Monday, December 5, 2011

Invite an Exile Home

[Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011]

Here’s today’s quiz: What’s the liturgical color for Advent? Is it purple, or is it blue? You’ve probably noticed that we’re not making it easy for you to get the answer right, given the way the four clergy are dressed this morning, with some of us in one color and some in the other.

If you’ve been in the Episcopal Church a long time, or if you’ve come here from Roman Catholicism, you’ll know that the “traditional” color for Advent is purple, though it’s a tradition that was only standardized in the 1800s. Purple is associated with penitence, which is why it’s also the traditional color for Lent, our penitential season leading up to Easter. And traditionally, Advent too has had a penitential flavor. Last week’s Gospel reading was about preparing ourselves for Jesus to return in power and judgment at the end of the age. This morning’s Gospel features John the Baptist calling the people to turn away from their sins and be forgiven. Sounds like a penitential time to me.

But there’s also a tradition of using blue as the liturgical color during Advent, especially in England, Sweden, and Spain. Blue is the color of hope and expectation –- the color of life-giving waters and the sky we look toward as we imagine heaven. It’s also the color associated with the Virgin Mary, the bearer of divine life and hope for all people. The Gospel on the last Sunday of Advent is always the angel’s astonishing news that Mary will conceive and bear the Son of God himself. So, with Mary, we count the days in watchful expectation, awaiting the coming of the one who will redeem us from sin and bring us eternal life. Sounds pretty hopeful to me.

So, purple or blue? Penitence or hope? Apparently, it depends on which week of Advent you’re talking about. And this week, you can make a case for either one. It all depends on which reading we want to focus on and how we hear the prophet’s message.

In both the readings from Isaiah and Mark, we hear about a voice crying in the wilderness. But what’s that prophetic voice actually saying? It’s not as straightforward as it might seem. In the Gospel, the voice belongs to John the Baptist. There he is, looking to us like a crazy person; but his attire would have reminded the people of his day of the prophet Elijah, who was also described as a shaggy guy with a leather belt around his waist (2 Kings 1:8). From Mark’s perspective, John the Baptist is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophetic words, serving as the messenger sent ahead of the messiah, preparing his way, getting the people ready for the salvation to come.

To get ready, John the Baptist tells us, we have some spiritual housecleaning to do, sweeping the dirt and cobwebs from the corners of our hearts. John the crazy prophet is here to look us in the eye and ask the question none of us really wants to hear: What do you need to turn away from in order to turn toward God? Very specifically, what’s keeping you from living in God’s image and accomplishing God’s purposes in your day-to-day life? We may find the question a little rude and intrusive, but John the Baptist asks us anyway: How are we separating ourselves from God and thereby falling short in our work of loving God and the people around us? All this may not sound very comforting, but it does seem straightforward enough. Apparently Advent is about penitence and preparation for the second coming of Jesus. So I guess we ought to be wearing purple and spending our time getting right with God.

Well, that may be true; but it’s also not the whole story we heard this morning. If we look back at our first reading, from Isaiah, we find that Mark is taking some interpretive liberties with the text he’s quoting. In fact, he’s reinterpreting God’s word for his own generation, just as theologians and preachers have been doing for centuries. If we really look at the Isaiah reading, we find it isn’t talking about the coming of the messiah. Instead, it’s an announcement of very practical good news to the people of Israel, who at that moment in history were sitting in exile. And the news is, they’re about to go home.

This part of Isaiah was written around 545 BC, when the Jewish people had been taken into captivity by invading armies and had been living as exiles in Babylon for about 60 years. The first generation of exiles had already died there, and their children didn’t have much reason to hope for a return to the homeland they had only heard about in the stories of their parents and grandparents. But here comes the prophet, inspired by God to proclaim an unexpected hope: Get ready, for God is about to act decisively and bring us home, back to Israel and Judah. So in that sense, when Isaiah wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” it had a very practical meaning: that God would build a road so the people could return across the desert wilderness that separated Babylon and their homeland. The prophet says God is about the flatten out the mountains and raise up the valleys, like the state department of transportation preparing a highway’s roadbed.

And what’s the message the prophet wants his people to take away from all this? Rejoice, for your time in exile is about to end. You’ve paid your penalty. Here’s your “get out of jail free” card. Wait with holy hope and expectation, for God is about to rock your world. And, the prophet tells his people, take your joy one step beyond hopeful expectation: Shout it from the rooftops, too. Isaiah says, “Get you up on a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Isaiah 40:9) Tell everybody you know the good news, that God is with us and soon will restore us. So, clearly, if we listen to the prophet Isaiah, the message of Advent is about hope and expectation.

Well, what do we do? Is it purple or blue? Penitence or expectation? And the answer is: Yes. Welcome to the Episcopal Church.

That may seem crazy, or at least like we can’t make up our minds. But I’d say this “both/and” approach to Advent is actually just what experience would teach us. We do need penitential self-examination to see where we’ve turned away from Jesus’ call. The reason John the Baptist feels like a Christmas party crasher is because he comes in and tells us the last thing we want to hear in the midst of our holiday revels: that we need to take stock and confess where we see that our lives are on fire. My guess is there’s not a soul here who could look in the mirror and say he or she doesn’t have anything to confess.

But we also need to live in the active hope and expectation that God saves us, even though we don’t exactly deserve it. When we open our eyes and our hearts, Jesus Christ enters decisively into our lives, and into the world around us, to deliver us from the exile of our own self-absorption. “See, the Lord God comes with might,” Isaiah says. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (40:10,11) The mystery of Advent is that those who find themselves on the edge of redemption, those who think they know better than God how they should live (and that’s pretty much all of us) –- they have done their time in the wilderness, God says, and their penalty is paid (Isaiah 40:2).

So, the prophet says to us who are being freed, lift up your voice with strength, and tell this story of repentance and salvation. God calls us to repentance not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of the world around us, that others might get the point that reconciliation is God’s bottom line. This period leading up to Christmas is the perfect time for the world to hear the real message of the season: that God wants to bring everyone home. And the repentant are precisely the right messengers of that hope, because the repentant are those who have good news in their hearts to proclaim.

So this Advent, invite an exile home. Show someone that God is waiting for them with open arms, ready to gather them up in the divine embrace of reconciliation. Proclaim to someone that life as they know it isn’t as good as it gets.

There’s even an easy way to do it. As you leave this morning, take a yard sign from the narthex [advertising the Christmas Eve services], put it in your car, and plant it in your front yard. Invite the people who pass by your home to join you for Christmas Eve here at St. Andrew’s. Invite them to see that the holiday season is more than parties, and presents, and watching A Christmas Story ten times on TV –- and feeling alone. Invite them to turn in a different direction: toward the promise that hearts can be unburdened, that the slate can be wiped clean, and that the Shepherd longs to gather them in his arms. Plant a sign in your yard, and invite an exile to come home.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Save Us From Pre-Christmas

[Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011]

That sound of the shofar is our wake-up call: Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. This is the beginning of our four-week season of preparation for the miracle of the Incarnation, the unbelievable reality that God chose to take on our life, the experience of humanity in all its joy and all its hardship. This is the time when we take a breath, and stop, and try to comprehend the incomprehensible: that God loves us enough to enter directly into our broken reality and heal it, coming as the Christ both as a baby in a manger and as our ruler and judge at the end of time.

That’s a lot to get ready for. No wonder we need a season of preparation.

Of course, in our modern lives, we also need a season of preparation because the world around us is giving us very different messages, both about what season we’re in and how we should be preparing for what’s to come. Here in church, we’re lighting candles on the Advent wreath and learning just how slowly we can count to four. But in the stores and on TV, we’ve been charging into Christmastime from the moment we could get the Halloween candy put away.

Now, before we turn our attention to Advent, I’d like to reflect on the holiday we just experienced. And that holiday was…? Well, Black Friday, of course –- our No. 1 shopping day of the year. Actually, that’s not quite right, because now Black Friday has oozed beyond its temporal boundaries and spilled into the day before, a day we soon will know as Black Friday Eve. In a former time, we called this day before Black Friday by another name –- we called it “Thanksgiving,” and we kept it as the holiday. People stayed home with family and friends. They shared time and conversation as everyone worked to prepare the feast. They played football in the yard and watched football on TV. They ate too much and then did stacks and stacks and stacks of dishes together. Finally, blessedly, when all the work was done, they rested –- one of the few moments of Sabbath time left in the calendar of American culture. Well, now that Black Friday has become a two-day feast, we’ve cut to the chase and gone straight to the shopping without having to wait through that pesky time set aside for family, and giving thanks, and rest.

OK, so I’ve now officially become a grumpy old man.

It’s easy to rant about Black Friday, and door-buster sales, and our habit of charging from one disfigured holiday to the next. But I think this is a malady we need to take seriously as people of faith, and the treatment is one we can apply only in each individual heart –- including mine. Even as someone who spends an awful lot of time on churchy stuff, I find it really easy to pay lip service to Advent while I’m actually charging toward Christmas Day. The pre-Christmas season can become consuming, and I don’t mean just in terms of consumerism. There are the cards to send, and the parties to plan, and the events to attend, and the presents to buy, and the kids’ activities to show up for -– not to mention a few pretty big church services to plan. Better get ready, or we might not get everything done before we hit the Christmas finish line.

So I guess this morning I’m trying to convince you that the season of Advent is here to save us from the season of pre-Christmas. Advent is here to turn the rush of the holidays into the blessing of holy-days.

Now, listening to our Gospel reading this morning, you may not have heard a lot of blessing to take home with you. Jesus is talking with his inner circle of disciples, telling them what to expect about very difficult times that lie ahead. Just before this reading, he’s warned them of “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7), and persecutions of Jesus’ followers, and destruction coming to the holiest of places, even Jerusalem and the Temple itself. False prophets will arise, and Jesus has warned his disciples not to follow them. Most scholars feel these predictions relate to the Jewish revolution against Rome, which happened about 35 years after the Resurrection, when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed and the Jewish people were scattered.

Well, there’s not a lot there to get us into the holiday spirit. But I think the point of hearing about this chaos is that, like all the trials of our lives, it sets the stage for God to act, which is where today’s reading comes in. When the times we live in seem to spin out of control, when we know our own lives are broken and derailed, when we invest every beat of our hearts just to make it through the craziness of one day to the next –- these are the times, Jesus says, when we need to pay closest attention to what God will do next. Ironically, when we feel like we’re on the edge, that’s when divine power is revealed most vividly –- when Jesus enters into our lives definitively, if we’ll pay close enough attention to see it and hear it.

In the broad scope of salvation history, what Jesus is talking about is the end time, when he will return in power and judgment, as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed each week. When the Son of Man comes on the clouds in glory, he will flick aside petty kings and ungrateful nations and hold each of us accountable for the lives we’ve chosen to live.

But that same revealing of divine power holds true in our own lives right now, too. In the private moments of our anxious hearts, as each of us works out our own salvation, the crazy chaos of our lives is the medium in which Christ works best. When the stars that once guided us seem to be falling and the powers of our heavens seem to be shaken, that’s when Jesus enters in. Remarkably enough, the sovereign Lord of the universe does have the wherewithal to rule even our unruly lives, despite how complicated we imagine them to be.

But here’s the thing: We -– and definitely I –- have to pay attention, especially when the chaos of our culture and the chaos of our hearts tell us we don’t have time to pay attention, even to one more thing. When we least expect it, when we’re focused on everything else, that’s when the Master decides to come home and set the household to rights. When life backs us up against the wall, Jesus comes to us and says, “So, how’s that working for you?” And I don’t think we’ll find it very helpful in that moment to tell him, “Hang on just a minute while I finish up one last thing on my list.”

There’s a better way to greet Christ when he comes to dwell within us and among us. As today’s Gospel reading says, “keep alert”; “keep awake”; for “he is near, at the very gates.” (Mark 13:29,33,37). To receive such a guest, we need to ready our hearts with at least a fraction of the time and attention we would devote to readying our homes for a Christmas party.

So here’s my Advent challenge to you, and to me: Stop. Say “no” to something you can’t imagine not doing. And instead of doing it, take some time -– however much you feel you need –- and do nothing productive in the eyes of the world. Drive into the country, and park by a lake, and watch the wind move on the water. Take the hymnal and read the lyrics to the hymns in the Advent section – they’re fantastic. Come to the TaizĂ© Eucharist and don’t make a sound -– really enter into the silence and the sounds of others singing. Take home a copy of Forward Day by Day, and read a lesson each morning, and marvel at what God might have to say. Or, just sit in silence in your favorite chair, and stare out the window at the trees and the birds, and wait to hear what Jesus might whisper to you. Accomplish nothing. Let the brakes of Advent slow down the headlong rush toward Christmas. And then just see what holy days the holidays can be.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Unlikely People of Missionary Zeal

[Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011]

The room’s awash in red and plaid; the sound of bagpipes echoes through the church and out into the neighborhood. It can only mean one thing: It’s St. Andrew’s Sunday. It’s a feast we’ve been keeping here for as long as anyone remembers, one of our parish family’s very best traditions.

So why do we do it? What does St. Andrew have to do with Scotland and bagpipes? I’m no biblical scholar, but I’m pretty sure St. Andrew never wore a plaid kilt. How did we get to this celebration from the life of a first-century Jewish fisherman?

Well, let’s look at what we know about Andrew from Scripture. The short answer is, not much. Andrew is mentioned a grand total of 12 times in the Bible, and four of those are just listings of the disciples’ names. As we heard in the Gospel reading, he and his brother, Peter, were among the very first who turned from the lives they knew to follow this teacher and “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). In John’s Gospel, Andrew plays a slightly larger role. There, he’s the first disciple to follow Jesus, and he immediately takes on the role of evangelist simply by telling his brother that he’s found the messiah. Andrew has a small role in the feeding of the 5,000, telling Jesus there’s this little boy with some bread and a few fish, but so what? And Andrew helps bring outsiders to know Jesus by introducing some Greeks to him. But that’s about it – not exactly a starring role. And no kilts or bagpipes, either.

After these mentions in the Bible, Andrew’s biography gets pretty sketchy. The most reliable tradition says he journeyed to Greece after the Resurrection, telling people about Jesus and paying the ultimate price, being crucified by the sea. Later tradition puts Andrew in Constantinople, in the sense that some of his relics were brought there from Greece centuries after he died so Constantinople could claim an important patron saint. Andrew is also a patron saint of Russia based on a tradition that he visited tribes by the Black Sea and supposedly preached as far north as Kiev.1

And then there’s Scotland. Now, there’s not a snowball’s chance that Andrew ever went to Scotland. But the tradition there is that a Celtic saint in the 300s named Regulus took Andrew’s arm from its resting place in Greece to Scotland, to the site we now know as St. Andrews. St. Andrews became a center for teaching about the faith and sharing the Good News in Scotland … and I hear they play some golf there now, too. Anyway, the tradition about St. Regulus taking that holy arm to Scotland has made Andrew the patron saint of that land.2,3

And so, since Andrew is our patron saint, too, this parish has adopted a link with Scotland much as Scotland adopted a link with Andrew. Now, if you’re a cynic, you can see this as nothing more than creative history. Or you can see it as a holy thing, and here’s why: As Christians, we’re linked with the saints across time and space, bound together into the spiritual body of Christ, not limited by temporal boundaries like century or nationality.

But even the creative traditions about Andrew’s life tell us nothing about what kind of a person he was. We know he was Peter’s brother, and we know a fair amount about Peter from Scripture: that he was a man of action, bold to the point of being offensive, often speaking before he thought and putting his foot in his mouth more often than not. He was the kind of guy who would earn the nickname Jesus gave him: Peter, which means “Rocky.”

And Andrew? As I said, Scripture gives him a minor role. We don’t hear about him preaching to huge crowds or healing people, like Peter and John do in the Book of Acts. In fact, Andrew is a person of small acts. He tells one guy about Jesus. Faced with a hungry crowd of thousands, all he can find is a kid with five loaves and two fish. Now, the rest of this is complete conjecture on my part, but I imagine Andrew as sort of the anti-Peter, like siblings sometimes are. Peter is big and out-there; Andrew is quiet and more reserved. When he speaks, it’s analysis, not bold proclamation. When he acts, it’s through personal relationships, using connections he already has to share the great truth he’s witnessed. He’s a supporting character, literally: He’s there to support Jesus’ mission.

The other thing about Andrew that we never really hear about, but must have been true, is the effect that his second family had on him. Of course, Andrew had his first family, with Peter and their parents and siblings. But Andrew quickly left all that behind to follow Jesus. And the band of disciples Andrew joined became his second family – traveling across Israel for three years proclaiming the kingdom of God, learning from their master, and learning how to live together.

With those spiritual brothers and sisters, Andrew was formed into the person God needed him to be. Think about it: How could this reserved, quiet, analytical young man take that show on the road after the Resurrection and have any success? If the Andrew who first met Jesus had been the same Andrew who went to Greece as a missionary, we’d have never heard another word about him. But the stories that come down to us tell of an apostle who rescued another apostle, Matthias, from cannibals. They tell of an apostle who cast out demons, and converted pagans, and healed the sick, and raised the dead.4 Something happened to Andrew in his three years as part of that family of disciples. His faith community shaped him into an unlikely apostle – and remember, “apostle” means one who is sent. This quiet, reserved, hard-working, regular guy became a man with a mission.

We are the spiritual descendants of that missionary and the faith community that formed him. St. Andrew’s Church has been here for nearly 100 years. In some people’s eyes, we’ve been simply a very nice place made up of very nice people being very nice to each other – as I heard once, “the country club at prayer.” We are good at being nice, I have to say. But we are more than that. We’re a church that grew a community garden behind the youth center long before community gardens became trendy. We’re a church that, when we put in a parking lot, literally moved houses across town to provide homes for people in poverty. We’re a church that’s fed thousands and thousands of hungry people downtown over the years. We’re a church that’s invested more than 20 years’ work to create a school on a mountain in Haiti with the highest graduation rate in town. We’re a church that welcomes the stranger and really means it.

And we’ve done those things because of the formation we receive from being members of this family. As Brad Honnold said at the vestry meeting this past Tuesday, “We are constantly being chiseled and shaped in our faith.” It happens as we worship, when we’re stirred by a lector’s inspiring reading or served the blood of Christ by a friend. It happens when a minister of the Order of St. Luke prays for us in the chapel after Communion. It happens when we learn from each other in a class or a group or a Bible study. It happens when parishioners go through Cursillo and learn to live their faith “out loud.” It happens when you get to know people by being in choir, or the Altar Guild, or the quilting group, or at Men’s Breakfast, or at Holy Happy Hour – and you find yourself inspired or challenged by what you learn from them. Like Andrew with the other followers of Jesus, you are made into a disciple when the good and holy people sitting around you this morning help you become more than you could ever be on your own.

All that formation is a part of mission. All that we do together, as God’s family in this place, is forming and shaping us to become the people God longs for us to be – people who change the world one interaction and one relationship at a time. All that we do together as the family of St. Andrew’s is preparing us to be sent out beyond ourselves.

What I’m talking about is nothing new for this parish. It’s amazing what you can pick up by walking around this place and reading things on the walls. On the wall in the columbarium, just on the other side of the pulpit, there’s a plaque I’d encourage you to stop by and read sometime. Here’s what it says: “The grateful people of St. Peter’s Church [in Red Bridge], upon the occasion of becoming a parish church on January 1, 1969, give thanks to Almighty God for the missionary zeal of our mother church, St. Andrew’s, who established [St. Peter’s] chapel, Eastertide, 1958.” Missionary zeal, huh? In the country club at prayer? Who’d have thought it?

Well, you would. I would. We would, when we remember who we are. We are the adopted descendants of St. Andrew, an unassuming man who found his mission. This word, this commandment of being sent beyond ourselves – it is not too hard for you or too far away, that someone else should go and do it for you. No, this word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart for you to follow. It’s who we’ve been. It’s who we are. And it’s who this family will be: God’s unlikely people of missionary zeal.

1. MacDonald, Dennis R. “Andrew.” In: The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 243.

2. MacDonald, 243.

3. Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978. 17.

4. MacDonald, 243.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Report from Haiti mission trip, day 1

A group of missionaries from St. Andrew's is in Haiti now, presenting a workshop on early childhood education and visiting our partner school in Maniche. I've just received an update from the group about their first day in Haiti (dated Thursday but just arrived in my in-box). It's from Dr. Kathy Shaffer, the leader of our Haiti educational mission. She writes:

Nov. 10:

"The trip from Miami was without a hitch. Both the new terminal at MIA and the new jetway on our arrival in Port-au-Prince set the stage for a seamless journey. Zo [the driver] was at the airport. All 18 bags made it through customs. We were met by Pere Colbert [the priest at our partner church and school] as well; and he escorted us to the Christian bookstore, where were able to purchase a Bible for each grade (some very nicely illustrated ones for the little guys), as well as for our graduates from last spring.

"The rubble from the earthquake has been cleared to the point that traffic moves well (better than last year), but now the tents feel imbedded in the community. Where the tent people from the middle of the medians were put is a sad mystery.

"Now we are on are way to Les Cayes and 1 hour outside of Cayes, we encounter a 'manifestation' [a demonstration]. Someone was arrested, and a group of townsfolk have blocked the road in protest. We have been here over an hour, without a lot of change in the situation. Obviously, God wanted us to slow down and 'be' instead of 'do.' By chance, we were stopped at the driveway of the head of the Rotary Club of this village. Colbert is a member of Rotary in Cayes, so we were invited to wait this out in his drive.

"Chris Nazar [one of the other missionaries] says to tell you that we may still be barreling down the highway after dark, even after getting up a 4 a.m. The group is functioning well." -- Kathy

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Family of Insufficient Saints

(I'm not sure why I haven't been posting sermons here, as well as on the St. Andrew's website, but better late than never.... Here's the sermon from All Saints' Sunday, Nov. 6.)

Over the past several weeks, different parishioners have shared how they hear God’s call as stewards and how that call is being answered in the life of this congregation. Steve Rock, our senior warden, spoke about the contrast between seeing this church as a club and seeing it as a family. Dan Spicer spoke about the value of kids and youth as full members of our parish family. Chris Nazar spoke about using our time, talent, and treasure to take this family’s love into the world through outreach ministry.

Today, our witnesses are a little young to get up and talk in church. In fact, they aren’t yet old enough to talk at all. They’re the six babies we’ll baptize in just a few minutes.

You may wonder what kind of witness these babies might have to offer, other than witnessing vigorously against strangers pouring water on their heads. Well, I think they have a lot to teach us about stewarding the blessings God gives us, especially in the light of this morning’s Gospel reading.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday; and in this year of the lectionary cycle, we hear the Beatitudes –- the opening of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. “Beatitude” means ultimate blessing, and that’s what Jesus is describing here –- what it means to be one of the most fortunate, one of the truly blessed in God’s eyes –- what it means, in fact, to be one of the saints of God.

Now, if someone asked us, “What does it look like to be blessed?” –- our first answers probably wouldn’t sound much like what we just heard Jesus say. As we usually think about these things, we might say someone’s blessed if she has a spacious home in a gorgeous neighborhood. We might say someone’s blessed if her kids go to excellent schools, being shaped for successful lives. We might say someone’s blessed if she has a talent like art or music, something that clearly sets her apart from those of us who wish we could just draw or sing on pitch. Those are the kinds of blessings we usually think about –- blessings about what we possess, or what we’ve achieved, or what we can do.

When Jesus starts talking about blessedness, we can bet he’s going down a different path. For Jesus, the blessed are those who are poor and broken in spirit, those who mourn a deep emptiness in their hearts, those who’ve been humbled by what life dishes out, those who manage to show mercy despite their own injuries, those who are persecuted for their faithfulness to God’s ways. Blessed and fortunate are those who find themselves powerless in the world’s eyes, Jesus says.

What kind of blessing is that? Well, it’s the surprising blessing of having our expectations turned on their heads -– expectations about ourselves and expectations about those with whom we share our lives.

The culture around us says that what we have, or what we don’t have, is a function of our own capacity. We succeed in school –- or not -– based on the hard work and commitment we put into our studies. We succeed in our professional lives –- or not -- based on our insightful analysis, strong leadership, and excellent performance. We succeed in our marriages and child-rearing –- or not -– by reading books, learning from experts, and becoming skilled in managing our closest relationships. Viewed through the eyes of the culture, we are blessed –- or not -– largely by virtue of ... our own virtues. If we’re good enough, our lives will be good, too.

There’s a lot of truth in how the culture defines success. But success and blessedness aren’t necessarily the same thing. To see blessedness, we need look no farther than to the children in our front pews this morning. These babies have done nothing to earn their parents’ love. They’ve done nothing to earn the embrace of their blankets and the comfort of their cribs. They’ve done nothing to earn the welcome they’re receiving today into the fellowship of the saints; no heroic service for the kingdom of God places them in the same ranks as Mary and Peter and Andrew. But here they are anyway, loved by their families and welcomed into the family of God.

Those who aren’t “good enough,” those who haven’t proven themselves –- these are the inheritors of God’s richest blessing, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven itself.

There’s a reason we proclaim, every All Saints’ Day, that all of us are saints of God. And the reason why isn’t because we’re all great. Frankly, it’s because we’re all not that great. And neither are the saints. True saints are those who come to situations of conflict looking not to be victors but peacemakers. True saints are those who come to the table not to put on a sumptuous feast themselves but with empty hands, eager for God to fill them. True saints are those who come to church on a Sunday morning admitting that life has left their spirits battered and bruised and that they need God’s healing love, freely given.

The babies in our front pews this morning are completely insufficient, as functional human beings go. They can’t take care of themselves or provide for themselves -– left on their own, they can’t even survive. They must have family, they must have community, simply to live from one day to the next.

So they may be our best example of the saints of God, models for us to emulate. Blessed are those, Jesus says, who can see their own insufficiency and who are humble enough to rely on God instead of relying solely on themselves. Blessed are these, Jesus says, for they shall be truly satisfied by knowing the kingdom of heaven –- and not just in the sense of eternal life in the sweet by and by. These insufficient saints will know the kingdom of heaven in the here and now.

You don’t have to look far to see it. In fact, just look around. The kingdom of heaven is among you.

This is the family of God, the nursery in which God’s children of all ages grow into spiritual adulthood. This is our parish family, the place where we can admit that we aren’t –- and can never be –- the autonomous overachievers the world tells us to be. When, like little kids, we try to carry burdens too heavy for us to bear on our own, our family is there, saying, “Wait, let me help you with that.” In this family, there is no shame in needing someone’s help. In this family, we find our connection with God made real and active in our connections with each other. When we come together for a meeting or a picnic or party or a dinner or a class, we see that we are truly not alone on this journey -– because our brothers and sisters are there.

In the relationships of this family, we live out the fundamental truth of stewardship, the real bottom line that relates to so much more than money. That fundamental truth is this: we are dependent on God for everything that comes to us, and ultimately we can’t make it on our own. We need a family of faith to feed our spirits, satisfy our hunger, heal our hearts, and wipe away the tears from our eyes.

If you understand that, then you’ve probably already noticed something I’m going to ask you to notice now: that some of the members of our family haven’t been here for one of our Sunday-morning reunions in quite some time. There are many reasons why, I’m sure –- probably a different reason for each missing brother or sister. But whatever the reason, their absence diminishes us as the family of God in this place. And it’s equally true that their absence diminishes them. Without this family bearing us up, we’re left to sink or swim on our own in the waters of this world. And you can’t swim on your own forever.

So as you’re here this morning, looking at all these familiar faces and welcoming new children into God’s family, think for a moment about the saints who aren’t here. At our parish meeting downstairs after this service, we’ll talk more about how we might reach out to these family members we’ve been missing. But for now, just do this: pray for them, and pray for us. Pray that God’s love might so move the saints in this room that we would reach out in that love to invite our brothers and sisters back to this table -– the banquet table of the kingdom of heaven, present among us right now.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Let’s Get Real

At the bishop’s visit to St. Andrew’s last Sunday, we used “real” bread in celebrating the Eucharist. It reminded me of something my son, Dan, said when he was about 4. We went to church one Sunday and came to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Dan put out his hands and received a wafer, as he always did. This time, the mental wheels were turning as he tried to understand how this tasteless little cracker could be what we said it was –- Jesus himself, given for us. So he turned to me at the rail and said, “Gee, Dad, Jesus sure is crunchy.”

Honestly, I’ve never been much of a fan of Communion wafers. They get high marks for convenience and shelf life, but for me they score fairly low on the “real” scale. It’s a bit of a challenge to imagine myself there with Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper, or sharing in the banquet of the kingdom of heaven, when I eat that thin wafer.

This matters because “real” is exactly what we claim about Jesus’ presence with us in Holy Communion. Although the divine mechanics –- just how it happens –- will always be a mystery, we believe in the doctrine of Real Presence: the idea that Jesus is actually present to us in the consecrated bread and wine, which become for us his own Body and Blood.

Of course, that action is fully completed even when it’s a less-than-hearty wafer we hold in our hands. But in sacramental living, symbolism matters because the outward and visible signs of our sacraments point to a divine reality: the inward and spiritual reality of grace, which is God’s love freely given to us. To the degree we can make those outward and visible signs point more vividly to the real presence of God’s love around us and within us, it’s a good thing.

So, we’re going to use “real” bread on Sunday mornings at St. Andrew's, at least for a trial period. My hope is that if Communion seems a bit more like a real meal, that will help us feel the Real Presence of Christ in our own hearts all the more.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Bishop Visits This Sunday – but Why?

Sometimes it’s good to ask questions that seem to have obvious answers because the answers aren’t always as obvious as they seem.

This Sunday, July 31, Bishop Martin Field will make his first visitation to St. Andrew’s. For long-time Episcopalians, the annual visit from the bishop is a fact of church life. But if you’re newer to the Episcopal Church, you may be wondering –- why? Is it just a goodwill visit by the CEO to a regional office? No.

First, from a practical standpoint, the bishop visits congregations to administer the sacrament of confirmation, which is an opportunity for teens and adults to make a mature proclamation of their baptismal faith and to receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit for their lives as members of the first order of ministry in the Church, the order of laypeople. (That means that as a member of the Church, you are a minister.) Confirming people in their faith is an act of ministry reserved to bishops, so the rite of confirmation can’t happen without one.

But the bishop’s visitation has meaning beyond making confirmation available. A bishop is one in a long line of people commissioned by their ordination to join in the ministry of the apostles, having been ordained by someone, who was ordained by someone, who was ordained by someone … who was ordained by one of the 12 listed in the Acts of the Apostles. That work to which a bishop is ordained is the ministry of sending and being sent on God’s mission in the world. The Greek word apostolos means one who is sent -– a messenger, a delegate, an ambassador of the one doing the sending, who is Jesus Christ himself. So each visitation a bishop makes is a stop along the way of his or her apostolic mission, an opportunity to bring the presence of the universal Church directly into our midst, remind us of God’s mission that we all share, and send each of us out as an apostolos, as well.

So if you're a St. Andrew's person, or (even better) if you're not, I urge you to come and join in this experience on Sunday. It will be a glorious day: Two infants will be baptized; eight young people and adults will be confirmed; you’ll have the opportunity to hear from the bishop about who he is and how he intends to lead our diocese. And you’ll get to hear from one of the apostles this surprising reality -– that you’re one of them, too.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

God's Love in Soap and Sheets

The news crews may have left Joplin, but the healing is only beginning. The destruction is unimaginable, and the scale of the work ahead remains enormous.

It may seem there’s little of value that any of us can do to be part of the healing process for the people of Joplin. Other than professionals with particular skills, individuals are being asked not to appear on the scene to help. Rebuilding is still a project for the future; recovery is still the order of the day.

In that environment, what can we do? What can you do?

First and foremost, you can pray. That’s always our best response in situations like this. No matter the scale of the need, prayer is always a right answer.

But you can also help Joplin heal in a more tangible way –- with the gift of a bottle of laundry soap, or a set of sheets, or a blender.

On Saturday, Aug. 6, at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Joplin, the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri will offer a “Free Garage Sale” for the people of Joplin -– with the items donated by you and me. It's a small but significant way to let the people of Joplin know God loves them by meeting immediate needs in a time of crisis.

What do they need? Examples include school supplies and backpacks; all kinds of kids’ clothing, new or gently used, labeled by age and sex; small appliances (toasters, toaster-ovens, mixers, blenders, etc.); bed and bath linens, cleaning and laundry supplies; and very light furniture, such as folding chairs and tables, lawn chairs, small tables, and shelves.

If you're in the Kansas City area, you can take your donations to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 40th and Main, between July 25 and July 29, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Or, if you want to get your hands dirty, come to St. Paul’s at 9 a.m. Saturday, July 30, to get items ready for transport to Joplin. Or you can come to St. Paul’s from 8 to 10 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2, to load up the delivery trucks. To sign up, please contact diocesan Archdeacon John McCann at

If you're in Springfield, the drop-off site is Christ Episcopal Church, 601 E. Walnut. Items should be delivered by by Monday, Aug. 1.

Please give generously. This is an opportunity for the Church to proclaim Good News in as concrete a way as it can be proclaimed. As my favorite collect in the Book of Common Prayer puts it, may God use us to “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen!

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Sermon as a Two-Way Street

I've always felt a little awkward about the one-way nature of preaching. At least in most situations, I get up, say whatever I was going to say, and sit down again, shielded by the liturgy from whatever the people out there might have liked to say in response.

So this summer, we're trying to make the preaching process a little more interactive by offering "Sermon Sound-Off” between the services on Sunday mornings. It's an opportunity to reflect on what God might be trying to say to us though the readings, the sermon, and our life together, rather than me simply talking at everybody and then walking away.

The conversations are really interesting, and frankly I never know where they’ll go. Here’s a sampling of the ground we covered last Sunday, when we celebrated Independence Day:
• A quick overview of the sermon, for those coming to the second service;
• William White, the architect of the Episcopal Church’s governance, whose story I had told in the sermon;
• The Old Testament reading that day, from Deuteronomy, and God’s priority for the needs and concerns of the poor;
• Our political system and the way it often ignores the voices of those who aren’t powerful;
• Whether natural disasters are examples of God exercising judgment on nations that have turned away from a righteous path;
• From the Gospel reading that day, the seemingly impossible challenge of being “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

What’s exciting about Sermon Sound-Off is that, although we never know what’s coming next, we never lack good conversation. And that’s a big part of the point: Our best formation as Christians comes not from simply listening to someone talk, no matter how interesting he or she may be. Our best formation as Christians comes when we enter into the conversation ourselves, making practical theology what I think God intends it to be: a dialogue, not a monologue.

So, if you're a St. Andrew's person, come to the undercroft at 9:15 a.m. on Sundays this summer and check it out. I think you’ll be amazed at what the Spirit can do among us.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Christian Lens for bin Laden's Death

I think Christians may find themselves struggling with how to react to the news that U.S. forces have killed Osama bin Laden. On the one hand, our nation’s primary enemy, the one who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and who has been waging war against this nation for more than a decade, has been eliminated. As at least one commentator has said, it’s as if Adolph Hitler had indeed been assassinated in 1944 – a huge victory that hastens the end of a larger conflict.

At the same time, bin Laden’s death reopens the not-so-well-healed wounds of 9/11, making us relive those awful moments. I imagine the families and friends of the victims going through their trauma all over again. There's been talk about those families finally having “closure” because the perpetrator has been executed. But I have my doubts about that. As a brother of one victim said in a radio interview on Monday, he lives with the pain of his loss every hour of every day, even 10 years later. Even if “justice has been done,” as the president said, legal justice doesn’t cause the dead to rise again.

For Easter people like us, celebrating someone’s killing seems somehow out of key. There are certainly elements of this story to celebrate: the memory of those who died in the 9/11 attacks, the service of those who have fought and suffered in this war against terrorism, the bravery of those who were called to carry out Sunday’s heart-stopping raid. But as we regard bin Laden’s death, maybe our best lens is a lens of healing – something much more in keeping with Christ’s priorities than celebrating a kill. May we see the death of bin Laden as the excision of a cancer that has been metastasizing and sapping the world’s strength for far too long.

And let us pray that our freedom from this cancer will allow our world to move more vigorously into the wholeness and well-being that God desires for all nations, indeed for all creation. Let us pray that bin Laden’s death will inspire not reprisal but renewal, not retaliation but transformation. As followers of Christ, let us take this moment not to beat our chests but to fold our hands and direct the energy of this day into prayer for the healing of God’s world.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Grace

At breakfast this morning with my kids, Kathryn and Dan, we were saying grace. Our habit is to pray pretty informally, with people adding whatever they want to offer God after the one leading the prayer has finished. Today, as we remembered various things related to Good Friday, Dan had this to offer: “Please help Jesus with the memory of his death.”

I stopped short, first at the paradoxical notion that the resurrected Son of God might need help with anything, and then at the depth of the theological insight. Without exactly realizing it, Dan was taking very seriously two important Christian doctrines that sometimes seem to conflict: incarnation and ascension. With the doctrine of incarnation, we make the scandalous claim that God became human in Jesus Christ -– not just pretending to be human, or adopting a few of our limitations, but becoming fully human, even to the point of suffering the worst death I can imagine (as we remember so vividly today). And with the doctrine of the ascension, we proclaim that the resurrected Jesus returned to the Godhead, bringing with him the experience of being fully human, complete with all our joys and all our sorrows. And, as Dan’s prayer extrapolated it, complete with traumatic memory, too -– memory that needs ongoing healing, as all our traumas do.

So this Good Friday, I join my son in praying for Christ’s tears. Through them, may the God who is Three in One bring to mind the mysterious connection with our humanity made deepest on this good and horrible day; and may Jesus indeed continue to find healing in the depth of our gratitude for his pain.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Question Time

Here's a Holy Week poem (which I also posted last year but is revised below). Sometimes, the mysteries of the faith lend themselves less to exposition and more to poetry ... and the Cross certainly falls into that category. Blessings to you for this week.

Question Time

Imagine Christ comes by to sit with you,
To share a coffee, or a glass of wine;
And then, our sovereign Lord offers a gift:
“It’s question time,” Christ tells you. “Ask away.”

Without a chance for much deep thought, I’d say
The thing that seems forever on my mind:
“So just what do you want from us? It seems
I always strain to hear your voice. And when
The question’s hardest, all I get are soft
Whispers of love. Give me a key that I
Can turn inside confusing locks –- and live.”

Christ smiles and takes a sip and says, “Think back.
It took a flood to cleanse the world of sin.
It took a wilderness of death to bring
Israel into the Promised Land. It took
An exile, generations long, before
God’s own could turn their hearts again and live.
It took a cross to point the way of life.
Do not fear death, but give yourself away;
For sometimes choosing death is how we plant
The seed that springs into full bloom next day.”

I know you’re right, my Lord, but still I wait
And hope you’ll show another, smoother road.
Instead, you finish up your drink and slip
Away. The cross was not the thing I had
In mind when we sat down. But love requires
Us both to die so that the world might live.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April 10, 2011 – St. Andrew’s Saves the World

I have to say, this past Sunday was one of my favorite days at St. Andrew’s, ever.

Why? Because we spent the day turned outward, toward this world Christ loves enough to have laid down his life for it.

First, here’s the headline from our Fools for Christ’s Sake fundraising dinner: The wonderfully generous people of St. Andrew’s dug deep to fund the lunch program at our partner school, St. Augustine’s, in Maniche, Haiti. We needed to raise $20,000 to ensure we could feed all 150 kids every day of the week during the next school year. That seemed like a tall order –- we’re still in a recession, after all. But when the pledges were tallied, the total stood at $25,000, enough to feed our kids and repair part of the school building damaged by last year's earthquake.

None of the kids of Maniche have ever been to St. Andrew’s, but they seem like part of the family anyway. At this point, we aren’t simply helping anonymous hungry people. When we saw the video clips Sunday night, we could recognize the faces of children from cards we bought at the Advent card sale. We could see their gratitude as we watched them pray before lunch. The missionaries’ videos and stories make this distant place come to life and show how hard it is to leave after spending a week there.

We don’t just have a partnership with a school. We have family in Haiti -– and on Sunday, our folks took a giant step toward helping to ensure that their brothers and sisters will have enough to eat next school year.

The fundraiser would have been enough on its own. But we began last Sunday with another joyful step into the mission God has given this congregation.

We Episcopalians are supposed to be standoffish and unsure of our connection with God and our church. Any visitor to St. Andrew’s will tell you otherwise. But on Sunday, we proved it to ourselves, too. People from 75 households took home yard signs after church on Sunday –- yard signs inviting neighbors and passersby to join us as we celebrate Easter at St. Andrew’s.

Demonstrating our faith “out loud” isn’t the easiest thing for many of us. It may not seem as polite as we usually like to be. But we’ve got a good story to tell about what’s going on in our congregation. And when you’ve got good news, it’s not so hard to share it after all.

This week, as we mark Palm Sunday and enter into the deep mystery of Holy Week, we’ll have more yard signs waiting for our folks to take home and proudly plant in their lawns. It's good not to be “the frozen chosen” after all.

So I’ll remember April 10 as a day when St. Andrew’s helped to save the world. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.