Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sermon for Year B Lent 5

…the swift and varied changes of the world…

The swift and varied changes of the world.
That is what we hear in the collect today.

I don’t know about you
but for me the last few weeks have indeed been swift and varied.
My days and weeks have been intense and busy.

I laughed when I noticed that I had written at the bottom of March
on my calendar:
“Keep this month free of commitments.”
The reality is
my March calendar has overflowed with appointments and meetings
and due dates.
You can hardly see the white of the calendar page beneath the ink!

Keep this month free of commitments.
Well, it was a worthy goal when I wrote it there a few months earlier
when I dreamed of a peaceful, quiet Lent.

The swift and varied changes of the world
often change our plans, fill our calendars,
shift us in other directions.

It seems evident in today’s gospel—
and as we near Holy Week—
that Jesus knows that his own life is shifting
and death is approaching.

Yet he does not speak of his death with gloom and doom.
He says, Hang around. It’s all going to turn out okay.
You’re going to see.
There is beauty even in the brokenness.
Often it is in brokenness
that we recognize the face of God most clearly.

This week I got a glimpse of beauty in brokenness.
I was invited to come and do a monthly Eucharist
at an area rehab facility and nursing home.

I was happy to say yes to this some weeks ago
but when it rolled around on my calendar this week
it felt like one more thing
on my long and always growing “to do” list.

Yet--yet I know that one day it may be me
waiting for a priest to come and bring the bread and wine
of the Eucharist.
That likely reality does not escape me.
This was not an event on my calendar
that I even considered canceling.

Nine of us gathered in a small sun room.
The altar was a wooden bridge table.
There were no candles, no artwork, no fair linen, no vestments.
Just a very plain but lovely sitting room.
There was a certain peace amongst the circle of wheelchairs round the table.

I spread the corporal I had brought on the table
and set up the paten with wafers
and the chalice with wine.
I had brought all these things with me.
I kissed the cross on my purple stole and placed it around my neck.

I looked around the room.
People in wheelchairs.
Caretakers sitting or standing beside them holding their hands
or gently patting their arms.
Someone said to me,
Thank you so much for coming.
Thank you so much for coming.

I already knew then—at the very beginning of our worship together—
that it was I who needed to give thanks
for the gift of sharing communion
with this group of God’s gathered people.

We began the service.
Now there is one thing about being an Episcopalian:
there are certain words that are indeed written on our hearts.

When someone says, “The Lord be with you.”
We immediately respond, “And also with you.”

I have said that phrase—what? A thousand times?
Ten thousand times?

Yet on this day,
when this little gathered group of God’s people
And also with you,
I realized there was absolutely nothing rote about that response.

I realized that just as I had brought God to God’s people that morning,
God’s people had also brought God to me.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

We may forget many things as we age
but the Lord’s prayer usually
stays with us.
The prayer that we are bold to say,
is not forgotten.
More words that are written on our hearts
and offer comfort beyond our rational understanding.

When we reached that point in the service,
even those who had said not one word,
prayed loudly,
prayed with all their heart and all their soul
and all their strength.

A small band of God’s people,
gathered together to pray and share the bread and the wine,
the body and blood of Christ,
the symbol of ultimate brokenness, fraction.
And ultimately healing and wholeness.

As we prayed the post communion prayer,
a woman in a wheelchair rolled to the wooden card table—
our altar-- and laid a crumpled white envelope on the corner.
She said, “My gift.”

She was not really speaking to me.
She was speaking to God.
“My gift.”

One of the attendants, told me after the service,
that when the woman with the envelope heard a few weeks ago
that a priest was coming to offer communion,
she began saving her money.

“ She did not want to come to church without having a gift to offer.
She wanted to have something to give you
because you were giving to her by coming here today.”

Later I would open the envelope
and find a one dollar bill and 12 quarters.

This is what Jesus means when he says he will be glorified.
No theology, no creed, no liturgy could possibly glorify God more
than what we give from our hearts.
It is not about money.
It can be--
but giving from our heart comes in many shapes and sizes.
We give when we bring in cans of food for Manna Food Bank.
We give when we listen to someone who is lonely.
We give when we send a card to remember someone’s birthday.
We give when we show up for a work day
and trim trees or spread mulch or wash windows.
We give when we shatter darkness by making someone laugh.
We give when we help build a house for someone who has no home.
The ways we can give are without limit.

We must ponder in our own hearts
what we have to offer to God.

Our gifts today may be very different than what we offered yesterday
and again may change in what we have to offer tomorrow.
We all face the swift and varied changes of the world,
Reflected in our own changing lives.

Jesus says, Now my soul is troubled.
And what should I say—
“Father, save me from this hour?
No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

We work hard in life to protect ourselves from illness and hardship.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
But we must work equally hard to continually open our hearts to God— regardless--
in glad times and sad times
to love God and love one another,
to trust that God is with us in every hour—
hours that are breezily easy
and hours that are terribly hard--
to willingly offer what we have to give.

The woman with the envelope
did not offer her gift in thanksgiving to me--
her thanksgiving was to God.

We might look at her life
and only see a wheelchair, blindness, helplessness—
her life has no doubt been through some changes
that she, like you and me, would never willingly choose.

But sometimes it is through our hurt and brokenness,
our total helplessness--
when we find ourselves at the foot of the cross--
that we recognize the presence of God in our lives.

That presence is offered to each of us every week in the bread and the wine.
Come and receive this gift.

In a world too often broken by unshared bread
there is always bread and wine enough for everyone
at God’s table.
Come and receive.
I invite each and every one of you: come and receive.

Come and remember what God has written on our hearts--
that we are loved no matter what,
that we are always and forever God’s beloved children.

A crumpled envelope
placed on the edge of a wooden card table speaks volumes
about what it means to love God
and to truly believe that you are loved.
Our gifts are both given and received to the glory of God.

Jesus says,
And I,
when lifted up from the earth
will draw all people to myself.

All people.
God longs to draw us close and closer and closer.

We never travel alone.
Never are we alone on our journey.

Through any and all
the swift and varied changes of the world.
God is with us.

Sermon for Year B Lent 4

For God so loved the world….

We have all seen the signs.
They are held up at baseball games,
at rock concerts,
even on street corners.

The signs simply say:
JOHN 3:16.

John 3:16.
That is part of our gospel reading this morning.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…

For God so loved the world.
It is easy to forget how much God loves the world,
how much God loves each and every one of us.

We give it lip service.
We sing our childhood song—Jesus loves me this I KNOW.
But do we really and truly know that?
Do we live our lives reflecting the belief in that boundless love?

A friend sent me a story this week.
It is about a night long, long ago
when the stars began to fall from the sky.
The villagers were surprised to see the stars streaking across the sky.
They panicked.
They assumed the world was coming to an end.

They ran in circles weeping and crying,
“The sky is falling, the sky is falling. The world is ending.”

Then one of the villagers remembered the wise elders
who lived outside the village.

They hurried to the older couple for an answer to what was happening.
“Look!” they shouted, “the stars are falling into the earth.
What will happen to us?”

The wise ones had been observing the changing sky for some time.
They looked up and then paused a few moments
and asked the villagers to gaze up at the sky one more time.

“Look at the sky,” they whispered,
“Look at the stars that are falling.
But now,
Stop for a moment and look again.

This time look at all the stars that are not falling.
This time look at all the stars that remain shining in the heavens.”

Lent is such a time.
A time to look at the heavens.

We note the stars that are falling—
the things that shake our world and rock our souls
and scare us.
We think of the rough places in our lives we long to make smooth,
the obstacles we ourselves have placed in our paths,
our own blindness,
the stars that continue to fall from the sky.

But today, this midway point in Lent—
it is also good to look at the stars that remain in the heavens.
Shining. Always there.
The stars that help us find our way,
the stars that serve to help us navigate through our daily lives,
those stars that shine and light our path,
even when---especially when—the night is the darkest.

Those stars are seldom abstract concepts.
Those stars often have names—
the names of our friends, someone in our family,
someone who is not in our family
but feels more like family than family.

Those stars are held in the sky but the one who so loves the world.

In our reading from Numbers,
the Israelites are in an angry snit.
They are weary from their journey and
they have lost their way
and they are fed up.

They are at a point like the villagers in the story--,
running around, complaining, grumbling, freaking out,
speaking against God
because God is not following their script.
Life is hard and rough and they are tired of it.
All they can see are the stars that are falling.

Maybe God sends the snakes
as a way of reminding them
that there really is real suffering in the world—
but not having the food they want to eat for lunch--
is not real suffering.

God has been feeding them all along
just as God feeds us.
Remember, manna? Remember our daily bread?

But the Israelites are much like many of us—spoiled, demanding,
picky eaters. Picky about life in general.

The Israelites have forgotten
that God has already
(1) rescued them from slavery,
(2) brought them out of Egypt
(3) provided leader
and (4) is leading them to the land that has been promised.

Our memories are often short as well.
We spend a lot of time complaining about the trivial,
the few stars that are falling while forgetting
to look up at the stars that remain steady and bright—
always there,
in the night sky.

But those snakes!
Now those are not trivial.

A recent Harris poll on “What We Are Afraid Of”
reports that 36 % of all adults in the United States
list snakes as their number one fear.
Ophidiophobia is the official name for this fear.

Not only were the Israelites afraid of the snakes--
the snakes were biting them, killing them.

There is a message here.
When we only give out our own venom, our own poisonous thoughts--
our complaining, our ungratefulness, our self-centeredness—
that same poison will likely return to us—
and may just kill us.
And that in no way is God’s dream for us.

It is no accident that this reading from Numbers
is paired with Psalm 107 today:

Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
And he saved them from their distress;
He sent out his word
and delivered them from destruction

The Hebrew word for a poisonous serpent is seraph—
it literally means “fiery”.
And yes, there are times in our lives we are in so much pain—
physical, mental, emotional--
it feels as if we are walking through fire.

God never denies that there is real pain and suffering in the world.
Yet God always points the Israelites—and us-- to a way of healing.

Remember that the word seraph is also the root word for seraphim—
a type of angel that appears throughout scripture.—
and angel who brings good news and great joy
especially to those who are afraid.

A fiery angel that is sent to us
when our world seems all fire.

God’s love is that enormous.
For God so loved the world…

Jesus comes into the world
to show us what that immense love looks like
in human form.

It is not just a gift—
it is a call to us to take on that form,
to live in Christ and to let Christ live in us.

For God so loved the world…

The scripture does not say,
for God so loved the Israelites,
For God so loved the United States--
No, it says,
For God so loved the WORLD.

The whole world.
Every star in the sky
those falling and those holding steady.
And all of us standing here below.

God’s love is here.
From the beginning
to the end.

And all that is in between.
And all that is in between.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sermon for Year B Lent 3

So here we are

So here we are.
Here in Jerusalem.
We have come to the Temple for the Feast of the Passover.
I traveled here with our son and his wife and their new baby.
It was a long journey
but it was important that we come.

Required really.
After the birth of a child,
we as faithful Jews come and offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

I wanted to bring a lamb as a sacrifice,
but this has not been a good year for our family.
We have no lambs this year.
The best we could do was two small doves.
That’s acceptable for those of us who are poor.
Even though some look down on us for our meager little offering,
at least we have something we can give.
to celebrate and give thanks for this new child,
this new beginning.

I had not been to the Temple precinct in a long time.
Being her today I can see it has changed.
It sounds more like an open-air market—
calves bellowing, sheep bleating, people yelling,
coins clanging.
So much noise and commotion.
I remembered it as such a holy place.

I grew up hearing the stories that the Temple is important
the Temple is the place where God lives here on earth.
But today?
I am having a hard time believing God would want to live here!

When we offer our doves
they won’t take them.
They say they are blemished
and cannot be used as a sacrifice

We have to buy a new pair of doves--
from one of the sellers here.

They will give us a small fee for the doves we have brought
(I keep silent but why do I have a sneaky suspicion
that our “blemished” doves
will become “unblemished” by tomorrow
and sold to some other poor and weary travelers??!!)

We have to go to the money changers
and change our money into temple currency.
Yes, another transaction fee.
We have to purchase new doves that will be acceptable for the sacrifice.

We can’t use our Roman coins
Because they have pagan images on them.
So the money changers
give us Palestinian shekels
so that we can purchase our new doves
and pay the temple tax.

By the time we pay the tax,
pay the money changers their fee,
buy the new doves,
we have used almost all the money we have.
This means a hard and hungry journey home.

I was praying to God that my heart would not be hardened
against all these using the temple for their own gain, their own greed,
when I heard a loud commotion.

People are screaming—
and running.
There is a man who is shouting angrily.
Who is he? I have seen him before I think.

I know.
He is the man named Jesus.
He was in our village a few months ago.
I only caught a glimpse of him
but my son says that he was healing people—
and not just Jews.

I have heard about his miracles.
Now here he is
and I can see him quite well.

I just didn’t expect him to look like a regular man.
But he does.
Only there is something about him.
Something different.
I don’t know.
His eyes have a way of looking at you
as if he has known you all your life.

I find myself staring at him.

To say he is angry is putting it mildly.
Why, he has a whip!!

My son grabs my arm and guides me away.
He is protective of me and his wife and baby.

Once outside we hear more of what happened that day.
Jesus came and drove all the livestock out of the Temple
and then he started after the people and their coin boxes.
Money was flying in all directions—
and so were the money changers!

I don’t care what people say—
I don’t think Jesus is crazy.
He was just fed up with the way
greed and fraud were taking advantage of people—
and in the Temple of all places.

This Jesus is not afraid to tell the truth.
And act on it.

Apparently when the authorities realized what was happening
they confronted him
and wanted to know what right he had to do such a thing.

I would have been terrified,
but Jesus didn’t back down.
They say he did not make one excuse.
Basically he just said,
“Shame on you for treating people like this.”
“Shame on you for cheating people
and taking advantage of people,
for letting others suffer
so that you can be rich and comfortable.”

When they threatened him,
Jesus said if they destroyed the temple
the temple would be rebuild in 3 days.

Well, that didn’t make sense to anyone (including me!)
After all, the temple’s been under construction for almost 50 years
and it still isn’t really finished.

One of Jesus’ disciples told my son
that Jesus often says things that don’t seem to make a lot of sense.
“But if you wait long enough,” he told my son,
“what Jesus says usually turns out to be spot on.”

Who is this man who fears no one but God?
Who is this man who speaks the truth even when it may cost him his life?
Who is this Jesus?

+ + +

This story of Jesus cleansing the temple
appears in all four gospels.
That tells us it is an important story.

Last week we heard what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Dale summed it up well: Be kinder than necessary.

This week we hear what it means to be the Church.
Keep God’s house sacred.
Every detail matters.
Hold one another accountable.
Fight against injustice—
most especially injustice done in the name of God.
Sometimes words are not enough—
some situations call us to act
and to act fearlessly.
Regardless of the suffering we may encounter along our journey,
resurrection will come.

Oscar Wilde once wrote,
If you want to tell the truth, make people laugh.
That way they won’t kill you.

This day in the Temple
no one is laughing--
least of all Jesus.

There is indeed risk and danger if we really begin to be the Church.

We journey deeper and deeper into Lent.
The holy calls us.
God is always faithful to us.
God claims each one of us as his beloved child.

The question is: how do we respond to God’s love for us?
How do we live as followers of Christ?
How do we come together as the Church in a world
which continues to press in upon us,
a world which is often bound and determined
to distract us from the sacred?

It’s not easy but it is simple:

Just as basketball players practice and practice and practice
in order to make those free throws or those three point shots—

Just as a musician, in order to play a piece of music with beauty and ease,
practices over and over and over—

Just as a poet writes a hundred poems that wind up the garbage can
before one finds its way into publication--

We are called to practice being a Christian.
We are called to practice being the Church.

We are called to practice every day
loving God and loving one another.
We are called to practice every day telling the truth,
treating our parents and our children,
our friends and yes, even our enemies
with respect.

We are called to practice being generous instead of envious,
To practice forgiving instead of hardening our hearts.
We are called to practice remembering the Sabbath
and keeping it holy.

We all know it is easy to miss a day of practice.
And then a week and then a month and then a year.
Where is the good news in this?

The good news is that we can start again.
The good news is that Jesus
only chased the money changers out of the temple.
He didn’t kill them or destroy them.
Jesus did not seek revenge.
He offered another chance.

Another chance.
Another chance to practice loving God and loving one another.
Another season of Lent to polish up on our rusty, dusty practices.
We are all so blessed.
This is indeed the Good News.

Sermon for Year B Lent 1

Take this bread

Sara Miles begins her book Take This Bread with these words:

One early, cloudy morning
when I was forty-six,
I walked into a church,
ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine.

A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—
except that up until that moment
I’d led a thoroughly secular life,
at best indifferent to religion,
more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades.

This was my first communion.
It changed everything.

It changed everything, she writes.

I think I have read this first paragraph of her book
about fifty times this week.
It is the heart of our worship as Episcopalians.

It changes everything.

If you look up the word communion in Webster’s Dictionary
you find these definitions:

A condition of civil unrest or insurrection.

No, wait!
That’s not right.
That’s the definition of commotion.
(Not to be confused with communion—
though sometimes our churches and our lives
seem more focused on commotion than communion!)

Communion is defined as :

An act or instance of sharing

A Christian sacrament in which consecrated bread and wine are consumed …as symbols of the spiritual union between Christ and communicant or as the body and blood of Christ

And there’s still a third definition:

Intimate fellowship or rapport

In our reading from Genesis this morning,
God makes a covenant with the people.
God will no longer destroy or cause commotion.
In the beginning God takes the chaos and transforms into communion.
And everything is changed.

In our gospel reading this morning,
Jesus is baptized.
And a voice from heaven calls out,
“You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Every time we come to this communion rail,
every time we take the bread in our hands, the wine to our lips,
we need to listen:
to listen with our hearts.
because what God is saying to you and to me
are those same words:
You are my beloved.
With you I am well-pleased.

Now you, like me, may sometimes question that.
You might think,
How on earth can God be well pleased with me this week?
My thoughts, my words my deeds
did not exactly make Jesus proud--
oh, not this week!

But God never abandons communion with us.
God has made a covenant
and that covenant is kept.

God unlike some of us doesn’t get mad and stomp off or pout.
God unlike some of us
doesn’t keep a hawk’s eye waiting to pounce
when some one of us makes a mistake.

No! God has no expectation of our perfection.
God’s expectation is that we will keep trying:
Trying to share more, trying to serve more,
Trying to love one another more
Trying to honor our covenant with God
To take those promises we make in our baptismal covenant seriously.

The good news for all of us is
God is infinitely patiently, abundantly loving.

This week I received news from friends at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
in Juneau, Alaska.

Their church—
their beautiful historic magnificent church
was completely destroyed by fire in March 2006.
They later learned
that the fire that was purposefully set.
By a young man in their community
Who people knew—or thought they knew—
wery well.

When Robert Huber, the arsonist, went to trial
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church asked to speak at that hearing.

Speaking directly to Mr. Huber in the court room,
they bluntly told the truth about the pain and disruption
his destructive act of arson had caused—
in both their congregation and their community.

But they also wanted to forgive.
Not the cheap kind of forgiveness--
“It’s OK, it doesn’t matter—at least no body was hurt.”
Because it did matter and people were hurt—
Not only was the church destroyed
but a neighboring family lost their home as well.

The rector of the parish speaking directly to Robert Huber,
the 24 year old arsonist, said:

“Our church members
want to keep the promises they have made to God.

They want to make flesh and blood the prayer they offer every week:
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Mr. Huber,
you can’t make it okay.
But we don’t want to make it worse.
The primary restitution we ask from you is honesty.
Honesty about what you’ve done…
and a change in the way you walk through life
that builds up instead of tears down.

None of us want to be known by the worst we’ve ever done,
and we do not want that for you.
We want your life to mean something more than this trial, this sentencing, this pain you caused us, your parents, and yourself.
We forgive you.”

I assure you this congregation did not come to the ability to forgive easily.
Forgiveness for something this immense does not come
without considerable struggle.
And struggle they did.
For over a year.
But they struggled together.
Holy Trinity struggled in communion,
with communion, through communion.
The power of the Holy Eucharist to heal
Is beyond what we can ever ask or imagine.
But if we abandon our communion with one another,
we choose to remain broken.

This congregation chose communion---and they were able to say:
We forgive you.

The people of Holy Trinity understand covenant with God
and communion with one another.

If a congregation who lost everything
can forgive the man responsible for hurting so many,
perhaps we too can lay aside some of our hurts—
some big, some quite petty.

Lent is the season for repentance and reconciliation.
We like Jesus are driven into the wilderness
to confront our own wild beasts—
yet not to forget
the angels that surround us as well.

Our covenant with God
and our communion with one another
do not rest
on many of the details that we fret about at church
or in our daily lives.
We are easily distracted by what does not really matter.

Covenant and communion are grounded in the holy reality
that we are all ONE BODY.
and that body belongs completely to God.


I may only be the big toe,
and you may only be the pinkie finger
and someone else may be this part or that
but to God—
it takes all of us.
We are all God’s beloved
and we are in desperate need of one another.

God knows our weaknesses, our faults and our failures.
God knows that every day
we are assaulted by numerous temptations,
especially the temptation
to believe that we are in control.

Lent is a fine and holy season
to let go of commotion
to embrace communion,
to live more fully
into the covenant
God hopes for each one of us.

As Sara Miles discovered
when she experienced her first communion at age 46,

A piece of bread, a sip of wine.
It changes everything.