Sunday, September 24, 2023

There's "getting in" and then there's "getting it"

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A minister died and went to heaven. You know…the usual picture: He is standing in a long line of potential saints waiting to be vetted by St. Peter at the pearly gates. He looks ahead of him and sees a strange assortment of people, in particular the guy right in front of him, a guy named Mort, a New York taxi driver. He was short, unshaven, wearing a ball cap and a stained t-shirt. He smoking a cigar and spoke very gruffly with words like “Hey! Will ya hurry it up, up there?” and “I ain’t got all day!”

The pastor thought, as a straightened the lapel on his black clerical suit, this should be interesting.

When Mort finally got to the lectern, he was warmly greeted by Saint Peter, who reached into an ornate jeweled box, and gave him a beautiful white and golden robe, a jeweled crown, and with the words “Well done, good and faithful servant!” he was led into heaven, choirs singing as he was ushered in.

Then the minister stepped up.

Peter looked the pastor up and down over the top of his spectacles, with a “hmph.” Read over the list uttering a series of grunts and clicking his tongue as he went. Sighing, he signals the pastor forward.

Reaching into a cardboard box, he give the minister a terrycloth bathrobe, a pair of worn out fuzzy slippers, and a paper crown from a burger joint. He was then handed off to a tired old angel with a flashlight who played a tune on a kazoo and then just looked at him with a  grunt.

“Hey!” the pastor protests. “What’s the deal? I am a priest of the church! I preached the word of God and cared for the church! That … guy!... ahead of me gets the crown, the white robe, and the scepter…, and… and all I get is…is…this?”

Peter looks up from his book, sighs, and says “Look, here in heaven we look for results. When you preached, people slept. When Mort drove, people prayed.”

We all want life to be fair, especially to us. When we don’t get what we think we deserve, we feel cheated and resent the unfairness, the person getting what we wish we had, and the one giving out the prizes.

The essence of Jesus’ teaching today is that God gives his grace and favor equally. We learn that God welcomes those who are new to the Church and those who have observed the rules, rites, and traditions for a long time. This is never an easy lesson to hear: that the logic of country clubs, concerts, and fine restaurants, is not God’s logic. The economy of grace is different that the one we’ve grown up with.

Jesus’ story was first directed to a Christian community that was filled with Jewish Christians who carried with them both the covenant of the patriarchs and prophets and also the new covenant in Jesus Christ. But it was also a community filled with people who were new to the faith…recent converts, many of them Gentile who were perhaps unfamiliar with the heritage and lineage of Israel.

The early church had to cope with this. Much of the real estate of the New Testament, particularly in Acts and in Paul’s letters, are taken up with this question. Do the followers of Jesus who were also Jews, members of the Original Covenant People, have a higher standing in the community and before God than the new, Gentile, converts?

In our day… which is better? Us “cradle Episcopalians” or people from other traditions who’ve come to our church and tradition late in the game? Or, even more, what about those folks who come to our church “just” for the 12 step groups, or the feeding programs, or to the Thrift Store?

Well, when you put it that way… I suppose we have to admit that the doors are open to everyone. And that God’s welcome and grace extends to strangers, visitors, newcomers, and long-timers alike.

And there is an ethical component to this as well. If we are deciding who deserves or needs God’s grace and love more than others, then we not only risk putting ourselves in the place of God, but we start to neglect the health of our own souls and spirit as well.

But there is still that nagging question of fairness. We can’t shake it! We struggle with fairness in the workplace, at school, and in our daily living. And we also struggle spiritually. Some religions have a hierarchy of heaven depending on how good or well-behaved you are or believe that what you are in this life depended on how good or bad you were in the last. Some traditions, even some Christian ones, set up a kind of hierarchy of grace that will determine how quickly one can get into heaven or if you’ll be stuck in a cosmic waiting room.  Whatever. We can’t seem to get past the idea that God must love us in proportion to our goodness.

But Jesus has a different idea. He says that there is plenty of work to around in the vineyard. And that it is all important work. Furthermore, there is plenty of grace to go around, too. The vineyard is big enough for all of us…long timers and newcomers both!

There is a message of comfort and hope to the late comers. So often I have heard people tell me that they wish they could pray, receive the sacrament, have faith, but they tell me, often with a sad shake of the head and a touch of resignation, that it is too late for them.  But it’s never too late! What we learn from Jesus today is that whether we come to faith and come the vineyard early in the day or late, we are all called in and we all receive the same reward. It is not too early and it is never too late for any of us.

And there is a calling to and a message for long-timers:  God wants all of us to share in his bounty, to apart of the family of God and community of Christ’s people.  And while we are tempted to think of ourselves as more deserving or more worthy because of time served, that is not the point. The vineyard, God’s kingdom, is for everyone. Those of us who have been at this for longer than others have a job, and that is to help invite people into the vineyard before the day is done, give support and help to those who are new to the vineyard, and assist those who come after us, as well as those who are old hands, to become proficient workers in God’s vineyard.

When we help someone to pray, or help them discover their gifts, or are present to someone in trouble and when we as a community are open to the enthusiasm and energy of people who, out of all expectation, have been called into the vineyard, then we are adding measure upon measure to the riches we have already received.

Jesus teaches us that there is plenty of work in the vineyard, that we all share the same wage—new life in Christ—no matter how long we’ve been at it, and that all of us, no matter how new or experienced we are, we all have much to learn, prayers to make, gifts to share, and lives to touch as the friends and apprentices of Jesus that we are.

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on September 24, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on September 24, 2023.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Choosing to forgive, choosing to live

I know what Jesus says, but the truth is this: there are times when I don’t want to forgive! I want to get even. I want my day in court. My pound of flesh. I want everyone to know I’ve been wronged, and I want the one who hurt me to get what’s coming.

That’s the truth. And I know I am not alone. The problem of course, is what happens when we organize our lives around our injuries— when I start to build my living around all the ways that I have been denied my due, and all the ways I have been injured—then it becomes quickly apparent that my life will bear the fruit of anger, of fear, of resentment. And that’s why Jesus says what he says about forgiveness.

Forgiveness happens when we choose to no longer organize our lives around the things and the people who have hurt us.

What the late Presbyterian pastor and religious writer, Frederick Buechner said of the deadly sin of anger applies to forgiveness as well:

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

The kind of anger that Buechner spoke of is grounded in an inability to forgive.

But it is not magic. Forgiveness doesn’t come with the snap of a finger. Forgiveness is a journey and a discipline.

I remember an example of this from 17 years ago, when five Amish schoolgirls were killed and 11 others were wounded by a gunman in Pennsylvania in 2006. What made this stand out from the rash of school shootings that have infected our country, what stood out the Amish community not only comforted the shooter’s wife and children, but they also forgave him. They even took in and cared for the mother of the killer as she struggled with his crime. As astounding as that was, you want to know what was even more astounding.? It was the anger and the revulsion that the Amish received in their community, in the media, and even in pulpits, because they forgave even as they mourned the death of their own innocent children.

A more startling example happened in 1948. Pastor Yang-Won Sohn’s two teenage boys were shot for being Christians by a rioter in Korea. Yang-Won not only forgave the shooter, but arranged his release from prison and adopted him as his own son.

Were these people crazy? How can people forgive such heinous crimes against innocents? It messes with our minds. Yes, Jesus said forgive, but there must be a limit, and these crazy people crossed it.

But Jesus said, forgive not seven times, but 70 times seven. OK, let’s count it up; we must be way beyond that limit now. But if we’re honest, we know when Jesus said “70 times seven” he was using it to mean “always.” Jesus teaches us that there is no limit to forgiveness, either to the number of times we ought to forgive and to the power of forgiveness. 

And then Jesus told a parable about the wicked slave who is forgiven a huge sum by his master, but then goes out and throws a fellow slave in prison for being owed just a fraction. We hear that the wicked slave then gets his just punishment. “Good,” we may say. He surely deserved that! We might forget that he was punished not because he owed money, but because he did not forgive. Jesus is very serious about this forgiveness thing.

The Apostle Paul reminds the Romans about another side of forgiveness. His take on it was about how we treat each other because of our differences. Some eat anything, others are vegetarians; they must not despise each other. Well, that’s easy enough. We can do that.

Some may worship God on one day, some on another; do not despise one or the other. Another easy one – we can do that! To each his own, we say!

But then the Apostle Paul asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” meaning, why do we pass judgment on everybody else? Perhaps because we so often see immense hurt and evil in our world and we want to see justice done. We cannot imagine why people maim and kill innocent people. We cannot understand the sickness of domestic abuse, trafficking of young men and women and children, the horror of genocide. These evils need to be dealt with. They need to be eradicated from the earth and humanity deserves to live in peace and safety. Forgiveness? Was Jesus being naïve when he said “70 times seven?” Probably not. Remember that even as Jesus was being executed he prayed that God would forgive his tormentors and executioners “for they don’t know what they are doing.”

So, how do we start? We might look once again at the Amish. Their ability to forgive came from the center of their theology, which is the Lord’s Prayer. They believe it when they say, “…As we forgive those who trespass against us….” Over and over, Amish leaders tried to explain that to journalists and others who could not believe the parents of the dead little girls could forgive. The Amish in that community made quite clear that forgiveness did not take away the pain of the death of their children. It also did not take away the requirement that the perpetrator be held accountable. They were choosing not to build their lives around hatred for the person who caused that pain.

So forgiveness doesn't say, "Act like it never happened" -- that's amnesia.

And forgiveness doesn't say, "well, nobody could have expected you to do any better" -- that's condescension.

And forgiveness doesn’t mean that there one who injured us is freed from accountability. That’s, well, unhelpful.

Forgiveness puts demonizing the other person out of bounds. When we demonize another person we deny their moral agency, as well as their fitness for being loved. In suggesting that the others are incapable of moral action—by turning them into monster-- we lets them off the hook.

The truth is that when we are hurt and we want to hit back and we want to make the other person suffer, but choose not to—when we make the hard choice to stop organizing our lives around the injury, we are freed from the shackles of living in the past, feed from the fetters of living the injury over and over again, freed from the prison of rehearsing the hate.

You see, forgiveness doesn’t let the other person off the hook. Forgiveness frees us to continue to live faithfully and ethically, because we have chosen to forgive and because we have chosen to no longer organize our lives around life's injuries that have afflicted us either intentionally by other persons, or the disappointments that have inevitably occurred as life has unfolded. 

In a few minutes, just after we recall Jesus’ gift of himself on the cross and just before we break the bread which is also his body that will feed us, his body, we will pray the Lord’s Prayer. And we will all say “as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us.” As you let that prayer marinate in your heart, think about what the Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said  about forgiveness:

“The simple truth is, we all make mistakes, and we all need forgiveness. There is no magic wand we can wave to go back in time and change what has happened or undo the harm that has been done, but we can do everything in our power to set right what has been made wrong. We can endeavor to make sure the harm never happens again.”

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on September 17, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on September 17, 2023.

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Faith beyond the "a-ha!"

It happens to all of us. Sooner or later, we will learn or discover something that changes everything, but it is still too big for us to comprehend. We have an “a-ha!” moment but “a-ha!”  turns out to be some combination of awe, wonder, confusion, and incomprehension all at once. In last weeks Gospel, we heard Peter “get it” but he didn’t “get it” all at once. It will take time for all the pieces to come together.

Well, Peter isn’t alone. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I “get it” but “don’t get it” all at once. It happens to all of us.

We heard in last week’s Gospel how Peter was able to confess and say out loud that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Peter is “the rock.” He got it. And yet Peter does not understand.

In today’s Gospel we hear that Peter could not bear the idea that Jesus would be arrested and then die at the hands of the very people he is here to save. As soon as Jesus proclaims Peter as the Rock on whom the all of the gathered saints will rest and, Jesus tells Peter that his thinking is backwards; that he is the tool of the devil. Why?

For one thing, Peter came from a world that expected the Messiah to be something quite different than what we’ve heard through a few millenia of Sunday School, sermons, and Christmas Contatas. The conventional wisdom was that the Messiah would be a political leader sent by God to liberate the Jewish people from their occupied and dispersed state. Instead, Jesus shows that the Messiah liberates people from their separation from God, each other, and creation. That’s a big mental and spiritual leap: to move from the idea that Jesus was a prophet to being the Messiah is one thing, but to re-imagine what the Messiah does is something else.

I think the same thing happens for us. We think we understand something because we’ve had the light-bulb go off, only to find that we are immediately thrust into a new set of questions. The “a-ha” answers a bunch of questions and solves a whole host of problems. And also shows off the world in a new, and sometimes troubling light.

Allow me to share three stories.

C.S. Lewis thought he understood pain. He wrote and lectured about the problem of pain. In his book of the same name, he talked about pain in two ways: in terms of the consequences of people’s choices and also about how God allows pain to help us grow. Living through two world wars seemed to verify his point of view—that pain comes from either human choice or from divine purpose. Then the unexpected happened: this Oxford don and lifelong bachelor, fell in love with Joy Davidman, a Jewish-American divorcee who had converted to Christianity partly due to Lewis’ writing. They met in 1953 and in 1956 she became ill with cancer. They were married in 1957 and she died in 1960. This is when Lewis learned about two other truths about pain: that we are drawn to our choices, like love, because we are always looking for something more; that sometimes pain happens; and, finally, that not just religion but all of life is an act of faith. He wrote about all this in his little book A Grief Observed under an assumed name, which ironically was gifted to him several times over by friends concerned about his own complicated mourning.

Henri Nouwen was a spiritual director, a priest, and a scholar. He thought he knew about the mystery of life in Christ, about how suffering can put us in touch with the cross and peer into the resurrection. He decided to put aside the trappings of success to live alongside adult mentally retarded persons in a community called The Arch. His experience of living with people whom society cast aside and who would never succeed, be wealthy or famous, showed him the fullness of life and of love.

Frances Perkins was raised a New England Congregationalist and became an Episcopalian as an adult. She witnessed the devastating Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire that killed 125 workers, mainly women and children, and in response studied Social Work at Columbia University and would become the first woman to in the Cabinet as U.S. Secretary of Labor during the Roosevelt administration. She led the development of Social Security and Unemployment Insurance and worked out labor and management relations during the war years. During her time in government, she took regular retreat and spiritual direction at an Episcopal monastery and lectured on scripture, theology, and Christian social responsibility in her parish in Manhattan. Perkins experienced God’s grace through Sacramental living in all creation. For her, to live in a loving relationship with God was to participate in the work of grace for all people, especially to working people and the poor.

Paul’s letter to the Romans presents a picture of the Church that is grounded in Christ Jesus. Much more than doctrinal uniformity, Christian community is shown when people change and call out of each other their very best selves. But this change just doesn’t fall off of trees.

Over and over again we hear stories of people who are firm in their faith—who have an “a-ha!” and get it. They are converted from one kind of life to a new life in Christ. And then something else happens, something they cannot avoid, and they are converted again.

This is one thing we learn from Peter. When we follow Jesus Christ, we will be changed. And we will be changed again and again.

Many Christians think that change must happen all at once, and then is locked down. Once and done! Often we fear that our faith will be in vain if we are anything less that 100% certain about everything. But this keeps many people from fully engaging God in Christ, because their need for this kind of certainty keeps them from experiencing the kinds of change the Spirit brings. The thing is that life in Christ does not require us to know all the answers. Faith is trust. Faith is knowing in a different way, over and over again.

The Gospels give us a picture of Peter as the icon of a Christian in motion. And he is so like us! He could not bear to hear that Jesus would suffer and die. In his heart he knew that Messiahs aren’t supposed to do that. But the more he followed Jesus, the more he ‘d learn that for God to transform and make whole creation and heal the rift between us and God, that God would break the rules over and over again.

Peter will discover that faith is fundamentally hopeful. Starting with his confession of faith, the rebuke he heard from Jesus, and moving through transfiguration, arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, the Gentile mission and on and on, would learn again and again that the light bulb, the aha!, is never the end, but is always a new beginning.  He will discover that faith always looks forward.

That kind of faith gave him—and gives us! — the capacity to absorb everything new God taught him. Faith gives us the capacity to move from certainty to openness to change this is how God builds a church that engages and transforms the world.

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on September 3, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on September 3, 2023.

Friday, August 25, 2023

"Handle with Care!"

When I was a teenager, after I passed my driver’s test, my Dad finally gave me the keys to his car (an ivory ’66 Corvair with a four-speed!) with the following words “Handle with Care.”

I think that when Jesus handed Peter the keys to the Kingdom, he slapped on the same warning label: “Handle with care.”

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus is in the closest place in the Holy Land to foreign territory, Caesarea Philippi, on the northern coast of 1st Century Palestine.

The place was a super-market of foreign religions! It is a place where people who came from all over the Roman Empire, who travelled between Europe, Asia Minor, and Africa, could come and worship, rest, and play in familiar surroundings. Kind of like an American hotel in a faraway city, where you could get a Big American Breakfast just like at home.

The Jewish people in the holy land considered the place to be something like ‘sin city.’ It was a sign of their occupation, filled with foreigners, interlopers, and the base for an invading army. So why did Jesus choose this particular place to quiz his disciples about his Messianic identity? Well, maybe, if you fast forward to the time when Matthew’s Gospel was written, it might make more sense because Caesarea Philippi was also the site of one of the earliest known Christian churches.

It is in this foreign outpost that Jesus asks his disciples “who do people say that the son of man is?” This is more than a straw poll. Yes, knowing what people “out there” think is important. And their answers reveal that people—including his closest disciples-- were still trying to figure out who Jesus is. A prophet? He’s a lot like that John the Baptist fellow... maybe him? Some said that he's Elijah, the forerunner to the Messiah.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He asks his friends and apprentices: “who do you say that I am?” Of course, Peter (who still was known as Simon) speaks right up. You can almost see him raising his hand like a student in class “Oh! Oh! I know the answer! Pick me!” And like the smarty pants he is, he gets the answer right. He says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus gives him a gold star… and a new name. Simon is now Cephas or Peter or “Rock” and he will be the cornerstone upon which the new church will be built. And he is handed the keys… the keys to the kingdom of heaven. These figurative keys will give the Church the ability to let people into the Kingdom of Heaven or keep people out.

But to paraphrase Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben whose dying words to Peter Parker was… (say it with me now!) “with great power comes great responsibility.”

It takes courage to stand up and confess Jesus as the Messiah and Son of the Living God. To stand up in the most secular of ancient cities in first century Palestine is a taste of what the disciples would be sent to do when the Risen Jesus sends them into all the world, proclaiming, teaching, and baptizing.

The problem with keys is that they are used on locks. We use locks to secure things, to keep them safe. We use locks to keep doors closed. The temptation of holding keys to the Kingdom is that we will tend to focus more on who we want to lock out and than on who we will let in.

It is so easy to put conditions on God’s grace. We have all heard the stories: People who have been refused communion because of their marital status or who they love. People who are excluded from the fellowship of the church, or told to worship in a separate space, because of their race. There are churches who seat men in one place and women in another. There have been people kicked out of churches because their pastor or church leaders didn’t approve of them, they asked pesky questions, or are simply ‘inconvenient.’

There is a big temptation to use this passage as permission to act as God’s chief gatekeeper. Different traditions squabble over who really holds the keys —Rome! Constantinople! Geneva! Canterbury! My Church here but not Yours around the corner! Why? Because we think that the one who holds the keys gets to make the rules.

If you’ve been around our own Episcopal Church even for a short time, you know that we’ve not been immune to the misuse of keys. We have divided up along the lines of worship style, what edition of the Prayer Book we like, whether we think women and LGBT persons or people of color ought to be deacons, priests, bishops or even communicants! Only in the last few years have we come out of a tough period of controversy that some have called “The Anglican Wars” as we sorted these issues out. Some people were kicked out of one parish or diocese or another, some picked up their marbles and simply left, either because we were too strict or not strict enough!

We think of ourselves as very inclusive and welcoming, but getting here was neither easy nor simple. All of this sorting is natural and very human, and every religious tradition will go through it every few generations. This problem is that all too often we close the lock the doors and pocket the key and justify it by saying “hey! It’s not my fault. After all, they are Jesus’ keys!”

At least in this country, locking someone out is mostly a matter of inconvenience or shame. But in other places around the globe, it can kill.

Remember, keys not only lock doors they open them, too.

What if what Jesus wanted these figurative keys to be used to open doors instead of locking them? What if these keys are meant to push back the power of death, not simply hold it at bay? What if we have gotten the purpose of these keys backwards?

Which is why we need to remember the warning label: “Handle with Care.”

I believe that the reason this Gospel story happens in a city of outsiders and interlopers, and the reason Jesus cares about how people understand him, is that we who confess Jesus as Lord have a job: to open the barriers and unlock the doors to God’s reign, just as Jesus did throughout his earthly ministry and through the cross and resurrection.

The keys of Jesus open the way of life to all people! We know what it looks like to lock, bolt and chain the door against outsiders—against the threats “out there.” But what if we used Jesus’ figurative keys to open doors that were once locked?

In looking back on forty years of ministry, I recall that many (most?) of the weddings, and a lot of the baptisms, and funerals I’ve been a part of were for people who were refused these in other churches. And, I have to admit that it took me a while to change my own heart about this. I can’t say when it was, but at some point I woke up and realized that I, as a Christian who functions as priest and pastor, can easily erect hurdles and hoops that can lock people out of the kingdom. So I have changed my practice: these days more and more I want to help people honor their desire to be married and let go of controlling the outcome—even if they never set foot in these four walls again, I want us to demonstrate Christian community, to use the keys Jesus gives us to let people in, even if it doesn’t go the way we expect or if it causes us to change our habits, even a little.

Sometimes, I imagine putting out an ad or putting up a billboard on busy intersections that said “if you have ever been turned away, abused, beat up or tossed out of a church” because, well, life happens, we are truly sorry, and now we are opening our doors to you. Or I fantasize about doing a “y’all come as you are” baptism… no classes, no forms, not even an offering plate, just a pool of water and maybe a big feed afterwards. It’s just a thought but I fantasize about how that might look. Why? Because God once unlocked our hearts and brought us into the Kingdom.

It is said that there are only two reasons everyone is not a Christian: (1) They either do not know a Christian or (2) They do. All of us were given our own set of keys to the kingdom of God at baptism and by our words and our actions we show people who Jesus is. But "handle with care!" Because it's on us! We can show people a Jesus who is indifferent or a Jesus who is engaged. We can show people a Jesus who can be a bully or a Jesus who is compassionate. We can show people a Jesus who is defensive and or we can demonstrate a Jesus who invites and embraces.

You see? What we bind or loose everyday really does make a difference!

Jesus took his friends and apprentices to a city of strangers, interlopers and foreigners and got them to say out loud that Jesus is the messiah and the son of the living God. Jesus entrusted us with keys and invites us to do the same…with a warning. With these keys we may lock people out; or with these keys we may, with God’s grace, open up locked places of the heart and let Jesus in.

I believe that we learn and do the work of Jesus, we will invite, embrace, and graciously, humbly open doors.

We all have been handed the keys to the kingdom! ”Handle with care!”

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on August 27, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on August 27, 2023.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Pestering Jesus

There is something strange going on in today’s Gospel. Did you notice? Maybe it struck you as odd but you shrugged it off because it doesn’t fit with how we typically read the Bible… but there it is, as plain as day. Did you notice it? In today’s Gospel, Jesus the Rabbi goes to school.

This underscores an aspect of the Gospels that we often overlook: Jesus teaches, yes; and he certainly heals and shows power; but there is something else, Jesus learns and he changes. What was said about Jesus as a child—that he grew in wisdom and knowledge—is still happening for the adult Jesus in his three-year mission: Jesus learns. He grows in wisdom.  

Wisdom is a constant theme of many movies, TV shows, literature, and even graphic novels, although it rarely described as such.

Remember The Matrix? Neo undertakes a journey to discover his role in overthrowing the Matrix starting with his first meeting with the Oracle, a grandmotherly figure peering into an oven baking cookies, in an apartment where the students hang out as if they are doing their homework after school.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker learns the ways of the Force under the tutelage of the ancient Jedi master Yoda, who seems at first to be an eccentric, slightly annoying little creature but turns out to be steeped in ancient wisdom.

The film The Way, director Emilio Estevez cast his father, Martin Sheen, as a man named Tom who walks the Camino de Santiago, “The Way of St. James.” through northern Spain. Along the way he encounters all kinds of people and discovers the difference between the “life we live and the life we choose.”

Recently, the latest iteration of Star Trek has just wound up its three-year story, which was built around an older, wiser, Jean-Luc Picard, imparting hard-earned wisdom to his younger cohorts—and, most of all, the wisdom they impart to him!

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Wisdom is the personification of God’s knowledge, God’s creativity and God’s transforming love. Rather than focusing on the power of God that sends plagues to Pharaoh, parts the Red Sea or those other “big” miraculous things, Wisdom is a way of meeting God through other ways of knowing. It is more intuitive, depends on our senses, and comes out of reflection, artistic and musical expression. Wisdom is where heart, emotion, and thinking meet.

So it makes sense that when the earliest Christians looked for ways to describe their encounter with Jesus, it was the Wisdom literature that spoke to them the most. Their experience of Jesus was not just of a person who did powerful things, but their encounter was one that opened their eyes, their hearts, and their minds to the very presence and person of God. In Jesus, they experienced both the knowledge of God and the welcome of God.

This is at the heart of Jesus’ encounter with the foreign woman in today’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples went into a Gentile region near Galilee when a woman from those parts asked him to heal her daughter. At first, he flat-out ignored her. He wouldn’t even acknowledge the request.

She shouts after Jesus and the disciples. Finally, he turns to her and speaks the conventional wisdom concerning the Messiah. When he says that he was sent only to the Jews – not to Gentiles like her. He even says that “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did you hear that? He calls her a dog!

Nevertheless, with courage and desperation, she persisted. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Finally, the picture begins to make sense. Jesus commends her faith and affirms her as a beloved child of God. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

I don’t know about you, but this story startles me because it does not fit with my soft, cuddly picture of Jesus, who here acts in an arbitrary, harsh, and unloving manner—until she changes his mind!

For centuries, preachers have struggled to make sense of it—and to explain away Jesus’ apparent bad manners. Some say that the Greek word Jesus used for “dog” really means “puppy.” (Uhm, no. It doesn’t.) Some say that he was critiquing the cultural norms of the day… really? By being rude? Maybe Jesus was using this encounter to test and stretch his disciples’ understanding of God? Hmm… we’ll see.

Here’s an idea. Maybe the Gentile woman taught him! And the early Church remembered the encounter because they too were learning that lesson over and over again themselves! The lesson? That God’s reign is bigger than tradition or culture or “the way we’ve always done things.”

Remember, Jesus grew up in the first century and that he lived his early life only among Palestinian Jews. He spent almost all of his ministry among Jews – the children of Israel. His training was Jewish. His bible was the Hebrew Scriptures. He lived in a social and religious culture that saw Gentiles as “other,” often as unclean, or taboo.

Was Jesus was stuck in such a mindset or was he deliberately pushing the envelope? After all, he did deliberately go to a place where Gentiles lived when he encountered this persistent woman. Did this encounter cause him to re-think commonly accepted views about Gentiles?

Whatever happened between Jesus and the woman, he clearly went from saying “no!” to commending the woman’s faith and answering her prayer. I think Matthew’s Church remembered this encounter precisely because those early Jewish Christians were starting to see their Gentile Christian companions in a new light! In short, in this story, Jesus is showing an early Church the importance of learning something new.

Jesus’ mind might have been changed, but the real news is that the early Church—the Church of Matthew’s Gospel—was changing! They went out from Palestine into the wider world of the Roman Empire; and they were leaving the Synagogues of the Diaspora and going into new communities, and discovering over and over again that Jesus’ teaching, the Holy Spirit, and the grace of God was changing people in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. Over and over again, they were encountering people about whom they would say “…Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And in that they found healing!

In this transformation we see the challenges and inner struggles faced by every succeeding generation of Christians. Their transforming, God-provoked re-imagining of a long-held, commonly practices mirror and inform the struggles we experience ourselves in a troubled culture during this excruciatingly troublesome year.

Amid our struggles for inclusion, our long history of racial inequality, the ways we understand Jesus, the Gospel, we will meet and encounter people who challenge our long-held, often cherished notions of faith.

Ten days ago, two branches of the Church recognized in their calendars of saints the sacrificial witness of two very different saints on the very same day—August 14. The Roman Catholic Church remembered the witness Saint Maximillian Kolbe and the Episcopal Church remembered Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

Maximillian Kolbe was a Franciscan priest in Poland who overcame his early, learned anti-Semitism and after the Nazis invaded his country sheltered Jews fleeting the Holocaust. For this he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1941, when a prisoner escaped, ten other prisoners were rounded up to be executed. Kolbe stepped in and volunteered to die instead of one of the others, and so the Nazis executed him on August 14, 1941. He was canonized in 1982.

Jonathan Daniels was a seminarian who grew up in Keene, New Hampshire and attended the Virginia Military Institute and eventually the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Mass. In 1965, he answered the call to go to the South and help register disenfranchised black citizens to vote. And on August 14th, he was jailed in Haynesville, AL, along with six other Freedom Riders including a Catholic priest. After six days. August 20th, sixty years ago today, they were released but while waiting for a ride, they were confronted by a deputy sheriff who aimed his shotgun at a young girl named Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed her aside and was killed in the blast. The priest was wounded trying to protect the others. Ruby Sales continues to be an activist for civil rights and justice to this day.

I don’t know if I would ever have the courage of either of these two saints, but their example inspires us to seek faith where it will be found, to speak out against racism, tyranny, and bigotry in all its forms. The story of the Gentile woman challenging Jesus is the story of the Church—of us—being challenged every day to seek the face of Jesus in the faces of the people God gives to us every day, and to remind us of our baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons whoever and wherever they may be.

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on August 20, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on August 20, 2023.

Friday, August 11, 2023

"O God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small."

Stop me if you've heard this one.

One day, a priest, a rabbi, and an imam are out taking a hike in the forest. They see that they need to cross a wide stream, but there is no bridge for miles in either direction, and they have no boat. The rabbi, shrugs, and steps out and walks across the stream to the other side. The imam looks at the priest, and says “Well, if he can do it, I can do it,” and he walks across the stream to the other side. The priest looks up and down the stream, and then across. The rabbi and the imam shout to him “Are you coming or not? We don’t have all day!” The priest sighs, shrugs, and says “Well, if they can do it, I can do it!” So he steps out and… sploosh!... he’s in the water, sopping wet. The rabbi says, “What? You didn’t see the rocks?”  


Can we please give Peter a break?  After all he did walk on water!  He did ask to have Jesus call him and he did step out. And he certainly got further on his walk on the water than I… and probably any of us… ever would. And even when he got frightened and began to sink, he did reach out to Jesus for help.

Not a bad performance, don’t you think? In fact, I’d say that Peter’s actions was something of a miracle! Certainly compared to the priest in my little story!

We tend to think of sinking Peter. And we say in our hearts—see? He has no faith! He couldn’t do it! It’s like that other joke about this incident ending up in the newspaper and the headline reads, “Apostle Can’t Swim!” In my minds ear, I can hear the other apostles now, kidding Peter endlessly about this and busting his chops with remarks like "you know what happens when you put The Rock on the water? It sinks!”

But in all this we forget that everything that Peter did that day was an act of faith!

That doesn’t make stepping out towards Jesus in the midst of a storm any less scary, or his impromptu swim any less important, because his experience teaches us that our faith lives best is when we focus on Jesus. But when we get distracted and feel overwhelmed, the best we can do is cry “Lord, help us!”

So, I have another riddle for you: Why did the disciples cross the lake? To get to the other side!

When the early church remembered Jesus’ miracle, they could identify with it immediately. Not because they were sailors or fishermen, but because the new, young church was like a being in a small boat on a big sea in the middle of a storm.  So, in the Gospel of Matthew (as in Mark, whose outline Matthew follows) “going to the other side (of the lake)” means going from a safe place to a new, foreign or unknown place of mission—and this was by definition a risky and stormy trip.

Matthew is telling the story of what Jesus… and how he rescued Peter… so that his church can remember what it takes to weather whatever storm we experience.

And we all experience storms. It can be a personal storm—a conflict, facing a dilemma, dealing with a difficult illness or the loss of a job. Or it can be a corporate storm—in a workplace, a family, a neighborhood or even a church. Whatever the reason and whatever the place, we are all familiar with storms. We deal with them as best we can. We try to keep the water out and try to stay afloat, even if we don’t make any headway.

Jesus walks across the water and through the storm to come to the disciples. Some paintings I have seen of this shows a serene Jesus walking across the water as peacefully as a stroll down a lane on a summer day. But I think that when Jesus walked across the water, he got wet. The storm was all around him and the wind was still wailing. The powers of the storm and the wind and sea tried to overwhelm him, but could not. He walked through the storm, not immune from its effects and fully immersed in its reality. He was not overpowered by it.

He would do that on the cross. He would face everything evil and sin has to offer, including death. He would die a true and real death, just as he faced a true and real storm on the sea that day, and he would rise from the dead. In walking on the sea in the storm, he is not just demonstrating his power, he shows us that the storm is real and that the storm does not deter or stop him.

Notice that it is only after Jesus gets into the boat, helping a wet and chastened Peter, that he stills the storm. So there are three miracles here: Jesus walks on the water. Peter walks on the water. Jesus stills the storm.  But first, people got wet.So, let’s give Peter a break. And let’s give ourselves a break, too.

There are moments (at least) when we are all of us people of “little faith.”  Martin Luther has an accurate description of us:  he said that they, and we, are Simul justus et peccator  which means "simultaneously saint and sinner".  Peter is a lot like us: a lion of the faith with a heart of gold who is at the very same dense, fearful, and reactive.

The disciples  are just like us--- faithful people on a difficult journey. A journey beset by storms and it is in the middle of the very real storm comes a very real Jesus to meet them at the scariest moment.

At the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, there is a little plaque that was given the new, young president by Admiral Hyman Rickover, who commanded the US Navy’s Submarine Service. It sat on Kennedy's desk during his presidency and it was the same plaque Rickover gave to every new captain of every boat in his command. It reads: “O God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

Every Christian will experience storms. Baptism does not make us waterproof! We will get wet! In fact, to do the ministries we are called to do, we will be sent into some pretty thick weather! But Jesus comes to us, and he is with us in the storm. We cannot still the storm or walk on water alone. But it is Jesus who has power over the storm. The storm will not defeat Jesus—and so the storm will not defeat us! Only sometimes we have a hard time believing that! And we people of little faith, we are at once saints and sinners, need only reach out to Jesus and say “Lord, save me!” and he is there in the midst of the storm to rescue us. 

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on August 13, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on August 13, 2023.