Dallas, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, Orlando, Ferguson, Charleston

Proper 10C 2016    Luke 10:25-37

We all know the story.  In fact ask a Christian to state the essence of Christianity and those who point to this parable of the Good Samaritan would not be too far off.  However there is this tendency to reduce the parable to simplistic terms such as “be nice like the Samaritan, not nasty like the priest!”  And after a while these kinds of do-good sermons hold nothing new, nothing powerful.  So what if we were to explore a different meaning today—perhaps something revelatory about ourselves?

To begin with, some don’t like the do-good name of the parable, “The Good Samaritan” and suggest that it would be better to call it “The Man Saved by an Enemy.”  For that is exactly what happens.  And to achieve its full shock value in our culture we might substitute the word “Samaritan” for words such as “Blacks”, “Muslim”, “homosexual”, “punk,” “transgendered”, “homeless, or atheist.” Pick any group you avoid that offends you or troubles you and stay with that name as you think about this parable.

In Jesus’ day it was the Jews that hated the Samaritans and the Samaritans who hated the Jews. Samaritans were considered by the Jews to be religious and social outcasts, unclean and heretical.  The feelings of hatred ran deep.  But this morning we hear a parable in which something surprising occurs between these enemies.  In this parable, as in many that Jesus tells, the unexpected, the unbelievable happens.  In this parable it is the enemy who is the savior—not the priest, not the Levite.  The Savior is one of the outcast, the despised, an outsider, the last person you would think of to be the Savior.

Looking back at why Jesus tells this story in the first place we see Jesus talking to a lawyer. It is clear this man knows the law—that is the Law of Moses.  Like most of us, he is concerned with keeping a right relationship with God and neighbor.  The lawyer, like us, wants to feel good about himself and to please God.  He wants to know that what he’s doing is good enough to receive eternal life.  But also like most of us, I suspect, he wants to justify himself and his behavior.  By doing so, he sets up a barrier for any new understanding.

To break down this barrier and to challenge the lawyer’s way of thinking, Jesus tells a story.  “A certain man,” Jesus says, “went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and on the way he fell among thieves who stripped him and beat him up and went away, leaving him half dead.”

It’s important to know that the road to Jericho doesn’t run through comfortable, familiar territory.  Instead, travelers to Jericho find themselves on dangerous ground, rocky roads, and often, are alone.  It would have been much safer to stay home in Jerusalem, with one's own people, surrounded by the temple and the walls of the city and a familiar community that provide what's needed, including a safety net if anything goes wrong.

Surely the traveler in Jesus’ story was a little nervous on that road from Jerusalem to Jericho.As it turns out his worst fears are realized when bandits beat him and rob him and leave him for dead;           stripped naked and bleeding by the road.  What a nightmare, lying there, just hoping and praying that someone will come and help…and then, Jesus says, along came a priest.

Surely the priest will help.  But that’s not what happens.  What happens is that when help is needed it is not the good, the   respectable who help but the unexpected—the despised Samaritan (the Muslim, transgendered woman, black man, punk kid) who lays down their life for someone who isn't even a friend but to someone who is simply in need.  “Go and do likewise”, says Jesus.

It’s a shocker all right and we want to know why—why the seemingly good ones kept on walking while the one we might have expected to turn away, doesn’t.  Well, the text lays it all out.  The clue is the same as those three things most important in real estate—“location, location, location.”  Now pay attention to how the text relates the location of each traveler—reveals how close each one comes to the man in trouble.

“By chance,” says Jesus, “a priest also is going down that road and when he sees the man, passes by on the other side.”  The implication being as soon as the priest can see there’s trouble ahead, he makes as wide a berth as possible.   Seemingly saying to himself, “I don’t want to know; it’s none of my business; I’m already late.”   “Soon,” Jesus continues, “a Levite comes along, and unlike the priest who takes the long route to avoid what’s up ahead, the Levite actually comes to the location of the man, sees the man…but, then (curiosity satisfied) he, too, passes by on the other side.  “But,” Jesus goes on, “a Samaritan on his way down that road, doesn't make a detour, doesn't just come to the place, but, the text says he comes to where the man is. Looking at the man, seeing his woundedness, and his abandonment the Samaritan is moved to help. Interestingly in Greek, “neighbor” means “one who comes near.”  Where one stands does make a difference—all the difference.

With the story ended, Jesus asks the lawyer, “That day, on that road, of the three who came by, who do you think was the neighbor?”  “Why, the one who showed mercy.”  Though the lawyer can’t bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan,” he knows the answer.  Jesus has made his point. The neighbor is the Samaritan, the one who came close, close enough to see, close enough to care, close enough to act.

Dallas.  St. Paul.  Baton Rouge.  Orlando.  Ferguson.  Charleston.  City after city, gun violence, racial hatred, the enemy—black, white, brown; Muslim, Christian, gay, straight, transgendered. Where do you stand?  Are you the “can’t be bothered” priest?  The curious but non-committal Levite? Or are you the Samaritan, the would-be enemy, who takes a bold stand for justice and gets intimately involved with those who are hurting?

Ultimately, I think we are to be like the Samaritan.  That is…caring and compassionate, indiscriminate in our response to those in need, keenly aware of the barriers we build between persons but courageous enough to break them down.  I believe the way Jesus wants us to be a neighbor is by first identifying with those who are being hurt and wounded.  To put ourselves in their shoes.  To imagine the suffering, the indignation, the injustice.  You see, it’s all too easy to stroll out of this church building with our good intentions and niceness, our random acts of kindness, our good deeds yet never really be neighbors.  Preferring emotional distance rather than intimacy; staying crazy busy; pretending not to notice are all justifications for being cut off from our neighbors.  I know because sometimes I do just this.

But to really be Samaritans, to be a neighbor, says Jesus, first see yourself   as the one lying there in the road stripped and beaten.  Know that you aren't so different from others—you are in need as well.  We all are broken. We all are in need of grace.  And we are all longing to be in relationship with others.

So I wonder, who are the people we have been afraid of, suspicious of? Who do we keep at a distance or shut out completely?  I wonder if they are the Samaritans who, if we but welcome them into our lives and hearts, might teach us something about ourselves and God.

I wonder what needs to change in my heart, in your heart, in the heart of this church so that we might let someone, or something unexpected change us into being more courageous, more committed in taking a stand for justice?  On our journey together what prejudices weigh us down and what fears hinder our willingness to get close to others?  What selfish desires keep us from being open and vulnerable to help others?

What we’re not told is the rest of the story.  For example, what happened to the traveler after he parted ways with the Samaritan? Once his wounds were healed and his family came to get him and he went home to the security and comfort of life among his own kind, his own community of care, I wonder if he still laughed at "Samaritan jokes." Did he turn the other way when someone said unkind things about Samaritans or treated them cruelly?  I wonder if his heart was broken open, permanently, long after his broken bones were healed, and with an open heart he then became one who worked to break down barriers between his people and the enemy.   I just wonder.

Dallas.  St. Paul.  Baton Rouge.  Orlando.  Ferguson.  Charleston. Gun violence, racial bigotry, religious hatred, and homophobia. Where do you stand? How is God leading you/us to act against these injustices?

For our enemies let us pray:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies:  Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand  reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sermon sources:  “Meeting the Good Samaritan” sermon by Tom Long; commentary in Feasting on the Word by James Wallace and Cynthia Jarvis; commentary by Kathryn Matthews Huey in “Sermon Seeds”; commentary by Robert Capon in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment;  Sermon ideas for Luke 10:25-37 by Donald G. Dawes; Sermon on Luke 10:25-37 by James Love.

An Irrational Invitation to Follow Jesus

Easter 4C 2016

Acts 9:36-43; Ps. 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

It was a long time ago; more than two thousand years ago.  We’re standing in the grand Portico of Solomon, in the temple of Jerusalem.  It’s the Feast of Dedication—Hanukkah, as we know it today.  Lamps are lit everywhere we turn. I imagine the yeasty smell of fried dough and sizzling potato pancakes. Children are playing with their favorite spinning top. This feast is a joyous celebration for all. Except for the conversation we are overhearing between Jesus and the religious authorities.  This conversation is anything but joyous.

“The Jews” as the writer of the Gospel refers to them, want Jesus to say clearly and plainly who he is.  They’ve heard stories about him walking on water, feeding five thousand people with five loaves of barley bread and two fish, they know he restored sight to the man born blind, they’ve just heard him claim to be the good shepherd, but none of this is good enough.  They want him to say absolutely, positively, whether or not he is the Messiah.

Surely, some of these pressing Jesus for an answer are genuinely impressed by the things he’s done and the truth he speaks.  Others, however, are unconvinced.  These suspicious skeptics are saying, “Wait a minute!  This man’s breaking the law by healing on the Sabbath; he’s disrespecting our traditions. He’ll destroy our nation and everything for which we’ve worked so hard.  Watch out, this one is dangerous!”  And so these religious questioners press Jesus: “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

“I’ve already told you,” Jesus answers, “but you do not believe…you do not believe because you are not my sheep.”  Using the intimate relationship between a shepherd and his sheep, Jesus says that knowing who he is, is not a statement to be agreed, a matter of fact, of verifiable proof, but is the result of faith, of belief, of trust—a matter of relationship.  Who Jesus is must be experienced. The sheep know who the shepherd is because they hear his voice, they know that voice belongs to one who can be trusted to feed them, to care for them, to protect them, to lead them home.  “I have told you,” says Jesus…“and you do not believe.   But my sheep hear my voice…and they follow.”

The problem with these who are pressing Jesus is that they have to know things concretely—they can’t bear not having everything spelled out clearly and plainly and for certain. For them nothing can be a mystery, a relationship in which one simply believes and is at rest. In fact, so afraid are they of mystery, of uncertainty, of simply trusting and following, that after Jesus finishes speaking they will take up stones to try to kill him.

But don’t fault these questioners too strongly.  For we can be like this, at least I can. In similar ways we long for everything in life to be made clear to us. We don’t enjoy living in the tension of ambiguity and the unknown or unseen. Most of us prefer a world of black and white to muted gray and muddy waters.  Sometimes we crave certainty in our lives so strongly that we will do almost anything to ensure there are no surprises, no creative spontaneous possibilities, no phenomenal new insights.

And, we often like our theology like this, too. We want easy concepts, simplistic answers, definitive solutions, for our God questions. Or, we overly rely on our intellect as the primary means of engaging the Christian life and are only too happy to argue the finer points of Scripture, creeds and canons.  We’re eager to be rational listeners of the Gospel but close our minds to the irrational, unpredictable, mysterious prompting of the Holy Spirit.  We keep Jesus at arms-length so can keep an eye on him, where we can hear his wisdom as a teacher, but we are afraid to invite the risen Christ to live in us in a powerful heart-to-heart connection.  We dig in our heels and resist for all we’re worth really trusting Jesus and following wherever he leads us.

Which reminds me of a parable the Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello tells called “The Explorer.”  In it, a man leaves his village to explore the faraway and exotic Amazon.  When he returns home, the villagers are captivated as the explorer describes his experiences, the incredible beauty of the place with its thundering waterfalls, beautiful foliage, and extraordinary wildlife.  But he struggles to put into words the feelings, the emotions that flooded his heart when he heard the night sounds of the forest or sensed the dangers of the rapids or simply was at rest in the incredible beauty of it all.

So he tells them they must go to the Amazon themselves.  To help them with their journey, the explorer draws a map. Immediately the villagers pounce on the map.  They copy the map, so that everyone can have his or her own copy.  They frame the map for their town hall and for their homes.  Regularly they study the map and discuss it often, until the villagers consider themselves experts on the Amazon—for do they not know the location of every waterfall and rapids, every turn and every bend?  But, for all their knowledge, for all their study, they themselves never go, never follow their dreams, never trust themselves to the journey, never see the wonders, and never feel their hearts bursting in wonder and joy.

Friends, you and I are invited to follow Jesus—to embark on an irrational, unpredictable, mysterious journey into mission and         ministry that is sure to change our lives and give our church new life.  Following Jesus, we will go places we never thought we’d go, do things we never thought we were capable of doing.  We saw this last week in the story of Paul and his Damascus Road conversion where he goes from killing Christians to making disciples.  We see it today in Peter.  In the verses just before the ones we hear today, a paralyzed man is healed when Peter announces, “Jesus Christ heals you.” With this powerful proclamation, the man rises and becomes a witness to    the power of God to change lives.  And now Peter is used by God to raise Tabitha from the dead!  The God who raised Jesus from the dead is still active in the world doing amazing things through Peter.  And this is just the beginning of what God is doing in the lives of people to heal and restore this broken world.

Now I cannot plainly tell you, with clarity, where this journey of following Jesus is going to take any of us.  We’ve been given a map in the life of Jesus, his disciples and the early Church.  But for this journey we must go ourselves.  And when we do launch out into the unknown to follow Jesus, here’s what I do know:  “The Lord is our shepherd.  We shall not want.  Goodness and mercy will follow us wherever we are led to go.  Jesus, our Shepherd, is holding us and nothing can snatch us away.

 

 

Sermon sources:  sermon by The Rev. Sharron Lucas; commentary by Lewis Donelson, Gary Jones and Tom Troeger in Feasting on the Word

 

 

The In-Breaking of Salvation

Christmas Eve 2015  Isaiah 9:2-7; Ps. 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

The icon on our altar this Christmas Eve is of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  As the patron saint of Mexico, she has been and continues to be for many a beacon of hope, healing, and protection--something we all might need a little more this Christmas.  Her story begins in the early morning hours of December 9, 1531 as an Aztec farmer named Juan Diego walks along the path of Tepayec Hill on the outskirts of Mexico City.  He’s on his way to church. Along the way, Juan Diego begins to hear beautiful music, and sees a beautiful lady who calls his name.  She’s dressed in royal clothes and has a sash tied around her waist, meaning that she is with child.

Approaching him, she says to Juan Diego, "Know for certain, that I am the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus. It is my earnest wish that a church be built here. Here I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and protection to the people. I will hear their weeping, their sorrow, and will lift all their sufferings."  (And they were suffering, you see the Aztec Indians and the Spaniards were on the brink of war.  If war had occurred, it would have been brutal.)  But, Mary’s appearance changes everything.  She tells Juan Diego to go tell the Bishop of her desire for a church to be built at the site.

Now the Bishop was a saintly man, just and compassionate.  He built the first hospital, library and university in the Americas. He also was the Protector of the Indians, entrusted by Emperor Charles V to enforce his royal decree stating, "No person shall dare to make a single Indian a slave whether in war or in peace. Whether by barter, by purchase, by trade, or on any other pretext or cause whatever."  Listening patiently to the Indian Juan Diego, the Bishop, doubting the story, says he will study the matter.

Juan Diego goes back to Tepayac, reporting to Mary the Bishop's response.  Mary instructs him to try again. So the next day, off he goes. This time it’s more difficult to see the Bishop, but Juan Diego prevails, and the Bishop once more listens patiently. He then asks Juan Diego to bring back a sign from Mary to prove the story. Once again, Juan Diego reports the matter to Mary, who tells him to return the next day to receive "the sign" for the Bishop.

The next day Juan Diego is deterred from his mission, choosing to spend the day caring for his dying uncle, who asks Juan Diego to go and bring a priest to hear his confession and administer last rites. So before dawn the following morning, Juan Diego sets out again, but avoids Tepeyac Hill, ashamed he did not return the previous day as Mary had requested.

While making his detour, Mary stops him and says, "Hear and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little son: let nothing discourage you,      nothing depress you. Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance. Also, do not fear any illness, anxiety or pain.  Are you not under my shadow and protection?  Is there anything else that you need?"

Mary then reassures Juan Diego that his uncle will not die; in fact, his uncle’s health already has been restored. As for the sign for the Bishop, Mary tells Juan Diego to go to the top of the mountain and pick some flowers. So he goes up the barren mountain where only cactus and thistles grow.  And, there in that dry place, Juan Diego miraculously finds beautiful roses like those grown in Castille, in Spain. Gathering them in his tilma, his poncho, he brings them to Mary who arranges them for Juan Diego to take to the Bishop.

Juan Diego again proceeds to see the Bishop and when he does, opens his tilma, and the roses tumble out.  The Bishop is amazed by the colorful flowers but also at the beautiful image of Our Lady of Guadalupe imprinted on the tilma. He weeps at the sight of Mary and asks forgiveness for doubting.  He takes the tilma and lays it on the altar in his chapel. And by Christmas of that year, an adobe church is built atop Tepeyac Hill in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church is dedicated on December 26, 1531.

To this day, the imprint of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe hangs in the Basilica in Mexico City and each year millions flock to honor her. And, although the Roman Catholic Church has never officially recognized this appearance of Mary—after all, why would the Virgin appear, not to someone important, but to an Indian peasant—the faithful all over the Americas believe, and today the Virgin is a beloved icon that stands for faith and hope, loyalty and protection, and unfailing loving kindness.  Respect for her has cut across languages, ethnic prejudices, regional factions and religious divisions.  And all because of the faithfulness of a poor Aztec farmer, Mary still stands as the in-breaking of salvation in the midst of sorrow and despair.

Mary appearing to the humble Juan Diego is not unlike the angels appearing to the shepherds when Jesus is born in Bethlehem.  While all the world is rushing around to comply with the decree from Emperor Augustus that all should be counted, the shepherds “are living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”  Like migrant workers or the homeless who move from place to place largely unnoticed, these shepherds are not even worth counting.  They are not summoned to Bethlehem by legal decree, but are there because an angel of the Lord chooses to appear to them, sharing with them the good news of Jesus’ birth.

To them…of lowly status, uneducated, outcast, considered dirty and of no account, they are God’s first choice to receive the in-breaking of salvation.  They are the first witnesses of God coming to earth as a baby.  This revelation of the Incarnation doesn’t come first to the high priest, to the rich and powerful, to those who have it all together; but, like in the story of Juan Diego, to the least and the lowly.

Which, for us, is very good news. Because in spite of our self-centeredness, our lack of self-control, our disobedience, our envy, jealousy and pride; our divisions and careless life-styles, God comes to us.  In this Bethlehem-born Christ, God comes and speaks peace, forming us into a new people, freeing us from all which weighs so heavily on us, softening our hearts, opening our hands.  This in-breaking of salvation is happening all around us.  I have seen it many times this year.

A neighbor who brings his children to play on our playground walks by the church two weeks ago and asks why all the bags of Christmas presents are being brought into this church.  The organizers of OAR (Offenders Aid and Restoration here in Arlington) explain that the presents are for children of the incarcerated. The man leaves and returns with a bag full of toys. The in-breaking of generosity and compassion for those in need.

After the shootings in San Bernardino several of us had an email exchange of what we could do to help bring an end to gun violence. We’ve since learned of an Anti-Gun Violence Gathering, on Sunday, January 24 from 5-7pm at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in DC and we’re going to go together.  The in-breaking of doing something to combat our complacency.

Eight missioners, went to Haiti in April to meet the students and teachers of our partnership school, St. Peter’s in Berault.  On foot and riding mules we traveled up the mountain to this remote impoverished village. Our hearts were changed. The in-breaking of caring for the poor.

This summer over a ton of food was harvested from our Plot Against  Hunger garden to help feed the hungry in Arlington, and every month we gather downstairs in our kitchen to make 70 lunches for the homeless.  The in-breaking of feeding the hungry.

Other in-breaking stories of salvation abound… Numerous backpacks donated for under-privileged children in Arlington.  Hundreds of Christmas presents donated through Angel Tree for impoverished children.  Members of this church going out of their way to minister to adult children who lost both their parents within a month. People of all ages coming here Sunday after Sunday to worship, pray, and to give generously of themselves, their money, time and talents.  All because of a desire to do what it takes to give birth to Christ in us—to make a way for the in-breaking of salvation to happen in our midst.

And so this night, in the words of Phillips Brooks, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”  Like Juan Diego, may we look up, see, and believe.

 

 

Sermon sources:  article by Rev. William Saunders, "Saint Juan Diego and Our Lady." Arlington Catholic Herald, 2004; Viva Guadalupe by Jacqueline Orsini Dunnington; commentary in Feasting on the Word by Robert Redman and Michael S. Bennett, Year C, vol 1 p. 116-120

GENERATIONAL BLESSING

Advent 4C 2015 Micah 5:2-5; Magnificat; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Facing an unknown future, the unwed pregnant teenager welcomes the warmth of the wise old woman who hugs her.  Their three months together is a time to tell stories, big and little, that connect their lives.  In these days between the old and the new, each becomes her sister’s deepest confidant.  Fears and joys are safe between Elizabeth and Mary.  The two grow together, working and praying and resting in God.*

In Mary’s visit to Elizabeth we see two women embodying God’s promise of faithfulness to God’s people. In the much older matriarch Elizabeth we hear echoes of Sarah who, in Genesis, in her old age, gives birth to Isaac. We’re also told in earlier verses that Elizabeth is descended from Aaron, who along with Moses was a faithful leader of Israel.  Elizabeth is promised a son—he will be John the Baptist—who will carry the “spirit and power of Elijah,” one of Israel’s most renowned Old Testament prophets.  With rounded belly and heavy with child, Elizabeth embodies God’s ancient promises from the past.

 Mary, by contrast, is but a girl.  To her, the angel Gabriel speaks words of promise that Mary will bring forth into the world not just a son but the Son of God—God’s new thing being born in Jesus Christ.  This encounter with Elizabeth and Mary brings together the past and future.

Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, sings a blessing for God’s new thing Mary will bring into the world.  When her song ends, Mary begins to prophesy and sing her own new song—one of a new world order.  “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings with joy.  In her being, knowing what God has done, she is not bashful about proclaiming the reality and the promise she embodies. Known to us as the Magnificat, Mary first praises God’s faithfulness to her and then she sings of a new world that is coming shaped after God’s intentions.  A world in which the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled, the rich sent away empty. In this new world order the powerful are stripped of their entitlement and the  humble given prominence. In this new order God’s reign has broken through our status quo.

Realists as we are, we may not yet see these realities around us.  But God’s promises have come to pass.  God’s Son has come into the world.  Through baptism, we are a new people in Christ Jesus.  God’s promises of peace, hope, joy and love have been made manifest in us.  The old order, though struggling to survive, is doomed. 

Through her song of justice, Mary calls us to be agents of change for this new world.  God’s call to us on this fourth Sunday of Advent is coming to us through Mary’s song.  She sings about the “yes” and the goodness of God she has learned from her Jewish faith.  She knows God can be trusted, and she is willing to say “yes” to God, even         when she does not understand how one like herself could bear God’s Son.  Mary sings because she has new life in her—stirring in her womb and in her heart.  All of us, like Mary and Elizabeth, are carrying the possibilities and promises of God to make this church, our families, this community, this nation, this world a better place.

This shared celebration between Elizabeth and Mary of what God is doing in them can teach us how to learn from and encourage each other.  In Elizabeth’s praise of Mary, the church can see a new way to cross generational boundaries.  Through Elizabeth’s support and encouragement, Mary is strengthened to proclaim prophetically and with confidence the new world God is bringing about.  Without Elizabeth’s encouragement, Mary might not have had the confidence to envision God’s new creation. But with Elizabeth’s encouragement she draws on God’s ancient promises, those inherited from the past, to proclaim the faithfulness of God past, present and future.

And the same is true for us today.  Next year we will celebrate 65 years of being St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church here on the corner of Lorcom Lane and Military Road.  In all of these years God has been with us, is with us and will be with us.  And I wonder what the “Elizabeth generation,” male and female, might say to the “Mary generation.”  How might the older generation empower the younger generation to be courageous and bold and prophetic?

What of our traditions do we value and want to keep as a sign of our faith?  What new thing is God calling forth from us?  What “yes” is God waiting to hear from us about mission and ministry in this place?  What conversations are yet to be had about being church in the 21st century?

It is only together, in Elizabeth and in Mary that the past and the future come together in the present as prophetic witness.  So as we enter this expectant time with Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom have said “yes” to God’s plan, I wonder what will be asked of us.  Where are we going next as followers of Jesus?  What is the future calling forth in us?

For it is not over, writes poet Ann Weems.

“It is not over,

this birthing.

There are always newer skies

into which

God can throw stars.

When we begin to think

that we can predict the Advent of God,

that we can box the Christ

in a stable in Bethlehem,

that’s just the time

that God will be born

in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.

Those who wait for God

watch with their hearts and not their eyes,

listening

always listening

for angel words.

So are you listening?  Are you watching with your heart?  Will you say “yes” to God, allowing Christ to be born anew in you this Christmas?   It is my prayer that you will—that we all will say “yes” to the future that is being born in us.

 

Sermon sources:  * adapted from “Elizabeth” poem by Mary Lou Sleevi in Women of the Word, p. 33;  “It’s Not Over” poem by Ann Weems in Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 95; commentary in Feasting on the Gospels by Andrew Clark Whaley, pp 20-24;  commentary by Trisha Lyons Senterfitt in Feasting on the Word, Advent Companion, pp 88.90.

 

LONGING FOR PEACE

Advent 2C 2015 - Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Advent continues. Our longing deepens. We wait, watch, and wonder if we will ever know peace. Will there be peace on earth—in our cities, in our homes, within ourselves?  We long for the kind of peace that passes all understanding, peace that heals and makes whole, peace that allows the wolf to live with the lamb and the leopard with the kid, peace that allows a little child to lead us back to God, peace that ensures there will be an end to gun violence, terrorism, killing and destruction.

We know the way things are isn’t right.  But to say that something isn’t right is just the start. We also need a vision of the way things are supposed to be.  We have to have some sense of what is right. Only then can we say something is wrong.

In the biblical tradition the vision for how things ought to be is called shalom. We translate this word as “peace,” but it means much more than an absence of warfare or a calm state of mind.  Shalom or peace in the scriptures means the presence of universal flourishing, wholeness, harmony, delight.

The prophets spoke of a time when crookedness would be made straight, when rough places would be made smooth, when flowers would bloom in the desert, when weeping would cease, when the lion would lie down with the lamb, when the foolish would be made wise, when the wise would be made humble, when humans would beat their swords into ploughshares. All nature would be fruitful, all nations sit down together for a sumptuous feast, and all creation would look to God, walk with God, and delight in God.

Advent is a time of joyful anticipation of such things. It is time, the prophet Baruch says, “to take off your robe of sorrow and affliction; mourning and misery,” for God is leading God’s people “with his mercy and justice.”  God’s people “are wrapped in the robe of righteousness,” and they “will be named by God forever, Righteous Peace.”

The Apostle Paul, too, speaks of joyful anticipation, of waiting for “the day of Christ Jesus.” He is confident that the good work begun in the Christians in Philippi will be completed in Christ. He encourages the Philippians to grow in love, praying their love will overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help them determine what is best, so that they may be pure and blameless, and he concludes with a wish: that they may be found rich in the harvest of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ.

The message of John the Baptist is to prepare the way for this coming of Christ, to make straight the paths and to make smooth the rough ways.  In order for all these things to come to pass, we need a “baptism of repentance,” a cleansing from the old ways of complacency and darkness and a commitment to a new way of living. We need to challenge the wisdom of the world in the way it was challenged by that prophet in the desert.

John is not saying things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be and they never will be so get used to it. His is not a message of futility in the face of the brokenness of God’s creation. Rather, it is a liberating and joyful call to realign our individual and collective wills with the purposes of God.

Knowing something of God’s vision of shalom, we can be people who promote flourishing, seek wholeness and restore harmony. We can be repairers of that which is broken. To hear and respond to John’s message is good news, because in spite of the fact that things aren’t the way they should be, they can change and so can we.  People can stop killing each other.

Wednesday’s mass shootings in San Bernardino are appalling to me—unacceptable. What, I wonder, is it going to take for gun violence in the United States to stop?  I stand with many who are saying “It’s time for people of faith to respond out of their faith and work to stop senseless violence.”  It’s evident the epidemic of gun violence in America has become the new normal.  I stand with my brothers and sisters who believe we can do something to change the way things are. We can’t just blame gun violence or any other social ill on the brokenness of the world, pray for peace, and move on, worried that anything more will be seen as politicizing tragedy.  Saying a little prayer and moving on is not enough. Prayer is powerful and personal and it means taking action.

 Sensible gun safety legislation can be enacted.  We need to respond to violence not with more violence, but with a firm commitment to find ways to love one another and live together more peacefully.  When we pray for the person who is hungry, we then feed them.  When we pray for the person who is bleeding by the side of the road, we then stop to help them. And it doesn’t end there. We work to change our laws and systems so that we have fewer people hungry and fewer people being shot in our streets, in our schools, in our churches and in our conference centers.

 It’s up to you and me.

God’s shalom cannot come on earth by accepting violence and clinging to our weapons. Nor can it come by defending the status quo. Or by being complacent. Or by throwing up our hands and saying the problem of gun violence is too big.  And it sure doesn’t mean expecting God to wave some magic wand to make all the sin and hate and violence go away. That’s not the way it works. We created the problem. We need to act.  We need to repent.  

The news of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is good news.  It’s good news to sinners—those suffering from the consequences of their transgressions, those living with the guilt of poor choices, those who have succumbed to greed and a sense of entitlement. For those of us who have squandered countless opportunities to take a stand against injustice, those of us who have been far too complacent and self-righteous, the news of repentance and forgiveness of sins is good news.  It says we’re not hopeless.

 In proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, John makes no distinctions between any of us. All flesh shall see the salvation of the living God.  All are called to this baptism, to this repentance.  We are no better than our enemies, no worse than our critics. And that’s good news!

 It is good and, indeed, joyful news to know that we are free to respond to God’s call to shalom in a world that has been created and redeemed by our good and generous God, a world made to be fruitful, abundant, harmonious, life-giving, peaceful, whole, filled with deep and abiding joy. 

John prepares us for this way of the Lord.  He calls us to examine our lives, our values, our priorities, and our politics.  He calls us to look deeply within our own hearts to see what changes need to be made in our lives, in our church, in our nation and in the world.  John calls us to understand the ways in which we need to turn around and head in a new direction.  He calls us to repent, change our mind, turn around, and reorient our direction toward God and away from sinful ways.  John calls us to seek God’s forgiveness, and to prepare the way of the Lord.

The Benedictus (Canticle 16), Zechariah’s great hymn of prophecy, praise and blessing, makes clear that true peace—in our hearts, in our church, in our nation and in our world—will come only when we are right with God.

 

Sermon sources:  commentary Randall Mixon in Feasting on the Word; on-line commentary by Gerald Darring; on-line sermon by The Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano; commentary by T. Denise Anderson in Christian Century November 25, 2015; Sojourners on line commentary 12/3/15 by Jim Wallis and Joe Kay

 

 

 

WEALTH

Proper 23B 2015 -  Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Ps. 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

If you like statistics, you may find it interesting that, according to one analysis, of the 38 parables in the New Testament, almost half pertain to possessions and giving.  You may be astonished to know that there are over 2100 verses on the subject of possessions and giving, far more than the 371 on prayer and many more than the 272 verses about believing in Jesus.  And in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ longest sustained discussion of any one issue is, you guessed it, about wealth—permeated with language of inheritance, money, poverty, treasure, possessions, wealth, land, precious goods and relationships. 

Far more than right belief Jesus cares about the right use of our wealth and like the rich man, most of us would rather ignore this uncomfortable topic than pursue the implications of it for our lives.  Somehow possessions have a way of possessing us and few things are harder to overcome than our preoccupation with wealth and material possessions.  We are obsessed with how much money we have and nothing shakes us as much as the prospects of the stock market crashing, home foreclosure, losing our IRA’s, or having to hand over our savings—especially if we think hardship will follow.  Discussion how much we put in the offering plate and whether or not we tithe are taboo topics.

We are not unlike the rich man in today’s gospel.  The story begins with a man who runs out and kneels before Jesus, asking him the critical question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  I think that unlike the Pharisees from last week who come to Jesus to test him, this man is sincere.  He really wants to discover the answer to his question and believes Jesus has the answer—which he does, just not the one the man expects to hear.

For starters, Jesus is clear that God alone is good and God is the source of all that is good. Jesus then responds to the man’s question by reviewing some of the Ten Commandments—the ones regarding human relationships. But also adding “do not defraud” which is not one of the ten but is related to the probable actions a wealthy person might commit in order to maintain or increase his wealth through injustice and oppression. In response the rich man declares he has kept all these commandments.

It’s at this point in the story I wish I could see their faces—the man’s sincerity and Jesus’ love—for the rich man is the only person whom Mark explicitly tells us that Jesus loved.  So it is in this moment between the two of them that Jesus presses the man into a deeper understanding of commitment by telling him, lovingly, that he lacks one thing—selling what he owns and giving to the poor.  The teaching to be learned is that following Jesus, requires sacrifice, self-denial and sharing.  And that by selling and giving away his wealth, the rich man will receive treasure in heaven.

What Jesus is asking is too much for the man, who walks away dismayed and grieving.  Christian tradition assumes the rich man went away sorrowful because he was unwilling to sell his possessions and give his money to the poor.  Another possibility, which I don’t adhere to, is that he went away sorrowful precisely because he had decided to sell what he owned and follow Jesus and the resulting emotional letting go of his possessions was painful for him.

I am one who holds out hope for the man, wanting to believe he leaves this encounter with Jesus knowing what he has to do but not yet ready for that deeper level of faithful commitment.  I say this because I am this man and would venture to say we all are.  Compared to the rest of the world, being North Americans we are wealthy.  Compared to the rest of the world, we are wealthy not only in what we own but in the freedom to make choices about how and where to spend our money.  For example, have you ever had the opportunity to choose:

•           Where to live

•           How to earn a living

•           Where your children will go to school

•           What you wear

•           Whether you will eat today

•           Where you will eat today

•           Where you will sleep tonight

•           Whether you will buy medicines prescribed for you or your     family

•           Whether you will save money and how much you will save

•           Where you will go on vacation

•           How you will make your home more beautiful or more comfortable

•           Whether you will repair what is broken in your home

•           Whether you will own a car

•           What you will do with your inheritance

 

Most people in the world do not get to make these choices and with our wealth it is problematic to distinguish necessities and luxuries.  But in a world where the diets of pets in wealthy households are significantly better than the diets of many children in poor households, something is terribly wrong.  Ordinary middle-class people in the United States can easily spend more money on a single meal in a moderately upscale restaurant than the majority of the people in the world spend in a week to feed their families.  Can you imagine what would Jesus say to the rich man today who wears a $10,000 designer watch while there are so many in the world who have no coat to protect them from the bitter cold?

Neighborhoods that are safe, beautiful, convenient and private rarely define neighborhoods for the poor.  Health and life insurance, savings and investments, and job security are too often available only to those who are well off, wealthy—like us.  As wealthy as we are, we would be hard pressed to say that our affluence is not a barrier—a barrier to loving God and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

But I do believe there is a side of us, like the rich man, that wants to respond to Jesus’ invitation. I think it grieves many of us that we are unable to let go of our wealth.  We know we are too attached to our possessions, addicted to accumulating more and more and more.  We have all winced seeing the faces and bellies of impoverished children and squalor that turns our stomach knowing people are living in it. We squirm reading about the injustice of disproportionate wealth.

This story in Mark’s gospel speaks to the heart of the matter.  It speaks of anxiety, of yearning, of love, of invitation, and then, finally, the difficulty of letting go.  We can’t possibly leave here this morning without some spiritual struggle as we hear these extreme demands, extreme judgement and extreme promises portrayed in this story.

And so back to that moment in the story when Jesus looking at the man, loves him.  Loving the man as he does, Jesus must tell him the hard truth that his wealth is standing in his way.  Paradoxically the man’s abundance has created a lack, a deficit, an emptiness.  He is being lulled into self-sufficiency of his possessions or he wouldn’t have asked the question.  The man knows it and Jesus knows it.  Being captive to his wealth the rich man is settling for less.  So Jesus invites the rich man, as an act of love, to unload his burden, to give away his wealth, to free himself from that which is holding him back from the infinite joy God has to offer.

This truth about wealth is hard to hear. The man comes so close.  He wants to say yes but can’t quite take the leap. Truth is none of us can take this leap alone.  It is only by God’s grace we are able to let go of our wealth.  It is only with God’s help we are able to open our hands and hearts to the ways God wants to use our wealth for good and not selfish gain. To tithe, sell what you own, give to the poor?  “Impossible”, you say?  Oh my friends, for God, all things are possible!

 

 

 

 

Sermon sources:  commentary in Feasting on the Gospels by Scott Bader-Saye, Bridgett A. Green, John Stendahl; pp. 128-131 in Say To This Mountain by Ched Myers, et. al. commentary in Preaching the Gospel of Mark by Dawn Wilhelm pp. 176-182

 

EXPANDING THE TENT

Proper 21B, September 27, 2015
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Ps. 19: 7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor. She is the founder of a church in Denver called “House for All Sinners and Saints” and many consider her to be one of today’s most important religious voices. She’s been featured on CNN, the BBC World Service, and NPR. Her memoir, Pastrix, was a New York Times best seller a couple of years ago. And her new book, Accidental Saints:  Finding God in all the Wrong People, is getting a great deal of attention.

If you’ve ever seen or heard Pastor Bolz-Weber, you will not forget her.  She is very tall and as a former standup comic she commands a very large presence when she enters a room.  What’s instantly noticeable are her tattoos—not just a Celtic cross here or a butterfly there but lots of graphic tattoos all over her bare arms, including the entire liturgical year inked on her left arm from Advent to Pentecost.  She’s not shy sharing about her shady past either. Some of the things she says are hilarious and make you laugh out loud. Others are shocking and disturbing and make you want to get up and leave the room.

Recently I heard Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at Joe’s church, Calvary Baptist in D.C. and afterwards I drove home wondering how in the world we could both be followers of Jesus, much less both be religious leaders in the church today.  Surely Jesus would not approve of her foul language, she swears a lot. What every church needs, according to Pastor Bolz-Weber, is a drag-queen.  I don’t think so.  Surely she is being blasphemous when she talks about Mary “being knocked up by God.”  And yet, Nadia Bolz-Weber knows a whole lot more about God’s big tent of grace and mercy and love and forgiveness and inclusion than most, if not all, of us sitting in the pews and standing in the pulpit of this church today.  So why bring her up?  Because I think she is a modern-day Eldad and Medad prophesying outside of the tent.

From our reading, it’s obvious that Moses is overwhelmed and weary. And God is not unsympathetic.  God responds by proposing to take some of the burden off Moses and seeking others to share the load.  Now, all this seems like a fine idea but when God takes some of Moses’ spirit and places it on the chosen elders, some of it spills over on two other men, Eldad and Medad.  And when Eldad and Medad begin to prophesy, a jealous outburst occurs. Seemingly saying “Who let them into our club?” Joshua begs Moses to stop Eldad and Medad.  But rather than stop them, Moses says with certainty he wishes all God’s people would be filled with God’s Spirit.

Our Gospel reading starts out much like the story of Eldad and Medad ends with John rushing up to Jesus in a panic and all out of breath. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him—because he’s not one of us.”  People are in crisis, there’s much to be done, and help is needed.  But when help comes, people complain because the help is not “the right help,” you know—people we know and trust, properly authorized, credentialed, looking like us.  They complain because the Spirit has broken out and now they can’t control it. Someone of the “inner circle”, the “club”, is put out because someone outside that circle is also able to use one of God’s gifts, and evidently without the “right” credentials. And because this unnamed exorcist isn’t one of them, regardless of the good he might be doing, the disciples believe he must be stopped. 

Jesus must feel the irony of the situation. Here is exactly the same charge the religious powers level at him—“he’s not one of us.”   Uneducated and without status—he’s just a carpenter’s son—he lacks     official approval.  No, he isn’t one of them, and they can’t control him. So, Jesus, never one to be impressed with titles or credentials says, ineffect, “Look, leave him alone, we need all the help we can get.  I don’t care if he is a part of our little group or not. Look at what he is doing, not the color of his skin, the language he is speaking, his sexual preference, his politics.  Is he doing good?  Is he living a kind and helpful life?  That’s all I want.  We need more people like that.”  

If ever the Church needs more Eldads and Medads and outsiders it is now.  Those of us clinging to “the way things have always been done” are killing the Church.
 
While on sabbatical I took advantage of being with millennials—young adults born between 1980 and 2000—to talk with them about the Church.  The vast majority of you are not this age and so it was fun to hear what they had to say.  The first such conversation occurs while sitting out by the hotel pool, enjoying Happy Hour at my niece’s 21st birthday party.  Somehow the conversation shifts to the church.  Well, maybe, I helped steer it a little in this direction.  At any rate, with this captive audience of six young women, ages 21-25, who I know went to church as children but don’t attend now, I ask the simple question, “What would the church need to do so that you would want to come back to church?”  These young women are not shy about answering.  “Be more inclusive!” “Be more relevant.” “Stop being judgmental.”  “Accept and love us for who we are as a married lesbian couple with a child.”  “Don’t stare at me like I’m weird when I do come to church.”

My second interaction is with a family member I’ll call “Sam”.  Sam’s initial response to my question, “What would the church need to do so that you would want to come back to church?” is “Nothing!”  “There is absolutely nothing the church can do to make me want to come back.”  He continues, “I was really hurt in my youth by the harsh judgmental attitude of my church and I can’t see that anything about the church has changed in the last ten to fifteen years.  I did try going back to church, a different church, a more progressive church, but when I walked in they all had grey hair and were stuck in the 1970’s.”  In lots of ways I think Sam’s right; I know he’s right.  Speaking on behalf of the larger Church, I say to Sam I am sorry he was so hurt but don’t push our conversation further, primarily because I don’t know what to say that isn’t defensive or patronizing. 

The next morning at breakfast, Sam tells me he has been thinking about my question and he has an answer.  He prefaces it by saying it’s probably ridiculous but “football” is what the church could do to make him want to come back.  “Football?” I repeat. “Yes, if I could come to church, hang-out, watch a football game, maybe drink a beer, and after the game talk about something religious that is relevant to my life, I think I’d come back.”  

The last conversation takes place with two young men who are college students at Christian College in Oklahoma.  Like me, they are retreatants at Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiqu, New Mexico.  Because silence is strictly enforced most of the time, there is little opportunity for talking but one morning during our work assignment of stuffing envelopes, and being more prone to break the rules than I am, one of the young men starts talking to the other.  I listen for a few minutes, then introduce myself telling them I am an Episcopal priest and wonder if can ask them a question. “Do they go to church?” I want to know. As I expect, the answer is “no” but they both say their parents took them to church as children.  So I ask my real question, “What would the Church need to do so that you would want to come back to church?”  They are surprised I am asking them.  No one has ever asked them this question before and they don’t know how to answer.  What they do say is the fact that I care and genuinely want to know is what matters to them.  My interest in them led to another conversation about faith later in the week while we were weeding the lettuce patch that was truly amazing.

All of which tells me that millennials, like the rest of us, want to be known, loved and accepted for who they are and many are looking for a place to belong.  So while you all did a fantastic job being St. Andrew’s Church while I was on sabbatical—a really great job of caring for one another, doing fun things together, trying out one worship service and, faithfully coming to church—you and I have some serious thinking to do about moving forward and being the church of the 21st Century.  You’d think after all these centuries of being the Church Jesus would make it easy for us.  He doesn’t.  His dire warnings continue to call for radical re-visioning of our mission and ministries.  In light of his warning about erecting stumbling blocks, we need to ask, about everything we are doing in this church, if we are enhancing faith or being a stumbling block to faith.  What does our website say about who we are as followers of Christ?  How could our worship become more inclusive, expansive, multi-cultural?  What are we doing as St. Andrew’s to address issues of racial injustice?  Do black lives matter to us?  Who out there is an outrageous child of God, longing to be invited in?  Who out there, is being pushed aside just because they don’t fit our ideal, but by their actions show that they, too, are a friend of Jesus?  Who is out there, on the outside, whom we need to welcome inside with open arms? 

From what Jesus is saying to his disciples, it becomes clear that their saltiness and ours, involves being humble in our relationship with each other and reaching out and accepting all people around us.  Pope Francis told our elected leaders this week that the ways in which we tolerate, even celebrate divisiveness, dividing ourselves into camps of “them and us” is tearing us apart.  “Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice,” he told Congress. The Pope’s words are the words of Jesus and they are also meant for the Church.  What would we, as St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, look like if we took these words to heart and really lived them out in mission and ministry here in Arlington?  Hope.  Healing.  Peace.  Justice. 

Nadia Bolz-Weber, for one, knows a lot about these words because she is     living them in radical ways by breaking down barriers, expanding the tent, reaching out to all, taking bold stands in the name of Jesus.  And although it makes me a little nervous to say it, I think our church needs people like her.  We’re too safe, too white, and too complacent.  At least that’s what I think.  What do you think?  I’d love to get the conversation going!

 

After Haiti

Easter 4B – 2015 upon returning from Haiti Mission Trip
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; I John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Back in 2003 when a massive power outage plunged the eastern United States into total darkness many people saw fear and inconvenience but there was at least one person who saw something different.  Before sunset, so his neighbors could see, Dr. Jay Reynolds of the Cleveland Planetarium set up a telescope in his yard.  He then invited all his neighbors to come over to see the marvels of the night sky, free of artificial light.  Once the sun set and the night turned black, the whole sky came   alive—galaxies were in plain view, Mars was brilliant and a meteor shower put on a show.  On NPR Jay said: “It was a great night to see the stars as they were meant to be seen.” ( NPR, All Things Considered, 8/ 15/03)   What could have been a long night of loneliness and fear became, instead, for one community, a serendipitous and joyful celebration.

I think the author of Psalm 23 would have liked this. David, too, looked out at what life had given him, and while most folks would have seen nothing but darkness and trouble, failure and loss, David saw a wonderful gift—life with God, where he wanted for nothing, a place of goodness and abundance—and, peace. Not that all was perfect.  Notice, for David, life with God is still a walk through shadow-filled valleys.  Notice the table spread before us also happens to be surrounded by world-wide enemies.  All over this pastoral scene of green pastures is cast…life as it really is. 

This realism is in our other readings, as well.  Peter, healing a lame beggar in Jerusalem and preaching new life through resurrection, is under house arrest in the Acts reading. Echoed in the Gospel, we hear Jesus, along with teaching the gentle ways of the shepherd, also cautions about those who do not care for the sheep, but care only for themselves.    

Yes, life is hard.  And, even though we graze in God’s pasture, what do we do with life as it is—when life deals us a raw deal; when wells run dry and joy blows away; when enemies have breached the wall and cancer has annihilated our defenses; when love promised forever is cast aside?  When we find ourselves on the wrong side of the wall, rejected because of who we are and how we are?  What do we do when it’s clear a future dreamed will never be and we’re drowning in tears?

The psalmist, at least, doesn’t entertain simplistic solutions like: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  Or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. The psalmist refuses to make light of life’s crises by urging the fearful to “make lemonade out of lemons.”   No, for the psalmist, in this life, we need help and in dark times like these if there is to be any hope, it has to come from outside of us.

Walter Brueggemann is one of our best theologians.  At one of his lectures, a packed room was expecting a scholarly dissertation. Instead, he asked everyone to put down their pens and recall a time when as a child they were frightened—lying in bed at night, sure the shadows on the bedroom wall were of a burglar or a monster, the creaks on the stairs a warning of something horrible about to happen. Now, Brueggemann continued, “remember calling out to your mother or father, and see him or her appearing and saying, “It’s OK. I’m here. Don’t be afraid.” 

That, said Brueggemann, is the fundamental, consistent message of the Bible: “I’m here. Don’t be afraid.”  In fact, he says, you can summarize all of scripture in just two words: “Fear not.”

This is the message of Psalm 23: “Fear not.”  Even when life goes sour, even when we feel alone, even when we’re lost in darkness: “Fear not.” But when you are…a scientific explanation is useful.  Fear, neuroscience tells us, is connected to the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the front center of the brain.  The amygdala scouts for trouble and, in detecting it, sounds an alarm.  Adrenaline flushes through the body, flooding the brain and riveting attention on the object of our fear. But, accord­ing to brain imaging, the amygdala responds powerfully to three things: calm words, gentle touch, and kind faces.  All of these calm the amygdala.

(Peter Steinke, Living By The Word, XnC, 2/20/07)

So, says the psalmist, when I’m in trouble and afraid, I remember who my shepherd is. It’s not the government, it’s not the President, not Homeland Security—it’s someone I know.  And when I see his face, when I hear his voice, when I feel his touch, fear flees—for, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Notice how the psalmist describes his shepherd in images of tenderness, gentleness, and attentiveness.  While we may think of a shepherd as a man, here the shepherd has            maternal qualities, doing what a mother does. And, in doing “what a mother does,” God does not always fix things or get us out of trouble.  But, always, God comes, and by her presence, turns situations of fear into occasions of joy. How does the psalmist put it? Like our own mothers setting us down at the kitchen table, drying our       tears with milk and cookies, God, our mother, our shepherd, with trouble and danger all around, clears out a space, and sets a table. (see Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, AdvocacyWith such a shepherd, is it any wonder that the psalmist says no need goes lacking?  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” not only implies that every need is supplied by our God, but also that beyond the presence of our good God, there is no other need.

There’s one other part of the psalm I want to bring to our attention. “He restores my soul” which literally, in Hebrew, reads “He brings me back.”  When I’m lost, says the psalmist, alone, far from home, separated from the flock, my shepherd finds me and carries me back.  There is reassurance in this psalm that the goodness of the Lord is in every place before we ever arrive.

God’s goodness has already been where we are planning to go. The goodness of God goes ahead of us, clearing out new ground, pulling us to new terrain, lighting a pathway in the dark places of new possibility.

This truth came alive to me while we were in Haiti. It was truly an amazing week and the missioners are very excited about sharing their pictures and stories with you next Sunday         during the Adult Forums at 9am and 11:30am. I think you will be astonished by all we did and saw and learned. But I will also tell you that at one point during our time last week in Haiti this sheep (me) felt very lost. It happened on Saturday afternoon. From the guest house I could hear the musicians below us in the church practicing with the choirs.  Their music sounded so glorious that I felt compelled to walk down and listen to them practice. As I walk into the nave the presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable. These Haitian choristers—about 40 of them—are singing about Jesus from deep within their hearts. There is nothing tentative about their singing.

They are pouring themselves into songs of praise and thanksgiving.

They who are impoverished by my standards, without much in the way of creature comforts, material goods, much less luxuries are filled with joy.  Fear of preaching on Sunday quickly overtakes me. How can I possibly have anything to say to these faithful, joyous Christians who know more about Jesus than I can possibly know?  The sermon I had written suddenly feels superfluous. Through my tears I begin to pray and ask the Lord, my shepherd, to lead me to those still waters of confidence and trust.

Standing there in St. Matthias Church in Cherident, Haiti I allow the music I am hearing to seep deep into my soul. Somehow these Haitian singers and musicians are Jesus to me,            comforting me, anointing me. As I start back to the guest house, one of the young men sees me leaving and outside the church he shouts to me in English, “Father (which is what they called me) I love you.” With these words, I am completely undone.

One of the missioners happens to be in our room in the guest house when I come in and I tell her the fear I am feeling about preaching.  She is loving and encouraging. Climbing on to my mosquito netting draped bed I pull out my sermon and pray some more. I change words to make it more heart-felt. And you know what? When I begin preaching that sermon on Sunday morning I feel so empowered by the Holy Spirit I can hardly contain myself. I know without a doubt that Jesus, my shepherd, is with me. And not just with me but with the missioners as each one of them spoke as well about ways they had seen the hands of Jesus in our Haitian friends that week.

And I felt Jesus, our shepherd, in Father Fred the priest, and the whole congregation of Haitian Christians gathered with us in the house of the Lord.

Once more I have been reassured “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  Being in Haiti could have been a dark and fearful time.  It wasn’t.  For the Lord is my Shepherd, your Shepherd, our Shepherd, the Shepherd of all who listen to his voice and follow.

Service of Public Healing

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 70; Hebrews 12:1-3; John 13:21-32

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the assassination of Caesar includes one of his closest friends.  As the conspirators surround Caesar and, one by one, draw their daggers, he turns and sees his friend, Brutus.  As their eyes meet, Brutus plunges his dagger into Caesar’s chest.  Caesar then falls, mortally wounded.  It is, as if to say, that swords alone could not have taken the life of Caesar.  What killed him was the betrayal of a friend.  Because, you know, there are places where a friend can stab you that no one else can.

Jesus wasn’t simply captured by temple guards, condemned by Jewish bureaucrats and executed by Roman soldiers.  No, the hand on the dagger that stabbed the deepest was the hand of a friend, Judas. 

It all begins with Jesus and his disciples sharing not only a meal, but community.  But, in our little community, says Jesus, betrayal is not far away.  The disciples are stunned.  One of us will betray Jesus?  Surely, not one of us.  If someone is going to betray Jesus, it must be one of them, not one of us.  Eyes dart around the table.  Distrust, division, doubt creeps into the room, pushing out community.

When Jesus says that he will be betrayed by the one “who receives the bread,” it is Judas who does so—and Judas who rises to go out into the dark of night.  But, even then the disciples don’t understand what’s happening.  They hear what Jesus says.  They watch Judas take the bread and leave.  They just cannot wrap their minds around the thought that one of them, one of their own community is off to betray Jesus. 

But, by definition, betrayal is always by a friend.  Where there is friendship, or community, the possibility for betrayal is never far away.  Remember how after the fall of the iron curtain, when the files of the East German secret police were opened, people discovered that neighbors had informed on neighbors, family members had turned in each other, and pastors had informed on parishioners?  Betrayal cannot happen between strangers.   It works best with someone close to you.  It was like that for Jesus.

A bishop turns away, a priest crosses boundaries, a friend breaks a confidence, a spouse cheats, a colleague defames, a neighbor steals, a parent abuses, a sibling lies, a fellow church member wrongfully judges.  Betrayal shatters the fragile bonds that hold us together, and when we lose our ability to live peacefully together we ourselves become broken.  Betrayal not only hurts, it destroys—it destroys community, trust, and joy.

Six months ago, when I invited eight leaders in our church to help me exhume our buried past, no one knew what to expect.  To be clear: this was about us, not someone else.   It wasn’t about focusing on someone, on blaming or defaming another; it was about helping a parish to heal.   A parish and a people I happen to love very much.  I believed then and believe now that we have an untold story of redemption to tell—and, that by telling it we can offer hope for others. I also believe that the embrace of our history, truthfully, completely and fully, is crucial for our true identity to emerge.

But, the willingness to shed light onto a painful past and to tell the truth takes courage.  It takes faith to venture back into a time fraught with controversy, division, doubt, chaos, rumors, allegations, and inappropriate behavior.  To be asked to remember the painful unravelling of one’s beloved church, and then to share with others that memory, calls for spiritual grounding, substantial strength and committed resolve.  These things are necessary, for what is hidden, or denied, cannot be healed.  Secrets that remain buried out of fear keep us stuck.

And, so, I am grateful to the small group of eight who undertook this journey with me.   What this meant to them is a story that is theirs to tell, but I believe their participation has everything to do with their great love for this church, their trust in God’s goodness, and their desire for mending our brokenness.  That we are here tonight, for this public service of healing with our bishop, is the grace of this group’s work together—and, our on-going healing with the diocese and with one another. 

For the bishop to say to our small group that what happened here was not our fault, and to acknowledge that the diocese failed to respond the way it should have, was the beginning of putting some of the cracked and broken pieces of our past back together.  Like unearthing the fragile pieces of a broken bowl and placing them on the table before us, we are beginning to fit the pieces back together.  By doing so, we are able to see that while much of our brokenness has been about betrayal, we can mend the brokenness and be reshaped into something useful and whole.

The Japanese have an art-form for mending broken objects.  Translated as “golden repair”, kintsugi (or kintsukuroi) is the technique of filling the cracks with a mixture of powered gold. Not only is there no attempt to deny or hide the damage, but the repair literally is illuminated.  Broken pieces that were mistakenly seen as damaged and useless are built back up into something exquisite.  The belief being that when something has suffered damage and is repaired, it becomes even more beautiful than before. 

Just so, difficult and trying times, even times of betrayal, if mixed with God’s goodness and grace, can be turned into usefulness, wholeness and beauty.  The repair—admitting the betrayal, the miss-behavior, speaking the truth in love, being honest, forgiving one another, maintaining community—becomes part of our story, the story of God’s working among us.  It isn’t to be hidden.  It is part of our story—and God’s glory.

In tonight’s Gospel, after Judas has departed, Jesus says “now the Son of   Man has been glorified.”  That is, even in the darkness of betrayal, and the brokenness of community, God will work for good and will bring glory to the Son.  On the cross Jesus will say “it is finished.”  The division between us and God, between us and each other, is now bridged, the brokenness mended. 

Now, this isn’t to say, that with the cross, or with this service tonight, there is no longer any pain or sorrow from the past. Such things take time.  Some of us here tonight know this.  But, in this week called “Holy” we can at least bundle up our hurt and sorrow, our anger and bitterness, our resentment and blame, and, tired of their awful weight, we can take them to the cross and lay them at the feet of Jesus.  These things need not burden and divide us any longer.

Friday’s coming, with its sorrow and darkness.  But, then it will be Sunday, and as an Easter people who celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and the triumph of love, we know that with Jesus there is always new life. The resurrection of Jesus is good news for those of us who seek wholeness and healing from the sting of betrayal.  As a church that has a mission to be a “joyous, growing, inviting, caring Episcopal Church” it should matter to us that we choose the restoration of relationships over continued separation and loss.

So, how much are you willing to do to mend what has been broken?  What burdens are you ready to release into the hands of a loving God?  Whom are you willing to forgive?  Who needs to hear you say “I’m sorry—forgive me”?

The time that follows—and our future together—is a time for prayer, a time for the laying-on of hands, a time of blessing, anointing and healing, a time of reconciliation and forgiveness and peace.

Day of Pentecost 2013

Acts 2:1-21; Ps. 104:24-34; 35b; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, 25-27

I absolutely love baptisms!  And one of the reasons we are here on this Day of Pentecost is to baptize Layal Felix Lazo-Berge.  Three generations of the Lazo-Berge family are here today.  This church family is gathered as well—all to celebrate Layal’s baptism with a promise to support her in her life in Christ.  And as much as we will all take delight in her actual baptism with water what I especially enjoyed was the preparation for it. 

As with every baptismal preparation I asked if I could meet with Miguel and Johanna in their home to talk about and prepare for Layal’s baptism. They agreed and on a recent Saturday morning with a cup of really good coffee, the three of us along with, Samira, Johanna’s mother sat in their living room with Layal.  We began by sharing our own baptismal stories.  Johanna was baptized in a Presbyterian Church in Chicago.  Miguel in a Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua.  Samira in the Orthodox Church in Lebanon.  I was baptized in a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta.  Clearly God’s great gathering of Christians far and wide, united as one body, was in that living room.

After about an hour of conversation on our understanding of baptism and the commitment Miguel and Johanna are making to raise Layal in a Christian home I turn to the longest rubric in the Book of Common Prayer.  (A rubric, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is an italicized instruction.)  In this rubric I, as The Minister of the Congregation, am directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provisions for the well-being of their families.  So, as we are preparing for baptism and thinking about the spiritual welfare of a child I use this time to ask the parents if they have a will.  That if in the event of their untimely death, do they have a last will and testament that states their desires for the care of this child should they not be here to take care of her or him.  There is usually an awkward silence as one parent nervously looks to the other for a response.  The answer more often than not, is “no we don’t have a will.  We know we need one, we’ve talked about it, but wejust can’t think about not being here with our child.  And we can’t agree on who we want to be the guardian.”

Such things are never easy to think about. We’d all rather think about living rather than dying.  And departures of any kind often are difficult.  Such are the circumstances surrounding our gospel reading for today.  In this reading from Jesus’ farewell sermon, a pastoral concern arises as to what happens when Jesus is no longer around to take care of the community?  What happens when the community is left on its own, without his presence?  What will they do?  To whom will they turn?

With words of comfort and hope, the gospel writer John wants all of us, as disciples of Jesus, to be assured that we are not alone.  That with the presence of the Advocate, there is not and will not be any loss of the presence or power of Jesus.  Through the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the community will be helped both to remember all that Jesus said and to discover what it all means in the constantly changing circumstances of being the church. Jesus is with us—really with us, through the Spirit. And it is the very presence of the Advocate in us that   brings Jesus to mind.

The Spirit of truth aids the community, us, to know how to be the church, how to be followers of Jesus.  The intent is to form a community of faithful, believing, loving, merciful, hopeful people.  A community that is open to the leading of Holy Spirit, doing the works of Jesus.  Our hearts are not to be troubled.  The Advocate, sent by the Father in Jesus’ name, will teach us everything and continually remind us of all that Jesus said and did.  Through the Spirit we are made one.  Through the Spirit we are being led.  Through the Spirit we are being taught.  And I for one am banking on this!

This Day of Pentecost is many things.  It is the birthday of the church, it is the sending of the Holy Spirit, it is a day for baptism, and it is the anniversary of my coming to serve as yourRector.  Today is the fifth Pentecost celebration we are sharing together—my first Sunday with you, being Pentecost 2009.  This was intentional because I wanted our ministry together to begin with a bang—the rush of a mighty wind, flames of fire, throwing open the doors of this church to the Holy Spirit for renewal and rebuilding.  I came here with a passion for and curiosity about doing church differently.  I brought with me some experience in church growth, gifts for healing, high energy, and a strong conviction that God was calling forth something MORE in me.

So in reminiscing about our first Sunday together I reflected on a couple of things this week.  First I read again the letter of Institution that Bishop Shannon read at our Celebration of New Ministry.  Empowering and authorizing me for ministry at St.   Andrew’s, he charged me with these words:  “Having committed yourself to this work, do not forget the trust of those who have chosen you.  Care alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. By your words, and in your life, proclaim the Gospel.  Love and serve Christ’s people.  Nourish them, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come. May the Lord, who has given you the will to do these things, give you the grace and the power to perform them.”

This week I didn’t just read these words.  I prayed over them and came to see some things about myself and our ministry together that I want to share with you this morning.  The first is the desire I have to continue doing the best I can to be your Rector in all the ways mentioned in this letter of Institution.  I do not take for granted the trust you have in me. And I commit myself anew to care for you—young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. I commit to proclaim the Gospel as best I can in what I say, what I do and how I live. I do love you and I want to serve you. I seek to nourish and strengthen you. And I am praying faithfully that the Lord will give me the grace and power to do all these things.

But I also want to confess to you that I do not always succeed in doing them. I know that some of you have been hurt by decisions I have made and although that was not my intention, it happened and I am sorry. There are times I’ve been too impatient to slow down and have more conversation about things. Maybe I should have been willing to name some things more openly. Conflict avoidance has caused me to shy away from some difficult conversations that would have been  helpful. And I am sure that there were expectations you had of your new rector four years ago that have not been met.

Which brings me to the second thing I’ve been reflecting on this week and these are the questions that were asked of me by the Search Committee in our final interview.  There were five of them. The first had to do with how St. Andrew’s could have a stronger connection to the community. The second had to do with re-igniting the spark that had been generated in 2007 but had dwindled during the unforeseen pause in the search process. The third named the assumption by some that the new rector would come and make everything right.  The fourth was about Sunday School decline. And the fifth asked about strategies I had for growing the church numerically.

I’d say these continue to be relevant questions and I still don’t have all the answers.  But what I’ve come to see more clearly in these past four years is that we are all in this together.  To shoulder the responsibility for growing this church is not mine alone and for me to presume to be the one to make everything right is not healthy or helpful.  Nor is it right for you to expect this.

If things fall apart, if programs cease to exist, if people become discontent and leave the church or no one signs up for coffee hour, then we are all responsible.

To acknowledge the past, embrace the present and move into the future is work for us to do together.   Looking back over the four years I wish I had been less reticent to ask you for help.

I wish I’d been more adventurous, willing to take a few more risks.  I wish I had shown more vulnerability and shared how discouraged I’ve felt at times; how weary I’ve been of trying too hard to please and make people happy.  I wanted to protect you and this isn’t good for me or you.

Joe said it well when someone on the Search Committee of his new church asked him what his strategy was for growing a church.  He said he didn’t have one—that only when a church is healthy and happy will it grow.  I believe this is true—true for us and we must continue to strive for health and joy.

Going forward into our fifth year together feels to me like we are somehow off on a new adventure and I’m excited about it.  I don’t exactly know the course to chart or the path to take but I do know that Jesus is with us.  Through the working of the Holy Spirit we are being spurred on to greater ways of being St. Andrew’s Church in this community.  As messy as it is we are being challenged to be real to one another, to be vulnerable, to be open.  The time is ripe for asking new questions, better questions, and finding the answers together. 

Ready or not, the in-breaking of the Spirit descends upon us.  On the Day of Pentecost the Spirit sends her people into the world.  Sharing love, bringing hope, creating new possibilities requires humility, hutzpah, and a little foolishness.  Are you ready?  Am I ready?

Let’s pray that we are.  And if we do that, really pray, the Spirit will answer and give us our heart’s desire—new birth, new life.  Just like Layal’s baptism.

Come Holy Spirit Come!  By the power of your Spirit grow us into the people and into the Church you would have us become!  Amen.

Sermon sources:   commentary in Feasting on the Word by Eugene C. Bay and Stephen P. Ahearne-Kroll

Diving for the Cross

 

In Tarpon Springs, Florida, a rather unusual religious practice occurs once a year.
It’s called “diving for the cross.”
In the Greek Orthodox Church there, boys, from an early age, are prepared for this.   
Every year, from a boat, or from the water’s edge, they watch the dive take place.
They hear stories of how their fathers dove for the cross.
They hear how their brothers dove for the cross.
Each boy dreaming that one day he will be the one to emerge from the murky water with the cross in hand.

The day of the dive begins with worship at 8 o’clock in St. Nicholas Cathedral.
The barefooted divers then march through the streets to the bayou.
Following the release of a dove and a special blessing from the Archbishop, the boys, ages 16-18, dive into the chilly waters, each frantically working to be the one to retrieve the white cross.
In usually less than a minute, the moment arrives.
With thousands watching in hopeful expectation, emerging from those deep shadowy waters, the cross is lifted high for all to see.

There’s something about this image of the cross rising up out of dark waters that speaks to me of Resurrection and of the Easter icon that is on our Altar today.
What intrigues me about this icon is that it doesn’t show the actual moment when Jesus rises from the tomb—that solitary and private moment between a Father and a Son, that moment when in the cold and darkness of the tomb, with no one there to see, God’s love poured into Jesus, filling his lungs, warming his heart, making him live again.

No, this icon is quite different.
The moment of resurrection is depicted not as Jesus walking free into the light, but as Jesus standing on a narrow bridge of rock that spans a dark pit.
Beneath his feet are the shattered gates of hell.

And with David and Isaiah and John the Baptist looking on Jesus stretches forth his hands, grasping Adam with one hand and Eve with the other, pulling them up, like the cross out of murky water, up and out of the terrible darkness and into his light-filled presence.

It’s as if Jesus refuses to be resurrected alone but, instead, goes all the way back, to the first moment we chose to turn our backs on God and   to go our own way, and he pulls up not only Adam and Eve, but all of us who with them were dead in our sin.
Up out of the murky darkness he draws them, up and into freedom and light.
For the Orthodox the resurrection isn’t for Jesus only; no, in that mysterious moment we all were resurrected.
In the resurrection Jesus becomes a bridge between death and life, a savior pulling us up and out of all that has bound and defeated us, one leading the way for us to follow.

Now, in today’s gospel, the gospel of Mark, this resurrected Jesus is yet     unknown to the women who rise early in the morning and creep through the dark to the tomb where they’ve laid his body.
Imagine what they must feel—overwhelming grief, anger, and fear.
And, maybe even more than these, they feel despair.
When Jesus was alive, they were alive, full of hope and possibility.
Now, in his death, something in them has died as well.
They, too, go among the tombs, searching out his tomb so they can do theonly thing they can do—perfume the body that holds the stench of  death.

It is not an act of faith.

The fact that they have come to the tomb with spices suggests that they  believed Jesus was dead and that he would stay that way.
More that the sky was dark that morning.
Their spirits were dark, heavy, dead.

And, so, when an angel tells them that Jesus is alive and that they are to go and announce to the disciples that Jesus will meet them all in Galilee, they run away and, according to Mark, say “nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
And this is where Mark’s gospel ends.

Generations of interpreters have been so disturbed by this ending that they have rushed to supply their own in order to get it right.
But according to Mark, it is not that the women somehow get it right.
In Mark, it is that Christ has not risen alone, but that he goes ahead of us, calling us to meet him, pulling us out of our own tombs of darkness to join him, in our own Galilee.
In the places of life where we are broken by loss, by despair, and by sheerexhaustion the risen Christ appears and calls us.

The late Peter Gomes said that preachers on Easter often sound like attorneys producing evidence, arguing from reason and science that resurrection is plausible and possible.
But finally, when all is said, all we have is a promise—“go to Galilee—to   your homes, and to your work, to your hospital rooms and your cemeteries, to the bed where you cry yourself to sleep every night, to the unemployment line, to the refugee camp, to your own cross and      I’ll meet you there. I promise.”

And, though, they were afraid, the women did go home and before long their lives and those of the disciples began to open up like that dark tomb and to flow with fresh passion and new purpose.
Those, who had been locked in fear, broke loose into courage.
Those, closed up in guilt, emerged free from shame.
Those, sealed up in sadness, stepped into the light laughing and singing.
Diving down into the deep murky waters within themselves, they emerged victorious holding the cross of the resurrected Christ.

I don’t know all that is buried in the depths of your being on this Easter Sunday morning.                    
But I do know that someone, even now is diving into the murky mess of our lives.
Standing on the bridge over our darkness and emptiness, someone takes our hands and holds them in his.

Through the sorrow of the cross and the hope of the resurrection, Jesus brings the love of God into our lives.
Jesus brings love to my friend who is battling cancer; to those you know who are sick and lonely and afraid.
Jesus brings love to our staff member whose mother died on Good Friday and to all those who are grieving.
Jesus brings love to me when I can’t seem to get it right and to each of us in the ways we need it most.

We may not ever be able to depict the event of the resurrection, but we can surely know the joy of being lifted out of the murky darkness and up into the light, leaving us gasping with thanks for the new life that is ours and for the one who has saved us.
And this is why we can forever say “Alleluia.  Christ is risen. 
The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.”

Sermon sources:  see The Dwelling of the Light:  Praying with Icons of Christ by Rowan Williams; commentary in Feasting on the Word

Christ the King/St. Andrew’s Day 2011

Ezekiel 34:11-16; 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7; Ephesians 1:15-23; Mt. 25:31-46

As much as I love the sound of the bagpipes, the brilliance of the red, the fragrance of the incense and all the excitement of today as we celebrate the feast of St. Andrew, I know we as St. Andrew’s Church are to be about much more than dressing up in the finery of our          glory.
As our patron saint knew so well we are to be about following Jesus.
This Jesus we are to follow is the very embodiment of compassion and love and mercy, especially toward those most in need.
And this Jesus we are to follow has some startling, radical words for us this morning.
As our gospel opens with that vivid description of the Son of Man’s coming in glory, Jesus says to those at his right hand “when you did it (when you fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited those in prison) when you did this to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me.”

“When you did it to the least of these… you did it to me.”
I never hear these words without thinking about “Chidima”.
When I first met Chidima I could barely look at her.
Truthfully she was disgusting to me.
She was tiny and vulnerable and utterly helpless.
She was imprisoned by an incubator.
Naked.
Hungry.
Thirsty.
Sick.
You see, Chidima was a one and a half pound African baby girl, born ten weeks prematurely.
Her mother, Juliet, was one of my patients when I was a chaplain at Georgetown Hospital.

Shortly after giving birth Juliet asks me if I will go up with her the following morning to see her baby.
Trying to respond enthusiastically, a forced “sure” comes out of my mouth but deep inside I can feel this overwhelming sense of dread.
The NICU – neonatal intensive care unit - scares me.
Deciding maybe it would be easier if I first go alone, I head for the nursery.
I scrub my hands, put on a hospital gown, take a deep breath, open the door and slip inside.
The NICU is a busy place.
Incubators are humming and monitors beeping.
I search around and find Chidima.
Peering into her incubator it is just what I thought and feared.
A baby so frail as this does not look human.
Babies are supposed to be cute and cuddly and it pains me to see such suffering.
Leaving quickly my only question is “Why God?”

The next day as planned I get a wheelchair and go to Juliet’s room.
We make our way to the NICU.
We wash our hands.
Put on a gown, open the door and enter the nursery.
Juliet, of course, knows exactly where she is going.
As we near the incubator, surprisingly my sense of dread quickly changes to expectancy.
I can literally feel Juliet’s love for her child.
Pure unconditional love is in her eyes.

Standing in silence, gazing at little Chidima, my eyes refocus.
Now through the eyes of love I see Chidima as a precious child of God.
Simply looking is now not enough, I want to touch her.
Asking the nurse if we can reach into the incubator, she enthusiastically encourages us to do so.
“The sense of touch is comforting to her” the nurse says.

I stand to the side and watch as Juliet reaches in and tenderly caresses her child, speaking lovingly as only a mother can do.
Then it is my turn.
My heart is pounding so hard I can hear it.
She is so small I can hardly breathe.
Hesitantly I take the tip of my index finger and place it gently into Chidima’s tiny hand.
Know what she does?
She holds on.
Little Chidima, weighing only a pound and a half, one of “the least of God’s family” touches me.
Little Chidima whose African name means “God is so good” finds me.
We find each other.
Through God’s love we become sisters.
With God’s love I see the face of Christ.

The words in Matthew’s Gospel reading today are the last teachings Jesus gives to his disciples.
And we, his followers today, are left with the same teaching—that in daily life, the way we treat the lowly, the needy, and the unimportant is of greatest significance.
It matters how we treat others.
It matters now and it matters in our life to come.
Yes, it takes courage to open our hearts and hands but that’s what we are called to do.
This is what it means to follow Jesus.
This is what it means to love as Jesus loves.

Notice in this last judgment there is nothing here in these words of Jesus about theology, creeds, or intellectual discourse.
There is nothing about worship practices or denominational polity.
There is only one criterion here, and that is whether or not you saw Jesus the Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name.

This, my friends, is what scares me.

For I know the world and this community desperately needs a church in which faithful people honor the poor, offer radical hospitality to strangers, visit the sick and minister to those in bondage.
I know the world and this community desperately needs a priest and a people who clearly see the cost of being a follower of Jesus and are willing to pay the price.    
I know the world and this community desperately needs us to confront injustices in the world and respond to the needs of others with love and compassion.
I know the world and this community needs a church where all persons are seen and treated as equals; a church that continually seeks to be the body of Christ in loving ways.
I know all this and yet feel utterly helpless at times to be this kind of priest.

But I actually think this is the point—the point of the gospel.
On our own we cannot love as God loves.
On our own we cannot know this kind of complete trust and intimacy and vulnerability and caring.
On our own we are lost.

God wants to save our souls and transform us and give us the gift of life in Christ—true, meaningful, authentic life as human beings created in God’s image.
God wants us—each one of us.
God wants to transform us by touching our hearts with love.
God wants to transform us by urging us to look around and respond to other human beings who need us.
God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our needs, our wants, our desires by persuading us to forget about ourselves and      get on with the ministry of loving and caring for others.

The fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth is that to love is to live.
It is only through opening our hearts to God that we are able to love deeply.
It is only through God’s love that we are able to love the Chidima’s of the world.
May God give each one of us the grace and the courage to love others as Christ loves us.
In the words of the prayer Joyce prayed at the end of our Vestry meeting this month…

Open our eyes that we may see the deepest needs of people;
Move our hands that we may feed the hungry;

Touch our hearts that we may bring warmth to the despairing;
Teach us the generosity that welcomes strangers;
Let us share our possessions to clothe the naked;
Give us the care that strengthens the sick;
Make us share in the quest to set the prisoner free.

In sharing our anxieties and our love, our poverty and our prosperity, may we partake of your divine presence.  Amen.

With All God’s People: The New Ecumenical Prayer Cycle (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1989), 344.

Sermon source:  commentary by John M. Buchanan in Feasting on the Word

Patron Saint of Pregnant Women

St Margaret’s Day – SMH New Hartford, NY
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Ps. 31; I Peter 4:12-19; Matthew 13:44-52

It is a privilege to be the preacher today.  This house, this chapel, these sisters, the Society of St. Margaret are an important part of my spiritual life.  So thank you Sister Mary Gabriel for giving me this opportunity to preach.

Every two years my church generously grants me a month of sabbatical leave for which I am very grateful. The sole purpose of the month is for rest and renewal. So in May, all by myself, I got into my little VW Jetta and with my favorite CDs, lap top computer and camera I took a 3000 mile road trip south to visit family and friends.  From New York I traveled down through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, to Georgia and back up with various stops along the way.

I really roughed it too—staying in quaint inns and charming B&Bs, taking long walks on country roads, dining in gourmet restaurants, stopping for coffee at every Starbucks I could find, journaling to my heart’s content, reading for days and taking naps. With a full tank of gas and an empty bladder I was good to go for miles and miles and miles.

Having said all that there really was a serious side to this sabbatical.

I created a study project to explore the topic of “Family, Faith and Formation” and along with visiting a number of churches that were part of my faith formation as a child, young adult, not so young adult and seminarian I read several books on this topic.  The book that gave me the greatest insights was Secularity and the Gospel by Ronald Rolheiser.

In this book Rolheiser states: “It is no secret that we, as Christians,  are having trouble passing the faith on to our children.”  What’s needed states Rolheiser is that we become missionaries—within our own culture, among our own children.  As a mom with two grown sons who don’t go to church (unless I’m in town visiting) and two grandchildren who have yet to be baptized I couldn’t agree more. And as a priest, I am not only concerned about the church but burdened by its future.

With rare exception our churches are graying. Attendance is declining.

We do not know how to get young people (including those of our own families) to come through our doors, nor have we figured out, should they venture in, how to get them to stay.  

I wonder if the few of us in the pews on Sunday morning have somehow lost the passion, the hunger, the quest for an intimate relationship with God and have too easily become content in simply “doing church”—showing up to say our prayers but then comfortably settling back into our humdrum secular lives.  What seems to be lacking in our churches today is fire, romance, beauty, wonder, passion, meaning, creativity, life!

Rolheiser contends that what needs to be inflamed today inside the church is a romantic imagination that enables people to fall in love with God all over again. What’s needed is imagination which can inflame the hearts of both the churched and the unchurched with the beauty of God and the passion of faith.

Granted this will not be easy.

But what if, like Abraham and Sarah who had a baby when he was a hundred and she was ninety, the church were to get pregnant again by the Holy Spirit and in joy and wonder of that that “grey-haired ecclesial pregnancy” give birth to a new child, a new church—a church that cherishes the old and ushers in the new with excitement and expectancy?  What if we were to mirror the ways of St. Margaret (who is by the way the Patron saint of pregnancy) with her steadfast witness, her boldness, her vision, her courage, her prayers and her love for Christ and give birth to new life in the church—a church filled with beauty, romance, passion and commitment.

Which brings us to our gospel reading. These parables about the Kingdom of God are addressed to us—the people of God, the church—persons who have encountered and know the active presence of God in our lives.  Like finding a hidden treasure we already know something of the surprises and joys of God’s Kingdom. Like a discovering a pearl of great value we already recognize the priceless value of God’s gracious working in our lives. And like a fishnet cast into the sea we know there is abundance and variety in the kingdom of heaven.

But what we may not know is that the Kingdom of God is worth everything we have—all-out investment, radical obedience, and whole-hearted commitment to faithfulness.

In this gospel reading each one of us is being called upon to preserve the best of the old—the treasures of our tradition and the joys of the gospel story but also to help a new generation begin their own traditions, begin something new, hear God’s voice fresh in their own lives.  And the call to do so is urgent.

After handing over to them these images of the Kingdom of God, Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” “Are you starting to get a handle on all this?” “Yes” they answer. “Yes, we do understand both the new and the old are necessary, essential, wonderful.

Jesus asks the same thing of us…”Are you starting to get a handle on all this—that the Kingdom of God is worth everything you have—all-out investment, radical obedience, and whole-hearted commitment to faithfulness. “Yes” we want to answer.

But as Beverly Gaventa puts it we have a deadly phobia of change that makes us cling to prayers we cannot pronounce without stumbling over our thee’s and thou’s”. The slightest shift in worship startles and unnerves us. We like the way things are and thoughts of doing anything new or being anything new as church scares us to death. But both the new and the old are to serve the church.

Both the new and the old are to reflect the gospel.

The church is a beautiful heritage worth preserving, worth renewing. But the church, as we love her, is graying and emptying. And so to give birth in our old age, the church must, out of the depths of our tradition, take hold of what we have as the church.  On the other hand, in making the church relevant today we must realize that people go where they are fed and to be a church that welcomes all to the Table we must re-present the gospel         and the sacraments as God’s gifts for all. We need to be gentle with the holiness in people’s lives, to recover the mystical, respect the depth of intellect and heal the split between faith and the culture. To do so we need to pray, minister and live out our spirituality with more imagination—namely with more originality, more evoking of God’s presence beneath the surface of things, more risk, more commitment to justice, more daring to embrace what’s human and what’s holy.  We must go back to listening to our contemplatives:  our poets, artists, mystics and yes, our saints.

Nothing certain is known of St. Margaret of Antioch.  That she existed and was martyred are probably true. The legend that the cross she wore saved her from being swallowed alive by Satan who appeared in the form of a dragon is probably a tale crafted to speak of her faith and bravery as word of her courage spread. In the Middle Ages it did become the custom in pregnancy to pray to her for safe delivery.

On this feast day of St. Margaret and in this place I pray for the church to become pregnant with new vision, new commitment,        new hope and I pray for a safe delivery.  May our religious imaginations be ignited and our hearts be inflamed with a desire to become a church that is re-born with justice, welcome, truth, peace, love, compassion, mercy and grace. And may all that we say and do be pleasing to God.

Sermon sources:  Secularity and the Gospel by Ronald Rolheiser, 2006 The Crossroad Publishing Company; “Both the New and the Old” article by Beverly Gaventa, Christian Century June/July 1993. p. 669; Exposition on text by Delmar Jacobson, Interpretation 29, 1975 pp. 277-282; Eastertide 2007 “St. Margaret’s Quarterly” article by Adele Marie, SSM on Saint Margaret of Antioch; A Book of Saints first published in 1996 by Lorenz Books, London.