Sunday, January 26, 2020

Row Out With Jesus, and Fill the Boat

State-of-the-Parish Address
Luke 5:1-11
Jan. 26, 2020

Welcome to annual-meeting Sunday – a time of celebration and hope.  In fact, our annual meeting’s already begun because this sermon is the state-of-the-parish address.  You can thank me for that downstairs, when the meeting ends 18 minutes earlier than it would have otherwise.
I want to begin with the Gospel reading we just heard – Luke’s version of Jesus calling his first disciples.  Now, this story should sound familiar because, just a few months ago, it gave us the theme for our fall stewardship season, which was about discovering joy in the journey with Jesus and one another.  That season included our pledge campaign for 2020, as well as the chance to take our temperature by assessing the congregation’s spiritual vitality.  Today, we’ll hear about results from both; we’ll look at some other important indicators from 2019; and we’ll see what God has in mind for us in the months to come.  But before we do – let’s look at the story.
In addition to Jesus, the main character here is Simon, also known as Peter.  Now, this is not the first time Jesus meets Simon.  In Luke’s Gospel, Simon comes into the picture just before this reading, when Jesus comes to his house and heals his mother-in-law.  It’s a good start for a relationship, at least enough to bring us to today’s reading.  
Now, you could forgive Simon for being frustrated.  He’s just finished his fishing for the night, sitting on the bank with other guys, washing their nets, when Jesus asks him to put out into the water a little way so he can speak to the crowd on the shore.  Simon goes along, but he still has clean-up work to do before he can head home to rest after his night shift.  But then Jesus asks Simon to go out into deeper water and let down his “nets for a catch” (5:4).  Simon complains that he’s already spent hours doing just that and hasn’t caught a thing.  Trust me, Jesus says.  Well, this time, the catch of fish is so great that the nets almost break, and Simon’s partners – James and John – have to come help haul it in. 
When Simon sees this, he kneels before Jesus saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (5:8).  I could see myself saying something like that.  Maybe that’s what many of us think when we hear someone stand up and talk about how much God loves us, and wants to be with us, and wants to come alongside us on our journey:  “Yeah, right.  If you really knew me, you’d know God would never spend time on my boat.”  That’s what Simon Peter is thinking, but Jesus tells him otherwise.  I don’t just want a ride in your boat, Simon.  I want your heart and your head and your hands.  I want you.  In fact, Jesus tells him, upping the ante, “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people” (5:10).  And Simon, James, and John leave everything to follow him.
What’s the key here?  Well, even though Simon knows how to do his work – he’s a professional fisherman – things just aren’t panning out for him.  But then Jesus comes into his boat, uninvited even, and asks Simon to head out again, taking him along.  And with Jesus as his partner on the journey, everything is different.  Simon can’t explain it; he can’t even haul in the bounty Jesus brings him.  But even more, he’s wrestling with the bigger question:  Why me?  Simon’s sure he’s not good enough, that Jesus has no business being in the boat with a sinful guy like him.  But Jesus says, not only do I belong in your boat, alongside you, I’ll empower you to bring others in, too.  We’re going to help people see that God’s actually the one in charge, that God’s reign and rule is the true power in our lives.  Come on, Jesus says to Simon, and see for yourself just how powerful that good news really is.
It’s traveling with Jesus that makes all the difference.
For us at St. Andrew’s, traveling with Jesus has brought us to a good place as we begin 2020.  More people are hearing God’s Word and receiving the sacraments; our Sunday attendance is up 11 percent from a year ago – and, I would bet, so is Coffee Hour, which one Vestry member described as “must-see TV.”  To some degree, the increase in attendance is about more people being in this room on Sunday mornings, but it’s also about five other factors: people watching the livestream at home (a number we can count), people coming to Java & Jesus across the street, people coming to our Third Sunday worship events, people coming to Evensong the first Sunday of the month, and more families with children coming to church.  Anymore, on a given Sunday, we have about 40 kids and volunteers in the nursery and children’s chapel, and that is a tremendous blessing. 
We also see participation in kids’ and youth ministry increasing generally (not just on Sunday mornings), with kids’ participation up by 40 percent and youth participation up by 18 percent.  Just as heartening, and a foretaste of things to come, is participation in adult classes, discussion groups, and Bible studies.  That’s increased 30 percent in the past year.  More on that trend in a minute.
In terms of the stewardship season, we also saw great progress in our journey last year.  We asked you to increase pledging by 10 percent, a big ask, to continue our ministry of engaging with people and to meet our rising facility costs.  And you did, with 159 households increasing their pledges.  We asked you to consider pledging if you’re someone who hadn’t been doing that.  And you did, with 62 households making new pledges.  We asked our younger adults especially to consider pledging.  And a number did, with pledges from people under 45 doubling.  We asked you to increase your pledge so we could decrease our reliance on special gifts to fund staff positions.  And you did, allowing us not to spend almost $100,000 this year from the Gather & Grow account and other special donations.  We asked you to consider a Christmas gift to replace the sidewalks and parking lot.  And you did, enabling us to begin that work early this summer.  You’ll hear more about the budget downstairs, but – with that kind of commitment, we can fund our engagement ministry fully, and address our facility needs, and increase our outreach giving from the operating budget to $55,000 this year.  For all of that, I truly thank you.
And … all this is a good start.  We have a lot more distance to travel in balancing the demographics of our congregation and our giving.  People 70 and over make up about a quarter of the St. Andrew’s family, and they provide more than half of our financial support.  Now, I took the non-math option in seminary, but even I know that’s not going to work for the long term.  Those are imbalances we’ve begun to address … but only just begun to address.
The other component of our stewardship season was the inventory we took this fall, RenewalWorks, to help us build our spiritual vitality.  Lora Kokjer and I have more to share about this downstairs, and the Vestry will be spending time with the results at its retreat next weekend.  But at a high level, I can tell you this:  St. Andrew’s came out very positively compared with the baseline of Episcopal congregations.  We saw strength in how deeply people feel involved, how positively people regard worship and other activities, how people see the church’s ministries empowering them to grow and serve, and how people view their leaders as spiritually authentic.  We also saw opportunities for improvement in areas that make a priest’s heart glad.  We now have data to prove that you want to learn more about the Bible.  You want to understand our core beliefs.  You want to build your spiritual practice.  You want to go deeper in your journey with Christ.  That’s about the best news I could have asked to hear from the RenewalWorks study.
So – where do we go from here?  Well, go back to today’s Gospel, because we heard it there.  Our call is this:  Row out with Jesus, and fill the boat.
What does that look like?  Well, let me share one of the most important and far-reaching recommendations that the RenewalWorks team is making to the Vestry.  It’s pretty radical, so get ready.  That core recommendation is that we be intentional about bringing the Bible and prayer into meetings and activities here – even when no ordained person is in the room.  Yes, shocking though it may be, we’re recommending that, in our groups and gatherings, we read some Scripture and we pray.  Perhaps your reaction is, “Duh….” 
But I think it represents an important cultural shift.  We all know this family of St. Andrew’s is not the same as a civic group, like the Rotary Club.  We aren’t the same as a secular nonprofit, like our outreach partners in the community.  We might share common values and goals.  But we are the Church, the body of Jesus Christ in this particular place and time.  We are his disciples – rowing out onto the water with him, walking alongside him in our journeys.  Finding simple, authentic, unobtrusive ways to embed the Bible in our life together and to pray – that helps us remember who we are and why we’re here.
Here's another way to row out with Jesus, another recommendation from the RenewalWorks team: We need to create a St. Andrew’s Discipleship Curriculum.  You’ve made it clear that you want to learn more about the Bible, and our core beliefs, and our Episcopal identity.  You want to know how to pray, and you want spiritual resources from people you trust to help you connect with God and go deeper.  Bottom line: You want to own your faith.  That’s good stuff, and we’ll be working this year to create a roadmap for the journey to get you there – from exploring a life with God in Christ, to growing that life, to deepening that life, to centering your life in that relationship.
When we own our faith, we can tell our stories – the stories of our church family and the stories of our hearts.  When we know God’s deep desire to walk with us forever; and when we come alongside God in prayer and worship – that equips us to open our hearts and tell this story we’ve come to know, this story of Jesus making the journey with us. 
That’s the key to the second part of the plan for 2020, which is filling the boat – not with fish, not with a resource for us to use; but with people who are searching for the same kind of relationship we’re searching for.  St. Andrew’s has become a truly welcoming family.  Not that that work is done at all, but our focus now has to be on the other two steps of filling the boat, which are inviting people and connecting them into this family’s life – asking someone to a backpack blessing, or a service project, or a gathering around the firepit at HJ’s.  That someone may be a friend who has no church, or it may be someone already here at St. Andrew’s who’s trying to find where she fits in.  But in either case, the invitation – the engagement – makes all the difference.  For you are a conduit of blessing for that beloved child of God.  The journey from exploring to growing to deepening to centering in a relationship with God – that journey empowers us to bring others along.
And to help us bring others along, I believe the time has come to create a new worship opportunity, one to which we can invite people who aren’t likely to check out our traditional 8:00 or 10:15 offerings.  It’s been a good and instructive journey for us over the past few years – from Take 5, to Ascend, to Java & Jesus, to our Third Sunday offerings, each one helping us learn what an authentic fresh expression of worship might look like at St. Andrew’s.  So, now, here’s what we’re planning: a live service at HJ’s, alongside the existing 10:15 service, with Java & Jesus happening in the Jewell Room.  We’ll design that new service at HJ’s to reach people we wouldn’t reach with our other offerings, people looking for a more casual and intimate atmosphere, with music more like what they’d hear in a bar than what they’d hear on an organ – more prayer and praise, less formal liturgy.  Now, it’s important to say:  This is not a new flavor for us eight o’clockers and ten-fifteeners to try.  It’s actually not for us.  It’s worship for people who aren’t here, the people we’re called to bring into the boat.  You’ll hear more in the weeks ahead, but the first service at HJ’s will be Easter morning.  Please, and I mean this sincerely, keep this undertaking in your prayers.
We have such rich potential for growth in the year ahead – growth in so many ways.  Some of that will demand a lot from us, especially creating a new worship opportunity and continuing to make pledging a standard of being part of this church family.  But the most important growth begins more easily.  We can come alongside Jesus with just a few simple steps toward the boat, where he’s already waiting.  I said this a few weeks ago, and I’ll say it again.  Beginning, or renewing, a journey with Jesus Christ really just asks this much of us:  Read the Bible.  Say your prayers.  Come to worship.  Then, building from there, you’ll find the power to cast out your own net, the power to offer an invitation when the time is right.  And when you do, I can’t wait to see who God brings into the boat next.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Resolve This

Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, transferred
Jan. 5, 2020
Matthew 2:1-12

You know, there are so many things about this church family for which I’m grateful, and among them are those three kings.  I just love them.  I guess more precisely, I just love the hands and hearts that created those kings for us.  Their names are in the bulletin this morning, the team that, last year, brought these new kings to life.  It’s amazing to see what God does with the talent God creates – and it’s just as amazing to see how many people are blessed by it.  The first set of kings here lasted 20 years and blessed thousands of people who came to see them.  These three will certainly bless thousands more.
Seeing these works of art makes me wonder about the kings themselves – these guys who trekked across distant lands to find the true King signaled by a star.  We call them “the three kings,” but the Gospel story tells us they were “wise men.”  The Greek word is magi, taken from the Persian name of a class of priests and astrologers.  So, they weren’t kings themselves but proto-scientists serving kings – the members of the Royal Society of their day.  To our modern, bifurcated minds, they were the people we’d least expect to be looking for the messiah, guys who today would be spending the night at the telescope, searching for quarks and black holes.  But back in the day, people could hold more gently side by side the search for God and the wonder of natural observation.
Anyway, we’re told these magi came looking for the one born to be king of the Jewish people, Yahweh’s people.  Their plans are almost foiled by King Herod, the Jewish anti-messiah, the little man playing with power like a spoiled child.  Herod cozies up to the magi trying to protect his position and planning to kill the child they find.  Thankfully, the magi listen to God speaking in their dreams instead, and they go home by another way.
But before they do, the story tells us, they play the role for which we remember them.  As we just heard in that great Epiphany carol,1 they bring Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Now, these gifts each have meaning, as the song tells us.  But let’s hit the pause button a minute and wonder:  Do you think the magi knew the deep, theological meaning of the gifts they brought?  Those gifts were all valuable commodities back in the day, riches from the royal palaces where they served.  But do you think the magi knew the future?  Could they see what was coming?  Or was God using their story to help tell a story bigger than their own?
Anyway, the gifts they brought tell Jesus’ story.  First, the magi brought gold, truly the gift fit for a king, symbolizing earthly power and majesty.  This is the gift you might expect for a baby born to be a king. 
They also brought frankincense.  It is what it sounds like – incense.  Now, this gift’s not so obvious for royalty, but it had deep meaning for this king, God’s own king anointed to rule God’s own people.  For centuries, the kings of Israel were seen not merely as political authorities but as God’s viceroys, stand-ins for the true king, Yahweh.  In fact, at coronation, the king of Israel officially became the son of God, as the psalms say – Yahweh’s adopted child and ruler on earth (e.g., 2:7; 89:26-27).  To honor that, incense would be offered, just as it was offered in Temple worship and just as we offer it here – fragrant smoke rising both to delight the deity and to carry the prayers of the people heavenward.  So, frankincense honors not just a king but a god – or, in Jesus’ case, both king and God.
And then there’s myrrh.  Again, there’s a huge double meaning here.  The kings of Israel were anointed with this fragrant resin in oil as a symbol of their royal authority, being set aside not just in power but in holiness.  But myrrh was also used to embalm bodies for burial, practically coping with the smell and symbolically setting the person aside for a holy journey into the afterlife.  It’s no accident that it’s myrrh that’s used to anoint Jesus’ body once he’s taken down from the cross (John 19:39).  So, as the song says, this little child is “king, and God, and sacrifice” for us.
But back to the question:  How much of all this did the magi know?  I suppose there’s some comfort in thinking they got the full picture up front, maybe seeing visions of Jesus’ miracles, his crucifixion, and Easter morning.  That could be.  But each of their gifts also made sense as a token of fealty for merely a new king of the Jewish people.  So, what if the magi were living into the story as they went, beginning a journey they’d be making for the rest of their lives?  What if they were giving the best they had to offer in the moment, living as faithfully as they knew how to live, right then and there?
In other words, what if they were like us – doing the best they could with the life they had?
As most of you know, we’ve had a tough couple of weeks around here.  Alongside the joy of Christmas has come nine funerals between Dec. 19 and yesterday.  We’ve bidden farewell to these children of God: Robert Helmstetter, Bryant Barnes, Bill Meeker, Sid McKnight Jr., a child of Cate and Stephen Duerst lost during pregnancy, Todd Johnson, Harry Jordan, Becky Benson, and Louise Schloerb.  In the nine funerals celebrating these lives, we’ve noted their unique stories, the ways each not just brought joy to the people around them but changed people’s lives as they revealed God’s love in ways large and small. 
And I wonder:  How much of the narrative of their funerals would have been news to the people whose lives we were celebrating?  I really hope that, when we die, we get the chance to listen in to our funerals, either in person or through some cosmic livestream.  I really hope we get the chance to hear how people remember us, the difference we ended up making, the ways we brought love to others.  Because my hunch is that none of the people I just listed would have recognized the huge difference they were making as they just did the best they could in life as it unfolded.  So, I hope they got to hear not just the remembrances and homilies but the conversations at the receptions afterward.  Because, as these people gave the best they had to offer in the moment, they were revealing God in the world, putting flesh and bones on God’s love – even though they likely had no idea, most of the time, just how much their lives mattered.
So, what about you? 
It seems to me there are at least a couple of important questions for each of us here.  First: How do you think you’ll be remembered at your funeral?  It might be worth some assessment, as we begin a new year with resolutions about making fresh starts.  I would encourage you to be lovingly honest with yourself in asking and answering that question: How do you think you’ll be remembered at your funeral?  Just as some of us maybe think a little more highly of ourselves than we ought, many of us err the other way, blind to the blessings we are to those around us.  If you take a lovingly honest look in the mirror this new year and see that you’ve been a little too pleased with yourself, fair enough.  But take just as long a look to see how you, yourself, are an agent of God’s love – how you, yourself, give people a window into heaven. 
Here’s the thing.  If all these funerals have shown us nothing else, they’ve made clear that every life matters – including yours.  Your existence points to realities way beyond the mornings when you’ve measured out your life with coffee spoons.2  Every day, as you give the best you have to offer in the moment, God uses your own life to make divine love real and change the world.
So, now you might expect a grand call to action: Go out and save the planet, or reform our politics, or end poverty, or stop gun violence.  Now, if you can see a way to do any of those things, by all means, go get busy.  But for the rest of us, here’s both a lesser and a greater call.  In this new year, amid your resolutions to exercise and eat better, resolve this:  Read the Bible.  Say your prayers.  Come to worship.  Forming your heart for good is really no harder than that.  We’ve even got a great way to start – taking part in the Good Book Club, a chance to read the Gospel of John as a congregation over the next couple of months.  But the point isn’t checking a box on your list of resolutions.  The point is forming your heart to make your life a blessing to the people you touch.  So, I’ll say it again, because it’s simple enough to remember:  Read the Bible.  Say your prayers.  Come to worship.
Maybe that seems like a cop-out in a world of problems, but I don’t think so.  In fact, I think it’s God’s solution to a world of problems.  God came into this world as one person.  God touched the hearts of individual magi and fishermen, merchants and tax collectors, asking each one of them to live differently, to love more, and to share what they found with others.  Your life matters just as much as theirs because God uses us – uses you – to put flesh and bones on love.  And your capacity to love grows with every choice you make, every action you take, to form your heart more and more like Jesus’ heart. 
So, in this new year, make the time to read the Bible, say your prayers, and come to worship.  Follow the star – and just see what happens next.

1.      Hopkins, John Henry Jr.  “We three kings of Orient are.”  The Hymnal 1982, 128.
2.      Eliot., T.S.  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock.  Accessed Jan. 3, 2020.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Merry Christmas, Chuck

Christmas Eve 2019
Luke 2:1-14

Like many of you, when our kids were little, Ann and I found ourselves trying to explain to them, at Christmastime, what all the hubbub was about.  Family gatherings and candles and presents – it all feels like a giant birthday party, right?  And so it is, we’d say to our kids: Christmas is our birthday party for Jesus.  It’s not a bad explanation for a little kid.  Maybe not so bad an explanation for the rest of us, either, given our perennial need to remember what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
But, of course, the best answers usually lead to even better questions.  We’re celebrating the birthday of Jesus the Messiah, which means God’s anointed king.  So, if Jesus is the King, why did he end up crucified as a traitor?  If Jesus is the King, why’s the world in the state it’s in?  If Jesus is the King, where is he now, when we need him most?  The kids don’t ask that when they’re 4 or 5, but they do eventually.  And so do the rest of us, right?
And even before all those good questions, another one comes first: What the heck was God thinking, making an entrance into the world the way we just heard in that famous Christmas story?  We’ve heard it so many times, from Linus and in church, that it’s probably lost its punch.  But if you try to hear it with fresh ears, the story’s just crazy.  We would claim that the baby in this story is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity … so, actually, fully God.  Fully God … that’s whose screaming in the dirty straw, in the animal’s feedbox, in the middle of the night.  And to proclaim the coming of God into the world, a divine messenger appears in the night to a bunch of guys working in a field, telling them, of all people, about this “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).  To the nobodies on the nightshift, God has come as Savior and King.
Of all the ways God might have chosen to intervene in human life – to restore the broken bond between us and our Creator, to heal people’s hearts and make us one – to do all that, God chose the path of most resistance.  God chose salvation from the bottom up.  God chose to get picked on by the bigger kids on the playground.  God grew up in a household where the father struggled to earn a living and feed his family.  God learned a manual trade and went to work whether he liked it or not.  God lived under an oppressive foreign empire that existed to take resources away from regular folks.  God came to know, firsthand, just how hard human life is – the consequences of our choices to turn away from God and from each other.  That’s good news of great joy for all people?  Yes, it is – because God still walks through it alongside us, leading us into a contrast reality, a kingdom of love that heals.
So, let’s think about those other great questions in the hearts of kids of all ages – the questions that seem too tough to ask out loud on a night like this, for fear of spoiling the holiday fun. 
If Jesus is the King, why did he end up crucified as a traitor?  For me, the short answer is this: Because, God says, I’m willing to let you do your worst and still give you life that lasts forever.  That’s how much I love you.
Well, if Jesus is the King, why’s the world in the state it’s in?  For me, the short answer is this: Because, God says, I’m willing to let you make your own mistakes.  For love can’t be demanded; it must be chosen.  And you can’t choose love without the chance to choose against it.
Well, if Jesus is the King, where the heck is he now, when we need him most?  For me, the short answer is this: Because, God says, salvation’s only just begun.  Jesus will walk with you through everything you face, if you invite him along.  The Holy Spirit will mend your broken heart, if you open it wide enough to be healed.  Eternal life is yours for the asking now, in this world and in the paradise that follows it.  But, God says, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Hang on for act three, in the fullness of time, when our current mopping-up campaign is over and Jesus returns, love uniting earth and heaven forever.
OK, but still:  Where’s Jesus right now?  As we throw this wonderful birthday party, where’s the guest of honor? 
I want to tell you a story.  Like the best stories, it’s one now making its rounds.  I heard it at last week’s meeting of our Vestry, our church’s governing board.  At the end of our monthly meetings, we take time for something that appears on the agenda as “Catching Jesus in the Act.”  We tell stories of how we’ve seen God at work in the world and in our own lives.  We don’t call it “examples of the doctrine of the Incarnation” … but that’s what it is. 
So, at the Vestry meeting last week, Deacon Bruce Bower told a story about something that happened as St. Andrew’s volunteers served at the pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Westport.  St. Paul’s Pantry is one of our outreach partners.  Three times a week, hundreds of individuals and families come to the pantry to get food and personal items they can’t afford otherwise; and volunteers are there to serve them.  Those volunteers include St. Andrew’s folks the second Wednesday of the month.
Well, on this night, one of the guys who came to the pantry was someone most of the volunteers recognized – a regular named Chuck.  He’s disabled, he uses a crutch, and he never says much of anything.  In fact, he’s kind of withdrawn and doesn’t make much eye contact … and he’s picky about what he wants in his grocery bag.  That’s because he can’t let his bag get too heavy, given that he’s walking with a crutch and lives a long way away. 
So, Chuck came to the toiletries station, and dear Priscilla Long tried to engage him: She asked, “Do you need any shampoo for your beautiful curly hair?”  Someone else asked if he’d like frozen ham, or turkey, or chicken, or pork to take home.  As always, Chuck had little to say, just mumbling a few things here and there.
But, amid the mumbling, one of the volunteers heard him say something significant – that he was an orphan and that today was his birthday.  Priscilla picked up on it and announced the special day to everyone there: “Today is Chuck’s birthday – let’s sing!”  And the pantry erupted in song.  The look on Chuck’s face was priceless as a shy smile grew.  Bruce Long, Priscilla’s husband, said to the person working with him, “I wish I’d had my camera ready.”  His coworker asked why, and Bruce said, “Chuck’s been coming here for years, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen him smile.”  And as it turned out, this was also the first time anyone had ever sung him “Happy Birthday.”  And as pantry volunteers left not long after, they saw the guest of honor waiting for his bus and called out, “Happy Birthday, Chuck!  See you next time, Chuck!  Merry Christmas, Chuck!”
Now, I suppose you could see this as a random interaction among a bunch of good-hearted church folks trying to make a dent in hunger in our city.  Or, you could see it as catching Jesus in the act. 
But even with that, even recognizing that Jesus was at the pantry that night, we could see him a couple of ways.  We might see the volunteers as Jesus – putting flesh and bones on his loving heart in our own time and place, respecting the dignity of people who often become invisible to the culture around them.  And that would certainly be right, seeing Jesus at work in our world through us. 
But, of course, it’s also true to see those roles reversed.  Remember Jesus’ instruction to his followers – to us – as he neared the end of his earthly ministry.  When the King comes in his glory at the end of the age, Jesus told his followers, he’ll set some people at his right hand and some at his left, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32)  You probably know the story.  The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you gave me food.  I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.  I was sick, and you took care of me.  I was in prison, and you visited me.…  Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family” – just as you did it to Chuck – “you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36,40)  
So tonight, at Jesus’ birthday party, remember: This is no abstraction we’re celebrating.  The guest of honor is here.  Jesus is here in the hearts of you lovely people in this room.  He’s here in the struggles we each face, day after day, week after week.  He’s here in the rancor of our politics.  He’s here in the cries of the poor.  He’s here in the kids who don’t have enough to eat or a safe place to grow up.  He’s here in the young adults who make a mistake and find there’s no way to come back from it.  He’s here in the heads and hands and hearts of everyone who tries to bridge a gap and make a difference for good.  And he’s here in the face of Chuck, the man whose smile we finally got to see.
As the old carol says, “Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”  For Jesus the King is here, now, in “the least” of his brothers and sisters.  And Jesus the King will return, God’s own Love coming in power and glory to unite heaven and earth forever.  Blessed are we whom the King will find ready when he comes.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Blessing in the Darkness

Sermon for Dec. 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

It’s almost Christmas, so that means we’re supposed to be merry and bright.  Right?  But for many of us, this is a tough time of year.  If you look at WebMD or the Mayo Clinic’s website, you find resources specifically to help people cope with holiday stress and depression because it’s an actual public-health concern.  
That stress and pain can come from the intensity of our schedules, our expectations of ourselves, and our expectations of others – the folks we can’t change but sure want to.  It can also come from having lost someone you love, or having lost a relationship, or struggling with depression generally.  It can be hard to keep on smiling through what’s supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” even for those of us quite talented at proclaiming, in the midst of our struggles, “It’s all good!”  Well, sometimes it’s not.
Anyway, we all know life can be tough and that the holidays don’t necessarily help.  Maybe more surprising is what we heard in today’s Gospel reading – that life became tough enough even to shake the faith of John the Baptist.  Just last Sunday, we heard John in all his prophetic certainty, railing against the Romans and the Jewish religious leaders, calling them to recognize the presence of God’s true king, to practice justice, and to get ready for the judgment to come.  This morning, eight chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, we find John languishing in King Herod’s prison with no hope of justice for himself.  John’s in prison because Herod’s afraid.  Herod has his ear to the ground, and he hears the rumbling of a coming rebellion.  Herod’s one job, as Caesar’s functionary in Palestine, is to keep the peace; so, he throws John in prison.  We don’t know how long John’s been there at this point, but it must have been quite a while. 
Why?  Because we hear John say the last thing we’d expect from the one who was announcing the coming of the Messiah last week.  From prison, he sends his friends to ask Jesus, “Are you [really] the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).  So much for prophetic certainty.  Whatever has happened to John in prison, his spirit is broken.  At this point, he’s not sure whether Jesus is the king or not.  
So, if you’re feeling a little less than merry and bright this time of year, don’t feel badly because you’re in good company.  Even for John the Baptist, the curtains of darkness were closing over hope. 
But here’s the thing.  We can’t let fear and sorrow have the last word. 
Go back to the Old Testament reading this morning.  Last week, the reading from Isaiah was from the time of the defeat of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, when the once-great empire of David and Solomon had been cut to a stump.  Today, the Isaiah reading comes from a few decades later, from the period of the exile in Babylon, when God’s people were languishing in a foreign land and aching to come home. 
In that time of desperation, when the people must have thought God had abandoned them, the prophet offered hope once again:  “Here is your God…,” Isaiah says, “he will come and save you” (35:4).  God will bring the people home by a road opened across the desert, a way made straight through the trackless wastes of what’s now Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.  No one in his right mind would travel there on foot.  But don’t worry, the prophet says, because waters will spring up in that desert, and you won’t die of thirst along the way.  The wild beasts won’t harm you, “but the redeemed will walk there,” those whom God has liberated from the despair of exile (35:9).  And in the power of that liberation, the prophet says, God will heal the spiritual disabilities of the exiled people:  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (35:5-6)  The people of Israel sit in captivity in Babylon, asking God, “Are you really going to come and save us?  And God says, “Despite what you see – yes.  I am your deliverer.  I am your healer.  I am your king.  Just watch.”
Jesus picks up the same refrain with the followers of John the Baptist.  When they ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” Jesus says, look around.  “Go and tell John [the Baptist] what you see and hear” (Matthew 11:4). 
And what would that be?  Well, for the last seven chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been curing all kinds of diseases, teaching huge crowds, performing miracles, and giving his followers the power to heal, and cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God at hand … despite the persecutions this work brings.  So, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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 preached to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5)  Yes, he says.  Despite what you see –  despite persecution, despite John rotting in prison, despite the cost that will come to Jesus himself – yes, he says.  I am your deliverer.  I am your healer.  I am your king.  Just watch.  And, don’t let fear have the last word.
Of course, that’s hard to pull off in the world we know, from our national life to our personal lives.  There’s plenty that keeps us up a night.  The news tells us that not only do our leaders seem unable to work together, they don’t even seem to be living on the same planet.  Even in a strong economy, millions of people struggle to feed their kids or risk losing their homes.  Illnesses afflict us; and death comes knocking, even at Christmastime.  
But in our all-too-real strife, Jesus says, choose what you’ll pay attention to, for God is at work even in the hardest times.  Let me share a couple of examples.
As you know, parishioner Bill Meeker died a couple of weeks ago with no warning, a day after coming here for worship.  In a sense, going suddenly is a great way to go; but on the other hand, it doesn’t leave time to tie up loose ends.  And I’m not telling any secrets in saying that Bill could be a challenging person to relate with.  But I have been struck, in the past couple of weeks, at the number of people who’ve said something along the lines of, “You know, I’d just had a great conversation with him” or “We were really making progress” or “We’d finally been able to clear the air.”  That’s blessing, even in the darkness.
Here’s another.  I know a family struggling with grave illness.  Death will come soon, and they know it.  But in the midst of trying to make peace with that, the person who’s sick was focused on being sure a message of thankfulness got to his friends, letting them each know how important they’d been to him.  That’s blessing, even in the darkness.
Here’s another.  I know someone struggling with the prospect of losing his home.  He’s been fighting to keep it, but the odds aren’t good.  Yet in that drama, he noticed that someone on the other side of the legal issue had actually taken a step in his interest, trying to give him every chance to resolve the issue favorably.  That’s blessing, even in the darkness.
And here’s another.  I can predict something that will happen this Saturday, when we offer the Free Store at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral.  There, hundreds of people will be served Christmas dinner, and then they’ll have the chance to shop from a variety of coats, hats, boots, and gloves to help them stay warm this winter.  And I can tell you how several of those conversations will go.  People from St. Andrew’s will be sitting at tables with them during lunch, or helping them shop through the Free Store afterward.  And we’ll ask guests this question: “How are you doing?”  And I guarantee that we will hear this response:  “I am blessed.”  I am blessed.  Even in poverty.  Even in the darkness.
A big part of getting ready for the coming of our Savior and King is deciding what we’ll hear and see.  So, look for the thirsty ground that God is watering to bring you out of spiritual exile.  Pay attention to what you learn from reporters of hope, rather than those who profit from driving us further apart in fear.  Seek the healing presence of people around you in those moments when life brings you pain. 
And then, be that reporter of Good News yourself.  As Jesus says to John’s followers, go and tell others what you’ve heard and seen.  The blind receive their sight.  The lame walk.  The lepers are cleansed.  The deaf hear.  The dead are raised.  And those who are poor, in so many senses, have good news brought to them.  Yes, we find ourselves in exile sometimes.  But death doesn’t get the last word.  For “the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come [home] with singing … and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).


Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Kingdom at Hand

Sermon for Dec. 8, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7,18-19; Matthew 3:1-12

Well, that’s quite a Gospel reading!  Here we are, sending cards and decorating trees and buying presents; and here comes John the Baptist, wearing animal skins and eating locusts, crashing our pre-Christmas party.  Prophets are good at that, coming onto the scene with just what folks don’t want to hear.  And, of course, that puts me in the role of standing up here, two and a half weeks from Christmas, and talking about fire and wrath and repentance.  Just call me Fr. Buzz-Kill.  
Well, I want to start this morning with a little history.  If you aren’t a fan of history, hang in there because we’ll then move to a little prophetic witness.  And if you aren’t a fan of prophetic witness, still hang in there because all this will come down to you, in the end.
So, here’s the history:  That first reading we heard, from the prophet Isaiah, comes from the time of the Syro-Ephraimite War in the 730s BCE.  That little-remembered conflict may not mean much to us, but for the people of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, it meant a lot.  Here’s the short version:  Israel and another tiny kingdom decided to ally against the major power of the day, Assyria.  They tried to get the Kingdom of Judah to come along, but Judah declined to kick the Assyrian bear.  In the end, none of the small kingdoms made out well.   Israel was taken over by the Assyrians, who began deporting the conquered people.  Judah, and its capital of Jerusalem, turned into a vassal of Assyria, losing its autonomy.  So, when Isaiah writes about the “stump of Jesse,” he’s acknowledging that the Kingdom of Judah has become next to nothing, just a stump, compared with the glory days of kings David and Solomon. 
But even in this sad situation, Isaiah says, don’t lose hope.  From that stump will spring new growth, a green shoot no one expects from dead wood.  A descendant of King David will arise, and he’ll reign like David, only more so: bringing God’s rule to the people once again, governing with righteousness, bringing justice to poor and powerless people – in fact, ruling so faithfully that God’s peaceable kingdom will arise, the paradise of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the young goat, and a little child leading them all.
OK, here’s some more history.  Fast-forward 700 years, and we find ourselves out in the desert wilderness, near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea.  The Jewish people are still waiting for their faithful king to arise, and the waiting has only gotten harder over the centuries.  At this moment, the Romans are the imperial oppressors du jour, and the people are yearning for freedom and justice and empowerment more than ever.  
Into that world, God raises up our Christmas-party crasher, John the Baptist.  John goes out into the deadest place you can picture and proclaims hope – that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).  Matthew identifies John as the prophet expected for centuries, returning to get people ready for the coming of God’s king, even wearing clothes that harken back to stories about the prophet Elijah.  John and his message are attracting quite a following, with crowds coming out from Jerusalem to hear him rail against their oppressors and to purify themselves through baptism, to make themselves worthy of God’s intervention on their behalf. 
But John isn’t content with haranguing the Romans; he broadens the indictment to include some of the folks in the crowd.  He sees “many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” and he calls them out:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt 3:7).  Now, it helps to know who those folks were.  The Pharisees were legal rigorists, calling people to apply the law of Moses strictly to daily life while missing the point of relationship with God that the law was intended to nurture.  The Sadducees were powerful, aristocratic priests, concerned primarily with position and authority.  Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the religiously privileged and powerful, fighting with each other while failing to lead regular people to love God and others, thereby bringing God’s kingdom to life. 
So, to these privileged and powerful religious leaders, John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:8) and then come back and see me about baptism.  You’ve got bigger trouble ahead than me calling you out in public, John says.  Someone’s coming who will indeed baptize you –purify you – but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He’s coming to separate the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, and guess where you folks in charge will fall?  Good luck, coming out here and going through the motions, John says, because “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12).
John the Baptist, and the prophet Isaiah, and our psalm this morning all call us to righteousness and justice and repentance.  So, it’d be good to understand what these concepts mean on the ground, in our day-to-day lives, because we may not all hear these churchy words the same way. 
For example:  We might hear “righteousness” as being about personal holiness – doing good things and not doing bad things.  But God’s intent is deeper, because righteousness is the orientation of our hearts.  Righteousness means being in right relationship with God – giving God praise and glory, following God’s heart of love, living out the dictum that God is God and we are not. 
Similarly, we might hear “justice” as being about the proper functioning of legal systems.  But God’s intent is deeper, because justice is the outcome of righteousness in the world around us.  As we note in our Baptismal Covenant, justice means honoring the inherent dignity of every human being – sharing opportunity with the poor, hearing the powerless, giving challenging people the respect and love we’d want for ourselves.  
Similarly, we might hear the call to “repent” as a call to be sorry for things we’ve done and left undone.  But God’s intent is deeper, because repentance is the choice to reorient our way, to choose a new and Christlike path, to turn toward righteousness so that justice will roll down from it like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
So, there’s your bit of history and your prophetic call.  I appreciate you hanging in there, because now the rubber meets the road.  Ultimately, neither John the Baptist nor Jesus Christ came to clarify concepts for us.  They came to offer us a choice.  This prophet, and our Savior, each came proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2, 4:17).  Now, that’s not exactly news.  Preachers calling for repentance is not groundbreaking stuff.  But here is some news, and it is good:  Your repentance, your choosing to turn toward righteousness and justice – this isn’t just your personal ticket out of unquenchable fire, though it is that, too.  It’s also where your life finds its meaning.
Let me give you an example, a story we celebrated just last Sunday.  In the Jewell Room after the 10:15 service, we honored the 100th birthday of parishioner Jean Dooley Peterson.  Most of us probably know her as Ann Hyde’s mother, and the two of them sit up here near the front at 10:15.  What you may not know is that Jean Peterson earned a doctorate in psychotherapy and religion, and she worked for years as a family therapist, improving people’s lives and honoring their inherent dignity at every turn.  Several years ago, she decided she wanted to be confirmed, and I got to know her in that process. 
Now, at about the same time, Jean was the first person at St. Andrew’s to challenge us to provide hot lunches to the 150 or so students at our partner school in Maniche, Haiti.  Jean saw the connection between full bellies and minds ready to learn, so she sponsored lunch at the school one day a week.  And that support went on, year after year.
Fast-forward 12 years, and the school has grown to more than 400 students.  As we heard from Kathy Shaffer last Sunday, it’s still open and forming young minds even in the midst of Haiti’s worst political and economic crisis in decades.  And as she turns 100, once again Dr. Jean Peterson has renewed her gift in support of the lunch program at St. Augustin’s School.  Years ago, she made a choice to turn her heart and her life Christ-ward.  In her faithfulness, she became an agent of God’s justice, respecting the dignity of those children by opening doors of opportunity for their futures.  After 12 years, she’s been responsible for more than 75,000 lunches served at our partner school.  Through her witness, the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Of course, the truly amazing thing is that Jean’s story is just one of hundreds in this room.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near through lives of prayer for the well-being of others.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by mentoring children at local schools.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by creating living-wage jobs that lift people out of poverty.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by hiring or renting to people others might write off.  Those choices do not go unnoticed by the One with the winnowing fork in his hand.
Now, I imagine that, for most of us on any given day, we may not feel like we’re particularly vital parts of God’s work of salvation.  In fact, on our more challenging days, we may doubt the holy value of what we have to offer.  But here’s the surprising truth:  God brought the shoot of new life, Jesus the righteous King, out of what seemed the dead stump of the house of King David.  God brings the hope of divine justice to people oppressed by one imperial power after another.  God calls us to turn our hearts and our lives toward righteousness and justice, committing ourselves to follow this king and bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Our stories can mean so much more than we think.  Our choice for repentance and righteousness and justice can change the world, one person at a time. 
And the time to make that choice is now, as we see the Lord coming toward us this Advent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Making Christ's Body Whole

Sermon for Sunday, Nov. 17
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

In the announcements over the past few weeks, you may have noticed a new request about those blue and white cards in the pew racks.  In addition to asking you to share your prayer requests and pastoral concerns, we’re asking you to let us know who’s missing.  I have to admit that I am terrible at noticing who is and isn’t here on a given Sunday.  I have some gifts and skills, but that is not one of them.  So, on those prayer cards, we’re asking you to share who you’ve been missing, so we can check in and follow up.
That’s important because it helps us do better pastoral care, but it also illustrates a theological truth: that the body isn’t whole without each of us.  As the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, just as each of us has a body that “is one and has many members” – hands and feet and eyes and ears – “so it is with Christ. …  You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor 12:1,27).  We, together, make up Christ’s body in this congregation and Christ’s body sent into the world, equipped with the gifts God specifically wants to share with this world God loves, all those gifts empowered by the same Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:11). 
The young man you just heard from, Brandon Kirmer, is a case study.  Without Brandon – without his presence with us these 18 years, without his ability to play a mean tenor sax, without his work as an Eagle Scout, without his service as an acolyte, without his presence in youth ministry, without his heart – our congregation and our world would be so much the poorer.  Right?  And so it is with each of us.  The body of Christ isn’t whole without you.
So, the apostle Paul would have agreed with that statement, but he might have added some attitude: “Yes, you’re part of the body of Christ – so get off your behinds and get to work.”  At least that’s the attitude I hear in the second reading this morning.  Yes, Jesus is coming back, Paul says to the Christians in Thessalonica, but he’s not coming back next week.  So, you can’t just take it easy or, worse, diddle around causing trouble in the church.  You’ve got to do your part, Paul says.  Our actions today matter.  Christ has work to do in this world, now, and you’re an essential part of it.  So, he exhorts the folks there in Thessalonica to keep their noses out of each other’s business and “do their work,” never growing “weary in doing what is right” (3:12,13).  The affliction he sees and names there in Thessalonica is “idleness” (2 Thess 3:6).
Well, if that’s the standard, then we are exceptionally blessed at St. Andrew’s because idleness isn’t exactly a spiritual affliction here.  And when I look around and consider the incredibly faithful work being done by so many of you, it’s enough to make me just stop and say, “Wow.  Thank you.”
For example: We are blessed with exceptional staff doing exceptional ministry, lay and ordained.  They don’t just put in hours but put in hearts and minds and souls for God’s work here.  I have never worked with such a collection of people on a mission.  And just to call out one, the last person who’d want to be called out: Mary Sanders.  Mary is like a juggler who has a new ball thrown at her every day.  And yet, she offers herself with an ethos of self-giving the likes of which I’ve seen maybe one other time in all my working life.
In addition to a great staff, we’re blessed here with hands-on lay leadership.  You know, in some churches, vestries function as a gaggle of critics.  In other, healthier, places, vestries function as a board of directors, and that’s good.  Here, your Vestry functions not just with board responsibility but also as parish ministry council, each member taking ownership of some aspect of our congregation’s life, from children’s ministry, to finance, to discernment, to parish engagement.  And our executive team, the wardens and treasurer – they put in uncounted hours to help realize God’s call to this congregation, that we would change hearts and thereby change the world.  Again, here’s someone who wouldn’t want to be called out but whom I’ll call out anyway – senior warden Melissa Rock, a force of nature in so many ministries here.  I am blessed, like no other priest I know, to have colleagues in collaborative leadership.
And we’re blessed with ministry commissions collaborating with staff and clergy in every facet of life here.  Again, from youth ministry, to outreach, to adult formation – all the work you see going on here, all the groups you find out about as they host coffee hour – all this work is led by people whom God has raised up and empowered and impassioned to care for this parish and to reveal God’s love.
And we’re blessed with people doing the work of the faithful, day to day and week to week.  We have prayer warriors and pastoral-care givers, officially and especially unofficially.  We have hospitality volunteers, and folks serving coffee at HJ’s each morning, and people who tend the gardens.  And we have the people here right now doing liturgy, which means the work of the people – saints of God singing Good News, and serving us Christ’s body, and proclaiming God’s Word, and greeting folks as they come in, and leading us in prayer.  As beautiful and holy as it is to enter into the courts of the Lord here, our worship is no spectator sport.  Everyone in the room is part of God’s people called to come together, in common prayer, to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
And, we are blessed with people who give financially to make everything I’ve named possible.  There is no such thing as “just” giving money in support of God’s work.  The apostle Paul named it specifically in his list of spiritual gifts, listing “the giver” right up there with the minister, and the prophet, and the teacher, and the preacher, and the leader, and the one who loves others with deep compassion (Romans 12:6-7). 
So, clearly, with all these amazing people doing all these amazing things, we are not afflicted with idleness.  And – not “but” but “and” – here’s another holy truth to hold up alongside that: Jesus needs you to make his body complete.  None of us has all the gifts that Christ’s body needs, but each of us has some of them.  And offering all those gifts begins in the same place: in prayer, in the commitment of ourselves to take a next step, each day, in the process of discovering joy in our journey of discipleship.  Every day, each of us can offer to God the gift I think God wants first and foremost, which is simply a conversation.  I promise you that as you reach out to God, God will reach back to you.  And that giving and receiving of connection is the spark for every other way God longs to come alongside you, to partner with you, to collaborate with you, in making your life and this world reveal love just that much more.
We’re a week away from the conclusion of our stewardship season.  Next Sunday is St. Andrew’s Sunday; and in addition to wearing tartan, and hearing bagpipes, and singing our St. Andrew’s hymn, and everything else on that wonderful day, we’ll gather our pledges of giving for 2020, and we’ll bless them here on God’s altar.  Those pledges are sacraments, outward and visible signs of your connection with God and outward and visible signs of the Body of Christ alive and well and changing lives here. 
Our goal is that every household will make a pledge.  I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.  If you already have made a pledge, thank you so much for that.  If you haven’t yet, let me ask you please to do so.  Like I always say, the amount of money you pledge is not the point.  I would absolutely love for us to receive hundreds of new pledges to give $1 in 2020.  The point is not the amount.  The point is your commitment.  The point is the outward and visible “yes.”  The point is the unbelievable, even shocking, truth that God desires every last one of us to offer precisely what we’ve been equipped to offer, warts and all.  The point is this: that Christ’s body isn’t whole without you.
So, I’m tempted to ask you to chant that together.  But I imagine many of you probably would react to that like I would, muttering it dutifully while resenting being asked to say something out loud when you’re not sure how you really feel about it.  So, let me invite you to do something else instead. 
In a few minutes, we’ll come forward for Communion.  You’ll come here to God’s altar or there to a standing station, and members of your parish family will serve you bread and wine.  But, of course, we’d say it’s not just bread and wine that we receive because Jesus is really, fully present in that bread and wine, and in the assembly of all of us gathered here.  When we come to the Table, we receive nothing less than the Body of Christ empowering us to be nothing less than the Body of Christ.  As St. Augustine said about the consecrated bread and wine, “Be what you see; receive what you are.”1  So, here’s my invitation:  When you come forward and put out your hands to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, pray this stunning truth:  “Christ’s body isn’t whole without me.” 
And then – when our worship is over and our service begins – go out and live that way.

1.       “Augustine on the nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist: Sermon 272, Latin text with English translation.” Available at: https://earlychurchtexts.com/public/augustine_sermon_272_eucharist.htm.  Accessed Nov. 15, 2019.