This is God in action

It is a cold Sunday morning here on the Rosebud, this Second Sunday after the Epiphany. At 6 a.m., the temperature with the wind chill – and we know wind chill here on the Great Plains – was nearly 30 below zero.

It is so cold that we canceled most of our church services on the Western side of the Rosebud Episcopal Mission. I don’t want our people out in weather that literally can kill you in less than 30 minutes.

But even when we don’t have church services, God is still at work in our lives. shutterstock_96334607

A few minutes ago, a car pulled into my driveway. If we had had church, I wouldn’t be here at this time, and most of the people know that. But since my car was still parked, still covered in a light dusting of snow, whoever was in that visiting vehicle knew that I most likely was home.

After a few moments of hesitation, the driver got out. She didn’t have a hat. Or gloves. She was holding her way-too-light winter jacket closed with one hand. “You need to zip that up,” I said. “Oh, it doesn’t zip,” she said. “It’s broken.”

I know this woman. She is one of our parishioners here on the Rosebud, a woman who has struggled to hold things together, a woman with children and grandchildren, one of whom has a several physical handicap. This woman needs help, but she hesitates to ask. She doesn’t want to be a burden. Whenever I am with her, I always let her take the lead, because I know how hard it is for her to ask for anything.

“Didn’t we have church this morning?” she asked. “No,” I told her. “We canceled church because of the cold.”

“Um … does the church have any help?” she asked, hesitating every other word.

It turns out they have no food to eat in the house. I’m not surprised. It is mid-month, and it is very cold, and many people do not have enough money for both heat and food.

So I take her into my kitchen, which she does not want to enter because she might track snow onto my linoleum floor. “I don’t care about the floor,” I told her. “It can be washed. Come inside. It’s too cold to stand out there.”

Finally, she enters. I have to encourage her to take more than one step into the kitchen.

“Do you have any food, like bread?” she asks, her head down. I know that she doesn’t want to do this, but she has children. They must eat.

“I don’t have any bread,” I tell her, “because I generally don’t eat bread. But here … I have other food for you.”

I take out four cans of soup, 10 cans of tuna, pasta, couscous, cans of pears and apricots. I give her half of my grapes, most of my bananas, most of my oranges. “Here,” I say, “these have to be eaten. Help me with this.” I see two bags of popcorn someone had given me, as well as some crackers. (“Oh,” she says, “we have crackers.” “Take them,” I say. “You might as well have some more.”) The food_cans.jpg.662x0_q70_crop-scalelarge canister of oatmeal has been opened, but I give it to her anyway. It’s mostly full, and the kids will like it. I scour the cabinets for more food her family will eat. “Have you tried quinoa?” I ask. “No. What is it?” she replies. “It’s one of those healthy grains. Easy to make. Just follow the instructions. I like it,” I tell her. In the bags it goes.

Much of the food I give is food I have purchased for just this occasion. People come to my door, sometimes one or two a day, looking for help. I try to keep food on hand that I know they will eat. Cans of fruit, vegetables, soups. Bags of pasta. Boxes of couscous and quinoa. When I have fruit on hand, I always share it with them. I ask them to help me eat it before it goes bad. Our people don’t get enough fruit; it’s frequently too expensive. I try to make sure I always have some on hand for my visitors.

But I have to be careful not to give too much, not to give all that I have. This is a shared meal, as it were, which means that I have to have some food left for myself. The goal is to make sure that everyone has enough. Just that: Enough.

Yassa

Yassa

Through it all, my two dogs, Yassa and Bella, are standing there to greet her. She hesitatingly reaches out for them. My dogs are trained to be church dogs, meaning that they are polite and don’t jump, that they greet each person with love. “They’re so soft,” she says, over and over again. “I can’t believe how soft their fur is.” I tell her it is the dog food, keeps them healthy, the same dog food the vet uses. She marvels again at their softness, and their gentleness. “They’re so nice,” she says, stroking Yassa’s fur. (Meanwhile, Bella, who emerged from her blankets, stands shivering. My visitor is concerned: “She’s cold!” I tell her than Bella lives under her blankets in the winter, and that she always shivers when around guests. Bella is a little … well, manipulative that way. She wants every visitor to pick her up and cuddle her. In return, she loves to give kisses. It’s just Bella’s way …) I do not tell my visitor how much the dog food costs; I am too embarrassed to admit I have that kind of money to feed dogs …

Bella

Bella

As she turns to take the food out to the waiting car, where her daughter and granddaughter are waiting, I ask if they can use some coats.  My family and I picked up a lot of them for a giveaway that I am having problems getting organized (it’s complicated, but it will happen).

We go to the front porch and find a new jacket for the woman, one that is warm and will zip up. Then we find one for her smallest child. Then we dig through and get hats and scarves and gloves. “Take what you need,” I say. “It’s for you.” She is hesitant, again. She does not want to take too much, but I know there is a need. “Really,” I say, encouraging her. “Don’t  you want some of these scarves? They are hand-made.”

Finally, my visitor takes some of the softest scarves she can find. “If it’s all right …” “Take as many as you need,” I say. “Wouldn’t you like another one? They’re handmade for the oyate (the Lakota people).” “Just one more,” she says. “They’re so soft …”

I peek out the window and see the children in the car already consuming the fruit, smiling as they eat it. Already, this has been a good visit.

Again, we go to the door. I know that she feels she has taken too much.

“Do you have a wood stove?” I ask. “I have wood if you need it.”

Once more, hesitation.

IMG_8121

Some of the wood for the Firewood for the Elders program.

Finally, I get her to agree to take what I have stored in my “secret stash.” (We cut wood for the people here on the Rosebud in our Firewood for the Elders program. While I was away after Christmas, nearly all of it was taken by a few folks who have lost their way when it comes to taking care of all the oyate. But we are cutting more wood, with the help of the community. To learn more about that, see our new website, rosebudepiscopalmission.org, and look under “Our Blog.”)

She and her daughter take the wood that is left, enough to keep them warm at least for another day.

Joyful Curry

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry

Our new Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, has proclaimed that we are part of the Jesus Movement. That we are the ones who are called to live out the Gospel of love and inclusion every single day of our lives. That we are the ones who can change the world by our words and deeds.

No, we didn’t have church this morning on the Rosebud West. It was too cold.

Instead, we – a visitor and myself, as well as my two dogs – had church in my kitchen. Where we broke bread together by sharing our food. And on my front porch. Where we shared from the abundance of cold-weather gear.

This is the Jesus Movement. This is God in action.

Our collect for today, the Second Sunday after the Epiphany:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

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God’s marching orders for our lives …

Matthew 2:1-12

And now we come to what one commentator calls the “’Adults-Only’ Nativity Story,”[1] Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus, the one without the census-taking, without the “no-room-at-the-inn” rejection, without the stable or the manger or the animals, without the angels or the shepherds, without the pondering in Mary’s heart.

Unlike Luke’s Gospel, in Matthew, we skip the birth narrative and go straight to the Epiphany, to the moment when wise men show up from the East, declaring that the child they seek is the King of the Jews.

We know this story. We’ve just heard the Gospel, just sung the song: The wise men (some say three) follow a star (some say for two years), until they find the Christ Child in a house (a house, mind you, not a stable) in Bethlehem (on this, Matthew and Luke agree). The visitors drop to their knees, offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (myrrh? The stuff you use to embalm a body???), and then leave, going home “by another road.”

But what if the story were told from a different perspective? What if, instead, we were to hear the story not of three wise men from the East, but of three wise women?

No, I’m not talking about that old joke about how the women would have asked for directions, gotten there sooner, made dinner and brought di-dis …[2]

I’m talking, instead, about a whole different approach to the Epiphanyt story, one that comes from retired Bishop Steven Charleston, a Choctaw and Native American bishop of The Episcopal Church:[3]

Three wise women set out to follow the star.

Each ended the journey and gave away her treasure along the way.

One dropped out when she was needed to heal the sick during a plague.

The second stayed behind to help prevent a war with her leadership.

The last remained in a great city to provide for the poor.

When the star left the heavens each awoke the next day to discover a gift placed beside her while she slept.

They never solved this mystery, but the meaning is clear:

They had arrived at their destination even though they had not completed their journey.

My friends, the Epiphany is not about the news that the Messiah has come into our lives. It is the story of what we are supposed to do with our lives.

For just as the Magi – two of them? Three of them? Heck, could have been 100 of them, as far as we know – came to make manifest to us the Good News that God is here for all the world, so we are to make that Good News manifest as well.

We are not here this morning to celebrate the arrival of Jesus in our lives.

We are here to celebrate what that arrival means in our lives.

We are here, my friends, to celebrate the revelation, the great “Aha!”, the epiphany that God came into the world, as one of us, to show us, in no uncertain terms, that God loves us.

And not just us not just those of us gathered here in this church … but all of us. The people we know. The people we don’t know. The people we love. And the people we could easily do without.

Brass tacks, my friend: Epiphany shows us the mission of our lives. The mission of living out God’s love with ALL of God’s beloved people.

I do not want us to leave this place this day thinking, “Epiphany – been there, done that, will do it again next year.”

Because Epiphany isn’t some one-day, one-off celebration that we do once a year and then forget until the next Jan. 6.

Epiphany is the revelation of God’s marching orders for our lives.

Marching orders that boil down to one thing, and one thing only:

Love.

Howard Thurman, the great theologian and civil rights leader, was speaking of this day when he wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.[4]

This is the day, my friends, when we turn the joy, the celebration, the glory of Christmas, into the work of the rest of our lives.

Instead of focusing so intently on what we want – more money, more security, less fear, more stability … losing weight, or running that marathon … the Epiphany of our Lord asks us to focus on what God wants … for us, and for all of his beloved people.

And what God wants is for us to live in love, every moment of our lives, in every place, with every person … whether we like them or not.

Imagine … just imagine … what life would be like if we were like those women of whom Bishop Charleston speaks?

What would life be like if we stopped our hell-bent journeys that focus so much on getting ahead and getting what we want, in order to heal the sick?

What would life be like if we stopped to prevent a war?

Or to provide for the poor?

Imagine what life would be like if we spent our lives doing what Rev. Thurman said …

… finding the lost?

… healing the broken?

… feeding the hungry?

… releasing the prisoners?

… rebuilding the nations?

… bringing peace?

… making music?

In a few minutes, we will baptize little Zoe Rose DiBiase, daughter of Lexy Rouse. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if she were to grow up knowing that her whole life is centered in love? That God loves her from before time began to the ages of ages? And that all God wants her to do with her life is to love?

And so, for little Zoe this morning, and for all of us every day, let us listen to yet another great theologian, Mother Teresa, who has the best guidance I know of for how to live our lives:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.

            Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.

            Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.

            Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you.

            Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.

           Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.

            Be happy anyway.

The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow.

           Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt.

            Give the world your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.

            It was never between you and them anyway.[5]

It is Epiphany, my friends. The day when we receive our marching orders … orders to go into the world, and to love.

So …

Go!

Go on! Go love!

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2013, Year C, at St. Paul’s on the Hill, Winchester, Va.



[1] David Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, “The ‘Adults-Only’ Nativity Story,” WorkingPreacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=653.

[2] What would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts. (Anonymous)

[3] The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, Choctaw, Daily Devotions.

[4] Howard Thurman, “Christmas Poem,” via Facebook.

[5] http://prayerfoundation.org/mother_teresa_do_it_anyway.htm

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Ordinary people … extraordinary acts …

Luke 1:39-55

In those days, two women came together in a small town in the hill country of Judea.

The one woman, who was so much older, we know was righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. We also know that for many years, she was barren, and that she was getting on in years.

Of the other woman, who was so very young, we know very little. We know only that she was young. That she was single. And that she was engaged to be married.

And we know that both women were pregnant, each expecting their first child.

Mary and Elizabeth rejoice (courtesy of Worship Sounds Music Blog, http://worshipsounds.wordpress.com)

The older woman knew that this child was a blessing from God, for to be barren in her culture meant to live in disgrace. And this child was, after all, promised to her by an angel of the Lord who had appeared to her husband.

The younger woman, not much more than a child herself really, also knew that her pregnancy was a blessing, for hadn’t that same angel appeared to her as well, and told her so?

But both women also knew that these pregnancies brought danger to them.

For the older woman, the danger lay in her age. She was indeed getting on in age, and to bear her first child when she was so old was precarious at best. So she remained in seclusion for the first five months, taking extreme care that nothing happened to her baby.

For the younger woman, the danger lay not in her age, but in her status. For she indeed was unmarried, and to be pregnant and single in those days exposed her to punishment, punishment which in the very least could include being “set aside,” rejected by her betrothed, and if taken to the extreme could mean being stoned to death according to the laws of her religion.

And yet … both women, when they came together in that small village in the hill country of Judea, rejoiced.

Because they had been chosen by the Lord.

Them.

Ordinary people.

Living ordinary lives.

Chosen to do extraordinary things.

On behalf of the Lord.

Part of what we celebrate in this season of Advent, and of what we will celebrate tomorrow night and Tuesday morning on Christmas Day, is that in order to achieve God’s miracles, God chose ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.

Elizabeth, the older woman, and Mary, the younger woman, couldn’t have been more ordinary if you tried.

They were two simple women, one married, one single. In their society, they had few rights. They couldn’t own property. They couldn’t testify in court. They weren’t allowed to make their own decisions.

And yet … God chose them.

God sent an angel – the angel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of the Lord – to give them the good news that they, the ones society said were less than equal, the ones who considered themselves to be completely ordinary, had been chosen by God to achieve the extraordinary.

God chose ordinary old Elizabeth to be the mother of the last prophet of the Old Testament (Newsweek, December 2003), John, who would be called the Baptist. John, who would be great in the sight of the Lord. John, who would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. John, who would make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

And God chose ordinary young Mary to be the mother of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, who would be called the Messiah. Jesus, who is the embodiment of the New Testament, who is the New Covenant that God makes with his people. Jesus, who gives God’s people new life and life eternal.

Two ordinary women, chosen by God, to achieve extraordinary things.

When most of us think about Elizabeth and Mary, lo, these two thousand years after the fact, we tend to think of them as special, as extraordinary women. Elizabeth is indeed a saint of the church, and Mary is, of course, the Blessed Virgin.

But when God came calling, in the form of the Angel Gabriel (in Elizabeth’s case, to her husband Zechariah), they weren’t yet saints, they weren’t yet blessed. They were just two women, going about their daily lives, trying to be righteous before the Lord.

Which is pretty much the same situation in which we find ourselves, when we find God calling in our lives. We, like Elizabeth and Mary, are, for the most part, pretty much ordinary people, living pretty much ordinary lives. Yes, we are special in the eyes of The Lord, each and every one of us a beloved child of God. God loves us as our mothers do – equally, none more, none less than anyone else.

We are, whether we like to admit it, ordinary people. Just like Elizabeth and Mary.

And yet … just as God called them, God calls us.

Ordinary people.

To do extraordinary things.

God calls us – through Elizabeth’s son, John who is called the Baptist – to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight a path in the wilderness.

God calls us – through Mary’s son, Jesus who is the Messiah – to love our neighbors as ourselves, to heal the sick, to include the marginalized, to live radical lives driven by hope, filled with love, consumed with mercy.

God calls us – through Mary’s son, Jesus who is the Messiah – to do justice, no matter how hard that might be; to love kindness – even to the strangers among us; and to walk humbly with our God – not in God’s place, not pretending to be God, but with God.

We, who are rather ordinary people living rather ordinary lives, are called, just as Elizabeth and Mary were called.

By God

To do extraordinary things.

Will we answer that call?

Will we, like Elizabeth and Mary, have the courage to say “Yes,” even when we know that saying “Yes” could be as dangerous to us as it was dangerous to them, knowing that saying “Yes” might very well get us into trouble?

And will we, like Elizabeth and Mary, not only say “Yes,” will we rejoice in doing so? Will we magnify the Lord for looking with favor on the lowliness of his servants?

Will we bless the Mighty One for doing great things for us, and proclaim his name to be holy?

Because the fact of the matter is, we are called.

Not because we’re special.

But because we are ordinary.

Just like all those other ordinary people God called throughout the ages.

You see, whenever God wants to do something extraordinary in God’s good creation, God turns to ordinary people. Throughout history, God has asked ordinary people to do the extraordinary on his behalf: Noah. Abram and Sarai. Jacob. David. Debra. Elijah. Susannah. Isaiah. Jonah. Jeremiah. Obadiah. Ezekiel. Elizabeth. Mary.

And oh, my, were these ordinary people. Noah? Who was he, other than a carpenter – and apparently could build a boat. Abram? He was so concerned with saving his own skin he lied – twice! – about his wife! Jacob? He was a double-dealing liar! Gideon? He was so unimpressed with the visit by the angel that he made the angel prove – repeatedly – that he indeed was from God! Jeremiah? He spent his entire prophetic ministry complaining to God: “I don’t like these people! I don’t want to do this!” Jonah? He objected to God sending him to Ninevah so much that he ended up in the belly of the whale – and then ended up in Ninevah anyway! David? He was stinky shepherd! OK – he was tall and ruddy and handsome. But he stank!

All of them were ordinary people. Called by God. To do the extraordinary. On God’s behalf.

There was nothing terribly special about those people before they were called.

We remember them only because they answered God’s call.

There’s nothing terribly special about us, either.

We will be remembered only if we, like those who have gone before us, answer that call.

So that God’s extraordinary acts can be achieved.

In these holy seasons of Advent and Christmas, are we ready to say “Yes” so that we, too, can do extraordinary things on God’s behalf?

So that we can bring about God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s hope in this world?

God is calling.

How will we answer?

Amen.

Sermon preached at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Staunton, Va., on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C, 23 December, 2012.

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Completed any miracles lately?

On All Saints Sunday, Jesus is clearly asking us to finish the miracle he began in bringing Lazarus back from death.

So the question I have for each of us is this:

Completed any miracles lately?

The video of my sermon at St. Matthew’s, Sterling, Va., is below.

 

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Find your greatness!

Ephesians 4:1-16

For the past nine days, I have joined millions of people around the world to watch the Olympics, one of my absolutely favorite sporting events.

I love the Olympics. As a newspaper editor, I covered them from 1976 to 1996. As a fan, I’ve seen the games since 1968, although I have missed them since I went overseas on 2005. Every four years, I get caught up in them, summer and winter, and revel in them for hours on end. Ask my housemate and she will tell you: I live in front of the TV.

I love watching the big names like Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas and Dannel Leyva, because then I see near perfection in a sport.

And I love seeing a 15-year-old child, swimmer Katie Ladecky, do the unexpected in the 800-meter freestyle the other night. She lead from start to finish, and the whole time, the commentators, one of whom is a medal-winning swimmer himself, kept saying, “She has to slow down! She has to pace herself!” But Ladecky didn’t, and she won her race decisively, almost beating the world record, because she doesn’t “know” that she needs to take it easy and swim strategically.

And then there are the special athletes for whom I cheer, the ones who compete despite the incredible odds against them. Men like Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee from South Africa, the man called the Blade Runner. He was born without fibulae and drew up wearing prostheses. He’s a champion in the Paralympics and had to fight for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes. Watching him run the other day was inspiring!

If you read yesterday morning’s Washington Post, you know that these Games arethe first in which every country sent women athletes as well as men. Jacques Rogge, the head of the IOC, cracked down this year and told every country: “If you want to compete, you had better send some women as well.” For the first time in the history of the modern Olympics, there are women on every team.

Women like Afghan sprinter Tahmina Kohistani, whose Olympics lasted all of 14.5 seconds, when she ran – and came in last – in her 100-meters preliminary heat. Kohistani bettered her personal record in that race. And then there is Saudi judoka Wojdan Shaherkani, who competes in judo, the first woman ever to do so from her country. Her Olympics lasted all of 75 seconds before she was knocked down. What is amazing about both of these women is that they competed despite receiving death threats from Muslim fundamentalists.

And then … and then there are the underdogs, whom I love so much. Men like “Eddie the Eagle,” the British ski jumper who could barely ski jump in 1988. And “Eric the Eel” from Equatorial Guinea who barely knew how to swim and who had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool! Heck, he’d never seen a 25-meter pool. He did all of his training in a hotel swimming pool. Remember him? In 2000, he was in a preliminary heat with two other men who were disqualified for false starts, so Eric the Eel ended up swimming all the 100 meters all alone … and barely made it. I’m not kidding: He was dog paddling the last 10 meters and people thought he might drown!

Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel have been joined by “Hamadou the Hippo,” the rower from Niger who has only been rowing for three months – three months! – and yet still rowed his heart out in London.[1] He was last in his heat and was doing so poorly – heck, it looked like he was going to stroke out – that even the announcer was encouraging him: “You can do it!”

These athletes inspire me, truly they do, because they represent the Olympic ideal of faster, higher, stronger – even when they come to the competition on special exemptions.

But you want to know who really has inspired me in the last nine days?

Nathan Sorrell.

Do you know him?

Does that name ring a bell?

No?

Oh, you should pay attention to him. I’ve seen Nathan running in London perhaps four times now, and every time I watch him on TV, I think to myself: “Yes. This is truly inspiring.

I’m actually not surprised you don’t know Nathan, because, well, because he isn’t exactly running in London, England. He’s actually running in London, Ohio.

And he’s not running in the Olympics, either.

You see, Nathan is the 12-year-old overweight boy running – OK, he’s rather trudging – in the Nike commercial that is airing during the Olympics. The commercial is fascinating. It opens up on a country road, and you hear, in the background smack, smack, smack (stamp feet on ground for each step), and if you listen closely, you can hear pant … pant as well. When he comes into view, you can see that his shirt is soaked in sweat and his face is bright red from the exertion … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant … and you can tellthat this “run” of his is just plain hard.

As you watch him trudge along, you hear a voice talking about greatness. Nike’s ‘Find Your Greatness’

“Somehow, we’ve come to believe that greatness is a gift reserved for a chosen few … for prodigies … or superstars. … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant … And the rest of us can only stand by watching,” it says. [And isn’t that the truth. We do believe that greatness is only for the special few. The rest of us? Well, we’re just plain old us, aren’t we?] … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant

But, the voiceover says as Nathan keeps running, “You can forget that. Greatness is not some rare DNA strand. Not some precious thing. … Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. … We’re all capable of it. … All of us.”[2]smack, smack, smack, pant, pant

The final shot? Nathan’s labored efforts, with the words “Find your greatness” superimposed over him.

Find your greatness.”

If ever you wanted to find a modern translation of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this morning, that’s it.

Paul is begging the Ephesians to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

Or, as Nike puts it, “Find your greatness.”

Paul says that each of us – each and every one of us – has been given a gift by God, some, he says, to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors, some to be teachers.

All of us have gifts, and all of us, he says, are to use our gifts. That’s how we live lives worthy of our calling. We find our greatness.

Now, Paul is clear, in this letter to the Ephesians, that the only way to lead lives worthy of our calling is to love one another, not merely as we love ourselves – because, face it, far too often we don’t love ourselves very much, do we? – but to love one another as Christ loved us.

It’s a pretty tall order, this living our lives in love.

And frankly, far too often we think we can’t do it.

Oh, we know it can be done. All we have to do is look back across history to know that living a life of love is possible. All we have to do is name those who have been great examples of that love.

People like, oh, say, Mother Teresa.

Or Gandhi.

Or Martin Luther King Jr.

They all lived lives worthy of their calling, didn’t they?

But us?

How often do we say to ourselves, “I can’t do that.”

How often do we say, “I’m not good enough.”

Or, “I can’t love like that.”

Or, “I could never do that … it’s too hard … too stressful … I’d have to give up too much … go too far … suffer too much.”

But the fact is, my friends, we aren’t called to be Mother Teresa. Or Gandhi. Or Martin Luther King Jr. either.

We are called to be ourselves … to find our own greatness as beloved children of God, created in God’s very own image – living as God created us to live, in love and community.

Paul is begging us to figure out how we are going to live in love and community.

He is begging us to find our own greatness.

He’s not saying, “You have to be great like … (fill in the blank).” He’s saying, “Be the great person God created you to be.”

Sometimes that greatness will be feeding the hungry – even if it’s just one person at a time.

Sometimes that greatness will be caring for a sick friend.

Sometimes, it will be listening to someone who doesn’t need us to solve her problem, but to simply be present for her.

I don’t know what your greatness will be – heck, there are days when I have no idea what my greatness will be. All I know is that each of us has greatness in us.

Because God gives it to us.

Never, not in a hundred years, could we swim like Michael Phelps, or twist and turn through the air like Gabby Douglas.  Most of us will never face death threats, like those brave women, Tahmina Kohistani and Wojdan Shaherkani.

Heck, most of us aren’t even good enough to be Eddie the Eagle or Eric the Eel or Hamadou the Hippo.

Most of us, when we are honest, are far more like Nathan Sorrell, trudging along a country road in the middle of nowhere … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant … . We’re not great athletes. We’re not going to compete in the Olympics.

We’re just trudging through our lives … smack, smack, smack, pant, pant … trying to do the best we can, trying to be the best we can.

But we don’t have to be the best ever.

We simply have to be the best we can be.

What is your greatness?

Because the Nike ad is right: We are all capable of greatness.

Now go find it!

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, Year B, at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, 5 August 2012.

 

[1] Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards was the British ski jumping champion who couldn’t jump worth spit in the 1988 Olympics. Eric “the Eel” Moussambani was the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who achieved fame with his flailing doggy paddle at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. And Hamadou “the Hippo” Djibo Issaka is the rower from Niger who got into this year’s Olympics not because he knows how to row, but because of a special exemption in order to promote rowing.

[2] Nike™ Commercial via Kim Painter, USA Today, “Nathan Sorrell, 12, inspires in Nike’s ‘Find your greatness’ ad,” http://yourlife.usatoday.com/health/healthyperspective/post/2012-08-02/nathan-sorrell-12-inspires-in-nikes-find-your-greatness-ad/817082/1

 

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Tear down the walls!

For four years from 2005 to 2009, I was an Appointed Missionary of The Episcopal Church, serving in Sudan. That means that I was your missionary, representing you, to the people of Sudan, the largest nation in Africa.

I was there at the end of a long civil war, a 23-year civil war, and I lived on the border between North and South, where Northerners met Southerners, where Arabs met Blacks, where Muslims met Christians. I lived in an area that is now the northernmost point of the new country of South Sudan.

The area in which I lived, called Renk, was an area during which the 23-year civil war, the North was in control. Which meant there was no fighting going on. So people would flock to Renk from all over South Sudan, so that they could avoid a brutal civil war.

By the time I got there, the town was about 3,000 people and we had members of least 15 different tribes living in this small town. Now this is highly unusual in South Sudan, because that was a country, still to this day, where your tribe counts – more than anything else. Not the nation in which you live, not the region in which you live, but what tribe you belong to.

Because we had people from so many tribes living in South Sudan, it meant that our common language was Arabic, the language of the oppressors of the North. We didn’t speak classical Arabic; we actually spoke what is known as Sudani Creole, meaning, “Heaven forfend we should bother to conjugate a verb.” We never conjugated our verbs; that’s what Creole means.

And so the language I spoke, and the language in which I still pray, is Arabic. But every once in a while, people would challenge me on this and want to know why I was not learning the language of the predominant tribe in the area in which I lived. That tribe is more commonly known as Dinka; they are correctly known as the Jieng.

It was very important for them, they thought, that I spoke their language because then I would be proclaiming that I belonged to their tribe.

Well, one day, I was up in Khartoum, in the capital of what was then the whole country, now the capital of the northern part known as Sudan, and we were sitting on the street corner of a dusty road, and we were drinking tea, because Starbucks in Sudan – wait a minute, no, I’m up in New England – Dunkin’ Donuts in Sudan is out on a log, and the lady makes your coffee or your tea over a little open charcoal fire.

And so a bunch of us were sitting out there, and dusk was coming, so the heat was coming down, and we were drinking our tea, and these three young men, who did not know me – but they knew I was a white person, and they knew I was with the Church – challenged me. “What tribe do you belong to?” they said.

Now, I have to tell you by this time, I was tired as spit of this question. I was tired of being told I had to declare for one of the tribes, when I had friends in all 15 of the tribes in my own town. I was tired of being told I had to learn one of the tribal languages, which would exclude, necessarily, all the other people.

And so I looked at these young men and said, “I belong to the most important tribe there is. I belong to the tribe of God.

They looked at me, and I said, “There is nothing more important, nothing else I need to know in my life. I belong to the tribe of God.”

I went back to my town, and I found out that word was spreading, that people were saying, “Lauren is refusing to join any of our tribes because she belongs to the tribe of God.”

And that is what the Church in South Sudan is doing. The Church in South Sudan is breaking down those barriers, overcoming those barriers, crossing all the boundaries, so that they can proclaim that all of us are indeed of one tribe, the tribe of God.

My friends, I need to tell you, this is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Ephesians this morning. Now if you go back and look at the letter to the Ephesians – which I highly recommend you do – take a look at what Paul is saying in there.

I’m going to tell you that lots of preachers right now are talking about how this is a way in which we’re supposed to come together in unity and stop arguing over the color of the carpet in your church.[1]

This is the time when we’re supposed to stop arguing over whether we heat the water in the bathrooms. That’s how this letter is used – very mildly, very tamely.

Anybody who uses it that way, though, is not paying any attention to Paul. Because this letter of Paul, this section of Paul’s letter? This is a cry for revolution!

This is a cry to turn over the powers and principalities which in Paul’s day were known as Rome.

In the days when Paul walked the earth, people were segregated. They were segregated by their tribes, their race, their ethnicity, their language, and most of all, by their jobs. You didn’t get to choose what job you had in those days. If you were born into a family of farmers, you were going to be a farmer. If you were born in a fisherman’s family, you were going to fish. If you were born into a tentmaker’s family, you were going to make tents. This was not an option. This is how society worked. And people gathered together around their jobs, and then they subdivided around their race, their ethnicity, and their language. That was how you got protection. They formed unions to take care of each other. If you got sick, and your family was a thousand miles away, the union took care of you. You paid your dues in, and they took care of you. Everybody was subdivided that way, and Rome used this to rule the world. They

made sure that everybody knew their little place, and by God, don’t you ever get out of place. Because any time you tried to get out of place, it was like Whack-a-Mole™ – whack! And they would knock you down.

So what is Paul talking about in his letter to the Ephesians? He’s talking about those who were aliens and strangers now being joined together. The circumcised – the Jews – and the uncircumcised – the Gentiles – are now coming together. He’s talking about tearing down all the barriers, all the boundaries; he’s talking about tearing down the walls that divide us, so that we could all unite in the one tribe that matters, the tribe of God.

He is preaching sedition.
“Let me just send a nice little letter to the people in the church. ‘Dear People of the Church of St. James in Amesbury, Massachusetts: RISE UP! TEAR DOWN YOUR WALLS! IT’S TIME FOR REVOLUTION!’” This is subversive.

That’s what Paul is doing!

He’s calling for a revolution. No wonder the Romans couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Paul was doing the same thing that Jesus did. He was changing people. He was changing society.

My friends, this is our call. In this day and age. We are hearing a clarion call to subversion, to revolution, to tear down the walls!

Now I know y’all know something about tearing down walls. Because I understand you had to tear down this wall (in the back of the church) down to its bare basics, and change out the window. You had to do something different, and you had to rebuild it.

That’s what you are being called to do in society.

So that nobody ever says, “What tribe do you belong to? What tribe do you belong to?” and separates you out. Nobody says, “So what do you do for a living,” knowing that you can only hang out with people who do the exact same thing.

The revolution we’re being called to participate in, the revolution we’re being called to lead, is to tear down all the walls so that we can all proclaim that we … belong … to the … tribe … of God. And that the tribe of God is the only tribe that counts.

It doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what your age is, doesn’t matter where you came from, it doesn’t matter the language you speak. Nothing matters at all; that’s all gravy. The only thing that matters is that you are a beloved child of God and belong to the tribe of God, and that’s it. Everything else? Meh! That’s just the way the genetics worked out. It’s a chemical crapshoot. It’s not important.

The revolution we are being called to lead, my friends, is a revolution that lets every person in the community, every person in the world, know that they belong. It’s a way of saying to every person, “You are a beloved child of God.” It’s a way of saying, “God loves you. And God loves you. And you. And you. And you. And you. And you. That God loves you. And you. That God loves you. And you. And you. And you.

If we all belong to the tribe of God, and we’re all beloved children of God, then our call is to live out that love in the world.

Now I want to take a moment to kind of do a sidestep in this sermon and to address something that I know is on everybody’s hearts and minds, which are the shootings out in Aurora, Colorado, that took place on Thursday night/Friday morning. Where a young man, for unknown reasons, walked into a movie theater and shot 70 people, killing 12 of them.

We don’t know why he did it. We know enough of this young man’s history to know that he is brilliant. He was a PhD candidate soaring through his program in psychology. And then something happened. And we don’t know what.

Well, I can tell you this:

If we were all out there proclaiming revolution, proclaiming the revolutionary idea that you are a beloved child of God and you belong to the tribe of God, I can tell you that incidents like this would happen a whole lot less.

Was this this young man’s cri de couer, “Pay attention to me, notice me, let know that I’m important”?

I don’t know.

But if we take the time to let each person know that they are important, that they are beloved, that they are accepted, that they belong, I am telling you there will be fewer incidents like this.

Paul is telling us to tear down the walls. If we tear down the walls, more people will belong, more people will understand that they are beloved, and fewer people will do what Mr. Holmes did in Aurora, Colorado, at 1 o’clock in the morning on Friday.

I want to step back in and tell you that for two weeks, I was at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. It was my fifth General Convention, and I love going. I love going to big family reunions where we engage the entire world and stare at our navels at the exact same moment! I love it when we have amendments to the amendments to the substitution, call the question! I love what we do at General Convention. I walked out of this particular General Convention, where we as a church said, “By God, we’re going to include people. All means all, and all belong, and all are beloved children of God.”

I walked out of that Convention going, “Yes! Finally we’re beginning to get it.” And I walked right to the airport, smack dab into an article in The Wall Street Journal, where some guy in New York says, “I’m an Episcopalian. I didn’t like what they did. They have lost their way. Those Episcopalians are too liberal. Those Episcopalians are just following society.” And then he told a bunch of lies about what we did there. It would help if he had paid attention. But he actually did not pay any attention, and so he was misquoting us 17 ways from Sunday, and he said we did things we hand’t done, and I’m like, “Dude. You so missed that boat.”

I was ready to write him off. Until The New York Times, on Sunday, last week, decided to run an article by Ross Douthat, who is – for some unknown reason – supposed to be the spokesman in the country right now about the future of Christianity. I don’t know why – because he says we’re dead.

And he turns around and he says, “The liberal Episcopalians are doing nothing, except following society. The liberal Episcopalians have no idea what their theology is. The liberal Episcopalians” – he must have called us that like, 14 times – and I’ll tell you something. You know what my answer is?

We are not following society willy-nilly. We are dragging society forward to where God wants us to be! We are at the forefront of saying to people, “Enough! Tear down the damn walls! Everybody belongs! All really does mean all!” God does not differentiate. God doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re in, and you’re out.”

There are no “us’s” and “thems” in God’s very good creation, folks. There are no “us’s” and “thems.” God does not say, “Well, I don’t like you. But I like you.” God doesn’t run around doing that! God says, “You are my beloved.”

God created us in God’s image, an image of love – because we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, but we are not necessary to God, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we cannot be necessary. So guess what? That means God loved us into being. That God desired us into being. So it means that we are each beloved.

And because we are Trinitarians, we are Christians, we believe in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, we believe in community. Because nowhere in the way we read the Scriptures do God the Father and God the Son go off and do the work while God the Holy Spirit is over here, drinking a martini. If they’re drinking martinis, they’re all doing it together! If they’re working, they’re all doing it together. We’re created in that image. That means we’re created in community.

So, we are created in love and in community to live in love and in community. And The Episcopal Church is leading the way in doing this by saying, “All does mean all. There will be no more walls! You come into this church, we baptize you, you have access to everything in the church.” We’re no longer going to say, “Well, we’ll baptize you, we’ll confirm you, but we won’t marry you. We won’t let you be a priest. Or we’ll let you be a priest, but you can’t be a bishop. Uh, uh, uh, uh, we have limits.” No! Because there are no limits to God’s love.

That’s what Paul is talking about in this morning’s epistle. It’s not some namby-pamby-don’t-argue-over-the-color-of-the-carpet-in-the-church.

He’s calling us to revolution.

And I want to know:

Are you all ready?

Are you ready to be revolutionaries?

Are you ready to go into the world and to show the world a whole new way to live?

Are you ready to be bold? (A young teen cries out, “Yes!”)

You are! Good!

Are you ready to be bold and to say, “All means all”? That each of you is a beloved child of God?

I’ve got one volunteer here, do I have any more?

How many of you want to be told you don’t belong? How many of you want to stand at that door and be told, “You can’t come in”? Anybody here?

If you’re not willing to be excluded, if you are not willing to be told that you are not loved, then how dare you exclude? And how dare you tell anybody that they are not loved? Because then you have to answer, not to me, not to Susan, not to your bishop. You have to answer to God.

The only question God will ask you, when you get to those pearly gates: “Did you love?”

Tear down the walls that get in the way of God’s love.

Tear down the walls that separate us as a society.

Tear down the walls that keep us in, and them out, because there are no “us’s” and “thems.”

My friends, we’re supposed to be revolutionaries!

Are you ready?

Are you ready to be revolutionaries for God?

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B, at St. James Episcopal Church, Amesbury, Mass., 22 July 2012.


[1] Sally A. Brown, Princeton Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1&alt=1

 

 

 

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Of puppies and missionaries …

This column was written for and ran on EpiscopalCafe.com on 21 April 2012.

We have a new addition in our household, a giant-pawed Great Dane puppy named Julian.

Julian at 10 weeks, right, with her Cavalier King Charles "brother" Gabriel.

She came into our lives recently as a 10-week-old, gangly, runt-of-the-litter, Brindle-colored baby and immediately wriggled her way into our hearts and minds.

Watching her adjust to her new surroundings, with three new people and two new dogs (who are, as they constantly remind us, Not. Amused.) reminds me of missionaries and the adjustments they go through when they arrive in a new land.

Just as missionaries need to leave behind all whom they love to live with new people, whom hopefully they will come to love, Julian had to leave behind her sire and dam and three brothers, as well as the breeders.

Just as missionaries have to learn to live in new housing situations (sometimes mud huts, sometimes tents, sometimes very Western-style apartments), Julian has had to learn to live in our house, which is very different from the farm where she was bred and spent the first 10 weeks of her life.

Just as missionaries need to learn a new language, with all of its colloquialisms, Julian is learning her own new language: “Come. Out. Sit. Down. Off. No bite. Leave it. No. Good girl!” It is not easy for missionaries or puppies to untangle the nuances of new languages.

You go into a new place, and everything is new: the people; the food; the customs; the language. It doesn’t matter if you are a missionary or a puppy, there’s still a lot of learning going on, and every day is a day of discovery.

Her first night with us, Julian did what most every puppy does when it was time to go to bed: She cried. She sat in her crate, with blankets and toys, and whimpering and cried for a long, long, long time. Eventually, she slept, mainly because she was so very tired.

My first night as a missionary in Sudan? I cried as well. Even though I had worked like the dickens to get to Sudan, even though I really, really wanted to be there, I still cried. Everything was new and foreign and I was so very far from all that I knew and loved. Like Julian, I cried myself to sleep that night. (And did so again when I moved to Haiti, four years later.)

No matter how hard you try, as a new person in a new place, you make mistakes. You go to the wrong places, say the wrong things, do the wrong things at the wrong time. Anyone who has had a puppy knows that puppies do all that – and more – all the time. Missionaries and puppies are constantly learning, constantly striving, constantly attempting to please, to fit in, to not be seen as an “outsider” who doesn’t belong there.

Julian at 6 months ... still growing.

Every day is a day of discovery and adventure, of new things to do, new people to meet. Every day also presents new opportunities to make mistakes, to get lost, to realize that what you “know” may only be what you thought you knew.

The more I watch this Great Dane puppy, the more I see my life as a missionary. Things that scared me at first, or that seemed too hard to do, became so normal that they stopped meriting a mention.

Julian grows at an astonishing rate. Where once she was the same size as the 10-year-old spaniels, she now towers over them. Where once she was confused and timid, she is now confident and bold. She still stumbles around a bit – she’s growing into her body, we like to say – but she stumbles a lot more boldly than when she first arrived. She knows she is loved and cared for, which gives her the confidence to go forth into the world, seeking new adventures, new friends, new challenges.

My life as a missionary was much the same. There was constant growth (not physically; I’d already grown into my body). I, too, was timid at first, and made lots of mistakes, not understanding what was happening to me or around me. But the longer I stayed, the more I learned, the bolder I became, and as I grew bolder, I was more willing to even more new things.

Yep, welcoming Julian into my life has made me realize: Missionaries could learn a lot from watching a puppy. Their lives are, more than I ever realized, so very similar.

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It’s our turn

Luke 24:36b-38

Jesus doesn’t pull any punches, does he?

The Risen Lord, by He Qi

Here the disciples are, deep in shock and mourning because their Teacher, their Lord, the man they thought was their Savior, is dead … and two of their group are telling them this fantastical story about how they met the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, and boom! There’s Jesus … right … in … front … of … them!

Good Lord, they thought they were seeing a ghost!

How can this be?!

They saw (although from a distance) Jesus die on the cross!

They saw (again, from a distance) Jesus’ body laid in a tomb!

They’ve been in hiding for three days – three days! – because they know the Romans are really good at rounding up “known associates” and hanging them on crosses, too – just to teach the rabble a little lesson, don’t you know …

And, boom!

There’s Jesus, standing right in front of them!

And how does he comfort them?

But telling them, in essence: Your turn!

You are the witnesses, he says, to all these extraordinary things that happened when I was with you.

And you are the witnesses to the fact that here I am with you now, raised from the dead.

I’m not a ghost, he says, not a dream.

I am risen!

And now it’s your turn …

So go on. Get out of here. Go tell the story.

You.

And you.

And you.

You are the witnesses.

And I, the Risen Lord, am counting on you.

• • •

I am confident this is not what the disciples wanted to hear.

When you get right down to it, they have never been the ones to do all the work, have they?

After all, Jesus performed the miracles.

Jesus preached.

Jesus taught.

Jesus healed.

And now he’s telling them it’s their turn?

Their turn to tell the story, to witness to all they had seen and heard and learned and experienced?

Their turn to perform miracles?

Their turn to preach?

To teach?

To heal?

Them?!?!?

• • •

For us sitting here, 2,000 years after the fact, this sounds like a no-brainer, I know.

It’s easy for us to say, “Yeah, c’mon, disciples, go do your job! Go tell the story!”

And it’s just as easy for us to say, “Well, we know they did, because if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. So good job, disciples!”

It is easy for us to say all that, and to sit back with a bit of satisfaction and perhaps even some smugness.

“Yep, those disciples. Didn’t get it at first, but man, when the Risen Lord challenged them, they finally got it, finally did what Jesus told them to do. A bit slow out of the blocks at first, but after that, yep, they did a good job, don’t you think?”

And then, of course, we can walk away from all that.

Because the job is done, right?

It’s over with, right?

My friends, the good news is that indeed, the disciples did  get over their shock, they did tell the story, and as a result, we are here today.

Sounds like the end of the story, doesn’t it?

Alas, I am here today to tell you:

No it is not the end of the story.

It’s just the beginning.

Sir Winston Churchill

As Winston Churchill said at the end of the Battle of Britain, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.”

And at the end of the beginning, it is now our turn.

Our turn to be the witnesses.

Our turn to tell the story.

Our turn to perform the miracles – to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, proclaim the good news that God indeed does love us … to make the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk and the mute sing with joy!

Our turn to teach and preach and tell the story.

Make no mistake, my friends.

The Risen Lord is not just talking to the disciples 2,000 years ago.

He is talking … to us.

Because we are the witnesses.

Now I know that a lot of people these days – perhaps even some of us sitting right here today – are not interested in preaching and teaching about the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. We are not interested in going throughout the world and proclaiming, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”

Not outside the doors of this church, at any rate.

But we really do not have a choice in this, do we?

Because Jesus, because the Risen Lord, the one we are here celebrating this very day, has given us our marching orders.

He is saying to us, right here, right now:

You are my witnesses.

So go on … go tell the story!

You.

And you.

And you!

• • •

Let’s do a little experiment.

Let’s figure out a way for you … for each of you … for each of us … to tell the story.

(Warning Number One: This is a little lesson in evangelism, which is part of mission, which is the very reason for which God created us. As Jesus said, “What are you afraid of?” It’s just a little evangelism …)

(Warning Number Two: I’ll tell you about that in a minute.)

Do you see these flowers here?

These are pansies.

Cute little things, aren’t they?

Harbingers of spring …

You see them all the time, all over the place.

Hardy little buggers, aren’t they?

I bet you did not know that in addition to being pretty, you can eat them.

Yes, you can.

You can pull the flowers right off the stem and eat them.

Mmmm, mmmm, good, as the commercial says.

(eat … eat … eat)

(Warning Number Two revisited: Before you go outside and starting pulling up flowers to eat, know this: You can’t eat most of them. Make sure you’re eating pansies, OK? Nothing else …)[1]

Now … if one of you were to call someone who is not at church today to witness the preacher standing in the pulpit eating pansies and told that someone that the preacher indeed did stand in the pulpit and eat pansies … do you think that person would believe you?

Most likely not.

I’m fairly certain this is not happening in a lot of churches this morning.

So if one of you were to call that one person and tell that person about what I’m doing, that person most likely would think you were doing nothing but telling a fantastical story.

You might even scare that person (who would be wondering, I assure you, not about me, but about you and your sanity).

Now, what if two of you were to tell the same story to the same person?

Do you think that person might believe two of you?

No?

Well, what if say, 10 of you were to tell the story … the exact … same … story?

That person might … or might not … believe you.

But … what if everyday here were to call that one person who is not here, and told the exact same story?

Would that person believe you then?

And what if all of you were to tell everyone you met … today, tomorrow, Tuesday, Wednesday … that your preacher stood in the pulpit and ate pansies?

Wouldn’t that be a great story to tell?

Wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier story to tell than just walking up to a friend (or heaven forfend, a stranger) and saying, “Listen, let me tell you about Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord”?

Wouldn’t you rather go up to a friend, or heaven forfend, a stranger, and say, “You’re never gonna believe what happened in church this morning? The preacher stood in the pulpit and ate pansies”? Doesn’t that make for a much easier story to tell?

Because then folks are going to ask you, “Where do you go to church?” And you can answer, “I go to St. Martin’s … you know, over on Jamestown road … right near the place that serves breakfast, lunch and antiques.”

And doesn’t it then give you the opening to tell the rest of the story?

I’m telling you:

Jesus doesn’t pull any punches.

The Risen Lord is standing right here in our midst, and telling us, in no uncertain terms:

You are my witnesses.

So go!

Go tell the story!

If that makes you nervous, fear not.

You can start by telling them about pansies in the pulpit first.

Heck, if you want, you can even eat some pansies yourself.

I guarantee you, people will listen.

So remember:

It’s our turn.

We are the witnesses.

And we’ve got one heck of a great story to tell.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2012, Year B, at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Williamsburg, Va.



[1] Yes, you can eat other flowers. I know this. But for the purposes of talking to folks in the pew in church, the warning is simple: If it’s not a pansy, do not eat it!

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Don’t be a Pekinese …

Mark 9:2-9

                 This past week, two news stories having to do with perfection captured my attention.

                  The first story was that of the 136th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York, where 2,000 dogs were primped and pampered, walked and watched, poked and prodded until, finally, one dog was judged Best in Show.

Now, I’m going to admit upfront: I did not like the results. The winner was a 4-year-old Pekinese named Malachy that to me looked like little more than a waddling dust mop. Me? I was pulling for the proud German shepherd … or the stately Doberman pinscher … or that gorgeous Irish setter. To me, those are dogs. But Pekinese, especially show-worthy Pekinese? Not my idea of perfection.

And make no mistake: The Westminster show is all about perfection. It’s about choosing which dog best exemplifies the written standard of “the ideal … of that breed, written by the breed’s national club.”[1]

By the time the dogs get to the group competition, they have been judged best in their breed. In the group portion, they are not competing against each other. They are competing against those written standards … choosing which of the best of each breed is, in turn, the best of that group.

In the final portion, they again are not competing against each other. They are competing against a standard … a standard of perfection.

That little Pekinese? The final judge thought he – and not the beautiful Irish setter, not the proud Doberman pinscher, not the exquisite German shepherd, and not the other three finalists (about which I truly didn’t care) – was as close to perfection as you could get this year.

The second news story that captured my attention appeared in The Washington Post on Friday morning under the headline: “Genome news flash: We’re all a little bit broken.” The reporter, David Brown, began the article in this way:

We’ve all had cars with a bunch of broken parts that get us where we want to go for years with no obvious problem. Does the human genome have the same tolerance for permanent damage?

The answer is: Sure.

A new study estimates that the average person goes through life with 20 genes permanently out of commission. With each of us possessing about 20,000 genes, that means 0.1 percent of our endowment is broken from the start – and we don’t even know it.

Whether being born with 20 broken genes is horrifying (“Get me customer service!”) or reassuring (“Whew, only 20!”) depends on one’s expectations of perfection.[2]

And there we have that idea of perfection again – this time, the news that unlike that little Pekinese that won the dog show the other night, none of us – none of us – is perfect! Each one of us, created in the very image of God, is flawed. Some parts of us are broken from the very start.

Now it turns out that the 20 genes (on average) that don’t work in our bodies don’t matter all that much. The ones that “go missing … aren’t involved in essential functions,” Brown wrote. “They control things that are nice to have (like a certain smell receptor) but aren’t required for survival (like an enzyme in a basic metabolic pathway).” The broken ones are, Brown wrote, “the radio and door lock, not the drive shaft and brake pedal.”[3] Which in the end really is good news for us. Our radios and door locks may not work, but as long as our drive shafts and brake pedals are fine, we’re good to go.

Perfection, it turns out, isn’t what we are all about.

And, it turns out, perfection is not what this day is all about.

This day, this Last Sunday of the Epiphany, the day when we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, isn’t about us being perfect.

It’s about what the revelation of Jesus’ perfection means for us.

Jesus took three of his disciples and climbed up to the top of the mountain, where in their sight, he underwent a metamorphosis (that’s the word in Greek), a moment that revealed his inner essence.[4] That’s right: The Transfiguration is not about Jesus’ clothes turning a bright white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. That’s a by-product of Jesus’ transfiguration. And this day isn’t even about that. It’s really about the disciples being granted the glory of seeing Jesus in his truest, most glorious form … as God’s gift to us in human form. It was a stunning moment for Peter and James and John, the three chosen to witness this glorious glimpse of Jesus transformed and Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, standing on either side of Jesus and representing the fulfillment of the Law the Prophets. It was a moment that showed God’s complete connection with humanity and humanity’s complete connection with God.

It was, in other words, perfect.

But remember: That perfect moment is still not the point.

The point, the meaning, of the Transfiguration is not about three disciples seeing for themselves who and what Jesus really was and is. Because the full meaning of that moment didn’t reveal itself until after Jesus transformed.

Jesus went up the mountain, and that was important, yes.

Jesus was transformed, and yes, that was important, too.

But it’s what happened next, what happened after Jesus was transformed and his clothes became dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah stood there with him, and God’s voice boomed from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” that is important.

Because afterwards, Jesus went down the mountain.

He left that place of transfiguration, of transformation, of metamorphosis …

… and he went right back to God’s people, to the ones God entrusted to him, to care for them, to feed them, to heal them, teach them, bless them, live with them and die for them.

Let’s be honest: Jesus could have stayed up on that mountain (and Lord knows, that’s what Peter thought was going to happen).

But he didn’t.

Instead, he came back down the mountain.

He came back down … to live out his mission in this world, a mission of living, of reconciling, of loving.

Transfiguration, whether for Jesus or for his disciples, or for us, is not a one-time event that takes place on a mountaintop and then is over.

Transfiguration … transformation … is about the revelation of our inner essence, the essence of being created in God’s image, the image of love and community, so that we can do something with it!

That’s what Jesus did: He did something with his inner essence.

He didn’t stay up on that mountaintop reveling in his perfection! He did something with it!

He came back “down into the mundane nature of everyday life,” as theologian David Lose puts it[5] — and listen to this, because it really is elegant writing. Jesus cam back “down into the nitty-gritty details of misunderstanding, squabbling, disbelieving disciples. Down into the religious and political quarrels of the day.” (Doesn’t that sound familiar?) “Down into the jealousies and rivals both petty and gigantic that color our relationships. Down into the poverty and pain that are part and parcel of our life in this world.”[6]

Which is exactly what we are supposed to do, when God’s perfection in us is revealed (not withstanding those 20 or so genes that are broken from before we were born).

We are called to back into the world in which we live and move and have our being – which is just as messy as the one in which Jesus lived and moved and had his being – so that we, by our very lives, can transform the world!

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to live into the image in which God created us, the image of love and community that God reveals to us …

… so we can live in love and community.

God does not create us in God’s very image just so we can look pretty! We are not champion Pekinese show dogs, primped and pampered so that we can be walked and watched and poked and prodded and then judged best in breed, best in group, best in show!

We are a bunch of broken human beings – even science tells us that now.

But in God’s eyes, we are perfect.

                  Each and every one of us is – in God’s eyes – perfect.

And God would appreciate it … God would very much appreciate it … if we would do something with our God-given perfection!

God would appreciate it if we would transform the world, just like Jesus did.

And we can do that, you know.

We can give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty.

It is entirely possible for us to give sight to the blind and voice to the voiceless and hearing to the deaf and hope to those who know no hope.

We can make the lame leap for joy! We can, should we decide to accept this mission, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream!

In three days we will begin the season of Lent, the season of fasting from that which keeps us from God and God’s vision for us, the season of feasting on that which brings us closer to God. On Ash Wednesday, we will, once again, undergo our own transfigurations when the ashes of death – the death that no longer has hold over us, the death that no longer stings – are placed on our foreheads.

What shall we do with that moment of transfiguration, that moment of transformation, that moment when we are reminded of our own metamorphoses?

Shall we surreptitiously wipe those ashes from our foreheads when we leave this place (or whatever place we go to receive them), hiding our transformations not only from others but from ourselves?

Or shall we go boldly into the world to live the Good News that in God’s eyes, we are perfect, and with that perfection, we can change the world?

Transfiguration, my friends, our transfiguration, is not about being the prettiest one in the show. It’s not about fixing those parts of us that are broken from before we were born. It’s not about staying up on that mountaintop, refusing to engage in God’s very good creation.

Transfiguration, our transfiguration, is about taking that glimpse of glory that God reveals to us out into the world and doing something with it.

So what are we going to do?

Primp and preen and stay up on our mountaintops, satisfied with the vision?

Or shall we go into the world and get about the business of transforming it?

With this season of Lent upon us, I ask you … I beg you … please. Please. Don’t be a Pekinese.

Do. Not. Be. A. Pekinese.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Last Sunday of the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, Year B, at the Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, Va., 19 February 2012.


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Come and see

John 1:29-42

            The man was walking alongside the river late one night, trying to get from one place to the next, neither of them being home, but needing to keep going. It was a cold night, clear and crisp, with the stars shining brightly above him and the waters flowing smoothly beside him and the path laid out easily below him. Other people were walking that path beside the river with him, people also intent on getting from one place to the next, hoping that they could end their journeys for the day sooner rather than later, for no one likes to be out at night, especially when they were not at home.

And then the man heard the young men in the group ahead of him singing, singing songs loudly and joyfully (what, he thought, was there to be joyful about on this night, when it seemed so dark and life was getting more difficult with each rising of the sun?), praising God (which God? he wondered) and telling some sort of story with their songs (what story? he wanted to know).

The man continued to walk along, following these singers, feeling better for hearing them but not understanding why.

Finally, he asked the young men: Who are you singing about? What God are you praising? What is the meaning of this joyful music? What do you have to be happy about? (For the man was hearing these songs and asking these questions at the very end of a long and brutal war, a war in which his people suffered mightily at the hands of a greater and very oppressive enemy.)

And then the young men began to speak, to tell the story of another young man, from a place very far away in a land barely known to them. They told of how angels had appeared in the sky, singing, “Glory to God on high.” They told of how this one young man was God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, who would save their people, who healed the sick and gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, who made the lame not just walk but leap like deer, who raised people from the dead, who fed the hungry and who filled their hearts with joy … with love … and most of all, with hope. And they told him, “Whatever you are looking for, you will find it in this man from this faraway land.”

As the young men spoke, the man’s heart was filled with that love, and he began to feel the joy and for the first time in a very long time, he began to believe that he, too, would find hope in a world that for so very long had seemed so very hopeless.

Then he asked them, “Where are you staying?”

And they replied, “Come and see.”

So he went and he saw and he heard and he believed. All night long, they talked and sang and prayed, and before the sun came up on the new morning, the man who had been walking alongside the river on a very dark night believed. He had not seen the man who gave such promise to the world, he did not know the whole story, and yet … he knew enough, enough to believe. He continued to learn the story from the youths, and he went to church, and three years later, he was baptized, and seven years after that, he was confirmed, and then he, too, became an evangelist, he, too, became the one walking along the river, singing the songs, and one day, years later, he became a priest.

And now he is the one who tells the story and gives people hope, and he is the one who teaches and preaches and pastors and baptizes and marries and buries the people.

All because one night, one cold, crisp Christmas Eve night, in the deepest part of South Sudan, walking alongside the River Nile, he heard Christmas songs being sung and the Christmas story being told, and when the young men said to him, “Come and see,” he went and saw and he believed.

• • •

The group gathered on the dock by the Bay of Gonave in Haiti, looking across the 2-mile stretch of open water to the Isle of Gonave. They were going, some for the first time, to see the tiny church of St. Simon and St. Jude in a village precariously perched atop one of the island’s mountain ridges, a church that only a year before had been but a dream but now was ready to be consecrated.

Normally, the trip across the bay came via a two-hour ferry ride, but on this day, a non-governmental organization was loaning the use of a speedboat to take the group across. Forty minutes later, they landed on the island, a fairly desolate place smack dab in the craw of the western end of the island of Hispaniola, where in 1492, Christopher Columbus had sailed the ocean blue and landed, bringing Christianity with him.

Somewhere on the heights of Gonave was a tiny village, if it even could be called that, known as Platon Balai, a wind-swept place of rocks and scrub brush, with little fresh water, little arable land and a population of hardy souls who for years had wanted a church of their own but had no way to build one. Until a group of Christians arrived – some from Arkansas, some from Georgia. Over the years, a medical clinic had been built nearby. Then a school room. And now, finally, after intense story-telling followed by even more intense fund-raising followed by incredibly hard work, a church had been built, a real church, made of concrete blocks with a tin roof well secured to withstand the storms and hurricanes that routinely attacked Haiti.

All the people needed now was the Bishop of Haiti to come to consecrate St. Simon and St. Jude, the bishop to come and bless the place and the people, to celebrate a Eucharist and baptize and confirm.

So he came, this Bishop, who once had served as the priest on the island, caring for the few thousand hardy souls who lived there, planting parishes without church buildings, organizing the people, praying with them and for them. The bishop led the group of Americans over the water by speedboat, then across the island on sorry excuses for roads and paths in borrowed SUVs for two hours, and then on foot on a meandering path that cut back and forth through the brush and up the mountain for another hour until the donkeys that had been rented finally caught up, and then by donkey ride up the rest of the mountain for yet another hour.

“We go,” the bishop said, “where the people are. If we need to drive for two hours, then walk for an hour, then ride a donkey for another hour, that is what we do. We go,” he said, “to the people, and the church grows.”

At the summit, the group was greeted by 100 or so of the members of St. Simon and St. Jude, proudly showing off their new church, which they had built with their own hands, funded by churches – Episcopal, Presbyterian and Anglican – in Arkansas and Georgia. Those Americans had come to Haiti to meet the people, to listen to them. They had come and they had seen, and they had believed, and now, five years later, after multiple trips, after working hand in hand with the people of Gonave, they were here again, to see the fruits of their labors.

• • •

Come and see.

This is what Jesus said to the two disciples, Andrew and another, who were disciples of John the Baptizer, who had proclaimed Jesus as God’s Chosen One, as the Lamb of God, and who wanted to know where Jesus was staying.

Come and see.

If we want to live the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the same Gospel that called Andrew and then Simon and then the other disciples, and then the 3,000 and then Paul, and then the untold numbers who came after Paul, the same Gospel that eventually called those young men who sang as they walked along the river that Christmas Eve night in 1973, the same Gospel that called Father Paulo, the same Gospel that called the people of island of Gonave in Haiti, the same Gospel that called the people of Arkansas and Georgia  … if you want to live that Gospel, all of these people say to you: Come and see.

Come and see the Gospel as it lives in places where the people have nothing else, where war and oppression and famine and disease and nature itself claim their lives in untold numbers, where despite the hardship of their lives, the people believe. They believe in the man who came from a small village in a despised place, the man who walked the land as they walked the land, who came to them and lived with them and blessed them, even though the powers and principalities told them, day after day, that they were not blessed.

Come and see your brothers and sisters in Christ in Sudan and Haiti, who are related to you not by the blood of their birth but by the waters of their baptism, because it is only when you have seen, with your eyes and with your hearts and with your souls, the tragedies that are their lives that you can see, with your eyes, and with your hearts and with your souls, how alive they are in the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

For the Gospel is alive – in places like Sudan, now split into two countries, where the wars that raged for five decades continue to this day; in places like Haiti, where four hurricanes in five weeks in 2008 was just the way life was, where a devastating earthquake in 2010 took the lives of 300,000 people and displaced another 1 million people – one-tenth of the population, in 38 seconds.

Your siblings in Christ are beckoning you: Come and see the Gospel come alive in their parishes, their schools, their villages. Come and see the Gospel come alive in their church-run schools, where all the children are given the education that the state denies them, because they are poor or from the wrong tribe or speak another language.

Come and see the Gospel come alive in their church-run clinics, where every single person who comes in for treatment is treated with dignity, even if they cannot pay.

Come and see the Gospel come alive in their evangelism revivals, where they preach the love of God in Christ Jesus to all of the people and proclaim God’s peace, which passes all understanding, and God’s justice, which rolls down like waters, and God’s reconciliation, which brings about God’s kingdom on this earth.

Come and see the Gospel come alive when your brothers and sisters in Christ proclaim God’s hope, in lands where the powers that be long ago proclaimed that for the poor and the destitute, for the people from the wrong tribe or ethnicity, that there was no hope from generation to generation.

Your Sudani siblings in Christ and your Haitian siblings in Christ join together to beg you:

Come.

And see. And believe.

For the Gospel is alive and well in Sudan and in Haiti, and they want you to know this. They want you to know this because they believe that if you know this, if you see it, with your eyes and with your hearts and with your souls, then you will be, as they are, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the greatest thing of all:

You, like they, will spread the love of God to all of God’s beloved children.

You, like they, will spread that love – that undefined yet powerful love – that captured Andrew and caused him to bring along Simon, who was to be called Cephas, which means Peter; the love that captured Paul and made him an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God; the love that on Christmas Eve 1973 captured your brother in Christ Paulo Ajang Thiel Lual; the love that captured the people on the island of Gonave in Haiti; the love that captured the people from Arkansas and Georgia, causing them to travel thousands of miles, by air, by water, by car, by foot, by donkey.

If this is what we do – if this is what we all do, spreading God’s love to those who are far off and those who are near, here in Newtown and there in Sudan and there in Haiti and everywhere in between – then we indeed will change the world, we indeed will bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.

Spreading God’s love, proclaiming God’s love, living God’s love … this is what we are called to do. It’s what they are striving and sometimes even dying to do in Sudan. It is what they are striving and sometimes even dying to do in Haiti.

Which is why they want you … to come … and see.

Amen.

Sermon preached at Newtown United Methodist Church, Newtown, Pa., 12 February 2012, Year B.


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