Sunday, July 27, 2014

Our Four-Month Kingdom Moment

[Sermon from Sunday, July 27, 2014]
I am about to begin something I’ve never done before.  In fact, I’m about to begin several things I’ve never done before.  And so are you. 
In just five days – or, actually, in 102 hours – I will walk out of my office, close the door, and not walk back in for nearly four months.  I have to tell you, that is a strange feeling.  Like everybody else, I’ve left jobs before.  I’ve gone through the process of wrapping things up, handing things off, writing instructions to capture everything the person who’ll come after you needs to know.  But I’ve never left a job knowing that I’ll pick it back up again four months later.  That’s a new thing for me. 
A sabbatical is not as new a thing for you, for St. Andrew’s.  Rectors here have taken sabbaticals before.  But things haven’t always been so rosy on the rector’s return.  As I’ve heard the stories, sometimes priests have come back fairly different after sabbatical time away.  Now, I can’t see into the future, but I think the odds are pretty low that I’m going to return as someone you don’t recognize.  Still, every sabbatical is a time of some uncertainty for the congregation precisely because we can’t see into the future.  So this will be a new thing for you.
It’s also a new thing for the staff.  Now, our staff is an extremely talented group of people; and I have every confidence that Mtr. Anne and Peggy Wright, our business manager, will oversee the work just fine.  Still, it will be a new thing for them to have me gone.
It’s also a new thing for Ann and me and the kids.  Kathryn will be going back to school at Truman State in a couple of weeks; Dan will be heading off to K-State the week after.  Ann and I will be empty nesters.  And not only will it be “just us”; it will be just us with me not going off to work every morning.  Instead, after vacation time, we’ll be traveling for the better part of two and a half months, working together on my sabbatical project.  This will be a very new thing for us. 
So let me just say this out loud.  When there are so many new things in the air at once, here’s what happens:  We get anxious.  Maybe even a little afraid. 
So let me just say this out loud, too.  Here’s what I know:  We have nothing to fear.  We have nothing to fear.  And why is that?  Because you, and I, are stepping into a kingdom moment.
And what’s a kingdom moment?  We heard about them in our Gospel reading this morning.  In fact, we’ve been hearing about God’s kingdom for the past several weeks as we read through Matthew’s gospel.  Today, Jesus is taking images of the kingdom of heaven and tossing them at us like a sower scattering seeds, hoping that some, at least, might land in our hearts and take root. 
·        The kingdom of heaven is like planting a tiny mustard seed, a seemingly insignificant act but one that produces a bush 10 feet tall, safe habitat for those needing the shade and sanctuary of God’s embrace.  Not bad.
·        The kingdom of heaven is like a woman adding a tiny bit of yeast to 50 pounds of flour – a small act with a small agent that turns lifeless flour into rising dough and feeds more than a hundred people.  Not bad.
·        The kingdom of heaven is like treasure – maybe treasure you’ve been seeking all your life or maybe treasure you never knew you needed ‘til you found it, but treasure that makes you give everything you’ve got to make it yours.  Not bad at all.
We find ourselves in moments when the kingdom of heaven claims us and grabs us and turns us around, helping us see ourselves and our world in a new light – in God’s divine light.  As Fr. Marcus said last Sunday, we are not simply people who belong to a church but people called to let their lights “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).  When we do that, those are kingdom moments. 
You and I are stepping into a kingdom moment now.  So let me share what that might look like, for me and for you.
For me, I’m stepping into rest.  I need that.  This good and holy and wonderful work will kill you if you let it.  I need sleep; I need boundaries; and I need to remember that God actually is the one in charge of whether my work accomplishes anything.  So for the first few weeks, I will be observing Sabbath, a time of holy rest and relaxation.  I will not be checking church e-mail, not during vacation or sabbatical, so please don’t be disappointed when I don’t reply.  I will not be answering texts or phone calls (unless it’s one of the clergy or wardens with the secret code that means the building’s on fire).  I will be stepping into a kingdom moment of rest, and I am incredibly grateful for it.
Then, in early September, Ann and I will step into a journey, a journey of learning and sharing – a journey that I pray will give us some glimpses of what God’s future might look like, for this congregation and for others like ours.  We’re visiting nine Episcopal and Church of England congregations – six in the U.S. and three in Britain.  We’ll be in Boston, Denver, Portland, Seattle, Richmond, and St. Mary’s County in rural Maryland; and in England, we’ll visit Tewkesbury, Manchester, and London.  These parishes are all different, of course; but they share a kingdom-related trajectory:  traditional congregations steeped in history, liturgy, organ music, and red doors; but also hearing God’s call to raise up something new alongside the strength of that tradition.  It’s the “both/and” approach that appeals to me, and it’s what we’re striving to incarnate here, too.  These congregations, as Jesus said, are like “the master of a household” throwing a grand party – the banquet of the kingdom of heaven – and bringing “out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).  I’ve been learning their stories over the past several months, and now Ann and I will get to experience them – meet the people, interview their leaders, worship with them, eat with them, drink with them, learn from them.  And in the process, God willing, I’ll bring back things both to benefit us and to share with others in a book.
So that’s the kingdom moment Ann and I are stepping into, beginning 101 hours and 51 minutes from now.  But you’re stepping into a kingdom moment, too.  It’s a step along a path we’ve been marking out for three years, so you know the way to the place Jesus is leading you.
And as you step along this path over the next four months, you’ll be doing the same thing I’ll be doing, just in a different way and in a different context.  You’ll also be bringing out of your treasure what is old and what is new.  Mtr. Anne will continue to love you with all her heart, as only she can.  And she’ll take on new work, overseeing our spiritual affairs and guiding the staff for this season.  Fr. Marcus will continue to nurture our young people and families, and he’ll begin new gatherings down at The Well to draw people from the community into this beloved community – I especially wish I could be there for the new series called “Heaven and Ale.”  Steve Rock and Mary Heausler will continue to lead our temporal affairs, along with next year’s incoming senior warden, Greg Bentz.  They’ll raise up the next class of Vestry nominees, and set budget priorities, and lead you in the annual pledge campaign – processes we know how to do well.  But they’ll also oversee new kingdom work in these next four months: Along with Sean and Sarah Murray, and Blake and Megan Hodges, and the clergy, they’ll lead the Vestry in naming the specific ministries to which we’re committing ourselves with the Gather & Grow Campaign, how God’s call to connect St. Andrew’s with our community takes flesh through our hands and hearts. 
We will not spend these next four months resting on our laurels and patting ourselves on the back for a job well done.  Honestly, we have done a pretty good job over the past three years of building a culture of collaboration and respect and mutual ministry.  Well, that work is precisely what allows us not to spend these four months holding still.  I have known rectors who’ve spent their sabbaticals licking their wounds and praying for guidance about where to serve next.  I won’t be doing that.  I will rest – and I’ll be figuring out how to keep at this work without either getting divorced or driving myself into an early grave.  But I won’t be holding still; Ann and I will be stepping from one kingdom moment to the next in this study project.  And the same truth holds for you.  You will not be holding still; you’ll be loving each other, and serving each other, and beginning St. Andrew’s next 100 years of ministry, with each other and the world beyond these walls.  Four months from now, when I’m back up here on St. Andrew’s Sunday, things will not be the same as when I left.  That’s OK.  In fact, it’s good.  In fact, it’s very good.  In fact, that’s what it means to be disciples of a living Lord who calls us to bring the kingdom of heaven to life in everything we do.  As we pray at each ordination liturgy, and as you’ll pray, God willing, when Bruce Bower is ordained this November:  “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…” (BCP 540).

We have nothing to fear.  How could we?  What “will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35).  Fear of the unknown?  Worry about the future?  The anxiety of separation?  No way.  We have nothing to fear.  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Seeds Don't Grow on Their Own

[Sermon for July 13, 2014]
Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 13:1-9,18-23) is a parable, as the story tells us.  Parables are compelling because they aren’t intended to be taken literally; in fact, the point of a parable is stretching the mind, spurring the imagination, and exploring different interpretive paths.  Usually, Jesus tells the story and it just sort of hangs there, with us left to wrestle with the meaning.  Well, with this one, Jesus hands us an interpretation:  “Hear then the parable of the sower,” he says.  This story is about hearing “the word of the kingdom,” the proclamation of God’s way of ordering things, and how we might respond to it.  Jesus wants us to be seeds sown on good soil – people who hear God’s word, understand it, and bear abundant fruit.  Great – Jesus has done my work for me.  You’ve just enjoyed the shortest sermon of all time.
Or not.  Sorry to disappoint.  In the spirit of spinning parables, let me play with this story by adding something to it.  We know those less-than-ideal situations of discipleship Jesus named – seeds sown on the path, which the birds eat; seeds sown on rocky ground, which spring up and die off quickly; and seeds sown among thorns that choke off the new plants’ growth.  Well, imagine Jesus offering one more – the lost verse in the Parable of the Sower.  Here’s how it might go:  “Other seeds fell on good soil, but they declined to tap into it, confident they had what it takes to grow on their own.  So they lay on the soil until the next rain washed them away.”  And what might be the point there?  Scattered seeds are vulnerable and weak, and the good soil is where they find their nurture and their strength.  Seeds can’t grow on their own.
Admitting vulnerability … talk about a challenging call.  At least it is for me.  As most of you know, my wife, Ann, has lupus; and she’s been very sick from time to time over the past 15 years or so.  (She isn’t here this morning, but not because she’s ill; she’s just she’s out of town.)  When we were in seminary, the disease almost killed her; she was in the hospital for two months.  A small part of my struggle in that time had to do with the fact that we were living in a seminary community, an environment where people like to engage in what one of my professors called “the helping Olympics.”  In that intimate community of people on fire to serve Jesus, sometimes helping goes a little over the top.  We had more food than I knew what to do with.  I will never see tater-tot casserole the same way.  I had pans of lasagna and bags of spaghetti stored in freezers literally across campus.  But the real challenge wasn’t the supply; it was the demand.  At first, my reaction to all this helping was shamefully negative.  I could take care of myself and my kids just fine, thank you very much.  I didn’t need anything … especially not another tater-tot casserole.  I have always prided myself on self-reliance.  Hmmm.  Note the verb in that sentence: “prided myself.”  That might have been a clue that something was amiss.  Pride isn’t one of those things about us God enjoys so much.
My guess is that I may not be the only one who struggles with needing to assert my independence and self-reliance.  Perhaps some of you can identify with that.  It’s a huge part of our American character.  It’s a marker of maturity, a marker of success in our culture.  And I would say, having been with you nine years now, that self-reliance is a value deeply held here at St. Andrew’s.  Just ask anyone.  How are you?  “I’m fine.  Just fine.  Really.  I’m fine.  Everything is just fine.”  Right?
Well, let me tell you:  We’re a lot more fine when we let God love us through this beautiful community we’ve been given.  And as we grow that sense of community – as we cultivate connections among us and embrace our interdependence – we grow stronger and stronger as a parish family.
So, I want to introduce you to two new ways to do that this morning – two ways to connect with each other and embrace our interdependence.  One is the new Welcome and Connect card, which the ushers handed you when you came in.  You’ll notice they’re blue and white – combining the old blue cards and white cards into one.  I’ll talk about this more during the announcements, but I hope each of us will fill one out and put it in the offering plate every week.  Really.  Every week.  Part of the goal is that we want to know you’re here so that, when you’re not here, someone can check in and see how you’re doing.  But we also want to stay in touch better, making sure we have your current e-mail and cell-phone number.  We’d like to have your birth date so we can send you a card.  And we’d like to be praying with each of you, every week.  Everybody’s got something or someone to pray for – just jot down even a single petition or thanksgiving.  It’s a great habit to start. 
I’d also like to introduce you to the other new card, the one in the pew rack in front of you.  At the top, it says, “In His Service,” or IHS.  IHS is an opportunity to match up St. Andrew’s people who have a willingness to help with St. Andrew’s people who have a need.  So, what kinds of things do we have in mind?  Whatever you might want to offer.  Maybe it’s a ride to church or to the grocery store.  Maybe it’s a meal during a challenging time.  Maybe it’s babysitting.  Maybe it’s mowing the lawn.  Maybe it’s help with polishing up a résumé and networking for a new job.  Or maybe it’s just the chance to go out for a cup of coffee and a conversation.
So what we’re asking you to do is share your abilities and your needs with your parish family.  On one side of the card, you’ll find bubbles to fill in, saying whether you’re offering help or requesting help, as well as when you’d like to paired up with someone.  On the other side is space for your contact information and the most important part:  telling us what you can offer or what you need. 
Now, I do think this is an inspired effort, but I don’t think we’re magically going to get precise matches all the time.  That’s OK.  You may offer to help someone file income taxes, and it may be closer to April before anyone takes you up on it.  You may let us know that you’d like help figuring out how to use your computer, and it may be a while before someone else volunteers the right skills.  Please be patient, and don’t think you’ve been forgotten.  Someone from the IHS team will be in touch with you in any case, to let you know that you’ve been heard.
And who might that team be?  I want to honor these parishioners who have cared enough about you, and about this church family, to build a system to help us love each other.  Thanks very much to Connie Hesler, Bill Meeker, Jerry Miller, John Norton, Jerry Stanley, and John Walker.  Bless you for being a blessing and for helping us bless each other.
The IHS system is new – and it will surely have its kinks to work out – but the mutual love it reflects already happens here all the time.  In a single week, I have seen these moments of community, moments of connection:  A Eucharistic visitor not just taking Communion but arranging flowers from the altar to brighten a lonely person’s day.  An usher noticing someone in tears and offering a hand on the shoulder – and a prayer.  A volunteer helping a grieving family put on a funeral reception.  Trained lay people visiting parishioners in the hospital.  People from the SweeneyCare telephone ministry calling to check in.  People bringing food when a friend’s child came home from the hospital.  In these moments, and dozens of others, I’m sure, the love of God has taken flesh at St. Andrew’s – just this week.  And that’s what we hope IHS will build on, helping people see that they can turn to their church family first as the place to use their gifts and meet their needs, the place to grow into the wholeness and wellness God desires for us, the place to grow into the “stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
IHS is not a panacea for meeting every need.  We will stumble along the way, and that’s OK.  In families, you don’t get each relationship right every time.  But you do know that your family is there for you.  And that’s the long-term goal of IHS – to encourage us turn to St. Andrew’s, to turn to each other, first to help foster our well-being.  And in that, I mean by giving as well as by receiving, because, as everybody knows, the giver receives as much or more than the recipient. 

This church is a place where each of us can grow stronger and deeper in our relationship with God and with each other.  This is a place where the kingdom – God’s deepest desires about the life we share – can take flesh in the relationships we nurture and grow.  This is good soil.  We just have to acknowledge the fact that we need it.  We just have to admit that we really aren’t always “fine.”  We just have to embrace the beauty of our dependence, on God and each other – the kingdom reality that seeds don’t grow on their own.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Earning This

[Sermon from July 6, 2014]
This summer marks the 70th Anniversary of D-Day – the invasion of Normandy and the tipping point toward the end of World War II.  I guess I tend to think in movies, so this summer I’ve had scenes of Saving Private Ryan running through my head. 
As you probably know, Saving Private Ryan is a story of a deeply heroic effort undertaken not for military advantage but for compassion.  The Ryan family has sent four sons into battle, and three of them have been killed on D-Day.  Remembering a Civil War letter from President Lincoln to a mother who’d lost all of her sons,1 Gen. George Marshall decides to rescue the last Ryan boy.  The commanders send a squad to find him, as he fights his way toward Germany, and bring him home.  Enduring great struggle and loss to achieve their mission, the squad finally finds Private Ryan – and finds itself fighting a German Panzer division.  The squad helps stop the German tanks as well as saving Private Ryan, but the captain, John Miller (played by Tom Hanks), is mortally wounded.  As he lies in the dust, struggling for his last breath, he grabs Private Ryan, pulls him close, and whispers Ryan’s mission for the rest of his life:  The captain says, “Earn this.”
Can we do that?  Can we earn the sacrifices made for us?  As an older man, Private Ryan is haunted by the thought that maybe he didn’t earn the soldiers’ sacrifice.  And as people of faith, we’ve struggled for 2,000 years to accept the mystery of salvation made possible through Jesus’ sacrifice.  Can we do anything to earn that?  Absolutely not – it’s the “free gift,” as we heard last week – “the free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).  But that free gift inspires us – or at least God intends it to inspire us – to turn from our slavery to sin and bind ourselves “to righteousness” instead, (Romans 6:19), to Jesus himself (Romans 7:4).  So even though we can’t earn a holy sacrifice – not even the sacrifice of a soldier for a brother in arms – we can strive for the righteousness exemplified by the one who gives his life.
So our story is that striving for righteousness.  And as we celebrate America’s independence this weekend, we remember striving for righteousness is what this country has always done, too.  From the very beginning, the United States has been an aspirational nation.  As we declared our independence, before we even were a nation, we proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”2  None of us in this room would deny that statement.  None of the Founders, more than 200 years ago, would have denied that statement.  But the nation they created certainly didn’t enflesh the reality of that statement – a nation of slavery, and broken treaties with native peoples, and second-class citizenship for women.  What the Founders couldn’t fully accept wasn’t the truth of their prophetic claim; it was the definition of the subject of the sentence:  “men,” or as we would say, “people.”  All people are created equal.  Well, who qualifies as being fully a person?  If all people are created equal and enjoy equal rights, but you deny those rights to women, the logical consequence is that you aren’t seeing women as being fully people.  Or African-Americans.  Or Native Americans.  Or gay and lesbian people.  The list goes on. 
Our gift as a nation has been seeing the possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people; but our challenge as a nation has been extending the definition of “people” to all.  We are a nation that lives slightly ahead of ourselves, writing checks to future generations that those future generations then seek to cash, as Martin Luther King Jr. said.3  In any given moment, we are never “there” yet.  The finish line is always moving farther down the road.  For those of us who presently enjoy the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, God challenges us always to look for new ways to “earn this” by striving to extend those blessings to all.
We are not yet fully who God wants us to become.  Think about what we heard in that reading from Deuteronomy, a clear call God’s been making for more than 3,000 years:  Care for the stranger who lives among you.  Now, over time, the face of the stranger changes.  In our nation’s history, shop windows once held “Help Wanted” signs that also read, “No Irish need apply”; and cartoons depicted Irish immigrants looking like apes.  That’s horrifying – we can’t imagine it today.  But we still find ourselves struggling to respond to immigrants from Latin America seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – now, suddenly, including tens of thousands of children crossing the border on their own.  I don’t pretend to be an expert on immigration policy.  Clearly, the number of immigrants overwhelms us.  It’s probably fair to say that not everyone who comes should come.  But as we sort through the details of public policy, as nations must do, we must also heed God’s call to compassion, for adults and children alike.  As Deuteronomy puts it, the “God of gods and Lord of lords … loves the strangers….  You shall also love the stranger,” says the Lord, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (10:17-19)  It is God’s aspiration for us, a call to be more than what fear and self-interest tempt us to be.
That’s a challenge.  But it’s nothing compared with the aspirational call we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading:  “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Really?  So, like, the people actively seeking to harm our nation, the guys with automatic weapons screaming, “Death to America!” – we’re supposed to be praying for them?  We’re supposed to love them?  Yes.  So what does that look like?  What does it say about the practice of warfare by Christian people?  That’s another conversation – a long conversation.  But Jesus’ aspirational call does help explain why, even when we feel immediately under attack by our nation’s enemies, we know, deep in our hearts, that we cannot torture even the people who hate us the most.  That boundary makes the work of defending ourselves harder, but we know that as followers of Jesus – and as believers in the American gospel that all people are equally people – we know that we can’t allow ourselves to go down torture’s road.
“Strive to be perfect,” Jesus continues in today’s aspirational Gospel.  “Strive to be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)  That seems an impossibly high bar, for our nation and for ourselves.  How can we strive to be what we can never be?  As always with Scripture, language matters – and in this case, language both saves us from the need to be error-free and challenges us embrace an aspiration we actually can attain.  The word in Greek here isn’t about perfection in the sense of making no mistakes.  The word Jesus uses actually means “complete” or “whole” or “mature” – that we are to live fully into the miraculous reality that each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God.  If that claim is true, Jesus would say – if each and every person is made in the image and likeness of God – then we must live past the limitations of each historical moment, the sinfulness that makes us see anyone as less human than we are.  We must aspire to live into the wholeness made possible by the spark of divinity that burns in each of us.  We must aspire, as Lincoln said, to be governed by “the better angels of our nature.”4
Standing in a cemetery in Normandy, a blessedly old man among the headstones of his friends, Private Ryan turns to his family and asks the movie’s heart-rending question:  “Have I been a good man?”  Have I earned this?  Clearly, this face of the Greatest Generation had been striving toward that goal across the decades of his life.  He surely failed at times, but his story isn’t the failure; it’s the striving for goodness that defines him. 
And so it is for us, for ourselves and for our nation.  Our call is to continue to look at ourselves in the mirror – seeing the faces of all humanity looking back at us – and ask, “Are we a good nation?”  Do we reflect the principles we want to claim, the ideals of our nation and the statements of our faith – that all people are created equal, that all people enjoy rights no one can take away, that all people are children of God?  As we set immigration policy, do we love the stranger?  As we provide for the common defense, do we love our enemies?  Our history assures us we will constantly miss the mark.  But our story is more than that.  Our story is the story of striving – striving to live out the truths we hold as self-evident, striving to pay the checks we’ve written to people yet unborn, striving to honor the promises we’ve made to ourselves and to our posterity.

1.        Lincoln, Abraham.  “Letter to Mrs. Bixby.”  Abraham Lincoln Online: Speeches and Writings.  Available at:  Accessed July 3, 2014.
2.        “The Declaration of Independence:  A Transcription.”  Available at:  Accessed July 3, 2014.
3.        King, Martin Luther King, Jr.  “I Have a Dream…”  Available at:  Accessed July 3, 2014.

4.        Lincoln, Abraham.  “First Inaugural Address.”  Abraham Lincoln Online:  Speeches and Writings.  Available at:  Accessed July 3, 2014.