Monday, June 19, 2017

A Sermon for Lent 4A

I love to laugh. Whenever given the choice of entertainment topics I will almost always choose a comedy over a drama any day. I have told you on previous occasions about my childhood fascination with television and how I realized I had to give it up lest I become a lifelong recovering TV-aholic. As a kid when it came to Saturday morning cartoons I would always take the funny over the dramatic anytime, which is to say, I was more into Rocky & Bullwinkle than Scooby Doo. I didn’t much care for the mystery or the who-dun-it so much as I just wanted to laugh. As an adult I would stay away from the crime dramas like Columbo and Ellery Queen and any show with the initials CSI in it for sure. I preferred comedy shows like The Carol Burnett Show, Bob Newhart, Happy Days, Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live. Comedy is a genre that I believe acts as a balm for the soul and it calms the mind. And if you really pay attention, you might learn something. Today’s gospel lesson in John chapter 9 of Jesus and the man-born-blind is one of the funniest scenes of the entire New Testament (and one of the longest!). The scene starts innocently enough with seemingly one of your run-of-the-mill healing stories of Jesus. But a lot of things make this healing different. One thing is that the blind man doesn’t request healing. We’re not told that the blind man even knew Jesus was coming by. In fact, the blind man appears to be just a guy that the disciples noticed and decided to start up a theological conversation with Jesus about why the guy was blind in the first place! They were totally ignoring the situation of the man treating him basically as a prop. The disciples ask Jesus if the guy was blind because of his own sin or that of his parents. Jesus says “neither”—that he was blind so God’s power could be demonstrated. (and that’s a whole sermon right there). Then Jesus heals him in a fashion that is reminiscent of the creation story, (you know the Genesis story of God forming man from the dust of the ground) when we’re told he made mud and rubbed it on his eyes. This may strike us as odd but this was just a method that was used back in the day—and Jesus uses it. After he says, Go wash yourself. He does and then he can see. Have you ever noticed that we hardly ever get to hear about what becomes of the people who receive a healing from Jesus? Do they go on to become successful people in business? Do they write a book and become famous? Do they start a radio or TV talk show and make a name for themselves that way? Oh, or do they host a reality show like “The Real Former Blind People of Palestine?” Or do they just take there healed self and go right back into society and blend in? We never hear the “whatever happened to” stories of healed people in the bible . . . . . except here. This guy goes back to his neighbors who say, “Hey weren’t you the blind guy? You can see now? What happened?” He retells the whole story of his healing complete with the details about the mud and the washing in the pool, then they want to know “Well where is he?” “How would I know?” he responds. Do you remember in the movie ET when it was feared that ET would be captured and taken away for experimentation and then Elliot takes his new friend off on his bicycle? Well, this man didn’t an Elliot with a flying bicycle to go off to. So he gets hauled off to the Pharisees. And, John tells us, because the healing had happened on the Sabbath the Pharisees HAD to be involved. So the man has to tell his story again, this time to this tribunal of the most conservative element in Judaism. And the man, tired of retelling his story, shortens it to just the basics: “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” The Pharisees judge that if the guy really HAD BEEN blind and that he WAS healed that since it happened ON THE Sabbath that the healing COULDN’T have come from a man sent from God, let alone God’s Son. So they think the guy is lying about having been blind. “There’s no way you could have been blind.” “No man of God would heal a blind man on the Sabbath.” “We’ve got to get to the bottom of this. We need witnesses.” “Where are your parents?” So they call in the parents. “Is this your son?” Yes “Was he blind?” Yes “How is it that he can see now?” “We don’t know, he’s of age, ask him directly—we refuse to speak on his behalf.” So the parents essentially give the Pharisees nothing. And there’s one thing about Pharisees that we need to get. Pharisees weren’t bad people. They were just one interpretation of the law of Moses. They were a very traditional interpretation among all sorts of interpretations of the teachings of Moses and the commandments. So instead of seeing them as “bad guys” please get that who they are for us are ideologically entrenched minds that refuse to open up to allow that God could be operating anywhere outside their pre-determined conclusions. They represent how it is that we cannot see God when we identify too much with any political or theological ideology. They represent the closed minds that say “no good can come of this because it was done by someone with a label I don’t like.” This is very relevant to today in America when we experience our own divisions of ideology among thinking people everywhere. We’ve all seen how little positive movement we get from our government any more because of the fear that the wrong side will get the credit for doing something that actually does the most good—and this isn’t new. This has been going on for decades and it continues today. So the Pharisees question the man AGAIN! “Tell us the truth, that guy that allegedly healed you HAD to have been a sinner and not a man from God!” By this point the healed man is flabbergasted, “I don’t know if he’s a sinner, all I know is that I WAS blind and now I see. Do you really want me to tell you the whole story again?” And THEN he says something very smarmy, “Do you want to be his disciple too?” “Perish the thought!” “We follow the teachings of Moses, we don’t know what this man you’re talking about believes in.” And then the healed man totally schools them. “Really? You DON’T think this guy is from God? Hey, I was blind. Now I see. You do the math.” Then the Pharisees get offended:“Are you trying to teach us?” “Get out of here you impudent simp!” The Pharisees were so convinced they were right that they couldn’t stand to hear any more testimony from a man who’s experience meant they were wrong. This is what happens, folks, when we obey our political and theological ideologies more than we obey the revelations of an almighty God. We can’t handle the truth. Why? because we are just too comfortable in the little cocoon that we built for ourselves. We’ve successfully cut ourselves off from anything happening that is positive and good because it didn’t happen the way WE think it should. The scene ends with Jesus coming back into view—this is very odd that Jesus interacts with someone he healed AFTER the healing is over. But in this scene, the cast out formerly blind man GETS completely who Jesus is. Jesus affirms the man’s experience over the ideology of the traditionalists. Then this comical scene ends with something very dark. It is a pronouncement on the impact of a way of being called “not open to God’s movement.” It’s called darkness. Light comes to those who recognize who Christ is and the dynamic presence of his works in the world. Darkness comes to those who are satisfied and well-pleased in their ideological worlds. This story illustrates the illuminating presence of Christ. This presence will frustrate us, it will challenge us, But it will also thrill us—if we let it. But if we resist it, guess what? We won’t be happy campers. We’ll go through life frustrated with “kids these days” and “that’s not the way we did it in my day.” The Light of Christ means that there’s a new sheriff in town and it’s time for us to give up on our tired-out ideas and let in what God is doing anew. Let’s try loving each other. Let’s try loving people who don’t look like us. Let’s try listening for how God may be speaking in those words that you just cannot listen to. Let’s laugh together at the comedy that is our entrenched ideas that rule out God’s freshness in the world. Let’s be open to the breath of God in our lives and in our hearts. Only then can we truly be the body of Christ in the world today. Only then can we be the church. To the only wise god our savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Sermon for Lent 2A

What is it that God is about? I know that this IS a question that we stop and put toward ourselves very often in the course of a work-a-day week—but today IS Sunday and you ARE in church and it IS Lent so maybe now WOULD be a good time to ask. What is it that God is about? Depending on how we are raised we might have different answers to this question, but the one thing I remember from MY growing-up-in-the-church years that preachers over and over would tell me, is that God who is holy and righteous was about justice. Sermon after sermon I listened to preachers paint God as this all-powerful creator of a universe where humans were placed and given the task of figuring out the formula of getting to heaven, which was where God lived. Kind of like an advanced version of The Amazing Race, which is the name of an actual reality show that I’ve heard is still on CBS after 28 seasons. Teams of people start from a particular place in the world, are equipped with clever clues and after jumping onto several continents, find themselves in an actual race with a finish line and everything. The smartest and fastest team wins. In the church’s version of The Amazing Race, at least the version that I grew up with in the churches I attended, it seemed that the race was for understanding rightly who God is and what God wanted us to do. If you got it wrong, there was literal hell to pay. First, the “who” question: The RIGHT answer to the Who question was that God is a holy judge who wants us to know that we have used our free will badly and it has made us sinners which separates us from being in His heaven. Second, the “what” question: What this God wants from us is to accept his solution of forgiveness AND accept it in the right way. It seems though, that our sin problem and accepting his solution has a catch. If we don’t accept PROPERLY the solution he offers us, which is praying a prayer that claims this prize then, well, we lose and spend eternity apart from God in essentially “not-heaven” which is a never-ending fiery abyss called hell. The bonus prize is this: If you figure all this out EARLY in life, then you can live the rest of your life being very confident about how you’re right and everybody else is wrong, unless they believe just the same way that you do. You don’t remember that beatitude? “Blessed are the smug, for they are ALWAYS right.” I grew up fearful that I hadn’t gotten it right, to the point that I was baptized at age 10 and then again at 19 just to be sure! In our Gospel lection for today we get a very clear and concise picture in the inspired artistry of John the Evangelist’s writing that gives a definitive answer to the question of “What is it that God is about?” Spoiler alert: The answer is much bigger than the question. Nicodemus is an interesting character in our stories about Jesus. For some reason, of all the Evangelists, only John knows Nicodemus, which is to say you don’t find him mentioned in any of the other three gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke. In John’s story Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night. Nighttime isn’t so much marker of time as it is a marker of the nature of this meeting—it is clandestine, it is mysterious, it is confusing like a lot of things that happen in the dark. Nicodemus starts the tete-a-tete with a typical bromide of greeting. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” From that point on, wherever Nicodemus MAY have wanted to take the conversation, Jesus wouldn’t allow it—because after that point Nicodemus manages to only get in a couple of questions, and they’re valid questions but they don’t seem to land anywhere near the point Nicodemus wanted to talk about. But his starting point is very instructional: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus starts with and is invested very deeply in one thing—and that one thing is “what he knows.” And what Jesus replies with is that what he (Nicodemus) knows, makes no difference. It makes no difference what he knows because his perception of what God is about is all askew. Nicodemus takes as evidence of what God is about these impressive signs of power he has done. His basic conception of God is that God has sufficiently demonstrated His power in the world and I am smart enough to see this so therefore I must be on the right track. I must be okay. This foundation of understanding is faulty, which is why Jesus goes in the direction he does in the rest of the conversation. “Oh, you think that by seeing me as one sent from God, wins you something?” This is why Jesus had to say this: “Very truly, I tell you, NO ONE can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus counteracts Nicodemus’ pride in his knowledge. Jesus pokes at what Nicodemus KNOWS with an assertion of how we know ANYTHING comes from God. We only see God when God IN US sees God. And who is “God in us?” “God in us” is our truest selves—that self that God put there when we were created by God! It is the Christ-consciousness of every human being. This is why Jesus could then say: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” What God is about, my friends is life! Abundant life, ETERNAL life. The word for “eternal” isn’t a word that emphasizes “it won’t ever end.” Most of us relate “eternal” to something that never has an end point. “Eternal” in Greek is a word that depicts a quality of life that has no beginning OR end, that which always has been and always will be.” Hmmmm—something that never began and never ends . . . What does this kind of language remind you of? Yes, God. Eternal life is the kind of life that God has! Eternal life is the kind of life that God IS! One of my favorite movies of all time is Groundhog Day. In it Bill Murray plays a conceited, self-absorbed weather forecaster who finds himself reliving the same day of his life over and over and over again. There is this whole segment of the movie that shows him SO frustrated at never being able to die that he lives recklessly and carelessly to the point of committing suicide over and over and over again. That kind of life wasn’t pleasant at all. Unending life is no guarantee of any kind of high quality of life. This never-ending life, in the classical understanding of “everlasting life” certainly is not what eternity is about. Eternal life. God’s kind of life—our having this today—this is what it is that God is about. This is what we are promised if we dare to GET it. If we dare to believe in it, to own it, to take it to wear it as who we are. If we dare to go beyond what we know and let ourselves experience it. Eternal life is a QUALITY of life that God that is promised to us—when? now. It has no beginning or end. It takes no mind of time. Time is irrelevant. Eternal life is a life that celebrates the good and fosters the good. Eternal life is also a life that feels pain but knows that pain is only a fleeting preemption of our regularly scheduled program. Eternal life is the life of God. It is the life that Jesus made possible by his sacrificial love for me, for us. Eternal life is a quality of life that is always eager to love and love and love and love again. What is it that God is about? God is about getting us over our need to “get it right” in life. God is about giving you a life that is so amazing and so free. Okay, you COULD live your life being fearful a make yourself crazy over whether you’re good enough to get into heaven. I know that’s what I did growing up. But this isn’t eternal life. If you’re making yourself nuts WONDERING if you’re bound for heaven, that sounds more like hell than heaven. Yes you could life your life wondering if you’re good enough to get into God’s heaven. But the scriptures teach us and life proves out that we’re not. We ARE not and will never be GOOD enough to get into heaven. What we DO have is God’s faithfulness. What we do have is God’s righteousness in his love as expressed through Jesus dying on the cross for us. This is what “saves” us. Our knowledge doesn’t save us. God’s love does. So this Lent. Let’s get this: God is about getting us over our guilt and shame and into the freedom of his love. God is about us knowing NOTHING, yet experiencing EVERYTHING that he offers. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. To the only Wise God our Savior be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Thank God for Ash Wednesday! Yeh, it’s a Wednesday like any other Wednesday, but instead of just getting over the hump of the week you come out of THIS Wednesday with a smear of black ash on your forehead. Thank God for Ash Wednesday! Yes, Ash Wednesday is that hangover day after the overeating and over-imbibing of Mardi Gras slash “Fat Tuesday.” It’s that one day of all holy days that is actually set up for us "not feeling well," yes; thank God for THAT Ash Wednesday. And, if you’re ever going to have a bad hair day, let it be on Ash Wednesday. Thank God for Ash Wednesday! Ash Wednesday is the built-in day on the liturgical calendar that marks the official end of the Christmas post-season time of celebration and letting-it-all-out-exhaling with a fresh inhale. Transformation of life begins with us hitting bottom. Because, lets be honest, we might have started a new year and all on January 1, but we really haven’t taken seriously all the things we resolved to do, now have we? Thank God for Ash Wednesday, our one-time-a-year opportunity to bring all that we are and all that we aren't and be reminded, once again that WE ARE DUST, and to dust we shall return. Another word for this is reality. Ash Wednesday is a reality check for the soul. Ash Wednesday is that day of all days when we get to touch base with our most base selves. It’s a time to get who we are as created beings—beings who have fallen and failed. Yes despite our pedigree for holiness (afterall God IS our Creator) we really HAVEN’T been up to the test—and we’ve been fooling ourselves. Yes, Thank God for Ash Wednesday. It’s an opportunity through ancient ritual to get back to a reality that, if we really pause to get it, may frighten us. Our Christian use of ashes on the forehead is actually a very tamed down version of how ashes were used in biblical times. Frequently in the Old Testament we see the expressions of deep mourning, sadness, regret, loss and yes, even repentance, borne out in the practice of taking off your clothes, putting on sackcloth and heading out to the ash heap. Around Jerusalem there are valleys. On the west side is a valley called the Hinnom valley. It was a place where they would burn their garbage. In earlier times it was a valley used by pagans who practiced human sacrifice. This valley was the local ash heap. Now you didn’t have to go to THAT place necessarily, but a person going through grief and remorse would sit in whatever the nearest ash heap was. They would roll around in it, cup their hands with a pile of ash and lift it to their heads and pour it out on top of themselves. That valley in Jerusalem, the Hinnom valley was what was in mind whenever we see the word translated “Hell” in our Bible. “Hell” in Jesus’ day was a place of tremendous mourning over un-cashed-in second chances. Ash Wednesday is a day we participate in the ritual of the ash heap, in the hell that is our regret and our sorrow our guilt and our shame. Our ritualized chuch-version of this practice is much more sanitary, but with the meaning virtually unchanged. Ash Wednesday is our entry to Lent. It is our opportunity to give up our attachment to looking good, to putting on airs, to faking it that we have it all together. (Because really none of us REALLY do) Thank God for Ash Wednesday. We all will bring our faces and heads, our entire body forward and we get on our knees and hear that reminder of all reminders. . . “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” None of us will leave here looking good, nor should we. Because today is a day of new beginnings and it starts with getting down to reality. Transformation of life begins with a powerful relationship TO reality. Yes, the only reason we CAN live as a people healed, restored, and forgiven is because we’re willing to give up our need to appear looking good. Once we walk through that portal of giving up the looking good, then and only then can we get that God doesn't really want the outward acts of religiosity so much as God desires the fruits that accompany a life of someone who is repentant. Let this act of ritual be a touchstone to true religion, true being, and let our actions then be sourced by the power of a ritual completed with the holiest of intentions. Rend your hearts and not your garments, the prophet says. In the old days of going to the ash pile people who where particularly distraught wouldn't so much change their clothes to sack cloth as they would just jump in with what they were wearing and rip it all up to shreds. Our transformation happens on the inside, but we do it together, as a community. We are all headed to the ash pile together. And WHY do we gather TOGETHER to do this? Why do we assemble with the rest of the community of faith? Because this is the day we ALL give up "looking good." This is the day we all get that we really are the same. This day of deep repentance and mourning and sorrow puts us all at the same level as we reach deep inside and tear ourselves up for the sake of communion with God . . .and each other. Thank God For Ash Wednesday. No one is excluded. No one leaves an Ash Wednesday service looking good. We all leave with smudges on our forehead. We all bear the sign of the reality that we can't hide from our God. We give that up by rending our hearts and surrendering to the grace and mercy of our Creator God. There is no putting on airs on Ash Wednesday. There are no pretensions. Thank God for Ash Wednesday. So let us all examine our hearts. Let us all get real with our selves and reach down into our souls. Let us not think that somehow we are unlocking God's grace by admitting our sin, that we are somehow manipulating God by our saying the right words and performing the right actions. What our confession and repentance does is allow us to acknowledge the free and gracious will of God. Thank God for Ash Wednesday. For it is this God who transforms. And what is transformed is our expectation and thwarted intentions. What is transformed is our seemingly inevitable futures of despair into a joyous future worthy of a child of God. Welcome to reality, my friends. Welcome to death. Welcome to transformation. Welcome to life. Thank God for Ash Wednesday.

A Sermon for Epiphany 5A

Growing up, I’m convinced, I was a television addict. Oh yes, I did my assigned chores of feeding the dogs and picking up my room, but if my chores were done and my homework was finished I had no problem just watching television all day. Parenthetically, this is how I learned to watch and enjoy football, while everyone else was napping after Sunday dinner, I had the TV all to myself. But it was this addiction that led me to finally give it up. I haven’t owned a television or had cable TV for about 16 years now. But in the midst of this unhealthy time in my life, one day when I couldn’t find anything to watch—now remember we only had 3 channels to choose from, I found myself perusing the books on my parents’ book shelves at home. There was this one title that just jumped out at me: “How to be a Christian without being religious.” Now I didn’t know it at the time but reading this book would make a major impact on steering my future. Basically the book was an in-depth look at the theology of Paul as expressed in his Epistle to the Romans. “How to be a Christian without being religious.” It sounds almost oxymoronic right? Isn’t it the same thing? To be a Christian meant you WERE religious, and well, certainly in Kansas, to BE religious meant you were a Christian. What the book revealed to me was this truism—and it as true now as it has ever been: Religion is a human creation. So hang with me here. Religion, or more specifically, religiosity, is man’s attempt to get TO God. The idea is that God is some thing out there and religion and religious acts are what WE do to try and access this God. Now, REVELATION is what GOD does to reach or express Godself TO mankind. And when Jesus walked the earth 2000 years ago in first century Palestine the last thing he was trying to do was invent a new religion. But the natural response of man to God’s revelation in this world just gravitates to religion—and all the things associated with religion, like worship rituals and such. Now, there’s nothing wrong with religion, we need it. Our religion is our way of responding to God in a fashion which expresses our selves. There’s nothing wrong with religion. But religion is not what Jesus brought to the earth. Jesus brought transformation. Jesus brought a transformed mindset the likes of which the world had never seen. In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is continuing his Sermon on the Mount. In the context of Matthew this sermon was addressed TO the disciples but overheard by many others. There’s this scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian movie that always humors me. Casual listeners of this sermon think they hear the words: “Blessed are the Cheese-makers.” This brings up the question, “Blessed are the cheese-makers; What’s so special about the cheese-makers?” And then the voice of reason chimes in. “Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” But today’s lection in particular comes on the heels of the beatitudes and is a transition piece into a whole series of “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you” sayings. And the key to understanding what Jesus is conveying here lies in who he is being. Jesus is not speaking as just another moral teacher, not just another interpreter of the old scriptures—Jesus is speaking as the Son of God—the divine King to whom even the nations of the world bring homage. This truth was brought to bear in the earlier scene of the magi from the East coming to honor him at his birth—remember, only Matthew has this story. So in this portion of the Sermon Jesus says to them “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” Salt gets a bad rap in today’s world. Many are told by their primary care physicians that they have to reduce their intake of salt because, apparently for some people, too much of it can be a bad thing. But in Jesus’ day and age salt was a highly prized preservative and seasoning for food. Salt was a commodity of considerable value. Salt was so valuable that Roman soldiers were known to sometimes get paid in salt. This is where our modern English word “salary” comes from (salt—salary?) It referred to the payment of wages in salt. But salt is a tremendously ambiguous word because it was used to both preserve and to add flavor to something. Salt is something that both keep things the way they are AND changes them significantly. So depending on what kind of preacher you’re listening to you might hear two different ways of understanding what it means to be salt. On the one hand, preachers may emphasize that being the salt of the earth means we are preserving things from going bad—and they could make a long list of all those bad things going on in the world today—and that the function of the church in the world is to keep things the same to preserve things. On the other hand, preachers may emphasize that being the salt of the earth means we are a seasoning which enhances flavors that are already present. This understanding is best seen in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible called The Message when he translates this line: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.” I believe the best way to understand this isn’t to take sides but to see it as a both/and. The world needs the church. The world needs us to do what we do here. The world needs us to be a witness for God and for Christ. The world needs us to gather week-to-week, to pray, to worship, to learn, to grow, to act with the love of God in a way that transforms life around us. This is a key function to who we are. AND we are also intended to be the seasoning that adds that little zing to things. Have you ever had something sweet that didn’t have salt in it? What is it like? Yes. I’ve had cookies that weren’t made with any salt and what happens? It doesn’t taste as sweet. By being salt we add sweetness to the world. By being salt we not only provide direction but we add those things that make life worth living. So we must ask ourselves this question. How are we being salt for the earth? Or more importantly, How am I being salt for the earth? How am I impacting the world around me, the people around me, that they are experiencing the sweetness of God? How am I helping people around me to tasting the goodness of God? How am I contributing to the conversation of God’s presence in troubled time? How am I making a difference for God? How am I being a witness for the love of God in Jesus Christ. This past January 18 I had my 3rd anniversary as an Episcopal priest. And I was remembering the arduous process of getting to that day that we celebrated on a Saturday 3 years ago right here in this room. Throughout that arduous process, a phrase that kept coming back to me over and over again was this: “The only thing that you do that will endure in this world is what you do for Christ.” I didn’t learn this from watching television or reading it in a book I stumbled on, after I turned off the television. The only thing that will endure in this world is what we do for Christ. And its not the religious things—the things that we do in this building; but it’s the things we do out there—it’s the salt things the things that spice up life for the world. It’s the salt things that bring transformation--transformation of fear to love, and doubt to faith, and despair to hope, and sadness to joy and separation to unity and darkness to light. This is the challenge of being salt for the earth. This is the challenge of being light for the world. This is what it means to be a Christian—not that we go to church on Sundays and pray and read our Bible—but that we are impacting the world around us, for good. Not that we’re yelling the loudest opinions, but telling the truth, God’s truth, the eternal truth. Not that we’re saying cheers for us only, but that we are cheering for all of God’s creation; and for God’s goodness to come to all people. The vision of transformation, the transformation that Jesus brought is much bigger than our myopic views. Our religion is one that is participating in the transformation of the world, God’s world. This is our charge, from a Lord who says “All authority has been given me on heaven and on earth.” This is who we are. We are Salt. May we all settle into being who we truly are for God in the world by reclaiming our saltiness for the sake of all that is good and God’s in the world. To the only wise God our Savior be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever. Amen.

A Sermon for Epiphany 3A

It was on a Labor Day weekend. I was 18 years old when I packed my bags and loaded up my cat into Dad’s sand-beige 1972 Cadillac Sedan DeVille and headed west from Hiawatha, Kansas to go off to junior college. I didn’t know what my future held other than that my scholarship to run track and cross-country would pay for my tuition and books, but little else. I was interested in journalism, sports and politics. I figured I could come up with a major out of all that, but knew that I didn’t absolutely HAVE to because, after all, I was only going to a 2-year community college and majors really didn’t matter there. I also knew that I was a Christian, a cradle Baptist, and I had absolutely no idea how that was going to play itself out in my life or my career. I didn’t have housing secured before arriving so I knew that I had to act and act fast to keep from sleeping in Dad’s car that first night. The housing advisor at the college recommended an off-campus site due to the dorms being full. He gave me the address and directions that led me to a trailer house with 3 other guys—all of whom were also there on athletics scholarships. From my first look at the guys, even though I WAS still in Kansas, that these were NOT my people. The guys all had long hair. The place smelled of stinky garbage; there were empty beer cans lying all over the place and dirty laundry filling up the corners of the room. I had to make some sort of a decision and fast because it was getting late in the afternoon and the college housing office was about to close. I didn’t want to spend the night in the car. So I made tentative arrangements to stay with the guys in the trailer for the night while telling myself, there’s no way I’m spending even one night in that awful place. Moving from your hometown to a new place is a rite of passage for young adults. Its something we’ve all done. I’m sure that Jesus’ move from his hometown of the mountain hamlet of Nazareth to take up residence in the more populous sea-side city of Capernaum was somewhat momentous for Jesus as well. Our Gospel account doesn’t give us any details of early adult angst or trepidation, anything of that nature is saved for the end of Jesus’ ministry when he is facing much more grave consequences in the shadow of the cross—namely in the Garden of Gethsemane. But you’ve got to wonder how it WAS for him, afterall, his first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth—which Matthew didn’t bother to tell us about—didn’t go so well. In case you don’t recall THAT teaching incident resulted in him being run out of town to the brow of a hill so that they could hurl him off the cliff. Spoiler alert, he survived that one. But here he is in Capernaum, a city of about 1500 people, much more urban than Nazareth to be sure, but still not all that cosmopolitan—it is here that his ministry takes root. It’s quite far away from the Judean wilderness where he was baptized by John. But when John was arrested Jesus got about as far away from that area as he could and still be in Palestine. Jesus’ message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” was the exact same message as John the Baptist’s only Jesus was proclaiming it in the northland of Galilee. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”: Sounds a little like that Mill Avenue street corner preacher you walked past the last time you were in Tempe, huh? And one day he is walking by the Sea of Galilee, by himself, and he leaves with 4 followers. The story is told by Matthew quite simply but it raises a number of questions that are not easily answered. On the face of it, the story suggests that Jesus is out for a stroll on the beach when he happens upon some random fishermen who have never laid eyes on him. He calls them to join him saying, “Fishermen, come with me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” Anglers never could refuse a good turn of a phrase; so what do they do? They immediately they leave their family, their work and their property on the spur of the moment and go off to join him. Certainly things didn’t happen so abruptly as this, but Matthew is making a point that is conveyed quite powerfully in this picture he painted with words. What we are seeing here is what happens when Irresistible Authority meets Radical Obedience. Jesus’ word, Jesus’ speaking, Jesus’ presence all through Matthew is of one that mysteriously, irresistibly, draws all people to himself in obedience. Remember, Matthew’s gospel is the one that tells how Jesus’ birth affected a message in even the constellations of the universe that God’s true King had been born and it was illustrated in the story of the magi journeying from the East. In Matthew, Jesus is the divine King—the everlasting King—the authoritative King that God intended for the whole world. No more would ethnic identity be the tell-tale sign of God’s presence, no more would God be the pet of a most-favored nation; God’s presence would be evidenced by the power of God manifested in a transformed life—a life lived well. Jesus called them to “Follow me.” That’s all Matthew tells us, and they left everything and followed him. Following Jesus can look a lot of different ways depending on your personality. But one constant remains—our following Jesus has its basis in his choosing us. Ironically, John’s gospel articulates this best when he quotes Jesus as saying, “You did not chose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” Back in Jesus’ day it was customary for rabbinic students to seek a master teacher and then choose to learn from him. When we think about our own experiences, certainly it is true that to an extent we choose Jesus as our master. We choose to be present when he is proclaimed and his words studied. We choose to read the Gospels and ponder their significance. But, at the deepest level of our being, we must, in retrospect acknowledge that the reverse has been true all along. In all our searching WE are actually the ones being sought. The one whom we choose is simply the one who first chose us. Our response—our radical obedience—is the only response to the irresistible authority of this Jesus. When I was in my dilemma of establishing myself in my college town I didn’t experience the irresistible authority like Jesus did when he was in new surroundings. But I was aware of my attempt to be obedient to who I knew myself to be, as I knew it. What did Jesus do by gathering the fishermen into his circle? Jesus had basically formed for himself a Small Group to be with and confide in. What did I do? I left the trashy trailer house and found a basement apartment where I ended up staying. I also found a church where I befriended some other students and I safely created my own Small Group of friends in faith. But I never stopped feeling more chosen than as one having chosen. Now I wasn’t particularly all that religious. But I DID know that I was in God’s hands. I knew that God was much more faithful to me than I could ever be to God. I trusted that God’s choosing of me was sufficient and that all my choosings were only in the wake of his choosing me. Do you experience yourself as being chosen by God? You should. By the way we have 2 rites in the church that express choosing. This “being chosen by God” is expressed by Holy Baptism. Confirmation is the rite that expresses our choosing God. Two questions we should ask. Number one: How are you demonstrating your choice in your life? What do you see occupying your time, your money, your thoughts, your daily calendar? Does it demonstrate your radical obedience to this Lord? And number two: How does your life demonstrate being chosen BY God? How do others experience you? What kind of impact is your presence making around you? How are you being listened to? One of the opportunities at Nativity for expanding yourself in this realm is your taking advantage of the Small Groups ministry that launches this week. Challenge yourself to be a powerful example of what God is doing in the world. Put yourself in a Small Group and let that make a difference in your experience of yourself in the world. Will our obedience ever be a match for God’s authority? No. It will always fall short. But the reality is this. God is faithful in his promise to show himself to the world through us. Take stock in this and thank God for the gift that it is. May this be wonderfully so for you and everyone in your life. To the only wise God our Savior be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever. Amen.

A Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord

It was Shakespeare who coined the phrase, “What's in a name?” Followed by the familiar: “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It comes from Romeo and Juliet—that love story that pits two families against each other in life and death categories simply because of the last names they purvey. I don’t need to tell you the story of Romeo and Juliet, those star-crossed lovers who couldn’t seem to find the happiness they were so sure would be in reach were they only let alone to be together, but the phrase “What’s in a name” has entered our lexicon and is often used to imply that the names of things do not affect what they really are. This easily explains why we would give kids funky names. Johnny Cash once wrote a song about a boy named “Sue.” And if you ever listened to the song the rationale for naming the boy Sue was to make the boy tough since the Dad knew he wouldn’t be around to make him tough. Names are mostly chosen, any more, because we like the sound of them. There are pretty names, strong names, solid names, names that make us feel a certain way. It wasn’t always like this. In biblical times names were given to make a declaration, to say something, to make a statement reflecting the hope they have or something that would bespeak a prayer—a prayer for what a child could or would become for God and for the world. When Abraham was given the promise by God that he would make of him the ancestor of a multitude of nations he commanded Abraham to keep a sign of this covenant. That sign was the act of circumcising male children. And if you’ve every wondered what the connection is between the promise of offspring and the sign of circumcision, well, just think about it. The act of circumcision was an act of faith that, well, the process would be done properly, hence not hindering him from continuing the promise of many offspring. In the Jewish tradition, the Law of Moses required that every male child be circumcised on the eighth day from his birth, and it was on this eighth day that the boy would receive his name. It had long been this custom in the time of Mary and Joseph and this event of circumcising and naming the child was a festive occasion when family and friends came together to witness this blessed event. Since the act of circumcision has kind of played itself out at as a sign of the covenant with God, the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, since it was revised in 1979 has simply focused on the naming aspect of this day, hence the 8th day of Christmas is always the Festival of the Holy Name of Our Lord. Now, in case you haven’t done the math yet, let me make this quite simple. January 1 is always the 8th day of Christmas, and since that day falls on a Sunday this year, we get to talk about the Holy Name—yes, it even displaces the story of the magi coming to Bethlehem to see the newborn Messiah. Only the Gospel of Luke tells us of this 8th day happening in the life of Jesus and he does it because of a major theological concern that runs throughout his Gospel. Luke is very careful from beginning to end of showing the earthly family of Jesus to be fully compliant with everything the Law of Moses required. His concern is to show Jesus as totally in line with all that that was written in the law and the prophets and the writings. According to Luke, Mary was told she would name her child Jesus by the angel Gabriel when she received the announcement from him at her home in Nazareth. The name Jesus is actually a form of the name Joshua. In Hebrew it was pronounced “Yeshua” and it means “the Lord saves” or “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” The essence of the name is that in this flesh and blood person God is taking action in the world, that God is entering the world in bodily form. It is a declaration of what God was doing through this human being. It reflected the old idea that hope is invested in our children—hope that God is doing something fresh and new and saving. The word save is an interesting one. So Jesus’ name means God is saving us. But what is it that we need to be saved from? What do YOU need to be saved from? Oddly, Luke doesn’t give us this answer, but Matthew’s story does. In Matthew, Joseph is told he was to name the child Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. So, what does it mean to be saved from your sins? Have you thought about this, lately? I know growing up that I was reminded on a weekly basis that being saved from my sins meant that when I died, because of my faith in what Jesus’ death and resurrection did for me, I wouldn’t burn in hell but instead spend eternity with God in heaven. And every Sunday’s sermon seemed to be some sort of attempt to have me doubt that my faith was truly properly there to keep me from the fires of hell so I had to be reminded of it over and over again. I grew up with this way of understanding salvation and I noticed an interesting phenomenon about it. I noticed that if all you have your mind on is what you’re saved from after you die that it’s okay to be a real rascal in the meantime. Basically the effect was that if all you think salvation is an end-of-life reality, then you could be mean and unloving in this life because you had the afterlife covered. Lets face it. Our religion, Christianity, as a whole, is not working well. Here we are having finished a year where we witnessed all sorts of suffering, fear, violence, injustice, greed, and meaninglessness in the world. Now we have another year upon us and we have to seriously consider, what difference is our religion making. Most of us who call ourselves Christian, especially in America, tend to reflect our culture more than operating as any sort of leavening agent within it. Unfortunately much of what is called Christian in the world today is not solving the problems of the world but only exacerbating them. So if Jesus’ name means God is our salvation, what is this salvation that our God is supposed to bring and how do we get on board with this? I think to be saved from our sins is much, much bigger than where you go after you die. I think being saved from our sins relates to who I am, right now and now and now. Look, we all make bad decisions on a daily basis, many of which we don’t have to suffer any consequences because of the grace of God. Think about that for a second. Think about some of the worst decisions you’ve ever made—I for one have plenty to choose from. And then I consider how little I truly suffered from it in the end. Keep in mind that when we DO have to suffer any consequences, that it could always be worse. Jesus saving us from our sins exists for us as Christians as a matrix of hope and love and generosity and forgiveness. Jesus saving us from our sins exists as that ideal of life that pulls us forward out of the muck and the mire of our daily existence and our culturally-dependent ideologies. Jesus saving us from our sins means that I don’t have to put all that pressure on myself to get it right all the time. Have you met people who are miserable because they are always living in fear of circumstances going on around them? Jesus saves us from THAT sin. Jesus saving us from our sins means that I get a second chance at life, again and again and again. There is no scarlet letter keeping us out of the good graces of our society and our God. Jesus saving us from our sins means that that perception we have in our minds of what reality is, that negative perception that makes us horrible conversation partners, is only our perception. God’s reality reigns. Jesus saving us from our sins means that we are free. We are free now, not when we die, free from every encumbrance, whether it be political, social or spiritual, that would hold us back from becoming who we really are. Now claiming this is what we do by, well, doing this—gathering with our community of faith, sharing in the communion of the bread and wine. We take in this promise of salvation week to week to week. Don’t hide it. Let the world see you as one who Jesus is saving. Let this show forth in your life. In the evangelical world you’ll hear people ask you “Have you been saved?” My answer to that question is “Well, I believe Jesus is saving me right now and right now and right now. He’ll never stop.” This is the freedom of salvation. This is what’s in a name. This is what’s in the name of Jesus. To the only wise God our Savior be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Our Wanton Wants: A Sermon for Proper 13B on John 6:25-35

The 19th Century Irish author, playwright and poet Oscar Wilde said, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” The Disney version of this is “be careful what you wish, what you wish may come true.” Of all the things that torture us so much from within its our wants. I can remember being once being asked in a coaching context, “What do you want.” This question drove me nuts! I couldn’t answer the question because I was so tortured by the many possibilities of what my answer could be. Our wants are the pressure on the accelerator of our lives. Our wants make us go, but yet our wants rarely coincide with what we really need. What we don’t know about ourselves is that we don’t know what we don’t know. This makes us crazy and this makes us do and say silly things. Our scene from John’s Gospel demonstrates what I’m talking about here. Do you remember what happened in last week’s Gospel reading? Last week we heard the story of the feeding of the multitude complete with the gathering up of leftovers. This was followed by the disciples getting into a boat, encountering a storm, followed by Jesus appearing to them walking on the sea saying “do not be afraid.” The three verses that follow, verses 22-24 in John chapter 6, aren’t included in our lection for today that picks up in verse 25. But let me read them to you now: “The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea (where the feeding happened) saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.” So, the crowd that had been fed noticed that Jesus was gone, but they knew he didn’t leave in a boat because they saw the disciples leave in a boat without them and there weren’t any other boats there! Then the “Capernaum Express” shows up, a popular boat-for-hire service in Galilee, and the people (the fed people) that were now on the hunt for Jesus get in it and go to Capernaum. Everybody knows that Capernaum is the HQ for Jesus’ ministry, and these people certainly knew this. When they get to Capernaum they actually find him, and this is where our lection for today joins in (John 6:25), “Rabbi, when did you get here?” And Jesus says, “Oh about six-six-thirty.” No. Have you ever known Jesus to answer a question straight up? Jesus was a master deflector. Now for us, when we do this kind of deflecting its because WE have something to hide. Jesus did it because he knew what was in people’s hearts. Here’s my paraphrase of what Jesus tells them: “Hey I know why you’re here. You’re here because you got free food yesterday and today is another day and you’re hungry again. Well let me tell you, that kind of food doesn’t last. If you’re going to all the trouble to get food, get the food that will fill you up for good! This is what I can give and keep on giving to you because that’s just what I came to do.” The crowd responds with, “Oh okay, so you’re not going to give us more food; well, can you show us how to make food magically appear, that would be nice!” Jesus’ response is “Oy vay, Lord have mercy. God isn’t in the business of giving you miraculous powers, God is in the business of giving you the faith so you can believe in me the one he has sent, that’s the miraculous power you need!” “Okay then, what miracle can you show us to really seal the deal? Moses gave us manna in the wilderness, can you do any better than that?” “Okay, first of all, it wasn’t Moses who sent the bread from heaven, it was God. And second, God is giving bread for the whole world, not just you, your ancestors and your ethnic tribe.” “Bread that never ends? Yes, that’s what we want a lifetime supply of bread!” Then we have Jesus’ final pithy saying, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” What this dialogue demonstrates is that the questions we have, the concerns that we hold so dear, because we make what WE want the determining factor in ALL our requests, are so, so small compared to the bigness of what God wants to give us. Jesus Christ comes TO us AS the grace of God calling us beyond our limited perspective and OUT OF our limited patterns of living. God’s gift to us is true transformation that empowers us to live into the fullness of life that is God’s real intention for our lives. When we get fixated on our wants, when we get obsessed with what WE think we need, when we make ourselves sick with all sorts of stress and hypertension in the realm of striving in the work-a-day world, beware not to lose sight of what God is truly trying to give us. Let your relationship with Jesus transform your expectations, let your life with God impact your life in the world in such a way that we can look beyond our wants. Did you ever notice that the Lord’s Prayer never says anything about asking God for what we want, what we’re voicing is what we need. Jesus knew this and that’s why he taught this prayer to the disciples. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” “Give us this day our daily bread.” “Forgive us our trespasses.” “Lead us not . . .but deliver us . . .” Lots of things happen to us on a daily basis, or we hear a news story that we react to with, “Oh that’s not good.” I invite you to try again. Respond to your life and the circumstances of it with something beyond the question of “Is this what I want?” with “What is God doing in this FOR me?” It’s not easy but it is transformational. And the transformation game is what we are baptized into. What it all boils down to is this: What do YOU want from Jesus? Be careful because what he wants to give you goes way beyond what you can ask or imagine. Be ready for it. It may not be something that you’re used to, but you know what, that’s a good sign that it IS from God. Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you blameless in the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, through Jesus Christ Our Lord, be glory majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.