Monday, January 2, 2017

Resolve to Live Eternal Life

Sermon from Jan. 1, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus
Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

Happy New Year!  But that’s not the name of the holiday on the front of this morning’s bulletin, is it?  There, it says we’re celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus today.  Actually, there is no feast day on the Church calendar for New Year’s Day.  The Church’s new year is the first Sunday of Advent, in late November or early December.  So instead, on January 1, the Church celebrates ... circumcision.  The Feast of the Holy Name used to be titled the Feast of the Circumcision – the day we remember Jesus being circumcised, when he was eight days old.  No wonder that observance never really caught on as a secular holiday....  So, let’s talk about circumcision!  That will be fun. 
Circumcision is something most of us think about maybe once or twice in our lives, if we have to decide whether to follow the cultural practice of having it done to our newborn sons.  It’s a practice that’s been on the decline for years now because the physicians will tell you circumcision is medically unnecessary.  But of course, theologically, circumcision is a rich symbol, marking a man’s membership as part of God’s people, the children of Abraham – and if the man was part of that faith family, then so were his wife and daughters and … other possessions….  God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land to which God had led him, as well as the blessing that came with being God’s missionary presence to the world.  As today’s Old Testament reading puts it, God’s covenant community received not just land but divine favor:  The Lord promised to bless them and keep them, and make his face to shine upon them, and be gracious to them, and lift up the divine countenance upon them, and give them what all humanity longs for, which is peace (Numbers 6:24-26).  And not just peace in the sense of the absence of conflict, but peace in the sense of God’s wholeness and wellness, the peace of right relationship, the peace of God’s kingdom, the peace of shalom.  Circumcision was the mark of the people’s wholehearted commitment to the God who offered that kind of peace.  Of course, as our new year’s resolutions remind us, it’s comparatively easy to make a commitment.  The challenge is sticking with it – in this case, sticking with the God of Israel when the gods of the nations, and the idols of our lives, sing their siren song.
Well, Mary and Joseph were devout Jews, so of course they brought their baby to undergo this procedure on the appointed day, the eighth day of his life, as the Law prescribed.  Who knows how much they thought about it, but I’m sure they wanted to ensure their son would be fully part of this covenant community, that he would feel God’s blessing shining upon him.  Plus, this boy’s divine vocation called for it.  If he’d come to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), he had to be part of those people in every sense.  So Jesus receives the mark of the covenant, the mark of belonging to the people God would never abandon.  He was one with those he’d come to save. 
That vocation to save people – it’s right there in the baby’s name, Jesus, which means, “he saves.”  The name was given by God, but it wasn’t just this baby’s name.  Jesus is a form of the name Joshua, Israel’s great leader who took over for Moses as the people stood at the edge of the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  Joshua was the one who finally led the people across the Jordan River and into the land they’d been seeking, into the reward promised to those who would keep God’s covenant faithfully.  You can see Joshua up there among our beautiful windows, near the middle of the nave, all decked out as a military commander.  Now, to our ears, Joshua’s story in the Old Testament is a little problematic.  He saved God’s people by killing a lot of other people and occupying the land that had been theirs for generations.  That’s another sermon, one that might wrestle with blessings that come to us at other people’s expense, as well as our temptation to see blessing as a zero-sum game.  But at the end of the day, problematic though it may be, Joshua did save God’s people by bringing them out of the wilderness and into the good land God had promised. 
Jesus does the same thing.  He leads us out of our wildernesses, guiding us in living faithfully according to the covenant we’ve made and ushering us into the blessing that comes when God’s face truly shines upon you.  The difference between Jesus and the first Joshua is a matter of both form and content.  As I said, Joshua’s process for saving God’s people was by dispossessing other people, something I have trouble seeing Jesus affirming.  But Jesus also differs from Joshua in the terms of the covenant God offers through him.  In the Old Covenant, the promise was about life in the here and now – land and blessing for a chosen people.  In the New Covenant, the promise extends past this world – life and blessing, now and always.  Eternal life, in fact.  It’s the same gift, in a sense – God’s wholeness and wellness, God’s reign and rule and beloved community.  But with Jesus, the offer grows.  With Jesus, God expands the boundaries of blessing not just to the physical descendants of Abraham but to humanity by offering adoption into God’s family for all.  With Jesus, God expands the boundaries of blessing to include not just God’s favor in the life we know now but the light of God’s countenance shining upon us eternally.  “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” Jesus will grow up to say, “and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).  “I am resurrection and I am life,” he will promise.  Anyone who lives and believes in him will never die. (John 11:25-26)  It’s the peace of shalom, the peace of God’s beloved community – but both now and forever.
We’re tempted sometimes, when we think about eternal life, to think it’s out there somewhere, in the future.  As children, we’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) that if we’re good, we’ll find heaven; and if not, hell’s waiting for us.  And for many of us, that’s about as far as we go in thinking about Jesus’ new covenant, that promise of eternal life for those who believe.  But, you know, that childhood view is too small; and you don’t have to be a theologian to understand it a little more fully.  How many of us have known moments of heaven in this life?  And how many of us would say we’ve spent time in hells of our own choosing?  Well, as that good Anglican William Shakespeare once observed, “What’s past is prologue.”  The future is not divorced from the present; instead, it’s foreshadowed by it.  Eternal life is a both/and – a promise for the future, but also a reality right now.  Jesus doesn’t just save us later.  He cares too much about the messy, real lives of the people he loves.  Jesus saves us now, if we’ll take him up on it.  The kingdom of God is within you and among you, Jesus says, right there for the taking.  So the choices we make for God’s kingdom, or against God’s kingdom – those choices have consequences both now and later.  We can choose to live as adopted children of God, as inheritors of the covenant of divine blessing, as those beloved of the Father and blessed with peace – or, we can choose not to.
So maybe this is a New Year’s Day sermon after all.  I wonder, what would it be like to resolve, in this new year, to see your whole life differently?  What if we resolved to find heaven within us and among us?  What if we resolved to seek out the Lord whose face shines upon us, and who’s gracious to us, and who gives us peace?  You know, commentators, and my own children, have described the year now past as “the dumpster fire that was 2016.”  Fair enough; there was a lot not to like about 2016, as there is every year.  So let’s take Jesus up on the opportunity for a new start.  But don’t just leave that offer at the low bar of resolving to lose weight, or drink less, or go to the gym.  Take Jesus up on the offer of the New Covenant.  Resolve to find and foster eternal life every day you’re blessed to wake up in 2017.  For you, what needs to go?  What needs to grow?  Whom do you need to love?  Whom, or what, do you need to let go of?  What debt needs forgiveness – for you and by you?  What does the peace of shalom look like for you?  After all, it is your birthright.  For “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” because “you are no longer a slave but [God’s] child, and if a child then also an heir” of heavenly life (Galatians 4:6-7). 
So, in 2017, resolve to remember the moments when you gaze into heaven and know the peace of God’s kingdom.  Resolve to choose the reality that stands in contrast to the dumpster fires of our lives – how the Lord has made his face to shine upon you, and been gracious to you, and given you glimpses of peace.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Sin and Christmas

Sermon from Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-14

So, what are the kinds of things people usually talk about on Christmas Eve – preachers included?  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire … the love of family and friends … gifts we can’t wait to unwrap … the gifts of ourselves that we offer to the Baby King.  So Christmas Eve probably seems like an odd time for me to talk about sin.  That’s especially true about Christmas Eve in an Episcopal church, I think.  We don’t do a lot of fire and brimstone here – which sometimes makes people think the Episcopal Church doesn’t care about sin.  Plus – hey, Christmas is supposed to be a time to eat, and drink, and be merry, right?  So it may surprise you to hear me say that Christmas is actually all about sin. 
It might also surprise you to hear me say that, despite the weeks (and months) we’ve been living through the pre-Christmas shopping season, and even despite the Church’s season of preparation we call Advent, Christmas is not a conclusion.  And, even though we just heard the Gospel account of a baby’s birth, Christmas isn’t really the beginning of the story, either.  Christmas is a chapter in a much bigger story, the story of God redeeming creation and saving humanity – including each one of us.  And all the way through, just like it is in all good stories, the action is compelling because of the villains.  Those villains are death and sin.  And tonight, on Christmas, it’s God’s conquest of sin that takes center stage.
So, what do I mean by that?  I am not saying that the true meaning of Christmas is that you’re a bad, sinful person.  Absolutely not.  Instead, I mean that Christmas is all about God healing the things that separate us from God and each other – healing the divisions of sin.  In Christmas, and in Easter, God is doing nothing less than defeating the powers of sin and death in order to heal our deepest wounds – the wounds that separate us from our heavenly parent who loves us more than we can imagine, and the wounds that separate us from other people who show us the face of Christ up close.  And because God is too good a writer to allow a predictable storyline, God chooses to conquer sin and death in the way we’d least expect – from the inside out, from the bottom up.
This Christmas story is one we know too well.  In fact, we know it so well that we may not really even hear it on a night like this.  That Gospel reading tonight is just crazy – a story of contrasts, a story of top-down giving way to bottom-up.  It begins not with God but with Caesar.  The Emperor Augustus is asserting his authority, a royal reign that had brought the Pax Romana, peace through an iron fist.  Official inscriptions in conquered Roman lands hailed Augustus as “god” and “savior of the world.”  The date of Augustus’ birth was honored as “the beginning of the good news … for the world.”1  This Roman version of “peace” involved counting and collecting and conscripting.  At the point we pick up the story, the empire had decreed a census in order to strengthen tax receipts and bring more bodies into the Roman army.    
So that’s the top-down action in this story we know too well.  Then the story shifts to bottom-up.  An unwed mother and her yet-to-be husband are traveling to the man’s hometown to be part of the census.  But they weren’t going to just any small town; they were going to Bethlehem, the place from which Israel’s prophets said God’s true king would come.  Mary and Joseph both knew they were part of something much bigger than themselves.  Angels had visited them both and told them this baby “will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and … of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).  So, though Mary would be giving birth to God’s true king, the couple found no place to stay because the little town was filled with everyone else caught up in the empire’s order.  So, when her time came, they camped in a barn or a cave and put the screaming baby in the animals’ feed trough. 
Then, the scene shifts to the fields, and a divine messenger appears, scaring the living daylights out of some unsuspecting shepherds.  The angel tells the shepherds this baby’s birth is precisely the thing it looks least like.  Augustus may have proclaimed a census, but the sovereign of the universe proclaims the coming of the real king.  Augustus may have stationed his armies across the empire, but the sovereign of the universe deploys the heavenly host, the army of God.  It turns out peace on earth comes not from the Pax Romana after all, but from this tiny baby lying in the slop.  God decides to confront the powers of sin and death by entering directly into the life of people oppressed by the powers of sin and death.  Christmas is God saving us from the bottom up.
Now, even if we understand that this is what Christmas is all about, we’re still tempted to keep this story at arm’s length.  That temptation is precisely why God chose to live the story this crazy way.  You can’t keep God at arm’s length when God insists on crashing your party, showing up in the most unlikely places and hanging out with the most unlikely people – then and now.  Prostitutes and tax collectors; priests and politicians.  Shepherds and fishermen and other small-business owners.  People who struggle to pay their bills, and people who live like royalty.  People who endure the slander of bigotry, and people who do the slandering when they think God’s not listening.  This unpredictable God chose to “move into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) and take up residence among everyone living there, regardless of where they fall on the continuum of sinfulness.  Because, you know, we’re all there, on the continuum of sinfulness.  Despite all the times we shine with the light of God’s love, there’s not a one of us here tonight who isn’t also separating himself or herself, one way or another, from God and the people around us.
So God comes into this broken world, and into our broken lives, as Jesus – a name that means “he saves.”  And to do his saving work, he steps directly into the muck and mire of embodied life.  Anyone who’s witnessed a baby being born might wonder why the sovereign of the universe would choose that way to make an entrance – not to mention choosing a dirty barn for a delivery suite and a feed trough for an incubator.  And still, despite the powerless setting, the generals of the heavenly army appear before the baffled shepherds and affirm that this baby is actually their commander-in-chief, who is taking up the last mission anyone would have expected – a personal mission to step into human life and serve as the true Lord, the true emperor, who longs to save us from all that holds us hostage.  Every pomposity that puffs us up, every hardness that hinders our hearts, every smallness that shrinks our souls – God has come in person to save us from our sin by entering directly into it.  This king will live as part of an oppressed community.  This king will flee from a government that wants him dead and live as a refugee in a foreign land.  This king will find himself homeless and unemployed.  This king will speak against the religious and civil authorities trying to silence him.  This king will lead a demonstration in the streets that becomes the way of the Cross.  And this king will die at the hands of those he’s come to save.
Any force that seeks to drive us apart from each other, from other children of God whoever and wherever they are – that force stands opposed to this newborn king.  Any force that perpetrates division and creates categories of “us” and “them” stands opposed to this newborn king.  Any force that whispers in our ears that we can set our own course and do as we please stands opposed to this newborn king. 
And the tragedy is, we each choose those forces from time to time.  In our own settings and in our own ways, we each choose to hold ourselves back from our neighbors.  We each choose to judge those who disagree with us.  We each choose to follow our own path when we know full well that God is directing us differently.  We each choose to be our own Caesar, the emperor of our own small worlds.
And God’s response on this night, as it was in the beginning and ever shall be, is to speak the Word we least expect:  I love you anyway.  I love you anyway.  To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  His name is Jesus, and he comes into our world and into our hearts with this mission: to save us from the time of trial, to deliver us from evil, and to bring peace and goodwill among all those he loves. 
Whatever sin, whatever separation, entombs your heart, let this tiny king break it open and set you free.  Then come to the manger, and come to the Cross, and come to this table to receive the God who comes to love you – in the flesh.  In fact, come and receive the God who loves you in your flesh, and let your broken heart beat new.

1.       Fitzmeyer, Joseph A.  The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX).  The Anchor Bible, volume 28.  New York: Doubleday, 1970.  394.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Is He the One Who Is to Come?

Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 11
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

I remember once visiting a man in prison.  I had known about his situation, but I’d never met this man before a cold, bitter afternoon in a cold, bitter place.  It only took being there a short time to feel the oppressive sense of anonymity and loneliness in that prison.  Everything about it felt dark and gray. 
I found my way to a common room and met up with the man.  His primary issue was fear.  Not fear for his safety or fear that he would never get out; he was being treated relatively well, and he was scheduled to get out in a year or so.  But he was still afraid. 
He feared that he’d lost the life he had known before.  He had been successful in business, confident in his friendships, and especially confident in his relationships with people at church.  At church, he’d felt loved and accepted, and that had helped him to see he was loved and accepted by God, too.  Now, he thought, everything had changed.  He had lost his business.  Most of his friends had stopped writing him or visiting him.  He feared he’d been abandoned by the people he thought would stick with him, so he feared that he had been abandoned by God.  And the future was frightening, too.  He worried about what he would do for a living, whether he would be accepted again by his church and his friends.  It’s amazing how being out of relationship with people and being distanced from your community can make you live in fear.
I think we hear a similar fear from John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading.  At this point, 11 chapters into Matthew’s story, John the Baptist is no longer standing in the Jordan River, calling the people to repent.  Instead, he’s been taken away by King Herod’s police and thrown in prison to keep him from leading a revolution.  We don’t know how long John’s been rotting in prison, but he was arrested shortly after he baptized Jesus.  So he’s been locked away for some time now.
And after months or years of fearful isolation in Herod’s prison, John might well have wondered whether he’d been right about Jesus being the messiah – the one who was going to usher in God’s time of judgment, separating the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire.  John probably wondered what Jesus had been doing, other than not getting John out of prison or leading a rebellion against the Romans.  Well, in the time since John had been thrown in prison, Jesus had had healed a leper, and a soldier’s servant, and Peter’s mother in law; he had cast out demons; he had healed a paralytic and a woman with a hemorrhage; he had given sight to two blind men and speech to a man who was mute; and he had brought a young girl back to life (Matthew 8 and 9).  Meanwhile, John had every reason to be afraid, sitting there alone in Herod’s prison.  What had seemed so clear in the waters of the Jordan looked much darker from a prison cell.  So, in the reading this morning, John has his followers ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).  In other words, I think, John is saying, “Are you really who we thought you were?  I’m afraid.”
Well, what Jesus sends back to John is the opposite of fear, which is hope – hope with flesh and bones on it; hope that you hold not because you’re na├»ve but because you’ve seen signs of a power greater than the darkness that surrounds you.  Jesus sends the messengers back to John with a simple answer: “Go back and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:4-5).  That’s the kind of hope the prophets proclaimed.  That’s hope with flesh and bones on it. 
That same kind of hope is what the man I visited in prison finally came to see.  That afternoon, as I talked with him, I could see his fear slowly giving way to hope.  He began to name people who hadn’t abandoned him – family and friends who’d kept their letters coming and challenged him to use his time in prison to seek redemption.  He remembered acts of deep kindness from friends just before he turned himself in, people who ministered to him at his lowest moment.  And his eyes filled with tears when he heard, out loud, that God was right there with him in prison, loving him just as much as ever, offering him the chance for a new life, the chance to bring something holy out of the pit that his life had become.  He could see that God’s kingdom, God’s beloved community, was out there, waiting for him, because he’d seen glimpses of it in the love of his friends and family.  He could remember the flesh and bones of dignity and hope.
There are all kinds of prisons we inhabit.  The prison of illness or disability … the prison of unhealthy relationships … the prison of debt … the prison of economic immobility … the prison of our own broken choices that lead us away from God and the people around us.  And part of the way we break free from our prisons is by bringing the liberation of dignity and hope to others – by offering glimpses of the kingdom that stands in contrast to the way the world works.
We’ll get the chance to open doors to the kingdom and look inside next week, at the Free Store downtown.  Everything about the Free Store intends to shine the light of dignity and hope for people whose day-to-day experience teaches them something very different.  And those people include both those being served and those doing the serving.
We’ll begin in the nave at the Cathedral with worship and hospitality for guests and volunteers alike.  Then the guests will be seated at round tables for lunch from the Kansas City Community Kitchen.  Servers will come and take their orders, offering guests the power of choice that is so much a part of the practice of dignity.  There at each table will be a member of the Order of St. Luke, our ministry of healing prayer, who will be there to listen and talk and be present in the moment – and to pray, when that seems right.  After lunch and conversation, a personal shopper will take each guest to choose among socks and boots and coats and hats and gloves, helping them find what each one needs.  For those who need additional help to deal with other challenges, we’ll connect them with agencies there onsite that day. 
I have no delusions that lunch and shopping at the Free Store will solve the problems of these 400 people.  Neither will the daily offer of dining with dignity that comes from the Kansas City Community Kitchen week after week.  But I do believe there is power in the practice of dignity and hope, because the practice of dignity and hope brings the kingdom of God to life.  And the love of that kingdom, the love of God’s community, throws open the doors of our prison cells.  When love takes flesh and dwells among us, we remember the truth that puts the world’s darkness to flight. 
And what is that truth?  This time of year, people will ask you about it – maybe not in so many words, but they will still be trying to find out whether you believe Jesus really is the one who is to come, or whether we should wait for another.  Well, you can say what you have seen and heard – at the Free Store, and in Haiti, and right here in the life of this church.  The hungry are fed.  The lonely are cared for.  The friendless are welcomed.  The poor have good news brought to them.  The spiritually dead are raised.  Regardless of whether the world calls us rich or poor, our prison cells do not define us, and fear will not have the last word.  Instead, the voice of the prophet rings out:  “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’  Here is your God. …  He will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35:3-4)


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Purple

Sermon for Dec. 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

I think God is trying to get my attention this Advent.  It started off with the odd juxtaposition of ancient words coming through the earbuds of my iPhone.
I’ve shared with you before that I pray Morning Prayer as I take a walk with my dog in the pre-dawn darkness.  Well, it just so happens that, as we enter this season of Advent and prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ among us, the podcast of Morning Prayer that I use has evaporated.  I wonder what’s happened to the priest who’d been dutifully providing it each day.  So, on Monday, I went looking for another podcast of Morning Prayer, and the only one I could find was from the 1928 prayer book.  OK, I thought, this will take me back to my childhood.  So I subscribed.  And as I began my walk in the darkness, these are the words that welcomed me into Advent:
Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.  (BCP 1928, 5-6)
It went on like this for several more sentences, imploring me to confess my manifold sins and wickedness.  And then the voice launched into the old words that shaped the humble hearts of generations:
Almighty and most merciful Father; we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen. (BCP 1928, 6)
So, here we are today, gathered to offer our prayers on this second Sunday of Advent.  You’ll notice some variety in the colors the clergy are wearing this morning.  Many of us of a certain age will remember an earlier day when the season of Advent was bedecked in purple, just like the penitential season of Lent.  In fact, Advent was seen as a mini-Lent, with people preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ with a sense of holy foreboding.  The readings still implore us to get ready, or else.  As we heard in the Gospel reading last Sunday, Advent begins with a vision of the end of days, when Jesus returns in judgment; and we are told to “keep awake, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).  Today, we hear the prophet John the Baptist calling us to account, along with the Pharisees and Sadducees.  He says, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).  Yikes – that’s pretty intense for people with Christmas parties on their minds.  So, a generation ago, many Episcopal churches switched to blue to shine the light a little more fully on the expectational sense of Advent.  Blue is the color associated with the Virgin Mary, and it helps us join with her in waiting hopefully for God-With-Us.  But whichever color we choose, Advent is a “both/and.”  In these four weeks, we live in the tension of repentance and expectation, aware of God’s judgment and God’s unending love for the people and the world God has made.
Love and judgment certainly run through the words of the Old Testament prophets, including the prophet Isaiah.  In the reading this morning, it’s loving hope we hear, the promise that the ideal king from the house and lineage of David will come to rule God’s people – a shoot from the stump of Jesse, King David’s father.  But the prophet’s hopeful promise also comes with judgment implied.  This coming faithful and righteous king will stand in contrast to the kings who had led Israel and Judah into the state in which we find them by Isaiah’s time.  The king was thought to be God’s viceroy, the descendant of David anointed to lead the people into faithful obedience to God’s law.  If the people followed faithfully, so God would bless the nation.  But faithfulness and blessing hadn’t exactly been the story in the years following kings David and Solomon.  Israel became divided.  Both the northern and southern kingdoms suffered invasions, and Isaiah lived during mass deportations of his people by the invading Assyrians.  Not long after Isaiah, the people of both kingdoms would find themselves in exile, their nations destroyed.  Eventually, the judgment of exile gave way to God’s faithful and loving restoration of the people to their promised land.  But they came back without the restoration of God’s monarchy.  The people waited and hoped, but a national monarchy was not going to inaugurate the kingdom of God. 
We see a similar truth today.  We can’t rely on secular or governmental efforts to inaugurate God’s rule and reign in our time.  The United States is not the kingdom of God, no matter how much we love our country, no matter who our elected leaders may be.  The message of Advent is this: that God’s king has already come and will come again, inaugurating a new kind of kingdom, a peaceable kingdom; a new kind of community, God’s beloved community.  The world around us will not follow him, and we have the Cross to prove it.  But this ideal king asks each one of us to choose to follow him instead.  And when we do, we bring to light the true kingdom that stands in contrast to the world – and we can invite others to join us in its light.
How?  It starts with our repentance, our turning in a new direction, which is why John the Baptist and Jesus both begin their ministries with that startling call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 3:1; 4:17).  John is dressed in camel skins, and he survives in the desert on locusts and wild honey.  To us, that makes him sound crazy.  But to the people of John’s time, the crazy get-up said something else.  In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah dressed like this (2 Kings 1:8), and the return of Elijah was the sign that God’s messiah, the anointed king, was about to make his appearance (Malachi 4:5).  So, the people, the regular folks, go out to the wilderness to see John, and confess their sins, and be baptized as a mark of turning their hearts in a new direction, getting ready for the king.
And that’s great, as far as John the Baptist is concerned.  But along with the regular folks, John sees the religious elites coming out for a piece of the repenting action.  The Pharisees and Sadducees were ones who set the rules, the burdens too great to bear for the peasants trying to follow the Law of Moses (Matthew 23:1-36).  Conveniently, those rules included practices that took resources from poor peasants and enriched the aristocratic religious leaders instead (Mark 12:38-40).  So John the Baptist stops them short:  “You brood of vipers!” he says to the religious elites.  “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” 
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  It’s not enough to feel badly for the poor choices we make, says John the Baptist.  Guilt is not God’s bottom line.  Don’t come to the Jordan confessing your sinfulness unless you intend to do something about it.  The trees that don’t produce for the kingdom will be “cut down and thrown into the fire,” John says (3:10).  The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire is coming soon.  “His winnowing fork is in his hand” to separate the wheat from the chaff, says John, and “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:12).
Well, if you think I’m going to try top that sermon, think again. 
I can’t say precisely what repentance looks like for you, but I’ll bet you’ve already got a pretty good idea.  This much I do know:  It involves bending the knee of your heart to God, listening to what God has to say about your journey, and being willing to change your life in ways that align with the practices of God’s kingdom, God’s beloved community.  In your own life, what doesn’t align with the reign of a king who seeks “equity for the [poor and] meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4)?  In what specific ways might God be asking you to turn in a new direction?  In Advent, even as the world calls us to shop and decorate, God calls us to do some interior housekeeping and sweep out the dark corners of our lives to make them ready for the king who’s about to come. 
So, I’ll ask again:  In what specific ways is God asking you to turn in a new direction?  Maybe it’s about mending broken relationships.  Maybe it’s about saying “no” to habits and practices that isolate us from other people’s struggles.  Maybe it’s about being and working with people who are poor or sick or imprisoned.  Maybe it’s about paying more to the people we employ.  Maybe it’s about raising our voices when you see injustice.  Maybe it’s about quieting our voices so others might be heard. 
We might want to write off John the Baptist, with his bizarre foods and his crazy prophet’s get-up.  But his call to the religious authorities applies to all of us who find ourselves in the category of the elite: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Bear fruit worthy of the kingdom of heaven that has now come near and will come nearer still.  In these next three weeks before the king comes into our world and into our hearts once again, ask yourself:  What would it look like for me to join the wolf that lives with the lamb?  What would it look like for me to follow the little child who leads the peaceable kingdom?  What would it look like for my life to reveal God’s reality in which people do “not hurt or destroy on all [God’s] holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9)?  How can my brief time on this side of eternity help bring about the day when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9)?  What fruit of repentance is God asking me to bear?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Welcome to the Family

Sermon for Thanksgiving 2016
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Thanksgiving means different things to different people.  For some, it’s all about the food – turkey and dressing and potatoes and pie, probably an obligatory vegetable or two.  For some, it’s all about the football, especially if you’re a Lions or Cowboys fan.  For some, it’s all about the shopping, or at least getting ready for the shopping.  For some, including me, it’s all about the family.  Ann and the kids and I nearly always spend Thanksgiving weekend with family, both Ann’s mother in Blue Springs and my family in Springfield.
Of course, “family” doesn’t have to mean strictly blood relatives and in-laws.  Some of the very best families are the ones we choose.  Ann and I have friends in Springfield who, for years, have had a “family of choice” Thanksgiving celebration; they invite all the people to whom they wish they were related.  One of the best Thanksgivings I can remember was when Ann and I were in seminary.  We were stuck in Austin over the holiday, along with several other students.  So all the seminary Thanksgiving refugees gathered for a stunning meal – even on seminarian budgets.   
In all those examples, the Thanksgiving celebration is about much more than eating or shopping or watching football, even though any or all of those activities may take place.  The celebration is about giving thanks for who we are.  It’s about giving thanks for a shared identity – for our belonging together and for the tie that binds us together, with is nothing less than the love of God.
The reading this morning from Deuteronomy lets us know that, early on, the people of Israel had their own affirmation of shared identity.  Moses commands the people that, when they enter the land that God is giving them, they are to say thank-you by actively remembering who and whose they are – not just bringing something to mind but sacramentalizing that memory with word and action.  These people were not merely wanderers, though hard experience might have made them see themselves that way.  They were the people whom God has chosen to redeem from slavery and oppression, and brought through the frightening power of the Red Sea, and then stood by for 40 years in the wilderness, despite how the people didn’t exactly deserve it.  So once this covenant community comes into the land of blessing, Moses says, they are to take first fruits of that land – the choicest produce, some of the very best of what they’ve got – and bring it to God’s sanctuary as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  This serves to remind them not just that God is in charge but that the God who is in charge has blessed them beyond measure.  In fact, God has blessed them so richly in bringing them through the Red Sea and into a new existence that they are now defined by that blessing of redemption, that blessing of new life.  They have become a new people, and God expects them to act that way.
We have something similar happening here this morning.  We don’t usually have baptisms on Thanksgiving Day, but the happy coincidence reminds us that God also asks us to remember sacramentally who we are and then give thanks for it.  In just a few minutes, Charley, Hunter, Parker, and Monroe will come here to this tiny pool of the Red Sea, the place of dying to old ways of life and rising into new community.  It’s the same process of dying and rising that Jesus hallowed through the cross and the empty tomb.  Here, in this deceptively tame little pond of the water of life, we die with Christ and rise as new creations, members of a new family, the family of God.  So on this Thanksgiving Day, many of us remember that we, too, were adopted into God’s family at some point in our journey – maybe as one of our first steps, maybe later on in the hard-won wisdom of maturity.  And on this day, we, too, give thanks that we have been welcomed into the household of God and into the company of saints.
But that’s not all that we remember this morning.  On this Thanksgiving Day, we will join with our family members across time and space, as we offer our own first fruits of thankfulness and receive the real presence of the living Christ in a meal more divine than even my mother’s stuffing and gravy.  We will come to this altar, the supper table of the Lamb; and, through the power of prayer, we will actively remember our deep mystery:  that Jesus Christ comes among us in the offerings we bring here this morning, in simple bread and simple wine.  And through our active remembering, we take our Lord directly into our hands and onto our lips, being made one with him and with all our divine family members.  And as we do, we can’t help but be grateful.  It is no accident that the name for what we’re doing here this morning, and what we do every Sunday, is Eucharist, which comes from a Greek word that means – you guessed it – Thanksgiving.
So as these four little ones come to the waters of new birth, and as we come to dine at the banquet of the kingdom of heaven, here is my prayer for you:  Let the mystery go to work on you and remind you who you are.  You are a member of the family of God.  You are welcomed to come and take your seat at the table, invited to dine on the bread of life, and bound into a community that asks of you nothing less than your life, the commitment of your heart, day after day after day.  That’s who you are.  So as a member of the beloved family, offer to God your sacrifice of Thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Following a Messiah on the Move

Sermon from Nov. 20, 2016
Feast of St. Andrew, transferred
Matthew 4:18-22

I imagine our patron saint, Andrew, as a guy with tired, sore feet.  That’s true for all disciples and apostles, I suppose, because being a disciple and apostle means being on the move. 
Now, for we disciples and apostles gathered here this morning, that may not sound much like good news.  In fact, a call to be on the move may seem like the last thing we want to hear.  Many of us are emotionally and spiritually exhausted by the recent election and its aftermath.  I’ve heard from faithful people who long for a time after presidential elections when we stopped arguing, and tacked back toward the center, and tried to come together despite difference.  And I’ve heard from faithful people who no longer feel safe in their own nation, or in their own city, or even in their own church, because they fear what the recent shift in our political life will mean for them and for people they love.  We can wish that weren’t true, but we can’t wish it away.  If nothing else, we have to be present to pain, and listen to people’s frustration and grief, and walk alongside them through it.
And as we walk with them, we find ourselves on the move again – just like Jesus.  We always seem to find him walking alongside people.  All through the Gospels, he’s moving from one place to another, proclaiming good news and inviting people into it. 
That’s how I imagine the setting for today’s Gospel reading on this feast of our patron saint, Andrew.  Picture the reading as a movie scene.  It opens with a shot of two guys in their fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, which is really just a lake, smaller than Lake of the Ozarks.  The sun is rising, and they’re beginning their day as they’ve begun a thousand days before.  We don’t know much about Andrew and Peter.  They’re not high-class types, but they’re not paupers either.  Basically, they have a small business.  They get up every day, and do their work, and sell their catch, and mend their nets, and get up the next day and do it all over again.   
Well, up in the corner of the movie scene, a figure comes walking slowly along the lakeshore.  It’s Jesus.  As he comes more fully into the scene, he looks over toward Andrew and Peter, out in their boat.  They’re close in, so they see Jesus coming.  And I’ll bet they know who he is.  Just before this morning’s reading, Matthew tells about Jesus beginning his public ministry in Galilee, preaching and proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  He must have attracted attention, this local guy who’d decided he was a prophet, stirring people up and calling them to turn their hearts and their lives in a new direction.  So I’ll bet Andrew and Peter know who’s walking toward them in the morning sun. 
As he comes near, Jesus simply calls out, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).  And then, I imagine, he just keeps on walking.  So Andrew and Peter look at each other, wondering what to do. 
Now, maybe they had a miraculous moment of clarity.  Maybe they knew God was calling them to a life of discipleship and what that was going to mean.  But I doubt it.  Instead, maybe they were simply captivated by what they’d been hearing from this preacher and prophet who described a world of God’s love in contrast to the bitterness and injustice of the world around them.  Maybe their hearts burned with the possibility that such a world might be real.  Maybe they knew, if nothing else, that they had to find out more.  So, as Jesus keeps on walking, Andrew and Peter quickly row in, and get out of the boat, and jog after him down the lakeshore.  They follow him – not because they suddenly understand everything Jesus is about but because the hope of God’s beloved community sets their hearts on fire.  So they follow – which, by definition, makes them disciples. 
From there, they spend the next few years following this messiah on the move.  It couldn’t have been comfortable.  Following Jesus, they didn’t even know where they’d stay from one night to the next.  They ate based on the kindness of strangers.  They put themselves at risk from the Romans, who didn’t take kindly to wandering bands and their leaders who tended to look like revolutionaries. 
But Andrew and Peter also saw signs and wonders.  They heard good news that God particularly blesses those at the bottom of the scale.  They saw people healed.  They learned they could be so much more than they’d ever imagined.  They received Jesus’ power – power to be with people who suffered, and heal them, and speak good news, and cast out the demons that delude us into thinking we’re merely secondary characters in someone else’s story.  As followers of this messiah on the move, they had hope – hope that even the poor in spirit, even those who mourn, even the meek, even a couple of fishermen from Galilee could burn with the brightness of God’s purposes.  They began to see that they were bearers of holy light and that Jesus was sending them out to shine that light among others.
So, that’s why I think Andrew must have had tired, sore feet.  He started walking that morning by the lake, and I don’t think he stopped until his own martyrdom.  Different traditions say Andrew brought the good news to Ethiopia, or to Ukraine, or to Russia, or to Greece, where he was executed on an X-shaped cross.  Even in death, Andrew was on the move as his remains were reportedly taken to Scotland, for whom he became the patron saint – which explains why a bunch of people in Kansas City are wearing tartans and listening to bagpipes as they celebrate this saint’s day. 
As we march to the bagpipes this morning, we are Andrew’s spiritual descendants, ourselves following a messiah on the move for more than 100 years.  In 1913, the bishop sent people way out here to Brookside, on the outskirts of a growing city, because, as the bishop said, “our own city – right here – is our greatest and most crying mission field.”1  They started meeting in a back room of Wolferman’s grocery store at 59th and Brookside.  They bought property at the corner of Meyer and Wornall and settled there in 1922.  But even having found a home, the people of St. Andrew’s kept following the messiah on the move.  We followed Jesus to the neighborhoods around us, sharing the word about Dr. Jewell’s powerful preaching.  We followed Jesus as the city kept moving south, planting a church in Red Bridge in 1958, appropriately named for Andrew’s brother, Peter.  We followed Jesus to Haiti, building relationships there that have grown for more than 25 years.  We followed Jesus downtown to the Kansas City Community Kitchen, and down the street to Southwest High School, and east to the Grooming Project, bringing good news of dignity and hope in contrast to the world’s news that only the strongest matter. 
But we’ve only just begun following our messiah on the move.  A couple of years ago, you blessed me with the opportunity to take a sabbatical, one of the best journeys I’ve ever known.  I visited nine congregations in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England.  Each one, in its own way, was figuring out how to keep going on its journey to proclaim the Good News without tossing its tradition off to the side of the road.  From Seattle to Denver to rural Maryland to London, each congregation was learning how to reach the people around them in new ways while still honoring the tradition they had known and loved for decades (or centuries).  I was blessed to tell their stories and take away some lessons for other congregations hearing the call to stay on the move.  And today, we get to celebrate the fact that someone actually wanted to publish it.  The book is called Beating the Boundaries because I believe that’s what God is asking us to do – to go to the boundaries of church as we know it, and cross over into relationships with the people we find on the other side.
But we’d been hearing that call well before I went on sabbatical.  That’s what our Gather & Grow initiative is all about – following Jesus as he leads us among people in our community.  The worldly concerns of building designs and construction estimates sometimes distract us from the point of Gather & Grow.  The point is to take the next steps in a 100-year journey of connecting with people. You don’t have to be a statistician to see that fewer people go to church now than in years past.  OK, says our messiah on the move and his sore-footed apostle, Andrew.  OK.  That means we need to find ways to go to them and show them God’s love.  And that means finding new ways to “be church” for the people around us.  It means following Jesus across the street, enabling the Word to take flesh and dwell among us by engaging with people whom God brings our way.
Gather & Grow feels like a long journey, and we still have miles to go.  But that perseverance is part of our story, too.  I’ll bet guiding this church through two world wars and a Depression felt like a long journey.  I’ll bet building this worship space in 1952 felt like a long journey – one that took six years and three fundraising campaigns and still didn’t give them the building they wanted.  I’ll bet founding St. Peter’s in Red Bridge felt like a long journey.  And still, today, Jesus calls us to get out of our boats to follow him and fish for people.  Like our patron St. Andrew, we follow Jesus because that’s where our hope rests.  We may not understand every word that comes out of his mouth.  We may not know exactly where the journey is leading or how it’s supposed to look.  Sometimes, we may not be able to see much more than the world’s divisions and anxieties lying ahead of us.  We’ve been on this path for years already, and our feet may be sore.  But as Jesus passes by and says, “Follow me,” we say, “Yes, I will, with God’s help.”  So we follow him out of this nave, our congregation’s glorious boat.  And we follow him out the door, always trying to keep up with our messiah on the move.

1. The Silver Jubilee of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri. Commemorative booklet from the parish’s 25th anniversary, Oct. 9 and 10, 1938, held in St. Andrew’s archives.  Page 10.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Pledge to Witness

Sermon from Nov. 13, 2016
Luke 21:5-19; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

It’s no great insight to say that we come together this morning in an anxious time.  Maybe “fearful” is more accurate.  That certainly applies to our national life.  Now that the election is over, we’re left to figure out how to govern ourselves in a climate of anxious division.  The divides are almost too many to name – race, class, gender, educational background, national origin.  Identity politics seem to be our only politics anymore, as people fear their voices won’t be heard any other way.
But anxiety and fear slither among us in other contexts, too.  Last weekend, several of us were in Springfield for the convention of the Diocese of West Missouri, the “annual meeting” of the Episcopal congregations in the western half of this state.  This, too, will come as no surprise, but much of the conversation there had to do with money and our fears about it for the future.  Many West Missouri congregations are not growing, and several are shrinking.  In fact, 28 of the 48 congregations in West Missouri had smaller operating budgets in 2015 than in 2014.  That affects the diocese as a whole because the amount of money that congregations pay to the diocese each year is based on their operating income.  (And just to say it out loud:  All congregations, including St. Andrew’s, pay money to the diocese; only a few receive grants from the diocese – definitely not including St. Andrew’s.)  It’s a familiar story, and one guaranteed to raise anxiety:  Diocesan revenue is declining while the need for ministry only grows.  So we have to assess ministries, prioritize them, celebrate what God provides, and steward the money as faithfully as possible. 
It’s tempting for us to allow all our divisions and anxieties and fears to spill over into our life together here, in our congregation, where we live out our faith day by day, week by week.  It’s tempting to think, “We’ve never faced times as challenging as these before” and then stress about what the future will look like. 
But in times like these, we have some friends we can turn to.  One of those friends is a sense of history.  It’s easy to say that our nation has never been this divided, and that’s probably true in terms of my lifetime.  But do today’s divisions really compare with the conflict over slavery, and a Civil War, and military occupation of the South, and decades of segregation and terror against black Americans?  I don’t think so.  It’s easy to say that our Episcopal Church is on its last legs because of declining resources and our reticence to share the good news of God’s activity in our lives.  But do today’s challenges really compare with nearly being extinguished as “the king’s church” after the American Revolution, or being called to resurrect ourselves and go out in mission across a new nation?  I don’t think so.
A second friend we have in this time fear and anxiety is Scripture.  Today’s Gospel reading comes from a part of the story called the “little apocalypse,” which shows up in all three of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The part we heard today is just the first section, describing the coming destruction of the Temple.  After this, in Luke’s version, Jesus goes on to talk about the impending destruction of Jerusalem and, after that, the coming of the Son of Man to usher in the end of the age.  This kind of writing is called apocalyptic, which means to reveal something – and, for the people hearing it, to encourage them and exhort them to vigilance in their faith, even in deeply challenging times.  Encouragement and vigilance in our faith – yeah, that sounds about right for us, too.
So, in the reading this morning, Jesus not only encourages his followers and exhorts them to vigilance; he also surprises them with the claim that the world’s challenging times bring us an unexpected benefit – the opportunity to serve as witnesses.  Yes, Jesus tells his followers, you’re going to face tough times that will challenge your faith and maybe even shake your confidence in the things you’ve known.  But, he says, “this will give you the opportunity to testify … and I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:13,15).  The other reading this morning, from Second Thessalonians, picks up a similar theme, arguing that we can’t just sit on the sidelines and wait for Jesus to get on with the Second Coming; we have to get off our backsides, and attend to our work, and “not be weary in doing what is right” (3:13).  You bet life will be challenging, Jesus says – and you will rise to the challenge.  “By your endurance, you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:19).
So, in a challenging time like this, we find a third friend, one that also might come as a surprise:  our congregation’s stewardship campaign.  Yes, you heard me right, the stewardship pledge campaign is your friend.  Today, we’re concluding our stewardship season and blessing the pledges you’ve offered so far.  Pledges will continue to come in between now and the end of the year.  As they do, we’ll make a budget for 2017, giving great thanks for what you will have provided as an outward and visible sign of God’s blessings to you.  I try to live by the conviction that what God gives us is sufficient, and abundant, and extraordinarily generous – and we will receive your pledges that way.  We will give thanks for the “enough” that God provides.  So stewardship is our friend in that sense, absolutely:  It helps us see that everything we have is on loan from God; and the practice of giving back bends our hearts heavenward, helping us remember who and whose we are.
But the call to stewardship in challenging times is also our friend in another way.  The call to be a steward is the call to be a witness.  The call to steward God’s blessings is the call to testify to those blessings.  Over the past few months, you’ve heard testimony from our own cloud of witnesses.  In the Messenger, you’ve read profiles of people who change lives through their work in the community.  You’ve read about ministries here that reveal the kingdom of God among us by forming us as Christians, by serving the world’s needs, and by worshiping the God who loves us more than we can imagine.  You’ve seen little, red and green sacraments of thanksgiving, the examples of our gratitude hanging on the apple tree in the entryway.  And you’ve heard the testimony of witnesses during worship.  You heard Oliver Carnes tell you why he serves as an acolyte and helps lead younger teens in youth ministry.  You heard Jean Kiene tell you how God has called her to serve and how Outreach work changes lives as it feeds her soul.  You heard Mary Brink tell you how our four weekly worship opportunities bring us into community with God and with each other.  And today, you heard Blake Hodges testify about why he offers his time, and talent, and treasure to God at St. Andrew’s. 
Now, you have to know that Blake isn’t just someone who tells his story well.  He is part of the quartet of witnesses who have given countless hours to expanding St. Andrew’s ability to reach the people around us through the Gather & Grow initiative.  Blake and Megan Hodges, and Sean and Sarah Murray – if any of us has the right to stand up here in frustration about the roadblocks Gather & Grow has hit, and tell us we might as well just turn this place into a lovely restaurant, it’s Blake and Megan and Sean and Sarah.  But that’s not what you heard from Blake.  In a time of anxiety, after literally years of work to hear God’s voice and realize God’s call to grow our capacity for mission – in a time of one blasted challenge after another – you heard Blake proclaiming gratitude, and confidence, and hope, just as you heard from our other witnesses.  It is Jesus’ call to faithful endurance and the endurance of faith.  And that call is not easy.  It’s no coincidence that in Greek, the word for “witness” is “martyr.”  The world will not tell us we are right when we proclaim gratitude, and confidence, and hope.  It will shoot us down every time.  And still:  “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.” 
So, in the midst of all the anxiety, how is Jesus calling you to be a witness?  I believe it boils down to this:  Jesus is calling you to know, and name, and live your faith.  At a men’s group meeting last week, we tossed around this really rich question:  If a Martian came to earth, and sat down next to you, and asked you what you believe – what would you say?  How would you name what you know and feel about God?  And then comes the next question:  Given what you know and feel about God, how does your life embody it?  How are you a witness?
That’s actually what a pledge card is all about.  It helps us testify.  It helps us answer the question, “How does my life embody what I believe?”  Jesus asks us to honor God’s loving sovereignty over us by remembering it in word and deed, across the compartments of our lives, through offerings of time and talent and treasure.  Your pledge is a pledge to act.  And, more specifically, it’s a pledge to act as a witness to the truths that the world will always deny: the truth that unity conquers division, the truth that hope conquers despair, the truth that love conquers fear.  These are the divine realities the world seeks to silence.  But we must not let it be so.  We are Christ’s witnesses, so we must testify.  We must live God’s light, and live God’s love, out loud.