Sunday, September 25, 2011

WALK THE TALK...Sermon for Year A Proper 21


The chief priest and the elders march up to Jesus
and interrupt his teaching.
Jesus has come boldly into the temple--THEIR territory--
and has begun to teach.

The officials do not like this one bit.
They’d like to just throw him out--or worse--
but there is also an element of fear.

So instead of tossing him out
they question him, try to trick him.
They want him to convict himself--so they won’t have to do it.
They challenge Jesus in front of everyone.

The chief priests and the elders have a powerful need to CONTROL.
To control their space, their domain.

They question his authority---
What are YOU doing HERE?
Who gave YOU permission to speak in OUR house?

But Jesus does not answer their question about his authority directly.
Jesus will not be put on the defense.

He wants them to think--to ponder--to step away from THEIR authority
and to recognize God’s authority--over all of them--
over the priests, the elders, the people gathered--over Jesus himself.
Only Jesus seems to understand it is not THEIR house--
the temple is God’s house.

So he questions them about John’s baptism.
We need to remember
that at this point of the story John has been killed.
An almost fanciful beheading has made John a martyr to the people.

So Jesus asks the Temple leaders--
Was John’s baptism from heaven or was it just a human thing?
Divine or mortal?

It is an interesting question.
A question, which later in church history, authorities will ask
and struggle over about Jesus, too. Divine or human?

Perhaps this is even a question that we can ask ourselves about our own baptism:
Does our baptism come from heaven?
Or was it of human origin?

I wrote a little book of meditations about baptism a few years back.
I wrote that I was disappointed on the day my baptism--
which happened at age 11 by full immersion.
I was disappointed because I had truly expected to see rays of light
and a dove descend upon me that day at Emmanuel Baptist Church.

I was too young to realize--and too afraid to ask--
that those signs are not needed
to mark an event or us as holy and blessed.

I believe now that my baptism was absolutely from heaven--
walking into that deep pool of water
I was surrounded by more grace and love than I could imagine.

But Jesus isn’t asking about Jeanne Finan’s baptism.
Jesus is asking the priest and the elders to respond about John’s baptism.

And the truth is, they don’t know what to say.
It is a true “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” moment.
And they all know it.

So they respond much as we might,
when fearful,
they say, “We do not know.”

And then (and you can almost see Jesus trying not to smile too broadly)
Jesus replies,
“Well, if you can’t answer my question,
then I’m not going to answer your question.”

Jesus refuses to play their game.
Instead he turns and asks them a question:

What do you think?

And then the parable.
This wonderful way of teaching--of encouraging--people to think.

Two sons.
The father asks each son to go and work in the vineyard.
(Remember--it’s a parable--
think of the father as THE Father--God--
asking his beloved children
to go out into the world and work,
to spread the good news to all the world,
to LIVE the gospel.

The first son says, “No. I won’t go. I won’t do it.”
Maybe in terms of the parable
we could think of this response in the 21st century as something like,
“No. Forget it.
I’m going to Starbucks with the NY Times this morning.
I’m going to a movie instead of the Parish Work Day.
I don’t want to work on a Habitat House
with a bunch of Episcopalians.
So the answer is No.”

But then this child CHANGES his mind.

(This is an important point in the parable--
God gives us permission to CHANGE!!)

The first son goes and works in the vineyard.
He doesn’t make a big deal about
but something shifts inside of him--
or perhaps he goes against his rational thinking
and goes simply because of his great love for his Father--
He goes.
He goes and works.
He shows up.
He spreads the gospel by his actions--
by what he CHOOSES to DO.

And the second child?
He immediately says YES.
Of course I will go, Father.
Remember, I am your GOOD child, your pious child,
you OBEDIENT child.
Yes, yes, yes.

But that beloved child does not go, does not do as he promised.
His words are empty, meaningless--
because there were no actions that followed those words.

This son is all for show.

This child doesn’t need to change his mind--
he needs to change the center of his soul.

Perhaps this son never really intended to go--
he just says what he thinks the father wants to hear
and then forgets about it.
All talk no walk.

Then Jesus asks:
“Which of the two did the will of his father?”

It’s a pretty easy answer.
The priests and the elders know the answer--
The first son.

They KNOW what is right.
They KNOW what God asks of each of us.
Put some walk behind your talk.

And as soon as they answer Jesus,
they know they are trapped.

They know
because they realize they are all talk and little walk.
They detest Jesus
because he fully walks his talk.

And Jesus does not hesitate to tell them
how obvious their lack of walk is.
He tells them that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to heaven
before you fakers.
That’s right--the lowest of the low,
the despised and the hated
will get into heaven ahead of you.
Because when they heard the talk--from John and then from Jesus--
they heard it as so true that they changed.
They could not change their past
but they were doing one amazing job of working in the vineyard
to change their present and their future.

And Jesus says to the Temple authorities,
“You did not change your minds and believe him.”

This is a message to all of us who come to church.
All of us who have made a covenant--
a covenant---a binding agreement--
with God at our baptism.
You see we, in so many ways, are the “Temple Authorities.”
We show up here week after to week to say,
“Yes, Lord, we believe.”

There is nothing wrong with believing
but we must be so careful.
It is so easy to just become wrapped up in the talk,
and forget that our real call is to walk the walk.

How do we walk that walk?
There are some obvious ways--
Habitat House, Welcome Table, MANNA Food Baskets, Room in the Inn, Family to Family.

And there are some less obvious ways--
loving our neighbors.
Even if those neighbors seem to us on first glance to be prostitutes
and tax collectors
(I don’t mean that literally--but I think you know what I mean).

Back in the early 70‘s Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang,
“Love the one you’re with.”
They probably weren’t singing a gospel message with those words--
but when Jesus says, “Love one another,”
he never says, pick and choose. Love the ones you like.
He just says love.
Love the one you’re with.
Love all God’s children.

We also walk the walk with prayer.
We can’t just say we will pray for someone unless we really do pray.
If we want to walk the walk
we need to make sure we will go out into that vineyard of prayer
and pray, pray, pray.

We walk the walk by being good stewards--
of the earth, of this parish, of our bodies, our minds, our spirits.

We walk the walk by being willing to listen,
especially to those who feel that no one hears them.
We walk the walk
by being willing to change.

It is so easy to make excuses for not going into the vineyard.

I have thought a lot about the second son this week.
Was he just trying to impress his father?
Was he trying to trick his father?
Was he trying to outshine his brother?
Or did he intend to go--
and just got distracted?
He logged onto his FaceBook page or started watching a movie on television
or got lost in some other distraction.
Time just flew by
and then it was too late.
Oops! I meant to go into the vineyard.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying:
You can fool some of the people all of the time,
and all of the people some of the time,
but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.

Who does the second son think he is fooling?
Who do we think we are fooling sometimes?

Every week our service of Holy Eucharist opens with the priest saying
the “Collect --or prayer--for Purity”.
It begins:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid...

Jesus is reminding us of this in the parable he tells.
God knows all our desires, all our secrets.
We may be able to fool the people around us--
though probably not as often or as much as we might believe--
but what we need to remember, what matters is,
God knows.

God knows if we are all talk and no walk.
God knows if we are trying to change.
God knows what is in our hearts.

And the good news behind all of this?
We hear it in the letter to the Philippians:

God is at work in you.

We are not cast in stone--not our hearts, not our minds, not our bodies or souls.
God is at work--always--in each of us.

Even when we say NO,
we have another chance to say YES.
Even when we say YES and then don’t live into that YES.
we have another chance.

God is at work in you and in me --
in each of us.
And that, my sisters and brothers in Christ,
is very good news.

Very good news for all of us.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Be quick to love, make haste to be kind...

Yesterday I led a retreat day at the beautiful Valle Crucis Conference Center. The title for the day was: "In the Midst of the Long, Long Season: Spiritual Practices to See Us Through Ordinary Times." Seventeen women joined me for this day of reflections, prayer, sharing and silence.

At the close of the day I offered a blessing that I often use at St. John's:

Life is short
and we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.
So be quick to love
and make haste to be kind.
And the blessing of God who loves you
be with you this day
and always.

One of the women, Rebecca, an awesome Baptist minister from Elkin, NC, asked me if I knew who wrote that blessing. I told her I, too, had wondered about it's origin. I first heard it from Marcus Borg at the end of a sermon he preached during the Calvary Lenten Series in Memphis. But just the day before the retreat, I had seen a variation posted on a website (my friend Susan Copley's parish, Christ Church, Tarrytown, NY) and it had a credit. I told the group I would follow up and post it here on my blog.

So here is what a little digging and googling has uncovered. A man named Henri-Frederic Amiel is credited with writing:

"Oh, do not let us wait to be just or pitiful or demonstrative toward those we love until they or we are struck down by illness or threatened with death! Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!"

You can certainly see the origins of the blessing in this quote by Amiel. He was a 19th century Swiss philosopher and poet. Not a prolific writer but definitely a profound one.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A few things....

Last year I invited Mary Sorrells to preach during our stewardship campaign. Mary chaired our Diocesan Stewardship Commission for several years. She was truly excellent and the congregation responded to her so positively, as did I. What a blessing it is to hear new and heartfelt voices from the pulpit.

This year I thought: I need to invite another lay person to preach during our stewardship campaign. Yes, I pledge to St. John's as do most of the members of our congregation and I do not have a problem talking about money. After all, Jesus talked about money--a lot! But I also realize that some might see my giving as somewhat self-serving; after all, I am paid for my priestly ministry. So I began to pray, to discern whom I should ask. One person kept coming into my prayers over and over. So finally I sent him an email asking him to consider my request to preach. What a blessing that he said yes!

This past Sunday he was our guest preacher at both services at St. John's. His name is Chris Rhodes and he is a longtime member of St. John's and a gifted lay person with many talents--which he shares abundantly with our parish. He is truly one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met. It wasn't until he stood in the pulpit this past Sunday that I discovered he is also a fine, fine preacher. What follows is his sermon.

Sermon at St. John's Episcopal Church for September 17-18, 2011

Several weeks ago I got an email from Jeanne, entitled, “a few things.” She had asked me if I would get up and talk about “giving.” My first reaction was, is that woman crazy, I’d be scared to death. After my heart settled I thought, what magic words could I possibly give to this congregation that would make them want to give more than they already are. No way. Later I realized, anything I can give this church to help in fulfilling her ministries, I’ve got to be willing to try.

I’m not a preacher, I can’t call this a sermon. I’m not a politician, so I won’t make a speech. I am a teacher, I could call this a lesson plan, but we’re not in school. I am who I am, so I guess I’ll just call it, the world according to Chris……..or perhaps I could call it “a few things……giving, in chronological order”.

Somewhere back between 1964 and 65 I can remember sitting on the living room floor of my grandparents home on Bell Road. While sitting on that unraveling braided rug one dark evening, thunder and lightning in the background, me, my brother, and my cousin were getting a lesson in Revelations. I appreciate my grandfather for making things easy for me to understand. He compared God to Santa Claus, someone who was always watching me, and of course was making a list and checking it twice. Well I’m here to confess, I’ve been naughty, but I hope I’ve also been nice. So I guess the best way for me to get into heaven is to give.

Then I grew to a young teenager, dropping coins in a mite box. I don’t remember why or anyone telling me why but someone probably said, “it was for the needy”. Needy, I would have thought, who’s needy. I had never seen a homeless person, I’d never seen dirty, holey clothes or rotten teeth, and of course I didn’t know about poverty in this country or starving children around the world. Like most kids growing up I guess I was too well protected.

Sammy was taken from his family at a very early age. I remember him crying for two days and daddy kept telling him, “Sammy, we love you.”

The college years were just a blur, so we’ll skip that. However I do recall loosing a contact because a little 8 year old mountain girl needed a spit cup.

I remember a conversation my father had with Sandra and me. He told us that we live financially backwards. We never have enough money when we’re young and we usually have all we need as we get older. Well at that time I felt like we were the needy ones. As I’ve grown older I tend to lean towards the feeling of today’s collect, to hold on to heavenly things.

So seriously, when did I start to make giving an important part of my life?
Perhaps it was when St. John’s went one Sunday afternoon uptown to the Church of the Advocate to feed the homeless and John Fisher boiled the biggest pot of rice I’d ever seen in my life.

What about when Gene Melton, during a fall festival would put on that silly, ridiculous wig and nickel and dime everyone in sight.

And the bake sales from the ECW, Anne Bryant deserves an award for all the hours that she spent in the kitchen.

How about Wolfgang, nailing plywood up on the roof of the shed so we would have more room to store more junk.

And Betty, sewing those precious clothes for dying infants.

From time to time some of the women here at St. John’s will bring a friend from Black Mountain with them to church on Sunday. I don’t know if anyone ever says thank you, but we do.

You know, we never had a hard time getting volunteers to work on the habitat house as long as Jane was around.

I remember seeing a commercial on TV about sponsoring a child and Sandra said, “why don’t we do that?,” and the day came when a representative from Food For The Poor visited St. John’s.

Maybe I began giving when I witnessed three dedicated ministers in Sonja, Bobby, and Jane, who, while between priests, held this church in their hands.

And you always felt so special when the bishop would smile at you if you accidentally forgot and addressed him by his first name.

I think of Paul, I believe he was wearing a Tux, serving chicken dinners to the congregation for a fundraising dinner and sing a long that the choir had sponsored. He kept telling those of us in the kitchen, what an excellent job we were doing.

I remember when someone let a homeless man spend the night here in the church for a while.

And I’ll always treasure the heartfelt thoughts and words of the outgoing senior wardens and how what they say, feels so real.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of seeing a small church develop its own habitat program and Patsy along with this small church gave practically everything they could to a poor woman who had nothing and finally for once, the last was first.

And I’m so proud of my aunt, for all the art work she has given this church.

As I wrote this and prepared for this day, I felt a deep appreciation for what Jeanne has to go through each week to give some of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. Jeanne you are our blessing.
I think of all the hard work and perseverance from the hearts of today’s congregation, as I can now look out and see God’s creation at this moment.

I think of all these people and I see how truly blessed I am to be among you, my brothers and sisters. We are a small church but we are a strong church, whose bound by love.
Giving is not something that happens or begins when you’re 4 or 13 or 25. It’s a culmination of experiences you breathe, see, and feel when God somehow finds his way to your heart.

I remember being in the choir room before my grandmothers funeral, my mother was calling out the hymn numbers. 318, and Penelope said, “oh no, not that one, I’ll never make it to the end.” And I thought, what’s that about. So I looked it up. “Here O my Lord, I see thee face to face.” I don’t want to miss out on that.

I sometimes wonder if God sends modern day Jesus to us in the form of a person holding up a cardboard sign. Jesus did not turn his back on us and remember, He’s making a list.
I don’t know if I’ll get to heaven. I give because there are people out there who are less fortunate than me and they need it.

I was watching the History channel 2 years ago on Easter morning before church, “The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ”. Can you imagine being laid on a cross, on the ground, your arms stretched out and having a nail driven through your palm and bleeding to death.

I received a thank you letter from the Food For The Poor organization one time and in it was this piece of paper that read, “And the king will say to them in reply, Amen, I say to you, whatever you did to one of these least brothers of mine, you did to me.” I don’t want to turn my back on Jesus.

I give because I have everything I need. I’m satisfied. I’m here………and I can thank God for that. Amen.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

If there's anything I can do...

We've all heard those words--if there's anything I can do. We've said those words to others. Sometimes we've said them simply because we wanted to say something and we didn't know what to say.

Josephine Hicks has just written and published a book by that title--IF THERE'S ANYTHING I CAN DO: What you can do when serious illness strikes and I highly recommend that you buy a copy and read it.

This book is the result of her four years of caring for her partner who had pancreatic cancer. She has taken a difficult and painful time of suffering and transformed it into a way to help others find their way through the labyrinth of serious illness and to help us--as friends, family, clergy--find a way to truly help. This small book is filled with wisdom and with heart. But it is not a syrupy sweet "oh bless your little heart" sort of book; it is direct and honest and practical. It reads like both a narrative and a guidebook.

Find this book. Buy it. Read it. Remember it.

And just in case you are thinking I am Jospehine Hicks' sister or agent----I'm not. I went and heard her speak this evening at the Cathedral of All Souls and was transfixed by her presentation. Bought the book there. Came home and read it all the way through. But I'll go back to this book again--many times.

Hicks is donating some of the profits to cancer research so you'll be doing double duty good by buying this book. Asheville & Western NC friends can find her book at my favorite bookstore ACCENT ON BOOKS on Merrimon Avenue. If you can't find it locally, you can go to the website to order:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Offering forgiveness...Sermon for Year A Proper 19

I think we are all aware that today is September 11th.
It is ten years after this country was rocked by vicious attacks--
on the World Trade Center Towers, on the Pentagon
and on a plane that was purposefully crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

We have placed white hangings on the altar
instead of the green for the season of Pentecost
because white is the color we use for burial services--
but more importantly for Easter--resurrection.

In front of the altar this morning is a table with candles
to remind us that each person in this world
is a light.
Lighting a candle is a way we remember.
We remember a person or a day or some thing done or left undone.

On the table behind the candles is a block print by artist Margaret Parker.
It is one of the block prints she created for a book she did with biblical scholar Ellen Davis
about the book of Ruth.
This print gives us a visual image of what grief looks like.
It gives us a visceral image of what grief feels like.

September 11th is a day that all of us--
if we were alive and aware of that day ten years ago--
probably remember exactly where we were when we heard the news.

We have had other days similar to this.
December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor Day.
My father was there--asleep in his army barracks on Oahu when the attack began.
December 7th never just slipped by in our family.

November 22, 1963--the day President Kennedy was shot.
I was in 8th grade. In Civics class.
I remember my teacher was called into the hallway
and she came back in crying
and then our principal spoke to us over the speaker
in all the classrooms
We were told the news and we were told to go to our lockers and go home.

We all have days in our own individual lives
that are forever sealed on our minds and hearts
but there are certain dates
that entire nations share.
September 11, 2001 is one of those dates.

Take a minute and remember where you were
and whom you were with that morning.

I was in seminary, sitting in the dining hall after chapel,
having a cup of coffee with two friends.

Another friend, Ken Brannon who was from New York,
came over to our table and said,
“A plane has flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.”

At first I thought he was kidding,
But when I saw the look on his face, I knew it was no joke.

I imagined a small plane, off course, lost--
crashing into one of the towers.
There is no way my imagination could grasp
what had really happened.
Just as we were about to ask Ken for more details,
the entire building where we sat violently shook.
I mean the windows rattled as if they were going to pop from their frames.

We did not know it at that moment,
but that moment was when the plane crashed into the Pentagon--
which is about a mile from the Seminary.

Like much of this country--and much of the world--
we would soon hear--and see--the details of this tragedy unfold.

Yes, today is the 13th Sunday after the Day of Pentecost,
but today, this is a day of solemn remembrance.

On this day we remember those who perished ten years ago:

+ United Airlines Flight 93, Shanksville, Pennsylvania: 40 souls.

+ American Airlines Flight 77, Arlington, Virginia: 59 souls.

+ The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia: 125 souls.

+ United Airlines Flight 175, New York, New York: 60 souls.

+ American Airlines Flight 11, New York, New York: 87 souls.

+ The World Trade Center, New York, New York: 2,606 souls.

Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives to these terrorists attacks.
The victims were people of many different faith traditions, nationalities and professions.

It was a tragedy beyond the scope of which any of us could have imagined before that day.

We also remember today those who have died since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began:

+ Those fighting in our American troops and our Coalition troops: 7,000 souls
+ Afghan and Iraqi troop members, civilians, contractors and journalists: over 900,000 souls

The death toll that began on September 11th now totals over one million souls.

Priests and preachers and lay ministers,
musicians and congregations
throughout the United States today
will acknowledge September 11 in their sermons,
their liturgies, their prayers and their music.

We are no different here at St. John’s.
This is a day of solemn remembrance.
Our challenge as Christians is to also help this become a day of forgiveness.
September 11 is not a specified day in our liturgical calendar.
When I began to read the scripture readings for this Sunday--
the same readings we read every third year for Proper 19--
I was somewhat stunned.
We have on this day
a gospel reading, a teaching by Jesus,
about forgiveness.
How ironic and profound
that on this day,
the gospel is about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is sometimes a very uncomfortable focal point
for those of us called to be as followers of Christ.

Peter is trying to be very magnanimous,
almost as if he is trying to impress Jesus
with how many times he thinks we should offer forgiveness--
So what do you say Jesus,
should we forgive someone SEVEN times?

Peter thinks he is going way over the top.
Jesus no doubt shocks Peter and everyone else when he says,
Not seven times but, I tell you, seventy seven times.

The parable that then follows
serves to remind all of us
that we ourselves have been forgiven so much and so many times
that we too must learn and try to be generous
in forgiving others.

This gospel calls us to forgive those
who did horrible evil to thousands of people
on September 11th.

Not just the evil done to those who died that day and in the weeks that followed,
but the evil done to all the families and friends
who still grieve and suffer.
I can guarantee that their pain is as real and harsh
as it was on that day ten years ago.

To forgive those who have harmed us
or harmed those we love is very very difficult.
Yet forgiving is precisely what Jesus is calling us to do.

Forgiveness is not an optional “if you choose to accept this assignment”
for us as Christians.
Forgiveness is at the very heart of our faith,
because love and forgiveness are bound together.

It may be the most difficult thing Jesus asks of us.
I cannot imagine there is any person here today
who has not been hurt or victimized or suffered
at the hands of someone else.
Perhaps it was just a small slight--but still one that stung deeply.
Perhaps it was a childhood of abuse and inflicted pain
by someone who was stronger or older or more powerful.
Perhaps it was a betrayal by someone you trusted
or it was a deliberate attack by someone you didn’t even know.
Perhaps it was losing someone you loved
because of the carelessness or foolishness or incompetence
or maliciousness of someone--
someone who may still be walking around alive today.

Sometimes I wonder if Jesus selected such a high number--
“seventy seven”-
because he knew how much practice we were going to need.
Forgive seventy-seven times
and perhaps we will do it automatically on the 78th time.

Why is forgiveness so difficult?
Anger comes so much more quickly.
Revenge is so much easier to fantasize and romanticize.

We remember our hurts--
we hold on to them and number them
and keep them ever handy
to bring up again and again--
if only to ourselves.

But what we need to nurture is forgiveness.

What we need to remember
are the times when we needed forgiveness and received it.
In abundance.

The times when we hurt someone.
The occasions when we spoke harshly or acted thoughtlessly.
The times when we stood silently by as other people were hurt.

We need to remember all the wrong we have done
and the times we have been forgiven
for our thoughtlessness or our cruelty or our ignorance.

September 11, 2001.
It is ten years ago
yet the pain for many is still so fresh.
All the deaths that have followed in the wars that have followed and continue--
all the pain that surrounds each of those deaths.
People are not statistics.
They are human beings.
Lives that matter--to other people--and to God.

There is another September day etched in the minds of some.
September 16, 1963.
Perhaps because it happened almost fifty years ago it is easier to talk about.
A bomb shattered the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Four little girls who had come to Sunday school that morning were killed.
Many were injured and the church was damaged.
Word of this tragedy spread around the world.

In Cardiff, Wales,
children began to collect money
to help replace the church’s shattered stained glass windows.

John Petts, a Welsh artist, offered to donate his services
to create a window for the church.
A local newspaper editor
launched a campaign to raise money for the venture.
They decided the maximum donation
would be half a crown (about 30 cents at the time)
because they really wanted the window to come from the people of Wales, and not just from a few individuals.

If you go to Birmingham to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church today,
and stand at the pulpit,
looking at the back wall of the sanctuary,
you will see this beautiful stained glass window.
Just as when we look towards the back of the church here at St. John's.

The light filters through the brightly colored glass
and the light touches--and blesses--
all who worship there.
At the center of the window at the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church there is a large figure of Jesus
with his arms widely outstretched.
His right hand pushes away hatred and injustice.
His left hand reaches out and offers forgiveness.

Underneath the figure of Jesus, the artist, John Petts, etched these words:
You do it to me.
You do it to me.

The people of Wales did not think about the differences
between themselves and the members of the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church.
They thought about all they shared in common.
They wanted to take some of the pain and sorrow of those families
and give them something beautiful to help them heal,
to show them they cared,
to show that they understood that each one of those four little girls mattered.

Today memorials are being dedicated at Ground Zero.
A symbol of the pain and sorrow and loss--
a symbol that we care,
that we know that each person matters in this world.

Not just in the United States of America that we so dearly love--
but each person matters in the entire world, in God’s world.

We cannot control what others may do to us,
but we can choose what we do to others.
Hatred and injustice need to be pushed away--
but forgiveness must simultaneously be offered
and given away generously.
What we do to others is no different
than what we do to Jesus.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

As many as seven times?
Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Where two or three are gathered...Sermon for Year A Proper 18

Where two or three are gathered...

Where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am among them.

That is what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel today.

Where two or three are gathered.
That seems like a really small number of people
to merit Jesus showing up, doesn’t it?
Two or three?

But we need to look at this gospel in the context of the time period.
A huge church in the time when this gospel was written,
near the end of the first century
would have been about 50 people.
That would have been an enormous Christian church.

Just think---St. John’s in the first century---
we would have been a mega church!!

Jesus wants to be clear that he will be with us.
But isn’t it interesting--
he says when TWO or THREE
are gathered
in my name.
He is telling us something about being in community with one another.
It doesn’t take a crowd
but it does take more than just one of us.
He is telling us that we need each other.

Both the Gospel and the verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans
offer guidance about how we can get along together. TOGETHER.
As a community of God’s people.

We are given guidelines for how to work out conflicts and disagreements.

I heard a story this week
that reminded me of my "Episcopal Moment" from last week
when I spoke about the rubrics
as to when you stand and when you sit during a worship service.
Here’s the story.:

A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation.
During the Friday service,
half the congregation stood for the prayers
and half remained seated,
and each side shouted at the other,
insisting that theirs was the true tradition.

Nothing the rabbi said or did
moved toward solving the impasse.

Finally, in desperation,
the young rabbi sought out
the synagogue's 99-year-old founder.

He met the old rabbi in the nursing home
and poured out his troubles.

"So tell me," he pleaded,
"was it the tradition
for the congregation to stand during the prayers?"
"No," answered the old rabbi.

" Ah," responded the younger man,
"then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?"

"No," answered the old rabbi.

"Well," the young rabbi responded,
"what we have now is complete chaos! 
Half the people stand and shout,
and the other half sit and scream."

Ah," said the old man, "that was the tradition."

You see--conflict crosses all boundaries.
Boundaries of religions, traditions, cultures and time.

Even in the early church--even in it’s earliest days--
there was conflict.

The reality is that conflict is part of life.
Conflict in organizations and in families
keeps consultants and therapists employed and busy.
Conflict in the church keeps many churches bound up,
unable to loose what God calls us to do and to give in this world.

Most of us hate conflict.
Yes, there are a few that like to stir things up
and then either watch from the sidelines as others battle it out
or else, jump right into the drama.
(That’s probablynot a healthy or happy person.)

Most of us find conflict at least uncomfortable.
You know how toddlers sometimes, when they are feeling shy,
will close their eyes.
They think that if they close their eyes and they can’t see you,
then you can’t see them.

That’s how we often treat conflict.
We turn away or try to ignore the situation--
metaphorically closing our eyes--thinking if we can pretend we don't see the conflict
then it won’t be there.

We might consider Jesus a first century conflict resolution consultant.
Jesus knew that conflict exists. He was often right in the middle of conflict.
He also knew do that conflict does not just magically disappear.

Jesus gives very specific advice on what we are to do
Jesus isn’t just telling us how to resolve conflict--
he is really telling us how to live in community together.
But he knows that whenever human beings come together,
there will be disagreements. We are diverse people with diverse opinions.
Our challenge is to work out those disagreements
and to do so while still loving
and remaining in relationship with one another.

Jesus has a three step process:

First, go directly to the person.
That’s right--go right to the person--just you and that person--and confront the problem directly.
Confronting and naming a problem is not the same as blaming someone.
Jesus is not saying,
go to that person and give them in a piece of your mind.
Jesus is saying go to the person and tell the truth--
that you feel hurt.
Or if you are the one who has hurt someone,
go to that person and say you’re sorry and ask their forgiveness.
Talk with the person and find ways together
to restore the broken relationship.

Go to the person
before you have talked ABOUT the person
to one or two or twenty-two other people.

This is not easy.
When we have been hurt, we want to hurt back!
For most of us to resist that “hurting back,”
we choose to just avoid the person.
Or to turn a cold shoulder to the person.

The temptation is to seek revenge--either aggressively or passively--
but Jesus offers a different way, a better way.
Go directly to the person, tell the truth, confess that you feel hurt,
or that you are responsible for their hurt--
then work towards reconciliation.

This is what Jesus means and what Paul affirms
over and over in the letter to the Romans, when they proclaim:
Love one another. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Lay aside the works of darkness.
And make no mistake--acts of revenge are works of darkness.

Gandhi got it right when he said,
“An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”

So that is step one.
Go directly to the person,
tell them how you feel,
work things out.

Jesus was a wise man.
He knew that not every conflict could be resolved in that way.

So he has a Step Two.
If the person won’t listen to you--or won’t even talk with you--
try going to them with two or three other people.

Now this is not for the purpose of out numbering someone.
Because, remember--this is not about revenge--
this is not even about wanting the person to admit they were wrong--
because the truth is,
YOU may be the person who is at fault.

The purpose of taking a few others with you
is to surround this person with love.
Surround them with love
so they might listen and hear what you want to say
and desire, as you do, to work things out.

But Jesus is a realist. He knows that even this second try might not work,
so he moves on to Step Three.
Jesus calls for the church to try to reach the person.
The whole community should reach out to this person,
hold them accountable but love them still.

Now this sounds scary.
It sounds like the church could go off on a witch hunt.
The truth is---and we all know it--
the church HAS gone on more than one witch hunt.
Some of us have horrible images of people being shunned
or made to stand up in church and being humiliated.

But the key to what Jesus is saying is in the next line:
...if the offender refuses to listen even to the church,
let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.

We need to remember that Jesus sat and broke bread and talked
to both Gentiles and tax collectors.
He did not exclude them, he did not reject them.
Jesus tried to respect the dignity of every human being--
even when he did not agree with them,
even when they did not agree with him.

Jesus is telling us that REGARDLESS--
and this is not about legal action this is about human interaction--
regardless, we are to love one another.

This is hard stuff.
Because essentially Jesus is saying,
your last resort people is to just keep on loving this person no matter what.

In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner says
that love is the most powerful and powerless of all powers.

He writes:

“It is the most powerful
because it alone can conquer
that final and most impregnable stronghold
which is the human heart.
It is the most powerless
because it can do nothing except by consent.”

We cannot force reconciliation.
We cannot make someone love us
just because we love them.
We cannot force forgiveness
even when we beg for it.

But we can keep working to love someone--regardless.

American poet Edward Markam wrote:

He drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle that took him in.  

Sometimes we will find ourselves on the outside of someone’s circle.
We will try steps one and two and three and three hundred and three--
to no avail.

There is only one thing left at that point.
To hold that person within our circle of love.
They don’t have to love us back
but we can still love them.
And Jesus will be right there beside us.

As Christians our primary call is to love.

Aristides, a philosopher in the Second Century
noticed there was something different about those Christians.
He wrote:

"Christians love one another.
They never fail to help widows;
they save orphans from those who would hurt them.
If a man has something, he gives freely to man who has nothing.
If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy,
as though he were a real brother...
If one of the is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around,
they fast several days to give him the food he needs...
This is really a new kind of person.
There is something divine in them."

Christians love one another.
As our own St. John said, over and over,
Little children, love one another.

Please understand that this call to love one another
does not mean
Jesus is asking us to remain in a situation or with a person
who is hurting us or abusing us.
But Jesus is telling us that revenge will not make the situation better
nor will it change the person.
Loving one another means we choose
to not return that hurt and abuse and hate.
We choose a different way.

There is a highway that is filled with bickering and jealousy,
violence and revenge, hate and fear--
and this highway is often very crowded.
It is usually about eight lanes wide on both sides and smoothly paved.

Jesus shows us a more difficult path to travel.
Not so wide, no so easy,
but it is the path
that leads us to the essence of all Love.

...where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.

We never walk the path of love by ourselves.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.

I read this on FACEBOOK this morning and felt it was really worth sharing. How many of us clergy types have heard the "spiritual but not religious" comment--or should I say, how many of us have NOT heard this comment. I like this article because I think she addresses and names what it means to be a community of faith. There is nothing easy about it--yet there is so much that is joyful and rich and deep about it. And challenging. DId I mention how challenging it can be to be involved with and stay engaged with a community that is both religious and spiritual.

I couldn't get a link to work so will just paste in the article. Worth reading and pondering. Indeed.

Home : Feed Your Spirit : Daily Devotional
Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.

August 31, 2011
Matthew 16:18

"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it."

Reflection by Lillian Daniel

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.


Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.

About the Author
Lillian Daniel is the senior minister of the First Congregational Church, UCC, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She is the author, with Martin Copenhaver, of This Odd and Wondrous Calling: the Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers.