Monday, December 26, 2016

Sin and Christmas

Sermon from Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-14

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Is He the One Who Is to Come?

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Purple

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Welcome to the Family

Sermon for Thanksgiving 2016
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Following a Messiah on the Move

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Pledge to Witness

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Morning After

I went on a walk early this morning, to take the dog out and to pray along with my daily podcast of Morning Prayer.  As it turned out, the dog and I stepped out the front door just as the sun was beginning to rise.  The eastern sky was lovely as new life arose, once again.
Election Day has come, and the nation has chosen Donald Trump as president.  For some, that’s cause for joy; for others, it’s not just disappointing but frightening.  “I wonder which Donald Trump we’ve elected,” one parishioner said to me this morning.  Will it be the one who moves across political lines pragmatically or the one who names categories of people to exclude?  People fear most what they don’t know – and this morning, there’s a lot about the future we don’t know.  And yet, the sun rose, another divine masterwork to welcome us into another day of opportunities for discipleship. 
When I pulled into the church parking lot this morning, I saw discipleship in action.  A new member of St. Andrew’s had spent all of yesterday at the church (beginning at 5:30 a.m. and ending after I left at 6:30 p.m.), helping us offer hospitality to the hundreds of voters who lined our halls.  This morning, the same man was outside the church, removing political signs from the yard and otherwise tidying up.  “This is a good thing for me to be doing today,” he said.  Service nearly always is.
Wherever you land on today’s continuum from joy to fear, remember: We are the Church.  No matter who is elected to any office, our sovereign is Jesus Christ.  He calls us to worship, to repent, to proclaim good news, to serve others, and to work for dignity, justice, and peace.  That was true yesterday; it is true today; and it will be true tomorrow.  First and foremost, ahead of any other allegiance, we are called to follow Jesus and be his body in the world, each one of us an essential member of it.
So take a moment to admire the sunset this evening, or the sunrise tomorrow morning, and ask how God is calling you to serve. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

I Am Zacchaeus

Sermon from Oct. 30, 2016
Luke 19:1-10

As we hear this story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, it might help to set the scene.  Jesus is coming into Jericho.  In the passage just before this morning’s reading, he’s healed a man who desperately wanted to see again.  Jesus explains what’s happened by telling the man he’s not just healed but that his faith has “saved” him (Luke 18:42).  It’s the kind of healing that goes beyond healing, the healing that restores our lives to the wholeness God intends – and it makes the formerly blind man join Jesus on the road.  That’s what’s on Jesus’ mind as he makes his way into Jericho. 
And how about Zacchaeus?  What’s on his mind?  Well, first we have to know who Zacchaeus is.  He’s a Jew, but he’s also a “chief tax collector” and “rich,” the story says (19:2).  Basically he’s a traitor, part of the Roman system taxing his people to support the brutal Empire … and, of course, enriching the tax collectors.  You also have to know this man’s name is part of the story – “Zacchaeus” means “innocent” or “clean,” rather ironic given his life and work.  But that’s how he sees himself.
So, this imperial collaborator is looking for Jesus.  He’s heard the buzz, so Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus pass by.  On one level, it’s a practical thing: Zacchaeus is short.  But on another level, maybe Zacchaeus is climbing that tree because he’s used to getting what he wants.  Zacchaeus is the kind of guy who stands in the “premiere” ticket line and sits in box seats at the amphitheater.  When Zacchaeus wants to see, he gets to see.
Oddly enough, Jesus wants to see Zacchaeus, too – not to indict him but to spend time with him.  Jesus has come to town to bring God’s wholeness not just to those who’ve been oppressed.  Jesus wants to see the oppressor made whole, too. 
And you know, I think, deep down, Zacchaeus wants to be made whole.  Sure, he’s used to first-class treatment, but his conscience isn’t dead.  Late at night, trying to fall asleep, maybe he sees the faces of the neighbors he’s defrauding.  Zacchaeus knows he’s lost and needs healing.  And Jesus doesn’t keep him waiting.  “Zacchaeus,” Jesus says, “hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (19:5).
I imagine Zacchaeus frozen on his branch, the whole crowd now staring up at him.  But something happens to Zacchaeus in that moment.  Maybe he begins to see those people below him in a different light – shining with the dignity of the children of God.  But he hears something, too – something about himself.  Deep in his heart, Zacchaeus hears a shocking word of grace.  He hears Jesus say, “You are just as worthy as everyone else who’s lost, and I have come to make you whole, too.”  It doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum – the exploited and those who exploit, the excluded and those who exclude.  Zacchaeus is just as worthy of God’s forgiveness and healing as the folks he’s been robbing – because Zacchaeus, too, is a child of God.  As Jesus tells the crowd and every one of us: “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost” (19:10) – all the lost.
This is the Sunday in our stewardship season when we highlight Outreach ministries, the work we do and the resources we give to serve the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the alone, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned.  We know that when we serve others, we serve Jesus himself, down the street and across the sea.  Your Outreach giving provides food for hungry people at the Kansas City Community Kitchen.  It provides food and books for students in Haiti and salaries for their teachers.  It supports a social entrepreneur’s vision to train moms for living-wage jobs and break the cycle of poverty.  It helps kids in Kansas City’s housing projects learn that God loves them and wants to see them well-fed and educated.  It helps women and their kids break free from domestic violence.  Your pledge of time, talent, and treasure supports all that work.
But, you know, our Outreach giving helps meet our needs, too.  I would say our Outreach ministries are just as much about our healing as they are about serving Jesus in “the least” of his brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40).  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, there’s a lot right with that.  Because, I have to tell you – I am Zacchaeus.  Most of us here are Zacchaeus.  And I’ve had to climb down from my safe perch in the sycamore tree for my own come-to-Jesus meeting. 
I started climbing down was when Ann and I lived in Iowa City and I volunteered at the local food pantry.  Now, mind you, I didn’t actually serve hungry people at the food pantry; I stocked shelves.  It was a start, but I only climbed a couple of branches down the sycamore tree.
When we went to seminary in Austin, I got involved in the student-run feeding program. Actually the word “program” dresses up the effort too much; it was more like a guerilla campaign.  We would make burritos for about 100 people, load them into a rusted-out pickup, and drive to the storefront where day laborers came to collect their pay.  There, we gave the laborers burritos, bananas, and oranges until the food ran out.  It was one of the best parts of seminary for me, talking with actual hungry people.  They’re much more interesting than the abstraction of “hunger” I imagined when I stocked shelves at the pantry.  They’re also more complicated.  What do you do when a hungry person doesn’t appreciate the burrito you gave him?  Or what do you do with the reality that all the burritos in the world won’t do a blessed thing to change the system that keeps the day laborers wondering whether they’ll even get work the next morning – and a system that will never pay them enough to live on.  Asking those questions, I climbed a few more branches down the sycamore tree toward Jesus.
Here at St. Andrew’s, it’s been our partnership with St. Augustin’s School in Haiti that’s made the biggest difference in helping me climb down and meet Jesus on the road.  I’ve been blessed to share time and meals and Eucharist with people like Pere Colbert, and the school’s headmaster Samuel, and the other teachers – people we’ve come to know.  Through those relationships, our congregation has empowered kids at St. Augustin’s to learn, despite hardships I can barely fathom.  But that’s not all.  Through those relationships, I’ve begun to know salvation, along with Zacchaeus. 
Here’s how that healing works for me.  Even at the pantry in Iowa City and at the day-labor office in Austin, I could see there was a disconnect between my reality and the reality of the people being served.  I couldn’t really frame it, but I knew it was there.  I might now frame that disconnect, and my need for healing, in terms of privilege.  I am tremendously privileged.  I am American.  I am white.  I am male.  I am straight.  I come from a family that sent me to college.  I start the game with the ball at midfield, while others are starting buried deep in their own territory.  So, when I hear Jesus calling Zacchaeus to come down from the tree and change his point of view, I hear him calling my name, too.
But Jesus isn’t just yelling at me for my complicity in a series of broken systems.  He’s asking me to see them and change them as best I can – helping to educate kids in Haiti, supporting training for women to find living-wage jobs, encouraging you to see the injustices that hurt God’s heart and then act to change them.  But Jesus is also calling my name because he loves me and wants me to be made whole, too.  He’s trying to help me see him in people I wouldn’t truly see otherwise.  I can’t know what it’s like to be Haitian.  I can’t know what it’s like to be a women at the Grooming Project.  I can’t know what it’s like to be a kid at Gordon Parks Elementary, who can’t tell you where he lives but only where he stays.  I get to start from the 50-yard line.  I live in privilege I’m only beginning to see. 
But Jesus asks me to climb down from my sycamore tree because he wants me to find the healing that comes from taking the journey with him.  He wants to make me whole by bringing me into relationships I’d never know otherwise.  Every step we take toward the other is a step toward seeing that person’s full humanity.  Every step we take toward the other is a step toward honoring that person’s God-given dignity.  Every step we take toward the other is a step toward building God’s beloved community.  Every step we take toward the other is a step toward our own healing, healing at the hands of the One who comes to seek and save the lost – like us.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Do Thankful

Sermon from Sunday, Oct. 9
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Luke 17:11-19

This has been a week of sadness for many of us in the St. Andrew’s family.  We gathered here yesterday to celebrate the life of our friend Deacon Peg Ruth, who’d been part of this parish for more than 62 years as a member, staff deacon, source of wisdom, and bearer of love.  As we proclaimed our faith, and her faith, in the power of resurrection, we also shed several tears.
In addition, this week brought us news of Hurricane Matthew and its devastating effect on southwestern Haiti, home of our ministry partners in Maniche and Les Cayes.  We don’t know the full scope of the damage, but it’s no stretch to say our friends there have lost more than we can imagine, their fragile homes, their crops, and their possessions literally scattered to the winds.   
When I prayed about Haiti this week, the image that came to mind was the offertory at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Episcopal parish in Les Cayes.  As you may remember, when we returned from Haiti in the spring, I talked about this amazing offertory procession, with people dancing their way down the aisle to bring their first fruits to God’s altar:  bananas, mangoes, and corn; beans, rice, and peppers; even goats and chickens – all of it brought as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord who had provided it in the first place.  At this point, our friends in Haiti have precious little to bring to God’s altar, and their struggles will only intensify with the disease and deprivation we know will come in the storm’s wake. 
But Haiti is one of those thin places between heaven and earth, a place where our lives and the kingdom of God intersect in surprising ways.  Our friends in Haiti need our prayers and our ongoing support, but I have absolutely no doubt that before long, they will once again be bringing their first fruits to God’s altar.  It’s just what they do, because they know God will call new life into being there.  And they’re right.  That’s just what God does.
Offering first fruits to God is a pretty good description of Peg Ruth’s life, too.  Peg gave her loving presence here so generously – one of those parishioners who does nearly everything there is to do at church and does it with a servant’s heart.  Whether you’d known Peg for 60 years or, like me, only a decade or so, you couldn’t help but be moved by the generosity of her spirit.
A few months ago, Peg was interviewed in the Messenger about why she put God first in her life – why she offered her first fruits.  She said, “I simply wanted others to have the faith I knew to be very real.”  So she packed up neighborhood kids in her car and brought them to church along with her family.  She served on a million committees, including the Vestry.  She led the Altar Guild.  She said “yes” to God’s call and pioneered the way for other women to serve in ordained ministry.  She supported St. Andrew’s and its ministries financially.  She visited you in the hospital; and whether you were a friend and neighbor or a patient with AIDS, she would take off her sterile glove, and hold your hand in hers, and pray that you would know Christ’s healing love.
Each of those gifts Peg shared with us was a first fruit.  It’s a concept with a long history, one deep in our DNA.  Our spiritual ancestors, the people of Israel, would come to the Temple in Jerusalem every year to offer the sacrifice of their first fruits, the produce they’d inherited when they came into the Promised Land:  wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, dates, wine, and olive oil.  It sounds like that offertory procession in Haiti.  Those gifts supported the Temple’s operation; but more important, they were an antidote to amnesia.  They helped people remember that the land and its produce was God’s gift, not something of their own doing.  And those offerings helped the people remember their side of the Covenant, too:  As God provided land and blessing, the people offered fidelity and thanksgiving.
Here at St. Andrew’s, we’re beginning our season of stewardship this morning.  For the next five weeks, you’ll be hearing from clergy and parishioners about what it means to put God first, to honor God through the offering of your first fruits.
But in another sense, this season has been underway for months already.  Think about the stories you’ve read in the Messenger and the bulletin about members of this church family putting God first – Morgan Olander, Dr. Stan Shaffer, Audrey Langworthy, Bob West, George and Carolyn Kroh … and Deacon Peg Ruth.  Each has his or her own story of what it looks like to live a generous life in terms of time, talent, and treasure.  All of them are pledgers to St. Andrew’s, but that certainly isn’t the only mark of their faithfulness.  For Morgan, generosity has looked like mentoring Boy Scouts.  For Stan, it’s looked like building partnerships in Haiti.  For Audrey, it’s looked like years of public service in the legislature.  For Bob, it’s looked like civic leadership in universities, libraries, and health care.  For George and Carolyn, it’s looked like ministry in education, community gardening, and Haiti.  And for Deacon Peg Ruth, it’s looked like a life of servant ministry and servant leadership.  As Peg said, “Being a Christian is sometimes a tough road to travel, but choosing the easier path is not what the Christian life is about.  Jesus said, ‘Take up the cross and follow me.’  I can’t say, ‘No, wait, it’s too heavy.’”
            Can we follow those models of faithfulness?  Can we follow the lead of the people of Haiti who bring their first fruits to God’s altar despite the risk that their homes might be destroyed in a few minutes’ wind and rain?  Can we follow the lead of Deacon Peg and the others we’ve been profiling?  Can we live a generous life despite the temptation to see scarcity everywhere we turn?  
            I believe the answer is simple and yet simply astounding, and here it is:  I will, with God’s help.  It’s our answer to the five questions God asks us in the Baptismal Covenant:  Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers?  Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  As Stan Shaffer said in his interview, those promises of the Baptismal Covenant capture the Christian life in microcosm:  Sacrifice.  Forgiveness.  Celebration.  Service.  Respect.  That’s our job description as followers of Jesus, and we can’t let his call scare us away.  After all, if we’re followers, that means we’re on a journey.  We can’t expect to walk it as faithfully today as we will tomorrow.  But still, each day, we can take a good next step, following his lead.
            How?  I think the key is the practice of thankfulness – the active, outward, concrete, sacramental practice of thankfulness.  Not just being thankful, but doing thankful.  Now, this may not exactly come naturally to us.  Think of the examples in our readings today.  Naaman, the Syrian leader with leprosy, was angry that he didn’t get enough personal attention while God miraculously healed him.  In the Gospel, the nine Jewish lepers didn’t bother to say thank-you to Jesus for their healing; only the outsider, the Samaritan, lived out his thankfulness by coming to the place of blessing at Jesus’ feet.  We’re not so good at “doing thankful.”  We need God’s help, and we need practice.
That practice of thankfulness happens across the scope of our lives, as we’ve seen in those profiles in the Messenger.  It’s about time and talent and treasure because God blesses us with all three.  God asks for our first fruits not as transactions of blessing but as tokens of blessedness.  The Israelites gave God their first fruits not to purchase good fortune but to help them remember where their Promised Land had come from and what faithfulness God expected in return.  We need the same memory aid to remind us that we cannot live for ourselves alone but for him who died for us, and rose again, and now uses our hands to hold the world in love. 
In the next few days, you’ll be receiving information on how to “do thankful” here at St. Andrew’s through pledges of time, talent, and treasure.  All three are equally important – prayer, and service, and financial gifts – because God doesn’t just want the first fruits from your wallet.  God wants first place in your life, as Peg Ruth modeled.  As she said in her interview, “I’m trying to live the message, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” 
She could say that because Peg knew who she was and whose she was.  She knew God’s claim on her life.  She knew the costs that faithful living brings.  But she also knew the joy that comes in the morning, the joy that comes when the storms clear, the joy that comes from putting God first.
            So do you.  So do I.  But we need help, sometimes, to remember.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Finding Jesus, Part 2

Feast of Holy Cross, transferred, and the 15th Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks
Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:31-36a

Last week, I told you that today I’d give you Part 2 of my contribution to this sermon series on Finding Jesus.  I will do that, but this day has a very different tone from last Sunday.  Last week was Labor Day weekend, our final taste of summer relaxation.  Today, we’re remembering the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 
There is no official feast of 9/11 on the Church calendar, so we’re moving the feast of Holy Cross from Sept. 14 to today.  9/11 and the feast of Holy Cross share some resonances, particularly about the place of suffering in this world God loves, as well as where and how we find God in that suffering.  So on this day, as we honor the anniversary of 9/11 and honor the mystery of the Cross, we remember a theological truth so deep that it defies logic, one you have to experience to know.  That truth is this:  Jesus redeems our suffering, healing the brokenness of human life and rolling away the stone from our tombs, by entering into our suffering directly.  Jesus comes to us in our most grievous moments, takes flesh, and dwells in the midst of pain and sorrow we thought we could never bear.  And through his stunning compassion, contrary to all human logic, Jesus conquers our pain and sorrow and the brokenness from which it comes, leading us out of the grave and into new life.  I don’t expect that to make perfect sense, laying it out there that way.  It’s like trying to explain love.  In fact, it is trying to explain love.  With content like this, logical explanations can only go so far.  At some point, we have to enter into the deep truth that only story and memory can hold. 
First, about 9/11:  I imagine every one of us in this room over a certain age can remember where we were and what we were doing 15 years ago this morning, when airplanes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.  I was in seminary.  We were beginning the first week of classes for that semester, the senior year for Ann and me.  That morning, I was excited about the semester but worried about Ann.  Her health hadn’t been good for a few weeks; she was having pain in her lungs, and shortness of breath, and general exhaustion.  And we didn’t know what was wrong. 
That morning, the whole seminary community was gathering in the auditorium for orientation to the first week of classes.  Before we got there, some of us had heard that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center; the initial reporting said the pilot of a private plane must have made a tragic mistake.  As the academic dean was speaking, a voice came from the back of the room, the ethics professor shouting out, “Oh, my God, a plane has hit the second tower, too!”  Class was over.  We turned on the TV news coverage and sat there, the whole seminary community, paralyzed.
After a couple of hours of shock and fear, one of the professors realized we should be praying.  So we filed out of the auditorium and into the chapel to offer the Supplication, a rarely used rite in the Book of Common Prayer intended for “times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster” (154).
From that brief time of prayer in the chapel, the image that comes to mind for me is the seminary cross.  When you enter the chapel at Seminary of the Southwest, the first thing you notice is that there is no cross inside.  There’s an altar, and a pulpit, and a pipe organ, and rows of chairs – but no cross.  Looking for it, your eye goes to the wall behind the altar, a wall of clear, leaded glass revealing the grounds outside.  And among the huge Texas live oaks in the yard stands a bronze cross, probably 15 feet high, weathered green over the years.  That is the chapel cross – but significantly, it’s not in the chapel.  It’s in the world.  That cross shows where Jesus was, and where Jesus is – in the world that he gave himself to redeem.  One could argue that’s where the cross most belongs.
It is perhaps an accident of physics that, on that day, the ruins of the World Trade Center also left a bare metal cross, standing in the dust – amid the sacrifice of the first responders, amid the joy of the rescuers, amid the broken hearts of families left alone.  It’s pictured on the cover of today’s bulletin.  Like Good Friday, like the crucifixion itself, that cross is a stunningly powerful proclamation of the horror of humanity’s sinfulness – our willingness to turn our backs on the peace and love God intends.  But it also proclaims the power of God to redeem that sinfulness by being lifted up in an act of deadly healing that sets the world to rights.  The cross represents Jesus’ victory over sin and death, his being raised up “to draw all people” to himself, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading (John 12:32).  God has highly exalted him, as Paul writes in Philippians, so that at the name of the crucified Jesus, “every knee should bend … and every tongue confess” that he is the true emperor, the true king, replacing all human pretenders to the throne.  (Philippians 2:10-11).  That’s the message of this feast of Holy Cross we’re marking today. 
But we can’t jump to the triumphal end of the story just yet.  Jesus’ victory, the victory in which we share – it comes at a cost.  For the reason why Jesus can defeat sin and death is because he has been there.  He has faced down Satan and endured the worst that humanity could dish out.  He has suffered along with the powerless, along with political prisoners, along with those who have no country, along with those who can’t fight back.  He has suffered with the sick, with the hungry, with the naked, with the abandoned.  Jesus has hung on that cross in the world; and from that cross, he has overcome the world (John 16:33).
We know that story from 2,000 years ago.  What makes it true is that it’s still our story, too.  As the first responders rushed into the ashes 15 years ago, Jesus rushed in with them.  As thousands bled and died in the rubble, Jesus waited with them.  As family members tearfully posted photos of the missing, Jesus cried with them.  As passengers on a plane over Pennsylvania decided to sacrifice themselves to save people below, Jesus crashed along with them.  And as innocent people now endure discrimination born of fear and hate, Jesus stands with them.  What makes the story of the cross our truth is this:  that Jesus does not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he empties himself; and being found in human form, he humbles himself in the ultimate act of love: compassion, which literally means “suffering with” someone.  And what Jesus bears, Jesus heals – no matter what life dishes out, no matter how fearsome the world becomes, no matter how clearly death appears to be the victor.  Jesus heals us by entering into our suffering, taking it on himself, and reminding us how the story truly ends.
So I told you last week that today I’d finish my story of finding Jesus.  It’s this compassionate Jesus I had in mind, and I met him in a hospital.  It was about a month and a half after 9/11.  I mentioned earlier that Ann had been having health challenges, though we didn’t know the cause.  She entered the hospital just after 9/11, and it wasn’t long before we had our answer.  She had lupus.  Now, lupus presents in lots of different ways – sometimes being mildly disruptive, sometimes threatening your life.  It was the latter kind that attacked Ann.  Her lung capacity began vanishing, and her heart rate rose to a consistent 160 beats per minute.  The doctors tried all kinds of things, but nothing made much difference.  She just kept losing lung capacity, and her heart kept up its killing pace. 
Then, one afternoon – on Halloween, actually – her heart started slowing, but not in a good way.  Suddenly, her blood pressure was down to 80/40.  The nurses tried to seem calm as they whisked her off to surgery, as her heart rate kept dropping.  There wasn’t time for much conversation before surgery began, and Ann didn’t know what was happening anyway.
The nurse led me to the surgery waiting area and into one of those little rooms they reserve for “private consultations.”  Now, I had done my chaplaincy training in this same hospital several months earlier, and I knew what those little rooms were for.  I’d used them with patients.  That’s where the chaplain takes you when the news isn’t likely to be good.  Ironically, though, there was no chaplain, and I didn’t really want to talk with a stranger anyway.  So I called Ann’s parents and mine, to let them know what was happening. 
And then I called my friends.  There were six of us in my seminary class who’d become especially close over the previous two years: Amy and Kathy and Faith and Wes and Cal and me.  We called ourselves the Six Pack.  So I talked with one of them – Faith, I think – and she rallied the other four.  Within minutes, they were walking into the waiting room.
Of course, nothing they could say would change the fact that Ann was having emergency surgery to drain a quart of fluid from around her heart.  There were no explanations or rationalizations they could offer.  But the presence of my friends was the presence of Jesus Christ, the one who calls us “friends” (John 15:15).  In my fear, Jesus was there.  In my suffering, Jesus was there.  Now, if you’d asked me, I might have been able to make that connection intellectually.  But here’s how I felt it: When they arrived in that scary little waiting room, one by one they each hugged me.  Hugs are always good, but it’s the last hug I remember particularly.  It was Cal.  Cal was an athlete, a swimmer; and even in seminary he had kept up his regimen.  So Cal came to me, and put his arms out like a cross.  And he wrapped me in the strongest hug I’ve ever known. 
It wasn’t Cal.  It was Jesus.  In the worst moment, as life literally seemed to be draining away, Jesus came and stood before me and wrapped me in his love.  He knew what I was experiencing.  He’d been there before, after all.  He’d been through the worst that human life dishes out. 
The God who suffered on the cross suffers with us still – and eventually walks with us, out of that scary little waiting room, out of the tomb, and into the victory of life made new.