Sunday, October 17, 2021

Losing is winning

In the dog eat dog world of the schoolyard, one of the most frequent insults kids hurl at each other is “loser.” As in, Joey so-and-so is a loser, or your big brother is a loser. And, even after all these years, these insults sting. They sting because we'd all rather win than lose. I remember a coach when I was a kid who used to say to us ten-year-old ball players, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”

I know now how wrong he was, but along the way I learned that this is also the logic of bullies of all ages. Ridicule the weak and vulnerable. Stigmatize them. Tell others not to waste their time hanging out with losers, but instead join the bullies in their sham fellowship of viciousness and false superiority.

Of course, it isn’t just kids on the playground who do this. Office, family, and civil politics is filled with this kind of behavior.

We all love to be associated with success. Around here, I’ve learned that we live in “Champa Bay.” But notice how we stopped talking about the amazing 100 games won by the Rays. Why? Because they did not make it through the playoffs! By this calculus, and for most people, the most remarkable record in baseball means exactly “zip.”

We are intrigued by successful. We study the secrets of highly successful people. The tabloids in the supermarket aisle talk about the successes and scandals of the rich and famous. In politics, we love to back a winner to the point that the news covers politics in much the same way the sport pages cover those teams.

Human beings are always trying to move up on the scale of importance. And we are told from an early age that no one really remembers the runners-up and that if we will only feel fulfilled if we are successful, if we are winners. That’s who are valuable, important, and powerful.

Alas, people of faith are not immune. If one wanted to, one could read church history like a comic book where super-heroes (or super-reformers) do battle with super-baddies who want to hold the church back. But this is not how God’s kingdom unfolds; in fact, God’s way in the world is quite the opposite.

In today’s Gospel, two of Jesus’ closest followers, James and John, thought they were backing a winner. They thought that they were on God’s inside track, because they had been following Jesus since way back in Galilee.

So, one day, James and John come to Jesus with a request. I love how they approach him. They think that they so clever when they say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask,” as if they could box Jesus in. It’s like they’re children going to their mother and saying, “I want you to promise to do whatever we ask you to do before we tell you what it is. You’ve got to promise first. You’ve got to swear you’ll do it.” It’s a sure-fire signal that someone is up to something.

But Jesus cuts through their baloney when he just nods his head and says “uh huh” and asks “What is it that you want me to do for you?” Just get to the point, boys, what do you want?

With an amazing lack of shame, James and John ask Jesus “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Ah. There it is. Naked ambition. James and John see Jesus destined for glory, and for them, that means power. They imagine Jesus as a powerful ruler, maybe someone who is going to crack some heads and take names, snatching power from the Roman Empire itself. They see Jesus as a powerful warrior King, seated upon a throne of glory, with his attendants seated beside him. James and John are asking Jesus to promise that when he becomes a powerful king that he will remember them and give them a couple of choice positions in his court. To them, Jesus is a winner, someone on the way up in the world, and they want to go along for the ride and get a couple of choice positions of power and prestige in their imagined Kingdom of God.

Even though they left family and profession to follow Jesus, they just did not get it.

Jesus tells them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Basically, Jesus is saying that his disciples do not have the first clue as to who he is or what his whole mission is about. Jesus did not come to crack heads, take names, and take power. His power was not like the power that earthly rulers used.

No, the cup he drinks is the cup of suffering; the cup of his blood poured out for others.

The baptism with which Jesus is baptized is his passion and death.

Basically, when Jesus talks about his cup and his baptism he is talking about his cross. Jesus’ enthronement, his earthly throne, will be the cross. So, of course James and John don’t really know what they are asking for when they request to be on Jesus’ left hand and his right hand.

Remember who in fact will be on Jesus’ right and left at his crucifixion? Yup, two thieves. And only one of them got what was going on. So how could James and John possibly imagine the enormity of that being on his left and his right in glory really mean?

Jesus comes by it naturally. Remember the song his mother Mary sang? “He will cast down the mighty from their thrones… he will lift up the lowly and the rich will be sent empty away.”

So they (and we) are not following a king into a castle, but we are following Jesus the Messiah and Savior to his cross. This is not backing a winner, at least by the standards of the world, because by that measure James and John are hanging out with a loser.

Christ is showing his disciples that true greatness is not found in climbing to the top and exercising power over others; but, true greatness, true leadership is found in self-emptying, and in self-giving love. Unlike worldly rulers who lord it over others, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

A few years ago, I read a book and saw a TED talk given by Simon Sinek, who is one my favorite people who thinks about leadership and groups. In his book “Leaders Eat Last,” he tells this story about Captain William Swenson who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 8, 2009:

On that day, a column of American and Afghan troops were making their way through a part of Afghanistan to help protect a group of Afghan government officials, who would be meeting with some local village elders. The column came under ambush, and was surrounded on three sides, and amongst many other things, Captain Swenson was recognized for running into live fire to rescue the wounded and pull out the dead. One of the people he rescued was a sergeant, and he and a comrade were making their way to a medevac helicopter.

And what was remarkable about this day is, by sheer coincidence, one of the medevac medics happened to have a GoPro camera on his helmet and captured the whole scene on camera. It shows Captain Swenson and his comrade bringing this wounded soldier who had received a gunshot to the neck. They put him in the helicopter, and then you see Captain Swenson bend over and give him a kiss before he turns around to rescue more. Sinek asks the question:

“…where do people like that come from? What is that? That is some deep, deep emotion, when you would want to do that. There's a love there, and I wanted to know why…? You know, in the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.” 

So, Sinek asked those in military service, "Why would you do it? Why did you do it?" They all say the same thing: "Because they would have done it for me." This jives with my experience of every educator, nurse, EMT, firefighter, and cop that I have ever ministered to as a chaplain. It also jives with my experience as a parish priest in ordinary extraordinary communities just like this.

The challenge is that this deep sense of trust and cooperation are feelings, not instructions. As Sinek says, “I can't simply say to you, ‘Trust me,’ and you will. I can't simply instruct two people to cooperate, and they will. It's not how it works. It's a feeling.” Sinek’s observation points to what is at the core of what we are doing here today: because at the heart of Christian leadership is servanthood.

In the Gospel today, Jesus spells out of what the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ means for his disciples and we, his baptized people. Jesus really isn’t interested in the ways of worldly rulers but is actually more concerned about how his followers imitate the behavior of the world in the community of his followers. So the sting of Jesus’ words and the shock of recognition that James and John felt is surely also be felt by us, especially those of us in lay and ordained leadership, and all the baptized who are called to take up their crosses and follow Jesus.

At a time when the Church as we have always known is struggling, instead of trying to be “number one,” or falling back on rosy nostalgia, we are called to sling our towels over our shoulders and do the work of servants, following the example of the One who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Bulletin for Sunday service found here.

Link to Sunday service found at St. John's Clearwater FL website here.


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Spiritual sticker shock

Have you ever experienced sticker shock? You know, that awful feeling that comes when you realize a meal, a new outfit, a trip, or some new thing turned our to cost more than you expected? 

Well, that happened in today’s Gospel lesson from Mark.  Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem and is stopped by a man with a pressing question.  This man comes up to Jesus and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus says what the man expected: follow the heart of the Law--love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, love your neighbor as yourself. I can do that! I’ve been a faithful follower my whole life and keep all the commandments.

Great, says Jesus, I love it! Now do one more thing: sell everything you have and come follow me.” At this the man was stunned. Talk about sticker shock! It was too much. And he walked away sad. Which is why, Jesus says, it’s harder to drive a BMW through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I wonder what this person man was thinking as he walked away? Maybe he was thinking, “I try to be a good neighbor, I love God; but something is missing! What do I have to do?”  Maybe all he wanted was a pat on the back, but I don’t think so.

We really can't be sure what this man wanted but why a good, decent, faithful person, would come running up to Jesus, interrupting his journey makes me wonder. Did he expect to be challenged or was he only seeking reassurance?  I think about this in my prayer life: when we pray, do we expect challenge or mere reassurance? Do we want to follow where God leads us, or to get from God a stamp of approval that blesses our assumptions, habits, and opinions?  The risk for us, just as it was for the man in the Gospel, is sticker shock for the soul. 

Notice that mark says Mark that Jesus loved the man.  He saw a person of real faith… maybe with real potential to go deeper. Which is why his walking away was so very surprising and disappointing.

I’m fascinated by Jesus’ response when the man called him a "Good Teacher." Jesus replied, "No one is good but God alone."  Goodness, Jesus says, is not something we obtain or possess, but rather something we move towards.  Jesus challenged this faithful man—and his pride—by reminding him that “goodness” is not a merit badge or a trophy won at the end of a race. This is a temptation we all face: either we think that we will never attain goodness—that we are not ‘good enough’—or we go the other way and think we have this Christianity thing down cold— “easy peasy,” we’ve got this! Merit badge thinking is a self-made stumbling block to both seekers and to the long time faithful.

Once, an American tourist was in Jerusalem and met a monk.  The monk offered to show him around his monastic community.  When they came to the monk's room; the tourist noticed no TV or radio, only one change of clothes, a towel and a blanket.  He asked, "How do you live so simply?"  The monk answered, "I noticed you have only enough things to fill a suitcase; how can you live so simply?"  The tourist said, "But I'm just a tourist, I'm only passing through."  The monk replied, "So am I, so am I."

The last Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in When All You've Ever Wanted is Not Enough

"Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power.  Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve.  Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through."

Our possessions, our wealth, our things—not to mention the unresolved things we carry around in our hearts, minds, and feelings—can be obstacles between us and God.  Whenever I go on a trip and am tempted to bring extra bags despite the fees, I remember what one travel writer said, "If you want to get away from it all, don't take it all with you." 

But it’s hard to let go of what we’ve depended on and what we think we need to trust in God's grace, love, and power. During our journey of faith, sooner or later, God will challenge each of us with the one thing we think we can never give up.  The man who had approached Jesus couldn't let go of what he possessed so he could be possessed by God.  And all of us face the same challenge.

We might try to bargain with God. We might say “Why so much, Lord? Why not allow us to simply say a kind word instead of acting with compassion by helping another?” Or “Why must I forgive a person who has hurt me, instead of simply letting the conflict recede into the past?”

Cannot the hungry feed themselves?  Cannot the lonely care for themselves?  Cannot the children and youth learn their faith from someone else?  Cannot those burdened by life lift themselves up?  Cannot broken relationships simply heal themselves? 

Sooner or later, we will be startled by the fact that God does not build the kingdom on good intentions. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian and pastor, who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945 just before World War 2 ended, had a phrase for this: he called it ‘cheap grace.’ He wrote:

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without [church] discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

The man who urgently approached Jesus thought eternal life would be easy, but he walked away heartbroken, and grief stricken because he could not bear the "sticker shock" of Jesus’ answer. 

He was so close! I imagine him looking over his shoulder as Jesus and his little band walked away, thinking through both grief and envy, "I wanted so much to be with them!” But he couldn't take the risk of giving up all he had and trusting in God.

We like to think that we’d be more like Peter, Andrew, James and John who dropped their nets and followed Jesus, or how Matthew had gotten up from his tax table to go. I want to be like them, too! But sometimes the "sticker shock" keeps us from discovering the joy and peace that comes into life by daring to follow Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

We don't know what happened to the man who turned away from Jesus; we don't even know his name.  I guess he faded into history because he could not take that final step. I sometimes wonder if he didn’t slap himself on the forehead and say “what was I thinking?!?” and, deciding to sell it all, comes after Jesus after all. Who knows? Probably not… but who knows?

One thing we do know: this man’s challenge is not unique, and he is not alone. Our own sense of spiritual sticker shock makes us understand what Jesus meant about how hard it for the rich, the kingdom, camels and needles. Compared to most people around the globe, we are wealthy—with choices beyond the reach of so many, from what we can buy at the store, to the choices available to us in our living, to the abundance we experience every day. We are more like that rich young ruler than we’d like to think, and that’s why spiritual sticker shock is something we all experience.

But before you walk away, listen again to the promise that Jesus makes to you and me.  "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."  Whatever is holding you back, God is ready to help us work it through, deal with it, and in the presence of Christian community, with the tools of sacramental living, the prayer of the whole church, and with a daily diet of scripture and prayer, we are invited to take that final step to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We might at first walk away, but we can always turn around!

Here is the bulletin for Sunday, October 10, 2021.

Here is the video of the liturgy for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23B)

Here  is the video of the sermon.

Here is a link to the lessons for the day.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Potholes Along the Way

You may have read about or seen on the news about the sinkhole that suddenly formed on McMullen Booth Road near my house last week. It looked big enough to swallow a mini-van. I thought about that monster pothole when I cracked open my lectionary early last week and read today’s lessons for the first time.

I mean, what the heck? First the story of Job and then we have Jesus talking about divorce. Oh, and yeah… today is The Feast of St. Francis and today we will be blessing pets. So… Did someone set out to trap every preacher in the land today?

Well, I don’t know about that… maybe it’s just poor planning. But we do know that when Jesus was doing his earthly ministry, there was always somebody out to trap Jesus in his own words. It was as if they were just waiting to say “a-ha! Gotcha!” as soon as he said something wrong. Well, they might not have snagged Jesus, but they have certainly been catching preachers in their net ever since.

Here were some of the traps they set for Jesus.

They asked Jesus about money: is it lawful for faithful Jews to pay the occupying Roman government their taxes? And preachers have been scratching their heads about money ever since.

They asked Jesus about eating or healing on the Sabbath, and we preachers have been hung up on rules and ritual ever since.

And in today’s Gospel, we hear them ask Jesus about divorce. “Is it lawful,” they ask? And event though they wanted to trap Jesus, it’s been Christian preachers who’ve been falling into their bear trap ever since!

Here’s the rub: we think of this as a question about whether one can get out of a marriage (or not). When in fact Jesus answered a very different question: what is marriage—come to think of it, what are relationships—for?

Let me gently but firmly put aside some of the ways that preachers and the Church have fallen into the marriage trap they set for Jesus… and taken a lot of ordinary Christians with them down the sink hole.

First of all, there is no single, uniform teaching in the Bible concerning the permissibility of divorce.

·   Moses says that you can divorce a wife (Dt 24:1)

·   Paul says that divorce is permitted in some instances – such as when an unbelieving partner requests it (1 Cor 7:15).

·   In Ezra 10:2-3, 44, the sign of a good husband is to divorce his foreign (unbelieving) wife.

·   On the other hand, Paul says that it is the sign of a good spouse not to divorce his or her unbelieving mate (1 Cor 7:12-13).

·   Joseph, a "righteous man," felt that it was his duty to divorce Mary when she conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:19) until God told him in a vision not to.

·   And yet, Jesus says that you can't separate what has become one (Mk 10:8-9)

For the better part of the church’s life, we’ve tried to enforce the impossible by doing the ridiculous by turning the ideal of marriage into a regulation. For a long time, we’ve attempted to enforce the notion that every person was entitled to only one marriage per person per lifetime. But when relationships broke down and divorce happened, the Church found ways to accommodate that reality for the sake of the rule. And so, some church’s invented annulment—the idea that there was some defect that allowed us to say (sometimes contrary to all outward evidence) that that apparent marriage was not really a marriage at all, which evades the question of how to care for people when divorce happens.

It was all deeply painful and often humiliating. And that is why the Episcopal Church got out of the annulment game over 50 years ago … because we gradually came to the realization that marriage was made for people; not people for marriage.

Second, like many Rabbis, it was common for Jesus’ to hold out an impossible ideal to drive home a more important point: that God wants something more for us … something found in our hearts not in a rulebook.

Remember when Jesus was asked about whether it was lawful for Jews (or early Christians) to pay taxes to the Roman Empire? He changed the question from mere taxes to the purpose of our wealth.  When we render to God what is God’s, he is calling us to live as if everything belongs to God.

When Jesus is asked about whether it is okay to eat or heal on the Sabbath, Jesus says that the law is made for man; man is not made for the law. He focuses on the purpose of the Sabbath as our participation in God’s time not merely to give a part of one day to God every week.

And when Jesus is asked about divorce, he focuses on the purposes of marriage and says what God makes is greater than what we humans can make ourselves.

God wants something more for us. Marriages that were based on family ties, honor and property—or in the case of Henry VIII the need for a male heir—is not at the heart of God’s purpose for us.  We cannot love God with our whole being or our neighbors as ourselves if continue treat each other like property subject to contract law.

We preachers (and the church as a whole) have time and again fallen into the trap originally laid for Jesus. Sometimes (okay… lots of times!) we get hung up on the question of “how do we get out of something” --how do we get out of paying taxes; how do we get out of working or healing; how do we get out of our relationships?—instead of seeking to be faithful to God in all that we are, and do, as well as in all our relationships.

If everything we have is from God, then use what we have for God’s purpose.

If all our time and all our skill and talent is from God, then strive to make all our time God’s time.

If our relationships reflect God and show off God’s presence among us, then seek God’s face in the people God has given to us and pray for the grace to be the face Christ to those who seek him.

When we see God blessing and transforming our relationships in our homes, our friendships, and our communities, we see that God is building something that no one on earth can put asunder.

When we remember that at the heart of the Good News is that when covenants break… God meets us where we are in the person of Jesus, and through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God forgives us and gives us the tools and the power to start again.

That is why Jesus re-frames the question by bringing the children into the equation at the end of the Gospel lesson.

We have a choice: we can try to figure out a spiritual rule for every contingency and then come up with exceptions and contingencies when things go wrong. (Like when Church acts as if an unhappy, even abusive or violent, marriage was never really a marriage; or worse, blames the victim of the abuse for not working harder!) Or, instead, we can recognize the truth often people make covenants with the very best of intentions, but sometimes they break down.

Just look at what God did in the face of the whole human history of broken covenants: God keeps coming back, and eventually changes the equation through Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.

That’s why Jesus invites us to come to God as little children. He invites us to come to God with openness, trust, playfulness, and wonder. He invites us to come to God in Christ not knowing anything except that we love and need love; that we nurture, and we need nurture. Christ invites us knowing that we are limited and imperfect and has the faith in us that we can learn, grow, and try new things.

Most of us were baptized as little children. And even if we weren’t, when we came to Christ, we were helpless, we were new, we were dependent. And while we have many skills and much history as adults, before God we all need to come as people ready to learn, ready to discover, and ready to play.

Preachers like me and Christians like all of us get trapped when we try to turn God’s ideal into intricate (often goofy) human rules. Ironically, the way that we reach Jesus’ impossible ideal is by having the sense of wonder and awe that we see children bring. And accepting the vulnerability that comes with growth, we enter into a way of being that is respectful and truthful to one another. We are called to grow into mature, healthy relationships, free from anxiety where we know and love ourselves and each other just as we are.

Life can be messy, and the promises we make at one time in our life can fall apart or sometimes land us in a heap of trouble. But we are invited into something wonderful and new. It is often when are the most vulnerable that we discover that God is always faithful. God never fails in his promise to love us fully, and is with us always, even to the end of time.

+ + +   + + +   + + +

Bulletin for the Day is found here.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The secret of life – and death – is giving oneself away

I hope you brought your seat belts today because today’s Gospel is quite a ride! We start out with the disciples trying to score points with Jesus by stopping someone who is healing and casting out demons without a license. And we end with Jesus telling us all to be salted with fire! In between there is all this talk of stumbling around and lopping off limbs, tearing out eyeballs and being thrown into “hell:” all in all, another fun day with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem!

Well, if you didn’t bring a seat belt, I do hope you brought your cooking utensils, because there’s a lot of food imagery going on here.

Mark’s Gospel has us walking with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, and Jesus is talking about discipleship. What it means to follow Jesus and what it means to be human in the way God made us to be. Jesus is tells us to watch where we’re going, to stop stumbling around. Jesus  also says don’t be bland but be “spiced up” as with fire and salt! “Bam!” But this isn’t a cooking show, it’s life… healed and purified.

In an age before modern appliances and refrigeration, everyone knew about “fire” and “spice.” In the ancient world fire was used to purify things. Of course, it still is. We use heat to kill off deadly bugs. And salt was used to preserve foods, to keep it from spoiling. Salt spiced things up. And salt was used medicinally. And besides, it’s tasty!

Being a disciple of Jesus means live in the community of Christ’s followers. So, when the apostles decided to stop the “unofficial” followers from healing, they were forgetting that all of God’s people together take part in Christ’s healing work.

As Christ’s own people, we are a distinctive people, a people who live according to a different set of values than the surrounding culture. This is what is means to be “spiced up.” God’s people, enliven and enrich the world.

The trouble is that we can get caught up in our specialness and end up blocking ourselves and others from doing God’s work. In our zeal, we can trip up others—either on purpose or by accident. When Jesus talks about “millstones” and “not letting one of these little ones fall,” he is reminding us that we are responsible for one another. Our actions and our choices matter. Not just within the Church but also in the places where we live, work, learn and play.

So we need to watch for things that can get in the way of deepening our faithfulness and the faithfulness of others. One way think about this is pruning. We need to prune away those things that block us from following Jesus and fulfilling our Baptismal Covenant so that we can grow in those ways that make us become humans God made us to be.

Most of what needs to be pruned away is a modern world that teaches that self-centeredness, inflated self-reliance, and total, unaccountable independence is the key to the fullness of life.

Jesus calls us to be those people who dare to say that the secret of life – and death – is giving oneself away: reaching out to others, to the world and to God. Our culture says that we must rely on no one but ourselves. Jesus calls us to a radical dependence on God. God has gifted us with the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. If we wish to achieve fulfillment, then we, too, must give ourselves away. Moral progress comes only as we learn to acknowledge life as a gift – we did not earn it nor achieve it on our own – life is given to us.

To be wrapped up in ourselves, self-centered and autonomous, says Jesus, quite simply is hell. In the Gospel, the word for “hell” is “Gehenna” – which is a place. Not “down there but a real valley outside Jerusalem, which to this very day is a burning, worm-infested garbage dump. A long time ago, the Israelites turned the site once used for human sacrifices to the god Molech into a dump. Trash, animal carcasses and junk are dumped there and there is always a fire smoldering in this valley. Eventually, it became a geographic metaphor for hell. It is a way of describing what happens to when people have little regard for others, for creation, and for God.

 “Gehenna” is an image for “hell” and it tells us that hell is a product of our own creation. Just as people go to the edge of a cliff and toss all their personal refuse over the cliff, when we dump our personal stuff on others and on the earth, we are creating a space that separates people from God. This dumping is sin. Sin, says our Prayer Book, is that which corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, including God’s creation.

So hell is not just a condition that affects the individual; Jesus teaches us that hell human society as well—or at least an image of it. We create an image of hell in our relentless drive toward self-reliance, self-autonomy, of every one for themselves. The Anglican priest and poet John Donne said it best some 360 years ago: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

This is why Jesus does all this talking about hell and cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes: to impress upon us the importance that what we do right here and now matters. That all that we do and all that we say has eternal consequences.

We can choose to create hell, or to become purified by fire and seasoned with the salt of Jesus.

We can squabble over who is the greatest and who is or is not allowed to heal and cast out demons… or we can welcome everyone who does the work of Christ who has already redeemed the whole world on the cross.

We can be those people who hold on to all we have, or become those people who give ourselves away. We do this not for our sake but for the sake of the gospel, for others and the world.

I want to re-write an old joke:

One day in heaven, Mary, the mother of Jesus, visits Peter at the Pearly Gates. He has a hard job and so she brings him a cup of coffee. While they are chatting, she him asks how things are going.  “Well,” says St. Peter, “I am kind of frustrated. I’m scrupulous about my job here.  I interview each soul arriving at the Gate of Heaven, and I check to see if his or her name is written in the Book of Life and I turn away people not worthy to enter. But you know what? A little while later I turn around and I see those very people wandering around on the inside!  I don’t get it! What’s going on?”

“Oh.  That Jesus,” replied the Theotokos with a knowing smile.  “My son is always letting people in through the side door.”

Become a people of fire and salt. Let God, through our communion with Christ and in Christian community, cook out evil and allow God to season us with holiness. Choose to create holy spaces and so welcome people into heaven right here and right now.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Being a Christian is always new

A minister died and went to heaven. You know…the usual picture: A long line of potential saints waiting to be vetted by St. Peter at the gates. In front of him was Mort, a New York taxi driver, he was short, wearing a ball cap, smoking a cigar and very gruff. Mort was warmly greeted by Peter, given a white and golden robe, a jeweled crown and with greetings of “Well done, good and faithful servant, he was led into heaven.”

Then the minister stepped up.

He was given a terrycloth bathrobe, worn out slippers and a paper hat and then handed off to a tired old angel with a flashlight who just grunted at the newcomer.

“Hey!” the minister protested. “What’s the deal? I am a priest of the church! I preached the word and cared for the church! He come he rates the white robe and all I get is…is…this?”

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

God has organized the Kingdom differently than we expect. We want things 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 we end up resenting the one giving out the prizes. And above all, we forget that no matter how long we’ve been at the Church-stuff, we are all in the end newbies and learners in the spiritual life.

The essence of Jesus’ teaching today is that, unlike the story of the minister and Mort the taxi driver, God gives his grace and favor equally. And, furthermore, we learn that Jesus has a special place in his heart for those who come to God in wonder, awe, curiosity, playfulness and gratitude. We discover that it’s the child-like wonder that’s important, not only for those who are new to the Church and even more so for those who have observed the rules, the rites, and the traditions for a long, long time.

Jesus’ teaching that we heard today was first directed to a Christian community that was filled with Jewish Christians who carried with them not only the covenant of the patriarchs and prophets and the ancient traditions of His people as well as the new covenant in Jesus Christ. This community also had within it people who were brand new to the faith…recent converts, many of them Gentile and perhaps unfamiliar with the heritage and lineage of Israel.  There were people who followed Jesus’ teachings from the beginning—maybe even going back to the ministry of John the Baptist! –and some who heard the Word and believed very recently.

There were newcomers and long-timers alike, and God’s welcome and grace extended to all of them!

But, you know, there is still that nagging question of fairness. We can’t shake it. We struggle with fairness in workplace and in daily living and spiritually, too. 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; or who think that one’s rank in God’s hierarchy depends on our birth, our race, our sexuality, or our heritage. We think that experience ought to count for something.

While I’d like to think that we sophisticated Episcopalians are above all that. I know that as one of those so-called cradle Episcopalians, I get kind of a charge when one of our own makes good. I mean, a few years back when our Presiding Bishop got to preach at a royal wedding, there was a part of me that wanted to shout “go team!” And, the truth be told, many of us (me, included) did just that.

At the same time, I feel like these new to our tradition have to earn their stripes... they have to know when to stand, sit, kneel, and know the difference between Rite One and Rite Two, and can recite not just the creeds but the collect for purity (p. 355) from memory. These are the folks who, when they hear the spirit of Obi-Wan say to Luke Skywalker, "The Force will always be with you," we want Luke to say back "and also with you."

We can’t seem to get past the idea that God must love us in proportion to our goodness, our experience longevity and church resume—and maybe even our coolness.

But Jesus says in today’s Gospel that there is plenty of grace to go around in God’s reign! That all of us…long timers and newcomers both, those who know the Bible (or Prayer Book!) by heart and those who’ve up until now only used a hotel Gideon’s bible as a coaster… can be astounded, awestruck, and joyously curious in response to the abundant love of God.

Jesus’ message is one of comfort and hope to the long-times and newcomers wherever they may be found!

So often over the course of my ministry in congregations and in hospitals, I have heard people tell me that they wish they could pray, or receive the sacrament, or have faith; but, they tell me with a certain sadness and resignation, that it is too late for them. 

In another part of the Gospel Jesus, using the image of workers in a vineyard, teaches that whether we come to faith and arrive at 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.

Have you ever had the experience of being left out, or when you come to a group, feel as if the people there are just talking past you? It doesn’t just happen at church. Once I went to a car-show that was part of a local fair, so I decided to go after church, and changed from my clergy shirt to a polo shirt that I got at a car museum with the logo “Studebaker” on it. And when I came to the section where all the “Studies” were gathered, I looked at the cars and then I tried to strike up conversation with a few of the owners. But I couldn’t break in. They were too busy swapping their stories and trading their tips. Look, I get it, part of the reason for the show was so these hobbyists could renew their friendships and talk about their hobby. They probably never realized that someone curious about their interest was trying to get in on the fun. So, after a few minutes of wary nods and strange looks, I walked away.

Of course, this happens in Churches, too, doesn’t it? I once supplied at a church where the front door was always locked on Sunday because their street had become a busy highway and it would have been noisy and drafty to leave it open before and during the service. But there was no sign, no message, no usher, to direct people to the new regular entrance around back. And no one to show how one gets a bulletin, or where to go for coffee, or the rest room. They were so used to how things were that they forgot the child-like wonder that can go with being a follower of Jesus… let alone how to welcome a visitor!

This is Jesus’ message for us long-timers:  God wants all of us to share in his bounty, to be apart of the family of God and the community of Christ’s people.  And while we are tempted to think of ourselves as more deserving or more worthy for time served, that is not the point. God’s kingdom is for everyone. And when we step out of “the way it’s always been done,” and discover the playful and wondrous side, and recover the newness of being a friend and apprentice of Jesus, then we can help invite, greet, and welcome people into walking with Jesus, too.

When we help someone to pray, or walk with them as they 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 fellowship with Jesus and his people, then we are adding measure upon measure to the riches we have already received. And we discover the amazing grace and truth, that when we have truly welcomed another into God’s family, the Church, whether they are young or old, whatever their story, then we have in fact welcomed Jesus himself and demonstrated the fullness and depth of God’s love and grace.

Jesus teaches us that we all must approach God with wonder, awe, and love—like a child discovering something new—no matter how long we’ve been at it, and that all of us, no matter how new or experienced we are, have gifts to share and lives to touch.



Sunday, September 12, 2021

Following Jesus is a partnership

If you are on social media and want to follow someone, all you have to do is click a button. The algorithm does all the work! Nothing could be easier, right?

The truth is that being a good follower is hard work.

Ask a dancer. Have you ever seen those wonderful old movies—those movie musicals with all the dancing? It is said that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels! The legendary couple made partner dancing look effortless, but learning to dance, and dance well, takes effort, patience, humility, and grace.

An Episcopal priest, The Rev. Kerra Becker-English, tells the story of a dancer, a woman who danced ballet and modern jazz who was getting married to a lovely fellow… who had never danced a step in his life! They decided to take ballroom dance lessons, so they’d be ready for their first dance at the wedding reception. She thought her fiancé would do all the work, and that for her it would be a piece of cake.

Well, ballroom is not ballet and following is harder than it looks. Just ask Ginger!

Becker-English writes: “It takes practice to maintain balance through a double turn. It takes instruction to learn all the elements of achieving correct hip action for a Cha-Cha and then be able to do it without clutching on to a partner’s arm for dear life. A good follower must be well balanced, because even the very best dance partner cannot maintain balance for two. The best dance partner in the world can’t make your steps for you.”

Following in life, in dance, being a follower of Jesus requires attention, commitment and a sense of one’s own self. 

Today, we are halfway through Mark’s Gospel and Jesus is talking about being a follower. The disciples have come to a part of Palestine peopled mainly by Gentiles, people outside the Covenant. In the Gospel, Jesus asks them what they’ve heard… what are people saying, who do they think Jesus is. I suspect that many people they met in their travels also asked them that question: who is this Jesus? Is he a prophet, a teacher, or one of the Old Testament sages come back to life? So, Jesus asks them who do they think they are following? Peter immediately pipes up and says that he is following the Messiah!

Good answer, Peter! Now, Jesus asks, what does that really mean?

If the disciples thought that Jesus would just carry them into a kingdom where they would have all the spiritual rewards with none of the work; well, they are in for a surprise!

Because, Jesus says, the Messiah will have to be rejected by his people and the religious leaders, handed over to the authorities, executed, and then on the third day rise from the dead. Jesus is headed to the cross, and his followers will have to go there with him.

Peter cannot believe his ears! HHHHe pulls Jesus aside to tell him just how wrong he is! "Get behind me, Satan," Jesus says back to the guy who just a minute ago said he was the Messiah. “You are thinking in human terms, but not thinking about the ways of God.”

Then Jesus gathers everyone round and tells them what kind of Messiah they are following: "If any want to become my followers," he tells them “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Fifty-two years ago yesterday, this parish community decided to follow Jesus in a special way. Along the way, you have learned time and again that following Jesus requires a lot more than clicking a button. You have discovered that no one can do the steps for you. You’ve learned how to go where he goes and do what he does in the way that he does it.  Sometimes backwards. And, yes, I suppose, sometimes in heels. Who knew that your birthday would, 32 years later, become a day of tragedy, grief, and remembrance… the coincidence of these anniversaries is a reminder of the Gospel ministry you bring to a hurting world.

Both as a parish as well as Christians and citizens, we’ve had to learn to be careful about whom to follow.

As we look back this weekend on the terrible attacks on 9/11 twenty years ago, we don’t have dig very deep to find two kinds of religious followers at work. One type of follower were the nine men who decided to heed their leader’s message of defiant grievance into destruction and death. And there is another kind of follower… and there were many that day! … who died or put themselves on the line caring for the suffering, the frightened, the deceased, and the first responders.

We know about the nine… the ones who hijacked those four planes and died causing so much death and suffering. But while nine men chose evil, many hundreds of others when the chips were down chose to do the good.

Maybe this weekend you’ve heard of Fr. Mychal Judge, a New York City fire chaplain who ministered on 9/11 to the people who ran toward the danger to rescue those in harm’s way, while at the same time he cared for the dead, the injured, and the frightened. Judge was killed in the North Tower from debris from the collapsing South Tower of the World Trade Center.

The weekend we commemorate another follower of Jesus, Father Alexander Crummell, a priest and a “saint” in our Church whose feast day was also yesterday. He became a priest in 1844 even though the General Convention’s seminary, General Seminary in New York, would not accept him as a student and even though the Episcopal Church very nearly did not ordain him because of his race. He spent his entire ministry battling the racism of his day and raising up black men and women to serve the church and proclaim the gospel.

Or remember, too, yet another follower of Jesus, Henry Thacker Burleigh, who is remembered today on our church’s calendar. Burleigh was perhaps the foremost stage baritone of his day. An Episcopal layman, he was almost turned away from his church’s choir in New York City because he was black, but for the intercession of the wealthiest Episcopalian in New York, J.P. Morgan. He sang at St. George’s, recorded spirituals, and trained many other singers in vocal technique for over half-a-century. He showed us that “in Christ there is no east nor west, in Him no south or north but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”

On this octave of a world-changing tragedy, and our parish anniversary, it is good to contemplate what it means to follow Jesus. We learn from the Gospel and the examples before us today that following Jesus means that we act together, as Christ’s adopted baptized people in community, to discover our gifts and give them back to God and God’s people wherever they may be found. Following Jesus requires us to be attentive to Christ who leads us, maintaining our balance and being ready to go in new directions.

Following Jesus is neither mindless nor passive but is the concrete way we choose to act with Jesus every day in all our relationships.

And following Jesus is costly because it requires something from us. Following Jesus requires us to be challenged and to change.

I heard a story about Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he was still Archbishop of Cape Town South Africa. At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle there, when Christians were suffering and dying for justice and redemption, Tutu used to gather his staff around him every morning for prayer. And often as he was closing, he would ask, "If being Christian became a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict us?" The archbishop said this to his staff because they were not simply leaders in an important social struggle for dignity and freedom; they were followers of Jesus Christ insisting that God's reconciling love transcends anything that tries to resist it. Being leaders was not enough: people had to experience them following Jesus in their service and living if their leadership was going to be taken seriously. True Christian leadership is grounded in service and companionship.

Following Jesus is a partnership. It is Christ who leads; and we, as effective followers, are called to maintain our balance, observe what’s going on around us, and be ready to go where Jesus goes, even to the cross. Even to resurrection.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Faithful, caring hearts

Why do you do a chore? Do you do it because you have to or because you want to?

Do you do a good thing because you are afraid that you’d get in trouble if you don’t—or do you do the good thing for the sheer joy of doing a good thing?

When you are at work, do you a good job to keep the boss happy—or because a job done well is a job worth doing?

I think, if most of us were honest, most of the time we fall somewhere in the middle of those two poles. Some days it really feels good to do the work of cleaning the house or cutting the lawn, to look back at the job and just feel good about the work. And some days, I have to make myself—force myself—to get started, and while I might feel good about the work, mostly I feel glad just to get it done.

Well, it’s not just cleaning the house, doing the homework, cutting the grass, or doing the job where these feelings happen. They also happen in the spiritual life. Sometimes we get joy out our prayer, our faithfulness, our worship, and our service. And, truth be told, sometimes we have to force ourselves to do what we know will be right.

This is the challenge that Jesus laid before the Pharisees.

Let’s think about the Pharisees for a minute, okay? Actually, let’s re-think them!

When we read about the Pharisees in the Gospels, we hear them both as the foes of Jesus who were tiresome, nitpicky and legalists. We have been conditioned to “boo” and “hiss” everytime they come on stage.

But what if I told you that the Pharisees really wanted to serve God by being as faithful as they could possibly be to God in everything they did.

And what if I told you that the Pharisees were really (I mean really!) interested in making the faithful practices of Judaism as new and as fresh and as accessible as they could to as many people as possible? In fact, the Pharisaic movement wanted to move the heart of Judaism out of the Temple and into the synagogue, where the majority of faithful Jews worshipped, learned, and interacted, because they wanted to get more people to participate in the life of faith and doing the things that faithful people do.

In fact, the Pharisaic movement saved Judaism from the disaster of the Roman Empire’s destruction of the Temple (and, with it, Temple-focused religion) in 70 AD by re-orienting Judaism from a religion of sacrifice and geography, into a religion of the heart and of community.

The Pharisees were passionate for justice for the poor; they believed that God made the Hebrews a people that did things differently from the nations, including caring for the poor, who would be a light for the whole world.

Jesus and the early Jesus movement grew out of and shared a great deal with the Pharisaic movement that would eventually evolve into modern Judaism.

I think Jesus criticized Pharisees so passionately precisely they were so close in so many ways! The quarrel was one between brothers -- which, as anyone who grew up with siblings knows, can be the most animated of arguments.

So, what, exactly, was Jesus' beef with the Pharisees anyway? The short answer is, is found in today’s gospel reading, and it points to a challenge we all face. Despite what generations of Sunday School and preachers have said, the Pharisees weren't just concerned with purity laws and their position on purity laws was, in fact, pretty inclusive and progressive for its day. Instead of saying, as the Sadducees did, that holiness was found in a physical place--the Temple in Jerusalem-- and that only special people (namely males who were without deformity and who were born into a priestly family) could serve in the Temple, the Pharisees, instead made Judaism-- and the sense it offered of being in God's presence-- accessible to anyone. They said anyone could be a Jew, and any place could be holy to God if only people would treat it as such. On this point, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed.

But what makes a person holy?

First of all, think about purity laws. We all follow them. Don’t believe me?

Well, most of us grew up being taught not to eat or to leave the bathroom without washing our hands and to brush our teeth after every meal. Oh, we say, that's just about germs! We say, it’s about health and science, and that makes these rules important. And, of course, there’s masking and social distancing… I think that the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, where dueling ideologies makes a sensible, consistent community response fraught with judgment, division, and fear.    

Our culture’s apparent inability to think about our responsibilities as members of a community makes what Jesus teaches today so very important.

Did you notice how Jesus’ answer in today’s gospel is so brilliantly subversive? Jesus redefines purity in terms of ‘what comes out of a person’ -- of qualities we demonstrate in relationship.

Jesus is proposing that we intentionally, in community, 're-wire' ourselves, to feel as icky about carelessly wounding remarks, hurtful slogans, or strident opinionators as we do about eating food with dirty hands or preparing food in filthy kitchens. Jesus proposes a culture where belittling behavior that feeds grudges, focuses on resentments, promotes violence, or traffics in fear is as worrisome to us and our spiritual lives as unhygienic food practices.

When Jesus says elsewhere that the first commandment is to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves (another Pharisaic teaching, by the way) he calls us to build a culture of love where we engage each other with an intentional gentleness; and the kind of consistent, persistent formation that, in most healthy households, gradually teaches children about washing hands and being careful with meat and potato salad, but which also teaches courtesy as the gateway to respect—and self-respect.

Both the Pharisees and Jesus believed that the heart of the law was to love God with our whole being and to live the Golden Rule—which is another way of saying love our neighbor as ourselves.

Both the Pharisees and Jesus taught that the law was made for people, not people for the law. In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds his fellow Pharisees that the point of religious practice was to change and form the heart. Practice both forms the heart and at the very same time practice grows out of a changed heart.

They forgot that. When they came down from Jerusalem, it was because they were curious about Jesus—they admired what he was doing! High fives and fist bumps all around! But when they saw that some of these very same people, who are now more attentive to the heart of the law, did not wash their hands in the ritual way before eating, they got distracted.

That’s when Jesus says some very harsh words to these guys. He quotes the Prophet Isaiah, “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” And he calls them something even more harsh. He calls the Pharisees… actors! The ancient Greek word for “actor” was hypocrite because Greek actors wore masks. Jesus says they are pretending to be holy and acting “as if” they are being faithful!

Here is what is important: it does not matter what our practice is so long as it results in mercy, a kind heart, a gentle spirit, attentiveness to our neighbor, sensitivity in speech, care for the poor, and compassion for those in trouble.

We may want to do church “right” and that is good, especially when it trains us to become attentive to God in the everyday as well as to care for people and creation. It is important to remember that as wonderful as it is that we bring God glory in this beautiful space that we also bring God glory in how we are with the people God gives to us every day.

There will be days when it will take all our energy just to put one faithful foot in front of the other. And there will be days when our joy is so overflowing that we just skip down the aisle or energetically serve the poor or the sick or even each other.

What’s important is not our feelings, but our faithfulness.

We don’t want to be actors, wearing masks of righteousness that hides closed and uncaring hearts. No. God calls us to be real. To have changing, growing hearts; hearts that love and hearts that seek after God. And Jesus (and we) wants these changed hearts to make a real practical difference in the world and in the lives of the people God has given to us every day.