Discipleship is in the details

Mark 8:27-38

                   Welcome, my friends, to “Take Up Your Cross Sunday.”

                  Aren’t you excited? Isn’t this exactly what you had planned on doing when you got in your cars and came to church this morning?

This is the day when you have to decide: Are you going to take up your cross and follow Jesus?

Now, normally, I can tell you that on a Sunday like today, this is not the focus of the sermons. Look at the front of your bulletin covers. Go ahead, look, look, look. It’s very pretty and should not be wasted. What does it say on the front of your bulletin cover but, “Who do you say that I am?” And so most of the time, when we hit this portion of the Gospel, Proper 19, what we decide to do is have a little chat with each of us about “who do you say that I am?” So that we can each name Jesus.

If we’re not focusing on that, then we like to focus on poor Peter. Peter, who is so quick to say, “You’re the Messiah! I know it!” – remember, this is the turning point of Mark’s Gospel. This is when it becomes open and public knowledge about who Jesus is and what he’s going to do – So we focus on Peter saying, “You’re the Messiah!” and Jesus saying, “Yes, and this is what it means to be the Messiah. I am going to be rejected. And I am going to be killed. And on the third day, I will be raised again.”

What does Peter do? He begins to rebuke Jesus – “No, Lord, you can’t go and do that!” And what does Jesus do, but he turns around and he rebukes Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We love to revel in that, don’t we? Don’t we love to revel in the times when Jesus says – to someone else, never to us – but to somebody else, “Get behind me, Satan!” Because then we don’t have to deal with the issue ourselves.

But the fact of the matter is, today is “Take Up Your Cross Sunday.” Today is the day when you have to decide: Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to follow Jesus? Not just a little bit. But all the way?

Now, most of the time, when people think about taking up their crosses and following Jesus, they think about difficult that is, how hard it is. And that’s what gets in the way of taking up that cross – really taking it up – because, you know, spit, I don’t want to do something that hard.

Does taking up your cross and following Jesus mean that you have to become a missionary and move to Sudan and live in a mud hut with no clean water, no running water, no electricity, and death and disease staring you in the face every moment of every day?

Does it mean that you get to stay in this country but you have to give up everything you own? Your homes – for which you worked so hard? Your jobs – that gave you the money to buy those homes? Your nice cars? Your nice clothes? Does it mean that you have to give up your retirement? Does it mean that you have to give up your kids’ college fund?

Because if that’s what it means to take up your cross, Lord, I’m not certain I’m going to go there with you. I’m not certain that that’s the kind of Christian I’m called to be. That must be the guy down the street. The one at whom you’re always yelling, “Get behind me, Satan!” That’s his problem, not mine.

It’s a hard thing to take up your cross and follow Jesus, especially when you read it in the New Revised Standard Version, which is the version of the Gospel we just read.

But I want to read it to you in a different translation, so see if it has any impact, if it makes any difference in your lives.

Jesus said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead.

You are not in the driver’s seat; I am. Do not run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me, and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”[1]

This translation, my friends, is not actually a translation; it is a paraphrase of the Gospel. It was written by a theologian by the name of Eugene Peterson. He wrote this paraphrase – actually, the entire Bible; he’s now finished it – so that people who had never read the Bible, because it didn’t seem to matter to them, didn’t speak to them, and so that people who have read the Bible so much that everything in it is just old hat, been-there-done-that-got-the-T-shirt-while-I-was-at-it – so that both groups could hear the Gospel in a new way.[2] Both groups would be able to experience God in a new way. And both groups would be able to respond in a new way.

So instead of me asking you to take up your cross today, how about I simply ask you to do a little bit of self-sacrifice?

How about I ask you to let Jesus be the driver in your life?

Isn’t that just a little more palatable?

Isn’t that something that you are probably a little more willing to do?

Anybody?

Guess what?

It’s just as hard.

Because what Jesus is asking us to do is to put Jesus at the center of our lives – in everything we do.

You’ve heard the expression, “The devil is in the details”?

You know that one?

It’s wrong.

Discipleshipis in the details.

"Follow me," by Reynaldo.

Discipleship is in the details.

Everything you do in your life, every minute action, thought, decision, the details of our life – that’s where you need to be a disciple most.

Some easy examples:

When you go to your local coffee shop – I don’t think there’s a Starbucks in town, is there? – so you go into your local coffee shop, if every single time you go in there, you get a disposable cup for your coffee, you need to stop and think again. Because by doing that, that little detail, you are telling God you do not care about God’s very good creation. Would it kill you to have your own go-cup that you brought with you?

If, when you’re driving through Aldie (a small town nearby) at … twenty … five … miles … per … hour … and not one tick above that, especially if “You’re not from around here, are you?” … you know when you come out of Aldie, and you get to speed up all the way to 40, if there’s somebody who is on your tail, just waiting for the lines in the road to change so that they can jump around you, would it kill you to let that person go around you? Because maybe they do have an emergency. Maybe there is some urgency in their life, of which you know nothing.

When you are in the grocery store, and the woman who is checking you out is obviously having a terrible day; her eyes are filled with tears. Discipleship means stopping and talking with the woman. It means holding up the entire rest of the line so that you can give pastoral care to somebody who actually needs it, so that you can give grace upon grace to someone who has not experienced grace.

When you are in that same line, and you have the little old lady who is taking forever to find her checkbook – never mind writing the bloody check – and you’re getting tense because you want to say, “Hurry it up!” … stop and think for a moment … that for this woman, this may be the most human contact that she has throughout the day, and by God, she’s not going to hurry it up.

When we stop and we think, in the details of our lives, about what Jesus would have us to do, that’s when we are the truest disciples of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

When we give grace to other people …

When we realize that just because you and I don’t agree on something doesn’t mean that we have to be enemies …

When we model a behavior of acceptance …

When we stop talking about them, as opposed to us – because there are no “us’s” and “them’s” in God’s very good creation …

Those little details … which I know do not sound like much, but I can guarantee you – if in the tiniest details of your life, you are stopping to be faithful, you are doing your best to be a disciple of Jesus, to do what Jesus did, which was to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, to give sight to the blind, and to make the mute speak, and the deaf hear, to make the lame leap for joy …

When you do what Jesus did, which was to welcome the unwelcome, to include the excluded, to love the unloved, to give hope to people whom have known no hope from generation to generation …

When you live your life that way, then you are truly a disciple of Jesus.

That’s what it means to take up your cross, so that in every moment of your life, you think about the impact you are having on God’s creation, the impact you are having on God’s people.

It’s the self-sacrifice of realizing that youme … you … and you we are not the center of the world. The world does not revolve around us.

When we take that moment to step back and to say, “What is it that Jesus would have me to do?” – whether I want to do it or not, that’s not the question – the question is, “What does Jesus want us to do?” – when we do that, then – then – we are truly being disciples of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Then we are taking up our cross.

Then we are following Jesus.

You can’t simply believe that you follow Jesus by proclaiming, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! It’s not enough! Jesus has expectations that we are going to try and live Jesus’ way in this world.

So that we can indeed realize God’s dream for all of creation.

In this day and age, in this country, when we are so set on dividing each other, when we are so set on attacking each other, when we are not bothering to listen to each other, when we refuse to give grace to each, imagine the impact that we could have, if in the details of our lives, we were disciples of Jesus.

               If we stretched out our hand to someone who is different from us, who thinks differently, God forbid who votes differently, and said, “You are a beloved child of God.”

(Don’t be shaking our head! Don’t be shaking your head!)

Just because we don’t agree politically doesn’t mean that we are not beloved children of God, you and I both!

What kind of model could we set?

How would it change the world … if we focused on Jesus and what Jesus wants, and not on ourselves and what we want?

As I said, welcome to “Take Up Your Cross Sunday.”

Do I have any takers?

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year B, at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Middleburg, Va., 16 September 2012.


[1] The Message (Bible), article on Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Message_(Bible)

 

[2] Ibid.

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Sometimes, you need a handkerchief

Mark 7:24-37

            A few weeks after I began my life as a student at Virginia Theological Seminary, I was sitting under a tree in the Grove, reading for my Systematic Theology class.

            Now, I knew an awful lot about systematic theology – I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic, I went to Roman Catholic schools and graduated from a Jesuit university. So I was actually pretty “up” on what I needed to know for this class.

But that day, sitting under that tree, I made a stunning discovery, one that changed my life. (Yes, a textbook can change your life.) I discovered Anselm of Bec, the 36th archbishop of Canterbury, who died in the year 1109, and who wrote a stunning piece of theology known as the Proslogion.

In that textbook of mine, I read, for the first time, this tiny snippet from the Prologion, from that masterpiece:

“God,” Anselm wrote, “is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”[1]

God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

I have to tell you, when I read that one sentence, my heart began to race and my body was quivering like a little puppy dog, and my mind was exploding like a supernova, going everywhere and racing around, and I thought, Oh, my God! Yes! This is it! I exulted. This explains everything I’ve ever wanted to know about God!

Think of the greatest love you have ever known – think of it –God’s love is bigger than that.

Think of the greatest suffering you have ever gone through – think about that –God’s suffering is greater.

Anything you can think of, any attribute you can describe, and God, quite simply, is greater than that.

Because God, my friends, is God.

Later on that year, I discovered the writings of Frederick Buechner, who was a theologian and a fabulous writer, and he wrote, among other things, “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. Those handkerchiefs are called saints.”

When I read that quotation, I immediately knew of whom Buechner was speaking for me. He was speaking of Anselm.

Because, for me, Anselm was one of God’s handkerchiefs. Because Anselm could answer my questions, the question that I had for God: “Who are you?”

Anselm answered that. I’m sitting under a tree in the Grove at Virginia Theological Seminary, I’ve been a seminarian for a whopping two weeks, and this little handkerchief fluttered down into my life. And suddenly, all of the possibilities were opened, and all of my theology changed, and every way in which I lived my life changed – right then and there – because I no longer had to ask God, Who are you?, but my questions changed then to, God, what would you have me to do? How can I live into your love, which is greater than any love that I could ever conceive?

            It was an amazing moment.

I believe that God sends those handkerchief saints to all of us throughout our lives, so that we all can know more than we have ever known, so that we can go farther than we have ever gone, so that we can dream bigger than we have ever dreamed, so that we can do more than we have ever done.

God’s handkerchiefs are sent to us so that we can be better than we are, so that we can become the people God wants us to be.

The Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark’s Gospel this morning?

She was one of God’s handkerchiefs.

This is a woman who was considered, by Jesus and by his disciples and by anybody else in this story in the Gospels as an unclean woman. She was Syro-Phoenician. That meant she was a Gentile, and she came from mortal enemies of the Jews. And there she is, dropped into the story. Nobody knows where she came from. Nobody knows how she heard that Jesus was, in secret, alone, in Tyre. But there she suddenly appeared.

She goes to Jesus and bows down in front of him, honoring Jesus, recognizing him for who he is, the Son of God, God’s very handkerchief, given to the entire world, and she says, “Please. Cleanse my daughter, for she has an unclean spirit.”

An unclean woman went to Jesus to say, “My daughter has an unclean spirit. Please, heal her. Please.”

Now I need you to be very clear on this:

She had absolutely no business talking to Jesus. None whatsoever.

She was a woman. And ladies, you don’t go and talk to strange men. Certainly not alone.

She was a woman from the wrong tribe. She was a Syro-Phoenician.

She was a woman from the wrong people, a Gentile.

The wrong faith – also, a Gentile.

She was considered unclean.

Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (portion of “Forgiveness” by the painter Thierry Ona)

And yet … there she was, begging Jesus… begging him: “Heal my daughter.”

Because, first and foremost, the Syro-Phoenician woman was a mother. And her child was sick. And she needed help. And she recognized that Jesus could do this. That he was, indeed, the Son of God, and he could heal her.

And what does Jesus say? In his pastoral best, he says, “Nope. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Really?

The Son of God, who came to be with us as one of us, who came to show us what God’s love looked like and tasted liked and felt like and sounded like and yes, even smelled like, the first thing he does is he insults this woman, with the worst insult you can give in that culture? He calls her a dog? And worse, he calls her child a dog???

Let me tell you, I have lived in cultures, I understand this … I have lived in cultures where calling a person a “dog” is enough to start a fist fight. I have lived in cultures where making this symbol (curling a finger to call someone) to come here – that’s how you summon a dog. I have watched two men pick up pickaxes and go at each other over it, because one called the other a dog and went Sssst (and made that gesture). In Africa you do this (curling four fingers under) for a human and this (curling one finger up) for a dog. Dogs are the lowest of the low, they are unclean … they are not my Great Dane puppy, Julian. OK? That’s were dogs are. Lower than even the snakes.

And Jesus calls her a dog.

What does the woman say back to him?

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Boom!

            Take that, Son of God! Let me show you something about loving! Boom!

Just like that, Jesus has his comeuppance. Because this handkerchief from God floated down in front of him, and said, “Open your eyes. Open your heart. Open your mind, Jesus. This is my child. And I need her to be better, and you’re the only one who can do it.”

And that’s what Jesus does.

You notice that he never says, “Your faith has made her well?” No! He just acknowledges, “Wow. You said that, boom, it’s done.”

Jesus needed to have his horizons expanded, his boundaries expanded. He had blinders on. He was so set on going to the chosen people of God that somehow, he had either forgotten or not quite realized that all people are God’s chosen, that all people are God’s beloved, that all people deserve God’s love, and that all people deserve God’s healing.

He was very, very focused on God’s Chosen People, capital C, capital P, the people of the Jewish tradition. And this Syro-Phoenician woman – an unclean woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit – opens Jesus’ eyes.

From that moment forward, Jesus starts going out, and healing Gentiles, as well as healing Jews. From that moment forward, Jesus starts breaking more and more rules, because he realizes that he is there for everyone, and not just for the chosen few.

Now, before we say, “Well, jeez, Jesus, I thought you were the Son of God, you should have gotten that from the beginning” … before we get all smug knowing the end of the story – because, remember, at that point, even Jesus didn’t know the end of the story … before we feel like, “Oh! We’re better than this because we get it,” I want to ask you something:

What blinders do you wear?

What boundaries do you refuse to cross?

What stops you from embracing the world?

Is it, people who don’t agree with you?

Is it, people who are different from you?

Is it, “I don’t want to go there because it is too hard, too far away, too different”?

What blinders do we need removed and what boundaries do we need expanded so that we can live, most fully, into God’s promise to all of God’s beloved creation?

What is it that we need changed?

I’m telling you, God drops handkerchiefs on us all the time. And those handkerchiefs, they open our eyes, and our hearts, and our minds.

You never know where you’re going to find them.

It could be … the person in the grocery store.

It could be … the stranger who smiles at you as you walk down the street.

It could be … the people who come from far away to work up on a mountain so that they can learn how to improve our lives.

It could be … the successful businessmen who travel the country.

It could be … anybody you meet.

So, I want you watch out for those little handkerchiefs. Because they are in our lives every day, and they are there not to tell us how wrong we are, not  to pull a Boom! moment on us, but to say, “Look at it a different way.” Or, as one of my friends likes to say all the time, “Turn the stone over, and look at it from the other side.”

God sends us handkerchiefs so that our blinders can be removed, and so that we can live more faithfully, not as we think that we should, but as God dreams we will.

God has dreams for us, and we put limits on those dreams.

So what does God do?

He drops a little handkerchief in your lap, so that your eyes are opened, and your hearts are opened, and your minds are opened.

You could be sitting under a tree.

You could be driving through the mountains.

You could be flying across the country.

And you never know …

You could be a handkerchief, too.

Your very presence in somebody else’s life could be enough to open their eyes, and their heart, and their mind.

You could be God’s blessing.

Actually, you already are.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year B, at Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va., 9 September 2012.


[1] Anselm of Bec, Proslogion in The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm with the Proslogion, Benedicta Ward (Translator, Introduction), R. W. Southern (Foreword), Penguiln Classics, 1979.

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Jump off the ladder!

John 6:56-69

            On the 25th of May in 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood in front of a joint session of Congress and announced that within that decade, the United States would go to the moon.

            He made this bold announcement, this bold proclamation, this challenge, to the people of America, and to the people of the world, at the height of the Cold War, in the age of Sputnik, when the United States and the Soviet Union were in direct competition with each other to rule the world.

            On the 20th of July in 1969, we achieved his promise.

            Neil Armstrong climbed out of the Lunar Landing Module, which was called the Eagle, and he paused on the steps of that ladder, and then he jumped off, and he landed on the moon.

And he said, “This is one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.”

When Neil Armstrong jumped off that ladder, he had no idea what was going to happen. It was this amazing leap of faith for him to do this, because nobody knew what the moon was really made of. Nobody knew how thick the dust was going to be. Nobody knew if he was going to sink up to his hips in dust. Even though the Landing Module was sitting firmly, it had special webbed feet – it had duck feet, believe it or not – so that it could spread its weight out. But he didn’t. He was in this giant, giant, white suit, with these magnificently huge boots, and he jumped off that ladder not knowing what was going to happen.

Millions of us around the world were glued to our televisions and our radios, waiting to hear. I remember sprawling on the floor in my parents’ bedroom, in front of our color TV, watching this scratchy, grainy, black-and-white image, and listening to this scratchy, fuzzy audio, and not knowing what was going to happen.

But he made that jump. He made that leap of faith, because he believed in what he was doing.

Yesterday, we received the sad news that he had died, three weeks after undergoing heart surgery. He died from complications from that surgery. And since the moment we got that news yesterday afternoon, we have been hearing stories about Neil Armstrong. We’ve been hearing about what he went through to get to the moon, and what happened to him afterwards. The United States never sent him back into space. The government wasn’t stupid. They weren’t going to take this hero and let him risk his life ever again. So two years after he walked on the moon, he resigned from NASA, and he went back to Ohio, where he was from, and he became an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati. As they said in one story on NPR, “Can you imagine taking Engineering 101 from Neil Armstrong?” Can you imagine what that must have been like?

All of the remembrances of him talk about his courage, but they also talk about his humility. In a speech he gave years later, he said, “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.”[1]

Those who are remembering him yesterday and today are speaking, really, of his great humility. They are speaking as well of his strong faith. His faith that what he was doing was possible. That it was possible for the United States to achieve the impossible.

When he went up into space, it was his second time. When he went up again, he said that there was a 90 percent chance, he felt, that he would come back alive. But when it came to jumping off of that ladder, to land on the moon?[2] He figured there was only a 50-50 chance of surviving. So he didn’t actually give very much thought to what he would say.[3]

         And yet he comes out with that magnificent quote, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

My friends, this morning’s Gospel – that’s what this is about. One small step for each of us in order to achieve a giant leap for mankind.

Jesus is preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. It’s is still the same story we’ve been hearing for the last five weeks. We’re still talking about Jesus being the bread of life. Over and over again, he keeps saying this.

When he started out, he was dealing with large crowds. Remember, he had just fed them – 5,000 of them. But when he started talking about bread of life, a bunch of those people said, “Um … no. This is too much.” And they left.

Then, when Jesus repeats again that “I am the bread of life,” now it’s the Pharisees who are objecting. So they leave.

Then Jesus goes into the synagogue at Capernaum, which was a fairly large synagogue, and it was filled with his disciples – not just the ones he called, but the ones who decided that, really, this is the man they’re going to follow. Once again he says, “You’re going to have to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” And they said, “No, we’re not.” And they left.

Now Jesus is down, in this morning’s Gospel, by the end of it, he’s down to the twelve. To the ones he had personally called. The ones to whom he had said, “Follow me.”

Even they are objecting to this idea of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Even they are saying, “This is really difficult.”

Jesus knew this was difficult. He knew how hard it was. To follow him and to eat his flesh and to drink his blood means to overturn all of the laws that had been laid down, that had set those people aside. If you go through Leviticus, you will find all the laws that control what the people who follow God, the chosen ones of God, can eat. They can only eat certain kinds of flesh. It has to be those with a cloven hoof, and those that chew their cud. We don’t have cloven hooves, we don’t chew our cud. And Leviticus is very, very, very clear, “You don’t ingest blood.” Steak tartare was not on the menu for the Jews. That rare steak that you order, where you say, “Make it good and bloody”? No! The Law is clear.[4]

So when Jesus says, “You follow me, you do this my way? You eat my flesh? You drink my blood?” he’s basically telling those who follow him, “You’re going to leave behind everything you know, and you are no longer going to belong to your community, to your family, to your faith.”

It’s an incredible challenge, a bold proclamation – to change the world.

Take this small step with me and for me, Jesus says, and you will be making a leap for all of God’s beloved children.

This is the question that we have to face – for ourselves. Right here. Right now. Before you come forward to have the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, you have to make a decision.

But before you make that decision, I’m going to warn you: This is a difficult thing to do. Because if you decide that you really want to eat the Body of Christ, that you really want to drink the Blood of Christ, that this really is real for you … if you are going to accept this challenge, let me tell you something: It means that you will no longer belong in society. It means that you will be outside of society. It means that some of you are going to have to turn your backs on your families.

Because it means that you’re going to have to live in a whole new way. You can’t just take the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and walk out that door and not be changed! It’s what I told you a couple of weeks ago, when we were talking about this. It changes you. It sets you apart. And if you accept this challenge, if you come forward and you eat the Body and you drink the Blood of Jesus Christ, then you already are changed, and you are going to go out into the world and you are going to change the world.

Because it means that you are going to have what’s called an agenda. You’re going to have the agenda that is always, always, seeking to feed the hungry, and to give water to the thirsty. Always, always, seeking to correct the injustices, never shrinking back, never clinging to that ladder of the Lunar Landing Module and saying, “Oh, I’ve changed my mind, I don’t think I’m going to do this anymore.” No! If you’re going to stand up to the injustices of the world, you had better leap off that ladder. Because that is what Jesus is asking you to do.

Being a follower of Jesus is not just saying, “I’m a Christian.” It means you have to live a Christian life. You have to have an agenda that says, “You know what? I believe we can give sight to the blind. I know we can give hearing to the deaf, and voice to the mute. I know that we can proclaim freedom to the prisoners. I know that we can stand up against a society that says we have to be divided; a society that says, ‘I’ve got mine and I don’t care if you ever get yours.’” You have to seek a society that is together for the common weal its people.[5]

If you’re going to be a Christian, if you are going to take that leap off of that ladder, let me tell you, there are going to be a lot of people who are going to come gunning for you. There are a lot of people who are going to say to you, “You know you’re crazy? You can’t do that. That’s impossible. Why would you want to live your life this way? Who told you to make the decisions for me? I’ll do what I want!”

You jump off that ladder, you’re jumping into the unknown. Just like Neil Armstrong did. Just like Buzz Aldrin did a couple of minutes later.

But that’s what Jesus is challenging us to do.

And remember, he’s giving us an out. He makes it very, very simple: “Do you also wish to leave?” Even to his chosen 12, he gave them the option to go home.

Now can you imagine what that must have been like? You give up everything in your life. You walk away from your family, you walk away from your job, you walk away from your inheritance – do you think that Zebedee was really going to turn over his fishing fleet over to those two boys of his, James and John, after they walked off the job and left him high and dry? Uh, uh! – You walk away from all that they way they did … imagine what that must have been like.

And then Jesus comes along, and he keeps preaching this really hard stuff: No! You can’t go along to get along! No! You can’t accept injustice and say, “It’s not my problem.” No! You can’t walk by the person who’s starving! No! You cannot let the naked person stay naked; you have to take your clothes off and given them to him! No! You cannot let people beat each other up! No! You can’t stand by and watch people bully each other in school! No! You cannot, cannot allow the poor to stay poor while the rest of us have more than enough.

Imagine what it was like for Jesus and his disciples at that important, challenging moment, when he said to them, “Do you also wish to leave?”

Amazingly, none of them did.

They didn’t leave because Peter – God bless Peter, who never quite got it even when he got it! – Peter looked at him and said, “Lord, where else are we supposed to go? To whom else can we go? We have come to believe and we know that you are the Holy One of God.” There’s nothing else out there for us!

You don’t really think Neil Armstrong was going to crawl back up that ladder without jumping off, do you? With all of the time and money that we had put into this, do you think he was really going to cling to that ladder and call Houston and say, “Houston, I don’t feel like doing this”?! He had accepted the challenge. He clearly knew – because he told people about this – there was a 50-50 chance he was not coming back! And he still went ahead and did it … because he believed.

He believed that it was possible for us to explore the heavens.

Do we believe, with that much faith?

Do we have the faith of the disciples, who said, “Lord, to whom else would we go?”

Do we have enough faith to live the life that we proclaim that we are living when we’re here in church … outside the church?

This is what Jesus probably would understand is called a fish-or-cut-bait moment. That’s probably a term that would make sense to him, because he lived with a bunch of fishermen. You either keep on fishing, in the sure and certain knowledge that it’s going to work, or you cut bait and you move on.

So this is your fish-or-cut-bait moment. This is your chance to not only take a small step for yourselves, but to take a giant leap for mankind.

Let me tell you, if each and every one of us decide to get off that ladder and land on the unknown surface of the moon? We can change the world. We will change the world.

If each and every one of us makes the commitment that Jesus is indeed the Holy One of God and that he came here for us, and that he died for us, and that he rose for us … if we accept that and live that, I’m telling you, the world will be a different place!

           We will not have hungry people in the world. We will not have people without clean water. We will not have people who have no access to medicine. We will not have rampant injustice. If we take the time to live the Gospel, to live the promise that Jesus gives us, through his own body and blood – we’re not just eating wafers and sipping port wine here, folks – it’s a lot more than that.

When we come forward, we’re making a commitment to a way of life.

Not just for yourselves.

But for all of God’s beloved creation.

Are you willing to jump off that ladder?

Amen.

 

Sermon preached on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year B, at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va., on 26 August 2012. 

 


[1] The Associated Press, To Hero-Astronaut Armstrong, Moonwalk ‘Just’ a Job,

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=160044021

 

[2]Allison Keyes, In just ‘one small step,’ Armstrong became an icon, NPR’s Weekend Edition, http://www.wbur.org/npr/160059467/in-just-one-small-step-armstrong-became-an-icon

 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Extrapolated and condensed from Rick Morley, “The bloody truth – a reflection on John 6:56-69,” http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1880, 13 August 2012.

 

[5] Paraphrase of Dave Comstock, member of The Christian Left: ‎”A ‘Christian’ agenda is one that seeks healing, feeds those who are hungry, confronts injustice, eschews wealth, welcomes the stranger, fixes what is broken, is present where people are experiencing ‘crucifixion’ in order to embody ‘resurrection.'” 24 August 2012 via Facebook.

 

 

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You are what *and* where you eat

           Of late, I have been doing a lot of driving as I travel around, and in my driving I listen to the radio and on the radio lately, I have heard an ad that, quite frankly, it just irks me.

            It’s ad for something called CityEats, which is apparently is some new thing you can do online. You go online and go on to CityEats.org and you can not only make a reservation at the reservation at the restaurant, not only can you look at the menu at the restaurant, you can set up your entire dining experience in advance.

This is being done in conjunction with the Food Network, so one of the reasons that I find this radio ad so irksome is that it is elitist. This is about people who are truly foodies … and how they can make a meal into … oh, something that’s more than a meal, and spend a lot of money doing it.

So that’s what irks me. A little bit.

But what really irks me about this is their motto:

You are where you eat.

You are where you eat.

You know, besides the elitism of this – because you can only do this at the highest ranking of all of the restaurants, where the chi-chi chefs are – they’re just plain wrong!

You aren’t where you eat!

You are what you eat!

We know this!

The USDA tells us this – they used to have a food pyramid, now they have something called MyPlate.gov – it’s the same thing – and they tell you what you should eat, because we are what we eat.

Every nutritionist you know will tell you you are what you eat.

Your doctor, every time you go in for your physical, will tell you you are what you eat.

If you spend any time on social media, you’ll know this, because there are all these ads: “If you eat this one fruit, it will change your life.” Or “this one vegetable. It will change your life.”

If you go into a bookstore, one of the largest sections in a bookstore now is all the books on how to improve your life by what you eat.

It’s not where you eat.

It’s what you eat – and we know that, right?

We’ve been taught this since we were children.

If you put a bunch of crap into your body, you are going to become sick. That’s all there is to it. We all know it.

It’s not where you eat, it’s what you eat.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in this morning’s Gospel. It’s what you eat.

He says, “I am the bread of life. I am the bread of life.”

Here the Jews are, they’re all complaining. One of the things they’re complaining about is, “Wait a minute. Isn’t this Jesus, he’s the son of Joseph and we know Mary, and how dare he say he came down from heaven and he’s the bread of life?!?!”

The next thing they’re going to complain about is, “Eat his flesh?! Excuse me, we’re Jewish, we don’t do cannibalism …”

And the third thing they’re complaining about is, what does it mean to have eternal life? Because in their mind, bread from heaven is manna. It’s what God gave the Israelites in the wilderness. It’s manna. Well, you all know what manna is, right? Right? Do you all know what manna is? Manna is plant lice excretion.[1]

That’s all it is, and if you out in the Sinai Desert and you get there right after dawn, all the “dew” that’s on the ground? As soon as the sun comes up, that “dew” hardens, and it becomes kind of this flaky thing that you can eat and live on. I don’t recommend that you spend all your life living on this, but it worked for the Jews for forty years in the wilderness.

And so, the Jews are sitting there going, “We want the bread that God gave us in the wilderness.” And remember, why did God give it to them in the wilderness? Because the Israelites … well, they were complaining. “We want to go back to Egypt, because in Egypt, they’ve got better food. The fact that we were slaves … that’s a detail. We’re going to eat better.” And God comes down and he says, “You’re going to eat what I give you!” (Doesn’t that sound just like your parents? “You’re going to eat what I put on your plate!”)

Well, the thing about manna, about bug excretion, is that it only lasts for a day. You cannot keep it longer than that. It literally molds and crumbles and goes away. So God said to them, “Every morning, you’re going to go out and you’re going to collect up enough of this bug excretion so that you have enough to eat. Every single day. This is the bread from heaven. (Of course, on the eve of the Sabbath, you can go out and get two days’ worth, because you can’t do any of the collecting of food on the Sabbath.)”

That’s what the people are thinking of. They’re thinking, the “bread from heaven is bug excretion, and we have to go back to Sinai for this, and this isn’t going to happen.”

So they are confused, and they’re upset, and Jesus is standing there saying, “You don’t get it. I am the bread of life. You eat me, and you will have life eternal. I’m not good for just a day. I’m good for life eternal. You will not die, if you eat my bread.”

So they are even more confused. So he has to spend all this time explaining it to them again. “The bread that God gave to our ancestors was only good for a day. I’m good for eternity. I’m telling you this is necessary.”

As we gather here this morning, for the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, as we head forward to that table, so that we can have the bread of life, I want us to spend a moment thinking: What does it mean to us?

It doesn’t really matter what kind of bread you have at this table. And it really doesn’t matter where you have this bread. It doesn’t matter where this table is.

I have had communion on three continents, in five countries.

I’ve had all kinds of bread. I’ve had white bread and wheat bread. I’ve had challah. I’ve had raisin bread. I’ve had cinnamon raisin toast bread. I’ve had sourdough bread. I’ve had big loaves and little loaves. I’ve had pita bread that tasted like cardboard. I’ve had the best biscuits. And I’ve had hard biscuits, that really kind of reminded me of hardtack. And I’ve had Butt Buns from ShrineMont for my Eucharist. I’ve had hard crackers, soft crackers – I had Oreos® once for communion. I’ve even had animal crackers for communion.

It doesn’t matter really what kind of bread it is, as long as it is the bread that is taken … blessed … broken … and given in Jesus’ name.

And it doesn’t matter where.

I have had bread in the greatest cathedrals of the world, and out in mud huts, under baobob trees. I’ve had bread out on the water. I’ve had it on a dock. I’ve had it in the middle of a field. I’ve had it in the middle of a field of corn (now that’s an anomaly, because we had wheat bread that day). I’ve had it in great chalices and silver patens, and I’ve had it coming off of a little piece of wood. I had bread one time served to me on a leaf. That was the only thing we had.

It comes down to, what is it that you’re really eating?

You’re eating Jesus. What does that mean to you?

• • •

In every parish where I have served, I have always, always encountered a child, a small child, who wanted to have communion, where the parents are going, “Oh, no. I don’t think the child is ready yet.” I always say, “Well, why not? What does the child need to do to be ready?” “Well, the child needs to understand what the Eucharist is,” the parents would say. And I would look at the parents and say, “Oh, goody. You explain to me what the Eucharist is.” And they look at me, saying, “Well … uh … “ And I reply, “uh, uh, uh, uh.” Invariably, the child who is told that he or she cannot have bread will end up at the altar rail, and I will be communing the person over here and the person over there, and this little hand – I’ve had this happen numerous times – this little hand will shoot up and grab a bunch of that bread and start shoveling it in as fast as possible, because that kid knew that that kid wanted Jesus.

When I was at Trinity in Arlington, our middle service was actually a children’s service. We allowed grown children to come. But it was designed for the children. We had a big, high altar and all, but no, we took a little table out, a table short enough so that the average 2-year-old could put his chin on the table to watch.

All the children would come up and be around us, and after a while, there got to be this little dispute over who was going to stand between me and the table, and I would put children there and clamp them between my knees, because they were the fidgety ones.

Then we had the children who wanted to so much to be involved in this that they would climb into my arms! So I would have a child in this arm and I’m trying to consecrate the bread, and I’m trying to say to the child, “Stick your arm out. Stick it out there. Yeah, stick it out for me so that we can do this.”

Then we would commune them. We always used the wafer that breaks up into 24 pieces. We would give the kids the bread, and they could have the wine, if they wanted, and then those children would go back, with their parents, and as the parents would walk forward, the children would get in line, so that they could have breakfast again. Because they understood that they were having breakfast with Jesus, and that it was important for them to do it as their community. But they also understood that they needed to have it with Mom and Dad as well. So we quickly came up with the rule, “I don’t care how many times the kid wants to eat, the kid gets as much Eucharist as possible.”

          Well, one day, we did the Eucharist. We’re all done with the entire service, and all the children go and they gather in the aisle of this church. Now this is a huge church. It’s called Georgian architecture and it’s beautiful, and it’s got this long aisle, it’s like 35 pews long, and the kids are smack-dab in the middle, and they’re having a serious meeting. We’re talking 4-, 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, and they are having a very serious meeting. They’re talking to each other like this.

I’m standing off to the side, and I finally say to one of the parents, “Do you have any idea what’s going on out there? Do you have any idea at all?” And she said, “Yeah, the kids are upset.” And I said, “Well, what are they upset about?” She said, “You didn’t give them any triangles this morning.” Because when you break the large wafer? Some of them come out as triangles. (Some of them come as what was a triangle, but the top is lopped off – I don’t know if that’s a rhomboid or whatever it’s called.) But some of them were triangles. We had been asking the kids, “Circle or triangle? Circle or triangle?” And they got to choose what they got. Well, I didn’t have any triangles that morning, because nobody gave me the big wafers. I only had the little wafers – you know, like we use.

These children were so upset that they thought they had done something wrong. Because they didn’t have breakfast with Jesus. Thankfully, one of the wardens came up to me and he leans over and he says, “You know, Lauren, you can make a triangle out of a circle.” And I was like, “Oh! Why, by God, you’re right!” I said, “Go get the kids!” So I gathered up all the kids and I took all of my little wafers, and I stood there and very patiently broke off pieces, and then I was asking, “Triangle or circle? Triangle or circle? Triangle. Triangle. Triangle.” Because they knew what this was about. They knew that this was Jesus, and Jesus was so important to them that they were going to have a meeting – in protest – until they got what they wanted!

How many of you come to the table that knowing of what you’re getting, and that certain of what it means? How many of us come to the table knowing that Jesus is what is going to sustain us? That the first time we had Jesus, we got the promise of eternal life, and that having Jesus now – at that table – that’s what is going to sustain us! Because when you bring Jesus into you, when you accept Jesus fully, when you eat Jesus fully for breakfast … it changes your life.

I dare you to come to the table and have Jesus – to come forward as the Body of Christ to eat the Body of Christ – and to go out of here an unchanged person. I double-dog dare you to do that.

You have Jesus, and you walk out of here, and your life is changed. Because you have made a commitment to God, and God has made a commitment to you.

And if you walk out of here and nothing is different in your life, then we need to have a talk about what you’re doing here.

This is the most important thing you do. I don’t care if you do it every day, if you do it every week, if you do it once a month, if you do it once a year – that moment, when you take Jesus in your hands, and when you put Jesus in your mouth, and when you swallow Jesus, you are swallowing everything in the New Testament. You are swallowing God’s promise to you. It’s not some promise out there – it’s a promise in here (touching chest). That’s what communion is.

 It doesn’t matter if it’s white bread or wheat bread or if it’s pita bread or if it’s a wafer or if it’s a graham cracker or if it’s an animal cracker. What is important is that you come together and have Jesus as the promise of life, so that you can go out into the world and share that promise with the world.

What matters is that you come to the table.

Which leads me to suddenly think that perhaps CityEats is right. Perhaps where you eat is important. Not which restaurant. Not in a formal setting like here. You know, it could be outside, it could be in Africa, in Haiti, or Honduras, or Kenya, or England, or France, or anywhere in this country, or anywhere in the world. As long as you’re coming to the table to have something that has been taken … blessed … broken … and given … you’re having Jesus. Inside of you. Taking over your life. So that when you go out, you have life to share with one another.

You are what you eat.

And I guess you are where you eat.

As long as that where is at a table. In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year B, at Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va., 12 August 2012.




[1] From Barbara Brown Taylor’s Bread of Angels, Cowley Publications, 1997. In the sermon, I incorrectly quoted Taylor as saying manna was “bee spit.” I was wrong. It is, she says, the excretion of plant lice.

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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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Letting go of our big, honking fears

1 Samuel 17:(1s, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49

Not too long ago, I was asked a very serious question by a group of people:

When you are meeting and working with leaders, this group asked, what is it that frustrates you most?

I didn’t have to think long to come up with my answer:

I get frustrated, I replied, when people tell me something is impossible.

And it’s true. Nothing frustrates me more than having someone tell me something is impossible simply because it will be hard … because it hasn’t been done before … because we’ve never done it that way … because there’s not enough money … because it’s a lost cause

And the worst excuse of all: Because we are afraid

The Scriptures tell us that nothing is impossible with God, that God has made promises to us, and that God will always fulfill those promises.

And yet, far too often, we live our lives as though nothing is possible with God.

And quite frankly, I don’t get it.

I do not understand – and I am quite frustrated by – the belief that something is impossible.

Which leads me to wonder:

Why don’t we believe that all things are possible with God?

What are we afraid of?

That God might actually do what God has promised to do?

• • •

Look at the story of David and Goliath. We all know the gist of the story: Little David takes on giant Goliath, kills him with a slingshot and a stone, yay, Israel is saved.

And the moral of the story, so we are almost always told, is this: Never count out the little guy.

Well, that’s a nice moral, I grant you. But that is not what this story is about.

The story of David and Goliath is not about how the little guy always wins.

David and Goliath is a story of faith.

Of David’s faith.

And of our faith.

And I’m not just talking about our faith in God. I’m talking about our faith in the fact that God keeps God’s promises.

This story really boils down to one thing:

Do we believe that God can do all the things we say God can do?

Do we?

Or do we let our fears get in the way?

• • •

If we really want to understand this story, we need to learn a few things, first.

Goliath was a giant. He was a 9-foot-9-inch-tall descendant of the Nephilim, the giants who roamed the earth back in the days of Genesis.[1] He served the Philistines, who were in constant battle with the Israelites, and he was a terror.

But that wasn’t why he was considered the bad guy in this story. He’s the bad guy here because he and his people did not believe in God. The Nephilim were the descendants of the rebellious sons of God – you can read all this in 1 Enoch.[2] The sons of God were angels who came down to earth, saw how beautiful the human women were, did that – well, that thing – and presto! The giants were born. Goliath was one of those giants, a big honking giant with a big honking spear that had a big honking head on it, wearing a big honking helmet and a big honking armor with a big honking shield.

This was the champion the Philistines sent out … in what was really a much more humane way of fighting a war. You line up your army on one side and I line up my army on my side, and we send out our champions to fight to death, and the if you win, we become your slaves. If I win, you become our slaves.

And for 40 days and 40 nights (have we heard that amount of time before?), he stepped out in front of the army of the Philistines and insulted the Israelites, who were so scared by Goliath’s size that they didn’t do a darned thing. They didn’t send out a champion. They didn’t attack the Philistine army. They didn’t retreat. They didn’t negotiate. They simply quaked in their boots.

Because they were afraid.

They were so afraid that t their big honking fear of big honking Goliath got in the way of their faith that God would fulfill God’s promises to them.

That is, until David showed up, David – who probably was afraid but wasn’t going to let his fear get in the way of God.

David, who was so young – ruddy and handsome, yes, but still just a boy – that he couldn’t wear the armor that Saul gave him.

So he went, picked up a stone, whipped his slingshot, smacked big, honking Goliath in the forehead, Goliath falls down and dies and (and we don’t get this part in the reading, but it’s there), David takes Goliath’s big, honking sword and cuts off Goliath’s head.

According to Walter Brueggemann, one of the greatest Old Testament scholars and prophets of the 20th and now into the 21st century, this battle was “a paradigm of bold faith in an arena of fear, threat and defiance.”[3]

And whaddya know?

Because David was able to overcome his big honking fear, God prevailed over evil. God kept God’s promises. God overcame death and destruction and slavery and unfaithfulness by being faithful to God’s promises to God’s people.

So the question for us is this:

What big, honking fears do we have that get in the way of God doing exactly what God has promised God will do?

What is it that we fear so much that we no longer believe God can do all the things even we say God can do?

We all have these fears, you know. It wasn’t just Saul and the Israelites.

We are just as afraid as they were.

And every time we let that fear control our lives, we get in God’s way and keep God’s will from being fulfilled.

We are the ones who proclaim, “Well, that’s impossible.”

Not because “that” – whatever “that” might be – really is impossible, but because we are afraid.

Because we are consumed by our fear.

And then indeed, whatever it is that God is trying to accomplish comes to a standstill, and all of us end up standing around the like Israelites, quaking in our boots and doing nothing.

• • •

Yesterday, at the Baccalaureate service for Stanford University’s graduation, Sister Joan Chittester told the students that if they wanted to be leaders – not followers quaking in their boots going along to get along, but leaders, they were going to have to rebel.

“Rebel, rebel, rebel – for all our sakes, rebel!”[4]

To be a leader, she said, you have to say no to the “lies” – the lies that paralyze us with big honking fear – the lies that the world tells us and that we allow to control us.

“The lie that there is nothing we can do about discrimination, nothing we can do about world poverty, nothing we can do about fair trade, nothing we can do to end war, nothing we can do to provide education and health care, housing and food, maternity care and just wages for everyone in the world. Nothing we can do about women raped, beaten, trafficked, silenced yet, still, now, everywhere.”[5]

We are afraid no only that we cannot change the world, but that God cannot change it either.

We let the big honking fears of our lives get in the way of God’s life for us – and in us – and with us – and through us.

Fear that we might …

Lose a job.

Lose a house.

Lose a life.

Fear that …

People might not like us.

People might shut us out.

People might think less of us.

Fear that …

The problem is just too big.

Or too complicated.

Let me tell you something:

The worst thing that will ever happen to us – the absolute worst thing – is that we will end up having breakfast with Jesus.

And since that’s what we are about to pray for in the Nicene Creed, I really don’t understand what we have to be afraid of!

So here’s what we have to do:

Let go of our big, honking fears, and get out of God’s way!

Or, as Sr. Chittester says, “Rebel!”

Because we do not have to be afraid.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7, Year B, at Grace Episcopal Church, Goochland, Va., on 24 June 2012.



[1] Commentary on Goliath comes from Samuel Giere, Professor Homiletics, Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, “Commentary on Alternate 1st Reading,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=2&alt=1

[2] Ibid.

[3] Brueggemann, Walter. “First and Second Samuel.” Interpretation. James Luther Mays, et al. editors. (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1990). (pp. 1-7 and 127-134). Via http://www.kirkofkildaire.org/quest/FQlessons/D&GLeaderStudy.html

[4] Sr. Joan Chittester, Baccalaureate speech, Stanford University, 23 June 2012, http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/june/baccalaureate-text-chittister-061612.html

[5] Ibid.

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Crazy for Jesus

One of my favorite theologians posed the question about this morning’s Gospel the other day, asking, “Do you have to be a little crazy to preach the Gospel?”[1]

To which my response was, “Crazy to preach the Gospel? Nah. But you do have to be crazy to live the Gospel!”

Because, let’s be honest, from the days of Jesus himself, anyone who dared to live the Gospel, the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, not just proclaiming God’s love but actually living it, was considered crazy.

The Gospel, you see, is not something that fits in well with society. Never has … never will.

Society in the days when our Lord and Savior walked the earth was exactly like it is today. In fact, I hate to tell you, but society has pretty much been the same since … well, ever since Cain killed Abel: It’s been about putting ourselves first. Putting our kith and kin first. Putting our tribe first. Today’s society, just like society in Jesus’ day, is based on the attitude of, I’ve-got-mine-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-ever-get-yours!

Everything that Jesus did in his ministry – feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, making the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute speak, the lame leap for joy, including the excluded, loving the unloved, cleansing the unclean, giving hope to those who have known no hope from generation to generation – everything Jesus did went against societal norms. That’s why the scribes came down from Jerusalem … because Jesus didn’t fit the norms.

And I am telling you: If we really live the Gospel – not just proclaim it but live it – I guarantee you, you, like Jesus, will be called crazy. People will say that you are out of your mind.

When I told my family and friends and my parish that I was going to Sudan to be a missionary, they told me I was crazy. Sudan wasn’t safe. It wasn’t stable. It was a country riven by nearly 50 years of war, war that had not quite ended.

When I went to missionary training – if you want to serve as an Appointed Missionary of The Episcopal Church, you have to go to a two-week “missionary boot camp” – they brought in a security trainer who looked just like Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, who talked to us about security issues and how we could keep ourselves safe. We each were allowed to tell him where we would be serving, and he would tell us something about the area where we were going. When I asked about Sudan, he said, “Well, I wouldn’t go to the border region … it’s really unstable and you never know what’s going to happen there. Where are you going?”

When I told him, “the border region,” all he could say was, “Well, good luck.”

When I lived in Sudan, the Sudanis themselves told me I was crazy, Northerners because I was living in the South, Southerners because … well, because I was living in the South. There was no clean water, very little food, the area was very insecure, we had very little electricity, and people were pointing guns at me all the time.

At least once a week, the Sudanis would ask me: “Why are you here? Why haven’t you left yet?”

When I did leave Sudan, and transferred to Haiti, my family and friends again told me I was crazy. “Why do you want to go to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere?”

And then when I got to Haiti, the Haitians themselves asked me: “Are you crazy? Why would you leave the comforts of the United States to come here?! We’re trying to leave here to go to the United States?”

You have encountered this reaction as well, haven’t you?

Every time you decide to do something because Jesus says so, isn’t it true that people question you?

You’re generous people, I know, so when you stop to help a homeless person on the street, giving them $20, someone somewhere asks, “Are you nuts? He’s just going to drink that money, you know.”

When you stop along the road to help a stranded driver, taking them to get some petrol, isn’t it true that your parents or spouse looks at you and says, , “Are you crazy? That person could have been an ax murderer!”

You decide to tithe to your church, and then you go to see your broker, who looks at you and says, “Are you out of your mind? Did you stop to think that you might need that money someday, you know, to retire? Or to pay for your kids’ college education? Or to pay for that wedding you’re daughter’s been dreaming of all her life?”

I am telling you: Living the Gospel … every moment of your lives … is … well, it’s just crazy!

Look what happened to Jesus – his love for God’s people led him to the cross!

If we are going to be Christians, if we are going to truly be followers of Jesus, we are going to have to be just a little bit crazy.

• • •

NY Times columnist David Brooks

Last week, David Brooks wrote a column in The New York Times entitled “The Moral Diet.”

In it, he talked about David Arielly’s new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, a book that shows that “nearly everybody cheats, but usually only a little.”[2]

Arielly’s social science experiments show that people these days “live by the Good Person Construct, try[ing] to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory.”[3]

Brooks compared how we live our moral lives to the way we follow our diets. We have all dieted, right? So we know how this works. We get up in the morning, and we have a banana and yogurt for breakfast. Then for lunch, we have a salad – a small salad – no dressing, please, because I’m on a diet. For dinner, we have a piece of baked chicken and some broccoli. And then what do we do? We count up our calories and we realize we’ve been really good today, so we say, “I can have ice cream for dinner!”

Brooks points out that what we do with our diets, we do with the rest of our lives.

The Good Person, he wrote, “isn’t shooting for perfection any more than dieters are following their diet 100 percent. It’s enough to be workably suboptimal, a tolerant, harmless sinner and a generally good guy.”[4]

Brooks finished his column with this thought: “As we go about doing our Good Person moral calculations, it might be worth asking: Is this good enough? Is this life of minor transgressions refreshingly realistic, … or is it settling for mediocrity?”[5]

I have to say, when I finished reading the column, my reaction was: “’Good enough’ is not good enough. Not if we are going to live our lives as followers, as disciples of Jesus.”

Because Jesus didn’t do mediocrity.

Jesus, my friends, went the whole way. He lived his life – and he died for us – as a crazy radical, loving beyond anything the world had ever seen.

And Jesus is calling us to be just as crazy and just as radical as he was!

And when we do this, and the world laughs at us or scoffs at what we are doing, or ridicules us and says, “You’re out of your mind” (which the world will do)? Well, Jesus basically is telling us to respond to the world by saying, “So what?”

So what if the world around you thinks you are out of your mind?

So what if your actions and your attitude makes people say, “You are out of your mind!”

This is what Jesus commanded us to do, and if we are going to follow Jesus, this is what we’re going to have to do.

Be a little bit crazy.

• • •

My favorite theologian points out that Jesus’ life was centered in a very specific vision, and that “at the heart of that vision and way is the conviction that God is love, that God desires the health and healing of all God’s creation, that God stands both with us and for us, that God is determined to love and redeem us no matter what the cost, and that this God chooses to be accessible to us, to all of us – indeed to anyone and everyone.”[6]

Let’s be honest:

That vision – it’s pretty crazy.

Because it goes against everything society says.

But that indeed is God’s vision, and it was that vision that Jesus lived, and taught us to live as well.

So the question for us on this Sunday morning is this:

Are you willing to be crazy for Jesus?

Are you?

 Amen.

Sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Manassas, Va., on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, Year B, 10 June 2012.



[1] David J. Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, “Out of our minds,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=596

[2] David Brooks, “The Moral Diet,” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/08/opinion/brooks-the-moral-diet.html?_r=2&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120608me

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lose (emphases added)

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A cup of boldness, courtesy of the Trinity

The other day, I went to Starbucks – that was no surprise, because y’all know that I love Starbucks and that I go there because I love their chai lattes. And you know that whenever I come out here on Sundays, I stop at Starbucks multiple times along the way. So my going there the other day normally wouldn’t have been a big deal.

Except for the fact that the other day, I went there not just for my chai, but to take a stand.

You see, there is a group called the National Organization for Marriage, which is so anti-gay marriage that it organized what it called a “DumpStarbucks Day” because this group is upset. Really upset. Why? Because Starbucks has had the audacity to offer health benefits to its employees’ domestic partners.

NOM’s response to this offer?

It wants Starbucks punished.

So it started a Facebook page, “DumpStarbucks Day,” and asked people to boycott Starbucks on Wednesday last week.

Of course, a slew of my friends, who support gay marriage, among other things, were outraged and expressed that outrage on their Facebook pages, which meant it showed up on mine, and finally, after seeing all kinds of references to this, and wondering why my friends would support an attack on Starbucks, I checked out the whole thing and came away thinking, “Really? NOM is outraged that Starbucks treats its employees and their loved ones well? Hmpph! Not gonna let that happen!”

So on Wednesday, I made a point of going to Starbucks, where they know my green cup (if not me) quite well, and after I ordered, I told the barista I was there to support Starbucks against the DumpStarbucks movement.

Of course, she had no idea what I was talking about, so I explained it to her, and reiterated that I was there to show support for her employer.

“Someone has a problem with Starbucks giving us health benefits?”

“Not just you. But domestic partners as well,” I said.

“Huh?”

I had to explain that domestic partners frequently but not always are gay, which is when one of the other customers piped up: “What? Some group is objecting to what?”

So I explained – again – the whole idea, and that I was there to support the company, and that I would be back later in the day, to really show my support, and then the barista asked, in great confusion,

“Why would anyone care who Starbucks gives benefits to? What business is it of theirs?”

“Exactly,” I said.

“It’s nobody’s business but Starbucks and its employees,” the customer said.

And then the barista asked: “Is this group Christian?”

“Yeah, that’s what they claim,” I said.

“See, that’s what I hate about churches,” the barista said. “I hate it when they … they …” She was literally stumbling over her words, trying to figure out how to express what it was that she hated.

“Hijack your faith?” I asked.

“Yeah!” she said. “I hate that.”

“Me either,” I said. “As an Episcopal priest, I can tell you: This is not what Christianity is all about.”

The customer chimed in again: “My dad goes to this church in Fairfax, the Unity church,” he said, “where they welcome everyone, and they relate their faith to what’s happening today, instead of just telling us what was said thousands of years ago.”
“You gotta make the faith relevant to our lives today,” I agreed.

We talked for probably another 10 minutes, ending with me inviting people to The Episcopal Church (alas, I had to tell them the commute to Blue Grass was pretty long), and then I headed on to my appointment.

Afterward, I thought about how, in that short encounter, we – the barista, the other customer and I – had formed a community. Just for a short time, yes, but a community nonetheless.

And isn’t that what we’re talking about when we talk about the Trinity, the feast we celebrate today?

Aren’t we talking about community?

Because isn’t that what the Trinity is all about? Community?

Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

The way we read the Scriptures, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit always work together … in the beginning and from the beginning. You never find two of them off working while one stays behind, drinking a martini. The Trinity is a community, and it is always together.

And remember, my friends, this is the image in which we are made, the image of God, which is one of love and one of community.

Which means that we are created to live in community just like the Trinity.

• • •

I can tell you that there are many, many of my colleagues this morning who claim that you cannot explain the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who say the Trinity is a mystery and we are not made to understand mysteries, who allege that anyone who even tries to explain the Trinity is … well, is a fool. That really, we are all like Nicodemus, confused and wondering what the heck Jesus is talking about in the depths of the night.

To which I reply: Anyone who cannot explain the Trinity isn’t really trying, and that to fob the whole thing of as some sort of inexplicable mystery is … well, let’s just say it’s foolish. Because we are not Nicodemuses! We, my friends, are God’s creation, made in God’s image. And we do not need to stumble around in our faith and say, “Well, I can’t really explain the Trinity because it’s a cosmic mystery”!

Because the Trinity is, in its most basic form, nothing more – and nothing less – than community.

So let’s get the basic explanation of the Trinity out of the way so we can get to the heart of the matter, OK?

See this blue water? This is God the Father, the one who created us not because we are necessary – remember, we are not – but because God loved us into being. (pour water into glass bowl)

See this yellow water? This is God the Son, the one who lived among us as one of us, who laughed and cried, who celebrated and suffered, who died for us. (pour water into bowl, making water turn green)

See this red water? This is God the Holy Spirit, the advocate who comes to us to lead us, guide us, give us the breath to be bold in our faith. (pour water into bowl, making water turn amber)

Now … you tell me … which one is which?

Can you separate God the Father from God the Son from God the Holy Spirit?

No?

That’s because you can’t separate God into pieces. You. Cannot. Separate. The Father. From the Son. From the Holy Spirit.

Three in One. One in Three.

A community.
Because, my friends, that’s the Trinity … an inseparable community that you can’t really tell apart and can’t possibly tear apart, always together, always united, always in love with each other.

And we, who are created in the image of God, are created in that image of community.

Which means that wherever we are, we need to be in community.

But we can’t simply show up and hope community somehow magically “happens.”

We, created in the image of community, have to make community.

We have to work at community.

And just like the community in whose image we are created, we have to be bold at community-making.

Because God the Father certainly was bold in creating us and inviting us  –inviting us! – to love one another and ourselves and God, knowing full-well that we might just turn down that invitation, but boldly taking that chance anyway.

Because God the Son certainly was bold in everything he did, preaching, teaching, healing, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, voice to the mute and making the lame leap for joy! God the Son was bold in choosing not only to live for us but to die for us!

And God the Holy Spirit? Oh, my gosh, the Holy Spirit is nothing but boldness personified, inspiring us – literally, giving us breath! – guiding us, giving us the right words to speak, helping us choose the right actions to take. Oh, my, the Holy Spirit defines boldness!

This bold image of the Trinity is the image in which we are created! To be bold in our community!

• • •

I read an article yesterday by a church musician named Nicole Keller, who was lamenting the fact that so many Christians seem to give up on their faith.

“… I believe that there is no such thing as a non-extreme Christian,” she wrote on her blog, Under the Cassock.[1] “Christianity,” she says, “is a radical faith, even in its utmost humility. … [T]he core of Christianity includes bringing Christ to those who do not know him by showing them who he is. That doesn’t mean I have to go door to door like our Mormon friends … It could be as basic as helping a random stranger pick up the groceries they (sic) dropped in the parking lot, bringing up your children to be faithful Christians, or feeding the poor at the local soup kitchen – that’s living the Gospel, baby,” she writes. “But along with those actions we must be willing to admit openly, when necessary, that we do them because our faith inspires and requires us to do so with a loving heart.

“Is that really so hard?” she asks. “When someone asks me, ‘Why are you helping me” I can simply say ‘because my faith inspires me to love those around me.’ … It is simply showing them who I am.”[2]

And who we are is a people created in God’s image of community … and not just any community, but a bold community, willing to go out and live our faith and willing to go out and proclaim our faith!

This is what the Trinity is all about …

Boldly living …

Boldly proclaiming …

We are not nice – we do not love one another – just “because.”

We do so because we are created and commanded to do so.

So when you think about the Trinity, here’s what I want you to think about:

Not that the Trinity is some inexplicable mystery about God that will only be fully explained once we reach the Omega of this life so we can get to the Alpha of the rest of our lives.

No!

The Trinity, my friends, is the very essence of our being that empowers us to boldly live and boldly proclaim our faith every moment of our lives, with every person we meet, in every thing that we do.

So the next time you stop for that cup of coffee, make sure you get the bold kind. The kind that builds a community (even for a moment) in the image of God.

Live your faith boldy. And then talk about your faith boldly. Be clear with people: Whatever kindness you are doing, whatever blessing you are bestowing, whatever love you are showing, you are doing so because you are created in the image of God.

Don’t be Nicodemus, showing up in the middle of night, filled with fear and confusion.

Instead, just be who you are.

Bold children of God.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Feast of the Trinity, Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va., 3 June 2012, Year B.



[1] Nicole Keller, “Saving The Church From Itself,” Under the Cassock blog, 2 June 2012, http://underthecassock.blogspot.com/2012/06/saving-church-from-itself.html.

 

[2] Ibid. All emphases original.

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Be careful what you ask for …

So, do you hear it?

Do you hear that whoosh of a violent wind rush into this place, filling the entire sanctuary with its sound?

No?

Alas.

What about those tongues of fire? Tasting them yet?

No?

Well, I can take care of that.

Here.

Try these. (Hot Tamales® cinnamon candies)

Put them on your tongue, and chew.

Tongues of fire, anyone?

• • •

Today, my friends, is the Feast of Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who will testify on Jesus’ behalf, who will guide us into all truth, who will speak whatever he hears from God the Father and God the Son, who will declare to us the things that are to come.

This is the day when we eagerly acknowledge the power of the Spirit in our lives. It is the day when we especially pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, come!” – as though the Spirit isn’t present with us every moment of our lives! I mean, when we’re calling on the Holy Spirit, where exactly do we think the Holy Spirit is?! Jesus said he would send the Spirit, the Acts of the Apostles tells us the Risen Lord did just that … so why, pray tell, do we keep asking for the Holy Spirit to show up?

And what, pray tell, do we think the Holy Spirit is going to do when she gets here?

Make a big whooshing sound, like in the upper room so long ago?

Set our tongues on fire?

(Need another Hot Tamale?)

I can tell you one thing:

If you pray for the Holy Spirit to show up, you had better be prepared for what happens next.

Because the Holy Spirit is not some … some … wimpy little ghost that floats around, barely making her presence known.

No, my friends, the Spirit, is sent to us by God the Father (I know, I know, the Creed says the Spirit comes from both the Father and the Son, but read today’s Gospel again, and you’ll see that Jesus says quite firmly that the Spirit comes from the Father … the line in the Creed is the result of a council in Toledo in the 7th century … but that’s another story). And the reason God the Father sends us the Spirit?

To set us on fire … so that we can set the world on fire!

• • •

When I was a child, my mother used to warn me: “Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.”

The same is true with the Holy Spirit. Be careful, my friends … be very careful about asking the Holy Spirit to show up in your lives, to give you a sign, to lead you to that new place you so desperately wish to go.

Because you just might get exactly what you ask for … and then what?

What are you going to do with all this power she gives you?

Are you going to change the world?

I certainly hope so!

I certainly hope and pray that you go out and change the world … each and every one of you.

Because that’s what Pentecost is all about …

It’s about grabbing hold of the Spirit that is grabbing hold of us and going for the rides of our lives!

Remember last week, when I said that love is dangerous and scandalous and radical?

Well, who do you think makes love so dangerous, so scandalous, so radical?

Who do you think gives us the ability to love like that?

The Holy Spirit, that’s who!

We are Christians.

We are followers of … disciples of … the Risen Lord.

The Risen Lord never told us to sit back and rest on our laurels. The Risen Lord never said, “OK, now you’ve been baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, marked as mine forever, sealed by the Spirit, so go rest!

No!

The Risen Lord told us to go out into the world and change it!

That’s why we have the Spirit!

So we can change the world!

The Spirit is the one who inspires us … who literally gives us the breath of life that we need to take on the barroom brawl that is the world today and turn it into the world that can be, the world the God desires for us.

You see injustice in the world? Do something about it! Work for justice.

You see want in the world? Do something about it! Feed the hungry! Give water to the thirsty! Clothe the naked! Give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, voice to the mute! You! Yes, you! Make the lame leap for joy!

We have been empowered, emboldened, by the Spirit. We asked for it, and we got it.

Now we have to do something with it!

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the retired primate of Cape Town, South Africa, has a prayer that sums up everything we need to know about the Holy Spirit working in our lives:

Disturb us, O Lord,

when we are too well-pleased with ourselves

when our dreams have come true

because we dreamed too little,

because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord,

when with the abundance of things we possess,

we have lost our thirst for the water of life

when, having fallen in love with time,

we have ceased to dream of eternity

and in our efforts to build a new earth,

we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord,

to dare more boldly,

to venture into wider seas

where storms show Thy mastery,

where losing sight of land,

we shall find the stars.

In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons

of our hopes and invited the brave to follow. Amen.[1] 

I am telling you … you had better be careful … very careful … when you pray for the Holy Spirit to show up in your life.

Because the odds are, you are going to get exactly what you asked for …

And then you’ll have to do something with it.

You know … something simple … like changing the world!

Amen.

Sermon preached for the Feast of Pentecost, 26 May 2012, Year B, Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va.



[1] Adapted from an original prayer by Sir Francis Drake. Via http://godspace.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/disturb-us-o-lord-a-prayer-by-desmond-tutu-4/

 

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