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.

The Lord of History versus Tragedy: A Sermon for Proper 10B on Mark 6:14-29 and Ephesians 1:3-14

One of the most foundational truisms about our Christian faith that has its roots firmly planted in the religion of Israel, is that our God, the One who simply IS, the One who created “ALL that is” is the lord of history. Now, being the lord of history doesn’t mean that God is the big puppet-master in the sky pulling our strings and making us say and do things against our will. What being lord of history means is that God ALWAYS and INEVITABLY finds a way to transform whatever is happening into something which ultimately glorifies God. The challenging thing about this truism is that there is so much that is happening in the world that we perceive as totally wrong. How many racially motivated killings do we have to hear about before we get that people in our society still want to blame someone else for THEIR problems? When a young blonde-haired man of 21 sat in on a Bible study group in an AME church (an historically black denomination) in Charleston, SC some 3 weeks ago, he, about an hour into it, pulled out a .45-caliber handgun and started killing people. He was quoted as saying that this was something he “had to do” because they were “raping our women and taking over the country.” Please understand, he was not accusing Bible-studying church-going Christians of such atrocities, he was pointing a finger at a race not his own. We see this and ask: Where’s God in that? If our God is the lord of history who transforms everything that happens in our lives into the plan that we then look back on and call the “divine” plan, why can’t God do something to stop something like this to begin with? Aren’t people safe even in their own Church? These are the questions that come to us, either from outside ourselves or inside our own brains. This is where we live. This is the apologetic question that we as Christians have to deal with. And if we’re not careful it will drive us mad. Today’s Gospel text from Mark 6 dealing with the bizarre death of John the Baptist is clearly one of those texts in our scripture that are so detailed in its retelling that it just HAD to have happened just like it says—not to mention the fact that the Jewish historian Josephus also tells us of this incident. By the way, it is Josephus who tells us that the name of the daughter of Herodias is Salome (and yes, that’s the same Salome that Richard Strauss’s opera about this incident is named). It is clear that Mark is using this story of John the Baptist to reinforce his story of how John was the forerunner of Christ even up to and including the fact that his death foreshadows Jesus’ death. Remember how Jesus’ death was also the result of a feeble ersatz “ruler” of the Jews (namely Pilate) appointed by Rome whose only motivation is to “keep face” in light of what he feared? You see, whenever tragedy occurs in Scripture, like in life, the answer that comes forth is hardly ever to the question we are asking. What we find ourselves asking is “Why?” And ultimately that leads us to asking questions that point fingers beyond ourselves, ostensibly to God. “You could have prevented this; You had the power to intervene and stop this from happening but you didn’t!” Our plaintiff cries pour forth like water out of a spilled bucket. Some of us pacify ourselves with “Well, God DID give us free will, and we don’t always use that to the best end.” And there is a ton of truth to that. But there’s a million tons of truth to the reality that our God revealed in Jesus Christ IS the lord of history and just doesn’t operate like OUR puppet, in fact our God doesn’t operate like anyone’s puppet. You can’t transform the world if all you’re doing is going around stopping bad things from happening. That’s why we created superheroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man and the Incredibles. Our God is not in the business of being our pet super hero that looks out for us and keeps bad things from happening, that is something that reality teaches us just isn’t the case. We wish that this was the case but its just not. The fact of the matter is: No matter how good we are and how much we go to church and go to Bible study, there is no insurance policy preventing a wacko from killing innocent people. Our God can only deal with us how we are and where we are and that is in a state of “will we ever get it right?” The answer is “No, we will never get it right, that’s why we have God.” We can’t save ourselves by any good deeds or great intentions. Our God, as revealed in Jesus Christ is not some “Plan B” that comes along to save the day. Our God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is the one who fully experiences the pain and suffering that life has to give us and still continues to love and love and love despite the hurt and the hard-heartedness of humanity—that’s what we see in the cross! Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year old Ethel Lance, who was attending and was gunned down at the Bible Study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston offered a glimpse into where the power of God truly resides in tragedies such as these. At a bond hearing after the massacre, relatives of the victims offered this young assailant something that he never knew he needed. Nadine said to him referring to her late mother that is guy had killed, “You took something very precious away from me, but I forgive you.” You want to see the power of God? You want to see something that will restore your faith in the lord of history? That, right there, is the power of God. The power of God transforms our experiences; it doesn’t prevent us from HAVING the experiences especially when the experiences lie in the realm of tragedy like this killing. Forgiveness, as Jesus taught us, looks a lot like going to the cross and not having it defeat us. Are we informed by these “bad” things that happen to “good” people? Yes, yes we are. And it invites us to look for things we can do in the realm of public policy to prevent things like this from happening, and you know what? God’s hand is in THAT! You see, our God as revealed in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ IS the lord of history. This God is YOUR God. You have THIS God available to you, personally, relatedly and for all time. This is OUR legacy. This is our Good News. Did you hear what Paul said in Ephesians chapter 1? “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of the Divine will, according to God’s good pleasure that God set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.” In Jesus’ name. . .

Faith Action: A Sermon for Proper 8B on Mark 5:21-43

At the heart of our inauthenticity in life is our attachment to our ego-self. The ego self is that part of us that we think is actually who we are. The ego-self is the striving self, the reaching self, the painful-trying-to-attain-something self that tends to define and thereby limit who we are. It is that thing that is frequently the determining factor in choices we make: where we go to school, where we spend our money, where we buy a house, what to major in in college, what job to take, who we marry, where we send our kids to school, where we get our groceries, is it going to be Albertson’s or Whole Foods? Don’t get me wrong, our ego selves do a lot of wonderful things like motivate us to get out of bed when we don’t feel like it just so we can go to work, because, afterall, we need to pay the bills. One of the huge things that gets dealt with in the pursuit of clerical Holy Orders is this issue of what part of this person is seeking ordination? Is it the self that wants to step into the morass of the spiritual neediness of humanity and be used of God to play a role in being a part of the solution, or is it the self that wants the social affirmation (very important for the ego-self) that comes with holding titles like Reverend or Father. I was taught by my dad to never take at face value any person of authority—whether it is determined by the color of their skin or the accent in their speaking or the money in their bank account—also, that no title before or initials after someone’s name makes a person respectable. All of our ego-driven accomplishments count for naught when it comes to receiving what Jesus has to give us. In our Gospel lection today from Mark chapter 5 we witness Jesus doing that thing that Jesus does so well, which is restore to wholeness anything and anyone that is less than. The people that come to him are paradigmatic of a way of being that answers the question, “How do I optimally position myself to get what Jesus is giving?” In Mark’s economy of presenting Jesus, this particular passage describing the healing of the hemorrhaging woman and the reviving of Jairus’ daughter asks us to identify with the ones being healed, and making requests, regardless of our gender. I hope you noticed how Mark masterfully takes one event, the requesting of the leader of the synagogue regarding his near dead daughter, divides it up and puts the healing of the hemorrhaging woman between the first and second halves. Such intercalation on the part of Mark serves to highlight the drama of what is happening here. The passage starts off with Jesus making another crossing of the Sea of Galilee, this time, from Gentile territory to the Jewish side. We know it is the Jewish side because amongst the crowd was one Jairus, a local synagogue chief. He requests of Jesus, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her so that she may be made well, and live.” Jesus consents and starts to go WITH Jairus toward his home; but meanwhile, this crowd that had gathered around Jesus, of which Jairus was one, starts to detain their progress to the point that another person in the crowd who, like Jairus, also wants healing from Jesus. But this one is not a distinguished religious leader, this one is a woman who is on the periphery of religious life because of her infirmity of incessant bleeding. The ancient religious world was squeamish about blood and just made it bad and wrong. Mark is very keen on highlighting the degree to which this woman’s life had been consumed by her disease. She had spent all that she had, to all sorts of physicians but instead of getting better she had only gotten worse. We know her infirmity hadn’t affected her hearing though, because she was well aware of Jesus’ ability to heal. She didn’t get to make a request of Jesus like Jairus had done, she only had her intention—to touch even his garment—and because her intention was wrapped in faith she received the healing she had sought. It’s interesting that when Jesus asks the woman to identify herself he calls her, “daughter,” which kind of reminds us, oh yeh, he was on his way to help Jairus’ daughter. So immediately after addressing her as “daughter,” and saying to her, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace,” news comes that the daughter he was on his way to heal, had died. This is better suspense than you’ll find in a Hitchcock flick. And then a bit of humor, “No need to trouble the Teacher any further, that little girl that you loved so much, dead!” What Jesus says in response to this is best translated in a way that indicates he is still in control of the situation, and it sounds a little like this, “Oh pish posh.” Well maybe not, but really: “Why can’t you be like this woman in the crowd that just got healed, do not fear, only believe.” And we’re not surprised when he then revives the little girl from death. This death to life “wondrous deed” of Jesus is Mark’s equivalent of John’s “raising of Lazarus” story. What we are supposed to get out of this death to life episode is that the healing Jesus brings comes from outside our expectations but inside our faith. It all comes down to what I was saying earlier about our ego selves. Our ego selves will stop us from taking action when action is the only thing a situation calls for. The despondent woman didn’t let her living inside her condition get to her to the point that she stopped having faith. She didn’t even think she had to make a request; she had faith that just making contact would be enough, and it was. Jairus knew that his high and lofty position didn’t make him immune to life’s exigencies when he makes his request of Jesus to come heal his daughter. One thing we all struggle with is our inauthentic expression of who we are in life called our ego-self, but there is also that side of us that is full of hope and faith and we all have IT too. That is the part of us that moves us to get in touch with God, to reach out, literally, sometimes, for help. Nurture this part of your self. Love it. Feed it. It is what will have you feel connected to God and to others. It is what will have you rejoicing that “your faith has made you well.” To the only wise God our Savior be glory, majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever, amen.