Monday, February 22, 2016

Gather your children together

Homily notes for the Second Sunday of Lent (2/21/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Genesis 1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

One bright evening as the sun was sinking on a glorious world a wise old Cock flew into a tree to roost. Before he composed himself to rest, he flapped his wings three times and crowed loudly. But just as he was about to put his head under his wing, his beady eyes caught a flash of red and a glimpse of a long pointed nose, and there just below him stood Master Fox.

“Have you heard the wonderful news?” cried the Fox in a very joyful and excited manner.

“What news?” asked the Cock very calmly. But he had a queer, fluttery feeling inside him, for, you know, he was very much afraid of the Fox.

“Your family and mine and all other animals have agreed to forget their differences and live in peace and friendship from now on forever. Just think of it! I simply cannot wait to embrace you! Do come down, dear friend, and let us celebrate the joyful event.”

“How grand!” said the Cock. “I certainly am delighted at the news.” But he spoke in an absent way, and stretching up on tiptoes, seemed to be looking at something afar off.

“What is it you see?” asked the Fox a little anxiously.

“Why, it looks to me like a couple of Dogs coming this way. They must have heard the good news and—”

But the Fox did not wait to hear more. Off he started on a run.

“Wait,” cried the Cock. “Why do you run? The Dogs are friends of yours now!”

“Yes,” answered the Fox. “But they might not have heard the news. Besides, I have a very important errand that I had almost forgotten about.”

The Cock smiled as he buried his head in his feathers and went to sleep, for he had succeeded in outwitting a very crafty enemy. 

What do you think of the moral of Aesop’s fable? The trickster is easily tricked. Cunning outwits itself.

Parallels can be found between this fable of Aesop and the story that we have heard from the Gospel according to Luke this morning. In the story, Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem (Luke 13:22), teaching along the way, when he encounters some Pharisees. This story’s placement within the overall narrative of the Gospel acts as a reminder of what is coming. Indeed, at the beginning of this same chapter thirteen, Luke makes mention of Pilate’s violent murder of the Galileans thus reminding the reader of the violent death that awaits Jesus at the same hands. Likewise, here Luke is drawing attention to the other “king of the earth”, Herod, who will figure in Jesus’ trial, suffering, and death. Moreover, the encounter prepares for the climactic role played by Jerusalem in the story. This first explicit announcement of its guilt a foreshadowing of the rejection that will come.

We can see in this story a bit of Aesop: Jesus is the hen with Herod the fox, slyly trying to entice him. The dog is, perhaps, John the Baptist or maybe the prophets of old and the lion king is, of course, God. While Aesop’s sly fox lied to the hen about the decree of universal peace, the story of the kingdom of peace preached by Jesus is true – it is at hand, present in deep and surprising ways.

It is quite an interesting and somewhat surprising metaphor for Jesus to use, comparing what he has done or is doing to a hen gathering her brood under her wings. No, the lowly chicken is not what I think of when I imagine a protective animal. I might imagine the lion, fierce with its claws and intimidating with its roar. I might think of a bird of prey, able to swoop upon an enemy of its offspring, swift in response with sharp talons. I might even imagine the mighty whale with its massive bulk a bulwark against enemies. Regardless of what I might imagine, the chicken does not come readily to mind when I think of the protective animal.

But Jesus chooses the metaphor of the hen gathering her brood as an image demonstrating God’s immense care for and protection of God’s people. God is the mother hen who calls us to the safety of the nest, to hide beneath the shadow of her wings, behind the heart that beats beneath a vulnerable breast. And when I look, there is power in the image, an immense power that is tied also to Abram’s covenant with God, an immense power tied with strength in vulnerability.

Abram and Sarai were originally called out of their barrenness (Genesis 11:30) by God’s powerful Word (Genesis 12:1). Their pilgrimage of hope thus began on the basis of God’s promise, which stood over and against their barrenness. When the reader arrives at chapter fifteen, which we heard this morning, the barrenness is persistent, leading to questions about the promise and even doubt. Chapter fifteen opens, then, with a crisis of faith – a typical pattern of divine promise (verse 1), Abram’s protest (verses 2-3), God’s response (verses 4-5), and Abram’s acceptance (verse 6).

The believing response in verse 6 stands in contrast with the resistance of verses 2-3. The passage stands as a sharp exchange between Abram and God in which Abram first tries to refute the promises and assurances of God. Clearly, the faith to which Abram is called is not a peaceful, pious acceptance. It is, rather, a hard-fought and deeply argued conviction. Abraham will not be a passive recipient but is prepared to hold his own against the God who called him out of Ur. The faith of Abram bears a freedom not unlike that found in the creation narratives: The Lord invites but never coerces. Abraham is not forced into covenant no more than creation is forced to obedience.

Let’s jump to God’s reassertion of promise in verses 4-5, after Abram’s double protest. The text is unambiguous in that nothing is offered beyond God’s word. No stratagems are offered and no plans made. Abram and Sarai are left with God’s word alone. It is God’s promise, spoken in Lordly majesty, that stands as the impetus for Abram’s faith. And the promise is not fool-proof, an argument without challenge. They are signs that, in human wisdom, prove nothing. We struggle as readers, like Abram, with an expectation of the emergence of certitude but are left wanting. Instead, what we have is not based on human reason or expectation or certainty but on the realization that God is God. The God who makes the promise is the same God who makes is believable.

And so Abram believes and “it is credited to him as righteousness.” Abram believes by the persuasion of God’s self-revelation. The next scene (verses 7-12, 17-18) demonstrate the confirmation of Abram’s faithful response. This scene presents a curious ritual that is undoubtedly very old. While is history is obscure, the ritual suggests a solemn and weighty binding of two parties. It is reminiscent of an oath blood which visibly reinforces the promise. It is a covenant ratified in blood that is all encompassing that fully binds the two parties together.

God has established covenants with a variety of people in the sacred story. There is another with whom a covenant is struck with blood. Jesus, who has set his face to Jerusalem, will walk the via cruces to Calvary and blood will be shed, a covenant ratified in blood that binds.

As I mentioned earlier, Luke is surely alluding to what will become of Jesus in Jerusalem. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems very much aware that he is prophet and Son of God. And Jesus knows the stakes.

“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’”

Jesus knows what it will mean to be what and who he is. Yet, while knowing, he still goes. He sees his role, assigned by God, as a mother hen gathering her brood under her wing. Are you familiar with what happens when a fox gets into a hen house? My great uncle was a farmer of sorts. I don’t think he made a living of it but he had a hen house. Coincidentally on a day that we were visiting my great-uncle-farmer found a hen that had been killed by a predator. It might have been a fox. The hen was found at the small entrance to her roost. Inside that roost was a small score of chicks, each chirping madly and flittering wings. The mother hen had shielded the chicks under her wings for protection and ushered them into the roost. She would have then faced the predator, baring her breast so that the fox would kill her first, protecting her chicks. It is the only real defense the hen has against the wily fox. The flutter of feathers and chirping of young beaks were made by motherless chicks. Though their mother may be dead, they lived.

This is the image that Jesus chose to bring to us. Our covenant with God, formed through the blood of Jesus, means everything. The season of Lent is a time of repentance and a time to consider what it means to be in covenant with a vulnerable God, with a God who will suffer death, even death on a cross for us. And when we encounter our vulnerable God – when we encounter Jesus in the incarnation, in the garden, on the cross, and in the grave, the more we can grow to understand the strength of our own vulnerability. As we received the cross of ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. We were reminded exactly how vulnerable and human we are in this world. We are chicks shielded by our mother hen.

Similar to our marking on Ash Wednesday, we are also marked at our Baptism (though this marking is permanent). We are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever. In so being marked, God, through the Sacramental ministry of the Church, charges us with the imperative to love like that mother hen who opens her wings wide and exposes her heart to the fox. God charges us to love like someone who is in covenant with God. God charges us to love with a fierce and trusting love that encompasses all that which God possesses.

It is a love found in the universal reign of peace, described in the Franciscan blessing:

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships,
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer from pain,
Rejection, starvation and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in this world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.

(Irish Franciscans OFM)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart

Homily notes for the First Sunday of Lent (2/14/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

This past Wednesday I was struck by the raw power of ashes, of what they were and what they have become. Recall on Tuesday – Shrove Tuesday – we stood in the Saint Francis Garden with the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday in hand. And then we burned them. That’s right, those ashes were once the palms we waved in jubilation as we stood (in memory and in solidarity) with those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, “Hosanna in the highest.” Those palms became a mere remnant, a shadow of their original purpose, much like the shouts of “Hosanna” would turn into shouts of “crucify him, crucify him.” The palms become ashes, reminding us of our fragility, of our humanity.

This past Wednesday I was struck by the raw power of ashes, of what they were and what they have become and what they will be. This past Wednesday we received the cross of ashes on our forehead and we struck out into the wilderness, into the desert space alongside Jesus. We struck out on our Lent.

I noticed on Wednesday as I was imposing the ashes that tiny grains would periodically fall into your eye lashes or on your noses or down upon your cheeks. I suppose I knew that this happened but, for some reason, this past Wednesday I really noticed it, almost in slow motion. And I noticed, too, that your hands would come up to rub your eye or brush your cheek. I noticed some of you, as well, would check with your fingers to see how big or how thick I made the cross.

The ashes are gone now. They have been washed off our foreheads, for some as soon as we left church. My brother and I used to leave Ash Wednesday service, always the 7 am service so that the ashes could be there all day, and wonder how we might get them off. How can we get them off without mom noticing. How can we get the ashes off before we get to school or to work or to the market, out in the real world where most people don’t even know it’s Ash Wednesday and where most people no longer remember Lent?

The ashes are gone now, washed off our foreheads, but the darkness remains as a reminder as we begin our Lent once again. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our fragility. It reminds us that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our humanity. The scripture lessons for this first Sunday of Lent call to mind that same humanity, the same fragility highlighted by our tenuous grasp on life. The lessons today lay out some of the many ways we are called to respond to and from our humanity this Lent.

The reading from Deuteronomy is a story full of light and goodness. It reminds the reader of God’s gracious gift to Israel of a land flowing with milk and honey. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is an image of peace and beauty, the people acknowledging their rescue from the Egyptians by the God who heard their cries of affliction. The story demands a response on the part of the Israelites to live with thankfulness, giving the first fruits as an offering of gratitude. Indeed, though hands have toiled the earth to bring forth its fruits, it is the Lord who owns the land and has blessed us to inhabit it. We are called to be good stewards and to give back out of what we have been given.

“He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.” The psalmist’s prayer today is another image of a God who hear our cries. At the beginning of Lent, we are reminded that God has not abandoned us. We are not alone. Rather, God is “so bound to me in love,” as the psalm says, that God will deliver and protect us. Even though we might fail in our own love, focusing on ourselves to the point of sin, God remains steadfast in mercy with long life and salvation. In other words, God is with us, ready to brush the ash from our face.

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” wrote Paul to the Romans. That is the word of faith proclaimed by those who call upon Jesus name and also the very “Word” of God in who they put their trust. “You will be saved,” he says, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Is there any better news than that? This is an incredible, empowering call to humility. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.” All who confess or witness to or proclaim Jesus are not just opened to the possibility of but are promised life, redemption, and reconciliation. We are not saved by works or by merit but simply and wholly by grace – a grace that comes from orienting our lives with and toward Jesus. The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. This speaks to us of God’s inclusion of all people – no exceptions.

What will this Lent be for you? Where you are on the journey toward Jerusalem? What place does thankfulness have? What of trust? What of humility will you seek to help you as you progress toward new life in and through Jesus?

“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”

As I look at the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, I note that Jesus didn’t enter the wilderness with a stack of commentaries under one arm and sack of good under the other. No, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. For forty days Jesus was tested by Satan. He didn’t have crib sheets or notes or supplies. Jesus was stripped down. Jesus was naked, metaphorically in contrast to his physical nakedness during the scourging. He was naked now, stripped down to his truest self. He was naked, faced with the incredible temptation of his humanity and fragility. And he was offered a way out, a defense against his fragile humanity. He was tempted by the ability to control his fragile humanity – to create food where none had been, to rule over everything to his own comfort, and to defy his physical nature by jumping from the precipice.

But Jesus instead chose his humanity. Jesus resisted the very real temptations thrown his way. He was clothed with thankfulness, grateful for the promise and nourishment that comes from God alone. He was clothed with trust, knowing God’s faithfulness and so worshipping and serving only the Lord God. He was clothed with humility, obeying his God and not putting the Lord to the test. Jesus resisted the temptation and in doing that prepared himself to begin his ministry.

For many, there is no greater fear than being naked in front of others. Struck by social restrictions, mores, and taboos, the realness of our own bodies becomes frightening and shaming. Confronted by unrealistic and unnatural body images and our lack of control of youth, we want to hide from our naked bodies. And not just literally, we hide behind work and family, behind productivity and profitability, behind fears and scars. We hide. And not just from others but from ourselves as well.

So this Lent, I have a challenge. Stop hiding! Be your true self. This does not mean that you should be more of what the world is calling you to be – the easy and unrealistic thinner, fitter, smarter, and faster one. This does not even mean that you should be more of what your community, your family, or our church are calling you to be – though they can be sounding boards. I challenge you to be the one who God is calling you be. So be naked and unashamed, confront yourself, your fragility and humanity.

What does this look like? What does our naked look like? What does our fragility look like? It can be hard to see but look to Jesus who found in his frailty the strength and will to be humble in bowing before God, to trust, and to give thanks. Jesus did that in the wilderness and came out ready to minister. He came out of the wilderness ready to see others in their humanity – the poor and the hungry, the rich and wanting, the sick and the well, everybody dying, the weak and powerful, the lonely, the alone, the possessed and dispossessed, the sure and the unsure, the Jew and the Greek.

Its forty days in the wilderness. Lent leaves forty days for finding ourselves, for seeing our true selves. Seeing ourselves, we begin to see those around us. And after the forty days, there is a triumphant entry and a table full of friends. Then there’s a cross on which to lay our humanity and a tomb waiting for every one of us. And then there’s Resurrection.

But for now its Lent, a time to simply look and know that the Word is so very near to you, “on your lips and in your heart.” Amen.

Monday, February 8, 2016

“In a land of myth, and a time of magic.”

Homily notes for Saint David's Day (2/7/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

(nota bene - The Feast of Saint David of Wales is March 1. Because his feast normally falls during Lent, we rarely have the chance to celebrate our patron. The Bishop granted our request to move the feast to the Sunday before the start of Lent.)

Proverbs 15:14-21; Psalm 16:5-11; 1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12; Mark 4:26-29

King Arthur and the knights of the round table have captivated our imaginations for generations. We are captivated by the stories of Gawain and the Green Knight, Lancelot and the Holy Grail, the battle with evil Mordred at Camlann, the beautiful and graceful Guinevere, the sword Excalibur, the utopian Camelot, and the wizard Merlin. Consider some of the twentieth century versions of the story that you might have read or seen: The Once and Future King, Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, The Mists of AvalonMonty Python & The Holy Grail. We are captivated by the romance, the chivalry, the sword fights, and, above all, by the quest for the sacred and right. A BBC version of the story called Merlin, which aired a few years ago, began each episode with the catch phrase, “In a land of myth, and a time of magic.”

Much of what we know about Arthur and Merlin, Camelot and the round table is legend that borders on myth. But beneath all of the legend and myth, there is a deeper story the pervades that tells of a time of tremendous upheaval and transformation. What we see in the Arthurian stories is a tension between the “old ways” and the “new ways.” The stories themselves are simply a stage on which is playing out the same tension in the world at large. Consider the broader historical context. The late 5th or early 6th centuries CE, during which the original Arthurian legends were cast, was a time when the Western Roman Empire was crumbling, falling in on itself. After the Gothic general Alaric, sacked Rome in 410 CE, the Roman emperors tried to consolidate forces. Part of this consolidation was the essential abandonment of their province on the island of Britain. The people that lived there, Romans in culture, language, and identity, were thus left to fend for themselves after four centuries of Roman protection and rule. And with Roman retreat came the bands of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, invading from across the channel and beyond the sea.

This was the context in which the earliest Arthurian legends arose in Wales, where one named Arthur is king and defender of the land from the beasts and demons of the “Otherworld.” In other words, Arthur arose as the defender of Briton from the savage Anglo-Saxon-Jute hoards. One of the earliest known references to Arthur is attributed to the bard Aneirin, a Welsh or perhaps Cumbrian bard, who was a contemporary of the Welsh hero Saint David, our patron and protector, in whose memory and honor this Eucharist is celebrated today.

We do not know a lot about the life and ministry Saint David of Wales. Like Arthur and Merlin, David is shrouded in mystery. There is an endearing legend which posits a direct connection between the great King Arthur and our Saint David. The connection comes through David’s mother, Saint Non or Nonnita, the daughter of a local chieftain named Cynyr Caer Goch. The very same chieftain, Cynyr, was also convinced by Merlin to raise the child Arthur on behalf Uther Pendragon, with Merlin as his tutor. King Arthur was, therefore, Saint David’s foster uncle.

March 1, 589 has been the accepted date of David’s death since the ecclesiastical histories of Saint Bede the Venerable. 589!...Eight years before Pope Saint Gregory the Great would send Saint Augustine to “Christianize the Kingdom of Kent.” Even before England, the heart of the British Empire, and before Canterbury, the focal point of global Anglicanism, Christianity had filtered into Britain. Christianity had filtered into Britain, not through its center and its strength but through the periphery. Christianity seeped in through the edges, on the borders, through the small channels and in the thinly veiled places: Cornwall, Galloway, the Isle of Wight, Iona, and Wales.

As the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes were altering forever the cultural and political landscape in the East and the South, the “Old Ways” continued on the borders in places like Wales. Yes, the “Old Ways” of the folk traditions that gave rise Merlin and Arthur but also the already “Old Ways” of Celtic Christianity, in which asceticism was key and in which a welcoming of all God’s creatures was at the root of common life. The forces that were bearing down on east and south would reach Wales soon enough but, for now….well, this was the land into which David was born and over which he would be made priest and abbot and bishop: A land of Arthurian legends and Celtic Christianity.

About David….
  • David was a vegetarian who ate only bread, herbs and vegetables and who drank only water, for which he became known as Aquaticus or Dewi Ddyfrwr ("Water Drinker" for those of us who find that Welsh is filled with far too many consonants to actually speak). 
  • As self-imposed penance, David would stand up to his neck in frigid Welsh lakes, reciting Scripture. 
  • David traveled throughout Wales and Brittany as a missionary, founding at least twelve monasteries on the way – the furthest afield across he Bristol Channel in Glastonbury. 
  • David’s Monastic Rule followed the severe asceticism of the Eastern desert fathers. Monks must drink only water and eat only bread with salt and herbs, and spend the evenings in prayer, reading and writing. No personal possessions were allowed, even saying "my book" considered an offence. David also prescribed that the monks had to pull the plow themselves without draft animals. 
  • He took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he took a strong position against the Pelagians. It was in Jerusalem, as the legend goes, that David was made Archbishop – making him the first of such in the British Isles, before even Canterbury and York. This, however, may have been a later Welsh nationalist tradition as a counterpoint to England’s perceived supremacy.
  • One of the best known stories of David’s life took place during an impassioned sermon at the Synod of Brefi, called to condemn the same Pelagians. As David was speaking, either he was so eloquent or else someone shouted, “We can’t see or hear!” (Two versions of the story disagree.) In any event, a small hill was said to have arisen beneath him, allowing all in attendance to see and hear just fine. The noted Welsh historian John Davies has commented that “it would be difficult to conceive of any miracle more superfluous” than the making of another hill “in view of the nature of the landscape of Ceredigion” (A History of Wales, 74). Be that as it may, during the same sermon (or maybe it was a different one) a dove is also said to have settled on his shoulder, a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit which gave him such great eloquence.
  • The monastery that he founded at Minevia on the Pembrokeshire coast alongside the river Alun on the western coast of Wales – on the border near the sea – would become the seat of his episcopacy, his final resting place, and the locale where stands today the Welsh city of Saint David's with its eclectic neo-Gothic cathedral built over the tomb of the Welsh Apostle.
To be sure, many of these stories are legend, emerging from a land shrouded in mystery, magic, and myth. What is enduring, however, about these tales – what is true and real about the early history of Welsh Christianity, about David and his monasteries and his sermons, about David’s connection to the legends, is that no matter where or when Christianity has always seemed to plant and firmly root itself in the borders – first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. It’s the places on the edges, on the borders that seem to grow strong, vibrant Christian places.

The healthiest Christian communities to which Paul wrote were Thessalonica and Philippi. They were both large cities, yes, but they were also both cities on the outskirts of Greece proper. They were both on the edges, between cultures, on the borders, away from the center. And it seems to me, that is where faith has thrived – in the in-between places, the borders…in the misty valley of Glastonbury, on the wind-swept shores of Iona, and in the rocky crags of Pembrokeshire… with mountain dwellers of Central India, among the wandering herdsmen of the Masai, in Coptic Ethiopia, and among the Maori of New Zealand. Wherever it is, Christianity seems to do best (maybe not biggest) on the borders. When it’s not at the center and when it’s not in power, the Christian message thrives. When it’s allowed to be challenged and when it’s allowed to challenge, Christianity flourishes. We might be comfortable in the position of power but the Christian faith, for whatever reason, has always thrived in the wilderness – in the in-between spaces – in the thin spaces – where God meets us in the mess, the unrehearsed and unresolved times and places in our lives.

This is where Jesus met us. Jesus came to us on the borders of our comfort. There’s a poem by American Edwin Markham (1852-1940), that I return to when I need a reminder about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, liar, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.
For me, this poem speaks volumes about discipleship, about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to be in the Jesus Movement, to be a light-bearer and a Christ-bearer. It speaks volumes, I think, about what Saint David was about, about what Saint David knew of God:
  • That God is the power of love – love that is extravagant, indiscriminate, abundant, unconditional, and all-inclusive. 
  • That Jesus is the embodiment of love, who loved extravagantly, indiscriminately, abundantly, unconditionally, and all-inclusively.
  • That discipleship is a commitment to demonstrate love extravagantly, indiscriminately, abundantly, unconditionally, and all-inclusively. 
Now, I don’t do it very well myself but I know that I’m supposed to. So, if I call myself a disciple, if I truly want to be a student Jesus of Nazareth, I need to remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“Go and learn what this text means, ‘I desire steadfast mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
Mercy, or hesed in the Hebrew, indicates God’s faithful and merciful love. “I desire steadfast mercy” means that God demands and expects of God’s people nothing less than what God offers: extravagant, indiscriminate, undeserved, abundant, unconditional, all-inclusive love. This love was embodied in the person of Jesus, who loved everybody: tax collectors and tax payers; pious women and those of ill repute; high ranking military officers and conscientious objectors; the deaf, the blind and the lame. Jesus loved the brilliant scholar and the village idiot; the ruthless merchant and the honest farmer; the exalted governor and the common thief; the rich and the poor; the oppressed and the oppressor; the clean and the unclean; the religious and the non-religious. Nobody was exempt from his love. Jesus also loved the birds of the air, the animals of the land, and the fish of the sea. He loved the flowers, the grass, the trees, the water, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Jesus loved the earth, the sky, the universe, and the rest of God’s creation. Nobody and nothing was exempt from his love. Jesus loved people whom nobody else could love. He loved folks who couldn’t love each other. He loved individuals who couldn’t love themselves. He loved those who had looked for love in all the wrong places.

He even loved those who tried to destroy him, those folks who drew a circle to keep him out. Jesus drew a circle that took them in: “Abba, forgive them” were his words of unconditional love. I think that those that Jesus ate with – Jesus’ table fellowship – was probably emblematic of what that kind of all-inclusive love looked like. And I think it was an example lived out by Saint David and his companions. Part of Saint David’s reputation arose not only because he was a great preacher but because everyone was welcome in his church and in his monastery. His order became famous for welcoming pilgrims, feeding the poor, and caring for the many orphans left by the ravaging of the Angles, the Saxons, and, later, the Vikings. Later, his followers would welcome the very same Angles and Saxons and Vikings, who were wayward and lost. All were included by Saint David because it is the very nature of God’s love to include us all. Sometimes we in the modern world, in our comfortable place, away from the border, forget the essential message of Jesus – abundant, indiscriminate, extravagant, all-inclusive, and unconditional love - love that is radical (deeply rooted and very extreme).

David’s last sermon, preached from his death bed, went something like this,
“Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.”
“Do the little things” is apparently a well-worn Welsh phrase. It reminds us that even in a time of great transformation n, in a land of myth and a time of magic, in a land of rugged individualism and extreme nationality, in a land of have and have-nots, the work of faith is still in the little things…in the relationships of love with those around us. They can be found in the daily work we have been given to do and in the small, incremental changes that we all can make.


Monday, February 1, 2016

Jesus loves us.

Homily notes for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (1/31/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. He had just been baptized by another religious superstar, John the Baptist, in the River Jordan and filled with the spirit of God. He went into the wilderness and, having been tempted by the devil, came out the victor. Even in the short time since coming out from the testing in the wilderness Jesus has gained quite the reputation. He has healed the sick, expelled demons and preached the coming kingdom of God. He has picked up disciples in towns and villages around the Galilee. He even attended a wedding with his mother which was made glad by his presence not to mention the miracle of the water made into wine. He has preached and taught in synagogues and market places throughout the region.

Now, Jesus has returned home. His family, friends, and once-upon-a-time neighbors will now see and hear him for the themselves. What is all the hype? What is with all the buzz regarding this young man that they knew as a boy? Jesus had gained quite the reputation so there was surely some expectation as he stood in the chancel, reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And so it was that when he rolled up the scroll and sat down “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then Jesus sat down in the place for the one who would comment on the scriptures, looking like maybe he does belong there after all.

Jesus preaches a short sermon, one sentence – a very powerful word, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” A single sentence that I noted last week revealed the truth of not only Jesus’ coming ministry but the truth of the very character and nature of who Jesus is. It reveals how Jesus would fulfill the covenant, being the long-awaited Messiah. Then, almost immediately, the townspeople are on the warpath. They haul Jesus, this son of Joseph the carpenter, who has gotten too big for his small town britches up the path towards a cliff. They seem intent on throwing Jesus off, done with him and his preaching.
Yeah, I’m not feeling the love here. And we’ve been set up to feel the love. This homicidal mob is made up on long-known neighbors who taught Jesus to read Scripture and passed on the ancient wisdom; who rejoiced with his family when he became a man and grieved with him at a death; who celebrated, laughed, and cried with him; and, who ordered the table or the bread box from his shop. Now, after some length of time away – a time during which Jesus was baptized and claimed as Son by God the Father, Jesus comes home. Perhaps he came just to visit family but he ends up preaching the Good News of the coming Kingdom to the people. These people had known Jesus since he was knit together in Mary’s womb, yet they are also the first (though they will not be the last) to lose the love. The road to Calvary and the cross might not exactly begin in Nazareth but we see its first glimpses in that place and through its people.

No, we don’t feel the love here. In his letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul say,
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:5-7)
It is quite clear: Love does not seek to throw its subject off a cliff.

Of course it is not love for love does not seek to destroy the other but to raise her up. Remember that Jesus had just read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18)
The people of whom Jesus spoke share (and perhaps still do share) something in common; namely, none of them were treated as creatures made in the image of God. They were not given the respect due them as creatures created in goodness but were assumed, rather, to be living in the consequence of sin because of blindness, oppression, captivity, or poverty. The Messiah, though, is sent by God as one who brings good news to the poor, releases the captives, gives sight to the blind, and liberates the oppressed. The men assembled in the synagogue that day could not have been offended by this reading. Indeed, as good Jews they would have heard such proclaimed and preached many times before. Such a proclamation is not just found in Isaiah but would be repeatedly heard in the sacred scripture as call to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger at the gate, the helpless and dependent.

No, Jesus’ proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor” was not was offended. I don’t even believe that it was Jesus own self-proclamation of himself as Messiah that caused the greatest ire. Hear what happens after Jesus’ announcement: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But they were still a little incredulous, asking in what seems a derisive tone, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” One reason that the crown in the synagogue might have responded the way they did was because the sacred writ had become a dead narrative – a flat, meaningless story. They heard it and respected it as their own long tradition but it long ceased having any impact on their daily lives. Many might even have given up looking for the Messiah. And it was beyond reasonable expectation that the neighbor boy all grown up could be the Messiah. There were any number of crackpots in that day that claimed to be the Messiah and, for the most part, they were crackpots. The promise of a Savior to liberate them form Rome had become a greatly diminished promise – its power to move people nullified by the many years that had passed since the Isaiah’s announcement. There were any number of crackpots in that day claiming to be the Messiah, and in most cases they were clearly crackpots. The promise of a Savior who would liberate them from Rome had become a greatly diminished promise – its power to move people nullified by the many years that had passed since the prophet’s announcement. Even so, it was not Jesus' announcement that he is the fulfillment of the prophet’s message, that he is the Messiah, the covenant promise, the fulfillment of the Scripture, the fulfillment of the story, is not what makes murderous mavens of past neighbors.

No, it was not his announcement of the year of the Lord’s favor. It was not his self-proclamation as Messiah. Rather, what gave the crowd pause and what laid the timbers for the conflagration to follow was Jesus’ quoting of Scripture in which God favors gentiles, favoring the enemies of Israel and those despised by Israel. When Jesus first notices the crowd’s bemusement regarding his reputation, Jesus acknowledges that prophets are not accepted in their own hometowns. This is no mean apology. Instead, with these words Jesus makes explicit reference to two of Israel’s most revered prophets, Elijah and Elisha. Elijah and Elisha both had the same problem in not being respected by their own. Because of this, God would send both of them to minister among the Gentiles, “the Great Unwashed.”

It was this reference that would light the fire and drive the people of Nazareth mad. Jesus reminds them that God sent Elijah to save the widow of Sidon and her son, neither of whom were Jews, the chosen people of the covenant. Jesus reminds them that God sent Elisha to heal Namon the Syrian. This was a staggering pronouncement to a people who had come to believe that God was theirs, that God’s Word belonged to them, that somehow the covenant promise was about them and not about God. To hear that the words of their sacred story applied to Gentiles and the impure, made them burn with an unholy and consuming anger. Hence the march to the cliff.

It is interesting, though, that their anger never touched Jesus, not physically. He walked with them along the path by the cliff but when he chose, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Jesus did not react with anger or bitterness. Jesus was made incarnate – Jesus had come among us for one reason and one reason alone: to save us in his love. Jesus came to save God’s people for reasons of immense, complete, and radical love.

The love described by Saint Paul in his letter to the Corinthians is the kind of love that Jesus showed and continues to show. It is not love that many of us can understand or carry out, not fully at least. The that Paul describes, the love of God in Jesus is focused with absolute intensity on one thing: the well-being of that which God made and sustains. In other words, the love of God is solely focused on the other, the object of the love. On he other hand, when we love we tend to love with condition – because another loves us, because the other makes us feel good, because we by reason of biology or character. In the end, too often we love because of what the other does for us.

Saint Paul describes a love that is patient and kind. That is easy enough although we all probably have trouble being patient and kind when our family and friends are making our lives difficult. Saint Paul then describes what love is not: It is not envious, boastful, arrogant rude, insistent on its own way, irritable, or resentful. He has intensified things just a little. Then Saint Paul says, “[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Okay, fine….the ten commandments and all that. But then Saint Paul blows things up. Things get really, really difficult…maybe even outright impossible. “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Did you get that word – all things? Can you do all? Can I? No, we cannot. If we are honest, all is beyond us who are trapped in our own wants and needs, our own spirits and psyches. But all is not beyond God and the Spirit of God that fills us.

Saint Paul is writing to that troublesome congregation in Corinth, telling them that it doesn’t matter how powerful they are, how rich they are, how talented they are, how spiritual they are, if they do not have love – love like God’s love – they have nothing. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus came among us, putting aside immortality and divine glory to share in our humanity. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus trampled the roads and mountains and fields of Galilee and Judea, bringing the Good News of the coming kingdom of God to a people worn down by poverty, oppression, and captivity. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus allowed someone who should have loved him like a brother to betray him. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus was beaten, humiliated, and murdered. It is the love for the sake of which God’s glory was made visible to all in the resurrection. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus takes hold of each and every one of us in baptism, through his sacred Word, in the holy Supper, and in our prayer, fellowship, and service, and clings to us. It is the love for the sake of which Jesus abides in us and sustains us.

Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us (Period.)

Now, we can share the love of Jesus, with one another and with our families, with the sick and the hurting, with the lonely and abandoned, with the soldier far from home, with the old man with a bad heart, with the poor, the imprisoned, and the dying. Jesus loves us and because Jesus loves us with an undying love, we he can love like Jesus does. We can let go of ourselves enough to really love others – to love them for their own sake, not because of what they might do for us or because we might change them.

We are Church. We are the Jesus Movement. It is our stated intent as Jesus’ beloved people to share the love of Jesus. It might be hard sometimes. It might mean sacrifice. It might be uncomfortable. It might be a lot of things but I know one thing that it will be. It will mean life and salvation

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

God’s Holy Spirit calls us to mature in faith, a mature hope, and, most of all, a mature love that the light of Christ may be seen and the source of love known.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Fulfilled in your hearing

Homily notes for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (1/24/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Described as his first sermon, the way Jesus chose to begin his public ministry is of interest and, while simple and straightforward, provides a beautiful starting point for what will come.

Luke's account begins with Jesus "filled with the power of the Spirit," returning to Galilee, to Nazareth where he was brought up. Luke uses the apt phrase, "filled with the power of the Spirit," to describe the transition to Jesus' inaugural preaching. Jesus' possession of the Spirit has already been stated twice, once at his baptism and then again when he is led into the dessert. We are not surprised, therefore, that Jesus is filled with the Spirit as he begins to preach and to teach in the synagogue.

Luke also notes that Jesus had become rather well known in the vicinity as "a report about him spread through all the surrounding country" and that Jesus "was praised" by everyone. Jesus, it seems, had been making the rounds, teaching and preaching in a circuit of local communities before coming to his own home town – where, we will learn, Jesus receives quite a different welcome.

In any event, Jesus went "to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom." Jesus was a pious Jew who would have worshiped in the synagogue regularly, an act that recurs in Luke’s Gospel (4:33, 44; 6:6; 13:10) as well as in the Acts of the Apostles (13:5, 14:1; 17:10; 18:4, 26; 19:8). As would have been custom, an attendant offered Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, part of the sequence of readings that would have followed from the Torah proper. And Jesus unrolled the scroll, the vellum on which the scriptures were written, rolled on two spindles. Jesus would have found his place by holding a spindle in each hand, one hand unrolling, the other rolling it back.
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."
Jesus offers a mixed quote from Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 58:6. But it important to recognize that this is not a haphazard quote. Jesus didn’t just unroll the scroll to an accidental place. He opened the scroll to a particular place, knowing when and to whom Isaiah was speaking. It helps to recognize that in Isaiah 61 the prophet is speaking to a people in exile, a people who had a real chance and opportunity to forget their faith and abandon their God. You see, in 587 BCE the Babylonians conquered the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, taking the people into exile. In the scene from Isaiah, the Israelites are living apart from the promised land, away from Mount Zion and the holy Temple. Isaiah is speaking to a people who needed to hear a word of promise, not despair, and be given a word of hope that would serve to keep their faith in the covenant alive.

The German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer, who defied Hitler and the unspeakable Nazi terror, once wrote that
“the essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy." (Letters and Papers from Prison, SCM Press, 1967, 25).
Sometimes, those of us who preach the gospel and many of us who gather to be Church, we make things a bit more complicated than they need to be. We tend to use language and lots of words which cause confusion and we employ so many ideologies and systems and notions that cause enmity and diminish hope. We do this to defend our positions, usually as a way of supporting our personal preferences rather than seeking love – which is the basic truth of the Gospel.

And we have done a good job of arguing over the years. In the earliest days of Christianity, there were divisions between Greeks and Jews especially regarding the care of widows. There have been numerous heresies that have divided the Church: Gnosticism, Marcionism, Sabellianism, Donatism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Eutychism, Monophysitism, Monotheletism and Iconoclasm. In 1054, the Church split between east and west and for the last 499 years the western half of Christendom has been divided between Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostals, among thousands of other denominations. Within Anglicanism, there are divisions now between Anglo-Catholics, High Churchmen, and Evangelicals, between conservative and progressives.

Now, I’m not saying that the discussions, debates, and the search for truth are not important. But sometimes I think that we use a lot of words and ideologies and systems that just complicate the basic truth of the gospel – words that divide rather than unite, and confuse rather than clarify. They are words and ideologies that rob us of a way of living that is intentional, that rob us of a clearly spoken message that brings good news, proclaims release and recovery, and lets the oppressed go free. They rob us of the intentional, clearly spoken, and straightforward message that proclaims "the year of the Lord’s favor."

And that is the deeper message of Jesus' first sermon. After Jesus proclaimed the message form the prophet Isaiah, what did he do? He preached a sermon, a simple sermon: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This is not a proclamation seeped in arrogance. Rather, it points to the enduring truth of the one we call Savior and Lord. It defines the character of Jesus and the essential shape of his ministry. Jesus will announce good news to the poor, the blind, those in captivity, and the oppressed. Luke’s narrative will shoe a messianic program carried out in the specific stories told about Jesus. While some sought a political or economic explanation through the announcement of a Jubilee year, Luke will portray Jesus’ liberating work through personal relationships, encounters of exorcism, healing, feeding, and teaching. "The radical character of Jesus’ mission is specified above all by its being offered to and accepted by those who were the outcasts of the people" (Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke, Sacra Pagina, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 81).

Now, with seeming to digress, I think that it might be valuable to recall the Gospel progression, particularly noticing the two scenes that immediately precede this one in Luke’s account. First, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan (Luke 3:21-23a). Second, Jesus was driven into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-13, Luke 3:23b-38 is the Lucan genealogy). Both of these events are foundation events, establishing for the reader a connection between God, Jesus, and God’s people.

First, for Jesus, baptism was a beginning, not an end. As Luke tells the story, when Jesus had been baptized "the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove" (Luke 3:22a). And then, in verse 23, we learn that "Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work." Literally, the phrase here is "Jesus, thirty years old, was beginning..." The true sense is that this baptism is the beginning of the work that Jesus will do.

Second, now full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led into the desert where he is tempted by the devil. Luke gives a sense of deliberateness in this scene, that Jesus was led into the desert in order to be tempted. Having so clearly learned that Jesus is through the Holy Spirit God’s son, we now are given a glimpse into the quality of Jesus' sonship. The sequence that follows gives credibility to the good news. On the one hand, the passage shows the construct of the struggle between God and the powers of evil. The devil has real authority with is shadow kingdom a parody of God’s. The devil, though, is able to tempt Messiah. On the other hand, the temptation sequence is about Jesus choosing to be obedient, denying all that the devil offers and accepting all the God has called him to be. The point being that Jesus is the true son who is the true minister of the Kingdom of God.

And might not this sequence say something important about you and to me? Baptism – our baptisms – connects us to God. Baptism does not make our lives carefree nor does it promise a life of riches and ease. Our baptism, like Jesus', is a new beginning, an empowerment of God's Spirit, which descends upon us to bring grace rather than judgment, engagement rather than indifference, and forgiveness rather than revenge.

If you would rather think that you are not capable of building that kind of life, a life modeled on Jesus' own ministry beginnings – a life filled with intentional, meaningful, and purposeful Good News – then maybe you need to hear the words spoken by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love."
That's right, our baptisms enable us to join in Jesus’ mission and ministry – to bring good news, to proclaim release and recovery, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The Spirit has descended on us just as it did on Jesus.

Now note what happened to Jesus after the desert. "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…" (Luke 4:14). When that trial in the desert had ended, where did Jesus go? He went back to Galilee. He went home.

While the commission is to go into all the world, it is a necessary reminder that we can and must live into the Gospel where we are, in the moment where we happen to be. And it matters not whether our worlds are big or small, how many people you may know, or how important people think that you are, the way Jesus lived should cause us to proclaim the gospel, using few words (fewer is better so we keep it simple and straightforward) and lots of love….right where we are!

We don't know what Jesus may have said if he had been asked to describe people who are poor and blind, in captivity and oppressed. We do know, however, what Isaiah meant when he spoke that word, prophetically, to Israel. He was proclaiming God's intent that God's servant will pay particular attention to people who are afflicted and bound and blind.

The simple truth that stands at the heart of the gospel is that God loves everyone…not just the privileged few and not just the folks with whom we are already connected. We too often have an "us/them" response, viewing view people as right or wrong, good or bad, in or out. We become impoverished by our lack of vision and held captive by behaviors that demean and devalue others. We are blinded by attitudes that divide rather than unite. We treat folks of different color or culture or gender or sexual orientation or political persuasion as less than children of the living God. We fail to accept the Spirit of the Lord that is upon us and to live into our anointing.

I was asked once about what I've learned about the Gospel as priest and pastor. While it is a complex answer, the long-and-short of it is this: The Gospel really is simple and straight forward – love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. The Gospel really is simple and straight forward but it is not easy. I say it is not easy because the love and grace of Jesus does not allow us to stay where we are but rather prompts us to value people we would sometimes rather ignore and love people we might rather not. It is not easy because it demands that the Church – our Church – must be daring and bold, stepping beyond traditional boundaries to encounter God in radically new ways.

In Revelation 7, the apostle John envisioned the reign of God,
"After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"
Dare we commit ourselves fully to John's vision? Dare we choose to live into the truth which is at the very heart of the gospel? Dare we to proclaim the same truth proclaimed by Jesus when when he opened the book of the prophet Isaiah? Dare we proclaim to the world, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Monday, January 18, 2016

The God of Abundant Extravagence

Homily notes for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (1/17/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Isaiah 60:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Anyone who has ever been to a wedding in a smaller, rural or a tight-knit, ethnic community might have a leg up on understanding what is at play in today’s gospel. I had the privilege of attending a such wedding in a small, rural mountain town. Good Catholics that they were, the bride and groom were married in the town’s church. As the Marriage Rite ended, I was expecting that my friend and I were going to drive to a reception hall. Imagine my surprise, then when the doors to the Church opened to reveal a fabulous feast set right there in the middle of the piazza fronting the Church – tables piled high with food, drink being poured, and a band striking up. The liturgical meaning of the Marriage Rite that took place inside the church was now underscored by an exuberant celebration. It was a day-long event that would turn into days-log celebration. It involved nearly everyone in the community. It was an extended family doing what they do best.

Such weddings, I imagine, could reflect conditions in Biblical times, the kind of weddings Jesus attended, including the one at Cana in Galilee. The whole village gathered, together with special guests, like Mary and her son, who would have come from neighboring villages. There would be a days-long celebration, with lots of dancing and merriment, storytelling and thanksgiving, food and all the wine you could drink – until it ran out.

So, what appears to have been an ordinary wedding at Cana will result in anything but an ordinary action. What we heard today was an account of Jesus’ earliest miracle. Saint John the Evangelist actually calls them signs not miracles which makes this a perfect lesson for the season after Epiphany. It is here, at Cana, that Jesus “manifests” or “shows forth” who God is for us. Indeed, Saint John’s very purpose in telling the story is not to make a huge deal about the act; but, instead, Saint John uses the sign to point to the reality of Jesus and who we can be in the Jesus Movement.

The story often gets simplified to a story about wine and merry-making. It is about those things butt it is also so much deeper, so much so that I couldn’t possibly approach its fullness in one sermon. I will, therefore, look at two aspects of the story – two sides of the “story coin” – as directed by Mary’s two lines of dialogue.

Mary’s first line is the simple statement, "They have no wine."

It’s an interesting statement. Why should Jesus be bothered if the wine ran out and why would Mary be the one to inform him? On the one hand, wine running out would be a huge embarrassment to the one throwing the wedding feast. Mary was a concerned guest, trying to alleviate the shame of the host. But, as I have said, this story is about more than simply wine and merry-making so we should ask ourselves what Mary’s role is in the coming sign.

As for me, while I recognize what Mary said as a statement, I also hear in her voice a question, “They have no wine?” In Mary's voice, as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine, I hear a question about scarcity. Abundant wine is frequently used by the prophets of the Old Testament as a symbol for the new age (Amos 8:13; Hosea 2:24; Joel 4:18; Isaiah 29:17; Jeremiah 31:5). I hear a question in Mary’s voice, “Has the wine really run out?” Jesus will answer Mary’s question-not-asked. Indeed, he will answer it at Mary’s own prompting. In the end, though, it is a question of scarcity that I hear in Mary's voice.

If I am honest, it is a question that I carry deep inside me sometimes. It’s a question familiar to many of us: Is there enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? …safe enough? …strong enough? …powerful enough? Will we go over the budget? (That last one was for my treasurer.)

We should ask ourselves, “How much is enough?” This is a critical question as we make our way in our world and on our Christian journey. In this context, we should recognize that scarcity and abundance are economic principles, questions of quantity, demanding calculations of dollars and percentages. I suppose that the expected Christian response could be that real abundance should rather be about quality – the good life – the life of salvation that cannot be measured in mere numbers. In some ways this might be true but theologian Sallie McFague points out that if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus we need to get out our calculators and take a look at what abundance means in our world today.

In her book Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril, McFague makes the case for a different kind of good life,
"I believe Christian discipleship for 21st century North American Christians means 'cruciform living,' an alternative notion of the abundant life...For us privileged Christians a 'cross-shaped' life will not be primarily what Christ does for us, but what we can do for others. We do not need so much to accept Christ's sacrifice for our sins as we need to repent of a major sin--our silent complicity in the impoverishment of others and the degradation of the planet." (14)
Christian abundance must include sustainability, self-limitation and inclusion of all, "especially the weak and vulnerable."

So Mary asks about scarcity. Jesus does not appear ready to respond, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Despite this rebuke, Mary approached the servants and said “Do whatever he tells you.”

Despite her question of scarcity, Mary also knows the answer and she directs the servants follow Jesus. Just as Mary’s first statement points to the need (perceived or real), her second points to the solution. Jesus then produces a sign – the first of his signs – demonstrating that the wine, the potent symbol of the new age, has not run out. But it’s not just that it hasn’t run out, the new age is being ushered in – the good wine coming at the end – through, with, and in Jesus.

So let’s not miss the obvious: This is story is about abundance and extravagance. The wine had run out but now we hear about an enormous amount of wine – six stone jars full each containing twenty to thirty gallons. That is way more wine that the wedding feast needs and is beyond anything we should ever expect or could ever deserve. This kind of extravagance and abundance is a message that God wants us to celebrate life in Jesus, to enjoy the company of one another as companions on the way, and to pour the wine of new life for all to drink.

A story of abundance, this is also a story of remarkable transformation and new possibilities. In John’s gospel, the wine of the wedding feast at Cana will serve also as a precursor to final sign, the cross of Christ when blood and water flowed from his side. It is a sign of Jesus, the new wine of a whole new creation. This is most poignant in the Eucharist, the central sign of our faith – the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation, Jesus poured out for us.

Recounting the story of Jesus changing water into wine was John’s way of showing that Jesus had come to do nothing less than transform the common into the holy. So it is that in Jesus we learn about the power of God to transform the incomplete into the whole, the weak into the strong, the ordinary into the precious, the despised into the beloved, and the tasteless into the joyous. Is it through Jesus that we lean of the power of God to transform what we are into what we can become.

How well this transformation takes place depends on our connectedness with God. And that connectedness depends on our connectedness with Jesus, in whom we see the human face of God. And our connectedness with Jesus depends on how much we enter into the Jesus Movement (but more on that later).

In scripture, the connection between Christ and humanity is often described with the metaphor of marriage. In today’s passage from Isaiah, for example, we heard a wedding metaphor used to describe God’s redemption of Israel.
"You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married."
The prophet, preaching after the Israelites had returned to their own land from their exile in Babylon, foreshadows the new Jerusalem created from the one that had been destroyed.

Marriage metaphors in the New Testament exemplify the relationship of God with the people of God. We are encouraged to better understand our relationship with the unseen God by examining the nature of love between two people in marriage. We are bid to examine the best kind of love in marriage – self-giving love that is extravagant like the abundance of wine at Cana. In this way, we can better know the love that God intends for all people, a love that can produce genuine transformation from the tendency toward human selfishness into gracious, loving Christ-like-ness.

Today’s gospel story about a sign at a wedding celebration can help lead us to a renewed life in Christ. We can better learn how to share the unlimited gifts God offers us. We can better learn how to celebrate the joys of human community and the union we can have with God, one that will sustain us through our journeys of faith.

May it be our prayer today that Christ will more closely unite not only with the whole church but specifically with each congregation and each individual. In such a prayer we will seek an unbreakable connection of mutual love – love that not only will show us clearly what God is like but also will lead us to the fullness of Christ. We will seek in our hearts and souls to enter into the new, abundant life of our Lord Christ.

Monday, January 11, 2016

New Year's Resolutions from your Rector

Addendum to homily for the Baptism of the Lord (1/10/2016)

I promised Saint David's five resolutions for the New Year that I would make regarding my work as Rector of the Church. In setting goals like these, I follow the SMART system so that the resolutions are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. I ended up coming up with six, two each in three important areas of my ministry: Personal Spiritual Discipline, Evangelism, and Building Church Ministry.

Here are my six resolutions.

A “discipline” is not punishment or uncomfortable rigor; but, rather, it is simply being intentional about doing something that will make one better. At its heart, discipline is about practicing. Spiritual discipline is, therefore, about practicing to be a better disciple of Jesus and might include anything that helps to intentionally focus one’s awareness on God and the godly life. 

1.  I will to deepen my discipline of spiritual reading.
Spiritual reading is a discipline of prayerfully reading and studying literature that enlivens the spirit and draws the person into a deeper connection with God, the Church, and the World. Examples of spiritual reading might include: the lives and writing of the saint; commentaries on Sacred Scripture, theology, and history; works on prayer and other spiritual practices; and, pastoral letters and exhortations from bishops and other religious leaders. Spiritual reading is done not only as an exercise of information and learning but also, and perhaps more so, as an effort towards formation and living. 

I will attend to spiritual reading at least 7 hours every week (averaging 1 hour daily).

2. I will spend more time with my God in prayer and meditation.
Prayer is actively seeking time in the presence of God. While I am usually busy with the work of God, I often find myself so busy doing things for God that I don’t actually have time to connect with God.

I will attend to this discipline by intentionally scheduling at least 45 minutes daily for personal prayer and meditation. Additionally, I will engage in some form of public or communal prayer at least three times per week (not including Sunday morning worship).


3. I will meet new people outside of the Church.
Sometimes I fall into the trap of only meeting people through or at church. I spend too little time actively in the community encountering new people and engaging with community and church leaders who I don’t already know. This, naturally, limits how successful I might be in evangelism and community building. The practice of meeting new people can broaden the scope of ministry and engage me more fully in the work of evangelism.

I will spend at least 2 hours each week engaged in the practice of meeting new people by walking the Saint David’s neighborhood, engaging local business owners, going to coffee houses, and just getting out more.

4. I will increase my online and social media presence.
The fastest growing evangelistic tools are digital and online. Saint David’s Facebook page currently has 240 “likes,” almost double our average Sunday attendance, with some of our posts reaching thousands of people. A recent study by the Episcopal Church demonstrated a direct correlation between church growth and the number of online, social media, or digital tools a church uses. In short, social media can and does work for ministry.

I will increase my activity on “Grace is everywhere,” my blog (found at to an average of two posts weekly. I will also pledge to learn and use effectively one other social media tool (probably Twitter).


5. I will challenge you to specific tasks of ministry.
I have a goal of 100 % participation and I think that goal is attainable. From your part, when I or another ministry leader ask for your cooperation or assistance, leadership or effort, don’t say no – say “I will, with God’s help.” For my part and on behalf of ministry leaders, I promise that the request or challenge will be specific, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

I, or another ministry leader, will challenge each of you – each member of this parish church to a new and specific ministry this year.

6. I will bless you in your ministry.
If you are to be challenged to new ministry, it would be unfair if you weren’t blessed on your way. I promise, therefore, to equip you on your way. Part of that equipping is calling upon he Holy Spirit to alight like a dove upon us – to overshadow us that we might bear Christ. It is important to dedicate our ministries to God and name them as holy: this is the act of consecration and blessing.

I will consecrate and bless all of the ministries of this church. Among other times, such blessings will occur at least one monthly during an act of public worship.

The Dream

Homily notes for the Baptism of the Lord (1/10/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

As part of today's sermon, I also presented six New Year's resolutions that I made regarding my work as Rector of Saint David's. Those resolutions are presented in a follow-up post. 

"The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”
(Verna Dozier, The Dream of God, 79).

In the early 1970's, the first bishop of Nevada, Wesey Frensdorff, was a visionary of the same dream that Verna Dozier had. Through something called “Total Ministry,” Bishop Frensdorff and others would create a new movement in Episcopal ministry, a style which empowers laity and clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons) to work in concert, equal and essential partners in the building of the kingdom. At the heart of “Total Ministry” is the understanding that through baptism all Christian people are gifted for mission and ministry within and for the Church. “There is one ministry in Christ,” writes Bishop Frensdorff, “and all baptized people – lay and ordained – participate in it according to the gifts given them.”

At its core, the ideas formulated in the concept of “Total Ministry” can push the limits of how we minister as a church. They challenge us to a new dream (using the language of Verna Dozier) in how we carry out our baptismal promise in the world.

Baptismal promise…that Covenant we make together at every baptism. Those promises that call us to...
  • “continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers…”
  • “persevere in resisting evil” and “repent and return to the Lord…”
  • “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ…”
  • “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself…”
  • “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being…”

Just a few years before his tragic death in 1988, in a plane crash on the rim of the Grand Canyon, Bishop Frensdorff wrote a poem called The Dream. The poem begins:
Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love, and each is certain that in the divine heart we are all known by name.
In which Jesus is very Word, our window into the Father’s heart; the sign of God’s hope and his design for all humankind.
In which the Spirit is not a party symbol, but wind and fire in everyone; gracing the church with a kaleidoscope of gifts and constant renewal for all.
Martin Luther once asked, “Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?”

When I was young, every other year or so our family would head north for Christmas to visit relatives in Cleveland. As a young boy from Florida, I was fascinated by the metal contraptions that hung on the walls of Grandparents house. When you touched them, they were warm. I, of course, had no experience with a radiator but my Grandpa Alex brought me to the basement, showing me the boiler and how the steam travelled through the pipes all of the house to those “metal contraptions,” radiating its heat all the way.

Using Martin Luther’s metaphor we must ask ourselves, “Can we, when we have lived in the warmth of God’s love, not fail to give off the same warmth ourselves?”

The answer, of course, is that of course we cannot. But first we have to connect to the boiler. We can’t, in other words, radiate God’s love until we’ve opened our hearts and let it in. We must live in the sunlight of God’s love. We need to bask in the sunlight of God’s compassion. We need to absorb God’s light and let it shine in the darkest corners within. Once we allow God’s love in, we can then begin to give off that love.

Let us dream of a church that radiates God’s love.

Frensdorff dreamed of a church “…unafraid of change, able to recognise God’s hand in the revolutions, affirming the beauty of diversity, abhorring the imprisonment of uniformity…”

We are probably no less afraid of change in our church then Frensdorff’s church was thirty years ag. Perhaps we are more afraid. In a world that is changing so fast, a changeless church is a refuge in uncertainty. We cling in comfort, but maybe we cling too tightly to what was that new growth is restricted.

When my friend’s aunt moved into a new home, she wanted to cut back the vines that grew up the front of the house. The vines on the house grew with abandon, flowering prolifically. She wanted to shape the vines, directing them and controlling their growth. She bought some electric shearers, later describing the purchase as “a big mistake.” She cut that vine…and cut…and cut….and cut until not much remained. She was ready to begin forming the vine but that vine hasn’t flowered since.

It’s not dead. It is sort of alive with a brownish stalk that only sends out a few green bloomless tentacles each year. Later, she learned that this particular vine would only produce flowers from new growth added the previous year. The green shoots coming out now just don’t have enough nutrients to bring forth flowers.
Let us dream of a church vital and alive, growing and flowering with abandon.

Frensdorff dreamed of a church “…so salty and yeasty that it really would be missed if no longer around…”

We should be “serving” and “seeking” and “striving” and “respecting” so that our church would be missed if we were not here. I envision a bold church, existing beyond our eight walls, fearlessly speaking out against unjust structures in society, against violence of any kind, and against exclusion for any reason. I envision a church that doesn’t always choose the safest way but chooses instead to “prepare the way of the Lord…” (Matthew 3:3). I envision a church that remains relevant and responsive to our rapidly changing social context.

The church cannot be satisfied with being fed and feeding pablum, but instead must hear the Word, takes risks, speak out, and act against those things that are not of God.

Let us dream of a salty church.

Frensdorff dreamed of a church “in which each congregation is in mission and each Christian, gifted for ministry; a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry speaks in terms of the Jesus Movement,
"Now is our time to go. To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ. To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation. To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.

"This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world."
The Church should be about the Jesus Movement, carrying on the mission Jesus with each member, regardless of ordination status, a part of this mission – a member of the crew, working for the same end.

Let us dream of a church where each member goes into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to be agents of God’s reconciliation.

Frensdorff dreamed of a church that recognizes “the absurdities in ourselves and in one another, including the absurdity that is LOVE, serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves.”

May we be a playful church who dances, sings, laughs, and cries in the company of our “Clown Redeemer.” And maybe we can be a church that doesn’t take ourselves too seriously. We are a church, after all, that falls short. But we are also a church we are blessed with hearts that forgive, and a sense of humor. We are also a church blessed with a God who forgives, and who, we pray, also has a sense of humor.

Let us dream of a church that is serious about God’s love, and just maybe, not so serious about itself.

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and, by association, the feast of all our baptisms. We celebrate the beginning of Jesus public ministry just as we celebrate baptism as the beginning of our ministry. Let us ask ourselves,

What kind of a church are to be?

Will it be the kind of church that we dream it to be?

Will it be the kind of church Jesus dreams it to be?

All of us have a part in shaping the answer.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

In the beginning was the Word

Homily notes for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas Morning, 12/25/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-18 

I love Christmas and I especially love the way John tells the Christmas story. Perhaps rather than saying this is John’s “Christmas” story it makes more sense to say that this is John’s story of the Incarnation. It bears little resemblance to the Christmas that we know. There are no angels and no shepherds. There is no Bethlehem, no inn, and no manger. There are no stars and no wisemen. For all of it, there is not even a Joseph nor a Mary. No, indeed, John follows the rhythm of Rogers and Hammerstein, starting “…at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

John transports us all the way back to the beginning of time…actually, to before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word – the Logos – the Christ was with God. No, the Logos was God.

The Logos was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. How astonishing! And we are indeed meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed, to be brought to silence in the holiness. All of our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced as we push the story to the very beginning of all things.

That is right: all things. In the very next strophe (John 1:3), we are told is that “all things were made through him.” There really is no mistaking John’s meaning here. Through the Incarnate Logos who is God from before the beginning of all things was the One through all things were created - all things, everything and everyone. I don’t know about you, but that is simply breathtaking and astonishing.

And it would explain a lot about who we are as a Christian people baptized in the Episcopal tradition. You see, we are those people who have promised, and continually promise over and over again, “to seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Not some people, not even most people, but all persons.

So the Good News that John is proclaiming at the outset of the fourth gospel may not be so great after all. It can be somewhat unfortunate news because very often we do not want to recognize the Word in all persons. It can be disconcerting news because too often we do not want to seek the Christ in everyone. Honestly, you don’t mean everything, do you?

So perhaps we wish that John had started his Gospel with something a little less, with something maybe not at the very beginning. The beginning, it turns out, might not a very good place to start after all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about Mary and Joseph, some cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background. Christmas is easier if you stick to the shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story either. John is making it all just a little inconvenient.

That is, until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

Legend holds that Martin Luther lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky! When we light candles, we access ancient energy - a cyclical life-giving energy. The bio-chemistry of it is unmistakable: Energy produced in photosynthesis by a plant’s absorption of the sun’s energy is passed up the food chain to grazing cattle to produce tallow or on to bees to produce beeswax. The candle then produced will light even the gloomiest of nights with a cryptic sunlight, returning the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again.

The Word, the Logos, the Christ that was at the beginning and through whom all things came into being is in all of that. The Logos is in the photosynthesis. The Logos is in the tallow and the beeswax. The Logos is the cryptic sunlight. “Without him not one thing came into being.” Or, as the old Authorized Version says, “without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3b). Oh, my!. That is simply astonishing.

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be or, rather, it is probably more complicated that we want Christmas to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas through the eyes of the Fourth Gospel:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth…And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. (John 1:14, 16)

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. When we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word pulls up and travels with us. But not just a part of the Word, it is the fullness we have received. Simply astonishing! The fullness of the Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”

So it started on the one hand with the Word, the Logos, the Christ and all that he has done since before time, in time, and beyond time. And then on the other hand is John the Baptist, the man “sent from God” (John 1:6a) who “came as a witness to testify to the light” (John 1:7a). “He himself was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (John 1:8)

So I was thinking, maybe we could do that, too. Maybe we could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God, who was God in the beginning.

Maybe we could be like John so that others might believe through us and the light, which enlightens everyone, might shine forth on everyone. Maybe we can be little “John the Baptists” – or, better, we can be Mary the Baptists, George the Baptists, and Ellen the Baptists. You see, it is all together that we are the body of Christ. Alone, none of us can get the job done, fully exposing the light to the world; but, together the world can be lit, the world can be changed through us.

So I was thinking that this is exactly what we are called to be and to do We are called to bear witness to the light, just like John. And we are asked to do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is what is meant by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the Logos, in all persons, everywhere, at all times.

Now, none of us can be Christ unto ourselves for the whole world. Yet, we each carries Christ for a particular piece of the whole. We each carry light to an essential part. We are, in other words, each essential light-bearers that make up the Church and without each part the Church would not be whole and could not bear the fullness of the light. That is why, when we baptize new members of the Body of Christ, the whole body is changed and made new. That is why it is so important to take the promises we make seriously. Especially the promise to do all in our power to support one another in our lives in Christ. Together, through Christ, we are the fullness of the light. Together, in Christ, we bear grace and truth. Together we can seek and serve Christ in all persons. Together we can strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are the body of Christ.

Together we make up the mosaic that is the Word, the Logos, the Christ, for the world. Merry Christmas! God bless us every one. Amen.