Aug 152017
 

AUDIO SERMON

Sermon for Sunday, August 13, 2017 – The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

          Don’t you just love Peter’s confidence in our Gospel this morning – getting out of that boat and walking toward Jesus across the top of those waves?  It is the confidence of one who wants to follow Jesus, but many have over-estimated their own abilities. 

          I was a bit like that the summer after my second year in seminary.  I had the opportunity to work as an intern with a chaplain who was doing street ministry in Downtown Albany, NY on behalf of the ecumenical community of churches there.  I had lived in Albany and worked as a probation officer there for 4 years before going to seminary, so I was no stranger to the struggles of the urban poor there.  And I was grateful for a chance to approach life in that city not as a member of the law enforcement community, but rather as a pastor in training.

As I anticipated that internship during the last month of the academic year, I envisioned the sorts of ministry encounters I might have – connecting with people who needed hope and spiritual sustenance.  I could be the one to bring the good news! I was ready to do what it would take to really making a difference in their lives.  It all had a “Touched by an Angel” sort of sheen to it. 

          I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that is not what I experienced that summer.  What I experienced was something very different.  First of all, my “job” was not as well defined as I had expected.  Other than sitting in the ecumenical outreach office for a couple of hours a day in case someone came in seeking help- which rarely happened, I was sent out to the food pantries and soup kitchens, and to walk around the city streets to meet and get to know people in need.  This was really pretty much outside of my comfort zone. I felt clumsy in my interactions in the soup kitchen.  I felt like sobbing at the food pantry as I witnessed people of all ages coming in hungry and desperate.  I felt awkward speaking to homeless people on the street – what could I say to them? Anything I could think of to say about God or Jesus just came off sounding condescending when I rehearsed it in my head.  And I was left speechless when I was wolf-whistled at or became the object of a drunk man’s irrational ranting and raving.  I may have been confident in the safe boat of seminary, and even felt a bit of confidence as I started out across the waters of this new work, but these initial experiences made my heart sink like a rock.

          Two weeks into the 8 week internship the street ministry chaplain found me weeping in the office.  To my amazement he did not seem at all surprised by my tears.  He smiled and said to me, “OK, now we are getting somewhere.” That jolted me out of my sobbing!  Seeing the incredulous look on my face he told me to relax, that I was right where I needed to be – where he himself had been just a year before.  As he recounted his own initial high hopes and how he too had experienced that same sinking feeling after a week or so on the job, I felt at ease.

Then we reflected together about the largely unrealistic expectations we had brought to our street ministry and how those expectations had taken a real beating.  We wondered together about what our goals in this ministry should really be.  Toward the end of that conversation the chaplain said that after a year in the job he had become convinced that God had brought him there, not so much to have an amazing impact on others, but rather to be changed himself.   He said that like Peter walking on water and then sinking, he had to jettison his over-confidence in his abilities to bring massive change to needy people’s lives, and instead daily call on Christ to hold him up and make his way in this work he had been given.  He said that when he started each day that way his expectations about this work began to shift.  It was true that over the year he had been in this ministry he had been able to befriend some folk who had no other friends, and that he had been able to help in small ways with material needs.  But he said he had become convicted that the only way he could really help the people he was there to serve was to get to know their life from the inside and then use that knowledge to work for substantive change in society.  Substantive changes that would mean the people we were seeking to serve and their children would not be trapped in cycles of poverty and violence endlessly.  Those cycles of poverty and violence were winds that sometimes could make him sink in fear, but if he remembered to call out to Christ, Christ would draw him up out of the waters again, to find a way to take what he was observing and use it to witness for change in societal systems that perpetuated those cycles of suffering. 

This strikes me now as a wonderful image for baptism.  When the sacred waters of the font pour over us, we die to the idea that we can change ourselves or our world on our own power alone.  And when Christ raises us up again from those waters, he begins to empower us to move where he would have us go for his good ends and purposes.  And the life of faith is a challenging, sometimes perilous, and always wondrous journey with Christ when we stay close to him.

          That day all those years ago in Albany, as I felt immersed in waters of uncertainty, I asked my colleague for advice on how to join him in this work of being changed so that I too could work for positive change.  He said that the best advice he could give me was “don’t just do something, stand there.”  He counseled that a ministry of presence would go a lot farther than a ministry of words with the people we were trying to get to know.  He also counseled that if I made being present my goal, God would have a lot easier time getting through to me with what I needed to receive to change and grow in my vocation.  That God could be heard in the silence of presence, easier than in the noise of self-propelled activity, well intentioned as it might be. Years later that advice has not worn thin!  Listening for the still small voice of God to guide me is always better than my best self- manufactured ideas.

          I will never forget one person I met that summer who I do feel spoke the word of God to me.  After sharing several meals with me in the soup kitchen, a man who was a Vietnam vet and who was struggling with PTSD and lack of employment said to me, “Just remember, some of us wear our need on the outside and some of us wear our need on the inside.” In that moment the tables turned and I was hearing God speak through this man

          The more I listened that summer the more I heard God speaking to me about compassion and justice. The more I looked around, dared to look into faces across the table or on the street, the more I recognized Christ looking back at me, present in the very ones I had mistakenly thought I was supposed to bring him to.  They gave me a new facet of truth – the truth that we are all one and that there is not distinction between any of us in God’s eyes.  The truth that when any are in need we all are in more need than we want to admit or talk about.

          So often we who wear our wealth on the outside, avoid the truth of how large the gap between rich and poor has become. I suspect at least part of the reason for that avoidance is the shame we feel at that disparity, and the uncertainty about how to do anything lasting about it.  At least that is the lesson I began to learn all those summers ago, on the streets of Albany.  But I find there is an incredible freedom that comes when we affirm that this is not the way that the God we know in Jesus Christ would have it for his beloved children.  There is a freedom and a joy in affirming that.  A freedom and a joy that can spur us time and again to become more vocal witnesses of that truth in the places of status and power that we have access to.  Witnesses who emphatically trust that the Word that we need to speak is very near us – He is on our lips and in our hearts. He has drawn us up out of the waters that threatened to sink us, and has gotten into the boat of our lives with us, and that makes all the difference and gives us the power to be witnesses to his incredible love for all people. 

Amalie, this is the good news of the life of faith that you are entering into formally with us this morning through the waters of baptism. Remember that whenever you feel overwhelmed by life or have a sinking feeling in your heart, all you need do is call on Jesus, and he will come and raise you up. We are so glad you will be joining us in this body of Christ as we follow his lead in ushering in his reign on earth.  In Christ’s name and for his sake.  Amen+

 

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Aug 072017
 

AUDIO SERMON

Sermon for Sunday, August 6, 2017 – The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

 

Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O’ God that we may love and serve you, today and always.  Amen                                                               

When I was a little girl, spending the summers with my grandparents was a time I would anticipate with great joy all year long.  One of the reasons was because, along with all of my cousins, I would go to Bible school. We’d run through the fields to the Parish Hall across the lot from the church. It was where all of the church functions had been held for generations, a long, one room building with a kitchen in the back.  We’d don aprons to cover our play clothes and settle ourselves on the little chairs arranged in a semi-circle to hear what craft we were going to do that day.  Now to be clear, we had to sit quietly and listen to one of the grown-ups (who was usually one of my many Aunts), tell us a Bible story and then we’d talk about it for a little while, sing a Gospel hymn accompanied by Tennessee Ernie Ford on the old record player, followed by singing John Jacob Jinglehammer-Schmidt, and THEN we could do our craft – a craft that somehow related to the Bible story we’d just heard..

I actually remember the morning we heard this story in Bible School — the feeding of the five thousand. I wish I could tell you I remember it because of some deep spiritual lesson I learned that day – but I can’t.  I remember this story because that day’s craft involved stenciling a few words on a piece of slate and then filling in the letters with paint.  We had two choices for what we stenciled onto the slate….words that said, ‘God is Good’ or, ‘God is Love’. My favorite cousin chose ‘God is Good’ and I picked ‘God is Love’.  I chose it instead of the ‘God is Good’ phrase because God is Good is how our grace started before meals and I can remember thinking that we said that all of the time — and I loved my Gramma with all my heart and I always gave her the craft we made….so the ‘God is Love’ phrase seemed right……and it must have been because Gramma hung my completed stenciled slate on her bedroom wall where it stayed for many years.

Last week I ended the sermon by asking all of us to think about how we might finish the sentence, “The Kingdom of God is like….”.  And I thought about that throughout the week, often in the context of preparing this week’s sermon. The images of that idyllic time when I was so little going to Bible School and being surrounded by God’s love manifested through my family’s unconditional love was one of the images that I kept seeing when thinking about how to finish that sentence – Images summed up in words stenciled on slate: God is LOVE.

But I hadn’t picked that phrase to stencil so long ago because I learned that “God is Love” from this Bible story – maybe the older kids did, maybe they got it, but I didn’t.  The connection between God and Love, or at least the realization that the manifestation of God’s love, was an important lesson in Matthew’s version of this Gospel story, came to me many years later.  It took me those years before I understood that Jesus’ feeding of the hungry, tired people streamed out of his deep, profound compassion for them.

While I was in the Holy Land, I visited the two places identified as the spot where Jesus performed this miracle and while they were both beautiful, lush locations on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, they were each a very, very far walk away from any of those villages mentioned in the reading — where anyone, much less 5K plus people — could find food. Jesus didn’t make them leave and troop back to find far off villages that would have taken hours to reach in the dark. And he didn’t let them go without – he didn’t leave them hungry.  He had compassion for them ……. and the word compassion in Latin is often translated as “to love with” and that is what we see Jesus do – to love with. That is why one of the choices I had to stencil from this Bible story so long ago was, “God is Love.” ……….  To love with …….  Jesus, through his actions, not just in words, loved those hungry people who had come to listen to him.

In last week’s sermon I quoted Warren Carter’s reminding us that,

‘If a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting is the only path to wholeness.” And isn’t Jesus’ behavior shown in this Gospel reading a wonderful example of how  Jesus used love as a transformative agent – a corrupting agent if you will — in a society ruled through foreign, oppressive occupation. Jesus’ behavior manifested love. He again shows us how to love, how to transform, which he does in his short ministry over and over and over.  Feed the hungry.  Give rest to the weary.  Care for the widow.  Remember the lonely.

This miracle of Jesus turning a few loaves of bread and some fish into enough food to feed 5k plus men, women, and children is the only miracle story to be found in all 4 of the Gospels. While the notions that “God is love” and that we should emulate Jesus’ manifestations of that love are central points in this Gospel story, they are not the only important points in these few verses.  And, it is important to remember that this is a story about many things but it is not a story of a picnic any more than the Last Supper is a story of a dinner party for friends.  Jesus heralded our communion rite when he took the fish and bread that day.  And while some of the facts are presented a bit differently in the various Gospels, they all 4 make a point of foreshadowing our sacrament of communion. [Jay use your fingers] Bread was taken, blessed, broken and given. Each Sunday when we prepare to receive communion, as a community, not just as a personal action, but rather as a group of Christians, those same four very important elements are taking place.  Listen and watch for the 4 elements beginning with my setting of the altar and not ending until the last people have received communion. [Jay use fingers] Bread will be taken, blessed, broken and given –— all part of our Holy Communion today.

But there is another point in this Gospel, one that I admit I missed for a long time; in fact, it wasn’t until I was in formation for the Diaconate and was studying what it truly meant to try to be a servant that I noted this, up to then, missed point.  We are so accustomed to hearing “Jesus feed the 5 K”, that we can miss that in all 4 versions of this Gospel story, Jesus isn’t actually who feeds the hungry, although that is a little vague in John’s Gospel…..In the other 3, the synoptic Gospels, it is clear that he tells the disciples to feed the throngs of people. In other words, he calls the disciples to service. The disciples perform the act of feeding after Jesus gives them the blessed bread and fish.

And in our own time, after all have received the body and blood of Christ and the altar has been restored, we too are called to serve, just as the disciples were called. Just as Jesus called his disciples to service when he told them to get and give the bread and fish, we hear that call echoed in our post communion prayer, part of which is: “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do — to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”

Earlier this week, I mentioned to Deb Hay, our parish administrator, that I was having a difficult time finding a way to end this sermon.  Without knowing what I was preaching, she said, “Tell them to remember God, to be nice to each other, to take care of themselves and to have a really nice day.”  We laughed…..but then I thought about what she said and realized she was right.  She had summed up the message of God’s love and our directive to go forth to love and serve the Lord as faithful witness. That was the ending.  Because that is what this Gospel is about.  It is about God’s love, Jesus’ manifestation of that love and about us, caring for one another as Jesus commands us.

We each of us have our own gifts that we can access to be a witness of Christ and gifts that support us in loving and serving the Lord. Or to put it in the words of that sage Deb Hay, “Remember God, be nice to each other, take care of yourself and have a really nice day!.”

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

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Aug 012017
 

AUDIO SERMON

Sermon for Sunday, July 30, 2017 – the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

 

Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O’ God that we may love and serve you today and always. Amen

The Kingdom of Heaven is like……………………..?   Is like what? How would you complete that sentence?  What images came to your mind right off the bat? What images might come to you after you’ve thought about it for a bit, I wonder? 

Well in today’s Gospel, we come upon Jesus as he is helping his disciples discover and understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is like…….and he does this through the use of, no surprise here: parables. In fact, these are called the Kingdom parables. And he says through them that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the mustard seed, like yeast, like buried treasure, like a searching merchant and like a far flung fishing net.  These comparisons must have surprised and confused the disciples! 

See, all of those things had bad or negative connotations in Jesus’s time, so saying they were what the Kingdom of Heaven could be compared to would have been pretty odd for the disciples to hear.  And, these parables would have been disconcerting to the disciples because each of the objects Jesus referred to in them contained something that was sort of hidden at first sight – something that was a little bit sinister in their substance or through their use.

Look at the mustard seed: a seed so very, very tiny that it usually could not be seen when mixed in with other seeds, hidden in plain sight. It would produce a weed that would grow strong and fast – chocking out and killing the plants it was near.  It was pulled out and discarded as soon as it was spotted in a field. (BTW, I have a mustard seed in a pin on my clerical shirt, if you have never seen one so you can take a look at it during coffee hour if you want.) Then there is yeast: In Jesus’ time yeast was very different from what we are familiar with and if not prepared correctly, it would cause not only the bread to spoil but it could kill those who ate what was made from it. It was considered so unclean that the word yeast was often used to convey a meaning of corruption or impurity. Then there is the hidden treasure that someone found and hides in someone else’s field that he then comes back when the time is advantageous and retrieves it through nefarious means  – which is a nice way of saying that someone acts like a thief, hiding and then taking loot that is not really his.  And the merchant and the pearl? Back in Jesus’ day merchants were definitely not respected; they were considered suspect and non-trustworthy, people who would hide the true value of their wares. And then there were the fishing nets; they themselves were not considered evil or bad, but unwanted fish would be collected in them and hide among the wanted catch, necessitating more work and sorting by the fishermen.  All odd, disconcerting comparisons for Jesus to use when describing the Kingdom of Heaven. 

But with each case, Jesus goes on to transform the negative, the evil, the non-respected object or action into something else –—- a transformation to something good and positive.  The mustard seed is transformed into a place of shelter, a place for birds to rest.  Yeast, carefully used, can be transformed from a poison to an agent that will make a feast for many. The actions of the merchant and the thief become a willingness to sacrifice all they have, a willingness to give up everything for that which they considered of great value……..a metaphor of passing through things temporal so as not to lose things eternal…….as we prayed in this morning’s collect. 

You know, I often wish Jesus had just come out and said clearly what he meant instead of using parables, or metaphors, since in today’s world at least, they can obfisticate his message. But…..in his time, the people he was talking with would have understood his meaning immediately – they would have known he needed to use parables and stories because he talking in code, as a means of preserving his, and their safety from retribution from the authority of Rome, which was the occupying power.  They would have known that he was comparing what being a disciple of Jesus – or a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, looked and behaved like – as opposed to what being a follower of Caesar — or a citizen of the Empire of Rome —- looked and behaved like. He was equating that which was thought of as sinister, to the authority of Rome. And then he was showing how God’s goodness and mercy can transform even that to something good. He was telling them that God’s realm and the realm of Rome were not at all the same and that the real authority, the one to pay attention to was God’s love, not Caesar’s occupation.  And at the end of the Gospel he asks them. “Do you understand?”…do you realize you must choose and you must be prepared to help others choose … to whom will you give authority in your life…..God or Rome?  

So what of today’s world? I know many of you have heard me say that Deacons are to try to bring the problems, concerns and issues of the world into the church….but I may not say often enough that we are to send the Word, the message of the Gospel, into the world.  The reason I place the Gospel book flat on the high altar rather than standing-up, after I, or Martha in my absence, proclaim the Gospel, is to symbolize that The Word of the Lord, has been sent out into the world….., that that message, is then to be carried out by all of us, not just in word but in our actions and through our behaviors.

So what of this Gospel? What will you and I be taking back out into the world from our look today at what Jesus was saying to his disciples….what about this message will walk through the door with you?  I know I’m going to be thinking a lot about what the authorities and powers at all levels of our nation are saying and doing.  I know I will be wrestling with what authorities in other nations are telling their populations. And I’m going to think hard about the authority in the messages I hear from the institutions I deal with each day and about the messages I send and receive in my family.  Is it Caesar’s realm or God’s realm I will find? And then I’m going to continue to explore how my implicit biases (the ones I’m often not even aware of, much less those I know I have even though I fight against them), how they contribute to the structural evil I see, locally and globally – that evil imbedded in our society….the ones I know are not of God’s realm. 

And I invite each of you to do the same in your own way – to join me in identifying and intentionally watching – there is something very important about the intentionality of it all. I just returned from about three weeks of being in the home town I grew up in and I was amazed at how easily I found myself slipping back into thoughts and mores I have worked hard over the years to change. I had to pull up and intentionally examine what I was seeing and hearing.

And then after we intentionally examine all of this, what if we don’t like what we hear and see?  Can we challenge what we find by asking what it means to prepare to be a disciple first for the realm of God’s heavens? Warren Carter, a New Testament theologian, writes in commenting on this parable, “if a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting is the only path to wholeness”. Let me quote that again, “If a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting is the only path to wholeness.”  Kind of a scary sentence, but as the Methodist theologian, Gary Feluso-Verdend reminds us, “Helping persons to adjust, or be balanced, to fit into a sick society, is not the work of the Gospel”.  

With God’s help may we become even more strongly agents of the transformative power of that which causes that which is bad or evil to become that which is spirit-filled and overflowing with God’s love. 

And if we are asked next week to finish the sentence, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like………………” how would we each finish it? Would it be any different from how we may have finished it today?                   

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jul 132017
 

AUDIO SERMON

Sermon for Sunday, July 9, 2017 – The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

 

On this Sunday 15 years ago, I was just returning to the pulpit after a maternity leave/Sabbatical.  Here is part of what I said to the congregation at St. Mark’s, Penn Yan that Sunday:

“You know, when I was pregnant, I got used to a lot of attention – people holding doors for me and asking time and again how I was feeling.  Now the focus has shifted.  It is amazing how attracted most people are to babies! So, I’m having to become used to the fact that when Marcella is on the scene, the one pushing the stroller is of little interest.  But that is how it should be.  And really, I couldn’t be happier.  When people dote on her, I feel affirmed in my own head-over-heels infatuation with her.”

Reading that really took me back!  And I had the same experience when Nicolas came along – most people are just so drawn to babies.  What is it, do you think that makes babies so attractive?  Part of it is of course that they are just so small – those tiny fingers and toes amaze us – how is it possible that they will eventually grow up to be a big as we are?  But it’s more than that.  I think we are also drawn to babies because of their utter, untarnished openness to the world.  Babies don’t have any defenses up.  The open their eyes in the morning and they just take it all in.  Ant there is no pretense with babies.  They haven’t learned to fake it in any way yet.  They are authentic in their interactions with us.  You can easily tell what they like and don’t like by their honest expressions.  And is there anything much better than the feeling you get when you strike on something they like?  The way their little faces light up can make you feel like a million bucks!  And there is no cynicism in a baby.  Think of a baby you know.  Aren’t their bright little eyes and their inquisitive and engaged nature part of what draws you to them?  I think that’s because in a way, we all long to get back to that place somehow.  Back to a time when the world was new to us and each moment was an adventure.  Back to a time when we were not in any way weighed down by the worries, griefs and injustices of this world.  Basking in the glow of a baby can take us back, even if just for a moment.  Spending time with a baby can get us back to basics and remind us about what is really important in life.

Maybe that is why Jesus refers to those who have truly received the good news of the gospel as infants – or in some Bible translations babes.  He is talking here about those who may lack in what the world counts as wisdom and understanding, but who possess the clear vision that does not filter out the goodness in the good news.  They are bright eyed believers who are bubbling over with enthusiasm.  God has shown them something earth shattering and life changing in him and they are excited about it.  These are the ones that Jesus gives thanks for in this morning’s Gospel lesson.

Now let’s be clear, Jesus is not suggesting that his followers need to remain in some sort of infantile state.  He is not recommending a halt to the natural maturation process in our minds and in our spiritual lives.  But he seems to be recommending an approach to the life of discipleship that moves away from pride and self-sufficiency, and instead bends toward dependence on the presence of God. 

St. Paul, who penned the letter to the Romans which we have been reading from over the last several weeks liked to use his own life as an example of how off track we can get when we think we have reached a place of spiritual maturity and acumen.  You will remember that before he took the name Paul, he had lived under the given name Saul.  Under that earlier identity, he did everything in his power to destroy the community of faith growing up around the disciples of Jesus.  On one such campaign of violence to Damascus, Saul was knocked off his horse, had a vision of Jesus calling to him and asking him why he was persecution him and his followers.  Then Saul went physically blind and had to be carried to DaMarcus by others, where he spent 3 days in darkness.  The darkness only broke when a follower of Jesus came, laid hands on him and prayed with him in the name of Jesus. It was this experience that led him to admit his own great lack of spiritual vision and to take a radical turn in his path of life, renaming himself as Paul, servant of Christ.  Even years later, after becoming a central leader in the early Christian movement, Paul admits that though he strives to put the Gospel law of love always at the center of his life, he struggles, and is not totally free from the tendency to think that he can live on his own power alone.  He describes this struggle in words we heard read earlier from his letter to the Romans.  He writes, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind…with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”

If he were living today, perhaps Paul would say, “Sin is cunning, baffling and powerful.”  A simple definition of sin is, the self trying to occupy the center of life, thus sidelining God.

I love that Paul, the great and renowned apostle, makes this confession in this letter to the Romans.  He, to whom God has revealed so much about the salvation available in Christ Jesus, is just like the rest of us – he struggles with the cunning and baffling power of sin to recommend itself to us over the power of God.  There is no way around this.  If the great apostle himself cannot over-come it completely, what makes any of the rest of us think we can?

Instead, we must go through life, not trying to defeat sin ourselves, but rather with the one who has done so already for us – Christ Jesus.  In the closing words of the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus invites us into a life of mature spiritual connection to him.  He invites with these words:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Writing about these words this week on the website “Working Preacher” Biblical Commentator Colin Yukman writes:

Jesus’ promise of rest should not be taken as guaranteed vacation time, but a kind of theological category. The language clearly recalls Moses’s own vocation (Exodus 33:12-17). To ease Moses’s anxiety about the uncertainty of the wilderness journey, God promises to accompany God’s people along the way: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14…Jesus incredibly offers the rest which only the God of all Creation could extend to a weary Israel longing for the Promised Land.

 As disciples, we do not simply attempt to duplicate the actions of an absent master; on the contrary, we rely on the ongoing presence of Jesus himself. This, too, is included in what Jesus means by “rest.” As Matthew reminds us early on, Jesus bears the name of the one promised in Isaiah: Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23). All who take the yoke of discipleship upon them can experience a kind of new creation sustained by the ongoing presence of the Creator in a life of discipleship.

          Babies know that they are totally dependent on their parents, those who brought them into this world and who go on caring for them.  Babies grow up and face a world of complexity that they were not aware of in their infancy.  Their strong connections to parents who care for them all along the way is what makes them able to both face the world as it is and trust that they have many gifts to offer for the good of the world. Those who are mature in their faith and spiritual path have reached the same conclusions based on a strong and daily renewed connection with God.  May this weekly worship we share in Jesus name be part of that strong connection for each of us alongside the daily practices of prayer and action that sustain us individually.  All for the good and gracious purposes of God for God world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen+ 

 

 

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Jul 052017
 

 

When I was a child I thought of sin in very concrete terms – sins were bad things that you did. My first memory of committing a sin is from age 4.  I took my sisters hair clip for my dresser drawer and then lied about it even though I was holding in my hand in plain view of my mother. 

As I grew my definition of sin deepened. I remember as a teenager reading the version of the confession in our prayer book service of compline, and thinking “yes, that is it!” It reads, “Almighty God, our heavenly Father: we have sinned against you through our own fault in thought, word and deed and in what we have left undone.” That last part is what got me- that sin includes not just my misdeeds, but also missed opportunities for good deeds too. (By the way compline is a wonderful way to end each day, and if you are not familiar with it check it out sometime on the Book of Common Prayer page 127.)

In my late 20s when I got to seminary and encountered St. Paul’s writings in-depth, my thinking on sin expanded further. In our lesson from the letter to the Romans this morning, Saint Paul talks about Sin, singular with a capital S, not sins, plural with a small s. Writing about St. Paul’s concept of sin in the letter to the Romans The Rev. Beverly Gaventa comments that:

 “Paul defines Sin as that universal and intractable refusal of human beings to acknowledge that God is God and that they are but the products of God’s hand (Rms. 1:18-23).” (From “The Christian Century Magazine, June 2-9, 1993, p.595).

So Paul’s Capital S Sin is not about action or in action, it is about how one grounds one’s life – on God or on self? Rev. Gaventa goes on to write:

“What antidote can there be for sin when it is understood in this way? Forgiveness works well enough as a cure for the sins of the small s – a vicious deed here and kindness withheld there can be forgiven. But Sin with a capital S which holds human life in a stranglehold cannot be shooed away by talk of forgiveness. Paul resorts to the more forceful language of new life and liberation.” (Ibid)

Many people in our day can  find Paul quite frustrating at this point because he does not go on to elucidate a list of what we are to do in response to this incredible new life and liberation from the strangle hold of Sin that he is speaking of.  In our world we are looking for the details of how to enact the changes we want.  We want to know, “what do we do to put this liberation and new life into motion?” Paul does not answer this question. Rather, Rev Gaventa writes: 

“He sketches our task in general terms. For example, he speaks of believers as ‘slaves to righteousness’ and urges transformation ‘by the renewing of your mind’ but offers little and way of a list of action steps or rules we crave.”

This reminds me of a dynamic that one often sees in those who come into the 12-step fellowship that exist as a way of healing for those suffering from addictions in their own life or the life of someone they love. Often people come to a 12 step meeting for the first time when the pain of life lived in the shadow of addiction becomes too much to bear and they have heard the good news that the 12 steps are away out. They arrive ready and motivated to make changes in their lives. Many start out by thinking that the 12 steps are something to be climbed through will power and stick- to- it -iveness. What we quickly learn is that the first step requires no forward moving action – rather it requires surrender.   The first of the 12 steps reads: “We admitted we were powerless over addictions and that our lives had become unmanageable.” So nothing to do but to admit how bad it is and how powerless we are over it.  Some then move quickly to step two, but that is not much more satisfying to those who crave activity. It reads “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Some wonder, “What are we supposed to do about that? “ Others may say, “Hey who are you calling insane? I may be living with addictions but I am not crazy – give me some tasks to do and I will show you.”

These first 2 steps can be uncomfortable if we are looking for some way to solve our problem through our own action.  It is only when we become willing to admit defeat that we become ready to receive the help the steps extend to us.  In his writing about sin in the letter to the Romans St. Paul calls us to the same place of surrender.  He calls us to admit just how bad the effects of Sin are in our lives and how insane we have become under its influence.  He then invites us to accept that it is only through God’s intervention, which we must willingly invite, that we will be restored to sanity.

If we reach that willingness, the third of the 12 steps invites us to complete the work of surrender – it reads “Made a decision to turn our will and our life over to the care of God as we understood God.”  We Christians understand God to be fully present to us in God’s son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  For me, Paul’s words about being “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” and what the first three of the 12 steps are saying fit well together.  They both tell me that when I become willing to surrender my sinful approach to life – run on self-will, self-centeredness, and self-seeking behaviors- when I surrender that, I create an opening for God to enter and liberate me from bondage to self.

For some – like Paul on the Damascus Road – this liberation is a sudden all at once experience.  For many others this liberation into a new life is experienced more as a process. But the result in both cases is that our lives begins to take shape around God’s will, or plan, or purposes and not our own.  To be sure there are then actions to be taken by us – steps 4-9 of the 12 steps are full of faithful actions.  But these action steps can only be taken on the good foundation of surrender of self-will and acceptance of God’s will in our life. 

In his words to us in the Gospel Jesus also describes the marks of a life that is built such spiritual liberation. He speaks of someone who welcomes other people with open hearted and radical hospitality.  He describes someone who receives a prophet and a prophet’s message, even when it is not easy to hear.   He even points to the person who could go totally unnoticed – the one who is present to God and others in what might seem like inconsequential ways – one who extends a cup of cold water to a thirsty one – but who is nonetheless motivated by a sense of God’s purpose- one for whom no act for God’s sake is too small. All these Jesus says are disciples following in his way listening for his direction. And Jesus says that none who act on this premise – of listening for his guidance – “will lose their reward.”

And what is this reward Jesus speaks of? In my experience it is the reward of relaxing into a posture of trust that what I am going to be called to for God’s good ends will be revealed to me each step of the way.  It is the reward of not needing to burn precious energy struggling to figure out on my own what I am supposed to do. And when I am faced with uncertainty it is the reward of knowing that I can ask for that guidance and inspiration and the reward of finding that when I do this – and I do not do it perfectly – God never fails to show up and lead me to wonderful possibilities for service, giving and growth that are beyond my wildest imaginings.   I know many you receive this reward daily also – thanks be to God! 

My prayer is that liberation from the way of Sin may be ours and the reward of the new life of grace in Christ Jesus will continue to be seen to abound among us, one day at a time. 

In the name of our Great and Loving God.  Amen.

 

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Jun 012017
 

AUDIO SERMON

Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017 – The Seventh Sunday of Easter

 

“As if by silent command they moved from the house and out beyond the village.  When they came to an open area and found others come from Jerusalem, they neither felt nor expressed surprise. They were conscious only of sharing and expectation.  The silence was total, as if this hillside had been isolated from the surrounding world and time.  In the silence he came among them and in touching one another they were aware of touching him and he them.  Suddenly they knew that this hour was both an ending and a beginning both meeting and farewell.  Overcome with emotion, some cried out as if questioning.  But their voices died away into silence.  Some stood holding up their arms looking into the darkening sky.  Then a few suggested that they return to the city and get some rest.  Others began to sing softly.” (from Portrait of a Woman, p. 89, by Herbert O’Driscoll)

          Anglican Priest, Herbert O’Driscoll, wrote those words as a description of what it might have been like on the day we heard about in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, when the disciples witnessed the resurrected Christ ascending from earth into heaven.  I like what he has done in this description, capturing the uncertainty and wonder of it – the joy and the grief mingled together as the disciples, still reeling from the surprising reality of resurrection, now have their once again living Lord taken from them by cloud and mystery.

          Yet he did not leave them without hope.  As he was being gathered up by divine power, he gave them a mission and promised to send them the power and guidance to fulfill that mission.  His statement of mission to them was “you will be my witnesses”, and his promise was, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”

          “You will be my witnesses”. That is the central mission of the Church Universal.  To be witnesses of our risen Lord Christ Jesus.  Each branch of the church, each denomination, at its best is led in creative and life giving ways to do that.  To embrace the world and share the good news that Christ has destroyed death and lives among us.  This mission should both direct us and correct us.

          When is the church most the church?  Not when it is adding new members and growing, though growth is very important to the carrying out of the mission.  And not when it is taking care of the needs of its members, though that is important too.  The church is most the church when it is witnessing to the amazing and life giving grace of our risen Lord.

          I once heard a bishop say that the church is more like a firehouse than a hospital.  A firehouse and its members exist to go out into the world to serve. Whereas a hospital exists to take people in and isolate them from the germs and diseases of the world in order to take care of their ailments.  Now it is true that the church is a source of comfort, healing and nourishment for us.  We come weekly to be fed, but the purpose of the church does not to end there.  We must not come here to St. Paul’s, just to be fed, but also willing to be led.  Willing to be clothed more and more in the power of the Spirit and go out as a squad of witnesses for Christ.

          A squad of witnesses for Christ!  Yikes!  That might sound just a bit too daring for many of us.  But when you really think about the language, it becomes a little less hair raising.  In his weekly lectionary commentary, The Rev. William Willimon reminds us, “The mission of the witness is simply to stand up there before the court and to truthfully tell what he or she knows – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… Nothing spectacular, nothing complicated…Just tell what you know.” (from Pulpit Resource).  What do you know about Jesus Christ?  Who is he to you?  Share that.

          St. Francis of Assisi is said to have instructed new converts to the faith to “preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.”  Maybe that is a useful admonition to us in our noisy, wordy world.  Maybe these days, a picture or an action is worth a thousand words.  It happened to me years ago now, but I will never forget, one day coming home in a tizzy about my overbooked calendar to find that our next door neighbor had taken it upon himself to mow the lawn for me.  That got me out of my tizzy of worry and into a place of feeling understood and supported.  Preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.

          Sometimes words are necessary, but if so, no detailed theological treatise is required.  All we are ever asked to do is share how God in Christ has touched our lives in ways that have mattered.  Just let others in on the genuine presence of Christ in our lives, and make the best accounting of the hope that is in you because of it.  We are given a wonderful example of this in the Gospel of John.  You may remember the passage about the man born blind who is healed by Jesus – we read it on one Sunday this past Lent.  In that passage Jesus’ critics come and try to convince the man that he is mistaken – that it wasn’t really Jesus who had restored his sight.  The man made no deep theological argument, no long speech.  His witness to the power of Christ in his life was simple: “One thing I know. That though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25)

          If we know God- and not just by hearsay- and we share our experience of God with someone else by what we do or by what we say, or both, God will be at work in that sharing.  We don’t need to be hung up on the outcomes.  “You will be my witnesses” Jesus says. It’s that simple.  The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God.  And indeed it is God who directs us in this, and it is God who will bring about the most gracious outcomes.

          When the disciples left that hillside of the ascension, they returned to Jerusalem, a bit disoriented and unsure of what would come next.  But they dared to have confidence in his promise to give them the power to witness in the world.  And so for 10 days, constant in prayer, they waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  The coming of which we will celebrate next Sunday.  By the way, the color of the day is red, so it you have some in your wardrobe it would be great if you could wear it, so we can fill the place with as much red as possible. 

          “You will be my witnesses.”  The mission statement of the church universal.  Our own parish statement of call speaks to how we feel called as a parish to live this out here in our context.  It is printed on the back of your bulletin.  Let’s read it together:

St. Paul’s is a Christian community where people are met and accepted without judgment for who they are and are adopted into a loving a caring family.  Our faith provides a framework within which we explore, honor and celebrate the presence of God in daily experiences, especially in the crises, conflicts and transitions of life, and are thereby equipped to live fully in an increasingly complex and changing world.

We believe we are called to center our life in Jesus Christ through a regular discipline of Eucharistic worship, scripture study and prayer.

We believe our faith leads us to fulfill our mission, which is to share ourselves and our resources with each other, our community and the world.

We believe we are called to discover and affirm our spiritual gifts and be responsible and committed ministers of these gifts in the name of Jesus Christ.

In the coming week, I invite you to pray with me, that God will kindle and rekindle the power of the Spirit among us, that we may continue to live into that call as a community that faithfully witnesses to Christ our Lord.  Amen+

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May 242017
 

 

          This Gospel passage begins with Jesus showing such gentleness thoughtfulness and kindness to his beloved friends, which is a theme that fits so beautifully with our national observance today of Mother’s Day. The context here is their last night together before the crucifixion. At supper Jesus has washed their feet, and then mystically given them his very self in bread and wine.  He has predicted denial by Peter, chief among them, and Judas has already slipped away from them to betray their whereabouts to the authorities. So he knows their heads and hearts are reeling as they begin to take in what he has seen coming for a while.  And he reaches out to them with compassion and tender care – “Do not let your hearts be troubled”- or another translation of the Greek is, “Do not let your hearts be anguished.”

          But he does not cradle them with those words of comfort for long.  He is aware of the urgency of time and he moves on to give them the provisions they will need to understand and survive the events that are bearing down upon them.  He is going, but he will be back.  If they feel lost and off track they should remember he himself is their way, their truth, their, and their life, and he will guide them into the presence of God. 

“No one comes to the Father except through me” He tells them.  This is a statement that has troubled many of us.  But it is important to remember context here.  Jesus is talking to his closest friends about how they will reach the Father.  To use this as a proof text to claim that no other religion besides Christianity is valid is a gross misuse of this statement.  In his beautiful commentary on this passage, Jean Vanier, theologian and founder of the L’Arche communities writes:

“In all cultures, and at all times, people heard in some way the voice of God…Maybe some could not name God, but they sought the light of truth and the origin of all things.  The word of God was the light for many people.  When the word became flesh, Jesus brought to fulfillment all these different paths to God.  He does not destroy them: the Word is in each of these paths.”

(Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, p.256)

Seen in this way, this statement by Jesus that he is the way, the truth and the life is an inclusive affirmation rather than an exclusive line in the sand.

And then Jesus moves on to remind his disciples that they already know the Father because they know Jesus.  He is telling them that there won’t be some new reality they will be experiencing in the Father’s full presence at the end of their earthly journey.  Rather it will just be more so there – more so of what they have experienced in relationship with Jesus, here in this world.  Way back in chapter 1 of John we were told that the word and the Father have always been one and the word came into the world to reveal the Father’s compassion and forgiveness.  Indeed that has been the underlying theme of this whole Gospel and now Jesus reasserts this theme again in his last moments with his friends. 

Building on this theme he takes the next step telling them that when they have faith in what he has revealed of God, they will continue the works that he has done and do even greater works.  Now this reference to “greater works” is not a reference to their works being more spectacular.  Rather it is a reference to the fact that freed from his earthly life, Jesus, alive again through his disciples, will be able to be present in many times and places.  Again I quote Jean Vanier who writes:

“His disciples will continue his mission and his works… to give life, eternal life and to reveal the face and heart of God to people. It is to be the presence of God in the world anywhere there is an absence of God.”

 This week I also read a meditation in the book Jesus Calling, which I think also has something to say about this idea of Jesus disciples “greater works.  The meditation writer hears the voice of Jesus saying:

“Learn to relate to others through My Love rather than yours.  Your human love is ever so limited, full of flaws and manipulation.  My loving Presence, which always enfolds you, is available to bless others as well as you.  Instead of trying harder to help people through your own paltry supplies, become aware of my unlimited supply which is accessible to you continually.  Let my Love envelop your outreach to other people

Many or My precious children have fallen prey to burnout.  A better description of their condition might be ‘drainout’ Countless interactions with needy people have drained them, without their conscious awareness.  You are among these weary ones, who are like wounded soldiers needing R&R.  Take time to rest in the Love-Light of My Presence.  I will gradually restore to you the energy you have lost. ”

(Sarah Young, Jesus Calling, p.139)

This resonates so beautifully with what Jesus is promising to his followers that last night, when he speaks about their greater works, which are only possible through the ongoing loving relationship with him in God known as prayer. And Jesus drives that point home then in the climax of this Gospel passage where he makes this commitment to his followers:

“I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

As a pastor, I have experienced how this statement from Jesus is one of the most difficult for us to comprehend.  At first hearing it can seem so over the top – like a divine blank check.  And, most of us have had the experience of praying to Jesus specifically and ardently for something and not having our prayers answered directly in the way we anticipated. So what are we to make of this?

          The phrase “in my name” which Jesus repeats twice in this statement, is of absolute importance when seeking to understand this commitment Jesus is making to his followers.  To ask something in Jesus’ name does not just mean directing it to him.  Rather asking something in his name is to ask something that is in accordance with the heart of his cause which, as he says in this statement, is to glorify the Father.   So let’s hear that statement of commitment from him again:

“I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

So this is a qualified commitment.  We are not just to pray for anything we want, but rather our prayers must be in line with Jesus cause – to glorify the Father.  When we pray in that way he says, he will be working in concert with us.

The problem for me with this is that I am not always sure what is or is not in accordance with Jesus cause of glorifying the Father.  I can think of a good many times when I have prayed ardently for something to come to pass, believing that it is in line with Jesus cause, convinced that what I am asking is the right thing for the good of many,  and it has not been granted.  Then later, with hindsight, I recognize that what I had so longed for and prayed for would not have been the best thing.

So, this tells me I have to accept that often I don’t and probably can’t know what the right thing to pray for is.  So, that takes some pressure off – I don’t have to figure out what should happen, that is God’s job.  When I have surrendered to that, what I glimpse though this passage is the amazing truth that nothing that can further God’s most gracious purposes is too big for Christ to do for us.  That is why I spend more of my prayer time these days praying for the,”knowledge of God’s will for me, and the power to carry that out” as step eleven of the 12 steps so wisely puts it.  It is not that I don’t ever pray for specific things to come to pass – I do.  But I do so not confident in my perception, but rather confident that if what I am praying for is in line with God’s most loving purposes, they will come to pass in God’s good time and ways. 

And in those times when the things I pray for don’t come to pass in the ways I want or expect, I have the example of Jesus himself,  in the garden, praying that the cup of suffering might pass him by if it be the Father’s will.  There he prays for one kind of salvation, only to have something even more wondrous worked out through him. That example leads me more and more I trust that the energy of my prayers is never wasted.  The love and trust that is the life blood of prayer connects me more deeply to God every time I pray.  And that connection is what allows me to go on through whatever lies ahead, tethered securely to God, come what may. 

          And today our lesson from the book of Acts gives us a fast forward ability, to move from the anguished and frightened circle around the table with Jesus, to see a second generation disciple as a bold and living example of what Jesus is promising here.  It is not an easy story – it is the story of a man, filled with faith and the Holy Spirit who is killed for just those reasons – for giving voice to his Spirit-filled vision of God.  But as he dies he is not abandoned.  The Father and the Son are close at hand, and he is blessed with a vision of that larger reality and with the ability to extend the works and cause of Jesus with his dying breath.  Closely echoing Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, do not hold this sin against them.”

          Stephen’s is an extreme example of the life of faith to which we are each called.  May the greater works of Christ our Lord continue to abound among and through us.  In Christ’s name.  Amen+

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