Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The 2nd Sunday of Easter: The Practice of Worship

Brothers and Sisters in Christ: Greetings and thank you for your faithful participation in St. Paul’s worship life. I look forward to being back in the office this week and being with you here next Sunday. I have had a “memorable” week off renovating my kitchen. I had hoped to have it back in a functional condition by today, but you know what they say about the best laid plans… Unfortunately for me, a finished kitchen appears to be no where in my future. Unfortunately for all of you, copious amounts of sermon illustrations are bound to arise from this experience. The real question is who will tire of this project first: me, working on it, or all of you having to hear about it.

The assigned reading from the gospel on the Sunday after Easter is always the story of Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples. It takes place in the early evening of Easter Sunday. The small band of faithful followers have heard the report of the empty tomb from the women and had it verified by Peter and John. No one is quite certain what it means and Mary’s story of meeting Jesus in the burial garden is puzzling to be sure. Perhaps the best words to describe this group are fearful, bewildered, and grieving.

And then the Crucified One appears in their midst as Resurrected. It begins a transformative process that converts the disciples into people forgiven for their lack of faithfulness and empowered to preach a message that will change the course of human history. One feature of this story stands out: Thomas, who became known as “The Doubter”, was not there that night. He did not experience what happened and, quite understandably, had a difficult time accepting what everyone told him about it. It was a classic “You should have been here!” moment.

If memory serves, 221 people attended services at St. Paul’s last Sunday. It was a magnificent day; accompanied by beautiful music and a thundering herd of flower-bearing children. I always appreciate the opportunity to renew our Baptismal Vows on Easter Sunday. Wanting to be on my best behavior for such a large crowd I stuck to the prayer book text:

Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?

“I will with God’s help” came the massive response. Believe me, I was sorely tempted at that point to stop, look over the congregation, and say, “Really folks, just how many of you plan to be here next Sunday?”

In today’s gospel reading there is just one simple difference between Thomas and the rest of the disciples. They showed up and he didn’t! The disciples were impacted not be a moving sermon or by a special anthem, nor did they hear insightful teaching that changed their lives. Simply put, they were at the right place at the right time. And Thomas was not.

There are many elements that are important to the practice of the Christian faith. Some are moral, like treating others a manner in which you would like to be treated. Some are spiritual, like praying the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s reading highlights the practice of regular participation in worship and in the fellowship life of a faith community. Being here every Sunday has a way of shaping us and strengthening our faith. We could not be the people we are if we attended worship just a handful of times over the course of the year.

Not every Sunday’s service is life-changing. There are weeks when we walk away no difference than when we walked in. Maybe the sermon was esoteric. Maybe the hymns were dreary. Maybe you were too distracted by other concerns to engage fully. Maybe the God’s Spirit just did not move. There are Sundays like that. But then there are the other Sundays when the Resurrected One appears in our midst and world is made new. The problem is we just don’t know which service we are going to get on any given Sunday. The only way to ensure that you will be here for the ones that are powerful is to be here for them all – to embrace the practice of regular worship.

What a strange message for me to deliver to the faithful remnant of the 223 on a Sunday when I myself am not even here. Please know that as you gather few in number and mighty in spirit that you are doing something important. It is important that praise to God is said and sung in this place each Sunday. It is important that God’s word is read here each week. It is important that prayers are offered regularly for all who celebrate and for those in any need or trouble. And who knows, perhaps something will happen this morning that will lead you to say to me next Sunday, “Keith, you missed it. You should have been here because...”

May God bless you today and throughout this week. I look forward to worshiping with you again in seven days.

Easter Sunday: The Spirituality of the Defiant Conjunction

Have you ever noticed how a person’s spirituality tends to align itself with one of the major holy days in the church year? In other words, some of us are like Christmas, celebrating God’s presence in one another and in the world around us. Folks with this spiritual orientation find God in such diverse places as the beauty of a spring flower, a delicately crafted sonnet, and the compassion of a loving caregiver at the hospital beside. Maybe you are a Christmas person.

Some of us are like Pentecost, finding new life and vigor and vitality through the indwelling of God’s Spirit. Pentecost Christians see God at work in the world about us… in the miracle of healing (even if it happens under the care of the physician), in being guided to a parking space at a crowded shopping center, and in the church getting enough money in the offering plate to pay the monthly bills. In all these things and more, Pentecost people know that God is good. Can I get an “Amen” from the Pentecost people here today?

Some of us are like the Ascension, believing that God did impressive things back in the Bible, but now Jesus is in heaven and we are left here to carry on His work. And there is plenty of work to be done: eradicate poverty and world hunger, confront ecological challenges, overcome human ignorance and prejudice through quality education… you get the idea. Ascension people get involved, so if you are active in more than two parish ministries, then you might just be a Christian whose spiritual life is oriented toward the Ascension.

Some of people are Good Friday Christians. These are the folks who are keenly aware of all that is wrong with the world. In some Christian traditions, Good Friday preachers focus of the evils of card playing, dancing, and rock music. A more mainline perspective would highlight the pervasive affects of our secular culture. Either way, Good Friday Christians are in tune with how sin lurks in every nook and cranny of life.

Weather forecasters, it seems to me, are Good Friday type people. Either there is too much rain or too little. Either it is too hot for this time of year or it is too cold. If the day is perfect, then forecast always highlights a ‘dramatic’ change that is coming. And, of course, the approaching hurricane season is always going to be one of the worst on record.

People in the news business also strike me as being Good Friday people. You know the old saying, “If it bleeds, it leads.” If the daily news was the only tool you had to gauge the health and well-being of the world, you would conclude that everything is broken or falling apart.

There is a reason why we warm up to foul weather reports and rubberneck for negative news stories. At our very core we are strongly attracted to Good Friday spirituality. The brokenness of the world is plain to see everywhere we turn. We sense that the great enemy – death – is always nearby. We see and hear our story in the brokenness of life and in the finality of death. The Good Friday story makes sense of our experience and we are drawn to it in a deeply spiritual way.

I think St. Luke had Good Friday spirituality in mind when he wrote his Gospel. Unlike the other Gospel writers, his account is peppered with the defiant conjunction ‘but’. “But on the first day of the week at early dawn,” Luke says, “the women came to the tomb with the spices they had prepared.” In Matthew’s telling of the resurrection, this word shows up once; in Mark, twice; and in Luke the defiant conjunction shows up six times. It is as if Luke is taking direct aim at Good Friday-‘the end is the end”-spirituality. Sure, he says, Jesus dies, His body is laid in a tomb, and the tomb is sealed with a stone.

But! But! But! Wait a minute. Don’t close the book. You may think that the story of Jesus ends here like every other story we know. What is broken stays broken. What is dead never regains life. Right? Well, says Luke, until Jesus, yes, but… not now! There is more to this story. The tomb is empty. Angles proclaim resurrection. Jesus is risen.

Luke tells us that upon finding the empty tomb the women become confused. They have not yet had time to orient their spirituality to the Easter story of new life, of healing, of reconciliation, of Jesus’ triumph over death and hatred. So they rush to tell the disciples what has happened. Luke tells us that the men did not believe the women’s report because their words seemed like nonsense.

Easter spirituality can be a tough thing to grasp. But the power of Easter is the power to grab hold of us in a way that transforms Good Friday spirituality into a firm belief in the power of God to make all things new.

Such an experience came to a Lutheran pastor by the name of John Vannorsdall. Perhaps you will identify with this story he wrote about in a magazine article:

"In the forty years of my ministry I have never found the road to Damascus. I have never been blinded by the heavenly light or heard my name spoken by God. I have never seen a burning bush which was not consumed. And where I have served, the walls of the church building have trembled with age but never at the voice of God…

[And then] on an evening walk last summer – a lazy walk through back alleys near the railroad track – my wife and I came across a surprising garden and talked as best we could with the elderly man who spoke mostly Italian.

The railroad embankment was a disaster of broken bottles and empty cans, weed trees and brambles. Good Friday’s land. But twenty-five feet wide from alley to tracks it was terraced and neatly rowed with beans, leaf lettuce, tomatoes, and other growing things. Good Friday’s land, wounded and sacred, became Easter’s garden where the trains still rattled as evening strollers paused before evidence of reversal and healing."

That garden is a wonderful image for us who are a people of the defiant conjunction. We are Easter people. Where we find the littered, scrubby embankments of life we plant a garden. Where we find brokenness we bring reconciliation; where there is hostility we bring peace; where there is hatred, we bring love. Yes, we live in a Good Friday world. But! But! But! Alleluia, the Lord is risen and we are Easter people.

Palm Sunday: The Lone Ranger Comes to the Cross

The Passion of Our Lord according to Luke begins with the Disciples arguing as to who of them is the greatest and ends with Jesus crucified, dead, and buried; His own death a parable of what greatness truly is. We humans are fixated on greatness. We talk about it all the time. Michael Jordon is the greatest basketball player of all time. Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer. Barry Bonds, the greatest home run hitter. Harrison Ford, the greatest box office draw.

I was read sermon this week by the Rev. George Ross, the priest who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church. He was the greatest preacher I ever heard. In this sermon he described his boyhood love of the Lone Ranger – the greatest hero of that age. You remember how, with only the aid of his sidekick Tonto, the Ranger could ride into any situation and, against overwhelming odds, save the day, relying only on sheer grit and guts. Then, once the bad guys were subdued, the town was saved, and the damsel rescued, he would shout his famous cry, “Heigh ho, Silver, away!” and ride off into the sunset alone on his trusty horse.

Mr. Ross said that, as a depression era boy, he and his friends ate it up. And he decided that since the Lone Ranger did not need to go to Sunday School neither would he. “Hosanna” lacked the flair of “Heigh ho, Silver.” Jesus did not have a mask. His “Kemo Sabes” were traitors and gossips and cowards, not the strong, silent type. And when Jesus rode into town, it was on a mangy old mule, and a borrowed one at that! Some savior! “Heigh ho, donkey, away!” did not make much of an impression on an impressionable boy.

Then, one day in college, Mr. Ross found himself in church on a Palm Sunday, not because he had suddenly become religious, but because a certain co-ed who had captured his imagination was know to attend on a weekly basis. As it turned out, the young lady had the flu, but I’ll let Mr. Ross’ own words describe his experience:

“At just the right moment in my life, I heard the story of the Way of the Cross. I had heard it before, but I really heard it that day. I heard the story of how Jesus came to town and went into the temple and threw the rascals out. (I thought to myself: ‘So far, so good’ – Lone Ranger stuff.) Then the story took a strange twist. He went to a dinner party and washed the dirty feet of the other guests. He went to a garden and began to sweat blood. He was arrested. He was stripped naked. He was humiliated. He was too weak to carry His own cross. And then He died a terrible death and was buried in someone else’s grave. Through it all he was the best, the bravest, the kindest, the most loving man there.

I can’t explain – even to myself – what happened on that Palm Sunday. I went to church, a devout disciple of the Lone Ranger, with a girl on my mind; I came out… knowing in my heart that I could not go forward with the rest of my life until I had somehow come to terms with Jesus Christ… I knew that the Lone Ranger in me had to yield to something infinitely better."

The Passion of our Lord has the power to change lives. Years ago, William Temple, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury, preached a series of sermons over the course of Holy Week attended by the student body at Cambridge University. At a time when Hitler was rising to power and most young people in England were agnostic at best, Temple dedicated the entire week to preaching on the Cross of Jesus and what it means to put away childish things in order to embrace adulthood. The service on Good Friday concluded with the hymn “When I survey the wondrous Cross.” When they came to the last stanza, Temple stopped the singing and paused for some time before saying,

“I want you to read over this verse before you sing it. The words are tremendous. If you don’t mean them, then don’t sing them, just stand in silence. If you mean them with all your heart, sing them as loud as you can. If you mean them a little, and want to mean them more, then sing them very softly. But before you decide, look at the Cross and look at the words.”

Then there was absolute stillness while every person contemplated these words on the printed sheet:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

And when the Archbishop began to sing, 2,000 voices softly sang along with him. Years later, one person wrote:

“It was an experience never to be erased from my memory until the whole tablet is erased… There are large numbers of Cambridge alumni all around the world who owe all that is best in them to that Holy Week.”

This morning we hear again what is either a very bad joke or the greatest story ever told. Either it is an unfortunate incident that occurred long, long ago in a far off place, or it is the greatest expression we will ever have of God’s true self. If it is the former, than your being here today is enough. Thank you for helping to keep the memory of that event alive on this day. But if it is the latter, then love so amazing, so divine, demands you soul, your life, your all.

The 5th Sunday in Lent: Anointing at a Meal

The Lectionary assigns the story of the Transfiguration always to be read on the Last Sunday of Epiphany just prior to the beginning of Lent. The Transfiguration is that event where Jesus takes three disciples to a mountaintop and there His appearance becomes dazzlingly bright as He speaks with the Old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah. In that brief moment the humanity of Jesus is eclipsed by His divinity. The experience launches Jesus on His journey to Jerusalem; a path we travel with Him every year through our observance of the season of Lent.

This morning we hear another story, the one that launches Jesus into the final days of His life and Passion, which we follow from Palm Sunday, through Holy Week, and to the Cross. Jesus is at the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. He has visited before, perhaps often. You may recall how, at a previous visit, Martha became frustrated that her sister listened to Jesus as He taught rather than helping her tend to meal preparations in the kitchen.

It was their brother, Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. That miraculous action had the affect of sealing Jesus’ fate. It made Him so wildly popular with the masses that those in authority could no longer ignore the threat He posed to their power. Jesus, aware of the tension, had sought to stay under the radar, but His deep affection for the three siblings and His own crushing grief at the death of a friend, moved Him to action; action which had grave consequences for His own safety and well-being. John the Gospeller comments that after Lazarus is raised the authorities seek all the more to kill Jesus.

About a week later, Jesus returns to the home of His friends for a meal. At least some of Jesus’ followers are with Him, but only Judas is mentioned by name. The narrative text does not speak directly as to how Jesus was feeling as He came to rest in the house, but I think we can assume the following:

Jesus is hungry and tired.

He has a great deal on His mind as the Passover draws near. He plans to go to Jerusalem for the sacred festival. What will He do there and what will He not do? Teach? Heal? Challenge? Confront? Call for a revolt?

He is sickened by the commercialization of Temple worship; that a house of prayer has become a den of thieves. What, if anything, will He say about this?

And what might be the consequences of acting, of stepping into the limelight? How dark might the response of the darkness be?

How might you expect a person to be with such weighty matters on His mind? Distracted? Worried? Anxious? Tense? Mentally and physically exhausted? These words only begin to scratch the surface.

If the Transfiguration is the eclipsing of Jesus’ humanity by His divinity, then today’s reading is its mirror opposite. We see nothing of His divinity, but all of His frailty, His vulnerability, His need, His humanity.

We in the Church do a pretty good job of portraying the divinity of Jesus. We think of Him as being tall, strong, in command of Himself and the situation around Him. He can change water into wine, create a feast from a few scrapes of bread, drive out demons, walk across the waves, and calm the most vicious of storms. Yes, we do a pretty good job of telling the stories of our Lord’s divinity.

But when it comes to His humanity… well, when it comes to these stories we are mostly silent. How often do we tell the tales of when Jesus was weak or frustrated or tired or discouraged or indecisive or uncertain or fearful? This is not the Jesus we think of often. It is not the Jesus we sing of in our hymns. And it is not the Jesus to whom we pray. But this is the Jesus who comes to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus for a meal.

Years ago, when my marriage was ending, I spoke with a divorced priest and asked him if he had any wisdom, guidance, or insight for me as I walked that awful path. One thing he told me was this: at least once a month, make an appointment to get a massage. He said that after his marriage ended he became aware that there was no one to touch him, no one to hold him, no one to soothe his aching muscles or to provide physical comfort. He said he never realized how important this was to him until he no longer had it. Now, massages are not my thing, but as I meditated this week on this passage, my friend’s insight came back to mind. Who, I wondered, ministered to Jesus? Who helped Him physically and emotionally when He was in need; when the fullness of His humanity was fully on display?

The answer is no one; no one recognized His humanity or acknowledged His need except for two women: Martha and Mary. Martha serves Jesus a meal. The Greek word used here for “serve” is the very word from which we get our English word “deacon” – the order of those ordained to the ministry of servanthood.

Mary’s ministry to Jesus is as lavish as lavish can be. She has purchased a container of costly perfumed oil. How costly? Well, it was worth about a year’s salary – in our dollars, its value was somewhere between $24,000-$40,000. She doesn’t just use a dab or two when she applies it to Jesus’ feet, but rather gobs and gobs of it. The room is overpowered by its fragrance and everyone present instantly becomes aware of what she is doing. As all watch on, Mary lets down her hair, a taboo for Hebrew women in mixed company, and she uses it to wipe Jesus’ feet. As an act, the anointng was soothing, comforting, relaxing, and sensual. And it was priestly for, in the Hebrew tradition, it is the priest who anoints a person as king, as prophet, or for burial. Mary’s priestly anointing of Jesus is for all three.

And there is one more thing that this anointing was: it was infuriating. Judas speaks for everyone in the room when he complains that the gesture is far too costly and wasteful, especially given the overwhelming poverty and need in the area. Of course, Judas’ spoken concern is just a rouse because he himself was stealing from the common till. Throughout the history of the church, his criticism has drawn attention away from Martha’s ministry as deacon and Mary’s ministry as priest and redirected it to the conflict between the two men. This is not the focus Jesus would like us to have. His response, “The poor will be here tomorrow, but I will not”, suggests that His followers will always have the opportunity to meet the needs of others, but that His own need is immediate and just as real. It is here and now, tangible, legitimate.

We who follow Jesus can succumb to the temptation to boil down Jesus’ teaching to something simplistic such as “do for others, but not for yourself”, to mix this with what we hold in America (that we should be self-made and self-sufficient), and then come up with a spirituality which holds we should deny our own need, ignore our need, and tough it out until our need passes. We augment this thinking by under-appreciating the humanity of Jesus; by being blind to His need while magnifying His ability to endure all things.

At this house, at this meal, on this night, the neediness of Jesus is front and center. And because He accepts His own condition for what it is He is willing to receive the ministry of Martha and Mary. Mary anoints Jesus as King and as a result the man, who was tired, enters Jerusalem the next very day, greeted by shouts of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches. The day after that, Jesus, who was also anointed as Prophet, over-turns the tables of the moneychangers and symbolically rids the Temple of corruption. Three nights after that, Jesus, who had received the diaconal ministry of Martha’s serving, serves a meal to His followers and, as Mary had done for Him, ministers to their feet. By noon the next day, Jesus, who had a fragrant perfume poured onto His feet, would hang on the Cross, His life poured out as a fragrant offering for the whole world.

When J.S. Bach set out to put the Passion of Jesus to music, he chose to begin the story with the events that transpired at the home of Mary and Martha (and for good reason). The sisters, by ministering to Jesus’ deep, human need, provide the guidance and inspiration He needs for the days to follow.

All of this suggests many things to us, but one thing it suggests is this: each of us is to be aware of our own need, to accept it rather than repress it, and to be open to the ministry of those who know and love us because what they offer and do is a means and a sign of God’s own comfort. Sally Perry, who endured so much a year ago when three men invaded her home, is a witness to so many things I will never forget. She testified courageously on Thursday at the trial of the one attacker who did take a plea agreement and she presented herself over the course of the two-day trial as a woman of tremendous resilience and strength. When I think about Sally in relation to the neediness of our Lord, I think of all those times she embraced and received the comfort offered by others. I remember the many different ways the people of this parish and this community poured ointment on her feet; acts which pointed the way to the healing of a new dawn. Yes, Sally is strong, but not so strong that she refused the compassion of others in her time of need.

My own sense of Jesus’ spirituality is that the psalms were very important to Him. The words and the images of their poets seemed always to be on His lips. The fancy, scholarly way of saying this is that the psalms formed His cultural-linguistic heritage; the language He would use to frame His own experience of life. The Gospel narrative does not tell us what, if any, particular psalm was on Jesus’ mind after the meal and the anointing, but I would like to think that it was the one we read today:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongues with shouts joy.

Those who sowed with tears
will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go our weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

For Sally, today is a day of rejoicing. And so it was for Jesus after the evening at the home of His friends, even though the comfort He received and the guidance that it provided directed Him toward the torturous events we will recall beginning next Sunday. The meal and the anointing were comforting because they met His most basic human needs and they served to call and clarify the things that He wanted to do.

The 4th Sunday in Lent: Belief & Confession

From the 32nd Psalm:

While I held my tongue, my bones withered away,
because of my groaning all day long.

For your hand was heavy upon me day and night;
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and did not conceal my guilt.

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

I have only had one ‘major’ surgery in my life. In 1998 I had my gall bladder removed and a hyalite hernia repaired, which actually is more like of a minor procedure than in years past thanks to advancement in medical treatment. I was not particularly concerned about undergoing the knife, but an interesting thing happened while I was waiting by myself in the quiet of my pre-op room. I felt an overwhelming need to make my confession. I was not weighed down by guilt of a particular sin, nor did I think I was going to die during the surgery, but still, something deep within me emerged to say, “It might not be a bad idea to clear the decks.”

Now, this was not really consistent with my intellectual or theological position, nor was it something I would insist on for a parishioner in a similar situation, yet it was there… in my soul… and so I prayed in silence as best I could,

Almighty God, heavenly Father,
I confess that I have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed;
by what I have done
and by what I have left undone...

When finished, I felt compelled to say the words of the Venite from Morning Prayer:

Come, let us sing to the Lord,
Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come before the his presence with thanksgiving
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.

For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods…

And having gotten all of that out of the way, I felt ready to engage a procedure just slightly more risky than a brisk dental cleaning.

I have never forgotten that moment and as a result I am never critical of any parishioner I visit before surgery who has a similar desire. Right or wrong, good or bad, necessary in God’s eyes or not, I always offer to help lead a person through confession because that, in fact, is what I wanted and needed to do when I was in that position.

If you have been there, then, like me, you can identify with the poet who wrote the 32nd Psalm. He or she is more than ‘under the weather’. The poet is in very bad health; seriously afflicted with an aliment we cannot identify. Its symptoms seem to include dehydration, fever, and tremendous joint pain. Even in this grim condition, the poet does not feel led first to pray for health, but for forgiveness.

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven,
and whose sin is put away!

Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt,
and in whose spirit there is no guile!

The psalmist uses three different Hebrew words for ‘guilt’ in these opening verses of the psalm. One denotes ‘breaking away from God,’ one denotes ‘failure’, and one denotes ‘perversion/distortion.’ Being liberated from the crushing burden of this guilt is more important to the psalmist than physical recovery. In fact, the rescue of forgiveness is integrally linked to healing. The psalmist is grateful for the forgiveness he/she has received and praises God for the wondrous way this forgiveness has restored him/her to fullness of health and life.

Unconfessed and unresolved sin lingers with us and eats at us. Most of us find it possible to let go of most of our sins through participation in the General Confession in public worship. But, for some of us (maybe many or perhaps most or possibly even all of us) some specific sins are rather resistant to this weekly practice. They haunt us and weigh us down and drain us of the kind of life and vitality God seeks to offer to all people. It is often the case, as with the psalmist, that a personal crisis of one kind or another brings this burden to the forefront of one’s consciousness and it becomes unbearable.

In my priestly ministry of 22 years, one of the least used liturgies in the prayer book is the Reconciliation of a Penitent, what the Roman Catholics refer to as ‘Confession.’ I suspect it is underutilized for two reasons. First, most of us find the General Confession sufficient most of the time, and second, we in the Episcopal Church simply are not in the habit of making a specific confession to a priest.

If asked to recall the worst thing I have ever done, there is not doubt in my mind as to what it is. One memory comes to me swift and sure. For many years I struggled with letting it go and the General Confession was not enough to help me receive God’s mercy. I went to a priest and he led me through the sacramental rite of Reconciliation. I made my confession and the priest pronounced not God’s general absolution for my general sins, but rather God’s specific absolution for this specific sin. I won’t pretend that it was a 100%, fail-proof remedy, but it did give me a sacramental moment and memory to place beside the memory of the wrong I did and the pain it caused. Whenever I revisit that transgression in my mind, I now can add to it the memory of the words of forgiveness… and being able to do this has helped me a great deal.

Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.

Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

We heard again this morning the parable of the son who greatly offended his father. It tells us something very important; namely, the single thing that separates us most from God is not our sin, but our lack of faith. Only once we come to believe that God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s compassion and God’s forgiveness is infinitely greater than any breaking away we have done, any failure of our own making, and any perversion or distortion of our own doing – only then – can we be reconciled to God. We are reconciled not because we have confessed our sin, just as the son is not ‘saved’ by his confession. For the son and for us, the act of confessing is a way coming home’ a claiming of and clinging to the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God, save our fear of coming to God.

We desperately need to know this for our own sense of peace and wholeness, but even more, we need to know this for the sake of the world. Let me explain. I don’t like to call today’s gospel reading “The Prodigal Son” because the story is just as much about the older, unforgiving son as it is about the younger, wayward son. The older brother simply cannot forgive his younger brother and rejoice that he has returned home. And let’s be honest, if we were in his position we might hold a pretty significant grudge too.

But let’s lay this next to the reading from Second Corinthians where Paul says “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This is exactly the experience of the younger son when he returns home, makes his confession, and is restored in right relationship with his father. Paul puts it this way: “All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” But the next part is the part I want you to listen to very carefully: “God entrusted us [we who have believed in and received the blessing of forgiveness] the ministry of reconciliation… we are ambassadors for Christ… and we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” In other words, we who have found the faith to believe in the power of God’s forgiveness can now encourage others to make the same journey we have made. But if we have not found the faith to believe that God will receive our confession with a kiss of mercy, how can we possibly encourage others to seek reconciliation?

As a child of God I want to offer my witness that God is always more ready to hear us than we are to pray, more ready by far to forgive than we believe or we deserve. As a priest, I have taken a sacred oath to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners. If you, in a moment of weakness, find yourself in that place where the poet of the 32nd psalm was, where I was before my surgery, or if you find yourself unable to let go of a lingering and unresolved sin, as I once did, I, as your priest, stand ready to help you make your confession, to pronounce God’s forgiveness, and to rejoice with you as you rejoice in being reconciled to God. As a sinner forgiven and lovely embraced by our heavenly Father, I have been drafted as an ambassador who witnesses to the reality of reconciliation. Let all of my fellow ambassadors say ‘Amen.’

The 3rd Sunday in Lent: If You Were a Plant...

O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
As in a barren and dry land where there is no water.

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard ; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. “Cut it down!”

Let me tell you about two of my neighbors. One happens to be the current Senior Warden of the downtown Episcopal Church – our own Mr. Kerry Holmes – and the other shall go unnamed. Both neighbors care deeply about their yards, but they take very different approaches to landscaping.

Kerry has never met a dying plant with which he did not fall in love. Have you ever seen the clearance rack at a garden center where the distressed, diseased, and near-dead plants are marked down 75%? Kerry can not walk past that display without purchasing at least a few specimens to nurture back to health.

Last summer, when Kim and Kaitlyn went to Chicago to visit family, Kerry was given very specific orders: don’t buy any more plants! Kerry’s immortal response: “Yeah, that’s not happening.” During that time Kerry and I happened across a K-Mart that which the saddest collection of plant life you have ever seen. There was a veritable grove of “trees” twelve feet tall, ½ inch thick, with about seven leaves at the top; each marked down to $10. Because there was no tag indentifying the trees’ species, we decided to call them “toothpick trees”; a designation so humorous to us that we had to buy some and plant them in our yards. When the Holmes’ women returned to Suffolk, their reaction was less than overwhelming, as you might guess, but the toothpick trees are thriving.

One day last fall I saw Kerry digging holes across the street from his house in grass between the curb and the walk. “What are you doing,” I asked. “These crape myrtles were on sale for a $1,” he said, “So I had to buy them.”

Kerry’s back yard is a hodge-podge collection of plant life on the mend and every plant has a story. In Kerry’s mind there is a vision and a dream for what each little waif and whisper might become. It matters not if the plant is dried out, deformed, damaged, destroyed, demented, or dangling awkwardly. It matters not if it is spindly, sparse, sporadically leaved, or no longer succulent. Kerry Holmes wants to put it in the earth and see what happens. His motto: you never know.

Feel free to stop by the Homles’ any time day or night. Any time! Really! Kerry will be more than overjoyed to show you every one of his plants, to describe the condition of each when he found it, and to share his hope for what each might become. And Kim loves to entertain unexpected visitors; especially by sharing chocolate goodies. Most of the time she will have something to offer if you stop by unannounced – any time… day or night – and should the cookie jar be empty, I am confident she will be more than happy to whip up something tasty – any time day or night – while Kerry gives you the tour of the yard.

During your tour, here are two things to keep in mind. First, make sure to ask Kerry about his homemade rain barrels and raised vegetable garden. Neither should be missed. And speaking of missing, that brings me to the second thing: remember that the Holmes’ are proud owners of a very large great dane – Anna. My suggestion is that, while Kerry gives you a tour of the yard, you keep one eye on the plants and the other on where you are walking. A big dogs tend to create very large do-do’s that you don’t-don’t want to step in. Enough said.

I have another neighbor who takes a very different approach to gardening. While Kerry’s yard is a cornucopia of plants on the mend, my other neighbor’s yard is a masterpiece of symmetry, balance, and lush perfection. Kerry’s yard is something of a horticultural M.A.S.H unit while my other neighbor’s yard is more like an elite honor guard. Only the best of the best make into his ground. All manner of chemicals are applied to ensure that what should grow grows and what should not does not. Should even a tiny patch of brown appear in the lawn that does not respond to treatment, out comes the tiller, what is damaged is done in, and new grass is cultivated from the best of the best possible seed.

Last summer the unthinkable happened. One of the two plants that frames the front steps, a juniper topiary (you know, those ever-greens trimmed to have a spiral look), started to show signs of dry needles. Was it a disease? Was it lack of water? Was it too hot or too much sun or to little sun or what? Who knows! But here is what I do know. That mildly distressed tree was dug up, disposed, and replaced. The same fate befell the healthy matching topiary, presumably because it would not be the same height as the newer, younger addition.

It was a sensible decision, I suppose, but it raises an interesting question: if you were a plant, in which of my neighbors’ yards would you like to be planted: the one where it is okay to be broken, browning, and showing evidence of the battering life can inflict on us, or the one where only the perfect are planted, but removed at the first sign of a flaw?

This question is at the heart of today’s reading from the gospel. The lesson begins with a question about the relationship between calamity and sin and concludes with discussion between a vineyard owner and a gardener regarding what to do with a fig tree that hasn’t born any fruit. The two concerns are very much related.

As to the first, then as now, people struggle to make sense of why bad things happen to people. Why do earthquakes destroy cities in Haiti and Chile, killing hundreds of thousands? Why do some people worshipping in the Temple end up murdered by Pilate’s terrorists while others go unharmed? Why does a stone tower collapse in the village of Siloam, killing 18 people. Then as now there were those who said the people who died must have deserved it. They must have been worst sinners than the rest of us. They must have made a deal with the devil somewhere back in the past.

“No” says Jesus. “No! No! No! No! Quit trying to figure out why these poor people are to blame for what happened to them and use the tragic experience to remember that life is short, the future is uncertain, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. Today, right now, is the time get your life together, to make something of yourself with what you have been given, to get about the business of doing the work God has given you to do and to do it well.”

To bring His point home, Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree. If our sin cuts us off from God (as some where suggesting was the reason calamity befell those murdered in the Temple and killed in the collapse), then the fig tree would be cut down immediately for not being fruitful. But, in the story, our need, our lack, our short-comings, our wayward ways evoke God’s deepest, most nurturing compassion. God, like the gardener who tends the fig tree, labors to supply us with all we need so that we can be as fruitful as God dreams we can be.

I used to think of the characters in the parable in this way: the angry vineyard owner is God the Father and the nurturing gardener is God the Son. It was an interpretation that suggested God is somehow at odds within God’s self, struggling over the push to condemn and the pull to love. I now see the gardener as being a God figure: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, unified as a person of patience and compassion. The owner of the vineyard represents those people who are contemptuous and scornful, who are ready to criticize and condemn, who are quick to point out your faults from their self-perceived morally superior position. Sometimes the vineyard owner’s voice comes from a person who has it in for us, other times it comes to us from one who should have nurtured us, but didn’t, and sometimes the voice comes from within as we seek to condemn ourselves.

If you hear and believe this voice/these voices, chances are you walk on spiritual pins and needles. You are convinced that one wrong move, one false step will bring swift, sure pain and punishment. Jesus’ parable tells us something very different. It tells us that God sees us as works in progress. God knows we are not perfect. God knows we will fail. But God also is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness because God knows that what we are is not what we are becoming. We may think God sees the barrenness of our present moment, but in reality God sees the fruit to come.

Pascal said that each one of us is created with a void that only God can fill. Augustine held that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. The poet of the 63rd Psalm gives voice to this when he or she writes:

O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you

Had the psalmist visited the Wal-Mart garden center, he might have said we are like plants on the clearance rack. Our need is overwhelming. Our problems insurmountable. No one in their right mind would want us. But then God the gardener comes strolling past and is filled with compassion for us. The psalmist says it this way: “God’s loving-kindness is better than life itself.” God redeems us from the dumpster, plants us in the ground, and nourishes us from the depths of Divine love. And what happens to our weak, weary, woebegone limbs and leaves? “My soul is content,” the psalmist says, “as with marrow and fatness.” We begin to live and to flourish, to become in reality what in the eyes of God we always have been. “You have been my helper,” confesses the psalmist, “my soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.”

If you were a plant, in which of my neighbors’ yards would you like to be planted?

The 2nd Sunday in Lent: The Paths of Hearts & Feet

One of the best-known poems of all time is this one by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
and be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim,
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that the passing there
had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference

The poem affirms several things:

That in life we are confronted with choices (“two roads diverged in yellow wood”),

That choices can be difficult (“sorry I could not travel both”),

That once we make a choice often it is impossible to go back (“knowing how way leads on to way”),

That making choices requires discernment and courage (“I took the one less traveled by”)

That our lives are enriched by the choices we make (“that made all the difference”).

I have said before that the “path” or the “way” is one of my favorite biblical images for life. It implies that we are on a pilgrimage; a journey to a holy destination where we are shaped and formed by the experiences, encounters, and decisions we make along the way.

Today’s reading from Psalm 27 mirrors much of what we heard last week from Psalm 91. Each affirms that God is a refuge and strength in times of difficulty; a place to hid and find safety. But Psalm 27 adds another element, another truth: God is also a source for guidance –

Show me your way, O Lord,
Lead me on a level path,
because of my enemies.

We look to God for guidance most especially when the chips are down, the stakes are high, and the potential consequences severe.

Look at two of this morning’s readings. Abraham is deeply concerned about his legacy. How is he to secure a future for God’s people if he himself cannot even father a child? In what the theologian Rudolph Otto called a “numinous” experience – a rare, unmistakable, mystical encounter with the Holy Other – Abraham comes to see that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars. He comes to believe and to trust that this is where his “path” will lead and he comes to rest in this hope.

The Gospel reading brings us to a moment in Jesus’ life where the path in the wood diverges in several directions, none of which are particularly attractive options:

He can stay where He is and be seized by Herod, who wants to kill Him,

Or He can continue on the path toward Jerusalem, which He suspects will end in conflict, confrontation, and crucifixion,

Or He can head for the hills, run and hide, which will be the denial and rejection of what He has discerned His call in life to be.

Have you ever been in a situation like this; a situation where the hand you have been dealt offers you not even one winning card to play? I have. And I have come to know the power and the dignity of getting to choose the card you want to play and embracing the consequences of your decision.

You see, the path or the way that God will show you is not always an escape route. It is not about divining the direction God has already decided you should take. In the bible, the path has less to do with where your feet are and more to do with where your heart is.

Consider the psalm which falls in the canon just before today’s reading, Psalm 26:

Give judgment for me, O Lord,
for I have lived with integrity;
[a literal translation would be “I have walked in my wholeness”]
I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered.
[literally, “I have not stumbled”]

Test me, O Lord, and try me; *
examine my heart and my mind.

For your love is before my eyes; *
I have walked faithfully with you.

[literally, “I shall walk in your truth”]

[now note how the psalmist’s chosen path for his feet has been to avoid corruption, but also note how that choice has affected his heart]
I have not sat with the worthless, *
nor do I consort with the deceitful.

I have hated the company of evildoers; *
I will not sit down with the wicked.

[so where does the psalmist’s footpath lead and how does that contribute to the formation of his heart?]
I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, *
that I may go in procession round your altar,

[an expression that suggests the path or the way leads to a clear conscience.]

Singing aloud a song of thanksgiving *
and recounting all your wonderful deeds.

Lord, I love the house in which you dwell *
and the place where your glory abides.

Do not sweep me away with sinners, *
nor my life with those who thirst for blood,

Whose hands are full of evil plots, *
and their right hand full of bribes.
As for me, I will live with integrity; *

[or, even better, “I will walk with integrity”]
redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me.

My foot stands on level ground; *
in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.

When we pray to God asking that the Holy One show us the path to take, the answer always comes back to integrity. God’s answer to us is this: “You decide which path to take based on which one will best enable you to walk with Me and before others with wholeness, with integrity, with a clear conscience.” While for Jesus none of the choices were attractive, the decision was obvious: He chose to walk the path to Jerusalem, not because it was the path with the least pain or the most profit or the greatest potential, but because it was for Him the path of wholeness and integrity.

What does this mean for me and you? Well, for me, here is how the theology of the path guided me when I was in the interview process that brought me to St. Paul’s. If firmly believed that it mattered not to God whether I went to Suffolk or to Seattle, to Tallahassee or to Tippecanoe. God said to me, in effect, “You choose. Each option has its blessings and each has its drawbacks. Rejoice in what is good and be accepting what it not. But know that what matters most to Me is how you live and how you serve in the place you choose.”

Each one of us should be able to say as Paul said in today’s reading from Philippians, “Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” In effect, he is saying my life is a witness and the way I live it is a path for you to follow. He goes on to point out how some people live their lives in a very different way (“their god is the belly, their glory is in their shame, and the minds are set on earthly things”). Those lives offer witness to a different path, a path that eventually leads to destruction. Follow not them, the apostle says, follow me.

Think of someone you admire, someone who has shown you the way. Maybe it was a parent or a grandparent, perhaps a teacher or a pastor. Think of a time when that person was faced with a choice in the yellow wood. How was that person’s decision instructive for you? Is it that you should make the exact same choice that he made? Is it that you should follow in her exact footprints on the same physical path? Or was that person’s chosen path instructive because of the internal qualities it manifested? “Dad had integrity,” you might say, “and that is what I want people to say of me.” “Mom always put the needs of others before herself and that is the way I want to be.”

Lord, show us this path. Show it to us through the lives and faithful witness of those around us. Thank you for the example of your Son whose way gives us courage to pick up our own cross and walk before you in wholeness. Strengthen me to be an example worthy for others to imitate.

The 1st Sunday in Lent: Godly Protection in Pie Fights

The 91st Psalm, which we read just moments ago, is an eloquent profession of faith intended to inspire confidence and trust in God’s people. With its language of safe place and safe journey, settings that include night, day, darkness, and noonday, and descriptions of surprise attacks, disease, demonic powers, violence, war, wicked enemies, and wild animals, the psalmist affirms that no place, no time, and no circumstance that befall us is beyond God’s ability to protect us. That is a very reassuring message indeed.

Whenever I read the 91st Psalm and meditate on the imagery of God’s angelic protection in the midst of life’s threats, I think of a scene in the madcap movie The Great Race. Do you remember the time when all the main characters meet up in the Bavarian bakery? What ensues is perhaps the single largest pie fight in cinematic history. While everyone else in the scene is being pelted from every direction on the compass, the film’s dashing hero, The Great Leslie (played by Tony Curtis), is able to pass through all the flying pastries and pies without getting so much as a single smudge on his flawless white outfit.

Is that the kind of protection God’s people can expect? Should we believe that no misfortune or injustice will strike us simply because we take God as our refuge and stronghold? Should we take this Psalm at face value? Should our theology be built around the expectation that no danger, no harm, and no disease will come upon us? Should our hope be that our enemies will never get the upper hand because God is on our side? When the pies of life fly, should we Christians expect that we will not get creamed?

Practical experience tells us that being a Christian does not make us immune. If we interpret Psalm 91 literally, and base our theology on that interpretation, then we will be left with several possibilities when we discover that we are not pie-proof:

We will have to assume that we did not trust enough in God,

or that we did something wrong causing God to withdraw protection,

or all of this talk about God’s power and protection is a fraud.

None of these options seems consist with a God who loves us, who accepts us in our weakness, and who remains actively involved in our lives.

Here is another reason to be leery a literal interpretation. Did you know that the only time the bible says Satan spoke the words of Scripture he quoted the 91st Psalm. It is recorded in the Gospel reading for today. After Jesus has fasted in the wilderness for 40 days Satan comes to tempt Him. Our Lord rejects the first two temptations by quoting Scripture. So for the third temptation, Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and challenges Him to jump, thereby placing His whole trust in God. After all, says Satan, quoting Psalm 91:

For he shall give his angels charge over you,
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you in their hands,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.

Now that is about as literal a reading as is possible! Jesus, however, refuses to interpret the Psalm as a fail-proof guarantee that no harm will ever visit us. He knew that any person, no matter how faithful, including God’s own Son, who hurls himself off a high precipice, will have a painful meeting with the hard ground below.

In our Old Testament lesson for today we heard the ancient creed of the Old Testament. It was for the covenant people of that time what the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds are for us.

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

This Creed, told in story form, affirms at least two things. First, the journey for the people of God was not always easy and smooth. Second, while they knew hardship and affliction, God was with them all the time working to bring them to a better place.

When I think of Biblical figures who combined a strong sense of trust in God with a healthy dose of reality I think of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abennego. They refused to bow down before the gold statue of a Babylonian god and as a result Nebuchadnezzer ordered that they be thrown into a fiery furnace. Before their sentence was carried out, the three men made this famous speech:

Your Majesty, we will not attempt to defend ourselves. If the God whom we serve is able to save us from the blazing furnace and from your power, then He will. But even if he doesn’t, Your Majesty may be sure that we will not worship your god, and we will not bow down to the gold statue you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18)

That phrase, “but even if He doesn’t”, has been described by at least one commentator as being the most important clause in all of Scripture. It ties two opposites together: that God protects those who are close to Him and that sometimes bad things happen to people who are close to God. Even if the latter happens, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abennego will not be shaken in their faith. There’s is a marvelous witness and an instructive teaching.

The 91st Psalm can be a tremendous strength and encouragement to us. It is not intended to be an ironclad guarantee or a fail-proof insurance policy. It expresses a confident assurance that God is intimately involved in our lives; that God is working to keep us safe, and should harm befall us, God will hold us close. Our prayer this day is that God will come quickly to help us when we are assaulted and that in our weakness we will find God mighty to save.

The last portion of the Psalm contains God’s response to the poet’s faith and trust:

Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.

He shall call upon me, and I will answer him;
I am with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honor.

With long life will I satisfy him,
and show him my salvation.

God brings those who call upon Him to honor by making us God’s children and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. God satisfies us with the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of Christ. God comforts us with the promise of abundant life in this world and everlasting life in the life to come.

I call upon you to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, and to abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Say to Lord, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.” He will cover you with His pinions, and you shall find refuge under his wings; his faithfulness will be a shield and buckler.

The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany: Yearbooks & Embodied Faith

My daughter Abbey gave me a unique Christmas present this past year. She went up into the attack of her mother’s house, foraged around through all the junk, and unearthed a box that contained my old yearbooks. On Christmas Day, my daughters had quite a good laugh looking at my childhood and teenage pictures, but I took it in stride because I believe with all my heart that their day will come!

Even though I have not seen the yearbooks in a long time, I have a very clear memory about an incident involving one of them. I was in my first year of middle school in 1972. My life actually reached its pinnacle that year because in a study hall I was assigned a seat across the table from Jane Anderson, a ninth grade cheerleader who was just about the hottest girl in school.

In addition to her great looks and immense popularity, here is what I remember about Jane. The day we received our yearbooks and had all our friends sign them, she grabbed mine and wrote at some length about how much she could not stand me. Long after I forgot the specifics, I still remember how much her words stung. But now, thanks to gift of my daughter, I present to you all for the first time ever in a public setting, what the cheerleader wrote to me:

Keith To: Buthie: [a reference now totally lost on me]
You are a typical 7th grader.
1. You are immature
2. You are an [body part that I better not say aloud].
3. You have diarrhea of the mouth [was she the first person ever to see my potential as a preacher?].
4. You have constipation of the brain.
5. You have the queerest clothes [hey, it was the 70’s!]
6. You have the mentality of a 2 year-old
7. I hate your shirts [and to be fair to Jane, even some of my ‘friends’ commented on my questionable taste in fashion]
8. Your body looks like a rubber toothpick [a stinging critique back then, but something I pine to achieve know that I am 50].
9. Your face makes me throw up.
J. Anderson

Well, as I said, long after I had forgotten the particulars of what Jane wrote the gist of her message had the power to wound me. Have you ever uttered the expression, “It isn’t what you said, it is how you said it.” Long after we forget the content of what someone says, we hold on to the meaning embodied by the person.

Fortunately, this truth cuts both ways. Often times we remember very little of what was said to us by those who had the most positive impact on our lives, but we never forget the meaning. We remember specific events where they embodied the content and values and ideals of all that they sought to teach us; a meaning often much deeper than words can express.

Jesus is portrayed throughout the gospels as teaching. Teaching was a significant part of His ministry. The gospels often mention that Jesus teaches without giving us a clue as to the specific content. This is the case with today’s reading from Luke where Jesus teaches the crowds from a boat anchored just a short distance from the shore.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke choose to collect Jesus’ teachings into a summary account know as “The Sermon on the Mount” and to bundle parables into groups. My assumption is that Jesus did not teach the Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor in spirit…) just one time, but used it as a core of His teaching over and over again. Likewise, Jesus did not tell the parable of the Prodigal Son only once, but often. Repetition would have been necessary for people to learn and to remember. So with this gospel reading, when Jesus teaches from the boat, my assumption is that, even while there is no record of what He said, we pretty much already have the content. As Jesus travelled from place to place, from village to village, from synagogues to the Temple in Jerusalem, He taught a consistent message about the Kingdom of God.

What changes from setting to setting is what Jesus does. In some settings He teaches, then heals. In others He teaches, then confronts. In this setting He teaches and then goes fishing… well, to be more accurate, He encourages the luckless professional fishers to take Him out and give it one more try. The results are dramatic… and memorable; that is why this particular story is recounted in the gospel, but the content of the teaching is not.

When I think back to my formative years, I have very little recall of a specific teachings I learned from a Sunday School teacher, my youth minister, a sermon, or even in public school. Still, somehow, I assimilated cognitive content. I learned, for instance, that there is an Old Testament and a New Testament, that Jesus is like a shepherd of a flock, to spell and to add and to name the state capitals. I learned a lot in my formative years, I just don’t remember how it happened; other than by showing up at church or at school on a regular basis.

While I don’t remember how I learned, I do remember the people who contributed to my formation. I can tell you stories about each one; stories about kindness, mercy, acceptance, rejection, hope, faithfulness, etc. These stories are not what they taught, but are descriptive of who they were and in that sense these events were teachings in their own right, memorable and formative. These stories tell how people embodied (or failed to embody) the cognitive content they sought to pass on.

For every Jane, who embodied harshness and contempt, there were dozens of other significant people in my life who embodied God’s love and mercy and grace. Yes, they told me about this through one lesson after another. But more, important, they lived it day in and day out and they acted from it at critical moments of challenge and stress and opportuntiy.

It is important for you and me to know the faith and to pass it on to a new generation of seekers. I worry that the Episcopal Church does not do a good job of helping its members at every age to learn the content of the faith. But more than knowing the content it is critical that we know how we embody it through our lives. We have a word for those who know the content, teach it, but don’t live it out. We call such a person a hypocrite.

Jesus could easily have taught His followers never to give up. When Jesus sat down in the boat to teach He may have said to the crowds that, on our own, our efforts will often be frustrated, but in Him they will be fruitful and blessed. He may have taught that God wants to transform our daily tasks into a higher calling. He may even have taught that a special purpose awaits those who answer the call. But when He took Peter and the others out to the deep waters and led them to the big catch, Jesus embodied what He taught in a way that was unmistakable.

Those who have influence our lives through how they embodied the faith may never have performed a miracle, but they have shaped us in particular ways never-the-less. And we, as we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus, have our own unique way of embodying the faith, a way which shapes those who look to us as models and guides along the way.

The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany: Fling Out Broad Your Name

I have been reading a little bit of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet from the Victorian era. I have to admit that, while the plan sense of his poems is often clear enough, I don’t always understand the meaning of each particular phrase. Reading his poems aloud is like navigating a verbal obstacle course, which is part of my attraction to his writing. Listen to one of Hopkins best known poems, As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,
as tumbled over rim in roundy wells
stone rings: like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
selves - goes to self; myself it speaks and spells,
crying What I do is me; for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces:
acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is -
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
to the Father through the features of men’s faces.

It is a beautiful poem where Hopkins, as one person describes it, “leaps from one image to another to show how each thing expresses its own uniqueness, and how divinity reflects itself through all of them.” One of the images I like is how each rung church bell flings out broad its name. A few weeks ago I was reading a book where the author mentioned that every church bell is given a saint’s name. English churches often have four, six, or eight bells (or more). Those who can decipher individual tones might say, “I wonder why someone is ringing St. George?”

Each thing and each person expresses its own uniqueness and Christ is reflected through them all; through you and through me and we each do so in our own particular way – a way which no one else can replicate.

This sounds straight-forward enough, but reflecting on this morning’s readings we can identify one person and two group who struggle to see this in you or in me.
The person who struggles to see how Christ can be manifested in you is yourself. Look at the reading from Jeremiah, a lesson often read at ordination services. The Lord speaks to Jeremiah when he is but a youth; announcing that God has appointed him to be a prophet. “How can this be?”, Jeremiah responds, “I don’t even know how to speak for I am just a boy.” It is an understandable concern which the Lord overcomes by touching the Jeremiah’s mouth, thus enabling him to speak God’s words.

In what ways do you deny or diminish the unique way Christ can be expressed through your life and gifts? What would God’s touch look like for you? What do you need from God in order to act in God’s eyes what in God’s eyes you are?

One group that stuggles to affirm our unique expression of Chirst is comprised of those who hate us. In today’s reading from the 71st Psalm, we hear the prayer of a person who is seeking refuge in God. That refuge may be a geographical location because the psalmist is physical danger, or it may be more of a spiritual refuge because those who hate him initiate attacks on his personality. Either way, it is the prayer of a person who turns to God for comfort and safety. “Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked / from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.” And while we cannot say exactly what the evildoer and the oppressor has against the psalmist, nor can we identify what form the attacks take, this we can say for sure: they do not recognize in nor affirm nor value the manner in which Christ is uniquely expressed through the psalmist’s lovely limbs and lovely eyes.

Can there be a more common form of blasphemy than to forsake the image of God in another person? And when we walk the path that the psalmist is on, is not the temptation to ground our identity in the way that our enemies treat us rather than in the way that God sees us?

We heard this morning one of the best known passages in the bible, I Corinthians 13. In our day and time its reading is associated almost exclusively with wedding services and viewed as a description of the kind of love that a man and a woman are to exhibit throughout their years of marriage. And while it certainly speaks powerfully to that, it is important to note that this was never Paul’s intention when he wrote it. In the context of his letter, Paul is addressing very serious conflicts within the Corinthian church. Deeply divided factions had arisen and while each group displayed acts of love and charity toward those within their camp, they had nothing but contempt for those of the other camps. So listen anew to what Paul says and remember that it is counsel for those whose guts are hated and who reciprocate in kind:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

It surely is a challenge to value the unique expression of Christ in those who dislike us and in those for whom we take a dislike.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is a few months into His public ministry. He has been teaching throughout the Galilean region and performing healings and then He returns to His hometown of Nazareth. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, to the place where His teachers and coaches and scout leaders all remember Him from the time of His childhood. All are anxious to be a part of the home-town-boy-makes-good-and-comes-back event.

Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and then, in perhaps the shortest sermon on record, says, “Today this reading has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is a bold, audacious claim that makes Muhammad Ali’s “I am the greatest” boast seem mild by comparison.

Those who hear Jesus’ words speak well of Him, but wonder how He can make such a statement. In truth, it is always hard for those who ‘knew you when’ to believe that God has lifted you up for a special purpose. The group of ‘those who know us well or knew us when often struggle to affirm our unique expression of Christ. “Is this not Joseph’s son,” the home-towners ask? Lurking in the subtext of their question is a rumor that Jesus was illegitimate, the child of a relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier (a persistent and pervasive notion that seems to follow Jesus throughout His life). For the Nazarenes, not only would God not raise up to such a lofty role someone they know, but God would not raise up someone of such questionable stock.

Jesus knows that what seek is a miracle, a cure, a healing. A sign of some kind would be exactly what the doctor ordered and it is exactly what Jesus will not give to them. For Jesus, healings always emanate from compassion in response to human need and faith and are never, ever given as “proof.” Rather than providing proof, Jesus antagonizes those who raised Him by citing two Old Testament stories where God does the miraculous for those outside to covenant tradition; those who, just as He was perceived to be, are deemed unworthy by all except God.

The response is dramatic. Those who participated in Jesus’ formation are so enraged they take Him out of town to the precipice of a cliff and intend to push Him off (I am proud to say that none of my sermons have yet to elicit such a response… yet!). Jesus manages to pass through the crowd, either by forcing His way out or through some kind of miraculous means (the text is somewhat ambiguous on this point) and the story comes to a close.

Responding to questions I posed on my blog site as to why familiarity breeds pigeon-holing (the notion that we know everything there is to know about a person) and why we can not see and accept that every person is capable of so much more than we can imagine, the esteemed theologian Betty Qualye wrote this:

I believe limits are set on people, because it is human nature. We don’t want our friends to be too successful, it will make us feel smaller and inferior. Even Jesus admits it is difficult to be a success at home. People make assumptions about your abilities and tend to have low expectations... Striving for perfection, we always feel as if we fall short. Why not shoot for the stars and show what you can really do? Well, you just may fail [so shooting for the stars is] not going to happen. So stay in the comfort zone. Do enough to be respected but not enough to be disliked.

“Do enough to be respected, but not to be disliked.” Betty nails the temptation we face when those whose affection we deeply value and crave do not give it to us. And while keeping yourself out of the cross-hairs is not at all a bad strategy we must always ask at what cost. How long can old St. George diminish his deep base tone so that the other bells in the belfries don’t come after him? Each one of us must act out the unique expression of Christ in us.

And when you are the home-towner, there is no more important spiritual discipline than to embrace the new, emerging expression of Christ in a person you think you know so well. When you are the evil-doer and the oppressor there is no more important spiritual disciple than to seek the unique expression of Christ in the person you deeply detest. And when you think yourself incapable of expressing Christ, there is no more important spiritual discipline than to allow what is unique in yourself to shine out.

The 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany: ...Everyone is Dear

It has been an interesting week in our nation’s capital. While I usually shy away from talking politics in my sermons, let me bend my rule and say that I am glad Scott Brown has been elected to the Senate by the good people of Massachusetts. My happiness emanates not so much from my politics, but from my understanding of the Baptismal Covenant. You and I, as members of the body of Christ, have promised to respect the dignity of every human being. Whenever one political party holds the presidency and majorities in the House and Senate it is in a position to enact legislation without the consent, input, or support of the minority party. Given the opportunity, both Republicans and Democrats would do just that. And when 60% of a group acts in a way that is completely indifferent to the other 40%, that denies the dignity, worth, and value of those who are powerless. As messy as the political process may be, our country is better off when every voice is heard and every legislator’s vote matters.

If I offend, forgive me, but our readings this morning invite us to reflect on the nature of groups and the inner relationships which drive them.

In the reading from I Corinthians, St. Paul continues to confront a serious problem in the local church. Today we would say that its membership was multicultural. A huge variety of people had responded to the Gospel and were bound together as a family in Christ. Some were Jews, others Greek. Some had been free all of their lives, others were slaves. Within one congregation there was tremendous diversity around ethnic origin, social status, economic prosperity, and life experience.

From what Paul writes, we can deduce three things that he believed about their situation.

First, diversity, be it in a congregation or in a society as a whole, is the way of life. Using the metaphor of the human body, Paul says that a body of people consists of different parts. The hand is not the foot, the ear is not the eye. Each is different, distinctive, unique. This is our reality.

Second, Paul acknowledges that diversity is a challenge. We gravitate naturally to people who look like us or act like us or think like us or earn like us. In fact, even in a homogenous group, people will sniff out differences and distinctions and divide accordingly. We balk and blink at things like sensitivity training and political correctness; efforts that, while at times misguided, are aimed at helping us all to get along. Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, young and old, high tech savvy and no tech ability, rock and rap, evangelical/conservative and mainline liberal, hokies and hoos: we all have to learn how to get along… and that can be – and usually is – a real challenge.

Scholars believe that Paul wrote up to five different letters to the Corinthian church, each a response to a letter from them. Some of Paul’s letters are folded into the two Epistles we have in the New Testament and at least one is lost. We do not have any of the letters that the church wrote to Paul, but based on his responses, we can surmise what they wrote about. And most of their internal struggles boiled down to the challenge of diversity.

So here is the third thing Paul says about their situation: Diversity, which is a reality and challenge, is also a blessing. Within the wide variety of people and experiences there is an incredible array of gifts and abilities. Just as the human body needs individual parts which carry out a distinctive function, so too does a community of faith, and so too does our country, and so too does our world.

This giftedness in diversity does not happen by accident. Paul states that is a direct result of the intentional work of God’s Spirit. In fact, we can say that a lack of diversity within a group or within society is an indicator that God’s Spirit is being withheld or ignored or frustrated. So, back to politics for a second, it is much easier for a single voice or a united mindset to pass legislation on, say, health care reform. Easier, yes, but not better. It is much, much harder to pass legislation when a plethora of voices and ideas and perspectives weighs in on the conversation, but we all benefit when every voice is heard and every perspective valued. From such diversity consensus can emerge. In Paul’s theology, this is exactly what God intends. It is how God’s Spirit works in and through a group.

In our Gospel reading, we hear of a time when Jesus returns to his hometown and goes to church (and the text tells us that He did so every Sabbath day). Unlike our church, where various trained members of the congregation read assigned lessons and the ordained professional – me – comments on them, in the synagogue every member had the opportunity to read and comment on the Scriptures. We don’t know if individual members were assigned to read and comment on a specific day and we don’t know if the readings were assigned by something like our lectionary or if they were chosen by the reader, but in any case, on this day Jesus was the reader and the lesson came from the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. These people, be they spiritually poor or financially poor, captive in a literal or in a figurative sense, lacking vision or lacking insight, oppressed from without or oppressed from within, are a part of the diversity of a community. They are a part of our reality, our challenge, and our blessing. That Jesus claims them to Himself in the inaugural moments of His public ministry says something very important, doesn’t it. He is not willing to forsake a single person, especially a person who the rest of the group might consider as dragging them down or holding them back. Jesus sides Himself with the most vulnerable members of the group.

I used to carry in my prayer book a post-it note on which I had written a quote by Evelyn Underhill, the English writer and Christian mystic. I put it in my prayer book so that every time I opened it at the beginning of the service I saw it. Here is what the note said: “In the Kingdom of God, no one is adequate, but every one is dear.” I read it to remind myself that my own shortcomings in no way removes my from God’s love and keep. I also read it to redefine how I looked at each person at the service: the acolyte who can’t remember what to do, the altar guild member who is obsessing about a wrinkle in the hangings, the usher who seems oblivious to the visitor, the choir member whose not-so-alto voice is giving me a spitting headache, the parishioner who fidgets or day-dreams or visits the land of nod during my sermon, the person poised to point out a typo in the bulletin, the small child who noisy squirming proclaims “I have sat still long enough”: none – starting with me – is adequate, but each – including me – is dear. To uses some common slang, that is how we roll as the body of Christ.

Every faith community is as strong as these four elements:

The faith and faithfulness of its members.

The quality of the relationships within the faith community.

The care and concern it expresses for those outside the faith community.

The level of leadership that rises up within the community.

Each of these four is essential. If one is lacking the effectiveness of faith community is diminished and its future vitality is in peril. Today’s readings remind us to focus on the quality of our relationships: to value and build on our diversity and to recognize that the mark of our common life is seen in our acceptance of and our compassion for the least and most vulnerable in our midst.

The 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany: Common Water & New Wine

In the Gospel of John, miracles are not just miracles, they are signs. In John’s theological mind, Jesus never does a miracle for the ooh’s and awes. He never performs a show-stopper merely for effect so that we are left breathlessly panty, “Wow, that was impressive.” No, for John, what some call ‘miracles’ he calls ‘signs’: an act or an event that points to a deeper meaning; something that manifests a veiled spiritual truth. So, for example, when Jesus restores the sight of a blind man, He does so not to show off His power, but to reveal that He is the Light of the World who dispels all manner of darkness. And when Jesus feeds the 5,000 with just a few fish and loaves of bread, He does so not amaze, but as a sign that He is the Bread of Heaven who is food for the soul’s deep hunger.

And in today’s reading from John’s gospel, we see one of the most potent and promising signs of the kingdom. In life, there are always times when the wine runs out and the party is over. So it was literally at a wedding in Cana. Jesus, His disciples, and even His mother, are guests at a party. In ancient Palestine, a wedding was a community event that went on for days. Was this celebration coming to a close prematurely, or was it just time for everyone one to go home? We don’t really know. Either way, the party was over even though many of the quests were not ready for it to end. But that happens in life, doesn’t it. The wine of life runs out and we are left… where, with what? Searching. Grasping. Lifeless.

One thing I have never really understood about this story is the rather odd and confusing dialogue between Jesus and His mother. I suppose there is a good explanation for what goes on between the two, I have just never heard it… and I have read dozens of different commentaries on the passage. My take on it is this: there is always confusion, awkwardness, and disagreement when the wine runs out and the party is over. There is always a period of trying to figure out what happened, why it happened, and what to do next. But after the confusion, someday, somehow, someway, through the grace of God, new wine comes and the party goes on… even better than before. This is the sign of the miracle of Cana.

Like many of you, I have spent this week being more prayerful than usual, and by prayerful I mean having a heightened awareness that while my life has unfolded pretty much the way it always does – in relative comfort and ease – millions of people in Haiti are enduring the most unimaginable suffering and hardship, and millions more around the world sit in anxious wait hoping for word from a loved one. Clearly disasters, be they natural or wrought by humans, are times when the wine runs out and the party is over. They are times when life is stripped to its barest form.

In the sign at the wedding, as is often the case with the other signs, Jesus takes something that is common and makes it holy. At the wedding, it is the water. Ordinary water becomes the means for new wine to flow. We know from Katrina and the tsunami and from other disasters that the period which follows them is rather like the odd dialogue between Jesus and His mother. There is no instantaneous way to make new wine flow. Confusion, uncertainty, hardship, and struggle abound. There is little we can do to make that go away quickly. All we can do is offer something common and trust that in the hands of Jesus it will become holy.

In these situations, our denomination is blessed to have the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund (ER-D), the agency that provided St. Paul’s with $25,000 after the tornado hit our city. Every dollar given to ER-D goes to the effected area. Haiti, which is the largest diocese in Episcopal Church, will prove to be a real challenge. Under normal conditions, ER-D works through the local bishop and parishes; providing them with funds in the belief that those on the ground are best positioned to apply it effectively. Haiti’s Episcopal Bishop, Jean Zache Duracin, and his family are alive, but the diocesan offices, cathedral, and many churches and Episcopal schools are in ruins. As you aware, right now getting aid into the country is extremely difficult. ER-D already is working through the Diocese of the Dominican Republic to find ways to help the people of Haiti. That aid will become even more direct as it is possible to do so.

St. Paul’s is poised to respond. We will send $500 from our Outreach Fund to ER-D immediately. Every parishioner who wishes to add to this can do so by writing a check to St. Paul’s with a memo to ER-D or Haiti Fund. Dollar for dollar, I believe ER-D is the most effective way we can respond.

On a more personal level, I know from my own life and from listening to many of you talk about your lives, there are times when the wine runs out and the party is over for us as individuals. Sometimes it happens when you enter the doldrums; when life just sort of fizzles out and you don’t sense any real meaning or significant purpose to what you are all about. Other times, the wine runs out in dramatic and devastating fashion; through cruel abuse, violence, shattering abandonment, betrayal, or loss.

In both cases, but especially in the second, our own personal experience of the Jesus/Mary discussion can be long and debilitating. My own testimony is that it is not something you can get through on your own. You need a loved one or a friend or a priest or a counselor or all of them to offer what they might think of as being common – their love, their care, their support, their encouragement, their insight, their strength, maybe just a casserole – yet in the hands of Jesus these things becomes holy. They becomes the means by which new wine begins to flow in your life.

This period of awkwardness is not a time of inactivity and helplessness. In the Gospel it was a dynamic time marked by people coming together to identify challenges. It was marked by listening to Jesus for guidance and direction. And it was marked by moving forward as seen in the filling of the water jars. All of these things paved the way for new and even better wine to flow.

I have always loved but never preached on an image we heard read last week from Isaiah 42:3:

A bruised reed God will not break,
and a dimly burning wick God will not quench.

Maybe your life is like a wick that is barely burning. Maybe you are running on empty. Or perhaps you are a bruised reed; battered and beaten and nearly broken. Or maybe you know and love and pray for someone who is like that. If so, hold tight to the hope that we heard read from Isaiah this morning, words spoken to a people on whom the wine of life had run out:

You shall be a crown of beauty
in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You shall no more be termed ‘Forsaken’,
and your land shall no more be termed ‘Desolate’;
but you shall be called ‘My Delight Is in Her’,
and your land ‘Married’;

for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.

It is a hard truth, but a truth none-the-less. In life there are times when the wine runs out and the party is over. But during this Epiphany season, this season of signs, even emptiness and brokenness participate in the larger truth that God takes what is common in our lives and makes it holy so that new, better, incredible wine can flow. No one at the wedding party understood this, not even Jesus’ mother. The sign did not happen because they believed or because they had faith. It happened because they stayed open and were willing to taste common water touched by Jesus. And that is how new wine works. We always experience the signs of the kingdom as we live by faith, not before we have faith.

The Sunday after the Epiphany: Moral Lives & Better Days

As we heard in readings during Advent, John the Baptist is an intriguing, curious figure. Living in the wilderness, living off the sparse land, and shouting his message to hills, people by the scores came to him to hear his word and to be baptized. His message was two-fold. First, he called on people to live a moral life: share from your abundance, let no one go hungry, tax collectors are not to cheat, and soldiers are not to intimidate or extort. And second, John proclaimed, “Better times are ahead.”

The better times he envisioned were linked directly to the coming of a Messiah. John proclaimed that while he called people to moral goodness and used a baptism of water as a sign of cleansing for a new beginning, the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit: God’s power to transform a person from the inside out. It is fair to assume that when Jesus presented Himself for baptism He was, like everyone else, committing Himself to a godly lifestyle and hoping for the dawn of a new day. He must have sensed the direct link between the two: a moral person living in a moral society is going to be better off than an immoral person living in an immoral society. That is why Jesus, like so many others, responded so powerfully to the ministry of John and thus were drawn into closer communion with God and one another.

Years ago, when I was called to serve as Rector of a parish in Iowa, the people of the congregation told me that they wanted to grow the church. They were excited to have me lead them because I was young and had a lot of good ideas. I have mentioned the church before, citing its beautiful, but cavernous worship space that dwarfed the 75 people or so who worshipped on a typical Sunday. After being there for a little while and sizing up the potential, I announced at the annual meeting that I had come up with a concrete, foolproof plan to double the size of the congregation in just twelve months. The people had a breathless look on their collective faces as they waited for me to roll out my heavenly-inspired idea. “It is this simple,” I said, “every one of us here today has to get just one person to join our church.” You could almost hear the sound the old Pac-Man machine made when the ghost ate the gobbler and the game was over… wahh, wahh, wahh, wahh. Well, needless to say that plan did not bear much fruit.

We Episcopalians are not so good at evangelism or sharing our faith or recruiting new members. There are many reasons for this, I suspect, but first and foremost we don’t have a compelling theological reason to seek converts, at least compared to some other branches of the Christian tradition. At the Saturday morning men’s bible study last week a discussion erupted about why ministers don’t preach more about “consequences” – read ‘eternal damnation’. One of the things I appreciate about this group is that not all of us are Episcopalians and thus we get to hear from a lot of different viewpoints. Two non-Episcopalians expressed with deep, sincere heartache their fear that specific family members will spend eternity in hell because they have consciously rejected the Christian faith. If you look at a friend or loved one or a coworker or even a stranger and see a person who will suffer “eternal consequences” if they don’t “come to Jesus”, well, you have a powerful theological motivation to evangelize.

As you might image, we Episcopalians in the discussion see things a little differently. The God we know, as God has made God’s Self known to us, is more open, less cause and effect, and certainly not reducible to black and white. For my part, I said that I try to cultivate in people a disposition for God. My sense is that God is always receiving, always drawing into God’s self all who desire to be in fellowship with God and with God’s people. So, the more I cultivate godly traits in my life, say generosity or forgiveness, the more I will desire to be in God’s presence. I can read the bible until the pages fall out and I can recite the liturgy from memory on a daily basis, but those things don’t “get me into heaven” (whatever that means). The only way I can come into God’s presence is by desiring to be in God’s presence and that is what I try to cultivate in myself and in others.

I don’t know if that makes sense to you or not, I hope that it does, but here is my point: it does not make for a very urgent, compelling reason to evangelize. I don’t live with a sense of peril regarding my own salvation, nor do I fret for that of others. My sense is that God will work it all out in the end. When I invite people to come to St. Paul’s (and I do invite folks on a regular basis) I usually do so with the caveat that I find the mystery of God in this place and that you, the people, have a wonderful way of living into what it means to be God’s people. The general response I get from the person I invite is that he or she finds God in other ways without being a part of a church. Now, if we lived prior to the Reformation I could simply say, “If you don’t come to church, receive the sacrament, and pay up, you are going to be damned for all eternity, an event which I will speed up by burning you at the stake!” But those days, sadly, are gone.

So if we possess neither a theology to compel people into membership nor the power of the sword to force them into faithfulness, what do we say to those who are not “going to church”? And what do we say to ourselves, what motivates us to share our faith and to invite others to join with us?

My answer comes from what, for a Christian, might appear to be an unlikely source: the British author and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In his book, Faith in the Future, Sacks writes about a concept called Moral Capital. It is not his idea, others have written about it as well. It is the notion that certain moral behavior benefits a person and society as a whole. Moral values like justice, from which we derive truthfulness and trustworthiness, and temperance, from which we derive moderation and self-restraint, and benefiance, from which we derive the value of self-sacrifice and giving, are a few of the virtues which have contributed to our moral capital. As people manifest them personally in our common life, the world becomes a more humane place to live. Do you hear in this idea the echoes of John the Baptist: the call to lead a better life connected with the hope that better days are ahead?

Well, Rabbi Sacks, along with many, many others, is now saying that we on this planet are living off of the moral capital of those who came before us. The ethics and integrity that undergirded Western Civilization and made for conditions where humanity could flourish are eroding away. The signs are everywhere: broken homes, spiraling debt, growing dependency on substance abuse… you know the list. According to Sacks, even faster than we are depleting our natural resources, we are depleting our moral reserves. He is saying something I think most of us know and feel: we are not leading good lives and the future does not look so bright.

Perhaps we Episcopalians, and specifically we devoted members of St. Paul’s Church, need to go back to the banks of the Jordon River to find a theology compelling enough to call us to evangelize. We need to invite people to this place, to our manifestation of the faith, because it supports us in leading a moral life. The world we know and love is rotting away right in front of us. The moral heritage of our ancestors has been squandered and must be restored.

I don’t know a single person who does not hope and pray for better days ahead. We in the church possess two things that can turn the tide and restore the moral capital that is being lost at an alarming rate. First, we possess the spiritual resources that built the moral capital in the first place. We have the word of God that guided the faithful and we have the sacraments that sustained them. But even more, more than just a plea to be good people – call it the plea of John the Baptist – we have the Spirit of God to transform us from the inside out. We have a baptism that makes us new and renewed people; not simply people who try harder, but people who have died to self and put on the love of Christ, a love which emanates from our very core.

You know what, if each on of us here this morning dedicated ourselves to the task of getting just one new person to be a part of our church by this time next year, our attendance would be doubled. That would be nice, wouldn’t it! But even more important, it would be twice as many people who from this place are contributing to the moral capital of our community. That, through the power of the Spirit and God’s grace, would give us a hope that better days are ahead.