Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sermon for Year A Epiphany 5

This is the last sermon I preached as the Rector of St. John's, Asheville, NC after accepting a call as the Dean and Rector of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, Vermont

You are the salt of the earth

You know you are not from Vermont
when you don’t own a pair of gloves
and when you make that confession to Vermonters
they look at your with horror.

You know you are not from Vermont
when you wake up and it is snowing snowing
snowing like you have never seen it snow
and the schools are not cancelled
and neither is your 7:30 AM breakfast meeting.

You know you are not from Vermont
when “sweetie” and “darlin’” and “bless his heart”
are part of your every day language--
but not of your average Vermonter.

You know you are not from Vermont
when you go house hunting all day
and then find yourself feeling so homesick
for North Carolina at night
that you want to cry yourself to sleep.

You know you are not from Vermont
but you know that
North Carolinians
and Vermonters alike
are all children of God
and that God calls us to do crazy, wonderful things
and set out on amazing, terrifying adventures
whether we are the ones going
or the ones staying,
the ones welcoming,
or the ones saying good-bye.

God is always challenging us
to sing a new song--
even when you loved the old song.
That dear song you have been singing
for the past 6-1/2 very full, deeply rich years.

I was sitting in the airport  waiting for my flight home,
reading the gospel lesson for today-- are the salt of the earth...
when I heard the commentator
on one of the overhead television sets in the terminal
say the word SALT
and I looked up.

Apparently there is a shortage of salt.
So many states have been hit so hard by this winter
that they could use a few million more tons
of salt for their highways.


Jesus has something to say about salt, too,
but it is not about salting highways or wintry weather.

What he says is this:
You are the salt of the earth.

Could there be a more perfect line in scripture than that one for today?
For this last worship service that I will share with you as your Rector
here at St. John’s.

You ARE the salt of the earth.
You have given my life and our ministry together flavor and zest.

You are the light of the world.
Isn’t it amazing that Jesus looks at those around him--
and I truly believe his eyes still gaze on us--
and declares them--and us--to be the light of the world?!

Jesus sees all that is light and bright within us.
Jesus urges us to let our lights shine.

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket.
Because you know, if you did,
you would burn up your basket
and be left with nothing but a pile of ashes.

We are called to lift our lights up
so the light will shine outward.

How do we let our light shine?
You know.
You have been doing it for a long long time.

Isaiah gives some pretty good instruction.
Lift up your voice like a trumpet.
Speak out for those who have no voice
or whose voices are being silenced.
Loose the bonds of injustice.
Share YOUR bread with the hungry.

One of the great gifts of having served as your Rector
is that I know St. John’s.
You ARE St. John’s.
Not the building.
You the people are the city
that is built on this hill.

Every one of us has a part in letting the light shine.
It doesn’t matter if we are in Asheville, NC
or Burlington, Vermont.
Place is not the issue.
We are called to go where God sends us
or stay where God places us
but regardless--
we are called to let our lights shine.

Jesus says you are the salt of the earth
and you are the light of the world
but he also warns the church
how disastrous it can be
to not care,
to keep hidden that God-given light
as if it is your own personal property.

We do have a choice,
free will.
We can let that light shine
or we can refuse to even kindle the fire.

How foolish that would be.
Because the light belongs to God
not us.

God wants that light for the world
not for any one or for just a few
who happen to have power and prestige.
The light of the world is for everyone.

Jesus says YOU
(and the word that is translated YOU
from the Greek text is plural)
Plural--that means y’all.

Y’all are the light of the world!
Y’all are the salt of the earth!

Let y’all’s light shine says Jesus.
Keep y’all’s selves salty, says Jesus.

We are all entering a time of transition.
This can be so terrifying
that we are tempted to hunker down
and hold our little unlighted candles tightly to our chest,
not wanting to risk getting burned or hurt or making a mistake.

But being timid has never been God’s way.
My goodness! Mary was just a young teenage girl
when she was called to bear a child that would change the world.

And Abraham and Sarah?
How old were they when they were called to leave everything they knew
and set out on a journey,
strangers in a strange land.

God’s way is never timid.
God’s way is to throw open our arms
and say, LET IT SHINE!!
Let it shine, y’all!!

Yes, Lord, we are scared of what may lie ahead.
Yes, Lord, we do not know if we have enough salt for the road.
But we trust you, God.

We trust you
because the one thing we can be sure and certain about
is your love and your presence, God,
wherever we go.

So if you want a t-shirt for the months that lie ahead,
iI would suggest you make one with these words on it:

We are the salt of the earth.
We are the light of the world.
We are St. John’s, Asheville
and we are awesome.

You are.
Y’all are absolutely awesome.
God knows it.

And thanks be to God, so do I.
I have been truly blessed to walk this part of the journey with you
these past almost 7 years.

I love y’all more than you can imagine,
but God loves y’all even more.
Much, much more.
Don’t forget that.
Don’t ever forget.

Sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple: People of Hope

People of Hope

When I was in high school
I had quite a record collection.
Some of you remember LP record albums.
LP stood for Long Playing to distinguish them
from the smaller 45s of juke box fame.
They refer to LP records today as “Vinyl.”

Well, I had a stellar record collection.
I think I had...well, 15 albums!
I thought I was pretty cool.

This past week I asked Abby, our administrative assistant
(who is considerably younger than I am)--
I asked Abby,
“So, Abby, approximately how many tunes (songs)
do you have on your iPod?
just give me a rounded off figure.”
“Oh, maybe 2,000, 3,000--probably more,” she said.


But back in the day--
I thought I had a pretty awesome collection of music with my 15 albums.
I had the Beatles and the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan
and Joan Baez and Judy Collins.
The Temptations, Junior Walker and the All-Stars!
And Pete Seeger.

I remember that Pete Seeger album so well.
The album title was We Shall Overcome.

Pete Seeger died this week.
He was 94 years old.

I was surprised by how affected I was by his death.
As were many others.

We shall overcome.
Pete Seeger’s life was dedicated to overcoming prejudice,
and racism and hate.
His life and his music spoke volumes
about his love for the created world
and his love for God’s created people,
in all our wonderful diversity.

Pete Seeger played a lot of instruments,
but he mostly played the 5-string banjo.
He said that the first time he ever saw or heard a banjo played,
was when he was a little boy
and his father took him to a mountain music festival
in North Carolina.
(Yes! you can give a shout out here for Asheville!!)

I thought about Pete Seeger a lot this week
including when I studied our gospel text.
The Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.
This is what we celebrate today.
I could imagine Simeon and Pete Seeger sharing a lot in common:
their old age and their wisdom
and their optimistic view
of the world.

Mary and Joseph have come
to do what all good Jewish parents would do--
to present their son Jesus to God at the Temple.
It’s what people did with their first born son,
to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the gift of a child,
And yes, in that time period,
the gift of a son, a boy.

It is clear that Mary and Joseph are not wealthy people.
If they were wealthy they would have bought
and sacrificed a young lamb
in honor of their son.

But they are not wealthy.
In fact they are poor.
The offering they make,
a pair of two turtledoves,
is the least expensive sacrifice
that can be purchased at the temple.

I don’t think they are making this offering simply because it is the law.
I think they make this offering because of love.
Love for God and love for their son.

What happens next is the unexpected part.
Two people--two OLD people--
Simeon and Anna, see this family
and immediately they know.
They know this child,
this Jesus,
is someone special.
They have prayed that they will live long enough
to see the Messiah that God has promised.

We shall overcome.
You know, the one thing none of us overcome is death.
Death WILL come to each of us and all of us
and overcome us.

But what has been overcome in this gospel story
is doubt.
Simeon now knows that all that was promised has come true.
Anna knows that her prayers have been answered.

Lord, you now have set your servants free...

We might say that Anna and Simeon had a bucket list
of what they wanted to happen before they died.
They did not dream of going to exotic lands
or playing a concert in Carnegie Hall
or racing in the Indianapolis 500.

There was only ONE thing on their bucket list--
and when Mary and Joseph walked into the Temple that day
with this child Jesus,
all their dreams came true.

Yet there are those disturbing words to Mary--
 ...and a sword will pierce your own soul too--
Those words foreshadow a time ahead
when dreams will seem shattered.

Yet even with that prophetic view of sadness ahead,
Simeon and Anna were people of great hope.
GREAT hope.

An article about Pete Seeger in The New York Times said,

“Through the years, Mr. Seeger remained determinedly optimistic.”
‘The key to the future of the world,’ he said in 1994,
‘is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.’ “

Finding the optimistic stories
and letting them be known.

That’s why I thought about Pete Seeger
when I read today’s gospel.

What happened in the Temple that day,
is one of these optimistic stories
that we are called to make known.

To share the good news
that this Jesus really is somebody special.
...mine eyes have seen....

And the last line in that gospel today--
...And the child grew and became strong,
filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.

Jesus received a blessing from Simeon and from Anna that day.
a blessing that reflected God’s immense hope for the world.

We need to nurture hope and optimism.
Because Life is not easy or perfect or neat.

Life can be marvelous
   but it can also have ragged edges so sharp
   that it does indeed feel like our souls have been pierced to the bone.

I can guarantee you that life is messy, complicated.
But I can also guarantee that there is blessing.

That’s where our focus must lie.
That’s where our hearts need to live.

On the head of Pete Seeger’s banjo,
he had painted these words:

This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

The church should be just such a machine,
surrounding hate
and forcing it to surrender.

Pete Seeger, like Simeon and Anna,
lived a life of optimistic hope.
We, too, are called to be people of hope.
People who keep finding the optimistic stories
and sharing those stories with others.

Jesus is certainly one of God’s optimistic stories.
As the letter to the Hebrews says,
It is clear that he--Jesus--did not come to help the angels,
he came to help us.

Jesus came to help us remember: there is hope.
Jesus came to tell and to teach us:  the optimistic stories.
Jesus came to encourage us:
now YOU, go and tell.

We are called to be people who hope the world
can be transformed.
We are called to be people who hope
that we are ourselves can be transformed.

People who hope God’s dream for the world
becomes a little more real,
a little more true,
each and every day,
that darkness and evil and injustice
shall indeed be overcome.
With God’s help.

Deep in my heart
I do believe.

I do believe.
I do believe.