Monday, April 28, 2008

Sermon for Year A Easter 6

God who made the world and everything in it

Some of you may remember the children’s books
from a few years back, WHERE’S WALDO?
That’s a little bit of what we hear in today’s scriptures—
but WHERE’s GOD?

If we are really honest
almost all of us have asked that question a time or two.
In the face of suffering or grief or violence we wonder


GOD is OUT THERE is our default mode.
We pray: Our Father in Heaven.
Artists often portray people looking UP when they are praying.
The priest holds her hands upward during the Eucharistic prayer.
Ascension Day is just around the corner from Easter—
this year we celebrate the Ascension on Thursday, May 1st.
Our tradition tells us that Jesus ascends into heaven.


Paul is standing in front of the Areopagus—
some of you in this congregation have stood there yourselves—
and Paul begins by trying to find common ground with the Athenians,
He knows they, too believe there is a GOD OUT THERE.
The God who made the world and everything that is in it.

Earth, wind and stars, loud rushing planets…

Let’s take a look at those loud rushing planets for a minute.
We’re going to create our own solar system right here in the church.
I borrowed this bag full of planets from a friend of mine.

We can’t have planets without first having the SUN.
The SUN is the center of it all.

A PLANET is a celestial body in orbit around the sun.
Each and every planet goes around and around,
always moving counter clockwise
around the SUN.

Closest to the SUN is MERCURY. The sun’s best little buddy.

Next is VENUS—almost the same size as the EARTH but the hottest planet—400 degrees!

Then there’s EARTH—our Book of Common Prayer says,
This fragile earth, our island home…

MARS is next—mostly carbon dioxide in its atmosphere.

Then great big JUPITER---318 times the size of earth

SATURN is only 95 times bigger than earth,
but it has all those really cool rings.

Then there’s the planet that often causes giggle among school children-- yes, URANUS.
It’s a cold planet
and orbits the SUN on it’s side which is pretty awesome really.

NEPTUNE is the eighth planet,
17 times the size of earth

And then….
well, when I was learning the planets in school,
we learned there were NINE planets—
that PLUTO
was a full-fledged planet.

PLUTO was discovered in 1930, named a planet,
but demoted in 2006 to a dwarf planet.
There’s quite a few of those little dwarf planets out there.
Pluto has a little planet posse!

Every planet is unique.
We learn more and more every day.
Every planet is unique but they all have the SUN in common.

One thing remains absolutely constant:
All the planets orbit around the sun
We don’t really have room here in the church to orbit our planets
but it is one of the official requirements to be a planet.

To a planet, to be part of this solar system
you have to orbit around the SUN.
You have to have a centerpoint.

You can’t just go off on your own personal journey and still be a planet--
you’d be an asteroid or maybe a rocket—but not a planet.
You would lose your center, your focus,
what matters most to you as a planet--
The SUN.

You know it’s how St. Patrick,
when he went to Ireland,
evangelized the pagans and taught them about Jesus.
The people were already religious—
just by looking at creation,
they knew there was something bigger than they were--
only they worshipped the Sun.

And Patrick said, “Me, too!
I worship the SON, too!”
Only he meant that he worshipped the S-O-N not the S-U-N.
Patrick like Paul started from a place of common ground with people.

He listened and in turn, the people of Ireland listened to him
and soon became SON—S-O-N-- worshippers themselves.

Paul is standing to speak to the philosophers of Athens
and he acknowledges that indeed, there is a God is OUT THERE--
but also a God that is RIGHT HERE.

Jesus says goodbye to his disciples.
He tells them that God will be right here with them.
I will not leave you orphaned.

Creator. Pure mystery.
God lives with you and me.
God is in you and in me.

Sometimes we ask, WHERE’S GOD?
Sometimes it is difficult to believe, to have faith,
especially when horrible things happen to us,
when violence is happening in the world around us and beyond us.

There is a story told about a scientist, a self-proclaimed atheist,
who was a friend of Sir Issac Newton.
The scientist stopped by to see Newton one day,
just after Newton had finished making his solar system machine—
one in which you crank the handle
and the planets and the moons move around,
orbiting the sun.

The man saw the machine and said,
“This is fantastic!”
He went over and cranked the handle
and the little planets and the little moons began
orbiting around the son.
“Who made this wonderful machine?” the man asked.

Sir Issac Newton replied, “Nobody did.

His scientist friend said, “Issac, I don’t believe you heard me.
I asked you, who made this marvelous machine?”
Newton replied again, “Nobody.”

“Now listen, Issac.
Somebody obviously made this machine—
don’t keep saying NOBODY.”

Newton looked up and said,
“Isn’t it amazing, my friend,
that when I tell you nobody made a simple toy like this,
you don’t believe me.
Yet when you gaze out into the real solar system—
the intricate marvelous creation that is around you—
you cannot believe there was a Creator who made all this.”

Newton never felt he had to draw a line that separated his faith
from his scientific mind.

But not in Newton’s times and not now
does everyone believe
there is a GOD OUT THERE.

Perhaps that is why Jesus tells his disciples,
If you love me, keep my commandments.
If you love me, love God and love one another.

Jesus is not talking about Valentine’s Day love—
that wonderful ooey gooey feeling we have toward someone special.
Jesus is talking about a love that acts,
A love we show in the way we treat people—
Yes, certainly that includes our family and friends.

But that love—AGAPE love—also means
showing respect to each person we encounter.
How we speak to the cashier at CVS.
How we treat the person we are furious with about something.
How we respond to the suffering, the hunger, the needs of others.

It is the love we have and show on a daily basis
to all and any of God’s people
that keeps us orbiting around what really matters.

It is love
that connects the dots from the GOD OUT THERE


There is no place we can be
outside the orbit of God.

+ + +

Using the inflatable planets in this sermon was inspired by a sermon preached by the Rev. Rick Lawler at St. Mary of the Hills when I served as the Associate there. He was kind enough to loan me the solar system.

The story about Sir Issac Newton and is friend came from the preaching resource SYNTHESIS.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sermon for Year A Easter 5


We had been away from church for a long time.
We loved God but church…hmmm…

But then our daughter, in middle school at the time,
began to say, “I would really like to go to church.”
“You won’t like it,” said my husband.
“God is good but church is boring.”
“I would really like to go to church,”
our daughter would repeat.

But we continued to sleep in on Sunday mornings
and assumed, as parents often do,
that our daughter would just forget about it over time.

And then it looked like we were going to be leaving Charlottesville,
where we had lived for 15 years,
and moving to Memphis.
Our children were not thrilled with the idea of leaving their friends
and the place they had lived all their lives.

Our daughter knew that she was in a ideal position to negotiate.
“When we move to Memphis,
can we go to church?” she asked.
My husband, wanting to make her feel happy about the move, replied,
“Yes, we can go to church.”

“Do you promise?”
“Yes. I promise.”

He thought she would forget about it.
We both thought she would not remember this conversation months later
or she would change her mind
when we said “Yes” instead of “No.”

We moved in to our house on Central Avenue in Memphis on a Friday.
Saturday evening as we sat down to supper,
our daughter said,
“I am so excited that we are going to church tomorrow.”

My husband and I looked at one another.
Then Tom began to go into a little parental speech
about how we had just moved
and all the things that are wrong with church…
And our daughter stopped him cold.
“Dad! You promised.
And you ALWAYS keep your promises.”

So we went to church.

Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Memphis.
My husband is a cradle Episcopalian.
Let’s just say once he left the cradle and went off to college,
he forgot who had rocked him those early years!
But once we were going to go to church
he could not imagine going to any church
other than an Episcopal church.

I was fine with that.
I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church
and, as an adult, I knew it was not home for me.

I remember so clearly that first Sunday of coming back to church.
I remembering weeping during the service.
Afterwards I said, “I do not remember church ever being like this.”
My daughter exclaimed, “I love church!”
Our son didn’t say much of anything,
probably thinking we had all lost our minds.
You know the end of the story,
because here I stand today.

One kept promise
turned our lives upside down
and is still doing that with our faith journeys today.


That is what we hear from Jesus in our gospel today.

I go to prepare a place for you.
I will come again and take you to myself.
I will do whatever you ask in my name.
I am the way, and the truth and the life.

When Thomas and Philip question Jesus,
the real question beneath their questions is this:
Do you really mean what you are saying?
Do you promise?
Will you keep your promises, Jesus?

Our work as the people of God,
our ministry as the church,
is to keep those promises alive and kept,
to point the way for all who walk in the doors
towards God’s always-kept promises.

I am not a believer in prosperity gospel.
I do not believe that my faith, or your faith, however strong,
will make us rich or keep us from ever getting sick
or protect us or those we love from disappointment or heartache.

I am not a believer in prosperity gospel
because Jesus never promises that.

Jesus says,
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Believe in God, believe also in me.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

The closer I come to God,
the deeper I go in my relationship with God—and with people--
the more I know I cannot ask for some things
in the name of Jesus, in the name of God.
I just cannot do it.

Remember who Jesus is.
He was born into the world not as king
or as mighty warrior.
He was born into a family of rather meager means.
He was born to a mother whom the community shunned.
He had to work for a living.
Achievement and success was not at the center of his life.
God was the center of his life.
God was his Alpha and the Omega—
the beginning and the end.

Jesus never aspired to power or wealth—or even physical safety.
Jesus had one directive for us:
Love God. Love one another.

Jesus had one promise, repeated in a thousand different ways,
God loves YOU.
I love YOU.
Now YOU go and do likewise. Love one another.

We have so many complaints about our lives,
about lacking this or lacking that,
about wanting this or wanting that,
about how someone else always gets their way,
gets the best of everything while we are left out.

We spend so much time trying to rewrite our lives
that we lose sight of all we have been given.
We lose sight of the promises God is keeping for us.

There is a program in the schools in Toronto
called Roots of Empathy.
I read about it this week in Trinity News,
the magazine published by Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church.

A woman named Mary Gordon started this program in 1996.
She brings babies—yes, real live babies-- into Toronto classrooms
to help students learn social and emotional literacy
to promote empathy,
to promote caring for someone other than yourself,
especially for the someones who are weaker and more vulnerable.

Research is showing that the program reduces aggression,
especially bullying, in the schools.

Mary Gordon tells this story:

Darren was the oldest child I ever saw in a “Roots of Empathy” class.
He was in Grade 8 and had been held back twice.
He was two years older than everyone else
and already starting to grow a beard.
His mother had been murdered in front of his eyes
when he was four years old,
and he had lived in a succession of foster homes ever since.

Darren looked menacing
because he wanted us to know he was tough:
His head was shaved except for a ponytail at the top
and he had a tattoo on the back of his head.

The mother who had brought her baby Evan into the classroom that day
talked to the class about how her baby liked to face outward
in his Snugli, a type of baby carrier,
and that Evan wasn’t really a cuddly sort of baby.
When the mother asked if anyone would like to try on the Snugli,
which was green and trimmed with pink brocade,
everyone was stunned when Darren said he would.

Just then the class ended and students rushed off to lunch,
but Darren stayed behind.

He strapped on the Snugli
and then asked the mother if he could put Evan in.
The mother was a little nervous but she handed him her baby,
And Darrin put Evan in the Snugli, facing toward his chest.

That wise little baby snuggled right in,
And Darrin took him into a quiet corner and rocked back and forth
with the baby in his arms for several minutes.

Finally, he came back to where the mother and the teacher were waiting
and asked:
“If nobody has ever loved you,
do you think you could still be a good father?”

If nobody has ever loved you,
do you think you could still be a good father.

Now that is a question asked in the name of Jesus.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

What will you ask
in the name of love?
What will you give
in the name of love?
What promises will you keep
in the name of love?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sermon for Easter 4

Behold the Lamb of God

I wanted to bring a lamb--
a real live lamb--
to church with me today.

After all we hear about a shepherd in our opening collect--
…Jesus is the good shepherd…
We have the 23rd psalm today—
…The Lord is my shepherd…
1 Peter talks about going astray like sheep
And John’s gospel is filled to the brim
with sheep who know or don’t know the voice of their shepherd.

Easter is a season of celebration and joy--
and let’s face it,
everybody loves a cute little lamb.
There is a delightful sweetness about most baby animals—
baby humans, too.

But the only person I know who tends sheep
is a friend of my husband Tom’s,
a friend who lives in Abingdon, Virginia.
Tom thought asking him to drive from Abingdon to Asheville
with a lamb on a Sunday morning
just so I could have a sermon illustration
was asking too much.

So no live lamb.
(But maybe next year!)

And then I got an email from Lynn Coulthard.
Lynn is our missionary in Durgapur, India.
She is on our weekly prayer list.
Lynn sends out an email when she posts something new on her blog.

Finally on Tuesday morning I had time to check out her blog—
And I realized I had not read it in months.
I had not even read what she had posted about Christmas in India.
So I spent some time on Tuesday morning
reading Lynn’s blog.
And a very different image of the Good Shepherd began to appear for me.

Lynn writes in her blog about a young girl named Punima.
She writes:

Then there was Punima, 13 years old;
a beautiful young girl who, escaping an attacker,
jumped from a second story window.
She broke her leg in the fall
and ended up in the government run hospital.
She was discharged at some point, her leg still in a cast,
but readmitted sometime later.
Her leg was still in the same cast
and because she had been bed-ridden
the whole time she was at her home,
bedsores appeared over most of her buttocks;
deep penetrating sores eating through her flesh
and tissue all the way to the bone and into the bone.

Neglect and ignorance landed this child
with her severly infected body back in the hospital.
…I was able to talk to the Misssionaries of Charity about Punima,
and they decided to get her discharged into their care.

Punima would die,
but she would die knowing that there were others
who cared about her.

These kinds of death are happening all over India on a daily basis.

This little girl, Punima, died.
But she did not die alone.
She died in the arms of the Good Shepherd—
who on the day of her death
just happened to look a lot like
Lynn Coulthard and the Missionaries of Charity.

The Lord is our shepherd.
but we too are called to be shepherds,
to be people of compassion and people of action.
Like the believers in the Acts of the Apostles,
we too are called to the ministry of sheep tending.

Reading the Bible
and coming to church
and saying our prayers
and breaking bread together--
none of these things are an end in themselves.

These spiritual practices are what give us strength for the journey.
These spiritual practices create and grow in us glad and generous hearts.
These spiritual practices help us listen and to know the voice of God—
so we, too, can follow,
we, too, can speak up and speak out and act
against injustice and cruelty and ignorance.

Jesus calls each of us
to reach out
to anyone and to everyone.
regardless of how little we may think we have in common.

We are called to reach out and wrap our arms
around those who are suffering
those who are frightened
those who cannot find their way home.

You know, little fluffy lambs are easy to love.
But sheep—full grown sheep—can be quite cantankerous.
Not easy to love.

Being a shepherd in the ancient world
or being a shepherd today
is not easy work--—
not easy on a farm or a ranch,
not easy in Durgapur, India,
and not easy in the city of Asheville.

The gospel of John says:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.

We need to take a hard and close look at the thieves in our world—
the thieves of poverty and injustice and addiction and greed and apathy.
Laying the blame upon the shoulders of others
is not telling the whole truth.

We need to take a hard and close look at our own lives
and determine if we, through things done and things left undone,
keep company more often with the thieves and the bandits
than we keep company with the children of God.

Jesus tells us:
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

The question is: Who is they?

The answer is: All the sheep.
You and I.
The little girl Punima.
All God’s children.

We are called to the same ministry as the believers in the early church.
We listen to the teachings of the scripture.
We gather for fellowship.
We break bread.
and we say our prayers.

This is not where it ends.
This is where it begins.

+ +

Here are a few blogs that are worth reading on a regular basis:

Sermon for Easter 3

An amazing thing happens….

An amazing thing happens
on a dusty road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
Some very disheartened followers of Jesus
find themselves traveling with a stranger,
a man they do not recognize or know.

These followers of Jesus feel their whole world has just collapsed
yet this stranger, this man,
who now travels side by side with them,
seems ignorant and oblivious
to all that has happened.

In many ways they are taking a risk,
talking so candidly to this stranger.
But the strong ethic of hospitality overrules any hesitations,
any gut-level fears.

As the Gospel tells the story, their eyes finally open
when they break bread with this mysterious man
and suddenly recognize the face of Jesus.

From that moment on,
their journey is changed.
The journey to Emmaus is transformed
into a lifelong journey of faith.

Even though we convince ourselves that we are the ones in control,
our journeys are constantly being transformed right before our shut-tight eyes,
so that we, too, might be transformed.

An amazing thing happens
on a winged airplane ride from Charlotte to Vancouver.
I, a follower of Jesus,
find myself traveling with a plane full of strangers.
(Well, except for one---my husband—he’s not a stranger!!)

I am on my way to a conference sponsored by the Episcopal Church.
The title of the conference is Start Up, Start Over.
This conference is about energizing congregations for change and growth
to make them more vibrant and alive and prepared
for this 21st century of ministry.

With a grant from the Diocese, I am ready to go.
Ready to learn.
Ready to absorb.
Ready to take notes and come back and share.

An amazing thing happens on this airplane ride.
Ready or not we have a little mechanical failure
and have to make an unplanned stop in Dallas
and then miss our connection and have to spend a night in Las Vegas.

This was not the journey I planned.
This was not the journey I was ready for.

But on that road to Emmaus,
I keep meeting people that bore a strange resemblance to Jesus.
Calm flight attendants. A reassuring pilot.
The funny young woman from Birmingham—madly in love—
who has the window seat next to my middle one—
on her way to meet her boyfriend.

There is the couple from Wilmington, NC--
who on the surface appear to have everything money can buy--
until standing in the lobby of the hotel in Las Vegas,
waiting to check in at the Hampton Inn,
the man tells me about sitting with his mother when she died.
and then less than a year later
holding the hand of his daughter
when she died of a rare blood disorder.
What this man does not know
Is that our son almost died of that very same blood disorder
when he was 17 years old.

When we begin to pay attention,
the face of Jesus reveals itself over and over and over again.

An amazing thing happens
on a Sunday morning in Vancouver
when Tom and I go as strangers
to worship at Christ Church Cathedral.
We experience radical hospitality.
We are welcomed--not once, not twice, but over and over.
The greeter at the door welcomes us
and makes certain we know how to find our way to the sanctuary,
where the restrooms are, where we might hang our coat.

The person who hands us our bulletin welcomes us.

The usher who walks with us to our pew and suggests where we might like to sit—
“…if you’re music people,
you might like to sit here
so you’ll have a view of our new organ and the choir…”

The bulletin welcomes us.
A guest card in the bulletin welcomes us.

The Senior Warden—called the Rector’s Warden in Canada—
welcomes us and everyone that has gathered for worship
at the beginning of the service.

And then God welcomes us—
with beautiful liturgy and music and fine preaching
and the blessing and breaking and sharing of bread and wine.

At the conference I attend
the research presented says
that from the time a newcomer enters the door of a church,
they will make their decision as to whether they will return again
in the first three minutes.
Those first three minutes.
Before we sing one hymn or pray one prayer or preach one word.
The first three minutes.

An amazing things happens on a bus in Vancouver
riding to a museum at the University of British Columbia
to see the totem carvings of Canada’s First Nations people.
A mother and a little girl pull the cord to get off the bus
but as they step off,
and before the bus pulls away,
the little girl, not more than 5 years old, shouts to everyone,
Good bye! Thank you! Have a great day!
An everyone on the bus smiles---
REALLY smiles!

The little girl wears the face of Jesus
and for a moment we all recognize that face
and smile.

An amazing thing happens at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Asheville.
Two women,
one from Ireland, one from Scotland,
miraculously show up at our door
to bring us the face of Jesus
in their music—
in a concert on Saturday evening,
in worship on Sunday morning.

This story of the Emmaus road is important for all of us .
It reminds us we never travel alone.
Jesus is ALWAYS traveling the road
right here beside us.
Jesus often steps out just at the moment we least expect it.

Even when we can’t see or believe or even begin to understand
this holy mystery of presence,
Jesus is here.
We are never left alone.

That does not guarantee us an easy road.
For most of us,
the road is long and winding and dusty.
There are switchbacks and detours and dead ends.

Much of the time we feel
like we are traveling, not in some luxury stretch limo,
or even in a Subaru wagon,
but in one of those boardwalk bumper cars—
bumping and crashing and spinning around
quite chaotically.

Yet, an amazing thing happens on this bumpy journey,
on our road to Emmaus—
We begin to get it.
We become more willing to risk everything for love.
Our eyes start to open.
Our hearts start to open.
And suddenly we know…
Jesus is everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Just look around