind when the master in this parable says to the two faithful servants, “enter into the joy of your master.”

To enter into the joy of the master means, I think, that, at some deep level, we want to experience the joy of sharing our lives freely and joyfully with others. As disciples of Jesus Christ we long to discover where our deep gladness, our joy in serving others is directed to meet the needs of others.

The challenge is to find where and how that “meeting” takes place. It’s easy to respond to the needs of others out of a sense of duty, obligation or even guilt. It’s easy to find a church outreach program that fits conveniently with our schedules and our commitment levels. We try hard to identify episodic outreach programs that allow busy parishioners to feel a sense of accomplishment. But do these kinds of outreach efforts meet the test of inviting us to act out of a deep sense of gladness and joy?

Another way of saying this is, “do our efforts to serve the needs of others really touch the entire congregation at some deep level and invite us to respond in a way that unites the congregation around an inspiring and sustainable vision of ministry that brings joy and gladness to our common life?”

For the past year, your Good Shepherd vestry has been wrestling with this question because we believe that the congregation would benefit from having a vision of ministry that, to a greater extent, might unify and energize parishioners to experience entering into “the joy of our master.”  The Pumpkin Patch is a wonderful community outreach project, but it only lasts for one month. The parish Outreach Committee meets monthly and plans several important food and clothing ingatherings, and we have a great team of  volunteers wo go to downtown Denver on the third Tuesday of the  month to serve dinner to the homeless, but these programs go on out of sight of most parishioners.

So, this past week, members of the Vestry had a conversation that took place in response to the latest mass shooting tragedy in Norther California. People asked, “What if Good Shepherd decided, as a congregation to become a place of refuge and respite for anyone in the community who needs to go to find solace, peace and spiritual comfort whenever there is a tragic event like a teen suicide or a shooting incident?

What if Good Shepherd claimed its identity as a house of prayer and made it known to the wider community that we are ‘open’ for anyone to come and pray in these times of tragedy?” Because, let’s face it, these tragic incidents are not going to end anytime soon. Unfortunately, teen suicides will continue despite our best efforts to prevent them. Unfortunately, mass shootings will continue despite our best efforts to prevent them.  Sadly, this is probably the new reality of American life and we’re not protected from this kind of violence just because we live in the suburbs.

Where and how will we, as a congregation, discover our true joy and gladness in being Jesus’ disciples?  God is here. The banquet doors are open wide. Jesus is here and he invites us into the banquet, into the overwhelming abundance of his love. The judgement we may experience is more likely to be the result that we aren’t able to respond to the invitation, the invitation to enter into the deep gladness and joy of sharing ourselves as Jesus shared his life and love with us.

Where will our deep gladness and joy meet the world’s deep hunger for healing in the face of tragedy and loss? Amen.

 

what are we waiting for: beef stew or real spiritual food?

Sermon for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, November 12, 2017

We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

 Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated this data with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake?

Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in.

So trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to help our brains grow is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or go watch the football game? Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for the God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest helps our brains to grow. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age. No waiting required. He is here. Forever and always.

If Jesus were preaching to us today, he might use a clip from an old episode of the “Muppet Show” to get this point across to a busy, distracted generation of Christians. Three of the puppet characters were on a rocket ship hurtling through space. A loudspeaker announced sonorously, “In two minutes we will reach the end of the universe and then the meaning and purpose of life will be revealed to you.” The countdown began. The air was charged with excitement and expectation. Suddenly, a bell clanged. The three muppets jumped. “What’s that?” one said. Another said, “It’s the dinner bell!” Then came a long pause; no one spoke. “What’s for dinner?” someone finally asked. A response came from off camera: “Beef stew.” “Hmm,” a second muppet said. A few seconds passed and then he left for dinner. Soon the other two followed him. The control room was deserted. The space ship was approaching the end of the universe and the secret of life. But no one was there to receive the great revelation; they had all gone in for beef stew.

The dirty little secret of our spiritual lives is that, on the one hand, we are excited and eager as we draw near to the secrets of the universe. At the same time, we are cautious, even frightened. It doesn’t take all that much to distract us from our quest. Even a bowl of “beef stew” can do it.

What Jesus wants is just for us to be honest. He wants us to acknowledge that most of us feel a tension, even a conflict between our attraction to the abundant life promised to us when we let go of whatever is less than God, and our anxiety about what might happen to us if we get serious about opening ourselves more fully to the Holy One. We want to develop a deeper relationship with God and yet, at the same time, we resist moving too far, committing ourselves, perhaps to learning the kinds of spiritual practices that will help us to become more open to receive God’s grace and love in our lives. 

So what are we waiting for? Do we want to use our time on earth to help our brains grow by learning new habits that will deepen our relationship with God? Do we want real spiritual food or are we satisfied with “beef stew”? And, by the way, what is “real spiritual food” anyway and how do we get it?

Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake! Amen.

 

 

happy are the saints who travel light, take risks for God, and trust in god's grace

Sermon for the Sunday After All Saints Day, November 5, 2017

If you were suddenly told that a huge fire would overtake your neighborhood in the next hour and that you had to evacuate your home, what would you take with you? What would be the first thing you would grab, knowing that everything you had ever owned would be reduced to ashes? This was a decision that thousands of people in the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County California had to make a few weeks ago.

 It’s also a decision my cousin Lynn had to make in 1993 when she was ordered to leave her home high up in the hills above Malibu, California. Every house on her street was completely destroyed. She was one of the lucky ones. She was at home instead of at work that day and she was able to save the things that most of us would probably save – the family silver, photographs, oil paintings by our grandmother – things that aren’t that valuable in a material sense, but things that have tremendous personal and spiritual value because they been given to us by someone we love and care about.

In our gospel for today, the gospel for All Saints Sunday, Jesus is preaching what we call the Sermon on the Mount to a large crowd. He is describing those people who are blessed. Another word for blessed is “happy.” Jesus says, “Happy are those who are poor in spirit.”

“Happy” isn’t a perfect translation of the Greek word, makarios, because in our culture it can convey a shallow, happy-go-lucky kind of happy. This is not what the ancient philosophers meant because they were well aware of the suffering and conflict that humans experience. It can’t be what Jesus means either, or he would not call those who mourn “happy.” He is describing a deeper happiness, the kind of happiness that only comes when we live our lives in a way that is oriented toward God’s loving kindness… when we see the world the way God sees it.

So, from a Biblical perspective, how does God see the world? One of the things that the Bible tells us is important to God is that people see everything they possess as a gift that has been given to them in order to be passed on to someone else. We believe that, for God, life is “grace”….gift.  

This was the central focus of Protestant reformers like Martin Luther who, 500 years ago, broke with the Catholic Church because they believed the Church had allowed things like the payment of indulgences to take the place of salvation by grace.

For Jesus, to be “happy” in the sense of being what he calls “poor in spirit” would apply to someone who wouldn’t have trouble deciding what to save from a house about to be burned down.  Even though they might own many beautiful and valuable things, they wouldn’t be tied to their possessions. They would be free from the burden of anxiety that material wealth often brings. What’s important to these “happy” saints would be experiencing the joy of passing on the things they have received as gifts - the memories, the values, the spiritual riches that they have received from God and from others. These are the things that can’t be replaced.

How do we experience this joy of sharing, this joy of passing on what we’ve been given as a gift to someone else? As Christians, we do it in many ways. We have our inheritance of faith to pass on to our children and grandchildren – a faith that is shared in many ways from reading Bible stories, to sharing the story of our spiritual journeys with those we love. We also have the opportunity to share our material resources with others.

We have the privilege of sharing with others the blessings we have received from God. Although it’s hard for us to acknowledge it, most of the really valuable things in our lives have been gifts – things we didn’t do anything to deserve or to earn…things like our families, our health, our personalities

Another thing that Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount is, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake.” Who are these “happy” people? These are the people who have a passion to see God’s promises in history fulfilled in the future, but not just in God’s future after they die, but in this world. They are the people who understand that, in order to see God’s promises of economic and social justice, world peace, and racial harmony fulfilled, there will have to be people who are willing to take risks…. people who are willing to put their lives on the line for what really matters. They know that taking risks for the sake of fulfilling God’s promises can be very unpopular. But they would rather take those risks and have something important to live for than be complacent and tolerate the status quo.

The saints are the people, who live today and have lived throughout history, who are willing to take enormous risks because they have a very clear sense of what matters in life. They are willing to take risks by giving up what they have been given in the past for the sake of fulfilling God’s promises in the future. The six men and women who have been featured in this last month’s “Discipleship” small group program videos- St. Barnabas, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the abolitionist Sojourner Truth, the Catholic activist Dorothy Day and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador -  all of these people demonstrated these qualities. That’s why the video is titled “Hazardous Saints.”

Let me say one more thing about the saints. We have this misconception that the saints – those, for example,  who have learned to travel light or who have learned to take risks for the sake of what matters – we have this mistaken idea that the saints have somehow learned to live lives of generosity and sacrifice without a lot of effort or struggle.

If we can take away anything from this celebration of All Saints Sunday I hope it would be that, as our reading from the Book of Revelation suggests, the saints are  not perfect people, but people who struggle. The saints are, as one writer puts it, “people who are grasped and used by God. They might be monks or merchants, tots or teachers, professionals or pop artists. They are a diverse and divergent lot – frail and fractious, fumbling and fastidious. But they all share in their differentness a commonality all their own – they love. They love after and through the manner of God who loved them in their unloveableness to begin with. And in all sorts of conditions and ways they have, by grace, been able to reflect some glimmer of this love to others. But never by forsaking their humanity. Sainthood never happens apart from the human struggle.”

There is probably no area of life where you and I struggle more than in the area of how to be good stewards of our material possessions. So, I guess today, our Stewardship Sunday, is a great day to remember that it’s OK to struggle… in fact, it’s necessary for us to struggle if we are ever going to understand what it means to be a saint.

But, as we struggle, I hope we can all remember what the saints have known for millennia, what great men and women who have reflected something of the love of God in their lives have known for millennia, and what the 16th century Protestant reformers had to rediscover - whatever situation we come from, whatever faith tradition we were raised in….we can rely on God’s grace. We can trust in God’s grace and we can know that – as Christ revealed to the Apostle Paul: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

In 2012 my family returned to Los Angeles for my daughter’s college graduation and we went to visit my cousin Lynn at her home in Malibu. She had rebuilt on the same spot where her previous house was. As we toured around the house, Lynn pointed out a stature of the Buddha in her courtyard garden. Lynn is a very spiritual person, but a lapsed Episcopalian. She said to me, “that statue is the only thing that was left when my house burned down.” And she was clearly moved by this fact. At first, I thought that the survival of the Buddha statue might bring Lynn back to church. It didn’t, but it stuck in my memory and brought to mind a question: “When everything we own is gone, what do we have left?” Another way of saying this is, “what really matters?”

If Jesus were to summarize the beatitudes in one sentence it might be, “happy are those who put their trust in God’s grace.” Is that kind of trust reserved only for the saints, or can we believe that, through our own struggles, we might come to believe that God’s grace is sufficient? Amen.

 

 

 

navigating the rivers of god's love

Sermon for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost, October 29, 2017

In his book, Life On the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote of the life of the riverboat captain. In admiration, he observed, “Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was that, to be a river pilot, a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know; and the other was, that he must learn it all over again in a different way every twenty-four hours.”

Loving God and our neighbor is even more complex than piloting a riverboat.  There are hidden dangers and new challenges at every bend. Sometimes those we love disappoint us. Sometimes they just won’t love us back the way we want to be loved. Sometimes the people that we are called to love are so flawed and troubled that they seem completely unlovable.

And the problem is that many of us haven’t had the best instruction in how to navigate the river of life and so we aren’t always exactly sure what our motives are in trying to love other people. Are we truly interested in another person’s well-being or are we just trying to get them to do what we want?    How do we learn how to forgive people when they’ve hurt us, especially when they don’t even know what they’ve done? How do we know when we care for others, but have strings attached?

Well, fortunately, learning how to love isn’t exactly like being a riverboat captain. It isn’t like having to navigate a narrow channel without making any mistakes. Our life with God is a response to being called by God and God calls us to love others, not to be perfect. 

In our gospel for today, the problem the Pharisees had was that they equated love for God with preserving a system of interpreting the laws properly. But Jesus tells them that God shouldn’t be loved because God has given the Jews a law code, but because God has created human beings to become channels of God’s love. God has made it possible for us to extend God’s love beyond the narrow boundaries defined by the Pharisees.

God has called us to extend our love far beyond a legal system…called us to love people who don’t appear to deserve being loved. God loves the unlovable because he sees not only our flaws, but also our beauty and our potential. God has made us, despite our flaws, to be loving persons and God calls each of us to be instruments through which God’s own love can be expressed to the world. That is why this new law of love that Jesus introduces demands that we stop being so hard on ourselves. It demands that we stop judging ourselves and others, and start loving one another.

Jesus offers us a new way of seeing things – a way to navigate the journey of life and love. But Jesus also reminds us that clarity in this life comes not from our skill, but through God’s mercy and grace. Jesus reminds us that we human beings are created for something more than to live in a just society. We have a deeper need….a need for an intimate relationship with God that goes far deeper than proving ourselves. We have a need for a relationship like the one Jesus had with his father, as symbolized by the title Jesus used for God….  “Abba”…which means “daddy” in Aramaic.

And Jesus constantly reminds his disciples that this new way of seeing things and new way of living has a cost. To be channels of God’s love may lead to suffering because the world has a hard time accepting a love that is unconditional… a love that loves despite our flaws. In the light of the cross we can see just how costly this love can be. And in the light of Easter, we can see how much love can accomplish.

But how do we move from seeing things clearly to actually living in this unconditional, sacrificial, self-giving love that Jesus offers us? We have to open ourselves up to what it is that God wants to do in and through us. We have to have confidence in God’s call to us be channels of love and grace. Unfortunately, there aren’t any simple rules to follow. There is no clearly laid out navigation chart that will show us exactly where to turn. We can’t make it happen by ourselves, but only by cooperating with God and by staying connected to Jesus.

It’s like the story of the sculptor in ancient India who was renowned for his life-sized statues of elephants. One day, a king came to see these magnificent works and to commission statues for his palace. Struck with wonder, he asked the sculptor, “What is the secret of your artistry?”

The sculptor replied, “Great king, when with the aid of many men I quarry a gigantic piece of granite from the banks of the river, I have it set here in my courtyard. For a long time, I do nothing but observe this block of stone and study it from every angle. I focus all my concentration on this task and won’t allow anyone or anything to disturb me. At first, I see nothing but a huge and shapeless rock sitting there, meaningless, indifferent to my purposes, utterly out of place. It seems faintly resentful at having been dragged from its cool place by the rushing waters.

“Then, slowly, very slowly, I begin to notice something in the substance of the rock. I feel a presentiment…an outline, scarcely discernible, shows itself to me, though others, I suspect, would perceive nothing. I watch with an open eye and a joyous, eager heart. The outline grows stronger. Oh, yes, I can see it! An elephant is stirring in there!

“Only then do I start to work. For days flowing into weeks I use my chisel and mallet, always clinging to my sense of that outline, which grows ever stronger. How the big fellow strains! How he yearns to be out! How he wants to live! It seems so clear now, for I know the one thing I must do: with an utter singleness of purpose, I must chip away every last bit of stone that is not elephant. What then remains will be, must be, elephant!”

Our love for God is like the elephant in the stone. We believe that Jesus is present to us in the words of scripture, in the sacraments, in our prayers. But, in our encounters with the risen Jesus, rules, or laws or our own accomplishments will not make him present in our lives…will not make him present to the world. The love of God will emerge only when we are open to receive God’s love and when, in gratitude for the gift of that love in Jesus Christ…in confidence that God calls us to be people of love, we make God’s love visible in our love for our neighbor. 

In our encounters with Christ, it becomes clear that the more we learn about the mystery of love, the more we need to learn. Like the river boat captain, we are called to navigate the mysterious river of life and, like the elephant that emerges from the rock with the help of the ancient Indian sculptor, we are called to be set free to become channels of God’s love.  In either case, we are called both to see clearly, and to be changed and challenged by our encounter with Jesus.

As I mentioned last Sunday, the purpose of a church stewardship campaign isn’t just to raise money to support the church budget. The purpose is primarily to provide you and me with an opportunity to reflect on how we can be channels of God’s love in service to others.

Many years ago, when I was struggling to figure out what to do with my life I read the spiritual classic No Man Is an Island by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and the following words had a deep and permanent impact on me:

True happiness is found in unselfish love. There is no end to the sharing of love, and, therefore, the potential happiness of such love is without limit. Infinite sharing is the law of God’s inner life. He has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves.

I hope that during our stewardship campaign which is going on now you may be both changed and challenged, and that, in your encounters with Jesus, you have begun to see  more clearly how God is calling you, through your giving,  to love and to serve others. Amen.

 

when giving changes us

Sermon for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost, October 22, 2017

In our gospel for today Jesus escapes a trap that the Pharisees set for him by reminding them what any good Jew would know – that, according to chapter one of the book of Genesis, God created you and me in the image of God…God created us so that we are stamped with the image of God. That means that God has a claim on every aspect of our lives. To give back to God what, by right of creation itself, belongs to God, means to return all that we are and all that we have.  What we may be required to give to the emperor or to the government is, after all, only money. But God wants much more than that…God wants something much more valuable... God wants us to give ourselves. 

What Jesus is saying here is that life with God is a covenant relationship. In our Old Testament reading from Exodus, God makes promises to the people of Israel and tells the people that if they will be faithful in keeping a covenant with God, they will be blessed. In the same way, the Christian life is a process of offering to God what is valuable in thanksgiving for the gift of Christ’s life offered for us on the cross. 

The promise of our covenant relationship with God is that when we share our lives with others in response to the gift of love we have received from God, then we will receive back a life of faith and trust. The covenant which we made with God at our baptisms promisesthat, when we offer ourselves…when we offer our gifts to God in thanksgiving for what we have received from God, we are transformed into being members of Christ’s body…we are changed and empowered to show forth Christ’s love in the world.  

In last week’s sermon I mentioned that at our recent Diocesan Convention, delegates heard from several different people and congregations about how they had said “yes” to an invitation to take a risk and share their gifts of time, talent and treasure with others, and how their decisions to say “yes” have led to the transformation of many lives over many years.

Stories of transformation and change are compelling, but we all know how difficult it can be to realize that we have something of value to share with others and how hard it can be to say “yes” to God and to take the risk of making a difference in the world by sharing our time, talent or financial resources.

Several years ago, I read a story in the Oregonian newspaper about two people – a former gang member….a tough street kid…who had been arrested twice for dealing drugs, and a nurse at Providence Hospital in Portland, a woman who had been raised in an upper-class neighborhood, who’d made the honor role in high school and had been a star figure skater.  In 1980, the nurse’s sister was raped and strangled in northeast Portland. The police never caught the killer and, to the nurse, every criminal represented her sister’s murderer.

Recently released from jail, the former gang member attended a meeting of white collar community leaders that was discussing the gang situation in northeast Portland. When he angrily suggested that they get street-wise people to talk about life on the street, the leaders asked him to speak at an upcoming luncheon. There the man said he needed a change – “someone to believe in me.” The head of Providence Hospital was in the audience and offered him a job as the nurse’s surgical aid. The nurse was outraged. She didn’t believe in rehabilitation for criminals. “We’ll give him time,” she thought. “He’ll mess up.”

The former gang member’s friends kept hanging around, but he wasn’t interested anymore. Then one day, he told the nurse that he wanted to flee his old life and join a program to become a nurse’s aid. Would she help him? The nurse remembered her sister had once befriended a man on parole. “I guess everyone needs a chance” she thought to herself. So she lobbied the hospital to pay the man’s tuition while she continued to monitor him.

One day, the nurse heard an elderly cancer patient sobbing. She saw the former gang member clasp the woman’s hand and whisper something to her.  The nurse couldn’t hear what he had said, but the woman replied, “You made all the difference in the world just by being here for me.”  The nurse felt a surge of pride. 

Over time, the nurse and the former gang member became best friends. The nurse showed the man a world he didn’t know existed. And the former gang member showed he nurse that she could sweep away the bitterness that had once poisoned her heart.

Many of us have had similar experiences. From out of some experience of suffering, loss or pain, springs a spirit of kindness, generosity and love for others. At first, in our grief and our confusion, we don’t think we have anything valuable to give to others. But, then, something breaks open inside of us. As soon as we begin to heal, we experience some degree of inner clarity and sensitivity to other people’s needs. And, as we experience our own strength, we have a natural impulse to share it with someone else.

In the recent edition of the Centennial Citizen newspaper, the feature story is about our Junior Warden, Nora Earnest, who, as many of you know is a cancer survivor. Nora went through several years of treatment until, finally, she received a bone marrow transplant from a donor in Germany. One of the things that helped her get through this ordeal was getting away for a weekend in the mountains with her family. Having survived her cancer, Nora and her husband Randy decided to create a non-profit charitable foundation to raise money to assist other families get away and find respite.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” and he was adamant that we must let our light shine and not hide it under a bushel, even if, in our pain and sorrow, we feel we have nothing to give anyone. 

This impulse to share our gifts with others, to offer to others what we have been given is at the heart of our Christian worship and our Christian life. We Episcopalians are a people who gather around this altar each week to participate in Christ’s one and eternal offering of himself on the cross. And we have the audacity to believe that, through faith in what God has done for us in Jesus, we are part of that offering of self, and we are transformed into being members of Christ’s body.

Coming to this altar every week reminds us that the Christian life is not about searching for momentary, fleeting signs of God’s glory. Yes, we may have powerful experiences of personal transformation like that former gang-member and the hospital nurse, but the reason God reveals something of the glory of God’s grace and love in our lives is so that it will be manifested in our daily lives through the way we live….so that others will be able to see something of the glory of God in our faces.

Over the next two weeks, we are all invited to experience what Jesus is talking about in this gospel. We are invited to make a financial pledge to Good Shepherd as one of many ways to experience being part of Christ’s body….to experience what it means to show forth Christ’s love in the world.

The purpose of any church stewardship campaign is not just to raise money to support the church. The purpose is to invite parishioners to reflect on how they see the church showing forth Christ’s love in the world and how they see themselves as being part of Christ’s body, sharing Christ’s love. The money that each of us gives to Good Shepherd is more than a means of paying the bills. Our financial gifts are a symbol of what we value about the church and a symbol of how we see ourselves involved in the ministry of sharing Christ’s love.

So please take some time over the next two weeks to consider what really matters to you about this parish and its ministries. Do you see the ministries of this church actually bringing about change in people’s lives or in the community around us? Do you observe people feeling called to serve others? Have you experienced your life or anyone’s life being changed because of their involvement with this community?

It may surprise you to hear me say this, but, if you honestly don’t believe that this congregation is carrying out the promise to live out our faith in the world, then I would encourage you to give your money to some other worthy organization. But if you do feel that your involvement with Good Shepherd is an important way for you to live out your faith in the world, then I hope you will take some time to pray and reflect on how you can express this in your giving. Amen.

 

the banquet of god - where our freedom to say "no" becomes an opportunity to say "yes"

Sermon for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost, October 15, 2017

In last week’s sermon I talked about how God invites each of us to find our “vineyard.” The “vineyard,” I said, is the place where we discover that God has given us opportunities to align our wills with God’s will by giving of ourselves sacrificially to others insome way through the sharing of our time, talent or financial resources. The important point about this invitation to find our “vineyard” is that we do this not out of duty or obligation, but by responding joyfully and passionately in response to God’s gift of love of grace in our lives.

At the end of the day, finding our “vineyard” is a choice…a choice made from the depths of our heart… a choice that we make because we desire to be in a right relationship with our God, whose love and grace can never be calculated or repaid.

Today’s gospel, like last Sunday’s, is an allegory. That means that each character in the story represents something or someone else. In this story a king gives a marriage feast for his son, and sends his servants to call those who were invited to the feast. But rather than gratefully accept the invitation, the people not only scorn the king’s offer, but they seize the king’s messengers and kill them. The king then decides not only to punish the ungrateful and murderous invites, but to throw the doors of the wedding feast open to anyone who wants to come. He fills the banquet hall with the whole gamut of society because the wedding must go on as planned.

If you haven’ already figured it out, in this allegory, the first guests stand for Israel. The first two sets of slaves who issue the invitation represent the prophets of the old covenant, which is why some of them are beaten up and killed, hardly the usual way of declining an invitation. The city that is destroyed represents Jerusalem.

In the second part of the allegory, the slaves who are sent into the main streets to invite just anybody are the apostles, the followers of Jesus after the resurrection, who brought the church together. And the church, Matthew knew all too well, was filled with both good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving. After all, “everyone” means everyone: good, bad, and indifferent. The second crowd is very different from the first group, just as the church was very different from the leaders of Israel.

In this allegory Matthew is expressing the early Christian belief that, in spite of the words of the prophets and of John the Baptist, Israel, especially Israel’s leaders, had repeatedly ignored God’s invitation to his great messianic banquet for his son Jesus. So they are rejected, and the church is formed by the apostles. And the apostles are told not to judge, but to invite.

So, in this gospel, we are invited to see into the heart of God. We see that God passionately wants us to come to his banquet….passionately wants us to come home. We see how passionately our God love us – all of us – all of the time. What remains hidden and unsaid, of course, is that God doesn’t force us to come into the party. It is we who do the choosing. And what we know, although, we often feel uncomfortable talking about, is that few of us choose to return to God because we are too busy with the cares of the world, or, as Paul describes in his epistle, we are too busy wasting time on inconsequential disputes about what is right and what is wrong.

At this point in the story, a lot of Biblical scholars become very interested in the poor guy who gets tossed out of the banquet. All sorts of things have been written about why he gets the boot, which mostly has to do with guessing what the reference to a “wedding robe” or a “wedding garment” meant back then. Since nobody really knows what a “wedding robe” means, the guesses have run amuck. They have included everything from ordinary clean clothes to a robe everybody supposedly had hanging in their house if they would only take a second to pick it up, to the white garments often given to newly baptized Christians.

But remember, what is happening here is not supposed to be a precise example of Palestinian social customs. Concern for accurate detail has gone out the window. This is a story about the final judgment!

Matthew is saying that, even though the church is filled with good and bad alike; and even though the apostles who call people to the church are not supposed to judge and are not supposed to exclude; and even though absolutely everyone is invited and absolutely everyone is handed all they need both to be properly dressed and to have a great time at the party; still, sooner or later, the King is going to arrive in person, and if you matter, if you are a real person, then – and here’s the part of the allegory that often confuses people - you have to be able to say ‘no’ to the invitation.

You have to be able to reject the invitation, to ignore the robe; otherwise, you aren’t really there. The guy who refuses to put on the garment becomes a symbol for everyone invited to the feast who, nevertheless, declines to participate. It’s about the freedom we human beings have to just say ‘no’ to God; it’s not about some weird overreaction to wearing the wrong outfit.

And it’s important that we have this choice, that we have the freedom to say ‘no,’ to refuse to put on the garment handed us at the door, and so, thereby, to take our chances outside. What today’s gospel is saying to us is, if we can’t do that, if we can’t say ‘no,’ then we can’t really say ‘yes’ either, and we’re just sheep rounded up into a gilded pen. And our God isn’t interested in herding sheep into theheavenly banquet hall.

 And this makes sense in light of what I said last Sunday. If we are to enter into the Kingdom of God, the author of our gospel Matthew is saying….if we are to go into God’s banquet, unless we are prepared to celebrate God’s gift of love and grace, unless we are able to receive God’s grace and love as a gift that we did not earn and don’t deserve, then we will not be going into the banquet out of duty or obligation, but out of joyful, passionate gratitude. And this means that going into the banquet involves a choice. Our God won’t force us, or guilt us, or shame us or compel us to go in unless we choose of our own free will – because that’s the way God chooses to love us. Our God loves us so much that God is willing to take the risk that we will reject his love. That’s the love that Jesus showed us on the cross. That’s the love that, ultimately, will win us over when we are debating whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’


Our humanity, our freedom, our very dignity demand that we have what the king gave that fool in the story, which is the opportunity to walk away from the greatest gift he could imagine, a gift he had, in fact, already been given.

And the poor guy had to really work at it; he was given all sorts of chances. But the King would not take away the man’s option to say no. The king would not treat him as someone whose actions didn’t matter and whose choices didn’t matter.

The question last week was “where is your vineyard – the place where we find opportunities to align our wills with God’s will.” Today, the question is “where is our banquet – the place where we find God giving us the opportunity and the freedom to say ‘no,’ but, because we feel so drawn to a God who loves us so much to give us the freedom to say ‘no,’ we feel compelled to say ‘yes’?”

At our Diocesan Convention this past weekend in Grand Junction, we heard stories about several people who, in the face of "no's" said "yes." We heard about the St. Francis Center which was founded by Fr. Bert Womack. In the first year of operation this day center for the homeless served 70 people per day. Today it serves over 700 people per day. We also heard about the opening of a new subsidized apartment complex which is a collaboration between the St. Francis Center and St. John's Cathedral - another "yes" by the people of St. John's in the face of many challenges. We heard about the Colorado Haiti Project, which was founded by Fr. Dale Casey, the Rector of the Chapel of Our Savior in Colorado Springs and our own Fr. Ed Morgan. And we celebrated the work of Fr. Aviade, the priest at St. Paul's in Petit Troup de Nipe, the town that has been transformed by this ministry in the face of many obstacles. We heard about four Episcopal Church around the country who have engaged with the work of refugee resettlement - a ministry that we all know faces many "no's" in our current political atmosphere. And we heard from a Congolese doctor who left a safe and comfortable medical practice in Belgium to return to his home to help improve medical services in the Congo. 

Where is God calling you today to say "yes" even though God loves you so much that God is willing to take the risk that you will say "no?" Amen.

where is your vineyard?

Sermon for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost, October 8, 2017

This past week our thoughts and prayers have been focused on the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. It’s probably been difficult for us to remember that it was only a short time ago that we were focusing our attention on the thousands of people whose lives have been devastated by the hurricanes in south Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. But I’d like to invite you to do that for a moment.

 One of the results of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria is that they make us stop and think about what our world is like when everything breaks down. Unless we’ve lived in a third world country, it’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like to have no electricity, no running water, no telephone service….to have the world as we know it come to a complete halt.

But when we lose all of these basic services, it also makes us think about the systems that keep life humming by the natural action of cells, the energy of the sun, and the electricity of our brains and bodies. When our world breaks down we become aware of how, second by second, we are the recipients of energies, the elemental forces that keep life going….forces and energies that we did nothing to earn and for which we never receive a bill. No human power utility is this generous or this reliable from birth to death.

And when we realize that the power systems which sustain our creaturely being are a gift, something for which we can never adequately repay the Creator, then we overflow with gratitude. We ask ourselves, “how can we use the gift of breath, the gift of a pulse, the gift of the electrical circuitry of our brains, the gift of metabolism to thank God?”  When we become aware that simply to exist is a gift of extravagant wealth, we find ourselves aching to return thanks, to act and speak and live in ways that honor the One from whom all blessings flow.

And this impulse to give thanks to the creator isn’t a burden or a social responsibility; it’s a joy, a desire and a passion that comes from the depths of our heart. We give because our existence has been given to us. We give because every moment of the day, we are receiving gift after gift. This recognition that everything we have is a gift from God and that we are compelled to respond in gratitude is at the heart of what we call Christian stewardship.

Although, at first, it might not seem like it, today’s gospel story can be seen as a story about stewardship. In this story, it’s clear that Jesus intends each character in the story to represent someone specific. A landowner plants and cares for his vineyard and then leases it out to some tenants. When the landowner sends his slaves to claim his rightful portion of the proceeds, the tenants abuse and kill them. Finally, the landowner sends his own son. When the tenants see the son coming, they falsely believe that the landlord is dead and that, if they kill the son, they will gain legal control over the property.

Jesus told this story as an allegory of how the Scribes and the Pharisees have rejected Jesus. But there’s a twist here. This story shouldn’t be seenas a story about vengeance directed at the evil tenants. We know that the outcome of this story – the punishment of the tenants -  is in total contrast with what eventually happened to Jesus, and this is where we depart from the allegory. When Jesus was crucified, God didn’t seek revenge. When God’s love in Jesus was rejected, God didn’t bring down judgment. In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God overcame the world’s rejection of Jesus. Jesus’ death was not the last word. It was the beginning of a whole new kind of life.  

The point of this allegory of the vineyard is that it is the nature of human beings to rebel against God and try to gain total control of their lives, yet God loves us so much that God is willing to take a risk. In sending us the gift of Jesus, God is willing to risk the fact that humans will reject the kind of love that Jesus brought into the world. And even when people do reject Jesus by crucifying him, this is not the last word…trying to wrest control of life by the use of power is not the last word.

That’s the way it is with our God. It is the way of the Cross. The landowner in Jesus’ story isn’t going to send in the police or go to court. He’s going to try again…because that’s the most powerful way.

“Of all powers,” well-known Presbyterian writer and preacher, Frederick Buechner once wrote, “love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold…the human heart. It is the most powerless, because it can do nothing except by consent.”

What does all this have to do with Christian stewardship?  First, it reminds us that God’s gift of creation and God’s gift of love, which brings about the alignment of our will with God….these gifts come with a price….these gifts have a cost. And the amazing thing is that God is willing to risk everything in order to save us.

For the Jews of Jesus’ time, this would have been a scandal. It would have been outrageous to accept that the God of the law…the God of justice…would take such a risk. But what this means for us is that God wants us to respond to the gifts God has given us, not out of duty or obligation, but out of joy….the joy of knowing that when we give sacrificially in gratitude for God’s gifts…give freely and by our own consent….we are doing what God has done for us. We are aligning our wills with God’s will.

The joy of Christian stewardship is that – by offering our gifts of time, talent or financial resources - we are given the opportunity to learn how to align our wills with God’s will by giving sacrificially to others. But an even greater joy is to realize that God wants us to give of our own free will, not out of obligation or duty.

God wants us to find our own vineyard…to find the place where we believe God is calling us to give freely and joyfully. And God wants us to find our vineyards by ourselves….to find our vineyards by wrestling with all of the temptations to do the contrary.

Sometimes, we don’t choose our vineyards; they find us. And sometimes in the most horrific and terrible ways. The mass shooting in Las Vegas last Sunday night was, yet again, another moment in this nation’s history when, in the face of unexplainable violence and bloodshed, people voluntarily stepped forward, at great risk, to do whatever they could to save hundreds of people from danger. Some physically shielded others from gun fire and were killed themselves. Some risked their lives to carry injured people from the concert venue. Thousands stood in line for hours to donate blood for the victims.

Sadly, it often takes these kinds of events – not unlike what happened in the Houston area and in Florida in the aftermath of the hurricanes – for people to personally experience what it’s like to share their love and their lives with others…to experience what God’s love is like….to experience what it’s like to bring our wills in alignment with God’s will….to experience the power of Jesus’ sacrificial love let loose in the world. 

Where is your vineyard? Where do you see God giving you opportunities – sometimes in ways you don’t intend or expect -  to experience bringing your will in alignment with God’s will? Is it in the personal sacrifices you make to become the person God wants you to be? Is it in the commitments you make to provide a better quality of life for your family? Is it in your contributions of time and talent to make the Denver community a better place? Is it with your pledge to help Good Shepherd grow and so provide many people with opportunities to give sacrificially? I hope during our stewardship campaign over the next few weeks you will discover the joy and the freedom of working and serving others in God’s vineyard, wherever that may be. Amen.

being a disciple of jesus In a starbucks world

Sermon For the 17th Sunday After Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Bill Wilson, who founded Alcoholic’s Anonymous in the basement of an Episcopal Church many years ago came up with an idea that seemed novel at the time – that  alcoholics needed to reach out to a “higher power” in their recovery from alcoholism. But Wilson said he didn’t particularly care which “higher power” we reach out to. The essential characteristic had to be that this “higher power” was something other than ourselves.

 The great challenge, when it comes to faith and our worship is to do all we can to ensure that the God we worship is other than ourselves. As a preacher, I know that my greatest challenge is to speak about God in such a way that God is with us, related to us, but higher and more important than a mere projection of us.

 This is the challenge that Jesus faces today when he tells this parable about the two brothers. He tells this story to a group of religious authorities. And when he does this he is holding up a mirror to them and comparing them to the brother who said he would obey his father’s request to go and work in the vineyard, but then failed to go. The priests and the Pharisees are the people one would expect to be open to welcoming Jesus and his new message about the kingdom of God. Instead, they resist his message. The brother who at first refuses to obey his father, changes his mind, and goes in a different direction. The priests and the Pharisees can’t do that.

 Jesus rubs salt in the wound by saying to his critics, “I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God before you.” Can you imagine how this rebuke must’ve stung them? The religious authorities are at the center of the nation’s religious life. Yet, Jesus tells them that it’s the hated collaborators with the Romans and the women of ill repute who get to enter God’s kingdom before they do.

The hard part about this story is that, like last week’s gospel, Jesus seems to be reaching out all the way to the margins of society. He is determined to be Lord not just of me and my friends in the church, but for the whole world. Is that so hard to believe? There are probably some of us here today who would say that, at some point, you felt that you were on the margins…you were outside the scope of God’s love. Then, somehow, some way, God managed to reach you. God found you in your lostness and brought you home.

 It’s strange isn’t it?  Most of us in the church probably consider ourselves in the middle of things, spiritually speaking. After all, Richard Hooker, the 17th century English theologian, made history by calling our Episcopal/Anglican faith tradition a “middle way” between Protestantism and Catholicism?

But we now live in what we could call a “Starbucks” world. In this world, the comfortable, rather boring middle way is being forsaken for more distinctive positions on the margins.  As the well-known church historian, Leonard Sweet, says in his book, The Gospel of Starbucks, a Starbucks world is not one that caters to the lowest common denominator or the big middle. Have you noticed that you can’t order a “medium” cup of coffee at Starbucks? In this new Starbucks world, nobody wants to be average or to have mass appeal. Today all middles are in trouble. What’s the worst thing that can happen to a passenger on an airplane? It’s having to sit in the dreaded middle seat. Today, no company in its right mind would name itself General Motors, or General Electric or General Foods. There is no general anything, no happy medium anymore.

 The world I grew up in was a Maxwell House world - a world where there was one or two brands of coffee that everyone drank. Maxwell House and the rest of the world organized itself according to a hump-shaped bell curve in which everything clustered in the middle.

 The challenge of being a Christian today is that the world around us is not drawn to the middle anymore. If the Christian faith is going to be vibrant and alive in today’s world, it can’t be just an intellectual exercise to define a faith that appeals to the lowest common denominator. More and more, people are looking for an authentic experience of God and that experience may just as often be found on the margins as in the middle.  And many people are rediscovering something that Jesus would have admired: faith is a choice and it may involve changing the way we look at life and surrendering what we previously valued.

 Jesus reached out to those on the margins because, unlike the religious authorities, they were open to making a change. For them, the message of the Kingdom of God was a priority. In contrast, the chief priests and the elders of Jesus’ day had quite a bit invested in the status quo. Leaving the past behind meant forfeiting their claims to power and position, which had become their identity.

What about us? As people of faith, how do we live with the tension between the certainty and comfort of our past and the uncertainty and discomfort of the future? Do we allow the comfort and security of the past to restrict our ability to take risks in order to live faithfully? Has our church become entrenched in the structures of the past where we do the same thing over and over again? And does this cut us off from new and life-giving possibilities.

The title of the video program we are using for our six-week small group series is “Hazardous Saints, Christians Risking All, Changing Everything.” The men and women portrayed in this program – St. Barnabas, St. Francis of Assisi, who we remember today on the Sunday closest to his saints day, the 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights, Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day,  the radical Roman Catholic lay woman who spoke out and defended poor working people, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero who was assassinated because he stood up for poor peasants who were being persecuted by a US supported dictatorship – all of these “hazardous saints” took risks because they envisioned a new world, a just world, where those who were considered “outsiders” were welcomed and respected.

Can we learn to do church in a “Starbucks world?” Are we interested in maintaining the status quo, or are we interested in finding new life with those who may be on the margins…those who are thirsty for change?

Many of you may not know this, but there is another community that meets here at Good Shepherd, and their attendance is equal if not greater than Good Shepherd’s Sunday attendance. It’s Alcoholics Anonymous. 30-45 people meet in our basement every day of the week except Sunday (that’s why you don’t see them) to talk about their experience of learning to surrender to a “higher power.” Because of their struggles with alcohol addiction most of these folks have often felt like outsiders, on the margins, not welcome. The one thing that unites them and gives them hope is their thirst for change and their commitment to lead changed lives by surrendering their compulsion to drink. They have learned the hard way that their intentions to change mean nothing without action, without changed behavior.

Does our faith and trust in the “higher power” we call God’s grace and love lead us to seek more than the security of what is comfortable and secure? Can we ourselves as the brother in the parable who changes his mind and makes a choice to do something different? Could we be that brother who turns around and decides to go work in God’s vineyard?  Amen.

grace and the goldilocks effect

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, the colorful Mayor of New York City. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.  A tattered, old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”

Laguardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions – ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But then, as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero hat, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore, I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

So, the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

What an amazing moment of grace for anyone present in that courtroom! What is grace? Grace is not just the awareness that God exists….the knowledge that there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the stars shining in the sky and the earth on its axis. Grace is the experience of God in the thick of our day-to-day lives. Grace is what happens, for example, in our gospel story, when a landowner gives everyone the same pay whether they worked all day long or only a few minutes at the end of the day. When the 11th hour workers are handed their pay they taste what Jesus calls “the kingdom of Heaven.” They experience what God is like, just like what happened to the people in that courtroom, when Mayor LaGuardia paid that woman’s fine and more so.  Heaven, Jesus implies, is being in the presence of the gracious goodness of God, who loves everyone alike.

“Wait a minute!” you say. I get the first part – that grace is being in the presence of God, but I don’t get the second part. It may be OK for some eccentric big city mayor to show mercy to a poor woman, but to say that it’s God’s nature not to make any distinctions between those who work and those who don’t, just doesn’t make sense!

Here’s our problem. We can readily admit that God is gracious and we may even hunger to experience what it’s like to be in God’s presence, but we struggle when Jesus gets so specific about the way that God’s grace is revealed. The problem is that, no matter how much we long to experience the presence of God in our lives, we like to believe that we are saved by how good we are and how hard we try. And if I work twelve hours in the hot sun and get a day’s pay, then the guy who put in only an hour at the cool end of the day should get only one-twelfth of what I get. It’s repugnant to think that the boss would give him the same as he gives me. It’s repugnant to believe that God is like that.

Several years ago, I read an article about the ground-breaking work being done by researchers at the University of Rochester’s “Baby Lab.” For the past 40 years, Dr. Richard Aslin has been studying how baby’s learn, and particularly, what babies see….what they choose to look at. One of the things that the Rochester researchers have discovered is what they call “The Goldilocks Effect.” Using newly developed eye-tracking data collected from infants in the lab, they have shown that the babies’ attentiveness to visual scenes was influenced by the level of surprise – due to new information – involved in the scenes. Like the nursery tale heroine, babies prefer something that feels “just right” – they give the greatest attention to scenes that are neither too predictable nor too surprising.

Jesus would have made a great “baby lab” researcher because he says that the root of the problem is the way we learn to look at things. At the end of today’s gospel, the landowner says to the grumbling workers, “are you envious because I am generous?” In Greek, the literal translation of this phrase is, “ Is your eye evil because I am good?” The expression “evil eye” refers to when we are distracted by the temptations of the world and, instead of feeling joyful for what God gives us, we feel anxious and envious, especially if someone else has received more than we have. The old-fashioned term for this is “covetousness.” I see the good fortune of someone else and what my eye sees leads my brain to begin calculating and keeping the books on myself and the other person….and that leads me to forget the grace that God has blessed me with.

Does this process begin when we are babies? Perhaps the “Goldilocks Effect” is hard-wired in us. On the one hand, maybe we are predisposed not to trust that God can do anything surprising in our lives….not to trust that God could forgive us for our failures, or accept us even when we can’t accept ourselves. And, like the other aspect of the “Goldilocks Effect,” maybe our “evil eye” also distracts us from recognizing God’s presence in the world and in our lives in more ordinary, unsurprising and often overlooked ways- in a gorgeous sunset, a majestic snow covered mountain peak, a touch of someone’s hand, or a spouse’s persistent efforts to tell us that we are loved just for who we are. 

In his book, “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” Brennan Manning describes the life of grace as the “spirituality of wonder.”  He says, “the spirituality of wonder knows that the world is charged with grace, that while sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.” But, in order to see this grace, we have to do two things. We have to be able to be aware of God’s presence in ordinary ways we often overlook, and also be willing to be surprised and astonished…..and let go of the idea that God only acts in ways that we expect or control.

In these kinds of moments, when we can let go of the “Goldilocks Effect”…let go of our need for everything to be “just right”….let go of our craving for tangible reassurances that God will do what we expect…..then we can enter into a new kind of world where God can change and transform us…a world where we can trust that God is more interested in making us what we ought to be than in giving us what we think we ought to have.

Today, I think Jesus is doing something similar to what he was doing in last week’s gospel. In this parable of the generous landowner, like last week’s parable of the unforgiving servant, there is little that makes sense in terms of what we would call the “real world.”

And that’s the point. God’s grace, Jesus suggests, is not a theory or an idea to be discussed. God’s grace is something we can understand only when we have been on the receiving end of it and when we surrender our preconceptions about the way God should act. And like forgiveness, grace is not something we deserve or possess. God’s grace, God’s generosity is a gift that is given to us so that we will be changed and transformed…..changed in order to be channels of grace to someone else.

The message of this strange, baffling parable is that you and I are created to love and to give, and Jesus invites us to move beyond our fixation on fairness and into boundless love. If our “evil eye,” if our covetousness makes us frustrated with grace of God as it applies to others, then we will never truly become the people God has created us to be.

In the six-week small group program that will begin next Sunday, we will be experiencing how the grace of God has worked in the lives of six men and women -  six “disciples” of Jesus - down through ages, in the lives of people we will call “Hazardous Saints.” Why are these men and women “hazardous?” Because their experience of God’s grace radically changed them and, in turn, led them to take risks by trying to bring about change in the world around them.

Are you someone who is curious to experience God’s grace, or are you someone who, perhaps, has felt frustrated when the “Goldilocks Effect” keeps you from seeing God’s presence in your life or in the world around you? If so, consider joining one of our three small groups. And prepare to be surprised by how God’s amazing grace can change and transform you to be the person you were created to be. Amen.

 

 

forgiveness: the gift that keeps on giving

Sermon for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost, September 17, 2017

This has been a challenging month for our country. Millions of people are living or have been living without power and thousands of people’s lives have been devastated by hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida and the Southeast. We just commemorated the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, which reminds us of the pain and suffering which continue to be inflicted by terrorists throughout the world. The nation is struggling to respond to the event in Charlottesville, Virginia a few weeks ago. And millions of Americans’ lives have been disrupted by the recent Equifax data breech.

Understandably, people are questioning what could have been done to better prepare for these powerful storms or what could have been done to defend against malicious internet hackers or terrorists or racist groups bent on inflicting harm on innocent people.  At times like these, how are we to respond to today’s gospel where Jesus says to the disciples that there is to be no limit on forgiveness towards those who sin against us?

I think the place we have to start is to resist the temptation to try and make a philosophical or theological pitch for forgiveness. There is nothing abstract or theoretical about Jesus’ idea of forgiveness. In Jesus’ parable a servant is forgiven a debt to a king that is so large it can hardly be measured…about 1.5 billion dollars in today’s terms.

But the servant who is forgiven doesn’t understand that this act of forgiveness is intended, not just to free him from a debt, but to produce in him a profound change of heart. Being freed from his debt, the servant is supposed to, in turn, become an instrument of forgiveness to his own servant.

The servant probably thought that the king’s act of forgiveness was too good to be true. He thought that the king’s forgiveness was due to the servant’s sad story. But – surprise – the king forgives the servant his debt, not because of his earnest promise to repay, but because it is the nature of the king to be merciful.

The servant just can’t get his mind around the fact that his debt is simply and totally wiped clean…wiped clean, out of grace. He can’t understand the work of grace because he’s too busy trying to calculate what he has earned or what he is due.

Jesus tells this story to the disciples because, I think, he sees what’s coming down the road. He sees a community in which the concept of mercy remains just that – a nice idea to be talked about, preached about and written about – but not practiced. As C. S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have to forgive something.’

So the question Jesus is posing is totally practical. It’s not a question about whether or not forgiveness is a good idea. It’s a question about what kind of life we want to lead. Do we want to participate in God’s kingdom of grace or do we want to stand outside the door and keep score?

What are the obstacles to participating in this kingdom of grace that Jesus describes? In his classic book, No Man is An Island, Thomas Merton makes the profound observation that, “Some people are only virtuous enough to forget that they are sinners without being miserable enough to remember how much they need the forgiveness of God.” What Merton means is that we have a tremendous stake in being nice to each other. As long as we don’t offend anyone….don’t do anything that will look stupid…don’t stand out in any way …..in other words, as long as we look virtuous, we’re OK. Keeping up appearances is one effective way of locking ourselves out of the transforming life of grace that Jesus describes.

Another way we lock ourselves out of God’s kingdom of grace is by passing judgment on ourselves. In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be?, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story about going to see a dying member of his congregation.  In the hospital, the man had begun to come to terms with years of passing judgment on himself. He said to Kushner, “When I was young, I thought I had to be perfect for people to love me. I thought that if I ever did something wrong, their love would be withdrawn. So every time I did something wrong, I would make excuses…I would lie… I would try to find someone else to blame. I didn’t realize what an unpleasant person I became when I acted that way. I thought it was my imperfection, not my defensiveness…. that turned people off.  But lying here in the hospital…sick and cranky and dying, but feeling God’s presence in the doctors and nurses who try to help me, in the friends and family who come to visit me…

… I’ve finally learned that you don’t have to be perfect to be worth loving. I only wish I had known that sooner.”

We expect ourselves to be perfect and then, when we don’t live up to our own expectations, we wallow in shame and guilt. Whatever rejection or judgment we received as children from parents, teachers or authority figures somehow gets converted to self-rejection. The more self-rejection and guilt we have, the harder it is for us to believe that we are forgiven.

So we say to ourselves, “God must be wrong.” Like the servant in Jesus’ story, we can invent some reason why we should be forgiven, but we have a hard time believing that God isn’t interested in our excuses or our guilt or shame

Whether we misunderstand the meaning of God’s mercy because we are too busy appearing virtuous, or because we can’t get beyond our shame and guilt, what ties these two ways of living together is that we really don’t believe with our whole heart that God is more interested in restoring relationships then he is in keeping score.  We are like the servant in our gospel. Because he can’t appreciate the fact that the King has restored what was a strained relationship, he’s unable to forgive someone else. We have been forgiven from the heart over and over again, through no merit of our own, but simply because God loves us very much and wants to love us some more. 

The question Jesus leaves us with is this, “If you have ever had that happen to you, if you’ve ever received forgiveness, how could you not want to do the same to someone else?” God has given us a gift to transform the world and it’s called “forgiveness.” A world of broken and fragmented relationships exists….. there are lives waiting to be healed and transformed.

So, as we remember the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as we remember the victims of 9/11 and those recently killed by terrorists in Spain and other countries, and as we commiserate with anyone whose life has been disrupted by events such the recent Equifax data breach, we have to ask ourselves the question, “Do we want to be set free to serve those in need? Do we want to allow ourselves to be forgiven so that we can, in turn, witness to this new life of grace and forgiveness that God has given us? Or do we want to take out our calculators and keep score?

I think this is why, over the past three weeks, we have seen so many people doing such extraordinary acts of kindness both in the Houston area and in Florida and the Gulf Coast. Reaching out to others in times of national disasters, is one of the few times when we can experience something of what God experiences when God offers us unlimited forgiveness. It is the exhilaration of being a servant of God’s grace.

As we say goodbye to Alwen today, one of the things I will miss about her is her enormous heart for the people Jesus calls the “little ones”…..the vulnerable ones….those in our society who have experienced racism, bigotry, or been mistreated or excluded because of their sexual orientation. Over the past four years Alwen has been a voice for social justice and care for those our society  often overlooks or ignores. She has been a tireless and compassionate pastor to our youth when they were troubled or confused. She has helped our Outreach team expand the scope of their service to the wider community. She has showed courage and candor in sharing some of her own struggles in her path to the priesthood. As someone who has experienced God’s forgiveness many times in her life, she freely shares the gift of forgiveness with others. She has shown us that, whatever we have experienced in life, God wants to use us in some way to bring about forgiveness, healing and reconciliation with those who are hurting or suffering.

Shortly after her arrival at Good Shepherd, Alwen dressed up as Wonder Woman as part of a youth group skit during church. The irony of her donning this costume is that Alwen knows well that church ministry is not about being a superhero or trying to appear strong in the face of life’s challenges. The life of discipleship is rooted in the awareness that God’s grace and love for us in the most difficult and vulnerable times in our lives frees and empowers us to serve others. A disciple of Jesus is someone who knows deep down that forgiveness is not a theory to be tried out; it is a gift and, if we receive it without conditions, it can transform us and enable us to change the lives of people around us. Thank you Alwen, for your witness to the power of forgiveness. We pray that, as you leave us, you will remember that you don’t have to be Wonder Woman. Just continue to be for others what you have been for us.  Amen.

"wwjb: where would jesus be?"

Sermon for the 14th sunday after Pentecost

In her sermon last Sunday, Alwen talked about three women who transformed her understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to be the church in the world.  Describing the work of these women with Honduran refugees in Arizona, Alwen said that, in them, she saw “the path of Christ where we lose our life and discover a larger more meaningful life.” In these three women, she saw the presence of Jesus and looking at their lives, she saw the church as a “living, breathing being, embodying God’s love and healing.”

 It’s often these kinds of encounters that bring people to faith and motivate them to want to be part of a church community. Sadly, as a recent major study of decline in church attendance shows, a growing number of people in America are not being attracted to become part of a church community. We will never know exactly why this is the case, but I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons is that when many people look at the church they see an institution, a church hierarchy, an organization that is governed by abstract rules and laws. But what they may not always see is the church as a living, breathing being that is actively involved in changing lives.

This contrast between the church as an institution given authority by Jesus and the church as the living, breathing embodiment of Christ’s love is visible in our gospel for today. Jesus tells his disciples that what they bind on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven. But what does binding and loosing really mean?

Biblical scholars usually say that these terms have something to do with determining the boundaries of the community. They point to the church’s role in intervening in conflicts, settling disputes about church doctrine, and deciding who is in and who is out.

But underneath these responsibilities for maintaining church order is something much more important. Underneath the questions of authority, boundaries and the settling of doctrines is a whole web of assumptions, interests and power relations, all of which shape and preserve the stability and health of the community.

What do I mean? In Matthew 18, Jesus doesn’t seem very interested in abstract boundaries or doctrines, or in precise determinations of the lines that determine who is in and who is out. And Jesus’ words don’t seem to reflect much concern about church hierarchy and the authority of church leaders. Matthew’s Jesus is, rather, concerned about the “least ones,” the vulnerable, the ones at the bottom of the power pyramid. He says, “better to tie a millstone around your neck and jump in the ocean than cause a little one to stumble.” He says, “better to leave the 99 sheep on the mountains than lose one.”

The point of Matthew 18 is not that the church or its leaders possess special authority or insight when dealing with disputes, but that whenever it does exercise authority, it must pay ceaseless attention to the least powerful members of the community. Whenever and whatever we bind or loose, the Christian community is called to defend the interests of the least ones in our midst, as well as to create the space and conditions for forgiveness and restoration to flourish.

At a deeper level, underneath issues of authority, what we bind or loose has more to do with the underlying values of the community. What kind of a community does Good Shepherd or any church want to be? What are the kinds of attitudes, relationships, behaviors that we want to hold up and aspire to? Binding and loosing aren’t just about doctrines, but about where we shop, the neighborhoods where we buy houses, and our decisions to turn some people into friends and others into enemies, some into heroes and some into terrorists.

These underlying values, decisions and behaviors are at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Discipleship isn’t just about what we believe about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit. It’s about what life looks like when we model our lives on Jesus’ life and ministry? If we believe that Jesus is more concerned with the “least ones” than he is with those in authority, than how does that shape our lives as part of the church community? Our decision to offer this morning’s program on refugees is a statement about what kind of community the people of Good Shepherd aspire to be. And we know that hosting this program and potentially becoming involved in supporting refugees in the Denver area is not without risks because, especially in this current time, any time we choose to support the vulnerable or those at the bottom of the power pyramid, we are doing something risky.

But we know that Jesus understood how risky it can be to place a priority on restoring people to wholeness. In our gospel reading Jesus also focuses on how members of the community are to deal with conflict. Again, Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in abstract concepts about conflict resolution. He goes right to the heart of the matter. If we’re going to live together in community with others we need to avoid the temptation to withdraw or turn our back on those we disagree with. If we are going to be followers of Jesus and make his presence known in the community we have to take the risk of meeting people face to face and honestly confronting our differences. For Jesus, love requires action; love takes risks in order to restore wholeness to the community.

The question for us is whether or not we really want to deal with conflict as if Jesus was present in the room with us. Jesus says to us, “Wherever two or three are gathered I will be in their midst.” The important question may not be WWJD: “what would Jesus do?” but WWJB: “where would Jesus be?” In dealing with conflict do we want Jesus to be that close? Do we really want to experience the living, breathing presence of Jesus, especially when we are in conflict with others?

One of the goals of the small group program we are offering, starting in October, is to invite parishioners to explore their life with God by learning about the lives of several men and women who took risks to become followers of Jesus. These ancient and modern disciples of Jesus Christ lived lives committed to restoring dignity and wholeness to people dealing with conflict in their communities. They embodied the foundational values of unconditional love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and care for the most vulnerable. By looking at these “hazardous saints” we can discover what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

What does this kind of binding and loosing look like in our world? Elbert Parr Tuttle was a young lawyer based in Atlanta and a National Guard officer when he was sent to Elberton, Georgia in 1931 to organize effort to restrain a mob and restore order after a black man had been accused of rape by a white woman. Tuttle succeeded in helping the accused escape the lynch mob that day, but at the subsequent trial, twelve white men produced a guilty verdict after a two hour trial and six minutes of deliberation on largely contrived evidence, resulting in a death penalty.

Tuttle went on to organize legal resources to appeal the case, but was ultimately frustrated. The man was executed three years later. Tuttle’s experiences with this case changed his view of the world. Tuttle went on to become a highly successful lawyer and was eventually appointed to serve as the chief justice of the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, with jurisdiction over southern states from Texas to Florida. Tuttle was on the bench during the years when Civil Rights legislation first began to challenge long-standing patterns of racism. He was responsible for making sure that decisions handed down by the Supreme Court actually became law in practice.

Elbert Tuttle, a white man who grew up in Hawaii, bound himself to the cause of a black man wrongly accused and sentenced to die. Although he lost the struggle for that man’s life, he nonetheless bound himself to the ongoing struggle to loose the shackles of racism that still plague our country. Tuttle became, arguably, the chief jurist of the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950’s and 60’s. This is binding and loosing at its best and most powerful. I don’t know what Tuttle’s church affiliation was, if any, but these are the qualities of Christian discipleship.

I hope you will stay for our refugee program this morning and I hope you’ll consider taking part in our six-week small group program starting in three weeks. These will be wonderful opportunities for us to learn what it means to be a loving community of disciples who practice “binding and loosing”….a community of Jesus’s disciples who are willing to take risks by acting on what we believe. Amen.

"FAITH: THE ACT OF DYING TO LIVE AGAIN"

SERMON FOR THE 13TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

As I prepare to leave Good Shepherd in two weeks, I am reflecting on my journey to the priesthood, what it is to be a Christian, and the blessing and the challenge I want to leave with you before I go. I can’t fit it all into one sermon, and it comes in little flashes, not entirely coherent or completely formed yet. But incoherent or not, I want you to know my gratitude for the role you have played in making me into a priest, and I hope I can convey my love for you, God’s never-ending, incomprehensible love for us all, and the call for us to follow that love where it leads: onto the path of Christ where we lose one life and, in God, discover a larger more meaningful life that expands far outside of our narrow, individualistic selves and stories.

This week I’ve been thinking about three women who transformed my entire understanding of what it means to follow Christ and be the Church in the world. (Incidentally, they, a teenage refugee from Afghanistan, and the Bible’s constant insistence that we care for refugees and immigrants, are also the reason I care so much about events like the one we’ll have here next week to support local refugees. I hope you can come). Their names are Amy Schubitz, Marianne Nielson, and Wendy Jiminez.

I met them in graduate school when I was doing research on the original Sanctuary movement. In the 1980s two social workers, whose names I, unfortunately, don’t know and haven’t been able to track down, began to see something very alarming on the bodies of people coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. They saw fresh torture wounds: burns, lacerations, the marks of repeated shocks that had left men in constant pain and unable to father children, and they saw terrible cases of PTSD. These women discovered that these people were fleeing dictatorships and paramilitary groups throughout Latin America that were turning on their own citizens, killing and torturing thousands and thousands of them. And the U.S. was arming many of these dictatorships because we saw them as allies in the fight again Marxism. Because of our relationship with these dictatorships, we also were denying refugee and asylee status to the torture victims who came across our borders and were sending them back to their own deaths.

These social workers and several faith communities began a movement akin to a modern-day underground railroad, smuggling torture victims out of various countries throughout Latin America into the U.S. and sending them to host churches across the country. These “sanctuary” churches fed and sheltered these refugees, kept them from being deported, and asked them to tell their stories to raise awareness and change policies that were killing thousands and thousands of our neighbors across the border. Though it took many years, these faithful Christians and the incredibly brave refugees who told their stories were successful in winning the refugee and asylee status these survivors of torture were entitled to.

Wendy is one of them. She came to Tucson as a child after her parents were targeted by Guatemala’s government for the crime of teaching poor peasants to read and educating them about their rights to safe working conditions and to pay that would allow them to feed and clothe their families. For his work, Wendy’s father was kidnapped and tortured for six months before being released. And just before her family fled, Wendy saw a family friend gunned down in their house as she hid from the armed men who had stormed in.

I met her when she was in her 30s. She told me that Amy and Marianne, two former nuns, met her and her siblings at the border, wrapped them in blankets and gave them bags full of clothing and toys. Those two women were Wendy’s first memory of safety and welcome after trauma and a terrifying journey to the U.S.

I had never met people like Amy and Marianne. They were so immersed in their faiths that their love for God and God’s people animated their entire lives. For them, church wasn’t something they just did on Sunday mornings. Church was what they did every day of the week as they followed Christ and gave their lives for the good of others.

So these women didn’t just meet refugee children at the border and give them the physical things they needed to start life in the U.S., they and others teamed up with the Hopi nation to create an entire network to support these families physically, spiritually, and emotionally: therapists, doctors, lawyers, social workers, physical therapists, experts on the effects of torture and trauma, pastors and priests came together to help them heal and rebuild their lives. The organization is called the Hopi Foundation Center for the Prevention and Resolution of Violence, and today they continue their work with torture victims who have fled to the U.S.

Wendy told me that Marianne, Amy, and the Hopi Foundation had saved her and her family, not only in getting them out of Guatemala alive, but also in helping them to heal and rebuild their lives in the U.S. Her family opened a successful restaurant, and when I met her, Wendy was in nursing school, had traveled to testify before Congress on behalf of policies meant to eliminate torture, and was volunteering with refugee children and the children of torture survivors to help them heal as she had healed.  

As I got to know Wendy, Amy, and Marianne, and learned more about the faith that beat at the heart of the Sanctuary Movement, I began to see the Church as a living, breathing, powerful being embodying God’s love and healing. And I wanted to be a part of it. So much so, in fact, that I decided to leave a career in academia to pursue the priesthood.

I’d spent my entire life in the church, but had never seen it alive and active enough to convince me that it housed an infinite God of infinite love. In fact, I had often seen it act so small and ugly and do so much damage to woman, GLBTQ people, and to other minorities that I had nearly lost my faith. But in Tucson I saw how faith can literally save lives.  I suddenly understood that the whole point of being a church was not to insulate us from bad and hard things, or to enhance our own personal well-being, or to create a place where we can huddle together behind the Bible and doctrines as the “moral majority,” protecting ourselves from the world and making ourselves grandiose with self-righteousness and condemnation of others. The whole point is to lose our tiny selves, painful and risky as that is, as we take on the life of Christ to live for God, for others, and for causes that are greater than our individual lives could ever hope to be.

As Jesus says in our gospel reading today: “’If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’”

Here’s what I hear in those words: Once we take on the name of Christ by proclaiming ourselves Christians, we are saying that our lives are no longer ours alone. We no longer get to live just for ourselves and for those in our inner circles. We are giving over our identities and purpose in life to a Christ crazy and wild enough to sacrifice heaven and His own life for the sake of building a whole new kingdom for us. In this kingdom, what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community, those on the outside are welcomed in, the most despised and rejected are given places of honor, the rich give up their possessions so the poor can thrive, justice and peace replace violence and corrupt power, and our leader is not a power-hungry emperor like Jesus’ followers saw in Rome, but, instead, a poor man-God whose power comes from love, from serving others, and from standing with the marginalized.

The life Jesus promises us is not the life the world values—a life of comfort, riches, and success. Instead, it is a life that will sometimes hurt because, like Christ, we will choose to stand alongside those who hurt. It is a life that will challenge us to see others as children of God, and so to lose our preconceptions, our blinders, and our prejudices. It is a life that will push us to give up our privilege and to learn from and support those who are different from us. It is a life that invites discomfort as we loosen our grip on the reins and let our radical, wild Christ lead us in His footsteps. It is a life that will lead us to give up our own lives for the sake of being a part of a new life that God creates for all of us. But what we are promised in return are lives that matter, lives that put us in touch with the Divine itself, lives that can transform not just us but the world around us.

As I leave Good Shepherd, my prayer for me, for you, and for this church is that we will not be afraid of the cross—of dying to our small, limited lives, prejudices, goals and perceptions. It is that we will die so that we can rise again in Christ to a whole new kind of life. I believe Good Shepherd is moving toward becoming a place that is known for having a faith so vibrant that it saves lives, a place where the Church is not confined to a building, but is lived out in each of us every day as we follow Christ where He longs to lead us. I pray it may be so.

Amen.

"When speaking up becomes an eclipse moment"

sermon for the 12th Sunday after pentecost

Did any of you get a chance to experience the total eclipse on Monday morning this week? For those who did, it turned out to be a life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime experience that they will never forget. Even though I didn’t get to experience the path of totality I understand why so many made the trek to Wyoming or parts of Nebraska. It’s one thing to watch the eclipse on TV or see pictures on the Internet, but it’s something else to personally experience such a huge, cosmic event. There are some things in life that we feel we need to witness first-hand – the birth or the wedding of our children, the funeral of a close friend. It’s why people feel called to climb a fourteener, or to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon. 

In our gospel for today we have such a “total eclipse” moment. This interaction between Jesus and his disciples takes place in Caesarea Philippi, a town on the border with Lebanon. Ann and I got a chance to visit it in 1986 and it’s a beautiful setting. Before being renamed Caesarea Philippi by the Romans, the place was called Paneas, which comes from the name of the Greek God Pan – whom we could call the god of “wine, women and song.” There was a shrine there to Pan carved out from a cliff and coming out of the cliff is a spring of water which becomes the headwaters of the Jordan River. Remains of the shrine are still there and you can close your eyes and imagine hordes of people coming to the shrine and enjoying the cool spring waters. The equivalent today would be a place like Hanging Lake, in the Colorado Rockies, which has become so popular that entry to the lake is now being limited.

When Jesus asks the disciples “who do people say that the Son of Man is” he is asking this question against the background of a place that honored different pagan gods and, not surprisingly, the disciples respond by saying that people have many different ideas about who Jesus is. The disciples’ response to Jesus is predictable and safe. They are simply repeating what they have heard from others.

But then Peter does something completely unexpected. When Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

What’s so surprising about Peter’s response? Peter takes a radical step from belief to action. Instead of relying on the witness of others, Peter speaks up for himself and states what he believes and what he’s willing to do.  In that moment he understands what Jesus had told the disciples previously – that they would be given power to be witnesses; they would be given power to be Jesus’ hands and feet and heart in the world. This power is not the power to dominate or control others; it’s the power to give their lives for love. When Jesus says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church,” he’s not rewarding Peter; this isn’t blessedness for a job well done but being a blessing to and for others. Peter spoke up and witnessed to what he believed. He put his life on the line and for that he would be leader of a new community, sharing the love of Christ.

The famous theologian Paul Tillich contends that Christianity was not born at Christmas; nor was it born in a stable to a peasant Jewish couple names Mary and Joseph; nor was it born when angels declared to shepherds that a Savior for all people had been sent. Nor was it born when astrologers from the East came by starlight bringing gifts for the one designated “King of the Jews.”

Tillich says that “Christianity” as we know it was not begun in Bethlehem – but there at Paneas, at the base of Mt. Hermon, when Jesus of Nazareth asked his followers a question that billions of people ever since have had to face, in dealing with Jesus. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and then, “But who do you say that I am?” After the disciples get it wrong and Peter gets it right – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” – everything changes. This was an eclipse moment; a “once-in-a-lifetime” moment.  Something happened that day that had never happened before. In that moment Peter was grasped and shaken by the Holy Spirit. He was also empowered, transformed to live a completely different kind of life.

So what about us? Has the Christian faith become so domesticated, so predictable, so safe that few of us ever feel called or empowered to speak up and speak out for what we believe about Jesus? Do we ever have the opportunity to feel like we are “rocks” for Jesus? Do we ever experience being part of him, extensions of his hands and feet and heart?

Or another way of putting it is to ask, “Do we really believe, as Peter seemed to believe that people’s lives are at stake when we are willing to speak up or speak out as Christians?”  One commentator on this gospel imagines Jesus walking into the middle of the rally in Charlottesville or in the middle of Las Ramblas in Barcelona and asking the people gathered there, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “But who do you say that I am?” Can we imagine Jesus asking us these questions and then taking Jesus seriously enough with answers that actually articulate both what we hear and what we believe?

The Benedictine nun, author and well known speaker, Joan Chittister tells the following story. On a cold day on the banks of Lake Erie a group of nuns and volunteers were serving at a soup kitchen. A well-dressed man in a long black overcoat and a silk scarf, a familiar volunteer, had brought a box of hams and, seeing the size of the crowd, stayed to fill plates in the serving line. Just as he got ready to leave for the afternoon, the man, with his coat on and his scarf tight around his neck, noticed one of the guests at the end of the table, his legs pressed against the heating element, his summer sandals wet. He was wearing summer sandals with open toes and sling back heels over his bare feet on a cold winter day.

In a heartbeat, the man in the long black overcoat and silk scarf reached down, took off his shoes, handed them to the sister at the counter and walked out, in bare feet. “Wait,” the nun ran after him, “you can’t go like that without these. It’s cold out there.” The man kept moving down the street. “I know,” he called back, “that’s why I left them.”

Having witnessed this, Chittester says, “Suddenly, all the words in the gospel, all the vocabulary I could muster about poverty and generosity, vacuity and purpose came together in one astounding, shocking act. And one even more difficult question: Was I prepared to do the same kind of thing? Was I prepared to give something away that would have more meaning, more import, to someone else that it did to me – especially when it did still have meaning to me?”

In another of her books, Chittister says, “The function of prayer is not to obliterate the self. It is to become to the utmost what we are meant to be no matter what situation we are in.  Prayer is the process that leads us to become what Jesus models for us to be.”

That day at Caesarea Philippi, I think Peter had a revelation that changed him forever and gave him a new perspective on life, like witnessing a total eclipse for the first time. He spoke up and he spoke out because he realized what it meant for him to become what Jesus wanted him to be. And from then on nothing looked or felt the same.

When does Christianity begin for you? And what does God want from you? Can we honestly say that lives are at stake because of what we say we believe? Amen.  

"Gone to the Dogs"

Sermon for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost

Last Sunday I described prayer as the process of surrendering our expectations and expanding our awareness of God’s vision for us and for the world. Today, I’d like to talk about how our prayers lead to action – a specific kind of action.

In the gospel today, Jesus leaves his homeland and goes into what we now call Labanon. There was a long-standing feud between the people of the Holy Land and the people of Lebanon. Jesus is approached by a local woman who wants him to heal her daughter. The Israelites called such people “dogs.” And remember that dogs didn’t enjoy the privileged place in society then as they do for many of us now

It was obvious that the woman was desperate. She would have been brought up to despise Jews. She risked being rebuffed and insulted. There are moments of desperation in our lives when we are impelled to step out of our safety zone, our secure society. Our need overcomes fear and even prejudice.

Jesus tests the woman. He even uses the common racial slur, “We don’t give dogs human food.” Please note that Jesus is not merely saying that dogs shouldn’t beg at a table. He is using a terrible slur to test the faith of the woman. We may find that shocking. But please note; he is not being a racist. He is testing the boundaries that have been set. May they be crossed? The woman is desperate, but can she, is she able, to step through pride and prejudice, and reach the point of acceptance and healing?

Last week, we saw how Jesus reached out his hand to Peter when he stepped out of a boat. Jesus came to Peter when he was sinking under the waves.  And Jesus comes to us. But we must also reach out and make a step of faith toward him and that’s what this woman did.

You’ve probably heard the famous poem, “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham,

            He drew a circle that shut me out –

                        heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

            But love and I had the wit to win:

            We drew a circle that took him in.

The disciples drew a circle that shut out the Canaanite woman: “Send her away, Jesus. She’s not one of us.” And, at first, Jesus agreed: “It’s not right to take the bread meant for the children and throw it to the dogs.”

But then the woman, with her desperate faith, challenges Jesus to expand the circle of God’s love and break through this boundary. In the face of the woman’s persistence something in Jesus snaps and something inside of him changes. Through this woman’s faith, Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what we has been called to do. Jesus is no longer a Messiah called only to the lost sheep of Israel. He is God’s chosen redeemer of the whole world, Jews and gentiles alike, beginning with the Canaanite woman.

What does this story have to do with prayer? All too often our prayers are safe. They are prayers at a distance. They costs us little. They trip off the tongue at bedtime or even in church.

But this gospel story reminds us that true prayer moves us to action – a specific kind of action. Andthis action is in keeping with God’s saving actions throughout the Bible, the story of how God breaks through boundaries, gathers people within the shelter of God’s love, and brings them home to the glory of God’s house.

When Jesus says that if we are to follow him we must be cross-bearers, he invites us into uncomfortable, painful, and hurting places where those who need our prayers live. He invites us to be with those who may be called “dogs,” or think of themselves as “dogs,” people outside the circles we have drawn.

When I was a boy I was a big fan of the comic strip, “Peanuts.” One of the cartoons that I remember most was the one where Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “Charlie Brown, you’d make a great minister because you love mankind.” And Charlie Brown says, “I’d make a terrible minister. I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.”

This gospel story reminds us that God’s love is never just a love for some general group such as “mankind” or “humankind.” Love in the Bible is always specific; it’s what we call incarnational love. It’s always particular, always about you and someone else, always a restoration of actual flesh and blood human beings to fellowship with each other and God. It’s like the love and mercy of Jesus drawing his circle to include the Canaanite woman. It is love for someone in particular whose lifestyle and culture you might not understand…someone you may rarely come in contact with….someone you have decided to mistrust or even hate because of their ideology or political beliefs.

This past week we have witnessed events that remind us just how powerful and destructive hate of the “other” can be – the person outside our circle, the person who we might say, “has gone to the dogs.” It’s been painful for us to realize that there is an undercurrent of racism and bigotry in our nation and how contrary this kind of hate is to the kind of incarnational love that Jesus calls us to in his encounter with the Canaanite woman - the kind of love that empowers us not to draw circles that keep people out, but to widen our circles to let people in, people whom we may not feel belong inside the circle.

Recently, I’ve been reading a biography of a famous Irishman named Thomas Meagher, pronounced “Maher” in the Celtic language. Meagher was a brilliant young leader of the Irish nationalist movement in the 1850’s and for his incendiary, anti-British speeches and his support of a group of people who wanted to force the British to leave Ireland, he was sentenced to death, but then exiled to Tasmania along with other young revolutionaries. He managed to escape and returned to New York, where he became a lawyer and highly respected spokesman for Irish independence. He also became a general in the Union Army and led a battalion of Irish soldiers in some of the bloodiest fighting in the Civil War.

One of the reasons why Meagher was motivated to fight in the war was because, as a refugee from British oppression and a witness to how the English had treated the Irish like slaves during the Irish potato famine, he was passionate about ending slavery in America. But the tragedy of Meagher’s new life in America is that many of his fellow Irish exiles chose to fight on the side of the South.

And, after the war was over, when he returned to New York City, he witnessed one of the bloodiest riots in American history, when his fellow Irish immigrants brutally attacked and lynched hundreds of African Americans.  Having risked his life for the cause of emancipation he realized that racism and bigotry lay deep in the hearts of his countrymen – his fellow Irish who, themselves, had been rescued from slavery under the British.

And this has often been the tragedy of American history when it comes to race relations and the treatment of immigrants . Some of the most bigoted and racist Americans have been immigrants or descendants of immigrants who, once they had become incorporated into society, turned on others who threatened their security, people outside their circles.

Our prayers can’t just be safe. Our prayers need to lead us to action. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, we are saved by grace through faith, by the mercy of God. But we are saved by grace for something. We are saved for the drawing of our circles God’s way. We are saved for the reconciling ministry of God. We are saved in order to restore relationships with each other in God’s name.

I hope the events of this past week in Charlottesville will once again challenge us to ask how each of us choose to live out our faith in the world, choose to open up our circles to the people we might consider as “dogs,” choose to act on our prayers to make the world a kinder, more loving, more inclusive place. Amen.