Aug 152017


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+


Aug 072017


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!.”







Aug 012017


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… 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?