Saturday, July 24, 2021

From Scarcity to Abundance

Pop Quiz: There is only one miracle of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels. Can you guess what it is? Is it Jesus walking on the water or the feeding of the 5000? 

Yes! That’s right! The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four gospels.  Which may not be what you might expect: there are lots of cartoons, songs, poems, and paintings about Jesus walking on the water, and while the miraculous feeding is very well known, it’s not something that appears in very many stained glass windows.

But the fact that all four Gospels remember this incident four—maybe five – times tells us something: it says that among the very earliest Christian communities they all remembered that miraculous feeding and considered it very important!

It might not be so surprising that Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s churches remembered it in common… they, after all shared both the Gospel of Mark and some other Gospel material that would end up in the other two books…. But John’s community remembered it, too; and except for the Passion, Cross, Resurrection and Ascension, this is one of the few things Jesus did that all four of these widely diverse communities remembered in their Gospels.

So, what gives? What makes this miracle stand out?

I have two theories:

For one thing, I believe that Jesus did this miracle more than once. I think the Gospels point this way because not only does it appear twice in the Gospel of Luke… one time feeding 4000 and another 5000, perhaps because it happened in at least two different places which might explain how multiple oral traditions existed and how it ends up in all four Gospels.

If Jesus did do this more than once, as I think he did, we can guess that the miracles were also a prophetic act, a sign, that told the people both who he was and what God was up to.

Now there’s a common theory out there, that the feeding of the 5000 was a kind of stone soup moment: you know the story, right? Where the traveling teacher (rabbi, magician… take your pick) turns stones and water into soup by coaxing the starving townspeople to give up the vegetables they were hoarding and to create a soup that fed them all with lots left over. In this approach to the story, Jesus got everyone to contribute their sack lunches so that all were fed.

Well, I don’t buy it. Not in this case. It’s not that I am against stone soup— over the years, I’ve seen how God’s grace and power works that way all the time! It’s just that this not what is happening here.

And this is where my second theory comes in: For Jesus, these loaves of bread and these dried fish where not just a kid’s lunch multiplied; but was instead food given by God… any Jew of that era would have understood immediately the reference to manna, the food that God sent the Hebrews as they wandered in the desert after they cross the Red Sea during the Exodus!

Oddly, the miracle of Jesus walking on the sea only appears in three of the four Gospels--Luke doesn't include it. But John’s Gospel pairs the feeding of the 5000 with Jesus walking on the sea precisely to make us think of the Exodus. 

There diverse witness of both these events not only make a strong case that these miracles happened, it’s also why both the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus crossing the sea on foot meant so much to the people of the early Church!

Bishop Nick Knisely of Rhode Island commented about this in his blog yesterday, asking the question “how would people know that Jesus was the Messiah? What was the sign they were looking for?”

“We tend to imagine that in a time of military occupation, the people of Israel were looking for a messiah that would deliver them from that bondage – but we don’t remember what … would signal that the Messiah had [indeed] come. In reading through the literature of that time, the defining sign was supposed to be the return of the Manna….”

So in the earliest Christian communities, the miraculous feedings stand right alongside the Passion, the Resurrection, and the Last Supper, as signs that God’s anointed Messiah has come to restore God’s people.

And just as these early communities compared the feeding of the 5000 with the manna of the desert, they also compared Jesus' walking on the water with Moses parting the Red Sea. They were thinking of Exodus and linking it both to Jesus' actions, and to baptism and Eucharist.

This has a bunch of implications for us today:

First, we are tangibly connected to God’s covenant given in the Exodus: The Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, Holy Communion, is not only how we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection until He comes again; it also links us with the Passover. The miraculous feedings remind us how God tended, cared for, guided, and fed his people in a time of exile and journey. As God cared for those pilgrim people, so God cares for us!

Second, we are reminded that we God’s way is one of abundance. When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people, all they can see is scarcity: they say, “all we have are five barely loaves and two fish but what is that among so many?” But look how Jesus accepts that seemingly meager gift from the young boy and turned the everyday food of the poor and working people of the day, barley loaves and dried fish, into an abundant banquet! Jesus demonstrates to us that God’s reign has begun and that all of God’s people are welcomed, fed, and cared for in abundance through the grace of God.

Of course, there are times when we don’t see Jesus coming and when we do, we don’t believe it. Just as the disciples were startled and frightened to see Jesus coming to them, walking on the sea, we are often unprepared for God at work among us. This is why we need a regular rhythm of prayer and spiritual nurture. A regular pattern of daily prayer, meditation on scripture, Eucharistic living not just alone but together, prepares us to walk with Jesus and to see God at work in abundance where before we only found scarcity.

One of my favorite examples of how this came to life in a practical, yet profoundly spiritual way is how, in 1976, Millard and Linda Fuller began Habitat for Humanity. It was a time where there was a great need for affordable, decent housing for the working poor, and where society was exhausted by war, scandal, and upheaval. With a few tools and a small group of volunteers, who never asked “what is that among so many?” as they turned a small community church project into a worldwide ministry. In Habitat, local volunteers and the working poor themselves work together to create homes.  demonstrating God’s love and grace along the way.

And that is only one example.

Time and again, small bands of faithful people show off God’s generous love in tangible ways from feeding the hungry, to visiting and bringing the sacrament to the sick, to finding new ways to be the church in a time of pandemic, war, and global disruption. And it happens over and over again in congregations with seemingly limited resources and not enough hands, who in the hands of Jesus, discover how little becomes much, the few become many, and the weak become the strong. But remember… it’s not stone soup… it’s Exodus.

It’s Exodus because every day, God leads faithful people through the desert of their worry, fear, and doubt towards the Promised Land. God’s abundance always builds on even the simplest of our gifts.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Called to Follow Where Jesus Goes

In case you haven’t noticed, there is something missing in today’s Gospel reading from Mark. What’s left out? Oh, nothing much! Just two of the most familiar stories in all of the New Testament! What we don’t hear about in today’s reading is about Jesus feeding the 5000 (Mark 6:35-44) nor do we hear about Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:42-52)! Instead, all we see is Jesus coming and going—first in Galilee (Mark 6:30-34) and then across the sea to Gennesaret (Mark 6:53-56). What’s so big about that?

Now I don’t know why the people who edited the lectionary did that…they didn’t ask me. But this edit does something very useful: it forces us to look at the Gospel and Jesus’ coming and goings in a new way. Instead of being distracted by the Big Miracles, we can pay attention to Jesus just coming and going.

So let’s just do that for a minute, shall we? Let’s look at Jesus’ coming and going in the Gospel of Mark. What does that tell us about what God is up to?

The first thing we learn is that Jesus is attentive to the needs of people. At the beginning of the reading, Jesus arrives and what does he see? He see his own people, the Jewish people, come to him for healing, to hear him teach, to be fed either in Word or with bread. Jesus sees them and has compassion on them because they are aimless, in need of direction and purpose. They are, we are told “like sheep without a shepherd.”

And then, at the end of the reading, Jesus arrives on the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee and meeting people who come to him for healing, for teaching, and who are hungry, and he ministers to them, too.

In both instances, Jesus meets people where they are, as they are, and he teaches them and heals them. But wait, there’s more. In the passages that were left out, we find out also that he feeds them (in the miraculous feeding of the multitude) and rescues them from danger (in the miracle of walking across the water).

Which leads us to the second thing we learn from watching Jesus’ comings and goings: it doesn’t much matter where Jesus goes, the needs of people are pretty much the same.

Remember, a few weeks ago, I said that in the Gospel of Mark, the movement across the Sea of Galilee represents the movement between the Jewish world and the Gentile world? Well, today, by leaving out the big dramatic miracles in between, we see Jesus moving from healing, teaching and caring for one set of people then we see Jesus healing and caring for another set of people.

Different people. Different places. Same need.

What we learn is that God sees something that we often miss: hungry people are hungry people, sick people are sick people, lonely people are lonely people, frightened people are frightened people, and people who are like sheep without a shepherd look pretty much like other people who are like sheep without a shepherd. Sin is sin, poverty is poverty, injustice is injustice pretty much everywhere we go.

Following Jesus’ comings and goings puts to an end the idea that charity begins at home… that pernicious little lie that says that we must first take care of our own. It calls me out of the cocoon I create when my own hurt takes priority over everyone else’s.

In God’s eyes, all poverty is poverty, all oppression is oppression, all sickness is sickness, and all sin is sin. Jesus goes to both sides of the lake and ministers to everyone.

When it comes to compassion and ethics we are tempted to live as if, to paraphrase the late congressman from Massachusetts, Tip O’Neill, who said “all politics are local,” as if “all suffering is local.” We tend to focus on what is personal to us or close to home. In fact, God sees everyone and reaches out to everyone. When we watch Jesus’ comings and goings we discover that God’s love, and healing power, is for everyone and available to everyone-- no matter who they are or where they live.

This is especially important for us to hear today.

It used to be fashionable to wear bracelets and buttons that read “What would Jesus do?” Well, the answer is found in watching his comings and goings. I’d prefer to ask “where does Jesus go?”  Jesus goes to both side of the Sea. He goes to the Jewish side and the Gentile side. Jesus goes to wherever there is human pain and hunger and need. And when he gets there he meets people as they are and touches them, he heals, he teaches, and he feeds them in the ways that they need.

And we are called to follow where Jesus goes.

A sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11B. Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

"Don't Freak Out"

“Welcome to Florida!”

I have heard this sardonic comment a lot in days leading up to the arrival and passing of Hurricane, er, Tropical Storm, er, rain-event Elsa last night. Of course, in the run up to the storm, your parish lay leadership and staff did what they were supposed to do and showed me the process for caring for our church property and our parish members during what could easily have been a major storm. I was so impressed that everybody seemed to know their jobs and went about them with a minimum of fuss.

A local meteorologist on a local television station repeated over and over again to folks in the run up to the storm the following advice: "Don't freak out." Good advice. I could hear Jesus saying this to his freaking out disciples as their little boat crossed the lake that stormy night long ago.

Most important, what I saw at St. John's was baptismal ministry at it’s best: followers of Jesus following Jesus by calling upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit to do the Father’s will.

It turns out the storm, thanks be to God!, was kind of a nothing-burger (at least in our area). But the people of God at St. John’s were ready for the worst because they went about their work of learning and doing the work of Jesus --taking nothing for granted; working in a calm, collaborative, and prayerful way. And that, my friends, will get us through any storm! 

From the "Priest in Charge" column in this week's e-newsletter at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater, Florida.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Jesus and the hometown crowd

I once lived in a place that that must have been central castings idea of the ideal midwestern “hometown.” It had not one, not two, but three “Main Streets’ (even though none of them were called “Main Street”)! There was one that went past the small college, through the center of town past the courthouse and the opera house, crossed a small river and connected to another part of town. There was one that was perpendicular to this one, and went from the local “grand” hotel, past businesses, the armory, and post office and then past a few churches. Then there was the third “main street” that also started at that hotel but went north (actually, compass east) along the Ohio River eventually past the supermarket, the strip mall, the multiplex, and the big box stores.

At that time, I ministered in a variety of little churches up and down both sides of the Ohio River, mainly along what I called the “west coast” of West Virginia but also on the Ohio side. And in each of those little Appalachian towns there was a “main street,” whatever they were called. 

And they all had their own special day or weekend or week. Sometimes it was July 4th, or Labor Day, or else it was built around the county fair circuit. And even though I didn’t grow up in these places, their rides, booths, fireworks, corn dogs, ramps, and cotton candy, all had the feel of being “home.”

Being from a “hometown” can be very comforting and grounding; but it might also be something very different… someplace one gets away from.

The Rev. Dr. Andrew Harmon of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, reminds us that “….for many people, hometowns can also be sources of pain. They can hold old anxieties. Maybe these were places where one found one’s true identity… or had to leave to become their own person. Maybe the hometown might have been a place where one really didn’t “fit” in. Maybe one’s faith (or lack thereof) was growing in a different direction, or maybe one fell in love with someone from outside or from the wrong part of town. Maybe a person’s political beliefs affected their view of the place or just made it hard to talk to others. Some people looked evil in the eyes for the very first time in that place, or found themselves ostracized for who they knew themselves to be or how they wanted to live their lives or for whom they loved.”

He’s right! Small town life can be complicated!

Whatever “hometown” means for us, it can be lifegiving and heart-rending all at once! And that’s how it was for Jesus!  

Today’s Gospel from Mark shows us Jesus returning to his hometown with his disciples in tow. And while we don’t know if he gave his gang the grand tour, showing him the sites and meeting friends and family, we do hear that were some pretty significant challenges.

I am always surprised about how little we know Jesus’ upbringing (although some of the Gnostic and early Christian material that didn’t make it into the New Testament, has some pretty fascinating and outright weird stories about the young Jesus)!  But here's what today’s passage tells us: He grew up in a big family. His parents, Mary and Joseph were devout Jews and probably pillars of the local synagogue. Jesus certainly inherited his faith and learned faithfulness in that home. I love the scene in the Gospel of Matthew where the adolescent Jesus hangs out at the synagogue for three days, sitting among the religious leaders, peppering them with questions and suggesting new takes on old stories! When the Bible says that Mary and Joseph pondered these things in their hearts, I think that was ‘Bible speak’ for “what’s Jesus up to now?”

Now here it is twenty years later and Jesus has left home. He’s gathered some blokes to come along while he begins his ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing. He travels up and down the region staying in homes and villages and cities all around Galilee. Along the way, Jesus talks about something called the kingdom of God and utters shocking, outrageous statements about his relationship to God.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, he tells those who witness or experience his healing power not to speak, for fear that their testimonies will be misunderstood and, perhaps, get them into hot water.

But you what happens in small towns, right? Word gets around and people flock to Jesus. But it’s not to hear the barker at the county fair…they come to Jesus to be made well in body or soul. Others, want to see a miracle with their own two eyes. In Mark 5, immediately before our text today, crowds saw Jesus casting out demons in the land of the Gerasenes. We heard last week how others saw him raise the daughter of a synagogue official and the healing a woman with a blood disorder. Jesus has been busy, on a journey that has taken him far from home, but now he returns to his hometown.

I wonder if Nazareth was a place of some comfort for Jesus? I wonder if seeing familiar faces, being reintroduced to familiar sights, sounds and smells might have reminded him of all the things that happened—those meals, those events, and maybe even those shenanigans, with his family and friends since childhood. Perhaps all this nostalgia got in the way of others being able to see Jesus for who he was.

“Where did this man get all this?” they ask. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

Jesus observes that “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

So just like that, Jesus went from being a hometown hero to pariah. Because why would the hometown hero come home and call people out?

Well, Jesus had a prophetic role as well a teaching, healing ministry. We like the other stuff, but prophets come to unsettle, startle, and stir things up. They call people into new ways of seeing the world. Prophets call attention the work of God and demand faithfulness. I can hear the grumbling now: We gave him his start and taught him everything he knows, and this is how he treats us?

You know, I think I understand that hometown crowd. Rather than “booing” them for their inhospitality, I think I get their resistance. I mean, I know that I am not always ready for Jesus to challenge and change me! Too often this is not what I want or expect from Jesus. Neither were they ready for what he had to offer them.

I think that by now you know that I am allergic to the word “disruption.” It has been the trendy concept in leadership training circles both in business and in church for over a decade. Often people think disruption is just coming in and breaking the dishes just for the fun of it, as if the shocked reaction is the main event.

But Jesus is doing something else… he is saying that God’s kingdom, God’s reign, is here now and that the things of God are not what we’ve come to expect. And that disturbed the folks in his hometown synagogue. And often that disturbs us.

For many of us, faith is supposed to be cozy, especially in a world where good news can be hard to come by and things are so unpredictable. But as a hymn in our hymnal says “the peace of God, it is no peace but strife sown in the sod…” The punchline of that hymn urges us to pray for that same, “marvelous peace of God.”

You know, of course, the difference between a real prophet and a religious huckster, right? A real prophet points to God, pointing beyond themselves and allows God’s spirit to work and for people to grow into the things of God. A huckster says that only they know the way to God and it’s all about them and their technique or charisma. As much as we want real prophets, often our hearts and our fragile egos want the ready answers and the good feelings.

Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” That’s because it is uncomfortable to be in the presence of a prophet. It can wreak havoc in the corners of your heart, in your own house, among your own people. When God speaks into those fragile, protected parts of us, or even to the warmest, coziest places of our lives, our souls’ capacity for love grows—our love for God and our neighbors grows. We change and grow in the process. It might feel like scales falling from our eyes, encouraging us to see those who were, for the longest time, invisible to us. We might start to witness walls of hostility and division come tumbling down, or cease to be built in the first place. We might learn to welcome those whom we, at one time, labeled “unsafe” or “other” or “criminal”.

We are all shaken up by Jesus in our own way. But whatever happens, routine religiosity is the first thing to go and transformation occurs in its place. Like the people in Jesus’ home synagogue, they were at once “astounded” at God’s words and works and they were invited to take part in Jesus’ challenging and healing power. 


 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Jesus' radical, reconciling healing

Compassion. God’s power is shown through compassion. That’s what Jesus’ encounter with two women, one an adult the other a teenager, shows us today. One dies and is brought back to life and the other is as good as dead and returned to living.

It all started when a man named Jairus, a local synagogue official, throws himself at the feet of Jesus, begging him to heal his daughter, who is near death. Jesus immediately goes with Jairus to see her.

While Jesus is on his way, a crowd has gathered and is anxious to see him in action. Deep inside the crowd is another woman, whose suffering Mark vividly describes. She has been afflicted for 12 years “with a hemorrhage,” most likely some form of vaginal bleeding that ancient medical writers describe as involving great suffering from both the malady and its treatment. She has spent all her money on physicians and cures without any improvement (which still sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) and is growing worse. Yet she is a woman of great faith and greater courage and she moves through the crowd just to touch Jesus. That’s all she needs one little touch, no one will notice, and she’ll be well.

When she touches him, she is “immediately” healed, only to hear Jesus ask, “Who touched me?”

Uh-oh! She is caught! Which explains the “fear and trembling” part.

You see, healed or not, she should not have touched Jesus, let alone been mingling in a crowd. Her illness made her and everyone she touched ritually unclean. But instead of a reprimand, Jesus’ words are a blessing and affirmation: “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

She not only experienced healing; she experienced salvation! She was reconciled to God and to her community.

While all this was going on, someone comes to Jairus and reports of the death of his daughter. “Don’t trouble the Rabbi any longer,” the grief-stricken father is told. But Jesus will not be turned away. “Do not be afraid,” he says. “Just have faith” …just like the faith embodied in the woman just healed.

Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home to find wailing mourners, to whom Jesus says, improbably, that the girl has not died but is only sleeping. With that, the mourning turns to ridicule but Jesus’ sends the incredulous mourners away. Then, with great tenderness Jesus brings the child’s parents into the room where their daughter lay. He takes the dead child by the hand and says simply, “Little girl, I say to you arise.” The young woman “arose immediately and walked around.” After which, he instructs the parents to do what parents do: give the child something to eat. He returns the child to her parents so that they may continue to care for her.

Notice something about these two healings: Mark tells us that the girl was 12 years old, which is interesting because the woman in the crowd had suffered for 12 years.

In the culture of that time 12 was thought to be the marriageable age. The “little girl,” then, has died before she could become a wife and mother. The woman had suffered an illness that not only prevented her from bearing children, but had also separated her from community, restricting her movements to a life of ineffective treatments, ritual bathing and limited contact with her family and friends. Jesus not only rescues these women from death, but he restores to them to life and, most important, reconciles them to their communities.

Mark’s Gospel shows us Jesus exercising God’s power in compassion. In the face of human suffering Jesus prioritizes the needs of these sufferers over social taboos and conventions of his day. He talks to a woman in public, allows an unclean person to touch him, and violates the stringent taboo against touching a corpse. But this is how Jesus’ healing happens.

Faith, especially as embodied by the bleeding woman, can exist in the face of seemingly hopeless situations.

Faith, embodied in Jairus, allowed him to set aside his status as a local religious leader to seek the healing that Jesus offered.

And even today, we see that faith shows up over and over again in the women and men who struggle in the face of illness and death to not only remain faithful but to remain connected and active in community.

We find Jesus today in the faces of the people who care for the sick, and bring blessing and spiritual healing to those who, because of illness, are cut off from community. Whenever we send out a lay Eucharistic visitor, one who brings the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood to someone who is in hospital, or who is home-bound, or who is dying, we are saying that no matter the situation, this person is still apart of our community, still one of Christ’s people. These are people who face suffering with great faith and they need our companionship, our prayers; they need to hear God’s word and taste Jesus’ body; they need Christian community.

These days, I am blessed to follow in the footsteps of these caring lay people and see the healing and hope they bring on behalf of this parish. Even when the only words we can share is the Lord’s Prayer and maybe the 23rd Psalm, I know that as a priest I am standing on the shoulders of the caring people of this congregation who supported this woman, her family and loved ones in prayer, sacrament, compassion, and spiritual friendship.

In today’s Gospel we find that Jesus also identifies with the women who sacrifice everything for the health of their families.  In many parts of the world, women who, in many parts of the world, have to trek miles to obtain the nearest clean water and carry it back to their children. There are places even today, where women pass along to each other the wisdom of childbirth and the care of the sick.

These were the places where the power of Jesus was made real. In affirming the faith of these otherwise outcast woman. In meeting the faith of Jairus and his wife, Jesus reminds us that in all the places where we feel most alone, vulnerable and afraid, Jesus’ healing power is revealed. His healing is manifest in the compassion and healing touch of women and men who dare to care. It is this everyday compassion where everyday people still experience the power of Jesus. 

As the hymn says, “where cross the crowded ways of life,” these are the ways that Jesus’ healing power is made known. And right now, having witnessed that Jesus’ compassion, he still (as he did with Jairus’ daughter) takes our hand and gives us something to eat as nourishes us in broken bread and poured out wine, his own body and blood.

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8-B) 

Given at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater, Florida

See the bulletin here.

See a video of the sermon here.

See a video of the entire liturgy here.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Stilling our storms

To tell you the truth, I am no good at weather prayers. I know. It comes with the territory. People will say to me usually in an offhand way, “Pray for rain, Father” or “Pray that it doesn’t rain, Father,” and so on. And while some evangelists and television preachers may claim to be able to re-route entire hurricanes with the authority of their prayer, I am barely able to summon up a rain drop.

But none of that is really important. What’s important is that Jesus is with us in the storm. I remember a song that I learned growing up in my home parish, lo, these many years ago sung by group of folk singing nuns called The Medical Mission Sisters.

I saw rain drops on my window, joy is like the rain
Laughter runs across my pane, slips away and comes again
Joy is like the rain

I saw clouds upon a mountain, joy is like a cloud
Sometimes silver, sometimes gray, always sun not far away
Joy is like a cloud

I saw Christ in wind and thunder, joy is tried by storm
Christ asleep within my boat, whipped by wind, yet still afloat
Joy is tried by storm

I saw rain drops on a river, Joy is like the rain
Bit by bit the river grows, till all at once it overflows
Joy is like the rain

In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus and his disciples in boats crossing the Sea of Galilee. They encounter a raging storm. They row with all their might. They adjust or even haul in their tiny little sail. They bail like mad. It looks like the raging sea will swamp their tiny boats. Jesus is in one of the boats. He is not rowing, nor he is not bailing, he is asleep. They come to him, upset crying out “Jesus! Don’t you care that we might drown?!?” So, Jesus wakes up, speaks to the storm and all is quiet. Then he asks “Why were you afraid? Where is your faith?”

They are amazed. And while the most skeptical among us might scoff, deep down we are amazed, too, and perhaps a little jealous. We wish Jesus could just speak to us and still the storms that we experience. Over and over again we want God to fix it, to make it better, to make the bad things go away. But what Jesus wants us to do is cross the lake.

At the beginning of the story, Jesus invites them to “cross the lake.” When you read the Gospel of Mark, pay attention to when Jesus crosses the lake. It means that Jesus is moving from one world, one culture, one people, to another. For farmers, herders and townspeople, the people for whom the Gospel was written, going out into the water was a crazy, risky thing that was only occasionally necessary. Fishermen plied their trades in a dangerous and unpredictable environment, where anything could go wrong and usually did. Crossing that little Sea of Galilee was deliberately stepping out into the unknown. And this is precisely what Jesus wanted them to do.

He wanted them to go even though storms happen. And then he fell asleep.

The important part of the story was not that Jesus stilled the storm—but to learn that no matter the journey, when storms happen, Jesus is with us. He is with us when the storm is the most fierce. The disciples lack of faith happened when, in their fear, they forgot that truth.

I remember when I first saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu in person the very first time. It was right after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985—he was to be the keynote speaker at the diocesan convention that the parish I was in was hosting! That was both very cool and way crazy!

At that time, he was still the Archbishop of Cape Town, and South Africa was still under Apartheid. Back then, no one knew if the white government was going to give up enforced racial separation and no one knew if violent revolution was going to happen. Everyone thought Tutu was a marked man. But still he smiled a lot. At the gathering where I first saw him, someone asked him if he was afraid someone might kill him. He said—and I will never forget this—he said, “Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.”

He did not say any more than that at that time. But I have come to understand what he meant: Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian; but forgetting that we are God’s, and that God is with us and that nothing can separate us from the love of God-- that is the worst thing that can happen to a Christian!

We are prone to forget that, and a flap that made the news this week has reminded me of Jesus’ lesson in the boat, when he asks, “where is your faith?”

It seems that a bunch of RomanCatholic bishops have decided that their church should deny communion to President Biden because they disagree as to the best way to limit or prevent abortions and the role of government in that. These bishops want to ex-communicate the President over this. Now, I understand, that this is their playground and they get to set the rules in their own sandbox, but when their judgements affects our witness and the witness of every historic Christian tradition, because the culture has this way of mashing us all together, we have a right to step up, raise our hands, and clear our throats.

In the Episcopal Church, there is one and only one reason for a priest to prevent a person from receiving communion… and that is when two people are at such enmity with one another that they can’t work it out. I am allowed to say, you can’t come to the table until the parties reconcile… and even then, our bishop can tell me to take a chill pill and let them in anyway. I can’t (and won’t!) stop you from receiving communion… even if you agree or disagree with me or anyone else on an issue, let alone how you vote.

This gracious approach is, in fact, an old, old practice. The 17th century Anglican priest and founder of Methodism, John Wesley said, “Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast, ye need not fear or be turned away, for Christ has holpened all mankind.”

I love what Jesuit priest, Fr. Jim Martin, said yesterday “The Eucharist is not a toll both into heaven but medicine for the sick and sinful.” Pope Francis himself reminded us that “The Eucharist is not the reward for saints, but the bread of sinners.” 

Several of my clergy colleagues have pointed out on social media that even Judas received from Jesus at the first Lord’s Supper. This is Jesus’ table, and the one who stilled the storm and crosses rough seas with us, invites all of us to it.

No matter the storms, as we cross the sea and make the journey, Jesus is with us, in our little boat, whipped by wind, yet still afloat. And when he sends us into the world, he is with us: he feeds us, he teaches us, and he stills the storms within us. Don’t be afraid.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

More than a seed in a cup

You may not know this about me, but I am not very talented when it comes to plants and gardens. It has been said that my motto is “if I can’t mow it, I don’t grow it.” I can’t say that I am very proud of this fact, but it is one that I have learned to live with.

Or maybe I just talked myself into this mind-set because of the childhood trauma of not being able to get the bean to grow in the paper cup during elementary school science class.

So, I must admit that I am ever so slightly jealous of those people who seem to have this super-power of just making things grow! I have a friend up north who has this ability.  His yard is an explosion of color. His seeds always germinate, and his flowers bloom precisely on time and in splendid array. I know this is not by accident. It takes time, know-how, and a lot of back breaking work. It also takes love. And whenever my former church had a spring clean-up day, there he was, with all of the gardeners of the parish, making things ready to bloom and grow.

And just because I might not be able to grow a bean in a cup doesn’t mean that I—along with all of God’s people—aren’t a part of God’s sacred, growing garden!

Listen again to today’s parable from the Gospel of Mark about a farmer planting seed: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  Notice that the sower in the Gospel doesn’t really have a green thumb. Even though it sounds easy, it’s not as if all you have to do is scatter seed on the ground, then kick back, sleep and rise night and day, and “viola!” you have a rich harvest!  So, while the way Jesus describes the kingdom of God makes it sound as if God’s reign comes to fruition all by itself, everyone who first heard Jesus speak this parable knew it was a bit more complicated than that.

Think about all the care that goes into growing things.

Care goes into seeds, even before they are planted. Today, each packet is dated and put in a cool, dry place to aid in its germination rate. Good gardeners will keep track of how well different seeds have performed. Green-thumbed people can tell you which variety of tomatoes gave the most fruit and which was sweetest. They can tell you what crops underperformed, which seemed to attract pests, and which plants can keep the deer away. They haven’t just planted the seeds, and walked away – they’ve paid attention, noticing what flourishes, and what struggles.

Care goes into the soil, too. Many gardeners have worm bins or compost piles, churning out what they call “black gold” – rich, fertile soil for the garden beds. These folks’ thumbs turned green because they used their senses and their brains to constantly evaluate their soil – sometimes even sniffing the dirt! – to determine what it needs more of. They keep track of what has grown where so they can rotate their crops, allowing the seeds themselves to deposit and draw from the earth to strengthen the health of the whole.

Real gardening and farming is a relationship between the grower and the grown. I know more than one gardener who talks to their seeds and plants, perhaps humming while working in the garden, or perhaps adding chatty commentary about who is growing well, or who is doing a good job.

Have you ever lived in an area where the very first weather report of the day on the radio or tv was the farm report? The weather is important. The water has to be just right – an ideal Goldilocks measure: not too much, and not too little, and the daily farm report let them know when to expect rain, or when a day will be particularly hot or when an unexpected cold snap might impact winter fruit and grain.

Jesus says the Kingdom of God is just like all of that. He says that there is more going on in our daily living, both spiritual and material, than simply scattering seed with mad abandon if we are to allow God’s reign to take root in us, in our church, and in our community. And just as there is a lot of unseen work that gardeners and farmers do that earn them their green thumbs, there is a lot of unseen work in the work of personal holiness, effective witness, and living out God’s justice and mercy, that makes us grow in faith, love, and power.

So, how can we create favorable conditions for the kingdom of God to flourish? How do we prepare the soil and care for the seeds of God’s love planted in us so that we grow into the full stature of Christ? What would our daily farm report of the soul tell each of us?

Jesus used the images of farming and everyone who heard him, even the ones who didn't farm, knew what he was talking about. Let's look at each aspect of what it takes to be a successful grower-- of our life in Christ.

You can't grow without good soil. And it's not just "dirt!" Soil that is not fed and “rested” uses up its ability to nurture and grow plants. Sabbath is one of those practices that gives us some time for our soil to lie fallow, some time for the earth to replenish itself. Sabbath practice is one of ceasing and pausing. It’s counterintuitive to the world, which would have us work without a break—and even makes our play-time busy and frenetic. Our soil is turned and aerated when as we take time to dwell with God. Delving into the Word creates space in the soil. Living out our baptismal promises and maintaining a Eucharistic life keeps our spiritual soil from compacting and drying out. Being nourished in Word and Sacrament prepares us be good ground in which God’s kingdom will take root.

We water our small seedlings when we pray or meditate, when we take time to be with God. This might look different for different people; for some, being with God is singing along to worship music, and for others, it’s sitting in silence. For some, it might be in reading a book, and for others, in going on a walk. For others in might be filling a bag of food for school kids, or companioning a lonely nursing home resident. Taking time to abide in God, the seeds we are caring for are scattered into good soil and nurtured as they grow.

Remember the garden or the farm is never for itself. The blossom is there to be enjoyed, and as birds and insects take shelter in the plant, they carry the seeds far and wide. The harvest of grain feeds many people and animals. A farm left to rot in the field is a farm not doing it’s work of feeding the hungry. So we must remember, as we nurture our own spiritual lives, that it is just to help us feel good but prepares us to love and care for our neighbor in all we do.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds that grows into the biggest of plants. In Jesus’ day, they knew that the seed already had within it everything it would need to grow into a plant. And they knew that for a harvest to happen, many, many seeds, all cared for together, are needed to become a field of grain, or a riot of colorful flowers. The same is true for us: we aren’t just seeds in a cup, but God’s kingdom is like that farm, orchard, or garden where many seeds grow together, are cultivated together, so that all may do ripen and bring about God’s harvest of Gospel love, Gospel justice, Gospel transformation.

Jesus is telling in today’s parable that for us to be that nurturing community we must be nurtured and cared for with fruitful Spirit of Jesus’ love. We are both the garden and the co-workers with God who tends and nurtures all of us.

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, (Proper 6B) given at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater, Florida on June 13, 2021.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Jesus show us the heart and mind of God

 “What are you, crazy? Are you out of your mind?”

That kind of astonishment just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?

This kind of question always comes when innovation happens. When people do stuff that we just don’t expect. You’ve heard the stories about what they used to say the Wright Brothers, right? “If God wanted man to fly, he’d have given us wings!”­

Or when television replaced radio? Who would want to watch that all day?

Or when someone suggested that we’d all be connected by a network of computers called the internet…that we access the sum of human knowledge—and cute cat pictures—on things that we carry around in our pockets?

If it is outside of our experience, or if we just can’t imagine it, then we automatically think it’s fantastic, impossible, and even a little crazy!

And that’s exactly what happened to Jesus…they thought he was out of his mind!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus has been on a roll. The Gospel of Mark says he's been driving demons and healing people right and left.  He says that God’s Kingdom is here right now! On the way, Jesus has become so wildly popular with the crowds that it was hard for him to enter the towns and, by today's passage, even to find time to grab a bite to eat.

Jesus is on a roll.

But is he also a little crazy? Has all this success gone to his head?

His family is worried, perhaps a little embarrassed, and afraid that Jesus might have gone over the top. They want to bring him home for some rest, some home cooking, and a little quiet.

Of course, there were detractors who said that Jesus is really doing the devil’s work! Some religious officials from the home office in Jerusalem pay a visit and conclude that Jesus is not simply crazy, he's possessed! They say that the only reason he can cast out demons is because—wait for it—he has one of the chief demons inside him!

So, which is it? Has Jesus gone over the edge? Is he evil disguised as good? How has Jesus' ministry of preaching, teaching and healing created such controversy?

The truth is that Jesus is so totally what the religious authorities don't expect that they have absolutely no idea what to make of him.

In today’s parlance, we might say Jesus was being a “disruptive innovator.” That he is disrupting the religious system the way that Uber was supposed to have disrupted the taxi business or that the PC disrupted the typewriter business. But the problem with disruption theory is that people think that if you break enough dishes someone will eventually invent the paper plate… they break things just because they can—and hope for the best!

That’s not what’s happening here. Sure, Jesus is announcing a new vision of God and introducing a new way of relating to God, but instead of simply replacing the old with something new, Jesus is calling us back to the heart of the whole divine enterprise in the first place!

At the heart of Jesus’ vision is the love of God. Jesus’ says God’s Kingdom rests on God’s desire for the health and healing of all God's creation, that God stands both with us and for us. Jesus is showing us that God’s love is there for all of us – no matter who we are or where we are from.

So, when Jesus heals and casts out demons and sits with people who are considered sinners, he shows us what God is doing. And when Jesus confronts unclean spirits; heals diseases of mind, body and spirit; reconciles people to their community; comforts the brokenhearted and the lost; and stands up to power that creates injustice, it feels like a bolt out of the blue because it’s like nothing that any of us expects.

That’s why when we first see Jesus—or we meet someone who has taken Jesus into their lives—our first impulse is to ask “What? Are you out of your mind?”

Why is that? Well, for one thing, we too often make religion into something that regulates our relationship with God, instead of it being our loving response to a loving God who loves us first.

Religion offers us a way to structure our thinking and relationship about God and how we make meaning out of the world we live in. Our liturgy and scripture and tradition all give us forms by which we express our grateful response to all of God's activity. These are all good things.

The trouble arises when we get it backwards: when our faith stops being a framework that facilitates our relationship, but instead becomes a way for us to manage and control God. This is the thing I hear over and over again from people who tell me that they are “spiritual but not religious.” They do not want their spirituality to become a strait jacket for themselves or God.

This is the predicament that the Scribes find themselves in today's story. It is not that their way of relating to God is wrong—they are, in fact, part of a rich tradition of faithful service to God and God’s people. It is just that Jesus wasn’t what they expected. They were so used to the way things are, that they forgot how things can be. And that can happen to any of us!

Jesus reminds them that the Law is there to help people love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as deeply. He reminds us that loving God is more than simply good behavior; it is abundant, joy-filled living. When Jesus heals, even on the Sabbath, when he welcomes everyone, banishes unclean spirits, and brings the sick back to health, Jesus points us to a God who is lavishly merciful, unpredictably generous, and uncontrollably gracious.

Jesus points us to God who is bringing together people who are bound not by family, tradition, or even religious or national affiliation, but who are bound together in seeking God and living in the fullness of life in Christ.

And while it might sound that way at first, it’s not crazy at all.

Some said Jesus was out of his mind; in reality, Jesus was then and is now showing us the mind and heart of God; inviting all of us to be of the same mind and same Spirit in a new family as his sisters and brothers.

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A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5B-1), June 6, 2021

Given at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater, Florida

Here is a video of the sermon.

Here is a video of the entire liturgy.

The program may be found here.


Sunday, May 30, 2021

How big is God?

How big is God?

From time to time, I would ask this question of kids. And sometimes they’d shrug, and sometimes they’d shout back “Big!” 

Hmm, I’d say. “This big?” (holding my fingers and thumbs apart) 

Bigger!” 

“Ok, this big?” (holding hands apart) 

No! Bigger!” they’d all shout.

“Okay, then. How about this big?” (hold arms wide apart) 

Bigger!” …. you get the idea!

This exercise reminds of that last scene in the 1997 film Cosmos, where astrophysicist Dr. Eleanor Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, meets a group of school kids in front of the deep space array of radio telescopes in New Mexico, talking about how big space is and about the possibilities for intelligent life "out there." A lot of Christians, especially Episcopal ones, love that film because it asks all the Big Questions and shows pretty well how scientists go about answering it with a sense of awe and mystery and respect, which we Episcopalians deeply share. To paraphrase (in a way that the original author, the late Dr. Carl Sagan, might object): for me, God is there, and God is real, because if God weren’t, “it’d be an awful waste of space.”

So how big is God? And how would you go about describing God? I have nearly a truckload—literally! -- of books on that subject, but in the end not even all those books even scratch the surface!

In ancient times, cultures dealt with this in a variety of ways. Some divided up God into bite-sized chucks. Some cultures had a particular god for a particular locale or tribe. Others, like the Greeks or Romans, divvied up their gods by function: a god of love, a god of evil, a god of thunder (with or without the hammer!) and so on.

Some limit God solely to the luminous or transcendent, who is so far away that if the divine is knowable at all… it is only through certain specific skills or disciplines, or perhaps for the very few with some kind of "special" knowledge.

As Seinfeld once said “Not that there’s anything wrong with that…” but, these only scratch the surface.

The Hebrews had the triply scandalous notion that there is only One God; that the One God is both holy and at the same time immanent (a fancy word for "not far away") living in a covenant relationship between God and God's people; and that it is the job of God’s people is to make God known to the world by following God’s ways. In some Jewish circles, it's understood that the observance of the law and the prophets is really for and on behalf of us all!

Of course, Christianity holds this concept too, but with a different emphasis on the syllahble.

Christians believe that the One God came to earth and joined with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ and his incarnation, and that the One God is made present to us in the person of the Holy Spirit, and that the One God creates and reigns over all creation God, in the Christian context, is at once accessible, complex... and busy! It is by the grace of God combined with our God-given curiosity and imagination that brings it all together.

I know a lot of folks who just can’t wrap their minds around the Trinity: it’s either too big, too esoteric, or because—no matter how much you reassure them that it’s not—it sounds to them like Tri-Theism. But here it is: there is One God, undivided. And we see all of the fullness of the One God and all of the fullness of all of humanity in the person of Jesus Christ; we see all the Fullness of the One God in the Father; and we see all the fullness of the One God in the Holy Spirit.

But wait! There’s more! 

The One God is with us, near and immediate, involved in everything we do and experience while, at the very same time, setting us free to think, make choices, and to act, in response to God or to our impulses or both…!

The One God has a moral and ethical core which is at the heart of our own moral and ethical longings, our own sense of meaning, but is at the heart of creation itself, which is once free and subject to the laws of physics and nature, but also endless its minutiae and its expansiveness.

We see the One God expressed in a Trinity—a Unity of persons—and where each person of the Trinity each witnesses to the One God in the integrity of their persons. Where God is at once transcendent and knowable by us who are created and living in God’s own image.

I know: Ka-boom! Mind blown. 

Wasn’t that fun?

Once, many years ago, a friend of mine, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister, invited me into his church in Southeast Ohio on Trinity Sunday to talk about, or debate with him, the Trinity before his congregation, remember, of Unitarians in all their variety. My point was that in the early church, when these things were being debated, it was the Trinitarians who were the true Unitarians by emphasizing this dynamic unity!

I don’t think I changed any minds, but it was a whole a lot of fun!

So how do you get at it… how do we make sense of the Trinity? Well, the theology helps even if it is a little, uhm, complex. And we have a wonderful Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer that can walk us through that. 

Some people choose to ignore the whole subject… by glossing over the complexity. Others dodge the intellectual bullet by making the debate about something else, misrepresenting the Trinity and then, presto!, refuting the very silly idea that they just made up.

Other try to defend it by just going to the Creeds; but in a bland kind of “The Creeds say it, I believe it, that settles it!” way. To me, this is kind of the theological equivalent of plugging your ears and saying “la la la!”

I mean, look, it's hard. If I only heard some of things people have been told about the Trinity from various pulpits and Sunday school classrooms over the years, I wouldn't believe it either!

Okay. So how do we get at it?

In participation. We get at the Trinity by living faithfully every day with an inquiring and discerning heart.

I have discovered in prayer, holy silence, and meditation, that an open mind and heart helps. And yes, meditating on the Apostles and Nicene creeds line by line, is a good thing to do. I’ve done it in retreat and as a prayer and journaling exercise.

I have found in art, literature, dance, theater, cinema, music, and science that imagination also helps.

Imagination invites us and allows us to experience the fullness of God… and imagination opens us to hear and be challenged by God’s call. To open our minds, our hearts, our wills, and our imagination to fullness of God, is to hear God’s voice just as God called out to the young Samuel while he was trying to sleep.

I think that we need to let the artistic and poetic side of the brain in on the conversation when we contemplate the Trinity: this is a place for poets, musicians, and artists as much as it for systematic theologians, scientists, and apologists.

The Holy Trinity, through the sacramental life, scripture, life in community, prayer and contemplation, invites to a life steeped in holy imagination. Not making things up... but resting in God, listening to the traditions of the Church and paying attention to world around us.

Allow me to demonstrate.

Think of your favorite hymn.

Got it? Terrific!

Now think about the text of that hymn… how does it speak to you? What aspect of God does that text activate in you?

One hymn that stands out for me is an American hymn called “Wondrous Love” which begins:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?

The third verse goes:

To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing,
to God and to the Lamb I will sing,
to God and to the Lamb who is the great I Am,
while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
while millions join the theme, I will sing.

I think that meditating on your favorite hymns is one way for you to know how God best makes Godself known to you… and to know how you might most easily approach God! It isn’t foolproof—but when it come to meeting the God of all Creation, what is?

It’s still a very good place to start.

So let’s try it. Turn in your hymnals to Hymn 409 (in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982). This is another one of my favorites. First of all… the tune. What can top this magisterial score by none other than Franz Joseph Haydn? This hymn paints a picture of in music and text of the wonder of creation, evoking “the spacious firmament with all the blue ethereal sky….” Let’s sing the third verse, which is the punchline:

What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball;
what though nor real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found;
in reason's ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice,
for ever singing as they shine,
'The hand that made us is divine.'

Oh, yeah! It’s oh so very 18th Century, isn't it? But then so were the folks who wrote our constitution! When you sang it, did you see a picture, painted in your minds eye, of God revealed in… and the source of… everything? Or, as we might say, God the Father!

Turn to Hymn 435. King’s Weston is a marvelous tune by the great Ralph Vaughn Williams, describing and extolling the Lordship of Christ. In six verses, the hymn sums up how we understand who Jesus is and what God is doing in and through him. The hymn invites us to come to him in love, wonder, and joy.

Let’s sing verses 2 and 5:

Humbled for a season to receive a name
from the lips of sinners unto whom he came,
faithfully he bore it spotless to the last,
brought it back victorious, when from death he passed.

In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue
all that is not holy, all that is not true;
crown him as your Captain in temptation's hour:
let his will enfold you in its light and pow'r.

A lovely little hymn about the Holy Spirit is hymn 513, written by Father Carl P. Daw, Jr., an Episcopal priest, it appeared for the first time in the Hymnal 1982. It beautifully evokes both the power and the intimacy of God the Holy Spirit. Let’s sing verse 1:

Like the murmur of the dove’s song,
like the challenge of her flight,
like the vigor of the wind’s rush,
like the new flame’s eager might:
come, Holy Spirit, come.

Finally, let’s contemplate the fullness of the One God in Trinity of Persons through this well known and magnificent Reformation hymn Nun danket alle Gott, “Now Thank We All Our God,” Hymn 396, singing verse 3 together:

All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest,
who reign in highest heaven
the one eternal God,
whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore. 

Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday of what some call “ordinary time” or the Sundays after Pentecost. But there is nothing ordinary about our Creating, Redeeming, and Empowering God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! 

We have now entered a season of contemplation and action. We will spend the summer and next fall learning to follow the teachings of Jesus. We listen for the Spirit to move us to do them! Day by day we stand in awe and humility before the presence of God, as we learn to know and walk with God. We do that in lots of ways: Baptism and Eucharist, Scripture and prayer, Holy Service and Holy Companionship. We do this in concert with the Church Catholic in all time and places. God has given us imagination, intellect, art, music, science, and more to bounce off the witness of Scripture and the life of the whole Church and see God working and alive… and then we only catch the merest glimpse of God’s love, God’s power, God’s majesty….

Blessed with holy imagination, we find that in all that we do, in all whom we love, in all our creativity and inquiry, and in all our care for each other and creation, that our loving, living, Triune God is active in all of us and in our world.

In the Trinity, we see that the fullness, the love, the intimacy of God is bigger than the universe, and as near as our hearts.

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A sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2021 at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater, Florida

Here is a video of the Liturgy for Trinity Sunday (Facebook)

Here is a video of the Sermon only. (Vimeo)