tested in the wilderness
Sermon for the First Sunday In Lent, February 18, 2018
Four devout Catholic ladies were having coffee together one morning after Mass. The first told her friends, “My son is a priest. When he walks into a room, everyone calls him ‘Father.’” The second one chimed in: “My son is a bishop, and when he walks in a room everyone calls him ‘Your Grace.’” The third lady responded in kind: “Well, my son is a cardinal. When he walks in a room everyone says to him, ‘Your Eminence.’” The fourth lady sipped her coffee in silence. The first three ladies gave her a not-so-subtle look and said, “Well?”
The fourth lady took another sip of her coffee, folded her hands almost prayerfully, leaned over the table, and with a twinkle in her eye said, “My son is six feet, two inches tall, has broad, square shoulders, has ten percent body fat, has gorgeous brown eyes, dresses very well, has a six-figure income, drives a Porsche, and when he walks in a room, everyone says, ‘Oh, my God!’”
There are many different kinds of temptation aren’t there? The one, so well illustrated by the ladies in this story - the temptation of pride where we consider ourselves “better than”, or where we constantly strive to be popular or perfect in the eyes of others. The temptation to control what we have no business controlling. The one that Jesus faced, when he was driven out into the Judean wilderness - the temptation to turn stones into bread….the temptation to believe that if we can just take care of material needs, like world hunger, we will find true happiness in life.
When we think of temptation we usually think of it in moral terms. We think of temptation as a giving in to something that is pleasurable, but, in excess, may not be good for us – like alcohol, or gambling or sex. But it’s important to note that when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he was tempting him, not at the point of weakness, but at the point of strength. Satan tempted Jesus to use his power to achieve what, on the surface, might look, in the eyes of the world to be beneficial.
Although we don’t often think of it this way, our greatest temptations often arise where we have experienced success….when we have done something that, in the eyes of the world, looks worthwhile.
If we think of temptation in this way then we could say that temptation occurs anytime we are inclined to trust in our strengths and our success and, by doing so, allow our strengths to take the place of the things that we value the most in life, like faith or trust in God. Each time Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness he refused because, by giving in to these temptations, he would be forsaking his true mission or purpose in life – to be faithful to his heavenly Father….to proclaim the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
In this sense, temptation means something more like being tested. When we face temptation in life, we are being tested to be the person that we really are inside because, until temptation comes, we don’t really know who we are. Take Noah, for example, in our Old Testament reading. What kind of faith did he have when God asked him to build a freighter three hundred cubits long and fifty cubits wide – in the middle of the desert without a cloud in the sky, and then to herd the equivalent of the Denver Zoo into his ark?
Or take the apostle Paul. Paul constantly faced the temptation to rely on his strength and success as a Pharisee and as a legal expert. Yet, he came to understand that there is nothing we can do on our own power to prevent our entering into temptation….nothing we can do to escape the temptation to rely on our own strength instead of trusting in the power of God’s grace.
One of the most difficult testing experiences we face in life is to trust in God when we feel God has abandoned us. There are members of this congregation who have lost children, or who have family members who have been victims of tragic accidents, or who are facing death themselves. I am always amazed at how these people can keep on going…keep on trusting in God in the face of such incomprehensible loss. Even though I sometimes have a hard time understanding it, I know that these experiences of loss and abandonment have often taken these parishioners down a path that has led them to go beneath the surface of life and to go deeper in their faith.
In one of his books, Robert Farrar Capon, presents a way of thinking about how God is present in people’s lives that is different from the way that we usually think.
Capon says that God’s presence is like an iceberg where we can only see 1/6th of the iceberg above the surface. The other 5/6th of the iceberg is hidden under the water. It’s still there – we just can’t see it from the surface. There are moments where God’s presence comes above the surface. Those are the moments when we see it, experience it, hear it. Yet God is always there. We just don’t see it or identify it all the time.
Capon says that, regardless of our perspective, God is fully present underneath all of our lives, through good and bad. God is not removed, but ever present, always there, always caring, always working. We may only be able to see a small portion of how God is present. But, in faith, we can trust that God is there, even if we can’t see it, feel it, or experience it.
It seems to me that this is what the season of Lent is about. In Lent, we are invited by God to go deeper….to see beneath the 1/6th of the iceberg that we observe……invited to go beneath the surface of life and, by doing so, discover our true identity. In Lent we are invited to ask this difficult, gut wrenching question, “How will my faith be when the test comes and I feel like God has abandoned me?” Because, facing the truth about life, I know that the test will come, when all the answers to life turn out to be no answers and we will have only the promise of God to go on. How will our faith be when we face our time of trial?
If we’re not sure, then perhaps, during this season of Lent, we need to explore how we can deepen our faith….go below the surface of things.
Maybe this is a time for us to explore our commitment to follow Jesus in the way of love and forgiveness. Maybe it’s a time to ask how we reflect Jesus’ love in our lives. Do we restrict our love and compassion to the people that matter, or do we reach out to everyone we come in contact with? Do we give in to our culture’s tendency to value only what benefits us and to scoff at the gospel message of sacrifice and compassion for others? What can we do to learn to trust God more in our lives? How can we draw closer to Jesus….get to know him and his path of discipleship?
Lent offers us a time to go deeper…to look at the wilderness places of our lives where we are tempted to rely on our strengths rather than trust in God.
If we are honest with ourselves, we try our best to avoid the wilderness because the wilderness is where we are forced to see ourselves as we are, without filters or finery. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that much of the time we are tempted to simply go through the motions. But if we are honest with ourselves, we also know deep down inside that we need the wilderness. We need to spend some time honestly looking at ourselves in order to find new life, new ministry and new ways of being the people of God.
God’s work begins with a pesky Holy Spirit sometimes dragging and drawing us out into the wilderness. Jesus has been there. Out in the wilderness we are faced with many temptations; we are tested. But the biggest temptation, the most common test is to not enter the wilderness at all. As we begin this season of Lent, I invite you to find your wilderness…to take this opportunity to turn from the world’s standards and discover your true identity and security in God. Amen.
lent: giving up or taking on?
Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Today marks the beginning of the season of Lent. One way to think about Lent is to consider it as a time of preparation for Easter. One of things we hope for is that, when we come to church on Easter Eve or Easter Day, we can celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when I say “celebrate,” I mean that we can enter into our Easter worship with a sense of joy and complete confidence in the power of our God to bring new life, resurrection life to any situation that appears dead or dying.
So how do we prepare for Easter during the season of Lent?
A Catholic priest working in an inner city was walking down an alley one evening on his way home when a young man came up behind him and poked a knife against his back.
“Give me your money,” the young man said.
The priest opened his jacket and reached into an inner pocket to remove his wallet, exposing his clerical collar.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Father,” said the young man. “I didn’t see your collar. I don’t want YOUR money.”
Trembling from the scare, the priet removed a cigar from his shirt pocket and offered it to the young man. “Here,” he said. “Have a cigar.”
“Oh, no. I can’t do that,” the young man replied. “I gave them up for Lent.”
This story reminds us that we often we get confused about the purpose of Lent. Is Lent about “giving up” or “taking on” something? Well, it’s probably about both, but I think the one thing we can probably agree on is that “giving up” something for Lent probably won’t accomplish much unless it leads to “taking on” something that will help us to deepen our relationship with God and live out our faith in the world.
“Taking on” can mean a whole host of things, but I’d like to suggest that the primary goal of Lent is to “take on” becoming better stewards of three kinds of relationships – our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves and our relationship with others. And the way we can do this is by “taking on,” with renewed effort, three traditional spiritual practices - the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three practices are central to Judaism. Jesus endorses them in today’s gospel even as he reveals their interior significance. As practices, he almost takes them for granted. He does not say, “If you pray, if you fast, if you give alms.” Instead, he says, “When you pray, when you fast, when you give alms.”
These characteristic Lenten practices have this in common: each one helps us learn again that we’re not running the world; God is. And each of these three practices does so in a different way, in regard to a different relationship that we have.
Consider prayer. Prayer concerns our relationship with God; prayer is when we allow God to engage us. Insofar as we are praying and our prayer is true, then we simply cannot believe that the world is ours to run. Prayer takes us away from a false sense of responsibility that can turn us into driven people. The frame for our prayer is always that petition from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” We are free to rest, to rest in God because we are committed to having a relationship with God through prayer.
Consider fasting. Fasting concerns our relationship with ourselves, as we are creatures of body as well as creatures of soul, flesh and spirit. Fasting from food or alcohol, television or shopping, makes us less dependent on those things. When fasting, we don’t claim to run the world; we allow some emptiness in ourselves and invite God to fill that emptiness with divine life. Not so much energy as usual is spent digesting, consuming, analyzing. We are free to rest, to rest in God because we are more open to the movement of God’s spirit in our lives.
The third practice is almsgiving. This means giving of what we have to meet the needs of people who otherwise would go without. Almsgiving concerns our relationship with other people and all of creation. When we give alms, we admit that we are not owners, but trustees: trustees of our possessions, our time, our lives. We’re not running the world, because the world is not ours to run. Together with everyone else, we are recipients of mercy. We are free to rest, to rest in God because we see ourselves as servants of God and followers of Jesus’ in his life of servant ministry.
When we engage in these practices…when we focus on improving these three relationships, then we begin to find a sense of peace and restfulness. We are able to find the joy that waits for us in what we do. We get a taste of resurrection in our flesh and bones.....a taste of Easter in our daily lives.
There’s a cycle at play here. The practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can bring us rest, and rest can make these practices meaningful, channels of grace rather than burdensome tasks.
The forty days of Lent call us not to feel more tired and exhausted then we already are by struggling to give up things that aren’t good for us. Lent is not about strengthening our wills so that we can “just say no” to our overconsumption of material things, our fascination with electronic devices that distract us from the demands of daily life, or our addictions to substances that enable us to escape our inner fears and anxieties.
In Lent, we are invited simply to rest, then to pray and fast and give. We are welcome to pray and fast and give, and find these practices to be channels of grace, ways by which we can rejoice that we do not run the world and God does…ways that prepare us to joyfully celebrate the new life and hope that God brings to us at Easter. Amen.
called to be community
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany, February 4, 2018
The gospel story we just heard describes the second part of a sort of model day in the ministry of Jesus. We heard the first part last Sunday. Jesus is in Capernaum, a small town northeast of Nazareth – and it’s his first stop on the road since his baptism and temptation. He’s had a heck of a day – he taught in the synagogue, drove out some unclean spirits and healed, first Peter’s mother-in-law, and then, it seems a good portion of the town. In short, Jesus impressed the socks off everybody. But, as interesting as all that was, the really important thing that happened that day took place next.
Very early the next morning, Jesus went to a lonely place to pray. And while he was there, Peter and the other disciples tracked him down and told him that the whole town was searching for him. There are a few hints in the text that something big was going on. First, in the entire gospel of Mark, Mark mentions Jesus in prayer like this only three times, and each of these times is associated with a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Second, the Greek word used to describe the crowds searching for Jesus is sinister, which implies malice or misguided motives. So it’s very significant that Jesus, quite suddenly and without looking back, just up and leaves. It’s significant because we know that Jesus was a big hit in Capernaum. His approval ratings were off the chart. Why, then, would he take off like this?
Most likely, the town really liked what Jesus had done, and they wanted to keep him there so he could keep on doing it. The group of people that searched for him probably wanted Jesus to set up shop in Capernaum – establish the Jesus of Nazareth Preaching and Healing Mission. There was no doubt that Jesus could put Capernaum on the map. The tourist trade and healing business would be good for everybody, the tax base would grow wonderfully, business would improve, and the citizens would have their own miracle worker around the next time they got sick. It was a good deal for everybody.
One of the things Christians do is to pretend that all of Jesus’ decisions were easy and automatic….pretend that Jesus was reading from a script. But that’s not how it happened. Jesus knew that the delegation from Capernaum was offering him security, safety, prosperity, and respect. These are things that Jesus knew he would never have if and when he left that town. If he became their resident rabbi, he wouldn’t have to be poor, his family wouldn’t think he was crazy, he could have a normal life, he wouldn’t have to be cold, hungry, or afraid for his life.
As we all know, Jesus would not have been the first to trade challenge for security…. to swap the call of God for the rewards that come from giving the crowds what they want. Jesus’ decision didn’t come easily. It was so hard that he did exactly the same thing he did on the night before the crucifixion – he went off by himself to pray, to sweat out a tough decision…. to decide which voice to follow: the voices everyone could hear rolling up the hillside chanting, “We want Jesus,” or the other, quieter voice that said, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus had to choose. And we all know what it’s like to make that kind of choice. We know the power of security, prosperity, safety, and respect. We know how easy it is to settle – to settle for being just a little less than who we know we can be….to listen to those loud voices….to let their expectations rule. So we have to make choices….and God waits patiently to see what will happen.
Another way that we live out this story is that, as a church community, we have to make pretty much the same decision that the people of Capernaum had to make. We have to decide what to do about Jesus. We have to decide what to do about this guy who come to us proclaiming the kingdom of God, and bringing healing, and hope, and a vision of new life. In Capernaum they decided to take the part of Jesus they liked best – a good preacher, an effective healer – and capture it….institutionalize it. They decided to locate him in their place, at their convenience, and for their purposes. They didn’t want to be challenged. They wanted to be coddled. They didn’t want to see beyond his gift of healing, to see what that gift might ask of them. They wanted Jesus to keep doing the neat stuff. And, in exchange, they were willing to offer him material security and popular acclaim.
When we look at this story, we begin to realize that Jesus was always offering people a choice – a choice between two different visions of life…two lifestyles. The choice Jesus offers us is whether we, the people of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, want our church community to be a kind of 21st century Capernaum….a community where we celebrate and appreciate all the wonderful things that Jesus has done – his power to heal us, his teaching, his love shared with us sacramentally in the Eucharist.….a community where we find the support and encouragement of friends in a comfortable well-appointed church facility.
Or do we want do want our church to be something more….something more than a nice, warm, friendly community of people who happen to think that Jesus is pretty good guy. Do we, for example, want our church to be a place where people experience the presence of God in powerful ways that might not always be comfortable or secure? Do we, for example, see the Eucharist, not just as a comforting reminder of what God has done for us in Jesus, but as a source of strength and power that literally infuses us with God’s life of grace and sends us out to change the world?
Do want to take the time and make the commitment during our 9-5 daily lives to deepen our relationship with God by building a foundation of disciplined prayer and reflection? Because, without that foundation, we may struggle to live out Jesus’ invitation to witness to the power, the mercy and the grace of his healing love.
Perhaps the only person in Capernaum who really understood all of this was Peter’s mother-in-law. The gospel says, “He came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up. Then the fever left her; and she began to serve them.” She didn’t try to put Jesus in the medicine cabinet or in a shop window down the street. She served. She moved beyond herself and the gift she had been given. She became a channel of this new, divine life Jesus was offering.
As a community, we have choices, just like Jesus had choices…just like the people of Capernaum had choices. For us, the choice is whether we want to be like the people of Capernaum…. or whether we want to be a transformed people who seek to be channels of God’s grace in the world around us.
As you ponder this question about what kind of church Good Shepherd wants to be, it would be important to remember that when Jesus healed people, like Peter’s mother-in-law, he wasn’t just making them physically whole. In Jesus’ day people feared getting sick not just because their illness could easily lead to their death, but because sickness isolated them from the community. So, for Jesus, the act of healing was an act or restoration. He was restoring the healed person so that they could once again fully participate in the community in which they lived.
One of the challenges for any church today is the fact that fewer and fewer people place any value in being part of a church community or any community in which they can find emotional, physical, or spiritual support. But when we read these gospel stories about people who are healed by Jesus, we find that there is nothing ordinary about life in community. When Jesus heals someone he doing God’s work, which is the work of creating a people who are raised up to serve each other in community.
As I look forward to retiring in May and I consider what I have accomplished over the past 37 years as a priest, the thing I am most proud of is the emphasis I have placed on building up the church as a community of people who feel called to serve. Everything I have done as a parish priest has been motivated by this goal. My hope is that, in a world that seems to place less and less value on community, Good Shepherd will continue to be a church that strives to be more than a comfortable place for individuals to worship and to socialize.
My hope is that, going forward, Good Shepherd will strive to be a community that looks beneath the surface of people’s lives and provides opportunities for parishioners to grow in their faith and to face the challenges of being church in our busy, fast-paced, distracted suburban world. Do we, for example, have the courage to admit that the Episcopal Church, as we know it, might seem irrelevant to many outside our doors? And if so, what are we willing to do about it? Are we willing to explore new ways of being community rather than just trot out the same programs and activities that we’ve been doing for years?
What will we need to do to inspire people to want to be part of a church like Good Shepherd, not because we need people to pay the bills or fill the pews, but because we truly believe that God calls us to be a community? Amen.
when jesus takes us "out of our game"
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, January 28, 2018
Given the fact that the Super Bowl game is coming up next Sunday, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to compare the ministry of Jesus Christ to a football game. For me, the fascinating thing about the Super Bowl or any football game is a kind of psychological battle that goes on. Each team prepares a strategy for the game. Each team has a plan of how to use its particular strengths that will match up with and, hopefully, overwhelm the strengths of the other team.
Of course, part of the strategy is to try to keep the other team from executing its plan, or to use a familiar expression, to try and take the other team “out of their game,” by forcing them to adopt a strategy that they don’t execute as confidently as their preferred style of play.
When Jesus encounters a person it’s as if Jesus and the person were surrounded by an imaginary bubble. Nothing that is going on around them seems to intrude or distract from their interaction. And the person who encounters Jesus feels like every obstacle - every barrier that might keep the person from receiving Jesus’ message of God’s unconditional love – is removed and the person stands there before Jesus completely disarmed completely undisguised, completely real….and open to receive what Jesus has to say to them or do for them. In this sense, Jesus “takes people out of their game.”
How surprising and different this was for the people Jesus preached to in the synagogue in Capernaum, as Mark reports. The rabbis of Jesus’ time derived their authority from the fact that they were learned interpreters of scripture and tradition. But Jesus’ authority never consists merely in his interpretation of a sacred text. In Jesus, the reality of God and the authority of God’s will are always immediately present and are fulfilled in him. In Jesus God becomes real to people in a way that is completely different from anything they had previously known.
But what does this mean for us? What does it look like when God’s love, made present in Jesus Christ, becomes real to us? There’s no one answer to that question, but we get a glimpse of what this looks like in the experiences that many clergy have written about when they realize that their calling to ordained ministry was not about God recognizing their competence, but about God calling them to recognize their imperfections and to recognize the gifts they didn’t know they had.
Several years ago, the great Dutch Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, wrote a book called In the Name of Jesus, Reflections on Christian Leadership. In the beginning of this book, Nouwen describes how he left Harvard University to live in a community of mentally handicapped people in Toronto. And the first thing Nouwen discovered was that none of the residents of the community had read his books. None of the people were impressed by what he had written or by the fact that, for 20 years, had had taught at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard.
When Nouwen went to the L’Arche community he discovered that he couldn’t use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past. The broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people who lived at L’Arche forced Nouwen to let go of his “relevant” self – the self that could do things, show things, prove things, build things – and forced him to reclaim the part of himself that was completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.
In a sense, Nouwen had been taken “out of his game” by the members of the the L’Arche Community. He had experienced the authority of the grace and love of Jesus through his relationships with a community of mentally handicapped people. And in this book Nouwen wants to show his readers that, if we are to be Christian leaders in our own day and time, we need to allow ourselves to be taken “out of our games”…..allow ourselves to stand in this world with nothing to offer but our own vulnerable selves.
Why does he say this? Because, he says, that is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. Our authority as followers of Jesus comes from the fact that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.
This makes sense. After all, remember that Jesus’ first temptation when he went into the wilderness after his baptism was to be relevant. The devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread. He tempted him to solve the world’s problems like malnutrition. Many people just assume that our calling as followers of Jesus is to do something that makes people realize that we make a difference in their lives. And we often get frustrated and feel depressed when people in our communities don’t seem to appreciate all the good things that we do.
Yet, Nouwen reminds us that there is a completely different story to tell. Beneath all the great things that church communities like Good Shepherd do to make the world a better place, there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are what many people aspire to, loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.
Henri Nouwen says that if the Church is going to survive and thrive in the future Christian leaders will need, like Jesus, to be people who dare to claim their authority in the contemporary world as a divine calling that allows them to enter into the darkness of people’s lives…people who, underneath the glitter of success, are plagued with anguish and despair.
So Nouwen suggests that the question we, the followers of Jesus, need to ask is not “how many people take us seriously?” Or “How much am I going to accomplish” But, “Are you in love with Jesus? Do you know the incarnate God? Do you know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, that cares, that reaches out and wants to heal?”
So, if we are to take our calling seriously…our calling to be followers of Jesus and to manifest Jesus to the world around us….then our task is to take off our “game faces” ….the faces we put on to loot successful and accomplished, and to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation, or despair begin to invade the human soul this is not something that comes from God.
But let’s be honest. This is difficult to do. Not everyone wants to be “taken out of their game.” As many of us have come to realize, very few people know that they are loved without any conditions or limits. This is why, the primary task for those who want to be followers of Jesus is to learn to pray….. to learn to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty and to taste God’s incarnate word in prayer.
Most of us need help learning to do this and that’s one of the reasons that we are offering a six-week, small group program called “What’s In Your Sacred Toolbox” this Lent beginning February 12.
To be people who manifest the authority of Jesus we have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of God’s love in prayer….to be rooted in a deep personal relationship with God. And when we remain rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life then, and only then will it be possible for us to resist the temptation to be relevant and to look successful.
So next Sunday, as the Patriots and the Eagles put on their “game faces,” I invite each of you to consider how God may be inviting you to exchange whatever game face you wear for a knowledge of the heart of God and to ask yourself, “Do I want to have the kind of authority Jesus had? Des my prayer life draw me closer to Jesus and to the heart of God?”Amen.
the gift of repentance
Sermon for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany, January 21, 2018
This is one of those Sundays when all three of our readings focus on a single theme and the theme is “change.” To Jonah’s astonishment, the people of Ninevah repent when they hear his message. Paul challenges the people of Corinth to get ready for the end of the world by changing their habits. Jesus comes inviting the disciples to drop their nets and follow him – a radical change for a poor group of fishermen.
But, when Jesus says, “repent” why is he so adamant that people need to change? Why does Jesus say that people need to change in order to receive the message of the breaking in of the Kingdom of God in Jesus? Throughout their long history with God, the people of Israel believed that, at the end of history, the Messiah would come and usher in a new kingdom. And the people of Israel thought of the Kingdom of God in very concrete ways. When the Messiah came, there would be a complete reversal of what society looked like. There would be no more poverty, no more crime, no more homelessness. When the Messiah came, he would usher in a totally new kind of world….a world of justice and righteousness.
But, when Jesus came announcing the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, he was saying two things that his Jewish hearers would not have expected. First, he said that the Kingdom of God was no longer in the future; it was breaking into the world right now. Second, he said that the Kingdom of God would be fulfilled in him. That’s to say that the Kingdom of God would no longer be a kingdom of justice ushered in by a powerful king like King David, but would be a kingdom of love, and if people wanted to know what this kind of love would look like then they just need to look at Jesus.
So the core of Jesus’ message is that the world is now under new management. There are new rules about how God relates to human beings. There is a new set of values; a new center of gravity; there is an abrupt change in loyalties. And because there are new rules, this requires that people need to change to receive and respond to this new kind of kingdom. How are we supposed to change? Jesus says that we are supposed to repent and believe in the Good News.
What does it mean to repent? Let me answer by demonstrating, first, what repentance is not. Last week Ann and I went to see the movie, “The Post,” which tells the story of how the notorious Pentagon Papers were first published by the Washington Post newspaper.
As most of you remember, the publishing of the top secret Pentagon Papers was a turning point in our nation because it exposed, for the first time, what was going on behind the scenes in the corridors of the Pentagon and the White House regarding the decision to sustain the build-up of American soldiers in Viet Nam in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Once it became known that there was a discrepancy between the reality of what was happening on the ground in Viet Nam and what the American people were being told, it forced the White House and the Pentagon to openly admit that the war was not winnable. And for President Richard Nixon and his advisors it created a crisis of confidence. How could the American people trust the government to tell them the truth?
As the last scene of the movie depicts, the publishing of the Pentagon Papers set the stage for significant abuses of power by the Nixon administration in response to this crisis. But what’s even more important, I believe, is what happened after Richard Nixon’s downfall.
You might remember another movie that told the story of how David Frost, the English TV personality interviewed former President Richard Nixon on TV. Years after the Watergate Affair Frost is convinced that he can pull off a journalistic coup by getting Nixon to admit that he had broken the law and to apologize to the American people. But Frost seriously underestimates Nixon. Nixon has no intention of acknowledging that he had made mistakes. It is only when Frost’s researchers come up with a transcript of one of the White House tapes, that Nixon finally admits that he had broken the law. But even then, he defends himself by saying that when the President believes that what he is doing is in the national interest, then it’s OK for him to break the law. At no point is Nixon willing to re-examine his decision….reexamine his basic assumptions about the role and power of the Presidency.
In modern American political history and in our own daily lives there is an old and pervasive notion that re-examining one’s basic assumptions is a luxury that busy, active, powerful people can’t afford. We often hold in high esteem those leaders -men and women - who have the ability to make quick decisions and not to second-guess themselves or procrastinate. There comes a moment when you have to act, one way or another; you have to “cut bait” or else, and so it is with life. That is all true and good.
But when we look at the words of Jesus’ first sermon in our gospel we see that the whole thrust of Jesus’ ministry was in precisely the opposite direction. Instead of regarding the re-examining of basic assumptions as a luxury, Jesus saw it as an absolute necessity. In fact, Jesus says that this is the way that God meant for people to grow toward their fulfillment.
When Jesus says “repent” he is inviting people to go back and re-examine old assumptions and, wherever needed, to undo and redo and set out in a new direction. The word “repent” means “turn” – to turn away from stale old assumptions and to turn towards a new future - and what Jesus does here is to say that such reassessing is a positive and not a negative thing.
This probably came as a shock to his audience. The Jews of Jesus’ day had come to associate the act of repentance with condemnation and reprisal. When they heard it, the image that would have come to mind was that of an angry God standing over against them, demanding that they “come clean” so as to receive the punishment that they deserve. And it was probably this vision of things that gave rise to the notion that one simply cannot afford to re-examine old decisions.
But one of the ways that we can understand the unique quality of Jesus is to see that, from the beginning of his ministry, he talked about repentance as something that we don’t need to fear or evade. Jesus dared to suggest that repentance is a gift given to us by the Father, and, if we could just grasp this fact and internalize it, then what happened to Richard Nixon in relation to an old decision would not have to be repeated again and again.
I have to say, that for much of my life, the concept of repentance has been difficult to put into practice. But, in coming to understand repentance as a gift, I have come to learn two important things about our God. First, it may sound pretty basic, but God doesn’t expect us to achieve perfection from the start. God knows all about the human condition and God knows that nothing starts out complete in this world. Growth is the way that everything comes to fulfillment and, in his ministry, Jesus constantly points out that incremental growth isn’t just something God tolerates; it is something he blesses and encourages.
The second thing about repentance that I have learned, but am still learning, is that God is more concerned about how we learn from our mistakes than how many mistakes we have made. Remember the parable of the Prodigal Son and the image of the patient, forgiving Father, who Jesus intends to be the image of God? God is like that Father who is more interested in growth than in service, and who was able to celebrate the Son’s repentance and not begrudge the price that had to be paid for the son’s new-found knowledge. God doesn’t expect us to get it right the first time, which is why the way of repentance is a positive gift and not a negative experience to be evaded.
So what about us? As we prepare for our Annual Meeting next Sunday, how do we take Jesus’ message of repentance to heart and apply it to our lives? As we look to the year ahead, what are some of the old assumptions that we have held onto individually and as a church community….the assumptions that, perhaps, keep us from experiencing the gift of repentance?
And what is keeping us from looking at these, questioning these, and, then, beginning to let them go? Jesus says, the kingdom of God has broken into the world. The kingdom of God is now. The Good News of that Kingdom is that we can change and grow. As we look forward to a new year, a year that will be full of challenges and blessings, my hope and prayer is that each of us can ask the Holy Spirit to give us the strength and the courage to re-examine our old assumptions and to set out in new directions. Amen.
listening to our lives
Sermon For the Second Sunday After the Epiphany, January 14, 2018
Trying to interpret dreams can be a risky business. That’s why we’re often thankful that we don’t remember them when we wake up. There can be so many layers of meaning wrapped up in a dream. Dreams can indicate our best hopes and our worst fears. Dreams can open doors to understanding ourselves, but, if they are dreams that reveal something that is visionary or prophetic, they can be deeply disturbing.
In our Old Testament reading, the boy Samuel had a dream that woke him up in the middle of the night. Or maybe it wasn’t a dream. Maybe it was a voice from God, as the reading says. At first, Samuel didn’t understand where this voice was coming from that kept calling his name. The third time he heard the voice he ran to Eli, the temple priest, the one whom Samuel’s mother Hannah had given Samuel to in thanksgiving to God for giving her a child. Samuel had been a miracle baby and Hannah had said to God that she would do anything to conceive, even give the baby back to God. So that’s what she did and Samuel grew up serving Eli in the Temple at Shiloh.
This vision is a kind of turning point for Samuel. Up to this point he has been a dutiful servant – assisting Eli with the preparation of the temple sacrifices and cleaning up the bloody mess that was left over after the sacrificial animals were slaughtered and, later, boiled for food. Now, as old Eli realizes, the young Samuel has crossed a threshold. He has received a voice from God and Eli instructs Samuel to respond, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Now Samuel is no longer a temple lackey who comes running at the sound of his name. Now he has become a man, a servant of God, who is ready to hear what the Lord has to say to him.
It took courage for Samuel to cross this threshold and respond to God. It also took courage because when God spoke to Samuel the message he received was not an easy one to hear. The Lord tells Samuel that he is about to punish the house of Eli because of the iniquity of his two sons, Hophni and Phineas, who were also priests. It seems that Eli’s sons were skimming off the top portions of the sacrificial offerings…the best cuts of meat, if you will… that were not rightly theirs. They had no regard for the sacrifices the people were bringing to the Lord.
Samuel doesn’t want to tell Eli what he has heard. He wants things to go back the way they were. He wants to remain a child…the way he was before his vision. But Eli knows better. He orders Samuel to tell him all what he has learned. Samuel balks, but Eli makes it clear that he, like Samuel, is ready to hear the message. And so it comes to pass that the boy whom Eli had counted on to be his eyes, ends up revealing a vision that will destroy Eli’s family.
The story of Samuel and Eli is a good example of how the God depicted in the Bible can be full of surprises. Throughout scripture we read stories of people who have faithfully obeyed God’s word and followed where God was leading them, but, then, they come to a crossroads of faith….where God calls them to go beyond their expectations….to move to a different level of faith and trust in God’s word spoken to them.
This is the main theme of the book we are discussing during this month’s Faith Forum. In his book, “Tracking Down the Holy Ghost,” former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold, says that the spiritual life, the life of growing in our relationship with God, is a process of “reading the scripture of our own lives”….. and discovering that, as he says, “God’s grace can manifest itself in wild and unexpected ways.” The way we do this, Griswold says is by “paying attention to the ebb and flow of our lives,” and “asking God to reveal to (us) how life’s darker moments and painful memories can at time be transmuted and lead to deeper insight and blessing.”
Throughout the book, Griswold shares stories of the unexpected twists and turns of his life and ministry as an Episcopal priest, Bishop and Presiding Bishop…. stories about how, through regular prayer and patient listening, both alone and in community, he has come to experience the presence of Jesus Christ in his life in surprising ways. He sums up his own spiritual life in this sentence: “The very circumstances of our lives will show us the way.” By this, Griswold means that, “as we accustom ourselves to listen for god’s voice in the midst of the complexities and challenges of our daily lives, we may find that we are no longer alone. Rather, we are companioned along the way by the One who is more intimate to us than we are to our own selves.”
When we begin to pay attention to the ebb and flow of our lives we discover, as Bishop Griswold has discovered, that our God is a god who often challenges our certainties and expectations. Our tendency is to set limits on reality according to our perceptions….. to create a set of expectations out of our own past experiences and then judge everything by them rather than making room for wonder and surprise.
We are like Nathaniel, Philip’s brother in today’s Gospel reading. When Philip told Nathaniel one day that he had encountered the Messiah and that he was named Jesus and was from Nazareth, Nathaniel reacted by saying, “Nazareth, you have to be kidding. I know that town. I grew up in Cana, only three and half miles away. I’ve been over there time and time again. I know its streets like the back of my hand. I know the people who live there. There is no way that a Messiah could come from that kind of place! Nothing good every came out of Nazareth!” How wrong Nathaniel was!
As we begin this new year, it might be a good time for each of us to ask ourselves what kind of word God might be speaking to us in the circumstances of our every- day lives, and how the word God might be speaking to us might lead us in a new direction.
As most of you know by now, after much thought and prayer, Ann and I have decided to move in a new direction in late April when I will retire from full-time ministry and retire as your Rector. For the past 13 years I have been trying to listen to the voice of God in the ebb and flow of life here at Good Shepherd, and I have tried to encourage you to take the life of prayer seriously and to discern how God might be calling you to deepen your relationship with the One who is closer to you than you can possibly imagine.
As I reflect on my ministry here, I feel that I have tried to help Good Shepherd be a community where people value listening to the voice of God in their lives through prayer, worship and faith formation, and where people feel encouraged and supported to grow in their faith.
My hope has always been that, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the people of Good Shepherd would come to believe that God wants to be present with each of us…to have a relationship with us….and God has given us Jesus to help us realize the power of the divine love let loose in the world.
In order to hear and receive this word, I have also tried to encourage people to have faith in a God who is full of surprises and who invites us to let go of our anxieties about the way we think things should be…in order to move into a new world where we put our life into God’s hands…where we can respond with confidence to the voice we may hear in the night, and say, with confidence, the words Samuel spoke to God: “speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” Amen.
baptism: long on love, short on duties
Sermon for the First Sunday After the Epiphany, the Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018
A story is told about Philips Brooks, the well-known Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts in the 1890’s, when he was to about to leave on a trip to Europe. A friend suggested jokingly that possibly he would bring a new religion back with him. He cautioned that if this were so, he should be careful, it might be difficult to get a new religion through Customs. “I doubt it,” said Bishop Brooks. “In all likelihood any new religion popular enough to import would have no duties attached to it.”
Philips Brook’s sarcastic comment points to a common problem in the church having to do with baptism. Today, the First Sunday After the Epiphany, we are celebrating the baptism of Jesus so this is a good time to explore why baptism is so important, what baptism means for us today, and why parents often get confused about the duties and requirements that go along with baptism.
First of all, it’s important to say that the reason people are often confused about the duties of baptism is that the process that is intended to begin in baptism, the process of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ is something that is intrinsically hard to define….. and there’s a reason for that.
I’d like to look at two moments in our gospel reading to illustrate what I mean. First, at the end of the gospel, after Jesus comes up out of the water following his baptism by John, Mark says, “Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” There are several different ways of interpreting this passage, but one of the most compelling explanations is that this “voice from heaven” – whether it was an actual voice that witnesses to Jesus’ baptism heard, or a voice that only Jesus heard – describes in a few words, what one could say was the overriding reason for Jesus’ entire ministry. Jesus’ public ministry was dedicated to growing in his relationship with the father-God. Everything he did and everything he said reflected his commitment to obey his heavenly father, but, more importantly, to deepen his intimate relationship with God.
This sounds so simple doesn’t it? But this picture of Jesus growing in an intimate relationship with his heavenly father contains within it the great mystery of the Christian faith. In the world Jesus grew up in, the world of 1st century Judaism, the spiritual life was seen as primarily a process of learning to obey the Torah, the law of Moses, contained in the first five books of the Bible. The problem with the observance of the law, as Jesus frequently pointed out, is that, in trying to follow the commandments faithfully…. in trying to observe the details of the law… the faithful practices of religious rituals and the achievement of a standard of personal righteousness become for many people the goal of life.
In contrast to this approach to the spiritual life, Jesus focused not on a careful observance of every detail of the law, but on the fact that true spiritual maturity begins with each person’s ability to expand their capacity to love others. Instead of holding up the law as a guide for attaining personal righteousness and putting pressure on people to work hard to obey the law, Jesus, instead, taught that goodness had to flow from the heart, and he believed that if people were open to receive the gift of God’s grace, they would naturally and gradually continue to grow in faithfulness.
The problem with the Christian faith is that, unlike in other religious faiths, Jesus didn’t spell out everything in detail. His approach to faith grew out of his relationship with the Father-God. It was an approach based on freedom. He believed that the only way that people can grow in their faith is to have the freedom to grow as love grows inside of them. Instead of holding up a blueprint of personal righteousness, Jesus said “watch me; learn to love as you observe me loving you and loving others. Relax; trust your heart and learn to love as I love.”
But do you see the challenge here? If we are going to learn to love as Jesus loved, we have to be willing to deepen our relationship with him. We have to be willing to deepen our intimacy with him so we can understand him and what he expects of us as his friends, and grow as love grows, naturally from within, without imposing on ourselves artificial expectations from outside.
There’s a second thing that happens at Jesus’ baptism that also confuses many people. Baptism is the beginning of a new life for Christians. It is a ritual in which we believe the grace of God is acting in and through us to cleanse and renew us, and that cleansing is a way for us to become reconciled with God. But why did Jesus undergo baptism if, supposedly, he was someone who didn’t need to be cleansed and reconciled with God?
Again, there are several explanations for this curious fact, but the most compelling interpretation to me is that, in deciding to be baptized, Jesus was demonstrating to us another aspect of God’s mysterious grace. Jesus was showing us that the purpose of baptism is not to make us a more moral person. When Jesus was baptized it didn’t make him a better person, anymore than our baptisms have necessarily have made us better persons.
Religion as morality is not something that belongs to Christians alone. All religions teach that it is better to be good than bad. All religions teach that it is better to be moral than immoral. What is different about Christianity is that Christianity teaches that God cares about us so much that he becomes one of us in order to manifest his love for us in person. God cares about us so much that he becomes one of us in order to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that he cares for us. When Jesus walked into the Jordan River and received John’s baptism, he completely identified himself with sinful human beings. This was God’s way of saying to us, “We’re in this thing called life together baby…because you count with me!”
We see this in Jesus’ ministry. Wherever he went Jesus appears to be casual with people, showing them that he has no problem accepting their weaknesses. By showing people that God was with them in their weakness, in their limitations, Jesus was revealing the other great mystery of the Christian faith – that when we acknowledge our weakness and our brokenness in life, then God is able to work with us. God has entered into our human condition and God wants to use our humanness as a way of bringing us closer to the heart of God.
Again, the challenge of this picture of Christian faith is that there is no blueprint; there is no precise picture of what Jesus expected of us. In essence, he said to people, “as you become more aware of your own human limitations, you will become more aware of the needs of others and more responsive to the needs of others. As you come to learn that God accepts you in your weakness, you will grow in your compassion for others, and the Kingdom of God will come among you. Without even knowing it you will become the person God is calling you to be.”
At the end of the day, baptism is not a blueprint. Baptism doesn’t set out a clear set of expectations. Baptism is the beginning of a life-long process of growing in an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ so that we can learn to love as he loved. Baptism is also a process, not of becoming morally perfect, but of taking the risk of acknowledging our human limitations and trusting that God is using our weaknesses to call us into compassionate relationships with others.
Although baptism doesn’t provide us with a blueprint, there’s one aspect of baptism that is very clear. If we want to want to grow as disciples of Jesus, if we want both to learn to love as Jesus loved, and if we want to learn how to become more vulnerable and compassionate people, we need to accept that the Christian life is not a solitary journey. The only way we can truly grow in faith is be being part of a community of other people who can help us and support us on the journey. That’s why we talk about baptism as our initiation into the body of Christ, the church. We may not always know exactly what is expected of us, but in baptism we believe that we are called to do something special as a member of a community of people who are also seeking to grow in their relationship with Jesus.
At the end of the day, the Christian faith is a love story and not a blueprint with a lot of duties attached to it. And the church is not an institution that exists to provide people with rules, but a community of people supporting each other as we try to live out our faith, however imperfectly.
As one Episcopal priest put it, “Baptism is God’s search for us that is long on love, but short on evidence.”
compassion: when the wood of the crib becomes the wood of the cross
Sermon for the First Sunday After Christmas, December 31, 2017
There is an old German tradition where, instead of throwing out the Christmas tree, or turning it in to the recycling center, one puts the tree outside and allows it to die, and then removes all the branches, and then cuts the trunk of the tree in two to make the arms of a cross. The cross is saved until Easter, when it is decorated with flowers to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ.
I’ve always loved this tradition, not just because I never seem to get around to disposing of my Christmas trees, but because it reminds me that the meaning of Christmas is not in the baby….but in the man. No one ever followed Jesus because he was born of a virgin on Christmas Day. The disciples followed Jesus….later…only because in Jesus they experienced the love and compassion he lived in this world as a man – a love and compassion so great that it has the power to transform lives.
This is what John is saying to us in today’s Gospel reading. First John says that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He then says that this Word is the “light of all people” and that this Word “shines in the darkness.” When John talks about the “light” or about the Word becoming flesh, this isn’t some dream or abstract theological concept. John means that God’s grace and love have become a concrete personal reality. He means that God’s grace has taken on flesh and blood. Grace has assumed a life of its own. That grace has appeared as Jesus Christ, the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter. He is God’s grace. If you read through all of the words of Jesus recorded in Scripture, and all of his deeds too, this is the common thread, the unifying theme – in him, in Jesus, God’s grace has appeared. God’s grace has become personal, has become a person.
But John doesn’t stop there. He goes beyond just making a one-sided affirmation about grace. He says that this Word, God’s grace in the person of Jesus, gives power to everyone who receives him… power to become “children of God.”
What does this mean? It means that when God’s grace appears it has an impact. It means that when people encounter God’s grace in Jesus, it has an effect on their lives.
In the face of opposition and disbelief by the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus tried to explain how the appearance of God’s word, God’s grace changes people’s lives, and he did this by telling stories. He told a story about a shepherd who had a flock of 100 sheep, and one of his sheep had gone missing. And the shepherd left the 99 in the wilderness and went out to search for the one who was lost until he found it. And then he took that sheep on his shoulders and marched him home. And he called together his friends and neighbors and said, “Come and rejoice with me! For I have found my sheep that was lost!”
And Jesus told another story about a man who had two sons, and the younger son went away into a foreign country and squandered his inheritance on wine, women and song. Flat broke, with nothing to eat but pig slops, the prodigal son came to his senses and decided to return home to his father. But, unbeknownst to the son, the father had already decided to go looking for him. And when the father found him, he has compassion and ran and embraced his son and kissed him. And the son joyfully returned home, knowing that he was forgiven and reconciled to his father in a way he never knew was possible.
This is the same story that we hear at every Eucharist service when the celebrant says, “and when our disobedience took us far from you, you did not abandon us to the power of death. In your mercy, you came to our help…... Again and again you called us into covenant with you….” What is this if not the story of our Father running to us who have wandered into a foreign land where, far from home, we have squandered our inheritance…and where, in the Word made flesh, God’s grace has appeared in a person and we are astonished to find his love is standing at our side, waiting for us to turn toward home?
Another story of grace impacting people’s lives. During the American Revolution, in the darkest days for the American cause, with Washington’s rag-tag army hunkered down in the snow at Valley Forge, morale was at its lowest point. The troops hadn’t been paid for many months. Most of them were ill-clothed and ill-fed, freezing to death as they sat there and waited for the winter to pass. The troops were on the verge of mutiny. And then, one evening, General Washington appeared. He walked up to each tent and engaged in conversation with the miserable, shivering troops. He even took off his big wool coat and wrapped it around one of the men who had none. He sat by their campfire with them. He talked to them about his plans, his hopes for the successful completion of the war. It was a great turning point. The men responded in kind. New life was infused in them. They fought on, and their victory was won.
The message of Christmas is that the grace of God has appeared. The love of God…the love of a God who seeks us out like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, or a father searching for his lost son…or an army general visiting his troops when they are fast losing hope….that love has become a reality for us. And when we hear this news that the God who we thought was distant and aloof, is the God who came to us in the Incarnation…who appeared to us in human flesh….then it’s hard for us not be changed in some way.
For me, the word that best expresses the message of Christmas… the word that best expresses the change that the grace of God brings is “compassion.” Christmas is, of course, a time to both receive and give gifts in celebration of the birth of Christ. But, as important as it is for us to give generously at this time of year, the problem with seasonal giving is that it often remains on the level of self-interest, or on the level of guilt, or on the level of “feeling good”, or it remains on the level of just a plain tax deduction.
Compassion, on the other hand, is something which leads to a rich and full human life. Compassion energizes. It is an indispensable step on one’s journey toward God. Compassion, which means to “suffer with,” suggests that we seek out those who suffer and hurt in order to be with them….not to solve their problems…but simply to present to them, as God has been present to his people since the days in the wilderness of Sinai and before.
The truth of Christmas is that God comes to live among his people. He doesn’t send old coats or old shoes to the poor. He doesn’t open a soup kitchen or fill the cupboards of the local food bank. He comes to be with those who are hungry and homeless. And later in the story, his Son identifies so closely with the hungry, the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned…the he becomes them.
As much as our culture is ready to throw out the Christmas tree and move on to the celebration of the New Year…as much as our culture is ready to pack up the Christmas ornaments and put away our crèche sets and our nostalgic thoughts about Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem, Christmas asks us to recognize that the wood of the crib became the wood of the cross. Christmas asks us to remember that it is an adult Christ, a risen Lord who invites us to follow Jesus, the Word become flesh, invites us to follow him in a new life of compassion.
So, before you drop your Christmas tree on the curb and pack away your Christmas memories, take a few minutes to remember that we still have six more days in the Christmas season. Take a minute to remember that our celebration of the Word made flesh is not over. That Word, the light that enlightens each of us calls us to live lives of compassion, not just for a season, but for the rest of our lives. Amen.
the songs of Christmas
Sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2017
On this Christmas Day we gather here to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. And, on such an occasion, it often seems that words, alone, can’t express the wonder, the mystery and the beauty of this day. This celebration really requires music for us to express the fullness of joy that we feel and, although we could sing a rousing version of “Happy Birthday To You,” there are many glorious songs and hymns that immediately come to mind. If we were to gather up all of these wonderful Christmas carols, there are two words that appear most often. Two words that express what I think this day means to us. They are “glory” and “hallelujah.”
Neither word needs much introduction. “Glory” refers to the glory of God. It refers to the fact that, when people experience the presence of God in their lives, the world around them is changed and transfigured. What previously looked dark is filled with light; what seemed hopeless now appears full of promise; what was confusing and troubling now makes perfect sense. Glory is what we feel whenever and wherever God’s will and God’s purpose makes itself known to us. In those moments, we get a brief glimpse of eternity.
But the mysterious aspect of glory is that we only see it or experience in contrast to something else. When we sing the hymns, “Angels we have heard on high,” or “Angels from the realms of glory,” we are reminded that the glory of those angels was made known to a very inglorious group of shepherds. Shepherds were considered ritually unclean and outsider to righteous people of the time. And the stable where Mary gave birth to Jesus was a squalid, stinky home to a variety of animals.
In Advent of 1986 my wife and I were in Vancouver, British Columbia, and, in a downtown bookstore we bought a wonderful book by the Episcopalian and well known writer, Madeleine L’Engle. The book features a series of commentaries on frescoes painted by for a chapel in Padua, Italy, by the famous Renaissance painter Giotto. The title of this book has always intrigued me. It’s called “The Glorious Impossible.” For L’Engle, each scene of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ portrays how God’s grace and love has appeared in a way that seems, to the outward observer, as something impossible….something improbable and often ridiculous. About the Annunciation story, L’Engle says,
What an amazing, what an impossible message the angel brought to a young girl! But Mary looked at the angel and said, “Be it unto me according to your word.” And so the life of Jesus began as it would end, with the impossible. When he was a grown man he would say to his disciples, “For human beings it is impossible. For God, nothing is impossible” Possible things are easy to believe. The Glorious Impossibles are what bring joy to our hearts, hope to our lives, songs to our lips.
I think the reason that the title of this book made a special impression on me was the fact that, at the time we bought it, Ann and I were expecting our first child, and, for every young couple expecting their first child, there is something both glorious and impossible about the impending birth. As much as the couple looks forward to starting their family, they realize that nothing in their lives will ever be the same.
The gloriously impossible fact about Christmas for many people is that, in the frenzied, hyperactive world we all live in, we have a very hard time creating a time and a place in our busy lives to perceive what God may be doing…what God may be wanting to reveal to us. What seems impossible for us is that we could possibly slow down, quiet down and focus our attention, not on the hubbub and the hurrying, but on our desire for joy, peace and reconciliation in our lives – the kind of joy, peace and reconciliation that God can give us. We want it; we long for it, but it just seems so impractical and unrealistic that we would intentionally organize our lives in a way to receive it.
The second word that appears so often in Christmas carols is “Hallelujah.” We tend to think of Handel’s “Alleluia Chorus,” but there’s another more contemporary “Hallelujah” song that captures the spirit of this day. It was written by the folk singer, Leonard Cohen. It was composed 30 years ago and has become one of the best known, most recorded and most popular songs of the past three decades. It’s probably best known as the theme song to the animated movie, “Shrek.”
Why is this song so popular? Leonard Cohen would often tell people that the reason the song spoke to so many people is that there are so many different “Hallelujahs” in people’s lives. What does that mean? One of the key verses in the song refers to a “broken Hallelujah.” The song includes several references to the fact that people sing the word “Hallelujah” in the midst of experiences like King David had when he sinned greatly before God or when the Old Testament judge, Samson, lost the source of his power to a set of scissors. The word “Hallelujah” seems to speak to people when all they can do is offer up to God a simple word of praise and thanks – no explanations, no apologies, no other words necessary.
In many ways, Christmas is the story of a “broken Hallelujah.” Rather than give in to the shame of marrying a woman who’s about to give birth out of wedlock, Joseph claims the baby as his own. In the middle of a mess Joseph sees a miracle and gives praise to God. Giving birth to her child on a dung heap, Mary sings a “broken Halleujah.” This wasn’t the birth she envisioned, but Jesus came into the world in the way God has planned and she accepted it. The message of the angels came not to the people in power – not to Herod or Caesar – but to lowly shepherds. And when they received the message, the lives of the shepherds were transformed. Outcasts no longer, they received a new dignity and meaning for their lives.
The “broken Hallelujahs” of life are those dark, difficult times when we are tempted to lose hope and throw in the towel. The times when we have a very hard time believing that we are loved, forgiven and accepted. The times when we are on the brink of cursing God and losing all hope. And then, mysteriously, God’s grace comes to us in the form of an outstretched hand, a word of acceptance or forgiveness, a gift of love that we can’t turn down or turn away from.
Christmas is a time of “broken Hallelujahs” because in the Incarnation, God came into the world in a way that overcomes our resistance. God came into the world in way that makes us realize our true identity as a beloved child of God. God entered into our world, as our gospel writer John proclaims, as a light that shines in the darkness of life, but as a light that changes us because we realize that there is no part of human life that God does not know because God has entered completely into our world.
“Glory to God in the highest…..Hallelujah.” The “glorious impossible” and the “broken Hallelujahs.” These are the places where we find God today. These are the miracles we celebrate today….the miracles of faith that owe their origin to the birth of Jesus Christ that day in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Amen.
how do we see him?
Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017
Years ago, I heard a news story about a young couple in Caracas, Venezuela who became separated from their newborn baby shortly after the baby’s birth. Because of some terrible flooding, they couldn’t get back to the hospital and, when they finally did, they discovered that the hospital had been evacuated. What made matters worse was that they hadn’t had time to name the baby. So there they were…searching frantically throughout the city for a child who had no name.
What a contrast with Mary and her baby. According to Luke’s story of the annunciation Mary knew her baby’s name from the moment of conception. The angel Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. “
According to Luke, Mary had nine months to ponder the meaning and the mystery of her child’s name. But what must Mary have been thinking as she prepared to go into labor, ensconced not in a hospital, or even in a hotel room, but outdoors, surrounded by farm animals and shepherds? What must she have made of the total contrast between the exalted name her baby had been given and the circumstances in which that baby was to be born? Unlike that poor couple from Venezuela she had a name and she had her baby, but not much else.
Tonight we come here, like Mary, with a question. What does it mean to say that this child, named Jesus, the one named to greatness, called to inherit the throne of David, was born in a cave or a stable… born to a frightened young girl and a patient, confused carpenter? What does it mean for the world? What does it mean for us? What do we see when we look at this little child lying in a manger 2,000 years ago?
If we go back to Jesus’ name we get a clue. The name Jesus comes from the Hebrew, “Jeshua,” which means, “God saves” or “Savior.” What does it mean to say that Jesus is our savior?
There are many answers to that question. For example, we could say that Jesus came into the world to save us from many things….deep-seated fears, emotional problems, despair, loneliness, hopelessness, and what we usually call “our sins.”
But, we could sum up all of these things by saying that, in Jesus, God had a plan to save us from our basic human condition, which is that we have become separated from God, we need to be reconciled with God and with our fellow human beings, and we can’t do this by ourselves.
At the Church of Reconciliation in San Antonio I had an assistant, who once, in an adult education program, gave a wonderful explanation of what this plan looks like.
She drew a circle on an easel pad and said that, if we start at the top of the circle and move down, we see how God, throughout history, made his will known to the people of Israel – in creation, in the covenants with the patriarchs, in the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, in God’s calling of the prophets to proclaim the message of salvation. History can be seen, she said, as a process of God reaching out and offering his people gifts and a process of God’s people responding to God…sometimes faithfully, sometimes not.
But then, just at this point, at the bottom of the circle, she pointed out that God intervened in history so that we wouldn’t need to respond by ourselves. Every time the distance between God and us has threatened to end our relationship, it is God who has stepped across the breach, taking on more and more of the burden, until with the birth of a baby he accepted it all.
God intervened in a special way in Jesus Christ, to eliminate the need for us to enter into the kingdom of God by our own efforts. God came into the world in Jesus to complete the circle of salvation for us. We don’t have to do anything to receive it. We can’t earn it. All we have to do is to trust that that’s what God did for us.
Another way of describing God’s plan to save us is to talk about Christmas as a time of darkness and light. By late December, the night is at its longest. The darkness can be heavy and, for some, it’s depressing. But in the midst of this darkness Christmas comes. Jesus Christ brings light and life into the darkness of our history and our lives.
We have a tendency to equate light with goodness and dark with evil. Historically, darkness has been equated with danger and light with safety. But this misses a crucial point about the meaning of Christmas and God’s plan for us. Darkness is not evil and light is not good. We need both. We need darkness and light to create shadows and nuances of shape and form. If we had all light, it would be boring. There would be no beauty, only monotony.
So we don’t see the coming of light as the vanquishing of evil. Instead, it is the sign that within the darkest corners of life, God’s light, God’s love, continues to shine.
It is the reassurance that God has a plan to hold the universe together….to transform people’s lives, and to continually work to reconcile the world to himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But if the coming of this light……if the incarnation of God in Jesus…. is to have any real meaning for us, then we need to move from a celebration of God’s plan for salvation through the reconciling love of Jesus, to the everyday reality of being a people of reconciliation…a people who make God’s love an ordinary, every- day part of our lives... a people who don’t fear the darkness, but strive to shine light into the darkness around them. And that can be a challenge.
As we gather here tonight to celebrate God’s plan for reconciling us to God and reconciling us to those we fear or don’t understand, we can’t shut our eyes and pretend that we haven’ noticed that over the past year our country has witnessed an increase in the rhetoric of intolerance in the political and social arena.
As we reach out for the light that Christ’s birth brings to our lives, we can’t help but notice the rise of fear, suspicion and polarization in our society.
So maybe it’s a good time to remember what this celebration of Christmas is all about. The American jazz musician and composer, Alfred Burt, carried on a tradition, begun by his father, an Episcopal Priest in Pontiac Michigan, of writing Christmas carols for his family members, and in 1951 he wrote a carol, titled, “Some Children See Him,” which James Taylor, and some other famous singer have popularized. The words of the song are:
Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.
Some children see him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, ah! they love Him, too!
The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight.
Tonight, we are invited to “lay aside” whatever earthly things get in the way of celebrating the fact that this God of ours shines his light into the darkness of fear and prejudice and intolerance, and leaves us no place for us to retreat from…no place to hide from his love and grace.
The question for us on this Christmas Eve is, “can we be people who not only celebrate God’s plan of salvation, but who believe and live in the everyday reality of God’s reconciling love?” Can we strive to bring reconciliation to a world that sometimes seems to be increasingly divided?
Happy Birthday to Jesus. Happy Birthday to us who are reborn today and are once again bathed in the light of God’s peace and love. Amen.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017
In ancient Israel, although it was possible for men and women to fall in love and marry the person they were attracted to, most marriages were arranged by the parents. As a time for the “arrangement” to occur, the rabbis set a girl’s minimum age at 12 years; the boy was to be at least 13. If we transpose this factoid to Mary at the time of the Annunciation, Mary would have been in her mid-teens. A girl, in other words, who, not long before, had heard her first lecture on the “birds and the bees.” A girl who could have been in a soccer uniform, or having sleep-over parties, or simply hanging out with friends at the mall. A girl who would typically forget her backpack at school, and fall in love twice a week.
And yet, Mary of Nazareth would do more to change world history, let alone salvation history, than anyone in Scripture up to that time. Imagine that: a teenager becoming God’s unique vessel for redeeming the cosmos. You would have thought that someone with at least a resume’ would have been called for, according to our modern standards of leadership. But Mary possessed no exceptional attributes in terms of age, experience, economic or political clout.
And this reminds us of the first important point about this 4th Sunday of Advent, often called “Mary Sunday.” In this Annunciation story, God comes to us not in any exalted or exceptional way. God comes to us in the every-day, ordinary context of human life as it is. The gift that Mary brings to us today is her gift of humility. Although Mary is depicted in countless works of art over the centuries as an idealized, icon of holiness, we need to remember Mary’s humanness and humility. She was a scared, pregnant teenage girl, from a small, hick town, who would go through all of the physical and mental struggles of childbirth without much support or encouragement. And yet, God chose her to be a vessel of salvation.
The second gift that Mary brings us today is the gift of freedom of choice. Today’s gift is the gift of commitment….the gift of turning towards God and making the commitment to offer ourselves as servants of God. Today is the day when we say, with Mary, “Yes……“Yes, Lord. Here I am, your servant.” And we believe that these words change everything.
The reason that Christians pay so much attention to Mary is that we believe that the whole future of creation hung on the answer of this teenage girl. Imagine the Archangel Gabriel’s fellow angels all gathered around, looking down, holding their collective breath. “What will she say? Will she do it? C’mon Mary say yes!” Because they all know the way God works is only by allowing people freely to answer “yes.” Freedom of choice, the exercise of free will, has always been at the top of God’s priority list when it comes to interacting with human beings. God would never force a “yes” from anyone, would never trick anyone into a response of love. God would never make obedience the best choice if people didn’t truly have the option of disobedience as well.
That’s the way God has been from the beginning. God would even allow people to continue in their own disobedience, to hit bottom if necessary, if only to give them a firm place from which to say, “Okay, yes. Your will be done.” God respects our freedom. If it weren’t so, God wouldn’t have had to keep coming up with a constant string of new ways to reach out to people, to ask them again and again to say yes….to freely say yes to God.
We know the answer Mary gave. And with this answer all the heavens rejoice and God’s plan to redeem the world is set in motion….the plan that would cause a new light to shine in the darkness…new hope….new peace….new freedom.
Mary’s “yes” changes everything. And when we are willing to serve God and do what God asks of us, it is freeing. When we can stop asking, “What’s in it for me? How does this help me? What can I get out of it,” then we will know freedom. When we are freed from all attempts to be self-important and self-serving, we can be truly free.
Mary’s gift of choice frees us to serve others. But Mary brings us a third and final gift and this may be her greatest gift to us. When you think about how God came to this teenage girl, it is safe to say that nothing in Mary’s life prepared her for the angel’s visit and so, as she pondered and tried to understand what was going on, she couldn’t rely on memories or on the counsel of her family and friends. Instead, Mary had to use her imagination. Mary had to imagine God’s promises coming true. Mary had to imagine that the impossible was possible.
In Mary’s song that we call the Magnificat Mary says, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Look around. Do we actually see this happening in the world we live in? In many countries throughout the world, those in power still use their wealth and their military strength to suppress democratic reforms and economic equality. Look around. Despite our best efforts, the number of undernourished children continues to grow in many states across the country. The number of low-income families without health insurance is still a national disgrace. The number of people living on the streets or in homeless shelters in Denver multiplies each year. Like the prophets and like Jesus, Mary used her imagination to envision a world very different from the culture, the so-called “real world” that she lived in.
Consenting to Christmas is difficult, but the real obstacle is not the big, bad, busy “secular” world of commercialism as is so often suggested. The real obstacle is sustaining our imaginations and saying “yes” to God, which is difficult because we are often caught in the grip of despair, numbness and grief when we see the kinds of social and economic challenges people face in our country. The challenge of Christmas is saying “yes” to a faith we are not sure of and allow our conflicted selves to be amazed by the annunciations going on around us all the time. The challenge of Christmas is to remember that Jesus was born into this same kind of world and that, in the end, the baby won. The impossible came true and we are here to help each other proclaim the freedom of God to come into the world through the vessel of a teenage girl.
Today, let’s give thanks for the gifts Mary brings us – the gift of humility, the gift of freedom of choice, and the gift of courage to imagine a world that is different from what we see around us. As we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, let’s take some time to use our imaginations and say “yes” to a God who came into the world to reconcile us to himself. Amen.
coming home to the joy of advent
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017
If you are new to the Episcopal Church you might have wondered why we lit a pink candle on our Advent wreath today. The pink candle symbolizes the theme of joy amidst the more somber mood of Advent. In the Anglican tradition, this Sunday came to be known as “gaudete” or “rejoicing” Sunday because the epistle reading for this day was always taken from I Thessalonians 5:16, which says, “Be always joyful” or “rejoice, always.”
Christian joy is something far deeper and more mysterious than happiness. For a Christian, to be joyful is to experience the peace and security and comfort of God’s love and grace, but, at the same time, to be aware that God’s peace and security and comfort are the result of the power of God to transform and renew life as we know it. Christian joy comes from knowing that, ultimately, God is in charge and, as Moses reminded the people of Israel in the wilderness, we need to be aware of the temptation to try and control or manipulate God – in other words, the temptation to make God into an idol.
For me, the mystery of Christian joy is a lot like the experience of coming home for Christmas. From the age of 14 until the 32, I lived most of the year away from home and only returned for Christmas, spring and summer vacations, so I experienced Christmas as a homecoming. The experience of returning home at Christmas time was a strange mixture of comfort, and anxious waiting or longing. The comfort came from the smell of my father’s pipe tobacco, the sound of my mother playing Beethoven on the piano, the fun of inspecting the array of Christmas cards from friends and family perched on the living room bookshelves.
In contrast, the anxious waiting or longing came from sitting down at the holiday dinner table and, instead of unwrapping pleasant memories of the past, exposing all the old hurts and wounds that never seem to get resolved: disagreements about politics and religious views… perceived insensitivities about other family members and in-laws. For me, coming for Christmas represented what was secure, familiar and predictable. But it also raised up hopes and dreams of what could be, but what I couldn’t control – a longing for healing and reconciliation, a desire to be affirmed and validated by family members, the hope that painful subjects that had been buried might be brought out into the light of day and openly discussed.
Today’s Old Testament reading is also about homecomings. The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people of Jerusalem who have returned home after living in exile for 48 years in Babylon. When they were allowed to leave Babylon by the Persian king, Cyrus, the people anticipated that they would joyously and quickly rebuild their former way of life in Jerusalem. However, when they arrived, they discovered that their city was in ruins. Some people oppressed others. Some people had turned to idols. So people became discouraged. Isaiah didn’t ask the people to accept the status quo. He announces that God is going to reverse the situation. God will liberate the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, and all those who mourn. The time of the Lord’s favor is coming.
Isaiah isn’t telling people what they will do. He is announcing what God will do, because what God intends for the people of Jerusalem is beyond their imaginations. God will create new heavens and a new earth. It will be joy, joy, everywhere. No hunger, no homelessness, no poverty, no exploitation. The challenge for Isaiah is to try and get the people of Jerusalem to trust that God will fulfill these promises in the future. The challenge is to encourage the people to wait for what they long for, even though this contradicts everything that they believe about the status quo.
No wonder that, in the gospel of Luke, Luke has Jesus quote this passage when he preached his first sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. And no wonder, too, that the congregation gathered that day in Jesus’ home town tried to run him out of town. Jesus challenged the status quo by suggesting that the people of Nazareth had limited themselves to a very narrow idea of who God was and what God was calling them to do. In a sense, Jesus accused the people of making an idol out of their religion. They thought they knew what God’s plan, God’s purpose was, but Jesus tells them that God is going to do something they didn’t expect and couldn’t control.
The season of Advent is the time when we take a look at our lives and see how easy it is for us to turn things and people into idols. Advent calls our attention to our need to be spoken to, to be touched, to be judged and loved and forgiven by someone outside ourselves, by someone who is beyond our control and even beyond our complete understanding.
Advent is that time when, despite our temptation to create idols, we take seriously the reality that there are things we can’t do for ourselves. We can’t know that we are loved by ourselves. We can’t be forgiven by ourselves. We can’t, by ourselves, assure ourselves that we are of some worth, that we have some dignity and loveableness.
In his letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, Paul writes to a group of recently converted people who he fears may be flagging in their faith. So he gives them a kind of “pep-talk” by offering several encouraging suggestions about how they should be living their lives.
Paul suspects that the Thessalonians may have become impatient since the end of the world that he preached about when he was with them has not yet come. He writes to them to remind them that the future that God has promised to them may not look like what they have come to expect.
“Make peace with each other.” In other words, don’t write off your enemies or the people you disagree with. They may have something important to teach you. “Encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” In other words, don’t write the people off who seem to have little power or influence. God may be speaking to you through them. Their presence may be an opportunity to demonstrate your faith and love for God.
And them the phrase for which this passage is famous, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
Here Paul reminds the Thessalonians that the Christian life is our response to what God has done in our lives. Christian faith is not about trying to live up to some standard or moral perfection. It is living out of a profound sense of gratitude for the gifts God has given us – the gifts of grace, love and forgiveness. Yes, Paul reminds us, we can make the Christian life into an idol by setting ourselves apart as being holier or more worthy than others, but that misses the whole point. We are set apart as God’s chosen people because God has spoken a word to us, a word of grace and love that came to us when we were unable to save ourselves by our own efforts. Whatever good deeds we do are the result of our joy and gratitude for God’s saving love in Jesus Christ.
Paul reminds us that if we lose that sense of spontaneous joy for what God has done for us, then we are on our way to making an idol of our relationship with God. We’ve stopped waiting for a word from outside of ourselves. We become afraid of judgement, but also afraid to receive a new vision of who we are and what God is calling us to be. Joyful Christians are constantly alert for signs that God is breaking into their lives in ways that they don’t understand or expect.
I hope this Advent season is a time for you to have a joyful homecoming…. A time for you to rediscover the sense of joyful anticipation for God to do something new and wonderful in your life and in the world you live in. Christmas day will fulfill our hopes, dreams and longings. But for Christmas to happen, we need to be able to let Jesus out of the crèche, let Jesus come down off the cross, let the spirit of Jesus loose to live in our church buildings, so that his people can be his body in the world, to shine his light in the darkness.
Are we doing that? Do we radiate joy in anticipating that God will fulfill what God has promised? Or do we stick with what is safe, familiar and predictable?
It takes courage to be truly joyful. Praise God that, together, in this family of God’s body that we call Good Shepherd Church, we can find the courage to come to this altar week after week, trusting that true joy…God’s joy… can be ours. Amen.
Where is your wilderness?
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017
During the past few years we have all become familiar with the plight of refugees fleeing violence and chaos – fleeing conflict in Syria, fleeing lack of economic opportunities in Mexico or North Africa, fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar or Islamic terrorism in Nigeria. People who live in exile face a strange kind of existence. Even though they may have traumatic memories of being uprooted and displaced, when they are given the opportunity to return home, they may look to the future with uncertainty. They have worked so hard to adapt to their strange surroundings that they inevitably feel like they are leaving something of themselves behind in their home of exile.
This is the situation which the prophet Isaiah faces when, speaking for God, he says, “Comfort, comfort my people.” Isaiah has a difficult job to try and persuade the people of Israel, who have lived in exile in Babylon for 48 years, that God was doing something completely new and different by using a foreigner – the Persian king Cyrus, who had recently conquered the Babylonians – to set free and restore them to their almost forgotten homeland – Jerusalem.
Isaiah tries to paint a picture for the people of what this return from exile will be like, saying that God will build a road through the desert and the mountains. This picture of a highway harks back to the fact that, in Babylonian religion, special processional roads were constructed along which the images of the gods were carried in an annual procession. The appearance of their gods meant continued blessing and salvation. It was a Babylonian Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – as long as there are floats and marching bands all’s right with the world!
Very few of us know what it’s like to have to leave behind everything we have known and settle in a strange land with strange people, cut off from our roots, cut off from what is familiar, cut off from God. Yet each of us has probably felt something like what the Jews in Babylon felt – a sense of anxiety that we have left something behind as we move through life and a sense of uncertainty that we will be made whole in the future. I don’t mean leaving something like property or possessions behind. I mean losing some part of ourselves, some part of our identity.
When we leave home and go off to college or to our first job, we lose the protection and the security that our family provides. We become more resilient and more worldly-wise, but we also leave behind some of our innocence and optimism. When we marry and raise a family, we learn to be more responsible and giving of ourselves, but we also leave behind the freedom and the time to develop our own gifts and interests. As we advance professionally, the more time and energy our job demands, the less time and energy we have to spend with our families or in spiritual pursuits.
The problem is that, in each of these situations, although we often find ourselves adapting successfully to new surroundings, we have a hard time remembering and acknowledging what we have lost in the past. And when we don’t acknowledge how much these past losses have affected us, it’s difficult to move in a new direction and embrace the future.
Several years ago, I was counseling a man who described how, when, as a teenager, he went to the hospital with his uncle to visit his mother and of how his father walked out of his mother’s room, came down the hall, threw his arms around his brother and said, “She’s gone!” The man felt completely excluded from his father and uncle’s grieving. It was as if he was being told that his grief for his mother wasn’t as important as theirs, and, for the next 40 years, he held onto the pain of not being able to express his anger at God for taking his mother.
Fortunately, for anyone who has ever struggled to acknowledge the pain of leaving behind what is familiar, the pain of past losses… and for anyone who has had to adapt to new surroundings, but at the cost of leaving behind or losing part of ourselves, John the Baptist comes along every year during the season of Advent. In contrast to most of us, John is not a person who adapts to society or fits into the culture. He stands out on the far edges of civilization; he is a wilderness person… someone who lives off the land and isn’t used to the creature comforts of the city. John wears strange, rough clothes and subsists on a bizarre diet of grasshoppers and wild honey. John had no enviable blood line, couldn’t boast of any success in formal education, had no wealth or title, and no political power base.
John’s message is a message of repentance and forgiveness, symbolized by a ritual bath. Those who line up for his baptism with water signify that they want to be transformed. And John says that when the one who is more powerful than he comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit, their transformation will be complete.
So it makes sense that John, this wild wilderness wild man, sets up his preaching station out in the wilderness, as far away from the Temple in Jerusalem as he can get. What he says to the people who come out to him is that God’s way is an alternative to the ways of the world, including the religious ways of the world. John calls people to move away from their familiar world centered in the present order and to prepare for something completely new, something radical and “other worldly.”
For John, preparing for the coming of Jesus means surrendering ourselves to what is not familiar. It means being open to God doing something that we may not even recognize. John reminds the people that there is nothing automatic about the coming of the Lord. We have to get ready to receive him by preparing ourselves to surrender our expectations, surrender whatever obstacles may get in the way of being changed and transformed by the Holy Spirit. John called people to wake up, but not just to wake up, but to turn around so that they wouldn’t miss the new things that God was doing right before their eyes.
John was nowhere near a church and those who insisted on staying inside the church never heard his message. Only those who were willing to enter into the wilderness got to taste his freedom, and many of them were still there when the spectacular someone arrived, far from the civilized center of town.
The wilderness is not just a place on the map in Israel between the Dead Sea and Jerusalem, where John hung out. Each of us has our own wilderness, as well as a long list of good reasons why we don’t feel like going there. As painful as our memories of what we have lost can be, we continue to hold on to them. We continue to cling to the pain of the past because it’s familiar. To repent means to surrender what is comfortable and familiar. Going into the wilderness to encounter John the Baptist means to turn our attention to whatever losses in the past are keeping us from moving forward, to remember the pain of those losses, and then to surrender the past to God in trust that God is doing something new to restore us to wholeness and health. To repent means that, by the grace of God, each of us can change. It means to admit that, with all that we have lost and left behind, God’s messiah, Jesus Christ, can lead us down the road to real life, and then, with the help of God’s grace, we can let the past go.
In this season of Advent, we are, like John the Baptist, trying to learn how to wait for the coming of Christ into our lives….to wait for the one who can show us who we really are, even though we may not know who we are. This kind of waiting is hard, but we come here each week hoping that God is making the road a little straighter and a little easier for us to navigate. God says, “Comfort, comfort my people. You are in good hands. Clear a path for my son Jesus, and he will lead you to your true home.” Amen.
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.
"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.