Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Repent and Believe in the Good News" ... Episcopalian Style

Sermon for March 18, 2018
Series:  Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don't Belong To, part 1
Mark 1:9-15

If you’re someone who’s here most Sundays, you’ve probably noticed things look and sound a little different today.  The rough wooden cross has appeared behind the altar; we’ve offered up our sins with the centuries-old Great Litany; and we’ve changed the liturgical color to a penitential purple.  Welcome to Lent, our 40-day journey of repentance as we follow Jesus to the cross.
But if you’re someone who’s not here most Sundays, I wonder what your reaction to all this might be.  The things I’ve just said might push some buttons for you.  Maybe you’re thinking, “Great.  The church I’m staying away from was all about how God expects perfection.  I’m tired of church people making me feel beat up.”
Or, if you’re someone who’s not here most Sundays, maybe your reaction is more like this: “What are you all doing?  I only came in to recharge my spiritual batteries in this beautiful space.  What’s up with all the parading around and that long, dreary prayer at the start?”
So, if you’re a “regular” here, think for a minute: What would you say to those real people’s real concerns?  Would you apologize for our ancient pomp and circumstance, and say all this talk about sin doesn’t really matter that much anyway?  Or maybe you’d just talk about the weather instead?
Today, we’re starting a five-part preaching series reflecting on Lillian Daniels’ book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To.  We’re going to spend some time through this season of Lent hearing Jesus say some things that might push our buttons or simply sound crazy.  And as we do, we’re going to take the book’s point seriously: That Christians in traditions like ours need to have something of value to offer people who’ve been hurt by church or who don’t have much experience of it.  In a day when the popular definition of Christianity is a religious institution that’s judgmental, highly political, insisting on interpreting Scripture literally, and constantly after your money – in a day like that, we need to claim our different story, a story of good news.
So, let’s start with that reading we just heard.  Each year, as we begin this season of Lent, we hear about Jesus going to the wilderness.  What was he doing out there?  The only set-up for this story in Mark’s Gospel is something we heard before Christmas: John the Baptist warning people to repent because someone more powerful than John was on his way to bring God’s authority to bear on the world around them.  Then we get today’s story.  Jesus comes to be baptized by John but with no explanation why.  Then the clouds are “torn apart” (1:10), and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove upon him.  And the voice of God breaks into the scene, proclaiming Jesus to be The One, God’s own Son, the Beloved. 
It sounds like the next step is for Jesus to mobilize the crowd, the new king ready to take on the Romans.  But what happens instead?  “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness,” where he was “tempted by Satan” for 40 days (1:12,13).  So much for cheering crowds.  Now Jesus is alone in the desert, taking on the power of evil.
So, what’s up with that?  Why has the Spirit of God driven the Beloved Son out into the wilderness?  Well, the story never says why, so it invites us to wrestle with it.  Is Jesus struggling with this call, unsure he wants to be The One?  Is he uncertain what he’s supposed to do, now that he’s anointed by the Holy Spirit?  Maybe.  Whatever is going on in Jesus’ mind, the God who loves him as a Son wants him out there in the wilderness, wants him to have a chance to sort through what God’s asking of him.  Jesus needed to get lost for a while.  You know, sometimes you have to let yourself get lost, or admit that you’re already lost, before you can find your new direction.  More on that in a minute.
Well, while he was wrestling with the powers of darkness, so was John the Baptist, in a different way – getting arrested and eventually losing his head.  So, with John gone and the wilderness time over, Jesus steps up and begins naming the new reality he’s been sent to proclaim: that it’s time to think differently.  It’s time to see God’s power at work in the world, in contrast to the powers that suck our life away. “The time is fulfilled,” he says, “and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15). 
Repent and believe in the good news.
Hmmm.  I don’t know about you, but when I hear “repent and believe in the good news,” something in me kind of shuts down.  Maybe it has to do with the baggage those words carry these days.  When I hear “repent,” my lizard brain says, “Nope.  Don’t go there.  You do a perfectly good job of feeling bad about yourself without any help from overly-convicted preachers.”  I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and we got lots of finger-shaking calls to repentance, implicitly and explicitly, from lots of religious people.  Even today, you see billboards try to scare you into loving God:  You know, “Repent or burn,” that kind of thing.  For my lizard brain, “repent” means slick preachers manipulating people into tearful altar calls.  No thanks. 
But in Scripture, “repent” doesn’t mean, “Be afraid of going to hell.”  It also doesn’t mean, “Feel bad about yourself.”  In Scripture, “repent” means, “Change your mind” – to think differently about something based on some experience.  Now, it does imply you’re turning away from something with regret for having been on the wrong path.  It’s not just realizing intellectually that it’s safer to drive 70 than 90 on the highway; it’s regretting that you’ve put yourself and others at risk when you speed.  Repenting is changing your mind and acting on it.  It doesn’t mean seeing yourself as worthless or stupid or unworthy of love because you made bad choices – just the opposite.  Repenting means recognizing that, because you’re human, you are God’s beloved.  And God needs for you to be out there spreading love, not barreling down the highway like your life doesn’t matter.
And how about believing?  That’s the other thing Jesus calls us to do in this story – “believe in the good news.”  Now, if we’re supposed to believe in the good news, does that mean we’re on our way to hell if we don’t think the universe was created in six days, or if we don’t think Noah saved the earth’s biosphere on a boat, or if we don’t think the Nicene Creed is a technical spec sheet for the nature of God?  Does believing necessarily mean we have to see theological truths as facts? 
You know, if you look at the Greek word for “believe” in this story, it’s not about facts vs. falsehoods.  It’s not about whether ancient stories jibe with scientific explanations.  The word “believe” is about trust.  It’s about where you direct your mind and commit your heart.  It’s about claiming God’s narrative as your own and staking your life on it.
And you know, that doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch.  I don’t know anyone with life-building, difference-making faith who hasn’t come to it over a long and sometimes painful process.  We’ve got to go deep in order to be deeply in relationship, whether it’s with our spouse or our kids or our friends or our God.  In her book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, Lillian Daniels talks about how a journey looks and feels very different depending on whether you see yourself as a tourist or an adventurer.  Now, I love a good tour, but you can’t live there.  Real living – living that means something, living that makes a difference in the world – real living isn’t tourism, it’s adventure.  Daniels puts it like this: 
Tourism is a journey with clear boundaries and limitations. …  When you’re a tourist, you approach the trip with a certain set of expectations.  I want to see the Taj Mahal and get my picture taken in front of it. …  When you’re on an adventure, you have to relinquish your expectations. ...  If faith is an adventure journey, you need to accept that you may not know how this trip is going to turn out. (175-176)
I think that’s what Jesus was doing out there in the wilderness for those 40 days.  I don’t think he went there as a tourist.  I think he was wrestling … maybe with his own demons, maybe with his own uncertainty, but definitely with ours.  I think Jesus was out there in the wilderness to see what it’s like to be just as lost as the rest of us.
So, where are you lost?  And what if we could be honest about that question – with ourselves, and with each other, and with God?  We spend a lot of time and energy not wrestling with the demons at our doors.  Maybe you know your family’s life isn’t perfect, but you’re doing everything you can to make sure no one else finds out.  Maybe you look at your credit-card statement and feel like you’ve fallen down a well, and no one knows you’re down there.  Maybe you look at the news and worry that someone might buy an assault rifle and shoot up the place where your kids or grandkids go to school.  Maybe you know just how easy it is for teens to buy drugs, and it kills you that you can’t protect them from it.  Maybe you feel like you’re held captive to an outside force yourself – drugs, or alcohol, or food, or gambling, or sex, or any of a hundred other addictions.  If any of those situations ring true for you – and if you know, deep down, that you need a source of power greater than yourself – welcome home. 
Yes, God wants us to repent – to change our minds and live differently.  And God wants us to believe – to trust in a story bigger than our own.  And we do that by traveling the long road together, a community of pilgrims walking the path of adventure.  That doesn’t mean ignoring the demons in the wilderness – just the opposite.  It means spending some time in the wilderness, but not by ourselves.  It means being real with each other about how hard it is to struggle with our faults and failings.  It means leaning on each other when the world trips us up or beats us down.  And though that’s not easy, I think it is healing. 
This is the offer Jesus holds out to us:  Sure, you’re part of a broken family, the human family, God’s family – but don’t stay stuck in your brokenness.  Look at it with your eyes wide open.  Take the risk to share it with someone who’s just as broken as you are.  Think differently, and see your belovedness, and choose to turn in a new direction. 
That’s Lent.  And strangely enough, it’s Good News.

Flying With the Buzzards

Sermon for Feb. 11, 2018 (Scout Sunday)
Mark 9:2-9

First, I want to welcome the Scouts, leaders, and parents of Pack and Troop 16 as we celebrate Scout Sunday today.  I know you’re here at the church every week for meetings, but it’s great to have all of you here today for worship, too.  And thanks especially to the Scouts serving as lectors, acolytes, and ushers this morning!
So, the Gospel reading on this Scout Sunday is one that probably seems like it has nothing to do with Scouting and, frankly, nothing to do with your life.  I want to try to convince you otherwise, so hang with me for a few minutes.  It’s the story of the the Transfiguration.  It’s a story of mystery, a story that I think is supposed to make us stop short and say, “Wait, what?”  So, if it leaves you a little confused, you’re in good company.
This is a mountaintop story, and we get lots of those moments in the Bible – Moses climbing Mt. Sinai to receive God’s law; Elijah seeing and talking with God on the mountain and living to tell the tale; Jesus wrestling with his demons on the Mount of Olives – even the crucifixion, which happens on a hill outside Jerusalem.  It seems like God’s chosen people are always climbing, always making their way up the mountain. 
That includes us, by the way.  But at least for me, those mountaintop experiences aren’t always clear, even when they stick with you a long time.  I had one of those moments on what passes for a mountain in Missouri.  I’d been out of college just a couple of years; I’d gone camping by myself in the St. Francois Mountains in south-central Missouri; and I found myself near the second-highest peak in the state.  Now, this is Missouri, so being the second-highest peak in the state doesn’t mean all that much, at 1,300 feet.  But still – there I was, at Mudlick Mountain; and I decided to hike up.  It was beautiful – the oaks and hickories towering above; squirrels and deer down below.  I could have driven up, but I wanted to see what I’d see going on foot. 
And the effort paid off.  At the summit, such as it was, I came out of the woods into a clearing with a fire tower rising above it.  And all over the fire tower, and all over that clearing, were large birds.  I remember them as eagles, but probably they were buzzards.  Whatever they were, when I came out of the woods, all these huge birds took off together; and it looked and sounded like the top of the mountain lifted off and flew away.  It was stunning, and I even took a few feathers home with me, to help me remember.  But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the experience.  I mean, I’d taken the trouble to hike up that little mountain for some reason, right?  What was I looking for?  Well, something of significance, something of value, something that that would make a difference.  I was looking for an experience of glory.
That’s why we go on campouts or climb mountains, right?  I mean, you could just stay at a hotel instead.  You could just drive your car up the mountain, pull over, and look off the scenic view.  These days, you could just get a drone and fly it up there, shooting video of “your” experience.  So why do we go camping and climb mountains instead?
I think we do it to see what God will do with the experience.  I think we put ourselves out there to see what we’ll see and hear what we’ll hear.  We put ourselves out there to see how God might show up.
That’s what Peter, James, and John are doing in this morning’s Gospel story.  The difference here is that they have Jesus as a guide.  He takes them “up a high mountain apart, by themselves” (Mark 9:2).  The story doesn’t say why they’re taking this hike, but I think they’re looking to see how God might show up.  And God doesn’t disappoint them, though it’s a little more intense than the disciples would have wanted.  Jesus is “transfigured” before his friends, his clothes turning dazzling white and his face shining with the same light that pierced the darkness at the beginning of creation, the light of the Big Bang, the light of God’s own presence.  Then, Moses and Elijah appear out of nowhere, putting Jesus literally in conversation with the Law and the Prophets of the people of Israel.  In the middle of this fantasy scene, Peter thinks he needs to say something to make sense of it, so he offers to build little shrines to worship Jesus and Moses and Elijah.  But then comes the One they’ve all been waiting for, the One they hiked up the mountain to find.  A dark cloud descends over the mountaintop, and the divine voice thunders, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). 
And just as quickly as it began, the moment is over.  Moses and Elijah vanish, the cloud lifts, and the hikers are left with Jesus the trail guide looking normal again, ready to take them back down the mountain.
“Wait,” the disciples are thinking; “what was it God said?  ‘This is my Son; listen to him’?  But Jesus didn’t say anything.”  Well, that’s not very helpful.  Don’t you just wish sometimes that Jesus would show up and say exactly what he wants us to hear?  Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus just walked down the aisle and finished this sermon for me?
Not this time?  Well, OK.  Instead, let’s look at the story just before this one, where Jesus had something pretty significant to say.  It starts with Peter saying Jesus is the Messiah – God’s anointed king, the one who’s come to kick out the Romans and establish God’s rule instead.  But Jesus tells him, “Well, that’s not exactly how it works.”  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  He is the anointed king, but this king doesn’t rule the way we expect.  This king is hiking to Jerusalem, where he’ll climb a mountain with a cross on his back and come into his glory in the last way we’d imagine – bleeding and dying. 
And even worse, Jesus calls us to follow that path he’s about to take.  He says to the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake … will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)  The way this king will defeat the powers that oppress us is by sacrificing himself.  And that sacrifice saves us.  The pains you bear, the losses you endure, the failures that stick with you, the damage you cause that you’d give anything to fix … this king takes his cross to the top of the mountain and lets himself be broken on it to give you the chance to be healed. 
How does that work?  That hike with the cross leads the way to resurrection.  Jesus takes us to a place where endings aren’t endings, where death doesn’t stop us.  He takes us to a place where love makes us new and lets us live forever.  And, as if all that isn’t enough, Jesus asks us to join him on that path, and give ourselves away, and help him heal the world.  Follow me, he says, and let God’s light shine through you so you can light the way of resurrection for others. 
Here’s the thing:  When I hiked up Mudlick Mountain, I was a young man with a great future, by the world’s standards.  I was going somewhere.  I was the speechwriter and deputy press secretary for the governor of Missouri, and the governor liked what I was doing.  I could have been working for him when he became a senator, even when he became the nation’s attorney general, as it turned out.  But the work didn’t mean anything to me.  I didn’t feel like I was making a difference.  So, I went to Mudlick Mountain to look for a sign. 
I didn’t really hear or see anything specific from God in that flight of eagles (or buzzards).  But what I heard and saw was that God was there in the majesty of those birds, in the beauty of that peak.  I heard and saw God’s possibility.  Like those buzzards, even I could take flight … by leaving behind what I had and by turning away from where I was going.  I thought that meant being a teacher, so I left the governor’s office and went back to college.  I didn’t end up being a teacher, but I met the woman who would be my wife.  And we had kids.  And I got this call to be a priest.  And here I am, loving and serving you all.  It’s not the path I’d ever imagined, and every step along the way has cost me something – a lot, some of them.  But at the end of the day, I’ve found life I never knew was out there.
Others in the room this morning could tell a similar story.  And you Scouts, you’re learning this story, too – this story about giving yourself up in service, about putting the well-being of the den or patrol first, about putting yourself third behind God and other people.  And you’re learning the mystery Jesus was trying to show his friends up on that mountain: that success isn’t about achieving power.  Success isn’t about scoring highest.  Success isn’t about getting the most.  Success comes from loving and serving others.  Success comes from being God’s light for the people who join you along your path.  Success comes from the last thing you’d imagine: from giving yourself away.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

State of the Parish Address: Pull Someone Out of the Boat

Sermon for Jan. 21, 2018
Mark 1:14-20

I want to start this State of the Parish address with a story from our mission trip to Haiti last year.  You may remember hearing about a ride on what came to be called “the Adventure Boat.”  We were going to an island off the Haitian coast to visit a school and hospital for disabled children, and to spend the afternoon at the beach.  But as it turned out, getting there was the real adventure. 
We thought we were taking a tour boat, like something you’d see at Lake of the Ozarks.  Instead, we ended up with two aging wooden longboats, and we were in them a couple of hours. Finally, the pilots guided the boats carefully toward the dock, deftly moving us into place.  Some of us were seasick; some of us were aching; all of us were drenched.  Then, onto the dock stepped a young man who pulled the boats in, tied off the line, and reached out his long, strong arm to help us up.  We each stumbled out of the boat and up onto the dock, deeply grateful for solid footing and a helping hand.
All that may seem unrelated to the state of St. Andrew’s parish as we begin another year together.  But remember the Gospel reading we just heard, one of two versions of Jesus calling our patron saint; and his brother, Peter; and their colleagues James and John.  Jesus calls Andrew and Peter as they’re out in their boat, “for they were fishermen” (Mark 1:16).  He says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” – certainly the appropriate way to phrase it, even if it does destroy the poetry of the King James, which made these fishermen “become fishers of men.” 
So now, you’re expecting a sermon about fishing.  I imagine you’ve heard that sermon before, and I know I’ve preached that sermon before.  But you know, the metaphor of Jesus calling us to evangelistic fishing has always felt a little creepy to me.  I mean, what does a fisherman do with the fish he catches?  He sells them, or eats them, or hangs them on a wall.  None of those actions seems quite right for a church as it fishes for new members.  I don’t think we’re supposed to be about profiting from people, or eating them up, or patting ourselves on the back for having caught them.  Too often, of course, we err that way, seeing people as resources to build up the church.  It’s actually just the opposite:  A church is a resource to build up people. 
And that’s what Jesus is doing in this reading, I think.  He isn’t building an institution.  He’s noticing Andrew and Peter and James and John, and he’s inviting them into deeper relationship with God and each other than they’ve ever known before.  He’s reaching out to take their hands and pull them out of the boat and onto dry land.
So, as we consider the state of our parish, I hope you’ll hold onto this image of how Jesus calls us to fish for people.  It turns fishing upside down – not for the benefit of the fisherman but for the benefit of the fish.
What’s the state of our parish?  Let me share a few observations that really are thank-yous – thank-yous for your immense generosity.  In the past decade or so, you have renewed the physical infrastructure of our church building with not one, not even two, but three capital campaigns – though the last two weren’t exactly planned.  First, you gave $1.6 million toward the Rebuild, Restore, Renew effort that replaced the slate roof on the nave, replaced part of our HVAC system, and updated spaces around the church.  Then, in the past two years – when we had to replace the rest of the HVAC system and respond to a series of rains that turned the church into a rainforest – you gave another $506,000 in total, far surpassing the amounts we needed to obtain two matching gifts.  In addition, parishioners Charlie and Mary Kay Horner gifted us with beautiful new restrooms right next to the nave.  Our Junior Warden and King of the Rainforest Morgan Olander will give you more detail during the annual meeting, but I want to say this: Thank you for your overwhelming generosity.  All told, you’ve given $2.2 million in the past decade for work on this side of the street to make our capacity for ministry simply excellent.
And then, on top of that, there’s Gather & Grow, our capital ministry campaign begun in 2015.  Since this summer, we’ve seen the icon of this effort, the new HJ’s youth and community center, rising from a giant hole across the street.  In addition to housing our growing youth and Scout ministry, HJ’s will host group meetings, classes, concerts and exhibits, community events, and private parties – as well as being a place of welcome for people on the Trolley Trail.  In fact, even before the building is open, we’re offering classes on personal finance and the spirituality of money, as well as the first of what I hope will be several offerings on communication skills for couples.  We’re also having a book drive in Lent to link with the mayor’s early-childhood-literacy initiative and hosting community forums with the superintendent of schools.  The new HJ’s, and improvements to the Wornall Road entrance to the church, are budgeted to cost $3.6 million, and that work is on budget.  Because of your tremendous generosity, and the support of the William T. Kemper Foundation, pledges and gifts toward Gather & Grow now stand at $4 million – leaving about $400,000 to support ministry and operations in the new facility. 
All that generosity is making St. Andrew’s truly an inviting place for this family to do its work: gathering, worshiping God, loving one another, and blessing the world.  We’re seeing progress there, too.  At a time when half of Episcopal congregations are declining in membership and attendance,1 we can report increases in both over the past year, in part because of gifts that enable us to livestream worship on our website every week.  We’re also seeing more participation in youth activities and adult learning opportunities.  You may not know there are more than a dozen different ongoing classes and groups here to help adults grow in their faith.  We’re also making a difference in the world, giving more than $160,000 to outreach ministries last year and serving people in need in downtown, in midtown, at local schools, and at a school in Haiti that’s doubled in size in the past couple of years.  Through time, talent, and treasure, you are living into our family’s mission: to proclaim the grace of Jesus Christ, empower people for ministry, and serve people within and beyond our church.
All that is wonderful.  And now – ironically, maybe counter-intuitively – now is the time to think smaller.  By that, I don’t mean scaling back anything.  In fact, God is calling us to reach many more people than we’ve been blessed to reach this year.  God wants to see St. Andrew’s live into its potential as a force for revealing the Kingdom, transforming lives, and changing the world.  But the key to doing that is to think smaller.  The end of the book I wrote a couple of years ago puts it like this:  People are the new program.  People are the new program.  That doesn’t mean churches don’t need programs.  It means we need to focus our energy on people first.  And that’s true both in our work to reach folks who aren’t yet part of a church family and in our life together here. 
You know, the experts talk about the best practice for newcomer ministry being a model of “invite, welcome, and connect.”  It’s not enough to see ourselves as a church where everyone’s welcome.  That’s certainly true, but it’s the rough equivalent to unlocking the doors – a good start, but hardly enough.  Instead, congregations have to keep improving how they invite people, welcome them once they come, and connect them with the life of the congregation.  All that’s true.  And I’d like to make two points about it.
First, that pattern of inviting, welcoming, and connecting applies not just to the people out there but to the people in here, too.  The Vestry and other ministry leaders have been working hard to sharpen our focus on engaging and involving members of this church family more deeply.  We’ve expanded “stewardship” beyond a pledge campaign, rejuvenated the SweeneyCare calling ministry, grown lay pastoral care, asked you to sign in on Sunday mornings, and heard your voice through the parish survey.  We have 1,688 members on the rolls, as of Friday; and our average Sunday attendance is 325.  That’s a pretty common proportion across the Episcopal Church – attendance from about 20 percent of the membership.  It’s the 80/20 rule, at church as in the rest of life.  But you know, we can do better.  We are St. Andrew’s, and we can do better.  We need to keep being more intentional about inviting, welcoming, and connecting with members of the family we don’t see as often as we’d like.
Second, this work of inviting, welcoming, and connecting applies not just to ordained people and staff.  It’s the call of every spiritual descendent of St. Andrew in this place.  “Come,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fish for people.”  It’s your strong arm and your welcoming hand that reaches out to pull people up from their boats and join us here on the dock, where the waters aren’t quite so troubled.  A few hands are not enough to reach out and connect with the people Jesus wants us to bring along.  When Jesus called disciples to follow him, he didn’t say, “I will make clergy fish for people,” or “I will make Vestry members fish for people,” or “I will make staff members fish for people.”  He said, “I will make you fish for people” – each one of us, in whatever way we’re involved. 
If you come on Sunday mornings, invite someone else to come next Sunday morning.  If you’re part of a book study, invite someone else to share in the blessing of your book study.  If you’re part of an outreach ministry, invite someone else to serve Christ in the least of his brothers and sisters.  If you’re part of a group that helps lead worship, or bakes bread, or cleans up the garden, or oversees building repairs, or whatever – whatever you’re part of, I want to ask you to see your role in it growing just a bit this year.  I would like us all to expand the expectations for every role of ministry to include inviting, or welcoming, or connecting someone else into it – not just doing our own work but bringing new hands on board.  I believe that would be the single most important thing this church family could do this year, the single most valuable commitment we could make – to understand that we are each called to bring someone to the table.
You know, Jesus isn’t looking for us just to get the work done at church, and contribute our unique talents, and pay the bills – as important as all of that is.  Jesus is looking for us to reach out from this safe and secure dock at the edge of troubled waters, and extend our hands to the people trying to navigate life in their own small boats, and pull those people in.  After all, Jesus’ first call to his first followers wasn’t to serve on the synagogue’s building committee.  His first call to his first followers was to fish for other people – not because Jesus needs them to build an institution but because they need him to shape their hearts and souls.  People first – those outside and those inside.  People first – those clearly in need and those who hold their own needs close.  People first – because everyone needs a hand to get out of the small, rickety boat we’re trying to pilot on our own and stand on solid ground instead.

1.       Episcopal Church Domestic Fast Facts: 2016.  Available at: https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/19543.  Accessed Jan. 19, 2018.

My Neighbors Across the Sea – A Reflection on President Trump’s Comments on Haiti and Africa

I’m not in the habit of reacting to things that come out of our political leaders’ mouths. If I were, there would be plenty of content, from both sides of the aisle, to fill a weekly column. But our president’s comments about Haiti, as well as other nations, go beyond the boundaries of Shakespeare’s observation, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” We all say things we’d like to un-say. But the president’s consigning of African nations to the category of “s---hole countries” and questioning why the U.S. would want immigrants from Haiti – it begs for the light of the Good News to shine upon it.
Of course, the language is appalling, but that’s not what I think Jesus mourns about these comments. It’s the disconnect, thousands of miles wide, between the president’s observations and Christian theology and practice. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to reconcile the president’s words with Jesus’ core teachings: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). “Just as you did it to [or said it about] one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
The president’s comments give us the opportunity to live as the contrast presence we are, as followers of Jesus Christ. As you know, St. Andrew’s has a partnership of more than 25 years with St. Augustin’s Episcopal Church and School in Maniche, Haiti. Right now, in fact, parishioner Kathy Shaffer is overcoming a broken wrist to travel there to develop our relationship with our new partner priest, Pere Abiade Lozama. Earlier this year, we said farewell (a tearful farewell, for some of us) to Pere Colbert Estil, our partner priest for 12 years. The point is this: For us at St. Andrew’s, Haiti is not an abstraction of poverty, difference, and secondary status. For us, Haiti is people – children of God who embody precisely the same gifts and failings as we do. On my several trips to Haiti in the past 12 years, I have met people with an astonishing work ethic, far stronger than mine. I have met people with an entrepreneurial drive to rival that of Ewing Kauffman or Steve Jobs. I have met people, lay and ordained, who pour out their hearts and souls to teach the hundreds of children God gives them to serve. I would love the opportunity to take the president there and introduce him to the reality that is Haiti. Because the nation of Haiti includes my partners and friends.
The timing of the president’s comments only highlights the tragedy of the gap between his words and the Good News (not to mention our nation’s ideals). On Monday, our country will honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., our national prophet. Dr. King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” That is a human truth, but it’s particularly a Christian truth. We are bound together, like it or not. As Jesus prayed to his Father, “The glory that you have given me, I have given [my followers], so that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one…” (John 17:22-23). We are bound to our neighbors, across town and across the sea.
I hope you’ll come this Sunday as we baptize two new children of God and reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant, which ends with these words: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Sometimes showing up and affirming Jesus’ Good News is not simply an act of faith but an act of resistance – resistance to the darkness that God’s Light overcomes.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Offer the Gift You Need to Lose

Sermon for Jan. 7, Celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Matthew 2:1-12

Who were those giant puppets who just brought their gifts to the baby King and now are making their way back home again?  In the Gospel reading this morning, they’re called “wise men” or magi in Greek – court officials who studied astrology and practiced magic.  To our ears, that probably puts them right up there with palm readers in terms of their credibility, but that’s not fair.  Astrology and what we would call “magic” were the science of their day, so these magi were intellectuals and members of the court.  Now, over the centuries, Christian tradition conflated their royal role with Biblical writings anticipating foreign kings coming to honor Israel’s monarch and Israel’s God, so these royal visitors came to be described as kings themselves.  It’s a powerful image – a would-be king recognizing the true King, worldly power humbling itself before the humble throne of God.  Whether our visitors this morning were kings or court officials, the same message comes through loud and clear: “All kings shall bow down before him, and all the nations do him service,” as we prayed in this morning’s psalm (72:11 BCP).
And what about those gifts they brought?  Now we come to a detail the Gospel writer names quite specifically and whose meaning matters, I think.  It certainly mattered to the writer of the carol “We Three Kings”; three of the verses of that song explain what the gifts mean.  First, there’s gold, maybe the ultimate symbol of kingship and the wealth that goes with it.  Even today, when people go to England and visit the Tower of London, what do they stand in line to see?  The crown jewels, regal wealth on display.  Second, there’s frankincense, like the incense we’re offering in our worship this morning.  The ancient smoke wafts to heaven with the prayers of God’s people, honoring the deity who alone has the power to “form light and create darkness, [to] make weal and create woe,” as the prophet Isaiah said (45:7).  And third, there’s myrrh, the gift furthest from our experience.  The carol tells us that myrrh is about being “sealed in the stone-cold tomb,” and indeed it was among the preparations used with royal mummies, an extremely expensive resin for anointing and embalming bodies for burial.  So those very specific gifts carry great weight:  Gold symbolizing royal wealth, frankincense symbolizing divine power, and myrrh symbolizing our best human attempts to stave off the power of death.
 Here’s another detail in today’s Gospel story that matters, at least to me: the last line.  It’s the very best kind of last line, one that gives the story a satisfying ending while it turns the page to the next chapter.  So, the magi have made their way from a foreign land, and they’ve gone to see the earthly king, Herod.  They assume he’ll be rejoicing over the birth of a male successor and that he’ll help them find the baby.  Herod, of course, is more like Tony Soprano than King David, and he’s looking out solely for his own interests.  So Herod enlists the magi as his unknown agents, asking them to report back once they find this baby who might show Herod to be the fraud he is.  And the magi head off, following the star to Bethlehem and entering the most unlikely royal palace ever: a peasant’s shack, the kind of house we might visit on a mission trip to Haiti.  But the magi know they’ve found the real deal.  Their hearts know the truth that appearance denies.  These kings or court officials kneel down before this peasant baby and pay him homage.  And they open up their treasure chests to give him gifts fit for a King: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then comes the great ending: The God who’s led them all this way spoils Herod’s ugly plans and warns the magi to head home “by another road” (Matthew 2:12).  They get on their camels and ride off into the sunset, the stage set for their next chapter.
Unfortunately, Scripture doesn’t give us that next chapter.  It’s left for us to write in our imaginations and in our own lives.  First, some imagination.  What do you suppose happened to these three kings or court officials?  Well, maybe nothing; maybe they just played their parts in Jesus’ story and went back to their regular lives.  But what if they couldn’t get their experience out of their heads?  What if the ugliness they found in Herod and the humility they found in the baby King changed their hearts?  Maybe, as they went about their work in the royal court, they came to see their own world with a different perspective.  Maybe, when a poor suppliant would come to the court, the last resort for an oppressed person seeking justice, maybe the king would listen a little more deeply and put the poor person’s interest first.  Maybe, when they found themselves tempted to build up their own power and wealth, maybe they heard a small voice reminding them of the King who put the well-being of his people ahead of his own life.  Maybe, when they began taking themselves too seriously and letting the burden of their responsibility weigh upon them so heavily it would begin to crush their hearts, maybe they heard a small voice assuring them they actually weren’t the one in charge after all.  Maybe, when they began to grow older and saw that the road ahead was so much shorter then the road they’d traveled, maybe they heard a small voice comforting them with the possibility that this life might not be all there is.
Here’s what I’m thinking.  These kings or court officials or whomever they were – they might be a model for us.  I doubt any of us will be driving camels across the desert anytime soon or holding audiences with a sociopathic puppet ruler who’s willing to kill babies to advance his career.  But think about what the magi do in this story.  They track the movement of the stars, and travel all that distance, and put themselves at risk – all for what?  To bring gifts and pay homage to “the child who has been born king” (Matthew 2:2). 
That’s still our call, too, of course.  But we often get tripped up by thinking that what we have to bring doesn’t count.  What have I got to offer Jesus, God’s anointed King?  Well, strangely enough, maybe you have the same gifts that those magi brought 2,000 years ago. 
Gold is the symbol of wealth, something with which we’re all blessed, to different degrees.  Wealth can build capacity and drive innovation and serve people and change lives.  But wealth can also be a heavy idol hanging around our necks, dragging us down and keeping us from focusing on much of anything else.  Then there’s frankincense, the symbol of divine power.  We are blessed by God to share in this power, made in God’s image and likeness to be co-creators of our lives and our world.  But that power can also delude us into imagining that it’s ours instead of God’s and that, like Herod, we can wield it for our own advantage.  And then there’s myrrh, the embalming resin, the symbol of our mortality.  From ancient times onward, we’ve done all we could to preserve youth and stave off the natural changes of growing older.  But our fear of death can also keep us from being fully present in the place in life where God has put us, spurring us into mid-life crises or deceiving us into extending life at all costs.
I’d like to encourage you to bring these gifts to the baby King – your gold and frankincense and myrrh, your wealth and your power and your fear of mortality.  The holy irony is that these same gifts that honor the truth of Jesus’ lordship over us are also some of the greatest burdens we carry.  Jesus does want us to bring them as a reminder that God is God, and we are not; but Jesus also wants us to bring those gifts to him because he wants nothing more than to shoulder our weightiest burdens for us.  “Come to me,” he says, “all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” he says.  “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
What do you have to offer the baby King?  The blessings and curses of wealth, and power, and mortality.  Jesus would like nothing more than for you to come to him, and lay down those burdens you carry, and let God take you home by another way.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Resolutions of Gratitude

Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017
John 1:1-18; Galatians 3:23-25,4:4-7

Well, it’s a week after Christmas Eve, a week since the miracle of Love coming down to us.  That miracle is just the start, of course; in the Gospel stories about Jesus, we hear about lots of miracles.  In fact, we hear about miracles so often that they almost seem commonplace.  “Blah, blah, blah; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the dead are raised; blah, blah, blah….” 
But what we don’t hear is what the formerly blind man or the healed woman is doing a week later.  My guess is that, after those miracles, the people involved were still trying to process it all, trying to make sense of some incredible thing that had happened.  They probably looked back to the stories of their tradition to help them understand why and how God had healed them.  And they probably asked the question, “OK, God – now what am I supposed to do?”
That’s what we’re doing here this morning, too.  Last Sunday and Monday, we heard about astounding things.  A virgin gave birth to a king, “and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).  Angels appeared to a bunch of frightened shepherds, singing God’s praises and telling them God’s anointed king was lying in a feed box in a dirty stable.  Just as amazing, the shepherds went to Bethlehem and found the baby just as the angels said.  The Son of God has come into our world to save us.
So, last Sunday was the time for praise and awe; today is the day for theological reflection.  And to help us with that, we’re given the prologue to the Gospel of John.  Though it may not have sounded like it, the Gospel reading this morning is John’s version of the Christmas story.  John never mentions the baby or the shepherds or the kings or a virgin giving birth.  Instead, John begins his story long before that: “In the beginning” – back to the Book of Genesis, the book of beginnings. 
“In the beginning was the Word,” John says.  Not the written word, not the books of Scripture that we read, but the Word, the Logos, the power through which God created the universe and holds it in order.  All things came into being through this Word of God; and without it, life simply would not be.  When God said, “Let there be light,” (Genesis 1:3), it was the Word of God that brought the light of life to the universe.  Without the Word, darkness would overcome the light every time.
And this divine Word through which God creates and recreates everything “became flesh and lived among us,” John says (1:14).  It’s like imagining all the power and light and heat of our sun being bottled up in a single light bulb.  In that one baby in the manger, in that one man teaching and healing in the villages of Galilee, John says we have seen the glory of God’s creative Word, “the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (1:14).  “No one has ever seen God,” John admits.  But this human being, who seems so normal at first glance, this human being “is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart [and] who has made [God] known” to us (1:18).
So, in the clear light of the week after Christmas, we can see a little better just who this miracle baby really is.  But that’s not all.  John takes it one step further and answers the question that has to come eventually for anyone who considers actually believing the Christmas story.  And that question is this: So what?  OK, maybe the Word of God has come to take flesh and dwell in the world.  Maybe this baby is exactly who John says he is.  But what difference does that make?  What’s in it for me?
In a nutshell, here’s the difference it makes: It means salvation.  And that means complete healing.  It means a second chance to be who we were created to be in the first place, when God made us in God’s own image.  We turn away from that and reject the identity God has in mind for us.  We turn to ourselves and our own desires, even to the extent that when this true light of God came into the world in Jesus, “the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own,” John says, “and his own people did not accept him.” (1:10-11) 
And so it is with us.  We see the light of God breaking into the darkness around us, and we hear the Word of God calling out to us; but too often we choose emptiness of our own making.  We seek the happiness of the moment.  We measure our value by how we look or how perfect our lives seem.  We grow up damaged by our childhoods, having watched the people we love hurt themselves and each other, and we swear we’ll never be like them.  But then we live out the pathologies we’ve learned anyway, and we add to them a new one – the pathology of shame as we see the ways we fall short, too.
But because of that baby in the manger, because the Word of God became flesh and dwelled among us, saying “no” to God doesn’t have to be our final answer.  Every year at this season, we get another chance to open ourselves up and let the Word of God take flesh in us.  To all who receive him, John says, to all who believe in his name, Jesus gives power to become children of God, to be reborn not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of people, but reborn of God (1:12-13).  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that we could see what we were missing – and choose that instead.
Years ago, I saw a church sign at Christmastime that read, “Remember: It’s Jesus’ birthday, not yours.”  In a sense, of course, that sign was dead on.  We need to hear the call to get over ourselves and remember that Christmas isn’t about how many presents we get.  But in another sense, that sign missed something important, because Christmas actually is about us.  This celebration of Jesus’ birth is also a celebration of our rebirth as the creatures God intended us to be: God’s children and heirs of eternal life.  Here’s how Paul puts it in the reading from Galatians this morning: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, … so that we might receive adoption as [God’s] children [and receive] the Spirit of his Son into our hearts…” (Galatians 4:4-6).  When we bring Jesus into our hearts and into our lives, when let the Lord actually govern us, then God breathes new life into us, filling us with the Spirit we were made to enflesh. 
And as we stand here at the threshold of a new year, we have the perfect opportunity to put that new life into action.  It’s resolution time.  Now, I know resolutions are notoriously hard to keep, and I am just as guilty as anyone else of resolving to work out or lose weight and then losing my resolve after a couple of weeks (or less) – and then feeling worse about myself than I did before.  But this year, I’m taking a different approach.  I’m committing to ride an exercise bike.  That doesn’t sound much different than most resolutions, but here’s where I think the difference lies.  I’m not just doing this because I think I “should.”  I’m doing it as a thank-you gift to God for the new life of love I’ve been given, for being God’s child redeemed by Love itself. 
So, here’s my New Year’s wish for you: that your resolutions might not hang over you with the weight of unfulfilled promises, but that they might serve as offerings to God in thanksgiving for who you are – a beloved child giving a gift of gratitude to the parent who loves you more than you can imagine.  In this new year, may you live boldly as God’s new creation, and may the true light that enlightens the world flash like fire from your eyes.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Crazy Love

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017
Luke 2:1-14

This is a night of crazy love.  In the midst of everything else you have on your heart and mind tonight, I’d ask you to stop for a moment and consider whether this makes any sense at all:  In a particular historical moment, specifically while some guy named Quirinius was governor of Syria, the Creator and Sovereign of the Universe decided it was a good idea to experience being human in order to save humans from the powers of sin and death that beat us down.  And not just that:  The Creator and Sovereign of the Universe decided the best way to do that was to be born to an unwed teenaged peasant oppressed by a foreign empire, in a day when medical infrastructure looked like pieces of cloth wrapped around a baby screaming in a barn.  This is how the Creator and Sovereign of the Universe decided to experience human life in order to save us: from the bottom up, from the inside out.  The theologians call it the doctrine of the Incarnation, but I call it crazy love – love that bends our minds even as we come here tonight to bend our knees.
I’ve had some glimpses of crazy love in my life.  Mostly, they’ve come from my parents.  My parents are older now and slowing down, but what I remember is love they drew from a well whose depth I can only hope to fathom.  My mother raised four kids, working as a teacher through several of those years; yet what I remember is her presence – reading to me every night, playing games, taking me to the library or the zoo, encouraging me to ask questions and explore.  My father was a university dean, doing the thankless work of administration with such taxing honor that his colleagues gave him the nickname, “Spike the Just.”  Yet, I remember him being there with me when he came home from work, playing catch in the backyard.  On a wall in my house is a fading photo from about 1970 of my father and me sitting at a campfire we’d built on a cold Colorado morning, warming our hands in mirror image and grinning the same grin that says, life doesn’t get any better than this.  In every way imaginable, my parents have given themselves to the four of us kids, then and now.  Being their child has been like living the last scene of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.  And when I’ve told them how I feel incapable of ever paying them back, they say, of course, that’s not the point.  The point is to pay it forward with my kids … and with the world around me.  It’s crazy love, accounting that only makes sense in God’s economy.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my parents:  Their unconditional love is a glimpse, a sacrament, of God’s unconditional love.  And what that means, as hard as it is to say it out loud, is that I hold immeasurable value in God’s eyes.  There is nothing and no one that matters more to God; nothing and no one that stirs God’s heart more deeply.  And the same is true for you.  I don’t care who you are, or what you’ve done, or what you haven’t done – it is the truth, the fundamental truth of this holy night, that God loves you immeasurably.  Like any parent, God’s disappointed in you sometimes.  God’s heart may even ache tonight, wishing to see you coming down the road back home.  But God never gives up on you.  And you never cease being worth all that crazy love.
And you know, the same is true about the person sitting next to you.  And the person sitting down the pew.  And the person sitting on the couch back home.  And the person sitting at an empty bar, with no one to go home to.  And the person sleeping on the street, freezing tonight.  And the person lying in an Alzheimer’s unit.  And the person running away from the cops.  And the person crying because she can’t afford to buy her daughter a Christmas present.  God loves each of them a million times more than my parents love me. 
That is the gift of Christmas: love you can never earn, and love you can never repay.  All you can do is love someone else in return. 
Deep down, we all know that.  But what does that love look like? 
Our cherished images of Christmas tell us the story, like Christmas cards hanging on the doorways of our lives.  Think about A Christmas Carol, with Ebenezer Scrooge seeing the emptiness of his life, receiving the gift of a second chance, and finally sending the prize turkey to Tiny Tim and his family.  Think about It’s a Wonderful Life, with the self-sacrificing George Bailey wanting to kill himself for a life insurance payout but finding his friends rallying around, and showering him with love, and showing him he’s the richest man in town.  You know the story, told a hundred ways:  Life shortchanges you, or you shortchange others.  You feel your heart held captive, and you start to lose hope.  You can’t even see what redemption looks like, and you can’t imagine it coming to you.  And then God acts.
In the great, cosmic story of redemption we hear tonight, God announces divine action through angels visiting shepherds, with the whole host of the heavenly army turned into a glee club, stepping aside from the battle against sin and death to let a tiny child do the work instead.  And in that child, God comes as the true emperor, the one to show that Caesar is a cheap fraud, the one to free us from the power of evil and sin and death, vanquishing those powers at Easter.  But God does it in the last way anyone would’ve guessed.  In the words of the ancient carol we’ll hear in a few minutes, “This little babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold; / All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold [doth] shake.”  In the deep mystery of love, God sends a little child to do a conqueror’s work.
Though it’s crazy, it’s a pattern of love we can trust and from which God calls us to act.  Love is what changes the world.  Love is what frees us from the disfigured shadows of ourselves that life can turn us into.  Love is what changes the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge, and warms the heart of George Bailey, to live into the fullness of whom God’s created them to be.  Love comes from people we don’t expect to see, in places we don’t expect to find them, to fill holes in our hearts we never knew were there. 
That happened to me at the Free Store this Wednesday – and I imagine most of us who went there to give out clothes and talk to clients could tell our own story of unexpected love that came down that day.  One of our volunteers introduced me to a client.  The man looked at me and asked, “Can I trust you?”  And I said, “Well, if you can’t, I might as well just go on home now because trust is pretty much all I’ve got to work with.”  So the client replied, “I have a little feedback about this project, for you to consider for next year.”  And I thought, “OK, what did we do wrong…?”  But the man said, “Everything here is great, and I really appreciate it.  But next year, put out an offering box so we can help out, so we can give back.”  Then he handed me six dollars and said, “Here.  Use this as your first donation toward next year.”
That is God’s crazy love, a divine mystery we come to know best through flesh and bones.  Through people no better than ourselves.  Through the divine mystery of Incarnation: that the very essence of God’s being, love itself, comes to dwell among us and within us, stirring our stiff hearts to remember, form deep within our divine DNA, that we were created by Love for love.  In fact, the instrument of choice for accomplishing God’s grandest and most eternal purpose is … you.  Just as God comes into the world as a baby shivering in the cold, so God comes to you tonight, aching to be born anew.  And in your mundane flesh and bones, in your sometimes cold, cold heart, the Word takes flesh and dwells among us once again.
My parents were right.  I can never pay them back.  I can never return the love they’ve given me.  But I can take that love and show up for someone else, thousands of times over.  None of us can fix the world, but we can love it, one child of God at a time.  We can show up when someone is sick.  We can stay in relationship when our selfish hearts tell us to run.  We can show our children what it looks like to love, no matter what.  We can talk to a stranger who lives on the street.  We can get to know someone God brings into this church.  We can follow God’s lead, on this holy night, and love the world precisely as we find it, one broken person at a time.  As crazy as it sounds, that’s how Love saves the world today.  God wants nothing more than to share your life, and shape your heart, and take your flesh, and be born tonight, in you.