Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sermon for Year C Epiphany 3

I was wrong

I imagine we all have a few people we consider our heroes
but have never met in person.
They are people who inspire us,
or challenge us
or offer us wisdom for daily living.

Fred Craddock is one of my heroes.
Fred is a well known preacher and teacher, now retired—
As much as Fred Craddock will ever retire.
He has inspired countless seminarians and priests and pastors
and congregations
with his gifted sermons and his poignant stories.

I want to share a Fred Craddock story with you this morning.
Here is Fred’s story:

My mother took us to church and Sunday School;
my father didn’t go.
He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home.
Sometimes the preacher would call,
and my father would say,
“I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me.
Church wants another name, another pledge,
another name, another pledge.”
That’s what he always said…

“The church doesn’t care about me.
The church wants another name and another pledge.”
I guess I heard it a thousand times.

One day he didn’t say it.
He was in the veterans’ hospital,
and he was down to seventy-three pounds.

They’d taken out his throat, and said,
“It’s too late.”
They put him in a metal tube, and X-rays burned him to pieces.
I flew in to see him.
He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat.
I looked around the room,
potted plants and flowers on all the windowsills,
a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed.

And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat,
on that was a flower.
And all the flowers beside the bed,
every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups
from the church.

He saw me read a card.
He could not speak,
so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it
a line from Shakespeare.
If he had not written that line, I would not tell you this story.
He wrote,
“In this harsh world,
draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”
I said, “What is your story, Daddy?”
And he wrote, “I was wrong.”

That is Fred Craddock’s story.

I was wrong.
It is so easy to make simple judgments.
It is so difficult to say those three words: I was wrong.

Our scripture readings today are all about the church.
And yes, I am not so naïve
that I don’t know that every church—including St. John’s—
wants to grow.
Every church wants more members
and yes, every church can always use another pledge.

Our dreams are always much bigger than our bank accounts.
I believe that is because we dream with God.
And God has BIG dreams!

But another member, another pledge is not what the church is about.
The people of Israel gathered as Ezra read to them the word of God.
They wept because they knew how far they had wandered
from all they knew to be right and good and true
and of God.

The stood there and they knew:
We were wrong.

And because they were able to admit that, to see--
they were promised joy.
They were welcomed home.

The part of the letter to the Corinthians that we hear today
is one of the most moving passages in all scripture.
It is perfect metaphor.
The Body of Christ—
And you a hand and me a foot and you an ear and you an eye…
every part is essential and every part is absolutely different.

The Church—the Body of Christ—does not need three of me
and two of you and four of him and seven of her..

The Church needs each one of us—
because God has created us so perfectly unique,
so marvelously different,
so absolutely essential to the wholeness of the Body.

Paul is saying to his friends,
each of us has different gifts.
each of us is called to offer our gifts
and to respect and accept the gifts of others.

We need one another.
We are wrong if we think we are self-sufficient.
We are completely interdependent.
Our interdependence comes to light in almost blinding reality
in the situation that has followed the earthquake in Haiti.

When we lose every material possession,
We discover what really matters.
When we lose the people in our lives that really matter,
our suffering can only be lessened
by those who hold us and suffer with us.

We need each other.

This week a number of aid organizations offered
to evacuate the Bishop of Haiti.
To take him and his wife to safety,
to a more comfortable situation.

He said, “No.”
He said, “These are my people. I am staying with my people.”

The Bishop and his wife who only a week or so ago lived in a fine home
on the grounds of the Cathedral complex
lost their material comforts—
but they did not lose “their people”,
their church, their community, their Body of Christ.

Bishop Jean Zache Duracin
is staying with his people
living in a tent city on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

The bishop recognizes that Paul
was not just talking about a diversity of spiritual gifts.
Paul wrote to his Christian brothers and sisters in Corinth
and said,
as different as we may be,
as different as my hand is to my ear
or my foot is to my nose—
as much as you drive me crazy at times,
We need each other.
We are part of each other.

Last Sunday evening as I watched the news,
they showed a church service happening outdoors,
in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
An Episcopal church service, I was quick to notice.

And the reporter asked one of the men who was there worshipping,
“What is there to celebrate?
What can you possibly be thankful for
After all that has happened here,
After all that has happened to you.?”

And the man looked at the reporter
with a look of surprise on his face and replied,
“Because we are here.
Because we are here,
Because we can still praise God together.”

The Church exists because each one of us is different.
Each one of us has gifts that no one else has.
No one.
If we want new members,
it is because we need their gifts—
the gifts of whom they are
as human beings,
as children of God.

We are not whole without each part of the body of Christ.
If we think we can exist without some one,
we are wrong.
If anyone thinks they can exist by themselves,
they are wrong.
Without each other,
we are blind and deaf and lame and broken.

Jesus stands up in the synagogue
and using the words of the prophet Isaiah says:
Here’s what we are called to do and to be as the Church.
Forget our differences,
Here is what will bind us together.

We are here to bring good news to the poor.
The poor are not just people without money.
The poor are those
on the margins of our world.
on the margins of our church.
on the margins of our own lives.

We are here to proclaim release to the captives.
This is not just about prison ministry—
or in Jesus’ time, about freeing the slaves.
We are all held captive by something—
alcohol, drugs, work, self-centeredness,
dangerous relationships, anger—
God longs for our freedom.
The work of the Church is
to proclaim to the captives
that release is possible.

We are here to restore sight to the blind.
We are here to give one another courage to say,
“I was wrong.”
“I once was blind, but now I see…”

We are here to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And what does God want from us and for us?
God wants us to know that love is here for the taking.
God wants us to know
that whatever our worldly family situation
We are always loved and welcomed as a child of God.
And the church is the home of the children of God.

God wants us to be able to say,
“I was wrong,”
and know we are still loved,
and still welcome.

In this harsh world,
Draw your breath in pain
To tell my story.

This is what the church is called to do and to be.
To tell the story.
To be together. To celebrate our diversity.
To love God and to love one another.
To be the Body of Christ in the world.

+ + +

The story by Fred Craddock can be found in the book CRADDOCK STORIES, edited by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany


We celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany today.
We celebrate with this magnificent new wall hanging
created by Betty Hayes, one of our parishioners.
The three wise men following the star,
bringing their gifts.

And we too have brought gifts.
Our manger overflows with gifts-diaperes, baby food, clothes--
for the babies in our own community.

I love the season of Epiphany.
It is truly a joyful and light fillied season,
a season of the heart,
which does not allow us
to suffocate ourselves or others with facts.

Because you see so many of the “facts” about Epiphany—
well, they’re not really “facts” at all.

For example,
We sing the hymn (which I love!)
“We three kings.”

There is not one word in scripture
that says these men are kings.
Perhaps when you heard Matthew’s gospel,
you were thinking,
Hmmm…it must be in one of the other gospels
Where we are told these men are kings.

The story of the three wise men
is only found in one gospel—Matthew.

And yes, it only says they are wise men—
it never says kings.
Our tradition has made them kings—
probably because of the extravagant gifts they bring—
gold, frankincense and myrrh.

And where are the camels?
In most of our crèche scenes,
the wise men are always traveling with their camels.
Sorry. Not factual.
Not one word in Matthew’s gospel
about a camel—not even a donkey in this story.
(Betty got it right in her wall hanging—
the wise men are walking!)

Tradition-- but not scripture—
also gives us the names of these kings—
(some stories tell us he was King of Arabia)
(he was the elderly one with the grey hair—
King of Persia)
And finally Caspar
(though sometimes you see his name written
as Gaspar or even Jasper)—
he was the young one, King of India.

Of course these names are not in the Bible.
But they have become part of the story.

And then there is that number: three.
Scripture never tells us there are three of them.
They are simply referred to as “wise men from the East.”

Orthodox tradition says there were 12 of them.
Some stories say there were 40 or 50 of them.

Our western tradition says three—
probably because there are three gifts
and we assume
they would each want to have their own gift.
After all, who wants to show up to see the Messiah
and have to say,
“Well Melchior and I went in together
on your present!"

And about that baby.
Nope. Not a baby.
A “child” says scripture and that would be more accurate
Because let’s face it—if the wise men were walking,
by the time they arrived,
Jesus was proably starting to walk as well.
Not a baby in a manger
but a toddler
by the time they arrive.

But you see,
It is not about facts.
The truth is we don’t know the facts.
The truth is that we sometimes read scripture
and fill in the missing parts to fill in the story.
But that’s okay.
Because things don’t have to be factual
to be deeply true.

Epiphany is about shining the light
on something that is far bigger
than any collection of facts.

Epiphany comes from a Greek word which means
“manifestation” or “showing forth.”
Epiphany is the light bulb that goes off
over the cartoon character’s head.
Epiphany is the church season filled with AHA! moments.

The big AHA! of this church season is that
God has come into the world as a human being.
Divinity has morphed with humanity
And it’s a definite WOW!

The AHA! of Epiphany is that anyone—absolutely anyone—
who wants to seek God
is welcome on the journey.
The wise men were from the East—they weren’t part of the inner circle—
They were the ultimate outsiders—
Gentiles—maybe even pagans.
Yet here they are in Luke’s gospel,
in Jesus’ story,
in our story.
All are welcome.

Epiphany reminds us that God does not hide from us.
God does not play favorites.
God is with us.
with all of us.
God wants to be found.

The psychologist Carl Jung, had these words
carved over the front door of his home in Zurich:
“Bidden or unbidden, God is here.”

Later he had those same words
carved on his tombstone.

Bidden or unbidden,
God is here.
God is manifest.
God is revealed.
Even when we may not see it.

Epiphany reminds us that God appears
in even the most mundane moments,
to even the most ordinary people.

We do not have to be a king
or ride a camel
or have a name like Balthazar
or have gold to offer.

We are simply invited to come, to seek, to journey.
We are called to pay attention,
to take notice.

Epiphany is the season when all the lights are turned on:
All the better to see you with, God.

God has jumped into the world as a baby—
not as a king,
not as a person of wealth or prestige—
but as a helpless, poopy little baby.

God jumps in as a baby at Christmas
and when Epiphany arrives,
when those magi (and we)
show up,
God shouts, with great joy, “Come in! Oh, do come in!
The door is open. Wide open.”

Epiphany is when we realize
that the door is always open,
the table always has room for one more,
and we are all invited to the party.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sermon for Year C Christmas 2

…I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers…

I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers…
Those are the words Paul uses
in his letter to his friends in Ephesus.
Hold on to those words as I tell you this story.

The time was the depression.
Her husband had gone off to try to find work.
He had left his wife and his children
with the hope
that he could find a job
and send back some money.

The days turned into weeks, the weeks turned into a month.
And still, there was no word and no money and no husband.
Soon there was no food.
She did not know what to do.
Her children were hungry.
She was hungry.

Finally she swallowed her pride—as hard to do in those days as it is today—
and walked the three miles to the general store.
She waited until no one else was around
before she approached the store manager.

Her husband knew him.
They had gone to school together--
grew up in these mountains together,
just one holler apart.
But they had never been friends.

Hard times seem to soften the hearts of some--
but not so with this man.
His heart had seemed to harden even more as times got harder.

He hadn’t built this general store’s business by giving credit.
That’s for sure.

Even as a boy he had taken some pride,
joking at the school Christmas party one year,
that his hero Ebenezer Scrooge—
the BEFORE version of Scrooge—he boasted.

He had one goal in life: to make money.
He had done pretty well with that goal.

She was a little afraid of him—
his face wore a sour scowl
and his words were usually sharp and mean.

But she had no choice.
She had hungry children and no food and no money.
That morning when she sat down to read her Bible,
she took a piece of paper and wrote a prayer.
She folded the paper and put it in the pocket of her sweater.
She knew what she had to do.

She made her way down the road to the store
and when the store was empty
except for her and the sour faced manager,
she timidly approached the old wooden counter where he stood.

“Excuse me, could you…”

“Speak up, woman! I can’t hear you if you mumble!”

She swallowed hard and began again.

“Could you give me some food on credit? My children are hun…”

But before she got the words out, he snapped,
“I don’t give credit. Never have. Never will.”

She was silent. Normally, she would have turned and fled.

But something inside her gave her strength and she retorted,
“Okay. Fine.
Then will you please just GIVE me some food for my children.”

His mouth dropped open and he stared at her.
Had he heard correctly?
GIVE her some food? Was she asking him to give her food—for free?!!!

She reached into her sweater pocket, fumbling for a piece of folded paper.

“I wrote out this prayer this morning and…”

He snorted and snatched the piece of paper from her hand.

“A prayer,” he replied.
“ I tell you what. I’ll put your prayer on this side of the scale
and then I’ll GIVE you the same amount of food
that prayer weighs. A prayer!” he scoffed.

He still used an old balancing scale at the general store
You wanted 5 pounds of sugar?
He’d set a five pound weight on the one side,
and measure out the sugar in a sack on the other side
until the scale balanced.

He took all the weights off
and laid her crumpled prayer on one side of the balance scale.

Her heart sank. She knew a piece of paper would hardly weigh anything.

Just to be cruel, the store manager grabbed a five pound sack of flour
and laid it on the balance scale across from the prayer.

I’ll show this beggar, he thought.

He couldn’t believe his eyes.
The scale was showing that the piece of paper with her scribbled prayer
was heavier than a 5 pound bag of flour.
He laid on a piece of fatback, then a small sack of sugar.

Still, the scale did not budge.
The crumpled paper with the prayer still showed that it was heavier.

The store manager shook and jiggled the scale.
The results were the same.
He grabbed a dozen eggs and balanced them
on top of the flour, the sugar, the fatback.

This must be a trick. he thought.
But when he glanced at the woman
she seemed as astounded as he was.
He piled on a small sack of dried beans—
carefully so as not to break the eggs.

He couldn’t take it any longer.
He grabbed a box from beneath the counter and loaded up all the food into the box.

“Here,” he said gruffly. “Just take this and get out.”

She started to say something but hesitated.
She took the box and started toward the door.
Thank you, she said.
Thank you.

He scowled and motioned her to leave.
She did. She left with her box of food.

He just didn’t understand it.
That scale had worked just fine all morning.
What was going on?

He shook it again—
and then realized the scale was broken.
Well, no wonder he thought.

He grabbed the piece of paper ,
walked over to the pot belly stove that heated the store,
opened the door to toss the scrap of paper in to burn—
but stopped.

He unfolded the paper and read the prayer the woman had written—
“Please Lord,
give us this day our daily bread.”

He read the words again.
He closed the door of the stove.
He sat down on a wooden bench next to the stove
and read the prayer again.
Give us this day our daily bread.

It had been a long long time since he had heard those words.
What a strange coincidence that the scales had broken
right when he began to weigh out the food.

He folded the paper and tucked it in the pocket of his work apron.

Give us this day our daily bread.
Who would believe
that God would work through such a despicable old man?
Who would believe
that God would work through someone so selfish
to feed someone who was hungry?
Who would believe
that God would use him
to answer a prayer?

Who would believe?

Paul writes to the Ephesians:

…I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers…

The woman and her children gave thanks for the store manager every day—
long after the box of food was emptied,
long after her husband, their father returned home.

And the store manager?
He never ceased giving thanks for the woman
and her crumbled piece of paper
showing up in his store that day.
He kept that prayer tucked in his work apron pocket.
He never ceased giving thanks
for God showing him
how much doing one good thing—even accidentally—
could change you
and the way you chose to live your life.

The woman and the store manager
never ceased giving thanks
for God teaching them
how much prayer weighs.

…I do not cease to give thanks for you..
to give thanks for you
as I remember you in my prayers.

+ + +
Note: I rarely preach on the epistle but could not get away from this line this week. The basis for the story I tell appears in many forms--much shorter--on the internet and on several preaching aids sites. I never could find the origin and I shaped the story to fit the mountains and some people and stories I know. I'm not sure anything is more important than prayer.