Sunday, September 27, 2015

Gratefully Giving Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies

[Sermon from Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015.]
In the midst of the day-to-day pressures and craziness of our lives, it’s good sometimes to step back and really notice how richly we’ve been blessed – actively call to mind what God has given us.  I’ve been struck by this recently in my own prayer life, both how God has blessed me and my need to live that blessing out loud.  So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share with you some of what’s been on my heart.
This year, Ann and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary, a milestone that, for the past 14 years of her illness, I seriously doubted we’d ever reach.  Our daughter, Kathryn, is safely in London, starting a graduate program.  Our son, Dan, is working, living on his own, and happy – more consistently happy than I’ve ever known him to be.  I get to serve an amazing parish, some of the most gifted and faithful people I’ve ever known.  I get to serve with richly talented clergy and staff who deeply love God and the people around them.  I get to write a book – I have a contract with Church Publishing for a book based on my sabbatical project last year.  I get to live in a country where, in a single election, we’re free to entertain the possibility of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as candidates for the highest office in the land.  And on Friday, I got to be here with Janet Smith and Lynn Kellen, and many of you, as we blessed their civil marriage using the same rite we’d use for anyone else.
I am deeply, richly, astoundingly blessed.  And you know what?  I don’t always feel it.  I sometimes find myself back there with the people of Israel in the wilderness, as we heard in the first reading today.  They’ve been wandering in the wilderness for what seems like forever.  God has given them manna, divine sustenance, the “bread of angels” (Psalm 78:25) come down from heaven every day just for them.  But by this point, they’re sick of it.  They want meat.  “Hey, Moses,” they complain, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. …  Now … there’s nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:5-6)
I had lunch recently with my old boss from the American Academy of Family Physicians, where I used to be managing editor of their practice-management journal.  That was the job I left when God nudged harder than we could resist and we moved off to Texas for seminary.  I was telling my old boss about all the cool things going on here at church.  And at the same time, I found myself remembering work life as I’d known it then.  I went to work every day at 8:30.  I took a lunch break.  I left at 5.  I had a nice little cubicle where I edited articles about running physician practices.  I had a couple of meetings a week, never at night.  Frankly, I had almost no stress coming from my work life.  And as I talked with my old boss, those melons and leeks and onions in Egypt were sounding pretty good in my memory of working at the Academy.  What was it, God, that was so wrong with that life?  I mean, yeah, sure, there’s manna raining down for me here every morning – mortals eating the bread of angels, blah, blah, blah. 
You know, sometimes even astonishing blessing becomes run of the mill – or, worse, it feels like one burden after another.
In the story, it isn’t just the people of Israel who are feeling resentful; it’s Moses, too.  He’s had enough of everybody’s complaints about all this manna they have to eat.  And more troubling, he feels like God doesn’t really care about the burden he’s been carrying.  In the stress of that moment, even Moses forgets his own story: saved from death as an infant … raised as royalty in Pharaoh’s palace … given a prophet’s eye and heart to see his people’s need for freedom … commissioned by God’s fiery Spirit  to lead them … trumping the power of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt … delivered by God to walk through the Red Sea as on dry land … and now fed with the bread of angels in the wilderness, on the way to the land of promise.  All that’s true, but the pressure gets to Moses anyway.  And he forgets his own story.
God’s answer to Moses is this:  Look for the story’s next chapter.  You know how I’ve been with you, God says; trust that I’m with you now.  Look around you: You’ve got 70 people right here who will help you bear your burden.  Look for my next gift to come from this fountain of blessing, God says, and honor me for it.  See and know that all that you have, and all that you are, and all that you will be comes not by your own might or power but by the Spirit of God (Zechariah 4:6).  And then, stop whining and say thank you for the gift. 
And Moses does.  He sees this exercise in collaborative leadership paying off, with scores of his people speaking as God’s own agents; and he exclaims, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).  Though he’d just been railing against a God who didn’t seem to care, Moses now remembers God’s M.O.: Even in the darkness, the next blessing is just around the corner.
So when we receive a gift, especially a gift we can never really repay – when we eat the bread of angels – what’s our response?  I think about my relationship with my parents.  They blessed me with life, and raised me in love, and taught me to love, and have been there through my ups and downs for 50 years.  How on earth do I pay that back?  Well, we talk on the phone each week, which is a good outward and visible way to live gratitude.  But the love they gave me also makes me want to love – to be the best husband I can be, and the best father I can be, and the best priest I can be.  And the same is true of the love I know from Ann, and from Kathryn and Dan, and from you.  Those gifts of love make me remember, deep in my bones, how incredibly blessed I am.  And those gifts of love make me want to love in return.  Like the song says, you want to pass it on.  You want to pay it forward.
In a couple of weeks, we’ll begin a season of gratitude.  In those four weeks, we’ll be asking you to remember, specifically, what you’re grateful for; and we’ll be asking you to name what it is that you’ve done, or are doing, or will do in gratitude for the gifts you’ve received.  In the Narthex, we’ll have a couple of trees on the wall (don’t worry, they’re vinyl, and they’ll come right off again).  On those four Sundays and through the fall, we’ll ask you to name your gratitude – to write down on one leaf a gift you’re grateful for, and then to write on another leaf the response of gratitude that comes from that gift. 
What do those responses of gratitude look like?  The short answer is this:  They look like your whole life.  In just a few minutes, there at Jesus’ altar, we will offer not just gifts of bread and wine; we will “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies” (BCP 342).  One essential part of that offering, which we also bring to God’s table every week, is the outward and visible sign of all we have: the sacrament of money. 
Our offering of money is our relationship with God in a nutshell.  It’s not about the amount; it’s about the place of that offering in your life.  Now, for those of you who are having a Moses moment right now, noticing some resentment slithering around in the shadowy corners of your heart, let me tell you:  I’ve been there.  I remember – maybe 20 years ago now, before seminary – I remember coming out of church one night after a meeting, sitting in my car, and fuming.  Someone had said something similar to what I’m saying to you; and I heard it, at best, as a rationalization and, at worst, as a scam.  They’d been talking about tithing, about giving back to God 10 percent of the income God has given us, and I heard it as simply a regressive tax.  I thought it was deeply unfair, and maybe a little disingenuous, for the Church to tell me that poor people and rich people need to give at the same rate (and, of course, I saw myself as one of the poor people in that scenario).  I worked up a nice little internal tirade against God – how I didn’t have enough anyway, and now you want me to have less? 
But in the end, I turned in a pledge card and began letting God go to work on me.  Long story short:  Today, I tithe from “my” salary because I’ve come to see that it’s not actually my salary.  Yes, I work hard.  But what I receive – from every breath I take, to every relationship I live, to every dollar I earn – all that I receive is God’s, on loan to me in the present moment, given from a well of love I cannot fathom and into which God asks me to toss back the coin of one-tenth – not because the well will run dry without it but because I need to remember whose well it is.
I may not be the only one who finds himself walking in Moses’ sandals from time to time, resentful of life’s challenges rather than grateful to live the story of one amazing blessing after another.  If that sounds familiar to you, I hope you’ll join me in cataloging the cascade of blessings that have come your way.  Bring some to mind, write them down, and then ask yourself: “How do I pay this forward?”
And let me offer one more concrete practice, an ancient and efficacious antivenin to the snakebite of resentment.  It’s simply a prayer – an amazing prayer, actually.  Those of us who grew up in the Episcopal Church before the 1979 Prayer Book might still have this prayer ringing around in our hearts, the way we sometimes remember snippets of bedtime stories.  Please turn to page 101 in the Prayer Book, to the end of the service of Morning Prayer, and find “The General Thanksgiving.”  We’ll offer it now, and I would commend it to your daily use to keep that snake of resentment at bay.  Let us pray:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made.  We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.  And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages.  Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dog Grooming in the Kingdom of God

[Sermon from Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015]
It’s Labor Day weekend, the end of the “lazy, hazy days of summer.”  For some of us, this weekend means time at the lake, brats on the grill, and cold beer to wash them down.  For others of us, we’re here in church this morning; and the lectionary gives us tougher food to chew:  A reading from the Letter of James about practicing love for the poor, and a Gospel reading about Jesus bringing the kingdom of God to people outside the bounds of Jewish society.  Oh, and by the way, as we celebrate Labor Day, our city is in the midst of a political battle about labor, arguing over raising the minimum wage.  So, as much as some of us might want an end-of-summer reflection on the beauty of creation at the lake, I’m afraid God’s giving us meatier issues today. 
That minimum-wage proposal is on hold, at least for the moment.  In July, the City Council passed a measure increasing the minimum wage here to $13 an hour by 2020.  It was intended as a middle-way approach; and like many middle-way approaches, it angered people on both sides of the debate.  Church and social-justice groups are petitioning for a vote in November to raise it to $15 an hour instead; business groups are petitioning to keep it where it is; and the state Legislature will soon try to make any local minimum wage illegal.1  So it’s a complicated time.
Now, I can hear some of you thinking this isn’t a religious issue and shouldn’t be getting air time on a Sunday morning.  But I would say poverty is an issue of faith, and Scripture seems to back me up.  If you search the Bible for the words “poverty” or “poor,” you get 238 verses.  Some of the most pointed are in the Letter of James, as we heard this morning.  Of course, like any other issue of faith, the fun comes in the interpretation.  At one end of the political spectrum, people argue that raising the minimum wage would reveal the divine justice of God’s kingdom because, in Scripture and tradition, God is always trying to advance the interests of the poor.  At the other end of the political spectrum, people argue that raising the minimum wage would harm the working poor by cutting jobs and putting more people out of work; so, they would say, letting the market create opportunity is the best way to reveal God’s kingdom and answer “the cry of the poor” (Proverbs 21:14). 
Well, I don’t claim to know much with certainty, but I want to share with you three things I do know to be true. 
First, if you ask five economists about raising the minimum wage, you’ll get five different answers about the likely effects.  But probably even five economists would agree that regardless of whether we raise the minimum wage or keep it where it is, the law of unintended consequences will put up roadblocks along each side’s highway to the kingdom of God.  Raising the wage will probably cause at least some jobs to evaporate.  Not raising the wage maintains a status quo in which lots of the people who through the lunch line at the Kansas City Community Kitchen actually have jobs but don’t earn a living.  Myself, I think it should be more than $7.65 an hour.  But raising the wage, or not, will bring outcomes neither side wants to see.
Here’s the second thing I know to be true:  In issues that quickly move to abstraction, it helps to walk in someone else’s shoes.  I have never tried to live on minimum wage.  But recently, I’ve seen this question through the eyes of someone I love – my son, Dan.  Dan works at a local country club serving food and drinks.  He’s been making more than minimum wage, $9.50 an hour.  And he loves it.  As some of you know, Dan decided not to go back to college this year but to work full-time, living in his own apartment and paying his own bills.  He loves his job, and he loves being (more or less) a grown-up.  For Dan, at 19 years old, he’s been making it just fine on $9.50 an hour.  But … he’s still on my health insurance; he doesn’t own a car; and he doesn’t have a family.  What amounts to a living wage for him now won’t be a living wage as his life changes.  He’ll need to grow into positions of greater responsibility and higher pay; and he may well need to go back to school to make that happen.  Now, here’s where it gets interesting.  Ann and I are blessed in that we could help him do that.  When he wants to go back to school, he and we probably can find a way to make that happen.  But there are thousands of people in our city who don’t have the social and financial capital even to consider a future like that.  My son can work his way up, but it’s tremendously harder for a mom at Operation Breakthrough or a guy who didn’t finish high school, someone who moves from one minimum-wage job to another.  They need something to change.
And here’s where all this becomes an issue of discipleship for us.  Throughout Scripture, God calls us to recognize the full humanity of those who live past the boundaries of our social worlds and then act to bring God’s kingdom to life among them.  In today’s Gospel reading, we see that even Jesus – being fully human as well as fully divine – even Jesus was boxed in by his social expectations.  He’s approached by a woman who’s not a Jew but who’s heard about the Spirit’s power working through Jesus; and she asks him to heal her daughter.  Before he thinks better of it, Jesus says “no” because she’s one of “those” people, a foreigner, someone outside the Jewish social world; and Jesus had come to bring God’s healing to the people of Israel.  So he calls her a “dog” and says the master’s “children” should be fed first (Mark 7:27).  Yikes – so much for warm-and-fuzzy Jesus.  But the woman’s faith makes Jesus stop short and see that, yes, she, too, is a beloved child of the Most High God – someone worthy of a miracle, someone worthy of an in-breaking of God’s ordering of things, even though she was outside Jesus’ world.  When we, too, see “those people” as children of God, we see that they have just as much claim on God’s blessings as we do.
So here’s the third thing I know to be true.  We have some power, and with it the responsibility, to help make the kingdom of God come to life in our own spheres of influence.  God asks us to open doors between this conflicted world we inhabit and God’s commonwealth just waiting to break in.  For those of us in a position to set other people’s wages, including those of us who set wages here at church, we need to imagine ourselves living the life those wages make possible.  To whom responsibility is given, loving stewardship is expected. 
So if God is asking us to open doors between our world and the reign and rule of God for the working poor, what might that mean for ministry at St. Andrew’s?  What can the church do?  Well, we can serve working-poor people directly, as we do each week at the Kitchen downtown.  We can support kids and teachers in our partner schools and try to equip them to succeed.  And we can do something that takes outreach ministry in a new direction, something bridging the political gap by preparing poor people for jobs that pay even more than an increased minimum wage.  You may have seen in the Star2 or on TV3 last week the good news about Natasha Kirsch and her social entrepreneurial start-up, Empower the Parent to Empower the Child, or EPEC.  Natasha is one of the first partners we’ve brought into the Red Door Center, which is St. Andrew’s own social-entrepreneurship incubator.  For more than a year now, officing out of St. Andrew’s, Natasha has been working with church members to build a board, raise money, network with city officials and civic leaders, and find a permanent location for her enterprise.  And what is it she’s creating?  EPEC will train unemployed and underemployed people for jobs as dog groomers.  Little did we know there’s a huge demand for dog groomers in Kansas City and that they earn $19 an hour.  So Natasha’s start-up will train people to groom dogs but also to manage their household income, and be good parents, and succeed in the workplace.  She’s gathering clients from Operation Breakthrough, the Rose Brooks Center, and other agencies.  And as of last week, the City Council is leasing her a formerly vacant building, dirt cheap.  Parishioners here helped her get that building, and have designed its renovations, and have helped her raise the construction costs, and serve on her board of directors.  And, to complete the circle, Natasha is now a part of this church community, serving on our Outreach Commission and worshiping here with us.  Our Red Door Center has incubated EPEC to a point where it’s now taking flight.  And 18 students a year will see their lives, and the lives of their families, transformed by it. 
You can say, well, that’s only 18 people a year.  OK.  But Jesus healed individual people, too.  We are commissioned to enact God’s reign within the scope of our spheres of influence.  And when we do, those spheres of influence grow as others see and know the reign of God breaking into our reality and transforming our sometimes-so-small sense of what’s possible.  We serve as agents of the God for whom nothing is impossible, even in this complicated and broken world. 
It’s easy to get stuck on the horns of political controversy.  And it’s even easier for many of us to avoid the conflicts that political controversy brings.  You’ve heard me say before that our congregation’s functional vision statement has sometimes been, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.”  We carry a long history of that, so it’s understandable that we’re not exactly wired, as a church, to jump into political issues.  But we can’t let that keep us from truly seeing the children of God on the margins of our awareness.  We can’t let that keep us from acting as God’s agents to change the realities that keep people trapped in poverty and hopelessness.  We serve a God who makes the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk – and who brings good news to the poor.  Well, amazingly enough, God chooses to do that through us, commissioning even us both to speak and enact good news to the poor, sending even us to say: “Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God … he will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)  It is nothing less than miraculous what God can do when we live out the “royal law” – to love our neighbors as ourselves (James 2:8).  We can’t just wish the working poor well, in the abstract, and hope that God will be nice enough to take care of them.  As James says, “Faith without works is dead.”  But faith with works?  That is divine – God’s own love, in the flesh.

1.       Alonzo, Austin.  “Competing referendums put brakes on KC minimum wage increase.”  Kansas City Business Journal, Aug. 17, 2015.  Available at:  Accessed Sept. 6, 2015.
2.       Horsley, Lynn.  ‘KC dog grooming school aims to provide jobs to unemployed parents.”  Kansas City Star, Aug. 26, 2015.  Available at:  Accessed Sept. 6, 2015.
3.       Pepitone, John.  “City Council to approve plan to create dog grooming school aimed at helping single moms get jobs.”  Fox 4 News Kansas City, Aug. 27, 2015.  Available at:  Accessed Sept. 6, 2015.