Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sermon for Year A Christ the King Sunday

When was that?

When was that?
When was what?
You know…

…when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food,
or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger
and welcomed you,
or naked and gave you clothing?

And when was it that we saw you sick
or in prison and visited you?'

And the king will answer them,
`Truly I tell you,
just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.'

When we lived in Memphis, Tennessee
my husband Tom was the General Manager of a country club.
The position paid exceedingly well
and had a certain amount of prestige
in the community.
But sometimes what seems like a nice, posh job—
can be a very dark night of the soul.

It is difficult to work somewhere
if your personal values are often in conflict
with the corporate values of your employer.

Racism, sexism, elitism…
these were at best the undertones,
at worst, blatant and obvious.

But far worse than any of those philosophical “isms”
were the ways
many club members treated the staff on a daily basis.

They were rude.
They spoke in sharp, sarcastic tones of voice.
They were demanding and ungrateful.

They had no use for the “least of these”--
and certainly could not imagine any of those people--
who served their food
or carried their golf clubs
or cleaned their toilets
or parked their cars--
they could not imagine any of those people
as members of their family.

But as is often the case
with the darkest and most difficult times in our lives,
there are also gifts to be received.

One of those gifts my husband received
was being invited to join a group of employees
who gathered each morning
(before they clocked in for their shift),
who stood in a circle, joined hands
and prayed.

They prayed for one another.
They prayed for their families.
They prayed for the members of that club--
they prayed for those very same members
who verbally abused them, who looked down upon them.
They prayed for any one who needed prayer.

That prayer circle always closed with the same exact words:
Help us to see the face of Jesus in every one we meet. Amen.

Help us to see the face of Jesus in every one we meet.
In EVERYONE we meet.

That is the theme of today’s gospel.

Jesus is saying—
I am there…
when we are pushing our grocery cart
down the aisles at Ingles,
and we remember, yes, of course I can
afford to buy a few extra cans
to put in the Manna Food Basket.
When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat.

Jesus is saying—
I am there…
when we are cold and walk over
and with a flick of the wrist turn up our thermostat,
and suddenly we remember those
who do not have the luxury
of a warm home
and we remember, yes,
I can buy
a pair of socks
or gloves or a scarf
to put in the Christmas box
for Church of the Advocate.
When I was naked you clothed me.

Jesus is saying—
I am there…
when we show up at church after a long day’s work
to assemble going home bags for the women at the correctional center in Swannanoa
or build a Habitat House
or fund scholarships for children
in faraway Durgapur
or pack medical supplies for a clinic
in Panama
or lovingly sew beautiful tiny dresses
for babies
that will not live a long and happy life.

Just as you did it to one of the least of these
You did it to me.

Jesus is telling us that nothing we do is separate from our life in Christ.

You know we are only a few days away from Thanksgiving
And being the age I am,
and having been a college student back in the 70’s--
I never come to a Thanksgiving
without remembering the song Alice’s Restaurant
by Arlo Guthrie.

No, I am not going to sing Alice’s Restaurant
(See, you already have something to be thankful for!)
but I am going to share some words
from another Arlo Guthrie song.

That song is DOORS TO HEAVEN
and the lyrics go like this:

…If all the doors were closed in heaven
They'd have to close the road to hell
We'd all be stuck here with each other
There would be nowhere else to dwell…

So I hope they close the doors to heaven
And all the angels up above
Come and build a home among us
Remind us what it is to love

If the pearly gates were closed this morning
Would there be angels here tonight
And would they live their lives among us
And share the darkness with their light

Jesus is asking us to be willing
to share the darkness with OUR light.
Because the truth of the matter is
we ARE all stuck here with each other.

The sheep and the goats. Right here together.
The members of the club and the staff of the club,
Those who pray and those who scoff at prayer.
Those who live in darkness
and those who have been blessed with light.
We are here together.

We are part of one family,
the family of God.

It is NOT our job to separate sheep from goats.
Our work
is to see the face of Jesus
in everyone we meet.
And that is hard and challenging work.

…when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food,
or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

And when was it that we saw you a stranger
and welcomed you,
or naked and gave you clothing?

And when was it that we saw you sick
or in prison and visited you?'

And the king will answer them,
`Truly I tell you,
just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.'

You did it to me.

Sermon for Year A Proper 28

More will be given…

This parable we hear today is a bit ironic.
The message here seems to tell us to invest.
Don’t squander or bury your money—your talents.
Invest and you will earn more.

Our 21st century ears hear that
and we are likely to say, “Oh, really?!!!”
Considering the past few weeks,
sometimes it may be better to bury our money in the backyard
like the criticized and chastised servant did.

Of course,
this parable was not written or told in the 21st century,
but in the first century.
This was centuries before Wall Street
and bull markets, unsecured loans
and other such modern day financial ventures.

Besides, making money, turning a profit,
is also not the real meaning behind this story Jesus tells.
Jesus is saying—
to all of us—
regardless of our century—
each of us
is given gifts.
These gifts are not for any of us to clutch tightly and fearfully.

The work we have to do in this world
is to use these gifts to grow the kingdom of God.
That is the investment we are to make.

It takes courage.
Fear makes us
want to hold onto our talents—
our money, our gifts, our blessings—
What if we don’t get any more?
What if this is it?

We have that urge to hide what we have--
Oh maybe to occasionally give others a peek—
But to live as if what we have been given
is scarce (i.e. if we use it we will lose it)—

Or to live with the attitude
that what we have been given is not real, not important, not significant---
(i.e. why would God bless me?!?!!!???)

But the truth is,
the TRUTH is
we are all blessed.
Each one of us.
How we use our blessing is both our life journey,
and our faith journey.

I—along with several other members of this congregation—
have spent the past three days at Diocesan Convention.
There were 113 clergy and 108 lay delegates from this Diocese present;
58 parishes were represented.

Once a year,
we come together to do the business of the Diocese.
We come together as a touchstone
for how we are doing as a Diocese—
financially and spiritually.
It is an exhausting but also invigorating experience—
to take a larger view of God’s kingdom.
At our annual meeting on December 7th I will show you a DVD
that tells a bit about our Diocese,
and gives us a bigger view of what is happening in our parishes
and in the diocese as a whole.

This year our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schori
was our speaker.
She was also the preacher and celebrant
at the Eucharist on Friday evening.

The theme for this year’s convention was DISCERNING THE WAY.
Discerning the way.

That is really what we are all about.
Not just our Diocese, but this parish, St. John’s
And each of us as individuals.

We are here, alive in this world.
discerning the way.
Our way as Christians,
our way as human beings,
our way as part of various communities.

I want to share a few thoughts from our Presiding Bishop.
Her background is that of a scientist.
She is an oceanographer.

One comment she made was this:
when fierce storms come up
it’s better to go into the deep water
so you are not caught in the shallow currents
and tossed against the rocks.

As our Presiding Bishop she has been faced with
fierce storms of threatened division within our church.
She has calmly and fearlessly steered the church
directly in to the deep water.
Bishop Katharine so totally trusts that God is in control
that she does not try to steer the boat (AKA the church)
around the storms—
She knows that is impossible—
She is facing the challenges head on.

Bishop Katherine believes that one of the gifts
God blessed her with
is the gift of dealing with conflict
and helping others face and deal with conflict.
Helping people understand that they need “those others”—
The people they don’t agree with,
The people they don’t like,
The people they think don’t get it.

She believes that a reasoned faith
is about using all the gifts we have been given.
When we put our own gifts in use
we stop being envious of other people’s gifts, other people’s lives.
We aren’t angry or obsessed
with what other people are doing with their talents
because we are too busy, too happy, too engaged
with our own talents.

Bishop Katherine said:
Churches divide and begin to spat
when they focus on the internal—
instead of the external—the true mission of the church.

The church is not about a private little house of worship that is ours.
The church belongs 100% to God.
We come together to worship and pray to give us strength for the journey,
to engage in the gospel
so that we can go out and LIVE the gospel,
to use our talents
so that the least of the Body
is not pushed aside or ignored.

The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer
Asks the question,
The answer given to instruct our faith is this:

asks the Catechism (Page 855).
The Church pursues its mission
As it prays and worships,
proclaims the Gospel,

And the last question of that section of the catechism is this:

The Church carries out is mission through the ministry of ALL its members.

ALL its members.

We are each and all
given gifts
so that we might be a part of God’s marvelous mission.
What a partnership we are offered!

So if you or I
are taking our gifts and burying them in the backyard of our lives
we show a blatant distrust
of God’s continuing work in this world.
Cynicism has no role in the life of a Christian.

We have the responsibility—and the joy—
of using our gifts.

The Church calls us to grow,
not stand still.
It may not be to grow in numbers;
the most important growth is in our own relationship with God.

Church is
not a place to let our fields go barren
or overgrown with old weeds of the past.

Where we choose to worship
must be a place for us
where the soil is rich and deep—
a place where our gifts and the gifts of others
will have a chance to grow.

Church is a place to grow deep roots as we connect with God
and to grow tall towards the sun
as we walk humbly, love deeply
and act justly in the world where we live.

If we feel our gifts cannot grow in the place we worship—
then in the words of our Presiding Bishop—
“Some people will find a more fruitful experience worshipping elsewhere.”
She is wise to counsel each one of us:
Find that place where you can grow.

This is hard to hear
But I think it is true.

Bishop Katherine said:
Churches divide and begin to spat
when they focus on the internal—
instead of the external—the true mission of the church.

The slave who dug a hole in the ground and hid the gift he was given
was truly a slave.
He was held captive by his destructive focus on the internal.
He was critical and judgmental
—seeing only the harshness of his master ,
instead of recognizing and celebrating the generosity
that was present.
This slave was afraid.
held captive by fear.
Fear is, indeed, our worst enemy.

The slave who hid his gifts in the darkness of the dirt
was a person with no vision for the future.
He was so imprisoned by the present moment
he had no hope, no trust, no delight in looking to the future.

God has entrusted us with so much.
Our blessings truly multiply
when we live with generosity, with gratitude and with vision.
We are indeed called to encourage one another,
to build up each other.

The parable says that God doesn’t have much use for those who choose to play it safe.
It is hard to use us if we hide in fear.
If we cannot see the blessing because we are blinded by our fear, our anger, our lack of hope.

But the truth is this: We are called to risk everything.
Repeatedly, Jesus calls us to risk everything.
We are called to risk everything
for the one who continues to risk everything for us.

Friday, November 7, 2008

No, I really did not write all these sermons on November 7....

Life has been full and busy and I just stopped posting sermons. It really wasn't on principle it was just that I never got around to it. Tonight there was a little window of time and so I posted all the ones I could find from the past few months. Some Sundays are missing. St. John's was blessed to have an intern--Chris Cole--for 5 months--and we enjoyed his sermons on three Sundays. And then I was in Wales. So you have what I have been able to find and post here. Perhaps I will be more faithful in my posting as we get ready to enter year B in a few weeks.

Sermon for Year A All Saints Day

For all the saints….

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.
It is a time to remember our connectedness
to God’s people throughout the ages,
from generation to generation.
We remember with great thanksgiving
those who have gone before us
as witnesses to God’s blessing.
It is not just remembering;
It is understanding that we are bound together
As God’s children—past, present and future.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu sums it up nicely when he says,
“My humanity is bound up in yours,
for we can only be human together.”

We can only be human together.

Today, listening to the beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel,
we are promised blessings.
What can the poor in spirit hope for?
What do the meek receive?
What happens to the pure in heart?

The answers are super-sized promises.
There is a thread that runs through all these promises:
God has not forgotten us.
God will not forget a single one of us.
God will bless us and comfort us.

I read a wonderful story this week
that was shared with the Canadian House of Bishops recently.

It is the story of a woman named Annie Kashamura-Zawadi.
She arrived in Toronto with her five children,
aged between 9 and 19, on October 6, 1999.

She had $ 20 in her pocket when she stepped off the plane
from the Belgian Congo into Toronto.

Twenty dollars and five children.
Yet she was filled with hope and possibilities.

Before coming to Canada, Annie recalled
that the ONLY thing she had
was her faith.
As it turns out,
her faith was not just enough,
it was more than enough.

She had fled an abusive relationship
and in response her husband had taken their children away from her.
She had been left homeless and jobless.

This all happened while a war was raging where she lived—
then known as the Belgian Congo
(today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Annie went to the office
of the Canadian High Commissioner for Refugees in the Congo
and was told that she and her children
did NOT qualify as refugees.

But she refused to be discouraged.
She refused to give up.
Her persistence finally paid off
and she was told she WOULD be allowed to emigrate
to Canada
If---and only IF—someone would sponsor them.
She did not know anyone in Canada.

Annie says, “I knew I needed a miracle.”
Her prayers were answered.
Because the Anglican Church of Canada—
the Canadian equivalent of our Episcopal Church—
was part of a ministerial refugee sponsorship committee.
It was through one church—a team of 7 members from one church—
that papers were signed,
and Annie Zawadi and her children had a sponsor.
They left for Canada that same week.

Upon arrival in Toronto,
they were met at the airport by the group who had sponsored them.
Among the team of seven that were at the airport that day
was Linda Nicholls, now suffragen bishop of Toronto,
then Rector of Holy Trinity parish.

“Linda and her team have never left me, “ says Annie.
“They are my family.”

Today, 11 years later, Annie Zawadi has earned a master’s degree
from the University of Toronto.
She is the executive director of a non-profit organization.
Her children are all in university except for one.

“I am your success story,” says Annie.
“ I stand before you today so proud and yet so humble.
You have no idea how meaningful your support is…
You were the light at the end of my tunnel.”

The Anglican Church of Canada developed a program
to reach out to refugees.
One church put together a team of 7 people to reach out to one family.
The saints are simply faithful followers of Jesus.

There is a multitude of famous saints that we know by name--
saints from early Christian history—
St. John, St. Patrick, St. Mary, St. Luke., St. Theresa—
and on and on.
There are those who have become our modern day saints—
Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day,
And on and on and on.

There are our personal saints as well—
those people who may not be famous
but who are known to and forever remembered by us
because they showed up in our lives just in time,
because they opened the door
that let in and focused the light of Christ,
the love and grace of God right into our hearts.
These saints of God walked the walk and talked the talk
and we noticed
and we changed
and we have not forgotten.

Our stories may not be as dramatic as Annie Zawadi’s
but I imagine that each of us can name at least a few people
who have been for us
our light at the end of a tunnel of darkness.

I keep a little notebook
of people to remember in my prayers.
I don’t want to forget anyone
so I write their names in this little notebook
and use it when I say my daily prayers.

As I began thinking about the Feast of All Saints
I decided to start another list.
A list of the names of the people
who are my saints.
Those who bless me.
And when I say my prayers,
I give thanks for each one of those saints.

Who are the saints of God?
They are those who have made God’s love real in the world.

Saints come in all shapes, ages, colors and theological persuasions.
They show up in every country throughout the world,
They usually appear when we least expect them,
often when we are close to giving up all hope.

All Saints Day celebrates those people who have touched our lives
whose good examples remind us
of whom we can be at our best.

Those seven people who stood in the Toronto airport that day
to welcome a family of strangers
did not set out that morning to be saints
Anymore than you set out to be a saint
when you build a Habitat house
or bring in gifts for the Church of the Advocate
or provide food for the hungry
or spend a night at Room in the Inn.

Those seven people at the airport
are just ordinary people like you and me—
who have decided to follow Jesus.

Jesus calls us to care for the least and the forgotten among us—
and sometimes we actually do that.
Sometimes we actually do just that.

Sermon for Year A Proper 25

You sweep us away like a dream…

Imagine this.
It is early Saturday afternoon/early Sunday morning.
I get a phone call.
It’s Bishop Taylor.
He says, “Jeanne, he’s back.”
“He’s back? Who’s back?” I ask.
“Jesus,” the Bishop replies.
“ Yes, he’s back and he’s coming to your Saturday evening/11 AM Sunday
morning service.”
“To St. John’s?”
“Yes, that’s where he said he wanted to go. He wants to preach.”

Who am I to say no to Jesus wanting to preach.
I’m a bit of a nervous wreck and I don’t say anything to anyone.
After all, what if I say Jesus is coming here to St. John’s
and he doesn’t show up?

The service starts.
No Jesus.
We begin the Liturgy of the Word.
We hear the lessons and I read the Gospel.
Just as I return the Gospel book to the altar,
here comes Jesus.
Right down the center aisle.
Right here at St. John’s.

He walks up to the pulpit.
He looks out at each of you.
I mean he really looks at each of you.
He looks at me too.
Needless to say, we are all speechless.

Jesus too is silent for a few moments.
Then he speaks.

“You shall love the Lord your God
with ALL your heart, and with ALL your soul,
and with ALL your mind.
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it:
you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these TWO commandments
hang ALL the law and the prophets.”

On these TWO commandments—
Love God. Love your neighbor—
hang ALL the law and the prophets.

Jesus smiles.
He looks again—deeply—at each one of us.
And then he walks down the center aisle and out of St. John’s.
We are stunned.

Suddenly we come alive and realize we have all these questions
we want to ask Jesus.
Someone runs after him,
out into the parking lot
But he is gone.
We sit in silence and think about what he has said.

You shall love your God
with ALL your heart, and with ALL your soul,
and with ALL your mind.
Love your neighbor.

It sounds so simple.
Almost too simple.
Surely there is more required of us than love.
But those are Jesus’ own words.
Love God. Love your neighbor.

Most of us realize--
regardless of the simplicity of the statement--
we realize that love is never an easy journey.
Even when we set out with the best possible intentions.

Loving with ALL our heart
And ALL our soul
And ALL our mind—
That means no exceptions.
Not an easy journey
but that is the journey for which we are each commissioned.

When I travel,
I like non-stop flights.
No changing planes.
No lost luggage.
No sitting around in multiple airports.
No missed connections
Give me a non-stop flight any day.

And that is great—for going to Wales or to Providence or to Denver
or to wherever we might be traveling.
But we have to understand—
there just aren’t any non-stop flights on our spiritual journey.

We get on. We get off. We wander. We lose our “luggage”—
whatever we are carrying around at the time.
Sometimes we pick up some new baggage along the way.

Our spiritual journey forces us to travel some new routes.
Some we willingly undertake,
Others are almost forced upon us.
We find ourselves sitting next to strangers quite often.

Have you ever noticed how pews in a church are set up like an airplane?
All neatly lined up.
A center aisle.
We have our favorite seats—window or aisle.
Please oh please save us from those middle seats
unless we are sitting with family!

We travel along our spiritual path and we arrive—
Or at least at first we THINK we have arrived.

But when we stop and look around
We realize we are not at our destination—
we are at a new place
but it often feels like beginning again.
And the journey continues.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus tries to make it so simple for us.
Friends, he says,
You don’t really need to remember 10 commandments.
You can remember just two.
Two will do it.
Here are your signposts for your journey.
Love God. Love your neighbor.
ALL the commandments hang on those two.

Yes, we know it is simple to remember—
but we know it is not simple to live those two commandments
on a daily basis.
We can get our ticket and board the plane
but it won’t be a non-stop flight.

But regardless, loving God and loving one another—
with ALL of our being—
that is our flight assignment for our spiritual journey.

It’s a bumpy ride sometimes.
There is often turbulence.
How do we love people that drive us crazy?
How do we love people that are down right hateful?
How do we love God with all our heart and soul and mind
when we are so busy, when we’ve been hurt,
when we are struggling to make a living,
when we are fighting an illness?

We show up.
We pray.
We make mistakes.
We try again.
We start over.
It’s not a non-stop flight.
There is no direct route.

We choose to sign up for the journey or not.
We choose to accept the assignment or back away.

We are not trying to achieve perfection or success.
Our spiritual journeys are not about accomplishments.
Our spiritual journeys are about increasing our faith, our hope, our charity.
Our spiritual journeys are about learning to walk in love
as Christ loves us.

We heard in the reading from Deuteronomy about Moses.
Moses never got to go and live in the promised land here on earth.
But he got a glimpse. He got a holy glimpse.

And that glimpse reminded him
That the journey—that long and winding road—
is not about the promised land here on earth—
it is about what lies beyond.

Moses only got a glimpse.
But that glimpse was enough.
That glimpse makes the whole journey—
with all its stops, connections, layovers, lost luggage—worth it.

We show up for worship to catch a glimpse.
We offer kindness and forgiveness and love
to those who have not earned it or deserved it,
to catch a glimpse.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and first commandment.

And a second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

On these two commandments hang ALL the law and the prophets.

Love is everything.
Absolutely everything.

Sermon for Year A Proper 23

Whose party is it?

Some of you are old enough
and some of you are young enough
to remember an old Leslie Gore song—
“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to..”.

That song has run through my head all week.
As I read the scripture lessons for this week.
As I read the newspaper and listened to the news.
It’s my party
And I’ll cry if I want to.
Whose party is it?

Moses goes up on the mountain to speak with God
and when Moses doesn’t come back right away
the people gather around his brother Aaron, complaining and shouting
and the next thing you know
they are melting down their gold,
taking control
creating an idol to worship—a golden calf.
A “god” that is tangible and touchable.
Did they think God wouldn’t know, wouldn’t notice?

Jesus tells a parable about a king who is trying to give a party—
a wedding feast for his son.
But it wasn’t really a very happy occasion.
People were invited and they didn’t come.
Not only did they not show up,
people were rude, abusive and destructive.

The king doesn’t take rejection well.
He strikes back—
he gets rid of the murderers and burns down their city.

But the king does not give up.
He is determined to have this feast.
He extends the invitation to a new guest list.
He sends his servants out to invite those
who are never invited to any party.
So the Father,
determined to have this feast
Sends his servants out into the streets
And has them invite everyone and anyone—
That’s right—
The gospel says they invited the good and the bad—
And soon the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Everyone is invited. Everyone is welcome at the party.
But it’s not a free ride.
The guest who shows up dressed as if it’s casual Friday
instead of a wedding feast?
He’s bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness.
I doubt there’s much partying going on
in the outer darkness!
It sounds like a place I don’t want to go!

There is a lot
of chaos and confusion, anger and anxiety
in our scripture readings today.
It’s not too dissimilar to what’s been happening in our world this past week,
especially the financial world.

Wall Street has not been having a party.
And even people without investments are worried about
what this all means.
How will this affect me? You? Us?

Read the headlines in The New York Times or any other paper
and you see words like “Panic,”
“Depression,” “Fear.”

Not exactly the most conducive environment
for kicking off a parish stewardship campaign.
But today is the day we do just that.

There’s a minister named Larry Patten
who says that stewardship is a fancy word
for asking nice church folks to give money.
And we do indeed “stew” over it!

Here’s the biblical truth behind stewardship.
We are called to give 10% back to God.
You’ll find that in more places than one in the Bible.
A tithe.
A portion.
Keep nine sheep but give me the tenth one, says God.
Keep the nine dollars but give me the one dollar.
Ten percent.
It’s easy math.

But that doesn’t mean we like it.
We are funny about money.

Not HA-HA funny,
But weird funny.
Touchy funny.
It’s none of your business funny.

But it is God’s business.
Because the question we have to struggle with is this:
What belongs to God?
Ten percent? Five? One?

What belongs to God?

I think the answer to that is everything.
Everything is God’s.
Every hair on our head.
Every coin coming in and going out of our pockets.

The mortgages we pay, the foreclosures we fear, the SUV or Prius in the garage, the oil in Iraq…

It all belongs to God.
All of it.
Just like we each belong to God.

Do I want you to make a pledge this year?
Of course I do.
Do I wish that every member of this parish would tithe?
Of course I do.

Do I believe we will be bound hand and foot
And thrown into the outer darkness
If we do not make a pledge?
Absolutely not.

But I also believe
that we do not want to be part of the crowd at the foot of the mountain
With our golden calf—
worshipping our everyday, right now wealth and abundance
with no regard to what God calls each of us
to be, to give, to offer, to trust in.

Your pledge—your offering to God—
Is your decision, your choice.
This is a generous and giving parish.
You do give with glad and generous hearts.

I, like you, want this parish to grow and thrive
and be on a strong financial foundation.
We have been blessed
with this little corner of God’s kingdom
called St. John’s Episcopal Church.
It is not ours.
It belongs completely to God.

But we have been invited to the party, to God’s feast.
We have been invited to care for this little corner of the kingdom.
How awesome it is
to know that God trusts us to offer this care.

That is our challenge.
But within that challenge is also our blessing.

Sermon for Year A Proper 22

KISS: Love God. Love One Another.

The breath of life.
That is what we each are given.
We are part of God’s creation.

This is a beautiful piece of poetry we heard as our second reading
(James Weldon Johnson's THE CREATION)
I recognize that it is not very inclusive of women.
But we women know
God gave us the breath of life as well
And we too are created in God’s image.

This piece was written in 1927.
The world has changed a great deal since then.
Yet the beauty of James Weldon Johnson’s words
still touches us today.

We are given breath,
our life,
by God.

We then have quite a journey of free will
on how we will use that life.

Our scripture readings today are interesting.
The Hebrew people receive the ten commandments.

We’ve let the ten commandments become almost a cliché in our culture.
That’s a mistake.
The ten commandments are
actually the minimum moral code
for how we can survive as a culture.

I read an interesting essay this week by David Gill,
an ethics professor.
He points out that every one of the ten commandments hangs on LOVE.

When Jesus is asked WHAT ARE THE GREATEST OF ALL THE COMMANDMENTS—he replies immediately:
Love God. Love one another.

That’s like giving us the KISS version of the ten commandments.
(KISS standing for Keep it simple, stupid)

Martin Luther said, “Whoever knows the Ten Commandments
perfectly knows the whole of scripture.”

Take that little scripture insert and put it in your pocket.
Pull it out later today or later this week.
And think about your own life and those commandments.
Don’t think about or judge anyone else’s life.
Just think about your own.
Think about your own covenant relationship with God
And how you are doing in keeping up your end of the bargain.

We hear from Jesus in today’s gospel.
That we can lose the whole kingdom
if we forget what is really important,
if we ignore the One who gave us breath, life.

Love God.
Love one another.

Loving God means putting God at the center of our lives.
Not work, not money, not success, not even family—
but God.
That’s not easy.

But even more difficult is loving one another.
Imagine a day without being critical of someone.
Without spreading or listening to a tidbit of gossip.
Imagine a day without blaming someone else
when things don’t go as you want.

Imagine a day when every minute you just felt
overwhelmed by love.
We need these commandments.
We need to remember who it was that gave us life.
We need to remember who the Creator is.
Who it is who gives us everything.
And we need to live lives of thanksgiving.
How do we do that?

Love God.
Love one another.

And how do we do that?

Practice love every day.
And saying your prayers never hurts either.

Sermon for Year A Proper 21

Just say YES

There is a book out now--
supposedly a true story--
about a fellow—Danny Wallace—
who is a freelance radio consultant for the BBC.
The book’s title is YES MAN.

Because Danny Wallace—
who had been accused of always immediately saying NO
to everything and everyone--
decided that for one year
he would say YES to everything and everyone.
Just to prove he could I suppose.

He says YES to people giving out pamphlets on street corners.
He says YES to credit card offers overflowing from his mailbox.
He says YES to all those pleas for help on the Internet.
He attends meetings with a group
that believes aliens built the pyramids in Egypt
and he says YES to every invitation to go out on the town
or come to a party.
Danny Wallace becomes the ultimate YES MAN.

In today’s Gospel reading
Jesus is telling yet another vineyard parable.
This time it sounds like the vineyard owner
has one son who is a YES man
and one son who is a NO man.

Or at least that is the first impression.

As the story goes on we hear the story a little differently.

The man asks his sons for help.
The first son says NO—sorry, I’m too busy, I’m too tired, I’m not interested.
I just don’t want to go work in the vineyard—
but then he changes his mind—
he does go and work as his father asked.

The other son says YES immediately—sure, Dad, of course I will,
no problem,
Only there is a problem
because he doesn’t actually go.
He says he will go,
He tells his father he will go—
But he doesn’t.

The son who says NO goes;
the son who says YES doesn’t go.

Jesus is quick to point out that the son who actually WENT and WORKED
is the one we need to look to as our model—
not the son who promised and did nothing,
not the son who boastfully said YES, OF COURSE
and then did nothing.

Jesus is making a very particular point here.
Jesus is teaching that what we say—what we promise God with words—
is not what matters.
The saying is so easy.
Words can slip and slide so easily off our tongues.
We can be so glib.

Jesus is teaching that what we do—how we LIVE our promises—
that is what matters.
And that doing is not always easy

Poet Mary Oliver has a line in her poem
I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and tongue.
Then I pray.

St. Francis said:
Preach the gospel at all times.
When necessary, use words.

Words are beautiful and good and indeed, can help us communicate;
but it is our actions that speak the loudest.
Showing up.
Showing up to worship.
Showing up to pray.
Showing up to give.
Showing up to help.

Preach the gospel at all times.
When in doubt use words.

There should be no doubt
that Jesus very purposefully
uses the imagery of a father and two sons.
A father loves both his sons.
Even the one that can’t seem to follow through on his promises,
Even the son who fails is still a beloved child.
Things done and things left undone.
We are such a mixture of both.
God knows that.

We want to be good and do good
But sometimes we over promise what we can deliver.

Jesus tells this parable so that we might grow a kinder, more compassionate,
And far less judgemental heart.
Tax collectors and prostitutes—
the lowest of the low in that first century society--
yet Jesus holds up his hands to the harsh judgments
that slip so easily off the lips of some
and says look with different eyes,
see with a different heart.
God welcomes everyone as beloved children.

We are called to change.
To change our minds.
To change our hearts.
God welcomes each one of US as beloved children.
We do not have to be perfect
to come into God’s kingdom.
It would be a lonely, empty place if that were the case.

We fool ourselves if we think God expects perfect.
Madeline L’Engle once told the story of her mother,
a life long Episcopalian,
who suddenly stopped going to church.

Finally, she confronted her mother and said,
What is this about?
Her mother said,
I can’t go to church because I can’t take communion.

What? asked her daughter.
What are you talking about.

I can’t take communion, Madeline.
I’ve thought about it and I am just not worthy.

Mother! No one could take communion if we had to be worthy.

There was a silence.
A long pause.

Oh, her mother quietly replied.
I guess that’s true.

Her mother never missed another Sunday==
or another communion.

We don’t have to put up a good face with God.
God knows whom we really are—
the good, the bad and the ugly.
We are created in God’ image.
God only wants us to be real, to be honest, to be truthful.
To be faithful.

We need to stop expecting others to be perfect.
We need to stop expecting ourselves to be perfect.
We need to just stop and listen and hear the invitation
to come—
come into the vineyard and go to work.
We are each invited every day.
Why not give it a try, says God?

And who do we find in the vineyard?
A bunch of folks just trying,
TRYING--to practice the generous gospel of Jesus Christ.

This means we will be mixing with
seekers, searchers,
and those who have been bruised;

those who limp and mourn;
orphans and widows,

folks who are worn out,
clapped out, burnt out,

wise elders, young wonderers,
lesbian and gay couples,
singles and married,

the wealthy who are trying to get through
the eye of the needle,
the poor who are struggling to maintain their dignity,

the emotionally deprived and harmed,
those who have failed to love
and those who are afraid to receive love

those who have broken their promises,
those bowed down with burdens,
those who teeter on the brink of breakdown,

those for whom the grip of alcohol or work,
food or drugs or sex,
gambling or unnamed powers,
is getting stronger,
and those for whom the grip is loosening,

Those struggling with faith and doubt,
and goodness knows how many others…

Indeed, anyone who is like those Jesus mixed with.

The kingdom of God is not a private club
and neither is this parish.
We are called to offer our parish as one little corner of the vineyard—
a sacred space open to all people of goodwill---
especially those who find difficulty with any of this.

And though we are not yet
strong and vulnerable enough
to show the unconditional love of God at all times,
we hope we are moving in that direction.

We hope we are moving in that direction.

+ + +

Note: This sermon was inspired by a brochure titled BEWARE! Found in St. Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, Wales.

Sermon for Year A Proper 19

The Pilgrim Way

Some of you know
that I have just returned from 12 days in Wales.

I helped lead a pilgrimage.
There were 11 of us who traveled together,
ate together, worshipped together, learned together,
laughed together, prayed together.
For those 12 days we were a small and loving community,
our own little congregation.
I was repeatedly astounded how this group shared and helped
and loved one another.
It was an amazing time.

In Wales we traveled several ancient pilgrimage routes.
Paths that have been traveled since the early centuries of Christianity.
We learned about St. David, St. Non, St. Beuno.
We worshipped in a church in Llandanwg that has celebrated
with prayers and hymns and Holy Eucharist
since the early 5th century.
We met clergy and parishioners from a variety of parishes.
We noticed differences but we also noted similarities.

We visited three Cistercian monasteries—
the ruins of those monasteries, to be more accurate.
Strata Florida, Valle Crucis, and Tintern.
The Cistercians were very important to Christianity in Wales.

Once we have fully recovered from jetlag,
Organized and edited our 3 million photographs,
and had more than 24 hours to reflect upon this experience,
we will certainly share more about our pilgrimage
with all of you.

On pilgrimage afar and on our daily pilgrimages
we receive so many blessings in the people we meet,
the places we visit,
the prayers we offer and the prayers that are offered for us.

When we touched down at the Charlotte airport yesterday evening
we immediately began to hear news.
Gas had gone up 85 cents a gallon since we left--
IF you could find gas
(indeed, we had to stop at two stations
before we found any gas at all)
There was political news in abundance.
We were well soaked in rain in Wales
And happy to find out that you, too, had some rain here
while we were away.
We were not so happy to hear that
Hurricane Ike was heading straight towards Galveston and Houston.

To go away on an intentional pilgrimage, or a retreat,
to purposefully fast from the media
to let go of control and focus one’s heart on the spiritual
stops time in a way--
So that we might intentionally make ourselves present
and open to God.
That is a gift.

But upon return
We also must face that time has not really stopped.
We must learn to make ourselves intentionally present
and open to God
even amidst the hubbub of our daily lives.

Following the Cistercian tradition that we heard so much about in Wales
was a very well known American monk
by the name of Thomas Merton.
Until his death in 1968,
Thomas Merton lived at a monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky.
You can still go on retreat to that monastery today.

Thomas Merton wrote a prayer
that I keep taped in the front of my hymnal.

Here are the words:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you
and I hope that I have that desire
in all that I am doing.

And I know that if I do this,
you will lead me by the right road
although I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death,
I will not fear,
for you are ever with me
and you will never leave me
to face my perils alone.

This is a wonderful pilgrim prayer.
This is a wonderful prayer for all of us trying to follow God.

My Lord I have no idea where I am going…

Our scripture readings today are all about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is often a long and difficult journey.

Sometimes our anger and bitterness and hatred over being so wrongly hurt
has consumed us and every nook and cranny of our lives.
Sometimes we are afraid to forgive those who have hurt us--
because we don’t know where that forgiveness will lead.
Will it lead to more hurt, more abuse?
Does our forgiveness mean what they did is right, is okay?

.To the contrary,
Forgiveness is about truly freeing ourselves.
Forgiveness is about letting go of denial
and acknowledging the truth,
Forgiveness is about letting go of all those hurts that have kept
and keep us captive
and finally—FINALLY--moving on.

Forgiveness is not about forgetting.
Forgiveness is not about being someone else’s doormat.
Forgiveness does not mean staying in a hurtful, abusive relationship.

Forgiveness means, with God’s help,
We unlock the chains that have bound you to the perpetrator,
We lay those chains down upon the ground
for good and for ever.
Forgiveness gives us the freedom
To once again walk as a child of light.

Peter questions Jesus
about how far does forgiveness really need to go,
Jesus responds: to infinity—
not seven times but seventy-seven times.
Never stop forgiving one another.

Forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

Forgiveness is unconditional.
It cannot depend or rely upon the repentance of the wrongdoer.
Forgiveness does not wait
for someone to be sorry for what they have done.

We cannot possibly repay God for all our blessings.
But we can show our gratitude by the way we treat others.

We choose.
Whether we close ourselves in by putting on
the armor of hate and resentment, bitterness and judgment.
Or whether we open ourselves up
by putting on the face of Christ, the armor of light,
and offer mercy and grace, forgiveness and love.

We are so quick to judge.
So slow to forgive.
The world may give us a million messages
that tell us that is the way to live, the way to be,
But Christ tells us that is backwards.

The teacher and poet Wendell Berry writes:
Friends, every day do something that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world.
Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

We find the stepping stones to the path of forgiveness
in those words in Thomas Merton’s prayer:

I will not fear,
for you are ever with me
and you will never leave me
to face my perils alone.

It is with God’s help
that we learn to forgive from our hearts.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who have sinned against us.

Sermon for Year A Proper16

Who do you say I am?

There is an amazing cover on the recent issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
Michael Phelps
Wearing his gold medals from the Olympic Games.
Now if you don’t know who Michael Phelps is,
All I can say is that he is an amazing swimmer.

I am a Michael Phelps fan.
But not just because he is an amazing swimmer.
I like Michael Phelps because he has very candidly talked about being teased--
Actually more than teased—more like bullied and tortured
when he was growing up.

He and his sisters were raised by their mother Debbie
In a working class neighborhood in Baltimore.

Phelps had it otouch because he was taunted by other kids
About his sticking out ears, his lisp and his long arms.
He also struggled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and was put on medication for two years.

His mother Debbie said:
"In kindergarten I was told,
'Michael can't sit still, Michael can't be quiet,
Michael can't focus'.
"I said, 'Maybe he's bored'.

The teacher said, 'He's not gifted.
Your son will never be able to focus on anything'."

Then Michael Phelps discovered swimming.
And he knew that was who he really was—a swimmer.

He had a natural gift,
but he coupled that with incredible dedication
and the hard work of training.

Michael Phelps competed in his first Olympic games in Sydney
in the year 2000.
He was 15 years old.
Even as a teenager, Michael Phelps decided
that he would define who he was---
not other people.

Did their ridicule and comments hurt?
Yes, of course they did.
Cruel comments hurt all of us deeply.

Somehow, though, these past few weeks,
I don’t think anyone has paid much attention to Michael Phelps ears—
those gold medals and those multiple world records
have had the spotlight.

We cannot control what other people say or do.
We can control how we react to what other people say or do.

So what does Michael Phelps have to do with the gospel of Matthew?

Lots and lots of people have lots and lots of opinions about Jesus—
and many of them are not very complimentary.
That was true in the first century and it is still true today
In the twenty-first century.

Jesus knows who he is—
But I think he is wondering if anyone else can really see him,
Really see him for who he is.
But I think Jesus is dead serious when he asks Peter the question:
Who do you say I am?

The others have responded to Jesus by what they have heard others say.
But Peter speaks from the heart.

What a gift it is to have someone who loves us so much
that they see us with the eyes of their heart.

Peter is rash and controlling, often fearful, sometimes a hot=head.
But at this moment,
Peter’s eyes are as wide open to Jesus as they can possibly be:
And that is what he sees:
All the possibilities.
All that is and will be possible with God.

"You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!

What a gift it is to have someone who really sees us
for whom we really are.

We are each so loved by God.
God looks at us with the eyes of the heart.
Be whom you were created to be.
Use YOUR gifts.
Paul had it so right when he wrote in his letter to the Romans:

..we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.

We have gifts that differ.
But we each have gifts.

The challenge is to discover those gifts and to celebrate those gifts.
Very often gifts come coupled with a great deal of hard work.
Michael Phelps made it to the Olympics
because he was disciplined and dedicated and practiced
and practiced and practiced.
and trained and trained and trained.

Throughout our lives
other people will try to define who we are.
It is good to listen
but it is important to listen with our heart.

Throughout our lives
other people will also try to tell us who Jesus is and who God is.
They will insist on this characteristic or that.
But each of us must take the time to be able to answer
the question Jesus asks today:
Who do YOU say I am?

To see with our heart
we must listen with our heart.

To become whom God created us to become,
is to first discover our gifts,
to then discover the ways we can develop and use those gifts,
and finally to celebrate with great joy
those gifts we have been given.

To listen to God
we must first take the time,
to set aside time to be quiet, to sit in stillness and silence—
even if it is only the few minutes at night
before we drift off to sleep,
or the few minutes in the morning when we first awake.

Once Mother Teresa was asked by an interviewer,
“What do you say to God when you pray?”
Mother Teresa replied,
“I don’t say anything. I just listen.

The interviewer then asked,
“Well, what does God say?”
“Nothing”, she replied.
“God just listens too.”

We are all given the gift of prayer.
Prayer opens our hearts.
Prayer trains us to listen.
Prayer is a discipline.
Prayer is learning to be quiet, to be still.
Prayer is learning to receive.

Prayer changes us in ways we cannot ask or imagine.
Prayer is the journey which leads us to our answer
for the question
Jesus has for each of us:
Who do YOU say that I am?

God is listening.

Sermon for Year A Proper 15

Things fall apart

Pema Chodron is a Buddhist
who is a gifted teacher and writer.
She tells this story in her book Things Fall Apart.
A holy man and his disciples were on their way to visit a temple.
To get into the temple
they had to pass by this enormous, very ferocious attack dog.

The good news was
the dog is kept on a chain
so if you keep out of the dog’s reach you were okay.
They arrive that day
and all that stands between them and their destination
is this growling, baring his teeth huge dog.

They pass by safely
as the dog strains against the chain that holds him.
They think they are home free
when the chain breaks
and the dog comes running straight towards them.

The disciples freeze and begin to scream.
The holy man begins to run as fast as he can—
not AWAY from the dog, but straight towards the dog.
The dog sees the man running towards him—
something he has never seen before—
and the dog stops
then walks away and lies down and goes to sleep.

Sometimes when things fall apart,
the best approach is to run towards all that is collapsing.
to face the disappointment, the anger, the prejudice, the shock
head on.

In our reading from Genesis
Joseph is part of a family that has fallen apart.
In a surprising twist of events,
His brothers come before him needing food.
These are the same brothers who showed him no mercy.
Joseph faces his brothers head on.
He could have easily turned away,
not met with them at all.
He could have easily had them all thrown in prison—
or killed—

These brothers had deceived Joseph and their father.
Jealousy and greed and selfishness
caused Joseph’s brothers to conveniently throw him in a pit—
and walk away.

Things had indeed fallen apart in that family—
as in many families.
But Jospeh doesn’t sweep that dysfunction under the rug.
Rather than transform his power
into anger or revenge or hatred,
Joseph forgives his brothers
and in the process he IS transformed—
along with the rest of his family—
by the true power
of compassion and forgiveness and love.

Joseph faces into the growling dog
that has kept him and his family hostage all these years
and lets go of the past
so there is room for the future.

In Matthew’s gospel today we have a very painful encounter
between Jesus
and the Canaanite woman.
This is not the “love is all you need” Jesus,
we are so comfortable knowing.

Jesus is downright hateful in this scripture passage.
He is cruel to this woman.
Because she is not a Jew,
not one of the chosen people,
not one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Jesus’ disciples urge him to send her away
and he is set on a collision course to do just that,
to show no mercy.

The woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter
And Jesus replies cruelly:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food
and throw it to the dogs.”
He is telling this woman that her ethnic and religious background
mean that not only will he not listen to her,
not only will he not heal her daughter,
but Jesus thinks she and her people are the scum of the earth.

Harsh words can fool us into believing
that Jesus is running straight toward the growling dog.
But the reality is Jesus is ducking out the side door.
He doesn’t want to deal with this problem.
He doesn’t want to take the time to really see who this woman is
beyond the stereotypes and prejudices of his day.

You see, it is the woman who runs straight towards the growling dog.
This mother is not about to let go of her hope
that her daughter can be healed.

You can call me anything you like, Jesus.
You want me to be a dog?
I will be a dog.

But please—
Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.

And Jesus stops short.
His carefully constructed prejudices fall apart.
Jesus realizes how wrong he has been.
Not only wrong in the way he has spoken to and treated this woman
but how wrong he has been about his mission in the world.
Suddenly Jesus realizes that God’s love and mercy and grace
are for ALL people.
Not just a select few.
All people. No exceptions.

The church is not a private club, not a gated community.
Paul gets it so right in his letter to the Romans.
God doesn’t exclude anyone.
God welcomes all.
All people.

When we face the things in our lives that bother and disturb us the most,
We have hope for real healing.

When we run away, when we hide, when we keep secrets,
when we respond with anger or cruelty or apathy,
That growling dog keeps running after us, nipping at our heels,
smacking his lips
keeping fear as the ruler of our lives.

Our scriptures this morning tell us that is not God’s intention—
to rule us with fear.
This does not mean that God gives us a “pass GO and collect your $ 200”
highway to life is easy street.

There is an enormous difference between
life is easy
life is good.

Joseph’s life was transformed first by God.
Joseph had to let go of his privileged family position as beloved son
and suffer slavery, prison, and many harsh hardships.
Yet God transformed evil into good.
God transformed a curse into a blessing.

What Joseph then offered his brothers
was that same mercy, that same love
that had been offered to him by God.

Anger and hatred and revenge destroy.
Love and mercy and forgiveness transform.

Jesus was running from the truth—
the truth that all people are worthy of respect and dignity.
That all people are God’s children.

The Canaanite woman had every right to be furious with Jesus—
his words and his actions are plain hateful.
But she believes in his power to heal—
and she focuses on that good she believes is inside him

She faces up to the growling dog of rejection
and Jesus stops.
He recognizes and realizes his mistake,
How wrong he has been.
The Canaanite woman’s love for her daughter
And her love and belief that God will heal her daughter
Opens Jesus’ eyes.
And the child is healed.

When we stop running away from all that keeps us captive,
When we face the growling dog head on,
we too have hope for healing, for wholeness.